topimage

BACK TO MY STORIES

     We had wandered down the dark way next to the beach and stood behind the yacht club looking in at the dance. Inside were glowing lights of different colors which someone kept changing, so one minute the dancers glowed purple, and the next they were bright yellow. Neither of us wanted to go in. The music was good. We could see many pretty girls with dark flashing legs and whirling skirts moving with the music in the arms of a motley bunch of young men, some in suits and their hair slick and others in baggy slacks and white shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. But Luke was a New Australian, a Yugoslav, with a heavy accent, and I was an American, a stranger in town; and we both knew the curious reticence of the Australians to foreigners and strangers.
     “I would go in,” said Luke slowly, heavily, “but it would be no good.”
     “It doesnt look like much.”
     “They are all moving around like scarecrows.”
     When the dance ended all the bright lights flashed on and the young men wandered to one corner and all the girls sat down at the opposite end of the hall.
     “Why do they do that?” said Luke.
     “They must not like to talk to each other.”
     “How is it in your country? Do you all separate like that?”
     “No, not usually.”
     Yes,” said Luke. “That is the way. That is the right way.”
     Two young girls came wandering up the beach. With the music stopped we could hear the scour of the surf gentle on the sand. A boy on a bicycle came up in a flourish of dust and stared into the hall for a moment, stared at us, and then pushed off. The sound of the tires wore off through the night. The two girls stopped and looked in also. They were talking and giggling to each other. In the faint light from the hall their faces were pale and their bodies were flickering with shadows. I thought they might be sisters; their features were very similar; but with one they all combined to make her very pretty, while the other was very plain, a face a little too long, eyes too close together. They nudged each other and we could tell they were criticizing the dancers.
     “Why arent you in dancing?” I said.
      They looked at us.
     “No fear,” said the pretty one. “Not us.”
     “You dont like the dance?” said Luke.
     “Oh, these bush dances. Theyre full of creeps.”
     “Oh, youre not local girls, then?”
     “No fear!” said the plain one.
     “You are from the Big Smoke, eh?”
     “We’re from Perth,” said the pretty one.
     “On holidays?” I said.
     “Yeah, sort of.”
     “How do you like it up here?”
     “Oh, we like it.”
     “You like it! What do you find to do?”
     “Oh,” said the plain girl, “the beach is lovely.”
     “You mean you swim all the time?”
     “Oh, no, no, not all the time.”
     “Then what else do you do?”
     They looked at each other.
     “I dont know,” said the pretty girl. “We go sightseeing.”
     “Sightseeing!” said Luke. “Now that I would like to know. You tell me. Where do you go sightseeing?”
     They looked at each other again.
     “We’ve been to the back beaches. And we drove to Northampton.”
     “Ah yes,” said Luke. “Northampton. Beautiful place.”
     “All right,” said the pretty girl. “We know. It’s all alike.”
     The music started again. Girls sat prim and proper with their legs together. After a few minutes some boys drifted over and a couple started dancing. Then came a swarm of boys, en masse, a black and white cloud of them, mingling with brightly colored girls, and they moved out onto the shifting lights of the dance floor.
     “What kind of dance is that?” said Luke.
     “That? That’s the gypsy trot.”
     “The gypsy trot,” I said. “This is the wrong country for gypsies.”
     “You should see the turkey trot,” said the pretty girl.
     She shook her shoulders and arms in imitation of it.
     “Ah," said Luke, “come on, show us some more.”
     “No.”
     She laughed a little, looking away.
     “What do you do in the city?”  I said. “Do you have dances like this?”
     “No fear!” said the plain girl.
     “Oh,” contradicted the pretty one, “sometimes. Mostly we go to private dances. Not the public ones. Theyre different.”
     “And you have the dark lights?”
     “Yes! And slow music.”
     “Ah yes,” said Luke. “That is the way.”
     “What are your names?” I asked.
     Again they looked at each other.
     “Oh,” said the pretty girl, “this is Agatha and I’m Maud.”
     “Maud did you say? Or mud?”
     “Maud!”
     “And Agatha!”
     “You are Miss Agatha Christie, are you?” said Luke.
     “Yes,” said the plain one.
     “And how is your latest book coming along?”
     “My book?”
