Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Sign

Written by Francie Maclean
Jackson as a buffet: he arrives home from work on a Wednesday evening in May bearing a loaf of bread, a two-litre container of green top-trim milk, and a sign. It’s a bit awkward getting the stuff out of the Holden. He positions himself, legs planted slightly apart by the open car door, and leans his lanky frame down into the backseat and carefully lifts the painted wooden sign up—slowly, gently—then begins to edge it back towards himself. Nice and steady, like he’s extracting a sponge cake from the oven. He doesn’t want the sign to knock against the interior and get its paint scraped off. It’s a good sign. Professional. Gold letters on a green background.
 Jackson as a buffet: he arrives home from work on a Wednesday evening in May bearing a loaf of bread, a two-litre container of green top-trim milk, and a sign. It’s a bit awkward getting the stuff out of the Holden. He positions himself, legs planted slightly apart by the open car door, and leans his lanky frame down into the backseat and carefully lifts the painted wooden sign up—slowly, gently—then begins to edge it back towards himself. Nice and steady, like he’s extracting a sponge cake from the oven. He doesn’t want the sign to knock against the interior and get its paint scraped off. It’s a good sign. Professional. Gold letters on a green background.

ANGIE’S VITAL VEGIES

He chose the colours himself. The green is for the leafy vegetables and the gold is to represent Angie’s noble nature and her touch of class. It’s added a bit to the price, the metallic paint, but nothing is too much when it comes to Angie.

H
e got the idea for the gift from one of the small business manuals that had begun sprouting up around the house several months back. Just a few at first, neatly positioned on the coffee table, then whole clusters, springing up like new seedlings all over the house, scattered across the kitchen table, emerging from between the sofa cushions in the living room and beside the bath—the damp pages puffed up with advice. It was the very first one, Work and Income New Zealand, full of little stick figures juggling balls and climbing ladders, with speech balloons saying, “Success doesn’t happen overnight!” and, “It is important to keep your financial records up to date!” that got Jackson thinking. He’d found it under the bed, looking for his good matching possum fur sock—one of the pair Auntie Edith had sent for his birthday, though he’d told Angie they were made from angora because Angie was a vegetarian and had very strong opinions about animals.

“Because of Jesus,” she’d told him once, wide-eyed at the breakfast table, fingering the little gold cross that she’d taken to wearing around her neck. It always made him a bit nervous when she started the morning in one of her biblical moods. Not that she believed all of it, mind you. Angie preferred to think of religion as the sort of thing you could pick and choose, like what to put on your plate. It wasn’t like you had to swallow the whole lot.

I
t wasn’t a habit for Jackson to go poking about in dusty corners of the house. Though in recent weeks, he’d found himself doing exactly this—searching for socks, car keys, cell phones, bank cards, clean underpants. He’d turned his black jeans inside out, checking the pockets for holes, but all he found was a short metal bolt and a squished up stick of chewing gum—the silver foil worn and flaking. He could tell his losing things was trying Angie’s patience from the way she kept flicking her eyes up towards the ceiling. He began “finding” other objects: a curved cream vase, a box of tissues, a piece of fruit. He learned to focus his gaze on the object in such a way that he began to convince even himself that this, right here before him, was what he’d been looking for all along. So after dragging the book out from under the bed, Jackson had gazed upon it, wiped the dust off its clear plastic cover, and opened it to see the little stick figure inside waving a banner at him -- a sign. After all Angie had been through, Jackson had thought, she sure deserved a proper sign.

Even with Jesus, it hadn’t been easy for her, the last year since she’d finished her dissertation “An Analysis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in the Treatment of Clinical Depression in the Long-term Unemployed in New Zealand.” During the first few weeks, she cleaned the entire house from top to bottom, and then chucked all her undergraduate notes in the bonfire they’d had at the back of the house to celebrate. That night, sitting by the fire, they had cooked damper on fondue skewers and gotten drunk together on over-spiced mulled wine. They had sat before the fire until their tongues had grown purple, black specks from the charred damper wedged between their teeth.

“Hella-freakin-luyaaaa,” Angie had cried, half demanding, half pleading at the sky as she’d watched the papery embers disappear into the night.

