by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
The chronicle of a doomed affair between a book store owner and an unhappy salesman desperate to keep his serotonin levels up.
Monica is stifling giggles as she packs up the bookstore, sniffling, shaking her head. Little snorts of disbelief at her own stupidity. She has doomed the business. She says it’s absurd that she had faith in herself in the first place, really. The event at the book shop tonight – the launch of an anthology from some ageing first-time writers – was a dirty bomb. A cluster of misers in pharmacy perfume recited dreary flash fiction before an audience of fifteen. They kept the store open late, spent almost no money. Monica can’t believe she trusted the small-town publishing collective, trusted God, fate, destiny. She can’t believe she trusted herself. She could’ve been home fixing her marriage, trying to cheer Peter up. He’s going to glower and criticize. She tells you you don’t need to stick around to watch her humiliation. Your job is to sell books, not to rub her back. It’s okay. You can go.
You tell her no way. You’re here to support. Lebanese men are faithful. Leb men stick around.
Hosting the old fogeys’ book launch after hours was typical Monica selflessness. Her body –thick wavy mahogany hair, skirt bright as crayons – was aged by the disappointment of tonight. She has filaments of silver in her hair now. Sad creases by her hooded eyes as the let-downs pile up. Her husband is a cold fish who sleeps in a separate bed. Her kids are both partying at university and they never call. She’s been tenderized.
You care about conversion, commission, revenue, going city to city selling new releases to ease off the pressure from the clan at home, but you’ve got a weakness for Monica, even if she sucks at sales. The warm press of her chest when she does a kiss-hug greeting. The apologetic smile when her husband ignores you when you visit the store. Monica had hoped to make up for a slow week with some late night sales; instead you’ve spent two hours yelling out encouragement to try get people to buy books. She squeezed your arm in appreciation as you publicly shamed yourself to defend her. The two of you together versus a bunch of timewasting old idiots.
Monica licks her finger, dabs creamy cake crumbs off a stack of paper plates, tells you for the tenth time it’s dark out there, you ought to go home to your family. Sairi doesn’t like you coming home early, you respond. It makes her sisters whisper of failure. Makes her witch-of-a-mum mutter ancient curses.
Monica stands on top of her stepladder while you hold her hips. You study her calves, knees, thighs disappearing into that skirt. You’ve never slept with a white girl, well, girl is not the right word, considering her age. Lady.
Monica has taken one end of the bunting off the ceiling. She rests her weight on your hand as you guide her body down. You haven’t touched much, before. You and her shook hands for the first year you sold books to her store, then you began kissing her cheek as a polite hello each time you dropped by with a trunkful of new titles. The brush of your forearm on hers as you reached to turn the same page. Your hand on her shoulder.
She flaps her fingers in front of her cheeks to cool her red skin. Eyes pink from crying, rimmed black, runny mascara in the cracks.
Hoo, she says, sniffing. Hot up there.
You pick up a copy of the old ladies’ anthology. Last Gasp, the publishers call themselves. The wannabe authors and their stiff husbands have left Monica with bills for catering, power and ads in the paper. The launch was supposed to bring a thousand dollars of custom to Monica’s shop. A tiny crowd of people turned up, a few anthologies were bought, though the store only made three sales. Bag End Books needs to make two thousand bucks a week, you know from two years of selling to Monica. She’s always laughed, said numbers are Peter’s job. Peter the Great, genius ruler of the books.
You bend a Last Gasp book from the centre outwards. We have to make a stand, you tell her. You drizzle the torn pages on the carpet and stamp on the shitty literature. Please laugh. Please wince and half-turn away.
She says you’re sweet to stand up for her, silly boy. Squeezes both of your shoulders. Her body fits yours. She tears a Last Gasp poster off the wall. Plaster dust powders her face.
She says you ought to get going. You’ve got other clients to see. They’re all lonely shopkeepers, presumably, these ladies of yours. Does your wife know?
You pick the BluTak off the Last Gasp posters, pull them away from the windows. You sweep confetti into the dustpan. You tip un-drunk orange juice back into the bottle and put it all in the fridge.
It’s nearly midnight when Bag End Books begins to look like there was never a book celebration. She’s handing you a glass of bubbles.
You clean the glitter off her earlobe with a wet thumb, leaning in close.
But you’re just a baby, she whispers, closing her eyes.
