I took a quick shower upstairs. The cool water pelting the top of my shorn head and streaming down my face refreshed me and melted away some of the stress and uncertainty of the last few days. I coughed up a yellow pellet of phlegm; it circled the drain and then disappeared. I felt much better.
After drying myself and wrapping the soft, green towel around my waist, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and studied my reflection.
“Fat tub of sh**,” said a voice outside the bathroom door.
I tiptoed to the door and listened. There was the slightest tapping in the hall outside.
“Is someone there?”
The tapping stopped. No one answered. I got dressed, hung up the towel, and gave my reflection another look.
“F**king pathetic,” the voice spoke again. I knew the voice.
A rapid pattering shot across floorboards. I flung the bathroom door open and looked, but whoever had been in the hall was gone.
Downstairs, I passed Rory in the lounge room.
“I’m gonna go help the guys set up for the party,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said, getting up from the couch. “I’ll give you a hand.”
We stepped out the front door into the glaring sun and all thirty-five degrees Celsius of a splendid February day. LaShawn’s truck in the driveway looked like a giant mechanical guard dog ready to defend the house. The rental car was gone. Across the yard, an industrial fan whirred at the open shed door, blasting air inside; from the shed window a blueish-grey plume of smoke escaped. My mouth watered a little at the thought of the brisket LaShawn would be serving up in a few hours. I inhaled deeply, but instead of the thick savoury aroma I was expecting, my nostrils grasped only a hint of sweetness from all the Swiss cheese he had crammed into the smoker. A clattering from behind the house indicated LaShawn and Budgie were hard at work, and Rory and I went around back to see what we could do to help.
Directly behind Budgie’s house was a clear, flat space that could seat three hundred people. At the end of the space was a twelve-metre-wide wooden stage, a building project of LaShawn and Budgie’s from a few years ago. It was an impressive piece of work: raised a metre and a half from the ground; five metres deep plus a decent backstage area; and a grid of rafters that could support lighting, props and a curtain. To the side of the stage, Budgie was sitting in an upright tractor tyre.
“Hey Budgie,” I called.
He looked at me, then leaned out from the tyre and said something I couldn’t hear. LaShawn emerged from behind the stage wearing a welding mask; he flipped the mask up and ran over to us.
“Whoa, hey! What’s going on?” he said. He grabbed Rory’s face in his hands and examined him, pressing his thumbs against his cheeks and forehead.
Rory leaned away and looked at LaShawn like he was a weirdo. “What are you doing?”
“It’s too hot out here,” said LaShawn. “You’re the birthday boy—sit inside and relax. Get the air-con going. We’ll take care of the outdoor preparations, right Miles?”
“Uh, yeah okay,” I said.
Rory looked at me. I shrugged and nodded.
“Well, okay,” said Rory. “But just let me know if you need a hand.”
“Yeah of course,” said LaShawn. “Now get inside. Make sure you put the air-con on.”
“Righto,” said Rory, heading off around the side of the house.
I followed LaShawn toward the stage.
“What’s with the tractor tyre?” I asked.
LaShawn tilted his head a little and sniffed. “I reckon we’ll roll it down a hill later.”
“Cool,” I said. “Watch where you aim it though—I bet that thing could do some damage.”
“You have no idea,” said LaShawn, with a grin.
“Hey, I’ve got a job for you, if you don’t mind,” he said.
“Of course. What is it?”
“Here,” he said, pointing to a cricket gear bag in front of the stage. “Hey Budgie! Is it just this bag for the fireworks?”
Budgie poked his head out from inside the tyre. “And the plastic bag next to it,” he said.
“Ah, here we go,” said LaShawn.
He checked the contents of the plastic shopping bag: some old walkie-talkies, a pair of binoculars and something like a video game controller.
“There’s that one,” he said, handing the plastic bag to me.
At first I didn’t notice he was holding the bag in front of me; I was looking down at my belly. I was wearing an old shirt I had left at Budgie’s house a couple of years ago and it was now too small for me; it was cartoonish how round and protruding my stomach was in that shirt.
“Miles,” said LaShawn.
“You all right?”
For a second or two no words came to mind; it was as though my brain forgot I was supposed to speak. I suddenly felt I might cry. I sucked in a long breath and stretched my eyes wide, keeping any tears at bay.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “I’m all right.”
LaShawn looked at me, unconvinced. “You should come down to the pool sometime.”
“Nah,” I shrugged.
“Yeah, it’d do you good. Get some sunshine, some air into your lungs.”
“And hang out with a bunch of old ladies,” I said.
“Ah, they’re not so bad,” he said. “Besides, I’d be there too. You should come down, it’s a good workout. And you’re a mate, so classes are free.”
“Nah, I can’t do that,” I said. “That’s your business—I’m not gonna ask for free water aerobics classes.”