Ironically, it was the serious job-hunting that set her off. The problem being that there weren’t any new openings in any of the government departments, and no one from the steadily employed private sector really cared much about the long-term unemployed. There weren’t even that many of them. Nationwide unemployment rates were at their lowest level in twelve years. These statistics made most people feel pretty much the exact opposite of depressed- most people, except for Angie. Watching her broad shoulders caved in with defeat was like watching a red balloon deflate over time. Jackson couldn’t bear the idea of it happening to Angie. He made a concerted effort to be cheerful, smiling at the toaster, whistling as he did the breakfast dishes until Angie banged her fist on the bedroom wall. “Look on the bright side,’” Jackson would tell her because suddenly, for the first time in his life, Jackson was seeing the shining bright side everywhere, glaring at him from forgotten surfaces. He had clung to it like a man to a cliff. “Look on the bright side,” he’d blurted out, passing through the Personal Care aisle at the supermarket as Angie had chucked a box of tampons into the trolley; “At least you’re not, you know, pregnant.”

The worst days were when she wouldn’t even leave the house- when she would just lie on the sofa in her green flannelette pajamas and watch daytime soaps with a woolen peggy square blanket pulled up to her chin. Jackson had even telephoned his mother for advice. “Yeah?” Jackson’s mother had said, drawing closer to the phone. “Really?” she asked, her voice sounding concerned and a little hopeful at the same time. She has never quite understood why her intelligent son has hooked up with a vegetarian believer—especially after she and Jackson’s father had made a special point of removing him from religious instructions class. She suspected it may have something to do with the sensitive streak Jackson has inherited from his father’s side.

“It’s always the ones that help others that will never accept help themselves,” she’d lamented, though the way it came out seemed more like an accusation. Despite herself, she had felt the motherly advice welling within her. She’d sighed. It was like wind—the way it always found a way of breaking free. “There’s a new yoga class starting down the Community Center,” she’d said, and Jackson had heard his mother’s jewelry clinking against the receiver as she’d straightened her back. “Remember, Jackson,” she had warned before hanging up the phone, “Nobody is an island.”

Jackson had flicked a biscuit crumb off the arm of the sofa with a long finger, cleared his throat, and leaned into the cushions. He’d felt Angie’s toenails jabbing through her socks and into his lower back.

“So, how ‘bout some yoga?” he’d drawn his elbows up, pulled his palms together, flexed his fingers and concentrated on keeping his voice light, though he’d heard himself sounding unsure. He felt more like a patient trying to give a doctor advice.

“Be my guest.” She was lying on her side, eating from a box of savoury crackers. An accumulation of crumbs had pooled in the folds of her pajamas.

Jackson’s arms fell, defeated, back into position by his side.

“Y’know, you might wanta use a plate, Angie.” He’d turned and seen that her face was streaky, eyes slightly bloodshot in the corners, eyelids puffy.

“It’s just that the crumbs might attract unwanted visitors. Y’know, small grey visitors. With tails.”

Of all God’s creatures, the only animal Angie couldn’t entirely forgive Him for was the rodent.

“Haven’t seen any,” she’d answered, without moving her eyes from the box. It was Shortland Street. There’d been a road accident. Anxious doctors were attending to serious injuries while stilted extras with dirt smeared in patches on their faces nursed fake injuries and crisscrossed aimlessly in the background.

“Yeah, Ange, actually…”

She’d turned her head and squinted her red-rimmed eyes at him.

“Well, I mighta seen one yesterday. Sorta by the telly over there. Scooting past that wall.”

She’d given an involuntary shudder, and her foot had twitched momentarily, but essentially her body had kept its outline. He’d watched her lying there, stilled, and had felt the urge to break through to bring her back to him.

“Interesting fact, Angie, d’ya know when a male mouse smells the scent of a female mouse, he sings to her. Very high-pitched though. Inaudible to human ears.”

“Romantic,” she’d said, her voice flat.

“Oh, come on, Ange. Even Jesus must’ve had bad days,” he’d soothed, reaching under the blanket to stroke her leg.

“Oh fuck off, Jackson,” she’d replied, pulling her knees up, and drawing the blanket tighter around herself, though Jackson had found comfort. There was a definite lack of conviction in her tone.

