Short story by Michael Botur
‘I thought that we might talk. About His plan for you. For us. For everybody.’
‘What, we can’t talk inside your car, Pop?’
‘I’ve hardly seen you. A nice stroll together –
‘ –stretches shit out when it don’t need to be stretched. Just tell me we’re heading home after the bank, Pop. These look like strolling shoes to you? Need ya eyes checked for glaucoma ‘n shit.’
Pops didn’t need to look at his shoes, or the fruit boxes stacked in the shadows of the ethnic shops, or the buildings holding up the sky. He looked at Sonny without blinking. ‘It’s not more than five blocks more. My shoes feel just fine, and they cost not twenty dollars.’
‘Lemme carry that for you, Pops… Your hands’ll snap… .’
‘Tithing is seldom about coins any more. Most people pop notes or cheques into the bag. Heavier than this was carried at Golgotha.’
‘Lemme see, at least.’
Pops paused outside a stone building and put a hand on Sonny’s shoulder. He held the bag of collection money behind his back. ‘I’m not suggesting that you’re going to steal the money, it’s just… ‘
‘Just tell me we’re heading home soon.’
‘Everywhere is God’s home.’
‘Real convenient for you.’ Sonny spat in the gutter.
They walked on, but more slowly. Men in suits clicked past. Their cellphones were like icepacks pressed against their cheeks. They all had plenty to complain into their phones about. Pops needed to stop being so chipper. Pops wasn’t ruining handmade leather shoes on the stupid pavement.
‘It wasn’t too dreary for you, was it? The sermon. Tell me. Let your soul speak.’
‘I just don’t dig church, know what I’m sayin? You should let me do your books. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes guy.’
‘So is our Lord. You two should talk.’
Pops squeezed his son’s hand, then wiped his eyes with a finger and pressed the pedestrian crossing button, and let a limousine pass. He waved thanks at a car which waited for them. He didn’t even sprint across to the other side, just walked it, holding Sonny’s hand tightly until, a block ahead, at the wheelchair ramp of the bank, he asked Sonny to hold the tattered backpack of money, and folded in half, his knees and spine cracking as he squatted then fell on his knees.
Sonny could feel eyes on his back. ‘The hell you doin’ now? You done enough praying. Get up, Jeeeesus.’
‘There might… be a little somethin’ in here for us,’ Pops said, his arm deep and black and wet inside the sewer, ‘God’s good like that.’ Pops couldn’t reach it on his knees, so he laid his whole body flat on the pavement. A woman with a cardboard tube and a huge coffee cup stepped over him.
‘It’s dark as shit down there!’
‘It’s okay to be afraid of the dark.’
‘Get the hell out about that. I’m not afraid of the dark no more. Quit bringin that up. I seen stuff you wouldn’t believe, tweakers with no nostrils and shit. What’s up now? Naw, aw, Pops… You did NOT just do what I think you did.’
‘Did you not ask me to stop filching in the sewer? He’s telling me there might be some coins in this parking meter. Here: see?’
‘Lucky break. What’s that, 70 cents?’ Sonny clawed at his scalp and flicked the skin flakes off his shoulder before anyone who knew him spotted them. ‘Can we just do this already and jet?’
Pops hovered outside the bank, rubbing his new coins together. Maybe Pops was finally going to say it. Sonny was a man now and it was time to hand over the keys to the church and the Prime Minister’s home email address. In Sonny’s first year of business lectures, they’d cited Pop’s church as a model of enterprise with unique economic variables, there was a documentary and everything, stats in the business section and whatnot. Back in school, people’d used to diss him for being the son of a preacher man, God Boy, and believing the scriptures ‘til he was, like, 13, but in the real world, money talked, didn’t matter if the money came from Churchies.
‘Not having a heart attack, are ya? They’re, like, fifty dollars for a ambulance callout fee… .’
