“He hoped that if he just stayed inconspicuous, the commotion in the supermarket would pass without any intervention, but every time he thought now was about as loud as humanly possible, the boy reached a new crescendo.”
Dave was already late to drop his son Ezra back at his mother’s, but on the way in the car the boy said he needed to go.
‘How badly?’ Dave said.
‘Badly,’ Ezra said.
So what could he do? Dave pulled into a shopping centre off the highway and, in a toilet at the back of a supermarket, the boy went.
Dave waited outside the cubicle and, after not hearing any pissing in the toilet, knocked on the door. ‘Need any help, mate?’
There was a flush and Ezra appeared with a big wet patch on his linen overalls. Behind him the floor and the toilet seat were soaked.
‘Look what you’ve done.’ Dave picked him up and plonked him on the washbasin. ‘Wait here.’
With paper towels, Dave cleaned the mess on the floor, put the paper in the toilet, and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ But when he turned around, Ezra was gone. He called the boy’s name and looked in the other empty cubicles. Out of the toilets, he ran down the aisles and in the confectionery aisle found Ezra standing before a row of chocolates. In his hand was a King Size Mars Bar.
He snatched the bar out of his hand and said, ‘I said to wait.’ After he put the chocolate back, Ezra pulled another bar off the shelf, and when he took away that one too, the boy chucked a tantrum. The high-pitched screaming engulfed the aisle and the air became stuffy and hot. With his hand on his neck, Dave glanced around each shoulder. ‘Shhh,’ he hissed but the boy carried on.
Head bowed, Dave massaged his temples to help the headache and hide his face from other customers who were peering around to watch. He hoped that if he just stayed inconspicuous, the commotion in the supermarket would pass without intervention, but every time he thought now was about as loud as humanly possible, the boy reached a new crescendo. Finally, Dave bent down to one knee, grabbed the boy’s arm, pulled him up to eye level and said, ‘Okay, okay. Will you stop if I get you the Mars Bar?’
‘It’ll be our little secret, yes?’ he said.
The boy nodded.
He grabbed the bar, slung the boy over his shoulder and marched out of the aisle, passing an old woman with a Favourites box who shook her head at him and, in time with each shake, made the sound, “Tch, tch tch.”
In the car, Ezra tore the plastic wrapper off the Mars Bar and ripped off a chunk with his back teeth.
‘You like chocolate, huh?’ Dave said.
Ezra turned and grinned at him. Chocolate covered his face and piss-stained overalls. Somehow, with just a little bar, Jack looked like he had fallen face-first into shit.
Dave wound down the window and placed his elbow on the door, half in, half out. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ played on Classic Rock Radio. He didn’t know the lyrics, but he hummed along anyway. The tax man’s taken all my dough/ And left me in my stately home/ Lazing on a sunny afternoon.
The afternoon wasn’t sunny though. The clouds hung low and grey, except in the distance where there was an unobstructed streak of sunshine. He considered the silver lining as he opened the glove box and grabbed a cigarette. As he pulled out a lighter from the centre console, he watched in his periphery Ezra hug his stuffed hippo with the blue knitted socks and striped pyjamas. The boy held the toy very tight, staring at the rows of silos outside, and Dave put the cigarette back down.
‘That’s where cereal comes from?’ he nodded at the silos.
The boy’s head craned around. ‘Really?’
‘Sure,’ Dave said, but he didn’t know. ‘You eat cereal?’
The boy nodded.
He veered off the highway.
‘So what kind of cereal do you eat?’ he said.
‘Granola and aah coconut yogurt.’
At an intersection, he turned left and the car made a clunking sound, which was pretty normal. The front right wheel axle was done. That’s what Dave’s next-door neighbour Jeremy said anyway. He was probably right, not because Jeremy knew much about front right wheel axles, about anything actually. Rather, the car was so neglected and old you could’ve said any part needed replacing, and you would’ve been right. Although today, the sound was more menacing than usual. Dave wiped the dust off the dashboard and unveiled the kilometre clock that read a number a lot higher than the one the mechanic had written on the ‘Next Service’ sticker on the windscreen.
‘What was that noise?’ Ezra said.
‘Nothing. Cars sometimes make that sound when they’re tired.’
‘Are you poor?’
He laughed and twisted the stereo knob. ‘Listen to this riff,’ he said. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ played.
‘Riff? What’s that?’
‘The guitar bit.’
The boy leaned into the speakers. Then he reclined and looked out the window again.
After the song finished, Dave said, ‘What do you reckon?’
‘Mummy says you’re poor,’ the boy said.
‘Well, some things your mum says aren’t always true.’
You could’ve called the boy’s mother protective, but Dave preferred the B-word. He used this adjective an awful lot when he referred to her during the long period when she refused to let him see the boy. That was just over a year ago now. She had her reasons, of course, but she also had money and lawyers. Anyway, he’d cleaned up his act now. Had become more responsible. Now she said she would give him a second chance.
Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ finished, giving way to a radio presenter who spoke in an excited tone. Dave hit the off-switch.
‘Anyway,’ Dave said. ‘Had a nice weekend? At your old man’s?’
The boy was staring out the window as if he didn’t hear. He probably didn’t.
‘Yeah?’ the boy said.
‘Had a nice weekend?’ He slapped the boy’s thigh playfully, trying to sound jolly, less desperate.
The boy nodded and gave him a half-smile. He was glad about that response. The weekend, by all accounts, had been a disaster. Not from any lack of trying. As stated, he’d cleaned up his act, literally. He had decked out the boy’s bedroom (previously the storeroom) with a new little bed and a chest of drawers. He painted the room and even bought a children’s book, The Giving Tree, which he tried to read to him on the first night. He sat on Ezra’s bed and opened the book, but Ezra turned the other way, hugged his hippo and cried for his mother.
‘Your mother’s not here,’ Dave said, which only made things worse. He stroked the boy’s forehead. Over and over, he said, ‘You’ll be okay. You’ll be ‘right.’
When the boy finally calmed down, he admitted that he didn’t like books.
Dave put the book down and said, ‘What do you do before bed normally then?’
‘Play on mummy’s iPad.’
So he downloaded a game on his iPhone and left the room. When he returned, the boy was asleep with the phone propped against his pillow and the hippo nestled in the crook of his arms. Dave took the phone and pulled up a stool, watching the boy’s chest rise and fall with each delicate breath. A toddler’s heartbeat was incredibly fast, he noticed. After all these years, he’d never realised that.
After reaching a road that ran parallel to the beach, he turned right, drove along the coast, and parked in a big driveway. In front of them were two other cars, a BMW and Mercedes, and a three-storey cream-rendered house with pot plants of fake flowers on the porch.
He cut the engine and wiped the chocolate off the boy’s cheek with an old tissue. Then the front door opened.
‘MUMMY,’ Ezra shouted.
The boy flung the car door open and sprinted to his mother like he was escaping some mad man and she was his saviour. His mother squeezed him for a long time. Then she kissed his forehead, said something to him, and pointed inside. The boy ran through the doors.
Dave walked across the white pebbled path to the porch. Standing on the welcome mat, she closed the door behind her. She wore yoga tights that outlined her muscular behind and a top that squeezed her breasts together. She had a thick layer of make-up on.
‘You’re late,’ she said.
‘And?’ he said.
She had taken the tone and expression of his mother or something, and he let out an ironic laugh. But she kept that face of disapproval and he stopped.
‘Jack pissed himself,’ he said.
‘Is that what I tell the piano teacher? Sorry for missing a $100 lesson, Jack pissed himself.’
‘A hundred bucks? Whose teaching him? Ludavico?’
‘You’re clearly not ready,’ she said.
He looked down and contemplated the lawn. Back up again he peered through the glass next to the front door into the living room. He saw her new husband Pete pick Ezra up and push him toward the sky. Ezra held out his arms like he was an aeroplane.
‘Nothing?’ she said.
As she closed the door, he stepped up and pushed it back open. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Just stop for a minute.’
She looked at him with cold eyes and he felt the words that he formed in his head dissolve on his tongue. He stood in silence, looking at the doorknob and after a while she closed the door.
He lit a cigarette on the lawn and listened to Ezra’s laughter on the other side. He took one last drag and flicked the butt into the hedge. Then he walked to the car, opened the boot, got the boy’s things, placed them at the entrance, and started the car. The sun was disappearing and the ocean choppy, and the strong wind blew salt mist onto the windscreen. Dave flicked the windscreen wipers on and the button that shot water, but the wipers just made scratchy noises.
He drove to the nearest liquor store, bought a bottle of Bundaberg and, on the highway back home, took a swig. Then he took another, bigger this time, and turned on the radio. There was still a solitary streak of light among the heavy clouds, and he began considering this silver lining again when he noticed on the floor of the passenger seat the tiny blue sock.
At home he cut the engine in the dirt driveway. He collected his belongings and, as he picked up his phone, noticed a message from Fran that said, Have you got blue sock? Jack distraught. He drank from the bottle and typed, Yes. But he quickly deleted that and sent, No sock here. Then in a tote bag, he put the phone, the Bundaberg and this sock.
Inside he poured a dram of whiskey and went to the boy’s room. Ezra’s sweet smell still hung in the air. He sat on the bed and stroked the blanket. He looked at the pillow, imagining the boy’s head there, and he caressed that too. Then he picked a towel off the ground, which he used to bathe the boy that morning, and switched off the lights. He poured another drink and sat on the big chair next to the window. He fished out the sock and looked out into the darkness, twisting the glass in circles on the armrest. With his other hand, he moved his thumb over the knitted wool until he fell asleep.