Life is Sweet
Four blocks from the Lever house, Neil Purly was sitting at a long kitchen table, eating cereal. He was reading an article on the front page of the Kentucky Post under the headline Tuck River amongst top five most polluted rivers in state. The cistern flushed in the bathroom at the end of the hall. George was talking to Clive on the radio.
‚ – I’ve got nothing against them personally, Clive, don’t get me wrong. I think they’re wonderful people. My wife and I have been to Phuket five times, and they’re absolutely wonderful people. They can’t do enough for you.‘
‚ – Phuket. That’s in Thailand…‘
‚ – That’s right. Extraordinary country, Clive.‘
‚ – It was the Vietnamese our caller was concerned about.‘
‚ – They’re all Asian, aren’t they.‘
‚ – Well, no one’s going to argue with that.‘
‚ – Just an observation, Clive.‘
‚ – Well, thanks for your call, George. It was interesting talking to you.‘
‚ – Thank you, Clive. Thank you for having me on your show – ‚
Dee came into the kitchen. She turned the frequency band on the radio until she found a station playing country music.
‚I was listening to that.‘
‚You were reading the paper.‘
Neil folded the paper and pushed it aside. He wasn’t actually doing either, not with any particular interest.
Dee put the jug on for coffee. She stood at the sink with her back to him, not speaking. She was still in her nightie, one of those shorty jobs that made Neil think of the baby doll dresses he’d seen his mother wearing in photos taken in the sixties.
‚Want some cereal?‘
Neil poured rice puffs into his bowl and slid it across the table. Dee waited for the jug to boil.
‚Do you love me, Neil?‘
‚Sure, I do.‘
Dee stared at the jug, waiting for it to cut out. The water was boiling frantically. She took a mug down from the shelf, the mug with the happy face design over the words sunny days, and spooned coffee into it. Neil saw that her hand was shaking.
‚Jesus…‘ A fine dusting of coffee powder had settled around the mug. Dee cupped it with both hands and brought it to the table.
‚I feel like shit.‘
Neil looked at her. Her eyes were rheumy as if she’d been crying, and there was a spot on her chin. A trickle of snot touched her upper lip.
‚You look okay.‘
‚Lying bastard. Pass the tissues.‘
Neil reached behind him for the box. ‚What are you going to do today?‘
‚Die. Suffer a bit more and then I’ll just curl up somewhere and die.‘
‚Do something that takes your mind off it.‘
‚Nothing takes my mind off it.‘
‚We did something last night that took your mind off it.‘
‚Neil, I sleep for eight hours a day. If you could screw me solid for the other sixteen I’d be in heaven.‘
Again the sound of the cistern flushing down the hall. Roy Orbison was crooning It’s Over on the radio. Neil wondered what sort of day it was going to be. Outside the window the street light was still burning. Along the coast, hanging low over the river towns to the west, stretching across the lower slopes, filling the deep silent gullies to the edges of the high plateaux, the sky was the colour of ash.
‚If you loved me,‘ Dee said, ‚you’d go down the street and buy me a packet of smokes.‘
Neil made a small sucking noise with his mouth.
‚I don’t think so.‘
He was moved by her distress. He just didn’t know what to say to her any more, whether it was okay to touch her or if he should just leave her alone. She was so flaky she could do anything – lash out, swear or just drop her head on the table and bawl like a kid. She’d done all of those in the last week. He’d tried the jokes, the ‚first three years are the worst‘ type. Or dropping his pants when Jody wasn’t around, and saying, ‚What you need, hon, is something harmless to suck on.‘ It was getting to the point where he was thinking of moving out, going back home until she’d got her head straight. He didn’t care particularly whether she smoked or not. She wasn’t spending his money. What bothered him was the way he was starting to see her differently. It was as if all of a sudden she was more like eighteen years older than him, not just eight. It was like she was his mother’s age, fretting about losing her looks, getting thick around the waist. She’d be checking her cholesterol next, poking into her shit, looking for blood. This was what was waiting for him around the corner, and he didn’t much like the look of it.
‚D’you think I’m dumb? I get you smokes and the next minute I’m the bad guy for getting you back on the shit.‘
‚You don’t know what it’s like.‘
She was close to tears again. It was that whine in her voice he couldn’t stand, and her ugly screwed up face as if she had this pain inside her that she couldn’t control.