Pops seized Sonny’s ears and pulled his son’s face into his own. His eyes were shiny reservoirs in a dry landscape of wrinkles. ‘There are yet blessings to be had today.’ And he backed away from the bank and touched a woman who was carrying a tiny dog. He asked her if she would spare ten dollars for the church, and she didn’t ask which church. She probably recognised Pops from the infomercials. The bank note she gave the Reverend was a colour Sonny hadn’t seen in a long time. He felt dirty, like he’d been sleeping in his party clothes all week. Sonny scratched the scabs on his head.
When he’d waved the woman on, Pops bought them both a hotdog, stopping the mustard and relish with a pushed-out hand.
‘I want mustard though, c’mon. It’s only fifty cents.’
Pops took a bite of his plain hotdog and closed his eyes as he chewed, then said, ‘I think we can put that fifty cents in the bag, don’t you? It’s been a wonderful morning.’
Wonderful for you… Sonny scratched his arms until the skin went red, then ate his hotdog in two bites. The bank had tall columns holding it up, and copper lettering which had turned green over the century. It was sheltered, in there.
‘This is the one, right? High Street, National? Don’t you keep your will here and shit? I wanna read it, out of interest.’
‘You’ve got your appetite back,’ Pops said. ‘You haven’t eaten like that in years.’
Sonny dropped the rest of the hotdog in the gutter. The bun had too many carbs. ‘Thought you mighta cussed me out, for eating it too quick and stuff.’
‘Bless you, Sonny, bless you. Feeding people is what I do.’
‘Superpriest, huh.’ He punched his Pops’s shoulder. ‘Jokes, jokes. I’ll pay you back, obviously.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it.’
‘Nah, I got that interview.’
‘Of course you do. Let’s bank this, shall we?’ Pops tried to shuffle up the ramp into the bank, and Sonny grabbed his shoulder firmly.
‘Nah, I’m’a pay you back.’
‘But you have no credit on earth, child. Your only credit is with the Lord.’
‘I WILL! LITERALLY!’
‘Do you remember when you were tiny as a bug? You used to sellotape the bed covers over your head when the sandstorms would come up, and chew your pillow and pray for an end, and I would stand at your door. You grew stronger because God was testing you.’
‘It was scary as fuck! You’re off your meds, living under a lightning rod like a retard… You gotta tell me you got rid of that rusted-arse chimney. What – naw, awww come on… Pops, don’t do that… Can’t we just go in?’
Pops had taken Sonny’s soggy bun and gritty sausage out of the gutter and, picking a Band-aid off it, he ate it and smiled, and put the mustard-relish coins into the bag, patted it, and they walked inside the bank where the carpet was maroon and the walls were marble, and the staff blessed Pops and shook his hand with their whole bodies, and helped him to empty the hundreds of cheques and notes out of the bag, and Pops collected the will, too, and Sonny stopped scratching.
‘Honest to God, this is unbelievably gay.’ The bus doors hissed as they closed behind them. Sonny scratched his tattoos. They felt infected.
‘Three stages, Driver, please. My son will pay for himself.’
‘You serious? Pops, it’s only, like, four bucks… .’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t a cent to spare on me.’ Pops took his ticket and took a couple of strides toward the rear of the bus.
‘AND YOU COULDN’T’VE TAKEN THAT FIFTY FUCKIN CENTS FROM THE COLLECTION?!’
Pops sat down in the dark end of the bus.
Sonny wiped his face with his hands, then mined his pocket and pretended to discover a fifty. It horrified him to see the note broken into tens and coins and a bus ticket.
He followed Pops to the back, where foam leaked like intestines from the stabbed seat. Sonny ripped his ticket in half then tapped his foot until the bus lurched forwards. He was glad that the windows were tinted by adverts, no one could see inside. He was glad Pops wasn’t asking him to decipher tag again. Last anybody knew, Sonny’d been wearing shirts with perfect cuffs with invisible seams which he gave to his bros after he’d worn them once. His face and shining teeth used to appear on pop-up adverts when you read the news online. His start-up had had so much momentum, he’d never had time to wash clothes.
