You’ve just blown back into town and you’re at The Salty Dog this one sweaty night with your best mate Jonesy and a few other guys you haven’t seen in a while. Jonesy, he’s been around longer than anybody. He’s a big lad, both broad and tall. Coloured ink writhes up both arms and he has this jagged scar stretching across his massive forehead, but for all that he still doesn’t manage to look scary. The scar on his forehead is the shape of a lightning bolt. You used to call him Potter. It’s the only time he ever thumped you.
The Salty has a few years on her. Time was when her car park was littered with rich-arse SUV’s. There was a bouncer at the door then, letting in those yuppies, those shiny suits slobbering over shiny girls; girls who smelt good and who flicked their shiny hair at you, uncoiled long legs if they saw you looking, even as they laughed at you from behind snarky hands. You hated The Salty then, anyway, but it was good business.
Now, she is gently rotting under her skin, her only patrons the type who, like you, don’t care what trough they drink from.
At some point in the unravelling evening you get up to zigzag your way to the toilet. The Salty has one of those bathrooms where the floors suck at the bottom of your shoes; where the smell of disinfectant cubes, smoke and stale alcohol create a fug that that pricks at your eyes. You slip in a puddle of something nameless and hit your head on the sink. It hurts, but not too much, and when you stagger back out the guys laugh at the blood on your face and you laugh too and order one for the road, and the road.
Later, much later that night, when Jonesy is telling that story, the one about the time he rolled his ute into the bush and hit a pig, a massive fucker, and he picked it up and threw it in the cargo tray and took it home for a kai, just in time for Christmas, but when he got home it was gone, the strangest damn thing – anyway, later that night, that’s when you meet Lolita.
Lured by the blood on your forehead, she stands over you, hands on boy-flat hips in tight blue jeans, sooty eyes stacked on fire red lips, dark hair a spitting waterfall. Damn, she is something.
‘Looks like you’re a clumsy fucker,’ she says.
‘Not clumsy,’ you say. ‘But a real fucker.’ The boys think this is hilarious.
‘Believe it.’ You grab at your crotch with one hand, crook a suggestive eyebrow.
She reaches into her back pocket for a packet of cigarettes, pulls one out and sticks it
in her mouth, eyeing you the whole time. She grabs your lighter off the table, lights up. ‘Wow,’ she says, blowing smoke in your face. ‘Thing is, you’re too fucked up to get it up, and I’m not fucked up enough to want you to try.’
The boys crack up and you should leave it there, but since when do you do that? So instead you say, ‘Looks to me like I’d have to bring a flashlight, anyway,’ and she slaps you, walks away, and you know that she is the one; and the look she throws back over her shoulder tells you that she knows it too.
You work hard at not letting Lolita know she is too good for you. Jonesy helps you get a job as a machine operator at the Sanitarium cereal factory on Pah Road. The pay is shit but you bend over and take it. There are conditions, of course, but you’ve got this, gonna play with a straight bat from here on in.
Jonesy reckons it’s too soon, you barely know each other, but you rent a house for you and Lolita. She had to shift back in with her Dad when her Mum got a new boyfriend and it’s not working out. The house isn’t much, a dog-tired bungalow in Sandringham - worst house worst street and going cheap because the tight-arse landlord doesn’t want to spend money. Lolita names the outside colour vomit yellow, the inside purple bruise. You tear up the carpet the day you get the keys. Somehow the bare boards are better than treading on years of someone else’s sticky history.
You help Lolita shift her stuff from her Dad’s house in Glenfield when he’s at work. It takes a couple of trips in the shitty white van, pock-marked with dents, that Jonesy borrowed from his landscaper uncle. Your stuff fits into an aged Nike sports bag with a broken strap and two cardboard boxes you score from the local supermarket. You and Lolita go second-hand shopping and buy everything you need, including a nearly new mattress with only one dank stain in the bottom corner. The way she looks at you when you’re waving cash around makes you feel like a king.
Lolita is a sackful of wild kittens. When you make love she bites. When you fight she bites. Sometimes in the middle of a screaming match she just ups and runs, and you roam the streets like a tomcat, howling her name, not caring when lights switch on in house after house; when disembodied voices yell shut the goddamn hell up!
One night you’re fighting and this time it’s you that walks out. You wander the neighbourhood pavements. You turn up at The Salty but there is nobody there you want to drink with, and the guy behind the bar recognises you from back then and he says if you’re here to deal mate, keep on walking. You’re not, but you leave anyway. Somehow you end up on the doorstep of your old mate Buckman. Good old Buckman, some things never change.
Hours later you turn on your phone. There are fourteen missed voice messages. You listen as Lolita’s voice ricochets through anger / sadness / hysteria. She’s going to cut your balls off / she’s sorry, please come home / she thinks you are dead.
When you get home you can’t get in. The lights are off and the house is silent, but you sense her in there like a brooding spider. You pound on all the doors and windows, it’s fucking cold out here! She won’t answer why the door is locked. She won’t answer why your shit is all over the lawn - and it’s beginning to rain for fucks sake Lolita, open the goddamn door!
