Short Stories

LAST CALL AT THE SOUTHERN CROSS

last-call-page-001

(This story appeared in Unbelievably Bad #19The morning was lost. I was walking down the Princes Highway. It felt like early afternoon and the sun was beating down. My mouth was bone dry and I could hardly see, everything was a washed out white glare as if I had snow blindness.  

There was a bus shelter so I sat down to gather my thoughts and closed my eyes against the world. Trucks roared past on the highway and blasted me with heat and the smell of diesel. I felt like my head was floating a few inches above my neck – not an entirely unpleasant sensation. I thought back on the morning and remembered waking up Cheeseburger at 10am, pounding on his door until he answered. It took a while.

“Fuck, mate, knockin’ like that I thought ya was the cops!” He moaned as he stood in the door way in his swastika boxer shorts squinting at the day.

Inside, he made a beeline for the speaker where he kept his weed, determined to get me out of his house as soon as possible.

“I don’t need that today – I want some gear.” I said.

Cheese stopped in his tracks and slowly shook his head. Then he turned to me, fully awake.

“No fuckin’ way! You’ve done so good since ya got outta rehab.”

“Just a hunj, I’m gonna smoke it.” I said as I fingered the fit in my pocket.

“Cunt! Ya wake me up then put this on me?” He slumped into his couch.

I sat next to him.

“Look, Cheese, this is just a one off mate, I need to relax and the weed just isn’t cutting it.”

“Nah, nah, nah. I don’t sell gear to mates, ‘specially not ones that just got outta fuckin’ rehab.”

“Yeah, I respect that! But I’d rather get it off you then some cunt at houso – with yours I can smoke it, if I have to go to the ‘fern it’ll be shit and I’ll haveta whack it, so ya see scorin’ off you is harm reduction, mate.”

But Cheese isn’t having any of my dope-fiend psychology.

“I’ll give ya some weed for free but no way am I sellin’ ya gear so just fuckin’ forget about it right now.”

It took another half hour of weaseling before I mentally wore him down to the point where he had just had enough.

“Alright! I’ll fuckin’ give ya a hunj but that’s it! Don’t ever come round here again even for weed.”

He weighed out a deal for me in silence and didn’t accept my money when I went to offer it to him. As I walked out the door, he yelled, “Just smoke it!” and before I had time to answer he slammed the door.

I did the gear-walk to the nearest public toilet. It was one of those capsule ones with elevator music in it. The last thing I remember was the recorded voice saying, “Door locked, your maximum use time is ten minutes” as I mixed up the whole deal in the bottom of the bag.

I figure I must have dropped, which isn’t that surprising as Cheeseburger always sold good shit. I open my eyes slightly, letting them acclimatize to the bright day. Judging by the position of the sun, I estimate I have lost around three hours and fuck knows why I decided to walk down the Princes Highway.

Once my eyes are good, I have a look around. Across the highway is Jap World Spares with its sun faded mural of a globe surrounded by used car parts. To my left sits the distinctive building of Dynamo Auto Electrician, and across the road that leads to the airport is the Southern Cross Hotel.

The last time I drank at the Southern Cross would’ve been in the mid-90s and the place now looks like every single pub in Sydney; all shiny and new with no character, freezing with air-conditioning, a bistro and a huge pokie room. I walk up to the bar and order a jug of Reschs and retreat to a far corner. As usual, I scull the first schooner then pour another and wait for the first to hit the old bloodstream.

I am half way through my second when an old guy lurches in the side door. He looks familiar, but I can’t quite place him. The poor bastard looks like he buys his clothes at the Salvos – ill-fitting and stained, not quite bum attire but pretty damn close. I turn my attention back to the schooner and try to figure out my next move.

When I look up again, the old guy is walking towards me with a drink in hand like he knows me. Probably some old cunt I met at an AA meeting I figure, so I look away. AAs on a relapse are never any fun. Then it clicks and I look back at him. He’s a dead ringer for my favourite writer, Charles Bukowski. Forget dead ringer, he’s an identical twin.

