Story

Petrushka for a Homeless Man

If a man looked as though he was close to death someone would say, “He’ll be on a poster soon.”

Eventually, the bills appeared. They were taped outside the dormitory wings, outside the chapel and on the wall in the dining area. They called it a dining area. It was really a refectory. I am very good at word use and misuse. They called it a dining area because we didn’t deserve the same level of usage as a university. The posters announced that someone who lived in the hostel, or had been transferred to a hospital, had finally died. The purpose was twofold. First, they served to tell us the date and time of the memorial service in the chapel so we could pay our respects. Second, unintendedly, they reminded us of our own mortality, that we too will die as a homeless pauper. The photograph was the one used on our identity swipe cards. These photographs would be taken as soon as we arrived. They were passport photos for derelicts. We all had countenances of disarray. It was often a startled look, like a stray dog that has been captured. When we arrive, we do not look our best, unkempt hair, toothless smiles, blotched red faces, because we had either been sleeping in the street, or come out of jail, or as in my case, a mental health unit. On average, one man passed away every three months.

Mr Zoo didn’t resemble the pictured men. He was early forties and sprightly. Most of us died in our late fifties. He also didn’t appear to be an alcoholic, like three quarters of us, nor a drug addict, like the other quarter. He was also Asian. Some men said he was Chinese, or Taiwanese, one man said he was Korean. He was short and had wavy jet-black hair, a button nose, large black eyes, a small mouth, a small v-shaped face and a receding chin. We usually wore the same clothes for few days, threw them away and obtained second-hand, or factory seconds, from the clothing store in the basement. That day he wore a grey cargo shirt with button-down collar and loose-fit blue cotton trousers. He had a cigarette, a tailor-made as we called the ones from a packet, not rolled. This indicated he had money in the bank.

He sat at one of the tables at the front, near the servery. It was breakfast. He was one of the majority who stood while Sister Veronica prayed for our meals over the speakers. Mister Zoo waited in line and sat down to his bowl of clumpy porridge, a plate with two boiled eggs and a bread plate with three pieces of toast, butter and jam. He had a contraption on the table. It was a toy. A transparent clock. Behind the orange hands you could see the green, yellow and white cogs. It worked too. The pendulum was swinging as the clock stood on its three little feet. It also emitted a loud tick-tock.

The tick-tock, tick-tock caused me discomfiture because it conjured up the passing of time. Time at the hostel was a life of doing nothing, so one’s life ebbed. It also created a sort of remembrance of things past, as Shakespeare once said, and as the homosexual Scott-Moncrieff mistranslated the title of Proust’s novel. And the sheer childishness of the clock amongst us, its absurdity, reminded me that I was once again amongst the mentally ill, the unhinged. Tick-tock, tick-tock, immersed in the din of a hundred men at table. It didn’t even show the correct time. The minute hand moved away from nine o’clock. For us nine o’clock was lights out in the evening, or dormitory lock-out in the morning. Mister Zoo sat and spooned his porridge into his mouth interspersed with an idiotic grin. One of the men, a rotund, red-faced Dickensian fellow, stopped at Mister Zoo’s table, porridge in hand.

“What have you got there, Mister Zoo?”

Mister Zoo looked up at the man. His reply was his usual jumble of English and some other language, perhaps Cantonese, or something like it. It was garbled. The man scratched his head and walked to his seat. I noted that the men treated Mister Zoo with humour, though irony would be in there somewhere too. Some even patiently listened to Mister Zoo’s hybrid confusion of tongues and tried to make sense of it. Then they walked away.

The next morning, as I made my way to breakfast, I saw a little girl standing next to Mister Zoo. The only females allowed in the hostel were staff and volunteers. On approach I saw her bare feet on a perspex stand. She was a shop mannequin for children’s clothes. I went for a closer look. I bent forward to examine her, my hands behind my back, clasped. Her apron dress was white with fern-green pin-stripes across her little chest, and below her frilly white belt her skirt’s hem was just below her knees. Her face was pretty with its button nose, blue eyes and pouting mouth. She had twin bunches of caramel coloured hair, braided into pigtails, each tied with a white ribbon, and bangs for a fringe. Her left arm was on her hip and this made her look petulant. She stood there while Mister Zoo glanced around the room with an imbecile smirk. Behind him sat Troy, a small statured, swarthy man who wore his baseball cap backwards like a teenage boy.

Sister Veronica’s dulcet voice was heard from the loudspeakers, “Gentlemen, please stand up.”

Plastic chair legs scratched on linoleum. Men stood, others, out of atheism, pride or sloth, remained sitting.

“Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive.”

A hostel staffer, a thick-set Maori woman who was the supervisor for the morning, called out, “This row can go. No, you, don’t push in. You, yes you, go to the back.”

Mr Zoo lifted the mannequin as the row of men snaked to the servery. Brian stood and leant forward to touch the little girl’s hair. Upon seeing this Mr Zoo swayed the girl away and behind him. He shooed Brian away with flaying arms.

Mister Zoo ate his porridge and boiled eggs and toast. The girl stood beside him. After he finished his meal a volunteer collected his plate of scraps. Mister Zoo picked up the girl by the waist and carried her out of the dining hall and up the two flights of stairs to the rooftop. That was where the men sat on benches to smoke cigarettes, chat and sometimes play a card game. Mister Zoo sat at one of the wooden tables. He took out a cigarette. He placed the girl at his side to face him, like a dutiful daughter. As I walked by, I noted that he had a transparent plastic envelope pinned to the front of his shirt with a safety pin. It displayed the eight of spades, the eight of clubs, the ace of spades and the ace of clubs.

“Mis-ter Zoo,” I said to him, “do you realise you are wearing playing cards traditionally known as ‘the dead man’s hand’?”

He grinned and pointed to the cards on his chest. He replied to my observation.

“Mis-ter Zoo,” I said, “what you said is all Greek to me.”

I turned on my heels and walked away. I sat down near the flower box with its bushes of lavender and bay leaf. It was a peaceful morning. On the rooftop we were safer than out in the streets. In the streets there was nothing to do. On the rooftop was solace, but there was still nothing to do. Seagulls stood on the fence around the rooftop. They had flown over from the harbour. You saw the harbour bridge in the distance. Lorikeets skipped around. Lawrence, tall and slim and scissor-like in movement, his white hair wild in all directions, sat in his usual spot. I had never heard him speak to anyone in all my time there. The long-haired Mongol boy, black wind jacket tied around his waist, walked in a straight line from one end of the rooftop to the other and back again, over and over. One man clasped the fence like the bars of a prison cell. Empty coffee cups littered the ground. There was rarely any trouble and that day the men were more settled than usual. There were no issues to resolve. It was not a full moon. The presence of a little girl amongst us, although females were forbidden in the hostel, calmed us perhaps.

After dinner I lingered around until I felt sleepy enough to go to my bed. At nine o’clock the lights were switched off. The room was bathed in darkness. At ten thirty, two of the staff members walked from bed to bed with a torch and shone it on each man’s face to check if he was there, or a vacant bed was not being occupied by someone who had not paid their twenty-four-dollar bed money

The next morning the fluorescent lights flickered on at exactly six o’clock. I awoke. I heard an anguished cry. No one took any notice. There were often anguished cries in our dormitory, especially at night. That morning, to looks of concern from the men who were dressing at their bedsides we saw that it was Mister Zoo. The partitions were a metal swiss cheese which divided our beds from each other and gave us a modicum of privacy. I could see that Mister Zoo sat on his bed. He jabbered. Men in the pale blue hostel-issue pyjamas and others bare-chested with towels around their waists saw the crying man and paused in consideration. What was wrong? Then the reason for Mister Zoo’s anguish became evident. He was there, but the mannequin was not.

“Someone’s pinched his doll,” said one man with a tone of sympathy.

“A joker? He couldn’t have got far carrying the thing,” said another.

“The staff would see him with it,” said the first man.

“I’ll have a look round for it. Feel sorry for the poor bastard.”

But one could not really search for a mannequin in our dorm. There was nothing but the door to the linen cupboard, which was locked, and you couldn’t look under beds because it was an unwritten rule you did not go behind another man’s partition. There was a yell from the bathroom.

“Here it is!”

Some went to look. I followed. Inside the bathroom, besides the four washbasins and the urinal were four toilet cubicles, two at each end. These were the only private places in the hostel. We stood at the open door of one of the cubicles. We were in various states of undress. The mannequin was standing beside the toilet bowl. She no longer wore her little pin-striped dress and was standing naked. Her hand on her hip no longer made her look stubborn, instead, now naked, it made her look provocative. Her hair was mussed. Her skin was light pink. We saw that shop mannequins do not have any underwear and have pert little breasts and a little mons pubis. The countenance on her face, which still smiled, was now an expression of nervous shame. She had been “interfered with”, but I cannot say how we knew. We just did. By then Mister Zoo had arrived and pushed between the men to get to the mannequin. He had tears on his face. When he saw her, he made a high-pitched crying noise, a mew like a cat. He went into the cubicle and with both hands picked her up by the waist and carried her to one of the stainless-steel washbasins. He held her horizontally under one arm and lowered her head onto the sink, face upwards and under the tap. With his free hand he twisted the cold water tap until a gush of water drenched her face and hair. The little pigtails with their ribbons were now askew. To Mister Zoo’s dismay one of her arms, the one that was touched her hips, detached and fell with a clatter onto the floor. The water splashed her face and gurgled down the sink. He turned off the tap and placed her upright on her perspex stand. He knelt and with some difficulty, for his hands shook, re-attached the arm.

