The three men went into the pub. They’d been on a driving range in Petone. Steve had watched Al and Glen practice their drives. It was late in the day and a lot of other men were practising. There were balls everywhere as if there’d been a storm of yellow hail. A man in an armoured buggy was collecting the balls. The buggy’s nose was shaped like an old style lawn-mower, but instead of behaving like a mower — working round and round or side to side — it was tearing all over the place — past the spindly pines — out to the fringe of the range — through the boggy area towards the golfers. Steve was concerned about the armour. What if there was a chink and a ball got through?
At the pub they sat near a wide-screen television. There was a rugby game on. Al, who was the shortest of the three and stocky, had drunk over a hundred pints of Guinness at the pub. Around the time he finished his hundredth pint, management changed the way they ran the pint-club. Now you needed to drink two hundred pints.
‘That’s why Al’s name isn’t on the wall with the other men,’ said Glen. He’d been polishing his glasses. First he’d done the lenses, then each arm, and now he blew into the hinges that joined them to the frame. Al didn’t say anything. He was watching the rugby. Glen held up the glasses and tipped them so they caught the light.
Steve felt he should say something. At the driving range he’d said, ‘Good shot,’ and, ‘you got hold of that one!’ But since then he hadn’t said a thing. It was the first time he’d met Al. After the pub he and Glen were going to watch a rugby test at his flat. ‘Do you ever come to this place on a Friday or Saturday night?’ he said, looking at Al.
Al was coughing and blowing his nose. He was looking over the napkin at Glen. After they’d picked Al up and on the way to the range Al had sneezed over and over again. Glen had asked if it was swine flu. ‘Shit no,‘ said Al, ‘that lays you up for a couple of weeks.’ Then he’d tilted his head back and sneezed again.
Al finished wiping his nose with the napkin and rolled it into a wet looking ball. ‘I like Guinness,’ he said, holding up his beer and pointing it at Glen. ‘I like the taste of it. Why the hell would I care if I’m not on the wall?’ Al had a loud voice.
A woman at the bar turned around. She was wearing an All Black jersey.
Glen smiled into the bottom of his empty glass and then stood up. ‘Another one?’ He put the tip of his finger on the rim of Steve’s glass.
Steve and Glen had been drinking in the city the night before. Steve had a bad hangover. He knew he shouldn’t have more beer, but the first one had made him less anxious. He nodded and shifted his empty glass. He’d left last night without telling Glen and when he got home he’d sat in bed with his laptop and watched another romantic comedy. What he would have liked from Al was a story about a man who’d come into the pub one night and met a woman who looked and smelt like she’d been on a shampoo ad.
‘Why the fuck would Tasman and Canterbury wear strips that are so similar?’ barked Al, staring at the television.
It was dark when they walked to Glen’s car. On the main road there were lots of neon signs on different shops and restaurants. The unlit spaces, where there was an alleyway or a bush, looked black and deep like someone had been punching holes in the place.
Glen and Steve had decided on a takeaway dinner from the Roast Canteen, but Glen was having difficulty finding a park.
‘Just park in KFC for Christ’s sake,’ Al said.
Glen went around a roundabout and pulled into KFC. Then he started in on a story about how when he’d stayed at Al’s place, when he first arrived in Wellington, Al always bought a burger that contained two chicken fillets, bacon, and extra mayonnaise. When Glen mentioned the mayonnaise a second time, how it was like a white tongue out the side of the burger, Al shouted, ‘Is this Mastermind or something? Who remembers this sort of shit?’
Steve and Glen left Al in the car and went towards the shop. Al had said he wasn’t hungry and that he’d wait. Then Steve had heard Al blow his nose, even though, as they’d left the pub, Al had asked Glen if there were any tissues in the car.
Across from KFC there was a petrol station and above that a sickle of moon. Steve stopped to look. He thought it would be good to see when you were on a beach or in the mountains. There was something about the part under shadow — it was just the thing to make a woman come closer.
‘Oi!’ shouted Glen, holding the door to the Roast Canteen open. ‘C’mon!’ Glen got pork and Steve got lamb. They waited in front of two drinks fridges for their orders to be filled. An Asian woman called out an order and a huge man who’d been sitting at the front of the shop got up. He had a tattoo on his neck and his shorts were like two Kleen-Saks stitched together. He walked out of the shop with a plastic bag filled with polystyrene containers.
‘He’s the sort of man the All Blacks need tonight,’ said Glen, gesturing at the door. ‘Someone with a bit of mongrel.’
