I was dating Whitman. It was okay. He’d been my older sister’s boyfriend a few years ago and now he was mine. Things like this occur every day.
Whitman was an oaf who, growing up, couldn’t seem to stop making dumb decisions and getting himself hurt badly for them. He partially severed two fingers with a hatchet while attempting a magic trick, for example, and got them reattached at great expense to the taxpayer.
‘Is this part of the trick?’ Hollie had asked him.
In high school he would call constantly, wondering if she wanted to come over. We first met years ago at a party his brother, Ronnie, was throwing at their family farm. Now it was the summer after high school and his brother was away in prison after a fight, and Hollie had run off again. Now I was the one who Whitman was calling.
This time he rang me to say he was having some trouble selling a crossbow.
‘It’s an antique,’ he said. ‘But it’s a bad one. It sucks to look at, it’s not very nice to hold. As someone who does this kind of thing a lot, I feel like you should do everything in your power to help me. I think the thing is cursed. Whatever we get, we’ll share fairly as business partners, though obviously the majority of the profits will go to me.’
‘Don’t call here again, Whitman,’ I said.
And he didn’t. He drove into town that afternoon and made his pitch to me in person. He didn’t bring the crossbow. He had a plaster cast on his left arm, with no story he wanted to tell about how he got it. Ma was off looking for Hollie, with no news about when she’d be back. Without much to do, Whitman and I drank some beer and got drunk, made out for a couple of hours and afterwards went looking for food.
Everywhere was closed. We were floating around in that exhaustion that comes with knowing you are in the midst of something that will go into a history book.
I’d never sold anything before, though Whitman wouldn’t have known this. I did spend a lot of my time browsing the classifieds, speaking to strangers who were selling things nobody would ever want – cracked fish tanks, ancient dehumidifiers, medals from non-specific wars, a catfish skeleton, a smoke-damaged jukebox from a children’s party centre that had burned down.
I bought what I could, donating most of it straight back to charity or dumping it where it wouldn’t get wet. It was an unsustainable practice, but it was really something to hear the voice of a stranger who thinks you are there to help them.
It was an unsustainable practice, but it was really something to hear the voice of a stranger who thinks you are there to help them.
What else was there for me? School had just ended, washing past like a wave. It took any friends I had left with it, dumping the rest of us a few feet from where we started. I made a little money babysitting for people around town. I got a reputation for overfeeding kids, or forgetting to feed them at all, and the good families stopped calling me.
In those days, Hollie was always running off somewhere and Ma was always running away looking for her, thinking she was going to hurt herself again. Hollie was already twenty-two but that didn’t mean anything to Ma, who left me alone for days at a time, with nobody to cook for me and no one to speak to but the strangers from the paper.
I sat in the kitchen and drank cooking wine or some of Ma’s vodka with cordial, watching as the sun set on the big tree behind our house. I always called late, because I liked to hear the voices of the strangers answering their phones at night. No one is certain of anything at 10 or 11 pm. It could be anyone trying to reach them – a relative, coming forth with tragedy; a childhood friend with an untenable request; a saviour, someone promised, zooming towards them from absolute darkness.
The strangers had no way of knowing who I really was: a young woman with some time on her hands, one with an interest in a broken dehumidifier, waiting for her older sister to come home and talk about all the things she’d seen.
Sometimes I woke early, anxious in the dark, long before it was time for anybody to rise, with a bold and impressive clarity about all things occurring on Earth.
I wanted something new – an ugly death, a dramatic one, in a hail of police bullets, or else the valued death of a saviour. Anything but what I was sure I was heading for. I could see the days I had wasted and the days yet to come. In this way, I could see the map of the summer laid out, faint but legible, like the memory-letters on the second sheet of paper in a notepad.
Until Whitman called, I had so far predicted it all with unerring accuracy: that Hollie would leave at the beginning of summer, stay away two weeks, return to us for two more, disappearing again one night in the rain; that little new would happen to me, that I would be, effectively, a forgotten rug in a rug warehouse, bound and buried, slowly decaying in the damp air over a great many years.
I could see the map of the summer laid out, faint but legible, like the memory-letters on the second sheet of paper in a notepad.
Whitman was new, sure, but it was clear it wouldn’t last. It would end poorly and with great speed.
Meanwhile, Hollie was living out her stories, all of which sounded as fake as hell. Riding trains and near-misses with strange men. She harvested pot at a farm up north with a young guy who shivered like a puppy when she touched his naked stomach. In a town named Casino she worked at a bar where people would pay her forty dollars just to light their cigarette for them. In Sydney she and a friend went home with a man and robbed him once he’d passed out.