He wasn’t sure if the motivation had come from Jesus or from mice, but something must’ve gotten through because a week later Angie was up off the sofa and the digging had started. He’d arrived home from work to find the green flannelette pajamas waving at him from the front clothesline, whipped up by an evening breeze. It gave him a funny feeling in his stomach to see them flapping about like that all by themselves, without Angie. He had a momentary jolt as it occurred to him that it might have been the Rapture. But when he had rounded the corner into the garden, he was relieved to find that God hadn’t snapped her up for eternal paradise. Instead, she was dressed in an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt, clutching a spade, digging a very large hole in the back lawn. Her dyed red hair was tied up in a ponytail, the pointed tip licking at the back of her neck like a flame.

Vegetables. It wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill epiphany, but it was typical of Angie—the old Angie, Jackson had secretly thought. The one that was always looking out for other people. She’d flung him the plans she’d scribbled down on the back of a Telecom bill. A city vegetable garden. A not-for-profit organization where she’d be able to distribute the produce directly to the people that needed it most—cut out the middleman.

“See.” She’d stabbed a finger at a box in the diagram that read “sweet peas,” then waved her hand at a corresponding area of the garden.

“Carrots. Corn. Tomatoes. Lettuce.”

She’d paced the lawn, carving it up, waving her hand in the air like she was conducting her own private orchestra.

“Cabbages. Leaks. Potatoes. Parsnips.”

“The people need me,” she’d cried, grabbing the garden spade and plunging it into the earth.

Jackson had looked at her, felt that a natural order was in danger of being restored, and booted at a clod of earth with his foot.

“Just watch out for the underground electrical wires,” he’d warned.

***

Jackson bangs the back of his head on the car doorframe.

“Ouch!”

His head throbs. Still, he hasn’t let go of the sign. It wobbled a bit, but he didn’t let go.

All the way home, he’d imagined showing Angie—it was a positive visualization technique he’d picked up from one of her old textbooks. He’d pictured himself walking through their dimly lit hallway to find her in the bright kitchen at the far end of the house. There she’d be, standing at the yellow formica bench, her pale lips pressed into a thin line as she scrubbed potatoes or grated ginger to add to a large pot of pumpkin soup. She would flick her eyes frequently across the beet-stained pages of Fifty New Ways to Cook Vegetables
open beside her, the book propped up on one side by a jar of homemade tomato puree. On the other side would sit an open bottle of Mac’s Dark Ale.

“Guess what,” he’ll whisper into her ear as he reaches around the sharp hook of her hip to steal a sip of the dark ale. He’ll breathe in her scent. Salty, like freshly dug earth from the garden.

Not that Jackson is the sort that expects his woman to cook all the meals -- athough there are plenty of older guys on the building site that do. Men with arms as thick as small tree trunks, wiry grey hairs sprouting from their knuckles. The ones that settle down in the evenings to succulent lamb roasts, mint sauce dribbling down their chins before they grow drowsy with satisfaction, collapsing into the arms of their soft plump lounge chairs, feet up, waited on hand and foot, like something out of the dark ages.

Jackson knows his relationship with Angie exists on a higher plane. He’d tried to explain it once to Bazza, one of the “brickies.” It wasn’t a habit for Jackson to go blabbing to every Tom, Dick and Harry about his love life, but despite everything, or perhaps because of it, he had a sentimental streak. It was like a thick vein of emotion that occasionally sprung forth and erupted like a geyser.

Bazza had inadvertently triggered it during one lunch break. It happened after Jackson had reached into his faded canvas backpack for the ice-cream container holding four large uncut Vegemite sandwiches, and instead found nothing but a musty raincoat, two expired batteries, and a rank rugby sock that had been festering in the depths of his bag since last winter. Used to life’s disappointments, Jackson had pushed this particular one back down towards his empty stomach.

Bazza, the oldest, skinniest, quietest bloke on the site had observed Jackson’s predicament from behind his newspaper crossword while seated on an upturned beer crate just a few yards away. He had smoothed out a page of his newspaper, folded it over several times until it became the size of a napkin, then placed two of his own sandwiches, one on top of the other, squarely upon it. Each was cemented together with thick slabs of butter and roast mutton between layers of bright yellow pickle. He had handed this construction to Jackson, wordlessly, along with half a cup of tea from his thermos.

Whether it was the act of kindness itself, the roast mutton, or the boost to his blood sugar levels, the gesture had a profound effect on Jackson, a former philosophy student who had not forgotten his quest to find deeper meaning in small everyday experiences. And what Jackson saw—no, what Jackson felt—in his gut, was something warm and serene, and light.  Iif love was the sensation of butterflies, then this was its golden cocoon, its beginning- its very essence. It was within this moment that Jackson became overwhelmed by the sense of his own connection to the universe; of camaraderie, the brotherhood of men and women. This is the reason why, five minutes later, Jackson came to eat his second mutton and pickle sandwich, and between mouthfuls, explained to Bazza, how just six years earlier, Angie had walked into his life and saved him from himself.

