Winner of the Outlook Springs Nonfiction Prize
Selected by guest judge Meredith Hall
The day Saddam tries to die, Will has already written a hundred poems about his origami palms clenched into a fist, about that fist clenched around his own throat. There’s nothing poetic about the hole in the noose, but it’s everything around it that makes her feel like she’s drowning.
That’s not bad, actually, she thinks to herself. She should write that down.
When Saddam pops twenty-nine capsules of Panadol like they are Skittles, the carcasses of the blister packets scattered on his bedside table, Will is suspended in the supermarket buying tampons and orange juice. Will is saying, ‘Excuse me, do you have any extra pulp juice out the back?’ And Jonathon from Aisle 7 in Coles is replying, ‘Not today, sorry.’
An hour later when Saddam is tying a bag around his head, Will is getting bank statements authenticated. She needs to convince the University of Berkeley in California, where she has been accepted for a semester of screenplay studies in January, that she has $10,000. Obviously she doesn’t actually have $10,000, but if she combines her academic scholarship, all of her savings and a hefty loan from her parents, which she is really very proud of, then she is officially in possession of $10,000.48.
She stops in to see her boss and he tells her that Rachel calls in sick after every payday, and he is going to have to let Rachel go and he is so disappointed in Rachel. She says that she is very sorry and leaves with some stale pita and a recalled coffee order. There is dirt under her nails she can’t get out, and Saddam is sitting on the edge of his mattress in loose, grey underwear, waiting to see if he is going to die.
Saddam calls the police at 4.57p.m and she is walking back to her car. It is too hot on Kembla Street. She reaches her car, starts the engine and indicates to pull away from the curb. Sonal calls her, breathless with excitement, and says, ‘Saddam has gone.’
‘What are you talking about?’ asks Will.
‘The police and the ambulance came, and he tried to kill himself, but it didn’t work and now he’s in the hospital. I don’t know where his parents are, do you know them? The police asked but I don’t even know where he’s from.’
A runner, wet through with sweat, pounds past her. Her indicator is still going tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.
When is the last time Will saw Saddam eat? Last Thursday, maybe. He’s up all night. She can hear him moving around. She never wondered what he was doing.
Later that night, she will stand in the kitchen watching his bread go green while everyone else sleeps. She will imagine she can hear the scrape of pain killers down his throat. She will swear she can hear him breathing plastic. She’s going to write poems about this, poems that taste like ink and salt. She’ll say that it was a rainy Tuesday and no-one was answering their phones, and she went to the hospital by herself and couldn’t even pronounce his last name. She’ll write that Sonal’s phone call felt like the skin of a mandarin between teeth, syrupy white veins wrapped around her tongue. She doesn’t know what that means exactly, but it sounds beautiful. It is beautiful.
Will eats her pita in the hospital waiting room and thinks of titles for her suite of poems.
She is thinking something forlorn; ‘The Long Winter,’ ‘The Plastic Bag of Truth.’ Well not that.
But something like that.
When Saddam returns, all hollow eyes and heavy bones and depression you can almost taste, he sits beside her.
‘What’s happening?’ Will asks him, and he shakes his head.
‘I’m going to psych,’ he murmurs.
Will doesn’t know where to touch him. She doesn’t know where it hurts, so she rests her head awkwardly on his shoulder and his skin pulls at her hair but she tries not to move anyway, even though it hurts.
The nurse returns and says they’ve found a bed for him. She says to Will, ‘You’re his next of kin?’
Will shrugs, Saddam nods and the nurse says, ‘You can stay if you like.’
It feels as if Will’s eyes are retreating back into her skull and she really just wants to go home. But you can’t very well tell a suicidal man that you don’t want to spend time with him. So she says, ‘Of course.’ She tries to mean it, and she follows him to the mental health ward with her lips pressed together so she doesn’t say something passive aggressive. She wants to bear the grief of this as exquisitely as she can. Years from now, she wants to look back at pictures of herself, charmingly sad on old deck chairs and think, ‘Look how brave and strong I was, despite everything.’