‚Jesus, Dee,‘ he said, ‚get a grip on yourself, will you? D’you want Jody to see you like this?‘
‚I need a smoke!‘ she said, shouting so close to his face it made his ears ring. ‚I just need a fucking smoke!‘
‚Well get some clothes on and piss off down the store.‘
He readied himself for the punch he was expecting, but she picked up the bowl of cereal he’d left her and hurled it across the kitchen. Neil laughed.
He lifted his chin. ‚Go on, have a go. That’ll make you feel better.‘
She calmed a little. She wasn’t looking at Neil. She was staring at the mess in the corner of the kitchen where the bowl had smashed. There was a gash in the wall like a wound.
‚D’you want me to clean that up?‘
‚Jody can do it.‘
Neil shrugged. The radio was giving him bluegrass. He didn’t mind bluegrass music. It was kind of folksy and made you want to hoot and stamp your feet.
Dee brushed past him and yelled down the hall.
She took her purse out of the drawer next to the sink.
‚Three weeks and five days,‘ Neil said. He felt oddly deflated as if the failure were his.
‚Just shut your rotten lousy mouth.‘
After the bluegrass there was an ad for Coulters Hardware across the street. Neil wondered why the Hair Today salon under Dee’s flat didn’t advertise. The Hair Today premises used to be the Kentucky branch of the National Bank which had packed up and left town. Before he moved in with Dee he’d gone out with one of the girls from the salon. She still worked there, but she always ignored him if she saw him, even when they passed in the yard at the back of the building. It pissed Neil off no end.
Jody slipped silently into the kitchen. She was no longer a kid, but she still had a kid’s face, despite the painted lips and her hair she’d fixed to show off her new ear studs. She looks like a little tart, Neil thought. She was as tall as he was, but as thin as a stick, her small pubescent breasts just starting to show.
‚Hey,‘ Neil said.
Jody saw the mess in the corner but didn’t comment. She would have heard her mother shouting at him. Dee thrust ten dollars into her hand.
‚Sweetheart, run down the store and get your mother some smokes.‘
‚I thought you’d given up.‘
‚I’m going crazy.‘
Jody’s back was to Neil so he could only guess at the expression on her face. She stuffed the note into the pocket of her jeans and strode out of the kitchen, not looking at him. They waited for the door downstairs to slam.
‚She thinks I’m pathetic,‘ Dee said.
Neil checked the time on the microwave. ‚What does she know?‘ He held out his hand. Dee kissed the top of his head, brushing her lips across the small patch where his hair had begun to thin. He hated it when she did that.
‚Stay with me, Neil.‘
‚It’s only for tonight.‘ He reached under her nightie for her breast.
‚I mean – don’t leave me, not just yet.‘
Marie. That was the girl’s name, Marie Gunn. He’d been thinking about her quite a bit lately, partly because she made such a point of ignoring him. He remembered why they’d split. It was over some stupid remark of his about her old man. Marie’s father worked at the mill where the Purly brothers worked.
Dee’s nipple was as hard as a walnut under his thumb.
‚D’you still want a smoke?‘
She pulled herself away and looked at him gravely. He thought – something deep’s coming.
‚Do you have a philosophy on life, Neil?‘
‚Yeah. Life is sweet.‘
‚Is that all?‘
‚Sweet as candy. Kiss my arse and I’ll be dandy.‘
She laughed but he was waiting for the waterworks to start up again. She poured her coffee down the sink. ‚I can’t drink coffee without a cigarette.‘
‚Jody’ll be back soon,‘ he said.
‚I shouldn’t,‘ she said. ‚I really shouldn’t.‘ She was gripping the edge of the sink as if her brown skinny legs were about to give out. ‚I puked up this morning.‘
He remembered his father reciting the verse in the pub one night. Life is sweet, as sweet as candy… His father was in a playful mood. ‚What d’you reckon, Neil?‘ he said. ‚Ain’t that the truth?‘ ‚Sure,‘ Neil said. He never argued with his father. It wasn’t worth the grief.
He stared hard at Dee’s screwed up face. The guy on the radio had injected a little blues into his programme. It was John Lee Hooker, letting go of his high priced woman.
My father, Neil thought, is as thick as pig shit.
From: Whistling the Pig, a work in progress