Sport 5: Spring 1990
Lloyd Jones — Baggage
The cans roll in the air from the motorway at the back of our place. The traffic is steady and cannot be seen, but every now and then a can will roll through the air. I don't try to catch them; nor am I tempted to. I prefer to wander over to where they land, wash the can in the plastic bucket of water and lux I have ready, and add it to its lost brothers.
After the four hundred mark the cans began to grin back. Not everyone could see them grinning. Cans in a neat pile tend to sit with their arms and legs folded. Under the circumstances a grin is the only expression possible.
A man from the factory turned up at our place. He wore a crewcut. White shirtsleeves cut off at the elbow. A narrow black tie. In the backyard he stopped chewing and rolled the white wad out to the tip of his tongue. The sun broke out and the cans, by now one thousand of them, looked up like startled cats. The man from the factory said 'Holy Mothers.' He started to chew fast. He checked with the neighbouring houses. Then he looked up to the ridgetop, which is what we call the motorway.
'Injuns?' I asked. It was a joke. The gum rolled to the the tip again, and the man went'Huh.' Then he said, 'Who else knows about this?"Knows about what?' I asked. Then he asked me if I wanted to sell the cans back to the factory. He was confused; least I thought so at the time. The cans were not for sale. It wasn't for this I had got him around here. It was the fact of the cans his factory put out had become smaller. I showed him the fat rounded ones at the base of the pyramid, and the narrow hand grenade ones at the top. The ones at the bottom grinned: the ones at the top were longfaced.
'Gotcha,' the man said. 'Gotcha.'
He went on his way, and I did not think I would see him again.
Some months later a woman from the local newspaper visited. She asked me a lot of questions. Did I like Coke? Had I personally drunk all of these cans? What did I plan to do with my life when I grew up? Her page 144associate took a photograph of me standing by the pyramid. The headline on the story read, 'Little Pharaoh's Refuse.'
The next day the man with the tanned face and gum came around. I was sitting in the deckchair waiting for cans to be tossed down from the motorway. It was a slow afternoon—there are such times, Sunday mornings and Mondays for some reason are very quiet. But this was a Friday and I might have expected better things. It was close on dusk and I was thinking about putting the 'steps' away when a late bird made a tinny landing. I happened to be giving this can a wash when the man from the factory showed at the side of the house. He carried in his arms three trays of coke. The newish hand grenade ones; not the desirable ones.
'Hello Kimesabe,' I said.
The man stopped chewing.
'Joking,' I said.
'You know, where I come from the kids are. . .' He caught himself, and seemed to remember what he had come for. I was a young fella to be making such a name for myself, he said. But this is not something he had wanted to say either. He got down on his hams, to get down to business. He still held the trays, as if really they had nothing to do with his being there.
'I would like it very much if you and I were to get to know and understand each other,' he said.
It was getting beyond dusk and although the motorway lights were still to come on, we both jumped when a can landed nearby.
'Jesus!' the man said, and he spilled his top tray.
I walked over and collected the can. One of those cocktail mixes from the bottlestore—bacardi and coke. I tossed it over the fence to the Robbins yard. Max Robbins had something going with any old can. It was early days, yet, and if I may say so, the two hundred odd cans were an ugly jumble of brands.
The man who had watched me toss this reject now pointed to the Robbins.
'You mean there's more over there?'
He left the trays and walked snappily to the boundary fence. This he neatly vaulted. I heard cans being turned over in the dark. He came back happy.
'Least the company's not represented in that lot.'
'Okay kid,' he said. 'We have some talking to do. You see those three trays ... there's more where that came from. Three dozen to start with page 145... taper down to maybe a dozen a week after that, so you don't get overly cluttered. Sound okay? In return I want you to dismantle the pyramid.'
'No can do. Man speak with forked tongue.'
'Will you cut that Indian crap.' The look on his face suddenly took a turn to—Oh god, I wish I hadn't said that. He looked around himself, chewing furiously.
'Where's Mum and Dad. You got parents someplace.' He pointed to the lit porch area. The rest of the house was in darkness. 'Is Mum cooking back there?'
I watched him walk toward the porch light. He shoved a hand down the back of his trousers and fixed his stuck underwear. Under the porch light he sucked in his stomach and tucked his white shirt. He gave the backdoor a quick rap and disappeared inside the house. He was back soon enough. In no time at all.
