ReadingRoom

Short story: Magnet, by Grant Smithies

"He was an energy vacuum, a shit magnet, a waste of skin": a black comedy by Nelson writer Grant Smithies.

The stars he saw were blue, green, golden. Little lights swam around slowly, then went out one by one. His face felt hot. His left eye wasn’t working. And the man was still there. Still big, still angry.

“I told you!” he shouted. “More than once. Get the fuck away from my stuff!”

The man had appeared out of the gloom from his right-hand side. No warning. Just sudden pain.

“I ain’t gonna tell you again!"

The stranger was sixtyish, maybe. Tall. Paunchy. Something stubby flashed between the fingers of his right hand. Marcus raised his hand to his face, felt an ooze. The mad fucker had keyed him in the eye.

 A bad day had just gotten a whole lot worse. Deanna would be even more contemptuous than usual if he arrived home half-blind and lacking takeaways. When life’s yardstick was applied, Marcus always came up short as far as Deanna was concerned. A fresh disability would merely confirm he wasn’t fit for purpose.

To provide useful contrast, Deanna loved to talk at length about her amazing relatives. Their photos were displayed all around the house and in her scrapbooks. Her sister Gayle, the legal secretary. Her engineer cousin Trisha, who helped build bridges of unparalleled structural integrity. Her favourite: the blind granddad who’d looked out for her as a kid, before diabetes destroyed his vision.

Now a wrinkly bogan saint with a white cane, the old man had a party trick Deanna just loved. He would invite visitors to name an LP and then tap-tap-tap across to his stereo, feeling about among the record stacks with a look of deep concentration. He hammed it up, sliding out a record then shaking his head and sliding it back, running his hands along the spines as if his fingertips were reading the fine print. He took so long you wanted to smash the guy, then he’d finally settle on an album, raising his stringy arms in triumph when he lowered the needle and Tull or Quo or Led Zep started roaring away.

“The sneaky old prick can probably still see!” Marcus said one day, sick of her talking about how magical he was. 

Deanna paid him back with interest. Rather than withhold sex, she initiated it that night, then looked bored as a corpse as Marcus rutted away. The message couldn’t have been clearer if she’d printed it out and laid the paper over her disappointed face: Here you are yet again, Marcus, giving me zero pleasure while putting your own needs first.

“Come near my stuff again, you’re dead meat!” yelled the stranger, sitting down in a shop doorway. He spread a blanket over his thighs, sparked a lighter under a broken lightbulb and honked a lungful of smoke out into the cold night air.

Marcus sighed. He was pathetic, just like Deanna always said. When bad luck struck, it felt like it had found the right guy. He was an energy vacuum, a shit magnet, a waste of skin. For the lame things he thought and did, and also the many noble and heroic things he did not do, he deserved misfortune.

Marcus did not believe in God, not really, unless God was a c***. But fate- that certainly was a thing, and Marcus seemed destined to be a doormat upon which the world wiped its feet.

So what? You coped. On rare occasions when Marcus tried to examine his emotions, they were hard to locate. Transmission failed, as if there was a cut powerline sparking in some distant gully.

Today was bad, no question, but he expected there’d be worse days ahead. This wasted stranger had done him some damage, and there was a wet burning sensation above his left cheekbone. These were the facts. But rather than fear or anger, Marcus felt mainly hunger, and a strange zappy voltage in his chest, like when he was a kid, about to leap into the river from a high rock.

*

A man could not bowl into the fish and chip shop with the bloody contents of his eye sliding down his face. He knew that. But it was only half a block away. Marcus wiped some goo off his cheek with his sleeve. The bell pinged as he came in, beanie tugged down over his eye like a cartoon beret. Three fish, onion rings, chips. Extra salt. Fifteen minutes later, face now throbbing like a bastard, Marcus was on his way home.

The stairs smelt of dusty carpet, boiled cabbage, burnt herbs. Deanna was at the scrapbooks again when he came in the house. Snip, snip, fucking snip, the table a snowdrift of trimmings. She was pasting a furry frame of little kitties around a central image cut from a bridal mag, red ringlets blazing as she hunched over this romantic tableau.

