Authors: Brooke Davis
Yes. Sorry about that.
He waves at the girl.
But we should go.
, he says, and stands again.
They make their way to the giant undies, sticking to the aisles in between the main ones. The mannequin in the Hawaiian shirt looks down at her. Millie can’t look away.
, Millie says.
Proper men say, “Pardon me.”
We’re taking him
He saved my life.
Karl looks at Millie, then at the mannequin, then back at Millie.
I will do that
, he says, too loudly again.
Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.
, Millie says.
Oh, yes. Right.
Karl picks up the mannequin and holds him so they’re dancing cheek to cheek.
, Karl answers.
They snake their way past the appliances, the cookware, the coloring books, the towels. A woman tries to spray perfume on Karl as he walks by. He giggles. The entrance is meters in front of them—it shines blindingly in the middle of everything. They’re running and causing a scene but no one seems to notice and they’re going to make it.
, says Millie.
, says Karl.
They look at each other and smile. They’re actually going to make it.
But then Millie sees the Guess Who? people looking up at them, and it’s too late to say anything, and Karl’s foot catches
on their faces, and he falls headfirst into the bargain bin full of Christmas lights in the middle of the aisle. Millie falls at the same time, hitting her head on the side of the bin. Karl drops the mannequin on top of her, and a leg comes loose and skids across the floor.
Then the three words she doesn’t want to hear.
There she is.
Helen and Stan and a man and a woman wearing fancy uncomfortable clothes coming toward them. Her New Mum. Her New Dad.
, Millie says, standing, rubbing her head and pulling at his arm. But he’s managed to get himself all twisted up in the Christmas lights, and his thrashing about is only making matters worse.
Grab him, Stan,
says Helen, running toward them behind the security guard.
I think he’s. I mean. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. But. Everybody. Based on what I’ve seen. He’s probably. Most definitely. I think.
Karl’s arms and legs are still flailing all over the place when Stan catches up with them. He helps Karl out of the bin and holds on to his arm.
Okay, you dirty old bastard.
Helen says, running up to them, breathless.
You did it.
She puts a hand on his upper arm and her eyes widen.
You’re so strong.
Karl doesn’t look at Millie but says,
Go, Millie, go. I’ll find you
, out the side of his mouth, and the Guess Who? people look
at her like they expect her to do something, so Millie grabs the mannequin’s leg and she
; she weaves through the forest of people, around and under and through.
, she sings as she runs as fast as she can out the door and through the parking lot. As she’s running, she looks back, and it’s still there, painted in big letters that slide over each other as the doors open and close:
IN HERE MUM
Millie walks up the pathway to her house, places the mannequin’s leg on the step, and tries to open the door. It’s locked. She grabs the spare key from under the mat, unlocks the door, checks the street for the police car that’s been looking for her, and then walks in. It’s cold and dark. She’s tired from running all the way from the department store. From the doorway, she says,
Millie walks into the kitchen.
The word echoes off the walls. Dishes are piled high in the sink and there’s something in the rubbish that stinks. She walks into the lounge room.
The couch is huge in its emptiness, and the television is a big black hole in the center of their lounge room. Why has she never noticed how big and black it is, how it looks like you could press a button and it would suck up your whole house?
Her dad’s beer cozy is on the coffee table. Millie holds it up to the light streaming through the window. Dust particles dance around it in the sunlight. She rubs the material with her fingertips. It’s black, with a yellow map of Australia on one side
and a very big-boobed woman in a bikini on the other. Millie slides it onto her forearm and rubs it against her cheek.
She walks into her mum and dad’s room. Her mum’s side of the bed is all rumpled up. She lies under the covers for a bit, pulling them over her head. It’s cold and dark in there, too. She reaches her hand across to her dad’s side, then peels back the covers, stands, and presses the palm of her hand on the wardrobe door, like she’s trying to make a handprint on it. She closes her eyes and slides the door across. When she opens her eyes, there is nothing there but wire coat hangers. Like the shoulders of skeletons.
She sits on the bed and drags her fingers through the air and it feels like nothing and she wants to say,
Sorry, Mum, I am so sorry, Mum, I am sorry for doing the things I did.
is sometimes the only thing left to say.
What should you say when someone dies?
she whispered to her dad as her mum watched
Deal or No Deal
. The sister of a girl at school had died and her teacher had told Millie to make a card.