You stagger across the room to the children’s corner, fall into a beanbag. She claws your back. She’s telling you this will hurt. You silence your bleating mobile. You were supposed to call at seven. You promised your wife you’d read the kids a bedtime story over the phone.
After sex, you doze on the beanbags in the kiddy corner. The night descends then lifts. You creep away, stagger into your pants, belt buckle clinking. Monica pretends to sleep. Glitter in the carpet. Confetti on the bookstands. Helium balloons on the ceiling. You stagger into the blinding morning light, opening the trunk of your car, retrieving the case of books you’re supposed to sell. You stagger into Paper Plus, feeling radioactive, contaminated. Your dick’s dirty and reeks of latex. Your mouth is full of her spit and cells. You do your business with a fake smile and shiny teeth then drive a hundred kays home and swear you’ll never let down your guard again.
Walking into these shops –there are 40 of them in your sales region – you wear a façade of grinning Teflon. Golden earring on honey skin. Tight suit. Sales tongue. Just the right amount of handsome black stubble.
You tell these shop owners how to run their bookshops better, where to position the Nadia Lims, how to hang the new Yuval Noah Harari display. How to scatter the sand that goes around Sebastian Junger’s Gulf War book display. Your strong young arms reposition the breath mints and mineral water around their counters. Every little bit counts, you assure these shopkeepers. Here, see on Chart Six? You’ve got the revenue growth to prove it. You rearrange their potplants for them, their pamphlets, their door mats and rugs. You sweep the dead moths away from the windows. You prune the ferns. One bookstore in Orewa, the owner doesn’t realize her doormat prevents wheelchairs coming in. Another place in Tauranga, it’s the cluttered counter that’s the problem. It needs to be shaped like a funnel, not a fortress. Customers want chewing gum at the counter, not poetry chapbooks. You move the indulgent poetry pamphlets away from the impulse items and over to the far corner. You had delusions that poetry was important when you were young and naïve and thought that money didn’t matter. Even got a little book of poems published. You wrote a whole secret second manuscript, actually. Even Sairi’s never seen it.
You sign up a Bay of Islands bookshop to have 5000 flyers tucked into local letterboxes once a month marketing romance only. Their sales rise through the roof. You’ll get a good commission this week. Your mother in law and your wife and her biker brother Billy Khoury will get off your case for a while.
The one store you’d love to avoid, but can’t, is Bag End. Your manager knows you’ve got that special rapport with the owners. Use that Prince of Persia charm-thing of yours, son. Monica’s managing the place mostly on her own because her husband has gone cold on her. Peter is a stiff, square man in a cardigan with a moustache he can’t stop licking. A man outstanding with numbers. Deaf in one ear, always grunting. Christian; ten years older than Monica. A man so conservative it’s taken him a decade to decide to buy the store a website. It’s wrong for him to be married to an Anastasia. She’s beautiful and valuable. It’s wrong not to share her.
You do the Coromandel run, the Hamilton run, you do Whangarei and Dargaville and Mangawhai and even Helensville. Lots of unpaid overtime for a chance at some good commission. An extra thousand some weeks. It’s not enough, though. Sairi’s mum has been whispering witchy wisdom in Sairi’s ear. Sairi rolls her eyes, but she doesn’t disagree. The family needs you to make even bigger numbers this month. Sairi has her essential oils to pay for. Fine. You’ll build up some credit through suffering. You visit all the stores on your roster ahead of schedule and tell ‘em you’re positive the Silver Ferns confessional and the Prime Minister’s memoirs will make you both rich. Bertelsmann have asked the price point to be pushed up near the $40 mark.
By the time you get to Bag End Books, you have to vent your frustrated secrets inside of Monica, except she blocks your ingress, arms folded, head tilted in disapproval.
Monica wants to talk about “the incident.”
Incident? INCIDENT? You’re really gonna call it that, Mon?
You talk with your hands, pacing, ranting, arguing for an hour before she pushes you against a wall and seizes your angry shoulders. God you’re pent-up. What’s the matter – wife hasn’t taken you for a walk? She locks the door, flipping the Open sign Closed, undoes your buttons with red fingernails, teeth oozing over her lips.
On the carpet, on the bean bags, behind the counter you rock together, cradling each other’s backs. You snuffle her clefts and crevices. Fragrant armpits and secret pleats and grinding thighs. Her rippling, pillowy body. Stretch marks and little scars to lick. Thirsty tongues on salty skin. Torn hair. Fingernails clutching your broad back. Don’t let me fall, the claws say. Carry me. Your daughter does the same when you carry her to bed.
