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Tuesday I went downstairs to meet with Jackson, my cousin, a man I hadn’t seen for a long time. I had been living by myself in the city, far away from the life he’d been part of, and he was in town that night for a reason I never learned. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned him much. I don’t like to dwell on Jackson.

It had been years since I last received one of his messages, longer since I’d answered one. They would come through very late at night during unknowable hours from strange numbers and in broadly threatening tones.

Remember bitchtown? lets drive hahahahahahahaha

tonight we r going dog mode. get in the way ur choice ur funeral what do u say.

Threads I had no way of grasping even if I wanted to. Poorly focused photos of abandoned buildings with their dark insides curling, a flash in the mirror of a club bathroom into which a face would bloom if you stared at it long enough. It was the kind of stuff you might see in a documentary about a maniac who builds a nuclear bomb in his bathroom. It seemed to be a language I’d once spoken but could no longer understand.

This time it was a call with a local area code. This time he was bare and polite, as if he was speaking to a client. He was in town one night. I simply needed to name a place and he would meet me there with love in his heart, on the hour or close to it.

‘Tonight?’ I said.

‘You’re not married, are you?’ he asked. ‘A date?’

‘I work a lot,’ I said. ‘There’s a thing tonight on classical FM.’

‘You’re busy, good,’ he said. ‘We’ll relish the time together. I’m not travelling light so I’ll set out early.’ There was no question of my interest, or confusion over the name with which I’d answered the phone, which was new even to me. The line sounded charred, like I was listening to an illicit recording. It took me a while to realise this may just be his voice.

‘There’s a Chinese restaurant,’ I said. ‘Let me get the address’

‘I’ll find it, I’ll be there at seven.’ He hung up.

I turned on the radio, turned it off again. The lightbulb hung down dismally on its long chord. If I put a hand on one wall of my apartment I could stretch out and brush the opposite side without difficulty. In this way I stood at the window, looking at a stranger reading a paper in the bright new building across the street until, as often seems to happen, he slowly stopped what he was doing and turned to meet my eyes.


I’d never been to the Chinese restaurant, which sat at the end of my block. At 7pm, I went down through the fire escape and walked the long way around. Nobody on the street would see where I’d come from and I could avoid being cornered in the lifts by anyone I may have wronged. My building was old and treacherous, close enough to smell the river but not enough to see it. Every week or so someone was toppling from a balcony or dying loudly inside a decaying ensuite. Sharp debris fell from the hands of the children on the high floors and flew out of the dusk to scatter the jogging clubs below.

Nobody knew I lived there. I could step into the restaurant like anybody off the street. Brush the leaves from my shoulders and expect warmth, like anybody, ask for a table in the back, somewhere soft and out of the light.

‘We don’t have anywhere like that,’ said the waiter.

‘It’s been a while since I was here,’ I said. ‘What kind of water do you have now?’

He looked at the coat I was handing him, my best one, my only one, like it was a court summons. He led me to a table so close to the kitchen that its door almost graced my back each time it swung.

‘There’s only one kind of water, really,’ the waiter told me once I was seated. ‘It depends where you want it from. Or what you’re expecting to get from it, I guess. What are you expecting to get from it?’

‘Do you want me to do your job for you?’ I said, picking up the menu and trying to find the water section.

‘We’re busy tonight,’ he said, stepping away. The room couldn’t have been half full.

Jackson wasn’t there and wouldn’t be for some time. I’d already picked the dishes I would be ordering for us from a curling takeaway menu I’d found on the street weeks ago. If the timing worked out, I could be done within half an hour and be back up in my apartment before Jackson had even finished complaining about the drinks menu. I could watch Jackson arrive late, waving his long arms at the taxis, never quite catching on to the puzzle of his own life.

If he tried to follow me out, I knew an alley a block over I could lose him down easily enough, and the service door of an industrial bakery that was often unlocked. I was always good at improvising. I had a talent for absolute silence. My hands were strong in a crisis, despite my occupation, which was totally composed of making calls to people who sounded a few steps away from disappearing completely.

I’d learned not to wonder how much time had passed between the present and the big moments of my life, when everything had held promise. History felt like a chore I’d put off doing until it was too late. Who needs that worry, on top of everything else? I had my own apartment, I listened to classical music now. Even that was a miracle, something that could fall apart if someone paid too much attention to it. It had taken me years to find any sort of balance. Yet I’d come out to see him all the same.

