The night was hot, the air thick, the air conditioner broken and the bank account too empty to fix it. He sat in his office while his wife sat in the living room, sipping at yet another glass of wine poured from the finest of goon bags. He didn’t need to see her to know that her hands shook with each sip she took, her glazed eyes bareley blinking.
He jabbed the keyboard with his index finger as he tried to block out the baby screaming in the background. His other hand held his throbbing forehead. It was the same sound he’d listened to night after night ever since his son was born.
He smashed another key, forming a new word in his latest manuscript.
It seemed the harder he hit the keys, the better he felt. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t frustration, and it wasn’t even helplessness. It was something different. Something indefinable. Or maybe it was a combination of all three: a super-emotion designed to wreak misery on all those who experience it. All he knew was that with every scream, another baby-sized tear drop punctured his heart.
Colic, they call it. And reflux. And all mixed with over-tiredness. Well here was a thought: if the baby was so damn tired, why didn’t he try sleeping once in a while?
He instantly felt bad for the thought. Such a tiny little boy, so small and delicate. The little guy certainly didn’t put in a request to be struck down with vomiting and a digestive system that was bloated with unreleased and painful gas.
Tears suddenly trickled down his cheeks. He ignored them. Let them flow. That and the bashing of his keyboard was his own self-medicated therapy.
Tired? Overworked? Baby screaming all night and you haven’t written a decent page for the novel that was due in just another two months? No problems: take one of these, then punch your keyboard unnecessarily hard and cry like a bitch. You’ll feel better in no time.
Thanks Doc! He wondered if this was what the onset of insanity felt like.
He looked at the disjointed words on the page. Maybe being a romance novelist wasn’t the best career choice. He was too tired to even delete the train wreck masquerading as sentence structure that littered his screen.
He walked from his dingy home office (“office” being too grand a word to describe the setup he had in the spare room of the tiny three bedroom unit he shared with a drunk wife and a colic and reflux cursed newborn son), and down the hall toward his little boy’s room.
It was a slow motion walk, his brain only registering every third or fourth step. Left foot, right foot, left foot….fuck it, muscle memory, you take it from here.
He opened the door to the baby’s room. It was stuffy, and smelled a little sour. He couldn’t open the window though; the noise of the traffic and the smell of the dirty city streets would be a whole lot worse.
He walked over to the cot, and picked up his tiny baby boy. He put him over his shoulder and gently patted his back. He had stopped bothering to cover his shoulder with a towel a long time ago — his vomit stained shirt could attest to that.
“I’ll sell a bunch of novels for you soon, son,” he whispered as the baby screamed. “Then we’ll be able to fix the air conditioner. Maybe I’ll even buy you your very own air conditioner. Paint it blue, and line the top with little stuffed bunnies for you to giggle at.
“Daddy will be a success one day. And when I am, I’m going to buy us a new house; a big mansion overlooking the ocean. Your bedroom will be much nicer than this dump.”
The baby continued to scream, his mouth and lips blue; a sure sign of gas, not that there ever was ever any doubt.
“And then I’ll buy you the best medicine there is.”
This of course, was a lie. He’d tried everything the chemist offered, and every product featured in an old wives tale. Nothing worked. But the idea that he could buy his son’s way out of pain was oddly comforting.
Or perhaps not so odd. If we could just buy our way out of a bad situation, we would, wouldn’t we? Rich people tried it all the time, if the evening news was anything to go off.
And then he felt it: a warm jet of liquid splashing his shoulder. And as the acrid stench of partly digested baby formula stung his nose, his heart rejoiced.
His little boy stopped crying, and his head nuzzled into him.
There was silence. Sweet, pure, pain-free silence.
He realised his tears were still flowing, but they were now tears of joy. He kissed his son’s forehead, and laid him back in his cot.
As he walked from the room he suddenly changed his mind, reversed direction, and scooped his son up. Holding him close, his arms wrapped in a protective shield, he walked down the hall. He passed his drunk wife, muttered that he was going down to the corner shop, and left.