Monica’s wild foot kicks a psychology textbook off the wall. You flip through it as the two of you lie spine-to-spine after you’ve come, hiccupping air like deflated balloons. The shiny hardback has a diagram of the brain glowing in certain spots. Your body releases feel-good drugs called endorphins after you make love, it explains. A person looks more muscular post-orgasm, feels better about flab and flaws and crow’s feet. First the brain leaks testosterone then estrogen, then dopamine then norepinephrine then serotonin. Oxytocin and vasopressin afterwards to cement attachment and encourage it to happen again.
You slide the book gently back into its slot. Back to business. You can’t even look at her as you pull your underwear on. A proper Leb man doesn’t let ladies make him weak. Be like Samson, bro. Be like bully-biker Billy Khoury who beats up people for no reason. Strong as a pillar. You have to get back to normality. Boring-arse banter from the boys about wanting to fuck the kids’ teachers cause no one’s wife is putting out, yeah, that’s normal. Hating your wife’s evil old amati. Weeks without getting laid. Hours of driving, sucking angrily on your vape, swearing at the radio. Billboards telling you what your life should look like. Low carb beers and barbecues and bigscreen TVs. Movies and motocross and rippa rugby and hotdogs and juice. The same safe clique of 33 year olds at the same Wog weddings. League, trucks, rings, tattoos, Facebook, vows, hen nights, man-camps. Massive family meals with mountains of kibbeh and beef and chawarma and humus. The next ten years are written; there’s shame if you don’t follow. Your mates will play for the same Old Boys team, they’ll set up the same charter fishing trips, they’ll fly to Las Vegas for a predictable Instagram selfie at the Bellagio.
Cheating on your wife, though – that’ll get you disinvited from high school reunions and Vegas and the Junior Tigers fundraising committee. Sairi’s mum will claw your face. Billy Khoury will stomp you for dishonoring his sister. Better a heroin habit than a cheater.
All you can do is keep telling yourself that the thing with Monica wasn’t cheating, and definitely not an affair. It was two consenting adults sharing a drug. And it’ll never happen again.
Monica sits up behind the counter. She wrestles her bra on, folds up the towel you’ve been making love on. She riffles through a box of stationery, selects a rubber band to tie her hair back. She’s doing everything except look at you.
You have to talk business for a sec. You tell her Bag End’s gonna go bankrupt if she lets everybody walk all over her. Sorry to be brutal. You need to get control of your losses, Mon.
Monica refuses to answer. She moves the poetry books around. You try to tell her it’s pointless trying to get value from those things. Just people’s bottled delusions.
Peter comes in minutes later as you’re tucking your shirt in behind a stand of Call Me Evies. Something about looking at the accounts. Your fly is hanging open. You can feel wind on your thigh.
‘Good to see you bro, um, Peter,’ you stammer, ‘I was just telling your wife, I can give advice on how to effect sales, I’d be happy to… y’know. Some pointers.’
Peter snorts. ‘Something you learned in university yesterday’s going to revolutionize the industry, I take it?’
‘Just trying to be professional.’
You shelter behind a giant atlas and fix your fly. Monica’s giving her fern a drink of water and humming Schubert.
‘You’ve done enough,’ she says, ‘you can go now.’
‘Jesus, Monica.’ You glance over to see if Peter’s offended. Deaf cunt didn’t even hear. ‘That Kieran Read book, the All Blacks one, I’m supposed to park 50 with you.’
‘Is that all you came for?’ She’s shaking pellets of food into the rats’ feed dish. ‘You know where to leave em.’
Back to business then. So be it. You unlock the car, parked out front in a space she reserved for you with road cones, your name written in lipstick on the white rear of a life-size cutout of J. K. Rowling. Those cut-outs fetch hundreds if you sell them second hand, for crying out loud, don’t destroy them with my unimportant name, Mon! She could sell the one she’s defaced and meet this week’s revenue target. Sigh. It’s not that Monica doesn’t know how to run a business. She just doesn’t care that much.
