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Verge 2017 – Chimera

27

Making His Mark

Charlotte Duff

‘I’m telling ya mate, it hit us in the guts as soon as we pulled the carpet back. This big.’ Johnno put down his beer so he could hold out both his hands. ‘He must have written it into the slab after he laid it.’

Russ laughed, tumbling the coins in his pocket as he eyed the barmaid. ‘Like an artist.’

‘But signing in secret, you know?’ Johnno drained the last of his beer. ‘The concrete woulda been covered up straight after.’ Johnno snorted, remembering the look on the new owner’s face when she’d first seen the name, scrawled deep across the concrete slab she was paying Johnno to grind and polish. ‘Doubt he ever dreamed some rich bozo would wanna see the concrete.’

Russ was already counting his coins for the next round. ‘Did you get it out?’

Johnno laughed, kept his smile turned on for Tracey as she delivered their beers across the bar. ‘Most of it. The top of the S went pretty deep. You can still see a bit of it.’

‘And what did the old duck think about that?’

‘Nah, she was more worried I hadn’t got into the corners enough.’ The new owner had run her hand over the sweep of the S that was still visible. ‘I think she liked it.’

Shane. Legend.’

‘Yeah.’ Johnno could still see how the name had swirled over the concrete, sinking in, holding strong even as his grinder ran over it as many times as he could. Part of it would always be there, obvious now to anyone who walked into the newly painted room, a dinner party story for the new owner.

‘Hey, Trace! You made your mind up yet where we’re going on our first date?’ Russ yelled across the length of the bar, always braver when Tracey was further away.

Tracey laughed as if this was Russ’s first offer. ‘You know my policy, Russ. No dating the patrons.’

Russ held a hand to his heart. ‘Aw, Trace. Don’t make me choose between you and my pub.’

Johnno snorted into his beer, ignoring Russ’s antics, the look on Tracey’s face. He and Russ drank at this pub most nights, always propped up on the same stools by the bar. The front bar was all fluoro lights and blue lino, often cold on top of the brightness. Most of the regulars kept to themselves, drinking slowly, counting their coins out just as slowly. Johnno saw his father in some of these regulars, the way they’d nod hello. The way they’d sip their beer like it had been blessed. But he’d never tell Russ any of this.

Russ slapped his glass down on the bar and some liquid sloshed out onto the already sodden bar mat. He was careless compared to the other locals. ‘Well, gotta drain the lizard, as they say.’

Johnno tucked his hands beneath his legs as he shook his head. ‘No-one says that, mate.’ Russ just waved over his shoulder as he walked to the men’s.

‘So, Johnno, how was the funeral?’ Johnno hadn’t even realised Tracey was so close.

‘Oh. Okay, I guess. My brother organised most of it. I dunno. Most people seemed to like it. Hanged around long enough afterwards to get pissed, anyway.’ It’s what Johnno’s dad would have wanted. They all said that.

Tracey leaned in closer, different now Russ wasn’t around. ‘And how are you?’

‘Fine, you know. It’d been coming for a while. Wasn’t a surprise.’

‘Well.’ Tracey pushed herself away from the bar as one of the regulars finished his drink at the other end. ‘Let me know if you want to talk about it.’ She held up her hand against Johnno’s scoff. ‘You might at some point.’ Johnno could see Tracey’s gentleness, thought perhaps she was reaching out for him even as she walked away.

Johnno’s dad, as he’d lain dying, hadn’t been up for much talking. No deathbed gibber-jabber from old Bill. He’d said it had worn him out, just trying to keep up with conversations.

The door to the men’s slammed and Johnno could hear Russ’s heavy feet walking back. His hand was hard on Johnno’s shoulder. ‘Another beer, mate?’ The day was still warm outside, the sun yet to set, but Johnno was ready to make a move.

‘Not today, mate. See you tomorrow.’ Russ looked surprised but didn’t try to convince his mate to stay, giving Johnno a sloppy salute instead.

‘I hope you find more names to grind into dust tomorrow, mate.’

After the service, the funeral parlour gave Johnno a DVD of the photos of his dad the family had pulled together. The photos captured Bill’s growing ears and nose, the hairstyle that, essentially, stayed the same from when he turned 16 and got his first job at the real estate agency. Especially in the photos from the last 20 years, Bill was always holding a drink—beer, wine, port; he wasn’t fussy. As long as he had a drink in his hand and friends around him, he said, he was happy. Johnno’s dad couldn’t understand why some people kept banging their heads against brick walls, trying to change people. ‘Just leave it,’ he’d say. ‘Walk away. No point trying to row upstream in the dark.’

