Cactus: Chapter One

  In 2011, my cousin, Joel returned to Australia after nine years in Africa. Mr. Chong’s whistled rendition of For What it’s Worth bounced off the mirrors and kettle bells as he sucked up hair ties and drink bottle caps off of the carpet between the treadmills one night in July when I was working the desk. Mr. Chong switched off his vacuum cleaner backpack and took a handkerchief from his pants pocket.

“Finished?” Asked Mr. Chong, lazily dabbing his fore head.

“All done.” I said. I walked towards him across the gym floor, unwrapping a chicken sandwich. “How were those sketches I sent you?” I pressed the cool cling wrap to the skin beneath my eyes. Mr. Chong made an O with his index finger and thumb and held it before me. “Superb.” He said. “dinner?”

“I’ll eat more when I get home.” A smile waved over Mr. Chong’s face and his eyes became heavy. “Get some rest.”  Said Mr. Chong. “See you Monday.”

The air was stingy and the town centre deserted: 9:00pm. Manuka, too, was dead. I ran upstairs to my apartment and jumped in and out of the shower. On the kitchen bench lay a magazine I’d been re-reading for days. The title of the article asks, Could Clean Energy get Dirty? I fetched a jug from the cabinet above the sink and filled it with water then took a glass from the drip tray and read the statistics I had been salivating over compulsively all week. After the wind turbine section my body became agitated and I stumbled over to and sunk into the couch, dropping my cup on the carpet beside me. In the three years prior to Joel’s departure, the two of us lived in an apartment across town. Late every evening, Joel went out on ‘missions’, as he referred to them, and often left the apartment again before I woke up for school.

When I arrived at my exam the next morning, I couldn’t find my name anywhere and when I asked whether I was in the right examination hall the woman told me I was not allowed to wear my watch. I exchanged it to her for a raffle ticket and a plump woman was helping me to my desk when I noticed Freya Burns sitting in one of the further isles to my right. My paper was on a desk in the back row and I took a seat and stared at Freya’s coat collar and endless blonde hair. A gentleman in a polar fleece approached my desk and asked to see my I.D. card. I searched my pockets before spotting what I was looking for on the floor beside my desk, an orange, A4 piece of paper folded twice.

“I forgot it.” I explained. “I was to fill this out and present my I.D. at the examination office in the next two days.” The gentleman took it, thanked me and left and I resumed my stare at Freya’s thickets of blonde hair and tweed collar. The gentleman promptly returned. “Are you going to fill it out?” He asked, laying the orange, unfolded form flat on the desk.

Freya left the examination hall ten minutes before the exam ended. I collected my watch and hoped to see her waiting outside wandering aimlessly. I was thankful I didn’t get a parking ticket and toppled hopelessly into my car. As I drove home I imagined vague, dialogueless scenarios where Freya saw me being clever or cute. Then I sung as if to her and then I was home. My mum and sister sat on the couch watching the telly when I entered the living room. We exchanged pleasantries and I ventured forth to my room with a soup bowl of coffee. When I lived with Joel, he left post it notes on the fridge for me each morning before school. They usually entailed a quote or a short message, the page number of articles he thought I might find interesting and a cartoon. Joel left the magazines containing the suggested articles on the kitchen counter before leaving the apartment each morning and each morning before school I sat down and read through them while I sipped coffee and smoked his cigarettes with my buddy Jamie. Joel was big on Jungian psychology and the articles often drew on archetypal or mythological symbolism, though Joel read so prolifically that the variety of topics he left for me to read was monstrous, ranging from the cognitive revolution to the invention of capitalism. He left little notes in the margins of the articles, usually in the form of questions and we discussed them in the afternoons over scrabble or crib.

Later that week my phone rang while I was doing a poo at the club. “Hello.” I said. It was my Joel.

“Get etatha cubicle ye shitcunt.” Surrounding the cubicle, sneakers and spew covered denim and chino cloth twitched and kicked. “Give me a second.” I said into the phone. The bolt on the door appeared to be unlocking itself and the toes of a pair of sneakers protruded through the gap between the bottom of the door and the tiles. I flicked open the bolt and the cubicle door bounced off the toilet paper dispenser to my right. The locksmith stumbled into the cubicle. “Fuck me you right?” His skin was pasty and freckled with sores and bumps and his sandy hair browned by sweat. He angled his head upward slightly to get a better look at me, first in disgust and then as if relishing the knowledge something terrible was to happen to me. I exited the cubicle and the bodies belonging to the sneakers breathed on me and watched me as I made my way across piss puddled tiles to the bathroom exit. “Hello.” I said into the phone, pacing down Delverton Street towards Actum Bar “Joel. Joel.” I said. “Joel.” I hung up and redialled his number. No answer. I repeated this three times and by the time I gave up I was looking over Delverton Street from the roof of Actum with a couple of buddies of mine from Tai-Kwan-Do.

The following morning, I got coffee with Mark and Maria. Their boy, Danny was going through one of his Hitler phases.

