Linh’s Key Cutting Service

The Metro people stood to apart at his shop’s counter. They took turns talking so Linh had to turn back and forth.

‘It’s a generous deal, Mr Nguyen, and I just want you to hear it from me. We buy out your remaining lease. We give you an incentive payment to start up anywhere else you wish to,’ the taller boss one said.

Linh noticed the corporate embroidery of the red waratah logo on the man’s NSW Government sky blue business shirt. And the way his navy blue COVID mask was chosen to match.

Linh turned away from the counter and chose a blank key to put on the cutting machine. Doing something would help him say less when he wanted to say more. He picked a green blank key and started cutting.

The Indian card reader at the end of their arcade had once told him that green drew fortune. Like the American dollars Linh’d secretly collected during the war back home.

‘I’m sure, Mr Nguyen, you’ve talked to your daughter. She would have told you that we don’t have to offer even that and can compulsorily acquire to build the Metro,’ the woman said.

Someone had done a good job replacing the heels on her shoes, Linh saw. Her face mask wasn’t from the Chinese dollar store either.

The Metro. A Parisian name for a train to take hi-vis labourers and IT workers from the western suburbs to their jobs, Linh thought. They wanted to build their Parramatta station 25 metres below his shop.

His shop whose thousands of cut keys, repaired shoes, stitched up handbags, and engraved dog tags had paid for his family’s house in Canley Vale, visits back to Saigon for his wife, and his daughter’s law degree at Sydney Uni. He loved hearing his customers say: “Wow, that’s great” when picking something up.

His shop where during quiet times, he’d watch Vietnamese soap operas on YouTube on his iPhone and drink sweet coffee. Where he’d think about his village and the changes that came, and the boats at the end of the war, and the Lidcombe t-shirt factory where he’d saved enough from repairing sewing machines to first set up.

His shop away. Away from his youngest son who liked to embarrass him by showing him Tinder; away from making Sydney modern; away from change.

‘How about it, Mr Nguyen?,’ man asked.

‘I can go talk to Tracey directly,’ woman added.

Linh twisted the gauges and ground at the key. It screeched like the sulphur-crested cockatoos who ate the almonds his wife put out by the Hills Hoist in their backyard. Sparks flew.

He removed the “key”. Flipping the plastic shield off his face, Link used a wire brush to smooth edges on what he’d made. He remembered Tracey’s advice about what others in Parramatta were getting.

Happy with the result of his work, Linh put a tiny metallic “$” on the counter for the Metro people to see.

‘Very valuable,’ Linh said.

The Bees

Mr Dmytro sat down in his wicker chair in the shade of the shed where he kept all his beekeeping supplies. It was a hot August day in a valley in the Catskills.

The humidity and the mosquitoes were fighting it out for dominance so he was enjoying the respite of the shed. Filled with old hives under repair and his tools, the shed still stayed cool and reminded him of the stone cathedral in Ukraine where he’d attended the monastery as a lad before the war. Even though he knew the places really shared very little.

He took the handkerchief off his head. It’s four corners were folded up to make it fit and protect his bald skull from the summer sun. He picked up a smudgy old rock glass – a ‘stakan’ – and poured some homemade plum brandy into his mouth where he let it swirl and savour on his tongue. “Heat makes us cool”, he thought to himself.

Out the open door, his thirty hives buzzed and bees ceaselessly circled around the fruiting plum, pear and cherry trees, as well as the relentlessly joyous sunflowers, and other flowers of his backyard plot.  Over the years, he’d planted the little orchard and established the hives when he had time off from his bookstore on the Lower East Side.

Each plant contributed something subtle but separate to his many varieties of honey. Filled jars of product, some clearer and some muskier, glowed on the worktable behind him. They awaited Olena, his 11 year old granddaughter, his youngest of four, to put the paper labels on. ‘Jimmy’s Catskill Mountain Honey’. Because Americans can’t say Dmyt-whatever, his sponsoring cousin, Ihor/Ron, had told him when Dmytro was fresh off the DP boat.

“I was only 10 years older than her when I got here”, Dmytro thought to himself. He recalled the jobs he’d worked until he saved up for his own store. Night porter on trains to and from Washington DC and Pittsburgh PA. Busboy and dishwasher at Ratner’s on Delancey Street where he’d dropped and smashed a big metal tray covered with heavy ceramic dirty dishes and half-filled bowls of matzoh soup. Road crew pouring sticky black asphalt in upstate New York.

The old joke about “they told us the roads were paved with gold – and it turned out they weren’t paid with gold and we had to pave them”. But the 11 year old and his other four grandkids would never need to know that hustle. He knew her last honey jar label was not far off when she’d get interested in shopping malls and boys she’d met at summer camp, and that made him happy. Futures that flowed like a mountain stream rather than one’s you had to fight for. He sipped again on the ‘sliwowytsya’. It warmed him further and he wiped sweat off his forehead with the handkerchief.

His thoughts further sifted the past. Memories of the Carpathian village of his birth and youth where there was a 16th century wooden church. It had been constructed with no nails, and he knew from some of the letters smuggled to him that it was still standing as a locked-up and never-open Museum of Archaic Religion. He could see in his mind the solid timber beams and hand-hewn panels interwoven and rising to a wrought-iron Byzantine cross atop a cupola. It seemed to Dmytro that it was held together more by faith than physics, even as the Soviets now waited for its demise. More memories. How many of the villagers built beehives – which were small replicas of the ancient church they were proud of – for their front yards. Each little church hive encircled by bees like busy-body babushka parishioners getting their embroidered eggs and plentiful baskets blessed at Easter. Before the war.

Dido, it’s the phone. For you,” he heard Olena calling on her Babtsya’s behalf through the flyscreen door on the back veranda of the house. He saw a breeze catch one of the tallest sunflowers – easily six foot high. It swayed and some of its bees lifted off, hovered and waited to land on it again. He wondered as always why none of his granddaughters ever used the old language even though they understood it: ‘Dlya tebe’. For you. How hard can that be’. Dmytro closed his eyes, took three strong sharp breaths in, and pushed his arms to get up from the chair.

“Khalo”, Dmytro said into the heavy, black telephone handset.

“Hey Jimmy, how ya doin, awright yeah, I’m callin for ya know what, I know your upstate, and I’m sorry for callin, but it’s a big one”, responded Superintendent Phil Caputo of the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Mi amici Felice,” Dmytro said, using the Italian name only Phil’s Sicilian-born nonna used. At Christmas, Dmytro would send his friend’s grandmother several packets of dried porcini mushrooms imported from Poland via Yugoslavia. How people punched little holes in the Iron Curtain.

Dmytro liked that Phil had always talked to him fast and put all his sentences together. Like he was talking to a real Nu Yawka and not some DP off the boat. It didn’t mean Dmytro necessarily understood everything being said, but he liked it, especially coming for an official of the City.

Respect. ‘Povaha’. Something the world seemed to be losing, Dmytro thought. The other week, speedfreak punks – their spikey mohawks matching the metal studs on their leather jackets – had thrown a garbage can through the shop’s front windows and stolen the amber necklaces – ‘yantar’ – on display. During the last winter, he watched dozens of them come into the neighborhood. In the pigeon park across from CBGBs and near his shop, they would burn trash fires and fight and scratch at each other. For Dmytro, they were different to the tired and tie-dyed hippies of the 70s that had come through St Marks Place and the neighborhood before these kids of the 80s. Who were furious at everything. Like Gestapo officers, but with bad skin, careless New Jersey parents, drug addictions, and no permission to blast their rage at the world.

“Yeah Central Pahk Sout, swahm as big as a gahbidge bin on a crossing light, right across from da Pierre, livery drivah’s goin nuts, so all the brass at City Hall might go whacko too, ya know how it is, can you do me a solid, Jimmy,” Phil continued.

“How long?” Dmytro asked.

“Since sunrise and gettin biggah. Like you taught me, Jimmy, you know I wouldn’ta axed otherwise. They ain’t rushin to go away,”

“See you three hours. Before dark,” Dmytro said, and started to plan the kit of equipment he needed to take with him to drive down to the city in his ’69 Plymouth Fury III.

For 20 years, Jimmy Yarosh had been the City’s official bee guy. Whenever there was an out-of-control swarm on a Park Avenue traffic light or an oak tree in Central Park or even a toll booth on the Triborough Bridge, Sanitation had rung him to gather it up and take it away. It struck Jimmy that New Yorkers seemed to be more afraid of some busy bees than they were of gangs on the subway, or being burnt out of their apartments by greedy landlords in Alphabet City.

For the last twelve years, the calls had come from Phil, their special ops manager, a Sheepshead Bay guy who’d come up from the garbage trucks and snowploughs. ‘Fat Phil’ got promoted to desks cos he was smart, the other field guys liked him even though they taunted him – and cos he’d gotten too big from his Nonna’s stuffed cannelloni and Amaretto cookies in his black metal lunch pail every day.

“Maria, I’m going to the City for Phil. Returning very late so don’t wait,” Dmytro called in Ukrainian to the kitchen, and headed to the shed.

He found his large dark canvas suitcase with the worn leather handle and buckle straps; the same one he came to New York Harbor in 1949 on the US Navy’s troopship, the General Taylor. On the suitcase’s side, in uniform, hand-painted white letters, it still had his cousin Ihor’s Allentown, Pennsylvania address.

Inside, Dmytro placed the tools of his trade: a brass incense holder from his friend, Father Kyrylo from the church across the street from the shop; a small bellows; a cigar box; the head net and safety gloves Maria made him take that he didn’t use; a skinny carved birch stick with a coral sponge from St Augustine’s in Florida fastened to its fork with twine; more twine; a few small jars of different honey; a very finely meshed plastic fishing net; two repurposed Seagram’s 7 half-pint bottles filled with ‘sliwowytz’; an extra handkerchief; a length of clothesline; wooden clothes pegs, and; several burlap sacks. He also grabbed an empty waxed Genesee Cream Ale cardboard box.

With the kit in the trunk and a wooden ladder strapped to the black vinyl roof of the Fury, Dmytro put the keys in the two-door, hard-top’s ignition and turned the big engine over. It was like a hammer on anvil. He’d especially chosen the model with the V8 and Corinthian leather seats. The car’s bulk, power and style said freedom to him every time he started it. There were things he loved so much about America that it made him miss Ukraine even more. The lost opportunities. The betrayal of a future.

Olena’s blonde head and blue eyes popped up in the rolled-down passenger side window.

Dido, Babtsia said I could go with you and sleep in the backseat if it gets too late,” Olena announced and opened the door that weighed heavy like an ice slab on a frozen lake in winter.

She was the most direct and independent of his granddaughters. Dmytro had noticed that, from age four, Olena Yarosh had picked out her own clothes, usually a favourite set of green coveralls, and brushed her hair and teeth on her own. “A very orderly child,” he thought and he liked her very much for that trait. She jumped up on the end of the Fury’s long front bench seat, leant a pointed elbow on the passenger side armrest, rested her head, and began to read her book. He noticed it had a purple cover and was entitled ‘Charlotte’s Web’. He recalled a folk tale from his own childhood – how a spider had weaved an intricate web across a cave’s entrance to hide Jesus, Mary and Joseph from Roman soldiers.  And, that’s why they should never be stomped on or killed, his own grandmother had told him. They drove to the City, together and apart.

The sun was still strong and eight fingers from the horizon – two hours of light left, Dmytro figured – when they pulled the Fury up to Central Park South. Phil was standing next to a Sabrett’s hot dog stand talking to the vendor, and wiping some yellow mustard from his pressed white Sanitation shirt. His thin black tie was very long and it’s bottom half hung out from his round belly like the string of a balloon. Phil spotted them and officiously waved Jimmy into the No Parking Zone in front of a lined-up row of horse-drawn carriages that the tourists took rides on.

“Look, Dido, at the flowers on the first horse. The really tall black own,” Olena said as she turned around on the seat and looked out the back window. In the rear view mirror, Dmytro noticed that the big dark gelding’s headpiece was made from real flowers – a big bunch of pink daffodils – compared to the faded plastic roses and carnations that the other horses wore. As he carefully reversed, he made eye contact with one man from the group of chatting drivers – wearing crumbled velvet top hats from an older era and suit vests from a colder season – further down the row.

At the men’s feet, there were scattered cigarette butts, apple cores and Coke bottles lined up in the gutter; there were graffiti tags on the bluestone wall separating the Park from the city. The fingerprints of the city’s decay since his arrival 32 years ago, Dmytro thought.

“Howyadoin, Jimmy, goodaya, really I mean it,” Phil poured forth as Dmytro got his kit.

Olena, holding her book to her stomach, stood quietly and observed Charles. That’s the name which was on the engraved brass name plate across the horse’s chest. She looked up at Charles the way Minnesotans looked up at the Empire State Building, or the new World Trade Centre that you could see no matter where you were on the southern end of Manhattan. Dmytro had watched these Twin Towers climb up from the 110 year old front window of his shop where he sold not only books, but his honey, wax and dyes for making batik Easter Eggs, spools of thread for embroidery, metal strings for the Ukrainian ‘bandura’ instrument. A place that held the things for holding on to a past.

“They’re just around here in the carriage turning area. Couldn’ta picked a sweetah spot. Main fuckin entrance to Central Pahk from this side. Sorry kiddo. The French,” Phil said as he noticed Olena trailing behind them.

The bees’ sound preceded them. Dmytro could tell by its intensity and its oscillation how big the swarm was and how much will it possessed. Whether to wait or to act. When he sighted them, it confirmed that it was maybe the biggest swarm he’d ever seen in the City. They completely covered the walk / no walk signal. Oblivious to its own circumstance and true to its duty to New York’s pedestrians, when the signal changed from green to red and back, faint points of the respective color peaked through their dark density of the swarming bees.

Phil had set up some pale blue Do Not Cross barriers ten yards back from the signal. Like a crime scene. Dmytro nimbly ducked under one with his suitcase.

“Good luck to ya, pal,” Phil offered. “I’ll hate it but I’ll hand ya the stuff when ya axe for it.”

Dmytro stood a few armlengths from the swarm. As always, he wore no protective equipment as he’d long ago grown used to stings and knew that most swarms were usually docile, as there had no hive or honey store for them to protect.

The swarm was a living thing, Dmytro always thought. Somewhere inside this one was a queen who’d left her previous, too-crowded hive and brought her followers on a journey to this once-glamorous corner of Fifth Avenue in search of a better life. Dmytro knew to respect the swarm by listening to it and watching it.

His next task was to look for shapes and patterns. Where were the biggest and densest concentrations of bees on the signal and light pole. What was the different flight path of different parts of the swarm and what did it show about the queen’s position. How fast did they fly and therefore how much honey were they laden with. How many bees were falling to the ground from exhaustion. Did the bees buzz toward him if he held out his arms.

The key was to accept the swarm and its messages of movement and sound, Dmytro knew, rather than resist it or will it. Back in his village as a kid, in their orchard apiary, his own grandfather had once said to him as a bee crawled through his long white moustache: “Bees make for better friends than enemies. If you love their queen as they love her and they will come to love you.”

This swarm was as big and solid as a hay bale. And August was very late in the year for swarming. Exceptional in several ways. As he tied a fresh handkerchief on his head – a “Ukrainian baseball cap”, Phil called it – Dmytro knew he needed to show the big swarm every kindness for their special circumstance – the why, how and where they had come to be.

