Winner of the 2007 John Marsden Prize for Short Fiction
YOUR POCKETS ARE FULL
Not even the Plovers looked up to see the hole that appeared one day. It wasn’t a large hole and one night, when the winter sighed and spring came in gently from the ocean, it was almost filled with dirt blown in by the changing of the seasons. For awhile nothing happened to the hole but spring kept inching its way up, over and down to the river and into the town below. The nights were still; all of the plants relaxed into the earth and into the quiet evening approaching. Not even the arrival of a car before the sun disrupted the peace, nor the bundle that wouldn’t quite fit in the hole, nor did the acceptance of a shoe shod human into the earth seem to bother anything in particular.
One short metre beneath a sky oh-so-full of bulbous, low riding clouds the Pizza Man was buried beside a small shrub that curled in on itself and an empty beer bottle. He was on top of the Bluff, nearly surrounded by ocean with boulders of sandstone around the base and bushes blown low by the wind. Pressed beneath the dirt and sand, under the salt stiff grasses, the Pizza Man was bundled. He had dough under his fingernails and on the webbing between his fingers were some smudges of tomato paste now crusted like jagged cuts into the folds of his limp hands. His apron, held in the crease of skin at the back of is neck, still showed patches of flour clouds. A piece of soggy mushroom was caught with a slither of mozzarella between the sheets of his apron pocket.
The earth barged at his open eyes and began to trickle in through his slack mouth creating a thick, wet paste.
In heavy, heaving darkness worms made their way towards the Pizza Man. He looked up, unblinking.
The worms reached the Pizza Man. They wriggled around and around and around him and, with a sigh of relief, into him.
The first thought he has is not surprising to the Pizza Man, it simply occurs as if he had woken up blearily one day with a mind but no body.
Oh, the worms, he thought, as they slowly writhed over each other and through his left eye. They came out from the blackness in a silent mass and pushed his body with their round, slimy heads until his skin gave way and parted to make little holes of squelching flesh. The Pizza Man was being tunnelled. He thought of them coming through dark and dry earth to find his body a wet relief. He found himself pleased at the thought of housing hundreds of unblinking bugs as he himself was unblinking; eyes turned into jammy puddles with slackened lids and falling eyelashes.
He had sunk into the ground, all parts of his body being embraced and opened up by the dirt. The tree beside him had heaved and sucked until it noisily revealed slightly red, mostly green, blooms on its fingertips. The Plovers had moved on, gracefully allowing the breezes to caress the secret undersides of their wings. He had been wondering, as his skin sunk inwards, why he couldn’t get the taste of garlic out of his mouth though he knew that his mouth was full of salty dirt. Was this a memory of something bigger or just that he had tasted like garlic most of his life?
It was late spring when the Pizza Man had his first memory. On a day much like those before it, after a dung beetle had crawled over his right eye, he thought again of garlic but this time he swung from the Bluff down to the town below, onto the main street and into a doorway looking out onto the quiet night. He is leaning against the beige metal frame, when headlights rise over the hill at the end of the street. The lights are slow to approach. The car stops out the front of the shop and starts ticking. A clock, or maybe engine trouble, it sounds like the car itself is passing time. He turns around to his wife. He is rolling a clove of raw garlic around his mouth. She is standing at the counter leaning on it with most of her round weight. Elbows buried in the rolls of her favourite lilac cashmere jumper. Her face is turned away, looking into the cavernous pizza oven. Her hands are tangled around each other and from where he is he sees the deepening furrows in them, the lines a moisturiser will never smooth away. She is about to tell him something she has been thinking about for a long time. He can tell now. They’ve been here for awhile. Living amongst the changing of the neighbours, the yapping dog, the quite couple and then the small family who tried to get them over for Saturday B.B.Q’s.
Their daughter is asleep in the house and the night is never ending. He looks out of the window. The car ticks outside. He can’t see the people in it.
He wants to tell his wife standing in this fluorescent room that he could be anywhere but he is here, with her. But the moment for telling her those sorts of things is long passed, that was years ago. They used to walk around the Bluff on blustery afternoons and he had wanted to push her into the bushes and lay her body, white and clean, over the prickly grasses. When kissing her once he would feel his heart leap and his cheeks flush.
What have you done?
He can’t answer. He can’t answer her at all.
The car outside is making him sweat and he wouldn’t know how to begin explaining something that had never begun.
