Early this morning I opened the front door and threw the dregs of my coffee across the front lawn. The air was still cold; darkness seemed to be hesitating before slipping off its cloak and scuttling towards the horizon. A full moon sat staring at me low in the sky as if it too were just waiting to say goodbye. I watched the still-warm coffee hit the grass and a little cloud of steam drift briefly above the ground. Then I shut the door and went inside to ready myself for the day. When I came out about half an hour later, the night and moon had gone. A bird twittered somewhere in the bushes near the driveway. The moon and the night were here, it seemed to say, but you missed them. I could still feel their breath though. Somehow it stays with me even now, even as this tiny day passes into its autumn, the memory of our little ménage; the night, the moon and I and how we met like strangers and lovers.
Monthly Archives: May 2008
I didn’t know my neighbours well so I was kind of surprised when they offered to give me a lift to the garage where my car was waiting to be picked up. This was on a Saturday morning and they could do it after dropping their son off at his hockey game. I climbed in the back with him, a 13 year old kid called Luke. His dad, Neil, was already in the car and he had his ipod running through the speakers. It was Wilco singing Heavy Metal Drummer. They were talking about the song when I climbed in and Neil introduced us. “Hi,” said Luke but he seemed pretty shy and a little anxious.
Then the door was opening and his mum, Paula, was getting in. She smelled nice and her hair was still a bit wet from washing. She said, “Oh, I see everyone is waiting for me, as usual.” But it wasn’t quite light-hearted and no one said anything. Neil put the car in reverse but his wife, looking over her shoulder down both sides of the street said, “Wait, there’s something coming.” A car passed and then she said, “OK, you can go now.” And then she got some lipstick out of her bag just after she reached over and turned down the music.
There was silence for a while and then she said over her shoulder to Luke, “Have you got everything, Lukey?”
“Yep,” he said but she went through a list of stuff anyway; shin pads, mouth guard, water. Then she said to Neil, “Why are you going this way?” There was a pause and I heard her husband say, “Because it will take longer” but he said it more like a question. If she noticed this, his wife didn’t acknowledge it. “It’s just that there is a quicker way,” she said.
“Well, this is the way we usually go, isn’t it, Luke?” Luke nodded but he didn’t say anything. We drove on for a few minutes and then I asked, “Do you like Hockey, Luke?” He nodded again and his mother said “He loves it, don’t you, Lukey?” but before he could answer she went on, “The coach says he has to concentrate staying forward of the ball.” She turned again to Neil. “Do you help him out with this stuff?”
“Sure,” Neil answered.
Then Paula turned to me as if I had asked a question, “Neil objects to all this sport on Saturday. He thinks the kids are organised enough during the week. But I think it’s good for Luke; that’s what I did every weekend with my parents.” Then she turned back adding, “Netball.”
Neil said over his shoulder, “I grew up in the country and lived out of town. No organised sports there; we just played all day and swam and stuff.”
“It’s just what you’re used to, I suppose,” Paula said. “Being organised never hurt me.”
“And being free never hurt me,” I heard Neil say but this went unremarked and soon we were pulling into the hockey field. There were parents and kids everywhere. Neil pulled up near the change rooms and Paula said, “Are we parking here?”
There was another pause and Neil said, “Why?”
“Nothing, it’s just not very close to the game.” But she opened the door saying, “Not to worry. Dad always parks in funny places, doesn’t he, Lukey.” Luke climbed out and Paula said, “I love you, darling. Have a great game.” And she kissed him on the forehead.
Neil called out, “See you soon, Luke.”
I watched Luke run across the field that was split down the middle by a big white line. I could see his coach waiting to tell him what to do.
When I was 24 I went to Europe for the first time with a friend that I lived and worked with up North. Mazz and I landed in Amsterdam; he was keen to catch up with a girl he’d met in Bali the year before. This was just before Christmas and we left the Australian summer to arrive in a city that was white with snow and 18 degrees below zero. We’d never seen snow before and we sat in the cab from Schiphol airport hardly able to blink or take the smiles from our faces.
We stayed at this little place called the Schmidt Hotel but before an hour was up we were in the streets of Amsterdam bracing against a freezing breeze down streets like we’d never known before. We picked up the snow and threw it at each other, sent postcards home saying, “There is snow everywhere.” We were like kids.
That night, in our small room, we lay on our beds and drank Heineken beer. Even now, that taste takes me straight back to that night. A church bell rang and we leapt up looking out the window as if we could see the sound of it. Mazz explained how the cold air made the peeling so crystal clear. I didn’t listen; I only knew that it was beautiful. “You’ll be telling me how Rembrandt made his paint next,” I said but only gently.
I read the words on my green Heineken can. “It says this beer won the Grand Prix of 1886,” I say. “Bullshit,” Mazz says, “Where the fuck would they put the wheels?” and we laughed, not because we were drunk on beer but because we were drunk on Europe already.
In the morning, while Mazz still slept, I crept out into the dark streets and watched the shopkeepers setting up. I heard the unfamiliar sound of footsteps in snow. There was a smell of coffee and cigarettes in the air. I pushed my white breath before me and I realised that I had never seen my breath before. I was alive and for the first time I knew it. There were chocolates in the windows and people smiled at me politely. They had red cheeks and tufts of blond hair that escaped from under their woollen caps. I am alive, I thought, and I will never forget it.