 “Fuck you!” she said without looking up. Deanna was hangry. Marcus had taken his time. Then she dropped her scissors.

 “Jesus, Marcus, what have you done to yourself?”

To himself? Like he made a habit of gouging out his own eye.

 “A drug-fucked guy stabbed me in the face. Down by Price’s.”

 Deanna rolled her eyes, like - typical!

“So what are you going to do about it?” she said.

 Marcus realised with considerable satisfaction that he was going to do nothing. He would take some Panadol and eat his chips.

 He wiped his face with a dishcloth off the bench then took a seat opposite his seething wife. Steam rushed up as he opened the parcel and zeroed in on a couple of nicely overdone chips. Deanna swept a forearm across the greasy paper, moving two thirds of the food her way. Halfway through his piece of fish, Marcus met her gaze. He saw fear as well as the usual loathing, and the sight warmed him through.

*

Over the next few days, his wound bloomed yellow, then blue and brown. The opening was now ringed with a dark crust, and a milky liquid leaked from the hole in the centre. Marcus took painkillers and tried to tune out the throb. When the ache got severe, he stood in the shower and ran cool water over his face. He could no longer judge the position of things and would trip over books and shoes, walk into the edges of the furniture, knock over his teacup. Beanie pulled low, he sometimes collided with bins or park benches on the street, then learned to picture a wide path between the things he saw with his good eye and sail down the centre.

At the flat, Deanna put extra energy into sighing and slamming around the cupboards, but no more was said about the eye. He wondered how long this might last. Certainly, she’d never banked on having a scabby cyclops for a husband, and Deanna had strong ideas about what she deserved.   

In the weeks that followed, Marcus felt a newly minted sense of power. The lost eye was really freaking Deanna out. She looked away from him when she spoke, ducked into the kitchen when he entered the sitting room. Marcus followed her around, enjoying the fresh undercurrent of panic beneath her usual disdain.

Bad juju jammed the signals she usually relied upon. Deanna felt the force of something “old and evil”, she told him one day, gazing towards her crystals on the tea trolley as if ancient mineral deposits might save her.

Marcus upped the stakes. He pulled up a chair one morning when she was scrapbooking and dabbed disinfectant into his weeping socket with cotton wool, stray drops of Dettol soaking into torn-out images of flowers, rabbits, ducklings, clinching couples.

Marcus drew back his shoulders, straightened his neck. For years he’d been an apology made flesh, stooped under the weight of Deanna’s anger and regret. But now Marcus regarded her squarely with his good eye and it was Deanna who dodged his gaze, turning away from the puckered wound that seemed to lead directly into his soul. 

They stopped sharing a bed. Deanna had nightmares after rolling over one night and seeing the socket seeping onto his pillow. Marcus was exiled to the couch where he’d lie awake at night, face burning. Every few days, the street-sweeper would clank past before dawn, its roof light throwing dull rainbows onto the walls as it flashed against lumps of cut glass, fluorite, tourmaline, quartz.

Marcus stared at the ceiling. Life pressed in, and he accepted the squeeze. His world felt small and limited, but what lay beyond was unknowable. He was a fish in a bucket, struggling to remember the sea. 

Walking into town, he often passed his attacker, who showed no sign of recognition. The stranger had acquired a mutt he called John who got a constant earful of shouting, swearing and fractured phrases dredged up from whatever was left of the poor bugger’s mind. As Marcus headed towards the flat one day, John trotted over and sniffed his hand. Marcus scratched behind the dog’s ear. The fur felt coarse and warm beneath his hand, and there was a sharp electric pleasure in the physical contact.

It was nice out here, despite the grey buildings, the cars, the cold. Marcus was in no hurry to get home to his reluctant wife, who preferred to be alone, immersed in a vivid spirit world she’d built for herself, a place where the usual rules of physics and chemistry, cause and effect did not apply.