Dmytro undid the rusting tin latches of the old suitcase and set its contents down on burlap bags – marked “Baker’s Delight Bread Flour” in red type – on the asphalt. He left three bags aside, the beer carton and the ladder aside. From the Dutch Master’s cigar box held together with a rubber band, Dmytro took out a small brown paper bag with lumpy white crystals in it. He took three pieces of it, lit them with the metal Zippo lighter from his shirt pocket, and put them in the censer, which hung from a thin gold-plated chain.

The metal cap on one of the bottles of the “sliwowitz” was sticky as Dmytro unscrewed it to take a syrupy, hot gulp. He took the loose burlap bags and, using his Swiss Army knife, he cut holes and strung the clothes line through them to make a what he would use as a screen.

Then, he gently pumped the small bellows into the censer to increase the intensity of the smoke it was producing.

When he’d first come up with the solution – using the chained censer to waft and wave calming frankincense into the body of the swarms he was asked to gather – he’d been unsure and self-conscious. He’d said as much about the method to Father Kyrylo one evening after closing the shop as they shared a potato-and-cabbage soup at the Kiev Diner on East 7th Street. It was Lent. The priest had said: “If only I had more parishioners, Dmytro, who thought it somehow sinful to pour smoke on insects… Go forth, my friend.”

Now, Dmytro leaned the ladder against the pole of the street signal and used its rope mechanism to raise it high enough to be arm’s length of the swarm. He took hold of the curtain he’d made, and the fishnet, and very slowly climbed the ladder. To make sure he didn’t rush and gave the bees a chance to accept him, on each rung, Dmytro sang to himself another verse of an old village song before stepping up again. The song was about a girl carrying water from a well as her suitor admires her, just as Dmytro had to court his bees. In concentric circles, the outlying bees of the swarm flew back toward the signal.

Then, with bees buzzing around his head and bouncing off his handkerchief, he hung the curtain around the structure of the signal and the pole, shrouding most of it in burlap bags and containing the bees. He firmly tied off the clothesline’s ends with slipknots.

“Okay, Phil. Next step,” he called down from his new tunnel turret.

“Hear ya go, Jimmy.”

Holding tight on the shiny black visor of his brown Sanitation peaked cap with one hand, with the other hand, Phil picked up and handed the censer up the ladder to Dmytro. He retreated backwards on the balls of his feet, nimbler than was expected from a big fella. The varsity catcher from James Madison High School was still someplace underneath the pounds.

For the next five minutes, all Olena could see of her grandfather were the legs of his tan slacks on the ladder and the trail of incense rising above the curtain contraption. ‘Sleepy smoke’ is what Dmytro called it. It attracted the bees and calmed them.

As the bees gathered back to the sign post so did a small crowd around it, including a few of the doormen from across the street at the Plaza. It was nothing new for Olena, though. She’d been around the bees her whole life so it wasn’t interesting – just like Chinese food wasn’t interesting to her friend May Wing whose parents worked in their take-out restaurant 12 hours a day.

Olena wandered back to Charles, the livery horse, and said “Hello” to Patrick, his owner and driver.

“But you young lady, call me Paddy,” he told her in the Irish accent that said ‘happy’ to the world and ‘sad’ to all other Irish.

“Seeings how your pop – it’s your grandpa, is it – is stealing the show and all my tasty tourists with his bee tricks. Wouldja like to take a seat up the top, bonnie girl, whilst we wait? Would that be grand?”

Paddy helped Olena up onto the bench from which the carriage was driven. She could see down the length of Charles, the girth of his rump and the dip of his great back. The horse flicked his head sidewards and a dark eye blinked at her, and then turned back.

“See, old Charlie gave ya a wink. Means he likes ya, does he now. Tell me what you see over at the bee show,” Paddy said.

She was as high up now as her grandfather on his ladder. She could see over the perimeter of people that had gathered. Among them, there was a man with a really long lens on a camera like on the sidelines of the Jets games her dad watched on TV. Somehow, being up higher made things different.

“Well, I can see Dido’s feet – that’s my grandfather’s. He’s got brown leather shoes with shoelaces. Now, Fat Phil – that’s my grandfather’s friend, the garbageman – is bringing him the stick, the white one, that he puts the queen bee on,” Olena said.

“Oh grand. Queen’s gambit! What’s next after the queen bee? Mind I’ve not much time for queens or kings or the like.”

“Well, after the queen is calm, Dido gets the beer case from Phil, and Dido take the swarm in his hands and sets them down in the beer case. If the queen’s okay, and with the smoky stuff, they all just become sleepyheads.”

Her grandfather was coming down the ladder with the cardboard box in his hands, and the birch stick was clenched in his teeth. The man with the long lens surged forward and was rapidly firing photos at Dido. A plastic tag around his neck said Daily News.

“No pitchas, no pitchas please,” Phil said as he pushed in between the photographer and Dmytro. His big ass brushed against Dmytro’s hand and the box. It jostled and one side slipped from Dmytro’s grip with its cover cracking open. A dozen bees or so rushed out like a platoon deploying for battle.

And then they were gone. Dmytro, Phil, the photographer, the Plaza doormen, and the little crowd turned in circles, looking up and around, for the escaped bees, but there was no sign.

The bees had air-sprinted toward the fresh flowers about Charlie the Horse’s head. Olena watched one bee landed on the hairs near Charlie’s quivering nostril, and that was the last she saw. The little girl fell back on to the red velour lounge where passengers normally sat, as the horse broke into rapid trot toward the stone arched gate of Central Park.

Paddy the driver shouted: “Charlie! You git!”. He smacked his top hat on his thigh.

Dmytro the beekeeper said: “Bozhe Mylyj” and asked for God’s mercy in Ukrainian. The box of bees buzzed against his belt.

Fat Phil the man from Sanitation yelled “Ringoleveo!” and sprinted after the horse and carriage. The leather of his City-issued shoes slapped on the asphalt.

Olena crawled upright and saw the bees hide themselves away in the depth of the daffodils. They would settle there now, she knew.

“Spokino, konyk, spokino,” she whispered to Charles, calming him in the language Dido always told her that all animals understood.

Charles the horse, his muzzle clear, slowed to his usual lumbering walk after about fifty yards. Phil, running as fast as he used to after garbage trucks at 4am, nearly slid past him as he grabbed a loose bridal.

“Gotcha you okay Olena hey horsey Holy Moley.”

As Phil steered the horse around in a wide arc back toward the Park’s gateway, Paddy, Dmytro and the photographer came jogging up. Phil sucked air.

Olena saw her grandfather had left the box of bees behind. When he reached the carriage, Dmytro was not sure what to say. He took the handkerchief off his head and handed it up to his granddaughter in case she might need it.

Vera’s Garden

Vera’s garden started at the cement steps from the back of her fibro house and stopped at the splintered wooden palings that separated her from the Dobrowskis over the back fence and toward Wollongong Beach.  

Between the steps and the fence, the garden was always full and in different stages: vegetables planted, vegetables just picked in burlap bags, or seeds or stems of vegetables about to be planted. But for the muddy wooden planks between the different garden beds, every centimetre was host to harvest.

The raised beds were built from heavy railway sleepers that Vera’s late husband, Oleksa, or Al as the Aussies called him, had hauled home on the workers’ train from the BHP steel mill. Half the houses in the suburb – their’s included – were built with scrap materials and left-overs from the mill, which was gargantuan and blocked the small city from the sea with their size and smoke. Only a kilometre from the shadows of the steel works, Vera’s beds were heaped high with brown soil and moist cow manure from a dairy farm near Kiama. ‘Chocolate velvet cake’, her lawyer granddaughter had once described the planting fill as, but that’s as close as she ever came to it, Vera noticed.

The beds were placed in four neat rows, like church pews. That was easy for any visitor, say Signora Romero, the retired Italian school cleaner from next door on the right, to see.

One row of three beds of what she called “leafy” in her thick accent: broccoli, parsley, spinach, silver beet, dill, parsley and their like. Green veggies to trim off stems.

The next row were three beds of “fruity”: zucchini, eggplant, green beans, tomatoes, chokos. Palmfuls of produce to clip off vines.

Then, three beds of “rooty”: potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, onion, radish, garlic. Dense packets to be pulled from the soil.

And, three beds of “sweety”: berries and grapes. Sweet pearls picked off strings.

It’s always easy to see the “what” of the garden, but there was another pattern that only Vera could see. Not even the most intelligent person she knew, Father Andriy from the church who regularly came to sprinkle the house and the garden with holy water from a plastic Coke bottle, could see it. What Vera saw that she didn’t share was her garden’s “why”.

Each set of beds was for a season, the distinct one’s she remembered from her Ukrainian childhood. Within that, each individual bed – all twelve – was for a lunar moon. From Aquarius to Taurus to Virgo to Scorpio and the others as well. And, each bed’s content was planted, tended and harvested by the moon’s position.

The first two weeks of the month were the new moon’s and its strong energy; a fertile time for planting as it was when the plants opened and reached for the light. With the third week of the month, the moon’s light would be weaker and the plants’ energy would be transferring to their roots. So, it was time for Vera to sow. In the fourth week, the moon’s light was weakest; in this time of relative barrenness, Vera would cultivate, rip weeds, turn compost with her shiny spade, and kill bugs.

Truth be told, if someone observed Vera very closely, say the lawyer granddaughter who would drive her Mercedes down from Vaucluse to visit on weekends and diligently copy recipes from Vera’s old composition notebook into her Blackberry, well, they might even have seen that pattern. But what Vera really didn’t share was the “why” behind the “why”.

As a small girl in the creek-side village of houses with whitewashed walls and thatched hay roofs, and side yards of languid cows and curious chickens, on a ceaseless steppe of golden wheat and barley, Vera’s mother, Sofia, had taught her to plant by the moon. An ancestral system of matching the sky and the soil to seeds and time.

Sofia compared it to embroidering a blouse, and how each tiny stitch of needle and dyed red or black thread needed to perfectly follow the pattern to make the dense and beautiful whole. So, it was with planting. The “what’s, when’s and how’s” of a garden came from a higher source that needed to be adhered to and respected.

Dark-haired and dark eyed, it was said her mother had gypsy blood, perhaps from the times of the Cossack wars with the Turks across the Black Sea. The truth was unknown, but the villagers chose to believe her blood was exotic and capable of sorcery. Before the Soviets, the other women would come to their house late at night after bringing their animals into their summer kitchens. Wearing the black shawl of a young widow, Sofia would read the yellow Tarot cards, a prized possession imported from Vienna, for them. Vera sat in a dark corner, the walls lined with maroon Persian rugs, and listened to her mother speak about the Hermit, the Lovers, the Magician, the Fool, the Devil… And Vera heard how the village women also sought out their own sense in the cards – no matter what Sofia might have offered.

Everyone knew that the Lovers were strapping Ivan and blossoming Natalka, whose blouse barely contained her bosom, who they followed with their eyes as they took wooden pails to fill with water. The village’s external voices scolded their indiscretion, but it’s internal hearts sang at the sight, as young love was a sign of hope and abundance.

And the Magician, well, that was Pavlo, the bespectacled young Communist teacher sent from Kyiv after the Revolution, who taught an inaugural generation of village children to read, but also told them to forget God. Or, at least to pretend to forget God. On Sundays, after the church was boarded over and shut, Pavlo sometimes joined the village’s farmers in the forest by the creek bank. There, Fat Dmytro, who had shaved off his bushy grey beard and no longer wore his priestly vestments, held hidden Liturgy that everyone knew about. The fragrant smoke of frankincense from his swinging censer swirled up amongst the black-and-white birch trees called ‘bereza’.

They were all dead now. Vera remembered Ivan drifting off in his sleep, as Sofia nursed him and Natalka weakly wept into her flower-patterned headscarf. As a young girl, Vera was not to know that Natalka cried not from grief at her fiancé’s death by starvation, but from her guilt for having eaten the last of their food.

Vera remembered finding the dead body of Danylo. Sent by Sofia to forage in the forest for food after the Bolshevik brigades had confiscated the grain stored in their cellar, she found his body hanging by his own leather belt from a pine bough. After months of famine, he was no longer fat, and his hemp shirt was loose around his purple corpse. Beneath him, there were no mushrooms among the pillowy pine needles where they usually could be found.

Back in town, Vera saw a handwritten notice scrawled on hammer-and-sickle letterhead that was nailed to the bulletin board of the post office, still pock-marked from the time of the Great War. It was signed by the young Russian lieutenant who came to head the Central Committee of the newly formed Town Soviet. It said Dmytro had been convicted of crimes against the peasantry and the proletariat as a ‘secret priest and bourgeoise kulak’. It made no sense to Vera because it was no secret he was a priest and his little farm had only three more pigs than their own. Sofia told her that not everything made sense at first, but there was more to see than what was seen.

Seventy years later, the people of her village weren’t to be seen now, but they were still there for Vera. Everyone from the village who had died in the famine. Ivan and Natalka lived among the raspberries in her garden. Red, bouncing, full of life, dancing at the wedding they never had. Fat Dmytro with the eggplants. Sombre, serious, plump and with a priestly collar.

Even Pavlo, who betrayed the last underground store of potatoes to the Bolshevik patrol, he was there too. Shot by the zit-faced lieutenant, drunk and in muddy boots. It was because Pavlo had not disclosed the village’s secret as quickly as a good comrade was supposed to. Now, Pavlo was among the onions – vegetables that Vera thought untrustworthy because they could give her nightmares. But she forgave them because they also brought sweetness to her red beetroot borscht.

And Sofia, who had died on the cart taking them to Kyiv where she hoped to find them food and safety, was there too. She was with the sunflowers that lined the fence line on all three sides. Strong, tall, vivid, nourishing. Even now, seventy years later in a land as far away from hunger and war as one could flee, Vera remembered holding onto her mother’s thinned body as it swayed to the pull of the farm horses and jolted on the rough track. A pointy elbow pushed in Vera’s emaciated ribcage. At the orphanage, the nuns, who by Communist decree were no longer nuns, pried her off her mother’s corpse.

This Australian winter’s morning, with the light as pure as a prayer to Saint Mary, Vera took down three burlap bags from a shelf in the small tin storage shed, and started to forage in the beds for content. She filled one bag for the Dombrovski’s, who especially liked her capsicums and eggplants to make their Macedonian ayvar spread. They would slather it on sausages, salads and fresh bread – the spicy red binding of their lives. Maybe, Vera prayed, it would help Damyan, their 20 year old son, stop with the drugs and the Holden muscle cars, and follow his father into the mill. That’s what she told her neighbour.

‘Speed. Very bad. Shame for family. No talk with his father,’ Gospogica Dombrowski said when taking the filled-up bag from across the fence.

‘When he last home, sosedka?’ asked Vera, using the word that Macedonian and Ukrainian shared, but for a vowel, for neighbour.

Most people were very alike in their needs, Vera thought. Only a vowel or two, or an old fence, separated them. Food, family, faith.

‘Three nights ago, when father on shift. But he call this morning to say he is okay and trying to play soccer with Rockdale Macedonian club. Maybe, change,’ Gospogica Dombrowski, who Vera knew took Valium, said.

‘That is very good, sosedko! Very healthy. He is great sportsman when he try. And he try!’

‘Bozha volya. God villing. You have nice day, Vera. I stop vorrying and go make the ayvar with these beautiful veggie.’

Next Vera made up another bag for Signora Romero, whose husband had died in when a crane fell on him at the mill and whose daughters were busy up in Sydney where they’d married Five Dock builder brothers. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, oregano, marjoram – and all the things that made for passata to smother noodles in. She put in the onions and garlic first and then made a soft green bed on top of them with the herbs. Finally, she carefully laid the tomatoes on the top layer – like putting jewels on jewellery, she imagined – so they wouldn’t bruise even in the 10 metre trip to the Romero’s veranda next door.