I recognised Jackson immediately when he arrived, despite the suit he was wearing. He had the bearing of a man recently returned to civilisation, evolutionarily troubled. He was lugging alongside him something hefty. As he dragged it closer, it became recognisable. It was a person. A body, unresponsive, or at least immobile, hefted underarm like a rug.

Jackson was breathing hard as he sat down in front of me, balancing the body on an adjacent seat. He coughed a few times into his fist.

‘My love,’ he said to me finally, leaning over to grip my shoulder and kiss my cheek. He was sweaty and calm. He didn’t address the body other than to straighten it up in the seat. The few other diners in the restaurant watched the scene flatly.

The body looked fevered and unpeaceful, like bread midway through rising. It seemed ageless and was utterly without smell. I’d never heard a dead body described in detail, let alone seen one up close. There’s an understanding, I suppose, that if you want to know something there are many ways of finding it out for yourself, more ways than I wanted to imagine. After Jackson noticed my attention he leaned over and masked the body with a napkin.

‘Anyway,’ he said, as if coming back to a conversation we were having. ‘The pain in my stomach? No explanation for it, they say. They refuse to tell me what’s causing it, which I think is the fishiest part of the whole thing.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Are you worried?’

The waiter arrived. Jackson ordered wine without consulting the list, then called him back and made him wait while he fired off his food requests.

‘I don’t think they have oysters,’ I said.

‘I’ve threatened the doctors with everything I can,’ he continued, tucking some cash into the waiter’s pocket. ‘They just don’t want me to see my medical records for some reason. Maybe they know I won’t take it well. Even if it’s good news, you know?’

I’d never seen Jackson in long pants before. His suit was oversized, but it was a suit. His thinning crown was swept back with something like care. He even wore a watch. When he turned to stare at a table where a group of young women were eating, I could see he no longer had a neck tattoo.

‘Jackson,’ I said. ‘What happened?’

‘Oh this?’ he said, patting the body on the shoulder. ‘I’m sorry I even brought it in with me. I didn’t know where to leave it. I fly out in the morning, they need me back immediately.’

‘It’s yours?’

‘Sure, for now. I’m not buying a ticket for it though, and they go nasty if you put them with the general luggage. They bubble up like pancake mix.’

His wine came and he turned back to the women with his glass raised. I put my hand out to straighten the body, which had started to slip forwards.

‘No,’ Jackson snapped, yanking it away before I could touch it. Its head was drooping to the ground. He had it by the belt. ‘No. I’m sorry. Not that. Not that.’

I hadn’t realised how much food Jackson had ordered. A banquet, many hundreds of dollars’ worth. I couldn’t eat any of it. I pushed food around my plate, drinking a little as Jackson spoke at length, pausing after each tangle of story just long enough to make his bowl of dumplings disappear. The military had not been kind to him. University was a breeze, though, made easy after what he called a ‘curing of money problems’, following some mandatory church time and a court-ordered chemical inability to metabolise speed. God had some part in it, he suspected. He had kids too, or rather was engaged to a woman with kids.

‘I consider them mine,’ he said. ‘At least they are when they’re not breaking down the toilet door to get at me inside, or throwing the good meat off the overpass into those tourist buses with no roofs.’

It turned out we worked in related fields. Jackson was apparently better at it, judging by how he was being flown around the country. He travelled for single nights to cities like mine just long enough to smell the river and miss the sound of his wife talking in her sleep. His place was somewhere cheap and newly built, he said. Cut out of cardboard, but the sturdy kind. The houses around him were yet to be filled, and the neighbourhood was serene and empty. At night, the swamp made noises he couldn’t sleep without.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said. ‘I came a very long way from the man you knew, which is true. You would be right to think that.’

We didn’t touch on my parents or his, any of the other warlords of our history. By the time Jackson had worn himself out, I felt winded. He looked again at the women across the room. I was drinking steadily.

‘I’m doing pretty well myself,’ I said.

