Spring 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 1


Poetry    Interview    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

Damian Kelleher


Garrett's Day

Garrett's brother Jackson had once acted in Australian films and on television, which meant that Garrett was often stopped in the street by strangers shouting, 'Hey, I know you!' Sometimes he corrected the mistake but often he did not. There was so much he stood to benefit in pretending, for a minute or an hour or a day, to be Jackson Moore and not himself. There were free coffees to drink, free bus rides to take, the sweetener of opened doors and job opportunities and, on occasion, Garrett was able to bank on his brother's name and face to score an introduction with a woman. They were twin, which had served Garrett much better than Jackson over the years.
Oh, there were problems. Elizabeth and the children disliked the interruptions when they dined out, but Garrett was able to either shrug away the hassle and sign a few pieces of paper, or if the starstruck enthusiast was more persistent, he explained the story as best he could. Hilarity, he told his wife, often ensued, and where's the harm in that? And if there was a free meal to be received for the trouble, why not? Besides - and this was a positive aspect to his brother's success that he was not about to brag about to his wife, excuse me, ex-wife - Jackson's three year stint on A Country Practice in the 1980s, for which he was most famous and was the reason for Garrett scoring a small paying pub appearance last year in the city, had served to unite him with Laura.
Post Garrett's divorce from Elizabeth ('I can't continue this sham,' she had said and Garrett, comparing her side of the room which was filled with books and books and books to his own, which contained stacks of newspapers where he highlighted the articles he had written to give to friends, had to agree with his wife that there wasn't all that much worth continuing anyway.), he experienced a long, dark period where nothing at all seemed to go right for him. Garrett worked as a freelance journalist for local and national newspapers. He was skilled in churning out stacks of disposable print for any topic under the sun - give him three days and a subject and he would come back with a thousand smoothly composed words, no problem. A few months before the divorce hubris descended and his writing ability dried up, and for months afterwards, surrounded by the emptiness of his home, he was again unable to put pen to paper with any meaningful success. It was not his fault, he explained to Elizabeth before she left. In her arms she carried eight year old Thomas (and why did he have to cry!), and she held Rachel's hand (twelve years), and she was not about to listen to his excuses. 'I just can't seem to get a break anywhere.'
'You need to find your motivation,' Elizabeth told him, and then she left. She wrote him letters, one a week, outlining what it was he needed to do with his life, and where it had all gone wrong. His hair was falling out. He hadn't touched her sexually in years. He grumbled incessantly about things normal people just didn't worry themselves over. He gloried in his brother's good name. He was taken with ridiculous fancies and high-flung fantasies that didn't actually do anything for anyone. Motivation, Garrett. It's been lacking in you ever since we were married, but how could I tell? I was only nineteen.
Motivation! And a Redgum lyric to boot. A marvelous woman, and she was right on all counts. Motivation? She didn't know the half of it. Months of sleeping in late, leaving dishes to fester in the sink, forgetting appointments and people, ignoring his family, neglecting his friends. Enough! Time to change, motivation, motivation. So Garrett developed a schedule, a rhythm, a way of cataloging and breaking down his every movement until the entire waking day was replete with productive, instructive, helpful, needful activity. He rose early and shaved with water collected from a bucket placed in the bottom of the bath while he showered. The newspapers he had written for had courteously given him a lifetime subscription, now Garrett began to actually read these masses of text. What a system! Thousands, millions of words churned out every day, and what did it all mean? The prose was stilted, the writing polemic, the bias slanted ('But oh ho, they won't admit to that!' Garrett chortled while sipping his (non-freely acquired) coffee), the opinion pieces presented as fact, the straw men set alight with alarming regularity, all in the name of fairness. Who read all this stuff? How could you? You'd spend the whole day reading and even then, the information you had received was so heavily tilted it was impossible to stand up without sliding into an abyss of sheer fathomless stupidity. After reading the newspapers he would walk a long circuitous radius around his house, the course plotted out beforehand by Google Maps and printed onto sheafs of clean white paper he stapled together and carried around on a clipboard. Out, out of the house! It was the only way. He had to keep up his flagging spirits somehow, and it seemed that walking fitted the bill. Who else was it that walked every day? Samuel Pepys? Schopenhauer, too, and Kant, definitely. A fine trio of men! Could he, dare he, add his own poor name to such a hallowed triumvirate?
