Short story by Michael Botur
Lyndon stands over you and drenches you in his boss-shadow and goes, ‘So any update?’
‘You mean on my place getting burgled, sir?’
‘Yes. Yes, tell me everything about your personal problems on work time.’
‘Oh. Sorry.’ A quick glance around the edge of your cubicle shows no one’s coming to help you. You’re weak. You deserve to get bullied. ‘Update on the results, you want? So, I got the chart sent over to the client; courier picked it up about eight. All sussed. Looks pretty nifty.’
Lyndon has a huge pink face and excellent hair that’s gone from black to dark steel. Getting old only makes him more of a statue, an institution. He is huge and ageing and ladies still talk about his butt and gossip about his dodgy daughter and how he still protects her, wishing they had him as their dad.
He picks a photo of your family off your desk, hefts it, puts it back down. ‘And you deliberately left me out of the loop when you were giving a quote to the client or you just forgot to CC the one person whose input matters? That person being me. Your boss. Do you plan on responding to my question or are you going to quote some ludicrous Socrates silliness?’
You can’t look him in the eye. ‘Sorry, Lyndon.’
‘That’s it? Roll over and play dead? That’s how you get through life, son?’
‘Just, like, in Socrates’ defence, he was literally ludicrous, it’s from the Latin ludicrum meaning sport, amusement and play… Socrates argued you should be playful with serious forms of thought, so…?’
‘You love it Greek, don’t you, buddy.’
He thumps your shoulder with one of those massive mitts that squeezes the trigger of his fancy crossbow when he goes hunting wild game with his daughter to reconnect her with nature, get her off the drugs, get her out of the ghetto hovel she’s rumoured to live in. Big esteemed rich privileged guy with a screw-up for a daughter, not that anyone ever calls him out on it. You once tried to criticise him for killing animals without warning. He responded with an all-staff email with a Photoshop cartoon of you drooling over an animal caught in a trap. You’ve never talked back since.
The whole exchange, the bullying, the talking-down, it all occurs within the first six minutes after nine o’clock. Lyndon is big and everyone loves him and there’s no way you’ll ever get around the micromanagement, the put-downs, the bullying. The day is kaput already. Last night you cried in bed and Xanthe got up, disgusted, pulled a book called Get Confident Quick out of the shelves and threw it at you hard enough to bust a hole in your marriage. Like the hole in your skin where Lyndon’s insults land. Like the hole on your wall where a week ago the burglars ripped out the flatscreen TV, the soundbar, even the remote for the dehumidifier.
Your son’s bike, the XLR8, it disappeared from the lawn a week ago, then you noticed the paddling pool was gone, even the geode you’d hoped would get your boy into geology, and Xanthe’s ornamental faux copper shovel, for Christ’s sake, which she’d stupidly thought could be used to dig that goldfish pond she always fantasises about. Burgled. Robbed. Invaded. Branded: victim. Lyndon and everyone else treated you like a loser before but now it’s like getting victimised by the burglary has justified their conception of you.
Since Lyndon’s already mocked you, there’s not much point in working hard today to try please him. You open a dozen tabs on your computer monitor, flick through the Buy-Sell-Swap ads looking for your stolen stuff. Your brain clouds with fantasies of vengeance, justice. Enslaving whoever wronged you. Torturing the burglar with a blow torch. You jump when that intern girl from Nepal is delegated the shameful job of inviting you to join afternoon tea when everyone’s already nearly finished their biscuits and coffee. You pretend you’re busy. You’re waiting for a notification from Facebook if someone tries to sell a bike called the XLR8, or a bike with streamers, or just any child’s bike. Then there’s the insurance claim to get through. You can’t decide whether you should claim a few extra thousand bucks, inventing something expensive that never even existed. Maybe even Photoshopping some receipts.
You pussy out, of course. You’ve spent 35 years being a pussy. It’s too late to grow balls now.
