by Michael Botur
From Hell of a Thing – short stories – coming May 2020
You’re at the intersection where the road points north, thinking about how the Dutch have zero traffic lights and it’s entirely roundabouts and no crashes ever occur when your steering wheel headbutts you. Your dashboard rears back for another assault and you’re rolling forward into the tulips in the centre of the doughnut and you’re ripping the handbrake up and running to the back of the car to check if Livvy’s okay in her black plastic shell and you can see a big cocky white Jeep backing away and the driver, a man with tattoos on his neck and a gold chain with a dollar sign, a man who looks about 24, 25, same age as you, actually, he could be a companion in another dimension, he’s about to drive away until you tell Livvy you’ll be right back and step in front of the Jeep waving your arms like you’re putting out a fire and bellow STOOOOOP.
‘You hit us! What the hell? I have a kid in the back.’
‘Shouldn’ta stopped all sudden, lady.’
He’s chewing gum and staring ahead. Your car is half in the roundabout flowers, half on the road. You are blocking his way.
‘I was – I don’t know my directions very– we’ve only just moved here, and look I’m sorry if I did, I mean I just… Hang on. It’s a Give Way sign. You’re supposed to stop.’
Jeep Man is a jaw and fingers high in the driver’s seat of a big white metal cube. His black-tinted windows are wound mostly up and he has thick black sunglasses on too. He doesn’t want to look at you.
‘You’re sposda just slow down at Give Ways, else peeps’ll rear-end ya,’ he says.
‘But I have a baby in the back.’
‘Yeah yeah. Heard you the first time.’
‘DON’T YOU HAVE KIDS?’
‘Listen, I gotta jet. Got clients to see. Back in ya car, already.’ He sounds his horn twice.
‘I’m pretty sure we need to swap, um, swap details, I mean—’
‘So you lost a coupla chips off your bumper. Get yaself a can of spraypaint from Mitre 10, problem solved.’
‘But – but I mean, don’t you need to hop out and, um, like, check for dents?’
‘Did I stutter? You gonna move or what?’
You ask Livvy for her patience, give your little girl a quick thousand kisses, promise you’ll make this horrible incident up to her, get back in your car and reverse with the hazard lights on. There must be ten, twelve cars waiting patiently at each mouth of the roundabout. You’re holding everybody up. A few hours into the day and already you’ve fucked up. Typical.
You drive thirty metres north, find a spot to pull over, race to the back seat to inspect Livvy.
Jeep Man follows, slowing as he passes you. He winds down the black passenger window. You duck as he aims a dark gunbarrel. It’s the man’s pursed lips. He’s blowing you a kiss as he tosses a business card out the window. Stiff charcoal card. Gold letters.
CuzzyCutz. 12 John St. Get 5 haircutz 6 is free.
On the back are empty squares you can have stamped or clipped before claiming your bonus haircut.
Livvy’s face is the pale yellow of wet bone and she’s saying she needs a ambliance, squeezing SuckyDucky’s neck. You pay for an hour in the underground car park beneath the bank, drive into the farthest, darkest corner. Your face stretches. Livvy begs Mummy to stop crying, be smiley, mum-mum. You sniff yourself dry, reverse carefully and cruise over to the Emergency Department.
Anton is giving you and Livvy his updates through the MacBook positioned at the head of the table. A finger of steam curls into the air from Daddy’s cooling cannelloni. It took 40 minutes to stuff the tubes of pasta with the mince and herbs and cottage cheese. Hopefully he can smell the coriander. You went out of your way to buy the actual leafy herb for him instead of the powdered stuff, not that he’ll even eat it, all the way over in Sydney. Putting his portion on a plate is just a gesture to keep him appreciating you and Liv while he’s away across the Tasman makin’ money. You would’ve poured cheese sauce directly into the cannelloni tubes except you couldn’t get the sauce jar open, even by running it under hot water, even by using the rubber glove. Just one of the many things that need doing around here. The u-pipe under the sink is leaking, leaf gutters on the roof need scraping out, plus there’s some critter caught in the humane mouse trap you’re afraid to shake into the yard.
