The Local Mess
Allan Drew (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Lloyd’s skis and poles rattled in the back of his brother’s Jeep. Gary drove. Gary always drove.
The trip to the mountain took about four hours from Auckland, heading south, but in an arc. They went through nothing and nowhere towns: Taupiri, its cemetery studded with irregular, mossy gravestones like bad teeth; Huntly, with its smoke stacks and its row of fast-food restaurants, Ngaruawahia, with its pub and its mud and its huge, bright-green petrol station. And Otorohanga, famous for its caves and the kiwi house and for being where you turn right to get to Mount Ruapehu, to get to the snow. Lloyd loved the names of the towns, how they rolled and rumbled.
“Gotta take a leak,” said Gary, just after they passed through Te Kuiti. He pulled into a rest stop.
“You can’t wait till we get to Taumarunui?”
“Nope. Gotta go.” Gary stopped the Jeep and pushed the button on the dash to check the temperature outside. “Taking a leak in zero degrees. Need to cut a hole in a third sock,” said Gary, and he jumped out.
Lloyd pressed his forehead against the glass of the passenger’s window. The sun wasn’t up yet—they’d left Auckland at 4am—but the Jeep’s headlights lit up a lop-sided picnic table and a rubbish bin. Behind the table, an information board was bolted to a faded white post. What information could it possibly report?
“Fucking hell.” Gary had stopped after taking about ten steps from the car.
Lloyd opened the door.
“Christ, Jesus,” Gary said, in his way.
“Check this out.”
The man was flat on his back, eyes closed, the skin of his face a bluish-white. His whiskers were covered with a glitter of frost, as if he’d been dipped in salt while damp. He was wearing jeans and a shirt, unbuttoned, with a T-shirt underneath. The T-shirt was printed with a diagram of the solar system: the sun and nine planets. There was an arrow pointing to the third planet, labelled Home. No shoes, no socks.
“Shit almighty,” said Lloyd.
“Correct,” said Gary. They both slid their hands in their pockets. A few minutes of standing and staring.
“Better check,” said Gary.
“You,” said Lloyd.
“No can do.” Gary held up his right index finger. The tip was capped with Band Aids, one looped over the nail and two wrapped around the knuckle to secure the configuration. “I’m out with an injury.”
Lloyd knelt down and reached for the man’s wrist. He touched it, then stood up quickly and whispered, “Shit-Christ-fuck.” He flexed his hand as if bitten. “That guy’s dead.”
Gary looked back to the road. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Someone else’ll find him. We’ve got someplace to be,” he said. He pointed east, to where the sun was trying to rise, and then south, towards the mountain, to where its snow would be creaking and sparkling as it deflected the first blush of light.
Lloyd looked around. The Jeep’s tyre marks. He looked at his shoes, bought in Canada, an unusual design. Was the tread distinctive, imprinted on the loose gravel? Would they track them down? Think they were involved? Did the police round here even do forensics? And the guy hadn’t been murdered, had he? He looked at the dead man, with his icy beard and blue feet. Some sort of accident? And he probably had family. It was odds on. People would miss him, sooner or later.
“Gary, Jesus Christ,” he said.
Gary opened his mouth in violent, silent despair, then groaned, “Faaarrrrkk!”
“Call the cops,” said Lloyd.
“You,” said Gary.
“I touched the corpse, you fucking call the cops.”
“Okay, okay.” Gary pulled out his phone, peered at the screen, then held it in the air. “Goddam signal,” he said, mildly, in the voice used to note his beer was empty. He walked off up the hill. He came back a few minutes later. “We have to wait until they arrive.”
Gary and Lloyd both looked south. In the broadening light was a hill, specked with wakening lambs. From the top of that hill, you might be able to see the mountain. Maybe. Probably not. They walked back to the Jeep, leaned on the bonnet, and waited.
“Why no shoes?” Lloyd asked.
“Some deadbeat probably stole them.”
“But left his pants and shirt?”
