Written by Jeffrey Wyeth / Image: Summer Evening (1947) by Edward Hopper
We were hungry now. Somehow, the entire day had passed us by – quickly, traitorously, and without us noticing. Now deep into the afternoon, and I could feel that emptiness inside, down in the pit of my stomach, unable to ignore, energy draining. We needed to park somewhere and eat. It was an awful afternoon, for many reasons, but aside from the facts, it had been hot and humid all day, and the sky was heavy with clouds. It was going to rain. Hard. You could feel it.
Driving up the main boulevard that ran along the coast, with the windows rolled down, a strong coastal wind whipped around the car – wild, confused, mixed emotions. It was a wind that promised both hot summer days and cool heavy rain. Looking out the passenger window, I didn’t know what to make of it, of any of this. Neither did Mary, I don’t think. It had been quite a day, and quite an argument. Loud and rough. She was quiet now. We both were. Too hungry to think. Mary stared straight ahead, focusing on the road as she drove.
We didn’t even really know where we were heading. Here and there, ugly apartment buildings popped up along the road like sticks in the mud, and big-windowed beach houses vacantly stared out to sea. We drove past a few worn-down pubs and grimy little pizza places bunched together in tiny commercial strips scattered along the boulevard. But we didn’t stop, we kept going.
On a whim, we made a left turn off the main coastal drive and snaked our way into the grey suburban streets. We finally stopped at a place on the corner. It seemed to be one of those craft beer places, the kind that brewed their own beer and sold some meals to go with it. The building was more like a big old shed, tin roof and all, but the front was made to look sort of fashionable, trendy, with some pot plants and tables outside, and a big rustic gate framing the entrance, purposely rusted to look old.
As we got out of the car and crossed the road to go inside, I looked around and noticed that we had ended up in an industrial part of town. This rustic beer-and-burger shed was situated between sad, square, brick buildings. Some were painted in sickly bright shades of yellow or blue, with roller door entrances now closed for the day, but earlier on would have been open to the public, offering plumbing supplies, or hose reels, or metal roofing, or windshield repairs. At the far end of the street was an empty lot taking up most of the corner. Squinting to see without my glasses, I realized that it was actually a cemetery. On any other day, I would have pointed this out to Mary, and we would have traded bad jokes about the matter. Wow, this part of town sure is dead, huh –or – I hear the food in this place is to die for. But no jokes today.
We took a table, fumbled around with the greasy one-page menus, and Mary went to the bar to order some food for us. Outside, raining now, the clouds had grown heavy, moody, turning the day into night. The wind was also gathering speed, sending the rain sideways, skidding against the windows, and tap-dancing against the tin roof above. Mary sat back down with a table number, and we waited.
The place was quite big inside. A wide-open space, many of the booths and tables were filled with customers, eating and drinking and talking; and others with their phones, taking photos of each other, as they ate and drank and talked. At the far end of the shed, behind Mary, a wire fence led to four gigantic metal tanks that reached up to the ceiling.
“Hey look, so I suppose they do make their own beer here,” I pointed out.
Mary turned around to see and nodded. “I’d like to try one of their beers, but I want to eat first.”
“Yeah, me too. Better to get something in your belly…” I shook my head. “Better to eat something before drinking.” I hesitated then. “Are you sure you should drink?”
Mary stared down at the table, nodding. She looked up again, almost brightening up. “Oh, and I ordered some onion rings too. I don’t think I’ve had onion rings since I was a little kid.”
We waited some more. We looked around the place. People at their tables. Couples. Friends from work. Families, grandparents and children. One child, a small girl in a princess costume, magic wand in hand, seemed to have been set loose amongst the scene, zigzagging around different tables, darting around in her own little world.
The food finally arrived, burgers and beers plonked in front of us. A greasy, drippy, pork burger, fries, and a pint of ale. I looked over at Mary. Being a vegetarian didn’t seem to have fared very well with this place. I didn’t know what the hell her burger was meant to be. Neither did she, for that matter. She made a few efforts to eat it, chewing a few small bites, eventually dumping the half-eaten thing onto her plate. She then poked at it, half-heartedly, like a bored child who happened across a dead bug.
“No good?” I asked finally.
She shook her head, defeated. “And the onion rings are kind of soggy.”
“I’m sorry, babe,” I fumbled.
I held her hand. “No, babe. I’m sorry, you know, about all of this. It’s…” I stopped there. I didn’t know how to say it. Nor did I know if I should say anything at all, here in this beer shed of all places. Mary squeezed my hand gently, as if catching my words as they trailed off.
