The Trouble with Being Born

James Lucas

An extract



6:30 am. Sitting on the stairs outside work, a coffee shop called Smithy, we both lit up our cigarettes, me providing lighter and nicotine. A second after the first puff Claire said:

—Later on today my father’s coming. To the store. With my nephew.

I looked at him, unsure of the tone I was meant to respond in. Claire said:

—Have I ever…?

—No. Never, I said, well not when sober at least. Is this a good thing or a bad thing, their coming to Smithy?

—An extravagant annoyance. That’s what a thing it is.

Claire grimaced ahead of himself, then wiped his face with his free hand and smiled and said:

—You know, ever since I can remember, I’ve always hoped I was adopted.

I spat out a puff of smoke, giggling, which made him laugh too. He went on:

—Every birthday I’d think, O gee, O boy, this must be it: my parents might be sad through their confession of adoption, but I’ll say, Don’t worry, Mum and Dad … I know. That’s my formative theme, I guess. My father – god, my father is a connoisseur of psychological displacement. Know what I mean? – defence mechanisms. He was a machine gun of displacement if he was anything. And his whole existence consists of a game of charades, always performing, trying to appear as this or that Knowledgeable Thing, but never actually being anything, you know what I’m saying? He’ll ask you a question and his eyes’ll blank out five seconds in, then he’ll say fuck all in relation, like, it’s You’re speaking, you’re speaking, you’re speaking – and now I speak, I speak, I speak. Relational only by proximity. Absurdly, I have learnt the value of listening from the functionally deaf.

Holding his cigarette next to his face Claire smiled at me, half embarrassed, saying:

—You probably regret now having come out here with me, as I, fabulous hypocrite that I am, go on and on while talking about the value of listening. God.

—No, no, I said, squeezing his arm, who’s ever heard this hidden section of Claire before? This is unprecedented territory! The leviathan of your past, I said smiling. One needn’t draw it out manually: it comes unbeckoned. Jesus, I don’t even know – do you have any siblings?

—Two. Boy, girl, and me, he said with a chuckle, then looked up to the side as if he’d remembered something. When we were young one of us would come up with an idea around the house and we’d implement it, and he, our father, would legitimately forget that it wasn’t his idea. Infuriated all of us. It made us bond though. He would even extoll the merits of Feng shui when our house was the most unminimalistic car crash on the block. Oh god, it’s coming back to me. One night at the dinner table my mother explained how she didn’t hear her alarm
go off when she was napping because of sleep debt or something, overwork, and – it’s still vivid – my father said, Don’t complain, at least you can sleep. He said it meanly too. Now, this fool my father complains as much as any man or more and, by god, more than any sane
housewife, so again, a portrait of hypocrites. My brain disintegrates to watch the fool think he’s the square root of suffering. If he gets cancer he’ll be the first person ever to get a cancer that was life-threatening. That really, all along, under the guise of fatherhood, he was a master
narcissist. ’S’why my narcissism is so smooth, Hal. Sickens me every time. Realisations in retrospect qualify the damage. Jesus, when he had uttered those amazingly idiotic words, Don’t complain, I wish I’d had the meanness in me to say, Okay, fine, let’s take your logic to
its end: you have it worse than her and everyone has it worse than everyone else and these infinities are larger than those infinities, to which the only thing sayable becomes Don’t complain, dipshit, at least you’re alive!
This would then obviously make an offence of anyone’s complaining, as pain mounted the throne of repression and we attacked each other instead of sharing a woe with a friend. What he is, is the kind of father that was nicer to waitresses than he was at home. Shamelessly so. Everyone knows why. He was the blindest dog that ever was. An authority figure shouldn’t be so pitifully fallible. Some parents inflict pain like a bullet, and some divide the bullet into atoms and make from the residue a poison and drip it down through your years, by accident. When pain happens in such small degrees, no one knows it’s happening. It’s hardly pain at all, until the psychic bladder bursts. Or imagine you have a daddy that beats up mummy, and one day in primary school you and your friend have a fight and you beat your friend up and the school tells your parents. When your father sees you outside the principal’s office he kneels down and says, What happened? How could you punch your friend? And you just sort of decide right there that you’re adopted. Any alternative explanation would titillate absurdity and justify suicide far too easily. So you move out, realising that there’s nothing more you can possibly learn from your parents because you have not learnt anything from them but from their capacious lacks. And I have learnt kindness from the unkind, patience from the impatient, receptivity from the dull, serenity from the angry, and from my swamp I have, like an alchemist, produced all my virtues from the cadavers of virtueless demisouls of filth. Well, then I have in me a junkyard god.

With those slow last words he lapsed into silence, eyes journeying past the last palmat the end of the mind. Curls of smoke wafting up by his face as the cigarette burned away between his fingers and my eyes did not drift from his face. How long we stayed as such you could not measure.



