Fiction

Lowlife

THE APARTMENT IS his again. She's gone – he's sure of it. They cooked up a storming fight over the long weekend. Booze, sex, boredom. Two days of that, and she reckons she's leaving. He needs to sleep this one off.

Twelve hours later Dan wakes up. He is groggy. Dried out, sugary mouth, sticky with the whisky and Cokes. He lies there. Nudges up the blind to see the busy street below, lights turning on, night drifting into the city. Puts the blind down. Reassesses the situation. Past lovers came into it somehow. That was the turning point. His fault – might as well admit it.

She's gone. He's slept on it, and he thinks it's for real. He gets out of bed and checks the phone. No messages. Twelve hours, no messages. Knowing Claire, that's significant. He feels empty. Not for long. Holes get filled, that's existence. He's standing against the sink waiting for the kettle to boil, and the thought surfaces that Claire will now be going out single. Clubs, bars, parks. Single. Considering new men. It cripples him. He strains, gasps, clenches his jaws, fists, back, moans, grizzles, stamps up and down.

He runs for the phone. He's putting in the numbers as quickly as he can. Three rings and she picks up. "Hello?"

"Hey."

"Oh. You. Dan, I'm over it. Don't even bo ..."

"Wait, Claire. Wait."

"I'm on my way out. I mean it. Right now, I was half out the door."

"What? Where? What? What do you mean you're going out?"

"None of your business. I just realised that this weekend. You always have to know. And then when you know, you blame me, get shitty at me. I have to babysit you through this bullshit. Well stop asking. It's none of your business. Sometimes I think you're a real perv."

"Claire, stop. Claire, I'll stop asking, I will, if that's what you want ..." His voice shifts up in pitch. He whinges, whines, pleads, he tries to prolong it, but it's over. She's going out and there's nothing he can do to stop her. He can call her in a week. They need some time. She needs to think about the relationship, where it's taking them. He, she tells him, needs some time to think about himself. Time. Space. Some personal space. "I need some personal space ... I think we both need a bit of personal space."

 

ALL THIS TALK, this new age, social worker self-help talk – he had a fair idea what that meant. It meant she was going out with her girlfriends to get smashed and party.

"Fuck," he says when she hangs up. He stares at his reflection in the window. The rooms seem very quiet, too dim. He gets up and turns on the lights. He thinks about the places she'll be tonight. Who she'll be with. Mandy and Rebecca probably, all that crowd. All those women. Bitches. They'd be encouraging her to have a fling. That's the way they operated. Undermined him, men in general, on principle.

He should go out looking for her, he thinks, grinding his palm on the table. Nah, better not, says the other part in him; nah, it'll only mean trouble tonight. Yeah, yeah, yeah; he knows, he knows, he knows. Maybe he'll go round to Curly's place first, cool off a bit.

He walks round to Curly's. He thinks about Claire; he tries not to think about Claire. Curly was always sitting at home watching TV. Sometimes he went down the street for beer; sometimes on the weekends he'd go out to a pub or a party, but less and less often; and every fortnight he had to get on a bus to go to Centrelink.

Dan gratefully climbs the stairs. He's been alone for less than two hours and he's getting anxious. It creeps up on him, a sort of emptiness, purposelessness. That's when a friend like Curly comes into play. Curly's not really likeable. More reliable. You could wake him up at three in the morning. Chances were he'd already be awake playing Playstation.

Dan knocks on Curly's door. Even the door is dirty, a greasy off-white. After a while, someone opens up. It is not Curly. It is Burger. Burger is this short fat guy who seems to be at Curly's place more and more lately. He's got muscly little forearms, skinny legs, big pork chop belly and a head squashed down into a thick neck. Small eyes close together. Always looking around, always licking his lips.

"Hey Burger."

"Yeah mate, howareya ... what's yer name again?"

"Dan."

"Yeah, right, that's it."

Dan doesn't like Burger. Even less than Curly. If Dan knew where Burger lived, and knew that he was always there, he still wouldn't go visit. Burger just stands there in the doorway, the dirty yellow light behind him touching up his edges. Dan has an urge to push past him, contemptuous, but – short and fat as he is – he's strong. Despise him as he does, Dan doesn't want to start physical trouble with the little fuck. "Is Curly home?"

"Yeah mate. He sure is." But he still doesn't move.

"Well can I see him?"

"Yeah mate." Burger shifts subtly, almost imperceptibly. Dan squeezes past his bulk. Burger gives a little grunt and shuts the door.

Down the hall, second door to the right, Curly's in the TV room. A porno is on the screen with the sound down. The stereo's turned up. Curly is lying back on the couch, eyes closed. When Dan sits down he stirs himself.

"Hey. Dan. Long time no see." He reaches over to shake hands. "Whatcha been doin'?"

"Not a lot. Claire dumped me, I think. I'm pretty sure."

"What, she said that?"

"Well ... not quite. But you know."

On the screen, a big-toothed blonde gets it from this big, buffed bimbo bloke.