, her dad whispered back. He hoisted her up onto his lap.
No one’s going to die.
She furrowed her brow.
Everyone’s going to die.
, he said, and stopped. He put his hands under her armpits and twisted her around to face him.
Well. Yes. But no one you know.
Everyone I know.
But not anytime soon.
How do you know?
I just know.
What on Earth are you two talking about?
her mum said as the ads blared out of the television.
, Millie said, looking at the back of her mum’s head.
What do you say to your friends when people they love die?
Her mum turned around and flashed her dad A Look. She grabbed Millie by both hands and leaned into her face.
You don’t need to know any of this stuff, Millie
, she said.
You’re just a child. A little girl. You should be, I don’t know, playing dollies. Offices. Shops.
Her mum sat back in her chair and eyed her.
Who was it?
Bec’s sister. From school.
Deal or No Deal
came back on the telly.
Send them a card
, her mum said, turning back toward the television.
Say something nice on it.
Like . . . deal! Are you kidding me? Take the money!
Millie’s dad put his hand on Millie’s head. It felt so gigantic on there.
Say, I’m sorry for your loss.
It’s not my fault.
Of course not.
He put his arms around her and pushed her head into his chest.
Just be kind
, he said.
Later, when Millie’s dad was dead, her mum sat in front of the telly, all day every day, and Millie put her hand on her mum’s arm and said,
I’m sorry for your loss.
And her mum hugged her, so tight Millie could hardly breathe, and said,
I’m sorry for your loss too, Millie.
And now, as she looks out the window from her mum and dad’s bedroom, scanning the street for the police car, she locks eyes with the old lady across the road. She, too, is looking out the window from her house. She, too, Millie can tell, has lost someone. Millie doesn’t know how she can tell, but she just can.
I’m sorry for your loss
, Millie mouths at her, slowly and deliberately, her forehead on the glass of the window. The old lady stares at her. And then pulls the curtains shut.
gatha Pantha had tried to avoid her husband’s naked body as much as possible throughout their marriage. It was too grasshoppery; all bent-over and thin. His bones appeared surprised to be there, jutting out of his skin as though they were trying to find the exit. On their wedding night, when he unzipped her dress in that damp way that would soon become unbearably familiar, she caught sight of his penis, glinting in the moonlight like an unsheathed sword. She finally understood why he always walked as if he were being pushed from behind. It seemed abnormally large for his body. During the sex he unfurled his body and presented himself to her like a magic trick. She looked at him with blurred eyes, trying to melt his body into the walls. He assumed they were her Sex Eyes, the eyes you practice in the mirror from the moment you guess that something like sex exists.
When the deed was done and he scampered to the
bathroom, Agatha pulled the blanket up under her chin and imagined his penis swaying from one leg to the other as he walked, like an orangutan swinging through the jungle. As she lay there, waiting for his return, it was not surprise, shock, or even rage that she felt; it was disappointment. Disappointment that having a man flounder about on top of her like a piece of cooked spinach was the best humankind could come up with.
She remembered learning that all men had these monstrosities dangling between their legs. She couldn’t look at a man for a number of months afterward. Just the knowledge that there were so many hidden penises around unnerved her. She didn’t know how other women could live in a world like this. She felt surrounded, trapped. Men walked past her in the street and said
with such smugness, and all Agatha could do was look at the ground and think,
He has a penis he has a penis he has a penis
Later, though, as she watched her husband’s penis sadden and age, as all creatures do eventually, she was able to look men in the eye as they walked past her in the street.
, she would answer back, her eyes clear, her lips calm. But she would think,
I pity you and your dying penis.
Ron’s saddening penis was Agatha’s first clue that her husband was aging. The second came when she saw the hair in his ears, waving in the wind like the hands of drowning men. She watched on helplessly as hair began to disappear from one place on his body and reappear in others. Third was a stroke
that made him lose feeling in his left leg. He had to hold on to his thigh and pull it alongside him when he walked.
Hop, draaaag. Hop, draaaag. Hop, draaaag.
Fourth was the plastic bedpan he took to keeping on his bedside table at nighttime. Consequently, Agatha’s mornings began with the soft splash of her husband’s urine against the sides of it as he dragged himself to the toilet.
Hop, splash, draaaag, splash. Hop, splash, draaaag, splash.
One morning she realized the orange juice made the same noise as she carried it to the breakfast table. She never bought it again.
