Saturday, October 1, 2011
Wobbly times number 131
When an Old Woman Vanishes a Library Burns
Tommy opened his eyes. A blue plane flash-flew ceiling high, passing just over his head. As soon as it appeared, the plane vanished along with any memory of why it had been there.
He was awake now, the covers felt good. Frances lay warm, gorgeous and sexy next to him. Tommy would have liked nothing better than to snuggle up next to her. But Frances had to be up for job training by five. Waking her with a cuddle, possibly poking her with his boney knees was not an option. So, he decided to get up.
It seemed the coldest part of the day was blowing through the partially open bedroom window. He moved in a semi-drunken, slow manner toward the bathroom. Shock hit his body like a cold fist, as he splashed cold water over his face, scrubbing night’s crud from his eyes. “Bald guys need to keep a wool beret around in the winter.” This was but one of the many thoughts erupting in his head.
He put on his heaviest black sweater, his thickest sweat pants along with the olive green socks Frances had been issued during her stint in the Australian Defence Force. Moving outside the bedroom, he carefully closed the door and tip-toed into the darkened living room. He was finally able to switch the living room light on. “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.” He spied his flip-flops on the rug. It was 3am. “Damn, I thought it was closer to five.” Tommy had become an inveterate insomniac. It seemed the only time he could write was in the wee hours of the morning when it was quiet and he could be alone with his imagination.
Now properly, warmly, deliciously shoed, “coffee!” He made his way to their drip style machine and began his holy morning ritual. Three tablespoons of espresso beans into the grinder : water up to the ‘seven’ level. “Must be seven demitasse.” As he pressed down on the mill’s cover, the electrical connection was made and it whined, constantly changing pitch turning the dry beans to powder. “What begins with a whine and ends with a wine .” After fingering the powder into the filter basket and switching the machine, on gurgling water began splurging over the freshly ground coffee, dripping thick-black into the glass pot.
At the push of a button, the familiar “beep” and “whirr” of the computer booting up came on as Tommy began doing his Cobra-trained, full push-ups. “Chest to the floor. Twenty-five, twenty-six. Not bad,” he mused breathlessly. Rolling his body over on the red, Turkish-style carpet, Tommy crunched thirty sit-ups. He stood up without using his hands and walked backed to the coffee maker, where he poured himself a cuppa. From a condition of total destruction, his mind was now cooking with gas.
Once he’d shuffled back in front of the blue lit computer screen, he launched into the Internet. He keyed-in his Yahoo password and perused news on his home page.
“Nothing much unusual...ah Bob Hope died. He was 100. And some 22 year old American GI bought it yesterday Iraq. Wonder why we’re there?”
“Yankee, you die!” the old refrain from a black and white John Garfield movie passed through his mind.
“But of course, oil. Here you are boys. Here’s what you’re fighting for. Hope was smiling as two bikini-clad starlets rolled out a barrel of crude. And there was Bob, waving good-bye from a rising Army helicopter to his old theme song, “Thanks for the memories....”
An unkind thought, to be sure. But hell, it was war and humour helped make the absurdities of same more palatable. Hope knew that. The joke was probably lost on the kid though. Too young to know better. Never to know better, really when you thought about it. The kid lying there, bleeding, last thoughts about home, his girlfriend, fading, the pain, then nothing. Sad really. “But what could a ‘Poe’ Boy do, sep to play for a rock n roll band....stop it!” he thought.
He clicked on his e-mail setting. Some postings from his various virtual acquaintances across the globe popped up on the screen. M wrote from Brazil on the vegetarian list about sprouting alfalfa seeds and E passed an article on to the P list from “The Financial Times” concerning the ins and outs of the U.S. dollar’s lower exchange rate. Then, one guy, who worked in advertising, said that the success of the industry he was employed in was more or less proof of the practical degree that behaviourism worked in manipulating contemporary society.
Tommy got up and got another cup of coffee. He flip-flopped back to the blue sheet, which served as a curtain and gently moved both ends toward the middle so that he could see outside. Starlit darkness ruled.
“Most predators who eat people are nocturnal. It must be that the equation of darkness with evil is embedded there. After all, it exists in African societies as well as elsewhere.”
