by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
Two lower-class lovers on a dinner date dine on self-delusion as the breadwinner struggles to justify how he’ll pay for the meal and maintain the relationship.
Wayne returns to the table from the bathroom wiping his fingers in a careful motion, slip-slurp, slip-slurp, trying to get people in the restaurant to notice how skux he is. His shirt collar’s up, covering his neck tats, and he keeps stroking his own chest as he comes back to our table. He yanks out his seat real elegant and plops his bum onto the wood, pulling himself up against the table in a perfect little tug.
‘Madame,’ he says, as teeth leak out of the cheeky slit in his face, ‘Let us begin.’
I’m trying to see if I can sneak something from the children’s menu, we really should’ve come here between 11.30-1.30 on Thursdays when everything’s massively discounted, instead of tonight, but Wayne yanks the cardboard out of my hands and tells me to stop panicking about money. He adjusts the single candle yellowing our table till it’s positioned just right. He forces the wine list into my fingers and tells me to order anything.
‘Anything,’ he goes, then leans back, tapping his fingertips together like a fatcat. Wayne must’ve scored some money somehow but he’s being all espionage about it. I wanna escape the upper class meanies and crack a box of Cody’s on the couch and watch X-Factor and snuggle but Wayne told me on the bus here that me and him need to show the world that we’re moving up, starting tonight.
The waiter – one of the good ones, without tattoos on his neck – arrives and holds his pad ready for our order. He doesn’t even look down my tits. Ducasse is a swanky joint.
‘Scuse me, um, what’s a… a… can of apies?’ I ask him, ‘Can apes?’
‘It’s can-a-paize,’ he explains. ‘Sort of like a vol-au-vent. A teaser. We’re talking pastry-bread with a morsel of savoury filling.’ He kisses his fingertip. ‘Tonight’s are pumpkin and sunflower with salmon.’
A woman in pearls at the table opposite us turns her head to listen. I blush beetroot red. Everyone else’s table’s got an electric light on it. Wayne demanded we get a real legit candle of actual wax.
The waiter begins talking us through the specials but Wayne interrupts him with an ‘Ub-ub-ub-ub-UB!’ and five fingers jammed against the waiter’s mouth and it’s Wayne, the king of culture, the man-who-got-a-massive-promotion-today, who’s in charge.
Wayne adjusts the cuffs and shirtsleeves of his brand new Hallenstein Brothers suit and snaps his fingers.
‘You’d better get cooking…. .’ Wayne looks at the waiter’s nametag, squinting, ‘…Better get cooking, Marcel. Here we go: Beef tart thingy for our canapé. Then first course we’ll have that hardout cauliflower one.’
‘The velouté dubarry, sir?’
‘Obviously. The artichoke sourdough next, then the… how do I say this? Folie a deux?’
‘Foie de volaille paté por deux. It means paté for two. It’s chicken liver. I’m not sure you’re going to like– ’
‘Garkon, shut up and write this down: we’ll take the degustation.’ Wayne yanks my menu out of my hands and snaps it closed, discarding it over his shoulder so the waiter is forced to bend for it. The hotness is creeping down my neck now.
Wayne reaches inside his breast and produces a Diner’s Club card. Its silver shines in the candle light. ‘Don’t forget the amuse bouche.’
‘They gave you this at work?’ I go.
‘So to speak.’
He’s supposed to be committed to a job selling water purification filters with Love Springs Eternal, letting customers know the council’s poisonously high levels of calcite won’t come into their glass of water so long as they invest in the right purifying-y system, with a basic setup starting at $4999. I thought Wayne was doing alright at his job, going around the retirement villages knocking on doors, asking for a glass of water, spitting it into the bushes, saying it’s poison, he was getting decent commission for his sales but it seems like Wayne’s got a new business venture he’s brought me here to announce.
‘Did you have to pay for the card thing or…?’
‘Total opposite, babe. They pay ME.’
Wayne slides a pamphlet across the table and drums his fingers on the tabletop to indicate I oughta hurry up and read it. The pamphlet says Diner’s Club gives us free access to over 800 airport lounges worldwide, plus advance notifications of concert tickets, exclusive discounts on spas and makeovers, plus we can withdraw cash advances at any Westpac money machine.