'That your mother in there?'
'That's Henry, probably.'
'Not your dad?'
'No, it's Henry.'
'What am I going to do with you kid?'
He started for his car at the side of the house. He had forgotten his trays. I called out but he didn't want to know about it.
You could say I picked up a reputation for myself. My fifteenth birthday and four thousandth can neatly coincided. The pyramid was substantial. From the street its peak topped the roof on our house. It continued to grow closer to the ridge, or top of the motorway. My mother said publicly, it was terrible but what could she do. Privately she was happy her boy had a hobby. Henry's oldest boy stole cars and was doing a stretch in gaol, so Henry didn't have much clout with regard to my hobby. From the backporch my mother gazed with quiet approval. In the outside world by now a number of nicknames stuck to me. The'tin man.' 'Coke man.' 'Can man.' When I left the house in the mornings I was aware that my presence had a disruptive effect. People stole glances from across the street, and looked quickly away if I attempted to return their interest. In the early days there had been trouble at school, but now I was pretty well left alone. The Robbins had long since moved out of the neighbourhood. Before their house went on the market Max was made by his father to dig a trench along the fenceline and bury six hundred cans. He threw me the odd Coke can which had slipped in unspotted. His page 146heart had never really been in it. That he bothered at all was a gesture of friendship. Nothing more.
I kept to myself. I say I kept to myself, but ir, fact, the neighbourhood began to sense in the 'Tin Man' something viral. Our immediate neighbours worried what would happen in the event of an earthquake. Rumours circulated: the pyramid was host to a vast rats' nest.
A deputation of councillors arrived. The City Engineer visited. He arrived in our backyard wearing a white construction site hardhat. The cans now towered above the house, and tour buses filled with Japanese had started to draw outside the house. My mother stood on the front lawn and shouted at them to 'Piss off out of here.' The Japanese calmly aimed their cameras while my mother shouted 'Go back to Hiroshima!'
Henry thought Australia might be a better place for us. A haven from Japs and shitty neighbours. Henry had stopped coming around. He said he could do without the evil eye the moment he pulled off the motorway into our street. He was sick of the humiliation, and what did he have to be ashamed of?
I hoped they would go, but it was some years before finally they said they were decided. I said I was sorry, deeply sorry, but perhaps it was for the best. Under the circumstances. I thanked my mother for this start in life. She said I shouldn't feel it was permanent. Nothing is permanent in this world, she said, and she wouldn't be selling the house.
And so, the house passed to me; if not in title, certainly in spirit. You might say, I was branching out. I was older, and more disciplined. It started with doing my own washing. Emptying the pockets of my overalls I discovered three Summer Roll cellophane wrappers. The wrappers had drifted over the metal road barrier—all wing and no body, dipping one side then the other, dropping down to where I waited in the deckchair. At the time I was simply gathering up rubbish. It was in the wash house that their uniformity struck me. Their ready-made category. I ironed them flat and placed them in a shoe box.
I had finished my schooling with the standard tertiary qualifications. I was not unhappy about there being no job to go to. I drew a benefit. More importantly, I had things to do. The popular idea of disaffected youth did not apply to me. I was busy. I had work to do. Oh one day, away in the future I thought, I might hike across the backyard and climb the pyramid to the motorway, and investigate points north and south. It was nice to have that option. On slow days I looked up from the deckchair and worked out in my head the course to follow up the pyramid. On slow days: I say that with no real justification. It surprised page 147me how much I had missed in the past by being so one-tracked, so singular-minded.
I mentioned the Summer Roll wrappers. The tiniest tip of a pile that included silver foil from chewing gum, bubble gum, sweet wrappers, lunchpaper, cigarette butts, runaway pages of a newspaper (always the tabloids and never the dailies; always a huge pair of page three tits from someone called 'Sandra, a working model'); empty beer stubbies flung from an open window on Saturday night usually bounced intact; some did burst. I climbed around in the roof and dropped the fragments down behind the sarking and weatherboards. I was doing my own insulation, I suppose. But foremost in mind was their safekeeping in the event of a possible return of Mum and Henry.
