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A young boy overheard his father talking about a road that led to success.
“Please, Father, point me in the right direction,” he said. “I want to be a success!”
“The road is a day’s walk past the forest. It is steep, my son. It has cliffs and sharp edges. You must wait until you are ready.”
The boy retreated to his room, undeterred. During the night, he searched his legs and found the strength to walk. In his hands he found a strong grip. By morning he had grown in size. He packed bread, cheese and water and set off on his journey.
It took the boy a day to reach the forest but no road crossed his path. He pushed on for three days and nights until his legs shrunk back to their normal size and his hands shook with fatigue, thirst and hunger. He felt as small as the pebbles that grazed his feet. I must return before I starve, he thought. He turned back the way he came, drinking from streams and feasting on berries that hardly quenched his appetite. Anger tared at him and he cursed at the lie that was success. It doesn’t exist, he thought. The whole thing is a sham.
When the boy arrived home, he found his father seated beside the window.
“It’s a lie, Father. There is no road that leads to success. All there is is the blisters on my feet.”
His father turned to the boy. “You are sure, my son?”
“Tell me about your journey.”
“It was a flat, dusty path, Father. No steep road, no dangerous cliffs. I turned back as soon as I realised success did not exist.”
The boy’s father got up with a small smile. “You were on the right road.”
“But it can’t be! You said there would be cliffs!”
“Your doubts are the cliffs in your mind, my son.”
The boy nodded, trying to understand.
“The road to success begins when you overcome them.”
I want to get laid for the first time.
I mean, I’m sixteen and the only thing I’ve poked is the odd pimple on my chin.
Yeah, I’m frustrated.
“What are you thinking about, honey?”
There’s no way I’ll tell her. There’s a mother-son line you just don’t cross. Like talking about sex, hugging or any affection, period. Oh, and no more dropping me off at school either. I catch the bus.
“You sure, honey?” she says. Her hands are white on the steering wheel.
We’re going to visit a woman called Grandma. I don’t know her. But I remember her house.
“Because you know you can talk to me, right?” She looks at me. Her eyes are open, worried.
“Good, good. Everyone needs someone to talk to.” She nods her head at the road and mumbles something to herself. She does that.
According to the boys at school my ma’s a MILF. A ma they’d like to fuck. She’s more like a PITA. Pain in the arse. Well, she can be. When she’s on my back about doing things together. Like movies. I mean, doesn’t she get that it’s dorky? She has issues. And no friends.
“How’s therapy going?” I say.
It shits me. Like, maybe if I’d inherited her genes, and not my anonymous father’s, I would have been laid by now. My father must come from an ugly gene pool and his sperm killed my chance at good looks. Maybe if I wasn’t a result of a one night stand and they’d taken their time, it would have been different. It doesn’t bother me. It really doesn’t.
“It’s going good, honey. Doc’s been a great help.”
What? Oh, yeah her sessions. She’ll need two next week after today’s visit. She did last time. That’s what she said. I was younger, then.
“We don’t have to go, Ma. If she makes you feel worse.”
“That was in the past.” Sweat’s stuck her blond hair to her forehead. “We can’t run away from our fears. And this, this visit’s goodbye.”
“It’s goodbye.” She bites her lip. “I have a few things to say to her face. Before she goes.”
“They’re for me, not her. I have to say them for me. Hon,” she says worry spilling out of her eyes, “you know not to listen to her, right? Don’t listen to a word she says—”
“I know,” I say, chewing a nail. “They’re only words.”
But whatever they are, these words, they mean something to Ma. Otherwise we wouldn’t be going and the next time she’d see Grandma would be in a hole. She said that once. “I mean, she’s your ma. How bad can she be?”
Her lips move like she’s gonna be sick. “Thanks for coming with me, hon.”
“Like I’d leave you alone.” A real man knows when he’s needed.
And my ma needs me.
Grandma’s house is like something on the front cover of an R.L Stine book. Minus the ghosts. That’s on the outside. Inside it smells…old. Like my room when the windows are locked and I’ve been farting.
I don’t remember her.
Except for the couches and the dead pot plant.
And the cobwebs. They’ve changed. There’s more since last time, hanging off the ceiling, sticky, complicated. Bit like how it would be when I get laid. If I ever do.