“The boy fails to acknowledge the wrath of Stalin.” Said Maria, nibbling a chunk of carrot cake. “You should meet his tutor, Meryl.”  Maria angled her head down and widened her eyes at me. “She would be about your age, actually; I could flick you her number.” Maria sipped her latte. “She’s got sideburns and a crippling dread of socialising, mind you.”

“What’s the catch?” I asked. The three of us were sat in the sun and I realised I desperately needed it. The just commenced and Ronaldo scored a hat trick against Spain in Portugal’s opening game which Mark and I discussed while Maria rolled her eyes and mimicked the two of us. When talks turned to business I placed my portfolio on the table and began presenting my work for the month. There were less than half the illustrations compared to the month prior.

I rifled through beach scenes and landscapes without looking up from the illustrations and began to turn to my portrait of Christ Novoselic when Mark’s hairy hand weighed heavy on the plastic slips.

I stared at two of them and appreciated the sunshine on their healthy looking skin, understanding it was likely to be the final time. Eventually, it was decided that it would be in my best interests to peruse endeavours better aligned with my goals. The coffees were finished shortly after this consensus and I hugged Mark and Maria and assured them We would see one another in the near future and went inside to order a takeaway. Poking out of a magazine holder by a couple of stools at the counter was a Gonzo, a local mag Joel sometimes used to get and I began reading the cover while blindly navigating my buttocks to the seat of a stool. Barles Huckwheat, an old friend of mine and Joel’s from Germany had a seven-day expedition open a forty-five-minute drive away in Deans. “Barles Huckwheat.” I said looking into the space ahead of me, the role of the name off my tongue escalating the excitement. I thanked the sir for my coffee and made for Deans to see Old Barles. The last time I saw him was in Brisbane, 2008 when the nights were alive and the tequila told lies. I drove to Deans fast and sung every song in a high pitch yodel.

Upon arrival I spotted Ol’ Barles outside the entrance of his exhibition. He had long hair and sleepy posture. I swung my car into a spot and crunched my way across the car park. Barles absently took a pack from his back pocket and scanned the landscape of cafes and boutiques before him. Catching the briefest glimpse of me, he commenced scanning back the way and then snapped his head in my direction.

“I’ll be fucked.” Barles mumbled, a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip with spit. “Tyler the Hoon.” A lemony smile broke out under Barles’ thick doughy nose. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been called that.

“When the hell did you arrive?” I asked. “Why didn’t you call me?” I realised the extent of my fury as I spoke. I followed him out the back of the building and found a quaint sitting area.

“Best part of the exhibition.” Said Barles, spreading his hands appreciatively out by his sides. Barles sat down and lit his cigarette and I took a seat beside him. Neither of us said anything for a short while.

“When was the last time you spoke to Joel?”

“I haven’t spoken to Joel since I was twelve.” I said while Barles tried to determine whether I was telling the truth.

“Why?” I asked. “What the hell has happened to Joel.” Barles stared a few feet wide of my left ankle and his right hand twitched to the rectangular denim tumour on his thigh. Unable to mask a smile, Barles tapped a little beat before hovering his hand over the pocket opening. I stood and took a stride as if to begin pacing about the court yard then swiftly turned to Barles. Then Old Barles started crying.

I sat back down  and draped my arm across his shoulders. “O Barles.” I said. “What the hell are you doing to me? Just explain to me what’s going on.” Barles wept for a while longer then broke free of my tenderness and pottered down a set of steps. “Follow me.” Said Barles, flailing a right hand into the air above his head, “Follow.”

I followed him into a building across between an office and a granny flat and sunk into a couch. In front of the couch was a thick, circular pain of glass, supported by four steel tubes that swirled up from the floor boards symmetrically to support it. Barles shredded clothes from a wicker basket on top a tiny fridge in the entrance of the second room.

“O.” Said Barles. “I’ll tell you what I can. But your cousin.” Barles began to weep again and pelted his arms down in distress at having dampened a fresh white tshirt.

“FUCK.” He roared. He took off the shirt and pitched it at an unplugged microwave by my feet. “I don’t know what to tell you about your cousin, Tyler.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well just let me tell the story.” Said Barles.

“Alright.”

“You like the tshirt?” Asked Barles. “I had it custom made.” I expressed my awe. “Feel the material.” Said Barles “It’s the most expensive clothing material you can buy; absolutely lipid, so it is.”

“What’s the story with the microwave?” I asked.

“Guy lives around here.” Said Barles. “Lovely guy. Never had any issues, came to the gallery the other day with a couple of his mates and loved it.” Barles looked mercifully at the microwave and squashed his cigarette into an ash tray. “Came round last night asking if I wanted to buy his microwave off him.”

“Jesus.” I said.

“Night before last.” Said Barles. “Came by asking if I wanted to buy his kettle.” Barles and I looked at one another pulling sucked in lips smiles.

“No one has seen or spoken to Joel in days.” Said Barles, finally, gazing reluctantly at the ceiling as if reading a KKK propaganda film script. “The last anyone heard he was at Kimpo’s with the hounds for Dim Berone’s birthday.” That word made my stomach squeeze. The hounds were the reason Joel went to Africa. They went on missions like the ones Joel used to go on.

“All four were murdered that night, Tyler.”

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