“This chair taken buddy?” He asks in a thick LA drawl.

“Nuh.”

He sits down and takes an appreciative sip of his schooner. Then I get it, the fucking Writing Festival on and this guy is a Bukowski Impersonator. A pretty damn good one at that.

“So the barman called me a seppo?” He asks.

“He was having a go, it’s rhyming slang; septic tank – yank.”

He laughs a little at this. Everything about him is perfect, the face, the clothes the accent. It is fun going along with it.

He takes another sip of his beer, “So this country was founded by convicts?”

“Yeh, it started as a penal colony.”

“Well, you can make a good beer for a bunch of criminals. You got any writers worth mentioning?”

“Only David Ireland.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He wrote a book about this pub called ‘The Glass Canoe’.”

“What the hell is a glass canoe?”

“In ya hand.”

He raises a cheers, “I like this guy already.”

“Check it out; ‘We wore our freedom like a shirt, ready to change it for a daily wage to buy freedom again at the bottom of a glass. And after however many glasses it took, the glass got bigger and bigger, we stepped into the glass and claimed our freedom to float away’.”

“You’re right, that’s some good writing.”

He pulls out a crumpled soft pack of Chesterfield cigarettes and sticks one in his mouth.

“Ya can’t smoke in here anymore.” I say.

“Goddamnit! I come to bars for self-destruction, not self-improvement.”

He pushes out his chair and walks outside to the sidewalk facing the Highway. It had been a great performance and I look out the window at him. I had seen every Youtube video of the prick and this guy has Bukowski down to an occult level of perfection. He is a stone cold impersonator, it is downright uncanny. I go up to the bar and buy another jug. He is sitting at the table smelling of tobacco when I return. I sit and start pouring.

“So what brings you to town, Hank?”

He picks up the glass and gives me a cheers.

“Business.” He says right before taking a sip.

“Not here for the Writer’s Festival?”

“Fuck no! Hell is other writers. I am here strictly for business.”

Then there is one of those rare moments of synchronicity that sometimes happens in pubs—when the music, conversations and the clink of glass all stop at the same time. Everything falls dead silent, no planes roar overhead and the drinkers at the Southern Cross run out of things to say to one another. I look out the window and there isn’t a single car on the highway. Then it all comes back at once like a head rush and I am happy for it.

Hank finishes off his beer and helps himself to another.

“So is it true what I hear about Australian women – they have a thing for men who write.”

He is certainly a funny cunt.

“Where the fuck didja hear that?”

“Friend of mine at the race track.”

“Your friend is insane.”

He gives me a smile that is out of character—I have broken his façade. I decided to reward myself with a well needed piss. The beers have given the gear a boost and I am feeling loose as I push open the dunny door. The only cubicle is taken. Usually I would wait as I have a mortal fear of some fuckwit trying to have a chat with me while I use the urinal. I have never understood what would strike a bloke to want to converse with another at the urinal, both with pissing pricks in hand. I get in the corner, start to piss and…

…I am walking on a field of the greenest grass I have ever seen. The field stretches off into the horizon, the sky is blue with brilliant white popcorn clouds that cast cool shadows on the grass. A sweet tasting breeze carries plump frangipani flowers on its currents. They eddy and fall here and there and form a white path that cuts through the green. I walk for an age, but then I couldn’t be sure if it wasn’t just a moment in time. At the end of my journey is an old, gnarled Frangipani tree. I walk on the carpet of flowers that surround it and place my hand on its trunk.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I’m Jiggly Pete.” Comes the answer, somehow within my head.

“What are you?”

“I am an artist; every summer I create the most beautiful flowers, each one different from the other.

“How long have you been here?”

“36 Glorious summers.”

I look up at the flowers being taken away by the wind.

“We are the same age.”

Then the sky darkens and it becomes cold. Everything goes black.

I am standing at the urinal yelling, “Jiggly Pete!”

I hear someone next to me zip up.

“You right, mate?” He asks in a noncommittal tone.

I don’t turn around, “yeah, mate.”