     “Yes. Your new mystery.”
     “I’ve read all your books, Agatha,” I said.
     “We’ve both read all your books,” said Luke.
     “We think youre a marvelous writer. About your last one—what was the title of it?”
     “Oh,” she said, “I’ve written so many I’ve forgot.”
     “It must be quite a strain, all those books.”
     “Oh yes. Quite.”
     “How old do you think they are?” I said to Luke.
     “Not more than thirty. Maybe thirty-two.”
     “I would say twenty-eight.”
     “My, youre flattering,” said the pretty girl. “We’re really thirty-five.”
     “Well,” I said. “Who would guess! But how old are you really?”
     “We’re seventeen,” said the pretty one.
     “I’m almost eighteen,” said the plain one.
     “Getting on, arent you?” I said.
     “Oh yes. Gray hairs and all that.”
     We watched the dancers for a while. I looked at Luke. He nodded. I turned to the girls, only to see them beginning to move way.
     “Hey,” said Luke. “Where are you girls going?”
     “We’re just going,” said the pretty one.
     “Have fun,” said the plain one.
     “The bitches,” said Luke as they trailed away.
     “Too young,” I said.
     “It is because of my accent. They can tell from my accent I am a European.”
     “I dont think that's it.”
     “Yes, it is my accent. If it was just you it would be different. They like an American accent.”
     “I dont think they knew what my accent was.”
     “Maybe not,” said Luke. “Children. They are just children.”
     “Let’s see where they go.”
     “It doesnt matter. We havent a chance. They do not like New Australians.”
     “It wont hurt to try.”
     “All right,” he said heavily. “We try then. But it is my accent. You see.”
     We walked up to the street and looked down the footpath. The two girls were just entering a coffee shop.
     “We’ll wait a few minutes,” I said. “So it doesnt look like we're following them.”
     We waited and then moved up the street. We turned into the coffee shop without looking first, so it would appear our presence had nothing to do with them. But our care was wasted. They sat with their backs to us, facing the rear of the room. Luke wandered to the juke box which was at the rear of the room also; and when he came into their sight he looked at them as though surprised, and said, “Well, hello,” and they nodded back, a trifle distantly, staring at the table in front of them. I stayed back and ordered white coffees from the small Italian who was standing next to the gold glittering espresso machine. He was an old man wearing an apron speckled with spilt coffee. "Two white coffee," he said. He began fiddling with the machine which began making noises in its bowels. Luke was playing some boogy and snapping his fingers. I could see the two girl’s faces in a mirror. They looked even younger than before in the strong light. Luke came back and stood next to me.
     “What do you think?” he asked.
     “Might as well.”
     “I dont think we will do any good.”
     “Might as well try, now that we’re here.”
     We took the two cups of coffee over to their table.
     “Do you mind if we sit here?” said Luke.
     They shook their heads.
     “It is a beautiful night,” said Luke.
     “Yes,” said the plain girl.
     They were sucking milkshakes through straws.
     “Would you girls like a cigarette?”
     They shook their heads. Luke gave me one. His cigarette lighter refused to work so I got out some matches and lit up.
     “I am out of fluid,” he said, holding the lighter up. “It is always out of fluid.”
     It was a beautiful lighter with carvings on it. His mother had given it to him in Yugoslavia after he had started smoking. She had disapproved strongly. The lighter was a punishment. He did not dare throw it away; he cared for it more jealously than any other possession and every time he lit a cigarette he was reminded of his mother and her lost dreams. She had a vision before he was born that her baby would be a son, and a great preacher; so she named him Luke. Luke was not religious. His mother died in Yugoslavia after he left. Luke's two brothers were fat and respectable. Either of them could have been a preacher, both of them as religious as their mother, but it was Luke on whom she had fastened her dreams and ambitions. "Before I was even born," he told me helplessly.
     The cigarette lighter glittered in the air. The two girls only glanced at it and looked away.
     “What part of Perth are you from?” I asked.
     “Floreat Park,” said the plain girl.
     “Ah yes,” I said. “I’ve been through there. I used to swim at the beach.”
     “I never saw you there.”
     “I wasnt in Perth long.”
     “Where are you from?” asked the plain girl. The pretty one was sucking at her straw.
     “California.”
