Lautrec’s Ghost…

It helps Zachary to make deals with himself.

If the knock-off bell goes on time, he’ll do something about the dog, maybe call the animal shelter. If it’s late, he’ll walk out without looking. If the bell goes early — and it was never early — he’ll pick it up and take it home. It was okay to load the deal in your favour, but you couldn’t back out once it was made. Everyone has their thing.

Lainie had been a list-maker. Even after she’d left, those militant pink post-its would turn up — behind the fridge, in drawers, under beds — reminding him of all the things he’d never done to her satisfaction, within her timeframe. Of course, the easiest way to shake off an aimless husband is to move the kids to another state and take up with a man with purpose.

Zachary knows she’d never expected him to follow, much less get a job. If he’s good, respectful enough not to bring the stink of vine and failure past her letterbox, he gets to see the kids every other weekend. It’s enough, for now.

Five to three. If he hustles, he’ll finish polishing this last one before knock-off.

There are thirty of them, vast stainless steel vats that hold thousands of litres of cabernet, shiraz and merlot. The air in here is fat and heady; a few deep breaths can get you halfway to inebriation. Number sixteen is still empty and the ground behind the cellar door is crusted red. A drain pipe snakes out into the pip sediment, limp now, where it had pulsed and spurted like a severed artery. When they’d fished out Verne Lautrec he was purple and bloated. Ripe as a fruit.

A minute past three and the bell goes. Well.

Zachary collects his things from his locker and kneels to change his shoes. He stands, kisses the tips of two fingers and touches them to the faces on the photo. The act strikes him as something reverent, like genuflection, except that he’s not a religious man. Superstitious, maybe. Next week he’s rostered to flush the inside of number sixteen. The thought of being stuck in the belly of the vat, with the echo of Lautrec’s ghost, makes him queasy.

Outside, the men form the smokers’ gauntlet.

Zachary rushes through, holding his breath. ‘Later,’ he says to everybody and nobody.

‘Stupid mutt,’ Bazza is saying. ‘It still thinks he’s gonna walk out that door.’

‘Maybe it doesn’t know he’s dead.’

Zachary keeps walking. Looking back can be your undoing, he knows that. If he waits out by the front gate, sometimes a truck will pass and let him ride into town. If Bazza’s ute isn’t full, he’ll stop and pick him up, but Zachary doesn’t like to ask. Today, there’s nothing. Bazza takes off with a full quota; five in the cab, four more stacked in the tray.

He waits for the plume of dust to settle before crossing the highway. A road train passes doing way over the limit. In the silent wake, the vacuum behind it, he hears the dry rasp of tall grass and an ancient wheeze. He looks back. The rag and bone dog follows at a safe distance, like his conscience.

The dog follows him into town. Twice, Zachary calls out. He pats his thigh and clucks his tongue, but the dog skitters sideways as if dodging skimmed stones. When they reach the shabby motel the dog glares balefully, as though this destination is a monumental disappointment.

Zachary shrugs and unlocks his door. ‘Last chance,’ he calls. ‘You’re missing tinned tomatoes on toast and an Arsenal game.’

The dog slinks away.

Saturday. Zachary pulls up in front of Lainie’s house in a low-slung red convertible. The front gate is skewed left, clinging to a rusted hinge. White roses bloom in tight rows, on cue, all the way to the front door. A brass number swings on a screw, right corner down. This imperfect symmetry appeals to Zachary, but he knows it would irk Lainie no end.

Jerry really should fix that, he thinks.

He sounds the horn, revs the engine. It costs a bomb to hire these machines, but the kids seem to like it. This time he’s outdone himself. He leaves the engine running and lays across the sleek bonnet, writhing like a model in a Carz ‘n’ Chicks magazine. He has one over Lainie in this respect — she’s not given to silliness or extravagance.

The front screen door slams. ‘I tried to call you,’ Lainie says.

Zachary stands, embarrassed. ‘Where are the kids?’

Lainie shrugs. Her hands are dug deep in her pockets, her shoulders hunched in her classic defensive stance.  ‘They’re teenagers now, Zach. They’re old enough to make their own decisions.’ She gestures toward the car. ‘Sorry you went to so much trouble.’

He looks at her, the keeper of his fate. He wishes he didn’t feel, so acutely, that she was once his. And now she isn’t. His.

Zachary drives for two hours in no particular direction.  That’s how long it takes him to pass a black and white cow, because he can’t turn around until he has. That was the deal. In retrospect, he supposes, he could have kept driving for two days and not have seen one. But, there it was, a docile finger of fate. He turns the car around.

Zachary spends the evening with bowl of congealed carbonara and a dozen beers.

The dog is missing on Monday, but on Tuesday it’s there, crouched in tall grass by the gate. The second bell sounds. The dog spins in a pirouette, its tail sweeping the grass like a scythe. Zachary observes its dogged optimism with a lump in his throat.

‘Need a lift?’ Bazza offers.

Zachary shakes his head. ‘Do you know its name? The dog?’

‘Benji or Mangy or something. Needs a good feed or a swift bullet, if you ask me.’

Zachary fingers the bag of biscuits in his pocket. He lays a trail as he walks, like Hansel’s breadcrumbs. The dog ignores them, but follows.