But Bill wasn’t always easy to pin down. At times, he could also be a real bastard. Quick with a snide remark and a sneer when a son didn’t measure up to his expectations of a man. But you don’t include those sorts of comments in the eulogy.

Johnno walked home in the early summer warmth, still thinking about the thick letters he’d discovered in the concrete, the curve that had remained even after his grinding. Shane. He was a legend, just like Russ said. Johnno wished he could leave his mark somewhere, cut deep as if in concrete. All he did was expose a bit of the aggregate and then seal it up with a shiny polish.

He turned his face to the setting sun and decided he’d walk the long way home, past Tracey’s house, even though he knew she was still working.

Johnno had found out where Tracey lived by accident. He was walking home from his dad’s one evening towards the end, too late to catch Russ at the pub, when he realised she was walking ahead of him. She must have just finished her shift. She’d taken her hair out and she walked slowly, her body not as tightly coiled as it was at the pub, but he was sure it was her. He slowed his pace to hers without quite realising it, enjoying the sight of her hair catching the glow from the street lamp. The way her hair fell, sometimes providing a glimpse of the skin at the base of her neck, calmed him. She lived two blocks away from him, it turned out, and after she had turned the lock on her door and gone inside, it seemed natural to sit in the park opposite her house for a while, watching the lights go on and off as she moved around, the flicker of the TV.

He wanted to see the house now, bathed in soft yellow light, waiting patiently for Tracey’s return.

Back at his small apartment, Johnno struggled with his front door, the bourbon from the pub’s drive-through tucked under his arm so he could turn the key. He knew he should think about dinner but he didn’t feel hungry yet. He turned on his laptop and sat in the gathering dark, letting the pictures of his father wash over him, trying to catch him. It was getting hard to see anything else in the room—the keyboard, his drink, the clock— but he didn’t need to do anything for the pictures to keep coming. Bill and a mate messing around with a moose head. Bill, an early school-leaver, off to his first day of work, pulling at his tie. Bill sitting next to Johnno’s mum, looking like he was there by accident. And then the later photos, parties and weddings. Bill wearing a battered Christmas-cracker hat that fell over one eye. Bill standing awkwardly in group shots, his hands in his pockets searching for car keys, leaving the group and already far away.

Johnno was only in a few of the photos, and never in one just with his dad. It was as if they both knew that building a bridge so they could come together, even for a photo, would only ever be a temporary, rickety thing.

The next day, Johnno stopped off at the pub after work as usual. The tables were already filling with the Friday business crowd, drawn by the drinks specials, but Russ’s usual spot by the bar was vacant. Tracey waved over at him as he took a seat, already serving his beer. She smiled as she walked towards him, ponytail brushing her shoulders. ‘You flying solo tonight, Johnno?’

‘Looks like it. You haven’t seen him then?’

‘Not hide nor hair.’

‘Just the one for now, I guess.’ Johnno sipped from his beer amid the noise of the crowd, thinking about the bottle of bourbon back at his apartment. Tracey would be too busy to talk to him much anyway. She was off collecting glasses now from the crowded tables, laughing along with the office workers’ attempts at humour. Johnno decided he could wait a bit longer for Russ.

Tracey stopped by his side when she returned, adding his empty glass to her stack. ‘You ready for another one, Johnno?’ It felt weird to have Tracey standing beside him on this side of the bar but also nice, as if they were out for a drink together.

‘Course, Trace.’ Johnno realised how much he was imitating Russ in his absence. ‘It’s Friday, isn’t it?’ Bill had loved his Friday night drinks, just like his father before him, lining up his glasses for the six o’clock swill before the bartender called last drinks.

‘Still. Pace yourself.’ Tracey smiled over her shoulder at Johnno as she walked back around the bar.

‘Nah, no worries. I come from a long line of capable boozers.’ Tracey laughed along with Johnno, but he wondered if he’d said too much. Then he saw how different her grin was now from the ones she gave out to her other customers, and he shrugged off his concern. He was nothing like his dad. He wasn’t going to be reduced to a whisper by the end of his life.

As Tracey moved to serve another customer, Johnno sipped his beer more slowly. Once, years ago, Johnno had tried to confront his dad. It was late. Bill had been passing out at the kitchen table before he finally pulled himself upright enough to stumble down the hallway. At the last bump against the wall, Johnno, fifteen and already taller than his dad, yelled after him. ‘Why do you do it, Dad? All the booze?’ Bill had swung around, staggering a little as if walking tippy-toe over ice.