Monica loves watering her snapdragons, walking her Cavalier King Charles spaniel Aldous Muttsley. What she doesn’t love is sales. You’ve seen her ring up sales. She’ll take a customer’s credit card pinched between finger tips like a dirty needle, shoving the keypad at the customer like it’s contaminated. When she was young and free and didn’t have to pay for her son’s MBA, her and her hippie friends lived in a village of yurts in a valley. They had a barter system, swapping eggs for dreamcatchers for horseshoes for paintings. She didn’t have a job or a husband or a bank account. She was happy.
t happens three more times in a month. Same day, every week, and you wonder if you’re the only devil in the world. You’ve never seen other people having an affair. Fucking in the bushes. Sneaking into a motel. Skulking around. That stuff takes place in hidden pockets of the world. Secret pleats. Two anxious adults making chemicals together in a clandestine lab. You roll the word around your tongue. Clan-des-tine. There’s a new 600 page edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It needs to retail for $45.99 so everyone can get paid. It’s a challenge, that one, though Monica accepts a case of them and promises she’ll do her best to sell em. She’s always had faith in you. She used to lean over the counter to check your eyes. She stroked your throat with her finger, one time. Sure these things’ll sell? You lying to me, big boy?
You top up her store with books twice a week. She teases your true personality out of you. You loved your mum tonnes, you miss her. She was fat and always baking and hugged and kissed you in her sticky dusty apron even as a grown man. She’s the only person you’ve ever read your notebook of poetry too, apart from goths at the Gong Show at university where Sairi never even showed up even though her family had marketed her as a perfect match for you, Mr Sensitive Artist. She was training as an occupational therapist; you were studying English Lit. You weren’t meant to cross paths, really. Gee, what else… You once had a poem in some literary journal. You have half a novel saved on your computer. When you dropped out of writing classes and went corporate, that was your first infidelity. Cheating on what the young you promised the old.
She comes around the counter with the slow saunter of an aging indoor-type. She bites your neck and comes alive. She drinks your salty skin, shrugs off her shawl. You drive to her house for an urgent shag, pashing in the car, lips locked like fish wrestling a hunk of meat. You enjoy pushing a woman as old as your mother on her back, listening to her beg for you to stop. She ruins your chance of driving through to Gisborne to get your sales up for the month. Instead you lie sweaty on Peter’s side of the bed with the curtains flapping in the wind. She tries to feed you, which is a joke. You can’t eat food made by a real human. Too intimate.
It’s not any easier when you stagger in the door and Sairi’s mum assesses you with a sniff and Sairi asks how much commission you made, shoving a plate of dinner into your hands. You’re too sick with guilt to eat her meals. Too sick to concentrate on the book about ponies you’re supposed to read to Dasia.
Before bed, Sairi lies with her head on your lap while her mum snores inside her sleep apnoea mask and you wish you were inside the TV. People on TV don’t have dirt on their skin. You find yourself reaching for your phone, messaging Monica, setting up a time to do more business. Tomorrow’s good. Maybe even twice. This thing is a funnel. You keep sliding down.
Peter the Great’s away on business in Melbourne. You told him his concept of ordering stacks of manga to bring in teenage customers was a terrific idea. Always explore new markets. Go for it, bro. Take ten days.
With Peter gone, his wife drags you out for a date in public.
In the black wet night she clings to your arm. She negotiates mainstreet’s gum and dogshit and trees and benches, grinning giddily. You’re withdrawing money from an ATM and she comes up behind and puts her fingers in your coat pocket. You stand with your face in the wind, letting her cradle your back. She’s closed her eyes, buried in warm flesh like a koala cub; you’re scanning the street for spies. God, just let us get the itch scratched and be done with it all. You watch over your shoulder, terrified one of the bros will recognize you, call your name, ask questions, spread word that you’re an infidel. Tonight Monica’s painted lipstick over her years. She has earrings and a sparkling rhinestone jacket and she’s swinging her handbag. Jesus Christ. Is this worse than fucking? Does this exonerate the sex? That’d be nice. Your brain is wracked. She asks question after question, drops annoying little comments about your “strong arms” and “youthful energy.” You give her grumpy grunts. You’ve agreed to a movie and some falafel and Turkish tea. You never said it was a date.
You scuttle into the cinema together. It’s a terrible movie; people walk out. An hour in, it’s just the two of you. You lie her on the hard, thin carpet under the seats in a middle row of an ocean of seat-backs where no one ever goes. She pulls you inside her, refusing to kiss, eyelids down, just holding your lower back like a kid she’s afraid to lose.
