Posts tagged: bargains

Day 242

By , June 23, 2011 10:00 am

Wednesday 23rd June 2010

Gestation: 38 weeks, 5 days

One year ago.


So again today, I run.  After realising yesterday how much I am reading into things, I try to drop it.  I try to stop reading into things, but it’s hard.  Because one thing remains constant.

Each day I run, each day in the parching, drenching afternoon sun, I run along the beach, each day clocking a time slower than the day before, each day feeling more and more sapped by the dropping sun.

And one thing remains constant.

As I double back, sprinting home through the spongy sand, my feet sinking in quicksand, I look out at the horizon.  And each day, each and every day, I see a solitary boat – a different one each time, and yet a solitary boat – directly under the light of the sun, infallibly dissected in half by the sun’s ray, slicing vertically through the water, spreading it’s shimmering beam into the azure waters below.

A singleton ship.  Out on the horizon.  Every single day.

In those same waters that our pink and blue boats sailed.

And only the pink boat floating on.

Continuing on, well after we left.

One thing remains constant.

* * * * *

Day 241

By , June 22, 2011 10:00 am

Tuesday 22nd June 2010

Gestation: 38 weeks, 4 days

One year ago.


Each day, I run.  And as I do, I make a choice.  I make a choice about my family, and what it will be.  It goes like this:

 

‘I choose the end result of a healthy, loving happy family.’

 

Running is my form of meditation.  I’m not like other people who can be still in meditation.  I get my meditation – my sense of centredness and presence – only when my brain is oxygen-deprived enough that I can no longer think at a million miles an hour.  It’s as if strangling me is the most effective way to slow me down;  hypoxia is quickest way to send me into alpha waves.

Sweating it out as I churn along the beach, I concentrate on my breathing, and I concentrate on my choice.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

There is a school of thought that says the universe is there for the taking, for each of us, wholly ready to provide.  That in essence, our lives are already mapped out, all the major steps already predefined;  like a massive dot to dot of life.

And, let’s say, if this is the case, that there are only about fifteen to twenty dots in total.  The rest of it – all the bits in between – is ours to choose.  We can get as creative as we want with the path.  We can do whatever we want with that line from point to point.

But understand that these points are predestined.

No point sweating them.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

However, there is a caveat to this.  And that is, that we can move the dots.  We can shift them around the page like a set of counters.  So in essence, we can move everything.  We can change everything.  Nothing is set in stone, other than birth and death.  Everything else, everything in between, is fluid.  If we can move the dot that makes the neck look crooked, we can change the complexion of the whole picture.

We can move the dots by changing the nature of our thinking.  Physics dictates that all energy will flow along the path of least resistance.  If the things that are most important to us are along a well-worn path that runs downhill – then the universe can’t help but to let it flow to you.

And me.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

So I choose my family every day.  I choose it every time I run this beach in Fiji.  I choose it every time I run around the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, every cold winter’s day when my breath is steamy and the air hurts on its way down, every time I deprive my brain of enough oxygen that it becomes as ingrained as a pathway in my consciousness.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

I make that choice, I burn that thought, I repeat it.  I stretch the creative tension like wires in my brain, connected by neurotransmitters, by dopamine firing off.  Each and every day, I do the same.

Bang, bang, bang.

As a synapse of belief, and of thought, that is constant and unchanging and there – physically there – a physical thought, that once started as a belief, but through conditioning, through thinking, through visioning that thought and imagining my family on a daily basis, has actually become as a neuronal connection in my white matter, it has become a fixed synapse.

In doing that, it becomes more true than not.

A fixed truth.

How can it not?

* * * * *

Today, as I run along the beach, I repeat my mantra.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

On this day, today, I struggle with this logic, my artistic brain at the tender mercies of my scientific mind.  It sits there in a headlock, a vicious half-Nelson that leaves my weak little pansy artistic mind panting.  Today, it is at the mercy of my brutal, beefed-up, loved-up, greased-up scientific thoughts, obliterating this philosophical waif of consciousness into a million smashed up thoughts.

And yet I continue.  I root for the underdog.  I cheer for the pansy.  I keep thinking about my family.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

As I run, I take in the world around.  I look at the beach, the children in the surf, and then I start to see it differently.  As I head along the coast, I see a plane, a solitary aeroplane, perched at the edge of the landing strip.

A singleton.

But then I notice its twin engines.  They start up, flicking over;  once, twice, and then whirring to life.  As I watch it, I see in the distance a second plane, a second twin-engine plane, coming in low and fast, flying in from out of the glare of the sun.  It is close, less than twenty metres ahead, on this island, the brother to its twin sister, already whirring, already fired up, already ready to take off in flight.

It’s twins.

The plane lands with a jolt, a puff of dusty air spewing up behind it’s wheel, on this strip – uncordoned – that I am to run over to get to the next part of the island.  As I go, the sister slows to a stop, and the brother continues in an arc, following his bigger sister’s path in, disappearing to a dot;  the same size as she was when I first spotted her, back out towards the sun.

As I continue, all I can see is twins.  Another couple, walking towards me.  Hands linked, twins.  Then a family, with two boys the same height, the same sandy hair.  Twins.

My scientific brain threatens to go into overdrive, yet the sweat of the day saps me of cogent thought, and my dream starts to grow.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

I follow the crest of the beach out.  As I go, the story changes.  This time, as I reach the rocky outcrop, the place we sailed the boats from four days ago, I again note the lone palm.

A singleton.

There it sits, all on it’s own, reaching out over the water, threatening to lean down and scoop it up and drink it in.

I turn and look, the light of the day fading.  There in the distance is the sun, shimmering on the deep still water, and on it, right on the brim of the horizon, right on the edge where it threatens to tip off the edge of the world, is a boat, sailing along, like a ridiculously beautiful postcard.

Another singleton.

I turn and head back, picking up speed.  There again I see one half of a couple I’ve seen from earlier in our travels.

Singleton.

And out of the bushes comes her partner, to join her, to grab at his hand and cup him in her arms.

Twins.

I look back out at the lone sailing boat, the lone sun above it, only to notice, up to its right, balancing, almost laughing at me, subtle in comparison, is the moon – bright and pale in this early evening light.

Twins.

I pick up my speed, the sun diving lower, the light starting to fade, the sweat coming harder, pooling in my eyes.  I cross the landing strip, my limbs getting heavy, the sand getting softer, the blood failing in its quest to provide oxygen, and in doing so, the clarity of the message, the choice I have made coming ever closer.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

I sprint the last berth, past another singleton, another set of twins, yet another set of twins, then a singleton.  And then in the distance, I can see it, my target, my finish line;  the end of my run.  I pick it up even faster, the sting of the sweat in my eyes, my calves cramping, and I push even further, pull even deeper, and I sprint, hard up the sand, to my finishing post, to my point, hanging there, like a bird perched on the edge of a branch.