Fifth was the development of a fat deposit that reached from his chin to the bottom of his neck like a pelican gullet. Every word he uttered was punctuated by this soundless tremble of flesh, crescendoing out from his face the louder he spoke. It wobbled at her, day and night, as permanent a fixture in her life as the sun. And, like the sun, she could only just bear to look at it.
It was around this point that she stopped talking to her husband. She grunted, sighed, nodded, pointed, elbowed, but never spoke. It wasn’t malicious. She just had nothing left to say. They had covered their likes, dislikes, differences, similarities, height, weight, shoe size. They had spent forty-five years having arguments, sharing opinions, discussing just how one might go about winning
The Price Is Right
. She could now, with startling accuracy, predict what he would say, think, do, wear,
and eat. What she did have left to say—like
Get it yourself
—was easily achieved by gesture. So they ate together, slept together, sat together, breathed together—but had never been further apart.
When her husband died, neighbors suddenly dropped by unannounced, appearing on her doorstep from behind huge, hulking casseroles full of dead animals, and pity. Their children carried slabs of coconut slice and looked put out. They all set up camp in her kitchen, as though they were running a political campaign. They materialized in her hallway, her bedroom, and her bathroom, as if they could walk through walls, cocking their head to one side and clawing at her. They talked with their faces only centimeters away from hers.
, they all said, because Susie/Fido/Henry died last year/last week/ten years ago because she/it/he had lung cancer/was hit by a car/wasn’t really dead but was dead to her because he was living with a twenty-six-year-old on the Gold Coast.
Why are there nineteen bunches of flowers in my sunroom?
she asked on one of her frequent wanderings from room to room. No one answered. The flowers were elaborate explosions of things, like bouquets of fireworks, frozen in time.
Phillip Stone from Number 6 gave her a cup of tea she didn’t want and placed a hand on her shoulder. He had never touched her before.
Let it out, Agatha
, he said.
The heat of his palm made her skin prickle unpleasantly
beneath the fabric of her blouse.
I don’t have a cat, if that’s what you’re getting at
, she replied, stepping out of his reach.
You’re in denial
, said Kim Lim from Number 32. Their noses almost touched.
Don’t be afraid to express your sadness,
she added. Agatha smelled coconut slice on her breath.
She caught Frances Pollop from Number 12 in her wardrobe, wielding a tape gun in the air like a chainsaw. Ron’s clothes were in boxes all over the floor. Agatha and Frances looked at each other. The tape gun wobbled a little above Frances’s head. After a good minute, Agatha turned and walked out, closing the bedroom door behind her.
And then, just as suddenly, they all vanished. They left behind Crock-Pots, foreign smells, and the loudness of silence. Through the window, Agatha watched them walk out of her gate and down the road to their houses. The lights in their windows were like pupils. Their letter boxes like periscopes. Even the flowers in their front yards seemed to be gathered around in a circle, whispering to one another.
She left the lights off. The boxes of her husband’s clothes had been pushed against the wall in the hallway. Even in the darkness, she could see
written on each one in black marker. The letters had been traced and retraced over and over. Sticky tape was wrapped ferociously around the center of each box.
The phone rang in the kitchen. Her answering machine clicked on.
You’ve reached Agatha Pantha
, it said, in someone
Please leave a message.
The absence of his name felt like vertigo.
another voice said.
Are you there?
She didn’t know the answer to that.
Agatha stood in her bedroom and stared at her husband’s slippers. It was what she did now, just walked around and stood in rooms. She felt it then, something trying to clamber its way out of her throat. Agatha held on to the bedpost and swallowed over and over again until it went away.
It’s all this talk
, she said to her husband’s slippers.
They’re talking me into it.
She sat on the bed and cupped her knees with her hands.
How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?
Her mother had been young once, with her easy limbs and pretty fingers, but then she had saddened, and shrunk. The ends of her sentences began to tremble, and she seemed to be always holding her breath.
Agatha’s relatives had called this
. They didn’t say the word out loud, but mouthed it, as if it were blasphemy. Agatha, a fully grown and married woman at this point, opinions of her own beginning to gather steam in her head, thought the word vague. Cartoonish. Most of all, she thought her mother’s state was something you could avoid, like sidestepping a puddle on the street.
At the time, Agatha hadn’t realized she was looking into the future. That her mother was her, that soon Agatha would be her. Wasn’t evolution about being better than your mother?
