Beyond The Pail – James Gering

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After the sudden clanging noise Harley begs the night to subside. Nothing doing. A light flicks on in the Goldstein living room and the door to the deck rumbles on its tracks.

Candy Goldstein’s voice breaks into the night, ‘Hey, who’s there?’  

Harley quits breathing and presses his back against the wall of the Goldstein’s home. Stars burn down like cosmic needles.

‘Listen, I’m giving you five seconds to scram.’

And then what? Harley wonders. In the moonlight washing the alley alongside the house, he spies a padlocked gate, dammit.      

‘I have a rifle,’ Candy says.

And my name is Nelson Mandela, Harley muses.  

He slinks back the way he came, stops where the side alley meets the garden. Doubt over Candy and rifles starts to creep in. He picks up a rock, lobs the decoy far towards bush in his adjoining property, and runs the other way, past the apple tree. The arcing rock grazes foliage, lands with a skid and a thud. Thwang, a shot rings out. Harley drops into the mimosa bushes. He comes to rest against the base of the Goldstein birdbath.

 

It had begun soon after he, Tasha, and the boys kicked off their fresh start in the northern beach suburbs, moved in next door. Curious Candy, Harley winces, had a vile habit of rocking up at inopportune moments.  

On the morning of the gunshot Harley had been lugging out the week’s bottles. He heaved the black recycling tub onto the edge of the green wheelie bin and began tossing out the empties. He snickered at the new daylight, traded glares with bruised clouds. Then a creak of footsteps on next-door’s deck made his hackles rise: Candy.

He shifts his body between her line of view and the bins. He plants three vodka bottles deep among the beer empties.    

‘Our new house is almost finished,’ Candy sings out.

Harley stops, black tub almost empty. He turns, baulks at her hefty figure. Today the springy hair and made-up face top a billowy white dress festooned with orange flower blossoms.

‘Very close to Masada school,’ Candy says, ‘easy for Jonti and Rachelle, nearer our Jo’burg friends.’

‘What is?’

‘Our new house, silly.’

‘Excellent,’ Harley says, hoping that’s it.  

‘But why do you live so far away?’ Candy asks.

‘From what?’

‘You know, the community.’

‘Oh, I see.’ Harley guesses that Candy and Tasha chatted, that being Jewish came up. ‘Well, we like the beaches, the open spaces.’  

‘But why not Bondi? There you have beaches and synagogues. Roots can keep you out of trouble, you know. A good solidified fortress, buttresses you. And you don’t want the kids missing out on their spirituality, falling in with the wrong crowd.’  

‘Definitely not,’ Harley says. ‘The Baha’i temple is up the road and the Lindfield synagogue, plus a bunch of churches, even a mosque. Lots of faith out here in Narrabeen.’  

‘Agh, you’re too silly, man. And what’s the story – why are you at home in the middle of the morning? My Jonti is out working all hours, away on important trips, and here you are cracking jokes.’  

‘I’m between jobs, a house husband for now.’

Candy folds her arms across her orange-blossom chest.

‘I needed a change from the cafe so I sold up.’

A cricket scurries out of the drinks tub and over Harley’s hand. He flicks it off and curses. Candy, seeing the bug, shrinks back and makes a guttural sound. ‘Thank God the exterminators are coming to spray,’ she says. ‘Right this afternoon, and not soon enough I tell you.’  

Harley retreats inside and savours the quiet of the house – Tasha and the boys at work and school. He swallows two aspirin and stretches out on the frayed Persian rug in the living room. When he rouses, a light shadow on the wall startles him. Grey, hulking. The shadow moves. Harley groans and begrudgingly realises it’s him. He runs a finger and thumb over his stubbled face, scans the employment section of the papers, considers making a few calls. Instead he follows the hungry vacuum cleaner through the rooms then visits the supermarket.

Later, peeling potatoes in a triangle of light by the kitchen window, he regards a figure emerging in the Goldstein garden, a man in worm-brown overalls and a Perspex mask. Twin canisters bump off his back, tubes spiral round to a steel wand and trigger.

Harley enters the pantry and eases the evening vodka bottle down from its nook behind the cereals. He untwists the cap to slop three or four shots into a water glass. He skulls the drink in a flick of the wrist and eases out a sigh.

