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Ockham New Zealand Book Awards: A short story by CK Stead

Who will laugh like a loon and who will cry bitter tears at Tuesday night’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards? CK Stead is shortlisted for the fiction prize; we usually give fiction a really wide swerve at the Spinoff, but today we present his short story ‘Marriage Americano’, taken from  his shortlisted book, The Name on the Door is Not Mine.

It was evident that the young couple crossing the crowded park were uncomfortable. It was not merely the sultry heat of August that troubled them, but uncertainty about where they were, and perhaps anxiety about what they were embarking on. They stopped every few yards to look at a piece of paper which the young man held, and then to turn this way and that, looking beyond the square to the streets that bordered it.

‘I’m sure this is wrong,’ Paula said. ‘The Avenue of Rodriguez is over there.’

Peter shrugged irritably. They turned and walked back in the direction they had come and, at a junction, struck off along a new path.

Paula was tall, with a strong, handsome face. There was something fresh and healthy in her appearance and in her movements, suggesting the countryside, not the city.

‘Yes, this is better,’ she said. ‘I’m sure this is right.’

Peter did not argue. He did not trust her sense of direction, but his own had already failed them and he did not want to be wrong a second time. He kept looking at the park benches, hoping to find one unoccupied on which they could rest; but when one with space for them came into view he did not, after all, suggest they stop. There was a black man occupying one corner of it, and his appearance was so depressing Peter preferred to walk on in the heat. The man was ill. He held himself upright with difficulty. His face was drawn and his teeth chattered. In sympathy, Peter was assailed by a feeling of the same lassitude. How he must long to lie down! But where? If he’d had a better place to go he would not have been here in the square. He could not lie on the grass, as you could, for example, in London parks. Even to step on it was forbidden. If he lay down on the seat someone would come and demand he make room. If he lay on the path one of those gum- chewing, baton-twirling cops would take him in. After nightfall, if he could last out the day, he would be tolerated lying in certain doorways and on certain steps. In the meantime he must hold himself upright, shivering, wedged in his corner of the seat.

They were past him now. Dust and paper blew about their feet. Paula had not noticed the black man. She was still turning her head this way and that, as if steering a ship through narrow straits. Peter wanted to tell her what he had seen, but instead he said, ‘If we had to get married, why, for God’s sake, in America?’

‘Look,’ she said. ‘There. Didn’t I tell you?’

They stopped and surveyed the street they had come to. Peter looked again at the piece of paper. ‘That means it’s away down there to the left. It doesn’t look like the right area for a clinic.’

The state laws required a VD test before marriage. They had slept together in five or six different countries across the world, but if they were to make it legal here they must first prove themselves clean.

Ten minutes later they had found the building. They stood for some moments staring at it, then at the newspaper clipping advertising a ‘Blood Test Clinic’, then at one another. They had expected something of soaring steel and glass in which rubber-soled technicians in dazzling white pushed trolleys of stainless instruments through swinging doors. The building they stood before was of grimy brick, looking more than anything like a warehouse. Among the signs around its doors was one that signified the ‘clinic’ was on the second floor.

Paula said, ‘I don’t suppose it can do us any harm.’ They went in and found the stairs.

The clinic, they were told, was run by Dr Swartz, and they were shown at once into his office. He half stood as they came in, supporting himself against his desk and sinking back as they sat down. He smiled, but his eyes were vague, as if he had difficulty focusing on anything.

‘So you’re going to get married,’ he said. ‘That’s a big step. A great big wonderful step.’

Peter was looking about the room. It was in complete dis-order, papers, folders, books, bottles, racks of test-tubes, slides, instruments, towels—everything taken up and dropped at random.

‘You make a fine couple,’ Dr Swartz was saying. ‘It gives me real pleasure to help such a fine young couple. I don’t mind telling you I get some weird ones. I don’t always encourage a marriage. For example, I had a pair in a day or so back. He was six foot three if he was an inch. She came up to about here. About the size of an average ten-year-old. I took her aside. I said, “Have you thought about what you’re doing? You’ve been down on the farm, haven’t you? Seen the horses . . .?”’

Paula had turned her head away and was staring through the open window. Peter was certain she would soon begin to laugh. ‘Couldn’t we get on with it?’ she said.

Dr Swartz took two forms from the top drawer of his desk.

‘First the lady,’ he said. ‘Full name?’

Paula told him.

‘Would you spell them please?’ She spelled them. Each new question on the form Dr Swartz read slowly, articulating every word distinctly, breathing heavily, stopping from time to time to mop his brow with Kleenex tissues which he dropped on the floor.

He also repeated each word of her answers as he wrote them down. Even ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ seemed to present problems of articulation, lengthened out into their separate letters as they were painfully copied on to the form.

