Jolley Prize 2011 (Shortlist): 'What’s Richard Ford Got to Do with It?' by Gaylene Carbis

In the middle of their love-making, he said, suddenly – ‘Wait.’ He reached over to his wallet beside the bed and took out what was obviously a condom. He opened the packet, held up the condom and said, ‘Put it on.’

She held it in the air, as if it was something she’d never seen before.

‘You have to hold the end so the air doesn’t get in,’ he said. ‘Didn’t they teach you this in school?’

‘Not the school I went to.’

So they made love with him wearing the condom and she was surprised when he cried out as he was coming, ‘Ohhhhhhh – it’s so beautiful.’

She’d thought he couldn’t feel anything much wearing it. She’d heard once that wearing a condom feels like having a shower with a raincoat on, but she couldn’t remember where. Maybe he’d told her, though it didn’t sound like something he would say.

After they’d made love and were lying there turned towards each other, she was unusually quiet. And then she asked him: ‘How come you used a condom?’

‘Because I wanted to come inside you,’ he said simply.

‘Oh.’

‘Why did you think I used it?’

She looked back at him, not saying anything. In one of his sudden flashes of insight, he said: ‘You think I’ve been with somebody else.’

‘You’re smart,’ she said.

They were silent. She waited. But he didn’t say anything.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘I wonder about it. All those times you’re on the road. You know, you must get lonely at times. And even if not lonely, then – well, people do things, not because they’re bad but for all kinds of funny reasons. Besides, I’m always reading things, all those short stories by Richard Ford you’ve got on your shelf, stories about salesmen, about men on the road.’

He turned over onto his back and lay there, staring at the ceiling. ‘What’s Richard Ford got to with it?’ he said.

‘You know what the men in Richard Ford stories are like.’

‘Honey,’ he said, turning towards her again and holding her. ‘I visit factories, not people’s houses.’

‘I’m not talking about houses,’ she said. Her breast was caught under his shoulder now, trapped, and it hurt. But she didn’t move it.

‘Besides,’ she said, after a pause, ‘my father was a salesman.’ As if that explained everything. ‘Don’t you ever think about picking up a woman in a bar?’

‘You mean – like a one-night stand?’ he said in a high-pitched tone, as if he was incredulous.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

‘Sure, I’ve thought about it – but that would take guts.’

‘Why?’

‘I’d have to pretend to be somebody else.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘That’s not me.’

‘Why not?’

‘I imagine people who do that … they’d have to put on an act, they’d have to pretend. You couldn’t be yourself.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you’d have to be – you’d just have to be somebody else. To do it.’

 

‘What about the ethical and moral side of it?’ she said after a while.

‘Well, yes. There’s the ethical and moral side of it. Of course. But I’m talking about something else. It’s not me.’

They fell asleep again and they slept fitfully. He kept waking every time he wanted to turn, and then she would wake too. At every turn, there she was, her arms wrapped round him, or his around her, and there were times when he wanted to lie on his back, but he’d have to extricate himself from her embrace and he worried he’d wake her. She always woke when he woke. Though he would quickly fall asleep again while she would just lie there, thinking, and it was difficult for her to get back to sleep.

In the morning he told her a long, convoluted dream he’d had. But she wasn’t really listening, the words were images that floated into her mind and left again, as if they’d found no ground to lodge there.

‘Do you think about sleeping with other women?’ she said, when he finally reached the end of the dream.

He seemed startled, as if he was still in the dream and was surprised to find himself in the bed beside her. ‘I hate the way you just come out with these things,’ he said. ‘There’s no preamble, there’s no – preparation for it. They just come out of nowhere.’

‘Preamble?’

‘A warning – of what’s to come. There’s no introduction,’ he said.

‘I’m not writing an essay!’ she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere, which had suddenly turned tense. But there was a sharp edge in her voice as she said: ‘I notice you haven’t answered me. In fact, you’ve managed to avoid it completely.’

‘What did you ask me?’ he said.

‘I asked you if you think about sleeping with other women.’

‘Do I think about it?’ He shook his head. ‘No. Not really.’

‘There was this guy I went out with’, she said. ‘He rang me one day, out of the blue. It was ages after we’d gone out together. He said he was just ringing to say hello, see how I was going. I asked him if he was married or whatever. In a relationship, I mean. Anyway, I asked him whether he was married and he said, ‘Not really.’ I don’t know why, you just made me think of that.’

