Salt - short story


Short story published in Meanjin, Volume 57, Number 1, 1998

His friends throw red wine all over the walls. They are very drunk, almost cataclysmically so; absently breaking chairs with their weight when they sit and then stumbling against bookshelves and walls when they stand. The timber floor creaks and clunks with clumsy movement. At one point I stand up and, like a crime-buster cop, I say, “Nobody move!”

The wine glasses are tall-stemmed and top-heavy. They teeter precariously on the table top until a careless hand, limp with alcohol, flips one over and sends dark red liquid like blood splashing across the far wall. She is incredulous.

  “Look how far it went!”

She runs to the kitchen for a cloth and then scrubs at the wall with it, her big round bottom bobbing up and down with exertion. She says, “Sorry, I’m so sorry.”

To me, not him. Because he is currently waltzing with an old friend, his face sweet and blurry with drink. Two men dancing together. He is taller and is being led by his small, stocky friend. They manoeuvre clumsily around the living room with limbs that won’t obey.  He is happy as a child.

These are his oldest friends. There are three of them. Two men and one woman.
Earlier in the evening she came into the kitchen and complimented my wrought-iron yellow Formica table setting. Women do that kind of thing. When I fished one limp strand of spaghetti out of the pot and threw it against the white tiled wall by the stove, it stuck fast.

  “Perfect,” she said and did not bat an eyelid. Women do that kind of thing.

She helped set the table. She took two candles out to the dining room and lit them with the stove lighter. When the food was ready she want to the balcony where the three men were sitting and said grandly, “Dinner is served.”

At the dinner table, she ate generously.

  “This is absolutely delicious.” She looked me right in the eye.
 
I don’t trust her.

*

He has a skin condition. At night he scratches and scratches, wearing away patches of skin that will dry into bloody scabs by morning. Sometimes it stops him from sleeping. Once, in the early hours of the morning, lying face up beside his nocturnal scritch-scratch, I asked him if there was anything I could do. He said that one blow job day would do much to alleviate his suffering. I was dopey with half-sleep and said, “Alright then.”

He laughed. The kind of pure, unexpected laugh that makes us both feel brand-new.

He always has skin beneath his fingernails.


*

He is amazed by my ability to listen to two conversations at once. I am sitting at one end of the table and he is deep in conversation at the other with one of his oldest friends.

  “You’re a fuckwit, mate. Just listen to yourself,” says someone at my end.
  “Can I just kiss you,” says she at the other. I slide my eyeballs towards them and see four arms in a tangle on the table top. It is impossible to tell which belongs to whom.
  “It was just brief silly thing, wasn’t it?”
  “You don’t know what you’re saying,” says one of his oldest friends to the other at my end.
  “It was hard for me, when everyone found out.” She leans toward him over the far end of the table, shifting her posture to become more intimate.
 
I fold one leg under my bum and sit on it.

*

The other day we saw his father in the street. He was talking to a woman and we watched them from the other side of the road. She was small and blonde and fortyish. She was jabbing at the air with the index finger of her free hand. Her other hand was held down by a handbag, the kind with two small handles on top: matronly. They walked a little and then stopped to talk. Walked and then turned in to talk. It looked like there was a lot to say.

  We watched them.

She was talking at the ground, down at the gutter. His father looked past her and saw us, but his face registered nothing. No surprise, no shock to see us there on the other side watching, just that he had seen us. Awareness. He said something to her and she stopped talking. She stopped jabbing at the air with her finger and looked out across the road. Her vision swept around like a searchlight and eventually came to rest on us. His father cupped both hands around his mouth.

  “Coo-ee!” His voice trilled across the busy Glebe street. Cars were swishing between us in coloured blurs.
  “Coo-ee!” He sang back.

The mating call of father and son.

*

His ex-girlfriend always looks sad. I have seen photographs. She has long blonde hair and pale green eyes that constantly stray out of the frame. “She was young. Too young,” he says with hindsight.

When they broke up, friends told him that she could not stop crying. I imagine her in a lonely room with no furniture, tears streaming from watery eyes onto the floor like blood from an unstopped wound. I imagine her heart breaking, splintering apart with the unexpected pain of betrayal. She must have seen it coming. She must have.

She left town and will not speak to or about him.

*
His father walked ahead of us with the woman. She giggled like a schoolgirl, threw her ash blonde head back and caught my eye on her. I saw her face shut itself quickly. When we got to her car, his father suggested I go get my car and park it where hers was. I walked away from them and was conscious of my short skirt, sashaying around my bum and thighs.