From his little goldfish bowl of a screen, Anton is giving you and Livvy a lecture about how his team are drilling a four inch cable-tunnel through a mountain of solid granite. They’ve got their soil samples approved, they have the permits, now Anton’s looking at a five figure bonus for every week the project is completed ahead of–
Anton has frozen. Colored squares are eating his beard.
Livvy makes noise and looks at you from her high chair, choking SuckyDucky, her eyes big and terrified. She’s still pale from the crash.
‘Daddy’s fine, honey. He’s not hurt. See?’
Anton wriggles out of his mosaic prison, asks what you and bubs got up to today.
Church play group, you tell him, then Wriggle & Rhyme, then the swimming pool.
You waggle your bottle of unopenable sauce. ‘I spent half the day wrestling with this freaking thing, ha ha, wish you were here for that!’
‘The relevance of which is… ?’
‘You know. Cause you’ve got strong hands.’
‘Anyway, pools, yeah, wicked, that reminds me,’ Anton says, doing a drum beat with his fingers, ‘We’ve been tryina get some fibre through these swamps and we made eeeeepic progress with the Parramatta council, right, they’re as invested in digital highway partnerships as we are, really putting some serious finance into this thing which means some tasty kays but what’s really eating me is getting the copper relayers in place by January else my arse is grass, so that’s us for the next few months, eh, if we’re going to land that 18 mil we promised the shareholders. We’re really forging ahead in terms of systematic lines revisioning. Exciting times, you oughta be here.’
‘So are you coming home for Christmas?’
‘I don’t know anyone in this town. We need you here.’
Anton’s face freezes in disgust. The signal isn’t lagging. He’s just unimpressed your life doesn’t move as fast as his.
‘I have to drop something important cause you can’t open some sauce jar on your own? Literally? Look: January I can pop over. Will that suffice?’
Anton’s fingers get large as they reach to switch the camera off.
‘I got hit by a car today.’
Anton frowns at the webcam. For a moment, you’re sure Skype has frozen again.
‘I don’t think I heard you right.’
‘Well, not me. The car. Our car.’
‘My car, if we’re being technical, since you don’t earn anything – but no, what in God’s name happened? Insurance haven’t phoned me. It’s my name on the papers.’
You tell him about the crushed flowers, the chipped bumper. Holding up traffic, speared with embarrassment. Burning cheeks. Jeep Man’s gunbarrel lips blowing the deadly kiss. Jeep Man in his white metal armour. Don’t cry, Mum-mum. You get your kneepants wet.
‘And you got his details?’
‘I Googled… he does haircuts from home, he’s like a famous barber and everyone in town knows him and –
‘How much is this gonna cost me?’
‘It’s…. not? I dunno, the man said it wasn’t that big a deal and he just sorta drove off… .’
‘But you’re not hurt?’
‘I’m shaken. And you should’ve seen Livvy’s color, she was ashen, she was shaking on the drive home, she was—
‘JESUS. Please don’t frighten me like that again. We have insurance for a reason. I’m really busy, seriously, you’re lucky I scheduled you guys in. I got a report that won’t write itself. Liv: g’night, baby girl. Love you.’
Livvy waggles her cup of juice at the webcam but the screen’s already black.
So is the inside of Livvy’s mouth as she screams four hours later when she wakes from the nightmare.
So is the inside of the car she swears she’ll never get back into because your baby has been traumatized.
You watch Livvy stack blocks in the barred pen in the corner of the waiting room beside a plastic Christmas tree. Usually she stuffs the toy cars with tiny dolls and rams them together. Today, she’s not interested in crashing cars.
