Stagnation

Jack Bell

stagnation

Hallie got a ride from a carload of kids in an outback town just inside the Queensland border.

They drove all day and stopped at dusk at an old low-hung country house in the hills just outside Brisbane. There were more kids there. They drank and smoked pot and made a bonfire in the backyard at midnight.

‘You’re hitching into Brisbane?’ one of the girls asked. She had a pinstripe knit blouse and a Jean Seberg haircut. Hallie envied it.

‘I’m going to meet my dad,’ Hallie said. ‘Bust in on him.’

Some of the kids laughed. They asked if she had ever met him before. She said she hadn’t, and they laughed at the cliché. She told them that her father was Andrew Holland, the poet.

‘Oh, I read something about him once,’ the girl said.

Someone asked, ‘Is he good?’

‘I don’t know, I haven’t read any of his stuff.’

‘I think I read a poem of his in the Terminal Review​,’ someone else said. ‘They called him the Norman Mailer of Australia, or something like that.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘Someone good, I think.’

The next morning, Hallie woke someone who had said that they were driving into Brisbane that day. He dropped her at the address she had, which was a house in Ipswich—a two-story Queenslander buried covertly under a messy growth of Jacaranda trees boxed around the property and flowering purple in the dead summer heat. She almost slipped on the crush of flower pods as she climbed the stairs with her travelling bag in one hand, and then knocked with the other at the front screen door almost rusted off its hinges. There was no answer. She waited, and wandered around, and found the back door open.

Andrew Holland was asleep on the couch in a den that smelled like sweat and cigarettes. He seemed older than she’d expected. His shirt was open, and damp, and his skin was coarse and dark and sun-beaten. There were papers and manuscript notes on the table by the window that looked like poems or scraps of poems, a lot of them: finished, half-finished, scribbled in litterings of dry Bic pens and the snapped ends of pencils. She stepped around and peered her head at a couple. At the squeaking rise of one of the floorboards, Andrew Holland turned over on the sofa but didn’t wake.

She wandered quietly through the house and found a spare room down the hall, a room of nothing but damp boxes and more stacks of papers, some of which she had to move off of the bed. She found a bathroom, took a shower, and was drying herself when she heard her father appear at the door.

He was rubbing the sleep off his face, and seemed as if he was searching for something to say. ‘I figured you’d be coming,’ he said finally, with something of a tone of short justification.

‘I figured it’d be one day.’

She shrugged, and nodded for him. ‘I’m okay to stay in here, if you want,’ she said.

‘You get in by yourself?’ He was bleary, still waking. It was after midday.

‘Hitchhiked,’ she said.

‘Where you living these days?’

‘Perth.’

He lowered his brows. ‘That where your mother took you?’

She nodded again. He did, too, slowly, and started to wander back down the hall before he stopped. ‘Just—I don’t know. Don’t bother me when I’m working,’ he said.

Then he was gone. She could hear him at the other end of the house, squeaking on the floorboards, settling back into the den. He must have lit another cigarette because the air began to shorten.

Things were quiet the next few days. Hallie stayed mostly in her room. She sketched or wrote scraps of stories or poems, or else wandered the city to cruise op shops and bookstores. Andrew Holland was at the other end of the house, in the den, mostly. He was writing. He wandered around frequently, into the kitchen or the backyard, but would end back up at the table by the window or sleeping on the couch. They rarely spoke to each other.

Sometimes she’d check Terminal Review ​​magazine on her phone to see if any new Andrew Holland poems had been published in the time she’d been staying there. There hadn’t been.

Some mornings, if she was tired or bored or hungover, she stayed in bed and looked through some of the damp boxes in her room. They were brimmed with papers—more scraps of poems and archived manuscripts and poetry awards, unframed. Most were illegible, but Hallie enjoyed holding them up to the warm morning light of the window and wondering how old they were; older than her, probably. A lot of them were yellowed and smudged. She wanted to find the first copy of Stagnation​​, but couldn’t.

That night she and her father were having their dinners close enough to the same time to be eating in the same room together. Neither said much, until he said, ‘I told your mum I wasn’t ready for kids. If you’ve been thinking that.’