The Man in the Room
A man is sitting in Grandma’s room, near her bed. The room stinks of breath, when it’s sick.
“Hey ya kid,” he says to me.
“Hey.” I don’t touch him. He’s all shabby. Hairy, matted.
“You’ve grown up.”
“That’s your uncle Barry,” says Ma. She smiles, but it looks like someone’s pinched her face.
“Yeah.” I’m related to that? I could’ve been worse. I could’ve looked like him.
Ma walks to the bed. I go with her, standing close. Hear her breathing. Quick. There’s a big cross above the bed, hanging, heavy.
I see Ma’s hand tremble. I hold it. Breaking the rules, crossing the line, but they’re my rules to break. My hands hurt, fingers sting where I’ve chewed them.
I ignore my heart. Why is it tap, tap, tapping so hard?
I reckon this is how it would beat when I’m naked, stiff, about to lose it.
Coming from the bed that looks empty.
There’s a bump in the middle. We get closer. It looks like bones, piled up, in the shape of a human.
“She’s nearly gone,” says Barry. He mouths bitch.
“I’m still alive, you prick.” The bones talk, click together, sharp. “Who you talking to? One of your thief friends?”
He looks miserable, like sadness has curled the hair on his face.
We reach the bed. Bones hide in skin, grey, wrinkly.
“It’s me,” Ma says. She squeezes my hand, hard.
“Huh, look who it is, Barry. It’s the slut I spat out.”
Black eyes look at me. Squint. I’m not scared.
“And her skinny bastard.”
Ma squeezes. Harder.
“Say whatever you want, they don’t affect me. Not anymore.” Ma’s stiff. Head high. “They are nothing. Just words.”
“See this, Barry?” The bones nod at me. “That’s what happens if you let every cock come between your legs!”
Words Will Never Hurt Me
I’m hot…I’m hot and words are exploding in my head.
Bastard. Cock. Slut.
Her words are all dead, broken in my brain. Nothing’s survived, no words are coming.
Ma’s trembling. I squeeze her hand. My hand slips. Hot, burning.
“I’ve forgiven you, Mum.” Ma’s shaky voice. Forgiving bones.
A laugh. Shrill.
Bones scrape against bones.
Still there’s no words, but I’m sweating and sweating, down my back.
The minutes tick, tick, tick and I still drown, trapped. My clothes stick to me like I stick to Ma.
Bastard. Slut. Cock.
I’m not scared. Say it. Can’t say it!
I’m not scared!
“I’m here, Ma. She’s not gonna hurt you. I’m here.”
Earthquake in my head.
Say it, say it!
“Ma’s not a slut! You are!”
Waves and waves swallow me.
One for the Road
I hear nothing.
But Ma’s crying in the front.
Tears stick her hair to her mouth. “I’m sorry, hon, I’m sorry.” She rocks, hitting her head on the steering wheel. “I shouldn’t have brought you.”
I touch her forehead, make her stop. Wipe her face; it’s wet with tears and spit. My hands no longer trembling.
“You did fine, Ma,” I say, “real fine.”
She nods, mumbles, nods again. She starts the car. “Thanks, hon.”
We drive away from the house.
The house with cobwebs and ghosts.
This story placed 73rd in the 2011 Writers Digest Short Story Competition’s Young Adult category
Her lips are fat, crooked, as if they’re stuck on. They shine like a red light. She looks too big in our lounge; her hands long and thin, her boobs like the melons my dad loved.
He’d bring one home every day, small and green, as shiny as a bald skull. He’d cut halfway with a knife; rip the rest open with his hands, feed Mum with wet fingers until red juice dripped down her chin. She’d grab his face then, wipe her chin on his beard, kiss his lips.
Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe this woman’s melons are sweeter.
Mum’s sitting next to me, kneading her hands that have wrinkled from cleaning. She smells of white king and scrubbing. Her breathing is slow, mouth open, filling her insides with air as if to keep words in. She stares at her lap while the thief on the opposite couch surveys the room, eyes darting past the pink carnations on the coffee table where the family photo used to be.
I pat Mum’s knee, and she rests her hand on mine. The smell of chlorine clouds the room.