‘She doesn’t like me keeping these things around,’ Jackson said, ignoring me, gesturing with his fork to the body. He kept a hand ready in case it began sliding again. ‘Can’t stop me on the road. I love her. I love her, but the sounds she made when she found one in the pool closet made me feel like a dog. They talked to me better than that in prison.’

‘What happens when you leave?’

‘You can’t have it, if that’s what you mean,’ he said.

‘I don’t know what I would do with it,’ I said.

‘I bet. No, you’re not ready for this life.’

He patted my hand. I could tell he didn’t mean this unkindly, but the dismissal was hard to stomach, knowing what I knew about Jackson.

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘I have the space. I wouldn’t have to hide it from my wife. I mainly just listen to classical radio.’

‘That’s not what it’s about,’ he said, gesturing for the cheque. Jackson refilled our glasses and demanded I drain both, then called someone over to put our leftovers in a box.

In the bathroom, I ran my wrists under the tap and tried to get a solid image of myself in the mirror. I didn’t know what time it was.

Back outside, the young women had approached our table.

‘Excuse me,’ one said, gesturing with her phone. ‘Can we? We’ve been talking about it since you walked in.’

Jackson laughed and they spooled themselves around the body and took a picture. They turned to me and handed me their phones and spent a few moments posing. Jackson didn’t have a problem with how they touched the body. They slung its arms over their shoulders. They ran their fingers through its hair, kissed both cheeks. Jackson positioned its feet on the table like it was relaxing. I couldn’t concentrate enough to take the pictures. Instead I made the sounds and motions of someone comfortable with taking another’s photo, something I had practised many times.


Jackson convinced two of the women to continue on with us to a bar, first one and then another one. Soon it was late and we were in a karaoke booth somewhere far enough away to feel like another city. It had the hospital smell of something terrible having just been cleaned, and two of the staff were sleeping when we arrived. I got the feeling that we were the only people in the world who’d considered going out. The women, Suzy and Tina, said they were visiting town to celebrate graduation.

‘We felt like we deserved it,’ Tina said.

‘You came here?’ I said, incredulous. ‘You came here to celebrate? To this city? Anywhere in the world and you came to this place?’ I didn’t get drunk often.

‘You’re funny,’ said Tina, leaning in close to me.

Jackson came in dragging the body and holding another bottle of champagne. While he was topping my glass up, he leaned in to say this bar was his hunting ground when he was in town.

‘I mean in terms of fucking,’ he clarified.

‘What about your wife?’ I asked.

He put his hands together in prayer, then mimed a basketball shot and winked.

‘What does that mean?’ I said.

He turned to Suzy and Tina, who were breaking off halfway through a song to switch to another.

‘Did you hear that? This man is everything to me,’ he called, laughing, one hand on my knee and one on the body’s. ‘The messes he used to cause. He was never going to amount to anything, but look at him. Look at him.’

The women looked between the two of us, the body and me, like they were waiting for one of us to speak.

I’m not sure how long we passed in this way, amid the violence of the karaoke. I couldn’t bring myself to sing, but Jackson kept buying bottles and forcing a plastic tambourine into my hand. The women stamped up and down the drinks table as he sang for them, blood in his face. They got the body involved too, pouring champagne into its slack mouth until its throat filled and bubbles poured from its nostrils. The three of them took turns holding it like a skipping rope between them while one of them hopped over and the bar’s employees watched balefully through the viewing window in the door. In a pause between songs Tina came and lay her legs across mine and kissed me.

Everything was alive in a way I didn’t think possible in the usual midweek darkness. And you’re saying it’s Tuesday? I thought. I felt the rush that comes when something hidden your whole life is suddenly revealed, and stepped out to buy my first bottle of champagne for the night.

By the time I returned, the mood had changed. Too many times Jackson had said something Suzy didn’t like and she had finally abandoned him, ready to leave for good. Tina tried to get Jackson to apologise, but he waved her away. He hooted moronically with his head drooping down to the sticky floor of the booth. He smashed a champagne glass against his knee.

‘More, come on,’ he demanded of us. ‘Do it, do it, do it.’

‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you sing another song? Suzy, would you like to sing another song? Tina, do you want to try kissing me again?’

Nobody answered. I knew I was losing something only just promised to me. While Jackson was distracted pulling himself back off the floor, I improvised. I took the body under the arms and carried it up in front of the screen. It was light, and with one hand holding it aloft I entered the code for the first song I recognised on the bar’s list, something from Madame Butterfly. We began.