3:00 pm. Halfway through a third cigarette. Gathering thoughts, strolling back to Smithy. I sit at the farthest table of the store, out of sight from the inside, having no windows out to these seats. Hardly anyone around in this afternoon languor. It was as if the afternoon itself were trying to open lines for communication and say, You know, it is possible for us to be friends; I too can be like you; I too can repose as Pan. It was strange, uncanny even. But I felt touched by the afternoon’s gesture; it came over me with sincere warmth. I did nothing, letting this
feeling trickle through my mind and its grooves.

Maybe in about thirty seconds I will get up for another smoke. Twenty. Enough time must pass between smokes to maximise on the surplus pleasure lent by the body’s withdrawal from nicotine. It’s only natural to want want as wanting as possible, isn’t it? One’s money’s worth. Indeed, the worst one may say of this wanting habit is that it’s moral. I tap my pockets, rechecking lest I find out I’m missing something key later. Like my soul. Like my soul.
A kid walks out the store rubbing the back of his scalp with a hand, head tilted downwards as though some invisible rock had anointed him an adolescent Atlas, – at, what is it, about sixteen or seventeen he looks? Well, he looked embarrassed, which signalled to me something interesting was afoot; also looked slightly pained, say, the pain level of a grazed arm on asphalt. I stayed seated for a moment and watched him loaf on. As the teenager continued to walk further away an older man strode out of Smithy. Claire was behind him. I very much stayed seated.

—Yes, I understand, said the man. Calm down.

—Why calm down? Claire said, almost frantic. Why did you come here in the first place?

—So I could show him where you worked, what you could accomplish if–

—Oh, what brilliant piffle, what horseshit. I work at a coffee shop!
—Yes, I can see that, Claire, said the man. But it’s still an accomplishment even if you don’t want to think so. To me it’s an accomplishment.

—If accomplishments have such a worthless mark for success, then why not squash it further: I move forward one step – I succeed; I move backward one step – I fail; I go two steps forward – I double my earnings! In so few motions I outsell Bill Gates, outenlighten
Buddha, and reinvent fire!

—Cành, said the man in a stern lower tone. Control yourself, must you always behave like this?

—Must you be so cliché? Who cares? This is only where I work and Minh is too far away to be seen as related to us, – who cares?

—I care, Cành, what people think of you; I care about what happens in your life; I care. Why do you think I’m lying when I tell you that I care?

—Because you don’t know that you’re lying! You say the words, you say the words, but there’s nothing else, is there? Nothing else! You’ve never known what care is.

—I don’t understand you, said the old man, what do you think I was doing right now, right now in there but caring for Minh, showing him that there are people like you and me, Cành, out there, that care.

—By what – giving him advice on his halfdead career? A knee fracture? – come on! you lot do him more harm than his injury.

—No – no, by giving him advice on his life, said the old man. Because I’ve lived a life, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve learnt from those mistakes, and maybe – if we’re lucky – Minh won’t have to go through that, that I can save him some time through my mistakes.

—Your mistakes only girdle more mistakes,
Therein which holds no lesson for advice.
And how do I know this, your counsel’s heart? –
Because I am your family: and you
Have never shown us thought to think you wise.
What authority have you to advise?
What one mute lesson but, Be not like me?
Do you jest, man? The offal of your skull
Hath nothing more to gift than blood and pus,
A snaking ooze of septic vanity.
What vain stigmata boosts your pride, old man?
Closeness to death’s door grants no gratis virtue
Nor wisdom, so from where have you since thieved
Your shrewdness? – We must go and give it back.
’Sblood, guidance from you? Ha! Why, breed me fungi
And I’ll make Minh imbibe your toadstool tips;
No, no, better he chug a vat of leeches –
Contract a pair of eye worms – nay, he best
Unpackage his arms with a boxcutter and drain;
He would as well kill himself!

Now he’s poisoned,
Before his brain has tested its own sinews,
Before he’s chanced to step near Thought’s vast shadow
And found out what almighty wit is buried
Below his mind’s deep bosom, which could thrash
Your barren, dull, and lazy, and repetitive,
And foolish, fucking bloodsucking, pathetic,
Selfish – your lonely little shitfuck humour.
Toward their shadow’s pit the young embark
Blood hot for god’s pocketed, most unknown
Purse which enriches one with life’s lores – reasons
To move past suicide, – but he’ll have none!
Death thanks your solipsism, craving esteem.
Now he’ll lay beached,
The skullshucked victim of your void advice,
His brain an oyster sipped up by your hubris,
And Thought’s full stormclouds flee his skull’s dumb flue:
He’s thirty, in a fume thick car, gurgling, Fuck you.

James Lucas exists. Tomorrow he will die. He thinks this a dubious proposition, for he is still alive. He’ll get back to you with the details, soon. In the meantime he writes about this Getting Back and about How soon really is Soon? The thisness of it all concerns him. He has seen importance in the hooha. He likes objects, but objects seldom like him. He likes subjects, especially disagreeable ones. He is not to be trusted with verbs. Never. Mood swings follow. He spends his time in the dungeon of sentences. Is also studying scribbling and naptime at QUT.