I’ve recently participated in the first round of the 2016 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I had never heard of this challenge until only a week or so prior to submissions closing, and it was great fun. The details of my heat and story are as follows:-
Heat: 41 / Genre: Crime caper / Subject: Bankruptcy / Character: A gardener
Title: A Fool Called Bob
Synopsis: Bob’s parents are on the verge of bankruptcy. Can the pothead wannabe-gardener get some quick cash for them?
Bob collapses into his cane wicker chair beneath the sprawling gum tree. A perfect ‘O’ escapes from his lips and he drops the last of his joint into an empty Corona bottle. What a fucking shit show. Surely his parents are over-exaggerating the situation? Maybe he misunderstood them? He’s had a few this afternoon… yeah, that’s all it was, just a little miscommunication. His eyelids droop and his head lolls.
Oh god. Oh shit. My heart is vibrating. I’m dying. Bob licks his dry lips and there is not a drop of spit in his mouth to swallow. Oh Jesus, it’s ringing. My heart is ringing? And then it clicks. He sits upright and fumbles, his fingers struggling to undo the button on his shirt pocket. “Yeah?”
“Robert… is that you?”
A haze of memories starts to seep into his brain. “Yeah,” he says before breaking into a coughing fit.
“Robert! Are you okay?”
He breathes deep, the spring air entering his lungs, and lays back down on his back on the grass, next to his broken chair. My fucking chair is broken? “Yeah, Mum. Fine. Just something caught in my throat. What’s up?”
“What’s up? Other than that we are on the verge of bankruptcy? Oh you know, not much at all, really.”
Ah, that’s right. He squints into the sunshine and lights a fresh joint. Inhale… Exhale…
“Are you even listening?”
“Yep. Just thinking. Look, can I call you back later? I’ve just woken up.”
Ah shit. And out of a job now too. Jake said last time that he wouldn’t give me another go and I reckon he was serious. Inhale… Exhale…
Bob brakes hard outside the servo and starts to run, flicking his pocketknife open as he enters. “Give me your money! Give me your fuckin’ money now!”
The young girl behind the counter begins screaming and blubbering – sheesh, girls ain’t pretty when they cry – and starts to throw cash at him. He grabs the notes as they flutter around him, shoving them into his backpack, along with a Mars Bar and Twisties. Jeez, I’m hungry.
“Is that all of it? Surely there’s more!”
The girl manages a break in her sniveling, “We just had shift change; the till is new. The excess money gets taken away.” And starts bawling again.
He points his knife at her, “You’d better not be fuckin’ lyin’!”
“I’m not! I promise!”
He spins on his heel and runs out to his car, catching a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye. He yells towards it, “Don’t you call the cops, hear me! You didn’t see nothin’!”
But then – humph! – he is flat on his face, chewing on petrol-covered bitumen beside his door. There are suppressed giggles coming from behind him, and a person calling out, “Someone phone triple-0.”
Bob manages to get to his feet, spits, and jumps into his seat. “Where are my car keys?” he yells incredulously.
“Hey mate, ya missing these?”
He glances over towards the shirtless guy standing next to the servo’s automatic doors, and who is dangling his keys like a fish on a rod. There are sirens in the distance.
“Fuck you, man,” and he races off on foot.
Two hundred and fifty-five dollars. That’s not going to fix the parent’s money issue is it, you idiot. Bob walks outside, rolling a new joint as he goes. He fingers his lighter, flick-flick-flick, before lighting up.
He had run for a while before slowing to an unsuspecting walk, and continued to make his way for the four kilometres home again. What the hell am I gonna do now? What if I left some prints in that friggin’ stolen car? Didn’t think of that, did I?
