Passing Time

“You. Asking me. Out on a date?”

Vicki’s usually porcelain perfect face instantly turned into a scowl of distain. Her smile seemed to fall off as a frown took its place and I wondered why I had even bothered. Of course, she’d be disgusted! I could just see her inwardly retching as her face twisted, turning green, and I felt vile. Yet like a dog latching onto a bone, determined, I proceeded. Oh well, it’s out there now, I thought. Nothing left to lose.

“Look, um, I know it’s a stupid idea, but hear me out!”

She looked more annoyed now than ill, “Sure…” she said. She glanced at her iPhone and blushed. I watched a small smile return to her ruby lips briefly. She let a giggle slip and for a moment she looked genuinely happy. Startled, her ocean blue eyes suddenly met mine. Like sand to the sea my muddy brown eyes locked on to hers as they crashed over me like waves of disapproval. “Oh… You’re still here.” Her words were like a swift boot to the chest.

I turned away, defeated and started towards the bus stop at the edge of the school yard, just beyond the wire gate.

“Is that it?” she called. I stopped, dead, waiting for the ensuing ridicule I was sure was next. A small glimmer of hope was forming, just to mock me. Stop it! As if! I told myself. Expectation only ends in disappointment, a voice said in my mind, though I questioned if those words were even mine.  “You wanna go out, or don’t you?” she asked.

“Sure!” Too eager I thought. “I guess…” I answered, trying to sound less desperate, if possible.

“Great! We can go to the movies,” She said. The handed me the phone for me to put my number in. “Pick me up at 8!”

With shaky hands, I took the phone and fumbled as I swiped the screen. Get your shit together, Ethan, I told myself as I entered my number into the phone as new contact.

I handed it back to her, noting the residual pink glitter on my fingers from the case. “Okay, see you then.”

She looked at her screen again, smiled as she swiped and began tapping expertly. Probably texting her friend, I thought, about the idiot who dared to look in her direction, much less poorly attempt to ask her on a date. Just call me the walking punchline, only not funny.

“I gotta go!” I said, scrambling for an escape, which luckily came in the form of the number 3 bus, which I was about to miss. I thanked God for impeccable timing as I made a dash for it, out the gate, not daring for a second to glance back at her as I skipped the steps onto the bus. I dug deep into the pocket of my shorts for my swipe card and tapped the machine. It buzzed at me, mockingly and the light glared an angry red. I plunged it back in my pocket and dug round for change that I knew was not there. In the other pocket, I found my phone instead, vibrating as it beeped. Instinctively I pulled it out as the driver waved me on impatiently. I almost fell into my seat as the bus took off. I opened my dodgy Motorola. What. The fuck! I thought. There was a new message waiting. I opened it and read the address, and the words that followed. “See you. Heart. Smiley face. Don’t be late.”

A plan was already forming by the time the bus reached my stop. As the bus pulled away from the roadside and disappeared around the bend, I trudged up my dirt driveway, through the long grass, not bothering to dodge the large bindi patch that divided the long track that led to the carport of a rundown wooden shack. To the right of the driveway, just below the steps, sat a rusty old Victor, accompanied by a tin – Dad’s not-so-subtle hint, I guessed. I wondered for a moment, what had he done with his day? Same thing he’d done every other day for a year, I guessed. I marched up to the mower, kicking my way through dandelions that stood as if to greet me.   There was no satisfaction found in watching them disintegrate before my eyes.

The bright side of this, I thought, was it would sweeten the deal with Dad. He’d have to let me borrow the ‘Commie’ after a job well done. I pictured the rusted old thing puttering up Vicki’s immaculate street, and parking barely idling in her pristine concrete driveway, lined with perfectly pruned hedges. I cringed as I saw myself peering over the worn out steering wheel through the cracked windscreen up that driveway to a two-story brick house that looked just like every other house on her street, cold, uninviting and completely off-limits to a scrubber’s son, like me, well I would be, I thought, if Dad actually had a job.

I dumped my bag on the termite riddled step and watched as a piece of the rotting wood fell away. Realizing I was still in my school uniform, I took off the holey faded blue sports shirt – the only one I owned, and threw it on top of my bag. Still in my shearer’s singlet and shorts, I grabbed hold of the mower’s choke and pulled, hoping the thing would roar to life. No such luck. It continued to sit lifeless, with red paint peeling off it. I tried again harder, and again and then a fourth time, before running out of steam. Thinking I needed to top it up, I picked up the tin, but it felt too light to hold any fuel.

“Piece of crap!” I booted the tire, threw tin on the ground and as it landed with a loud clang I marched up the steps into the house, picking up my bag and shirt on the way, and leaving the mower to continue doing what it did best, only to find Dad inside with a VB can in his hand, doing what he did best. There were six more stacked in a pyramid and several more sprawled on a small table next to his grubby bare feet and an open pack of Winnie blues. It must be pay day, I thought.

