Tuesday, September 29, 2015

One Cannot Bite One’s Own Elbow

Auckland, New Zealand, 1970
We were in the surveyors office upstairs at the depot.
Present were Buck, Arthur, Ivan and myself.
We’d gone there to get away from the crowded tearoom and have our lunch in peace. Arthur was sitting in a office chair against the wall. Ivan and I stood, looking out the large windows at the traffic going by on Northcote Road. Buck sat in another chair, his busted old legs tucked up for comfort.
Ivan reached back for his hip flask. 
“Do not come to Tula with your own samovar, my friend,” he said with a knowing nod of his head. He took a good pull from his hip flask. I could smell the rum, sweet and heady.
“Yes. It’s a sad business when someone goes crazy,” said Arthur, almost with sympathy. “Unless it happens to a blasted jumped-up-never-come-down so-and-so like Ben.” Arthur, who was justly proud of his profanity, cursed Ben for another five minutes. 
Sympathy wasn’t Arthur’s strong suit, not by a long shot.  
“They don’t speak of ropes in the home of the hanged person,” said Ivan as he stared out the window, a gloomy expression passing over his face.
We had been talking about Ben. Ben had gone a little crazy working in the heat and dust of the worksite at Tristram Ave that summer. He had taken to wearing a helmet of tinfoil upon his head and he constantly jabbered about deadly cosmic rays. He hid in his shack at the worksite and wouldn’t come out. And other kooky stuff. 
He hadn’t shaved or cut his hair for months either. 
He had stopped bathing too, and by now he smelled pretty bad.
And by pretty bad I mean extremely bad. 
Pat, the depot foreman, had set up a pool wagering when Ben would bathe. Pat had bet big money that Ben would bathe by the 20th.
The odds said he wouldn’t.
Today was the 14th.
Buck pondered a moment, his brow furrowed. Then he spoke up. “By Thunder! Take a drum of kerosene up there, eh, Rusty boy? Arthur? What do you think? Bloody give him a bleedin’ kerosene bath, we will! We’d soon have him put right, by the gods!” 
Ivan shrugged and said, “For each wise man there are plenty of fools.” 
“Yeah, sure,” answered Buck. “But have you smelt him mate?”
Arthur pursed his lips and closed his eyes, apparently thinking. He looked somewhat like a toad in this pose. It was something to do with his closed eyes and the set of his jaw as well as the obvious color comparison to a shiny, green amphibian. 
Right then, it would not have surprised me to see his tongue dart out and snatch a fly from Buck’s forearm, eight feet away. 
Without moving his head, Arthur opened his eyes to look sideways at Buck and said, “He has to do it of his own free will, dumb-ass, or the bloody bet is null and void.”
Arthur sighed heavily and closed his eyes, the pain of both educating and insulting his conversational foes almost too much for him to bear. “Null and void, mate,” he repeated. “Uncle Pat wouldn’t like that, now would he?” 
I noticed he managed to expand the insult and include me, as I was the only one in the room who could possibly lay claim to being a nephew of ‘Uncle’ Pat. (Pat, the depot foreman, really was my wife’s uncle.) That was only fair, I suppose, since he’d already insulted everyone else in the room. He’d insulted Ivan earlier, calling him a “toothless drunken old Cossack bastard” and was now well on the way to finishing with “dumb-ass, broken old Buck.” 
It was only natural that I’d be next. 
“I wouldn’t let Pat hear you talk like that, mate, if I was you,” I said.
“Well, you ain’t me,” replied Arthur. 
Thank goodness for that, I thought to myself.
“I don’t give a crap what Pat likes,” said Buck. “He’s not my uncle, mate.” Buck thought for a minute, then said, “Dumb-asses, huh? Hell Arthur! You’d need twice the bleedin’ brains to be a bloody halfwit, you back-scuttling frog-eyed son of a sea-hag!”
“Your elbow is close, yet you cannot bite it,” said Ivan to no one in particular.     
Buck and Arthur continued to argue and squabble. Insulting each other was something they usually did when they were together. They drew the worst from each other, mostly, like a bitter, long-feuding married pair, knowing just what buttons to push for maximum effect. I was too young to understand such bitterness expressed so openly and sometimes it hurt my heart to hear them insult each other like they did. I liked Buck, and hated to see Arthur disrespect him like he did.
Arthur was more difficult to like. In truth he was a violent man with a short temper, who wasn’t afraid to use his fists to make a point. More than once he’d given me a cuff on the ear when he was my gang boss and I hadn’t jumped quick enough to suit him. But the men respected him and he was friendly when he wanted to be.  
Sometimes his bickering with Buck could be quite ferocious, much worse than today. It depended on Arthur’s mood. When he felt like it he could be witty and light and keep the insults funny, where even the insulted had to laugh and tip his hat. 
Other times he was downright nasty and brutal, spoiling for a fight. 
Buck didn’t take it personally, so he said. He could sense, as he told me in a private moment, that Arthur was really insulting himself. 
“What have I ever done to him, mate?” he’d asked me rhetorically. 
I shrugged my shoulders. 
“Nothing,” he answered himself. “That’s what!”
“Besides, Rusty lad,” added Buck. “I’m not here to be laughed at, chaffed at, or slung shit at!”
We’d laughed together, then Buck had turned serious and reminded me, “Watch out, lad. He’s a mean one.” 
So today we sat in the office and made wisecracks about Ben being crazy and Pat maybe losing the bet and the new driver who’d showed up and on his first day driven one of the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers off it’s tread and over the embankment when he was trying to grease it.
“What an idiot!” laughed Arthur, cursing viciously. “My old mother could drive a D-9 better than that!”
“Of that I’m sure!” agreed Buck. “If you ever had a mother!”
“It’s not gods who make pots,” interjected Ivan. He reached back for his hip flask, bringing it out with a flourish. He unscrewed the cap, lifted the flask to his lips and tilting back his head drained it off with a few giant gulps. I watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drank. When he’d finished, he wiped his mouth with his hand and sighed with satisfaction.
“It’s not gods who make pots,” repeated Arthur reflectively. “You got that bloody right, mate.”
We all laughed, including Arthur. 
It wasn’t every day that Arthur agreed with anyone about anything.

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