I touch it as I arrive, panting, an outstretched hand.  It is Suse.

 

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

 

Twins.  Singleton.  Who cares?

I choose the end result of a healthy, loving, happy family.

I’ve already got one.  My wife, the second half of my self;  my own twin, my own singleton.

And so I realise:  fuck the symbolism.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is this:

The other day we released the spirits – two spirits – in a ceremony in the ocean, to let them know that we are now ready.

We are ready.

 

* * * * *

Day 114

By , February 17, 2011 10:00 am

Monday 15th February 2010

Gestation: 20 weeks, 3 days

One year ago.


Tonight, Suse and I try something new.

Tonight, we trial the Deposit Method.

* * * * *

It’s a variation on a time-honoured technique.  Except that, unlike the Withdrawal Method, our aim is the exact opposite.

I don’t know that there’s much need for definition here.  But, for point of interest, I will.

Just a bit.

The Withdrawal Method – more formally known as Coitus Interruptus – has been in use for thousands of years.  The earliest known record comes from the story of Onan, in the Torah.  In the Book of Genesis, Judah orders his son to have sex with his dead brother’s wife in order to continue the family line.  Onan readily agrees, but as he does, withdraws before climax, ‘spillling his seed on the ground.’  Several times.

For his wickedness, Onan is sentenced to death.

Encouraged by this story, Coitus Interruptus became all the rage through the Greek and Roman Empires.  By the eighteenth century, it was one of the most popular methods of birth control throughout Europe and America.  And by 1991, thirty-eight million couples around the world were regularly being very wicked indeed.

The success rate of the Withdrawal Method is, unsurprisingly, entirely user-dependent.  The failure rate in ‘perfect use’ is quoted at 4% per year, and in ‘typical use’ at 15-28% per year.

The aim is to not get pregnant.

But it’s the aim that also causes the problem.

* * * * *

Our aim is the exact opposite.

It’s day eighteen of Suse’s cycle.  An egg must have been released.  But with all of our recent activity, along with phantom pains since the ectopic, it’s hard to tell.  Suse internal ovulation meter has gone on the blink.

But it’s our sixth night in a row.  We want to make sure we’ve got a greeting party for the egg.  We want to give ourselves every chance.

So, by mirroring the process above, we come up with something new.

Literally.

I call it the Deposit Method.

Or, more scientifically: Coitus Quickus Enterus Completus.

Forthwith to be known as the Nethercote Method.

* * * * *

I get myself warmed up, while Suse reads a book.

There are certain pivotal moments in a marriage when you realise that this is the person you will grow old with.

This is one of them.

Not to be distracted, I concentrate.  And, in our very first attempt, at our very own technique, we are successful.

It is a brief, comfortable interlude.

Which barely ruffles a hair.

She doesn’t even need to put down her book.

* * * * *

Selling a Shitmobile

By , June 15, 2010 9:39 am

So I took my own advice.

After sixteen summers of non-air-conditioned luxury, sixteen years of driving vehicles that required the RACV bumper pack, and sixteen years of driving without being able to be heard on a mobile phone, I was done.

I was broken.

It was time to get a new car.

* * * * *

Until now, I’d been a fan of European vehicles.  I’ve had a 1973 Peugeot, a 1980 Renault, and two mid-eighties BMWs.  The youngest car I’ve ever owned was seventeen years old, and the oldest was twenty-seven.  I’ve paid between $1000 and $5500 for each of the cars, the higher prices coming from cars that were younger than I was at time of purchase.  For three out of the four cars, I ended up paying far more in repairs than the original purchase price.  It was time to turn a new leaf.

So after Melbourne’s recent hailstorm, I bought a (slightly bruised and bloodied) new car.  Given that I was born during the depression, it felt like an unnecessary extravagance.  But only until I tried to sell the old one.  After that experience, I don’t think I’ll ever buy a second hand car again.  And I don’t think I’ll ever try selling one either.

My previous four cars ended life in various ways.  The Peugeot ended up at a wreckers in Sunshine, sale price $300.  The Renault sold off the side of the road for $500.  The first BMW was written off, giving me the princely sum of $5500.  That was the best deal of the lot.

So getting rid of this one seemed to me to be an easy enough caper.  On the surface of it.  I recalled my experience of looking for second hand cars.  Back then, you checked the trading post, you found a car, you looked at it, and you bought it.

This was when the Trading Post was something you could hold.

So, with the end of the printed version last year, and online sales having taken over, it could only be easier?  Right?

I posted my little old BMW on carsales.com.au.  Sure, it had a little bit of paint peeling off the bonnet.  Sure, the air conditioning needed repairing.  Sure, the speedometer only worked when the heater on full and the left back door open, but this was a prestige vehicle.  A Beemer.  And it had been good to me.  Or I’d been good to it, at least, repairing it each time it broke down.  I was certainly attached to it.  Why else would I be selling it?

I started the bidding at $3990.

A week later, I’d had two calls.  Jasmine had rung, keen to begin with, but after speaking to me, she was convinced that she was better off keeping her old car.  The other call came from a gentleman named Hailu, a tram driver who requested that I deliver it to the Clifton Hill depot so that he could see how it went in a race against an old W-class tram.

Note to self.  Don’t go into marketing.

I checked the stats to see how I was faring.  Sure enough, according to carsales.com.au, my small ad had been hit on search nearly four thousand times, and been viewed 250 times.  I was beginning to doubt my move into the used car business.  So I galvanised, dropping $500 off, just so that I didn’t have to race trams.

This got the ball rolling.  Minutes later, I had Ghouse ringing from Sydney, asking if he could come and look at it before the end of the year.  A man called Mike, from England, decided to look at it, before realising that he’d have to come to imigrate to Australia first.  And then I got a call from Martin.

“Hi, this is Mark,”

“Hello, Mark.”

“Hi there.  Who is this?”

“This is Martin.  Can I see your car?”

“Sure.”  I paused for a moment.  “Do you want to ask anything about the car first?”

“No.  I just want to see the car.”

“Sure.  I can do it at 6.30pm tonight.”  I gave Martin the address.

“Great.  I see you then.”

Martin rang four more times throughout the afternoon, rechecking the address and the time.  Each time I repeated it, with decreasing faith that he would make it unscathed.

At 7pm, he hadn’t yet arrived.  At 7.15pm, I rang him, and it went straight through to message bank.