Ahead of you in line to see the doctor will be Mrs. Lowndes, who sits with a Marian Keyes novel perched on top of her knees, glowering down at it. You can tell Mrs. Lowndes wants to ask about the jar of pasta sauce in your handbag. You know Mrs. Lowndes from church play group. She’s okay, and she’s the closest thing you’ve got to a friend in this ocean of strangers, though she asks about your husband’s job way too much. The only other person in the waiting room is an ex-con-looking man in his 50s. His skull is shaved shiny with silver speckles on it. His skin is dark with curls and twists of blue ink, skulls, slogans. His knuckles have spiderwebs on them. There’s a faded bulldog printed on his neck. While he waits, he crushes a pamphlet. Squinty eyes behind little glasses. One flip flop tapping the floor.
At the ED Livvy was found not to have a concussion, but having your family doctor give a second opinion is essential. You’ve read that the symptoms of whiplash might not show up for a week. Livvy is the most beautiful wee schnookum in the entire world and she deserves attention and praise and concern. It’s annoying, actually, when the nurse comes out and tells you for the second time that the doctor’s late by another 15 minutes on top of the existing 15 minutes of lateness. Jesus Christ. Livvy’s brain could be bleeding right now. You could enroll with a better doctor if you wanted – the money’s not a problem. The only reason you keep coming to a clinic in the muddy, broken-fenced part of town where the streets sparkle with broken glass is because Dr. Tana is a good listener. Once you cried into her tissues while she stroked your knuckles and printed you a very generous scrip for Paxil and Lorazepam.
Livvy reaches out and says your name. She needs help separating the pages of a cardboard book glued shut with something sticky.
‘She yours?’ the shiny dark man asks.
Strange question. Why would a person not have their own child? You suppose whatever culture this man came from, the children are raised by their village, or something.
You tell him yes, Livvy is yours, two years old going on 16, ha ha, a little stroppy when her dad’s not around but she has a heart of gold, ha ha.
Gold teeth. Black windows. Gunbarrel.
The shiny dark man nods once as he processes what you’ve told him. He’s stocky and bulging with flesh and has jowls with white stubble. He wears a rugby league shirt and shorts even though he looks too old and squat to play any sport. He jiggles the single foot relentlessly. It’s freezing in here. The man must have thick skin.
‘Me, I had a couple nieces come stay after m’daughter died,’ the dark man says.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. That sounds…. painful.’
‘Yep. Gout’s bad enough as it is.’
You play with your cellphone.
‘I SAYS GOUT’S WORSE.’
Mrs. Lowndes looks at you, tilts her book away from the angry ranting man and checks the time on her watch.
‘It was her time to go, anywho. Had some bronchial shit. What’s that expression – Make plans; God laughs?’
God laughs? LAUGHS at your pain, your humiliation? End of conversation, surely. You smile, pull your scarf tight and tuck your head down. You read an email on your phone from Anton, stroking through his words.
‘Whatchu in for?’
Anton begins his email with an apology for telling you what to do, reminds you that he honors the sovereignty of women everywhere who should never be mansplained to, especially after thousands of years of oppression, but having said that, he’s emailed you a list of services which you can use to find friends and hobbies. There’s the Women in Business club, the tennis club, the Women’s LARP League, macramé, Boxfit, SPS, which is the Solo Parents’ Suppor-
‘I SAYS WHATCHU IN FOR, MISS?’
Mrs. Lowndes gets up and shifts into the hall, clutching her novel against her chest and tutting.
‘Sorry, I didn’t… I had a car crash – no, I crashed into another car and – actually, no, no, another man, he crashed into us, sorry.’
‘Quit sayin sorry. Sign of weakness.’
‘I’m just worried cause Livvy hasn’t been herself.’
‘Is her head all fucked up?’
‘Iiiii’m hoping to get an expert opinion on that.’ You move a seat closer to your daughter, then another, kicking your handbag deep under your chair. There is a thunk as the glass jar hits the wall.
‘D’you give ’im a slap?’
‘Give who a slap?’
‘That cunt what ploughed into you.’
Even the receptionist has disappeared. There is no one around to help you get out of this conversation. Livvy is trying to cram a plastic T-rex inside a Sylvanian Families cot.