I pretend I am still pissing until I hear him leave. Once I get out of the dunny, I pull out my phone and march to the table.

Bukowski gives me a strange look when I come back, “Looks like you’ve seen a ghost, baby.”

I don’t answer him and try to ring Cheeseburger. There is no reception. As well as selling Number 4 smack, the prick always has shitloads of weird hallucinogens lying around. Like DPT, 5-MeO-DMT and 2C-T-7. Not that I have anything against them, especially not 5-MeO, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had somehow mixed one of them up with the gear. It’s the only explanation for fucking ‘Jiggly Pete’. I try him again but there is no reception or internet so I toss my piece of shit phone on the table.

“Can I borrow your phone, mate?” I say.

“Sorry, buddy, don’t believe in ‘em.”

Now he’s starting to piss me off, keeping up with his act when I need a fucking phone and he has been drinking all my goddamned beer.

“Just lend us ya phone, I’ll buy another jug.”

“Can’t lend you what I don’t have.” He pours the last of the jug into his glass while smiling like a smartarse.

“Drop the act for a second and lend me ya fuckin’ phone.” I say with a menace born of beer rage.

He takes a long sip and I swear I am going to punch the cunt if he keeps up with his Bukowski shit. He places his beer on the table and looks up at me. He isn’t smiling anymore.

“Let me play you a song.” He jumps up before I can say anything and walks off to the video juke.

I don’t feel right – like I’m about to spew but without the nausea. I watch Hank drop a coin into the juke and tap in some numbers. Then he walks off into the pokies room. A cheesy song from the 70s comes on – the prick is obviously having a go at me. It’s all horns and piano, then this soulful chick starts wailing about love. When the prick gets back I will put on Hate and War by the Clash, then I will punch him in the head. See how well he can impersonate Bukowski in a fight. But he’s taking his sweet time in there. Then I realize that there’s something familiar about the song, the melody anyway.

What the world needs now,

Is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing,

that there’s just too little of…

I close my eyes and it hits me, it’s the song that they play in the cubicle dunnies – except this isn’t the elevator music version – there is a singer. Her voice is strong and sad and the tune is the soundtrack to a thousand lonely overdoses. Then I remember my own. Filling the barrel and telling myself that I will only do half and keep some for later then pushing the lot in anyway. The rush coming on like a freight train, rolling over me and then…oblivion.

When I open my eyes, Bukowski is sitting in front of me unwrapping a fresh pack of ciggies.

He pulls out a cigarette and lights up, “‘What the world needs now is love’ -funny song to play in the can.”

I feel dizzy and have to blink a few times, “I’m dead?”

Bukowski exhales, “Sorry, kid, you didn’t even get the needle out of your arm.”

I jerk off my chair and try to catch my breath. The pub is empty and my skin prickles. The tradies sitting at the table next to us, the pensioners in the pokies room and the bar staff have all vanished.  I look out the window but it is like a black mirror.

“Fuck’s goin’ on?” I spin around and knock over my schooner.

“Steady on there, fella.” He says.

I sit back down and try to compose myself, “What the hell…are you an angel?”

“Do I look like an angel?”

“Fuck, no!”

We sit there staring at each other. My mind races as Bukowski puffs away on his durry as calm as a Hindu cow chewing its cud.   

“You’re death.”

He nods and ashes on the carpet, “’fraid so.”

“So do you take me somewhere now is that how it works?”

“That’s how it works – I take you to the other side.”

“What’s out there?”

“That’s a trade secret, baby.”

“Is it all that religious shit?”

He smiles broadly, “Only way to find out is to walk through that door with me.” He points at a door that exits onto the highway.

“What happens if I want to go out this door here?” I point at the fire exit doors next to our table.

“I wouldn’t do that unless you want to float in the void for all eternity.”

I don’t know what the fuck to say or do so I sit there staring at the small round table between us. Then I grab hold of the sides of the table, “I’m not going anywhere, you were never that good a fighter in your books, you can’t take me.”