By 7.45pm, I had rung three times, and by the following day, Martin’s phone was disconnected, having returned to Russia with several E30 BMWs, their owners still in the boot.

Just glad he made his quota by 6.30pm.

This is why cars are traded in.

Going...

* * * * *

Kumar arrived the next evening, to drive the car as proxy for Ghouse, the man from Sydney.

“Ghouse?  Is that was he calls himself here?” he asked.  “We know him as Jeff.”

Kumar poured himself into the front seat before driving the car with me at his side, more interested in talking than the traffic.  As we toured Richmond, Kumar told me about the dream job he’d landed at a chocolate factory.

“You’ve no idea,” he said, occasionally watching the road, “in this country, they give me the freedom to eat whatever takes my fancy.”  He actually said fancy.

He delivered me back home, the blood of elderly pedestrians still fresh on the bumper.

“I will tell Ghouse that the car is good.”

“Great.  Thank you, Kumar.”

“No.  Thank you.  And thank you for listening.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said, without any hint of sarcasm.  “I will ring Ghouse immediately.”

“Great,” I said, wresting the keys back.

By midday the following day, I’d heard nothing from Ghouse.  I rang his mobile to see whether he was still keen.

“I am sorry.  This is not going to work out.  You cannot ring me again.”
“Sorry Ghouse?”

“I am at work, and unable to speak.  Please desist from calling again.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So I take it that you are no longer interested in the car?”

The phone went dead.  I rang Kumar immediately.

“Hi Kumar, it’s Mark, the guy with the BMW.”

“Oh, Hi Mark.”

“Ummm, I just spoke to Ghouse.”

“And what did he say?”

“He told me ‘it was not going to work out, and to desist from calling again.’ ”

“Mmmm.  Sorry about that.”

“Sorry about what?”

“I think Ghouse is a little unstable.”

“Unstable?”

“Well, that’s what I’m told.  I don’t really know.  I’ve never met him.”

I stop for a second.  “You’ve never met him?”

“No.”

“So how is it that you were test driving a car for him?”

“Well, he asked me to.  I wasn’t going to say ‘no’.  That would be rude.”

“Of course not,” I said, “thanks, Kumar.  Bye now.”

I hung up and turned my phone off for the rest of the afternoon.

Going...

* * * * *

I ended up selling the car the other day.  I sold it for $2800, far below the initial asking price of $4000.  But by this stage, it had been searched 11,289 times, and the ad viewed 784 times.  It was time for it to go.

And it was a pleasant experience.  The buyer rang, expressed interest in viewing it, came for a test drive, and then decided to buy it.

How could I refuse?  That’s exactly how I buy a car.

Such an old fashioned kind of guy.

Gone.

Bus Ride from Hell, Chile

By , May 31, 2010 5:51 pm

La Montana

Altura resort        3.025 metros

Altura maxima    3.670 metros (Cima Tres Puntas)

Altura minima    2.860 metros (Base Prado)

Horario de Pistas

Todos los dias de Lunes a Domingo de 9:00 a 17:00 horas

I read this in the information column, and then looked across at the Mapa de Pistas.  There in front of me were the 39 kilometres of ski runs, mapped out on the Mercator projection of Valle Nevado mountain range.  I looked to my left and frowned as I absorbed the view of the service station fuel pump.

I checked my watch.  It was 9.23am.

Three and a half hours earlier, I’d expectantly bounced toward the desk of Hotel Gran Palace, a misnomer if ever there was one.  A man in a tired, threadbare green blazer stood there straightening the gold tassels on his shoulder.

“Olah.”

“Hello,” he said, without looking up.  A tassel was caught in a knot.  His tongue contorted to the left, as his eyes strained to the limit of their range.

“I’ll be up in the kitchen eating breakfast when the bus arrives,” I said.  He stopped, his hand still on the knot.  A puzzled look slipped across his face.

“But sir, the kitchen doesn’t open until seven.”  I looked at my watch.  It was 6.55am.

Okay pedant.  “Okay, in five minutes.”  He kept the puzzled look.

“It’s not open for one hour.”  He pointed beyond his tassel at the wall behind.

There hung an array of clocks, one telling me the time in Brazil, another in Sydney, even one in Moscow, as if every second guest is from Russia.  I then saw the one labelled Santiago.  I managed to distract myself from the fact that none of the hands were within five minutes of each other long enough to see that it read 6 o’clock in the morning.

Point one: When you cross an international border, always check the local time.

Okay.

“Gracias,” I said, feeling rather foolish.  I turned, resisting the temptation to fix the clocks, and returned to my room.  I read a bit and wrote a bit, listening all the while to the whispered musac through the speaker on the wall that couldn’t be turned off.  Michael Bolton was touring Chile in October.  The hype was reaching fever pitch.

As I hummed along to his terrifying rendition of “Murder my Heart,” I crossed myself mentally, thankful that in crossing from Argentina to Chile we gained an hour and didn’t lose one.  This was my one day of skiing in the Andes before flying out.  This was the whole reason for being in South America.  Forget the conference.

I whistled the hour away, and headed to the restaurant, where I stuffed my face in preparation for the day.  My lift turned up at 7.20am: a little on the late side, but again, no problem.  Plenty of time.  I’d been informed that it takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, give or take.  Piece of cake.

Pedro grabbed me by the arm the second I exited the lift and frogmarched me to his van.  He was a man in a hurry;  I liked his style.  He pushed me through the side door, forgetting the niceties of lowering my head as the police would have done.  We then proceeded a wordless drive from Hotel Gran Misnomer across town.  I stared out the window, a lump growing on my forehead, as I stared towards the Andes, the perfect backdrop to this city.  After about half an hour, we arrived at a hotel without guests.  Pedro waited there for a number of minutes, checking anxiously at his watch.  He walked up to the door several times, but never knocked.  Eventually he jumped back into the van and sped off.

We then headed back across town, the Andes now on the other side, making several trademark Chilean 270 degree left hand turns, right hand turns having been outlawed for their disruption of traffic.  God help this place during the years they were still allowed.  We crawled back to a block of flats just near my hotel where we picked up a mother and daughter, and then proceeded to creep across town again, past the guestless hotel, and into a service station.  This whole process took ninety minutes.

* * * * *

The furrow became etched to my forehead at the twenty-five minute mark in the service station.  I looked around, trying to massage it away, desperate for an answer.  Sixteen of us sat in a bus, waiting to be sent up the mountain.  The thirteen locals relaxed, patiently picking their fingernails in unison, like some weird local ritual.  Three of us did not.

A huge black hand appeared across my shoulder, as Sam lent forward to introduce himself.  He was an African-American skier from Florida.  I know: these eight words have never before been written in this sequence. Sam was fifty-five and charming, but clearly had less patience for custom than the locals.  He was my kind of guy.