‘You tomato, Vera, the best of the best. Il migliore! I make sauce bottles for you and my girls,’ Mrs Romero said on taking delivery at her front door.

Vera always like to look at the patterns of seashells gathered from the beach that the late Mr Romero had laid into the veranda’s concrete to make it special for his wife.

Mrs Romero caught her eye, and said: ‘I think sometimes Antonio he made the shells for you too, mi amica. Or, for Al, your husband. Those two love each other so much. Aussie mates! Dio riposi.’

‘The card games in summer under your carport. Our game: durak. The fool. Your game: scopa. The broom! We say mitla. We happy,’ Vera, who knew her neighbour watched The Bold and the Beautiful on TV every day for some company, said.

Yes, happy. I need to look at photo albums more and remember. The girls when little. I do that today, mi amica. Grazie,’ Mrs Romero said and closed the aluminium screen door.

Vera headed back to the shed and noticed her grapes needed some more winter pruning with the secateurs whose brass handle was polished to a shine from her decades-long use. She then filled up the third bag. This one was to make borscht: potatoes, turnips, celery, carrots and especially beets.

Big dome-like beets whose shape reminded her of the dome her husband and the other men of the parish had made on the roof of their church from BHP excess sheet metal. They’d bought the church from a dwindling parish of Baptists in the 50s, and converted it and renovated it. At Easter, they would stand around their proud structure in a circle with wicker baskets of batik eggs and garlic sausages to be blessed. Now, many years of sea spray and salt had caused concentric circles of rust to bloom from the welded bolts that held the dome together.

It reminded Vera of the very rare ‘blood stain’ embroidery patterns she’d learnt from her mother. Using only red thread stitches to create an image on the blouse like that of a wound spilling from Jesus’ wounds. Her lawyer granddaughter had asked to learn how to do that stitching, but they hadn’t found time yet. Vera worried that she did more for others than for the girl, but wanted she wanted was of the past and the past had dangerous borders. Still. And, there was always the garden – there was always the filling of the bags and the feeding of the people.

When Father Andriy came past later in the day to Vera’s house to pick up his own bag, she expected he would repeat their usual conversation. That there was talk that the new Bishop in Melbourne was going to close the Wollongong church for lack of parishioners. That the generation that came in the 50s and 60s for the mill and would stand for two-hour long Liturgies in Ukrainian in Australian summer heat was gone. That their adult children had moved away from the ‘Gong, no longer spoke the language or understood the Liturgy, and only came at holidays and family funerals to check out each other’s new cars. Vera would always listen as if it was the first time he was sharing this, and then later pray for Father Andriy to have patience.

After the bag was prepared and waiting in the shade on the back steps, Vera did her big midday water of the garden using the blue-and-yellow latex hose that her lawyer granddaughter had brought her a month ago. It was very long and very flexible, and didn’t kink and catch the way her old rubber hoses always had. She was still getting used to how easy it was with the new hose that didn’t get caught every few metres, block off the water and force her to untangle to get working again.

Which part of her had liked. When something wasn’t simple; when it needed to be worked at; when suffering was accepted. But, it was also important, she knew, to count blessings and recognises the small things. The little points in life where the profane can see the profound, like her lawyer granddaughter’s gracious gift in the colours of the homeland. A homeland that Vera had not been to since being rounded up, transported and then forced to make battleship propellers as a slave labourer in a German BMW plant during World War II. Her granddaughter had been – something to do with charity for kids from Chernobyl – but it was hard for Vera to listen. It seemed sad.

Blessing and gifts, she thought to herself as she watered and blocked out the bad times. For each bed and each planting, the gift of water was a little different too. Some needed to be misted. Some soaked at the roots. Some sparingly treated and some nearly drowned. Like people, they too all needed their food, but also had their preferences. Just like her neighbours and dozens of other people and institutions across Wollongong – like the Salvation Army soup kitchen for the homeless – to whom she regularly gave bags of food from her garden to.  For more than twenty years since Al’s passing, what Vera didn’t eat went for free from her garden to the Gong’s kitchens.

As she finished off the watering, her front door knocked and she knew it would be Father Andriy. Vera opened both the screen door and the timber door to the priest. He was dressed in what he called his ‘civilian clothes’ – a short sleeved white shirt tucked into loose polyester black slacks sooty with incense dust, and a pair of old Volley’s – which weren’t very different from his vestments, but for priestly collar and polished leather shoes. He was skinny and his arms were raked red from scratching at his eczema. He laughed at himself for it. On his Facebook account with old seminary friends, he called himself the ‘white crow’ which meant ‘black sheep’ in Ukrainian. He needed his humour to face a church of empty pews and the doubts of the Eparchy.

Slava Isusu Khyrstu, pani Vera,’ the priest offered.

Slava Naviky and good day, Father. I knew it would be you. Come through to the garden.

Dyakuyu, pani Vera. I very much appreciate your kindness and never quite know how to return it. You remember the saying: borrowed bread lays heavy on the stomach.’

‘Your prayers are all we need, Father. You have God’s ear and that’s worth more than a full wheat field.’

‘Still, it is very good of you. What you do, pani Vera, for everyone. With the food from the garden.’

‘It’s not me that does it, Father Andriy. It’s the earth, the sun, the water and the gifts we’ve been given that does it.’

‘Indeed, pani Vera,’ said the priest, as he took a leaf from a beet root plant in one of the beds in his hand. ‘I was just sharing your story with a young lady. From the Council. Melissa.’

‘The Council, Father? From the government?’ asked Vera and stepped inside the shed where the priest’s bag was waiting.

‘Yes, well, the government. Just here in Wollongong. Roads, rubbish, rates – and now celebrating citizens. Social cohesion, they call it. But for me it’s just saying thank you to people – like you, pani Vera – who do much for others.’

In the shadows of the shed, Vera took another turnip from the high wooden potting table and put it into the priest’s bag. She tied it up with red twine string. She held onto the bow’s ends in her old hands and breathed of the soil smell in the shed. She reminded herself that Father Andriy was the smartest person she knew.

Vera heard the priest say that Melissa might ‘drop in to talk’. Vera closed her eyes and said a few rapid Hail Mary’s, and then took the bag out to the priest.

‘Any word from the Bishop, Father?’ she asked and heard the priest start his normal speech about the cost of building maintenance versus the revenue from alms, and how there were different ways to count either. Today, for Vera, it was comforting as the sound of birds.

After the priest left, the bag over his shoulder as he headed toward his black Corolla with a plastic rosary hanging from the rear view mirror, Vera walked around to the side of the house. It took most of the afternoon sun from the south. Vera grew her ‘secret’ poppies there – separate from the garden. A 20 metre long strip of happy red faces like young girls dancing. Her lawyer granddaughter had told her they were best here and a bit hidden away because the authorities didn’t like them. ‘I need to call her, I need to call her’, she thought, but other things rushed up, as she sat down in an old chair whose wicker strands were worn and saggy.

Vera didn’t understand how governments did not like a flower. She didn’t understand how governments took people’s last food away or fired Katyusha rockets at undefended wartime villages. Vera didn’t understand how a red flag made it okay to kill.

After a few minutes, Vera closed her eyes and fell asleep. As soundly as in the poppy fields of the village. She would wake when the sun faded and the evening cold gripped her hands, and make a simple dinner of potato soup with dill.

Vera’s husband had hated mosquitoes, so the next morning she stood and looked at Melissa through a grey mesh screen. It muted the young woman’s the tattoo of green and pink mermaids and dolphins that ran down Melissa’s arm to the mobile phone in her palm. It seemed to be flashing with some message. Vera looked at it and remembered lighting candles under the icons in their village kitchen which had no electricity or running water.

‘Is it okay to come in, to talk?’

Vera opened the screen and stepped out on to the veranda. She noticed that Oleksa’s tiles were coming loose under her slippers.

Melissa thanked her and, as far as Vera could tell, explained that the Council was conducting a project about ‘how our aged citizens have overcome adversity and now build our resilience’. And how ‘everyone talks about a lady named Vera’, how ‘we would videotape your story’ and how ‘we can get a translator to help if you want to speak in your cultural language’.

It wasn’t the language that Vera could not understand or worried about. That wasn’t what was making it hard for her to hear the young woman. Rather, it was the other voices. The village priest, Fat Danylo, starting the Easter vigil with the reading of the Gospel. Ivan and Natalka, the lovers, above in the choir stall close to the sky blue ceiling of the church, standing close together to hear each other’s song responses. Her mother, Sofia, wearing her finest blouse with the spring flower pattern, holding her hand, and asking Vera to pray together for their deceased husband and father. The young teacher Pavlo – afraid to attend – wishing them a good evening on their stroll home. Then, the drunken zit-faced lieutenant, sitting on the stoop of the Town Soviet, and using the butt of his pistol to scrape mud from his boots. He said nothing, but watched everyone for how and where they might be hiding their grain.

She heard Oleksa. In the mill where he’d spent 30 years, her husband had felt wartime shrapnel in his body when the magnetic force of the lava-like furnace was at its highest. A careful and quiet man.

‘A word is not a sparrow, Virochka. Once it flies out, you won’t catch it,’ Oleksa said to her.

Are you okay, Mrs Vera? Is there anything you want to ask me? Will you think about it? It would really make a difference for people to know,’ she heard Melissa say.

‘Yes yes good. I will think about,’ Vera replied and took Melissa’s crested business card – Community Development Officer – and good bye greetings.

It was time to water. But without thinking, Vera changed into shoes resting on the veranda. It was overcast and windy, and she started to walk toward the beach. Signora Romero waved to her as she pulled her car out of the drive and Vera politely said ‘no it’s okay – I’m taking a walk’.

She passed the houses of the other neighbours – other men and women from the mill and from all of Europe’s violence. Past the Bowling Club where the “Aussies” went to drink beer and roll heavy balls as big as her cabbages while covering their red noses with white cream. Past Father Andriy’s church where a gutter was hanging loose above a stained glass window of St Volodymyr the Great.

The wind was strongly picking up from the south and it held the ocean waves up until they crushed onto themselves close to shore. A light brown foam was building up at the shore break and edging up the sand. Bits would break off in the wind and twirl in the air. Long strands of leather-like kelp laced along the first berm. The sea, turbulent and impenetrable, like cinder blocks being tossed around, tore at itself. It had brought Vera here and kept the past 15,000 kilometres away, or at least locked up in plots and plants.

Vera thought of her lawyer granddaughter, named Sofia for her greatgrandmother, and wondered when she would next visit. That she should find more time to show her the special embroidery pattern.

The Funnel

The forest trail ran through the overgrown gulch in back of Josh’s suburb of BMW four-wheel drives, barre classes, and conversations about competing private schools.

Leafy back decks of big houses looked down over the creek at the bottom of the gulch. On weekends, the houses’ people bonded over barbequed meat ‘from that new butcher shop’. Guests politely inquired about their hosts’ architect of choice. Talk turned to whether organic wine was drinkable yet, the incompetence of governments compared to business, and plans to ski. ‘Japan, or Whistler, or Switzerland, this year? Or, staying at the beach house?’

Josh had grown up in a similar house with similar parents, Richard and Elizabeth Merewether. Stockbroker dad who’d been active as Treasurer and under-12s coach of the local rugby club, the Stags. Stay-at-home mum who embraced the digital advent of on-line anthropology courses. ‘It makes our holidays so much richer to better understand the host cultures – though your father says I’m overthinking things and should just enjoy,’ she’d offered by phone from overseas a few years back.

She’d called to remind him to water the camellias in the shady back corner of their garden. And, she carefully remembered to ask what his boss had thought of his presentation in Melbourne earlier that week. Like she was reading it off the “to do” list on her iPhone.

The call was from an airport transfer lounge somewhere in Asia. She and his father were headed back to Europe. Something about Biennale. It was right before they got on the plane that a dictator’s idiots put a missile through and littered the Ukrainian steppe with bodies, baggage and Barbie dolls.

Now, Josh opened the safety latch on the gate from the street to the gulch for his parents’ kelpie. Another orphan, he supposed. The dog burst through the gap and rumbled downhill to the start of the trail. ‘A friggin fur-covered avalanche’, Josh thought.

Everything the dog did seemed like it was its best ever experience. That annoyed Josh, but at least the dog moved at a fast and furious pace. Chasing the dog made Josh push harder when he ran in the mornings before his daily commute to the city.

Josh ran like other people drove. Encased and reinforced. In his case, he wasn’t wrapped in steel and glass, but plans and ambitions.

It seemed to him that the faster he ran, the faster the ideas and the goals came afterwards on the train. Send an email to the Perth client so the guy gets it first thing Western time. Re-cut the Excel spreadsheet on Harrison’s project to show the possible efficiencies that old fossil was too lazy to look for. See if the new marketing girl was interested in the soccer team he organised for lunchtimes in the Domain. And where her interests might extend.

Josh wasn’t blind to his own black and white way of being. He was proud of it. The laser-like focus on specific targets and specific ways to achieve them. Staying concrete and ‘keeping it real’. He did it because it worked for him and because he knew his internal GPS struggled to maintain aim in the ambiguous alternative.

The grey zone of self-awareness, mindfulness, empathy and the other things the shrinks had talked to him about after the crash. He didn’t discount any of it. It was perfectly logical to recognise the emotional. And, nowadays for him, it was perfectly logical to consciously ignore it as well. ‘Fit for purpose,’ Josh thought.

He’d been 26 when he’d moved back in with his parents to save money for an investment unit in Hobart ‘where prices are really accelerating, Dad, so it makes sense’. His parents had taken their new kelpie’s bed out of Josh’s old upstairs bedroom as a welcome gesture.

Lying there on a Sunday morning after a pub night with former rugby First XV schoolmates, the next call after his mother’s was from a senior Department of Foreign Affairs official in Canberra. Something about a tragic incident. More details to come as soon as possible. Factual and strategically supportive. Like the official was reading from a prepared Q&A document that some other public servant had wordsmithed.

Josh was hungover and thought it was another prank by Thommo, the keg-like prop on the school team, who played stupid to suit the stereotype. Even though he was an ophthalmologist in Lindfield now. Josh pressed end on the phone and went back to sleep.

He woke up to polite knocking on the front door and a thin young woman with a killer red pants suit and a Channel 9 microphone.

‘I’m so sorry for the intrusion, Mr Merewether. I just want to extend my sympathies from Channel 9 for your parents. I know it’s very early still, but we just wanted to give you the opportunity to say something if you wanted to,’ the reporter offered.

Josh noticed her eyes were coked up and her skin was pock-marked under heavy make-up. The camera’s recording light on her crew’s gear was blinking red.

He stood there in only his dark green cotton Canterbury rugger shorts, tousling his bed head, and blinking back. The kelpie bounded between his bare legs and sniffed the reporter’s black Manolo’s. Josh’s bleary eyes kept blinking. The journo crew kept recording.

‘Devasted, distraught and speechless North Shore son’ is what Josh became on that evening’s 6 o’clock news. To others, he seemed to stay that way for months after. Through overly enthusiastic hugs at the memorial service from his rugby mates. Through his aunt bringing him tuna casseroles that ‘aren’t as good as your mum’s, I know’. Through the boss telling him ‘mate, you do whatever you need to do and we will be here when you get back.’

They all treated him like he was away. But even as he sat in psychologists’ waiting rooms and leafed through their Art Gallery of NSW members’ magazines, Josh knew he was completely there, but not in their way. The shrinks explained the stages of grief – the sorrow, the anger, the emptiness, and the uncontrollable emotions. Josh made earnest eye contact and nodded; they thought he was listening.

