“Still texting the same girl? You could just call her? You know, the landline? Used to work for me”: a short story set at an 18th birthday party by Thames writer Tracey Slaughter
By 9pm at his son’s eighteenth party, he’s lost in thoughts of his first girlfriend’s voice. He’s sitting over a glass of merlot – huh, sad joke in itself while the kids have got coolers of ice crammed with premix poisons, neon twist-tops that match the fizzy soundtrack of techno feeding back off his garage door – and he can actually feel the tremor of memory that comes with his first girlfriend talking, the breastbone thrum he used to get from lying on the floor of his bedroom listening to her down the phone. Checked out to everything but her tone, a station only he could tune to – those long afternoons he was all about her voice.
That garage of teens getting messed-up in the background now wouldn’t know what he was on about – they’re all permanently on their phones, but never to talk. Why don’t you just call her, he’d said to the boy he spotted out on the driveway minutes before, tapping stress-signals into the face of his phone, trying to get hold of some girl who’d stood him up. The boy had shot him an uh-duh blink and gone on working the screen, his fingers top-speed, sodium-lit. But what would they know? He felt sorry for them, missing the teen bliss he’d once lived for – crashed on the carpet with the cord spiralled out to its max, receiver buzzing in the crook of his collarbone, mouths turning everything to lowdown murmurs of secret, heartrates hanging on each vocal hush. Staring up into the postered distance of his ceiling, he’d come out with daredevil things, bass blue mutters of horny sweetness he’d choke on if they were face to face, and he could read her breath, could feel that every cell in her still body listened, her skin all audience – how could these kids go without that? Those blurred kinky sentences of long-range lust, lying there helpless just at the clearing of a throat, at a phrase whose shaky static left him feeling x-rayed. These kids don’t know what they’re missing.
But they’d all had hardware, tonight’s team of late-teens, when they walked in, him lined up by the door to get names and numbers, and notes off all the underage ones who needed parental permission to ruck a pop-top out that psychedelic ice. They held up their phones – they had direct lines back to Mum and Dad, and didn’t need him checking in or jacking up lifts. Yeah thanks, they laughed, heading past him, whatever, into the rigged-out garage where the playlist was pounding. He stayed in the kitchen – from time to time now he totes out snacks, the same plastic platters of deep fries and additives that kid parties always pack, just washed down with vodka these days, the guaranteed ratio of puke at the end no different. In the kitchen he tips himself sly thirds of drink, at first in disposable cups, their synthetic stubbing his lip as he takes guilty slugs – but then he gives up and lets the burble of ageing richness colour a proper glass. An old guy’s glass, full-bodied. The glass of a well-off thinking drunk.
He doesn’t lean close enough to Mary to let her smell it when he takes her tray up. She looks at the bland balanced nutrients he’s pureed and dobbed on her plate, and asks about the party food. He goes through the menu again: the onion dip and cardboard pizza, the skin-tight pods of red meat, the blood-clot sauce squelched into its tubs. She gives as much of a laugh as she can, a rustle on her slope of pillows. Remember, she starts, remember . . . but no, he says no. He knows where her recall is leaning: once, their son’s parties were epic events, and she’d be frazzled in the icing-sugared kitchen, bashing butter mixture to lacquer, sporting an elasticated pirate hat, dizzy with pin-the-tail plans and stuffing goodie bags, crossing her eyes with low-oxygen swoons as her laughter spat off the end of renegade balloons, everything a singsong of jubilant panic, last-minute candles and jelly snakes and cellophane. He says, no, not now, no don’t. So she lifts her good hand, makes a slow manoeuvre for the spoon, as if she’ll obey and lap a mouthful. You’re right, she nods, a tilt that pulls her eyes closed, lids traced with vessels in her thin stubbled head, yes, let’s just get through. Of course. He tells her he’ll send him up later, their boy. Oh, she says. No, don’t bother him. It’s . . . enough.