He dared. Following his walk, of which Garrett was inordinately proud, he would return home to read selections from his half of the books Elizabeth had left him. They were her old review copies and doubles, or works she said he had to read to 'make himself into a human being before it was too late'. He was reading Huxley's Island at the moment, mostly because he knew the author's name thanks to Elizabeth's masters thesis, which she had studied for two years after Thomas was born. 'He's hilarious, did you know that? Island is his funniest work, but all of the novels are so witty.' They would sleep with volumes lining the headboard, books stacked high above them while they slept. During the middle of the night, if the children came in, sometimes books fell on their heads, the dust of yellowed paper scattering in the darkness. After Island he wanted to read John Updike's Rabbit series, another author Elizabeth spruiked while they were together. He had tagged the four books with bright orange sticky notes, in case he forgot. Carpe diem, indeed!
After reading he sat down at his laptop and threw a bunch of words onto the screen to see what would stick. Since he had begun being productive by reading newspapers and books, Garrett had taken to inserting neat little quotes throughout his articles, snippets from novels he used as bon mots for emphasis, and if not quotes then he would allude to great works of modern literature. An article on copyright infringement: "It should be obvious to the reader by now that the use of the word 'stealing' in the advertisements (let's be honest here) shown before a movie in the cinema - and I remind everyone, you have already paid for the cinema ticket, so you cannot be infringing, is similar to Orwell's 1984, where words are twisted and turned upside down for the masses. We do not yet have a Two Minute Hate, but one suspects that even now such a foil is being prepared. In the eyes of this journalist, may I suggest someone harmless, worthless, but with a slight name recognition to us all. Perhaps a writer, they aren't much use any more." Oh, Garrett fancied himself the wit!
More than that. Forgetting his delight in pretending to be his twin brother a moment, Garrett perceived himself as something of an enigmatic fellow. He liked to dress in clothes that spoke well of his economic status, but inconclusively of his political opinion or understanding of social tact. It has been said that a man who surrounds himself with a cloud of cigar smoke is made all the more mysterious for it, but Garrett abhorred smoking and was reduced instead to sucking on lollipops while he walked about town, nodding to ladies in the street. Elizabeth had harangued him constantly to open up more, and even his children questioned his motives in foregoing any sort of external introspection. His son innocently approaching Garrett after dinner and asking whether he was sad or happy: 'I'm an adult, Thomas,' he would say. 'It really doesn't matter which I am, as long as I'm here.' Echoes of the father in those words, though Garrett would deny that with all the breath he could muster.
Emails, Garrett learned to his equal and combating distaste and pleasure, were as easy to send as ignore, to reply as to delete. He seized on to the important emails in his inbox, drafting multiple versions until his response was immaculate. Usually he would begin to perspire in his big black leather chair, and it would be one or two glasses of Red Bull topped with vodka until he could calm down (don't ask). Following up payment, harassing editors about future article topics, moaning to fellow journalists that he was underpaid, under-appreciated, underprivileged and unloved by his girlfriend, his wife, his children, his newspaper, his readers, his country - this was Garrett's email career. But the emails from creditors chasing payment, the poorly spelled, grammatically obtuse, emotionally honest missives from his children, they could be ignored. His wife's probing tender one sentence questions: Have you thought about dinner? Did you put out the trash (It's today, Garrett)? I miss you, do you miss me? Again, those could be ignored, shuffled away to folders marked 'To Do' and forgotten forever. He was also a compulsive Wikipedia-watcher, scouring the list of recently deceased famous people so that he would have a topic of conversation for later in the afternoon when he saw Laura. For all that he was reading books now - books! - and paying attention to world news, he found that nothing beat a good conversation opener like 'Did you know x has died?'