But, after a few teas with milk and several sessions, what he was actually doing was crossing out emotions that he did not wish to have. He didn’t see the practical point of feeling any of what they described. And, he didn’t feel “numb” either. He was just being pissed off that the dog and its stray droppings on the back deck, like a Morse Code message in shit, came with the five bedroom house.

The house was good. It was a checklist he could get his head around. Gutters to clear, lawn to mow, hedge to maintain, garage to reorganise, solar hot water heater to replace, and utility bills to meet. ‘Stain the deck for the dog to shit on some more’, Josh thought.

Josh weighed up the right timetable and process for clearing out his parents’ possessions. The stack of dozens of yellow-bound National Geographics in the downstairs rumpus room. The billiards table with the worn felt and the table tennis with the broken paddles. His mother’s handmade, colour-coded spice rack. Red for paprika. Orange for turmeric. His father’s collection of vintage Leica and Olympus cameras. Josh developed criteria for either keeping or off-loading all the stuff: emotional value, e-Bay value, no value.

The dog doesn’t fit the categories’, Josh thought to himself as the kelpie surged into the creek. He watched from the trail as the dog snapped at floating twigs and leapt at a dragon fly that hovered near the water’s surface like a pre-historic drone. Josh observed how the dog’s kinetic energy impacted on and displaced the creek’s contents: half of an object’s mass multiplied by its velocity squared. ‘Stupid animal’, he thought.

For four kilometres, they ran through a scrub tunnel of lantana. The dog would use its speed to sprint ahead and would then stop suddenly to sniff at hollows and hideaways. Josh’s lime green Asics trainers steadily and smoothly moved across the trail’s crushed, grey gravel. He thought of a piston-driven steam engine. How it gained force through fluidity. As he closed the gap on the dog, Josh didn’t focus on the distance covered or even the heart rate on his runner’s watch, but on getting each stride the right length and on making each footfall firm. It was the inside game of performance and survival.

He turned a corner of the trail where the lantana thinned out. From his daily runs, Josh knew to steeplechase over a fallen tree trunk in one bound.  He overtook the dog, who had to take the jump in two touches. It was now panting and pushing to stay apace.

Then, there was a short steep descent where Josh hit his internal accelerator. He wanted momentum for the upcoming hill that climbed through a stand of ghost gums. Strands of maroon bark – like wallpaper come loose in a long-abandoned house – peeled from the trees. It was on this hill where his discipline and determination usually beat the dog’s enthusiasm and loyalty. Mind over mutt, Josh thought.

Josh gunned it to the top of the rise. He stopped and turned to face the trailing kelpie, who was now only half-trotting uphill with its pink tongue sluicing saliva on to the gravel. The dog wagged its tail when they made eye contact. He waited for the dog to get to the top of the hill and then he kicked gravel at it. It skittered back and whined, as Josh turned and ran harder toward the Funnel.

Just short of the five kilometre mark where Josh always turned back to home, the Funnel was a two-metre wide, above-ground, cement drainage pipe. It was fully covered with ghetto graffiti by non-ghetto kids scrawling a ‘fuck you’ in spray paint to their executive parents.

Inside, there was usually a trickle of scummy water down the middle of the big pipe. But during the occasional flooding of the creek, the Funnel kept the neighbouring houses from getting hit. Torrents of water would rise up its circular walls and flush out its contents. Silvery goon bags, broken glass from scotch bottles somebody had pinched from some lawyer father’s stash, Dominoes’ pizza boxes eaten clean by rats, a crusty sofa cushion, used condoms. The lonely detritus of suburban teenager angst.

For years, the Funnel was where the emo kids from the local public high school, those who somehow hadn’t made the cut to wear private school boys’ straw bowlers or girls’ cashmere scarves, had gotten wasted. The next generation did nowadays. Occasionally, the Funnel’s nearest neighbours would complain loud enough for the cops to come down either end with torches in hand on a Friday night. They would bust kids with mascaraed eyes for having rubber hose bongs. Or, one time, the Council cemented bricks at odd angles to make it harder for anyone to sit down anywhere.

Looked like the insides of a meat grinder’, Josh remembered as he ran closer to The Funnel. He had only hung there a couple of times when he was at school. Sarah, the indie girl from the bus stop – shaved head, nose piercing and a hot body her black leather jacket could not hide – had asked him to come down and hang. Josh liked her, but he wasn’t sure why when he compared her to the posh girls he normally went with. Girls who never had cavities; now, they were well-married girls who ran essential oil businesses on Instagram while raising their own kids without cavities. Sarah seemed different. Josh had once watched her skilfully kicking a soccer ball for an hour against the side of her family’s four car garage. In a Ramones t-shirt and an old pair of Volleys. But the First XV had been more compelling.

Josh strode to the lip of the Funnel. He resented having to slow down, but his overwhelming aim – getting to 5ks and turning around – kept him moving. It was always dark inside the Funnel. The sunlight 30 metres away at its other end made it even harder for the eyes to adjust. He didn’t see the edge of the bundle his foot landed on.

Josh’s ankle rolled underneath him. He stumbled to his right and slid down the curved cement, using the outside of his outstretched hand to try and slow himself. The dog came bounding. It caught up, jumped at him, and tried to lick Josh’s face as the Funnel water seeped into his Nike running shorts. His hand was scraped and starting to show blood; his ankle was hard to straighten.

‘Fuck off, asshole’, Josh yelled as he punched the dog in the head to move it away. ‘Goddamit.’ He clutched at his ankle and rocked his torso to ease the discomfort. As he did, he made out the bundle he’d up-ended himself on.

It was a kid wearing a black hoodie that covered much of his face and a long, military-style woollen trench coat that covered much of his body except one of his bare, skinny arms. One of his dad’s holiday images flashed up: like a Greek Orthodox monk in a catacomb.

‘Jeezus,’ Josh said to the kid. ‘What the fuck’. He wanted to throttle the shithead and reached over to grab at the coat’s wide collar which was studded with band pins from another century. Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks.

As Josh pulled at the collar, the kid’s head lolled sideways. A needle dropped from the kid’s exposed arm and rolled down to the Coke caps and cigarette butts at the base of the Funnel. ‘Fucking shit’, Josh thought to himself. ‘I should fucking leave this problem to somebody else’.

But he knew the scraped hand and rolled ankle “placed” him there. He pressed the stop button on his running watch and, from his knees, tried to rouse the kid. There was no response from the pale face with the purple half-moons under its eyes. Josh found a pulse on the kid’s freezing cold wrist. He noticed the waxing and waning moons tattooed in black ink on the kids’ knuckles. Josh unvelcroed his mobile phone from his bicep.

The dog trotted back toward him. Josh lashed out with a foot that caught the dog in the ribs. The kelpie moved back and bared its teeth.

Motherfucker. Motherfucker’, Josh thought to himself as he gave the 000 operator the location and the situation. She told him to look for some identification in the kid’s pockets.

The kid groaned as Josh shifted him and reached for a wallet in his back pocket. The dog growled. Josh started pulling cards out. Library, Opal, FBI radio membership, but nothing with a name on it.

‘Have you been able to find anything? Maybe, a Medicare card?’ asked the operator who was keeping him on the line until the paramedics and the cops could get there.

Josh found the green card and saw the embossed name in small raised letters on it.

‘Joshua. Joshua Merewether,’ he read out to the operator. It didn’t register because he was using his free hand to chuck a piece of brick rubble at the dog who was inching forward with the hair on his back brittle and raised.

The dog madly barked. It crouched down as if to leap. Sirens from the nearest cross street filled the Funnel.

 

The Day of the Heroes

After the Holland Tunnel heading north from the City, the cheap chartered bus pulled into the Golden Apple. It’s tires grumbled on gravel in the parking lot like a drunken bar singer rubbing his stubble with a microphone. The Youth Division’s annual winter day trip took a pit stop.

In the back of the bus, Joey the Joke yelled at his friends: ‘Who’s got the cowboy killers?’

‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Joey. Buy your own cigarettes, you sneaky shit. You’ve already sucked down half the Jungle Juice since the City,’ said Burmylo.

Burmylo meant “bear” in the language of their parents and grandparents. The nickname was his since he was six. He had always been bigger and shaggier than the other boys. Burmylo lifted up his drab olive parka with the fake fur fringes. He jammed the Jungle Juice, a sweaty goatskin bag filled with vodka, NyQuil and grape Kool-Aid, into his waistline. They’d been drinking since seven o’clock in the morning. The bag’s little red plastic nozzle stuck out from the band of his white Fruit of the Looms.

The bus came to a full stop with a hydraulic wheeze, and the senior adults and little kids got up to file into the truck stop complex. Ptaha – it meant “birdy” – found a bunch of Dorito wrappers on the floor, scrunched them up into a ball, and threw it just past the slicked-back, ‘50s style head of the Youth Division’s senior counsellor, Mr Serhiy, who the boys preferred to call Slick Head.

Ptaha was small and ducked down below the seats to hide. It was less than 25 degrees outside, but he was wearing his usual prized black-and-red striped Adidas tracksuit pants and some no-name basketball sneakers from Orchard Street. Drunkenly, he licked orange chip crumbs from his palm.

‘I see you, Ptaha, you miniscule moron,’ Slick Head said in the ancestral language. ‘Everyone off the bus. You have exactly forty minutes to go to the toilet and get a snack. We have to get to the Property for roll call.’

Mr Yaroshenko, an unmarried man in his mid-fifties, who helped maintain the Front’s Property near the shit town in the Catskills, had noticed the boys goofing around with Slick Head. He calmly stepped back a few rows toward their group of boys and said: ‘Come on, lads. Time to march.’

The four of them glanced at each other and put on their sober faces to get off the bus. Joey pulled his green Jets beanie further down, maybe to cover the fading purple bruise near his right eye that he’d had for the last couple of weeks.

For whatever reason, they didn’t fuck around with “Mr Y” or whatever his original name was. Like all the ex-partisans, Mr Y had changed his name to sneak himself into the US on one of the ex-troop ships that also brought their “Displaced Person” peasant parents. He was the real deal still from the war.

Summers, on days when the humid heat was hovering in the valley, Mr Y’s head would be covered with a white handkerchief with the four corners tied down.

He spent the afternoons working with a long super-sharp scythe and whetting stone to cut the tall grass around the Property’s sports field. He moved steadily, adding one half-circle of mown grass after another until the paddocks were clear.

Lou remembered one time during swim time at summer camp, looking downstream and away from everybody splashing around at the Property’s shallow rocky creek. He saw Mr Y in his white singlet, pants rolled up to the knees and standing still with his eyes closed. Lou noticed the swollen bullet scars across Mr Y’s upper back shoulder and on both sides of his left bicep. Like melted candle wax on the embroidered tablecloth at Christmas, Lou thought to himself.

Lou’s real name was “Lubomyr” and it meant lover of peace. Another dumb decision by his refugee parents, Lou had thought. Peace wasn’t something there was a lot of around them. It was like they were ignoring what they could see from the window of their fifth floor tenement walk-up.  The “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti on the wall of the abandoned synagogue. The speed freak punks with torn zits and studded leather jackets fighting it out in Tompkins Square Park with the fat, moustachioed cops from the 9th Police Precinct.  Broken Colt45 bottles versus NYPD batons and riot squad horses.

So, he stuck with Lou because it was more American and he stuck with his neighbourhood friends no matter how stupid they were or how stupid they did. He stuck to the Rangers, Nathan’s Hot Dogs and Chiller horror movies on Channel 11. In early spring times, he stuck to sitting on the stoops of the fancy brownstones a few blocks north of the neighbourhood, where their mothers didn’t walk past, and where they drank cheap vodka from plastic pint bottles. The booze was bought for them by their older, sad ex-Vietnam cousins ‘for a fee, dude’ because they were all underaged.

In June, before being sent to camp for the rest of the summer, Lou stuck to ‘tar beach’ on the roof of his building and watched the sun reflect off the Twin Towers at dusk.

These virtues were his. He could not see nor touch nor taste them. They weren’t the Front Youth Division’s rules about bravery and sacrifice and revenge. They weren’t from the sorrowful saints painted on their Church’s ornate ceiling or the Liturgies in the obscure version of his parents’ language that not even the priests understood. They weren’t about that other country that he and his American-born friends had never seen. The country that wasn’t even in National Geographic atlases, but he was told to think about all the time.

According to Slick Head, who was born after the war in the DP camp at the bottom of the mountain of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest”, the Front held that they should even be ready to give their lives for that place of the imagination. Lou didn’t buy it. Lou believed in pick and stick with what was in front of him.

From their bus and the other one in their group, little kids and a few straight-laced crowd, college-aged counsellors filed through the big plate glass door of the Golden Apple’s entryway. It was filled with steaming parkas, scarves and galoshes like flopping fish on a boat’s deck. Lou and his boys peeled off when Slick Head wasn’t looking. Lou knew that Slick Head never really looked. The truth was they could do whatever the fuck they wanted to do, but it felt better to pretend that Slick Head and the other bosses somehow gave two shits.

They walked to the back of the truck stop near the dumpsters and used cooking oil drums. The ground was covered in four inches of snow that was crusted with spoiled French fries, rotten cabbage, a half-eaten cherry pie, and other strewn garbage. Goop leaked from the bottom of the steel drums and made a black streak through the frozen muck.

Burmylo pulled the homemade Coke-bottle-and-rubber-hose bong out of one of the deep pockets inside his parka. He was like a one-man, 8th Street head shop; he always had some kind of substance and paraphernalia to get stoned with him. The bong was pre-loaded. Joey hit it with his green Bic lighter, which was set to full blast like a flame thrower, and started passing it around. From Burmylo to Lou to Joey to Ptaha. Size order. It was all done without having to talk. Every player on the team knew his position and they had practiced many times.

Lou sucked hard. He closed his eyes and held the dope deep in his lungs as long as he could. He leant back and blew the smoke out toward the slate sky. They passed the Jungle Juice the opposite way, holding the goatskin up over their heads, and shooting streams of booze into their own mouths.

‘Good “konopols”, Bearski,’ Joey said about the dope. He liked to mangle the old language even though he spoke it better than there rest of them. ‘Come on. I’m fucking starving. Zyiv bu horsemeat.’

They passed the bong for another round while stamping their feet and kicking aside slush.

When the bong’s last gurgle was gone, Burmylo stowed the gear. They made their way inside. They didn’t take their coats off – or in Ptaha’s case his “Virginia is for Lovers” sweatshirt – and went straight into the food buffet line. The buffet was separated like a bullpen from the cheaply wood-panelled dining area by a stainless-steel barrier. Once you were in, you had to go past the cash register at the end.

Lou’s head was spinning like an acrobat hanging from a rope at Ringling Bros circus. That was no biggie – he was used to it. Then, he noticed the RPMs clicking over quicker than usual with just regular dope and liquor. And, there were blobs of blue in his vision, and flashes of light when he turned his head. Like a movie reel melting on a projector. To slow down, he carefully got a steel meal tray and a ceramic bowl that had the Red Apple crest on it. The tray and the bowl felt super-heavy to him, like anchors, and it was good to steady himself.

But as soon as he reached for a soup spoon to put in the back pocket of his jeans, the spin cycle started again. Hectic. The neon Schlitz Beer sign stretched out as long as the whole dining room. The black-and-white linoleum flooring bounced up and down like a chessboard in an earthquake movie.

‘Paraquat’, he thought, realising that the dope was laced. ‘Fucking Burmylo’. Lou knew then that he was at the “moment”; realising that he was totally fucked up before proceeding to being totally fucked up without any realisations. Struggle or surrender.

