A better man

Published in Meanjin Vol. 63 No.3 2004

Ross Lundgren is standing in the supermarket queue and no-one would know it but in the flat, bland light he is having a rethink about his life. His waist-length grey hair is in a loose ponytail, his complexion a slightly yellow hue. His charcoal polar-fleece top has stains down the front, pale drips the consistency of dried porridge and a slit in the upper arm as if someone had tried to stab him. Maybe they had. He is not that keen to learn the history of the slash, which has been there for quite some time. He has lost interest in reconstructing shameful nights on the piss. That's all in the past now. He doesn't want to hear what the others saw. He doesn't want to be the central character in another infamous tale of stupidity. This is his new promise to himself after looking into Errol's sad and pitiful eyes. Ross Lundgren sighs, looks around. As usual, nothing holds his attention for very long. It's just the same old overbright mishmash of nothing and everything. There are too many flat surfaces, not enough irregularity. It's time to move to the bush, he thinks, and get away from all this crap. Then he notices the woman behind him in the queue assessing him, doing a slow head-to-toe scan and suddenly, awkwardly, he is more aware of his dishevelment—the stubble, the split ends, the bad posture, the lack of personal care—that signifies his status as a lonely bachelor. He knows he has a crumpled, slept-in face from which jowls are starting to descend. His pot-belly juts annoyingly beneath his polar fleece. He sucks in his gut, without much outward change. The woman turns away.

She is thinking that he must drink a lot of beer and have a very poor diet to look that way. She guesses he is emerging from a weekend bender (it is a Monday night). Maybe he is a mechanic. She has seen that bone-weary look on the face of many mechanics over the years, ones who would rather she didn't bring her rust heap to them, despite the many hundreds of dollars they manage to wrest from her even as they deliver their disparaging remarks and doom-laden prognoses. Mechanics are low on her list of favourite people; down there with dentists and teenage female hairdressing apprentices who make smugly youthful remarks about her greying roots and her unfashionable 1980s hair. 'Maybe we should lose the tragic perm, darl,' said one. But she bit her lip and insisted it stay. 'No, no. I'll keep it, thanks.'

Ross Lundgren is not a mechanic, though. He drives a rattling, blue Commodore with dented panels on the passenger side and a tendency to stall at intersections so that the people behind him in the right-turning lane become irate and toot their horns and yell obscenities at him. He gives them the finger. An Elvis figure in a white Las Vegas jumpsuit hangs from the windshield from suction cups—a gift from his neighbour lgor. Ross is not an Elvis fan but doesn't want to offend Igor, who is a devotee of many years' standing. He often hears his strained tenor mimicking the King's as Igor sings his rendition of 'A hunk a hunk o' burning love'. Ross sees Igor combing his blue-black hair into a ducktail, walking with a swagger as if he is surrounded by an entourage of jokey sycophantic guys just like the real King. But Igor lives alone and has few visitors. Such is the sad truth of it. In Ross Lundgren's block there are quite a few men living alone like battery hens. Men his age with families elsewhere and children they fled only to battle in court to see a little glimpse of on weekends. Oh the hypocrisy, the wails and moans. My kids, my kids, she doesn't let me see my kids.

Tonight in the supermarket Ross Lundgren is making only a small purchase. He is buying a toothbrush and toothpaste. He is also making a promise to himself, after holding Errol's small, chubby hand in his own, that he will try to be a better father, a better friend, a better worker. A better man. The gaze of the woman behind him is reinforcing this resolution.

After the recent trauma, he hasn't been able to contemplate food but his appetite is returning as he scans the stands of Snickers and Mars bars, the racks of chewing gum and magazines with gorgeous women on the front, the likes of whom he will never get close to. He is reconciled to that fact. Hunger lurks. He knows it will grow and grow and never be sated. But he needs to lose weight too, so he resists the temptations and tries not to think about food. Lose weight, get fit, give up the smokes and the booze. Big-time resolutions are formulating in the supermarket queue on a Monday night as the woman behind him does her imperious assessment.

