Inside a Writer's Mind

Inside a Writer's Mind
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” -- Oscar Wilde

Short Story: The Wanderer

(Your feedback, favourable or otherwise, is very much appreciated and will help me to further refine and develop this story and those that I write in the future. Thank you in anticipation. J.C.)

Copyright © 2012 by J. C. Phalene

The Wanderer
J.C. Phalene

I glanced at my new Adina Oceaneer watch.
Half an hour early.
And checked myself out in the mirror. Uniform washed and pressed. Clean shaven. Had a haircut the day before.
No way could he fault me today.
‘Early and immaculately presented, or out.’
I grabbed the folded apron and keys off the table. Slammed the front door behind me and bounded down the steps three at a time.
Outside the ocean’s briny breath straddled the onshore breeze; I bet there were sets coming in like buses out the back.
The car door already hot to touch under early morning sun. The kind of summer’s day you hate working. The kind of day you want to spend a third of at the beach, a third in a cafĂ© and the rest in bed with your girlfriend.
But, I didn’t have a girlfriend and I was sunburned and nearly broke, so I was going to work. Told off last shift for being late. And having pink zinc deposits on my nose and board wax under my fingernails.
Slipping out into the fast flowing morning traffic I ran through the day’s likely events: stock fridge, check kegs, do orders, clean bar, wash glasses and open mid morning. And try not to get told off again.
I caught a glimpse of the ocean as I crested the hill before descending into the organised chaos of road works, converging arterial roads, traffic lights and one-way-streets. The traffic flow more a slow stilted pulse the nearer I got to the centre of town.
Along the cappuccino strip traffic skulked. I turned the stereo up, Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees blended with the aromas of espresso coffee and pureed tropical fruit wafting in the window. The footpath cluttered with alfresco diners, suit-clad commuters and backpackers.
I was almost at work, when an old man dressed in grey trousers, a white long sleeved shirt and black tie, stepped out from between a sun umbrella and a large potted palm and tottered into the middle of the road.
I thumped on the brakes and the car skidded. Behind me tyres squealed and car-horns blared. Pedestrians and diners turned to look.
I killed the music and stuck my head out the window. Feeling pissed off and ready to give him a mouthful. And then, after seeing him up close, I felt differently.
Standing there like he’d just woken up in a strange room. The old man looked lost or confused or both.
‘Are you OK?’
His head was shaking but I got the sense it wasn’t a response to my question. It answered it all the same.
‘Where are you going?’
He didn’t respond. He just stood in the road. Oblivious to the would-be-workforce queuing up behind me.
‘Hey Mr...? Where are you going?’
Still trembling, he muttered, ‘Ho... to sea, no... home.’
At first I thought maybe he didn’t speak English; he looked and sounded like he might be Italian or Croatian. But it wasn’t just an accent, more an obstruction to his words.
I gestured to him.
‘Come on, get in. I’ll take you.’
I leaned over and opened the passenger door.
Waiting for him I felt like the person at the supermarket checkout who can’t find their wallet. The cars directly behind stopped sounding their horn, those further back in the queue didn’t.
‘GET MOVING,’ someone shouted.
I kept an eye in the rear view mirror as he squatted down, put one leg in, and then in an agonizing manoeuvre swung his aging body into the car. I noticed the small wet patch on the crotch of his grey trousers as he fell into the passenger seat. And wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
He looked like death warmed up. His face a road map of wrinkles with too many intersections. His eyes, red and white and flecked with blackish green, were sunken back in his skull like marbles in the process of disappearing down a drain. And his thin grey hair was combed over his balding scalp in the scantest of bar-codes. On his drawn cheeks and protruding chin scattered white stubble like weeds on an empty block.
Up close I could see his clothes were worn. And too big for him. They swallowed up his shape. The shoulders of his shirt fell in opposite directions as though his body was made of twisted wire coat-hangers. He reeked of stale urine and of that mothball smell many old people have. Despite the temperature he wore his shirt sleeves buttoned and tie done up. Wet rings showed under his arms. On his tie was a tiepin in the shape of a swordfish. I hadn’t seen someone wear a tiepin since my grandfather when I was a little kid.
I looked at my watch. I still had twenty minutes.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked.