The cement balcony looked ice cold grey and dull. “Must be something like seven degrees out there now.” Walking back toward the kitchen, he grabbed
his black wool beret impermeable from where he’d left it on top of the fridge the night before. Immediately on donning it, he felt warmer. “Funny that, about heat and bald heads,” he half-whispered to himself.
This time, he sat down for the duration, wandering off into his imagination, writing until first-light began to peek through the thin, blue window sheet. He immediately immersed himself at the foot of a gorge in pre-historic France. Cro-Magnons spoke to one another in staccato tones. They did not speak often. This tribe was more reserved with speech than perhaps others were. At least, that’s how he imagined it.
Then, the scene was gone. After an hour-straight of typing, it was over. Like the blue plane he’d awakened to, the images of pre-historic life vanished. Perfect timing really, as Frances had just begun to stir. He could hear ABC classical radio switching itself on automatically in the bedroom. Music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” wafted from the darkened door.
Frances stuck her head around the corner in a t-shirt, greeting Tommy with an, “AbBa!” She was a funny animal.
Tommy answered by frying sliced potatoes and onions with the pan cover on. He also put bacon in and finally two eggs. He opened some baked beans and placed them in the pan as well. When the potatoes were brown, he spread a small amount of barley bran and parsley over them. Then he flipped the whole conglomeration over.
Tommy and Frances didn’t speak Frances checked and responded to her e-mail, while absentmindedly eating her eggs, bacon and potatoes. Tommy launched into the beans and potatoes spreading gobs of Farmland Tomato Sauce and Bornier’s Dijon Mustard over his fried spuds.
When they’d finished breakfast, they jumped into the car and drove to the train station. Frances’ trip to Joondalup would take thirty minutes, about as long as it would be for her to drive there, plus there was the hassle of parking.
Tommy saw the usual gaggle of workers and students making their way to their expected, allotted places by 8 in the morning. “Disturbed honey bees.”
When he got back to the apartment, he took a shower, got dressed and swept a bit. The only thing he absolutely had to do was pay Frances’ credit card at the Post Office. It was a fine day outside. The prediction in the “West Australian” was that the temperature would hit 29. Twenty-nine and partly cloudy was his favourite brand of weather.
After pounding out a newsy letter to his daughter asking her what she thought of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, he folded it in half and half again and put in an envelope, sealing it with a lick of his tongue. Then he wet the stamp and air mail sticker and carefully addressed it to Texas.
Tommy did the morning dishes then stepped out, credit card and bill in hand, along with his letter to Solange. Down the sun-drenched sidewalk he walked, heading for the Albany Highway some two city blocks away. He turned right, making his way past the local news vendor, the music store, the clothing store, past Verlanda’s coffee shop, the Vic Park launderette and then crossed the highway to the Australian P. O.
“Small line as usual,” he thought to himself. Just another thing that he liked about living in Australia, at least Western Australia. The post office seemed oh so much more efficient and friendly than the ones back the U.S.. And why? Of course, it was because they were more adequately staffed. It stood to reason. But another, more amazing thing was that one could pay most of one’s bills there, including one’s credit card.
“Good day, sir. How can I help you?” the woman smiled.
“I need to pay my wife’s credit card.”
“Certainly sir. How much were you going to put in?”
“Check or savings?”
“Savings. There you go.”
“Thank-you. Is there anything else?”
As he exited the flourescent lit P.O., he noticed a grey-haired woman sitting on the sun drenched sidewalk propped up against the shade of a wall of the Commonwealth Bank.
“I say,” he said after crossing the Albany Highway, “you seem to have picked the right spot.” Tommy was being half sarcastic, half serious. Actually, he felt a bit powerless. Charity was never an option for him. He was poor and he knew it. No illusions here, not for Tommy anyway. The poor giving to the poor, sharing crumbs, this wasn’t the way out of the cycle of poverty. Sure, you could be a good Muslim or Christian by being charitable. But Tommy was neither and as far as he was concerned, charity only kept people from the kind of righteous indignation they needed to stoke fighting spirit. Charity was not the same thing as solidarity in struggle. Most poor souls, most of whom were workers or formerly employed workers never understood this dynamic and actually preferred the role of errant members of the flock who just needed a hand out now and again. As he looked down on her in her in what seemed to him to be a passive position, he felt a bit stronger.