As you drive home, taking a detour through the ghetto people refer to as ‘Browntown,’ you scan every front yard of every impoverished-looking house for your wife’s goldfish-excavating faux copper $300 shovel that would probably break if you tried to dig a hole with it. You scan for your son’s XLR8 bike. You scan for the garden gnomes the thieves took – thief? ThieveS? You don’t know who you’re looking for. A black and white Hamburglar? A creep in an orange jumpsuit? Your mind shuffles faces. You’re about to drive on back to The Alps Estate where you belong, then you feel low enough about the work bullying stuff that you suddenly don’t care if thugs carjack you. You stop racing, ease the engine and study the place. There’s a stop sign with bullet holes in it. A pyramid of garbage bags on someone’s lawn. Empty sections with forests of waving bamboo. A poisoned lake, a mountain of sticks. Crushed sacks of McDonalds, flattened cats. Speed bumps and dead-end streets and broken fences. Boys on BMXs. You’re respectably-dressed and clean-shaved, your haircut is perfect and your car is bright red and dent-free. You tug your hoodie over your head so you won’t get recognised. It takes guts to play detective here. It takes guts to absorb abuse from Lyndon the Alpha Male all day, the shoulder-squeezings, the standover thing, him calling you a sucker, talking about how social inequality is the real crime and it’s only pussies that let themselves get robbed and anyway, it toughens people up to be victimised occasionally, and if you can’t defend your fam–
There is it! The XLR8! A grubby-looking kid is riding – no. Damn it. This bike has yellow wheels. It doesn’t have the distinctive red and black streamers you and little Adam stuck on the handlebars. They’re glued on nicely so if anyone tried to remove the streamer they’d be likely to rip the rubber off the handlebars.
You park under a huge old pine tree beside a bonfire no one is watching. A fresh Buy-Sell-Swap alert pops up on your phone. Holy fucking shit.
XLR8 boy BMX bike = steamerz red blk needs gone real quick, the advert says, HMU 4 location.
HMU. You Google it on your phone. HMU means Hit Me Up. Hit Me Up means Ask me. Ask and I’ll tell you where you can get your manhood back.
Deep undercover, hidden in your tank within enemy territory, you send a private message to the seller. The seller begins exchanging messages instantly. The seller sounds like a female of some description. A girl, even, judging by the photos. Surprisingly young for a hardened criminal. Her profile picture you recognise straight away as Ariana Grande, then there is a photo of her with Robert Pattinson. A lot of Adele and Rihanna poses, and tonnes of gang stuff, young people wearing blue paisley scarves over their faces and pointing middle fingers at the camera. She’s a shapeshifter, this one. Faceless. But she gives you an address to pick the bike up tomorrow and you promise you’ll be there.
Positioned in the middle of the table, gesticulating, gifting 20 seconds of eye contact to every admirer, Lyndon preaches about how his pilgrimage to a wise old sage guru in India taught him that loving flawed people is what really matters in life and that operating one of the top ten performing branches of CLD Logistics in the world isn’t the only important thing. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ the big arrogant silverback says. You look around the kitchen table, exasperated. Nobody is ruffled by the cliché. This whole I’m-so-enlightened thing, it’s just Lyndon finding another way to lord his superiority over everybody cause he’s ashamed he had to pay for his daughter’s rehab. He won’t stop having hope for her, even though she once stole all the money raised for deaf kids on Loud Shirt Day.
One of the fawning old ladies from Accounts spreads the newspaper and reads Lyndon’s horoscope. Aries the ram is having another month of daring and courage, she reports.
‘Can I just add that Aries, spelled A-r-e-s, is the god of war,’ you inform the unimpressed-looking kitchen. ‘Ares’ thoughtless aggression and chaotic behaviour often resulted in others getting hurt. Ares was typically seen in the form of a vulture or dog. Occasionally a boar.’
You leave the kitchen before they make you.
At 5.01, you head for the ghetto to get that bike. You car is followed by a trio of stray dogs looking like Cerberus guarding the underworld. There are ugly children tampering with a post box. You lock your car doors.
It’s dinner time. Xanthe will ask why you’re late. She’ll ask why you haven’t picked up milk and potatoes and toothpaste. Do it quick, man.
You park outside the house of the mysterious shapeshifting thief and instantly feel a pinch on your penis. You need the toilet more badly than ever, but where is there to piss? You step gingerly across a muddy lawn and knock on a door which hangs open. You’re looking at a kitchen stacked with laptop computers. There must be 40 of the things.
‘Hey, I’m here to pick up the bike? I messaged you. Helloo? Anybody home?’
Kids at the place, several of them. All boys, quite large. They give you the look of a curious dog too lazy to get up off the rug. You peek inside the lounge. There are a couple of TVs and more laptop computers and pads. Some kids seem to be watching two shows at once. From where you stand on the top step you have a view out to the backyard. There are two rusty slides, four faded swing sets, some wiffle bats, lots of bikes and trikes with grass growing through the spokes of the wheels.
‘Oh, sup,’ says a skinny young female in a puffy jacket. A ghost of cooking steam follows her. ‘You want the bike?’
‘Can I see it?’
