A White Puddle

19 July 2016

The tennis ball pinged off the old palm tree beside the bungalow, sending it bouncing down the Wilkinson property and into the remains of the bonfire that had burned so brightly the night before. Tim stared down at the ball, nestled between the charred timbers that had formed the hull of his father’s sailboat casting his long shadow down the hill. A goose walked up to the ball, cocked its head to it, and honked and kicked at the ground. At the sound, more geese gathered around the ball, honking and kicking. Angelo, the largest goose in the flock, stood still, facing the ball. He raised his wings high, scattering the other geese, leaned into the ball and charged. Plunging his beak deep into the ash. Approaching from the rear, Tim held a jagged piece leftover from the previous night, pointing its sharp at Angelo. He stomped at the ground and yelled his animal call to the geese. They began to disperse throughout the yard, fearful of the boy, but Angelo remained in the ash. He could feel the blood leaking from his head onto the timber surrounding him – he didn’t care, he was not afraid. All he wanted was that fluorescent orb, that colour that he had never seen before and would never see again. The piece drove through his back, crushed his gizzard and tore at his heart.

Tim pushed the dying bird aside and lifted the ball from the ash. It was now black and sodden with the blood of the stupid bird. He lifted it toward his face and scraped at the ball’s rubbery canals before heading to the creek for washing, dragging Angelo behind him.

Up at the house Tim’s father sat on his veranda. He lifted his drink to his lips and listened to the ice cubes jostle about in the glass. The gin burned as it slid down his oesophagus and into his stomach and the ice felt like a whip against his teeth.

“Aaaah,” he called out to his wife inside, “that was lovely, June. Lovely.” He put the glass back on the sunburnt, varnish-fried wooden table and reached for his sunglasses.

June slid the fly-wire door across and stilettoed out onto the veranda holding a tray of drinks. She set the tray down and slipped into her deck chair on the other side of the table. With a smile and a pair of tongs she picked up a large cube of ice from the silver-plated bucket. The ice was melting, tearing as she brought it to her glass. The sun shone through it, splintering its beams over the veranda and catching Arnold’s right eye. June plopped the ice in with a splash and brought the gin to her full, collagen-injected lips.

The tearing block stuck in Arnie’s memory. It was not the ice or the tear or the splintering of light alone, but something about the whole that he could not forget. He took another sip from his glass, a burning, spasming, whipping sip that took him away for a moment. He sipped. And the sipping led him into a stupid drunkenness.

Giggling, Arnie reached his arm out and pawed at the glass. Collapsed in his chair, his arm was all that he could manage. His fingers rubbed against the side of the glass. The glass was slowly pushed away from Arnie, closer to the edge of the table. It fell. It crashed against the slatted veranda, its contents slipping through the cracks onto the bushes, snakes and spiders that dwelled beneath. Like perfume, the juniper’s aroma drifted up and into Arnie’s brain. It was all he needed to jerk his body and pass through it, into his dreams.

The milk bar was busy that day. Two bikes rested against its glass façade. Inside, Arnie and Nick hid behind the shelf in aisle two, counting their money. They had been collecting pocket money for the last few weeks. Arnie had done a variety of tasks: he’d done the dishes, he’d done the bins, and he’d done the garden once. He’d done them all for his friend Nick. They had planned this day for a while and both were giddy counting their money and checking to see if Mr Tell-er-offa had noticed them inside his little store. They counted ten dollars. At five cents apiece they figured they would be able to get two hundred ghost drops. They approached the counter and Vasili towered over them, grinning, leaning on large forearms covered in thick black hair. Nick put the coins on the counter and pointed at the bowl of Ghost Drops beside Vasili.

“You want that much?” The pair nodded. He began counting the coins and looked at the ceiling mouthing numbers, working out exactly how many drops the boys had bought. One by one he lifted a ghost drop from the bowl, placing it in the bag with plastic tongs and going again. The two boys looked at the ice creams while they waited.

“Hey, boys, this is going to take a long time. Too long. How about you have the whole thing. I’m sure it is more than what you paid.”