Tommy was prepared to walk on as he usually did when he encountered homeless people. Then he heard the woman remark, “There’s no place like home, until you have to clean it.”
“Excuse me! Are you ok mam?”
“What a strange thing to say,” he thought to himself.
She looked up and startled him again. “What’s housework? Just something you do that nobody notices unless you don’t do it.”
“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more, don’t you know.” she muttered.
“Are you ok?” he asked again.
“Yes. I’m fine,” she said looking up through squinting eyes. Two of her teeth flashed golden in the sunlight.
“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” Tommy asked.
“Don’t know,” she answered. “I’ve been a lot of places in my life.”
“I mean, where do you live?” Tommy asked.
“I live here,” she answered.
“Where’s here?” he insisted.
“Just up the street....”
“I know where it was! You’re the person living in the wash house,” Tommy blurted.
She looked up at him in earnest now. “I don’t know that’s any of your business.”
“Brendan told me that there was someone sleeping in the wash house. I saw you going down the driveway yesterday.”
“Ok, you got me,” she said.
“Hmm. So, why are you doing that?” Tommy asked.
“I need a place to sleep,” she mumbled. “You wouldn’t begrudge me that.”
“No, no. I mean, what in the world made you end up sleeping in our wash house?”
“Life. Besides, it’s not your wash house. It belongs to the landlord.”
“Sure, ok, but what’s your story?”
“I’ll tell you for a bottle of wine,” she answered with a twinkle in her eye.
“You got it,” he said.
“First the wine,” she grinned.
They walked like the most unlikely couple down to Liquor Barn, where she insisted on a bottle of “Poet’s Corner” shiraz.
“Got something to open that with?” he asked.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that sonny,” she replied, pulling a jack-knife complete with cork screw out of her pocket.
“You know, you don’t have bad taste in wine for a street person.”
“Look, this stuff isn’t that expensive. I know what’s what with the reds though. You alright about that sonny?”
“Look, I’m as old as you are. How about laying off the sonny stuff.”
“Sure.” She took a large swig.
“Ok, how about that story.”
“Okay mate,” she said, sitting down on the kerb under a gum tree near a seagull infested parking lot. “You see, it was like this,” taking another pull. “By the way, why do you want to know? You’re not a social worker or a cop or something, are you?”
“I’m just curious. I’m a writer. Stories hold great interest for us, do they not?.”
“I see. Ok. Here goes. You’d never know it to look at me but once I was a nice lady. I had the whole shebang, a husband, a child, a house, the whole shebang. Everything was going along just fine. Chuggingly well, really. Then, it happened. My husband got layed off from his welding job at the plant. He’d been working there for fifteen years. Ever since his mid thirties really. Well, that put the old financial kybosh on our lives, ‘cause try as he might, he couldn’t find another job–leastwise none he’d take. When you reach your fifties and beyond the party’s over in the old job market. He tried though. I’ve got to give him credit for that.
“Anyway, we had house payments to make and I had the bright idea to send my son to private school. Only the best for our son.
“We’d agreed to that. Well after I pestered my husband some, we’d agreed. He really didn’t really fancy it. Never did. Well, I wanted my son to have better than we had. I wanted him to have something more than a crappy welding job like his father. So, it was off to private school. The point is that what with his layoff and all, we were beginning to hurt. Our savings were cleaned out after the first month and bills started piling up, not to mention the already existing credit card. I decided to start looking for work. Jack didn’t like that. He didn’t want me working. But I told him, someone had to find something, so’s we could pay the bills. The bank wasn’t going to let us keep the house for nothing and then there was our son’s private school. He threatened to take Jimmy out of the school to save cash. Well, I wouldn’t hear of it.”
She stopped for awhile and looked around at the traffic, birds and people passing by. After a few more swigs, she continued.