“I’m sorry,” says the thief, her fat lips barely moving. “So sorry.” Her head hangs low, eyes rest on Mum’s green slippers.
I want to grab her words, throw them at her like arrows. “Sorry isn’t good enough. Isn’t that what you people say? Too little, too late?”
Mum’s hand stiffens, her palm wet on top of mine. She talks in Turkish, her voice haunted by him and his promises that died on this woman’s fat lips.
“What did you say? Please,” says the thief, her ghostlike face finding Mum’s. Her voice is small, each word light, without meaning.
Mum’s voice still heavy in the air, like an angry song. I hope it shatters this foreigner’s ears, curls around her throat. In here she makes no sense, her hair too yellow, skin too white, her language without passion. She belongs outside where everything is bland, without spice.
“Tell me why you’re here or leave.”
Her face is pale like I’ve sucked out her oxygen. “I promise,” she wheezes, taking a breath. “I didn’t know he was married.”
“This isn’t church. We’re not interested in your confessions. What do you want? You haven’t taken enough?”
Mum elbows me, shakes her head, tries to keep her features still but I see her chin tremble, know how it must hurt her to see this woman in the lounge that once sheltered her marriage, kept it safe from the unknown.
The thief doesn’t know where to look; her hands massage her chest, her painted fingers dig into her skin. I imagine them wiping my father’s brow, erasing Mum’s fingerprints.
“Please…just listen,” she says, breathing heavy as if our air is suddenly thick. She opens her bag, fingers fluttering like Mum’s on the dance floor, when her hips used to shimmy with life before my father left her and the heart attack slowed down her legs.
The woman sucks on an asthma pump, taking deep breaths. “He lied to me too.” She looks at Mum’s walking cane near the couch. “I left him as soon as I found out. I swear it.”
“Huh.” Mum’s sigh is throaty, like gurgling spit. Her finger circles the air slowly the way it did when she made Dad’s favourite köfte. She used to fry the meatballs for him, making music in her kitchen with crackling oil, clinking plates. She’d cry dicing the onions and Dad would joke that he could taste the tears in the meatballs, that they made it so much better. I wonder what he tastes now at this woman’s table where there is no flavour.
“I…I…” she sniffles, wipes at tears with the tip of a tissue. Is that how she touches him, with the tips of her fingers, poking the dark hairy man with an accent? No doubt she expects him to shower before he touches her so the sweat that sticks to him at the end of each day does not blemish her skin. She’d never breathe him in like Mum used to. “He kept coming back, said you were getting a divorce,” she says.
Her words fill me with hate—it bubbles in my arms, my stomach. I want to poke her eyes out with her pointy shoes, break the woman that stole my mother’s smile.
“I just want to explain.”
I stand, walk to the coffee table. The crystal vase separates us. It is empty like this house full of halves. I see her reflection change shape around the glass, and my fingers twitch. “We are not interested. Do you understand? Two years have passed; we’ve had enough. Leave.” I wipe that vase every day; know how it feels against my palm; smooth, cool like the crisp shell of a watermelon.
She looks small with her wet eyes dripping. “No please, I’m sorry. I have to tell you—”
“I said leave. Or I will make you.” The vase twinkles like the diamonds on her ears.
“No, kizim…” Mum’s words heavy behind me.
The woman shakes her head, chest heaving, her mouth chasing breath. She reaches for her pump, sucks until her cheeks cave in. “I lost…too. I came here,” she chokes, “to…tell you…I’ve been punished. I…he, I lost my baby. I can never have children.”
Her sobs anger me more. I have heard them on actors in old Turkish movies, faking grief. I see my father’s face in this lounge, laughing at the bad acting, his strong arms around me and Mum. There is nothing where his arm used to be. “I hope you both never find happiness,” I say, watching my father dissolve into this woman, watching a part of me go with him.
She’s sweating now, eyeing me in shock. She gets up and her bag scatters to the floor. Her perfume, lipstick, tampons vomit out of her handbag onto our carpet. She crouches down to clean her dirt, her head bent.
I see the grey glint of her pump a foot away.
I pick it up; feel its pulse in my palm, her secondary heart.