‘Oh, ohhhhh – no it wasn’t that bad at all, no. Just a ding.’
‘Was it ya enemies?’
‘Oh no, no no no. A complete stranger. Just some local barber guy. Cuts hair and dings people’s cars, I spose, ha h– ’
‘Cuzzy Cutz, oi? That guy’s a snitch. No one likes that arsehole.’
‘Um, yes, actually, as a matter of fac- ’
‘What’s with the jar?’
Dark Man walks across the waiting room, squats, reaches between your legs, finds the jar of cheesy pasta sauce and hefts it like a brick.
‘I can’t open it. Sorry.’
‘Shoulda got your man to open it, miss.’
‘Oh, he’s at work.’
‘After work, then.’
If you run from this conversation, this insane person is likely to choke you. You look at your babygirl, but Livvy has no idea you’re drowning.
‘He works overseas, mostly…. He’s not around.’
‘Fuck kinda man leaves his woman all alone? Anyway: ding my ride, you fuckin die. Specially if my kids is in it. I’d’a given him the hiding of a lifetime. Put the fear of God in the cunt. Want me to fuck im up?’
‘No, no it’s perfectly okay. It was my fault.’
‘OI: it was not your fuckin fault. Y’understand?’
You spread a Woman’s Weekly magazine in front of your face and block the scary man out.
From outside a thud and the crack of broken glass.
You’re out of your seat and rushing to the window. It’s just an old man across the road dumping his recycling bin on the sidewalk but when you turn back, Livvy’s looking at you from the arms of the bald beast. She has a question in her eyes and she has started to bawl.
Dark Man waltzes your baby girl as he shushes her, roaming the room, not looking to see if his knees will bump the chairs.
‘Unkie Graeme’s gonna smash the bad man isn’t he, yes he is, yes he is,’ the scary man is saying to your daughter. “Graeme” he’s called, apparently.
A nurse appears and begins to announce your name. Then her eyes bulge.
From beneath Livvy’s legs, four spiderwebbed fingers and a thumb emerge. In Graeme’s fingers is a cellphone.
‘Chuck your number in, I’ll text you,’ he’s saying to you, though his face is smiling down on your daughter, ‘We’ll go see Mr. Cuzzy Cutz, yes we will, yes we will.’
You’re in your car five houses down from the house of the villain, Jeep Man, Cuzzy Cutz, waiting for him to return home.
Slumped low in your seat, you watch the white-Jeep-metal-tank pull into the driveway eight minutes after four. Out hops Mr. Cuzzy Cutz in a pure white hoodie with his black cap with a gold sticker on it and a stack of colorful boxes that look like pizzas with pink stripes. He approaches his front doorstep.
Graeme has told you you need to be close enough to “come in for a peep” as justice is served but far enough away that you won’t get spotted.
You hear something like ‘Yoooooo, what up?’ as Graeme waddles up behind him. Graeme is sticking one hand out OH MY GOD THEY KNOW EACH OTHER, THEY’RE FRIENDS, OF COURSE THEY ARE, YOU’VE BEEN SET UP, CRANK THE KEYS AND GET OUT OF HERE then Cuzzy has his fingers out like a blind person trying to grasp air because he’s sinking, he’s dropped the boxes, which appear to have ribbons on them, and he’s searching for something to hold his weight as he faints and Graeme’s arm swings back behind his head and there is a hammer in his fist and he’s putting his fingers inside Jeep Man’s pants – all this publicly visible! Anyone could drive past! – and Graeme’s pulling Jeep Man’s keys off him and unlocking the house and dragging the floppy, rubbery, sleepy body of Jeep Man by his hood up the steps. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. Graeme puts fingers in his lips and spits a powerful whistle down the street at you – oh my God, he can see you, you’re totally busted – then he hefts Cuzzy inside the house and disappears.