“You can’t steal a dead guy’s pants,” said Gary, “That’s obscene.” Gary began to walk off, crunching on the frosted stones.
“Where’re you going?”
“Still gotta take a leak.” Gary kept walking.
“But—” said Lloyd, “What about—”
“He won’t mind,” said Gary. He stopped, unzipped, and began to etch a trench in the gravel.
“Goddam arsehole, my brother,” said Lloyd, “As it turns out.”
Gary arched his back and a translucent curtain of steam rose into the sky.
“How long’s it been?” asked Gary.
Lloyd looked at his phone. “Thirty minutes.”
“Half a bloody hour.” It was warm inside the Jeep—Gary had been running the heater. “Bloody cops,” said Gary, as if he’d had dealings before, was weary of them, tired of their shit. He ran his hands through his hair.
Lloyd said, “Reminds me of waiting for Dad.”
“At the tennis club, when he was in the bar.”
Gary nodded again.
“Remember when, that time—”
Gary grunted, firmly enough that Lloyd paused.
“That time, when—”
“Stop going on about it,” said Gary.
“He died six months ago. Time to give it a rest.”
Something caught his eye. He sat upright in the passenger seat and peered through the windscreen. A sparrow had swooped down and sat on the dead man’s nose. It flicked its head around, watchful, protecting its claim. The sparrow hopped onto the man’s chin, then back onto his nose. Lloyd shifted in his seat, tapping his fingers on his knee.
“You can eat them,” said Gary.
Lloyd turned. “What?”
“Jesus. I thought you meant corpses.”
“I saw it on Food TV. Some French chef cooked sparrow’s breasts. He seemed keen on them.”
“But how do you—” Lloyd stopped. The bird hopped onto the man’s chest.
“You have to cut the meat across the grain,” said Gary.
“Or else it warps when it’s cooked.”
“Sparrow meat. That’s what the guy said. You have to cut it across the grain.”
“Jesus, Gary,” Lloyd said.
“Bloody hell, it wasn’t me who ate it.”
Lloyd popped the door latch, but as he did so the sparrow casually flew off to perch on the rim of the rubbish bin.
It’d been an hour. “Has he changed?” asked Gary.
“He looks a different colour.” They were standing over the dead man.
“It’s just the light,” said Lloyd.
“I suppose,” said Gary. They were silent for a couple of minutes. “You know what all horror movies depend on?”
Lloyd sighed. “What?”
“People being scared that dead things will come back to life.”
Did that make sense? You spend your life hoping living things won’t die, then live in fear that they might return from the dead? “What would you do if this guy moved?”
“Shit my pants, most likely,” said Gary. They both stared, waiting for the man to twitch. Lloyd remembered the feeling of the man’s dead wrist—smooth, cold, as inorganic as steel. Maybe the man had changed colour slightly. Was his face a touch more purple? Could he see through his skin to the cold, stagnant blood?
“He looks like Dad,” said Lloyd. “The beard.”
“You think? Did this guy have a big mother-fucking tumour as well?”
Lloyd closed his eyes.
Gary spoke to the dead man. “Let’s see it then.”
They stood a while.
“Looks nothing like him,” said Gary.
“If you say so.”
“Dad was ugly, wasn’t he?”
“Wasn’t he?” asked Gary.
“And this guy’s a fashion model?”
“I’m just saying. This dude is well proportioned. I mean in his face.”
“Christ almighty,” said Lloyd.
“Dad was all lopsided. They couldn’t even straighten him out in his coffin.”
It was true. Dad was so twisted in the end that one shoulder sat clean off the base of his casket. His open casket. He’d insisted. Look me in my face, boys, he’d said, two days before he coughed his bowels out.
The winter sun had lit up the hill, sparkling green, and the sheep had begun to feed on the dewy turf. “Pluto’s not a proper planet,” said Lloyd, “Not anymore. Demoted.”
“It can’t clear its own orbit, can’t mop up the local mess.”
“What’re you on about?”
