The road worker aimed his mirrored and shadowed gaze at Ray as he drove past and gave a wave that had been reduced to its bare minimum: a single, slow-motion finger lifted in acknowledgement that here was one man passing another man who was pretending to be doing a job of work, bored shitless and leaning on a one-word sign. Ray raised a finger off the wheel in response, glancing at the expressionless face and looking away again. Didn't know him.
“See, if that contractor was a local,” said Vince, “anyone could go and help themselves to some of them for firewood. Anyone at all.”
“Not these bastards. They'll be selling them on to some other subcontractor, any money. That's why they've got that barrier round them. They tender for these jobs and they screw the last cent out of 'em. That's the way they do business.” Frank, who hadn't worked for fourteen months.
Ray nodded. He'd seen gardens himself, of course, edged with old redgum sleepers. It was just the kind of thing Sharon had always been on his back to do, landscaping the garden.
“Why do it,” he'd argued, “when we're just renting?”
“Ray,” she'd said, exhaling a breath of resigned frustration. He'd waited for an answer, but she'd only repeated it as she'd turned away. “Ray, Ray, Ray.” Almost tenderly.
And him standing there, stranded, never knowing what she was going to want next.
“I guess,” said Ray. Inside the opaque layers of shrink-wrapped plastic on the pallet, he could see stacked ornamental Buddha statues. It was like gazing into a submerged shipwreck, crammed full of calmly waiting monks.
Ray lifted his knife and sliced through plastic, breathing in the chemical, sealed breath of some factory floor in China.
At Steve's barbeque that night, he walked up and down the brand-new paved barbeque area, bordered by lines of sleepers. Set at intervals in the freshly shovelled topsoil were small clumps of perennials, which reminded Ray somehow of a hair transplant.
“It looks great,” he called, feeling Steve's eyes on him.
There must have been something wrong with him, some bug he had—how else to explain that bottomed-out energy, the sapped, exhausted feeling as he watched Steve turning steaks on the grill? He'd go and have a check-up. A blood test.
“A rustic border,” Steve was saying. Full of focus and purpose, pressing here and there on the meat with the tongs. “That's going to grow in no time.”
Ray swatted a mosquito in the dusk, racking his brain for something to respond with. Nothing.
“We'll have a pool in here next,” Steve added. “Get rid of the lawn altogether. Just an outdoor entertainment area. You right there, Ray?”
He'd driven past Sharon's house tonight and seen a car in the drive he didn't recognise. He couldn't stop thinking about it; his brain was like a dog jerking on the end of its chain over and over, returning to it. So that'd be the thing to do—get chatting to someone else, let word get back to Sharon that he was out there, available, a catch, on his feet. But even though he could feel those eyes on him (car in her drive, that convulsive choke in his throat as he circled it again), he sat back down with his laden plate on one of the sleepers instead, because the thought of trying to get a conversation going with any of them felt like heavy lifting. And they knew all about him anyway; a 35-year-old man who lived in a Colorbond shed at a mate's place, not exactly unemployed but a part-time storeman. A liability, not a catch.
“Hey, Ray,” a voice was calling him. Steve's teenage son. Scott. Sam. Something.
“Come and check this out,” the boy said, beckoning Ray over to a big black telescope on a tripod, pointed straight up into the night sky.
“Not quite dark enough yet, Sean,” Steve called from the grill, scooping meat and sausages up onto a platter. “Wait till it's dark and I'll show you how to adjust it properly.”
Ray stooped and squinted through the lens.
“I think it's Mars,” said Sean.
The smell of him—grass and sunscreen, sweat and energy, all of it barely contained—registered in Ray's head with a sudden painful awareness. This shortness of breath, the pressure on his chest…He thought of his old man's heart attack, the way he'd staggered crabwise across the lounge room, his arm out, wordless. Take him five weeks to get a doctor's appointment, anyway. He'd ring tomorrow.
Turning the keys in the ignition in his car, he fought the impulse to go home via the house again, check if the car was still there. Up his old street, the same streetlight broken, up to the driveway that he used to pull in to every night, taking that normalcy for granted. His ute bumping up over the kerb and the sensor light snapping on as Ray got out of the car in his loser shorts, running to flab, any fool could see that. Then Sharon's silhouette in the ridged glass of the front door, her and whoever was there with her. He saw her put both her hands up to the glass to peer through its distorting ripples at him.
Don't worry, he heard her saying, her voice muffled, it's just Ray, seeing him for exactly what he was; he could hear that in her tone. Her right arm lifted and snapped off the sensor light impatiently, leaving him there in the dark, and the shapes of the two of them rippled and shifted as they stepped back from the door, Ray thinking he would never forget this one moment as their shadows swam together out of the light.
He opened his eyes and saw he was still sitting in his ute outside Steve's place, his hands slack on the steering wheel.
Ray stretched as he stood, his spine cracking. In the back he found himself a pair of gloves, let down the tailgate, and here came the moon, sailing out from behind a cloud, ready to help him. Sean, if he was still up, would be able to see every crater on that surface, it was so clear. Ray ducked under the orange flags and tugged at a sleeper, pushed and pulled it free, dragged it over to the ute and heaved it in with a grunt. Easy. Another one. Another. He'd only need ten. Some people he knew had taken dozens of the things. It felt good, even though it was the middle of the night, to be working up a sweat. Cold oxygen in his lungs prickling like stars, clearing his fogged head finally.
And as he turned, squinting in their sudden highbeam, his chest squeezing, all that false warmth descending into his boots, he knew that they wouldn't bother with their siren, because they could see that it was just him. Just Ray. They knew he'd turn around like this, and take what was coming to him. Because they need an example, he thought wearily as he peeled off his gloves, the realisation flaring like a little chunk of burning rock, a tiny meteor.
What was the word? An escape-goat? Nowhere to put the gloves, so Ray threw them onto the ute tray, and missed. The cops' headlights casting big crooked shadows.
He waited there for them, next to the sleepers, lowering his bare hands for comfort onto weathered, solid old redgum, hauled up and discarded but with so much life in it, still, it just broke your heart to see it go to waste.