     The pretty girl looked up and looked at her friend. "Where?" she whispered. "California," the plain one whispered back.
     “Youre an American?” said the pretty girl.
     “Yes.”
     “I thought you were English.”
     “English!” I cried in mock horror.
     “You havent got an American accent.”
     “Lord save me,” I said. “Now I’ve been accused of everything.”
     “Where are you from?” the plain girl asked Luke.
     “Oh, you know, one of those small European countries.”
     “Which one?”
     “Guess.”
     They looked at each other. I wondered if they knew any small European countries. I leaned forward and in a stage whisper said: “Yugoslavia.”
     “Yugoslavia?” said the plain girl.
     “You guessed it!” said Luke.
     “Youre pretty good at guessing,” I said.
     “Oh, yes.”
     Luke got up to put more money in the juke box. As he stood there someone else came up, from outside. I guessed immediately that he was off one of the ships in the harbor. He was carrying a half full bottle of beer with the top crammed back on it and he set it down on a table and walking carefully went over to the juke box and stood behind Luke. His face was very white as though dusted with flour. There were small scars around his mouth and his hair was very black. His white shirt was rolled up disclosing lean stringy arms that looked very strong. He jostled against Luke and Luke turned to look at him. Luke was bigger than he but compared to his lean hardness Luke looked very soft, almost pudgy. The man didnt move out of the way. He stared at Luke his lips turning up, disclosing even, discolored teeth. It was a smile completely emotionless. The eyes were hard and glittering. Luke hurriedly punched the buttons he wanted and sat back down. The man's eyes followed him and then settled on the two girls. His smile got broader, insolent and disfiguring.
     “You like this music?” I asked.
     “It’s all right.”
     “The best music is long-hair stuff,” I said.
     “Long-hair?”
     “Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. Beethovan and Brahms."
     “Oh,” said the pretty girl. “We never listen to that.”
     “My father does,” said the plain girl.
     “My father doesnt listen to anything, except my mother.”
     “I’ve forgotten what my father listens to,” I said. “It’s been so long since I've seen him.”
     “My father loved music,” said Luke. “He was always singing.”
     “When do you leave town?” I asked.
     “Monday,” said the plain girl.
     “Youll be glad to go back?”
     “I’d rather stay here.”
     “Well, why dont you?”
     “Oh, you know. Connections.”
     “Family.”
     They nodded.
     “Do you work in Perth?”
     “No,” said the pretty girl. “We’re the idle rich.”
     “Ah,” said Luke. “The idle rich!”
     “We’re the idle poor,” I said.
     I was keeping one eye on the newcomer in the coffee shop, standing next to the juke box. He took a cigarette out of his mouth and moving closer he leaned over Luke and ground the cigarette into the ash tray. His eyes cold and dark were fastened on the pretty girl opposite us. He kept grinding the cigarette. It burst open like a flower. Strands of tobacco opened like petals. The two girls looked at him and his mouth parted into the grimace that was the shape of a smile. The tiny scars puckered at the edges of his lips. I could hear his breath hissing between his dark teeth. Luke bore the arm for another moment, the cigarette still being ground away into shreds, and then pushed it aside. “That’s enough,” he said. The man stepped back his face going blank. Then the smile appeared again, the lips turning back, a mockery of humor. He leaned against the juke box.
     “Are you finished?” said the pretty girl to her friend.
     “Yes.” She sucked the last of the milkshake through the straw.
     “I think we’d better go.
     “Here,” I said, “we’ll walk you home.”
     “We’re quite all right, thank you.”
     “It’s a cold night.”
     “We’ll manage.”
     They got up gathering their little purses and walked quickly out.
     “Who's this bastard,” said Luke jerking his head in the stranger’s direction.
     “Off one of the ships, I bet.”
     “He’s drunk.”
     “Obviously.”
     “I hope he doesnt try to start trouble.”
     The newcomer went over to the counter and started talking in a hard voice slurring all his words so we couldn’t understand him. The small old Italian just looked at him without moving. The stranger grinned and came back towards us. He leaned onto our table and leered into Luke's face. His smile was icy and calculating and insulting. He mumbled something at Luke; but the words were badly pronounced and it was impossible to make them out. Luke shook his head. “What did you say?”
     The man repeated himself: “You want to have a go at me?”