“I was at my hotel room,” he began in a languid tone not dissimilar to Morgan Freeman, “at 7am.  Seven…in…the…a.m..”

“Me too,” piped Barry from the back, a 40 year old guy from Boston.  You get the idea Barry pipes a lot.  He grabbed at the beak of his cap in a nervous tic – there was a slick of grime across it from years of such behaviour.  “My wife’s a Chileno, and I’m from Boston.”  He paused for a second, potentially waiting for applause.  “And she told me to expect this.”  He stopped once again, and took a breath.  “I’m from Boston,” he repeated.  Barry made up for the stereotype that Sam lacked.

“I’m Mark, and I’m from Australia,” I said in my best Alcoholics Anonymous voice, “and right now, I’m going to see what is going on.”  I walked to the front and exited in search of Carlos.

Carlos has been introduced to us as the man who would see us right.  He was perched on the edge of a planter box, picking at grass.

“Hey Carlos, what’s going on?”  He looked up and shook his head, screwing up the edge of his nose.

“Not much.”

“No, Carlos, wrong answer.  This is not friendly small talk.  When is the bus leaving?”  A puzzled look slipped across his face.  This was getting to be a trend.  “We’ve been here for fifteen minutes.  Is there any reason why the bus hasn’t left yet?”  He pondered this question for a moment, staring into the middle distance.  Eventually I walked away;  I’d already studied the fuel pump.

Eight minutes, 37 seconds later, he boarded the bus.  He approached and asked me to come with him.  He led me out of the bus and back over to the plantar box, and then whispered, “I have an idea.”  He looked around again.  “If you swap buses, the trip to Valle Nevado is only seventy-five minutes.  Not two hours.”  He grinned, nodding his head knowingly.  I found my head shaking in time.

“And why have you just told me this?”

“Because I thought you want the quicker bus,” he trailed off, dejectedly.  He picked at grass.

“No, Carlos,” I paused, “that is a great idea.  I just…”  He looked at me with confusion.  It was times like this that my world and his world seemed cramped on the same planet.  “Where is this other bus?”  He pointed.  “When can this bus leave?”

“Soon.”

“Can everyone get on this bus?”

He thought for a second.  “Sure,” he said eventually, “no problem for me.”  Cramped in the same universe.

Carlos seemed confused by the thought that everyone would want to reach the mountain in the shortest possible time, and was open-jawed at the speed with which the transfer occurred.  Before he had the chance to slow down natural progress, the bus had left.  I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas and looked at the opening times of Valle Nevado.  I calculated.  Maybe we were an hour away.

Maybe I forgot I was in South America.

* * * * *

Everything went smoothly for a while.  The bus drove in a forward motion;  the driver pointed it towards the Andes.  He accelerated up hills and braked on the way down.  It was all very Western in its philosophy.

We wound the curves, and the snow came into view.  Sam, Barry and I made decreasingly interesting small talk, increasingly captivated by the pristine snow of the Andes. The traffic began to build – the majority of skiers seemingly happy to arrive three hours after the lifts start for the day.

On one side of the bus the windows began to fog;  on the other they steamed from the intense sun.  The road started to get icy, but that didn’t worry our driver.  And running as late as we were, there was a collective agreement to try our luck without chains.  But when, on one turn, the bus began to slide backwards toward the edge of the mountain, it became clear to us that it was time for something to be done.

This wasn’t so clear to Carlos.  Sure, he stopped the bus.  We all got out to stretch and take in the view while the chains went on.  A couple of us even delighted in the yellow slurpees we created in the pristine roadside snow.

Meantime, Carlos took out one set of chains and laid them on the ground.  The bus driver flipped it over, carefully smoothing it out.  Then Carlos flipped it again.

Sam and I strolled away down the road, returning five minutes later.  The chains remained there, dejectedly, on the ground beside the bus.  Sam and I watched the driver as he watched Carlos watching the chains.  It was like some weird MC Escher picture or something.  After a couple of minutes of this, I broke the spell in Neverland.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Sorry?” Carlos said, still staring at the chain.

“Is it broken or something?”

“No, no.”

I paused and watched.  The two of them remained there, crouched, their eyes fixed.

“Do you need a hand?”

“No, no, it’s fine.”  They continued looking at the chains, urging them to levitate to the wheel by themselves.

I walked to the other side of the bus, and saw that this chain hadn’t even been pulled out of the side cabin.  It was 10.45am.  I blew smoke out of my ears, before opening the side compartment and pulling the chain out.

“What are you doing?” Carlos yelled from his position on the ground.

“Getting the chain ready,” I said, laying it out.

“No necessary,” he cried.  I frowned, unable to contain a scoff.

“Can you put the chain on?”

“Relax, just relax.”

“But this one hour trip has now gone for nearly four hours.  I kind of want to be skiing.  It’s ten forty-five.”

“Just relax,” he said once more, rolling his eyes.

I put the chain down, and walked away.  This was, after all, the last day of my holiday.  Murder would likely delay things.  As I took the step to re-enter the bus, I looked back to see the duo still staring at the chain.  These two, who drive this route every single day.

Thirteen Chilenos sat on board, staring out the window.  No one seemed perturbed, no one seemed surprised. The ritual continued, only interrupted by Sam.  He sat there, shaking his head and saying “Oh, man,” over and over.  Barry sharpened a knife.

Sam looks on in despair...

Barry tries to help...

Barry goes to find his knife...

I stuffed my iPod headphones in and counted to one hundred, feeling my ulcer squeeze.  Finally, after about five more minutes, and no discernible change in the vapours, the chains were on.  A watched Chileno never works.

Within seconds, the bus revved dramatically, and finally lurched forward to the sound of metal breaking.  We travelled about five metres more, before there was another loud metal clank.  The clank returned, and again, and again.  After a few seconds it settled into the rhythm of the bus, the rotation of the wheel.  Each time it turned, the cymbals clanged as a piece of chain smacked against the undercarriage of the bus.

I looked toward the front of the bus.  Carlos picked at his nails, catching up on the ritual he’d missed, blithely disinterested in this 90dB den. As we sped up, Sam clicked his fingers around his ears, dancing a flamenco.  The rest of the passengers seemed not to notice or care.  I checked and at least two of them weren’t dead.  Barry continued sharpening his knife.  Aware that the bus was a Mercedes, I figured whatever damage it was doing would be unlikely to stop us over the final 3km.

We pulled into to Valle Nevado at 11.19am.  Right on time.