There are three other patients in the mental health ward, and they are all huddled with a partner, whispering and crying, whispering and crying. Saddam lays on the thin, metal bed and covers himself as if he is a corpse with the hospital sheets. It feels like he is preparing himself for burial, so Will clambers into bed beside him, head on bony shoulder, sweaty hand in sweaty hand until the nurse tells her cuddling is not allowed in the mental health ward. This seems unreasonable, but there’s not much she can do about it, so she gets back up and sits – stiff and exhausted – in the guest chair. She puts her head in the indent of his waist and he scratches behind her ear like a cat.
The nurse still doesn’t approve.
They wait until she asks Will to go, only twenty minutes more and then she leaves him alone on that metal bed, in the middle of that disinfected floor, looking as though nothing at all anchored him to that particular spot and he could drift away at any moment.
Will is hoping for something mournful like Coldplay or Arctic Monkeys, but the radio at two in the morning is all Nicki Minaj. Will’s car is old and loud; the engine rattles and she tries to ignore it. She wonders if it would be disrespectful to masturbate when she gets home, to lie in bed and touch herself dramatically, feverishly, to make herself feel alive. How long are you typically meant to wait for that sort of thing? She probably shouldn’t have an orgasm for at least a week after an attempted suicide. She is meant to be starving herself, and not sleeping. Or sleeping a lot. She can never remember how Grief is meant to act.
Will imagines Grief in a cardigan with white buttons, with lank hair and a silver necklace and she walks with her head down, but Will doesn’t know if she eats, or sleeps, or ever has sex. Will doesn’t think Grief is real. All she does is cry and lose things.
Saddam is discharged three days later, during a heat wave.
He is waiting on the hot, grey pavement outside the hospital, like trash for pickup. Will scoops him up and pulls back onto the main road in silence.
What do you say to someone who wants to die? All Will can think is don’t, don’t, don’t, a litany of insubstantial prayer, things he has already repeated to himself under the doona at two in the morning, and she wonders if they will have more or less effect said by her over the rattling second hand engine.
The door of the share house is open like always. Brad and Sonal are posed in the kitchen like mannequins. Sonal crosses and uncrosses her legs. Brad bares his teeth and holds up two mugs and says: ‘Tea.’
‘Act naturally,’ Will says under her breath, so Brad and Sonal start making the tea extra robotically.
The fridge has a lot to say. There are four of five letters from the real estate agents, reminding them not to hang towels on the porch railing, to take the bins out on Sundays, five overdue notices for rent, to please, please let them know who is living there because only Alex is on the lease and there are seven bedrooms.
A fruit fly has his wispy legs sunk into an abandoned Sara Lee lasagna on the counter.
Poor fly, Will thinks. He only has a day to live, and he’s spending it sinking into white sauce.
Will and Saddam sit at the dining room table. Everything is sweaty and terrible.
‘Hello,’ Sonal says seriously from across the other end of the table. She looks like she is about to launch into a corporate presentation.
Brad sets down a cup of English Breakfast, which Saddam looks at for a moment. The milk clouds into the tea.
Saddam stands and goes into his room.
Will hears him fumble with the lock for a few minutes, realise that she has messed with it, and give up. She doesn’t know if he should be in a room alone, and definitely not his room because it smells like weed and struggling cinnamon incense and it’s always a mess. It’s full of artsy, lopsided photographs of ordinary objects and a neon replica of Dorian Gray’s hideous portrait. He has this enormous poster above his bed, so that people will know right away how deep and sensitive he is. He buys pingas instead of coat hangers because coat hangers do not contribute to real living. Real living is about insomnia and bongs and not doing your laundry when you should. He keeps a Quran on a milk carton by the bed and two weeks ago when Will accidentally sat on it, he cried and cried and wouldn’t stop.
Will can’t decide what to call Saddam when she tells this story; she could say, ‘My roommate tried to kill himself,’ but it isn’t quite enough. She wants people to know that they were friends first. Best friends. That sounds better. That way people can understand how deeply affected she is by this. It’s not dishonest because he was her best friend. As in, they each had a lot of friends but they two were the best ones. Until they moved in together, then he went bad. Like a week old bag of baby spinach; she took her eyes off him for a minute and then he was soft and slimy. On Monday he was dragging her into the garden to look at shooting stars, and by Wednesday he and three strangers were passed out on the sticky timber, pulling at her ankles while she tried to make breakfast.
Saddam becomes their zoo animal. Everything he does is interesting and worth reporting on. Will offers him tentative cups of tea, and strokes his back to make sure he knows that she cares, that she’s really quite fond of him despite everything. Then she retreats to a safe distance.
‘Look at that,’ Sonal whispers to Will sometimes, ‘he’s eating porridge.’
‘Hmm,’ Will often murmurs, ‘but he didn’t eat any porridge yesterday.’
‘That’s true,’ Sonal will say seriously. ‘That’s very true.’
All day Saddam lies on his bare mattress, tracing dry rot constellations in the ceiling, counting the dead moths in the light fitting.
Will and Sonal stand in the doorway, tracking his behavior.
Will thinks maybe he poses like this on purpose, so they can see the depression. It’s not legitimate unless it’s visible. You have to look depressed, you have to eat depressed, you have to walk depressed.
Will says, ‘Hi there, buddy.’
Saddam says, ‘Hi.’ Sound depressed, think depressed, live depressed.
‘How are you doing?’
‘Fine. I’m fine.’
‘Do you want some tea?’
‘S’too hot for tea.’
‘You could have cold tea.’
He props himself up on his elbows, ‘Like Lipton Iced Tea?’
He lies back down. ‘I don’t like Lipton Iced Tea.’
She does the same thing every day, but still she thinks that maybe tomorrow he’ll want tea, and she’ll make him tea and they’ll drink it together in the garden and he’ll tell her how sad he is.
Afterwards, he’ll probably feel better, and things will probably go back to normal.
The next day she knocks on his door and Saddam is sitting on the edge of the bed in loose, grey underwear; his suicide underwear. His eyes are gummed half-shut.
He doesn’t look up, ‘I’d like some tea today.’
She makes him Earl Grey with two sugars and milk and they drink it on deckchairs beside the swampy pool. Saddam sits on the concrete, feet dangling in the gloopy leaves, soaking up the growing 9am warmth. The kookaburras laugh through the trees, and the cicadas are just finding their feet.
‘I hate my name sometimes,’ murmurs Saddam into his knees, ‘but it’s not my parents fault, you know. It used to be a good name. It used to mean good things. Did you know that?’
Will thinks there probably isn’t an appropriate response to this, so she doesn’t say anything.
Saddam lifts his head and squints into the half-baked morning sun.
‘I am so, so sad,’ he says and without really knowing how, they are both standing and Saddam is crying. He smells like skittles vodka and salt and Will doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything and she doesn’t do anything. He cries into Will’s sleeve, and she puts all her weight on Saddam and holds him around his shoulders. She stands like that, soaking up everything he won’t say until they are all soggy and weighted and then they wander past the open gate into new, wet grass.
Will is writing a poem called ‘Chai’ to workshop in class on Wednesday. It is about Saddam, and his Panadol and his plastic bag but Will is trying to make it beautiful. She is trying to divide his suicide into stanzas, but some of them get stuck.
She wants to say something deep, something about being left behind. She is thinking train stations, winter, dark, intensely sad imagery and a metaphor for death that might involve a ghost gum and a lorikeet. Her favorite stanza so far is:
‘it is the long afternoon on the day you left
that I spent at the station missing train after train.
I thought it would feel
like a poem come to life.
Instead it felt like winter
building a home in my bones.’
It is very meta-fictional and emotional, and she actually chokes up when she reads it aloud. Unfortunately she doesn’t know what she means by it.
She is tapping the ‘a’ key in a little rhythm, watching a ute with peeling red paint circle the cul de sac like a shark before settling in the swell of the road and cutting off the engine.
Will hasn’t decided if she wants everyone in class to know that it’s about Saddam, although if she starts crying while reading her own poem, then it would be a bit of a giveaway. Maybe she won’t write the poem. Maybe she’ll save all this creative energy for Berkeley.
On the sun-cooked driveway, Saddam is slicing off a bit of the garden hose and returning to the ute.
Will stands up and hangs off the porch rail outside, stepping over cigarette butts and broken coffee mugs and a sadly deflated sack of Aldi Shiraz.
‘We’re going to run out of hose,’ she calls out after Saddam, but he doesn’t turn around.
He climbs in amongst the tangle of limbs in the ute and after a few minutes the windows fog.
When Will makes a kebab in the shop, she always puts the hummus first. It’s easier to spread on the pita that way. You end up with lettuce in your hummus pot if you do it last. She’s eating the hummus about as much as she’s putting it on the pita. Hummus on pita, hummus in mouth, hummus on pita, hummus in mouth.
Her boss says, ‘You see news?’
She hasn’t seen anything except falafel today, so he says, ‘There is a nutter in a chocolate shop. He has the gun.’
The shop is dead quiet.
‘Why you make so many pita?’
The people outside slide right past them, like they are not even there.
She finishes early, with a paper bag full of half made kebab under her arm, and gets the 55C from Crown Street. On the bus, an old Nigerian man who is more wrinkles than skin stands up and screams, ‘I read the bible and I didn’t understand it! I read the bible and I didn’t understand it!’ and then sits back down.
She walks home quickly, because she wants to see what Saddam is doing. He’s always doing something, and later she whispers about it with Sonal. Lately, everything he does is alarming. They shake their heads together over boiling pasta and frying onions.
Will can see Saddam in the window as she crosses the field to their house. She climbs through the hole in the fence, slides down the mud, over the abandoned refrigerator, past the dismembered bonfire pit and up the stairs and he is still leaning over the kitchen counter. He is holding onto the counter so hard his dry, black knuckles are turning white. The steam is rising around his face.
‘Hi,’ she says, and gives him a half-leaning hug.
The refrigerator has grown four more notices for late rent. It’s like a tumor, getting larger every time Will takes her eyes off it.
Saddam stays stiff as the kettle clicks off. His hands slip as he pours the hot water into a mug and he burns his hand.
‘Fuck,’ he says, and then, ‘fuck.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘Did you see the news?’
‘Something about a café hold up. Is your hand okay?’
‘The holdup guy.’
‘You should put that under cold water.’
Saddam’s hand is getting darker. ‘He has hostages. They think he might have bombs in the city. They think it’s a terrorist attack.’
‘That’s what they’re calling it?’
He throws Will a jerky nod. ‘Yes.’
They look out through the kitchen window. Saddam is very still.
‘I hate them,’ he whispers.
‘All of them.’ He is speaking so quietly that Will has to lean in, but just as she does, he rears back and spits in the sink. He’s been chewing on his gums again and thick, red blood is running across the outline of his lips. He spits again and then he picks up the corner of the drainer, stacked halfway to the ceiling with plates and cups, and hurls it into the sink.
‘Fuck them,’ he says, and spits more blood onto the pile of ceramic in the sink. ‘They don’t know anything. ‘It’s just white and it’s everything else and I don’t need them. I can ride by myself. Fuck them.’
He stares out at the bonfire, the refrigerator, the struggling grass in the field behind the house. He stares as if sympathetic white people, accusing white people, understanding white people are going to stampede towards the house in droves. Every kind of white person there is at their door demanding answers, offering to ride with him without really understanding where he’s going.
Saddam spits again and leaves.
At four in the morning Will wakes up and watches a live stream of Man Haron Monis being carried out of the Lindt café in a tarp. She can hear Saddam in the kitchen; the boil of the water, the snip-snip of scissors on green, the slow drag.
He hasn’t slept in weeks.
In December, Saddam decides to throw a 21st birthday party for himself at the house. He tells Will that he’s just gotten his scholarship money from Centrelink, so he throws it into the party; UV lights, a DJ in the kitchen, a Red bull bus in the backyard. He invites two hundred of their closest friends. Will hacks into his Facebook and deletes the event. Saddam re-
creates the event with three hundred of their closest friends.
By the morning of the party, Will has given up. She is leaving for California in the New Year anyway. She puts on a tight dress and plays UNO with Sonal and Alex in the kitchen as the day gets hotter and hotter, Saddam
clearing away the furniture around them. She sits with Sonal in her tight dress as the hot day gets cooler and cooler and Saddam and the DJ set up a deck. She sits at the table, laying down Draw 4’s as the kitchen and living room fills with strangers.
There are almost fifty people there and Saddam is on all of them at once, like a pinball. A customized handshake for Marcus Someone, a high-five for Nelson Someone Else, a brief slap on the ass for Erica Whoever. He bounces onto Will, and lifts her out of her chair, spinning. He is hectic, dizzy. He makes Will feel like she is on the edge of a bridge railing, that feeling that she might jump, without really understanding why she would want to. Will wonders what that feeling is called, if other people get it, and why.
Saddam throws her into a violent ballroom dance.