Ha! Now the neighbours’ lights are going on. She has to let you in or the cops will turn up for disturbing the peace. Again.
When she does, she is crying. You hold all the jigsaw pieces of her in your arms until the hiccups come and then you harness the moon for her, and you’re both riding high and life is good. Is so good. Is going to be good.
The first time you meet her Dad he isn’t what you’re expecting. He has this wannabe Calvin Klein look about him; has stuffed himself into these mustard stove-pipe trousers and his crisp white shirt, which has the top two buttons undone showing, of all things, a gold chain, strains against his stomach. His salt and pepper hair is neatly combed back and his shoes are smug-brown leather. His cologne has the stench of expensive - you’d take the fug of The Salty’s bathroom any day.
He takes his time opening the door and although he invites you in he doesn’t put the car keys down that are jingling in one hand, and he doesn’t stop eyeballing his watch.
‘Clint,’ he says by way of introduction, sticking his shiny hand out. Yeah, you think, that’s about right.
It’s pretty clear you are exactly what he is expecting. His eyes do the maths of you in a second and the number he comes up with is loser.
So you’re sitting there in this lounge that is immaculate, in a weird bachelor kind of way, and you’re looking at Lolita, suspended on the edge of this black carnivorous leather couch, surrounded by all this arty shit on the walls - red and black and silver - her bare toes digging into this red shaggy floor rug, and for a second you think the air in the room is going to swallow her up. Blink and she’ll disappear.
‘So Lolita tells me you’re in the food business.’ Clint is talking to you but he’s watching Lolita too. She is picking at a sore on the edge of her scalp with her gnawed-at fingernails and teeny mushrooms of blood are sprouting on her face, but she doesn’t seem to notice. You clock Clint clocking that and you want to hit him.
Instead you pull your sunglasses out of your back pocket and stick them on. ‘Ex-cons take what jobs they can get,’ you say. Lolita sucks in her breath at that. You’d agreed not to go there, but you want this guy to know who he’s dealing with.
‘Daddy,’ she says, ‘we’ve got this great house, we’re gonna do it up, you should come visit.’
You register a couple of things. The way her voice lost a decade when she called him Daddy. The way her sentences tip up at the end like she’s asking a question. The way he looks at her like she’s a stain he’s itching to wipe up.
‘Sure,’ he responds. Yeah right.
You drive home in silence and when you get there Lolita goes straight inside without a word. She gets out a bucket and a whole bunch of cleaning stuff and starts scrubbing at the floor like she wants to get to China. When you ask her what she’s doing she screams at you to fuck off - so you do.
The last days of summer have bled into the first days of autumn. Lolita has given up trying to grow flowers in the small garden beds you made for her on either side of the front porch. She is shrivelling under the threat of winter. Arguments don’t seem to end with you rolling around in bed anymore. In the metallic gaze of mornings you rub against each other like bits of groaning train wreck; but at night, bathed in the glamour, you sparkle and swoop like giddy comets in the arms of a warm Universe.
Some mornings you wake up to the warmth from Lolita’s sprawled limbs and it’s a marvel. Other times all you feel is her tangled weight.
Jonesy has the balls to turn up on your doorstep one Monday morning, looking nervous but determined.
No, he doesn’t want to come in. He turns down the beer you offer, the joint – fuck, Benny, it’s Monday morning - and gets straight to it.
‘Haven’t seen you about much,’ he says.
‘You look burnt out,’ he says.
This is true. But he ain’t no Renoir either. You tell him so.
‘Haven’t seen you at work much,’ he continues.
‘Different shifts,’ you venture. He ponders this while he ponders the crack in the door pane that you are trying, unsuccessfully, to block with your body.
‘How’s Lolita?’ he asks. Lolita came to bed well after you’d hit the sack. She’s still there, curled up in the foetus position, trying to pretend Monday isn’t happening.
‘Working,’ you say. His eyes flick toward the bedroom window where the curtains are drawn.
‘How’s life?’ he asks.
You say it’s great, really great, thank you kind Sir for asking, and he’s nodding and saying good, that’s good, absently, jingling the coins in his pocket and shuffling from foot to foot. This inane shit looks like it’s going to go on forever and you break.
‘What the fuck do you want, Jonesy?’ you ask.
‘I’m worried,’ he says. ‘About you.’ As if the heavens are weighing in, a bank of clouds eclipse the face of the sun and you both shiver in the sudden shadow.
‘Ain’t nothing wrong with me mate.’
He isn’t done. He digs his fists further into his pockets and twirls them about while he considers his shoes. Then, ‘You dealing again, Benny?’ You laugh. This wasn’t what you were expecting.
‘Sure, a little. You’re not slow to grab a joint off me, yeah?’
He ignores this. ‘You said you were done with meth.’
‘I am,’ you assure him.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You gonna tell me you’re friends with Buckman now? He just drops by for coffee and cake?’
He’s got you there. Buckman is as friendly as a dickless bear. This tells you something though, tells you your boy isn’t just watching your back.
‘Mate,’ he says, ‘I’m just looking out for you.’
‘Maybe look out for yourself.’
‘Work won’t take your shit much longer.’