When Paula’s form was completed the whole business began again with Peter. Peter had been going to suggest that he might fill in his own form; but he had sunk into a stupor and was now enjoying the comfort even of this uncomfortable chair. He did not wish any longer to hurry.

‘Now begins the clinical bit,’ Dr Swartz said.

He lumbered up from his chair and made his way around the desk to where Peter sat. ‘Remove your jacket please.’

Peter removed it. The doctor unbuttoned a shirt cuff and began to roll the sleeve up Peter’s arm. For a moment he stared at the bare flesh, as if uncertain of what to do with it. Then he turned away to search among the papers on his desk.

‘Here it is,’ he said. He took hold of Peter’s arm with his left hand. In his right he held an old-fashioned blade razor. Paula could see that he intended only to shave a few tufts of hair from where the sample was to be taken; but Peter, seeing the blade brought up close to his arm, had turned white. His mouth was half-open in protest but no sound came from it.

‘Hold on to him, doctor,’ Paula said. ‘I think he might faint.’

Half an hour later, when they were again crossing the square, Peter remembered the black man, and looked for him. He was still there, still alone on his seat, drawn up stiffly into one corner. The moment he relaxes, Peter thought, he’ll fall right down. That will be the end of him.

They were past him before Peter stopped. He felt for his wallet and drew out a single dollar. ‘What are you doing?’ Paula said.

He walked back and held out the note. The black man shook his head slightly, sucked air in through clenched teeth, and looked away. Then he changed his mind. He reached out, took the dollar, and pushed it into his pocket. His eyes, when they met Peter’s, expressed neither gratitude nor resentment. He was past caring. There was nothing in them but despair.

Paula stood watching. She said nothing when Peter returned to her. They continued together along the path. Peter ground his teeth, embarrassed by his own folly. What was a dollar to a dying man? Either you took him in or you left him alone.

Some days later they presented themselves at the courthouse. They were asked to wait in a crowded room in which a single electric fan whirred overhead without seeming to disturb the air. To Peter every face in the room appeared vacant, hopeless. An official came and went, calling names, directing people this way and that.

When their turn came they were shown to a door marked ‘Judge Whittaker’. The official knocked and guided them in, closing the door behind them.

Judge Whittaker, sitting behind his desk, looked up at them. ‘What’s the hurry?’ he shouted.

Neither of them could find a reply.

‘The law of this state says you register and wait three days.’

‘We’ve done that,’ Peter said.

The judge looked down at his papers. ‘You’re Heinz and Dibble?’

They told him they were not.

Donaghy!

It was a moment before Peter recognised that this was a name and not an oath.Donaghy appeared at the door. ‘This is not Heinz and Dibble,’ the judge shouted.

Donaghy muttered apologies and hustled them into another room. ‘Wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back.’

When Donaghy returned he was wearing his jacket and carrying a black book. A typist followed him, and a black porter with a broom.

‘I’m going to marry you now,’ he said. ‘These here are the witnesses.’

They stood side by side, facing him. Peter felt Paula’s shoulder begin to shake. He kept his eyes on Donaghy. Paula covered her face. She was giggling soundlessly.

Donaghy took out a large handkerchief. ‘That’s right, Miss,’ he said. ‘You go right ahead and cry. This is a pretty big moment in a girl’s life.’
She took the handkerchief and plunged her face into it, converting her laughter into plausible sobs.

The ceremony was over and they were heading back to their rented apartment when they found themselves once again on the edge of the square. It was not crowded at this hour, and they went in and sat down on one of the benches. In the intervening days Peter had forgotten about the black man. Now that sick despairing face came back into his mind. He felt the horror of death. He imagined the body naked under a sheet, the face hardened, the eyes open. He imagined it lying unattended in the middle of an empty room, full of light and the reflections of light, silent except for the clanking of trolleys, and the clatter of instruments falling into metal dishes, that echoed now and then from rooms and corridors nearby. He imagined two men in green coats entering the room, taking up the body on its litter and sliding it, head first, into a refrigerated chamber until only the pink soles of the feet, and the big toes tied together with a strip of cloth, were visible. Above and below those feet were other pairs of feet, and on either side of the door which now closed on them were other doors.

As if to save himself from his own fantasy Peter reached out and put his hand on Paula’s knee. She laid her hand over his. He looked at her. She was still close to laughter. ‘That was a pretty big moment in a girl’s life,’ she said.

He smiled. ‘I suppose we’re now legally qualified to commit adultery.’

‘Don’t let’s start at once,’ she said.

He looked across the square at the brilliant skyline of the central city. Above the hum of traffic he recognised the lazy chopping of a helicopter. He searched for it in the hot sky, and caught sight of it for just a moment before it sidled away and disappeared behind a shimmering tower of glass on the edge of the square.

From The Name on the Door is Not Mine by C K Stead (Allen and Unwin, $36.99), a finalist in the fiction category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, held on May 16.