Years later I was in Amsterdam again but by now I had seen a lot of the world. Mazz was married; I hadn’t seen him since the wedding two years before. It was summer. I found myself in a non-descript part of the city in a non-descript street and there in front of me was the Schmidt Hotel. I was tired from walking and stopped in the street as a picture of me and Mazz flooded back. I looked up to the window where we had stood looking for the sound of bells. Nothing was the same as I remembered. The hotel and the street had become mundane, its shops plain, its people now solemnly bent on lives of which I was not a part. I walked quickly away.
This was all a long time ago. My life is different now. I no longer search for the joy of the exotic or stand breathless in unfamiliar weather or long for views unseen. I search for pieces of the everyday – my daughter’s hand in mine as I cross a road, my son sleeping, and the old smell of a new book. I look for the minute signs of life now, for the big spaces between events, or maybe just for signs of me. Now I no longer need to go over there to find that I am here. You know, once not far from where I live, I saw an orange train passing silently through a yellow field of canola.
About five years ago I was staying at this bad hotel on the edge of Denver. It was a cheap hotel so I should have expected it to be bad. Like my father says, “You always get what you pay for” which is true except, when it comes to hotels, I think the benchmark should be different. All hotels should be good and after that, if you pay more, it should just get better. But this was a bad hotel. I booked a smoking room and they gave me a non-smoking room. “Nothing else available,” they said. “Just smoke in there, man. And leave the window open.” So I did and I got cold and kept waiting for the smoke alarm to go off or someone to come in and bust me.
There was one good thing though; you could see the Rockies from my window. I rang home all the way to Australia and I told my wife and kids that I can see the Rockies from my window but the kids were too young to get it and my wife sounded like she wasn’t really that interested. Like she did about everything these days. I wished I hadn’t wasted that picture of the Rockies on her; it spoiled it somehow.
Anyway, soon after that I went to the bar in the hotel. I ordered a Millers Draught because it was American beer and I was having my first night in America. There was one other guy at the bar and no one else even in the lounge seats. After a couple of Millers I felt like talking to him. I had an American beer and I wanted to talk to an American. But I couldn’t think of anything to say and he didn’t even look my way like he was not interested in knowing who I was or what I was doing there.
Then I heard this laughing and talking and when I looked to the foyer I could see a group of Indians in full traditional dress walking out of the hotel. “Shit,” I thought, “I really am in America.” One of the Indians wore a full feather headdress so I figured he was the chief. Then I remembered seeing a poster about a Pow Wow going on in town. I wanted to know what that was all about.
I turned to the silent man at the bar. “Do you know what that’s all about?” I asked. He didn’t even look at the foyer or me. “Just some Indian shit,” he said. It wasn’t much of a start but it got the ball rolling. Soon we were talking pretty easily. When he found I was from Australia, he said with some animation, “Did you know that Australia has more marsupials than any other country on Earth?” The fact seemed to cheer him up for some reason. “We’ve only got one,” he laughs. “A fucking possum!”
He is 48 years old; he’s been a railway inspector for a quarter of a century. “It’s all I know, Man,” he tells me. Lost the sight in one eye in ’84 and had to give up painting. The inspector’s son was the best pitcher in Trenton, Nebraska, won a scholarship to Dodge City, Kansas but gave it up for love and came home to his dad while his girlfriend studied to be a mortician. And his daughter, who was Miss Hometown Queen, got in a car crash that left her with scars and a bad neck. Now she works as a dental assistant. “I didn’t know Australia fought in Vietnam,” he says later.
There was television on the wall and the news was on. It showed a bomb blast somewhere and there were bodies strewn over this road near a market. The American said to me, “What do you look at when you see a dead body on TV or in the newspaper or somewhere?” I really tried to think about that but I was getting drunk and I told him I didn’t know where I looked. “You gotta look somewhere,” he said and I said I guessed so but somehow I couldn’t remember where I looked, at the blood, I suppose. “I always look at their socks,” he said.
He went silent for a while. Then he looked at me over his beer and he laughed a bit. “Now why the fuck would I look at their socks?” He seemed genuinely interested in this. I went to say something but he interrupted and said, “You know, it just seems such a dumb thing to do on the day you’re gonna die. Put on your socks. Why the fuck would you even care!”
“They don’t know they are going to die,” I offered. He looked at me with a faint air of contempt. “I fuckin’ know that,” he said. “But we’re are all fuckin’ dying. It’s the socks I don’t get. It’s all the fuckin’ little things like socks.” Later he said he had to make a phone call. I waited for about half an hour but he didn’t come back so I went up to my room.
I was drunk and hungry now but I was tired too; the flight was catching up on me. I threw my clothes on the floor and climbed into bed in my underpants. The sheets were cool. There was a fight going on in the car park and I thought how wonderful it was that beyond my curtain lay the snow-capped Rockies and the great big country of America. Then I missed my family and wished my wife would cheer up a bit. I wondered why she was always sad lately and I felt this little knot of fear in my stomach. Then I realised I still had my socks on; I took them off and soon I was asleep.