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Edition 49

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Fiction

Call me Al

I TAKE MY shoes off at the door, step up and into slippers that are far too small. An old woman hinges at the hip, bowing, her body becoming a perfect right angle. Still bowing, she steps backwards until she’s behind the desk, straightens.

She says in English, ‘Your wife?’ I’m short with her. There’s a misunderstanding. I’m tired enough to not hide my meanness. Since it happened, I have this dreamy feeling, like nothing is real.

In the room she brings me green tea, two cups, two packets of sweet rice crackers, the futon is made up as a double. She bows her way out. I sit at the small, enclosed balcony that looks out over the park. The trees are lit with lanterns. I eat both packets of crackers. I peel all my clothes off. Naked, I drink a can of lemon chuhai I bought from a 7-Eleven on the walk from the station. Look at the lanterns. Drink another, and then sip my green tea cold.

After the funeral I slept on a mattress on the floor. My friend’s lounge room. They said I was too drunk to be left alone. I could hear my friends, red wine in hand, talking about me in their honeyed kitchen where it always smelt of roast lamb. Their cat curled up in the crook of my legs. I woke with my face stuck to the pillow with dried snot and drool.

I turn out the light and crouch awkwardly down. My knees crack and pop. The sheets are cold and I’m awake until I’ve warmed a place for myself.

In the morning they knock to tell me it’s time for my bath. It’s very early, still dark. I walk bleary eyed down a corridor with a roof that gets lower and lower. I pass a tall skinny man. He has to crouch in the corridor. He has very round glasses and a wet towel in hand. He refuses to look at me. I say, ‘Good morning’ in a booming voice and the man jumps. I try to hide my smile.

I shower on a little stool, like I read in the tour brochure, looking down between my legs at my penis hanging. My skin is grey. The bath is deep but tepid. When I get out I check there’s no pubes floating in the water.

 

MY SISTER WAS quiet when I told her I was still going. After eating her burnt steaks and chunky Greek salad I overheard her talking on the telephone. ‘It’s like he’s celebrating,’ she said. She looked up, saw me with a beer in hand for each of us. She made a face like she’d just tasted something horrible and shooed me away with her hand. ‘I’m talking to Mum,’ she mimed, rolling her eyes.

I stood in the backyard. The gums went peachy in the late light. Her kids were squealing and running around. They’ve got a tyre swing. The little one, Jessica, asked me to push her. She squeezed herself through the tyre and sat in there holding on tight. I pushed her too high and too hard and when my sister came out she screamed at me to stop. Jessica was crying and the other two kids were standing watching. ‘Just stop it, James, Jesus,’ my sister said and got right down low to murmur to Jessica. The smell of hot tyre on my hands. A big strip of bark on the gum chose that moment to rip right off and crumple down beside us.

 

I’M THE LAST of the group to arrive downstairs. I step into my shoes. They have been turned as if awaiting patiently for my feet. Fuss with the laces, before taking a big breath.

‘You must be James,’ says an American wearing a bright red baseball cap. ‘Nice to meetcha, I’m Rosa,’ and she shakes my hand hard as a man.

‘G’day,’ I say. I have a feeling like the first day of school, that these moments are important. I look at the lot of them. They’re a blur of sunglasses and visors, like they’ve just stepped off the plane from Florida. The skinny man is there, later I find out his name is Jason, but I’ve already blighted any chance of friendship. There is a tiny woman with brown lipstick. She smiles at me, but in a way that says ‘sorry’.

‘We’re missing one,’ Rosa says looking at a purple clipboard.

I cough, ‘It’s just me.’ I blush. It’s like I killed her. Rosa cocks her head to the side, like a bird would, and pauses too long.

‘Righteo. We’ve got a big day,’ she says. ‘If you get lost, look for the hat.’ She turns and marches out of the ornate wooden gate that keeps the ryokan from the street.

The brown lipstick woman steps beside me, ‘Before you came out, Rosa’ – she says the name sarcastically – ‘suggested that it’s a good idea to have a buddy system, you know, stick together.’ A small laugh, ‘Do you want to be my buddy?’

‘I’m not very good company,’ I say.

‘Don’t worry, neither am I,’ she says with a wink. I have to stop myself from biting my fingernails, a bad habit that seems to return like an allergy, only when the conditions are right.