Strolling the street, she strokes your dark black jaw, reckons she loves Middle Eastern culture. Gimme a break, you want to bark. You’re a tourist, Monica. Eating mezze with your backs against the wall in the corner, she’s ordering baklava for dessert and having a great time, really making the most of the night, even asking about your high school and hobbies and you want to scream, YOU’RE FIFTY ONE, MONICA. WE’RE NOT ALIKE. WE’RE TWO DRUGGIES SWAPPING STIMULUS. That’s all. She tries to tug the photos of your kids out of your wallet. The photos spill onto the table. You bury them back in your wallet, growling. She slaps your wrist, goes out front, orders a herbal tea from a hippie food truck, blows on it, shivers.
To bring her back around, you agree to drive up to the top of Pine Hill. On a bench surrounded by a landscape of twinkling Christmas lights, you pash like teenagers, ripping at each other’s gums and lips. You biff stones at a lamp till it shatters then flee, snickering, to the far end of the park. She straddles you on the bench. A breeze probes your stomach. You both fart and giggle. Your belt tinkles on the metal and concrete. Monica pours her head into your neck, rocks until she’s calmed herself. She leaves your lap wet. Your buttons are torn – she pulled them off, stripping the fabric from your thumping chest – and now there’ll be questions asked about the jacket. Sairi bought it so you could look decent in that family portrait you had photographed at the mall.
You make love on your half-wet coats and scarves when work is heavy and depressing and it’s raining outside. You make love against the plastic walls of the toilet cubicle in the café where you’re supposed to be looking at next month’s orders. You make love when the sky is dirty, when it’s clean. You rendezvous in secret little nooks and furrows and dark spots in the day. Gotta get that little squirt of serotonin. It’s not happiness, but it’s a distraction. Better than being just another working class wog.
You begin to spot secret sex everywhere. Pairs of people stumbling out of doorways you didn’t expect. People doing things around corners. Bursting out of fields of tall grass. Snickering couples emerging from alleys adjusting their pants. Girls whispering into the ears of men in elevators. The woman in the line at Starbucks whose fingers tuck her giggles back inside her lips as she reads some text message. The man who hauls his body out of the passenger seat of a rocking car with the seat reclined.
Conspiracies everywhere. Clan labs where people cook chemicals.
You watch little Dasia in the three-legged race on a blue sky Saturday at her school gala. Dasia has to run with a boy who’s younger, stronger, fitter. More aggressive, more determined, more impatient. Dasia has done the three-legged race before and knows what’s at stake and why you should step with caution; the boy has more stamina, more energy, more ruthlessness. The boy wants quick results. The boy is tired of stepping in sync all the time. The problem is one person within the couple stretches the band, moves away from the cooperative. The tightly-bound couple screams at each other. The band breaks.
The Lads are here at the gala, of course, watching their kids frolick same as you. Hard slaps on the back. Knuckles on the chin, playful slaps, chest bumps. Billy Khoury plants his girl on a pony ride then winks at you. Tony Daouk shoots water into a fibreglass clown’s mouth. Abe Mahfouz drops a few quiet jokes about fucking women and you have some good chuckles, standing round, arms folded, shoulders shaking. This morning, while Dasia was skipping in the yard, Sairi locked the bedroom door, pinned you down. Fucked you hard and rhythmic and joyless as a marathon. It took you forever to come. She kissed your brow and asked what was wrong.
They catch you daydreaming.
‘Dreamin up another novel, bro?’
‘Pantoum,’ you go. You cut them off before they can say something dumb and explain that a pantoum is a type of poem.
The boys are falling about laughing, now. Billy Khoury has passed around a joint from cupped palm to cupped palm. The boys are commenting on every mum at this gala pushing prams, holding candy floss, wiping faces with spit-moistenend handkerchiefs. The back of your neck’s sweating. Dasia’s on the bouncy castle with her habib. She’s safe from your radiation. Tony’s going on about some chickypie waitress he visits every lunch who’s definitely gonna have sucked his cock by next weekend (whatever, Tony). Abe’s saying the most he’s got from his wife in the past year is second base, some sticky fingers on the couch after she put her knees on the carpet looking for the TV remote. The boys are punching each other’s shoulders and shoving your chest and Billy Khoury’s snipering you with his eyes, lining up a shot.
‘What about you, book boy? Still writing gay love ballads?’