The club card makes me feel like I can tip back into a nice safe cloud. They don’t just give out credit cards to anyone. For once in my life I can chill about the bills while I chew the first thing on the degustation that arrives, which turns out to be Saint Jacque scallops with garlic from Java that makes me totally mouthgasm. Wayne updates me on Love Springs in a past-tense sorta way, as if he’s moved onto something else, which I don’t quite get, since that’s where he’s been going every morning, or at least he’s been telling me he’s been going. What Wayne reveals, twirling a forkful of lamb saddle with handmade ratatouille, is he’s about to undergo the R&D phase of a vapourless vaporizer he’s been building out in the garage. Wayne says he expects to get some angel investors hopefully this year to put in some serious seed money, not necessarily Sean Parker or Richard Branson, but those types of dudes, and I nod and chew and nod and swallow and nod and sip and I’m in heaven, honestly, but heaven stained with some serious worry about the bill, cause I’d rather not have a fancy dinner date if there’s like a fifteen dollar limit on the card.
He waves his Diner’s Club around though and promises me everything’s sweet, babygirl, and we eat til we’re in agony. When Wayne can’t fit any more inside him, he fills my handbag with sachets of Sweet’n Low and breath mints. My heart stops when Marcel brings the credit card swiper machine round and Wayne slices his Diner’s Club card and it’s dot dot dot, thinking about calling the cops on our broke asses, but then the receipt spurts out and my heart starts beating as the purchase goes through. I fall asleep on the bus home with my head on Wayney’s lap. He strokes my hair and makes up little raps about the rubbish he finds tucked into the seats.
It’s two months later when Wayne brings me back to Ducasse and he’s pointing his fingertips at the maître d’ and saying some nickname for her, even though I’m pretty sure he’s never met the maître d’ before.
I’m nervous and I don’t want to take my jacket off, at first, but Wayne says the secret to getting ahead in life is looking the part. I shrug out of it and a waiter wrestles me for it, hanging it on a coat tree.
Wayne pays the waiter two bucks to pull out our chairs. People turn their heads, forks hovering.
‘Would you like a couple of cushions to sit on, sir?’
‘Fuggoff, I ain’t that short,’ Wayne grumbles.
When Marcel the waiter asks what kind of wine we want, I’m about to cringe and slide under the table and admit I don’t know any kinds of wine, but Wayne’s thought of literally EVERYthing.
‘We’ll take the Burger Chanson Pinot Noir first,’ he goes. ‘I’ll signal when we’re ready for a …Jabba… Syria. And, oi.’ Wayne produces a rolled-up note which looks purple – purple! A fifty! – and tucks it deep into Marcel the waiter’s pocket. ‘I want some SERIOUS service. I’m talkin the BEST.’
I spot Marcel the waiter pausing on the lip of the kitchen and unfurling the note to check if it’s real. If it is, it can only mean….
‘MASSIVE progress,’ Wayne goes, swirling his sparkling water, adjusting his Diner’s Club card so it’s perfectly positioned on the table. ‘That’s why I wanted to celebrate.’ His ankle caresses my calf.
‘Wayyyney,’ I whisper, glancing from side to side, ‘Are you sure there’s room on the… you know.’
‘Diner’s Club isn’t a credit card, babycakes. Does it SOUND like a credit card? It’s a CLUB. That’s why they call it a club. We’re MEMBERS, babe. And it’s for entrepreneurs, so just chill, would ya?’ Wayne makes himself laugh and looks at the people on either side of us to make sure they know what a good time he’s having. ‘Worrying takes ten years off your life. I read that in Forbes.’
‘I just don’t know how we’re gonna pay for –
‘Babe, look: did Steve Jobs listen to some jellyfish when Microsoft told Apple they were never gonna survive? I think not. And you know where Steve Jobs is now? Exactly: livin it up.’