But it’s not enough. He goes and stands awhile on the landing, listens to the beat jar the shell of the garage. The songs – well, not songs, but tracks in the worst sense – seem to him mechanised as treadmills, sirens marking the wind-up of some chanted slogan meant to be a chorus. They grind into his brainstem. He hates their processed riffs, their synthy adrenaline. He doubles back to check with Mary that she can manage the din. She gives a no, it’s fine, leave them, really, blinks discoloured eyes. He heads back to the kitchen, a little more determined to get himself good and pissed.
Which is working out well. But it turns out that boy’s up the drive again, this time out by the letterbox, holding his phone at the end of a skinny high arm, like he’s guiding it through a current. Trying to flag a signal, climbing on the rockwall, raking the phone on a wilder incline, getting aggro with the air. He looks out-of-it in that way that teen boys do, sullen and breakable. He can’t just leave the kid out there, lank and jumpy in the last of the light. So he scuffs up, tells him the service here’s shit on old makes. Still texting the same girl? No answer, but the boy looks bummed out. You could just call her? You know, the landline? Used to work for me. The kid’s scowl looks like it could turn to tears, and his fingers go hyper on the screen trying to counter it. She your girlfriend? Bail on you or something? Wouldn’t worry, mate. You know what they’re like. But he stops. It’s in the kid’s eyelashes, that giveaway tizz: he’s blinking like mad, so he doesn’t come unglued.
For fuck’s sake – he’s not up to dealing with that. He’s hardly fit to keep someone else from the edge. So he shuffles there a couple of secs, watching the kid’s antsy taps on the cell, the screen all pins and needles. Then he turns back. Okay, look, the offer’s there, you know, if you can’t get through. And he leaves the kid, wanders back. He can see a thin remnant of Mary through the upstairs window. A dilute quiver of light on her eggshell skull.
And there she is again – his first girlfriend. She’d lived in a cul-de-sac he’d cruise to, low-gear afternoons, lazy on his silver three-speed, so he’d have the sight of her, slipping to the letterbox, her flimsy dress shot to pieces with sun, and he’d pull up his ride, coasting through the last stretch on a solo pedal so he could swing a cool dismount, kick out its oily stand, and then lean in to kiss. And kiss. And kiss. All this was in slow-mo afterschool dusk, before the adults materialised, before they took the streets back over, and sat you down at tables with lists of disappointment and chores. So the kiss could go on, could be wholesale with soft wet longing and dizzy with wishful heat, and he could part-lift her in his go-getter hands and even start some hijinks with her bra and she could push at the slogan on his t-shirt and huff pleas in his neck until they were both a write-off. And the memory reminds him now of spoke-sound, his old bike in the spin of cool-down, their makeout full of the ticking music of time crisscrossed in his steel-string wheels. And even after that, he’d still want to lie down half the night, after getting past homework and mum-jobs, and corkscrew his fingers in her voice, lounge in the lull of saying near-nothing down the phone, just so the pressure of her breath was in his ear, the purrs that were her wriggling her p-j’d ribcage, the semi-puffs that were her clearing the feathers of her fringe out of her drowsing eyes.
But merlot should be good for memory. He doesn’t mind if he helps himself – why thank you sir. Suppose he should check in on the eighteenth crew again before he gets too sauced. He’s meant to be preventing any kids from getting dieselled – right now he gives zero shits. He interlopes, looking in from the garage door. He can’t be bothered topping up their plastic banquet. The girls all wear their hair the same, in topknots that are ratty bubbles – their tanks, shifting in their half-dance of mingling chat, flick him cut-outs of inappropriate skin. That poor kid outside should have gone for one of these – it’s a smorgasbord of open, easy-sussed girls, feet docked in sinister shoes, tinted to look tough, sure, but underneath it tender, needy even. Any one of these girls would take him. His son, for instance, is tied up with one blonde, a casual nuzzling going on. It makes him think of student parties back in the fall-down of derro villa flats, his own half-lit blunders with strange girls, into outbuildings where they’d stage long clinches, blurry and delinquent, hearing the floors beneath them splinter, their heavy breathing laced with southern cold and lead paint. Those brokedown houses seemed to license their boozed hookups, outbreaks of ramshackle kissing no one cared about, the welcoming suck of free-trade tongues. That’s what he’d really studied at uni, while his first girlfriend waited at home – he would have fucked it for good, their future, if she ever knew. But he was a wily little bastard by then, knew how to deflect and soothe her, knew what comfort to send deep-barrelled down the phone. He knew his voice worked her, settled her, so she’d mimic it back, forever babe, true.
