On my first day at the Malvern supermarket deli, Pat Stokes told me about the guy that took a shit in one of the refrigerated chickens—he did it in the hole where the stuffing is meant to go. Pat was supposed to be showing me the ropes, but mostly he was sneaking handfuls of honey leg ham and marinated olives and eating them in the cool room. I was eighteen and self-conscious about my long, spider-like arms and the strands of hair that had begun to sprout from my face and neck. Pat was twenty-five and half-a-head taller than me. A shadow of stubble covered his cheeks and a distended beer belly pushed against his green and red deli apron, so that it hung in front of his legs like a dress.
‘What’d he do with it? Did he cook it?’ I asked.
‘Not sure. I think he ended up giving it to some homeless guy out back.’
‘Jesus. That’s pretty fucked up.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah it is.’
We were the only staff on that night. Pat said they always paired the rookies up with him because he’d been there the longest. A closing shift too, because it was slow. A grey-haired woman, hunched over and wearing a lot of makeup, came out of one of the aisles. She shuffled up to our red ticket dispenser. Pat was texting someone. The supermarket was horror film quiet. The woman’s hand shook as she struggled to tear off a loose ticket. I smiled and nudged Pat. ‘Kind of pointless don’t you think?’
‘What?’ He saw the woman, pocketed his phone and stood up straight. With difficulty, she raised her arm, placed the ticket on the counter and smiled.
‘Thank you ma’am.’ He smiled back. ‘What can I get for you this evening?’
Her voice was like gravel in a garbage disposal. ‘S-s-ome fe-t-t-a, red-u-u-ced f-a-a-t.’
‘Well actually ma’am, if you’re interested, the Danish fetta is lower in fat than our reduced fat,’ Pat replied.
The woman smiled and nodded.
Pat snapped a plastic bag from the roll beneath the counter and, using it as a glove, plucked out a pristine block of the cheese, smooth as freshly paved cement. The woman watched him carefully.
He inverted the bag, placed the cheese on a scale and priced it up. ‘Is that all right ma’am?’
She smiled and nodded again.
He grabbed the bag from the scale, turned around and in a few quick movements wrapped the block in uncreased butcher’s paper before handing it over to the woman. ‘Have a lovely evening ma’am.’
As soon as she shuffled away he continued texting.
‘Jeez Pat. You’re good at this,’ I said.
He didn’t look up. ‘If she’d been a bitch I’d have stuck my finger in it.’
Closing involved cleaning the oven, the sinks, the floor and the meat slicers. Pat showed me that most of this involved the use of a high-pressure hose coiled up by the sink.
‘Everything but on the slicers,’ Pat said. He pointed to the outlets where they were attached to the wall by safety plugs. ‘Can’t guarantee those’ll work.’ He grabbed a cloth and a red spray bottle labelled SANITISER and unhooked the guard from one of the slicers. He sprayed the surface of the slicer and then to my surprise turned it on.
‘This is how I do this,’ he said, grabbing the cloth and pressing it against the outer rim of the spinning blade, slowly working it towards the middle.’
‘I smiled. Basically cleans itself.’
The blade gleamed—he turned it off and replaced the guard.
‘See this.’ He pointed to the knob with measurements on it.
‘Always make sure it’s on zero.’ He turned the slicer on again and tried to push the cloth into the blade’s gap, but it wouldn’t fit. He stopped the slicer and turned the knob ‘til it read three-point-five. He then started the slicer again, stretched the cloth taut and brought it slowly to the edge like it was a circular wood-saw. The two pieces were cut so clean the sides weren’t even frayed. ‘We had an Indian guy in here once that tried to clean it when it wasn’t on zero.’ He shook his head. ‘His blood was pink. I swear to God it was pink.’
Pat finished the floor fifteen minutes before close and directed me to the shelving on the far side of the deli, where the spare salad tubs and staff belongings were kept. He’d stashed away a few slices of ham and a tub of olives. He laid the ham flat on his palm, dropped a couple of olives in the middle and then wrapped them up and popped the whole thing in his mouth. Oil trickled down the side of his lips and he wiped it away with his sleeve. ‘I know it looks weird,’ he said, ‘but you’ve got to try it. Hold out your hand.’