“It’s okay, Joe. And I’m sorry too, you know?” She bit her lip, maybe trying to hold down the hurt feelings from earlier today. “But we can’t…” she lowered her voice, “…we can’t. Or at least, I can’t. Not like this. Not now, Joe.”
It still hurt, hearing her talk like this. But the matter had been decided, after all. “I know, babe. I know. And look, it’s done. In the end, it’s up to you, isn’t it?”
“I’m not being selfish. You know that we both…”
“I know, I know. We’ve been over and over it all day. I know. It’s just that we’re getting older, Mary…”
Mary and Joe.
Joseph and Mary.
When we were first dating, what now seems like a million years ago, back in high school, we used to joke that we would one day have a kid when we were older. A son. An only child. And we would call him Jesus. It was a recurring joke we would make, passing each other in the school hallways. Weeks would pass and we would add to the joke, building on it; how we would tell our child that he was actually the son of God; how it was all foretold in a really old book, thousands of years ago.
We were idiot kids. We used to think it was hilarious, in a grim way. But now this. Still young but getting older. In a big shed that sold beer and burgers. Talking about not having a kid. It was so grim that it should have been funny. But no jokes today.
The rain marched on. Harder and heavier. And it no longer tap-danced on the roof. It stomped around. The noise it made rumbled loudly around the room and the people began speaking louder over it all.
Mary wiped her hands clean, took another sip at her beer. She got up, sat next to me, and hugged me. Hard. Finally, she let go, and stared out into the tables of people. The little girl in the princess costume, wildly bouncing around the place, stopped suddenly, and stared up at the loud tin roof. Her grubby little fingers twirled the toy wand around in her hands.
“Princess,” Mary muttered, almost in a daze.
“No, it’s… when I was a little girl…” Mary went on, trying to talk louder over the rain banging down on the roof, and everybody else who were now really starting to yell over each other. “I had a friend from school who had a cat called Princess. She was gray and fat and old. And she would always get pregnant and have lots of babies. Dozens of them. Like, all the time. And…” She stopped, looking up at the tin ceiling. “Wow, it’s really getting loud with the rain in here, isn’t it?”
It was. Outside, the afternoon had turned into a brooding, midnight dark. The rain and wind had furiously taken over the streets. The people that filled up the tables and booths continued eating, drinking, laughing wildly, screaming happily at each other, getting louder, trying to be heard over the rain. Other people stood around the bar on their tiptoes, yelling their orders into the ears of the staff. And even more people stumbled into the place, coming in from the rain, some shaking off umbrellas, laughing at the violent turn of weather. Above, the rain pounded fists into the thin tin roof.
Mary went on even louder. “Anyway, my friend’s parents did not want all these cats in their house, hated all those kittens, every—”
Everything around us was drumming on louder and louder, the rain and the people trying to fight for attention, becoming a whirlpool of noise. And it was drowning out Mary. I asked her to speak louder.
“My friend’s parents!” She now had to yell into my face, sort of laughing, trying to be heard like everyone else around us. “They didn’t want the house to be full of so many babies! They’d grab all these little baby kittens they didn’t want! They—”
Mary now yelled as loud as she could, face red, throat straining. “Because they didn’t want all those cats! They would grab these baby kittens! Grab them! And throw them! They would smash their little bodies against the concrete floor in the backyard! THEY WOULD FUCKING KILL ALL HER BABIES! BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T WANT THEM! THEY WOULD SPLATTER THEM AGAINST THE CEMENT! WE’D FIND BITS OF SKULL AND GOO IN THE FUCKING GRASS! WE WERE JUST KIDS! WE—”
Mary’s screams were lost in the swirls of noise around us, the strong winds outside, the throngs of people yelling and laughing, and the tin roof that now sounded like it was barely holding.
Mary kept trying to yell her story, and I yelled back trying to understand her. Everyone was yelling. And the rain beat on, all around, at full force. Mary and I finally gave up, and just looked at each other silently, then to the other people around the room. Slowly but surely, so was everyone else, just like that, in a puzzled silence, looking around the place, then at each other. The heavy rain beating savagely at the building had managed to yell louder than everybody put together. It didn’t even sound like rain anymore.
Everybody just sat there in silence, each of us knowing there was nothing more to say.
Jeffrey Wyeth is an emerging writer based in Ballarat. He is currently working on his first short story collection to be published in 2021.