“In fact, I did manage to find some work at the local Coles. But they were only paying me $11 an hour. We needed more than that, just for groceries. So, I kept looking. Then one day one of my workmates, a woman, read me this story in the “West Australian” about prostitutes. I couldn’t believe what they were being payed. I thought, why not give it a try. I mean, sex had become something I more or less did as a duty for my husband. I really did it without wanting to. Why not do the same thing for $200 a pop?”
She stopped talking and sat silently on the kerb, fingering the label on the wine bottle.
“In fact, when I finally did get in the whoring game–oh mind you, it was a respectable place with lots of respectable men coming and going–but when I finally did get in to the whoring game, I met a lot of women who were like me or who were unlikely candidates for this kind of work.”
“Really?” Tommy asked. “Who?”
“College girls. I even met a woman who had done her PhD and who hadn’t been able to find work in her field yet. She said that she’d more or less worked her way through school this way and she saw no reason not to continue as long as the need arose, so to speak.”
“And who else?”
“Wives. Lots of wives, supporting their kids and or husbands or both. I found others in my position there. It was a good house. No disease. Lots of respectable Johns, really they were.”
“Well, what happened?”
“My husband began to get suspicious. I mean between footy matches on the telly. I was able to keep sending Jimmy to school and pay the mortgage. He’d say, ‘How much you making there at Coles anyway? I heard they don’t pay much’. You see, I’d kept my old job as a cover.”
“Well, and then I told him. I broke down. I cried!”
“And his response?”
“He hit me. He hit me hard and then he walked out.”
“What do you mean, ‘he walked out?”
“He left me with a black eye. I didn’t know where he’d gone, but he left. I think he ended up in Melbourne. I’d stopped crying for good by then. I was only trying to make sure that my son got a good education and that we’d have a nice house for him to come home to.”
“And your son?”
“He found out too. My husband made sure of that.”
“And what did he do?”
“He was so ashamed. He screamed at me, ‘Mommy, you’re a whore!’ He wouldn’t speak to me. For weeks, he locked himself in his bedroom and wouldn’t come out. My childless sister in America found out about the whole thing. I think either my husband or son e-mailed her or something. Anyway, she and her husband flew to Australia and got a whispered court order. They live in America. They took him away. It broke my heart,” she said taking another swig. “I told them, I told the law that I’d never go back to prostitution. Soon after my son left, I lost the house. I’d lost everything, everything that really mattered to me. It broke my heart. And so, I’m here.”
“How long ago was all this?”
“Oh, it’s been years.”
“Have you ever seen either your husband or son again?”
“Never saw them again. They don’t want to see me. My son goes to Harvard Business School now. My sister makes sure I know those insipid things.”
“Gave it up permanently when I went on the road.”
“I can’t believe this happened to you. You sacrificed your integrity for them and they ditched you.”
“Seems all to typical,” she said.
The kerb side conversation fell silent. What more was there to say?
Trust could exist. Solidarity could exist. Even charity could exist. But what the hell.
If hardly anybody could be counted on, what could you do?
The gulls flew around now and again and the occasional car pulled into the parking lot. She drank the last of the shiraz and without another word made her way down to the Albany Highway. Tommy ambled back to the apartment and found the door open.
“Where have you been?” Frances asked.
“Paying your credit card,” he answered.
That night Tommy dreamt that he was in a forest with three other people. They were wondering how to warn another group that something bad was about to happen to them. The trouble was that they were so far away from those people, none of them could think of a way to get to the people who were in danger in time. Tommy felt a surge of adrenalin go through his body and he jumped, staying in the air for longer than he had expected. He reached the top of a tall tree and pushed himself upwards and forward again and again to other, further trees and on until he reached the place where the people in danger were. He shouted to them and awoke in the dark. Frances kicked him in the knee then pushed him over and told him to stop snoring. After awhile, they both went back to sleep.
The next morning, when the Sun had come up, he took the garbage out. On the way back to the apartment from the trash barrels which were located just outside the wash house, he checked inside. The woman’s sleeping bag was gone. She’d vanished.
Nobody ever saw her in Vic Park again, not even Brendan--Brendan sees most everything which goes on around these parts.