In the afternoon, fed well from Tupperware containers Laura had earlier filled with tuna and rice, avocado salads, skinless chicken breast stews and prawn and cashew salad, he went for another walk, but this time with a purpose. Come three o'clock he was to pick up the children, the sole concession Elizabeth was willing to make beyond the court-mandated one weekend per month visit. He collected the children, walked them five blocks where they were deposited with their mutual - and supposedly neutral - friend Albert, and then he said goodbye. 'Wash your face, Tommy, please,' Garrett would say, hating himself for chastising his son on this, their only brief contact aside from the all important weekend, but doing it all the same. 'If not for me, do it for your mother. Or,' and this with a sly look upwards, 'Do it for our mutual friend, Albert.'
Albert! A mutual friend! Not on your life. When Elizabeth had suggested Albert as a go-between, Garrett had near choked on the massive lump of outrage that had welled up in his throat. It was Albert who had convinced Elizabeth he was worth leaving. It was Albert who had convinced Garrett that he had no hand, no power, no potential for judicial sympathy and no chance whatsoever with obtaining custody of the children. Give her what she wanted, he advised. 'Garrett, you've neglected your wife for years. Neglected the children. Forgotten birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations. When was the last time you ever did anything with any of them?' Garrett hung his head and agreed. Albert, glorious because his chance to assist Elizabeth had finally come, proved less able for the task at hand. He was portly, with jowls and ill-shaved patches along massive downward-sloping jellied cheeks, with a nose composed of burst-blood veins and scraggled nostril hair and, to crown it all, Albert was bald.When Albert spoke he sweat, became red-faced and pounded incessantly on the table as if from indigestion. 'Poor Lizzie sat at home for years waiting until you rustled up enough sympathy to look outside that massive fortress of intense self-absorption you've built around yourself and spend a little time with her, talk with her. You never did. I did! (thump!) Me! (thump!) Not you, me! (Thump, thump!) No excuses for that.'
No excuses indeed. Now Garrett was wifeless, and Albert, well, he was still the same. Elizabeth hadn't seen fit to bestow upon him anything other than thanks and the occasional shared coffee. Perhaps that was enough. And now Garrett's house was empty, large, and owned by his brother so it couldn't go anywhere but stay with him, judge's decree be damned. Elizabeth had been forced into her sister Helen's home, where they were all cramped in together, sleeping on the living room floor. But not Garrett, no. His house had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen, two studies and a loft. A loft! And there was just him inside. The walls watched Garrett wander by, they bended inwards as though to suffocate him. Glass panes rattled in their frames and outside, sparrows swarm and sing. An unfriendly house. He had become afraid of the dark after Elizabeth left. Late at night, unable to sleep, Garrett took to writing long letters to nobody about how and where it all went wrong. Letters he knew would be better sent to Elizabeth, but he burned them outside on the master bedroom balcony, to keep away the dark. Flames spiked towards the lattice of stars that lay across the sky, and finally Garrett could sleep.
After taking care of the children he was cast adrift until Laura finished work. Garrett stayed near the city proper area, walking in looping blocks around monuments, skyscrapers, churches, businesses, residential apartment blocks and parks. He worried about the state of Brisbane's art works. Too many of them were concerned with water, and now that this resource had been deemed scarce, the pieces were halted, the water fountains stopped and finally, the art was dismantled and taken away. To where? Was something coming to replace it? Queen Street Mall's great chairs had vanished months ago and nothing.
Evenings Laura was his saviour. They had met one Friday evening at a low low low-grade celebrity date night. Garrett had pretended to be his brother to get on the panel for a dating game show that wasn't even attempting to insinuate it would ever be picked up for television. No, this was strictly an event to sell beer and caps for their sponsor, VB. He sat in the middle, alongside James Baker from the Hoodoo Gurus and the lead actor from that movie about Gallopoli, Mark Lee. The emcee was Ossie Ostrich's puppeteer, Ernie Carroll, who was there to provide jokes and keep the punters entertained. Garrett was particularly taken that nobody seemed to recognise any of the celebrities, but he figured that was his due, being an impersonator anyway. The lucky lady who, by managerial decision and (happily) popular crowd consent, was to be paired with Garret, sorry Jackson Moore, was Laura, a blonde-haired, deep-thighed, long-necked and very young (hyphen) university student who had scored the gig solely based upon her looks, which were spectacular, and who had wanted the job because it guaranteed her all the drinks she could want for the night, as well as two hundred dollars and the assurance that nothing untoward would happen by way of the 'winner'. Love may be blind, but sometimes it can be pushed, and after their pretend date, which had them sitting in a glittery sequined love-chair placed alongside the cover band for the night, which prevented any form of conversation whatsoever, Laura and Garrett agreed to abandon the pub as soon as possible. They went back to his house, and for the first time in a long time, Garrett slept the night through.