“You didn’t ask—I offered. But if it bothers you, then you can pay me. Just come down to the pool.”
“Hmm, maybe,” I said.
“You should. Here,” he said, handing me the bag again. “And then there’s the big one. Reckon you can carry it? Budgie and I barely managed to drag it out here from inside.”
I took the bag’s straps in one hand and tested the weight. “Yeah, it feels okay,” I said. (I may not be as fit as LaShawn, or as fast, or as agile, or as good a fighter or dancer or cook or gardener or frisbee thrower, but I can lift twice what he can.) “Where’s it going?”
He pointed to the top of the hill behind the shed.
“Up next to the big tree stump. Leave them there and I’ll sort it out later. Just make sure you leave them in the shade.”
I knelt beside the cricket bag, hooked my right arm under the straps and wiggled them onto my shoulder, then heaved myself upright. The bag was heavy but not unbearable; the straps digging into my shoulder was the most uncomfortable part.
“Have a look at this, Budge,” said LaShawn.
Budgie looked over and shook his head. “Bloody hell!”
“Yeah, what did I tell you?” said LaShawn. “Strong as an ox.”
I adjusted the straps on my shoulder as best I could, then turned and headed off up the hill.
“Miles the Machine, we’ll call him,” said LaShawn. “No—Miles the Mountain! I tell you what—if that Greek fella ever gets tired of holding the earth on his shoulders, we’ll send Miles down there to give him a break.”
LaShawn was always an encourager.
It was a long trudge up the hill; the midday heat was brutal. I stopped halfway to catch my breath and swap the cricket bag into my other shoulder, but I could have made it without stopping if I had to. At the top of the hill I dropped the cricket bag by the big stump, set the little plastic bag on top and sat on the tree stump and recovered. I was grateful for the shade of the gum trees. Drops of sweat dived from my nose and chin, and my shirt clung to my back. Sweat glistened on my forearms. I pressed my fingertips against what remained of my wash-off tattoo and rubbed; Optimus Prime’s face smudged and then disappeared. As I stared at the tattoo, something seemed off. On my tattoo, the transformer’s legs were blue. I tried to think back to the cartoon but couldn’t remember much (I was more of a He-Man kid). Optimus Prime’s legs were supposed to be blue, weren’t they? But sitting on the couch next to Rory earlier while he played video games, I could have sworn the legs on his Optimus Prime tattoo were red. I had never noticed it before.
Feeling much better after my rest, I stood and prepared to head back down the hill when a rustle behind me sent a chill up my spine. I thought it was the goanna that lived there. I had seen him a few times before; once it came down near the house. I don’t like lizards, and goannas are big lizards. I slowly turned around and Rory was there, walking through the bush toward me.
“Rory!” I said. “Thank God it’s you.”
“Did you think I was the goanna?” he said.
I nodded. We laughed.
“What are you doing up here?” I said. “I thought you were going inside.”
“Just thought I’d check in, see how it’s all going.”
“Yeah, it’s all right,” I said. “Hey, where did Nils go?”
Rory gave me a strange look. “You mean… Oh—Nils. Right. I thought you meant—never mind. I think he went into town for supplies.”
He sat down on the stump. I looked at his tattoo; Optimus Prime’s legs were blue after all. I sat down next to him.
“It’s gonna be a fun night, I reckon,” I said.
Rory didn’t answer. I suppose I didn’t technically ask a question.
“You know,” he said, after a silence, “it’s finally here, this important day, and I’m actually dreading it a little.”
I looked at him. “People have turned forty before. Life goes on.” I patted him on the shoulder.
“I sure hope so,” he said. His look became grave. “Hey Miles, if you decide… I mean… if at any time tonight you want to leave—that’s okay. No hard feelings. I sure want you here—we all do—but this is my party. I kind of dragged you into it. Don’t feel like you owe it to me to stay.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “What the hell are you talking about? It’s your birthday. You’re my best friend. Of course I’m going to stay. I’ve been looking forward to this party. Just the guys—no wives or kids. How long has it been? And I’ve never hung out with Nils before. Should be fun.”
There was a triumphant holler from down the hill. LaShawn was dancing, still wearing his welding mask.
“I take it the tractor tyre is ready to go,” said Rory.
“Ha, yeah the tyre will be fun,” I said. “LaShawn’s in good spirits today.”
“Of course he is,” said Rory, and a smile returned to his face.
“If he sees you up here, he’s gonna be upset,” I said.
“You know—he told you to go inside—you’re the birthday boy. Said it was too hot. You really are having memory trouble.”
“Too hot? Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.” He stood up and looked down toward the shed. “I guess that’s what the fan is for.”
I stood and began walking down the hill.
“You coming?” I said.
“I’ll take the long way,” said Rory, and he turned and wandered away through the trees.
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