“How many have you had, Dad?” Not that I needed to ask. It wasn’t quite his record, I noticed, but he didn’t appear to be far off it.

“Don’t start, mate!” He slurred, barely looking at me. “It’s been a hard day.”

“Clearly,” I said, gesturing towards the ‘beeramid’ and then out the open window to where the mower sat, visible and dormant next to the tin. “S’pose I’ll have to get the fuel for it too?”

“There’s none in it?”

“Do you hear it idling, Dad?”

He started to lunge off the couch, his fist raised and I braced myself awaiting the backhand that never came. “Don’t get smart with me, boy, or it’ll be the last thing you say!” Losing balance, he collapsed back onto the chair. Clearing his throat, “I uh, hope you’re not expecting me to drive you to the servo!”

“All good, Dad.” Then seizing the perfect opportunity, I suggested, “I could go myself, if I can borrow the car?”

“Nah, Son, she’ll be right. I’ll go in the morning.” He went to take another swig from his can, only to notice was empty. He held it up, shaking it, before throwing it down on the table knocking the ‘beeramid’ as it landed. I watched a couple of cans roll onto the floor.  “Help your old man out, will ya?” I sighed and went to the kitchen to grab him another.

I spied the fresh box on the floor beside the fridge as I entered. A large hole had been torn out of the corner and as I reached in, I notice there was already a whole row missing. When I opened the fridge, I saw only two on the shelf. I took both out, pocketed the spare, closed the fridge and marched back into the lounge room, where Dad was already stacking zeds. His head was slumped forward, one arm draped over the arm of the couch and the other limp beside him clutching an almost full ciggie. The last ember burned a hole into the cushion, leaving an awful stench as the ash dropped off the end and died. He let out a loud snore as I slinked down the hall to my room still holding the can. He won’t miss these, I thought, closing the door behind me, before cracking it open. I surveyed my dump of a room, almost choking on the smell and saw comic books, magazines, a duffle bag and the few clothes I owned, scattered in piles on every inch of the floor. There was my T-shirt from the previous weekend, lying in a pile of holey socks and a questionable pair of boxes. It was on that pile that I dumped my school shirt and my bag. A pair of Dad’s jeans were draped over my computer chair, the belt still in them. I only remembered to pry the buckle out from under my butt when it dug in, almost piercing my skin as I sat.

I was surprised Dad hadn’t demanded I give them back yet, I had only ‘borrowed them the month before, but then I hadn’t needed any lashings from the belt lately. He’d been doing just fine with just his fists.

I sipped the fresh bubbling beer and shuddered as the first sour drops trickled down my throat. Yet I’d already numbed myself mentally to the taste. I took another swig and set it down next to an open Spiderman comic on my cluttered desk.

Over my rusted wooden bedhead, Kurt Cobain glared down at me from a large wrinkled poster, that clung to the wall with blu-tac. The top corner had come away from the wall and drooped down, threatening to take the rest of the poster with it. I reached over the bed and picked up Dad’s old acoustic guitar, that was leaning on the mattress. I sat it across my knees and, feeling the ridges on the lowest E string, I lazily plucked the string, with my thumb, not really hearing the notes or the squeaking of the string as I moved the other hand up the neck. I positioned my fingers, one by one on the fretboard, forming the D chord, the only chord Dad had bothered to teach me and strummed. Yet another promise he couldn’t be bothered to keep, I thought angrily as I threw the guitar across the room. All six strings seemed to scream in agony as it landed, though not hard enough for the strings or the neck to break, with a thud on the floor. Kurt’s face appeared to mock me as I cursed my ‘skills’.

Resorting to the one thing I remembered Dad ever teaching me, even if just through years of observation, I rose the can to my lips and skulled, until I was gasping for air.

“No wonder she left!” I muttered, thinking of my mother. I hadn’t seen her since I was five.

I slammed the half empty can on the desk, knocking it over. I ignored the foaming mess that now spilled onto Spiderman’s angry face, as the black lines disappeared into the red, leaving just a blob. I no longer cared.

I spied the time on my watch as Vicki’s porcelain perfect face flashed before me. 6:50. I pictured her sitting in her Ikea filled lounge room, an hour from that moment, on a flawless white couch, inspecting her freshly curled golden locks, looking all cute in what was likely something prissier than that ridiculous sparkly phone case of hers, and even more pink. I could see her staring at that stupid phone, watching the seconds tick over on the screen, waiting for the message from me, letting her know I was on my way. Did dudes even do that?

“Oh Victoria,” I could hear her just as perfect mother’s soothing voice comforting her. “Don’t worry, Hun, he’s not worth it.” I thought about saving her the trouble as I opened my phone and pressed the left top button repeatedly until the menu showed an option to reply.

“I guess I already knew that, Mum,” I could just hear her reply. Finally something we would both agree on.