He finishes his joint and throws it onto the grass where it fizzes out. He unlocks the garage door, and ducks inside before slipping the dead bolt through. He nods to himself. Yes. This is my idea of heaven. Bob eyes his plants appreciatively and walks up and down his rows checking the sprinklers and light set-up. Working at the Greystown Nursery for his community service had really given him an insight into hydroponics. Jake had kept him on after he’d completed his time, his love of gardening apparent, and keen to earn money doing something he actually enjoyed. But I’ve fucked that up, haven’t I? At least he had learnt what he needed to, before his pot-induced sleepiness caused him to miss one too many shifts.
Finishing up, Bob left the garage and meandered over to his roses, to water them and contemplate what to do next. Where am I gonna find some cash for the oldies? Even if they are declared bankrupt, I can give them some money to help them get by. I’ll tell ‘em I’ve been saving it up. Yeah. That’ll work. Plus there’s only another week until my older plants mature, and then I can start selling again. But in the mean time…
Bob marches purposely towards Eastfield Shopping Centre, pulling a cart behind him. His hi-vis shirt reflects the bright lights above as he enters through the automatic doors, the air-conditioning blowing onto his face and cooling the sweat running into his eyes.
He knows where the different chairs are, he’ll just do the rounds and find some that aren’t being used. Puffing his chest out – look important, Bob! – he sees some ahead that are vacant. He pulls the cart in front of the massage chair, and unplugs it from the power socket. Removing a trolley from the cart, he maneuvers it under the cumbersome chair and manages to get it into the low-lying cart without scratching it.
“Chair broken mate?”
Bob looks up. “Oh yeah. Just here to take it away to be fixed. Should be back in a week or so.” Hahaha, not! He puts the trolley back into the end of the cart, behind the chair.
“No worries. It’s me favourite chair, you see. I come and have a massage while the missus is shopping.”
“Right? Now that’s a good idea. Don’t have a missus myself though. Okay, see you later.”
“No worries mate. Get that chair fixed for me, yeah?”
“Will do.” Hahaha, not! Bob wheels the cart away towards the exit, privately congratulating himself on his cleverness. All you gotta do is look important and that you know what you’re doing, and you can get away with anything. These things are four grand brand new, I should be able to get at least fifteen hundred for it on the ‘Buy, Swap, Sell’ Facebook page. He lets out a giggle, and fiddles with the joint waiting for him in his pocket.
“Excuse me, what are you doing?”
He keeps walking. Fuck. Deep breaths, man.
“Hey! I said what are you doing?” There’s some rapid high-heel tap-tap-tapping coming up behind him and suddenly he’s being grabbed around his elbow. “I asked what do you think you are doing? Where are you taking that chair?”
He stops and turns to the offending speaker. “I’ve been told that this chair needs fixing; it hasn’t worked for a week. It should only be a week or so and I’ll have it back and massaging like it’s never massaged before.”
“Um no, that’s not right. Have you got any paperwork? I work in the office here and there was nothing like that scheduled for today. Or this week at all, even. Can I see your paperwork?”
Deep breaths. “It’s in the ute, ma’am. How about I just get this chair out there and tied in, and I’ll come back in with the forms.” Bob starts to wheel the cart away again.
“No. No, I don’t think so. I’d rather see the paperwork first,” she says grabbing at his arm again.
“Listen, miss. Let go of me, or I’ll charge you with assault.”
“I’ll have you charged with theft! Leave the chair here and I’ll let you go.”
Fuck the little bitch has a tight grip. And those nails are sharp!
“Ben! Hey, Ben, come here please!” She’s calling to the security guard a few shops back.
Bob groans. “Look, don’t bloody worry about it. Have a broken chair if you like.”
“Everything all right here Eve?”
“No, this man is trying to steal this massage chair.”
“Look mate, I’ve been told by the boss to come and get this one because it needs fixing, but the paperwork has been left at the office…”
The woman pipes up, “I thought you said it was out in your ute?”
“Nah, I think I left it at the office. I’ll put the chair back, and come back tomorrow with the paperwork, okay?”
“Sounds like a better idea, mate. Here, I’ll help you,” says Ben the security man, reaching for the cart handle, and wheeling the chair back to its spot.