‘Come round.’ You build a profile of the female as you follow her through the house and out down the back steps. White parents, maybe, but her hair is frizzy and nearly black, possibly dyed, and her body is covered up in thick cotton sports gear – Chicago Bulls track pants from about 1996. She wears ugg boots and the hood of an undershirt is peeking out the back of her collar. Warm, cheap clothes. Comforting to her.
She stands in the wet grass and points to a bike which can only be your son’s. The streamers are sodden from rain. The bike has started weeping rust.
The girl can’t stop scratching and twitching. There is a butterfly clip in her hair, an attempt at being feminine you doubt she deserves. ‘So you want it or what?’
You pick the bike up, let your fingers enjoy the texture of it, stand it against a bush. This is part of you. It’s coming home.
‘Come to the car and we’ll talk, if that’s cool.’
‘A’ight,’ she says, unfazed. The collection of boys barely look at you as you pass. People must buy black market merchandise from here all the time. The girl stops for a moment to wipe the peanut butter from a tiny three year old’s cheeks with a wet tea towel. She picks up a baby, too, and jiggles it as she comes to your car. ‘So fifty if you got it. But I’ll take 40.’
‘40 years,’ you go, sniggering. You move around to the driver side of your car, hop in, lock the doors, dial the cops on your mobile and hold it against your ear, then wind down the window a crack. You’ve been afraid to chance a stare, but now you get a good look at her. Cloudy skin, tightly curled hair, cheekbones like a china doll. ‘40 years in prison, lady, cause you know what?’ Say it. SAY it, man. Get some guts. For Lyndon. For your son. ‘That right there is MY son’s bike you’ve got, and I just dialled the cops. And they’re gonna come for you. And your life is gonna be over.’
‘Kay then,’ she says. She isn’t as hurt or shocked or defensive as she should be. She’s dazed and slow. Stoned. High. Finally she says, ‘What bike’s yours?’
You move into first gear. In the plan you created last night, you were supposed to be gone by now in a smoky squealing u-turn. But it’s time you acted tough.
‘The one with the streamers. Bring it NOW.’
The girl talks to her children. A fat child in a white singlet is given the job of wheeling out the bike.
‘Give me your name.’
‘Don’t lie to me. You’re in major shit, lady.’
‘Honest. Salma. But no cops and stuff, eh? Cause I helped you find it, yeah?’ She smiles and shifts the baby from her right arm to her left and looks at you with gratitude.
‘Maybe. I’ll decide. You’ll be hearing from me.’
‘I’ma change numbers,’ she threatens, sauntering away.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ you yell as she trudges back up the steps into her cave of wild children. ‘I have photos. YOUR LIFE IS FUCKED.’
You’re Batman. You’re a private eye. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! You got your child’s property back from a formidable and sophisticated criminal syndicate!
You can hardly sleep. In the morning you’re woken by your boy jumping onto your belly, hammering your face, whooping with joy. He’s woken to find the bike in the centre of his bedroom. It’s Christmas to him. A thankless superhero has used his courage to deliver a miracle. Even Xanthe smiles.
You find yourself texting Salma constantly. She begs you not to go to the cops; you tell her you’ll think about it. She says if she gets locked up her baby daddy will have to look after the kids, and he’s a dropkick. Dnt make da kidz go wif him mister.
I’ll think about it, you tell her in response to every bleating complaint. I’ll decide. I’ll let you know tomorrow. It is being decided upon. Decision pending. You feel like a judge. This threatening schtick? This power trip? You’re good at this. There’s a champion within you.
You still do the CDL minutes you need to do – starting at 8.59, leaving your cubicle at 5.01 so Lyndon can’t make remarks about you skimping on your eight hours – but work is just a cover. Your real purpose each day is operating a covert investigative operation, pulling strings, manipulating. Controlling. Taking charge. You’ve decided your office jellyfish persona is just a cover. Let Lyndon think he’s dangling a sword over you. Actually, it’s the other way round. You could get confident and destroy him if you chose to.
Now you’ve got the crook on the hook, you enjoy watching her squirm.
U gonna tell your husband about me?
Tel him wot?
About the bike thing. About getting u in trouble if I choose.
I promis I wnt tel nobod I swear we engaged we gna gt married
No you’re not. You’re not worthy of love
After work you hover on the far side of the road outside Salma’s house, sipping whiskey from a paper bag like a TV cop. You send out text messages guaranteed to agitate her then you watch her silhouette pacing behind the torn yellowy lace curtains. You can tell by the way her elbows fold into triangles that she rolls a cigarette after just about every worrisome text. Worry her enough and she might smoke herself to death. Perfect.
She claims the bike was sold to her by some sinister cousin.
