She comes in every Friday afternoon. That’s the day when the bus stops four houses from her door. That’s the day her pension comes through. But that’s also the day her back hurts more than usual and bills arrive in her letterbox.
More often than not I’m alphabetizing when she pushes through the doors and rolls her trolley toward the counter. I’ll be sorting the E section. The titles are always jammed tight. The top shelf kinks upward so that the dvds mash together like hollow plastic sardines in a buckled tin, clasping together in a contracted embrace, the EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS and THE ENGLISH PATIENTs. They wait for me. They know I’ll push that little bit too hard, that I’ll try and make room for another title where there is none. Then, in the final inches, they’ll revolt, and topple out onto the floor in a noisy jumble of genre.
The store is buzzing comfortably as Werewolves of London tinkles and wails out of the P.A and overhead, the failing fluorescents ping softly and flicker intermittently. A faced-out cover of 8 MILE trembles slightly as I breach a narrow confine and Marshall Mathers gives me a dull look and in my head I hear him say, I’m gonna jump out at chu muthafucker, just keep pushing and me and tha Elephant Man, we gonna leap right off this muthafuckin shelf Homey.
I square up and apply more pressure, staring right back at him.
At least I’ll be leaving this store tastefully. Going home to some imported beers and maybe a few re-runs of Upstairs Downstairs. You my milky friend, will no doubt end up in a commission flat covered in bong water and cat piss.
I’ve nearly got the dvd in flush when Warren Zevon is cut short mid howl and the P.A shrieks throughout the store.
Dvd assistance to the counter please! Alex to the counter!
I leave the copy of EASY VIRTUE sticking out like an ironic failure and slowly make my way to the counter.
There she is, stretching tall on her toes trying to see over the counter, like a overweight Pomeranian straining for a cutlet on the dinner table. The lips of her cobalt nanny trolley grin at me like a vinyl crocodile.
Hi Hazel, how are you?
Oh Alex, rotten love, just rotten, she replies with a dismal frown.
I take a breath, buying time to design a thoughtful response and curve my eyebrows to form an arch of concern.
You know my brother who lives with me?
(I certainly know OF him)
Yeah, I reply softly.
He’s had another bad spell, that’s why I’m here, I missed the first bus because that fuc-, sorry love, the bloody bus driver came early and I know he saw me racing to get to the stop, she takes a quick breath and relocates the wrinkles on her forehead to reshape fresh grooves of misery.
But I’m old love, and I can’t run because of the gout in my toes. She adds through wobbling lips.
Anyway, we were watching We Were Soldiers with Mel Gibson last night and you know my son Terry?
(About as well as I know your brother)
Yep. I pop, between gritting teeth.
Oh god love, he’s back on heroin again, it’s a nightmare, I’ve been walking around on eggshells in my own bloody house… you know how he gets when he’s been using that stuff?
(I’ve got no idea, but I assume it’s not a good time)
Oh dear, I whisper.
I don’t mind when he’s on the marijuana because he just watches Tele and plays computer games, she takes another breath.
Anyway, Terry knows how to do that thing on the video, unlocking the extra sections and what-have- you, and we watched this interview with the actual soldier from the real battle…the one in the movie.
Oh yeah, I nod, envisioning a silver haired Colonel from the U.S Army dressed to the neck in an olive green uniform and gleaming with purple hearts, silvers stars and distinguished service crosses giving a 71 year old women, her junkie son and disabled brother a detailed debrief concerning the Vietcong’s weakened defenses whilst sipping from an RSL mug half-full of blend 43.
But I want to get the dvd for my brother, there’s not much that makes him happy, but he likes this.
Well I can get a copy for you, no problem, I smile down at her.
Oh thanks love, how have you been?
I had the flu last week– I begin.
Oh dear, it wasn’t the 100 day cough was it? She leans forward like a bird over a worm.
Because my neighbour Marie, she’s Greek (by the way) and she got the 100 day cough from her sister’s granddaughter…and she died, Hazel’s lips purse and her eyebrows lift to an unnatural height on her forehead.
The granddaughter, she pauses.
Which reminds me, that’s another reason I’ve come in today.
I swallow heavily and glance across at two teenagers attempting to pull the security tag out of a Snoop Dogg tour dvd.
I watched this other interview with Dick Van Dyke. She pauses again, this time to smile airily.
He’s 85, she adds. But he’s always had a childlike face, not a face like a child, just that innocent look, you know?
Was he the dancing fellow in Mary Poppins, I ask, still watching the young thieves who had given up on the dvd and were now drawing a misshapen dick on Robbie Williams’ forehead with a thick black felt-tip.
Yes! She beams. I’d like a copy of Mary Poppins for my sister, but in this interview with Dick Van Dyke…
I visualize an 85-year-old Dick Van Dyke dancing awkwardly in low slung trousers on a town hall podium whilst Hazel yells You’re not doing it the right way, be more childlike!
The two budding criminals bounce past us, displaying an affinity to social judgment by walking like stoned meerkats.
Have you got Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Hazel bleats up at me. You know the one where they’re covered in muck one second, then in the next second they’re dry and clean– she breaks off then adds, If only my bloody life was like that–
Is that the scene when they’re on that tractor-like machine? I ask, still watching the teenagers.
Yes! She smiles broadly. And Dicky’s wearing the cheekiest grin.
