It is Sunday morning so the lobby’s empty. Through the ticket window you can watch the inkblots of scum forming on the carpet before the cleaners come through tonight. On the window I can see Dale’s bloody eyes and fluro thermos that is leaking a ring of coffee onto the bench. It’s Dale’s regular Sunday dress. It is common knowledge that his liver can be rung out like a tea towel. Dale Parsons’ crinkled 12th Form tie and crew cut are local legend at school. When I decide to ask him how he is faring I reckon its Cameron’s confidence that makes me say it.
Ya feeling any better yet? The ticket booth is warm and sterile and it always makes me feel better.
Almost. Dale hitches up his jumper and drags his fingers through the thatch of shaggy black hair that descends from his navel into his belt. I shouldn’t look. Its sick and wrong and invasive. I’m a good person really. People tell me that and they would have a much better idea than I do. But it doesn’t look like Dale has noticed.
Tell me something, he says.
Anything. Just get my mind out of my skull.
C’mon Stephen, I tell you everything. What did you do last night? He lifts the thermos and again I can see the ring of spilt coffee on the countertop. It could seep through the wood and leave a ring there forever.
Nothing. Got assignments due Monday.
Tenth grade’s a bludge, Steve; ya trying to hard. Go get shitfaced. It’ll do you some good.
Tell me about something else then. Tell me about Laura. Dale has enough tact not to talk too much about school.
What more is there to know?
I don’t know. What did ya do when you were with her? It feels like Dale was after some salacious detail but I’ve got more class than that.
Back in Gosford, Laura and me would piss around on the groynes and toss chips into the harbour near where Mum used to take me for walks as a kid. Laura was always pale and in the wind off the sea her skin turned turquoise. In peak season we’d sneak into motels and moonlight as guests to use the pool.
That is what I tell Dale. I just wish it were true.
Sounds grouse, Dale says. And you don’t even talk to her anymore?
No. We broke up pretty bad just before I moved down here.
It doesn’t sound like you’re too over it.
I guess not.
My pocket starts vibrating and it breaks up my mood. Its Mum and I hang it up almost straight away. Store policy. I feel pretty stupid though that for a second I believed it could be anyone else.
Who was that?
Didn’t recognize the number.
They’re the most fun to answer. No strings attached. Dale has this way of talking where his saliva sloshes about on his gums. His nose has a kink in it from where he tripped into an elm tree after a ‘particularly big piss up’ as he calls it. It is hard to make out the minute puncture on the side of his nose where his stud should be.
Next time I’ll hand it to you then.
He grins and picks up the thermos. I wipe up the coffee ring before he even knows what’s going on. There isn’t a stain on the bench. I’m not even sure the bench could stain.
You’re a bit protective of this place aren’t you? I always feel like I’m coming into your bloody home.
I like it here. And I do. I like the massive cinema issued jumpers that hide my gut. I like watching kids come out of the theatres and dance around their parents feet or fire blanks from finger guns. I like sneaking into the theatres during my break and watching anything, I really don’t mind what. I do particularly like the double decibel narrators who’s minds are a monologue with an audience. And I like my name box.
I can feel Cameron’s confidence in me. If I have to share all of this personal crap then Dale should too.
What happened to you last night? Dale waggles the thermos in response. Exactly, I tell him. How’d it go? Dale doesn’t look to keen to talk. Dale is royalty at school and I know much better than to piss him off. You don’t have to tell me.
Nah, that’s alright. I trust you. And its not like anyone listens to you anyway. It almost sounds affectionate. Got trashed. It was a house party at Jason Cardigan’s. Dianne Peterson was there. His house backs onto a park, so I snuck out the back and threw up into a bush for twenty minutes. I feel I should be making sympathetic noises but they don’t seem to be what Dale wants. Then I didn’t want to go back inside, and I didn’t want to go back home. So I had the car there because I thought I was gunna stay the night and I just got in and drove.
North on the highway. I’ve got an uncle in Port
Macquarie. I was so drunk I thought I could get that
far. I was so drunk I thought I could drive. Didn’t get too far though.
Dale trails off as a girl approaches the counter. She has a broad grin which parts across her face.
How’s it going? opens Dale. It is as if he never told me anything. There is that familiar fucking bravado back in his voice that makes it sound instead like she’s going to help him.
Fair right, says the girl. There are little red pimple bumps falling from her hairline and collecting on her eyebrows. She has eyebrows peaked like Laura’s. Once Laura tried to show me her newly sculptured eyebrows. She covered her eyes with her hand and tripped over a bedroll on her floor. This girl has spent a lot of time on these eyebrows from the way they are plucked and groomed. They obviously mean hell of a lot to her.
What can I do ya for, then?