Burmylo was piling three slices of meatloaf and mashed potatoes on his plate and drowning the pile in baby-shit gravy. Ptaha pocketed the free Saltine crackers; he mostly didn’t have money and sometimes relied on “loans” from teachers at school who liked him because he was clever when he was sober. Joey took a metal ladle from a big soup-serving container and poured cream-of-mushroom into their bowls. It was like watching cement pour on one of Lou’s father’s construction jobs when he sometimes visited the old man on Saturday afternoons after the Front’s language school. Joey was laughing and talking at him as usual, but Lou could only make out random words.

It was like when they were up at the Property on a late summer night and could sometimes catch the static-filled signal of a college radio station from Poughkeepsie. It played Bad Co, Meatloaf, Boston, old Stones – their songs would cut in and out as the radio waves swelled and slumped.

Joey put an arm around Lou and pulled him in. Lou noticed Mr Y sitting by himself by the long window that looked out on the parking lot, filled with dirt-splashed buses and rusty Chevy pick up’s. He had a thick mug of steaming coffee and a New York Times was covering half of the lime-green Formica table in front of him.

‘Dude, when we get to the lady, put your money on the counter and start to ask her about the ashtrays and shit she’s selling, capisce?’ Joey said.

They slid their trays up the smooth metal bars past the dessert servery. It had lemon meringues, which were taller than the caps of the truckers who bought them, and apple pies with American cheese slices melted on them.

Joey could bullshit anyone and could spiel anything. It helped Joey put space and time between himself and the war his asshole father continued to fight with his fists on his kids. The prick mostly sat with the venetian blinds down in their apartment in the Projects and watched “The World at War” while ashing his Marlboro’s into a rock glass topped up with Seagram’s 7. He’d only leave to get another bottle or, when he was sober enough, to occasionally push a broom through bloody sawdust at the meat market owned by another Front guy.

Now, the Joke was on. Joey flipped his switch and instantly became as sweet as Paul Newman in his favorite movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. He smiled at the girl behind the cash register. The engraved white letters on her black melamine name tag said she was Darcy. Darcy’s pink-framed glasses rested on the top of her dairy farmer’s daughter’s cheeks.

‘Thank you very much, Darcy. Your hospitality is most appreciated. My colleague here will be paying for our nourishment,’ Joey said as he edged his tray to the just past the cash register. Burmylo, as big as some carved President at Rushmore, waited ahead of them with his packed tray, and Ptaha was trying to juggle his Saltines.

Behind Darcy, there were shelves with Golden Apple souvenirs: glass ashtrays, metal key rings, and maple syrup cookies. The glass display case the cash register sat on had the more expensive items. Like the eight inch Bowie replica knife with a tooled antler handle.

Lou wobbled and stuck his hand in his parka pocket. He pulled out a ball of crumbled bills and held them in his palm as he pointed with his middle finger.

‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m paying. Hey. Hey, that lighter is cool. Yeah, that one all the way at the top. How much is that?’

As Darcy turned to reach up to the top shelf and check the Zippo’s price tag, Joey slipped his ski-gloved hand behind the counter, lifted the silver blade and slipped it into the sleeve of his bubble parka. The parka and gloves made him look like The Michelin Man, Lou thought, as he watched the heist in his blurred peripheral vision.

‘Twenty bucks? Nah. Next time, Darcy. But thanks for looking for me.’

She sorted through the crushed five dollar notes Lou had put on the counter, and gave him back some crisp singles and shiny quarters.

They found a booth as far as possible from the rest of the Youth Division. A puddle started to form under the table as snow and slush melted off Burmylo’s Doc Marten’s. They were near the toilets to take turns going to the cubicles to slug the Jungle Juice and take hits off a little vial of Rush amyl. Oxygen was optional.

The Joke spun his chair around backwards and sat down with his legs spread wide. It was like he needed to be in his own movie all the time. He took some of Lou’s quarters and punched D3 for “Layla” by Eric Clapton into the small jukebox machine on the table.

‘Stick with me boys and you’ll go places,’ Joey said. Now, Joey was the star.

‘Lemme see, homey,’ Ptaha said and started to frisk Joey’s sleeve. He was slurring. Burmylo knocked his hand away.

‘Your brain is smaller than your dick, Bird Boy. You touch it – you pay for it. Leave it for later. Eat your fucking crackers, Polly.’

‘Fuck you, fuckface. Who the fuck made you Ed Koch,’ said Ptaha as he struggled to rip the plastic film off his Saltines.

Without telling anybody, when Ptaha was two in ‘66, his dad had walked into the Commies’ uptown consulate and pissed off back to the other side. So, the bosses thought that maybe Ptaha was a Commie too. Or at least that’s what they put out there. Lou thought it was to keep Ptaha on edge and willing to do stupid things to prove he wasn’t. He was an easy mark for them.

‘Give this piece of shit some booze and ganja, and he gets outta his place. Be fucking careful, Ptaha, with what you say next,’ Joey said. The Joke was over.

Lou had been following the trajectory of his spoon from his back pocket to the cement-like soup to his mouth, but tone was his territory and he tuned back in.

‘Leave it, you doofuses, okay? You’re both wrong whatever it is you’re arguing about. Trying to line my stomach here,’ he said.

All the mind-bending shit in their systems was like a rubber band. It drew them together, but it also went brittle and broke when pulled too far. A different word here or more tension in the voice there, and they went from blood brothers to blood.

Like the time Burmylo had smashed Joey’s shin with a pool cue at O’Connell’s Bar & Grill. Smashed it so bad it needed stitches. After five boilermakers, the Joke had somehow missed a sitting eight-ball in the corner pocket. It cost them two hundred Simoleons to some spics from Avenue C. Then, all of them in the back of a Yellow Cab on the way to Bellevue emergency – still throwing punches at each other and still laughing.

Back on the bus after the Golden Apple, the boys fell asleep with heads on each other’s shoulders. Burmylo snored. They woke up a couple of hours later at the Property.

The Front had bought the Property from Jews when the Jews started leaving the Catskills for Miami Beach. Slick Head undid the Yale lock on the chain link fence to let the two buses through. Each bus slipped and slid up the unploughed hill and the little kids yelped like happy puppies when their’s fishtailed. Cheap thrills for kids who lived in one-bedroom city apartments with bathtubs in their kitchens. Lou and his boys were too studied and still too stoned to stir.

During the winter, the Property was the turn-the-water-off-so-the-pipes-don’t-freeze-and-crack domain of only the resident caretaker. He was another ex-partisan with another made-up name that needed to be somehow stored away by the Front from civilisation and his own nightmares. It hibernated and waited for the summer camps. From July 4th to Labor Day, Front kids all lived in the Property’s barracks with broken toilets and old leaky Army tents. Their parents took the chance to work longer factory shifts and play gin rummy in hot urban kitchens.

From age six for every summer, they marched to their meals in columns for the cause. There wore grey uniforms to morning and evening roll-calls where Slick Head and the other Bosses. They heard speeches about the slogan of the day – “Death to the Occupant” or “No One Shall Tarnish Our Honour” or “No Danger is An Obstacle for the Cause”. They saluted flags and learned to reverently raise, lower and fold them. A triangle for the American; a rectangle for “ours”. They memorised Front songs of battle and resistance, and were told that in the Home Country they would be shot by the Evil Occupant for singing them. They were told what to love and who to hate. They were told to be careful of the insects; Slick Head said they could be the Evil Occupant’s ingenious, microphone-equipped spy bugs. They picked weeds and cigarette butts for breaking the “no English” rule. They got poison ivy from night-time raiding parties, stealing towels and inflatable pool rings from the neighbouring Jewish bungalow colony. Before all meals and on Sundays, they crossed themselves in the reverse way of their faith, prayed, and were blessed in the knowledge that the Front was right. At sixteen, the chosen “best” of them swore their willingness to live and die for the Front with oaths upon a .45 Colt automatic and a Bible in Cyrillic letters some of them struggled to read.

And, away from the bosses and their world of words and rules, with a sunny sledge of Shawangunk mountain above them, they ran fast on a sports field that seemed bigger than their entire neighbourhoods. They ate tender pork meatballs with creamy mushroom sauce made by the ladies, some of their own grandmothers, who volunteered in the kitchen. The same women who quietly chatted to each other while drawing threads of black and red through off-white hemp cloth to make the precise embroidered patterns of culture and tradition. They bought lemon Italian ices at the “candy store” that opened up for an hour during their nightly “free time”. They caught fireflies in their cupped palms near the shop’s kerosene lamp. They threw giggling girls in the creek that the men unsuccessfully tried to dam each year. The same girls who blew the fuses with their smuggled-in blow dryers getting ready for clandestine kisses at the Saturday night dance.

They learned to do the furious steps and scissor kicks, and leap the soaring leaps, of their badass horseback ancestors who never took shit from anyone on the ceaseless steppe. They called themselves “the Banda Boys” or the bandits – Lou and his New York City guys – and acted as badass as they could to impress the ‘rich kids’ from Jersey or Yonkers.

They wrapped chains around fallen logs in the forest on the Property and dragged them into bonfire stacks bigger than semi-trucks. They’d sweat hard as they worked and shared water taken from the clear, cold spring down by the creek, stored in tall Genesee brown beer bottles. They held hands in a big circle around the light and heat of the huge weekly blaze – the boys and girls of all ages, from all branches. Teenage junior counsellors flirted with each other and the Front bosses didn’t give speeches for a change. The visiting proud parents, the babushkas from the kitchen, and the camp followers like Mr Y sang softer songs of solace and sacrifice. They watched orange embers swirl to the stars. They squeezed the hand of the person next to them and passed an imaginary ember around the circle to say good and peaceful night.

When he was little, Lou wondered why he could see stars up at the Property, but there were never any to be seen from the roof of his building in the City.

Now, there were no stars either. When they arrived at the Property, they got out to stand rank-and-file, size-order, half-asleep, half-wasted. Just a cold-ass February late morning, a sky as grey as a used sheet in a morgue, the leafless skeletons of the trees on the mountainside, and the monument with the bronze bust statues of the Heroes of the Front.

The hand-held megaphone squelched as Slick Head turned it on. He’d taken off his woollen trench coat so everybody could see he was wearing his fucking uniform. His gut hung over and hid the tin badge Front insignia on his belt buckle.

Then, Slick Head rolled out the formula of the Front: roll-call reports and salutes from the different age groups, flag raising, national anthem, acknowledgement of overlords in the Front, the Church, and the Property’s admin committee; the ‘ground-and-pound’ about how everybody had to try harder to be like the Heroes.

How the Heroes and their partisan faithful had ambushed Nazi and Soviet supply columns with just hand grenades. How they’d eaten rats in hidden bunkers. How the bunkers had even been copied by the Vietcong. How the Heroes had sat in prisons. How they had fallen from the bullets of the Evil Occupant’s assassins. How their non-combatant loved ones had been tortured and exiled to Arctic places frozen off maps.

None of it was bullshit, Lou knew. He’d spent time after school at the public library up by the Museum of Modern Art where he spooled through micro-fiche articles about the Heroes. The articles he found weren’t written by the Front for the Front, so they seemed ‘truer’. A truth of fighting against a crueller and unjust but stronger enemy.

And, that truth was good when all around Lou were junkies’ broken needles, dog shit piles, tenement staircases sagging from the slumped strides of generations of tired migrants, and hotted-up Monte Carlo’s with Jersey plates and Guido’s buying spare nickel bags outside the 9th Street bodega on Friday nights. Pretty neighbourhood girls with Macy’s part-time jobs who wanted nothing to do with the neighbourhood and nothing to do with you.

The Heroes had a code and Lou saw how a code mattered. But what he couldn’t connect was how eating a Union Square subway rat led to freedom.

‘Deep,’ Ptaha said with sarcasm behind Lou, and pushed his foot into the back of Joey’s knee so he almost stumbled over.

Ptaha wise-assed a lot, but he was always the first to ask the Front bosses for “assignments”. Like burning the trash cans outside the Commie Consulate where his dad had deserted and disappeared. Or, slashing the tires on their diplomatic staff’s illegally-parked Fords. He wanted to be a made-man in the Front, so he would riff about black ops in the borderlands he’d do when he was older if, he said, ‘the bosses grew some balls like the old days’.

‘Somebody is gonna be in a world of hurt. Shit’s gonna get real real fast, dipshit,’ Joey said out of the side of his mouth. His fingers cupped at the bottom of his jacket and took the weight of the hidden Bowie.

‘Wassamatta, Joey? Think your brave daddy should be up there? Have his own fucking hero head too? For whaling on you and teaching you to be a warrior?’

Ptaha knew Joey hated his father and the beatings he copped from him. Burmylo thumped his fist into Ptaha’s small chest. Slick Head, in full flight about the day’s slogan, “Nation of Heroes – Nation Unshackled”, shot the senior counsellors a look to go over and shut the Banda Boys up.

At the periphery of the roll-call, Lou saw Mr Y standing very still with his leather-gloved hands folded in front of him. Steam came through the dark green woollen scarf he had wrapped around his nose and mouth. Like at the creek in summer, Mr Y’s were shut through all of Slick Head’s speech. When they started to sing “Praise to the Partisan” to close the ceremony, Mr Y opened his eyes, turned to face the marble cross at the crest of the monument, and took the attention position.

It made Lou wonder why Slick Head and the other bosses never spoke of any ex-partisans like Mr Y who were present during the speeches or roll-calls. It was as if the ex’s were ghosts that everybody could see but ignored.  Useful for the Front’s story, but not to be stirred up. Lou didn’t know if it was out of respect or intimidation or arrogance. And, in the Front, you could ask but mostly you didn’t.

‘Dismissed,’ Slick Head yelled, and the eighty three of them in ranks yelled back ‘Nation of Heroes – Nation Unshackled’.

‘Counsellors, activities in the main hall for younger children and then snow time. Banda Boys, off to the kitchen. You will help the comrade ladies get the food ready,’ he added.

The little kids laughed and pointed: ‘Banda Boys! Banda Boys! To the kitchen!’

The Banda Boys took their time getting to the kitchen. Their route went behind the Orthodox chapel and laundry and summer camp complex. They made stops to get more wasted. Another bong hit. More slugs off the goatskin. Smoked Burmylo’s Parliaments. Sucked on beer ice from a couple of frozen green bottles Heinekens they’d hid behind their barracks that past summer.

Ptaha did a bird song about how ‘the Heroes were the dudes and now all these Slick Heads and shit, they ain’t shit. We gotta get back to the real deal.’ He was whipping around like a plastic bag in the dirty wind of a back alley.

Joey said nothing and seethed, all the drugs drilling his brain hollow and dark. Lou knew Joey actually agreed with Ptaha, but for Joey to agree now would be to give up the hatred half of him relied on. Rather, he was waiting for his moment to star again and come back into spotlight. To get even.

Burmylo checked supplies and told them to ‘ease up for the trip back.’ He’d once told Lou that Ptaha, Joey and him were all ‘fucking pussies’, and he meant it. His mother was Canarsie Sicilian and her brother had an umbrella and suitcase shop on Rivington Street. Through his uncle, the wise guys in the Italian social clubs on Mott Street knew Burmylo. Through the wise guys, he’d acquired had a juvenile sheet for more than spraying Front slogans on NYU campus walls. The Bear was half out before he ever got in. Lucky fuck, Lou usually thought, but right now he had a massive case of munchies.