     “What do you mean!”
     “I say you want to have a go at me!”
     “I dont want to have a go at anybody.”
     “What’s the matter?”
     “Why dont you just go away.”
     “You dont like me.”
     “Just go away.”
     “Come on outside.”
     “Look, we’re not hurting you.”
     “You were pretty smart a while ago, pushing my arm away.”
     “Well, you were asking for it.”
     “You want to have a go at me?”
     “Oh, shut up, why dont you.”
     The man grabbed Luke’s shirt sleeve and twisted it in his hand.
     “You coming outside?”
     “Let go of my shirt!”
     I pushed my chair back and got up. The little old Italian came around from behind the counter and put his hand on the man's shoulder.
     “What you do? You cause trouble here?”
     “He wants to have a go at me.”
     “No one want to have a go at you. Why you not go away?”
     “He’s looking for trouble.”
     “No one look for trouble but you. They just sit there. How they look for trouble?”
     The man let go of Luke's shirt. His face went blank again. He stepped back a pace or two and stared at Luke; then the smile appeared again, deliberate and insulting. The white face looked diseased. The black hair curled thin and dank on top of his head.
     “I’ll see you again, before I leave.”
     “Youre drunk.”
     The smile flashed.
     “When I’m sober.”
     He picked up his half full bottle of beer and lifted it in the air, like a toast. He put the cap in his teeth and jerked, and then spat the cap in our direction. He took a swig from the bottle his head thrown back his throat white and gulping with the movement of the liquid. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, laughing at us, and then staggered out. Luke was still sitting down his slightly pudgy face gleaming. The Italian went back behind his counter muttering to himself. He wiped a rag over his gold espresso machine.
     “I dont know,” said Luke turning to me. “I try to avoid trouble.”
     “Sure.”
     “I dont like to get riled up. I dont know. Maybe I should have fought him.”
     “It wouldnt do any good.”
     “I, you know, I try not to get all—I try not to let go.” His arms waved in the air. “I do not want to lose control.” I could see the words coming and I wanted to tell him to forget it, it didnt matter, there was nothing to be done. But he kept waving his arms, opening and closing his hands, and talking. “I do not want to lose control, because I know if I do, I tear him apart. I kill him. I do not get angry easy, but if I lose control, I cannot help myself. I would tear him apart.”
     “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
     “All right. It is best.”
     We stood outside in the dark night. The man was nowhere to be seen. I thought he was probably down by the beach swigging at his bottle. Across the street the pictures were letting out. A stream of people began fighting their way out of the doors, chattering and laughing. The picture was a musical based on the south seas, full of romance and handsome men and beautiful women, and mountains dark with greenery. Girls wearing their best frocks, in twos and threes, gaily walked past us. Young men in suits talked together eyeing the girls. A few Italians and Greeks shuffled out a sharp contrast to the Australians. The girls’ faces were still full of the lovely music and the beautiful lives of the beautiful people. Luke was clenching his jaws together, his hands still nervously moving.
     “You know,” he said, “I would like to see him again. I would like to see him now.”
     “Yeah.”
     “I think this time I would lose control. I dont think I could stop myself.”
     “No telling where he is.”
     “No, perhaps not.”
     I took out a pack and gave him a cigarette. He pulled his carved lighter from his pocket and flicked at it. Sparks flew. He flicked some more. It wouldnt light. It was a very expensive lighter. I thought it must have cost his mother a small fortune. I took out a match and lit his cigarette, then mine. We stood there puffing a while before going home

_______________

NOTES: This is actually more of a history than a story. That is, I didnt invent it. The story occurred. It was 1962. I was in Geraldton, in West Australia, where I worked as a ganger on the railroad. Luke was a Yugoslav immigrant. When this particular evening finished, I rushed to the boarding house where we were staying, and wrote what had happened. I had a good memory in those days, I had seen the story unfolding around us, and I noted everything with great attention. The dialog I am sure is almost exactly what was said. I changed nothing.




All material copyright by D.N. Stuefloten
Contact: don(at)dnstuefloten.com
See my author's page at Amazon.com
Visit my other websites to see more of my work:
EvidenceOfALostCity.com
HagMovie.com
ArtifactsMagazine.com