050110: change, indelible, avenue, fortitude
(stimulus words from Matty K)
George scratches at the knees. They are black, splotches of black. Patchwork tattoos where he knelt against for days. Masses of dark fill, stabbed into the skin at different moments in time.
The most recent ink has scabbed over, and the surface beneath the peeling crust gives way to a new colour. Fake green secondary prison black. Faded square photograph film chemical smiley black. Untouched mould on the corner of the kitchen table black.
To stretch the skin and pull it over the knee cap means displacing that black with brown, old brown with new black; and the dome-shape of bone makes new topography of the inscribed lines. A crest of flesh.
Those hours he spent kneeling on gravel, small rocks carving out tiny wounds, the sting cut off at the numb. Back when his knees were naked, dressed only with spots of blood, stratas of skin scratched up. The needle from the tattoo machine revisits the gravel cuts, sealing them in with markings, like flat fallen headstones. A signature of momentary pain, and a forever reminder.
The gravel sits on the floor of the hulking back end of a street cloaked in darkness. It lives in the shadow of the surrounding buildings. There is a chainlink fence trembling in the breeze. The light metal-on-metal clink haunts the hallway of the nearby school. The children learn in earnest and their giggles are unheard by George as he kneels on the sharp rocks at the end of this street. His palms are on the ground, his eyes squinting.
“It’s here. I know it, I can feel it.”
He runs his fingers over his left earlobe where there remains the rounded metal stud. It takes the shape of a miniature cone beach shell. He closes his eyes and exhales.
He doesn’t need to touch his right ear to comprehend the void, to feel what is missing, although he instinctively runs his fingertip over a smooth, empty lobe. One hole. Absence.
He squints back at the gravel on the ground, scouring for a difference in texture or a glint from metal. This is his third week of searching this place.
+ + +
We swam a shimmering sea, and the sunlight stretched for aeons. The salt had crystallized in the hair on top of my head and melted in with the skin on my lips. I licked them, pre-empting the taste of soft fat hot chips and ginger beer. We dove under the waves in unison, a simultaneous lunge under a blue swallowing spirit. Our smiles were infinite, our teeth white painted picket fences atop mountains. It was your birthday, and after months of tension and no free time, we were spending our first day together outside of the house. You looked so young that day, soaked in light and ocean, and I remembered how you tousled your hair with your right hand the first time I met you eight years earlier, a nervous tic. You told me “no presents”, so I reasoned that if it was small in volume, then that wouldn’t count. Tiny is practically nothing, right? I had bought you sterling silver earrings, spiral shells. You had told me about when your mother threw away your collection that you had gathered from numerous beaches, because you kept them in a black plastic bag under your bed. Your favourites were the spiral cones because they reminded you of the best things: curling smoke, tornadoes, propellers, water swilling down the drain. You took out your barbells and put them in straight away, sternly telling me that you had stipulated that you didn’t want presents… your mouth a thin pursed line… but I could see your dimples peeking through your beard.
~ ~ ~
The town was dry. George had called every lead he could think of.
Amelia hasn’t been to work for six days, and she is made up of cold gooseflesh skin, dripping eyes and nose, pain in her limbs, anger and begging. She spent all morning pleading with him in a thin strained voice, doleful eyes that he loved.
“I just want to feel good again… what’s so wrong about that?”
This peppered with haggard screaming, heaving sobs and the unconscious hours, eerie with quiet.
His phone rings. Private number.
“Tom mentioned you need some stuff. Meet me in the laneway near the primary school in half an hour.” Female, middle-aged.
George hangs up, looks over to where Amelia is breathing deeply, face half-buried in pillow, breathing through an open mouth. The circles under her eyes are pulled down her gaunt face by gravity, cheeks loose from vomiting and no food for days. It is a matter of minutes before she will wake, when the crying will begin.
He leaves through the front door.
As George approaches the entrance of the laneway, it occurs to him that he has to think hard about whether he has ever walked down there before. He had heard of the ghosts and monsters that dwelled there, of lives and deaths available for purchase there. He scans the length of it and makes out a pale figure against black shadow, an inverse silhouette stark in the daylight, at the end of the street. He is certain he has never walked down that far. As his shoes crunch on the asphalt he swiftly glances at the figure every second or third step, does not want to appear as if he is staring. She is medium ambiguity, brown shoulder-length hair, white singlet, blue jeans, pink skin. Cleverly orchestrated for normality, to blend in. As he nears her, he makes out hard lines at the edge of her mouth and corners of her eyes, etchings of pain and history.
“I’ve never seen you before…” Her voice is tarmac, a grainy mixture grazed with years of use. Her gaze meets his offensively, neck craned forward, chin snaking from side to side, an intimidation tactic picked up from time inside.
“Uhm, I’ve got the money here-“
“Wait-!” She is barking, short and high-pitched. “Turn around. Hands up against that fence.”
George feels a small hard nuzzle deep into the small of his back. Her hand runs firmly up his right side, rough across his chest, then sharply grabs his neck, her thumb planted behind his right ear. Her grip is stronger than George imagined she would be capable of. She is twisting his jaw around, restricting his trachea. She breathes blades and flames, her voice near his left ear. “No wire… If you’re a pig, then you’re shit at it.” Crackly laugh. “Money. Now.”
She loosens her hold on his neck to snatch the 100 dollars, and shoves a small ziplock bag in his hand. It’s smooth and cool in his hot sweaty palm. “Tell Tom he owes me fifty bucks”, she spits, walking away brusquely. Her wide gait mimics her swaying shoulders, and the lump of the handle is visible under her white singlet, above the back waistline of the jeans. George lets a breath out. As he stalks back up the laneway, he rubs the rawness on his neck and jaw, noticing that he has lost one of the silver shell earrings he has worn every day this last four years. He hurries into his hatchback and drives back home.
He opens the door to moaning and wailing.
Amelia’s voice is cutting.
“Where have you been? You have no idea what I’m going through right now… I just want to feel okay again…”
George displays the ziplock bag, pincer grip. He is relief, disgust, guilt, fear. Disassociated and dirty.
Amelia’s eyebrows shoot up, she lunges, arm out, to pinch the bag from his hold, and hugs him briefly.
“I love you.” She sprints into the bedroom.
George sinks into the leather lounge, defeated, turns on the cricket, volume up past three quarters. Drown it out.
The next time he sees Amelia, an hour later, she is a stone, a ship lost in battle. Her eyes are open, vacant, limp dry hands, vomit mouth and chin.
There is no reviving her, no return.
- sketched while on tour in the Philippines