She has decided Ross Lundgren would probably be a good poker player with a face like that. He is obviously a smoker, she concludes and searches his person for the pack of Horizon 50s she suspects he smokes. But she can see none. That's because they're sitting on the dashboard of the Commodore, next to Elvis. And he will have to pace himself carefully through the remainder of the pack until Wednesday when he will be able to buy more. Giving up is not something he has contemplated before, despite the cost and the inconvenience of not being allowed to smoke any goddamn place on earth anymore, including people's homes. Even his son Toby asks him to go outside. Bloody smart-mouthed puritanical kid. But he does as he is asked. The boy is right, it's a filthy habit and he is a filthy man. A lazy, useless, selfish, filthy man. But things will change, he tells himself. They have to change.

Ross Lundgren's son doesn't live with him, he lives with his mother—a woman Ross has had no contact with for nearly ten years but whom he continues to blame for his lack of happiness. Ross doesn't manage money well, which was part of the problem, along with what she, Jacinta, described as his pathological laziness. Smart woman, his ex-wife. Good with words and good with money. University-educated, she was slumming it when she married Ross Lundgren, mainly to annoy her doctor father and alcoholic, social-climbing mother. Toby was conceived while Ross was watching the football—Collingwood versus Essendon. He didn't even have to get out of his chair. Jacinta is now married to a more suitable man, Gordon, with whom she runs a thriving car-battery business. He is a man without much hair, unlike Ross's thick and cascading locks—his best feature, he has always felt. But then Gordon does have a good late-model Mitsubishi and an ability to take care of things, including Ross Lundgren's ex-wife and son and their beautiful, two-storey Victorian terrace in Parkville.

Toby will turn seventeen next month. He attends private school and has read many more books and knows many more words than his father and does not share his interest in beer, cigarettes and pornography. Toby Lundgren is an enthusiastic student and a talented player of basketball. He has his father's height and former speed and fluidity coupled with his mother's determined but even temperament. He has been taught not to objectify the female form through the kind of leering male gaze that he recognises often in the bloodshot eyes of his father and which has been described to him by his cultural studies teacher and characterised as primitive, outmoded and somewhat disgusting. His mother concurs. She remembers the background hum of the Collingwood–Essendon game during her son's conception and still feels a little grubby about it. Toby Lundgren struggles to identify with his father's world view, which often comes to him through what Ross likes to refer to as 'beer goggles'. Toby doesn't drink. But that is not to say he doesn't have some vices of his own, which he has no intention of sharing with his boring, layabout father whenever he stays with him in his damp ground-floor unit.

The woman ahead of Ross in the supermarket queue is Vietnamese, the check-out boy is Indian and the two are having trouble communicating with one another and are holding up Ross's progress into his better life. Ross is a picture of indifference. But he is thinking, beneath his stony face, that these people should learn to speak bloody English, it should be a requirement of their living here in the first place. He doesn't consider himself to be racist, although some races bother him more than others. Is that racist, he wonders? He doesn't mind the traditional wogs: Italians, Greeks, that sort of thing. But these Asians, they're so aggressive and busy and you can never tell what they really think. The Lebanese and Turks, on the other hand, are too ready to tell you what they think, and always in a loud, belligerent manner. The few times he has complained about this in front of Toby lately he has been lectured on cultural tolerance and lambasted for his bigotry and then mocked for daring to imagine himself superior to anyone of either sex or any race in the first place. This, his son tells him, is like those fat ugly men who are fearful of a homosexual advance when, in fact, they have a better chance of being struck by lightning. Toby, Ross thought, was too influenced by his mother and the views of women in general. And they just might just have managed to turn him into a poofter in the process. It's a thought that makes him feel murderous and nauseous and that he quickly pushes to the back of his mind.

Ross notices that the Vietnamese woman is buying about ten packets of sanitary pads. He is trying not to look at this intimate purchase, although his own might also be considered intimate as well, associated as it is with the mouth, tongue, teeth and even lips. Ross is trying not to let his curiosity show. And he is succeeding, as always.