Mum wrote letters, then made do with postcards of one-armed bandits, and huge pearly white skyscrapers lining sandy beaches. Henry drove taxis; first in Gosford, then Ballina; there was a stint in Brisbane; more recently Henry landed a spot caretaking an apartment building on the Sunshine Coast. The card bearing this news featured a large striped marlin hung up on wharf scales; either side stood two barefoot strangers in Hawaiian shirts. Mum was fine. Henry complained of the 'old Jap problem.' But why, I wondered, had they sent the postcard of a marlin? I thought about this a good deal. Did they suspect on my part an interest in marlin? Or had the card simply been swiped off a revolving stand in an act of duty? I placed it in a cupboard with fifty other such cards: Australia Square, the Opera House, Gold Coast meter maids, koala bears, one-legged abo's standing in the desert: on the other side my mother's concerned words to 'take care . . . '; wave riders; Canberra spread out like the blank digits on a Seiko watch; resorts, river cruises, Bondi; lifesavers; Ayers Rock; and the one time I thought ill of these cards I reminded myself of the reporter's question all those years ago-when she asked if I had drunk all those cans? Or for that matter had I a lick of all those candystriped ice blocks the sticks of which spiralled down from the motorway. Likewise the rest of the debris of consumption I stuffed in the ramparts of the house.
Women? It's okay. I bought magazines. There is a video store where the corner dairy used to be. I bought one video, 'Bouncing Buns'. . . . Maria is housekeeper to a wealthy bedridden old fart in Beverley Hills. Maria wears a black maid's uniform with white pinafore and nurse's cap. She dusts the furniture. Empties the ashtrays. Bends down to pick up a book and ... oops, Maria has no panties. Some nights I would stop there, and freeze the frame with her tail sticking in the air. Other times eager for page 148variety I let Maria pick up the book and carry on dusting until the ringing of the doorbell. A stranger calls.
If I have a lament it is—all that wasted sperm: all those unexplored eggs.
You get from life what you put in, my mother used to say.
At night the cans stream in reflective red up toward the motorway lights. A film company has come to make an ad. A kid with kneepads and a cap reversed on his head does his thing with a skateboard in front of the pyramid. He flips the board one way, then the other; finishes with a full spin and pulls out a can of coke from under his T-shirt.
My cans smile like cats. The director agreed. 'Yes sir, they smile like cats. That's why we're here.' He said, 'We'll leave the place tidy and slip a cheque under your door.'
Of course it didn't happen like that. All night they wanted things. The telephone. The toilet. The kettle to boil up some tea. A young woman knocked on the door to use the toilet. She walked in front of me down the hall, with her arms folded against some imaginary chill, poking her head into the open doorways. She stopped outside the toilet, to listen. She asked, 'What's all that clawing? What's that behind the wall?'
'What?' I said.
'That. That clawing.'
'Probably rats,' I said.
When she had finished I watched from my bedroom window the woman return to the film set. She spoke with two or three of the crew out there, and they stared back the way of the house.
It was late, long after the film crew had packed up, I set out across the yard and scaled the cans. I took the route I had imagined I would, and after ten minutes of careful foot placement, I stepped over the metal barrier to the shoulder of the motorway. This part was not what I had imagined: the inky silence. The total absence of traffic. It was not the world I had imagined from my deckchair. There was no obvious point of embarkation; not in a thousand scattered lights was there a single obvious one to aim for. Where was Cairns? Sydney? Ballina? The Sunshine Coast?
Mum was dead. I knew this before I opened the letter; when I saw Henry's handwriting; why else would Henry bother. It was the one other time I briefly considered leaving this place. I could catch a plane for Brisbane. Henry would pick me up, and together we would bury Mum. page 149This was my first inclination. But by the time I got to the end of Henry's letter I learned she had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, and that Henry had had Mum cremated and her ashes placed in an urn in the Garden of Martyrs in the hills west of Brisbane.
I emptied her drawers and closet. All her things I took up to the roof and stuffed them down behind the weatherboards. Mum's bits and pieces lodged with milkshake containers, newspapers, broken glass, raffle tickets and juice containers. I could hear the rats treading through this mulch, and was pleased Henry had seen fit to cremate Mum. At worst ashes get to be scattered, but, never entered into.
Life. What a funny business it is. I was no longer bracketed with disaffected youth which, I suspect, had served as a useful alibi for a while.
The bathroom mirror returned this unlived-in face. An outdated newness attended it, like an old-fashion car kept in shopfloor nick. You know the ad: one owner (which reading between the lines meant an old lady commuting between home and the post office and the grocer). I don't get out nearly often enough; that's what my face said. Well who else could say it. I took the mirror off the wall and smashed it. The pieces I shoved down behind the weatherboards.