He reached over for his mobile to look at the time. He’d dropped his watch down a toilet when he was in transit in Singapore. He hadn’t bothered to buy another.

‘He told me he has a kid now,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘That guy I went out with,’ she said. ‘The one who was “not really” in a relationship or married or whatever.’

He lay there, wondering what she wanted from him. Did she want a response? What could he possibly say, anyway? He shifted back on to his back and closed his eyes.

‘Actually,’ she said, ‘he did eventually tell me he was living with this woman, but they weren’t really married or anything. It was three of them – the woman, the kid and him. No, it was four: her father lived with them too.’

She was silent for a moment. He lay there wondering if she’d finished, if she’d get upset if he got up and took a shower.

‘He was Chinese,’ she said, in that way she had of saying something as if the mere fact of saying it explained everything.

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘I don’t know, it’s all part of it,’ she said.

‘It’s getting late. I should have my shower,’ he said. ‘I get down when I sleep too long.’

‘We’re not sleeping. We’re talking,’ she said. ‘Why do you get down if you sleep in?’

‘I don’t know, I just get depressed when I stay in bed too long,’ he said.

‘But why? It’s not like it’s two o’clock in the afternoon or something!’

‘I hate missing the day,’ he said. ‘It makes me feel like I haven’t achieved anything.’

‘But isn’t it nice to just lie here and talk?’

He didn’t answer.

 

They lay in silence for awhile. Outside, they heard the bird that woke them at five every morning, that distinctive call announcing the bird’s presence in the world. But it was much later than five now and he was starting to get restless.

‘Why do you ask all these questions all the time?’ he said finally. ‘Do you have to know everything?’

‘It’s just talk,’ she said.

He turned towards her and spoke in a voice more definite than he felt inside. ‘Look – I’ll see a woman and I’ll think she’s attractive or beautiful. But it doesn’t mean I want to sleep with her.’

‘Why not?’

‘Do you have to do this?’

‘What?’

‘We could pretend one day,’ he said. ‘If you like.’

‘What?’ she said. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You go to a bar and I come in and pick you up.’

‘But I don’t drink’, she said.

He shook his head and sidled out of bed, reaching for the robe that hung over a chair. She could see by his back he’d had enough, the way he was turned away from her.

‘Where does it get you?’ he said. ‘Asking all these questions. It doesn’t prove anything. What outcome do you want?’

She pulled the doona up close to her neck, as if she was cold. Only her head stuck out. She looked like a child huddling under the blankets.

‘I don’t think like that,’ she said forlornly.

‘Can I take a shower now?’ he said, turning towards her again and looking down at her lying there.

‘You don’t have to ask me. I’m not your mother,’ she said.

He turned away, irritated, and was clearly about to head for the bathroom. But she reached out for him and stopped him.

‘Hey,’ she said. ‘I just – I just like to talk about things. That’s all.’

He softened at her touch, her tone, and moved back towards the bed again. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So talk to me.’

‘It’s not like that. I can’t just talk on command like that.’

‘Well, neither can I.’ He stood there uncertainly, wavering. ‘Shall I have my – ?’

‘No. Stay.’

He hesitated then sat down on the bed. ‘So talk to me then.’

‘It’s not about me talking to you.’

‘Well, I don’t have anything to say. I don’t feel this need to talk about everything the way you do.’

‘Well … why are you so into Richard Ford?’

‘Jesus,’ he said.

‘I’m just wondering.’

‘Interrogating me isn’t talking.’

‘I’m not interrogating you, I’m talking with you’.

‘Asking me questions isn’t talking,’ he said.

‘That’s how I show interest. That’s how I talk with my friends.’

‘I’m not your friend. I’m not a woman.’

‘I don’t have just female friends.’

‘Well, maybe I’m not like the other men you know. Anyway, you read Richard Ford yourself.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it’s different.’

‘It’s always different when it applies to you. You want to talk, but your way of talking is asking questions all the time.’

‘That’s because you don’t tell me things,’ she said.

‘What’s Richard Ford got to do with anything? You’re just always analysing me and trying to figure me out.’

She was silent for a moment then she said, ‘It’s not about that. I’m trying to have a conversation with you. I’m asking you why you like a particular writer. It’s a valid question.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s a valid question. But you’ve always got an agenda.’