‘Come on. We should get to the kitchen. Grab some bulkas,’ Lou said about the freshly baked bread rolls the voluntary ladies’ crew would make. Each roll was bigger than Lou’s open palm. It would be a shiny brown on top where it had been brushed with egg, and when pulled open, there was steamy warm white. Lou imagined it was as soft as a fancy pillow at some place like the Waldorf Astoria. He loved how awesome the rolls were when dipped in the super-cold USDA milk that came in the big plastic bladders like cows’ udders. The government gave free milk to camps like the Front’s because apparently Lou and his friends were poor on some form.

Ptaha was grabbing Joey’s ass and yelling about ‘nice bulkas, baby’. Joey said nothing.

They rumbled in to the industrial-sized kitchen. The cold from the open door covered their soiled smell of smokes and booze.

The ladies had come up the night before, six of them packed into a green Plymouth Fury with a black vinyl top, to get the food ready. They had their hair up, covered by floral patterned scarves, and were at the long metal preparation tables. They were rolling dough into gummy strings to cut into roll-size pieces.

The head lady was using a butcher’s knife to chop a metal strainer full of peeled onions; there was a triangular mound in front of her. Tears ran down past her bifocaled glasses and she hummed the melody of a song about a young girl with long dark braids who longs for her partisan lover. Other ladies added the chorus. Behind the ladies was a large-scale oven as solid as a piece of artillery.

The oven reminded Lou of his dead grandmother’s story about the winter kitchen of their family farm in the Carpathian Mountains. Lou’s grandmother described the oven there. It was made of clay bricks and white-washed, and patterned with blue stencils of poultry, cattle and wheat stalks. The oven was fired by timber from the forest at the fringe of the farm.  During cold nights, you could sleep on top of the oven as coals slowly cooked beet root soup in a large ceramic pot underneath.

At a smaller table to the side, other ladies were taking a break with cups of black coffee and looking through a copy of the Front’s official weekly newspaper, “Shining Path of Victory”. On the front page, there was a photo of the Soviet Central Committee on display at some stupid parade. The headline said ‘Imperialist Criminals’ and the article featured an analysis of powerbrokers based on the position of standing in the line-up and the kind of hat worn.

Mr Y was at a sink across from them, with his sleeves rolled up. Steam rose from the hot water and it fogged up the wooden-framed window near him. He was finishing up scrubbing large cast iron pots. Their dark black flecked with silver and white was like his hair.

No one really said for sure, but Lou’s grandmother thought that before the war Mr Y had been studying abroad for a Doctorate in something like archaeology or the origin of language or something else obscure. She really wasn’t sure of the subject, but knew it was impressive. Now, he fixed watch-making machinery at the Bulova watch factory out in Queens. Since ’47 when a couple of the partisan battalions escaped to the West, Mr Y’s family in the old country could never hear from him again. They were ghosts to those mothers, wives and siblings too.

Onion Lady kept chopping while she directed the Banda Boys this way and that, ‘take these trays; those tin pitchers; four bladders of the milk; don’t forget the napkins’.

Trying to walk straight on the worn wooden slats of the kitchen floor, the boys started ferrying things to the chilly dining hall. Burmylo filled his pockets with half-a-dozen rolls on the way. The little kids and counsellors came in from the snow where they’d been playing Johnny-on-the-Pony, Ringolevio and pile-on’s, or sliding down the icy shady side of the monument on pieces of cardboard beer cases. When they’d carried the last of the rolls and stuff out, Lou went back to the kitchen to let the ladies know they were done.

Mr Y was wiping his arms dry with a schmata. Mr Y was smiling and Lou hadn’t seen that before. Maybe, it was the company of the women and the stories they wove as they worked.

‘And how are things with you, young Kohut, and with your parents?’, he asked Lou.

Lou knew right then that the whole kitchen was watching him. And, he knew that the ladies knew that he was smashed. But the point was to try and keep it together and tidy. It was the effort and the appearance – the ritual of respect – that mattered as much as anything.

He noticed the small and smudgy blue-green tattoo on Onion Lady’s forearm; the numbers that the Nazis at Ravensbruck had put on her. He sucked in and squeezed his hands in his parka pockets to steady himself.

‘Very well, thank you, Mr Yaroshenko. They would want me to wish you and the honourable ladies here good health,’ Lou said being careful with the language’s tricky tenses and formal pronouns.

‘Oh, how nice. That’s a well-mannered lad. There’s hope for this one,’ Onion Lady said.

‘Possibly. Possibly, ladies. Lubomyr is the smart one. He may not listen to the speeches, but I know he goes to the library and he reads. But is he smart enough to know the key thing, ladies, do you think?’

‘What’s that, Comrade Yaroshenko?’

‘That very little is very important. That most of life is nonsense and noise. But from time to time, there comes a word or an action that matters when we meet it. That one moment can be enough,’ Mr Y said.

Lou knew not to say anything, as Mr Y sized him up. That was useful because he had no idea what Mr Y meant or what he should say. He kept his eyes down and nodded, thanked them for the rolls, and excused himself to go back to the dining hall.

The other Banda Boys had gone outside again, Lou saw. They’d pushed snow off a timber picnic table and were stuffing their faces with rolls. Joey had the stolen knife from the Golden Apple out. He had a gloved hand on the table top; the glove was off the other hand. He was stabbing the knife up-and-down between his own spread-out fingers. The game was called bishop or stabberscotch or the five-finger fillet, depending on what street in the neighbourhood you were on and whether it was spics, or blacks, or Polacks you were mixing with. Lou saw Ptaha gesturing that Joey needed to take off the glove for it to count. Joey still said nothing and bounced the blade faster.

Lou had had enough shit in his body so he grabbed some rolls, poured a long glass of milk, and sat down at a table with the ten and eleven year old girls’ group. They had each nibbled a roll, but set them aside now. Two of them were playing Cat’s Cradle with yellow yarn as the others leaned forward on pointy elbows to watch.

Lou’s little cousin, Kalyna, jumped on his back. He could feel her skinny forearm on his Adam’s apple. He noticed that his Aunt Iryna had given her special braids with blue ribbons for the day so her hair could fit under wool hat.

‘Lubchyk!,’ she screamed.

‘How are all my girlfriends,’ he asked knowing it’d made them laugh and jump around, as happy as the popcorn maker on movie nights in the same hall during summer camp. The girls fell into strong denials of their girlfriend status and started pointing at the older girls’ group – the fourteen to sixteen year olds – and discussing Lou’s prospects.

‘Oi, lover boy, let’s roll,’ Burmylo called. ‘We’re going to the creek.’

The creek was where the Property divided the organized from the disorganized. The former, starting from the highway entrance, was where the Front had built the Youth Division barracks, the halls, the sports field, the beer garden, the chapel, the toilet blocks, and the monument. The boundaries of their beliefs and behaviors.

Across the creek, the back half of the Property was undeveloped. Hidden stands of hemlocks and beeches, and then pines and blueberry bushes, and then granite bluff the higher you climbed up the mountainside. The stacked stone wall that some claimed separated the Dutch and the Iroquois. A mossy ditch with overgrown flat tracks carved on both its sides; the remains of the old canal where barges of brown Pennsylvania coal had been pulled by steeds to the 19th century steam furnaces of Hudson Valley forges.

During camp, Lou would sometimes sneak away from the daily program and follow the rocky path up the bluff to a clearing carved out near the top. There, he’d watch happy hippies with hang-gliders run up to a raised wooden platform and leap off. Their rainbow-colored crafts of wire and textile soared and circled on the bluff’s hot up-draughts. After a day of flying, they packed up and returned to the parking lot nearby. With the sliding doors of their VW Combi vans open to the view of the valley, they’d share meals of beans and instant noodles cooked on portable butane stoves with toned girlfriends who wore West Coast running shoes like Nike’s and New Balance.

But today he had not gone across. He was in the middle of the creek on a twisted island of logs that had come downstream during the storms last spring. He was with the three boys he had known since birth and they were stoned nearly senseless. Peak hormones, illicit substances, resentments and carbohydrates made him heavy. Lou lay down on a thick timber trunk and closed his eyes. The water rushed below him in the creek bed, and he passed out.

‘Go for it, you fucking faggot,’ Ptaha yelled.

Lou sat up fast to see Joey holding the smaller boy in a head lock and balancing on the next log over. He was holding the tip of the knife to the bulging artery in Ptaha’s neck. Burmylo was hitting on the bong. Behind a haze of smoke, he laughed at the tangled pair. Fucked up out of his skull. Like he was watching a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Joey still wasn’t saying anything. This is for real, Lou thought.

Lou coiled from his calves and released like he was going up for a rebound on the courts at West 4th Street where the hustlers from Harlem played. His shoulder hit the pair between Ptaha’s chest and Joey’s arm. He grabbed for the blade as they fell off the logs into the creek. Lou and Joey fell together. Ptaha fell clear of them. The blade sliced Lou’s palm cross-wise.

They stood up in the current on the uneven bedrock of the creek. Lou saw blood from his hand in the water. Ptaha was stumbling to the get out of the creek and up its bank. Lou had Joey by one arm, but they fell on their asses again and the water went over their heads. Lou came up with the knife, as Joey got pulled a few yards downstream to the other bank. He crawled out and sat down cross-legged. Joey’s red, white and blue Rangers beanie floated downstream. The bruise where his old man had walloped him was purple and green on his face. Burmylo’s fat camo-covered thighs came splashing up the middle of the creek. ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit’, he kept repeating.

Lou got his balance and stood in the middle of the creek. ‘Fuucckkk!’, he yelled up at the bluff. He wheeled his body around, spun round like a discus thrower. Without looking, he threw the Bowie as hard and as far as he could.

There was a muffled ‘ooof’ and then Slick Head’s screaming voice. The boys scrambled over the rise and toward it. About twenty yards away, in a sink hole of snow-covered stones and winter scrub, Mr Y was sitting with the middle of his back against a thin birch tree. His slick red hands were near his groin and pressing around the knife stuck in him. The carved handle stuck out. There was a Golden Apple logo on its butt. It was like Mr Y been gored by a buck deer. His eyes were closed and his face showed nothing.

‘You idiots! You sukyni syny, sons of bitches! Who? Who threw it? There will be extreme consequences,’ yelled Slick Head with his panic coming in a machine gun burst of words and blame. He’s thinking about his own sorry ass already, Lou made up.

The boys stood in a circle around Mr Y and Slick Head knelt beside him. Blood was seeping into the knees of Slick Head’s dark grey uniform pants. Water dripped from the boys’ wet clothes and made icy spots on the stones. More blood dripped from Lou’s fingers.

Mr Y picked up his hand and a ball of blood glugged from his wound. He touched Slick Head’s furious face. It made a bloody handprint on the other man’s full cheek and across the ridge of his nose. With open eyes, as more blood leaked out, Mr Y looked at Slick Head and said:

“Easy, my comrade, easy. This is an accident. No blame. Honour me by knowing that and writing it to my sister in our country.”

Mr Y’s and Lou’s blood sluiced through the grainy grooves between the stones and the snow. A breeze blew and a remnant of fall’s leaves skittered around the boys’ legs.

Lou thought of the old mail – a ConEd bill, a pale blue AirMail envelope from the old country, and a thicker envelope with donation slips for the Church – on the mosaic-tiled landing outside the battered tin door of his grandmother’s tenement apartment. They’d come with his mother to clear the place out after Baba’s heart attack killed her in a country she didn’t know to call home.

The Eloquent Language of Rubbish. What Waste and Recycling During COVID19 Says About Us.

Bear with me. 

During this global pandemic, Australians’ rubbish may be revealing something about the state of our society, psyches, and souls.

Namely, since COVID19-related social distancing practices have come into effect across Australia, there has been an observable and dramatic change in how we buy, use, dispose and recycle. And, that different pattern of consumption and post-consumption says things about who we are as a people and how we are responding to the impacts of isolation.

Archaeologists have long dug for and trawled through historical garbage to learn more about former societies and cultures. It’s as if our daily detritus – the random remnants of choices about what we value or don’t – is a more objective and representative measure of who we are than our greatest feats of art or science. If such archaeologists were to unearth our current bins hundreds of years after the coronavirus, they could glean some of the following.

“Flattening the curve” is filling up our bins. We are producing perhaps up to 20% more household rubbish as a result of more buying at the supermarket and more staying at home. There are even reports of neighbours squabbling about “bin territory”. It’s sad but true that – together with toilet paper – access to volumetric air space in hard plastic wheeled containers has become worth a fight for some.

Indeed, if an initial response of some Australians to perhaps their first ever prospect or perception of resource scarcity was to “panic buy”, some weeks later we are now seeing the other side of those somehow protective purchases in the form of more waste.

Similarly, we are also likely to be producing up to 20% more household recyclables too, such as paper, cardboard, glass and plastic containers, and metal cans. Some of this increase is from the marked increase in alcohol consumption as our TVrooms become our pubs and clubs. Some of it is from the additional paper and cardboard from the upward spike in home deliveries. 

Sadly for many readers, as people take the time to “get themselves organised”, some of the additional and emerging recyclate is from old books. They once ended up in charitable op-shops, but many no longer accept them. It seems there are far fewer used book buyers in a world of screens and attenuated attention spans. (Perhaps because of our emotional relationship with them, our old books seems have an inherent value that we want to pass on to someone else. And if we can’t, highly intelligent friends with recent clean-up experience reckon that, while it’s not good to put books in a recycling bin, it’s somehow much better than landfilling them. Maybe, we’re handing them on to a slightly improved planet.)

In my own experience, every morning and afternoon, there’s another new 2 metre high stack of packages in the foyer of my high-rise, western Sydney building. New doonas, dumbbells and distractions. The device that no one ever thought to buy before now becomes a “must have” for making the pasta from the flour that has somehow come to be in short supply.

Also in the foyer, I observe the seemingly ceaseless, polite procession of Uber-Eats and similar bike delivery riders. It feels somewhat temple-like. We seem to be very okay – perhaps under the convenient guise of closed cafes – with what is frankly and regretfully the expansion of an underclass of mostly migrants who pedal and provide packaged food sacrifices for the gods that are our wealthier stomachs.

At the same time that we are acquiring more stuff to salve us, we are also not behaving as well as we have when it comes to our recycling. To an unprecedented level, Australians are putting the wrong things in the recycling bin. This is called contamination and results in un-useable yields and system costs – as well as loss of environmental benefits. These non-recyclable items include flexible plastic packaging from pasta, bread, fruit and veggies, and the outers of paper products like toilet paper. Other soft plastic items also come from the currently hyper-driven gig economy such as delivery and postal bags and ready-to-eat meal packaging.

An interesting larger source of this increased contamination seems to be the demographic of 18 to 35 year old Australians. Perhaps, it’s the first time they’ve been “grounded” since living with their parents. Certainly, it has to do with the fact that millennials are the first fully digital generation of consumers and the tsunami of parcels that comes with it.

Recycling from the business sector of the economy is down by 20%, as they shut shop or cut down on expenses. Here, we move beyond our middle class privilege, including my own. Through rubbish, or rather its downturn from production facilities and workplaces, we see a lead indicator of the economic depression that is starting to push down on millions of our citizens, and the human depression that it can painfully contribute to. 

A Facebook website featuring videos of Australians in fancy dress taking out their wheelie bins has an astonishing and active following of more than 50,000 people. Superman, Ned Kelly, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – all filmed and broadcast in this regular ritual of our suburban streets. What are we seeking to offset in creating social media comedy on our iPhones? Boredom, loneliness, cabin fever? Or, are we using larrikin-like laughter to somehow distract from bad news, to connect with others, and to create those “silver linings” we keep hearing about?