As we disembarked, Carlos announced to us all that the bus would be departing the mountain at 4pm.  With that, I resolved to return half-an-hour late.

* * * * *

The day was truly magical.  After gathering skis and stocks, a lift ticket, and a locker, I headed out.  Valle Nevado Ski Resort peaks at Tres Puntas, 3,670 metres above the water, with Valle Del Inca, its smaller sibling, just across the way at 3,521 metres.  In the valleys nestled between and below, are a meandering link of runs that take you through green, blue, red and black runs.  On this day, the sky was blue, dotted with clouds, and there was a whiff of wind in the air but little more.  The sun was out, and the snow was perfect.  In the lower valleys, it was warm, but as you headed towards Tres Puntas, the wind swept up the powder and slapped it hard against your face like sand.

Like a kid at a carnival, I lavished in the rides on the various lifts and pomas to these peaks, chatting to bewildered strangers, trying as many runs as I could, sucking the juice out of the experience.  Who needs Spanish?  Here we talked snow.  I didn’t once think of Carlos.  The runs were wide and ranging, the snow thick enough to be open and untainted by rocks.  They were long in comparison to Australia;  in fact there is one run, Sol, which descends 625 metres over several kilometres, without needing to stop for a lift.

It was on this run, nearing the end of the day, that I got myself into a bit of a bind.  I’d made tracks all over the mountain, skiing solidly, stopping only for a brief lunch of a burger, oil and fries that I think were made of potato.  In the early afternoon I basked in the gorgeousness of the views, and hit upon my favourite, the Andes express chairlift.  For the last hour of the day, I ran it over and over, hitting the mountain’s solitary moguls, calculating exactly how many more runs I could do, and then adding two more.  Carlos could wait.  I pushed it right to the edge.


Eventually satisfied, and happy with my fashionably-late timed return, I took my last run of the day along Sol, to end right at the bottom of the resort, before a sneaky lift across to the bus.  The run was several kilometres long, and with such an open, full cover of snow, at times you get lost in this white oasis.  They mark out the runs, but like everything South American, you wouldn’t rely on them.

Unless you’re me.  As I finished the run, I skated in towards the dude in the black jacket.  Mmm, different colour to the other towies.  He stood there, frowning beneath his goggles, as he looked at my day pass.  I smiled back, keen to get on the poma to head back up.  Wasn’t this meant to be a lift?  Whatever.

I put my hand out to take the poma bar, and he waved his hands.

“Que?”  I felt like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

“El Colorado,” he said, pointing at his chest.

“El Colorado?”  My head swam.  I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas.  There on the edge of the map was an arrow away from the widest run, Sol, pointing out of frame, towards the next ski resort.  El Colorado.  I’d skied all the way to the next Ski Resort.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was already 4.11pm.  Shit.

“Donde esta Sol?”  He pointed in the other direction, seemingly towards the sky.  I went a whiter shade of pale.  I took a breath, and off I went.

For the next twelve minutes, I proceeded to pull several abdominal muscles and blister the webbing of my hands as I traversed my way towards several osteopathic treatments.   I congratulated myself on a personal best over the two hundred metre uphill slog, not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon.

I caught the Prado lift, bolted down to Vaiven, and spent the interminable ride to the top looking out for a departing Turistour bus.  The chairlifts hadn’t seemed this slow all day.

At 4.26pm, I unclipped my boots and ran up the final hill, only to find Carlos standing there, looking slightly agitated.

“Sorry, Carlos,”  I said, between heaves, “I just came from El Colorado.”  The look of agitation disappeared.

“Wow,” he said, “are you Superman?”  I felt my neck crick.

“Nope, no, I’m not.”

When I got on the bus at 4.34pm, Sam and Barry were smiling.  Amazingly, the entire bus had been there at four on the dot, breaking with national tradition.  The nail picking went on.

“You owe me a Foster’s,” Sam said, slapping me on the shoulder, causing a knot to harden.

The driver seemed surprisingly keen to return home, speeding the entire way.  On the home stretch, at the end of the day, he’d found his mojo.  All the way we listened to golden oldies, a video playing the best of Michael Jackson, while rigor mortis set in.

By the time we said farewell to Sam and Barry, I was barely able to move.  I was thrown out at Hotel Gran Misnomer, the bus slowing slightly for my departure.  I waved Carlos into the sunset, who was already preparing himself for the repeat farce on another unsuspecting group in the morning.

I took the stairs, and the bellhop fetched my bags.  The day before I’d attempted to negotiate with the Good Palace Misnomer about having a shower on my return, but they’d baulked.  I understand their position, but after a day on the mountain, prior to a 19-hour leg home, I was pretty keen to wash.

Again they sidestepped my request, like the slick dancers they are.  So, I proceeded to their public bathroom, blocked the door with my bag, stripped naked, and had a birdbath.

Those little hotel towels have trouble soaking up an entire drenched floor, but they can do it.  I exited the dunny, a wet rag on the bench the only evidence of my cleansing ritual, the staff none the wiser.

Other than the three people who barged in.  But they were public.

And one of them, I swear, was Carlos.

Place cards

By , May 21, 2010 12:36 pm

My wife and I went to a wedding on the weekend.  It was a wonderful affair, at an amazing venue, and was beautifully heartfelt.  It was the first wedding that Suse and I have been to since we got married, and it was a special privilege to be able to be experience the joy of the bride and groom, for the first time relating to the emotions they were feeling, that we’d felt on our own wedding day.

But the one emotion that I wasn’t expecting to relive was tension.  We caught a train to the venue, and neither of us had any official duties, so it was set to be a party, good and proper.  And it was – until dinnertime.  Having talked and laughed with a few friends, Suse and I meandered to the back of the queue into grand hall.  We studied the seating plan before being guided to our designated table, Table Six.

When we arrived, all but four of the guests were already seated.  We noticed immediately that most couples had been split.  Suse’s place card was at one place setting, there was a woman’s name at the next, and then there was my name.  Suse looked at me, before asking others on the table,

“Do you think it’s okay for me to swap?”

“Sure,” said someone, swatting a hand and laughing, “we’ve already done it.”

Suse smiled, took the place cards, and swapped them.  As she did, a figure appeared from behind.  We both turned to see a woman, swaying slightly, her eyes dulled, a glass in her hand.

“Is this you?” Suse asked, holding up the place card.

“Yes.”

“I was just swapping them to sit next to my husband.  Is that okay?”

“Oh,” said the woman, curling her lip slightly.

“Is that not okay?” Suse tried.

The woman said nothing.  She just stared into the middle distance.  It was hard to tell if she was irritated, or just inebriated.