She’s on her knees, surveying the floor, the couch. “Where is it?” Her hand on her chest. “My pump,” she says, trying to steady her breathing. She looks up, eyes glazed. “I’ve lost—”
Happiness arrived on a day when the sun lit up the world. She saw it approach from her lounge room window.
“Where have you been?” she said. Her hair was the white of winter and years had weathered her hands.
Happiness buzzed and flickered above her head and she tried to catch it with her cane.
It laughed, and the sound made her insides tremble with joy.
“You’ve come to stay?” she said.
Happiness shone from her ceiling like stars. “My dear,” it said, “I never left.”
I’m a great package.
Wrapped in brown cellophane.
Feet flat like slugs.
A real turn on.
When people see me and Ma I know what they think. How can a beauty like her make a beast like me. I don’t blame them. I’m ugly. The guy people look twice at to gawk at my long chin. It juts out like them chillies they serve at Mexicano restaurants. That’s what happens when your father’s The Flash. You get stuck with random genes.
Not Ma’s beautiful ones.
I got a nose that belongs to Pinocchio. Black eyes like them olives Ma likes. I was made with raging hormones and alcohol in a bar. I’m thinking a dark corner. Music, beer, strangers bumping.
Ready in a minute.
Point is, it ain’t Ma’s fault my features are sharp, jagged like them villains you see in cartoons.
Whoever he is.
There must’ve been something about him that Ma liked. Even for a few minutes.
Before he disappeared.
Obviously not his looks.
I couldn’t give a shit if he had personality or charisma.
It’s good looks that’s important. Not humour, not character. It’s the body, the physical package. And how you use it.
Coz in this world beauties get anything they want.
We get shit.
Ma’s face is scrunched up like a bulldog.
Her forehead wet with fear.
“Phillip! Do not overtake the car! Do you hear me! Slow down!”
The L plate in the back shakes.
Like my insides.
Ma holds the dashboard, bones stretch her skin.
“Slow down, Phillip!”
“If you overtake this car, Phillip, we’re having two movie nights this week!” Her fingers a big V in the air.
I hit the brakes.
Time for professional lessons.
Sixteen sucks girls fart and bleed they’re hot like Ma but not all there looks mean shit but the world says no not another damn movie night must get out must find a way to ditch Ma Hollywood and popcorn no more find a job Ma says I can’t remember when but he’s gone and here I am
My mind’s a cell for words that zoom at 100 kms an hour.
The name’s Phillip. I look like one, sharp nose and all. It’s an ugly name that should be locked up in Buckingham Palace reserved for the royals. Where it belongs.
“A long time ago, I could sleep. No problem. Then I have hard floor as bed, thin sheet to warm my back and five brother as my blanket. We sleep in one room. I have two sister too.” The man pokes the teenager sitting beside him and waves his index finger under the boy’s nose. “In one room. And parents too. They put sheet to separate them from us.”
“Um…so what about if the parents you know…wanna…” The boy gestures with his hands.
“Oh. They do very quietly.”
“I mean, it’s yuck. No one wants to see their parents do it.”
“We no see, sometimes we hear small noise. We sleep ten people in one room.” The man wiggles his ten fingers for added emphasis.
“That’s cool dude.”
“No, not cool. Not cool. We keep warm. The room small.”
The boy unleashes a shrill laugh. “No I meant it’s cool as in the story’s interesting.”
“Oh. This you phone ringing?”
“Oh shit. Yeah.” He rummages in his school bag. “Shit, man where is it! If I didn’t have so much crap for school I’d find it by now! Ah, yeah great it stopped.” He leans back on the bench and gnaws his thumb nail. “And I have no credit to call back too. This sucks!”
“No worry. They call you back.”
The boy grabs his bag again. He rescues his phone from the pages of his history book. “Ah, I stressed for nothing,” he says, leaning back with a satisfied grin. “Was only my brother.”
“Yeah, dude. He’s not important.”
“You do not like brother?”
“Yeah he’s alright, you know, but he can be a pain. You know what I mean?”
The old man’s brow creases in three neat folds and strands of white hair stick to the confused wrinkles. “You mean he cause you pain? Hit you?”