Bob lets out a long breath and holds in his squeal of rage. Fucker! Such easy cash, too. He watches as Ben struggles to get it back out of the cart, but offers no help. He can do it himself. Ben plugs it back in, and states, “See you tomorrow then,” raising his right eyebrow at the same time.
“Yeah, sure thing. Look forward to it, renta-cop.”
“What did you just say?”
“You heard me, ya pumped up pig wannabe.”
“Leave now, you arrogant arsehole, before I do call the cops and let them know what’s been going on here.”
Bob seizes the handle and swings it around. “Argh!” Pain shoots through his shin where the cart has rammed, and he falls into it. Laughter is raining down on him from above.
By the time he gets back out to the car park, there is a bloodstain seeping through his pants. He lights his joint. Inhale… Exhale…
“Hi dear, just calling to see how you are today. You seemed a bit… out of it yesterday. I hope you aren’t coming down with the flu. Talk to you soon.”
Bob deletes the message. I’ll call her back later. I don’t need to listen to her moan and groan about their dramas right now, when I’m doing the best I can to get them some cash. And they won’t ask where it comes from, just like they don’t ever ask where their expensive presents come from.
He trudges outside to his succulent and cacti garden beds. Hmm, coming along nicely since being planted a couple of weeks ago. He continues over to the tap and plugs the hose in, watering the bromeliads in the next garden. What next? How can I get some cash together? As he lights another joint, his eyes wander over to his garage. Those plants are the answer; they just need to mature. He turns the tap off and stumbles towards his money haven. Flicking the stub to the ground he unlocks and enters the garage, completing the procedure with the dead bolt before moving on to his plants. Outside, a wisp of smoke trails from the discarded joint that landed on a pile of leaves.
“May, dear, can you smell that smell?” says Bertie looking up from his cup of tea.
“What did you say, love?”
“I said, can you smell that strange smell? Have you got your hearing aids in?”
May rolls her eyes at her husband. She’s only had the hearing aids for a week, she’s still getting used to them for goodness sake. “Well, now that you mention it, there is a funny stench coming from somewhere,” she replies, moving towards the window. “Oh, Bertie! There’s smoke coming from over there,” pointing at the neighbours house, “that strange young man at number 27, his garage is on fire! Call the fire brigade, hurry!”
Bob stirs, the side of his face stinging fiercely. And his knees hurt. And his right arm. What the hell happened? There is a strong smoke smell, and he is suddenly overcome by a coughing fit, during which his eyes fly open, taking in the scene around him. Oh no. Oh no. No, no, no, NO. He pulls himself to his feet and trips towards the door before realising that he won’t be getting out that way anytime soon. Flames are licking up the walls. Coughing violently, he turns and watches as his plants burn, emitting their well-known smoke towards the roof. There is yelling coming from outside, and he thinks he can hear someone calling that they’ll get him out, just stay where he is down low.
Bob drops to the ground, still coughing, and covers his head with his hands. All of that weed. Gone! Christ, what happened? Did he fall asleep again? But how did the fire start? There’s someone grabbing him under his arms and he’s hefted up onto their shoulders. “You’ll be right mate, I’ll get you out,” the person yells into his ear. He’s thrown onto the ground outside and he’s suddenly aware of firemen running around with water hoses. And two police officers walking towards him.
“G’day Robert. We were going to come and see you today. There was a little incident at the Barren East servo a couple of days ago. Thought you might know something about it, seeing as we found your prints in the stolen car left outside by the idiot who robbed the joint. But it looks like we need to have a little talk about what you might be growing inside that garage too, it would seem. Pretty potent smell coming from there.”
Bob closes his eyes and wonders what his parents will do now. What a fool. He imagines he is smoking a joint. Inhale… Exhale…
For those in Australia, you may have noticed that I quite liked the story doing the rounds only a week or so ago about the two unlikely guys who stole the car keys of a robber. For those who missed it…