A second girl is approaching my counter. She looks a little like Molly Rhoeder from the old High School. Her dress is crinkled at the front like palm lines and there are freckles across her neck which fall into her cleavage.
How can I help you?
Do I know you? It must be the surprise because for some reason I suddenly feel guilty that I don’t.
No. I don’t think so. Sorry.
Why are you sorry?
I don’t know. There is really no need to know me. It is only after this sentence has been released from the factories of my free forming adlibbing mind that I realizes its inadequacies, its stupidity, everything it neglects and collects. Every bit that is wrong with my fucking brain.
Well, I’m Penny. And it is a pleasure to meet you, Cameron.
It’s Stephen. I certainly doesn’t feel like Cameron any more. I drop the badge on the bench. Not even that sounds right. It takes too long to fall.
Stephen then; I didn’t think you name was Cameron; you didn’t really look like a Cameron anyway.
What can I do for you? I can see myself talking on the glass. I can see her too. It feels like I’m talking to both of us. But I’m professional. My eyes will never leave her face.
Are you sure I don’t know you?
Do you go to Hornsby High? There is a fluorescent fucking pimple on my chin.
Ninth grade? I scratch down my fingers down my face and one nail is able to catch it. I hope she hadn’t noticed it but I’m not sure how she couldn’t have.
Tenth. But there is too many assignments and crap on at the moment.
Ten’s a bludge. You’re trying too hard.
Thanks. She is laughing and her hair slides across her face. Her hair is blonde and brown so it can’t be told which is natural. Its probably neither.
Still got pencils at home from tenth grade. Chewed them right down to the graphite. Made my teeth black. Have you ever done that?
Are you new around here? I reckon I can make out her breath through the glass. Something fruity, strawberries maybe. It is always berries in books. There is definitely a fiction in her.
Moved down from Gosford few months ago. Her skin is pale and clear. It is almost like Laura’s except Laura’s skin is paler so any mark or mood shows up very clear.
And you chose this dump?
My mother wanted to live by the hills. It was after dad died.
I’ve been to Gosford, she starts suddenly. Me and some friends took the train up and got trashed on the beach. Then we wrote treasure maps and love letters and rumours and stuffed them into cruiser bottles and piffed them off the dunes when the tide was up. Did you ever do that?
You should. It’s liberating. Do you go back up there much?
No. I don’t think I’ll be going back for a while.
Do you like it here?
Why are you asking all of these questions? I can see pores pop across her forehead and drape down her cheeks.
Am I making you uncomfortable?
No, no. There is a cloudy yellow in her eyes, like paper left in the sun.
Its alright, then; I know you now. Do you like it here? I like it here. Its such an easy place to dislike though. The main street reeks of smog and the derros always wolf whistle a mouthful of smoke and spit at me whenever I’m at the train station.
I like working here. Behind the counter. My gaze is snagged on the point where her eyelid comes together and the pinky grey slug skin and cyst on the edge of her socket. It’s like I’ve found some secret on her face that no one’s supposed to see.
What is it like back there?
What is it like back there?
Ha. I doubt that.
It seems so.
I’d love to work back there. It feels more like a compliment than a statement.
Can I help you with anything?
Penny? It’s Dale. At some point his customer has gone.
Hi Dale, just having a chat to your friend here.
Can we get you a ticket or not? Dale looks really pissed off.
Orright then, she concedes. She shuffles over to Dale’s counter. I can’t look at her so I start wiping down the bench tops. Dale has the same Adidas runners as I had back in Gosford. Mine had a series of welts in the side where I scraped them on the rocks by the headland. The shoes got ditched in the garage sale before we left. Only one car load of stuff is going south, Mum said. I’m not doing another fucking trip. When they are done Penny calls out “see you later boys.” I look up so I can watch her legs swing around the corner.
I think she likes me, I tell Dale. As I say it I realise it is ridiculous. Dale is tossing scrunched up ticket stubs at a poster against the back wall.
We used to go out. She’s just getting back at me.
Are you sure. I feel stupid for asking. He’s pretty fucking sure.
Drop it. Seriously.
Ok. The stubs are bouncing off the wall and across the floorboards. The ink has smudged on the sweat and force of his fingertips. Something in me thinks he is lying. I don’t know what to do or think. So for some reason I start talking.
Hey, what happened when you decided to turn around last night? The timing feels wrong and I’m already regretted asking.
Nothing. Just came back. Realised I was broke. Completely broke. Not enough time here with you.
It seems best to leave him alone. So I finish wiping the countertops in silence. Since he’s still pissed off I wipe out the slots in the cash register, pull the loose tacks off the cork board and restocks the brochures. I pick Cameron off the bench and toss him below the counter. There isn’t much else to do so I rearrange the gift cards into rainbow order until it is time for his break. The whole time my mind is filled with the pores of her forehead.
Well, see ya later then.