Always a point of emergency blossoming out of nowhere, an irreversible moment. I wondered why her life found these orbits, if she even had any other stories. There always seemed to be sex, too, of which there had been none here.
Hollie’s hair turned curly from the stress of it, from the changes in latitude, from neglect. Over the years she cut it and grew it back out, and told me that no matter what she did while she was out there, no matter who she met, she always, always ended up alone by the end of it.
Then she would disappear again. You’d think we would get used to it eventually, but we never did. It was always a shock when Hollie left us.
It was two weeks before I brought up the crossbow with Whitman. It had been a ploy, of course, a bluff. We spent a few hours a week together – smoking next to the dam, smoking outside the movie theatre under the light of the empty poster frames, avoiding saying anything that couldn’t be taken back.
Whitman wasn’t cute anymore but he was still tall, and had some more to go, if that were possible at his age. Like a lot of people who’d never left town, he looked like he got lost walking home from school one day and never managed to find his way back.
I called his bluff. I told him I remembered seeing a crossbow for sale once, a few years ago. An old woman had one at stall in an antiques warehouse.
No, the woman had said when I asked about it, it was not for shooting; her crossbow – left by a Rotary president or a Lions president who’d died of something ordinary in a small town – was purely for the pleasure of viewing. The woman said she wouldn’t know how to shoot it even if she wanted to. Which, she added, she didn’t. It was about as good to me as a shoehorn.
Whitman’s crossbow, on the other hand, was something else. He was right about it being ugly. Most of the finish had rubbed off, and it had a gaudy pistol grip. It was nothing but an ugly black thing with a crooked sight and a hair trigger; like something left over from a part of history nobody cared to look at anymore.
Like a lot of people who’d never left town, Whitman looked like he got lost walking home from school one day and never managed to find his way back.
But the sound of a bolt coming out of it could be described, Whitman told me, as a revelation.
What, if anything, could you say to make someone buy it?
‘This is no antique,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what it is.’
‘Sure, but nobody knows what an antique is,’ said Whitman. ‘It’s an invented term.’
‘I think it’s about as bad as anything else you’d find for sale in the paper.’
He showed it to me as we stood in the yard out the front of his home. Until his brother Ronnie got out, Whitman was here by himself. It was the kind of farmhouse you see along the highway and wonder if anyone had ever lived there at all; so far away from town that you couldn’t come by way of a normal bus. You had to take a coach, with seatbelts and everything. Past the highway, past the state forest where every few years a body would turn up.
His business plan hadn’t changed much, even though I was now his girlfriend and not merely a partner in an abstract transaction. He wanted as much as we could get for the crossbow. A percentage of it would be mine, something we could hash out later. Like everything else in his possession, the crossbow had been his mother’s, and like everything, he wanted it gone as quickly as possible, for the bad luck he thought it brought.
He told me his mother liked to drag her armchair out on nice days and smoke a joint and shoot at paint cans, and then yell until one of the boys came out to find the bolts that shot stray, which, with the bow’s crappy sights, were frequent.
She did this until her kidneys gave up in the spring. She’d lasted a week on dialysis before her heart went too, and that was that. Once, Ronnie brought the crossbow out at a party and shot it point blank into the toilet bowl. Everybody laughed, but it freaked Whitman out.
‘The bolt could have shot off the bowl and hit somebody in an artery,’ he said. It was gross and disrespectful. ‘No one thinks about how bad it’s going to feel if it goes wrong. Everybody remembers the toilet gag, but it could have turned out very different.’
It became clear that he wasn’t prepared to just throw it away, no matter how cursed it was.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s sell it, then.’
He raised the crossbow up and propped it on his cast and took a shot at a square of metal hanging from a branch twenty metres away. The bolt disappeared somewhere in the trees beyond. Then he asked me if I was hungry.
When Whitman had been in love with Hollie he was one of a few boys who rang often or visited late. He didn’t retreat, as most did, when she had her first panic attacks and started disappearing from town. On weekends I would hear him and boys like him arrive at her window in the hours after the parties had ended and before the sun would rise.
‘I suspect she’ll keep disappearing and doing stupid things until she’s done the worst, most stupid thing possible,’ he said. ‘Then she’ll either give up or she’ll go and do something even dumber. Either the end is near or it’s further away than ever, is what I’m trying to say.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I always see see her. As soon as I stop expecting it.’ Though I wasn’t sure.
He sounded resigned whenever he talked about Hollie; like there was something about her he recognised but couldn’t name.
Like everything else in his possession, the crossbow had been his mother’s, and like everything, he wanted it gone as quickly as possible.