I did as he said and ate the ham the same way. The tang of olives mixed well with the salty sweet ham. I smiled. ‘Delicious.’
We killed the rest of the shift that way, while Pat told me about some of the co-workers I could expect to meet. ‘If you work next Friday you’ll be on with Ronnie and Tess. Ronnie’s Asian and big on the pingers. He’s always coming down on his shifts and spends half the day upstairs in the shitter. I doubt he’d actually come to work if Tess didn’t work Fridays. Ronnie l-o-o-o-ves Tess. But Tess doesn’t like Asian guys. When he’s fucked up all Ronnie does is mope about her.’ Pat shook his head and laughed.
The clock on the wall struck nine and I reached for my bag.
‘Oh shit,’ Pat said, ‘wait here for a sec.’ He bounded off down one of the aisles.
About a minute later he returned with a few boxes of paracetamol. ‘Thanks.’ He grabbed his bag from the shelving and shoved the boxes inside.
The following Friday I was closing with Pat again, but my shift started two hours earlier. I noted from the roster that I’d catch the tail end of Ronnie and Tess’s shifts.
They were both serving customers when I arrived. Ronnie was shorter than me, with rounded shoulders and high cheekbones that made him look kind of feminine. When he finished serving he introduced himself. ‘You must be Josh.’ He held out his hand—his palm was soft and made me wonder how mine felt. ‘Stokesy has told me good things.’ Red veins, like cracked paint, rimmed his dark brown eyes and I remembered what Pat had said.
Tess was tall and thin. Beneath the deli apron her torso blended seamlessly into her legs like she didn’t have hips. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, dyed blonde with visible brown roots.
Another customer came and I told Ronnie I’d get it. They wanted drumsticks and as I wrapped them Tess stepped beside me with a bag of another customer’s meat. I shifted over to make room for her.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘Josh right?’
‘Yeah, that’s me.’
‘Glad to have you. I’m Tess.’ She looked up from her wrapping. She had a high forehead and thick eyelids, which made her look like she was always squinting.
The next two hours were busy. For the most part Ronnie and Tess let me do most of the serving and spent a lot of time down by the shelving, on their phones or talking. I felt a little used but figured I was the new guy, so it was okay.
Near the end of the two hours Ronnie called from the shelving and asked me to bring him some chicken necks. I was confused at first—the necks were raw, finger length pieces of pink cartilage—but then I assumed he had a dog.
‘Josh don’t do it!’ Tess shouted.
‘What why?’ I called back.
Ronnie was laughing. Tess took off her apron, balled it up and smacked him with it. Ronnie returned to the deli, smiling—he had big white, perfectly aligned teeth. ‘She found a head in them once, beak and all, hasn’t gone near them since.’
‘Hey Ronnie!’ Tess called. ‘Am I on tomorrow?’
The roster was pinned up by the oven. Ronnie scanned it, turned to Tess and shook his head.
‘Thanks. See you guys,’ she called and then headed for the staff room by the produce section.
A minute later Pat appeared from the staff room and made his way towards us. His eyes were puffy and encircled by dark shadows. Damp stains ran down the pits of his lime green deli shirt.
‘I see you’ve met my new protégé,’ he said to Ronnie.
‘Stokesy!’ Ronnie grabbed him with both arms and pulled himself into Pat’s stomach. He then pushed himself away and waved his hand in front of himself. ‘Jesus Stokesy, you stink. Brown Alley?’
‘Yeah.’ Pat said. ‘Big name Scandinavian on the decks last night. Just woke up.’
‘Stokesy’s a DJ,’ Ronnie explained to me. ‘Goes to Brown Alley nearly every night.’
‘Trying to be a DJ,’ Pat corrected.
‘No you’re good Pat.’ Ronnie looked at the roster. ‘Hey,’ he said, running his finger along the page, ‘you’re Jewish Josh.’
‘What?’ Pat shook his head. ‘No he isn’t.’
A bearded man in a flannel shirt plucked a ticket from the dispenser, crossed his arms and waited patiently by the counter.
‘Sure he is,’ Ronnie said. ‘Steinberg. That’s Jewish right?’ He pointed to my name on the paper.
A couple pushing a pram tore off a ticket and lined up next to the man.