“Nah, well, sometimes, but I mean he’s annoying. Thinks he knows everything, you know.” He ruffles his brown mop of curls and unleashes a mini snow storm of dandruff that settles on his grey jacket. “So like didn’t it get kinda weird sleeping with so many people in the one room? What if you know, you needed to…you know…”
“I need do things?”
“Yeah like in private.”
The man throws his head back and laughs. His furry tongue quivers with each chuckle and saliva drips from his upper lip onto his chest. He wipes at his lined shirt. “Yes, it is no easy when I get older, to your age. I develop. I go outside if I need private time. My brothers too. We have two sister in room, we respect.”
“Umm…how’d you all fit?”
“Girls sleep one side of room. Me and brothers sleep another. Oh, it was not easy. To fit, three brothers sleep in row, and other three opposite. So we smell each other feet. I hated this. So many time I wake up hugging dirty feet. I get so angry. My youngest brother, he was maybe seven, have bad dream a lot and he kick in sleep. One time he dreaming, he kick me in stomach hard. Oh how I get angry! I need to work in morning, I polished shoes in city, and when he kick me like this and wake me up, I hold his big toe, squeeze it so hard, so hard…” He looks at the boy, eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I break it. I break his toe.”
“Yes, shit. I never forget his screaming. Or how he look at me. I was stupid.”
“Did he forgive you?”
“Oh yes, but I never forgive myself.”
“But dude, it was an accident. And this happened yonks ago.”
“Yes, an accident, but on cold night, even when his toe get better, I hear him cry very quiet because it hurt—”
“Sorry dude,” says the boy as he gets up and puts his bag on his back. “That’s my train. I have to go. Nice talking to ya.”
“Yes, very nice. This you phone ringing?”
The boy grins. “Yeah, it’s the bro.” He waves at the old man and walks into the carriage, phone to his ear.
“Yes,” mumbles the old man. “A long time ago, I could sleep. Not now. When I am older in years, when my bed is softer, when I do not have dirty feet to hug in mornings.” He gets up and walks away from the platform, sweeping foreign dirt with his bare feet. “Yes, I could sleep, in my country, I could sleep.”
Published in Island Magazine issue 120
Meadow Heights: the love child of Broadmeadows. She has her mother’s green fields, windy roads and tired hills that have slanted after years of carrying ungrateful homes on her back. Her mini shopping centre satisfies kebab cravings, and the imported Turkish goods crowd delicatessen shelves, bringing excited locals greetings from their homeland. The local video shop is in an endless identity crisis, changing names often, whereas the Meadow Heights Primary School juggles identities in portable classrooms. Lush walking trails weave between streets, connecting homes, bulk billing medical clinics and milk bars that are havens for loitering teens in this cultural conundrum.
At Meadow Heights shopping centre, teenagers with lowered caps are swooping on fish and chips like famished seagulls. Ali passes them and Mum’s crumbled shopping list waves before him like a hand beckoning us towards the entrance.
“Abla, I hope Zara teyze doesn’t want sucuk,” he says, trying to decode Mum’s Turkish words scrawled on the back of a white envelope. “Coz it stinks!”
He hands me the shopping list and her scribbled fragments pulse in my palm like a big heart. “Sorry…” I try hard to suppress a smile. Sucuk is at the top of Mum’s list, underlined twice. The Turkish salami is a minced meat concoction that lures you with its delicious spices and once devoured, burns a hot trail of indigestion down to your belly, leaving you parched for the rest of the day. To Mum and Aunt Nez it’s a small price to pay for this delicacy that they cook, toast, fry, barbecue, or eat raw in more than 10 dishes.
A few women are crowding the shopping centre entrance, their hands waving in excitement, as if telling a story of their own. I ignore their nosy stares and walk inside the heart of Meadow Heights, this haven for homesick Turks. The smell of simit, a bagel like roll drenched in sesame seeds, is strong and Ali tracks the scent to the bakery. I pay for two, and Ali wears the simit on his wrist.
“It’s like that lolly bracelet but bread.”
I laugh as he takes a bite from his simit bangle, eyes closed. This is how simple it is, to savour a moment, to capture it with all senses. In another place, kids his age are balancing wooden trays of simit on their heads with the weight of their future, weaving in and out of neighbourhoods, trying to find a tomorrow in the dusty streets of Turkey.