She waits in the near silence. He never moves from the side of the front window.
Do I need you anymore?
She slaps it at him with the full face of her hurt and despair. The lilac jumper is flapping in front of him.
He can’t say. He has nothing to say to her. He watches out the window and she leaves him alone with the ticking and the watching and the waiting and the waiting.
Spring was almost over. Now the sun was lengthening its stare each day and everything still alive crept in close to the ground. The sky was a crazed blue. The Pizza Man was unmoved though his body had decomposed around him causing the earth to flatten and hold him tighter. His stomach, once a gushing wet cavern, was drying out and being eaten up. The slow, small mouths of the maggots and worms were cleaning him out and sucking him in. The worms had made little tunnels of every soft part of him and his apron was now a plate of exits and entrances. The weather didn’t affect the Pizza Man much though he felt the ground harden itself against the sun and the tree beside him uncurl its roots and send them out for water. The hair like roots tickled in his ear; sending small, unwinding tendrils down though his ear drums, rolling around in his empty skull. He had no water in him; dry like the land that was holding him. He spent long amounts of time just being empty headed. Then, without any particular warning a memory from his life would seep and slip its way right to the front of his mind.
In the shop late one evening with a long handled knife in his hand. He is preparing the toppings for the pizzas, the knife so easily slipping through the onionskin, and thinking of his wife and daughter long asleep and oblivious to him. He has done nothing wrong so far in his life but he has done nothing right either. He is standing in a shop his father had owned making pizzas to the same recipe by which they had always been made though now he uses pre-crushed garlic and home grown basil that shakes his mouth alive with saliva. He places an onion on the chopping board and brings the knife down to meet it. There is a slow breeze coming in under the door that causes the potted plants to bow drowsily. He moves to stand by the window and watches as his reflection buttons the green cardigan at his belly. His legs are bowed slightly and in the reflection he looks rounder than he remembers.
A car drives past slowly, the same one, sending the rubbish in the gutter swirling. His dinner is flung from one wall of his stomach to the other, mashing itself into piles of bile. He hardly moves, his face a platter of frozen features, until he can hear the car no longer. He turns off the light in the shop with a shaking hand.
His body, the flesh, was almost gone now. Absorbed into the earth with so much patience that the Pizza Man didn’t notice until one day he thought to remember his body and realised he didn’t have one anymore. This didn’t bother him. Nothing did up here. The Pizza Man was not waiting for anything. He was as surprised as anybody when each memory appeared before him. One evening when he had been considering the beer bottle beside him he thought suddenly of his daughter waiting at one of the plastic tables for him to bring her dinner. It is a busy night in the shop and he has three pizzas in the oven as well as five waiting to go in. There are groups of people in the shop; some at the tables, others waiting at the counter, most are teenagers although the elderly couple from the Post Office are waiting for their medium Supreme. He isn’t too busy to be unable to keep an eye on his daughter swinging her legs and pulling at her long, brown and slightly matted hair. Later, after everyone is gone he will sit with a beer and a small Hawaiian and watch her eat it all.
Daddy, what are you drinking?
I like it.
Why? She looks him full in the face and her demanding eyes make the Pizza man wonder about her years from now when she will be looking at someone else so wonderingly.
Because I like to have relaxing drink once in awhile. He doesn’t think she will accept this at all but she digs her fingers back into her pizza and squashes some ham between her fingers. She is looking seriously at the cheese on the top now slightly congealed. He watches her easily.
Daddy, do you ever get scared?
There is nothing to be scared of.
What about monsters?
They don’t exist.
What about bad people?
They don’t exist either.
How do you know?
I know because I am older and smarter than you, he thinks.
Now, finish your pizza. There is a small glow from inside the pizza oven as the last of the fire cools. He feels something heaving inside him, nervousness, but looks intently at his daughters’ cheeks as they roll and dip while she chews.
Later, he is lying in bed. The sheets of the bed, beige and white, are pulled up to his chin. He is looking at the ceiling with aching, cold eyes and listening for everything. It is late but he is listening and the wrestling possums on the roof suddenly break out into terrifying screams. He tries to slow his racing heart beat.
There is a rasping growl followed by the sound of rolling down the corrugated iron roof. The Pizza Man’s wife, lying on her side, talks through her pillow and dark lines of hair.
Will you do something about them?
He is slow to answer.
I don’t know what I can do.
Just get them off the roof somehow. This happens every night.