Wayne’s not supposed to be an entrepreneur. The bank rung us up and said unless he took that job with Kirby, he’d have to consolidate all his credit card debt and it would get deducted out of our bank every week. With every slurp and every story tonight, though, it becomes more and more obvious Wayne’s outgrown the things holding him back. He doesn’t have to get refugees to sign direct debit forms for vacuum cleaners any more. My man is unstoppable.
Marcel the Waiter plops down some creamy saucy stuff with ham and a chunk of cheese on it, that real good cheese you get with the Big Angus burger at Maccas.
‘Anyway, the reason I called you here tonight,’ Wayne goes, sees no one around us is eavesdropping, and starts again, louder. ‘SO THE REASON I CALLED US HERE IS TO CELEBRATE. Ever heard of a little company called HRV? Yeah? And ever heard of a little job position called SALES REP?’
I’m so excited for my Wayney I sob into my napkin for a moment then flutter my fingertips til I’m chill again and he can continue his big news, leaning through the yellowy blackness of our candle, his fangs peeking out of his lips. ‘Tell me, bae.’
Wayne is destined to flourish in his new role selling the home ventilation system that’s proven to save lives purifying the air in the households of our most vulnerable citizens. All he has to do is hit daily sales targets for a couple months, and Wayne’s sales experience at Love Spring and Kirby practically puts him on the pathway to management, he says. His words start to melt and swirl as I get drunk on cold wine and hot excitement. I can feel the anxiety drain down my legs and out my toes and I make a note to myself that Wayne’s definitely getting head tonight. As I’m eating prosciutto and swishing sweet syrah on my tongue, I decide that we actually do fit in here. I’ve been stressed out cause I’m studying early childhood education and cause laying out a career seems so predictable. I wish I had Wayney’s courage. He makes badass business decisions every day.
Things are gonna change for the better, I decide, tapping the last drops out of the wine bottle. No more debt collectors. No more changing the expiry date on Pizza Hut coupons and holding my breath every time I place an order.
As he leans towards the candle, the light glints on his eyebrow ring. He’s moved it from the left eyebrow to the right since it got ripped out when those hoodrats jumped him and the eyebrow got all infected and puffy.
‘HERE’S what’s the next big thing with the economy, babe: the human body. What if I told you there was a miracle product that could literally melt the fat off you. Well, not literally… .’
‘Not, FAT-fat, I didn’t say that… not, like… look, you’ve got the good fat on you. Unsaturated or whatever. Baby fat. You’re making me lose my point. What if I told you there are dietetic milkshakes designed by actual NASA scientists, expertly calibrated to synthesize with the body’s nutritional rhythms, and I could be the exCLUSive representative in this city. I’m talkin 50 percent commission. Every time one of my shareholders makes a sale, I go up a level.’
‘Can’t spell Multi Level Marketing without Level, bae.’
Wayne tears his paper napkin in half and tosses the scraps towards this black man eating with this Asian girl so they’ll look over at us. ‘Legally, technically they resemble…. Y’know what? No. NOT milkshakes. That’s obtuse thinking right there. Herbalife nutritional supplements are a complete meal in drinkable form, okay? It’s an insult to call ’em milkshakes. Herbalife is listed on the NASDAQ. Is Mr. Whippy on the NASDAQ? I don’t think so. And I’ve got 400 Herbalife shares with our name on ’em, like, I mean, well technically it’s your name cause of bankruptcy rules and all that, y’know, I’m not allowed to trade for seven— GARKON! Yo! That escargot ready, huh? Got enough parsley butter on it? Plonk it down, attaboy.’
The world has been swaying like kelp in the ocean. Now it stops.
‘The power bill’s… it’s bad. We owe, like, fourteen hundred, Wayne.’ I flap my fingers and dab my face with my giant white serviette. I sniff wet boogers. ‘I need to do my assignments — ’
‘What you need to DO is STOP before you EMBARRASS yourself.’ Wayne has leapt around the table and he’s on his knee, squeezing my wrist.
‘Now, as I was saying, we have CREDIT becauuuuse, drumroll please, you ready, this is why I brought you here: our bacon’s been saved. Tell me: who has two thumbs and just got start-up capital from a certain angel investor by the name of Save My Bacon Little Loans?’