From the bathroom’s open doorway, we heard a female voice, “Staff entering!”

After a pause, so that we could make sure we were all decent, Sonia appeared at the doorway. She wore overalls over the dark blue shirt and trousers of the charity staff uniform.

“Why are so many of you in the bathroom at the same time?” she asked.

We cleared the way so that she could see Mister Zoo, who knelt on the floor with his back to her. The naked little girl faced Sonia.

“Mister Tsu,” she said with raised eyebrows under her blond hair, “when the staff saw that doll we thought it was a bit of a worry.”

Mister Zoo looked over his shoulder. Tears streamed down his cheeks. From his mouth emanated gibberish. This time we could not understand even one word. Sonia waited for him to finish.

“You’ll have to give it to me,” she told him.

Mister Zoo stood and faced her. He was at the same time protecting the mannequin from being touched and protecting her nakedness. He said nothing. His face was miserable to look at. Sonia had now entered the bathroom and stood facing Mister Zoo with her arms akimbo.

“Mister Tsu, move aside. I’m going to put the doll in the downstairs storeroom.”

According to the rules of the hostel we could not disobey the instructions of the staff. If we did, we could be told to leave the hostel for a period of time, days, weeks, months even. Mister Zoo knew this. He stood aside and Sonia picked up the mannequin and, holding it under her arm, carried it out of the bathroom. The men dispersed. I returned to my bed. Mister Zoo remained in the bathroom and we could his echoing raised voice jabbering away. It must have been the humiliation that got to him. I thought of King Lear in act five, who upon seeing that his beloved daughter Cordelia is dead cried, “A plague on you, murderers, traitors all! I might have saved her, now she’s gone. Cordelia, Cordelia stay a little.” Yes, that was now Mister Zoo.

We did not see him at breakfast, nor lunch. We thought he must have been sulking somewhere. Though during the day there was no place in the hostel where you were alone, there were so many of us. The mannequin had not only been abused, but was also abducted by the hostel, so to speak. I doubted that it would have been put in the storeroom. The hostel staff were quick to throw items into the dumpster. Even abandoned backpacks full of belongings could end up there. Even so, the pervert remained at large.

That morning Mister Zoo did not appear for breakfast. Nor did we see him all day. The next morning we watched television as we always did before prayer and line-up. Just after six in the morning there were already half a dozen men seated in the front rows. At seven, fifteen minutes before prayer, all the seats were taken up as they always were. Mister Zoo was again not anywhere to be seen. The flat-screen television was tuned to one of the news programs, as usual, for our edification. We had an ambivalent response to what we gazed at. The NRL scores were of interest. The weather was worthy of comment. Crime stories were guffawed at. Police were laughed at. That morning our realisation of the tragedy grew in the following order. First, we saw the orange breaking-news logo appear on the screen, and the announcement that a man had been shot dead by police at Bondi Junction station. A police superintendent explained that a man was suspected of carrying a bomb. Commuters had alerted station staff after hearing a ticking sound emanating from a man’s backpack. His left hand, they said, had coloured wires running from his right hand to the backpack. Police arrived and the man would not respond to their instructions. He seemed to be speaking a foreign language. He ran at police and was shot dead. Then we saw the footage. It was that bird’s-eye view in time-lapse CCTV. It showed a man, his face blurred, wandering aimlessly on an empty platform before falling to the ground. There was a muttering confirmation amongst us that it was indeed Mister Zoo. The screen went blank. The television was always turned off at the front office for morning prayer. We heard the nun’s voice over the PA ask us to stand. She said Grace. My mind was elsewhere. Didn’t they know that the ticking was from a child’s toy clock? I guess Mister Zoo really had been up the junction.

Beside my bed is my footlocker. I went to the locksmith on William Street and bought a small padlock to keep my personal belongs secure. Inside the footlocker is the little pin-striped dress. Sometimes, when no one is around, I take it out and look at it for a long time.

Paul J. Greguric lives in Sydney. This is his fourth story for Quadrant; the previous one was “The Man Who Sold Water to All of Australia” in June 2017

 

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