The pest man aims his steel wand at the shrubs lining the flowerbeds. A mist sprays out, coating the plants, the rocks, the trunk of the apple tree. The man pauses and faces the Goldstein deck. Candy is there, gazing down. They exchange waves.

The man visits his vehicle for more poison. Harley visits the fridge for a beer. The pest man tilts some rocks, sprays some bugs. Harley swigs some beer, shoots some voddie.

The engine of a familiar car disturbs Harley. Tasha and the boys. He tucks away the vodka bottle, pops into his mouth a chunk of pure green celery. A key rattles in the door and it’s Walt and Luke yelling ‘Daddy! Daddy!’

 

In bed around 11p.m., Harley is having nightmares.

‘Jeez,’ Tasha says sleepily from her side.

‘What?’  

‘You can’t toss around like the bed’s a sinking raft. I have to work.’

He spreads a sleeping bag on the floor by the bedposts. In the contoured dark, his glance veers up the wallpaper. He considers the empty expanse of ceiling and waits for sleep. When it comes it brings a nightmare: a giant roach trap, like the ones in the café, only massive, maybe half the size of a tennis court, dominating the Goldstein lawn. There he is, stuck fast by all fours to its surface. The veins in his neck protrude, sweat beads on his face. Like a fairy tale gone wrong, a dusting of grey covers the garden greenery. Shrubs wither and die. This can’t continue, Harley reasons, something must give. He chants a lapsed prayer that is met by a hyena-like laugh ricocheting on all sides: it’s Candy, teeth bared, cackling out over her deck rails. She’s safe in her citadel. Eager congregants from the synagogue in the east cluster round her. Harley yells for help but his voice lacks volume, no sound at all. An apple sails past his ear. The congregants are lobbing apples at him—keeping him from entering. One bounces off his head, another jars his shoulder sending a jolt of pain down the arm. Then Candy’s voice thunders down, ‘It serves you right, you bum. You’re a disgrace to your family, the community, all of humanity.’

Harley wakes, sweat-soaked. He rises and staggers out of the house.

A night breeze cools his flesh. The silvery tinge of a jagged moon ripples over the neat homes and gardens. He imagines Candy snug in bed, arms clamped round her Jason, on the brink of moving the family closer to Masada. Harley releases a maniacal chuckle at this and pads out to the high picket fence separating his family from hers. He sniffs the air for traces of pest control.  

An owl hoots. Harley decides on a little neighbourly jaunt, a look-see trip into the green realm of Candy-ville. He uses the branch of a gum to hoist himself onto the fence and over. He crosses the manicured lawn. No giant roach hotels but he does spy some insects, legs up, by the edge of the flowerbed. He picks an apple off the Goldstein tree and takes a bite. He looks up at the empty deck and bows theatrically.

On this side of the high fence no helpful branches hang low – Harley must find another way home. He follows the flagstone alley between the Goldstein house and the fence. All is good until a frightful noise clangs out at his feet. A metal pail, oh, bejesus, and he’s kicked it.  

 

In the mimosa bushes Harley gingerly frisks his own body for a bullet hole and leaking blood. Nothing. Surprised, he wants to toast the heavens, have a hard drink. Instead, he crouches small and clings to the base of the birdbath. He tries to slow his breathing, listens for Candy the neighbour, a fellow Jew, shooting bullets at him.

‘You hear me out there?’ Candy calls.

Harley tightens his grip around the birdbath on which a caterpillar and two roaches   have also found refuge.

‘Show yourself, you critter.’ Candy’s voice echoes louder than her nightmare voice. “Take what you’ve earned.”

Harley half whimpers, half laughs but then his puff is gone. He stays crouched in the mimosa bushes behind the birdbath, hopes for some kind of relief.  

 

James Gering has been a diarist, poet and short story writer for many years. His poetry and fiction have won awards and have appeared in a number of journals including the Jewish Literary Journal, Rattle, Every Writer, Meanjin, and Cordite. A sample of his work can be experienced at jamesgering.com. When not writing, James ponders, cooks dinner for his budding family, and teaches at the University of Sydney.

 

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