I have a picture of Dad set as the background on my iPhone. It was taken in 1980, circa thirty-three years old, soon after he started seeing my Mum. He’s standing beside the white taxi he spent most of the seventies saving to buy. He looks like a larger Che Guevara. Tan skin and dense black beard. Steady gaze and glaring menace. Beer gut blooming into obesity. Fists the size of bricks dead-ending arms thicker than fire extinguishers. Legs dark and carved with muscle. His eyes are two slits at the end of a tunnel. They hold the glint of grievance, a hint of pain kept incognito.
Dad was mad as a cut snake, a snake cut so many times that it couldn’t stop shaking even after the abrasions went away.
He said: “Never throw a free feed in the bin.”
He said: “Eat today what you can’t refrigerate for tomorrow.”
He said: “The only way to beat a snake is to strangle it.”
I was the fresh incentive to get rich Dad desperately needed. After I was born, he bought a series of seedy pubs across southwestern Queensland, investing the proceeds of heavy drinking and gambling into a portfolio of rental properties that doubled and then tripled in value during the mining and property booms of the new millennium.
On the weekends, I cleaned the pubs for pocket money. I’d drag Dad out of bed, dead-eyed and brooding, four or five hours after he’d finished the night shift, so he could count the tills and empty the pokie machines. My job was to mop the men’s room troughs, nostrils rich with piss and shit and vomit, hot water slopping on bare feet. Dad was too tired for any conversation that wasn’t for the sake of paying customers, but I would’ve worked for free to keep him nearby.
At 10am, the pokie machines chimed the start of daily trade. I unlocked the doors and lifted the blinds. Dad stood in position at the till. He was a jukebox psychologist. The bar flies filed in, childish smiles, arising from lives of chaos and crime, converging due to chemical dependency and the need for someone to hear them out. I’d sit on a stool at the end of the bar, feet barely reaching the metal railing, eyes fixed in his direction. Each morning I witnessed a miracle of emotional punishment and economic necessity. The exhaustion disappeared. Dad was a kindred spirit for rent. He poised his lips between a grimace and a grin, ready to hang a sentence off the slimmest thread, an enigma hidden inside a larrikin.
I think some of the writer in me arises from him. We share the same tendency towards self-preservation through edifice and obsession. He sought wealth to bulwark himself against trauma. I’ve built my fort out of stories.
Dad had the gift of the gab. He never read a book, and his writing was illegible, but he could speak for three weeks straight and not slip up a single syllable. He liked the way you could change the gist of a phrase by the way you dropped or raised your voice. He was a barroom existentialist, inventing aphorisms out of thin air.
He said: “Life is a mixed bag of shit.”
He said: “The only safe bet is death.”
He said: “Pity is the final straw of dignity.”
I used to be taken aback by his lack of fear.
Maybe I understand it now, so many fixated years later, the heir to his aloofness from emotion. He knew death too well. Death wasn’t perplexing to him. Death was strategic. Death was everyday.
Death wasn’t a commemorative tattoo or a grief-stricken meme to post for overnight likes, a popularity scheme on the sly.
Death was working 100 hours a week as a survival tactic.
Work was about me and what would one day become mine.
I was too young and unhaunted by trauma to understand how a man can spend his entire life steadying himself against the dead. The post-war orphan. The self-made millionaire. The divorcee who worked himself into an early grave. I didn’t understand the way loss and luck can be assimilated into the daily grind of a survivor’s mind frame, every stray fuck and breath taken and financial transaction made.
Now I know what death looks like.
It doesn’t look like much at all.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.
Lech Blaine runs a three-star motel in Bundaberg, Queensland. Black Inc is publishing his first book in 2018.