I don’t care, you text her. You ruined my son’s life. You love this part. The poetry of the stories you tell. He cries himself 2 sleep every night. You have wronged me. Now your life is in the hands of the gods.
Im gng 2 da copz, she texts you.
And tell them what? you respond. Tell them I hold photos showing you in possession of a stolen bicycle? Tell them you have children in your den of crime?
Plz dnt fuck up my life 4 real. My parents sez I gt a 2nd chance
Oh it’s not me who’s fucking up anything. You’ve fucked up your own chances. Tis not I who dangles the Swords of Damocles. Tis the gods.
Whts dat whts sword of Democrats?
All in good time, you tell her, and switch off your phone for the night. Let her panic.
You decide you would like a day off work. No more grimacing when you find Lyndon’s silver pubes in the urinal. No more musk from the man-ram. You don’t have to deal with his scent, his booming baritone, his threats, his innuendoes about how much of a pussy you are. You read a DC comic in bed with Adam, telling your boy how Superman’s origin story is really about the great Titans controlling how much power earthlings have.
Lying in bed, aroused with power, you send your slave a text message. Lyndon’s right about one thing: if you want pride in yourself, you have to take it from another person.
Good morning, you begin. I’ll take a stack of Warhammer 40K limited edition Tyrant’s Swamp cards + the Fire and Gas Pokémon cards. Buy or burgle them, I don’t want to know. I’m giving you an hour to supply these to me. If you don’t have my goodies by 10 o’clock, I’m going 2 the police.
A knock at the door minutes later. The police? You’re in trouble for blackmail, it has to be.
You put the chain on, ease the door open a couple inches.
It’s Salma, jamming a brick of plastic-wrapped cards against the door. Your blood bubbles with excitement as you spot the real Warhammer holofoil. The cards are legitimate. ‘I got your bubblegum cards or whatever,’ she says, eyes rolling skyward, chewing, huge hoop earrings, slumped against the door, lethargic.
‘You knew where I lived because you’re a sneaky little burglar, aren’t you, Baggins.’
‘My name ain’t Baggage. Can I get on with my shit?’
You snort at that. ‘Let’s be realistic. I’ll decide whether you have anything to get on with.’
‘Dude, you need to delete them photos and lemme go.’ She thumps the wall. One of her sons climbs into her arms.
You lock her out, clutch your Warhammer 40,000 Open War cards to your chest and close your eyes, ecstatic. Contained within the slim stack is pure fantasia. Escape. Bliss. And bonus gold foil cards worth almost $1200. You certainly won’t be saying thanks. Dionysius II never thanked the underlings as each one paid homage.
That night, as Xanthe sleeps with a post-sex smile on her face, you sneak into the bathroom and summon your muse, whispering wisdom into your cupped palm as she answers her phone.
‘Are you listening, Salma? Good. Damocles was a wretch in the court of Dionysius the second. Now, Damocles exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Unimpressed by flattery, Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so Damocles could taste firsthand the bitterness of fortune. In the evening a banquet was held where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice, dangling above his head by a single horse-hair, a sharpened sword. Immediately, Damocles asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate. And so you see, greatness comes with anxiety.’
‘How come you’re telling me this shit?’
‘Cause obviously I’m the wise king and you, madam, are Damocles. And over you, I dangle an invisible sword.’
Your wife stumbles into the bathroom, hikes up her nightie and sits on the toilet. ‘Who you talking to?’
‘Nobody,’ you tell her, and it’s true. Salma is nobody.
You start your three-day weekend with sunglasses, a Malibu and passionfruit cocktail, and a text message to Salma telling her you want her round here promptly with ten strong labourers.
Lyndon will be pissed you’re not at work but if he wants to criticise you for taking a mental health day, let him. Let him impale himself on your stigma – stigma being not only a proud, outthrust sexual organ, but coming from the Greek stigmatos, meaning a sign that a man has earned something through suffering.
You swing in your hammock and watch birds and think of Elysian Fields while Xanthe straps Adam in, blows you the first kiss in years, and takes Adam for a bike ride. You tell her Browntown’s not a bad place to go anymore. You’re confident your family can stroll through there in peace. No one will fuck with you. Thing’s’ve changed.
Within ten seconds of Xanthe disappearing down the end of the road, you’re messaging your slave, reminding her of the sword which dangles above her. Bring tools. Bring my ornamental miniature shovel you stole. Bring lunch. Bring a big pouch of that repugnant tobacco I know you people smoke. You’re going to be here a while.
A whole gang of them arrive. Salma is at the back of a gaggle of chubby brown children aged something like 8 to 14. Four of them, plus some kind of old blind crone holding Salma’s baby.
