They’d closed the highway and the car sat idling before a bored young woman in a hard-hat leaning on a stop-sign. Beyond her, heavy machines lumbered back and forth, kicking up a cloud of dust. Greg wondered when did all the stop/go men become young women? And why were they were only allowed to do traffic control and not, say, drive the bulldozer or let rip on a jackhammer? The radio was on and people were calling in to talk about their dogs. He couldn’t understand why seemingly intelligent people went nuts over dogs; he couldn’t see why anyone would want to complicate their life more than was necessary. It was hard enough looking after yourself, let alone some other dumb mammal. Unless of course you enjoyed chasing after them and picking up lumps of shit. And going by the radio show, clearly a lot of people did.
It was another one of life’s many mysteries. He’d add it to the list.
He looked across at his sister Karen, arms draped over the steering wheel, squinting into the sun through her knock-off Ray Bans. It annoyed him that she hadn’t done the obvious thing and flipped down her visor.
‘Are you listening to this?’ he said.
She shook her head and he switched off the radio. Behind them a road-train revved it’s engine and Karen put the car into park. ‘Do you remember when mum locked Alice in the cupboard under the stairs?’ she said.
Greg remembered the cupboard – a triangular wooden door, chipped white paint, a small copper latch held fast by a bent nail. ‘That was me.’
‘That was me. Mum locked me under the stairs,’ he said.
‘No. It was Alice.’ Recently Karen had developed an irritating habit of misremembering the family history. ‘Mum locked Alice in there because she broke one her porcelain figurines,’ she said. ‘Left her there for hours.’
‘No, Karen. That was me.’
She made a sucking sound and drummed her fingers on the wheel. ‘Well… maybe that was another time.’
But there was no other time. It had happened only once – and to him, not to Alice. ‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘You don’t forget a thing like that.’
But just as soon as he’d said it, he was no longer certain. Had he mistaken Alice’s experience for his own? It was possible… Christ, these days he couldn’t be sure of anything.
Another growl from the road-train and Karen glared into the rear-view mirror. ‘I mean, what’s he trying to achieve?’
Greg glanced again at her visor. He reached across. ‘Hey, why don’t you just…?’
‘No, don’t it’s…’ He flicked the visor and it fell, bounced off the steering wheel and slid under her feet. ‘… Broken,’ she said.
Karen sighed, reached down and picked it up just as the young woman flipped her sign. The road-train blasted its horn. ‘Asshole.’
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Not you. The truck.’
She tossed the visor into Greg’s lap then put the car into drive.
Alice had that ghost-like feeling again, as if she could walk through walls or might just sink into the floor. She was outside of herself, drifting away, cut loose from whatever it was that moored her to her body. She could see herself standing at the bedroom window in her dressing gown, looking out into the yard. There was the rusted swing-set, bent over like an arthritic spider, and the collapsed pile of wooden forklift-crates Darren had bought home from work – for firewood, he’d said (once he’d unblocked the fireplace). There was the large twisted sheet of black plastic ground into the dirt, caked in dried mud (the lining for the fish pond that never materialised), and the abandoned car-parts and plastic toys and plastic bags and Patti’s bike with the pink basket that she never rode, lying on its side in a bed of weeds (Darren said the front wheel needed a new inner-tube). The five cardboard boxes of old magazines reduced to an amorphous pulp by rain, spread across the ground like giant blobs of bird-shit. The two-meter long concrete cylinder – the kennel for the dog they didn’t have but the kids so badly wanted. And now the small, yellow earthmover – a mechanized sentinel set down in the middle of the yard – bucket raised to the sky, as if offering up a prayer, or waiting for a divine command to bring it to life. It turned up a week ago on the back of a flatbed truck driven by Darren’s mate Curl. They’d borrowed it from work to clean up the yard, something Darren said he’d been meaning to do for ages.
‘Why’d you park here?’ said Greg.
‘There are parks right out front.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘… I guess not.’
Greg followed Karen across the empty car park towards a squat building of red brick and steel. He wondered at the effort that must have gone into designing a building this uncompromising in its ugliness, then glanced at the wilting bunch of flowers in his hand. ‘Freshly cut, my ass.’
‘These flowers. They’re not freshly cut.’
‘They just need some water,’ she said.
‘The sign said freshly cut’.
‘They’re just flowers’.
‘Dead flowers, that’s what the sign should say.’
‘Greg, please. We need to be positive.’
‘What? I am positive.’ They reached the building and the automatic doors hissed open.