“The third criterion, for making the planetary grade. Clearing your orbit. Sweeping away the debris—the relics and scraps that get in the way.” Lloyd paused. “Pluto is the god of the underworld. He carries the souls of the dead. Or something.”
“Pluto is Mickey Mouse’s dog.”
“Being alive just brings you closer to being dead,” said Lloyd. “This guy probably felt tip-top yesterday, and today a sparrow squats on his nose.”
Gary began to walk off.
“Where you going?”
“To call the cops. See when they’ll be here.”
He came back five minutes later, walking with short fast steps, huffing his humid breath into his hands.
“They said only one of us has to wait,” said Gary. He stared straight at Lloyd.
“What good’s that?”
“They’re coming from Ohakune. The copper said he could give the one of us who stayed a lift back there after.”
Gary sent the coin spinning into the silvery air. Lloyd called heads, correctly. Gary squatted down, glared at the coin, pointed his knuckly Band-Aided finger at the imprint of Queen Elizabeth and said, “Mother fucker.”
“Forget about it,” Lloyd said. “I’ll stay.”
“Don’t be a hero,” said Gary, twitching.
Gary revved the Jeep, wound down the window, and said, “Lloyd, for what it’s worth, you’re a top bloke.” He pulled away, spinning the rear wheels on the loose metal. Lloyd gave the finger to the back of Gary’s Jeep until his arm got tired, then walked to the picnic table and sat down; it lurched like a see-saw. He watched the red-orange burn of the Jeep’s tail lights until it crested the hill in the distance.
The police car pulled into the rest stop.
“You must be Lloyd,” the cop said, and shook his hand. So, Gary had told the cop, before the coin toss, who would be here to meet him. He shook his head a little. Gary always drove. Lloyd always stayed.
The cop’s name was Connors. He was tall and heavy, grey, his uniform bulging with implements, his boots enormous. They walked side-by-side to the dead man. Connors looked hard at the body, frowning.
“Bit of a mystery?” said Lloyd, trying to break the quiet, and feeling foolish. “How’d he get here, do you think?”
“Phil,” said Connors, almost under his breath.
Lloyd blinked. “You know him?”
Lloyd was surprised but didn’t know why. After all, people knew people. “How?”
“There are only so many people,” said Connors, shrugging. “He lived there,” pointing down the hill where the rest stop sloped away. Lloyd took a few steps to his left and peered through the trees. A rust-coloured building was clearly visible through branches, balanced uncomfortably on the slope. How had they not seen it earlier?
Connors walked slowly to the rubbish bin that sat beside the picnic table. He kicked the bent metal. Glass clinked. Lloyd leaned over the bin. Two empty bottles of vodka lay side by side, perfectly parallel. “Only so many ways to die,” said Connors.
“Still dead, but,” said Lloyd, and then, suddenly, he was breathless with sorrow. He bent at the waist, resting his hands on his knees like a winded boxer. He walked, as upright as he could, to the picnic table. He sat. No matter how it happened, it was all the same. The heart stopped beating. The blood stopped flowing. The hand stopped squeezing. The brain stopped ticking, ticking, ticking. Doesn’t matter why.
Connors looked at him, then looked away. “Yes, still dead,” he said. Connors wrote in his notebook for a long time, periodically looking up, peering, noting landmarks, details.
Lloyd felt the urge to call his mother. Or dig out old photo albums, thumb the beige pages and the sticky sepia prints. He looked south. Would Gary be on the slopes by now? Would his phone be on? How long had passed?
“We have to wait for the ambulance.”
They waited together, Lloyd and Connors, sitting at the picnic table. The sun levered itself into the sky, slowly, as if burdened by its own weight. Periodically, Lloyd shooed the sparrows from the dead man’s body, and each time he did, Connors nodded in approval.
Allan is currently completing his PhD in creative writing at Victoria University Wellington. Allan’s short stories and poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and his work has won or been shortlisted in several international and national writing competitions. You can find him online here.