For the coffin, I dressed her in her swimsuit. The frilly one-piece she bought as a joke, then couldn’t stop wearing because she said it made her feel five years old. I handed the shiny funeral parlour guy her straw hat, sunscreen, espadrilles, towel and her swimsuit in a plastic supermarket bag. I held the vision of her in her swimsuit as the priest droned on and on. Relatives got up and cried and gulped air at the lectern. I didn’t tell anyone I’d dressed her like that. When her mother came to help me pick out a dress, she picked something so sombre I’d only ever seen her wear it to other peoples’ funerals.

 

THEY’RE CUTTING TUNAS as tall as me, slicing flesh that’s frozen grey. The red hat is just a dot down the long aisle. The smell is like the high tideline after a storm, when it’s strewn with dead fish and seaweed but before everything has a chance to rot. I duck down a side aisle to get away from brown lipstick.

I get jostled. A short man I see only as a bald spot yells, ‘No photo, no photo!’ There’s a sea of heads bobbing around me. I try for an exit but the aisles of fish stretch in all directions. I hear crabs scuttling, shell against sandy shell. I bite hard on my fingernails, taste blood. I spit nail, suck my finger and barge out. A man on a forklift shoots past me. I stop on a bridge and look back. Out here it’s serene, a beautiful morning. A man dressed in black robes hides his face beneath a hat. He holds out a bowl in stiff arms, waiting. I search my pockets looking for an offering. All I can find is a train ticket, bent and unusable.

The tour group surrounds me. ‘James!’ Rosa says and walks over the bridge, pulling us in her tide.

‘You want to skip class?’ brown lipstick whispers to me. We’ve both ended up at the back.

I surprise myself by saying ‘okay’.

‘Alrighty,’ she says and takes my hand. Her hand is hot. Jason pretends not to notice we’re leaving. Rosa, explaining, doesn’t see a thing.

On the train, a smartly dressed lady stares at me for a long time before speaking in a whisper. I show her the palms of my hands to say I don’t understand. ‘She said your eyebrows are like brushes, you know, like a dustpan brush,’ says brown lipstick. She does her very best not to smile but it’s in her eyes and there at the corner of her lips. I can’t help but laugh. ‘My name’s Al, you know, like the song – If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal. I can call you Betty, and Betty when you call me, you can call me Al,’ she has a beautiful voice that resonates in the tinny carriage.

‘Good name,’ I say with a small laugh.

‘So I can be your long lost pal?’ she says.

‘I’m no Betty,’ I say.

The Japanese stare at her now. ‘It’s deeply rude to make noise in the carriage,’ she says and laughs a cockatoo laugh.

 

THE SHOP IS five levels high. We pass bulk food, cosmetics, fireworks. Al puts things in her basket seemingly at random: moisturiser, a large packet of shiny rice crackers, each cracker wrapped in a half blanket of nori. ‘We’re really going to be in trouble. If you look at your itinerary, you’ll see free time from 2.15 to 3.15. That’s when you get free time.’ She is trying to mimic Rosa’s accent but failing horribly.

‘Do you think they’re waiting for us somewhere?’ I say with a rip at my fingernails, but Al doesn’t reply.

We glide up escalators. Level five is a mix of electronic goods and sex toys. Two teenagers are giggling near the dildos, and Al pushes past them. They stop laughing when they see us, lean back into boxes of blow-up women so as not to touch us. I hear them whisper ‘scary’ to each other in English.

Al looks at me, poker faced, and holds up an adult-sized rabbit suit. ‘Want to get this?’

The cartoon flat faces of women stare at me from their boxes. ‘Sure,’ I say, ‘yes.’ Wanting only to leave. She puts two in her basket.

Outside it starts raining. The air smells of office, of fish, of sewerage. We buy umbrellas from a stall that appears with the wet and find ourselves at the entrance to the zoo. The panda enclosure is desolate. The panda is laid out on a cement block asleep on its back. It looks ready for an autopsy.

‘You know, you haven’t asked me one question about myself,’ says Al.

‘Haven’t I?’ I say.

‘I could be anyone,’ she gives me her brown lipsticked smile.

‘I told you I wasn’t good company,’ I say. The panda opens an eye. Stares at us through the glass in a way that makes me feel like we’re intruding. I pull her out of the enclosure. My feet squelch in wet socks and shoes. I step in the puddles. Al jumps around each one and I can’t decide which of us is more the child.