Curly's hair has grown. He's got a beard now, a big shaggy brown thing.

"Oh well," says Curly after a period of consideration. "She was alright too, man – Claire. She was a bit of a fox."

"Fuck off Curly."

Burger comes into the room. He's fixed himself a sandwich. A big peanut butter and honey sandwich. Lots of peanut butter, honey oozing out the sides.

"What's he doing here, Curly?"

"Oi," says Burger. "Watch it. I live here now."

"What?"

"Yeah, that's right, Dan," says Curly. "That's right, that's true."

"Since when?"

"Two weeks. Nearly three. You 'aven't been round for a while."

It was true. He'd had Claire. She'd lost her job and kind of moved in. Three hot weeks. Too long, too much. The edges got taken out too far, the bar got raised, it turned complex. Went introspective: jealousy was dark, suffocating, cancerous, the growth starts growing in the wrong direction. Hot life – body sweat, red raw dick, sex in the morning – turned into mouldy shit. Time to come round to Curly's den. And now Burger. Burger?

"Yeah, Dan, that's right," says Curly, weakly.

"Why?" asks Dan, rudely.

"Oi," says Burger. "Watch it."

Curly doesn't answer the question. On the porno, a woman smokes a cigarette in her vagina. Curly points to that instead. "Check that out boys. Bet ya haven't seen something like that before."

"Are you joking?" snorts Burger. "The internet's a big place."

"Hey Curly," says Dan.

"Yeah?"

"Have ya got anything to drink? I need a drink."

"Yeah man. There's beer in the fridge. Or Burger's got some rum, don't ya, Burger?"

"Yeah I'd like some of that."

"Ya wanna chuck us a few dollars then?" says Burger.

"I'll fix you up some other time. I don't have anything on me at the moment," says Dan, lying on both counts. Burger decides to make an issue of it. They carry on nagging, hostile negotiations. Curly sits with his hands in his lap, uncomfortably focused on the sex. They eventually agree to drink the bottle, with some menace from Burger.

"You better bring it round. I don't like cunts who don't pay tikko."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good – just go get the bottle." Dan's starting to feel a bit crazy. A bit drunk already, brain assimilating the effect in anticipation. Burger, he's thinking, fuck Burger.

 

IT WAS A mistake to have come. It's a common feeling for him at Curly's. He comes because he's starting to get a bit desperate, a bit unhinged with boredom and aloneness; there's always Curly, the TV, something to drink, something to smoke – if nothing else there's always that. Then he gets here and starts feeling bored, irritated, can't wait to get home. Gets home, gets bored again. Gets so bored he can't sleep. He's got DVDs, he's got books, magazines, computer with an internet connection, but there's nothing he really wants to look at. There's a city lying outside his door – a city that never sleeps, seven days a week – but there's nothing he wants to do there.

Claire was some sunshine, some sweet relief. Three hot weeks. After just three short weeks of her, her smile and her body, there all the time, neither of them working, sleeping at strange times, cooking food at three in the morning, not leaving the apartment for days ... after just three weeks, he started darkening, looked for a sore and started picking at it ...

Burger comes back with glasses, a bottle and Coke. They start drinking. Dan hasn't eaten or drunk anything since he woke up. He feels the sugar, alcohol and caffeine seep into his blood instantly. Two glasses, three. The bottle is almost drained within an hour. Four glasses, five.

Burger and Curly chatter away. Burger dominates with inane and vulgar conversation. Curly is obsequious, over-friendly, sliding halfway glances at Dan. Curly craves respect. Which is what makes him reliable.

Dan sits there without saying anything, getting drunker and higher.

He's starting to realise – hard – that she was good, Claire. Different from other girlfriends. Smarter, that was it, she'd kicked arse at school and university, and was then even smarter and threw it all away and lived the low life. So she was smart and cool. He was in awe of her; she frightened him a bit. He didn't look down on her like other girls, didn't find her annoying, shallow, tedious – none of that; he worried she found him that way. She made him better.

He was in the wrong place. Curly and Burger were evil cretins. Claire had despised Curly. They'd met once; afterwards Claire had said: "I can't believe you hang out with that guy. I'd rather be with myself than with a creep like that."

A creep. That was right. Creeping, like spiders, like centipedes, underground, moulding leaves. Curly had the curtains drawn all the time, windows closed, no air, no light. When he walked around outside he stared down at the ground, anxious to get back into his den.

Dan has to get out of there. He has to get outside. Find Claire. Get down on his knees, be good.

There are still a couple of centimetres in the bottle. He reconsiders his urgency and decides to stay a few minutes more. Get his money's worth. And when the bottle was finished, that'd be it – he'd be out of there.

He pours another round, feeling a dull burst of goodwill towards the two of them. He experiences a sudden overwhelming need to talk about what a honey Claire is. He goes about it in a roundabout way. "How's your girlfriend, Burger? What's her name – Suzie?"