I cough faintly, having trouble watching her cracked lips pronounce the word Dicky and look down the store at the two troublemakers as they argue with the guard at the door while the security poles sound their warning and flash dull circles of orange light.
Yeah, I think we’ve got a copy of that too, I say, turning back to Hazel and smiling unenthusiastically.
Pop it on hold for me will you darling, I’ll buy it next pension day.
Sure thing, I reply with knowing nod.
You know that was the very same movie I was watching when I found out about my breast cancer, she says with a wobbly voice.
Ah Fuck, I murmur under my breath.
What darling? She suddenly chirps, leaning forward, one eyebrow heading back up into no mans.
I clear my throat behind my hand and reply, that’s bad luck Hazel, that’s real bad luck.
Oh god darling don’t’ get me started on all the friggin bad luck I’ve had in my life, she snarls as the wayward eyebrow comes back around to meet its other in a bristly mesh of distress.
(I won’t goddamn it! I will not get you started so help me god! Fuck, fuck, fuck)
Yeah, it sounds like you’ve had a rough time lately Hazel, I sigh and try to prop up the corners of my mouth sympathetically.
Lately! She screeches and thrusts a tightly clenched fist in front of my nose.
I shuffle back just a little, trying to maintain some stability. If you give this woman an inch, she’ll grab it, pull like buggery and yank out a generous mile.
My first husband left me when he found out I was pregnant, she growls, and a wrinkled forefinger springs out of the fist.
That baby died after 3 weeks in an incubator, she rumbles leaning further forward. A second finger leaps up to join the first.
Oh no, I croak, as my eyes look down to the angry red pinch of scar tissue on her chest, winking menacingly at me from behind the yawning neck of her dress.
My second husband- and what a prick he was! A trio of fingers shake in front of my face. He left me after Terry was born, she pauses and looks up to the fluros to calculate. Not even two months old he was. No wonder he’s such a troubled kid. No Father, no bloody guidance…drugs are an evil, evil affliction… Her voice trails off slightly and her eyes glaze under the artificial light.
Warren winds up the last track and there’s a brief pause before the latest Katy Perry album spews a thick sticky haze of bubblegum vomit throughout the store.
My sister stopped talking to me after the Celtic Thunder Concert, she continues, still looking to the ceiling. I look at the four fingers in my face, then to her other hand and will it to stay down.
My brothers been living with me for 31 years…
It goes on like this for some time. But after a bleeding of tragic tales and five more fingers Hazel settles on an even number.
This happens every Friday, without fail. Now and then she’ll buy a Daniel O’Donnell cd or the latest Andre Rieu concert, but she’ll usually leave with what she came with; a trolley half filled with sale items from Big W. Discounted footbaths, hot water bottles and fat Danielle Steele novels, crammed with nonsensical dramatic plotlines, dry rooting and bullshit.
She comes. She rumbles and thunders. Then she leaves the store, looking lighter than when she came in. Sometimes I check the spot where she’s been standing, thinking I might find a giant steaming syntactical turd, tightly clustered with nuggets of bitterness and abjection. I’ll stare blankly at the small area near the counter where she spat, frothed and fumed and wonder if it’s the same look psychiatrists give their couches after a patient has left the room.
I take a few moments to compose myself, trying unsuccessfully to make just a strand of sense from Hazel’s aggressive, spasmodic broadcasting. The counter staff giggle at me from behind their pre-loved issues of Smash Hits, snapping gum between their teeth.
Hey, did you guys hear? Justin Bieber died last night? I pronounce matter-of-factly. The giggling and snapping ceases abruptly and their made-up faces crumple like iced donuts in a meat-press. Yeah, he got hit by a FedEx truck, he’s dead… Just heard it on the radio.
I walk back to the unsorted dvds. EASY VIRTUE is where I left it, sticking out like one of Hazel’s stout, angry fingers. Settling back into my unfinished business, I gently apply pressure to the spine of the dvd, eying Eminem and The Elephant Man as they start to tremble threateningly.
Katy’s cut short mid-squeal and the P.A shouts some fresh demands through the aisles of packaged entertainment like a spoiled kid on a sugar bender.
Alex to the counter…Alex, your ass-is-tance is required at the counter.
The announcement ends with faint huffs of laughter and I peer over the aisles to indentify whom, or what is awaiting me at the counter.
She’s back! Her mothballed linen dress sprayed in brown, scabrous strokes over a blotched beige background. From this distance she could easily be mistaken for wearing a tailored bed sheet fashioned with elongated shit stains.
Goddammit Hazel! I screech, a little too loudly and stepping back in distress, I bump the protruding dvd with my shoulder. An avalanche of movies spring impressively from the shelf and clatters on the polished concrete floor, scattering EASTERN PROMISES’, EQUUS’ and EXCALIBURs in every direction.
Atop the shallow pile of movies settling at my feet, a copy of 8 MILE shines up at me, the cellophane coated cover warping in the fluorescent lights. The face on the cover is wearing a distorted grin under the glowing refraction. Once again I hear that boorish, nasal-plugged voice in my head.
Yo, you need to get yo-self a new line-o-work Muthafucka, you feel me?
I look to the counter again, taking in Hazel’s mess of greasy ash-coloured hair, her poo-toned dress and the bitter frown creasing her forehead.
I feel you bitch.