‘You know, in World War II the keepers poisoned all the animals. They didn’t want the cages to be bombed and the animals loose. They poisoned them all. But the elephants wouldn’t eat the poisoned food. They starved them to death, can you imagine?’ We’re looking down at the seals as she says this. ‘They kept doing this one trick they would normally get rewarded with food for.’ The seals are swimming fast, around and around their small pool. The rain on the surface of the water makes them a blurry grey. ‘Are you ignoring me?’ she says.

I look at her and think she’s ugly. ‘No,’ I say.

‘Whatever,’ she says and walks off.

I find the elephants. They stand in the rain, eyes closed, trunks resting in the mud at their feet. When a Japanese family stops beside me, I’m crying. The mother holds her child close and the look she gives me is one of horror.

 

BY THE TIME I find Al again the rain has stopped. She’s by the exit to the zoo eating a soft-serve ice-cream, vanilla and green tea swirled together. I’m starving.

‘You want a lick?’ she says.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t worry about it. I’m a moody bitch.’ I wait for her to finish her ice-cream and we start walking again, we’re aimless. We walk past Americanised coffee shops and emptying office buildings. My legs feel leaden, my feet spongy, corpse-like inside my damp shoes.

‘Can we get something to eat?’ I say.

The streets get tighter, darker. She pulls me into a door. Everyone stops, stares.

‘This’ll do,’ she says and finds a spot for us at the tiny bar. I have to squish my legs in under the counter, my knees tight up against it. She barks at the man and he places two large beers in front of us. ‘To buddies,’ she says and downs hers. I gulp my beer.

The man sitting next to me buys us sake. His face is bright. I drink the sake out of politeness and then feel obliged to buy him one. It’s like his whole head is one big smile. The room wobbles and I grip the counter. I raise my eyebrows at Al and catch the barman’s eye. ‘Beeru, futatsu,’ I say.

‘You’re a quick learner,’ she says.

I shrug my shoulders, smile. ‘So what do you do?’ I say.

‘Ah, a question, finally. I’m a man eater,’ she says and there’s that cockatoo laugh again.

 

I PUSH HER hard up against a shop front, jam my knee between her legs and kiss her. I feel far too tall. I stoop, pull her into my shoulder. We’re leaning on glass and in my shadow I can see the shocked faces of Japanese women, chopsticks paused in mid-air, morsels of food hovering. I pull away, grab her hand then vomit my guts up. In the gutter, all over my shirt, my pants.

‘We never ate anything,’ she says rubbing concentric circles on my back as I’m crouched there.

‘Why aren’t you sick?’ I say.

She shrugs. ‘I’m an alcoholic, no big deal.’ But I can’t tell if she’s serious.

I look at her from the gutter. The whole psychedelic version of the day is stinking there between my feet.

‘Do you still want to kiss me?’ I say wiping vomit on my sleeve and giving her a grin.

‘Honey, you’re hopeless. Always with the hopeless ones,’ she adds as if to herself. ‘You’re not going to cry are you?’ I shake my head forlorn. ‘Up you pop,’ she says and I wonder if she’s got kids.

She’s all business now and I’m shaky, reduced to my hopelessness. In an alley, she undresses me. I let her, ready for whatever she might have planned, welcoming it. She throws my clothes away, takes off my shoes and socks so I’m left shivering in my Y-fronts. She helps me step into the rabbit suit. It’s not long enough to go over my head. She tries to force it and it rips. She zips it up as best she can and ties the ears together under my arms. My skin prickles with the cold. She stands back to look at me.

‘Good?’ I say and start to laugh uncontrollably. She starts to laugh too and we can’t stop. It’s a laugh that could turn. It’s a pain in my chest. When I look at her she’s gasping for breath, tears running down the side of her face.

‘Give me a second, give me a second,’ she says, her hand steadying herself in the air.

I tighten the ears around my chest.

‘I’m not doing this alone,’ I say and rip open her rabbit suit. A plush paw flops out of the bag.

‘Okay, okay,’ she says and stumbling puts her own rabbit suit on over all her clothes. I zip her up.

‘Can you remember the way back?’

She looks down the dark alley and nods. Her rabbit ears flick over her shoulders.

The tall buildings are at our back. We walk up stairs and back into the park. My rabbit feet are sodden. I hear a lion roaring. It doesn’t stop, it goes on and on, like it’s calling and hearing no reply.


From Griffith Review Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review