‘Actually, yeah I am,’ I said. ‘Guys shouldn’t we—’
‘Wait. No, you can’t be,’ Pat Said. ‘You ate ham last week.’
Two Indian women, wrapped in saris, appeared beside the couple.
‘I was raised Jewish, but I don’t really believe in anything. Do you want me to—’
The man in the flannel shirt cleared his throat loudly.
Pat still looked confused. ‘I’ll get the first one,’ he said and then served the man.
‘Did they, you know.’ Ronnie made scissors with his hands. ‘Snip snip.’
‘Yeah—’ I felt my cheeks flush red.
Ronnie placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘Me too.’
‘Yeah. My family’s Muslim.’ He gestured to Pat. ‘Stokesy’s the only one of us that’s a complete man.’
‘All right my friends, I’m off.’ Ronnie backed away towards the deli’s exit.
Pat was pricing up some sun-dried tomatoes for the bearded man. ‘See you tomorrow night?’ he asked.
Ronnie hesitated. ‘I’ll have to see how I feel.’
‘Tess is coming.’
Ronnie stopped. ‘I’ll let you know. See you Josh.’ He turned around and left the deli.
I served the couple and asked Pat what was on tomorrow night.
‘I’m playing the opening set at Brown Alley. Want to come?’
‘Sure. When is it?’
‘I’m on at nine.’
I waited outside my parents’ house, checking my phone every few seconds for a message from Pat—it was already quarter to nine. A pair of headlights rounded the corner of the street and gradually came to a stop in front of me. Pat’s car was a boxy white Corolla. Two oblong dents marked either side of the handle of the passenger side door, like lips. Pat leant over the gearstick and opened the door from the inside.
‘Handle’s fucked,’ he said.
‘No worries.’ There was a plastic container on the passenger seat, containing what looked like brownies.
Pat picked up the container and I sat down. I had to raise my feet up, because the foot well was filled with McDonald’s bags and empty aluminium cans.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ Pat said, ‘haven’t cleaned up in a while.’
I lowered my feet onto the pile and it crunched and cracked beneath them. ‘That’s all right.’
The time on the dashboard read ten to nine. ‘Aren’t you going to be late?’ I asked.
‘Can show up whenever I want really. Hold these will ya?’ Pat said, passing me the container. ‘Grab one if you’d like. My housemate made them.’
‘Thanks.’ I popped open the lid and picked out one of the brownies. It was rich and dense. I ran my tongue over my teeth several times after I finished to make sure they were clean.
Pat tapped his hands on the steering wheel as he drove. ‘Sorry radio’s busted,’ he said. His eyebrows were bunched up in thought. He seemed uncomfortable with silence. ‘So you’re Jewish huh. Do you speak any, what is it? Israeli?’
‘Hebrew,’ I said. ‘But nah, not really. I had to recite some at my bar mitzvah, but that’s it.’
‘Oh yeah, go on then.’ Pat grinned. ‘Give us some.’
‘I’m not sure I remember any.’
‘C’mon, sure you do.’ Pat said.
‘Okay, just gimme a sec.’
Six months before my thirteenth birthday my father and I started going to the South Caulfield synagogue every Saturday morning. My father was a short man who liked to wear grey woolen vests over loose fitting white shirts. Lines of beige scalp showed between his thin slicked back hair. He grew up with little, often telling me stories about paper bags used as toilet paper and having to wear his three sisters’ hand-me-downs. His teeth were yellow nubs that criscrossed each other at haphazard angles. He identified as Jewish, but he never had a bar mitzvah.
When I asked him why I had to have one he said ‘For your Jewish education. For the sake of tradition. You’ve got opportunities I didn’t have.’
The synagogue smelled strongly of dust and bitter cologne. Women sat separate from the men, upstairs, where they wouldn’t draw the focus away from God. Downstairs, in rows of wooden pews, old men who breathed loudly out of their mouths, and wore long white prayer shawls over their shoulders, sat facing a raised platform at the front of the synagogue where the Torah was read. The service lasted about three hours. Everything but the Rabbi’s sermon was in Hebrew. My father and I would sit in stifling discomfort against the hard wooden pews, our hands folded in our laps, attempting to assume some kind of reverent posture while we listened to the chants of the congregation, which sounded to us like gibberish. Sometimes one of the old men in our row would hand my father a prayer book opened to the relevant page. He’d thank them, place it between us and point to a section as though he were directing me to the next line.