These days they were a domestic pair, though Elizabeth refused to acknowledge the younger woman's validity. A long, heart-felt letter, the thirty-third weekly communication (For Garrett kept them all, the lid to his heart well and truly opened by, of all people, Laura and not his wife), had outlined Elizabeth's secret hope that their divorce would shake Garrett enough that he would remember he truly loved her, and that was all. No more tricks, no more fancy arguments and accusations, she was here and ready and all Garrett needed to do was pick up the phone and promise to love her. He had received this letter the very same day Laura and Garrett were to celebrate their three month anniversary, which they did so by making Coq au vin and drinking Sciacarello so dark it was black. Somewhere within Laura's tangled heritage of German, Polish, English and French, le français had taken charge, prompting outpourings of Camus and Proust, meals ending with petits fours, and dark underarm hair. But he loved her for all that.
One night, this night, at Laura's house after dinner and a movie, she is sitting naked atop Garrett, who is also naked. They have eaten and music plays in the background. Laura says, 'You know, I think you actually like me.'
'Of course I like you,' is Garrett's response. Like I said, the man fancied himself a wit. Above him Laura's weight is noticeable but not great, the comforting warm solidity of a woman astride a man. Fingers twist through her hair while she looks at Garrett, her fingers. His own, long and white, rest on Laura's hips just where the flesh bends and dips to her waist, which is smaller than his wife's ever was.
'I don't mean it like that,' she says. And then with a shift and a sigh they find a rhythm, a gentle up and down rocking on the back of her feet that doesn't require much by way of thought or action or movement or lust, it just is, and the way they are connected reminds Garrett of another rhythmic back and forth he so loves, that of the ocean, of boats. Back and forth, up and down, in and out. Slow and without passion, sailing along the water. 'You actually seem to like me, as a person I mean. You aren't dirty or nasty or condescending or anything. You just like me.'
'I like you,' Garrett says. 'More than anyone else.' Watching Laura's face she seems sad or happy or maybe both, it isn't clear. There are shadows around her mouth and eyes that suggest where, one day soon, lines will appear. The skin around her hips bunches as she lowers her upper body to align mouth to mouth, eye to eye.
'Nobody ever liked me before that I knew,' Laura says. 'Not men anyway.'
Later they are under the cover with the lights off. Something about being under the sheets and blankets bring them closer together. Elizabeth used to want to talk under the covers but he was never really interested, but with Laura it is somehow different. She whispered to him in a voice that was louder than her normal one, a scratchy, intimate, deep, giggling voice. She traced lines along his stomach and ribs and pinched, sometimes. After Garrett's eyes adjusted he looked to the line of dark hair that clouded the space between her legs, and then he placed his hand there and kissed her eyelids which she closed quickly for him. He tried to stay as still as possible when she moved close to kiss his in return, but he couldn't bear the anticipation of her lips and kept moving his head and opening his eyes, laughing.
And then Elizabeth calls and everything is spoiled. An outline of Garrett's day would not be complete without the personalised ring tone that heralds Elizabeth breaking the gentle silence of Chopin's waltzes or Debussy's piano works. The tone, bah da da da! Da duh da da dah da da dah da da! Ah, it sounds better when you hear it. Most things do.
'Garrett it's me.'
'I know it's you,' he said. 'What's wrong?'
'I'm lonely. I'm miserable. I hate living with Helen, I-'
'Hold on, Liz, hold on. Can I call you back?'
'Make it soon, Gar.'
It was time for him to leave Laura's house. 'I'll call you later tonight, sweetheart,' he says as he leaves. Already his fingers are typing in Elizabeth's mobile, to talk on the drive home to the big empty childless wifeless house. 'I love you.'


© Damian Kelleher



Poetry    Interview    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

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