It’s perhaps a perfect community demonstration of Western Sydney University academic Gay Hawkins’ point in her ‘The Ethics of Waste’ where she writes: “Waste constitutes the self in the habits and embodied practices through which we decide what is connected to us and what isn’t. Managing its biological and material reality is part of the way in which we organise our self and our environment, [and how we] keep chaos at bay.” 

Simply put, putting out the bins – in costume or otherwise – feels good. It shows us supporting and participating in areassuring social norm in an radically abnormal time. With our recycling bins especially, this is extended again as we anoint ourselves with recycling’s (legitimate) environmental virtue.

A somewhat unlikely source, an officer with the former Peruvian radical group, The Shining Path, once said: “Garbage speaks an eloquent language.” It’s perhaps not only eloquent, but uncompromising and clear. It doesn’t mask or apologise for or rationalise our values, choices and behaviours – be they greedy ones, be they worthy ones, or be they contradictory ones. In this new COVID19 reality, our rubbish and recycling reflect of all those attributes of we Australians.

Social Distancing From Social Media

In this viral moment, it may be timely to socially distance from social media.

While there’s a really serious disease out there at the moment – with real risks and real precautions that are necessary to mitigate those risks – it seems to me that the current digital realm is a separate disease that may be doing us more harm than good. 

In the last week, my Internet feed and no doubt many of yours has seen the following:

* Professional journalists offering countless Tweets criticising expert-advised strategies as somehow inappropriate and inadequate, condemning the ineffective “mixed messaging”, and citing overall community anxiety. Too often, this material doesn’t cite any data or evidence at all, or it source-mines random quotes from Dr Somebody who happens to confirm the Tweeter’s starting point bias.

* Anxious Facebook status posts and What’s App shares from otherwise normal Australians about which supermarkets still do or don’t have pasta or toilet paper that generally feed the beast of panic buying (in one of the world’s most affluent countries).

* Blame attribution across all sorts of digital platforms, whether it’s Scott Morrison’s fault for the somehow flawed design of the containment strategy (when the actual national approach is actually bi-partisan), officials’ fault for not closing the schools (when the advice from the best epidemiologists is advising against it), or “selfish people” (who got to the 18 rolls of toilet paper you were aiming to buy before you got there).

It’s a toxic stew of subjectivity, irresponsibility, and unfiltered emotional responses with the added steroids of social media’s speed and sometimes anonymity. Given the uncertain and bad effects of COVID19, it seems that our primal stress responses of “fight, flight, and fear” have found a contemporary and convenient platform.

Social media’s possible harmful impact can’t be easily dismissed given its saturation in our everyday lives. Large-scale and credible psychological studies have shown that negative thinking and exposure to negative thinking can and does increase people’s chances of developing a diagnosable mental illness. The spouses of people of depression, for example, are more likely to also get depression. It follows that if we look at significant amounts of material characterised by anxiousness and sadness, there are likely to be consequences. If we are constantly immersed in something, some of us can drown.

Moreover, while scientists are still determining COVID 19’s precise level of contagion, it’s known that our emotions can be contagious. The concept of ‘emotional contagion’ (EC) holds that, through mimicry and empathy, we sometimes feed off the emotions of others.  While we ultimately control our own realities through self-awareness, it’s actually the case – because of our social interdependence and its current logical transformation into ‘social media interdependence’ – that happiness can be “infectious” and that sadness, fear, and anxiety can “drag you down”. 

In fairness, social media is also currently providing the community with fast-paced, official and objective information about COVID 19, personal protection measures that should be taken, and public health initiatives by authorities. The Government’s corona app is, for example, a case study in excellent public health. communications This is not to be dismissed and it’s the other side of the ledger.

However, what’s different here is that people partly seek such information through choice and personal agency, eg, they look for specific information to educate and empower themselves. There’s also no denying the extraordinary ‘Corona comedy’ that toilet paper tussles, beer analogies, and silly face masks are generating, and it’s steadying effect.

But, it’s undeniable that if we are simply scrolling and not really engaging in ‘conscious computing’, the constant and huge tide of negativity is approaching Tsunami proportions, and threatening to smash us into the rocks of bleakness and bitterness.

It was interesting to note that some media outlets this week asked followers to post “good news” or “random acts of kindness” on their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Good on them for, at least intuitively, restoring some emotional balance and for basically highlighting the objective fact that somehow life is going on. 

Granted, life’s very different. Granted, there is genuine stuff – both health and economy related – to worry about if not get obsessive or overwhelmed. But, out here in the suburbs rather than on-line, so many of our daily and decent human interactions continue to very healthily take place every day – even as restrictions on movement and the scary and sad number of sick people goes up.

For every piece of stupidity in aisle 11 that can be seen on YouTube, or every mean-spirited or ill-informed exchange in Facebook comments, there’s somebody in real life who is doing more to look after their elderly grandparent, or having a joke with a workmate about bludging while “working at home”, or sharing around their supply of loo rolls, or just quietly going about their day and looking forward to an inevitable return to some normality.

Savannah Lions

Above the rim is where Bor lived best.

When he was on a court – whether it was a ‘real’ one at the Auburn Basketball Centre or by the cheap Kmart hoop nailed to the electricity pole by his cousin’s driveway – and he leapt above all the other dark black faces or arms, Bor was happy.

Getting up higher than the others. Grbbing the rebound with a slap of hands or getting the tip in off his fingertips. Being airborne. Having hang time.

At least, it’s what Bor thought that’s where happy was and what it felt like. But he wasn’t really sure. Maybe, happy really meant clear. Having your head clear of people wanting things.

Clear of his father, Salva, and the ceaseless soundtrack about “responsibility, community, church and family is our four point shot that beats basketball”. And, “not squandering everything this new country has given us”. Somehow, it seemed to Bor, that his Dad didn’t really mean that part because track 2 that followed was usually about “God saved the best for last and made the Dinka and their land” and “the demons of the White Army who stole our cattle but could never take our prayers”. For Bor, his father seemed blind to his own contradictions.

His father who thanked his God every day for the pay cheque from picking dead cats and leaky batteries off the conveyor belt at the recycling plant.

And, clear of Mr Sanderson, the principal at Granville Boys, and his bullshit lectures about “racism hates positivity and hope, and that’s how you beat it”. And then sent you to a week of detention, and missing club basketball practice, for not backing down to the Mussie who smeared “nigga” in texta on your locker. Fucking white man with a sailboat on Sydney Harbour. Another hypocrite in the Lucky Country.

Clear of his own head. No Bor – the town his family ran from as the Whites, their tribal child soldiers’ faces smeared with campfire ash, shelled and attacked it. No Christmas Island – and being the 6 year old his mother about the Arab men with the stitched up lips. No Fairfield Hospital five years later – and choking on the priest’s incense as his mother, as frail as the dried twigs she used to herd cattle with as a savannah girl, stopped breathing from the cancer in her stomach.

He just wanted to be blank like he was when he was ballin. The squelch of his size 13 Nikes on the wooden court when he stopped hard to set a pick at the top of the key. The coils his fingers made when he wrapped his huge hand around the ball. The righteousness of showing no emotion and slowly jogging back to the defensive court after having jammed on some private school white boy. Chest bumps with his point guard, Sokiri, who was always laying it off to him and smilin. It’s where he could just be.

It was the opposite of where he had to be now. The start-of-year, weekend church getaway that his father, “garbo by day and God’s man all the time”, had organised for the community. Being off the court for three days at some retreat place west of Lithgow was gonna suck. Dorms for males and females. No drinking. No ballin.

And it wasn’t that far from Christmas when he’d had to spend what felt like a week at church services in the hall the South Sudanese rented from the Ukrainians in Lidcombe. The faded pink plastic bucket chairs were still the originals from when the hall had been built in the 60s. There was a small stage at the front where the priest and lay people like his father preached from and tired portraits of tired-looking Ukrainian poets on either side. There was no air conditioning and the western Sydney blowtorch made South Sudan seem temperate. Bor thought the place had ghosts with garlic breath. He kept going outside to just get air, and kept getting busted to go back in by some Deacon or some Lead Chorister or some other self-righteous relative who had a title to enforce God’s will. Or just give him a hard time cos they missed the old clan ways.

Three full buses of African freaks going back to the bush, Bor thought to himself. He knew that the adult men born in Dinkaland would talk about every friggin cow at the side of the road as if it was the first cow or last cow they were to ever see. And, how these weren’t really cows – just lame facsimiles of the real cattle back in Jonglei State. He was smart enough to know it didn’t really matter to them that much, and they were mostly bullshitting. It was their version of hip hop or something. Background. A way to relate. Knowing all that didn’t annoy him any less.

And, the women would play the ‘success sweepstakes’ and try to top the accomplishments of each other’s kids. Whereas Bor knew most of the guys were actually popping pingas they’d buy from the Lebo’s at Parramatta Square after school – if they weren’t ballin and being sports tested. That their high-breasted, shiny skinned daughters mostly walked around Westfield with all their sista sass going and looking for mythical white boys to get them outta the ghetto. At least that’s where they thought it was somehow. The truth was that the ‘hood in their heads like the Bronx – not Bor Town or Berala – but there was not telling them that.

“All aboard the Jesus Express, everyone,” Salva yelled out from the steps of the first bus which was parked outside the Auburn train station. His big white teeth beamed against his ‘two-minutes past midnight’ skin. Bor and three friends from his regular club team wanted to hide from the looks of the Chinese shopkeepers and hijab ladies with their caravan-like prams who bought colanders and rice makers at the dollar stores, but that’s hard to do when you’re nearly 7 feet tall and the only dark faces on the street.

His father, who coached the under 12’s at their club and actually knew the game, hustled over to Bor and his mates. He was all elbows and clipboards. “No hoops and no alley-oops this weekend, my sons. Just halleluiah’s,” he said with his formal accent that made him sound like the airport customs officer he was back in the homeland.

Salva shook Sokiri’s bony hand, and said he was sorry his mum had to stay home with her little ones and couldn’t make it. Sokiri’s dad had died of sepsis in a UN tent hospital in Egypt. He’d gotten Sokiri, his mum, and Sokiri’s little brother and sister out of South Sudan, and then his body had given up to the dirty machete wound on his leg.

“Fuckin hell,” Bor thought to himself but mumbled “last bus, lads” to his crew, Yokwe, Adel, and Sokiri. His YAS-Bee Crew. They were sicknasty. They were hardbroiled. Taller than everybody else in the school playground since Year 3. The Dinka Boys. Not different – distilled and stronger.

They piled on to the bus and headed straight to the back seats, behind some invisible barrier from their church-going uncles and aunts and the laughing little kids. Bor took the long bench seat at the very end, and each of his mates took up a double seat close to him. Their long legs spilled out in a tangle of angles in the bus’s aisle. Like sinewy Sydney gumtree branches blown to the ground during a summer southerly.

Yokwe was their DJ of consensus. He bluetoothed a JBL and started to pump out drill hip hop. Manu Crooks and One Four. Bor thought Yokwe did a good job of setting the volume at exactly the right level to piss off everyone else on the bus. They would feign shock when somebody eventually told them to turn it down.

The buses pulled out and made their way to Parramatta Road and toward the M4. The road was sclerosis with wheels. Abandoned Chinese teak furniture warehouses. Second hand white goods dealers with dinged-up fridges. Kebab stands that opened at five and served the Bangladeshi Uber drivers through the night. Each place had the same cheap “OPEN” sign in red LED lights. Islander families in Toyota Tarago vans arm-wrestled for lane space with tradies’ utes weighted down with welded-on tool boxes.

Bor was used to looking down at stuff. Now, he looked through the side window of the bus into the back seat of banged-up maroon Mitsubishi Magna in the next lane, trying to get into the turn-off lane for the Costco. There were two kids in the back, maybe 7 or 8 each, a brother and a sister. Hazaras like he’d kicked footballs with in detention. The siblings leaned inwards and touched shoulder to shoulder while watching Frozen on a smudgy iPad.

He remembered his mother taking him to Costco to load up their cart with cheap packaged meat and the walnuts and pistachios that his dad loved. Afterwards, in the food court with its cement slabs and benches that looked like a prison cafeteria, she would sometimes treat Bor to a chocolate churros. “Look, Bor, all the condiments here are for free,” she said with delight.

Their caravan went up the Silverwater Road ramp to the highway that would take them through the Blue Mountains to the old Department of Sport and Youth camp they were renting. These people just can’t get enough of barracks, Bor thought to himself. It struck him that his father and friends were always sitting around in cheap cafes in 70s style suburban arcades and talking about freedom. And, then they chose not to have it. “Community cohesion,” his father said with pride at learning a new expression at the multicultural centre’s lecture on leadership training. Safety in numbers, herdsmen, Bor thought.

One Four played on Yokwe’s speaker:

See, I grew up in church
But I had devils in my ears saying, fuck it
Controlling my young mind like a puppet

They were going through Katoomba which Bor remembered from a Year 6 school trip. Three Sisters. He’d had a daydream there about leaping from Sister One to Sister Two to Sister Three. Him starring in a commercial for Air Jordans. He stuck his mobile in the pocket of his Bulls shorts and put his legs up on the seat in front of him. He pulsed them back and forth to strengthen his jumping muscles.

Yokwe had his eyes closed and surrendered to the music. Adel was checking What’s App on his phone; he didn’t tell the other boys in the crew, but Bor knew it was the study group that he was part of.

Sokiri was half standing and half dancing in his seat in front of Bor’s. With his smile set on maximum volume like always, he’d snap a hand out and then bounce it back toward his chest to the beat.  The guy was always positive and always moving. His feet were never still and that’s partly why he was probably the best ‘pound for pound’ player of all of them. American college scouts with logos on their rayon sports shirts and little video cameras on tripods to set up court-side had already been out to their games a couple of times.

One of the aunts in the front heard the music and Bor saw her getting up out of her seat to walk back toward them. She’d spotted Sokiri doing his thing. Her wide hips touching the seats on either side of the aisle. The big bow of her dhuku head rap was covered in a bright yellow pattern. She was Adel’s mum’s sister and she looked like a sunflower on steroids to Bor. Adel didn’t need to look up to see her coming; he scrunched down in this seat and kept locked on his phone. Just beyond her shoulders through the bus’s front windscreen, Bor could see the other two buses going around a bend in the highway just by an Ugg boots wholesaler.

Then, everything scrambled and shattered. Sunflower got bent at the waist and sucked down the aisle and through the bus’s exploding windscreen. Other black bodies were ripped from their seats and ricocheted off the top of the bus, and then its sides as it flipped. Bor, somehow jammed in place by his locked legs, saw Sokiri fly forward and hit the plastic emergency exit in the roof panel with his face. It broken open with a stamp of crimson on its rubber seal. Sokiri had then somehow sunk into a scrum of screaming near the bus’s front.

The bus flipped again, but with less pace. Bor was now upside down and he saw aunts and nephews falling from the sky and smashing ribs into armrests and skulls against skulls. A baby, wrapped to her mother chest, disappeared beneath the aunt’s prone body. Bor felt warm liquid on his face and noticed there was now blood on the windows that hadn’t blown off in the crash.

There was last roll and then movement ceased and sound took over. Bor was on his side and heard the low groans that people make when they no longer care if anyone else is listening. When there’s only a thin line between their now and their forever. Muted under something, Manu was on the JBL speaker. You know that shit can get hectic, you know that shit can get hectic.

Bor was again in the roadside drainage ditch just beyond the village. The main shooting had stopped and, about 50 metres away, he could see one of the White soldiers, maybe 12, trotting up the bitumen toward the ditch. His sandals were too-large and made of tyres. He was smacking his palm against the banana magazine of his clunky and scratched-up AK-47. It wouldn’t dislodge to let him re-load another 30 rounds.