He looked at me; his jaw trembling like it was trying to form words.
I kept driving. But when we got to the next intersection and he still hadn’t told me, I asked him again.
‘Where do you live? Left or right?’
Then I tried gestures.
He sighed and raised a wrinkled left hand to the passenger window.
I nodded. In my mind I was swearing, as this was the opposite direction to the waterfront restaurant where I worked. He tried to say something but I couldn’t understand. After his second attempt I just nodded and pursed my lips in a mock smile, the kind I might give a customer from behind the bar.
We’d gone through four more sets of lights and I was getting worried. As I approached the next set I asked him again, ‘Left or right?’
He nodded.
I repeated it, gesturing, ‘Left – Or – Right?’
‘’eft, ‘eft,’ he said pointing again with a clump of bony fingers. With his head turned I saw a ropey scarred depression in his throat where his Adam’s apple should be.
I glanced at my watch; I had to be at work in fourteen minutes.
He startled me by grunting and poking a gnarled forefinger under my nose to indicate a right turn. We came to a small roundabout and again he gestured right, this time with just a slow nod. With what to me looked like sad acceptance. A resigned drooping nod. Like a week-old cut flower wilting in the morning sun.
I drove another fifty metres and he raised his still tremulous hand. He mumbled what sounded like thanks and started to fish through his pocket. I shook my head and showed him my palm.
‘It’s OK. It’s OK.’
He copied me like the phrase was new to him.
I smiled, a real one this time.
He looked at me for a moment and I thought I saw him try to smile back, the faintest of twitches at the sides of his mouth; but then, as if the effort was more than the muscles were used to, he turned away, opened the door and began the painful process of getting out.
I looked around. This was not an area I’d been to before. The warm air carried the faint scent of reefer smoke alloyed with engine oil. Doof Doof music pulsed from somewhere unseen in the near distance. There was a car with no wheels on bricks in the front yard across the road, overgrown lawns strewn with bicycle parts and piles of junk in front of every third house. What sounded like a Rottweiler or Doberman was barking furiously from inside a yard a few doors down. He didn’t seem to fit the neighbourhood.
‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ I asked.
‘OK, OK,’ he said, as though warming to the phrase.
His body more stooped than when he’d got in. He turned away to totter along the footpath, veering into the driveway of the house with the mad dog.
I looked at my watch; I was now officially late for work.
I turned off the engine, climbed out and followed. He shuffled around the back of the house. I jogged after him and poked my head around the corner in time to see him disappear inside through a sliding screen door. I heard a woman shout, ‘Bart! Shut up out there!’ And the dog was quiet. I followed the old man into the house.
The owner of the voice was a fat middle-aged woman. She stood at a sink washing up, her back to us. The old man stood in front of me.
When he turned around and saw me he waved me away, a concerned expression fighting its way through the wrinkles. The woman turned around at the same time and saw him first.
‘Where have you been?’ she said in the same tone she’d just used with the dog.
I stepped out from behind him and she angled an eyebrow and her lips parted to show bleached white teeth.
‘I just brought him home,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said.
Then turning back to the old man, she hissed, ‘We’ve told you about this!’
His hunched body seemed to compress a little more as though trying to hide.
‘I’m his daughter in law. He used to be a fisherman–‘
‘Aptin,’ he interrupted – drawing a fierce look from her – before bowing his head again.
Unwrinkling her brow she continued, ‘...and he tries to walk into town to see the ocean or the boats or some bloody thing. Thanks for your trouble,’ she said, standing there, her rubber glove clad hands held in front of her, like a surgeon about to operate.
I nodded. But stayed there waiting for some sign from him.
Thank you,’ she repeated in a sterner voice, her tone now a dismissal.
I nodded again and went to turn away, and then stopped and tried once more to catch the old man’s eye. But his head was down, like an animal assuming a protective pose.
As I walked back to the car I heard her shouting at him. The dog started barking again as I was driving away. I turned the stereo up to full volume.
I didn’t bother looking at my watch. I was going to the beach.

Copyright © 2012 by J. C. Phalene

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy my novel: Seventeen Summers.

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