He hears the testing in her voice. Even though they are both exhausted they are far from sleep and stepping around each other not so carefully.
I don’t know what to do.
She rolls over onto her back and the bed seems like a small boat in a round, dark ocean.
You never do know, do you? You just don’t realise.
She is looking over at him. He can see the outline of her ear against the white curtains.
That’s not fair.
It’s years ago; before any of this, before his wife. He’s feeling trapped in the smoky pub. He is wedged in between the Friday night regulars, so and so’s brother and some girls distracted by their own oily, bare skin. The pot of beer slides through his wet hand. There is a shriek through the humid grey air and the girl beside him turns to throw her now beer sodden bag into his face. The Pizza Man doesn’t wait around to hear the yelling and pushes his sloppy frame towards the door. He is angry leaving the pub into the sea salt air and marches along the black of the main street with his eyes watching the disappearance and reappearance of his brown lace up leather boots. It isn’t until the wire is pressing into his gut that he looks up to see two young boys with tense jaws and wild animal eyes staring at him from the bushes. The wire runs across the road, taught and flashing silver. The boys look at him, silhouettes seeping into the shadows, asking with their biting eyes, whether he is ready for this. He answers no with his blank face, bends awkwardly under the wire, and walks away without looking back.
Lying in his shallow grave the Pizza Man can’t remember much of his younger life. He remembered meeting his wife at the pub sometime. He must have met her there; it was the only place he would go in this town. To escape the suffocating fibro house his family owned he would go down to the pub most nights, drink until he could see better and then walk home in the sand with his shoes on. He didn’t know many people and didn’t care to. They came into the shop when he started working there, asked for pizza without using his name, watched with disinterest while his father explained the preciseness of getting a pizza perfect. He took to this simplicity and she must have found it comforting. He guessed that time lets no person stop, least of all him, for a breath of fresh air; he wonders, now, how he ended up with a daughter who tried to coax a story out of him and a wife who tried not to look at him. But, lying so cocooned in the shifting earth, he needn’t worry for anyone anymore, including himself.
Eventually the car stops in front of the shop with a slowly unwinding window.
Harry? A man speaks in a soft and unhurried voice through the wind running down Baker Street.
The Pizza Man allows himself to feel the skin on his shoulder expand as he shifts onto both feet. He looks into the window of the car but can see nobody. He turns and walks into his shop his eyes roaring as they let the light flood in. His old Blundstones peel off the sticky linoleum and he feels a sharp burst of saliva in his mouth that tastes like raw garlic. His daughter is lying on the lino underneath one of the white plastic chairs stalking her fingers across the squares.
Who was that?
No one, they were looking for someone else.
Body gone now, the Pizza Man had made friends, bones loosened of their grip and marrow rotted, he had made friends with this relaxed earth and the way it never demanded things of him but just took what it needed and left. He is almost nothing now; nothing but bones and memories.
He is elbow deep in warm dough pushing and pulling it with all of his strength the smooth the pockets of powder out. He is watching the writhing mass of cream coloured sponge pulsate between his hairy arms when three men walk into the shop. The doorbell chimes in an unhurried way and he looks up to find an unrecognisable face looking at him calmly. He isn’t allowed to say a word. They shut his mouth for him with a swiftly applied scarf of electrical tape. There is the smell of poppy seed hair oil that reminds the Pizza Man of his grandfather’s comb-over. He is slumped against the bench with his hands full of dough and the flashing black of suits in front of him when he notices them looking around for something. He thinks of his daughter and wife in the house watching T.V. and isn’t worried. The room spins in front of the Pizza Man and all he sees is black and some unknown faces; there are pins and needles in his legs. They have to step around him awkwardly; he’s in their way on the floor. He knows they have found the thing they wanted when the pick up the Pizza Man’s long, heavy sharpening stone and stuff it into his temple.
In the evening when the kestrels have padded and pushed out their nests to make more room for their legs and the grass is still and bowed; the Pizza Man is free. He is free from the weight that life endowed him and free from the stalking feeling of having done something wrong his entire life. He didn’t want to think back anymore, didn’t need to think forward, he had realised that he had done nothing and everything in his life and was none the better off for doing it. He never was anything; just bones and memories. Now he could simply lie with his bones, filling the man made hole made for just for him and watch the sweeping weather clear away the strange regrets to leave him with nothing. That was all he had wanted in life and in death, nothing.