He looks at his kid. It’s a noncommittal groping, the lads’ talk around them still going on, his son looking bored and hard at the same time. At some point he breaks off the blonde’s hold and nods at his father, smug and half-cut. No worries old man, he bawls out. And he waves his dad over, lurching his big warm arm, slapping his shoulder when he gets there, their gruff brand of love. All good fulla? he says to his dad, and of course it is, what more could any man tell him – he’s eighteen, ignorant, strong as a king, the way he should be. You don’t want to mess with this scene. He’s a solid kid, a kid with mates and swagger and sweetly pissed girls lining up, and he’s straight-up and good value, and he should be let off tonight. He won’t end up untouched. His mum is wrecking a youth that was otherwise pretty fucking model, that was shaping up big-time. Let him fondle the odd random girl and knock back a few too many brews. What’s the damage? You can count on that later. The damage will catch up.
Which is maybe when the thought of that sad kid, stranded outside on his cellphone, comes back in. He has got a duty. He’s got more than one. He should doublecheck Mary, then hunt down that cut-off kid, see where he’s skulking now. He’s past trying to cover up the merlot – he loads up and weaves the hall with it, reckless, clubfooted. But the trouble with Mary’s room is, it used to be his, be theirs. He’s never wanted to leave it. He’s never volunteered. He wanted to sleep beside her, even through this. But she wouldn’t have it. She asked him, begged, please love, clear out. She’s too far gone – there’s a place in pain where there is no company, where the body’s just alone in it. That’s all. He knows. Sometimes when he creeps in like this she opens her eyes like she’s awake but when he looks in she is gone from her own gaze, already evaporated under her bald lids. The blips of fluorescence that monitor her bed remind him of the gameshows they used to binge on, flicking on the TV while they scrounged up dinner, countdowns of strobe in the background while the dim contestants bombed – yeah they’d mock-cheerlead from their 5pm kitchen, let’s watch some people lose. I’m sorry baby but for you the chase is over. He steps closer. In her sleep she’s a sketch of bone, superficial on the sheets – it’s belief that’s gone from her body, it’s any faith that she’ll outlast. Her breath is a baritone struggle through her chest, the air trying to navigate, failing, reaching the crease of her lips with a starved-out shrill, a low-dose end-game song. She doesn’t want him beside her for this, she wants to exile him, save him from it. But what he has to back away from now is not her breathing’s ugly encore – it’s the pinch of freckles still on her nose-bridge, his first girlfriend superimposed, that cinnamon smidgen of memory more than he can take.
It does him in, it’s the end of him. Except then he’s stumbling down the hall, and even though it’s remodelled by merlot, acid and elastic, and its walls lurch and swell, he hears a ruckus coming from the bathroom, a raking foil-backed sound he knows is no good. And that halts him. He’s too cut to tap on the door, wait politely – he barges full-force into the room, and almost upturns the boy who’s squatting on the tiles, prescription debris spread around him, a jillion ways to check out, vacuum-packed. His reaction is blindside, a jolt of pure rage.
You see your name on any of those boxes?
Nothing. The kid’s all heave and blink.
A head shake, dropping a silver sheet of pills. They’re splashed out of their packets like mechanical leaves, and he’s sick of their rattle, their lightweight tabs of promise, their slow-release hopelessness. He kicks a swatch across the shiny floor.
Thought you’d scull the whole shebang did you? Eh? Plenty to choose from here. Got a bit distracted by the sheer choice, did you boy? Oh yeah we stock everything.
But the kid he’s picking on is only a shiver, thin-skinned in his black tee. Fuck, just look at him. He could almost laugh at the underage pain of it, all elbows and desperation.