‘I don’t know if you know, Pops… our colour people aren’t really, you know, sposda sit in this bit… .’
‘This is where a working man sits.’ Pops’s eyes were glowing in the dark. He picked up a paper clip from underneath the seat in front of him, then tucked it into his pocket.
‘The hell you gon’ do with paperclips?’
‘We don’t always know the purpose of something until later.’
‘That is some Twilight Zone shit right there.’
The bus rattled out of the city’s end then into a zone of silos and wind farms and lunch bars selling fried chicken, then it sped up, going into a dry area where the buzzing pylons looked like the legs of steel titans. This was where flash floods ripped trees out of the sand, where houses could be splintered by giant hail stones.
When they’d passed the gasworks and the road got bumpy, Pops sighed and said, ‘You borrow and borrow and beg and see no money at all. That isn’t a way to live.’
‘And what you do isn’t begging too?’ Sonny punched his own palm. His sunglasses started sliding off his nose, and he panicked and pushed them back. ‘The start-up was a circle jerk okay! I didn’t lose the capital, the Gibsons lost the capital. Do I look like a Gibson to you? I got MY NAME out there and that’s like, yo, in YOUR day all the old cunts thought building shit to last was, like, this big deal. Took you forty years to build your name, fuck that! You cats put, like, ZERO effort into brand recognition, ZILCH. Yeah maybe this one went all fatgirl on us but how much future fucking potential can YOU bank? So, whatevs, the receivers get their cut but the BRAND LASTS. And that’s YOUR inheritance, Pops.’ He stood up, and the bus joggled him as the road went through a rough patch.
At last Pops sighed and said, ‘I get to inherit your debt?’
‘Isn’t that what your whole stupid cult’s based on? Owing the man upstairs? Suckin his dick for dollars? Why you gotta have DVDs, Pops? You really need billboards and, like, like a radio station? And t-shirts?’
Pops pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and unfolded it like a newspaper and spent time dabbing his lip, then eyes and nostrils, and carefully refolded it again and stroked it. ‘We’ll not be judged in our lifetime.’
A power station appeared, peered in the windows, and went.
‘Have you faith, son?’
‘I got that interview, don’t I?’
‘You’re talking to the most important man there is?’
‘This again? Serious? Can you, maybe, explain a little, like, W-T-F you have to fall back on, if the church stocks bottom out? You ain’t preached in, like, forever. You can’t go back to that. Me, I’m set for life.’
Pops sighed. ‘Investment isn’t everything: Watch, now.’ Pops produced ten cents from his pocket, let it sparkle, then buried the coin in the crook of the seat cushion between them.
‘Epic fail. Even I got more than ten cents!’
Pops, without breaking the stare of his wood-coloured eyes, stuck a hand in the sticky recesses of the seat until his watch had disappeared, and then half of his forearm, before he pulled out two fifty cent coins, chimed them together and bit them.
‘Faith,’ he said, and dinged the Stop bell, and put the coins in the collection bag.
It wasn’t their stop, but it was cheaper to get out here and walk, Pops said. He helped Sonny to open the child-proof cap in his little bottle of medicine. It was a stony, dusty road that led up to the homestead. It ruined Sonny’s Hush Puppies; he would have to give them to one of his bros.
‘That bus had fleas. You itchy?’
‘Are you plagued?’
‘Shut up. Hey, that the porch? That your house?’
‘Everywhere is God’s house. You don’t remember it?’
‘House looks like shit, Pops. That chimney’s a lightning rod, dawg, honest to God. Gimme your phone and I’ll get the crew round, we’ll knock the bricks out, sand the joint, paint it, put new curtains up, whatevs.’
‘I know you need work, and I thank you for your offer, but I don’t have the money for that. Building up the ministry’s funds is more important.’
‘Still on that? Seriously?’ Sonny scratched his head and looked at the blood under his fingernails. ‘Screw it: we’ll do it for free. Give us ya phone, I’ll ring them now.’