He stubs out his cigarette on the table, “Suit yourself, you can stay here as long as you like. I’m going to bleed the lizard, lemme know what you wanna do when I come out.” Then Bukowski stands up.

I let go of the table. It’s all over, everything is finished. All the plans I had and holy shit my family would have found out by now. I will never see anyone again, every relationship with every human being I have ever known cut dead.

“Wait!” I yell at the fat prick.

He stops and looks around.

“Why did they send you?”

He jiggles the change in his pocket, “Well, I collect certain types of writers and in your case, wanna-be writers.”

He jiggles his change again then resumes his walk to the dunny. The fuckin’ prick! Calling me a wanna-be writer right after I’ve died. He obviously doesn’t know about the two short stories I had published in lit mags after I got out of rehab. But then what about the novel I was going to write? Two quickly forgotten short stories – that was my legacy. I didn’t even get to leave behind a novel, sure I had started on one but my addictions always got in the way. My life was wasted and now it is over.   

I walk over to the bar, get behind it and snatch a bottle of Jameson from the shelf. I twist off the top and send it bouncing off the bar then up end the bottle. I may be dead but at least it still tastes like whisky. I look over the bar, it is fully stocked – each spirit six deep right up to the top shelf.

I know that the cellar is full of new kegs – they were loading when I walked in. I pull on one of the beer taps and a healthy golden stream pours out. I walk behind the bar to a door that leads to a small office. There is a desktop computer in there with some sort of accounting software on the screen. I look under the table, there is a printer and a box filled with reams of A4.

Back out at the bar, I feel the whisky hit my blood stream just as Bukowski comes out of the dunny. He walks up and places his hands on the bar top.

“Made up your mind, kid?” He asks.

I whack down two shot glasses, fill them to the brim and push one towards him.

“Yep,” I say as I wipe off my mouth, “think I’m gonna stay here a while.”

Bukowski takes his shot, grimaces and says, “how long?”

“For as long as it takes to write a book.”

He smiles, “that so?”

“Fuckin’ oath it is.”

He looks at the fully stocked bar behind me, “a party of one.”

“One for the road?” I ask him.

Bukowski nods and I pour.

“You know I have read every book of yours over and over, they helped me out when things were bad. Not that you offered any solutions, it was more the fact that you survived the bottle and wrote stuff that wasn’t boring or contrived, you nailed the style and made it look so deceptively easy. It made me realize that writing could save a man from destruction.” I slide him his shot.

He knocks it back, “glad I could help.”

I pour myself one and ask, “any advice for my novel?”

“Don’t try.” He says then turns to leave.

I laugh when I remember that is what is written on his gravestone. When he gets to the doorway he turns and yells across the room, “Remember to only leave through this door, kid.” Then he walks through the door and is no more.

The silence is like a wet, smothering blanket; there is no noise in the dead pub. My world has gone quiet, I will no longer hear birds singing in the summertime, the idle chatter of cafes and the sound of traffic – all of that is for the living and is as irrelevant as the world to me know. I could pretend to miss it but the reality is, I never really was alive – at best I was sleep walking through life, stumbling from one high to another. Addiction was a constant war inside my head, it ruined every relationship, job and band I had ever been in. Now, finally, the fight was over; I’m dead, there is nothing worth getting clean and sober for.

I take a deep breath and pour another drink. I have a pub full of alcohol and all the time in the world to write my novel – there could have been worse places to be in purgatory, like an empty sports arena or an international flight. And I will finally get to write my novel without distractions like bills or rent or work or girlfriends or addiction to deal with, it doesn’t matter that no-one will ever read it. No way am I leaving this mortal coil without writing the best book that no one will ever read – at least I will have done something with my life.

As I walk over to the video juke to break the silence, I think of other things from the world of the living, like the smell of a woman up close and the sense of loss is acute. I will need to harden my heart against such weakness, focus my will until it is forged in iron and free from feeble minded sentimentalities. The first thing I am going to do though, it delete that fucking ‘All the world needs now is love’ song from the goddamned jukebox.

 

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