‘You want to know why?’ The bluster of bleary eyes and those enormous eyebrows drawn together. He’d taken a step towards Johnno, the rest of his body leaning off to the side, his head trying to correct it. But then he’d crumpled slightly, the shoulders gently sloping. His hand flapped. ‘Argh.’ And he’d turned back to the hallway, the soft shuffle to bed.

Johnno had left him to it, letting him creep further into the silence that was falling over the house, finding comfort and less shame there himself. He was left to chase the great revelation that had been about to burst out. That his father had married the wrong woman. His kid wasn’t up to much. He always got a little less than what he asked for. These imaginings had made Johnno keep his head down, stay out of the spotlight for fear of highlighting all the areas he was lacking in, all the places he didn’t quite make the mark.

And Johnno wondered whether the exhaustion that came from all this could get into your bones, into your genes, to be passed on to your kids. Make them tired before they’d even begun.

The photos weren’t talking, and Johnno could never be sure. Perhaps his dad just loved to drink with a passion greater than anything else in his life.

Johnno nodded over at Tracey, accepting another beer even though she hadn’t yet offered. She raised her eyebrows at him, the pub mostly empty around her, the office workers moved on, but started to pour it anyway. The sweep of her hand as she placed Johnno’s drink in front of him, took away his empty, was like the curves of an S. ‘Are you happy, Trace? This place, this job.’ Johnno’s loose arms waved around the dark room.

‘I don’t know, Johnno. It’s a job, you know.’ Tracey shrugged and leaned her elbows on the bar, tilting her body towards Johnno, who saw and then slowly looked away from how this pressed her breasts together.

‘But are you getting anywhere with it?’ His carefree, smiling dad was everywhere Johnno looked. ‘My dad. You know, everyone said he was happy. He’d had a good life.’ Johnno shook his head, the beer slowing his movements, closing in on this narrow focus. ‘How could he be?’ Johnno looked over the bar at Tracey. ‘They didn’t know him. He didn’t do anything he coulda. None of it.’ His mother raved about how his dad could have studied at university—literature, law, anything—was all set to sign up but got waylaid by easier options. Johnno had never been interested in study, had told himself when he left TAFE he’d never go back. And he knew his dad was a different kind of smart to him, the kind that could twist and destroy. But he’d had nothing to show for any of that. ‘So what was the fucken point? How can you be happy with that?’ Before Tracey could answer, start talking about family or perhaps a happy home, Russ burst into the empty pub, stumbling over the threshold, and Johnno sat himself straight, silencing his own gibber-jabber.

‘Johnno! Mate! You’re still here. Tracey, my good woman, a round of your finest whiskey.’ And Tracey turned to Russ, her easy smile back in place.

‘So, the cheap one you usually get, right?’

Johnno pulled out all the cash he had left. ‘Come on, Trace. Just leave us the bottle.’

Johnno woke the next morning with a thumping head, the bench hard beneath him, his bones cold and aching. He was in the park opposite Tracey’s house and he slowly realised he must have fallen asleep here waiting to see her come home, lock herself securely away. The heated shame made him feel woozy. All he could hope was that Tracey hadn’t seen him, sleeping here like a bum. As the sun cracked open the horizon, Johnno walked home.

When Johnno woke up again he was on his couch, his head at a painful angle and the cricket playing softly on the television. He sat in his dark apartment, feeling revived after food and sleep. The sleeping pills he’d taken after eating had wiped him straight out but now it was like he had laser focus, and he realised he didn’t fancy another night down the pub, fighting it out with Russ and his boasts, with the other punters for Tracey’s attention. He thought of the way she would always catch his eye when he pushed open the pub’s door, her smile jumping to fill her face. He needed to do something for her, something that would really impress her, make him be remembered. Like the curve that called out in the renovated lounge room, waiting for fingers to trail over it, stories to be told about it. He wasn’t going to drift along like his dad, let life take him where it would.

He still had the hand grinder he’d used to get into the corners in the woman’s lounge room after she’d complained. He could hook it up to the generator he used for outside work with no problems at all. He looked at his watch. Tracey would be on her usual Saturday shift into the evening and he had light for hours. Johnno sat on his couch a moment longer before running to grab his keys and then out his front door.

He was soon at Tracey’s house, hooked up and ready to go. His work vest meant he wouldn’t be troubled by anyone and he’d found the perfect spot: just at the start of her driveway and onto the footpath. She’d notice it straightaway. The straight line was easy, even with the circle of the grinder. And then a long, thick curve down that he swept the grinder over and over. It ended up crooked and a little sloppy. Not his best work, but a J etched deeply, undeniably there to stay. A point their story could start from.

No matter how long it took Tracey to make the connection, no matter what her decision was once she did, this mark of his love would be here forever.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates