Gone To Ground
“I just can’t take it anymore”, he said, sitting across from me, nervously tapping his unlit cigarette on the side of his empty coffee mug like a mini drum stick. I wanted to ask what tune he was playing but refrained. I knew it wouldn’t be cheerful.
“It feels like I've got the weight of the world on my shoulders or like I'm wading in quicksand from the moment I wake until I close my eyes at night. And sleep doesn’t provide much respite either.” He twitched his head back and forth, looking over my shoulders.
I asked, “Would you rather sit so you can see the door?” He shook his head but continued twitching anyway. I wanted to reach out and give him a big, manly hug, completely with firm gripping and back slaps. But I knew he’d react like I’d just jumped out of the closet at him.
And therein lay most of his problems. He’d never been able to accept affection at face value, instead wondering what ulterior motives were following. I found it to be a particularly sad way to exist.
I smiled my sympathies at him but he wasn’t having any of it. For a second, I tried empathising but simply couldn’t put myself in those shoes. I’ve never been able to wear pessimism, at least not well enough to look good in it.
The question hanging between us begged and pleaded until I asked it. “What is it this time?”
He stopped his silent tapping and scowled at me. “Exactly that,” he spat in response.
Wide-eyed and shrugging, I held up my hands in protest. “Hey, mate; I’m not your problem.”
“I didn’t mean you specifically. I meant that everyone thinks I have problems.”
I replied as gently as I could, ever aware of how he can easily fly off the handle. “Maybe you just need to lighten up, mate?”
“I can’t keep it bottled up in me, you know that. I think sometime if I did, I’d explode. Its not as though I’m the only one with problems, is it?”
“Well, I suppose so but I think some deal with them better than others.”
He didn’t respond to this but I could see he was filing it away to dredge up later. He had a habit of doing this, not responding to implications immediately then using them later as darts of frustration to throw later.
Instead, he changed the subject. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. I need a cigarette.”
I paid for our coffees and made small talk with a cute waitress while he fussed around in his back pack looking for a lighter. Then he stood behind me bobbing up and down impatiently while I flirted a bit more.
I could tell he was annoyed by the way he slouched out ahead of me. Once we were outside, he attacked. “Why do you that?”
I knew what he was asking but replied anyway. “Do what?”
“You know, that small talk shit with people you don’t know. It’s bloody annoying.”
“Annoying for whom? For me or for her? Or for you?”
“Ah, you know what I mean.” This was his standard response for anything he felt unnecessary to explain. But there is only so much anyone can take. I wanted it out of him.
“No, I don’t know what you mean. You always say that and leave me wondering if I’m being an ass. Are you pissed because I was talking to her and she was enjoying it, because I have a girlfriend and you don’t or because I kept you waiting? God, man, you really do need to take that heavy chip off your shoulders. I was innocently flirting, mate, not trying to get her to sleep with me. Jeez…”
He stopped walking and looked at my back as I kept on walking. I could feel his eyes stabbing into the back of my head, like visual punches. I steeled myself before I stopped to turn and face him.
His response was predictable. “What got up your nose?” He screwed up his face with a look somewhere between disgust and anger. I noticed he still didn’t answer my question. I berated myself silently but acquiesced.
“Ah, don’t worry about me, mate, I’m alright.” I felt stupid but I didn’t want to spend the afternoon arguing with him because I knew once we started, he’d never let it end.
He shook his head then lit his cigarette. “Where do you want to go?”
“Let’s go to the park. We can sit in the sun and watch pretty girls walk by.” He screwed up his face again but followed me without saying anything more.
We walked in silence until we got to the park. We spotted and empty bench and quickly sat down, sprawling out so no one else could sit on it with us. He took a bottle of water from his back pack and took a big swig before passing to me. Like always, I waited for him to speak first.
“I don’t know how to deal with it all. Work is boring; I can’t find anything that interests me.” I nearly smirked when he said this. He worked for himself as a freelance architect and made about ten times what I did. He didn’t have a boss to cajole or timesheets to keep. His office was a desk in his oversized lounge room. I was completely envious of him in this regard. Yet he couldn’t see how good he had it compared to most of us.
He went on. “I sometimes wonder whether I’m going to be single for the rest of my life. Most of the girls I meet are either bimbos or not interested in me. How did you end up with someone like Terry?”
This was another of his little gambits, something he did to justify his misery. I was wise to them but nevertheless reacted. He often made it difficult for me to control myself.
“Oh, don’t be like that, mate. Terry is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And you know she’d say the same of me. Its why were so good together. Mutual respect, mate, mutual respect.” I let this hang and waited for his reply.
“Yeah, but why can’t it happen to me? I’m just as good as you, aren’t I?”
Silently, I responded “no, you’re a misery-guts” but instead said, “Of course you are, mate. You’re a catch just waiting to happen.” I threw my arm around his shoulder and shook him a bit.
He shrugged it off and turned to face me. He was really wound up. “So what is bloody wrong, then? Why should you have the luck of finding a great girl while I end up feeling so fucking miserable all the time? I mean, it’s not as though you’ve got a lot…” He stopped short, realising he was probably going too far.
I stood up quickly, knocking the bottle of water I’d put on the bench between us to the ground. The lid popped off and water ran onto the pavement. I bent down and picked the bottle up but not before most of it had drained out. He started in on me straight away. “Oh for fuck’s sake, now I don’t have any water. You know I get dehydrated easily. What am I going to do?”
I snapped. “You know what, I don’t give a damn what you do. I’m tired of being your whipping boy. I tired of your insinuations about me. I’m tired of your petty jealousy, your even pettier envy and that you can’t see how good you’ve got it. I’m tired of you pissing all over anything decent I might have going for me. Can’t you just be fucking happy for someone else or is that too damned hard and depressing for you?”
Predictably, he was acting like he’d done nothing wrong. He sat there looking up at me with a shocked expression on his face, as though I’d hit him. I didn’t wait for him to respond. Instead, I turned and stomped off across the grass, heading back towards the city centre. I heard him start to say something but simply waved my hand dismissively over my shoulder.
He must have followed me out onto the grass. He hated grass. It made his skin break out and his eyes itch, he said. But the next thing I knew, he called out to me. I couldn’t help myself and turned to look back at him.
He was standing off the path, about 20 metres behind me. He looked as though he was standing in a patch of mud. I walked back to him and as I did, he sunk another couple of inches into the ground. He looked up at me then back at to his feet. “What the hell is going on?” I heard something in his voice I’ve never heard before. It sounded like fear.
“I don’t know but just hold still, alright?” As I said this, he sank another inch or so. He squealed a little and reached out to me.
“Pull me out, will you?” I grabbed his hand and gave it a good yank. He swayed and nearly fell over. I rushed forward to grab him and stop him breaking his legs. As I did, he sank another couple of inches. Again, he squealed and held onto me. As he did, he sank again but this time it was as though he’d stepped in a hole. Now he was in up to his knees.
His voice went up a register and I could see he was really starting to panic. The weird thing was I was standing right next to him and hardly making an impression in the grass. “What the hell is going on? Pull me out of here, damn it.”
I went around behind him, slung my arms under his shoulders and pulled up as hard as I could. He screamed but didn’t budge one bit. In fact, as I was pulling, he actually sunk further into the ground. He was now buried almost up to his waist and starting to wiggle around frantically.
I looked around the park to see if there was anyone else who could help. An elderly couple walked by and I waved to them. They waved back and kept on walking. I started to run after them, but he called out.
“Don’t leave me! For God’s sake, don’t leave me.” He struggled some more, pushing down on the ground with his hands, trying to push himself up. As he did, his hands disappeared into the grass up to his wrists. He screamed loud and long. A few distant people on the other side of the park looked over our way but none moved towards us.
I wanted to say something encouraging, something to calm him down but nothing would come. As I watched, the ground claimed some more of him. He was in about half way up to his chest, which was hitching as he tried to draw breath. I knelt in the grass in front of him and took hold of his shoulders.
“Mate, I want you to look at me, okay? I’m going to have to leave you and get some help, okay? I don’t have any other choice.
I could see him struggling to find breath to say something. I leaned a little closer to him to listen. His voice was ragged but contained more venom than I’ve ever heard in it. “What have you done to me, you bastard? What have you done?” He continued to rant and swear and I could see him struggling against his earthy entrapment.
I couldn’t believe it. He was actually blaming me for this. I stood up and stepped back from him. His face was a red and sneering, while he gulped like a fish out of water. I shook my head in disbelief.
The earth sucked at him a little more. He was in it now almost to his shoulders. His eyes were nearly popping out of his head but he still looked as though he wanted to hit me.
His mouth was opening and closing, trying to form what probably would be his last words. He looked up at me and swore. The earth sucked him in some more, this time up to his chin.
I knelt down in front of him. I wanted to say something to help ease his fears. I wanted to say something to take his anger and panic away. Instead, I said, “You know what, mate, I’ve always said you should learn to lighten up. Now it’s just too late.”
The earth sucked at him once more, pulling him up to just below his eyes. I sat there for a few more minutes until he completely disappeared. I stood up and looked at the spot where he’d been. It looked as though nothing had happened. I chuckled to myself and walked away.