Later he told me that while I was gone he saw his father slip the tongue in. He said he bent down to tie his shoelace and saw it happen out of the corner of his eye. When he looked up again they were both laughing and she was wiping her mouth out with the back of her hand.
 
  “A bit sordid for two people that age,” he said distastefully and I agreed.

*

His friends are getting out of control. I want them to sit down and stop breaking chairs and splashing red wine all over walls and tables. He reaches for a glass of wine and misjudges both the height and the distance. I watch, as in slow motion his knuckles collide with the rim of the glass and it teeters towards me, swooning on its round base. In slow motion he tries to catch it but succeeds only in directing the entire contents across my chest and all over my lap. I am stained with splashes of red like the victim of a freak massacre.

Everybody stands up in defence. Chairs scrape backwards hastily. There is a large pool of red on the tablecloth in front of me. For a few seconds I watch it spread and grow as the cloth absorbs the liquid evenly. Then I run to the bathroom, fill the sink with cold water and take off all my clothes.

When I come back out, he is sitting on the windowsill, with his smoking hand suspended to the night. The window is slid wide open and we are on the second floor. I am afraid he will fall out. When I tell him so, he smiles his Cheshire smile at me, as though all that matters is the fact that I care, not that he may be in grave danger of falling out a second floor window.

One of his oldest friends is using my kitchen scales to weigh himself on the living room floor. He is balancing his big bum on the rim of the white plastic bowl and holding his legs up in the air going, “Whey-hey-heeeeey!!” But only I have noticed. The others are dealing out a game of cards.

*

When the woman had gone, his father invited us in for drinks. The house was dark and closed and cluttered and not how he remembered it from childhood. The pictures of his father with his second wife appeared calculated and showy. In each carefully framed image he placed his arm around her shoulders for ownership. His mother’s favourite colours are yellow and aqua.  Everything in her Queensland house is patterned in yellow and aqua. His mother hates clutter. There is no trace of her here.

His father shifted and skitted around as though he didn’t know what to do with us. After standing against the wall for a few minutes I pulled a heavy chair out from the dining room table and sat on its prickly cow-hide cushion. His father handed me a bottle of beer and asked if I wanted a glass. I told him no. He asked me a question  and then didn’t stay in the room for the answer. He went to the kitchen  and switched on the small telly that was perched on the bench. A crowd roared at the SCG.

  “He’s got it! He’s got it!” His father yelled, putting his hands up in the air. Then he came back into the room and asked me if I wanted a glass.

*

His friends are card sharks. They have known one another for years and they play in companionable silence. Miraculously, the drunkenness subsides into thick concentration. Because there are five of us and it is a four-handed game, he says we will play as a team. We play one hand each so that sometimes she is his partner and sometimes she is mine. When she is my partner I am careful not to let her down. I have to consider what she may be thinking and anticipate her game.

Before I place each card on the table my heart gallops with a tickety-tick and I hope that I am making the right choice. My eyes flick nervously from the cards in my hand to her face. Her perfect, round face. She has a slightly ducky mouth, it puckers up in concentration like the succulent mouth of a sleeping newborn. I notice she is not wearing a bra. When I place the king of clubs on the pile, she sweeps the winning around across to me an says, “Well played.”

*

When they are partners they eye each other across the table with the silent communication of old lovers. They place their cards on the table with studied casualness, watch and nod. Certain things are understood. If he bids eight hearts she will follow his lead and vice versa. If she leads with a low trump he will play one of the bowers. They play like well-practised dancers, yielding and leading with symbiotic rhythm. Their eyes never flicker or twitch. They never miss a beat. When they win the hand, he says proudly, “Well done, darling.”

*

They are just old friends. That’s all. Some time ago, they had a brief affair. But that as before he met me. When they are all gone, I go into the spare room, pull the covers up to my chin like a nun and fight the tiredness to stay mad.

Old habits die hard.
A leopard never changes its spots.
A chip off the old block.
Like father like son.
 
My eyes become heavy and soon my breath settles into a deep, soothing rhythm that sways me closer to sleep. I am almost gone when he comes in. He walks toward me with his penis swinging between his thighs like a dead weight. He kneels by the bed and buries his face in my neck. He yanks my head and neck and shoulders upright by grabbing up my head with both hands the way you would a basket ball.

He holds my head steady and kisses me three times on the mouth. I don’t trust him. I will never be able to trust him. But always, with every spare breath from his weak smoker’s lungs, he will tell me that he loves me.

*

I think about the stains, the red wine that has stained the walls and the tablecloth and me. Salt. Salt is good for red wine stains. Like magic, salt will make the stains disappear.

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