You open your car’s back door, flop Livvy into your arms and run with her as if you’ve stolen a paper bag of groceries, stepping over Cuzzy’s dropped pizzas wrapped with little tiny trains, teddy bears, unicorns.
Not pizzas. Presents. Presents for his children.
This is not your place. You cannot be seen here.
You get inside his house quickly, breathlessly. Graeme has told you ten times over the past week that this whole thing is in-out, quick as a flash. Hundred seconds and it’s done.
You seal the room and stand with your back against the exit, pulling a Christmas tree half-over your chest, trying not to knock over a mirror and table stacked with clippers and razors and combs in pots of blue disinfectant.
Cuzzy is on his knees, burrowing between the legs of his dining table like a loose rat. Graeme is stalking the victim, hammer in hand, pulling the chairs out one by one then putting each chair immediately back, tidy and respectful.
Musical Chairs concludes after a few seconds when Graeme whacks the hammer directly into the centre of Cuzzy’s cap, stunning him. Graeme grabs the man’s gold chain, which snaps. He tosses it at you. ‘Catch. Souvenir.’
Graeme gives three efficient smacks of the hammer on Cuzzy’s throat, nose and chin.
The victim has pulled his limbs into his body now like a dying spider. He’s small when he’s being bashed. Deflated. Scurrying in retreat. He bumps the wall and a photo of three kids slumps off its hook.
Graeme pulls Cuzzy’s pure white hood over his head then gives a further three smacks into the skull. A purple stain blooms in the white fabric.
Graeme sets to work on the spider’s legs and arms, bashing ankles, toes, shins, kneecaps, elbows and fingers, any piece of bone sticking out of the bleeding bundle. The wet thplack of snapping celery.
Finally Graeme catches up to you, panting. He bends backwards and his spine makes a crick. ‘Whoo whee. Haven’t had a workout like that in a while! Here: want a whack?’
You press yourself into the corner of the room and test the door handle. Livvy’s face is sickly pale again. You cram your fingertips behind her ears and press her face into your shoulder and joggle her. You pull a bauble off the Christmas tree, offer it to Livvy, who offers the bauble to SuckyDucky.
Graeme pulls an inhaler from his pocket and gives it a mighty suck. He puts his hands on his knees, and catches his breath. ‘We’ve gotta boost. Any last words?’
It stinks like a longdrop in here, raw and salty, like farts and rot and cold dripping public toilets with shit splattered on the walls. There is a dark beetroot stain creeping through the fibres of the carpet. The crushed bug in a hoodie polka dotted with blood is jiggling as if something is electrocuting him. His fingers twitch. His head has withdrawn deep inside his hood like a turtle.
You try to come up with a threat.
‘Anton,’ you begin, ‘I mean, not… .’
Easier to shut up.
‘Get ya photos in now. HURRY.’
You unlock your cellphone, aim and extend it like a slingshot.
‘NOW, miss. NOW.’
Anton speaks through the computer screen over a steaming plate of ravioli and cheesy pasta sauce. He’s leading his cable into the fibre splicing station now that the shareholders have permitted a loan of two mil to lease a borer imported from Germany to get the tunnel dug ahead of schedule and Anton’s company’s next step will be to report to a committee of stakeholders who –
‘Stop. Just stop.’
‘I beg your –
‘Stop. TALKING. Your boring. Work. SHIT.’ Livvy pulls the pasta bowtie out of her mouth and watches. ‘We need you here. So get back home already.’
Anton checks the time on his FitBit and frowns. ‘I sacrificed a very important call with San Fran for this and if you think – ’
‘SHUT UP. SHUT. UP.’ You point your cellphone directly into the webcam like a knife. Your finger hovers over the Play triangle. With a single click you could show him. Show him what you are. Show him the power you’ve got in you.
‘You wanna be man of the house, be a man, and be in the FUCKING HOUSE.’
You pick up the laptop, walk to the dark cold end of the table. Put Anton down. Shut the lid.
Livvy grins, cheese sauce on her teeth.