Work is all good. So you have a few days off here and there, they don’t care. And the other, it’s just to tide you over. Fuck minimum wage. Jonesy is just being a pussy and you tell him so, and then ask, ‘So you here on their behalf?’
‘On yours,’ - and he pauses for a bit before he adds carefully, eyes fixed on the doorstep, ’and Lolita’s.’
So there it is. The boy has himself a crush on your little black cloud in a dress.
‘Lolita,’ you say, ‘is fine.’ You wait until he raises his eyes to meet yours. ‘I’m taking real good care of her.’
‘Really? Because from where I stand Lolita’s beginning to look like shit.’
You’re just about to give some smart-arsed comment and then he adds, ‘Like Rose.’
It’s like someone raked a knife down your spine and you bristle up real quick. You go to tell Jonesy, good old Jonesy, to fuck the hell off, but he opens his mouth first.
‘You know what a pitcher plant is Benny?’ he asks. This stops you. You shake your head. ‘When I was a kid’, he says, ‘my brother had one. He called it Royce, and we spent hours watching this plant eat flies. It was the damndest thing. See, Royce would get these flies by sticking nectar at the top of his mouth. The fly would be like, sweeet, and it would start tucking in, and it wouldn’t notice it was slip sliding further down the tube until boom, it’s swimming in acid. Game over.’
‘Jesus, Jonesy, what are you on,’ and you laugh to show you mean well, to cool things down, but he doesn’t laugh back. Just stands there like a gallant fucking Saint Bernard.
Turns out Jonesy is right about work. Informal chats lead to formal meetings with shark-toothed suits from HR baring aggressive smiles.
They like you. They want the best for you. But. You need to get with it. Start turning up on time. Stop falling asleep in the staffroom in the afternoons. And Mondays, no more Mondays off, you understand?
They cut back your hours, give some of your shifts away. Just until things change. Just until you sort yourself out.
At first you don’t say anything but when the rent payment bounces the property manager sends an email and Lolita wants to know what the fuck.
You make the mistake of telling her with the smell of lager and whisky roiling about you like smoke. The look she gives you makes your blood wilt.
‘I’m no fucking loser,’ you say.
You’re not a bad man and there’s just this one time. She’s at you, like a woodpecker, just won’t shut up. The pressure begins to build and the fists you inherited from your father start to itch. You raise one of them and there’s silence, but the face you see in front of you is his and he’s got that look in his eyes and that sneer and you think, this time - you’re gonna land one before he does.
It’s the smallest thing that stops you, a mewling sound that slides past Lolita’s lips and makes you pause long enough to breathe, like they taught you inside. The pressure leaks away like someone turned on a tap. When the haze is gone you stare at each other.
Lolita is the one who laughs first.
Turns out Jonesy is right about Lolita too. Somehow, without you noticing, she has fallen too far down the tube of the pitcher plant. She can’t handle the come-downs, is living for the next hit, is tweaking with need. One night, it’s bad. You’re trying to hold her and you look past her pale face into the back of her eyes and for a second, you swear, you glimpse something ancient writhing around back there staring back at you.
When the cops come by, summonsed by twitchy-eared fast-dialling neighbours, you can barely keep her quiet for long enough to send them away. You can’t, won’t, give her more. Instead you sit on the rumpled bed in your bedroom and press your hands over your ears and rock yourself back and forward, willing her to stop.
The metal beam of early morning and the silence wakes you. You try texting and ringing until you notice her phone, out of charge, on the kitchen floor. Numb, you walk the streets in frantic hope. They offer nothing up. Defeated, you return home to spend the rest of the night bargaining with a mute god.
When your phone goes at 7:06 am the words mean nothing until the nurse says unconscious but breathing. The relief makes you shake. Lolita was found by a bunch of kids on their way home; she was passed out in a pool of vomit behind The Salty. She is in intensive care, has had her stomach pumped. Toxicology report will be in later today. She will be fine, but not for a while. Her father has been called. She is asking for you.
You call Jonesy. Jonesy who has been there the longest. He comes and sits on your couch, watches in silence as you pace and wrestle.
Your Dad was right about one thing - you have the Midas touch for turning gold into shit.
Lolita swears she is going to be ok, just needs a little bit of time. Ok? Just got on top of her, you know, life. She’s sorry, really. She doesn’t need to go into one of those places, and no way no fucking way will she go back to Glenfield, not for one goddamn minute.
You make her a rusty little promise that you will be there for her when she gets out.
Oh Lolita. Hands on boy-flat hips in tight blue jeans, sooty eyes stacked on fire red lips, dark hair a spitting waterfall. Lolita who burns through the heavens ablaze with all the glory god could squash into one humanly being.
Time was when you thought the two of you could push your broken fragments together and be something. Turns out all you did was shatter her into smaller pieces.
You cram what you can into the old Nike bag with the broken strap. Jonesy will store your two boxes until you blow back into town. You meet him, for old times sake, at The Salty. It’s three in the afternoon and without the shield of night, The Salty can’t hide the stains in her dress. Jonesy says nothing when you tell him you’re heading out. Just gives a brief nod.
It’s not a lot, but all you have to offer is your absence.