‘Please don’t ask me to do that. You have a non-association order preventing you from seeing those boys, do you not?’
‘I’ll use ya landline.’
‘If you absolutely have to talk to somebody, why not talk to –
‘NO ONE’S TALKING TO STUPID GOD, OKAY? Get over it.’
The door creaked as they entered, and rust-dust sprinkled into the breeze. Sonny pulled flakes of yellow paint off the banister.
‘You shouldn’t be all alone. What if you have a stroke or something?’
‘I’m not alone. And God’s will –
‘ –it’s your will that’s slipping. This day and age, man? You gotta sort that. You know I’m still a registered financial advisor? They don’t take your registration away, y’know, just coz… y’know… ‘
‘Because you lost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the church’s money?’
‘DON’T SPIN IT LIKE THAT. DON’T YOU DO THAT! IT WAS A ACCIDENT!’
‘You’re right,’ Pops said, and reached out and squeezed his son’s hand.
‘AND DON’T SAY IT WAS GOD’S WILL! It wasn’t!’
There was nothing else to do but watch the shadows stretch and paint the house and soon enough he drew the curtains and turned on the six o’clock news. The windows had filled with blackness and Sonny could hear animals outside, rooting around for scraps in the darkness. He mashed his cold beans with his fork while Pops pored over the estate documents and licked his lips, and Sonny paced and lit candles, and afterwards they watched the flickering financial channel until the TV pissed Sonny off too much. The TV was so old, you couldn’t even sell it.
‘You oughta getcha some bodyguards. You ain’t safe out here. The whole place could fall down on ya. Buy a condo. Buy a townhouse. I’m hitting the hay. There’s not gonna be a storm, is there?’
‘I’ll talk to God. Will you, too, pray? For me?’
‘I wouldn’t know what to pray for.’ He aimed at one of the liver spots on Pops’s forehead and gave him a kiss. ‘Want one of these? They’re good for ya bladder. It’s strictly herbal, I promise.’ He pushed a pill into Pops’s lips.
‘I believe you,’ Pops said, swallowing his communion.
‘It is! You never believe me!’
As he clomped upstairs, pulling shut the bedsheet curtains on the sparking grey clouds and wobbling the banister rail, fingering the borer holes, he called down, ‘And you hafta get this banister railing thing fixed, Pops. Thing’s a menace. Them pills’ll make you piss something fierce and you’ll wish you could see in the dark, yo.’ Sonny put a cigarette in his lips and lit it, to recover from climbing the stairs. He wobbled the railing and it shivered sawdust. Wood felt foreign under his fingers, all dry and fragile. Before the clinic and parole and everything, his world had been stainless steel, white leather, glassy vodka, crystal tables. Reflective surfaces.
‘There’s not the money to have the railing fixed,’ Pops said from the bottom of the stairs, ‘If I can save just a hundred dollars, why, that’s a food parcel for– ‘
‘Bullshit, your shares jumped another two percent, you watched the markets same as me. Thing’s a death trap, man. Never lean on this, promise me. Don’t go pissing in the night. I’ll get the boys, we’ll get some treated pine– ‘
‘There’s not the money for renovations.’ And then he said, ‘I know what you want, and you’re not getting it.’
Sonny took a deep breath in. He smashed and stomped his cigarette ‘til it was dead. The floor was so dry and splintered, he had to get the butt out. ‘That hotdog you bought, I oughta report you, y’know. Wasn’t that the church’s money? And my Lego better still be in the cupboard! It’s a collector’s item now, worth a tonne. Why’s it so dark? Ain’t you replaced the fuckin’ lightbulbs? You sure the stinkin bus didn’t have fleas?’
‘Faith in the Light of the Lord is quite sufficient.’
Sonny screamed as his shin scraped a screw sticking out of his bedroom door.
‘JESUS THAT HURT! Put a bulb in, already!’