About once a month a boy my age would put on a prayer shawl and read from the Torah in Hebrew. Once he finished the men would sing and it would rain with hard-lollies thrown by the women above. The boy had had his bar mitzvah. He was a man now. When this happened I could tell that my father was picturing me up there, and looking forward to the pride he would feel—for me, and for himself, because he got me there.
The Rabbi was American. A wide brimmed hat covered his head and a bright orange beard pushed out of his cheeks. His name was Rabbi Brown. When I first heard that I pictured him on the cover of Reservoir Dogs walking side-by-side with three other rabbis, pistols dangling at their sides, wearing dark sunglasses and skinny ties beneath their beards.
When Rabbi Brown stepped up to the pulpit for his sermon my father would snap to attention, stretching out the slackened skin of his short neck so that he might get a better view. He would watch the sermon with narrow, focused eyes, and nod whenever Rabbi Brown punctuated his sentences with exclamations in his loud American voice.
On Sundays, my father would drop me off at the synagogue for bar mitzvah lessons with Rabbi Brown. Each time I’d open the car door to leave he’d turn to me and mention something from the previous day’s sermon. ‘Remember what the Rabbi said about the destruction of the second temple,’ he’d say, or ‘Don’t forget about the importance of giving to charity,’ as though these tidbits could be the answer to some kind of trick question I might be asked.
The lessons were held in a small room at the back of the synagogue. It was odd walking through the synagogue when it was empty. I felt more conspicuous than I did on Saturdays, like God could see me clearer. Inside was a small desk, and two fragile looking wooden chairs. On one end of the desk Rabbi Brown sat with his head down, writing into a notepad. Before I saw that I’d pictured him writing his sermon on parchment, licking the tip of a quill and dipping it into ink. Behind him sat a bookshelf lined with leather spines embossed with gold Hebrew lettering. I sat on one of the chairs and was about to speak when the rabbi did.
‘Can you read Hebrew?’ he asked without looking up at me.
‘No.’ I wondered if that was an issue—if they’d decide I wasn’t Jewish enough to have a bar mitzvah.
‘And when is your birthday?’
He turned to the shelf behind him and picked out a hardback red-leather bound book. He flicked through the pages, moving his lips silently until he found what he was looking for. ‘Fourteenth of Iyar then, Parshat Behar,’ he groped at his beard, pulling straight the curly hairs at its tip. ‘We don’t have time to teach you the alphabet, so you’re going to have to learn your haftorah by heart.’
‘Sorry, my what?’
He looked up at me. ‘Your haftorah. A reading from the Book of Prophets. From the Tanach.’
I stared at the rabbi, confused.
‘Don’t worry Behar is an easy one.’ He opened a drawer in the desk and rifled through it for half a minute. ‘I’ll get you a transliteration next week as well.’ He placed a cassette tape on the desk, labelled in Hebrew. ‘But for now listen to this.’
‘What is it?
I used an old Walkman to play the tape at home. Rabbi Brown’s deep voice crackled into my ears, reciting Hebrew in a sort of half-song where some of the syllables of words were drawn out. It was as though he had developed a stutter halfway through saying words like “bear” and “old” so that they came out as ‘b-e-e-e-ar’ and ‘o-o-o-ld’. I stopped the tape, threw the Walkman aside and didn’t think about it again until the following weekend.
‘Have you listened to the tape?’ Rabbi Brown asked.
I avoided making eye contact with him and focused instead on picking at a hangnail on my thumb. ‘Once.’
He reached into the drawer again and pulled out a slim book with light-blue paper covers. ‘This should help,’ he said. ‘Play the tape and follow it.’
I opened the book. Inside the Hebrew words were spelt out using English letters.
Shesh shanim tizra sadecha veshesh shanim tizmor karmecha ve'asafta et-tevu'atah.
On the opposite page was an English translation.
It read: For six years you shall plant your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce.
I looked up at Rabbi Brown, unsure of why I had to read that out—what did that have to do with prayer? Or God? Or becoming a man?