Steve nodded. The fridges were buzzing and the tube lighting on the ceiling was bright.
At a table a man and woman were waiting. The man was leaning back in his seat and spinning an empty can. Each time it went around a little more liquid dribbled onto the table. The woman was going through the pages of a magazine like she was angry at something.
‘See?’ said Glen, ‘that’s what a relationship does to you.’
Steve had known Glen since university. The previous night, once they were pissed, Steve told Glen about the trouble he was having with his ex. Glen had listened for a while then when Steve went quiet he’d said, ‘You know what you need mate? Sambuca!’
Steve shifted from one foot to the other and patted at the corner of his mouth like there was lint there. Earlier in the week, on the bus home from work, something had happened to his breathing. It had started as a sensation around his mouth like something electrical was being held there. He’d looked around, wondering if anyone else had noticed. It was raining and the bus was attached to the wires, but none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. His chest was shifting slightly and his stomach was going in and out. He put one of his hands over his heart and the other over his belly like he was blocking an attack. His breathing got shorter and shorter. The tingling spread back to his ears. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be bringing air in or taking air out. He pressed the button to stop the bus and went through the other passengers like they were bamboo. Excuse me, someone said. Outside he sat on a bench and counted the roofs of the houses. He watched a seagull land and take off. Whatever it was had passed.
‘They deep fry the potatoes, but the rest is fairly healthy,’ said Glen, nodding at the food.
A man was at one end of the counter carving the different joints of meat. Next to him a woman was filling steel trays with potatoes and kumara. The peas and carrots were kept warm in trays of hot water and a woman, who also took orders, stirred the special gravy. The man started with your choice of meat and by the time the polystyrene container reached the gravy-lady it was full.
Steve had the bag of food in his lap. He was looking in the rear vision mirror as Glen reversed out of the car park. Al was in the back corner with his pale face near the window. Steve was worried something would happen to his breathing while he was at Al’s flat. It was Glen’s car and he’d have to wait until Glen was ready before he could leave. If it gets bad, he thought, I’ll go into Al’s toilet and pretend to throw up. Then I’ll tell Glen and ask if he can get me home. But Glen would want to watch the All Blacks. He’d talked non-stop about the forward pack the night before. Maybe he’d refuse to help.
When they stopped at a red light Al said he wanted beer.
‘Haven’t you got a cold?’ said Glen.
‘So?’ said Al. ‘Are you my mother now?’
‘Well I can’t drink,’ said Glen. ‘I have to drive. Are you going to drink?’ Glen looked at Steve. With his long face and the way his head was turned he looked like a wolf. Before Steve could answer, Glen wound both the back windows down using the control panel on the driver’s arm-rest.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ bellowed Al.
The liquor store was a drive-thru. There were long orange poles holding a high roof. Lots of cars were parked and people kept going in and out. Steve was waiting in the car. He could see Al and Glen standing in front of a pyramid of beer boxes. Two women came out of the store. The first was wearing a white cardigan and had shimmering earrings. The box of alcohol she was carrying clinked. The woman beside her was jagged looking with prominent bones in her face. The first woman, heavier and set low like a tractor tyre sunk into the ground, was looking straight at Steve. She came closer. She was swaying. There was a glistening ring through her wide nose. He looked at the bag in his lap and then glanced back. She blinked slowly and put the box on the ground. He imagined them dragging him out of the car and, like in the cartoons, walloping him on top of the head so that his feet disappeared into the concrete. But nothing happened. They’d put their alcohol down to light cigarettes.
Glen and Al appeared. They were each carrying a box of beer. Al was laughing and he’d tilted his box and was ripping at its back end. They got into the car. ‘Al said that if we want to get pissed we can sleep at his place.‘
‘Oh, I don’t know…’ said Steve.
‘Remember mate,‘ interrupted Glen. ‘You owe me one after taking off last night.’ They were at the exit to the liquor store. They needed to cross the busy main road to get to the street Al lived on. Steve bunched and un-bunched his hands. It was one car after another. Glen edged forward. Steve could hear the beer in the neck of the bottle Al was drinking. A car indicated and pulled around them. There were three men inside. The man in the passenger seat stared at Steve.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ said Glen, edging the car further onto the road.
But the cars were endless: paced one after the other like each one was attached to the spokes of a wheel buried in the earth’s core. Meanwhile, up in the dark of Al’s flat, surrounded by huge couches, the orange stand-by button on Al’s new flat-screen television blinked softly off and on.