The afternoon was finding its hottest point. We made a plan to drive over to the antiques warehouse and catch it before it closed and see if the old woman still had a spot there. She would have advice for us, we figured, if nothing else.
Whitman told me about a friend whose father owned a burger place on the highway where we could eat cheap, and on our way into town we drove over and ordered whatever we wanted from the menu and told them to put it on the family tab. They weren’t happy about that, but no one wants to get in trouble for a stupid reason, Whitman reminded them.
It was a nice process; emptying the paper bags out onto the hood of his car, eating there in the parking lot as the sun set and the travellers got in and out of their cars around us. A high school soccer team was having a rest stop and two tall kids with shaved heads came out of the restaurant to ask us for a cigarette.
‘Take this with responsibility,’ Whitman said, handing one over.
Pretty soon we’d drunk all the beer we brought with us and across the highway the big pines of the forest got dark. The birds were crying like they knew something we didn’t. I saw myself crossing the lanes and going into the cool there and lying down. I wanted to sleep. I wanted a cigarette, to postpone whatever scheme we had and lie together in the woods.
Instead we got the crossbow from the back seat of Whitman’s car and collected all our empty cans and the rest of our food and took it around to the other side of a wall separating the burger joint from the vacant spot next to it, and set up a little shooting gallery there.
We lined up the cans along the bottom of the wall and balanced burgers on top of a few of them. We would only have about five minutes, I guessed, before someone came out and yelled at us.
‘This is a robbery,’ he said as he loaded it. ‘It’s lights out for you. If you move, it’s over. ’
Whitman’s shots all whiffed off and hit the cinder wall with the sound of flint being struck. He missed four times before he handed the crossbow over and showed me how to load it. He was right that it wasn’t comfortable to hold; he was right about the hair trigger, and the crooked sight. No part of the process felt comfortable, so it made sense that, when one of the kids rounded the wall, coming to beg for more cigarettes, I put my first bolt into his leg.
Oh, I thought.
I just dinged him, I figured. It was nothing, judging by the way he didn’t make a particularly big deal, the way he just sat down abruptly. There it was, sticking out only a little way. He was making a gasping noise, astonished, and for a second I really thought that he was faking it. It was a joke – every sound he made was an imitation, something planned.
He was screaming by the time Whitman pulled me back to the car park and into the car and got us moving. I could see two people chasing us on foot. The whole thing occurred so quickly, that if you’d been passing along on the highway, even at speed, you would have more than enough time to witness it all unfolding, start to finish, in the dusk.
My phone buzzed in my bag but I didn’t pick up. I’d never heard something so filling before. The assured scream of the wounded. It sounded ancient.
‘You’re panicking,’ I said.
‘Why am I the only one panicking? Why aren’t you?’
We were still on the highway. Only slowing when there was nowhere to merge. I’d never moved so quickly in my life.
‘I am panicking,’ I said. My heart was beating. I had the sticky feeling that comes after an act that I knew I would regret. I expected a deep shame to soon find me, but I’d felt shame before, and part of me liked the feeling of fleeing in the darkness, rushing somewhere – where? – with purpose.
Then we were out of traffic. First onto a service road, and then a dirt track into the forest. Whitman cut the headlights and drove slowly until it was too dark to see by anything else and we had to stop.
I realised he was trying to wriggle his hand out of his cast.
‘Help me,’ he said.
‘Is it ready to come off?’
We got the cast stuck halfway off his hand and it took him ten minutes to cut through the rest of it with a pocket knife. It looked like he’d injured it again in the struggle. Once more his hand was useless. It was pathetic – I felt pathetic for being a part of it.
I’d felt shame before, and part of me liked the feeling of fleeing in the darkness, rushing somewhere – where? – with purpose.
He said, ‘Go out there and find a spot to dig a hole.’
‘You want to bury it.’
‘None of this is funny.’ He didn’t look at me. I thought his voice sounded like it had that first time, on the phone; like a child, insistent and unsure.
This was it, of course. I knew that if I got out of the car then Whitman would drive off on me. My clarity had returned to me in a moment of violence. Whitman would leave me in the darkness with the crossbow, too far from the highway to see any lights.
I wouldn’t see Ma again, or the strangers waiting for my call, for me to take the things they needed gone. I wouldn’t see Hollie, though I would hear her voice – the phone call I missed would be from her. An accidental call from her pocket. She would be speaking to someone as she walked, her voice the voice of the oblivious.
I did get out, but Whitman didn’t leave me.
He found a torch in the back of the car and we walked together into the trees a little way and found a spot to bury the crossbow. He lay on his belly and dug with his one good hand, took breaks by rolling onto his back and breathing. And when the torch gave out we dug in darkness.