‘Shesh shanim tizra sadecha,’ I said.
‘What?’ Pat said.
‘That was Hebrew,’ I replied.
‘Oh, right. Cool.’ Pat stared blankly ahead, like he didn’t know what I was talking about. We pulled up to a red light and he grabbed his phone from the compartment under the radio and began texting someone.‘How are you feeling by the way?’
‘Just wondering if the brownies had kicked in yet?’
‘Kicked in? What do you mean?’
‘You know—the hash.’
‘What?’ My heartbeat quickened.
Pat stopped texting and looked at me. The light turned green and a car behind us honked. Pat laughed. ‘Shit. Sorry I thought you knew. I always have one before I play a set.’ We started moving again. ‘Haven’t you had hash brownies before?’
‘No.’ I felt my pulse in my ears.
Pat laughed again. ‘Oh man.’
I turned my palms face up and studied them, not sure of what I was looking for. ‘How will I know when they’ve kicked in?’
Pat watched me and smiled. ‘You’ll know.’
We crossed the Yarra River via Kings Way, passing the aquarium and casino, and entered the city. It was early for a Saturday night. I knew from experience that in a few hours drunk men and women would be running across the median strips, dodging traffic and swearing at taxi drivers who ignored their stuck-out thumbs. But at that time black-shirted bouncers stood idle in front of their doors, looking with indifference at the redundant velvet ropes before them.
Half a block past Flinders Lane, Pat spun the wheel sharp with one hand, turning down a short laneway. He stopped before a silver roller door, guarded by a NO PARKING sign, and yanked the handbrake up hard.
I rubbed the pad of my thumbs and fingers together, wondering if they felt any different.
‘Anything yet?’ Pat said.
I dropped my hands quickly, conscious of letting my anxiety show. ‘Nah man. Nothing.’
Pat nodded. ‘Could be you’ve got a good tolerance for that kind of thing.’
‘Yeah, could be.’
Brown Alley was in another laneway, perpendicular to the one we were parked in. Outside an unmarked door an apathetic-looking bouncer considered my pallid baby-face for a moment, before directing us inside with a tilt of his head. At the entrance, a blonde girl wearing fishnet stockings and a black dress sat on a high-stool beside a cash register, looking at her phone.
‘Hey fellas,’ she said, ‘that’ll be ten for the night.’
I waited for Pat to tell her that he was DJ-ing at the club and didn’t have to pay the cover, but instead he plucked a ten dollar note from his wallet and handed it over.
Inside, a large dance floor was lit fluorescent blue. A stocked bar stood at one end, some booths with leather seats down the other, with a few people in them. In a corner near the bar sat the elevated DJ booth, empty. A solitary dancer wearing a polo shirt and jeans jerked his hands around erratically to the beat of soft dance music.
‘I’m going to set up,’ Pat said and walked away.
I didn’t want him to leave, but at the same time I was glad to have the chance to prod about with my senses and figure out if the brownies were affecting me. I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face and examined my appearance in the mirror. Dilated pupils, that’s what they tell you to look for. But I couldn’t remember if dilated meant big or small. They seemed about average. I leant towards the mirror—brown ovals surrounded my pupils like the petals of a flower and the sight of that made me laugh. I wasn’t sure why but I thought that was hilarious and I couldn’t stop smiling. I still held that grin when I exited the bathroom and realised that the guy on the dancefloor was Ronnie.
‘Ronnie!’ I clapped him on the shoulder.
He flinched at my touch and looked at me with something like disgust, before registering who I was and breaking out into a broad smile. ‘Josh!’ He wrapped me in a bear hug and pulled me tight. ‘I didn’t know you were coming.’
‘I came with Pat.’
‘Stokesy’s here? Where?’ Ronnie spun around like a dog chasing its tale.
‘He said he was going to get ready.’
‘Oh okay.’ Ronnie’s shoulders dropped with disappointment. He put an arm around my shoulder. ‘Come on. Let me buy you a drink.’
I felt warm, not hot, but warm and content. I was happy to have Ronnie beside me, happy with everything. He bought us beers and we drank them at the bar.
‘Josh I need to ask you something,’ Ronnie lowered his voice, hunched over and waved for me to come closer.