‘A ballad is a song, by definition. Sonnets is what you’re thinking of. I, I, I guess I keep a notebook but it’s been years since–
‘You still doin that marriage counselling with Sai?’
‘Yeah man. Totally. Tuesday nights.’
‘Tell us what fuckin happened. You been an infidel to my sister?’
Gulp. Quick check on Dasia. She’s alive, thank fuck. ‘Fidelity intact, much to my chagrin.’
The boys crack up laughing, She-grin? Course she grin, mate! Dolmio grin for that fuckin bitch when she’s ragging!
Billy’s looking through the laughs, though. His nostrils twitch. He smells something.
You do it again in the car, parked behind a dumpster to give shadow from the streetlight. It’s quick and disgusting and predictable. She keeps her shawl on, and bra and cardigan, muttering, making you seem ridiculous, over-eager because you’ve stripped completely. She barely even smiles, just rocks with her eyes closed, thinking about something else. You get some serotonin in your system but it’s a dirty batch. Contaminated with guilt. You’re both frowning afterwards as you wipe up. You’re counting the silver threads in her hair. They’ve got to total more than 50% of her scalp now, they’re taking over – plus there are brown smudges you’ve never noticed hidden at the top of her skull. Liver spots, they’re called. Like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons. Like Sairi’s leathered mother.
She insists you use a condom next time.
You’re not serious? You splutter that there’s no way she could possibly get pregnant. She says actually, it’s about protecting HER. She doesn’t know how many women you’ve done this to.
Done this to?!
You heard me.
Like, what, like I’m some serial cheater?
Well are you?
Monica announces she wants you to return to your wife. You tell her you never left your wife, never strayed. She sniggers at that.
The arbitration spills down the street, out of the car and into her shop. You endure it only because being with Monica is one percent more enjoyable than enduring interrogations at home. You notice for the first time how decayed Monica’s shop is. Every book cover is sun-faded. The carpet hasn’t been updated since the 70s. And risking your safety for some Western cracker who’s not even Leb? The fuck were you thinking?
Tonight is the last time you’ll ever be alone with Monica, you’re about to declare, except Monica has her hand on your wrist and you’re sinking.
Sairi throws a massive surprise birthday party that’s totally not a surprise. You knew she was going to show off. That’s the culture, that’s the code: show the Haddads next door how much love there is in your household. Treat your man like a king even if you treat him like a flatmate soon as the last guests have cleared out. Not that you ever wanted to be a king. You wanted to wear black Doc Martens and perform poetry as dark as your beard, not be some sheikh on a throne in the light. Billy Khoury brings his girls and a keg to your party, blocks the driveway with his giant Harley and lets his Doberman run amok the yard. Abe Mahfouz has his sullen pissy teenagers in tow plus his mother-in-law, for fuck’s sake. Tony Daouk brings that new bimbo he’s dating. There’s a structure for the afternoon – speeches, dancing, cake with candles, succulent spit-roasted lamb, honey, wine – but you and the lads start having shots of Sambuca and the shisha comes out and Billy Khoury’s packing weed into the pipe and the afternoon is a messy blur.
Sairi makes it a two-day thing, this Festival of You birthday jaunt that you totally don’t deserve. She drags you out to Devonport to see the history, the tunnels, the ships, the green hills, the crenellations, the brick, the ivy. The five dollar coffees, ten dollar croissants, the art deco facades, the socialites in yoga pants walking their beagles on a Saturday morning. Silk trees and cycads. Silver dog dishes out front of the café. The Rolls Royces, the private schools, the city councillors chatting with real estate agents outside the patisserie.
It makes sense Sairi should squeal with excitement when she spots the J.K. Rowling-shaped sign in the Bag End Books window. Your name’s still written on the white back of the plastic. Shit.
Sairi veers into the store, pretends to study the back of the Kieran Read book, the Nadia Lim book. She messes up a display of cookbooks she doesn’t even pretend to read.
‘Is this where SHE works?’
‘The old white lady that’s been sending you all those stalker-y messages.’
The woman behind the counter freezes then reacts with a smile so wide her fangs stick out. You say Monica, Sairi and Sairi, Monica Martin, manager.
Sairi is so stunned she drops her water bottle on the carpet.
‘Ah, the young interloper on an unannounced visit. Here to see my wife, or… ?’
Peter has white dust on his useless ears. He’s saving thousands putting new plasterboard up in the renovated office instead of getting a tradesman to do it. Peter suspects people ripping him off everywhere. Taking what’s his.