Alice was in the kitchen staring at the piles of unwashed dishes and the table laden with empty beer bottles. There were muddy boot-prints on the floor, a box of Rice Bubbles tipped on it’s side spilling out across the counter and shredded pizza boxes balanced on top of an over-flowing garbage bin. Then she was standing in the doorway of the boy’s room, watching Jordan and her youngest son Cooper as they lay on the stained carpet in their pyjamas watching YouTube on a laptop. They were taking turns on a two-litre bottle of Sprite, and dipping wet yellow-stained fingers into a jumbo bag of Cheezals that lay split open beside them like burst roadkill. Everywhere, piles of clothes and scattered toys and rubbish. Jordan’s large head turned uncomfortably on his shoulders and he beaded a mean eye on his mother. He rolled onto his back and aimed a lazy kick at the door. It slammed in her face and she heard them burst out laughing. Then she was in the hallway staring at a painting hanging lopsidedly on the wall that Darren had bought from his dope-dealer. In it was a row of grey buildings under an empty off-white sky. On the sidewalk, a tiny figure no bigger than a thumb – a dancing man in a clown-mask wielding a bloodied knife, the only dash of colour. The figure seemed to float before her eyes, shimmering, and her ears filled with the sound of rushing blood.
Another petal came loose from the flowers and did a suicidal spin towards the floor, landing on the tip of Greg’s dirty boot. He kicked it away and scanned the waiting-room. A young man with bulging tattooed arms sat in a plastic chair, hunched over with his head in his hands weeping, as a woman with an orange tan rubbed his back and texted. A stick-thin old man, barely even there, pushed a bovine woman in a wheel chair as she nervously clasped a fake Louis Vitton handbag to her breast. A man Greg’s age wearing a black T-shirt printed with a howling wolf sat alone in the corner directly underneath a wall-mounted TV – head back, mouth agape, staring unblinking at a football game. Greg watched him for at least a minute and a half and still he hadn’t moved.
‘Jesus Christ,’ he thought, ‘He’s dead…’
Then the man coughed and shifted in his seat and a piss-stain spread out across the crotch of his tracksuit pants, and it struck Greg how easily life could come apart at the seams.
‘Room 405.’ Karen was behind him. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked.
‘Yeah. I’m just… yeah.’
‘You made it.’ Greg’s eldest sister Laurie was striding towards them, wearing Spandex as always. It was though she’d given up on normal clothes entirely, and life was just something that got in the way between workouts – which in her case, probably wasn’t far from the truth. Laurie’s tubby husband Andrew trailed behind her, chuckling into his phone. He pulled up a few feet away and did his best to ignore them.
‘What took you so long?’ she said.
‘We got stuck in traffic. Road works,’ said Karen.
‘On the coast road?’ ‘Um, no. Inland.’
‘I did say take the coast road, didn’t I?’
‘You did,’ said Karen, ‘but we thought we’d risk it.’
Laurie gave her best long-suffering smile. ‘Well. That’s what happens.’
Andrew snorted loudly into his phone. ‘You are joking!’
Greg felt a sharp percussive throb behind his eyes and a jolt of anxiety shot through his chest, easing a split-second later when he remembered the prescription painkillers in his pocket.
‘How is she?’ said Karen.
‘How do you think?’
‘I don’t know, Laurie. That’s why I’m asking.’
‘She’s the same. A mess.’
‘Did she say why she did it?’
‘I didn’t ask.’
Laurie shrugged. ‘Who knows what goes through her mind?’
Greg took out his pills and rattled a couple into his hand. ‘You might. If you’d asked.’
Another snort from Andrew. ‘You are joking!’ Laurie threw him an annoyed look, then glanced at Greg’s flowers and made a face. ‘Your flowers. They’re dead.’
Greg sniffed them. ‘Really? But the sign said freshly cut.’
Greg recoiled as if ambushed by a bad smell. ‘Are you serious?’
‘What?’ she said.
‘We’re separated. Almost six months.’
‘How would I know?’
‘You’re right. You’re only my sister.’
‘Nobody told me, okay? But then nobody tells me anything.’
‘I thought I told you.’ said Karen.
‘No, Karen, you didn’t.’
Greg’s threw back the pills, shook his head. ‘You’re unbelievable’.
‘So it’s my fault you never call, never email, never post anything on Facebook?’
Greg laughed and almost choked. ‘Facebook. Yeah, right. “Hey, everyone. My wife just left me. For my best friend!”‘
‘That’s right, I forgot,’ said Laurie. ‘You’re too cool for Facebook.’
‘Yes, Laurie. I am too cool for Facebook. Unlike you I don’t want the entire world knowing every time I eat a gluten-free muffin or one of my kids takes a dump. Or when my stupid little dog is undergoing chemotherapy.’
‘You don’t even have a dog.’
Karen held up her hands – eyes shut, fingers splayed. ‘Guys. Please don’t do this.’
Greg ignored her. ‘How is your dog, by the way? If he’s not going to pull through, maybe you could take him on farewell trip to Disney Land.’