Suse, now a bit flustered, grabbed the bonbonnieres, and completed the swap.  We sat down, and, attempting to normalise the situation, proceeded introduce ourselves to the normal guests.  We did the usual thing, shouting out names across a table at people we were never likely to encounter again.  They did the same in reverse.  Everyone raised eyebrows, smiling in turn, even though no one could really hear anyone.  On completion of the clockwise name-swap, we returned to the woman to our right.

“Hi, I’m Susan.”

“I can see that,” she said.  She then looked Suse up and down theatrically.  Given that she was thirty centimetres away, she looked like she was praying.

Suse turned to me, her eyes wide and her mouth open.

“Welcome, everyone,” said the MC, “I hope you’ve all had the chance to meet each other by now.”  I eyed the woman, still swaying in her seat.  She was alone at this table;  single at this event.  Whenever her drunken eyes would allow it, she would focus on Suse once again, running her finger around the top of her glass.  Sharpening her bone to pick.

* * * * *

“Does she seem weird to you?” Suse asked immediately after the MC had finished.

Suse and I play this game in cafés and restaurants when we’re bored, where we make up a narrative for people’s lives based on their appearance and behaviour.  This time, it wasn’t much of a stretch.

“She’s a single thirties-something woman, love.  She’s come alone to a wedding.  She feels acutely unwanted and unloved, and then she’s been moved, thereby reconfirming how much the world really doesn’t want her.”

I looked back at this woman, as she stared at the table. From here her eyes moved forlornly into her champagne glass which she picked up, necking the final gulp, before looking at me and sneering.

“Don’t worry about her, love.  Charm her.”

“Okay,” said Suse, ready to try.

I turned to my left, and began having a conversation with the guy next to me, Matthew.  We shouted across an empty seat, one belonging to the final guest, who was currently out of the room, breastfeeding.  Just as Matthew and I were starting to talk, I heard a rustle at my right.  I looked across to see Suse’s ashen face, as she stood, grabbed her bag, and moved to the seat between us.  She sat down, a ghostly look on her face.

“I tried to say hello, and ask how her evening was going.  To which, she said, ‘I think what you did before was really rude.’  So I said, ‘I’m really sorry if I offended you.’  In reply, she said, ‘Well, I actually think what you did was the rudest thing I’ve ever seen, so let’s not even pretend to talk to each other.’

I’m transfixed, waiting for the next bit.  So is Matthew.

“So what happened then?”

“Well I said to her, ‘I don’t know anyone else here, and I wanted to sit next to my husband’, and she snorted, and said ‘I get around without one of those’, and then she wouldn’t look at me again.  And so I said “Well, I think you’re extremely rude, and I’m going to move over here.’ ”

Matthew and I looked at each other.  Meantime, Suse sat there, stunned.  I viewed the rest of the table.  Some people seemed confused;  some totally unaware of what just happened.  Those who had seen it wore blank faces, not quite sure how to react.  I turned to look at the cow.  There she sat, a look of vindication in her eyes.  Like she’d won one for the sisterhood.

A waiter walked past.  She grabbed at his pants legs, pulling him over, demanding that he fill her glass.

“But it’s not champagne,” he said.

“I don’t care,” she announced.

He filled her glass with beetroot juice.

* * * * *

A moment later, the breastfeeding mother walked in, oblivious to the recent commotion.  She introduced herself as Sophie, and we smiled back.

And then she sat down, happily, in the seat where Suse had just been.  The seat the cow had initially been assigned.  Having just finished breastfeeding her little boy.

Lucky she didn’t get her tits ripped off.

* * * * *

Notes from Buenos Aires

By , May 13, 2010 4:48 pm

Cecilia Leal

from Chile

1988 August

janinalejandro@hotmail.com

* * * * *

Not a lot to go on really.

I looked down at the piece of paper, and then back up at the face of my taxi driver.  His deep brown eyes stared at me in hope.  I smiled.  I felt like I had in the plane in Row 13, the collective hope of the entire cabin resting on my ability to use the emergency exit door as a tray table.

I glanced down at the paper again before answering.

“Sure,” I eventually heard myself say, “sure.”

“And you think you can find her?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head, “no, I really don’t think I can.  When did you last speak to her?”

“August 1988.”

“Twenty years ago?”

“Yes.”

“And she’s been in Australia since then.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”  He gave an impish little grin and shrugged.  He was a hard man not to like.

“What about her family?  Maybe they might still be in Chile?  You could contact them.”

“No.  They all went to Australia with her.  Maybe you will find all of them together?”

“Oh,” I said, feeling the sweat in the middle of my back, “or maybe I won’t.”

“Your English much nicer than mine…”

“…Yes.”

“Maybe you find her Embajada?”

“Embarazada?”

“No,” he laughed, “no, she not embarazada.”

“Ah, you haven’t spoken in twenty years. She probably has children.  She probably has been embarazada – pregnant.”

A frown came across his face.  “No.  No, I don’t think so.”  The imp returned.  “You find her, yes?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”  We fell into embarrassed silence.  Not embarazada.

* * * * *

It had certainly been an interesting trip.   Three days earlier I’d been at Iguaçu Falls, and now I was leaving Buenos Aires for Mendoza.  A man named Rogue drove us headlong towards the Argentinian airport, topping out at 170km/h in his Fiat Idea, with the pose of the other guy from Miami Vice.

The hour-long trip took 26 minutes.  This included an international border crossing.  We got out, windswept and a little dazed.  I was unsure whether to feel violated.  Gabi’s face mirrored my thoughts.  We managed to convince Rogue to stay stationary long enough to unload our bags, before her sped off toward the film set.

We entered the airport, a little saddle sore, and promptly sat in queue, waiting for the check-in staff.  Forty-five minutes later they arrived.  Nothing like a smoko in the hour prior to departure.  Rogue could have driven us to Buenos Aires by now.

Gabi and I boarded the jet, and with some excitement, again found ourselves in the emergency aisle.  This time though, Lan Chile expected us to speak neither Portuguese nor Spanish.  This time, they decided we could help pull people from a cindered wreck in English.  This time, they provided tray tables, but continued to advise us to use the seat-bottom cushion for flotation, should we feel the urge to swim.  I checked behind to see why no one was applauding.

But the lack of attention didn’t matter.  I was excited.  I’d splurged.  Three hours before losing my innocence to Rogue, I’d booked the only five-star Tango Hotel in Argentina.  I know I’m taking liberties here, but from that, I think it’s safe to assume it’s the only one in the world.