I sniff my face dry and wait for the smartest man I know to correct my dumb ignorance.
He points his thumbs back towards himself. ‘THIS GUYYYYYY.’
I feel Wayne’s ankle sliding up my calf like an alley cat. I’m on a plateau of ecstasy.
Forget the bus. We take a taxi home like rich people.
I…. just… GRADUATEDDDDD!!!
It’s seriously like I’m tripping. Of course we head to Ducasse to celebrate.
We have to walk tonight to get here, with a quick detour to Warehouse Stationery to pick up some printing. Wayne reckons walking is part of our new carbon neutral stance as a family but secretly we both know it’s cause our car got repo’d.
But, like, anyway, hooray for me!!! Early childhood care’s always been my dream. It took me three years to complete my diploma cause we moved around, then I couldn’t get my student loan for a while cause Wayne’d got us to both change our names so we could open fresh bank accounts with new overdrafts (he took the Y out of his name but he said mostly it was a branding decision because his investors never have to ask why, which is pretty genius if you think about it).
Tonight, even though the maître d’ gives Wayne a reeeeal concerned look as we come in, we finally we get to celebrate my achievement with our favorite waitstaff making our night special. This new waiter, a girl whose nametag says Emma, takes Wayne’s Diner’s Club card away before we’ve had our meal, which is weird, though I guess she’s keeping it safe cause it causes a lot of envy and people might jack us. In the corner I see the maître d’ getting out these big shiny scissors and snipping it in half and suddenly it’s baking in here and my face glows red.
This new waitress Emma comes back over to us, like all cringe, explaining she’ll be happy to take cash for our order, but only in advance. Wayne gets out his wad and gives her what looks like a hundy and Emma-the-waitress puts the money in her bumbag and works out the change before they process our order. He tries to give her a two dollar tip but she tells him to keep it. Rude, sure, but soon enough we’re nibbling breadsticks and sipping drinks and concentrating on having a good time, keeping our relationship strong, gazing at each other through the candle.
That is until Wayne changes the subject.
‘So I’ve done the math and you can’t start work,’ Wayne says. ‘Early childhood teaching, you only start on 17 an hour. Factor in commuting costs, new car, depreciation, lunch, makeup and whatnot, I don’t think you’ll be bringing in enough.’
‘But… but the Herbalife thing? You had the exclusive franchise for our region?’
Wayne waves my words away, looks around at the other tables, chewing grumpy-styles.
‘Listen, I’m going to need you to re-enroll for a couple more years so you can keep borrowing on your student loan living costs thingy. We can’t afford not to have Studylink coming in every week. It’s free money. You’ll have to go do another course. Grab yourself a Bachelor degree. Master’s after.’
The waitstaff begin a commotion and Emma holds up her fingers which I can see are green and inky as if she’s been playing with finger paint.
Wayne reaches across the table, grabs my hand, squeezes, pulls my attention back towards him. My little magic man. My GI Joe. My big boy propped up on cushions like a king.
‘Babe: most of sales is thinking on your feet, yeah, and if we want a good financial outcome, we’re both going to have to think on our feet right now. Like RIGHT now.’
I don’t get what the fuck he’s on about but I nod anyway.
‘That baby you always wanted? Start having it right now.’
‘Pretend you’re pregnant. Go. GO.’
I push my seat back from the table as Wayne comes around, lifts up my dress, puts his ear against my tummy and starts making a big commotion.
‘For the love of God, we need an ambulance,’ Wayne is yelling, ‘THIS WOMAN IS HAVING A BABY. WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE?! DIAL 111 ALREADY.’
Pretty soon an ambo is pulling into the parking lot, its lights turning the restaurant rose-red, my favorite color, and all in all tonight is — what was that thing Wayney used to spend all our money on at the trots? — a trifecta. Yeah, tonight’s a trifecta of three wins, cause the first win is they forget to bill us as we scream and wince and stumble to the door, me clutching the top of my butt, and we’ve had another divine dinner, so that’s the second win, and thirdly, best of all, thanks to the ambulance we don’t have to take the bus home.