I kept the body propped against my chest as I sang, its feet trailing the floor, and we moved slowly together as I sang. Soon I felt light too, moving in and out like a breath, keeping the microphone held between us in duet. The song dragged, but I did not falter, even when the lyrics froze and I had to invent the Italian under the glare of the projector. My voice rang in a childhood falsetto I had forgotten I was capable of, something I thought lost. Only once did I misstep and bend the body’s knee at a sickening angle, but I think the pop went unnoticed.

When the song ended, Jackson and the women were silent. I carried the body back to the couch and smiled at them, waiting for my eyes to readjust. Nobody seemed happy. Tina held both hands over her mouth.

‘Pretty good, right?’ I said. ‘Pretty funny?’

‘Oh my god,’ whispered Suzy. ‘What the fuck was that!’

Tina covered her face as she began to cry. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘It was fun. We’re having fun. Jackson, wait.’

I let go of the body, and it slumped face-first onto the song selection remote, switching on the disco ball. ‘Jackson, wait, please.’ But he was gone.


A few blocks away, Jackson was making havoc on a freeway median strip, waving down any car that passed. Drivers leaned on their horns as they swerved around him.

‘Hey, hey, hey. Stop, stop, stop, fuckhead!’ he cried.

He stepped out onto the road as a council truck drove close by, clipping him with the side mirror and spinning him around in a circle.

‘You don’t know the things I’m capable of,’ he screamed after the truck.

At a break in the traffic, I lugged the body over to him and crouched to catch my breath.

‘Take me home,’ he said.

‘Jackson, I don’t know where we are. It’s going to take us hours.’

‘Ok so just follow the fucking river, man,’ said Jackson. ‘Do you need me to tell you everything? There’s always one nearby, and that way lies civilisation, you idiot.’

He began to cry. ‘How could you do that? In front of the girls? After everything I did for you.’

‘I thought—’ I began.

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You didn’t know what you thought.’

He was right. I’d draped my coat over the body like a smock and now the cold was starting to get to me.

‘Nothing but misery,’ Jackson said, staring at it like it was garbage, noting the disfigured knee, which was oozing something.

‘Do you think Suzy and Tina were going to have a threesome with me?’

‘I don’t think so, Jackson.’

He began to shake as he fell into weeping again. ‘No. I don’t think so either,’ he said eventually. ‘I’m sorry, cousin, but I can’t rightly recommend this life anymore.’

He set off from the freeway, dragging the body a few blocks before he let me help lift it by the feet. There were warehouses here. Factories on either side of us, black-hearted in the night. Noises came out of them like rain in the branches of trees. At first, carrying the body in concert with Jackson had given me resolve, but in the shadows I felt adrift, paper-thin. His nose was right, though. Soon we had found the river.

Jackson spotted a boat ramp and shuffled a few feet down to the water and rolled the body out. We stood there watching it bob for a moment. Then he waded in.

‘Nothing but misery,’ he said again. ‘Time to make things right.’

‘Is it cold?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘God, it is.’

He gave the body a push and slowly it began to leave him, drifting away into the dark. The overpass shot out across the water and away from us, and I watched the lights of the night drivers going, leaving or returning. I didn’t realise Jackson had changed his mind and swum out after the body until he was in trouble, thrashing around in the water, screaming.

‘No, oh god,’ he cried, his voice high and breaking. ‘Oh god no. Oh my god, no! Come back! We need you! Please!’

I managed to catch him and pull him into my arms. The water was shallow enough to stand, but he continued to float. ‘I need it,’ he said over and over, throwing his head back against me and thrashing his legs. He kept pulling me off balance and sending us both under the surface. Each time we slipped under, he would come up a little calmer. Eventually he relaxed.

I had my arm around his throat as he bobbed, his legs kicking gently but the rest of him still. A rising feeling, then, in the darkness so far from home. River water in my belly, the egg smell of the factories making me wince.

I left Jackson’s head underwater a little longer each time. He didn’t seem to mind what was happening. When I brought him back up, he would mutter, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you,’ as if I was the one in his arms.

Don’t worry.

I’ve got you.

I’m here.