When she wasn’t adding to her scrapbooks, Deanna read endless esoteric texts about paganism, magick, King Arthur, long-dead Egyptians. She borrowed library books by an entire loony bin of self-proclaimed witches, psychics, healers and druids. Her bedside table was piled high with anthologies of spells by Aleister Crowley, Janet Farrar, Alex Sanders, Doreen Valiente.

She met for “coven drinks” at The Globe with three equally deluded mates, where they discussed The Craft between gins. A couple of months before his injury, Marcus had written “One Careful Wicca Owner” on the kitchen broom with a Sharpie. It was the first time he’d seen her laugh since little Mikey died.

Deanna claimed to have second sight, always conveniently asserted after the fact. One day she announced that the implement that had pierced his eye had been a deconsecrated church key, supplied by Satan. The old dero in the street was just a pawn in some darker plan.

“That dog is his familiar,” she whispered, as if someone else was listening. “And it can change form! It started life as a hare!”

Deanna reckoned Marcus had earned the scorn of the divine. It was karma, and she’d long sensed that such a “balancing wounding” was coming.

“Really?” said Marcus. “I wish you’d told me.”

His injury triggered an intense new surge in magical behaviour by his missus. She muttered incantations while Marcus tried to watch telly. She stunk out the house with bundles of burning sage. The windowsills acquired fresh arrangements of bound sticks, bird skeletons, little brass cups, lumps of rock. Cedar shavings were strewn in cupboards and wardrobes and stuffed into Marcus’ pockets and shoes. Deanna would throw wide the windows, even on the coldest nights, and swing an incense burner towards the openings.

“I banish you!” she chanted as the moths poured in.

Goat antlers appeared on the mantlepiece, propped either side of her blind grandad’s photo. Marcus came home one day to find a circle of salt around the couch where he slept.

She did bizarre things with perfectly good food. Deanna lay several carrots and a cucumber along her headboard, and they stayed there until they were speckled with mould. Marcus caught her one day, smearing blood from a slab of stewing steak around the doorjamb.

But life went on in cold repetition, and the spheres refused to intervene.

And then, a month or so after his wounding, Marcus arrived home to find Deanna had left him. No explanation, no note, but her clothes and photos and scrapbooks and witchy crap were gone.

Marcus knew he should feel something. Loss, anger, maybe relief. But there was only hunger. He went out and bought a burger, ate it over the sink, then called the blind grandad’s number.

“Fuck you!” he shouted when the old guy finally found the phone. Marcus could hear Acca Dacca pounding in the background. “If you hadn’t eaten so many cakes, you’d still be able to see!”

Two days later, the stranger was slumped on the couch in piss-stained trousers, gnawing on a leg of KFC. John was going mental, of course, tail flapping, eager for a taste. Cardboard boxes, broken radios and other street trash stood piled under the window. So long as Marcus didn’t go near it, they’d get on OK, he reckoned.

The stranger claimed the marital bed. He would lie in there and rant and smoke, barking out offcuts of dreams and memories in a hopeless jumble, beseeching his enemies for peace, his world tightening ever inwards in a way Marcus understood.

Marcus lay on the couch as John paced around the sitting room. His paws beat out a soft rhythm on the carpet, and he sometimes chased his tail, breathing fast and loud like Mikey used to, towards the end.  

Every now and then John would pad over and lap away at Marcus’ seeping socket, his tongue warm and soothing, then wander off to doze amid the cardboard and blankets. There was a shaky sort of peace. Each animal kept its own orbit, and Marcus realised he felt content for the first time in years.

Deanna still had her key. Every now and then he would arrive home to the smell of burnt sage, and once found a fresh salt circle around the stranger’s bed. But Marcus didn’t believe in magic. Hurtful things happened all the time, and humans had no control over that. Your best bet was to stand firm like a rock in a stream while life rushed around and over you, wearing down your rough edges, washing you clean.

Next week's short story is by Rebecca Styles.

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