Thought that would solve your fucking snivels. What’s the count, then? Eh? How many?
I haven’t even . . . started yet. The kid thumps his ears, like he’d bash out the sound of his own puny voice if he could. That’s how – that’s how gutless I am.
These – the man grabs down and flails a box in the kid’s eyeline – are not for you.
The boy folds. There’s a gulp in his torso, and his eyelids flurry. I know that. I’m sorry.
They’re to help someone live. To live, you get me.
Not me die.
You got it in one. You stupid little shit.
He’s crying now, he’s lost it, the kid, his eyes unloading, big dumb blobs of tear.
The man drops his standover pose, sits down on the bath.
She called it off, eh?
She never . . . called it on. But I . . . can’t give up.
She’s the first one . . .
I know. I know all about that. I know the whole story.
The kid is even more spooked by softness. But he halts a sob and looks.
My wife, the man starts. She was, you know.
He stops. The kid swallows.
I still know her number. True. I could still tell you that. You believe me? I could still tell you the phone number of my first girl.
What was it?
Real. And it’s . . . you know. For her now. Is it . . . ?
It’s a countdown. That’s it.
Yep. It’s a fucking countdown.
Then there’s nothing more there. Nothing more left. Maybe the kid feels it. All they can do is sit. Song-drone and voices come in from the garage, yelps of pissed all-purpose party noise. The kid starts to scrape up the fanned pewter packets, slot them back in their sleeves.
I’m real – I’m sorry, he says. You don’t – have to stress. I’m good. I can get my shit together.
And he kneels by the jacked-open cupboard, starts shoving back the boxes.
There’s a bloody party going on. Hear that. We should get your sad arse back.
If you weren’t such a sad prat you would have clocked on to the fact that my garage is packed with girls. Rack off out there now will you.
Don’t push me, kid.
So he walks the boy back to the scene of the throb, the quasi-music still jetting off the steel door, gives him a shove on the backbone for good luck. The kids are all dropped in a deeper state of party, a large-scale saturated dance going on, eyes closed, the girls re-glittered with sweat, the boys banging tone-deaf limbs, their hi-tops ungoverned, a blundering offbeat groove. He hangs back to watch – he hopes they’re all off their faces with nowness, blank in the knell of that cheap music. He’d like to stay too, like to let himself go numb in that pounding zone of sound, lose his head here where nothing’s terminal. But when the track cycles, the bassline bridges and slows, a blond girl raises her phone, and the room is suddenly a field of swaying hands, cells flagging a hi-fi trail of radiance. One more thing he can’t cope with.
He goes back to the bathroom, the clean-up, he starts up a Jenga of overbalanced white boxes. Any way he tries to tower them, the meds slip back down, her name a pharmaceutical slump. There’s too much. And in the back of the cupboard he spots a carton he could maybe turf, make room. But when he yanks it out, it’s the baby monitor they used to rig up by their son’s crib, stumpy pastel antennae and heart-shape dials, a robot so cute he wants to puke. He sits with it for a moment, then he thumbs the thick handsets from their polystyrene sockets. The batteries are dud – he pads out to the living room, scavenges the double As from the TV remote. All the channels he needs are in his hands. He doesn’t think as he heads back to Mary, as he props one up on the medical slalom of her locker. He carries his back to the kitchen. He doesn’t think for outright seconds, everything he knows disbanded. He’s an idiot, holding this sappy walkie-talkie, this lovesick transistor like he could dial something back between them. He snaps it on, the receiver, lo to hi, and the pain is analogue, moves him to a hunch. Thank God there’s not a screen – but he’s watching her anyway. He is watching her, his first-ever girlfriend, bending down to blow candles out for her eighteenth. He is waiting to hear her voice through the wire, all presence, all ache in its teen gasps and whispers, he is waiting to hear the flicker of tongue, the husky mechanics of each cute breath and lip-roll of moistened indecision, will you . . . you know, go with me? But the circuit could be broken.
Taken from the superb new collection of short stories Devil’s Trumpet by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University Press, $30), which debuted on the best-seller list this week and is available from bookstores nationwide.