I began tapping out a message, before hitting delete.  “Screw her!” I slammed the phone shut and stuffed it back into my pocket.

I grabbed my duffle off the floor and began shoving as much as I could fit into it, including the jeans and belt. I took the unopened can out of my pocket and stuffed it into the side of my bag before piling more clothes on top of it. I eyed the acoustic, as I zipped up the bag and slung the strap over my shoulder. No point, I grumbled and left the abandoned guitar where it lay face down, along with every memory, on the floor and closed the door, leaving it all behind me.

Dad was still snoring, although it appeared he had woken at some point, only to stretch his feet out on the couch, his head resting on the arm of the chair. The silhouette of a blowfly buzzed in front of the still open window against the last firy red signs of a dying day. The fly hovered, briefly over Dad’s open mouth before buzzing back out into the open air. Letting out another snore, I watched as the large man rolled towards the back of the couch. Thick wiry spirals of hair peaked out of the neck of his stained orange shirt, blending into the matted graying mass on his head. I eyed the Winnie blues still in the packet, with only enough space for his lighter. On the table amongst the cans was his wallet. I quickly pocketed the smokes and opened the wallet, taking out the only notes in there. I stuffed the two fifties into my pocket also and placed the wallet back on the table ensuring it was put in exactly the same place I had found it. It was only then I noticed the ring of keys sprawled on the table. I clasped my hand over them, knowing, Dad would only have to hear the jingle and instantly wake up, no matter how drunk he was. This was not the first time I had tried to swipe them, but this time I was determined to get away with it. I expertly closed my hand around the shiny metal and scooped them up.

I crept out the door, down the steps and past the mower, tripping over the petrol tin. Shit! I thought, but I refused to be taken down. I rounded the corner into the carport and unlocked the car. I threw the bag over the driver’s seat into the back before sliding in behind the wheel. After several false starts, the motor finally ticked over, barely clinging to life as I backed out of the driveway, narrowly missing the mower. It was only as I sped down the driveway, tires spinning that I saw Dad in the rearview through the dust, staggering down the steps, shaking his fist, before tripping over the mower as he tried to sink the boot in. I didn’t have to hear what he was yelling. His face said it all and I was not sticking around for another flogging.

I floored it out onto the road, only then noticing the little needle sitting under the E line on the fuel gage. I had no idea where I was going, only that it would have to be via the servo.

I pulled up next to the pump and turned the ignition off. As I stood between the pump and the car, with the nozzle in the tank, I watched the numbers creep up to 20:00. I figured that would at least get me out of that part of town.

As I walked in to pay, I passed a stand with bunches of flowers for ten bucks. I stopped. I guess I could pick Vicki up after all. I snatched up the only bunch of pink flowers and stormed into the shop, mentally adding the cost to the fuel I’d just put in and deciding I still had enough to take her to the flicks and leave town, if I got her a choc top instead of popcorn. Plus, I thought, it would buy me time to figure out what to do next. I paid for the fuel and the flowers and left the servo, smoking up Dad’s balding tires. My phone beeped as I took the next exit near her street. I pulled over to the curb to check and saw the new message waiting. “Are you still coming?” it read and I realized Vicki was not the sought who would sit, waiting too long. Of course, she would have a backup plan, I thought, and back up plans for that backup plan, and yet she was texting me. Noting it was already 8pm I floored it halfway up her street and pulled over again, leaving the car idling as I sat gathering my thoughts. The neighborhood looked exactly as I pictured it. I considered turning the car off and walking up the driveway to meet her, but I was in no mood for meeting mothers. Instead I honked the horn and waited. It was barely a minute before Vicki was letting herself out of what looked like the biggest house on the street, wearing, of course, pink. Her curls bounced as she jogged down the steps, and out the driveway, before stopping to scan the street. I flashed the one working headlight to high beam and she bounced towards the car, sticking her head through the passenger side window and immediately she scrunched up her face.

“Nice ride!”

“It goes,” I said as she opened the door and barely noticed the flowers before sitting down.

She held them up to see them better in the street light. “Are these for me?”

Ever brilliant as always, I thought. “Yeah,” I said.

“Thanks.” She closed the door. She inspected them for a moment, before putting them over onto the back seat. It was only then she noticed the duffle. “Going somewhere?” A shadow of regret rested on her face.

“Yeah,” I said. “The movies, remember?”

Her face brightened as she settled into the seat, buckling up the seatbelt. I pulled the old bomb back out onto the road, with the most caution I’d taken all night, and we puttered down the road.

“Is that your bag?” she asked.

“Uh yeah…” I was in no mood to open up about why it was there. “Long story.”

Neither one knew what to say after that so we both sat in silence the rest of the way. No doubt this would be the second thing we’d ever agree on, that this was a waste of time, yet, it bought me two hours I would spend, figuring out the rest of my life.

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