Outside the booth there’s a draught is blowing through the front doors and I can feel it the flabby rolls of my gut. It makes me think even more so that Penny was just some practical joke or misinterpretation. Even if that’s true I still want to see her again. In my head I am walking her to the station past the
bungalows and the derros at the station. Then on the platform we kiss.
The escalator is broken again so I have to take the stairs up to the cinemas. The grand red carpet is stamped with the blackening shell of old bubble gum. The building is a big empty mess. With the Multiplex opening at Karringal, it won’t be long before the whole place packs it in.
Cinema 3 is third down the corridor. I go in and pull the door closed because I like seeing the rim of light snap out. The screen blares out its own glow and two dozen patrons stare back dumbly like roadkill in a headlight. I can’t see her. From back here all the haircuts look like Penny, short and long bobs of muted hair. They all look like Laura too.
I never thought it could be like this, Don, Says the screen.
Julianne, I always thought it would, replies the screen. Always, it adds. The man and woman kiss. The two heads, minds and powdered cheeks move in slowly together. Their brows meet gently and then pivot about the nose.
Suddenly I feel ill, like someone is clamping my throat. I quickly leave the cinema and head for the staff bathroom. Someone has spilt toilet paper and piss all over the rim and it takes a few minutes of cleaning before I can sit down. My fucking phone starts ringing halfway through and I hang it up without it even leaving my pocket. If I feel like dealing with Mum then I can just play the conversation out in my head. Some drippy crap about how I’m fine and then something about dad, etc. I don’t want to think about Penny or Dale or Mum or anything in Hornsby that’s not the bleach coloured door in front of me. Instead I try to think about when on some warm day me and Laura climbed
in the middle of town. If
you jump the fence near the car park and bash through the conservation reserve
then you get to the top of the cliff that hangs above Mount
Street and the Woolworths. From there you can see
the whole town centre and the station and the lawnmower shop where Dad worked
and the clinic where Mum was a nurse when she wasn’t on one of her 9 to 5
smokos. Behind the highway and the cheap motels, the town falls away over the
groins and into harbour.
I can’t imagine ever living away from the sea, says Laura.
Laura picks up a rock by her feet.
I bet you can’t get this onto the roof of Woolies.
What if I missed? I could hit someone.
C’mon. I reckon you can do it. She hurls the rock and it crosses the street to bounce along the supermarket’s roof.
See. Nothing to it. She hands me a rock. C’mon. Will you do it for me?
I throw hard. The rock clears the road easily and scuttles across the middle of the roof. Laura holds my hand. We sit down in the brush and kiss for a long time. Then I am looking into her pale face and all at once I can see the cysts in her eyes.
I want to be sick again but my stomach wont let me. I put my head into the bowl but nothing is coming. I stick my fingers down my throat to where my tongue is rough and bubbly and my head begins to throb. The toilet reeks of piss and bleach and suddenly the whole thing feels stupid.
Someone outside is fiddling with the combination lock on the door. I climb into a ball on the seat in time to see Dale’s Adidas traipse past under the door to the urinal. I listen to the steady force of the liquid hitting the ceramic. I know I shouldn’t but I don’t care. He never has to know I am here. I lift off my jumper and place it on my lap, then my shirt. Looking down I see my confetti skin and enormous flabby gut still slowly eclipsing over my cock. I listen to Dale finish up. He leaves without even washing his hands. Outside the cubicle I look at myself in the mirror over the basin.
Julianne, I always thought it would, I tell the mirror. It sounds fucking hilarious. I spread my fingers across the gut and change my tone. I always thought it would. It just sounds so ridiculous any way I say it. I put on my shirt but leave the jumper off. The shirt is somewhere less than skin tight and was the only size they had. There is another pimple on my chin and I decide to leave it. Then I go outside to wait for Penny.
Dale has already gone for his lunch break when I get back behind the window. I pick up all his stubs scattered across the floorboards and carpet and wait until the crowd begins trickling down the stairs. There are Mums squinting in the light and clumps of teenagers staring into the carpet. Penny’s not there. I watch through the stragglers, a middle-age couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. I don’t even care that I’m watching them. It’s probably what they want anyway. She is not coming and I get to feel stupid again for believing she would. There is a fingerprint on the outside of the glass near where her hand was resting. I can’t help but think its hers. I can’t help but think where else her fingers have been. I don’t normally clean the windows from the outside but this spot is particularly offending me.
Outside with my cloth I wipe clear the fingerprint and look back in through the glass. I can see the canary yellow counter and the roller chairs and the bin and where I sit and where Dale sits and how we move behind the rectangular window. I can see myself on the reflection. I put my fingers to my chin and decapitate the head of the pimple so it falls triumphantly into the carpet. Then I put on my jumper and go back inside to wait for Dale to return.