‘Look at you,’ he says, ‘you’re beautiful.’ A spin and a dip. ‘You look so gorgeous.’ Another spin, a hand tight around her waist. ‘Where’s your drink?’
‘I don’t have one,’ Will says, hair trailing to the sticky floorboards in an almost horizontal dip.
‘White wine or red?’
‘You have both?’
Saddam pulls her up and shrugs. ‘Someone does.’
He tugs her through the fog of people forming around the greasy kitchen counter, picking up a drink here and there. He mixes the drinks into a metal thermos.
‘For you,’ he says when he’s done.
Will takes a sip and grimaces.
‘I did the best I could,’ snaps Saddam. His eyes narrow.
‘I didn’t say anything.’
Will takes another sip and Saddam is gone and she is becoming drunk, drunk; sugared cheek flesh and wine warmth. Time is stretching, snapping, expanding outwards again. There is a whole galaxy of people in the kitchen, so Will retreats, one foot behind the other in any direction at all, careening through a house she can barely recognize into her room. Door shut, quiet.
She should write something, she thinks. Hemingway or someone said to write drunk, and believed in it so whole-heartedly that he was never sober. Will wonders if she is a good enough writer to develop an alcohol problem. She should try it in California; try whiskey coffee for breakfast and lemon gin for dinner and see if anything comes from it.
Will is pressed against the glass of her window watching Marcus Whateverface dare someone else to jump off the roof into the pool.
Saddam falls through the door with a blonde girl under his arm. Will looks at him unevenly and then back to the window where Marcus is throwing leaking neon glow sticks into the pool. She wonders how many thousands of years it will take for those 50c glow sticks to degrade, and if her children’s great-great-great grandchildren will ever go to the beach and unknowingly touch a little plastic piece of their greatest grandmother’s life.
She can hear Saddam dismiss the blonde girl.
‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘my room was occupied.’
‘Are you okay?’ he asks, and she nods again.
Saddam curls his fingers around her hip bones. He presses his crotch into the black lace which covers her bottom.
Maybe she was going to push away his hands, but instead she pushes up her dress. Her eyebrows scrunch up and her lips press together and after only a minute or so more Saddam grunts and is done.
There is some yelling in the garden and the wire of the clotheslines springs apart from the structure. Someone falls hard on the concrete. Skin is gouged out of a knee and someone says, ‘Fuck your mothers face.’
Saddam leaves her shoved against the window, the door half open.
After a moment, Will clears as much laundry from the bed as she needs to and disappears into the covers. The noise retreats and she hollows out a place for sleep. Her throat is burning.
From somewhere above her, she hears Saddam scream, ‘I’m a fucking terrorist’ and he falls down, down. The water swallows him whole.
In the soft darkness of Will’s room, he is still dripping out of her.
Will is just falling asleep when Saddam returns, the prodigal son who never worked out how to actually leave.
He sits on the edge of the bed. The mattress forms a sinkhole, everything tumbling in around him.
‘They called me a bad Muslim,’ he tells the dark.
Will sits up and the sliver of moon pushing through the window makes Saddam’s eyes glow. She can’t see anything else of him; he is just eyes and words.
Will thinks he probably is a bad Muslim, but she is too tired and too drunk to admit this.
‘They don’t know what they’re talking about,’ she says.
‘That doesn’t make them wrong.’
She is half smothered by the blankets. ‘Do you want to be a good Muslim?’
‘A good Muslim is on the ASIO watch list. Bad Muslims go to hell.’
‘Which do you want?’
‘I want to go home.’
Will doesn’t know what this means, and it’s too hard to care and the blankets are dragging her back into sleep, away from Saddam and away from his abstract mind, the chaos he carries around all day. She is so, so tired.
Will doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even try.
In the morning, Saddam is gone. Will and Sonal stand in the doorway, drinking cold coffee and shaking their heads. He has taken his Quran, his laptop and his camera. He has left everything else. Sonal goes to work. The real estate agent stops by to let them know Saddam hasn’t paid rent in three months.
‘We have no record of him,’ the agent says. ‘We told you to tell us who was living here. We told you the rent was overdue.’
Will gives the agent half her bank account, and goes back to standing in Saddam’s doorway. Her coffee is turning sour.
She could write all kinds of poems about this, but she can’t think of anything to say.