Vasili handed the boys the bowl and they ran from the shop to their bikes. Nick strapped the bowl to his handlebars for the journey.

The boys had developed a system of climbs to reach the flat atop Nick’s rear brick fence. They depended on each other for the climb, as the fence was high and daunting. Only together could they enjoy the experience of sitting on that fence, looking out over the yellowed oval behind the house, watching the seniors drink beer as they hopped out onto the crease, or trying to listen to the old prune, Basil, yell “That’s not how a Saintah bowls!” underneath his stained, moth-fed, red woollen cap.

Next to his father’s shed, Nick left a blue vinyl coffee table covered in a thin layer of chalked bird poo, dried over the previous three summers. It was positioned such that the boys could use it to hoist themselves onto the shed. From there they could saunter along its corrugated roof to their favourite position on the fence. Over time, deep footings had indented into the earth beside the table, where Nick would push at it to check its wobble. Arnie sat atop the vinyl and Nick dug in his heels. On this day it seemed safe.

Kneeling beside the shed, with his left knee at a right angle, Nick waited for Arnie, to prop him up and over the roof’s guttering. Once up, Arnie lay on his belly, letting his arms dangle over the side of the shed, waiting to pull Nick up. Nick handed Arnie the bowl of lollies and he set them down behind a broken brick. Monkey gripped, wrist-to-wrist, he jerked him up and over, where he lay for a minute, exhausted. Standing up, panting, Arnie grabbed the bowl and the two carefully walked to the fence, trying not to slip on the grooves.

As from an autumn rose, the wrappers floated down past the boys’ feet. Rocking, flipping and diving between each other in their descent, they gathered in a small pile of hyper-coloured black, yellow, red, blue and green. Nick’s golden retriever, Minnie, ran over from the cricket nets at the opposite end of the park. She scratched at the fence and hummed as the wrappers rained upon her. “Rake it up, Min.” She looked up at the boys.

“Rake it up and you’ll get a treat.”

She sat.

“C’mon, Min. Rake it up. Rake it up, Min.”

Arnie picked up one of the ghost drops, unwrapped it and threw it out onto the oval. “Go get that one, Min!”

A groan came from her body, now lying across the grass that had been toasting all day. The dried grass was coarse to the touch, but beneath her weight and fur its impact was weak. It simply tickled at her neck and back as she rocked her way to sleep.

“Fuck her.”

“Yeah. Fuck her.”

Nick pressed his finger into the pink skin at the end of Arnie’s thigh. “You’re burnt.” A white puddle lingered in him. “We should go back inside soon.”

“Yeah, soon.”

Tim crouched over the riverbank, cleaning the ball with his thumb and finger. A black wake followed the ball as the ash and blood dislodged from its hairs. Beside him lay Angelo. With the ball now clean, Tim squeezed it dry and placed it in the crook of Angelo’s neck.

In front of him lay a boulder, embedded within the creek. Checking his footing, Tim skipped over the smaller rocks to reach it. He sat. The water moved slowly, ambling toward Tim and humming as it traversed the other rocks in its path. He stuck his hand in. It was soft and cool and when he lifted his hand from the water, dripping, his fingers slid freely across each other, coated in the thick algal water. He made little rotating movements with his fingers and then wiped his hands on the coarse seat. Old trees hung above him and their bark and leaves hung closer. So close that, if he was to stand, he could reach them and pull them down into the creek. But he didn’t, he sat.

He sat there for an hour.

Back at the bank, Tim looked down at the bird. It was dirtied and stiff, not at all reacting to the flies gathering around the wound on its back. He was dead. He picked up the ball and put it into his shorts’ pocket. Cradled in his arms, Tim took Angelo and made moves toward home.

The geese were still kicking when he arrived. He placed Angelo on the ground beside the bonfire and began to remove the old wood from it, opening up a crevice in the pile. He nestled Angelo inside and put the ball beside him, under his wing. Up at the house he collected some firewood and then he searched the yard for twigs and scrap for kindling.

That night it will burn. June and Arnold’s friends will come and they will get drunk in their chairs, circling the flame. Tim will be there too, cushioned in a rug, watching the fire spit.

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