The air outside felt old, like it had already been breathed too many times by too many people. Tacky neon signs hung in shop windows; each one he passed seemed to try to out-tack the last. Most succeeded.
His little boy stirred, looked into his daddy’s face, and then fell back against his shoulder, his little body exhausted.
He kissed his son’s head. It was almost devoid of hair, and the soft skin against his lips drummed home just how reliant this little boy was on his protection.
He passed a clothes shop that had shut up for the night, and saw a tired looking man poking a vacuum cleaner around clothes racks in semi-darkness. He gave him a nod as their eye’s met. There was something in the man’s face that that showed an understanding. He knew beyond a measure of doubt that this man had a little boy or girl at home, and he was doing everything he could to provide for him or her, but the reality was that he knew he’d never be able to afford the best medicine, or the biggest mansion overlooking the ocean, or even fix the damn air conditioner so they could breath in relative comfort. In that instant, in their inner torment, they were soul brothers.
Then he walked on, and the man went back to his vacuuming, the spell broken, the moment stored away in the library of painful memories both men kept well stocked.
The corner shop was open. It was always open. It was part of its charm. Or maybe just part of its desperation, reaching out and clinging to every cent they could make, no matter what time of night. Not even the shop owners made a decent crust in this neighbourhood.
He smiled at the guy behind the counter. It was reflexive, nothing else. But even that minimal effort went to waste as the bloke behind the counter didn’t even look up from whatever trashy magazine he happened to pinch off the shelf earlier that night.
Apart from the shop assistant, himself, and his little sleeping son, the shop was empty. He browsed the isles, looking for nothing in particular, and finding just that.
A bell above the shop door tinkled again, and a new person joined their little late night community. No one took any notice.
Or at least not until the new arrival spoke.
“Give me your fucking money!” the man yelled. He heard a click of a gun being cocked. “All of it, motherfucker!” The man paused. “And a pack of cigarettes. Extra mild!”
The gunman hadn’t noticed his presence and as he approached, the man spun, pointing some generic looking handgun in his direction.
“On the floor bitch, or I’ll blow your damn head off!”
“You’ll wake my son,” he said, his voice tired and calm. After the last few weeks, an overexcited loser with a pistol just didn’t have the same effect as it would have before he become father to a colicy and refluxy baby.
The gunman just stared at him like he’s lost his mind. A concept he’d been pondering less than an hour ago.
He looked around, saw a barrel full of overpriced stuffed animals, and laid his son on top. It actually looked quite cozy, and he considered climbing in there too. Catch an hour of sleep. Or half an hour. Or just ten minutes would do it.
He again questioned his own sanity as he picked up a bottle of Coke and swung it at the gunman. It connected with a plastic thud, the weight of the drink carrying a decent impact. The fizz hardened the bottle, and he swung again. Blood splattered as the man’s nose broke. His gun clattered to the floor. Another swing and the man stopped screaming. He fell against the counter and slid to the dirty tiles, an avalanche of chocolate bars and chewing gum following him.
He knelt next to the gunman and brought the bottle down again, and again. He looked at the gunman, the man’s hair greasy, his eyes rolled back. He hit him again. Call it one for good luck.
He stood, placed the bottle on the counter. Blood covered the base, and something that looked a little like a clump of hair.
The shop assistant watched him, his trashy magazine forgotten, at least temporarily.
“Just the Coke?” the man asked.
“Yes. Oh, and a Cherry Ripe.”
“Cute kid. How old?”
“Mine is almost three months.”
There was silence. Both men nodded.
He took his change, he took his Cherry Ripe, he took his blood stained Coke and scooped his son up and left the shop.
“Come on little guy,” he whispered, “Daddy’s got some writing to do.”
More on Sam Stephens and his fiction can be found at www.samstephens.com.
The Australian Literature Review