Agatha did not feel better than her mother. She could see her mother in her now, in her spotted hands, in the Death Lines that marked her face, in the varicose veins running up her legs like tree roots. She felt the sickening inevitability of the whole thing. Like becoming her mother was the point of it all.
So Agatha stood in the kitchen and opened the fridge. Light flooded the room. She peered into it, her eyes adjusting. Arms of meatloaf and finger sandwiches and pink cupcakes topped with nipple cherries lined the shelves. One by one, she removed all the casseroles. She whisked them out of her house and upturned them on the footpath. Chicken stock and carrot and gravy and onion and hunks of beef splashed satisfyingly on her shins. She gathered a load of lamingtons in her arms and launched them from the doorway. They landed in her rosebushes, on the windshields of parked cars, at the foot of nearby letter boxes. She hurled a three-tiered sponge cake over her head like a soccer throw-in. It separated in the air, and red jam splattered thick on her driveway. She lined the sandwiches up along the top of her small brick fence. With both arms held out, she walked the length of it, feeling the sandwiches squish under her feet. Slices of cucumber squirted out the sides. She balanced two pink-frosted cupcakes on top of her letter box. She wrapped both hands around a hunk of meatloaf, drew it back behind her head, and followed through. The meatloaf fell apart in her hands. The cupcakes tumbled onto the footpath. A cherry landed next to her foot, and she kicked it.
She washed the Tupperware, the casserole dishes, and the old ice-cream buckets, the water in the sink rising high up the sides as she thrashed her hands about. She dried them all with violent flourishes. And then she stacked them, one on top of the other, in her driveway. Like a totem pole from some forgotten ancient culture. There was a sadness to the soft sway of it that Agatha tried to ignore.
She wrote a cardboard sign to place beside it.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR KINDNESS
, it read, in big, dark letters. She traced and retraced the letters.
BUT I DO NOT REQUIRE IT
She added, in smaller letters:
Also, I Don’t Care For Coconut
She stood on her doorstep and blinked through the sweat on her eyelids. She ate a potato bake straight from the Pyrex dish with her fingers, and surveyed what she had done. Was it art? Or was it war? She had never understood either, but as she watched the river of food in the gutter flow down the street, she thought perhaps it might be both.
The lights from the homes around her flicked on and off, like warning signals. She pushed a fistful of potato and cheese into her mouth. She sensed the street tensing.
I’m expressing my sadness, Kim Lim!
she yelled into the night, flecks of potato bake flying. She stepped inside, slammed the front door behind her, and locked it. She locked the back door. She locked the windows. She closed all the curtains.
I’m turning the television on now!
she yelled, and she did, shadows skittering all over the
walls. She turned the volume up as high as it could go. White noise filled the room. She dragged a chair to the front window and sat down, leaning forward. She pulled back the curtain so she could see out into the street.
, said the television in the background. The sun was coming up.
I can’t wait to see their faces!
she yelled. Yelling seemed to help.
Seven years have passed and Agatha has not left her house since that night. Not to water the garden, or catch a bus, or sweep the driveway. She has not opened her front door or her curtains; she has not listened to the radio or read the newspapers. She has not turned the television off, and the
sound is the only truth of which Agatha is sure. Seven years of unopened mail floods her hallway. She wades through the letters when walking from her bedroom to the lounge room.
Just because you know my name
, she yells at them,
doesn’t mean I owe you anything!
They seem to snap at her heels.
Every Monday, a woman from the supermarket leaves a box of food under her window. A man from the post office collects her bill money from the doorstep and feeds mail through the slot in her door every second Tuesday. She pays them in envelopes marked
HERE, TAKE IT
that she slides under the front door. The grass on the front lawn lies flat and brown amid the dust. The weeds grow tall. Ivy covers the house. Agatha has opened the front window and put her hand through to cut a
hole out of the ivy with her sewing scissors. She does not know what is going on in the world, but she knows what is going on in her street.
She has acquired that blob body synonymous with old women, where it becomes difficult to tell where anything begins or ends. Her chin sprouts long, meandering hairs. She always plucks them, but they always return, as if they’re part of God’s plan. She has taken to wearing brown-tinted sunglasses from the moment she wakes until the moment she goes to sleep. For Agatha, the brown shield around her eyes acts like corn flour, thickening and slowing the world around her.