I was not unhappy. I reminded myself, I had a job to do.
At night, under the soft motorway lights, the ground in the backyard moved with rats. They moved without haste. They sat on their haunches and cleaned their paws. I watched them from my bedroom window. Theirs was a confidence that knew no threat. We understood each other. They left the kitchen area alone. The walls in my bedroom tickered with their tiny feet, but the interior was strictly a no-go area and the odd interloper I was forced to slaughter by way of example.
The Pest Control people wanted to slaughter the lot. There came to be a steady stream of people at my door. It started with vicious bitching neighbours. Then officialdom arrived in cars with the city coat of arms on the sidedoors. They said they wanted to be reasonable about it. They only wanted to talk to me, they said. So okay, but these 'talks' ended in shouting, and threats. Officialdom with clipboards under its arm walked briskly back to its waiting support unit (which is what they called their cars).
The City is full of wiles and smarts. I refer to the morning I opened the door to a very pretty young woman. She said her name was Annette, and I had let her inside the house before she even mentioned being from Social Welfare. I made her tea. She wouldn't eat anything. She said she page 150hoped we could be friends. Oh, I said, and she smiled. She placed her hand over mine and gave it a squeeze. I asked what she had in mind.
'Please. I want you to trust me.'
She took her hand away and produced a very old newsclipping—chronologically old that is, because again it was a well-preserved bromide—of another age—of a small boy standing alongside a huge mountain of Coke cans.
Annette thought I was rather clever. A clever rascal. I had a genius for collecting things. Unfortunately, she said, this passion had burst its banks and spilt into one or two unfortunate areas.
She placed her hand back on mine and asked if I would like a job.
I said, 'I have my work.'
'I know you do,' she said, almost apologetically. 'But the job I have in mind would pay you handsomely.'
I wondered why she was doing this.
'Because I am paid to,' she said, and I felt better about that. Every sweet has its wrapper.
They wanted to bowl the house. Annette said it was for the best. Where I was headed couldn't be compared. One morning two 'support units' pulled up the driveway, and I watched from behind curtains two men in hardhats walk around the house. They acted and spoke as if no one was at home. Once I might have given them a piece of my mind. Sworn at them like Mum did at the Japs. But I was far too curious. I was aware that my life was about to take off in a new direction, and I was anxious to see what would happen.
Annette came around and offered to help me pack. She had brought packing cartons, and so was confused at first when I asked her to pass up my things to where I was crouched in the ceiling. My things, such as they were, I dropped down behind the walls along with Henry's and Mum's stuff. Annette went out for a pizza and its cardboard carton ended behind the walls too.
Late afternoon I threw open the front door. Annette's 'support unit' was parked, ready to spirit me off to a new part of the city. But also waiting were neighbours—none of whom I recognised. Quite a crowd had gathered. Men in hardhats leant up against bulldozers and graders; still others with clipboards tucked under their arms. A police car was parked in the middle of the road and at an odd angle as if it had come to grief an a patch of oil. A blue light revolved in the pale afternoon light of late April. In a surprisingly terse voice Annette told someone to get the TV cameras away: what kind of circus did they think this was.page 151
I told Annette to get rid of the graders. I wanted the house peeled like an orange. The outer cast could be lifted off my work now.
Into the dusk men worked with crowbars to lever away the weatherboards. They tackled the sarking and scrim with care, until finally, all that was left standing and in perfect replica of the house were the interior walls of accumulated rubbish. A few rats working along the top looked on with surprise, as if a lid had just been lifted on their activity. The crowd on the street continued to grow. Someone asked to take a photograph of me standing up against my work.
Then I took Annette on a tour of the walls and showed her various points of interest. I told her to start at the base, and raise her eyes to the height of the roof. The various strata of rubbish, I said, were no different than rings on a tree. I pointed out various mementos—there was Mum's overcoat. One or two handbags. Her old hairbrushes. A stiletto off one of Mum's highheel shoes was caught in a thick cement of old toothpaste tubes. Annette gave an excited yelp. 'Look! There's our pizza carton!' That's the spirit, I said. Then a man in a fish tie and cardigan whispered something in Annette's ear, and she said it was time to go. It was time to relocate my life and work.