His father, Salva, rose to a squat beside them and whispered “Crawl to the trees!” to his mother and him. She dug her carefully painted nails in Bor’s forearm and kneed them both toward the tree line. Bor’s shins dragged through semi-dried pats of cow dung. He looked back to see Salva, his hand-ironed uniform shirt still tucked into his work slacks, running straight at the small ash-covered White, who was now bent over and wrestling to unjam his weapon.

Bor released his legs, firing with cramps, crumpled into a commando crawl position, and pulled himself with arms toward the exit portal. He felt the sharp edges of the cubes of shattered safety glass press on his palms and it made him lose traction. At the small opening, he angled his way through, all sharp elbows and knees, like a praying mantis unfolding. Like trying to squeeze through a hoop that’d fallen down. Instinctively, he padded his shorts to check his phone was there.

“Odetta! Bor! Show yourself,” his father yelled and they pulled apart the tangled vines of the forest scrub his mother had dove them into. An assault rifle hung on a frayed canvas strap over his father’s shoulder; there was a clean clip with blue tape around it loaded into the firing chamber. There was spittle drying on Salva’s face and his uniform was patterned with sooty strings. “Now we must act,” Salva said without looking at them.

He was on the road now and on his hands and knees now. Before him, there was a bashed ball of warped metal, splintered glass, plastic shards and prone people that was the first bus and a ute that must have crossed over from the other lane. A mangled meteor – and starting to toss flames from its very centre where the two engines must have collided at speed.

The second bus had somehow dodged the collision and end up going through a hedge and abutting a roadside house. Bor’s bus had slammed into the ball, bounced off and rolled to stop in the opposite lane where it had been glanced and spun round by on-coming traffic.

Muscle memory kicked in and he took it all in like a court. Where the basket was, where the defenders were, where the open channels to the hoop were. He spotted a red fire extinguisher that had somehow come loose from a bus slowing rolling off the road. Bor pushed to his feet and sprinted for it. He scooped it in one hand, kept moving, pulled the seal pin, and shook the canister.

Bor hit the flames and started to spray. First at any people – not knowing if they were conscious, knocked out or dead – who were on fire. An aunt on her backside with legs spread, blood streaming from her neck onto the wrap-around orange and black fabric of her traditional tob, screaming and slapping at the fire on her thighs. The white mist of the extinguisher covered her and Bor froze as a sick smoke from her body. She shook her burnt hands in pain and it swirled the smoke.

His father grabbed their hands and they began to run up the dusty road, the rifle banging at Salva’s side. They ran past a boy’s twisted body, its legs bent double underneath it, a blood stain spreading across the swoosh symbol of a Nike t-shirt he had on. His eyes were open and faced back toward the village, where a light grey plume was rising from the site of the communal hall. The Whites had ordered everyone to report there.

But a purple shoot in Bor’s peripheral vision snapped him back and he turned 90 degrees to start spraying at the blazing source. With one foot atop a loose bus bench, which was shielding some of the heat, he poured all the extinguisher’s content at the moving fire. For every flame that died, another appeared and threatened to spread to the whole scene.

As his canister emptied, from somewhere, Adel came running like a hunchback. One arm was demolished, bloody and limply hanging at his slumped side. In his other hand, he palmed another fire extinguisher and jumped behind their barrier. With his teeth, he pulled its pin and started to spray by balancing it against the hip on his good side. He shouted “pick and roll” and pointed with his chin to people moaning.  Some were still stuck in the smashed structures, some were dragging themselves randomly on the road.

The extinguisher clanged as Bor dropped it and scooted to a punched out window on part of the first bus that somehow still looked like an actual bus. It was like falling into a vat of offal at an abattoir. If only not to drown, he started to grab at the limbs of uncles and aunts, the small waists of mangled nephews and nieces.  As Adel yelled that the fire was growing, Bor pulled and pushed, forcing their slippery bodies, some responding with moans and some stone silent, out of the bus and into the road. Red and black on black until he could find nothing else to wrestle.

Out of extinguisher, Adel started to check out the people from bus one and, using one arm, he began to pull the more stable ones by their shirt and dress collars to the grassy road verge. Walking wounded from bus two, several calling for help on their phones, began to assist Adel and others. Pain and purpose blended together as sheer struggle to survive.

Bor trotted back around to his bus. Adel’s aunt’s big body lay twisted, like laundry in a dryer, in the way a big body shouldn’t twist. Around her, there was a ring of shattered window glass. Her eyes were open, but she was still and silent. Further down from her was Sokiri.

There was only one shoulder of his Golden State Warriors jersey left, as most of the uniform had somehow been ripped away. He was bleeding from different places, like somebody had left a nail gun lying around on a building site and it had fired rapidly and randomly at him. But Sokiri’s left side down by his thin flat gut was the worst. In his left hand, which was sliced through at the light-skinned palm, there was part of a wooden paling from the fence that he must have landed on. Bor noticed it was painted light green to match the exterior of the timber cabin they had crashed in front of. Sokiri had his head tilted back with his jaw and mouth clenched.

Bor dropped to his knees, and unzipped and pulled off his Lions tracksuit jacket. He balled the jacket up with one hand and used the other hand to pull the bits of timber and refuse he could see in Sokiri’s gaping wound. When it seemed cleaner, using what he knew from first aid, Bor applied the jacket with pressure to where he saw the blood coming out. He leaned down over and toward Sokiri’s left ear. “With you cuz,” he whispered. Sokiri nodded and showed his teeth in a forced smile.

From PE at school, Bor knew to look for an artery where he could also push down to stop bleeding. But there was none easily found between Sokiri’s gut and his heart. The jacket filled up with blood and it was squishing through Bor’s fingers. A white collared shirt speckled with blood drops dangled in front of him and his father’s voice said: “Take it.” Bor grabbed it with his free hand and put it on top of the wound as well. He put his ear to Sokiri’s chest. Salva, bare chested, was on his knees on the other side of Sokiri, and had placed one hand between the boy’s head and the gravel and pine needles he lay on. The boy had stopped smiling and his breathing was coming in bursts.

Bor pressed harder, somehow wishing he could just plug Sokiri up, and pulled his mobile out. He yelled “Triple O” at Siri and then yelled at operators until he was with a live paramedic on FaceTime. Bor showed her the wound through the Internet.

“My name is Karen. Tell your father to shift over and put as much pressure as he can on the wound and I’m going to talk you through starting CPR on your friend. You’re doing fine. You are going to compress his chest 30 times and then put two breaths of air into his lungs. Now find his breastbone and press, 1, 2, 3…,” Karen said. Bor had the phone further up on Sokiri’s chest and noticed she had half-a-dozen piercings in her right ear.

Bor pushed his arms straight and kept focussed on the downward compressions. “11, 12, 13.” Just concentrate, he told himself. Like free throws. He closed his eyes.

Salva kept pushing on the wound, now oozing dark brown, while turning his frame to be closer to Sokiri’s face. “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence,” he whispered. “Oh purify me, then I shall be clean. O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.”

“24, 25, 26,” Karen counted down over the phone. Bor opened his eyes and his vision was blocked over with his tears. A ray of sun shifted from behind the tall pine they had been shaded by. Bright circles was all he could see. Salva touched him on the forearm and said: “He is still breathing.”

“29, 30.” As Bor finished the compression count, and moved to seal Sokiri’s nose with his fingers and puff in his mouth, he found the boy’s mobile in his shorts. He pressed 1 for the speed dial for Sokiri’s mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hooters”

She hit the button on the smudgy iPhone screen and the CCTV vision rewound to earlier in the night. To the table of four young guys who’d come in for beers and buffalo wings after summer-time college football practice across the road.

Linda, really Belinda but it was easier shorter, started to count. Two there after she handed them the menu’s with ‘Hooters’ splashed all over them; three more there after she put down the mugs of draft Miller. Definitely that cute blonde boy on the end in the cut-off ‘Titans Football’ t-shirt; Linda saw on the tape that she definitely got him. She could tell from where his eyes travelled and the way he leaned out from the table into the aisle to follow her walking back to the restaurant’s kitchen.

Some nights after a shift, she’d take off the white t-shirt and orange short-shorts, have a fast hot shower, and lie on the queen bed in her apartment near the strip mall with the Korean nail parlour and the Mexican-run Chinese take-out. She’d go to the app and start to count up all the “hits” she’d got on the fuzzy, black-and-white footage from the security cameras in the ceiling.

Linda counted her hits the way the other girls counted the cash tips jammed into the back pockets of their uniforms. The number of times the guys she was serving had checked her out.

She might run a total score for the night and see if it beat the last night or the last week. Or, sometimes, she’d average out all her hits across the number of tables served or number of guys served. Or, she could divide the hits between T’s or A’s – tits or ass. Or between young guys and older guys.

Or, if it had been a truly shitty shift with Chef smoking too much weed and running behind on orders, she might look at the females. There were more women that came in than people thought. Some were the Korean chicks with the Army husbands; for them, everything was a transaction including the marriages made near the DMZ. Girls tougher than the men that went to combat in Iraq or some other shithole. “Calculators with cunts,” Linda thought to herself. Others were the kinda girls she grew up with: trailers, tattoos, Trump signs, and oxy to make those fade. The only good part was getting the fuck out, she knew, even if meant being talked into going to Hooters by some half-broken ex-Afghanistan guy showing some interest.

She also knew she wasn’t meant to have the app to access the restaurant’s CCTV system – it was only for management. But after she’d tried being a shift manager for about a year and went back to not even hosting but waitressing, no one had remembered to get her off the system. Trevaughan, the general manager, even knew she had it cos she saw him look at her phone on the sticky bar counter one night – the spying on their movements and their waistlines to “protect the brand, ladies”. But the chickenshit didn’t say anything. Probably wanted a piece of her ass – and knew that it would cost him his job if he ever were to get any.

Linda scrolled through the tape. She was looking for the shaggy grey beard and the John Deere cap. Phil. A regular. He came in about once a week when he came off the road between runs to places like Houston and Fargo. Always sat at the same table next to the window looking out the slushy parking lot where his restored ’78 Camaro was. Yellow with a black racing stripes. Took the menu and then always ordered the same thing: some Buffalo wings with no blue cheese dip and a Mushroom Swiss burger. Diet Pepsi.

Always some kind of book and always a copy of the National Geographic magazine. Yellow border on the cover with lots of pictures.

And when she found him on the tape, about a week ago, it was like it was the half-dozen times before that. She came over and stood really close to the table, her thighs touching its lip. He handed her back the menu and Linda held it behind her and sucked in her stomach muscles. He quietly ordered his food, and she repeated it without writing it down. “No blue cheese. Gotcha, darlin.”

There was a gentle smile on his face like someone sitting alone on a porch who’d just remembered a great day of fishing as a kid with a kind old uncle. He looked directly into her eyes the whole time they ‘talked’, and when she turned to leave, Phil went straight back to the National Geographic. No following her ass down the aisle. Just flipped to some story. When she paused the tape and zoomed in, it was something about brewers growing algae to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Weird,” she thought to herself, but at the same time got frustrated with how science could beat her sex appeal. How she was doing the stuff she best knew how to do, and could not get a hit from Phil.

Linda skipped back to the college boys from tonight and went forward/rewind on that part of the tape to look at the hits again. She pressed pause each time a boy’s eyes landed exactly where she wanted them to; it pushed a button inside her too.

After a while, she plugged the phone into the bedside charger and went to the small galley kitchenette where the pressed timber cupboard hinges were all nearly broken and the only food was protein bars, diet energy drinks and a bottle of olive oil. Pretty much everything she earned she sent back to a West Texas town, her older sister, and a little girl with curly hair who didn’t know her mother from her aunt.

She poured oil into a souvenir shot glass from some old church in St Augustine in Florida, and put it into the microwave oven for 20 seconds.

When it pinged, Linda took the warmed up oil back to her bed, poured it over her hands and pussy, and fingered herself to sleep.

On her next shift, Linda was bussing plates after a table of Indian IT guys. Civilian contractors from the Fort McDonald, the Army base outside of town. They all let their boss do the talking. When he looked at her, they looked at her. All wearing Walmart slacks and light blue business shirts under the big parka’s they kept on even during lunch. They were all scared shitless, Linda reckoned, and she used it to boss-girl them into a $20 tip she let the nerd boss slip into her waistline. It was against Hooters policy for there to be any contact. To protect the girls. Fuck policy, she thought. Girl’s gotta do. Reality. Or, unreality.

As she leaned over to get a plate covered in the carcass of a half-eaten Philly Steak Sandwich, Linda saw Phil’s yellow Camaro fishtail through the melting brown slush into a space by the front entrance. She noticed there were stickers of planes – mostly curling up at the edges from snow and sun – across the car’s back window.

After he’d carefully shaken sleet off his jacket and cap, hung the jacket in the entry vestibule that smelled like a deer hunting stand, and took his regular seat, Linda went over and gave Phil the menu.

“How you goin, Phil? It’s Phil, right? I saw it on your jacket.”

“Right. My jacket. Phil.” He looked directly at the name badge pinned to her shoulder. “Linda.”

“Belinda, really, but I like it shorter. I’m gonna guess your order today, Phil.”

“You are going to guess my order today, Linda shorter than Belinda,” Phil said. He leaned back a little and rested his hand on his National Geographic.

Linda nailed his order and finished with “No blue cheese.”

Phil came forward with his elbows on the table. He was closer to her mid-riff now.

“That is correct, Linda, and I am grateful to you,” he said and chuckled.

“Professional waitressing at its finest, Phil. Hey. You like planes,” Linda said and pointed out the window, getting cloudy from the heating system, at the Camaro.

“That is partially correct, Linda. I like model planes. Build em. Fly em. Race em. When I’m not on the road.”

He paused. Linda wasn’t good with nobody say anything and was about to say something. The man was funny. You’d never know it. He turned and looked out the window.

“Yup, I like model planes. Standing out in an open field, say after harvest with just the corn husks, and sending something I’ve built into the sky. Making it soar. Pulling a single-wing stall into a corkscrew. Or a Hammerhead.”

He looked back at her and his tone got quieter and slower when he started talking again. She had to really listen to hear him.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, I know, Linda. But just imagine being able, for just a little bit, to control everything and make it the way you want it to be. Not to have to fight. Just fly. Calm. Beautiful.”

“Beautiful,” Linda repeated and found her hand up near a strand of her hair. She’d never heard these kind of words.

Phil paused again. It was like he didn’t need words to hold her.

“What do you like, Linda? What would you do with all your time if you didn’t need to be here at this restaurant?”

Linda heard the question.

She had no idea what to answer cos it wasn’t a 3-in-the-morning, eight Lone Stars later, honky-tonk question. A question from some Gulf oil rigger on shore leave who didn’t really care what you answered as long as it got him ninety seconds closer to a blow job in his Ford pick-up out the back.

And it wasn’t from a conversation that she made up in her head when she was pushing buttons on the security camera app.

And it wasn’t somebody she barely knew on Facebook yelling in capital letters about blue states or red states or Fox News or some other shit.

Linda saw that there were little bits of superglue on Phil’s thick fingers, sticking some of the little hairs together. She already knew he wore no ring.

“I’m gonna have to think about that one, Phil. I’m not really sure I’ve ever been asked before.”

Linda walked back to the kitchen to place his order with Chef. She had about ten minutes before the food would be ready and she would need to take it back to Phil’s table.

She realised that she hadn’t Skyped with her daughter since Christmas.