Her mouth was full, but Hallie said, ‘I know.’

‘She wanted to move. I told her she could if she wanted.’ He put his food away and started making a drink.

He sat back at the table in the den and hid his forehead behind his palms.

Hallie didn’t know whether or not to leave. ‘What are you working on?’ she asked.

He didn’t look at her. ‘I don’t know.’

‘I see some of the stuff you publish in Terminal Review​​, sometimes. I like it. I’ve been reading your stuff my whole life. But Stagnation ​is my favourite of yours, I think.’

‘Which one?’

She repeated the title.

‘Never heard of it.’

She tried to shrug it off. ‘It’s old,’ she said. ‘About nineteen years old. I like it, though.’ She didn’t know if he heard her.

On a Friday, at someone’s party somewhere in the suburbs, she was scrolling through Facebook while sitting tipsy and a little bored in the corner. She found the name Jacob Greenhall, and decided to send him a message. Just something casual. She remembered him from the last time she had been in Brisbane. She was young, in grade two or three or four, she couldn’t remember – her mother had kept her in Brisbane for a few years after her birth, and for a few years of school before she finally moved them both to Perth. Jacob Greenhall was a boy in one of her classes back then. She remembered his name, and wondered if he remembered her.

He responded the next morning. She texted him back, casually. They corresponded for a little while. Friendly messages, mostly. He got a little flirty, and invited her out the next night to the city. They had dinner at a sushi train.

‘It’s been so long,’ he said. He was being cordial. ‘You moved to Perth, huh?’

She nodded, with a girlish smile. She wasn’t entirely hungry, but was worried he would think his time was being wasted if she didn’t eat for him.

‘So, did you come back for me?’ he asked, a little jokingly.

She smiled, and shrugged a little, then said, ‘I wanted to meet my dad. My birth dad. He’s a poet – Andrew Holland, have you heard of him?’

Jacob shook his head.

‘He’s pretty famous,’ she said. ‘Really acclaimed. I don’t know, I just thought it’d be cool to see him after all these years. See what he’s like – I’d heard about him for so long but I’d never met him. His poetry is amazing. He wrote a poem about me, you know, called Stagnation​​, that I’ve always liked. He wrote it after he heard my mum was pregnant, apparently. In it, he calls me a “contemptible allegory”. I’ve always wondered what he meant by that.’

She looked down for a moment.

‘I think sometimes I wonder who he is. Outside his writings, you know? I think I want to find out – or try ​to. I don’t know. It probably doesn’t make any sense. But I’m here, anyway.’

‘Was it grade two or three we were in?’ Jacob asked.

‘Two, I think,’ she said. ‘I think it was Ms. Manning’s class – you remember her?’

‘I can’t remember,’ he said. She wondered if he remembered her at all, or was just pretending to. ‘I like that you remembered we were friends. It’s sweet, you know? I think, like, why should people stop being friends just cause they’ve been apart for so long?’

Later that night, he drove her around as she talked on about school and about Perth, as well as about her father’s poems. He parked in a quiet spot behind a stretch of dead parkland, and she allowed him to touch her breast before they moved into the back seat.

Jacob was slow and rigid and lumberous, but Hallie shut her eyes and allowed him continue until he managed to reach something of a climax and rolled his sweaty body to her side. She adjusted her dress. Jacob’s eyes were shut and he laid still, catching his breath. As he did, Hallie reached for her phone and refreshed the Terminal Review​​.

A new Andrew Holland poem had been published earlier that day. It was called Little Death:

last night I dreamed my daughter was making love to Charles Manson
or perhaps, he was making love to her each motion painful
and savage an act of violence and before he murdered her, he rambled
about cummings and Carlos Williams about their writings and their
genius.

she found him pedantic
not good at sex not good
at killing and even worse
at poetry.

Jacob’s eyes were open now. ‘What’re you looking at?’ he asked, his voice still a little winded. He was re-notching his belt.

Hallie smiled. ‘My dad wrote another poem about me.’

 

Jack Bell is a third-year creative writing student who also has a degree in Film. He’s interested in fiction that explores genre boundaries, as well as literary fiction that explores our current cultural milieu.