An unremarkable landing and a leisurely, measured cab-ride later, and we were at the front door of the Abasto Plaza Hotel.  Literally.  As our driver mounted the footpath, seeming at one stage to be readying himself to ‘do a Rogue’ and ram through an ATM, I realised that we were in the Abasto Plaza’s driveway entrance.  It was a petite three metre diameter arc;  imagine a sidestreet round-about sliced in half.  The garcon opened the door to the ATM letting us through.  And here we were, in the lobby.

Floor to ceiling glass was etched with a couple doing the Tango.  A stylised painting of Carlos Gardel – Carlitos, the king of Tango – sat above the main desk, royalty of this shrine.  Airbrushed paintings of dancers littered the walls.  The carpet swirled like Shrek’s vomit.   It was so kitsch that it was cool.  I was in love.

The Hotel itself was in Abasto.  This is not a state of emotion, but a region, named after the gorgeous art-deco building that was originally an enormous central market for fruit and vegetables.  Following its demise and closure to trade in 1984, it has since been restored and turned into a chic shopping centre, it’s elegantly restored façade looking like five golden Wurlitzer jukeboxes lined in a row.  Within it, you can find a kosher McDonald’s, with its requisite gang of jewish folk out front, oddly munching on Burger King burgers.  You can buy any manner of foods based around oil and meat, and afterwards, you can wipe your hands on Argentina’s world famous non-absorbent napkins.

Gabi and I entered through the centre Wurlitzer at 10pm, to discover a playground for kids, bustling with children and their tiring parents.   The entire third floor is an arcade, with everything from merry-go-rounds to pinball machines.  We searched the centre for an ATM, soon to understand that we were more likely to find a Ferris wheel.  We sampled the food, used the napkins and returned to the hotel, all in time for Gabi to catch her 3am flight to Costa Rica, leaving me to the ravages of solo travel.  I was excited.  It took all of my strength not to call home from the phone by the toilet.

* * * * *

I woke the next morning and hit the pavement.  It’s been six years since I was last in Buenos Aires, and I was keen to retrace my steps.  I headed for Plaza de la Republica, past the dilapidated Teatro Colon, the famous opera house that in its hundredth year is desperately receiving a facelift.  But the stitches are in place with scaffolding and closure to the public;  it will be another two years before the crow’s feet are completely gone and the botox is instilled.

I headed north towards Retiro to see Torres de los Ingleses, a poor cousin of Big Ben, and, not surprisingly a regular site of vandalism since the Falklands War.  Nothing like the history of international arm-wrestling and needless bloodshed to get the juices flowing.  Feeling the sudden thirst for knowledge, I headed off to find an organised a tour for the afternoon, and then to ride the Metro.  Having Gabi’s fluent Spanish in close proximity had made me lazy, and in the half-decade since I’d last been here I’d become a bit rusty.  But there’s nothing like a busy line in the Subte to get oiled up again.  Before I knew it, with patrons almost kissing me as they breathed down my neck, I’d bought uno viaje and was on my way to San Juan.

Feeling a little sentimental, I wanted to visit the area that I’d stayed in last time I was here. As I nosed around the San Telmo tango district, memories crept back, until, almost by instinct, I found I was back at Plaza Dorrego.  I strolled around for a bit, feeling a vestige of my earlier path.  Something guided me down a street and towards a gate, where I pressed a buzzer.  It was one of the weirder experiences of my life.  Getting to this point had not relied on what you’d call classic memory.  Nothing seemed familiar, yet all of it did.  I honestly don’t know why I chose this side street to head down, but I had.

And a woman answered.  I asked to see a room.  Looking dishevelled enough, she let me in.

It knocked me backwards seeing the place that I’d stayed at in 2002.  Not only the sight of this – our digs in my favourite of South American cities – but the realisation of the miserly budget we’d lived on.   Sure, I was splurging at the Tango hotel this visit, but in the tango district last time, we’d stayed in a slum.  And what’s more, there’d been nine months of them before this one.

I looked around wistfully, asked a couple of pertinent questions regarding lice and other infestations, before gratefully declining.  On the way out I asked if I could take some photos.  I pointed toward a puddle through an arch, as if something of particular photographic beauty.  She shrugged her shoulders and walked off.  Being a stupid gringo sometimes has its advantages.

I took a few shots, edging towards my room.  The snoop in me just had to see it.  I got to the window and peered through.  It was hideous.  I got my shots, to show Amnesty International or the UN or whoever.  The owner had by now lost interest in the weird foreigner.  I called farewell on my way out, and she waved down the stairs like she’d see me again soon.  I don’t remember her, and she definitely didn’t remember me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d expect me to return in five minutes time to repeat the same charade.

But the time for wistful memories was over.  It was time for my tour.  On previous trips I’d avoided city tours in the same way that – on recent evidence – I had sanitation.  I couldn’t help but feel, however, that it felt like cheating.  This was the pop-culture, sitcom version.  The high GI index hit; the Cliff’s notes on BA.  But I was time poor and I had an excuse: this was the only way to see Buenos Aires proper in half a day.

So I caught the Subte back to San Martin, feeling authentic as I did, before meeting my group and my tour guide, Nicoletta.  I ate a wholemeal muesli bar to compensate.

The major advantage of completing a tour like is to then be able to wear it like a badge of honour.

“No, I haven’t served in Afghanistan, but I went on tour with Nicoletta.”  Nicoletta was fond of her own voice, but only when it was distorting through the microphone.  Occasionally feedback would stop, so she would crank the volume some more.  She had an uncanny ability to ensure the interesting monuments were always on the opposite side of the bus; the few times they were on my side she’d get the driver to park a tree just by my window.  BA is ringed by fascinating monuments to your right, when viewed travelling clockwise.  Monuments were of particular interest if closed.  If she’d found one that still charged an entry fee, we’d have been there in a second.

But Nicoletta aside, our tour of Recoleta, Palermo, a few old trees – which I saw very closely – a couple of embassies, the Teatro Colon again, and then into San Telmo a second time was extraordinary.  She drove us past a large metal flower that opens and closes, and a park bench where Eva Peron once sat.  We saw a huge number of McDonalds outlets, and a few imaginatively named sex stores, just enough to write home about.

I woke up when we made it to La Boca Junior stadium, the home ground where Maradona spent his non-amphetamined infancy, and then we moved onto Caminito, a previously affluent region that was ravaged by the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1871.  It’s been a tough 138 years since then.  But the region, with its kaleidoscope of colourful house-fronts, now keeps the germs at bay and the tourists trapped.

We then drove past the port of La Boca, which 6 million immigrants entered through after the epidemic.  Russians, Italians, Spanish and Germans came to Argentina via this port, which, according to Nicoletta, “is now 99% polluted.”  I kept looking back as we drove past, in case today was the day it became super-saturated and the entire bay solidified.