He listened to his dad snuffling in the dark, breathing out, making his nose hairs rattle. ‘I’ll follow you up shortly. I take it you won’t require a bedtime story.’
‘Quit fooling. This is retarded. Your church can’t spend forty cents on a lightbulb for its own minister?’
Pops creaked up the stairs and down the hallway to his bedroom, and when he paused, the floorboards groaned. ‘The congregation forgave you a long time ago,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’ve forgiven yourself.’
‘THAT AIN’T WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT.’
‘Goodnight, Sonny,’ he called out, and then, ‘Talk to him.’
‘And what’s he going to say about you stealing fifty cents for extra sauce on your dog?’
‘Don’t let the lightning bite.’
There was something wrong with his bed, single bed, stupid kid-sized bed, the fuck was up with this bed? Nails in it or something… the old man had probably tried to save a few bucks by filling the mattress with stones… World War II asshole… .
The window sucked, the air was all hot and restless. Sonny clawed at the fitted sheet which skinned the mattress. The fleas were ripping open his back. There was a frieze on the wall of his bedroom, painted, faded yellow now, hard to see in the dark. It’d been there since he was a kid, when the desert storms had put the shits up him. The words on the wall, he remembered, told him to put everything in the Lord above.
The fleas were in his dickhole, now. When he rolled out of bed to take a piss, he could feel under his heels the dents in the floor where his knees used to fit. He couldn’t even piss, so he crept through into Pops’s study while the old man snored and he looked around at all the framed stock certificates hanging on the wall. He counted two dozen of them, thought No Way, began counting again, lost count. These should be in a document folder, at least. He’d do his dad a favour. He started taking them off the wall, when a crack of light interrupted him.
Fireworks. The Feds. He was paralysed. A wet worm wriggled down his thigh.
He saw the entire hallway lit up – the white banister, crumbling, the weevils partying in the dust they ate, the cardboard-thin rug – and then the thunder harrumphed, and it sounded like Pops, and the piss touched his foot, and he scurried back to his room, and tried to bury his head under the floppy pillow, but his eyes x-rayed the blankets. He scratched his head until his nails got wet, and he cried as another laser-shot of lightning made everything in the house black and white, and then the thunder rubbed it in.
His eyes were salty and wet, now. He was ten million feet high in a biplane, tossed and buffeted and punished. Yup, a light bulb or ten woulda been nice. The thought of light bulbs calmed him down a bit. Not that long ago, he used to have holes drilled into light bulbs. You could smoke the sweet stuff outta them, get a little buzz, and the pigs couldn’t do shit if they raided your pad coz it was only a light bulb, not a pipe in the eye of the –
Another fang of lightning poisoned the sky, he hurled the covers off him, thumped onto the floor, and as the bedroom flashed white as an art gallery, his eyes blacked over and his lips danced and his body rocked and he told God how sorry he was, on his bruised knees, his forehead dribbling, kissing the floorboards, God knew exactly what for, and in the back of his ears, he heard Pops creak to the door, and creak away, and as the toilet flushed, and something massive crashed, and his knees ached, he shook and cried and begged for light.
Warm-white-laundry. Fabric softener. Hospital fresh. Ducklings, buttercups. Fucking sun right in his God damn eyes.
He peeled the sheet back. Someone had tipped a bucket of water on him and the white sheet was dark. The house was drenched in good, warm light, not the bad horrible stuff that had spooked him in the night, lit up the entire countryside and set power lines on fire, made everything look strobed, black and white, black as his old man’s Bible stories.
His fingers touched the scratches inside his elbow, but he wasn’t itchy. He was supposed to be smoking, his head said, but he felt too clean to smoke.
‘Pops! Chuck the coffee on!’ He rolled out of bed, hit the ground and did ten push-ups, opened the window and smelled the scorched trees and lit a cigarette, and shuffled through onto the landing, where he found the banister rail missing and below it, on the ground floor, his old man smashed as the pile of rotten wood under his back. He was crumpled and twisted like an armload of dropped laundry.