Jackson is not a religious man, but still he feels chosen, plucked out by Angie in a Mexican restaurant & bar for something greater.

“I saw her, Angie, carrying two quesadillas and a plate of hot nachos. An auburn goddess mate. A real Botticelli angel.”

He brings the plastic thermos cup to his lips, takes a mouthful, slurping the pale milky tea back with satisfaction.

“Course, it’s not about beauty though, is it? She could’ve been ugly, like not to be offensive to ugly women or anything, but you know, she might have looked a bit of a dog so to speak, not that Angie was, of course, but if she had been, it still wouldn’t have made a spit of difference, not a flying green jelly bean, ‘cos love’s transcendental, eh.”

Bazza had leaned forward and scratched his knee, which Jackson interpreted as agreement. He’d ventured a little further.

“I tell ya, Bazz, if it wasn’t for Angie…”

Of course, Jackson wasn’t about to go splitting himself open like a watermelon. He’d taken a few liberties. Kept certain things to himself. The graphic details regarding he and Angie’s first sexual encounter, for instance. A pleasurable, puzzling episode involving a room the size of a shoebox and the TV show, Animal Rescue, blaring loudly from a portable TV set on an overhead shelf. This, she’d explained, was not so much for their own viewing pleasure; rather, it was more of an auditory precaution for the sake of her two female flatmates in bedrooms on either side. Just another example, Jackson had fondly recalled, of how Angie was always thinking of others before herself.

But these aspects, as far as Jackson was concerned, were by the by. The important thing, the crux of the matter—and this is where Jackson had foolishly tangled his love for Angie in a nautical metaphor—he was rapidly getting to. Unaware of his growing audience, Jackson had pressed on. What he had meant to say was something a little less romantic—a little more substantive—something about teamwork in a relationship, maybe illustrated by way of the roster of domestic duties that Angie had thoughtfully drawn up when they’d first moved in together. But instead of saying any of this, Jackson’s mind had filled with an image. The image was blue and white and voluminous, and frankly the most powerful positive visualization he’d ever had.

“Life with Angie is like being aboard a beautiful boat,” he’d exclaimed. And here he had flung out his arms against the breeze as if his own body were the sail. He and Angie were sailors, captains, co-skippers on the ocean of life.

***

Angie saw the first one out of the corner of her eye, contorting its furry little body through an aeration hole in the compost bin, and plummeting down the side. She tried to pretend she hadn’t see it. She told herself she couldn’t be sure since it was only a peripheral appearance. There might’ve been a bird sitting on top of the compost and it might have dropped a small grey potato. That’s exactly it, she’d thought. It wasn’t a mouse; it was only a small potato. Still there must’ve been a part of her that wasn’t convinced since she leaned down and pulled her socks over the bottom of her trousers anyway. The second one she saw was inside the house, cheerfully skittering down the corridor towards the kitchen. Upon spotting it, she’d felt the ends of all her limbs flick out like she’d been zapped by a defibrillator. And…clear. She’d run to the nearest room—the bedroom—feet pitching high into the air, and dived towards the bed. Safely off the ground, she had pulled the sheets and blankets up so that none of them touched the floor. The floor, Angie thinks, is an ocean of danger. The bed is a boat.

***

The bread keeps slipping down out of Jackson’s hand, and the plastic handle for the milk is pulling down painfully on his finger. He’s wishing he left the sign in the car. Maybe he’d have been better off to organize getting it hung too. Signs always look better when they’re up. Though entering the kitchen, Jackson finds his concerns are, for the moment, irrelevant. In the kitchen, there is no pot of pumpkin soup on the stove; no boiling potatoes; no Angie. The house is cold. The kitchen is dark. He props the yellow and gold sign up carefully in the hallway so as not to chip any paint and begins his search.

He finds Angie in the bedroom. She is sleeping with her legs scrunched up towards her stomach, amidst a tumble of blankets. Jackson leans over, smoothes out a twisted coil of bed sheet. He pulls himself down beside her, his stomach growling, and tries to resist his urge to sing to her.

 Drawing by Denise Despirito

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