At the motel, Zachary throws his bag on the porch and sits on the step. The dog regards him from a distance, half-interested. Zachary lays the rest of the biscuits in a line along the stoop.

‘Benji?’ Nothing. ‘Mangy?’ One ear, half-cocked. ‘Banjo?’ Bingo. Both ears pricked, tail stirring dust clouds. ‘Banjo, is it?’

Zachary leaves the motel room door open as he potters about the kitchenette. He heats a can of baked beans, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. Butters toast, whacks the top off a beer. Pours the beans into a steaming mound. Carries his meal out to the porch to share, but the dog is gone, the stoop licked clean.

Wednesday, Lainie calls. Says she feels guilty. Says she’ll give up the kids this weekend and she’s told them they’re going to spend the weekend with their father, and that’s that.

‘Don’t make them, Lainie. Like you said, they’re old enough to make their own decisions.’

That’s that, she says.

Friday. Number sixteen.

Zachary hadn’t known Lautrec well – the man wasn’t a talker. Lautrec had been an habitual whistler, the kind of warbling, off-key whistle that drove you mad but wasn’t so offensive it warranted confrontation. Zachary had been on pipe maintenance then; Lautrec was on the vats. His whistle would peel out of an empty vat, amplified by space, strangely beautiful. Once, Zachary had peeked through the porthole to see Lautrec, chest out, arms back, whistling the harmonica interlude of Piano Man with all the gusto of an opera singer.

Still, Lautrec supposedly went the way he’d have wanted — steeped in booze he hadn’t paid for.

Zachary is lowered into the vat, strung in a harness. Four or five of the guys hover outside it, at the base. He waits for them to heckle or joke, the way men do when something else must remain unspoken. Apart from a smirk here, a twitch there, they’re all oddly deferential. His feet touch down in an inch of sediment and he breathes through his mouth. Ticking, then silence.

He starts hosing the walls, spraying with steam. Red rivers swirl away like blood in the shower. After the first dread passes he feels quite calm. He thinks about buying a panel van and a surfboard and driving until the world ends and the sea begins.

A hand slaps the side of the vat. Gong, gong. Others join in — gong, gong, gong — catcalling, whooping, hollering. Here it is, then. An exorcism of sorts, a necessary purge after too many days coping. Let them have it. The resonant ringing makes his head ache. They’ll have to knock it off soon or the supervisor will dock them.

Zachary squirts the steam cleaner. He wets his lips and blows. How does it go? That harmonica bit? Sing us a song, you’re the piano man… sing us a song, tonight

He keeps it up through a couple of choruses, long enough for the carry-on to die down. He guesses they’ve all gone back to work by now. Still he whistles, through the mist, because the accoustics in here make him sound better than he really is. Lautrec had been on to something.

He shuts off the steam cleaner, still whistling. The background hum of the machine fades and he hears something. An eerie accompaniment; otherworldly wailing that rises and falls with all the despair of a stranded soul. He looks around. His heart flaps, his whistle fades, as mist forms fingers that writhe and jab.

Somebody shouts into the porthole, ‘Yeah, real funny, Winger. Knock it off!’

‘Did you hear that?’ he calls up.

‘Hear it! Bloody hell, get out here and look what you’ve done.’

Cool air rushes him when he climbs out. He feels sick from fear and fumes. One of the guys is on the floor, cross-legged, clutching his arm to his chest. Blood congeals on the sawdust floor.

‘What?’ Zachary says.

Bazza, against all rules, puffs manically on a cigarette. ‘Bloody dog went nuts, howling like a banshee. Ripped into Rob’s arm when he grabbed him. Your little performance set him off.’

‘Where is it?’ Zachary asks.

‘Gone,’ says Bazza.

Outside, the dog waits by the gate. No sign of its usual optimism, just resignation, like a child waiting for the strap.

‘No sense waiting around anymore,’ Zachary calls, gently.

The dog pivots on its backside, looks left and right along the highway, at Zachary, back to the road. Decision made, it trots away, settling into an easy tongue-swinging lope. Out onto the gravel-streaked highway, away from town, as if there is somewhere it needs to be.

Later, in the ute, they laugh about it. Rob’s arm is wrapped in gauze to the elbow. Zachary unwraps it. He inspects the wound and finds fourteen punctures born of grief. He’ll need a tetanus shot, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Despite the blood and drama, the brotherhood is back, the mourning done.

Saturday. Zachary is late. He pulls up in Lainie’s driveway and winds the window down to let the exhaust fumes out. The engine shudders and stalls. The radio plays with the ignition turned off. The door closes with a jarring thunk.

Zachary inhales the scent of nostalgia: warm vinyl and dust and hessian.

Lainie’s gate is fixed. The roses have been beheaded before their time and shiny new number winks above the door. The gate swings smoothly on oiled hinges and clicks behind him. Beside the front door, a briefcase and a pair of men’s dress shoes belonging to a short, purposeful man who works Saturdays. Still, he needs reminding. A pink post-it note is stuck to the handle.

Zachary can’t stop grinning. Today, he’s going to drive until he reaches the sea.

3 Responses to “Lautrec’s Ghost…”

  1. Trinity says:

    Love it, Vik. Can’t wait for more clearing of the drawers.
    Was listening to this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3s08c5L4R0 while reading and was perfect. x

  2. Elisabeth O'Connell says:

    Nicely done. :)

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