Andrew snorted again. ‘You are joking!’ Laurie spun around. ‘Andrew! For Christ’s sake! Take it outside!’ Andrew’s eyebrows performed a pathetic little dance and he scurried away.
‘Can we please not do this now?’ said Karen, ‘Both of you.’
Laurie turned back and held up a shaking finger millimetres from Greg’s nose, ‘You. Are. Poisonous.’ Then she pirouetted and power-walked towards the exit. Karen followed after her. ‘Do you think maybe you could stop by Alice’s place on your way home and check on the kids?’
‘I have a life, Karen. I don’t have time for this shit.’
Greg hoped she’d slam into the glass doors and was disappointed when at the last moment they slid open and she was gone.
‘Mum, are you all right?’ Patti was in bed with a book in her lap looking at Alice in that way she couldn’t stand; a look that was equal parts pity and disgust. Who was this young woman who lived in her house? Alice no longer knew. When Alice was Patti’s age she’d been obsessed with Patti Smith; listened to her music constantly, dressed like her, wore her hair like her. She read Rimbaud and filled dozens of note-books (all of them now lost) with earnest poetry and detailed plans for moving to New York, starting a band, making art and travelling the world.
‘Mum. What do you want?’
Alice had wanted more than anything to fall in love with a beautiful sensitive boy who’d worship her as his muse, and take a lifetime of photos of her in a window-lit loft apartment as she leant against a whitewashed wall projecting strength, sex and defiance.
‘Mum. You’re weirding me out.’
So when Alice had her first child – a girl – it only followed she’d name her Patti; and now here she was fourteen years later, a sullen reminder of all those unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Not that she could be held to blame for Alice’s many regrets.
‘Mum. Please. Leave me alone.’
Then Alice was in the living room watching Darren who was on the couch grinding his teeth as he lifted a bong to his lips. Curl sat next to him playing Grand Theft Auto, his mouth hanging open, tongue flapping about like a freshly landed fish. Some other man Alice had never seen before watched the game, spittle foaming at the sides of his mouth, his left knee pumping up and down like a spring-loaded toy wound too tight. The curtains were drawn and the only light came from the shimmering TV screen. Darren exhaled a cloud of sweet, blue smoke and fixed Alice with his hooded eyes.
‘Hey,’ he said.
Greg had to hurry to keep up with Karen as they walked down the corridor searching for room 405.
‘I don’t now why you and Laurie have to be so nasty to each other,’ she said.
‘Because she’s a bitch’.
‘You didn’t have to say that about her dog. You know how she is.’
‘She spent six-thousand dollars on cancer treatment for it,’ he said. ‘A thirteen-year old dog. A family in the third world could live for years on that’.
He dodged around a man with a drip in his arm standing frozen in the middle of the corridor staring at the floor. Greg glanced at the walls and wondered if it was true they were painted this pale sickly green colour because it was calming; maybe they were doing too good a job. He looked to Karen but she wasn’t there – she was behind him looking out a window. He followed her gaze out onto an enclosed concrete courtyard. There was a large, faded mural on the facing wall – an underwater tableau with a blue whale, a pod of dolphins and a badly drawn mermaid in a bikini. And there was Alice sitting beneath it, alone on a bench in a purple dressing gown, staring at the ground.
Greg couldn’t be certain, but it looked to him as if she was smiling.
Alice stood in the yard before the earthmover. It began to rain. She got into the driver’s seat and locked the cab door. Soon waves of water were rolling down the windscreen and for a brief moment everything outside was a molten blur of shifting shapes of blue and brown and grey, the only sound the white noise of the rain drumming on the roof. She found it comforting. She ran her hands over the dashboard, tried pressing a few buttons, then flicked a switch and the engine sprang to life. She pressed the pedals on the floor, but nothing happened until she pulled a lever and the raised bucket shuddered and dropped. She pulled another lever and the earthmover surged forward.
When the earthmover hit the tin fence it crumpled like paper, and moments later, after she’d reversed across the yard, flattening the swing-set and knocking over the forklift crates, the other fence did the same. She could see movement at the back of the house and suddenly Darren was bashing on the cab door, screaming. She couldn’t make him out over the sound of the rain and the engine, but she could tell he was upset about something. She put a hand up to the glass as if to say, ‘everything is all right. I am in control’.
She could see the kids behind him – the boys wide-eyed and slack jawed, and Patti staring in amazement. Patti dropped her book and covered her mouth with her hands, and for a moment it looked as if she was crying until Alice realised she was actually laughing. Patti held up her hands and cheered, and in that instant Alice’s heart burst with love for her daughter and she knew what she had to do. She pressed the pedals and the earthmover spun towards the house. Darren stood on the bucket and slammed a fist into the windscreen – once, twice – and on the third time his face twisted in pain and fell sideways into the mud.
Alice was back inside herself – she felt whole again, alive. The earthmover bore down on the house.