I laughed at his secretive posture and then leant towards him. He looked from side-to-side. ‘You know Tess,’ he whispered.
‘Yeah.’ I giggled.
‘Do you want to fuck her?’
His question caused me to snort with laughter. ‘No. I don’t know her.’
He looked at me with wide, stern eyes. ‘Yeah, but do you want to fuck her?’
I tried to keep a straight face. ‘No Ronnie. I don’t.’
Ronnie sat up, exhaled dramatically and then slapped his hand down on the bar. ‘Well that’s a relief.’ He smiled at me. ‘Let’s do some shots.’
A few more people entered the club and Pat was standing in the DJ booth with a pair of headphones hanging around his neck, though I hadn’t noticed any change in the music.
I took my phone out of my pocket to check the time, but I couldn’t make out the numbers on the display. I squinted and rubbed my eyes, but it was like there was nothing there in the first place. And then the floor warped, developing peaks and valleys, which I tried to navigate unsuccessfully. I kept falling over and decided it might be a good idea for me to take a seat in one of the booths at the back.
I pulled myself on to the green leather cushioning and slumped into an empty seat. The floor returned to normal and I felt some relief. There was a small glass table in front of me with a cocktail on it. I felt fairly certain that it was mine, or at least, if it wasn’t it should be, and so I picked it up and sucked from its straw.
A small group of indistinguishable blonde girls walked past my booth. One of them stopped and turned in my direction.
I stared at her with squinted suspicious eyes until I realised who she was. ‘TESS!’
She sat down next to me and looked at me with concern. ‘Are you feeling okay? Want me to get you some water?’
I shook my head and held up my drink. ‘I have a drink thanks.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Pat brought me.’
‘Right.’ Tess’s mouth formed a thin line. ‘Watch yourself around Pat. He steals paracetamol from the store and tries to sell them to people when they’re off their face. That’s why he really comes here every night. The club lets him mess around on the decks until ten-thirty ‘cause there’s never anyone here then, but officially they don’t have a DJ until eleven.’
I wanted to tell her that something hadn’t felt right about him, but at that moment my tongue felt thick and swollen, so I smiled instead. She smiled back and two slight dimples dug into her cheeks. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and I wanted to tell her that, but then the room began to sway from side-to-side, like I was on a ship, and even though I was sitting down I struggled to stay upright.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ Tess asked.
I tried to speak and was pleased to hear the sound of my voice. ‘I think. . . I think I just need some air.’ I stood up and tried to balance myself as I walked by leaning in the opposite direction to whichever way the room swung. The club was full now—the dance floor a single thrumming mass that flashed on and off of my view under strobe lighting. I wedged myself into it, imagining that I could slide out the other end like a newborn baby. Bodies pressed against me from all sides, and the thundering bass of the music was under my skin. I let myself travel with the current of people until I came out the other side, damp from sweat, theirs and mine. From there I could see the green-lit exit sign as well as the DJ booth—the guy playing, too skinny to be Pat.
Outside, I inhaled the cool night air and exhaled slowly. I turned out of the alleyway and into the city. My balance was still off and I was worried about wandering onto the road, so I kept my head down and tried to walk in the middle of the footpath. I heard laughter, and people’s voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. The river came into view and I came to the understanding that it was trying to suck me in, to drown me. I spun away from it and quickened my step. But I could feel it following, rising above its banks and nipping at my heels. People turned around when I passed them. I heard footsteps and couldn’t tell if I was being followed or if they were mine.
I wanted it to stop. I wanted everything to stop.
I wanted to be at home, asleep in my bed. Home was safe. Sleep was safe.
The river was after me, everyone was after me and I was alone and eighteen and high and scared.
In the doorway of a closed hairdresser’s, cardboard lined the ground and a blue sleeping bag lay on top, empty. I checked the street up-and-down, making sure no-one had caught up to me, and then ducked into the doorway. I cocooned myself in the sleeping bag and curled up as tight as I could, wishing for it be over.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘Please. Please.’
I could feel the fear prickling at the edges of my consciousness. I pulled inwards tighter and prayed—the only way I knew how. ‘Shesh shanim tizra sadecha,’ I said, holding onto myself as though I might drift away. ‘Shesh shanim. Shesh. Shesh. Shesh.’