The woman behind him notes his lack of interest. But even more than that she is wondering about Ross Lundgren himself. She wonders whether he is a long way from home or doesn't brush his teeth all that often, or whether he has a guest who has forgotten a toothbrush, or has come to stay unexpectedly due to an emergency or sickness in the family. She decides that he is probably a truck driver from interstate who simply forgot his toothbrush. But why? Maybe he is on the run? Perhaps he has escaped from jail. The woman takes a step back.

The weekend hadn't looked like being out of the ordinary until the incident with Errol, the dwarf, who was also a regular at the Royal. Errol is a few years older than Ross and despite being half his size can match him beer for beer. From the barman's point of view, it often looks like Ross is drinking two beers at once and talking to himself, unless Errol stands on a stool, but he is loath to do that just to suit Ross. He gets sick of adjusting himself to make other people feel more comfortable. He hates it when people squat down to talk to him, too. And he takes particular exception to being patted on the head, which a surprising number of people seem to do—especially women. He hates it also when women say he is cute and he hates it when people mistake him for a child. Ross has always had the decency to abuse and shit-stir him and call him Grumpy. He refers to Ross as Crock; he says it is because most of the time what Ross says is a crock of shit. The bartender calls them Biggie Rat and Itchy Brother, but only when they're extremely drunk, which was almost the entire weekend until the recent incident that saw Ross Lundgren take Errol Odgers to the emergency department of the Alfred Hospital and list himself as 'next of kin'. Since that weekend, he hasn't touched a drop.

Not 'drinking partner' or 'acquaintance' or 'mate'. Next of kin. The most intimate individual in Errol's life and sphere. As if the fall backwards off the stool wasn't bad enough: Ross Lundgren had almost wet himself laughing until he saw the pool of blood coagulate around Errol on the tiled floor of the Royal like an oil slick and Errol's eyes roll back into his head. Now this. A kind of responsibility, an obligation, a duty, a heavy and profound connection with another human being. Ross's head was spinning with the enormity of it all. When Ross saw the blood he stopped laughing, yelled at the barman to call an ambulance, squatted down over Errol and tried to remember his first aid from twenty years earlier, but nothing came to mind. He took Errol's pulse but had no watch. The pulse seemed fast. But Errol is a fucking dwarf, so fast could have been normal. He forgot the pulse. He wondered whether he should he lift his head or not move him. Maybe his neck broke on impact. Best just to leave him until the ambulance came. He yelled his name a few times. Yelled at the barman who was coming round to see to Errol. Yelled 'Jesus Fucking H Christ' to the room in general. The barman was a useless artistic type and had no clue what to do but at least he called an ambulance.

It wasn't until long after the hospital admission, after Errol had been wheeled through the flapping heavy plastic saloon doors and after Ross had waited for hours slumped in a moulded plastic chair, that a nurse emerged and revealed to Ross that Errol had listed him as next of kin and was asking for him. And then Ross had gone in to see him lying on a trolley and Errol had promised to leave him all his worldly possessions, which he began to list in excruciating detail: his collections of porcelain electric kettles and snow domes, his small investments, the family trinkets and books and other items of which Ross had no previous knowledge. He'd never thought about what Errol might own or what kind of place he might live in , nor about his family. What had they talked about? What had they ever shared? What was this relationship between them? Ross Lundgren had been in a state of bafflement for quite some time sitting in the waiting room, wondering where all this would lead.

And then there was the pleading look in Errol's damp and desperate eyes that seemed to set a switch in Ross's mind. It was a look he had never seen before, not in Toby or Jacinta or Igor or anyone else. It was a look both of trust and vulnerability, childlike and yet also scarred by adult disappointment. It was a bereft and pleading look that tore at Ross Lundgren's heart and drove him to the supermarket on a cold and windy Monday night to stand in a queue behind a Vietnamese woman buying too many sanitary pads, with another woman looking him up and down as if he is smeared in shit. But he is doing it for his friend, for his kin. And it is the start of his quest to become A better man. But none of this can be discerned by looking at him. He looks bored, detached from life. His face is something that will never change, despite the turmoil within.