She sat up, huddled still under the doona, the covers around her like an enormous tent she was hiding under. She looked up at the ceiling and noticed cracks she’d never seen before, even though she often stared at the ceiling when she was lying there thinking. The cracks stretched out across the ceiling like train tracks that had been abandoned and were now out of use.

‘I just think about these things,’ she said. ‘Richard Ford is so bleak. So I wonder why you’re drawn to that. The men are always lost or listless or something ... They’re always driving and not really going anywhere.’

‘And you think I’m like that,’ he said.

‘I don’t know … I just wonder why you like him so much.’

‘But you read it too!’

‘Yes but it has a different meaning for me.’

She started stroking his arm, but he stopped her. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, gently. Then he placed her hand back under the doona, as if he thought it would grow cold, exposed to the air.

‘I do get in the car and just drive sometimes,’ he said. ‘I drive and drive.’

‘What do you think about?’

‘Everything. Work mostly.’

She fell silent, thinking.

‘Richard Ford’s not like that – in his real life,’ she said after awhile.

‘What?’ he said. ‘Like what?’

‘Like the men in his books. He’s been married for thirty-eight years. That’s as old as I am.’

‘What’s your point?’ he said impatiently.

‘I’m just saying.’

‘Yeah, well, you talk about people’s lives like it’s something to do with us. I just read the books. That’s it.’

He was tiring now, she could see it, but she continued anyway.

‘He’s always got unfaithful men, unfaithful women too, but especially men, they’re always on the road, travelling somewhere, no one’s ever settled. They’re always searching for something and they don’t know what. They’re always kind of dissolute.’

‘Dissolute?’

‘Yeah. You can’t pin them down. Richard Ford isn’t anything like that. You know what he said: he sees himself as doing only two things in his life: “I’m married and I’m working.” That’s what he said.’ She paused then said: ‘He has this stable, settled life.’

Another pause fell between them. He sat there, awkwardly, his mind returning to the shower. He had to hold himself back from running to it – anything, to get away from this endless talk. But he stopped himself and remained there, very still.

‘Is that what you want?’ he said.

She looked away from him then, as if she was speaking to someone else standing in the corner of the room. ‘I never used to be like that, but now, I think of it like how women long for a baby, that biological thing. They hear the clock ticking. That’s how I feel. I’m this age and I’m in this position, where I don’t have that.’

‘You mean us,’ he said.

She looked at him then and said, ‘I’m not asking you for anything, I’m just telling you how I feel.’

A long silence fell and they could both hear the ticking of the little clock beneath the bed. He bent to pick it up and looked at the clock, as if in shock.

‘You know it’s nearly eleven o’clock?’ he said.

‘So?’

‘I told you, I hate sleeping in late like this. It makes me feel depressed.’

‘I feel like that when we talk like this,’ she said.

He looked at her in surprise.

‘I mean, afterwards,’ she explained. ‘After making lo – after sex.’

He looked down at the clock in his hands, fidgeting with it, as if there was something wrong with it and he was trying to fix it.

‘So don’t do it then,’ he said.

He put the clock back underneath the bed and stood up, as if this was the right note to end on. It had a note of finality about it. It felt like he could go now and it would be all right. But he just stood there, looking down at her.

‘I know what you mean,’ he said suddenly. ‘Talking like this.’

She looked up at him, waiting.

‘Afterwards, I feel bereft,’ he said.

 

She watched him pull the tie on his robe tighter, as if there might be someone who might see him on his way to the bathroom. He gave her a rueful parting look and walked awkwardly away, aware of her still watching him.

She heard him running the tap at the sink in the bathroom. It sounded like rain.

She reached her hands out, feeling the warmth of the bed where he had been. His smell still there in the sheets, on her skin. She looked at the ceiling, the cracks that reminded her of train tracks, all going off in different directions.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s it. That’s exactly it.’

‘You use language so well sometimes …’ she said.

 

 'What's Richard Ford got to do with it?' by Gaylene Carbis was shortlisted in the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.

CONTENTS: OCTOBER 2011

Published in October 2011 no. 335

Gaylene Carbis

Gaylene Carbis writes plays, poetry, and prose. She is an honours graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she now teaches Creative Writing. Her plays and poetry have been performed at Theatreworks, Chapel off Chapel, La Mama, Oxford, Cornwall, Athens, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is currently writing a one-woman show about depression, co-writing a musical, and working on her first poetry collection.

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