From here we returned to the centre of town. I left my motley group, thanked Nicoletta with a fist, and took the higher moral ground back to my hotel for my Tango lesson.

Daniella, my Tango instructor, did not use a microphone.  She did not need to.  Nicoletta could learn a thing or two from Daniella.  She had a presence, a smile and a stare that makes me think that she eats men whole for breakfast.

And so it was, that the entirety of my lesson was conducted within a foot of her.  I looked her in the eyes while she spoke, so as not to be rude, and spent the rest of the time averting her eyes, attempting to not look at her cleavage, watching out for other couples, and occasionally looking at my feet.  I made upturned movements with the corner of my mouth in simulation of enjoyment.

Regardless, Daniella was very impressed with me.  This was probably because she’d struck me numb with fear, and knew it.  I got the feeling that she was most comfortable when men did exactly what she commanded.   By the end of the lesson I’d learnt three basic steps that I to weave together at my discretion.

“As the man, you decide on the steps,” she said.  “At will.”  She was clearly daring me.  With that, I looked at her cleavage and stood on her toe.

But it was fun, because Daniella told me it was.  At the end of the hour I bade my leave, nervously heading for the lifts, waving as I did.

“Thank you, Daniella, that was truly memorable,” I said, hoping that I might not ever have to see her again.  As I turned, I bumped my head against metal door.

* * * * *

“So you find Cecilia for me, yes?”

The taxi drove straight past Pizza Bum, my newly favourite Argentinian food chain.  Mr Dog (registered trademark) is good, and New Shop is too, but it’s hard to pass up a good Pizza Bum.

“Well, Janin,” I sighed, “Like I said, I’ll see what I can find on the internet.”

“Or, like I said, maybe you know someone Embajada?”

“Oh,” I said, finally understanding.  “No, no I don’t know anyone at the Embassy.  No one at the Chileno Embassy.  No one at the Argentinian one.”  He nodded and grinned, a sweet, hopeful, uncomprehending grin.  “I don’t know a single person that works at any Embassy.”  He nodded some more, raising his eyebrows in mock understanding.  “I’ll try.”

“You try?”

“Oh, you got that bit, didn’t you?” I mumbled.

“You try!”

“I try.”

“My Ow-star-ray-lee-an friend will try.”  He guffawed.  I’ve never actually seen anyone guffaw before.

“Your Australian friend will try,” I whispered.  I looked searchingly out the window, hoping to see another Pizza Bum.

There are 355 people on Facebook named Cecilia Leal.  Only one of them has listed her network as Chile.  She looks old enough to have been Janin’s ex-girlfriend, but then so does Jocelyn Cecilia Leal Carril, and so does Elizabeth Cecilia Leal Jara.  And so do at least two thirds of the other Cecilia Leals.

The man was married.   But I know a sentimental bloke when I meet one.

I’ll keep you posted.

http://www.facebook.com/srch.php?nm=Cecilia%20Leal

* * * * *

Bargaining for bread

By , April 26, 2010 5:17 pm

Today, I saw a man bargaining for bread.  In a bakery.  He was trying to get a better deal on a loaf.

There I was, on Victoria Street, at Lo Bahn Mi Bakery, buying a Vietnamese pork roll.  It was a crisp autumn day, the sun was shining, and the footpaths along this strip of little Vietnam were thick with people.

The bakery was pretty full.  Lo Bahn Mi has the best pork rolls in all of Melbourne.  They are the best in Richmond, and consequently they are the best of the best.  The vegies are fresh, the chilis are hot, and the pork and sandwich loaf are instilled with the finest of preservatives.  And they are an absolute steal at $2.80.

As I ordered, I looked at the people around me.  There was an elderly Greek woman whose hair sat flat against her crown, flakes of dandruff scattered through, a myopic chinless man asking for directions, and girl with a foot in a brace, hobbling on her remaining leg, trying to stop jam from her donut soiling her white T-shirt.  Too late.

A came in, his arthritic limbs keeping his steps small.  It’s like he bustled in, but in slow motion.  He sidled up to the counter, pushing past the girl, more jam spilling.

“How much for the roll?” he asked.

“$1.90,” said the grey-toothed lady behind the counter.  He stood for a moment, staring intently.

“Can you do any better than that?”  She looked at him, confused.  So did I.

“Sorry?”

“It’s a pretty small loaf,” he continued, unabashed, “don’t you think you can do a little better than that?”  He looked around at me frowning.  “What are you looking at?”

“You.  Bargaining for bread,” I said.

“So what?”  He threw his hands up, his shoulders frozen down.  “You can bargain for electrical equipment, right?  So why not food?”

I stopped for a second.  Everyone looked at me – even the directions guy.  Through coke-bottle glasses his eyes were the size of golf balls.

“I don’t know.  I guess,” I said, pondering his logic.  “For God’s sake, don’t let me stop you.”

He flung his arm up again, shooing me away.  He turned back to the woman behind the counter.

“$1.50,” he countered.

“Hah,” the old Greek lady said, crowing loudly, “you’re kidding, Max?”

“$1.60, then,” he said, now irritated.

“Does anyone know how to get to Kmart from here?” asked the man with spectacles.

“$1.70,” yelled the man.  He scratched nervously at his facial hair.  It was the first sign of buyer’s nerves.  Another drop of donut jam fell.  The Greek woman cackled again.  The girl behind the counter smiled benignly, baring her grey teeth.  Like she was daring him.

“Fine then,” he said, looking around, “forget about it!”  He yelled it at me, shaking his cane vigorously.  He turned, taking in the room, his hostile audience, before turning back.  He fumbled around in his coin purse, mumbling as he did, before taking out a five dollar note and a single gold coin.  He slammed them down with a strangely unsatisfying clink.  “Three loaves, thank you kindly,” he grumbled.

The girl behind the counter turned, took three loaves out, and placed them carefully into separate bags, before handing them to him.  She took the money and  headed for the register.  As she did, the grumpy old man began to walk away.

“Sir,” she called, “you forgot your change.”

“Ahhh, keep the change,” he said, waving his cane forcibly in my direction.

We all stood, watching.

“Bye, Max,” called the Greek lady, scratching some dandruff from her flat patch.  Max took tiny steps, faster and faster, like a wind up robot, gradually motoring towards the door.  The donut girl took a final bite, the sugar dusting her lips.  The chinless guy continued attempting to read a napkin.

“Keep the change,” Max mumbled.  He twisted around as far as his frozen joints would allow, the puff gone from his voice, a little defeated.  He raised his cane, almost too heavy, before he looking at me.  And he said, “I wanted her to keep the change.”

And then he turned and left the shop.

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