"Yeah Suzie, that little slut," says Burger, burping, rubbing his chin with his meaty forearm. "She's not my girlfriend anymore. I caught the bitch playing round."

He looks murderous. Something comes back to Dan, something Jake had told him ages ago. They'd been laughing about Burger and Suzie, because Suzie was short and stumpy with a big double chin too, and the two of them walking down the street were pure comedy to two slim young males. And then when they'd passed Jake had said: "I heard he hits her. Nowhere anyone can see it. Matt told me. You know Matt? He's one of Burger's mates – he told him himself."

"All right, fellas," Dan pours the last of his glass down his throat. "I'm gonna get moving."

"Yeah," says Burger sourly. "See ya."

 

THE STREET IS a relief. The city lights are jewels in the velvet night. It is a beautiful night. It is wonderful out there, out of Burger and Curly's little hole of vice. The first phone box he sees, he tries to ring Claire. He leans on the glass. Claire's mum picks up the phone.

"Hello, is Claire there?" he slurs down the line.

"No, she's not at the moment," says Claire's mum. "Is that you, Daniel?"

"Yeah."

"Yes, well, she's gone out for the night. I'll tell her you called."

"Yeah." He hangs up.

The thoughts are back. It is a beautiful night but a simple short phone call has thrown him back down again. Thinking about where she might be, thinking about going there, looking for her, following her.

He thinks he needs to drink some more. There is not enough anaesthetic in his system. He starts walking towards a bar he goes to quite a bit. He knows he might see her there. He tells himself he just wants a drink. He knows he's been having creepy thoughts, but he tells himself he's just going for a drink.

The place is just starting to get busy. He gets three bourbon and Cokes, so he won't have to go to the bar for a while, and finds a seat in the corner.

He sits. Goes to the bar again, but otherwise doesn't move. Doesn't talk to anyone, doesn't make eye contact with anyone. He watches people when they are not looking at him. He's getting drunker and drunker and drunker. It gets late. He is so drunk they won't serve him any more. They don't mind him being there, but no more drinks until he can stand straight at the bar.

There's a nightclub downstairs. The beat pulses up through the floorboards. Dan sways, shambles down the stairs, dancing and lights, frantic, everyone's sexed up, flirting or teasing, questing, accepting, repulsing. Dan finds a corner as quick as he can and leans into it. He stands there for an hour ... maybe two. He feels like he's passed out standing up and still conscious, barely but somehow.

After a while, he starts coming round a bit. He's feeling sick, sugary and thick-tongued, and delicate in the guts. The dance floor is writhing, packed full of bodies. He starts to move through it, "'Scuse me, ex ... cuse me." Artificial smoke hisses into the room; light beams cut the fog; stroboscope: frozen contortions.

For a second, he thinks he might have seen her, over there, on the other side of the room. It's a bit of a way away, it was only a glimpse, the strobe was on, but something makes him think it's her. He changes direction, starts making his way, clawing through the crowd, bodies, faces, bodies, faces. He gets roughly to where he thought he saw her, and can't see anything. Looks around; strobe light on again, and everything in fragments. She could be anywhere, if it was her. Frustration floods his brain: he dives into the crowd, struggles in it, thrashes. She's nowhere to be seen.

Not much longer, and he gives up, ascends to the light upstairs. The beats recede. The pub is almost empty. The lighting is stark and artificial. He can stand straight enough to order a drink, but they suggest it's time to go home. Inside, he agrees, but he sneers at the man, snarls at the girl, and orders another drink before he heads out the door.

It's a long way home. He's been walking all night. He'll walk some more. He charges into the night.

Outside a glass-walled store, a girl walks up to him. She is in a practical coat, a scarf, a plain round face. "Have you got the time there?"

He blinks then looks at his watch. "Uh ... two thirty."

"Oh," she says, "thank you."

He starts walking away but she grabs his arm. "Hey," she says quietly, "you looking for a good time?"

He looks at her, and she looks back, eyes widened in professional expression. The darkness wrestles with itself inside him.

It's just to help me get through uni, she tells him after, as they're walking down the streets together. He doesn't believe it.

She supports him as they walk home. She teases him, laughs, grabs at his cock; he's so drunk he doesn't know how he's gonna get it up.

I wonder, Dan muses for a moment in the empty back streets, if she thinks about whether they're a murderer or a rapist each time, I wonder if she's thinking that now.

It takes ages to get back to his place. By then, he just wants to stumble into his bed and sleep. His leg hurts, the veins in his head are pulsing. He leans on the whore's shoulder; she drags him up the stairs. She must really need the work, he thinks. Then the whore starts laughing. She laughs loud and discordant, and it goes on all the way to the door.

Dan is too drunk to register that his door is unlocked. Or that the lights are on. But he does see Claire when he gets to the living room, sitting on the couch, beautiful, looking up at him. Her expression changes instantly when she sees them. The whore stops laughing.

She stands up. "You ... you fucking arsehole." She pushes, scratches past him – he sways, too drunk to react – she looks back once, spits, furious, and rushes out the door.

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