‘Put your stuff over there and get to work, you guys. The pond’s gotta be four metres wide. Make it a circle if you can, my wife loves polka dots and all that. Don’t forget to be real gentle with the water lillies – they’re over in that wheelbarrow. Oh, plus the bird bath. That goes in the middle.’
Salma rolls a cigarette, lifts her shirt, takes her baby from the old crone, pushes the baby’s face against her black raisin nipple.
‘How much you paying anyways?’
‘No payment for you, Lady Damocles.’
‘Am not. You’re Damocles.’
‘Yet I could call the cops and report you at a moment’s notice. That’s the equivalent of having a sword dangling over you, is it not?’
She sucks her cigarette aggressively. ‘Bro, you think you got what it takes to be king cept you don’t realise you’re gonna get your arse killed.’
‘I highly doubt that.’
‘You’ll see. Yo, my dad said he wants to come help.’
You click and whistle at a boy, make him bring you the bucket of Chablis and a champagne flute and pour you a cold drink. You sip it and close your eyes as the tart wine melts in your throat. ‘I’ve never met your dad but I’ll guarantee he’s got an ankle bracelet on which make it a liiiiiittle bit tricky to come help, wouldn’t you say?’
Salma throws her cigarette butt towards you. ‘DON’T TALK ABOUT MY FUCKIN FAMLY.’
You really ought to order Damocles to pick up her cigarette butt, but she’s dug into the earth with a spade (presumably stolen) and her minions are loading up the wheelbarrow and grumbling and you might as well concentrate on the real business at hand: biting into each pistachio, mashing it in your mouth with generous hunks of Emmenthale cheese and trying to work out just what nut-cheese combination goes best with the Chablis.
Around 3 o’clock you tell them they’re behind schedule threading the wires of the fountain pump through electrical tubing. Seems the boys are reluctant to mix electricity and water. They’re a fraction smarter than you gave them credit for. There’s an argument. You remove your sunglasses as you bark at them. The baby begins crying. They all turn their backs and roll cigarettes. Salma, fuming, claims she’s going to set her gang on you, which you laugh at, then she says ‘I’M GONNA GET MY DADDY ON YOU.’
Her crew reluctantly return to complete the job, although it takes a lot of encouragement. Only at 4.55 do you have a goldfish pond with a base of clay, lined with black plastic garden wrap, filled to a depth of one and a half feet, with an island in the middle with a bird bath and fountain with cherubs on it.
Her troupe trudge back down the hill and Xanthe returns not long afterward, rubs her eyes because she can’t believe the miracle you’ve created for her. An Elysian dream made manifest.
Like Hercules, you have roamed the earth, enduring trials and tribulations, before returning home a hero.
Lyndon’s been snapping at you every hour, on the hour. There is armour under your thin skin so his barbs don’t sting you much. Rumour has it he’s got family troubles. His daughter asking him for money again. Afternoons, nights, weekends and public holidays, you command a legion of criminals who must do anything for you. That’s power nobody can take.
You’re into a heavy, content, confident sleep when your phone vibrates.
It’s a blue night outside. The full moon shows everything.
I bn thinking bout dat sword, she’s saying.
You sit up. The walls drip guilt. Something is wrong. You’re drifting down a hydroslide you can’t scramble back up.
Loser wants to try his hand at being god. Being king. Loser’s gna get fucked up. Cause dat sword ain’t over my head. It ova yourz. Cause I just stay down in my hole. u r da one tryina be powerful, not me.
Something rattles on the driveway. A marsupial scrambling up the side of your house?
You roll out of bed. Car keys. Slippers. You select the steak knife with the widest blade. You close the door softly, trudge to the driveway, hop into your car, wind the window down to let the breeze cool your burning cheeks. It’s safe in here. You can run the intruder over if you spot him. Or her. You crank the ignition, let the car hum. Frighten the assassin Salma’s sent. You’re not sure what to do. Go round to her hovel and remind her who’s king?
You begin typing a message to Salma then look up. There is a large black man-shape with white moonlight behind it. He’s a silhouette. Silhouetted, too, is the crossbow the man-shape is aiming at you. The large black man-shape calmly approaches the driver side window. You haven’t wound it all the way up, so the bolt from the crossbow flies quickly, with the whoont of a flute. It’s a pretty, elegant weapon, Lyndon was right about that, not that you can tell him with a bolt in your throat and black blood squirting across the dashboard. You’re finished, although your thumb tries to carry on and hit Send on the message telling Salma not to lose patience, telling her she’s free and forgiven and there’s no need to tell her dad.