He says your name, tosses it up and down in his mouth while Sairi stares. ‘You write, a little, so I’ve heard?’
You gulp and admit it.
Peter’s squinting like a sceptical detective. ‘I remember you now, yesss. Used to be the pride of the literary magazines, n’est-ce pas? You spoke on public radio too, if I recall correctly. Book Hour, they read one of your stories. Hang on.’ Peter rummages behind a huge copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and pulls out a poster. Your face; your forgotten poetry collection. ‘Monica, she loves this book. Admires it greatly. She mentioned you’ve been paying quite a few visits this year. Urging us to stock your books.’ Peter is a cat leering down at a slapped-around mouse. ‘She talks about you altogether too much, in my opinion.’
Sairi rotates her body to face directly into you. She has zero interest in friendship with this old dysfunctional nerd-pair. ‘You guys wanna get a room or what? What is this?’
Her phone pings. She batters out a frantic text message.
‘It’s work, honey.’ You clear your throat and reach to take your book out of Peter’s hands. ‘Caaaaan I take that thing off your hands?’
A flash of mirth lights Peter’s stony eyes. He tucks the book inside his cardigan. ‘You just keep on taking from me, don’t you, son.’
On the way back home you and Sairi stop at a gastropub. You do not have money for lobster – it’s going to fuck up next week’s budget – but there is a storm brewing in Sairi. You want to buy your way out of this, so lobster it is.
Sairi’s uploading photos of the spread of seafood and salad to her Instagram. She takes ages choosing the filter that’ll make the food look most impressive for the girls.
‘She was checking out your butt, that old lady.’
‘She’s only 51.’
‘I’m not stupid. I know what’s going on.’
Sairi begins frantically texting.
‘What the fuck are you writing, Sai? You reporting to the fucking CIA or something?’
The waitress sets down the crayfish, the potato skins, the garlic butter, the finger bowl, the wine. Sairi’s ordered a whole bottle to herself. She pours most of the bottle into her glass, tosses it into her throat looking everywhere except into your face.
Sairi adds another few words to her phone then locks it again.
‘I am doing my utmost to convince that brother of mine not to bash you. He’s got mates in the fucking Comancheros. God knows why I – why I even… .’ Sairi catches a few tears with her fingers then sniffs snot back up into her head, shakes your hand off her. ‘God knows why I bother defending… hang on. What’s this?’
It’s a text message from a number that makes your heart sprint.
We need 2 talk about your husband pls. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
You park opposite Bag End Books and walk slow lunar steps across the dark road. You cannot avoid this meeting. There is no other place for you in the world.
They’ve cleared some displays out of the way. Sairi and Monica have a stool for you to sit on.
‘So I messaged my brother,’ Sairi says.
Oh fuck. Oh god. This is it. She’s set you up. Arranged an ambush.
You spin, attempt to leave the store.
Monica is sliding the bolts into the ceiling and floor. Locked in.
Sairi is fumbling her phone, spinning it, tossing it.
‘My brother’s babysitting till nine so you better make this quick.’ She jerks her thumb at Monica, who has by now retreated to the back of the store and has her arms folded like a watchful waiter.
‘Your eahira friend here told me I need to support your poetry so… .’ She pulls her handbag onto her lap then makes a show of dumping it on the carpet. Her knees are firmly folded. ‘I don’t know this thing you do. Go on, then. Show me.’
There is a pallet for you to stand on. Monica has draped on it a black sheet.
Monica moves from something in front of your eyes to a speck at the end of your vision, then she’s gone.
The store is yours.
Sairi is fidgeting, chewing. She wants you to know her time is precious.
But she doesn’t take her eyes off you.
You clear your throat, slowly work the wet pink muscles, pull words up from the mines. You lick your dry lips. You look deep into the eyes of your audience and begin. The sonnets flow like cool water from a spring.
On the drive home, Sairi struggles to find adjectives. She’s never seen poetry on TV or movies. She doesn’t know how to understand poetry well but promises she’ll try from now on. You promise you won’t make fun of her Diploma in Massage Therapy or her yoga classes or her DoTERRA essential oils on Shopify.
You check your watch, fretting that it’s past nine o’clock, fretting that Billy Khoury’s brewing up reasons to kick your ass.
She tells you she’ll put in a good word for you. Long as you’re ready to come home.