Shapeless Hat and Lumber Jack sprang to the child’s mind whenever he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Shapeless Hat was a friendly walking around the town man who smiled and wore one. He did nothing that could be described as his job — he just was there, walking around, and, on sunny days, on buses. He had no conversation with people so everyone knew him and liked him and called him happy old thing. He was who this child called Smaff wanted to be, and if not him, then Lumber Jack had big appeal. Though the task of chopping wood for the home front hearth bored him to fury, the squared off shoulders and hair everywhere body of Lumber Jack excited Smaff and made him want to be him. Lumber Jack lived in a thin book.
Growing up and dreaming of who to be was nice and made people smile, because they thought it sweet to have such daft desires and knew that when the time came, Smaff, like everyone else, would have to stop thinking in dreams of who he wanted to be and accept the flat fact that he already was he, and the only question really was what he was going to be able to do about that. I wonder what, I wonder who, I wonder when — yes, most of all when was what avid relatives, fond parents and jealous loving friends asked themselves and each other of him.
Despite careful watching, hopeful waiting plus protein feeding, Smaff flew through childhood without a flicker of prodigy, not a glimmer of genius. Not a thing. And teenage years were gone without winning a race, saving a life or topping the class. For Smaff was saving up for the day when he would be what he was going to be. Heart now was set on Lumber Jack whose shoulders had sprouted and squared to wonderful proportions while Smaff doodled his days away through laughable lessons in things he just knew Lumber Jack would never need. The airless home life, foods smells and shapes and sounds of irritation were more thought fodder for the list of things Lumber Jack would be getting well away from when he started cutting wood. This was definite now, for Shapeless Hat he’d left behind when a close up look had shook him to the core as he saw that the twilight ramblings and early morning ambles of the old man were rubbish tin raids. Trees and all that Canadian thing became the one and only place to go and be you know who — not named now because aunts laughed and uncles roared at the very thought of the whole idea where did he get it from and wasn’t he a one, a one.
All right. Dad, I’ll tell you. I want to be a lumberjack.
Son this is serious.
I am. I know it is. Canada’s a long way away. Check shirts and tin mugs for my birthdays and Christmases were considerate but it’s going to take more than that.
Son, tell me. Do you have any real idea of what a lumberjack is. Do you? Do you? Eh?
Oh my God.
And Dad, I want to know what you’re going to do to help me be what I already am, except for the trees. I need to start soon. I need practice. I’d be a good lumberjack Dad, but I’m going to seed sitting here. My body needs to be working. You know that. I’ve seen you reading my books and things. You know how it’s done. Lumberjacks don’t sit around discussing life with their Dads Dad. I feel foolish and a little bit violent. Hairs curling at back of neck, muscles at the ready set to go, Dad. I need to know.
Have you talked to your mother about this at all. I mean does she realise —
Dad, at this stage of my life I don’t have a mother. Earlier, and again later, she features. Don’t be dim Dad. Very soon I won’t have you either. Lumberjacks do not have Mums and Dads and you know it. So will you just help me get there to be it? Dad? Will ya? Yeah? Yah? Will you Dad? Heh? Dad?
The airhostess on the flight away from home to Canada, oh Canada was a dish doll dream delight with whom Smaff tried to fall in love because he liked the ads. a lot but he didn’t, couldn’t and feeling full of glunck food and tinny drinks rattled down the stairs at journey’s end and headed for the woods he loved so well. He knew he loved them well and stood green trees between and waited for it all to happen. Transformation hit me please. I’ve come now all this way it must be here don’t fool around I know it’s here. Come on. Saw, whine, saw and occasional chop of men muscling their way through wood surrounding him. He was in the right place all right, breathe in breathe out. Tsaagh. Haaagh. Crunch of leaves around foot under trees and crisp clean air in ears. Nothing. Trees growing, trees falling and men muscling but Smaff remained Smaff unchanged. Feet planted, knees strong, thighs sprung, stomach tight, shoulders massive and hair everywhere amongst the trees but it didn’t work and Smaff couldn’t understand it.
Stunned and hurt he stumbled from the trees away from the woods and and down the long black road. Plod foot plod. Legs of a lumberjack not to be. Perhaps you had to be born in Canada swaddled in a check shirt from the very start. He felt a failed fool. Father was right. Well fuck that. If what he meant was what do you want to be — a plumber or a plumber, or a bank clerk or a bank clerk, not a mudlark or a hero, a horseman or a shearer, then why didn’t he say so. All of them. Creeps collectively. Dear child we only wanted to hear what you thought you wanted to be so we could smile indulgently at the innocence of ignorance with our legs jammed firmly in the mud and think you’ll be here soon enough.
Plod leg left leg right plod on. Oh dish doll dream delight where are you now, why didn’t I, oh shit, oh misery, as down the groaning road I go with load of life and hanging clouds around my useless shoulders smouldering on. He walked. Straight down the winding road and hitched a ride with the most bloody boring truck driver ever born just driving round American roads thinking he was king shit and annoying now to Smaff because bore or not he was secure and safe and monied sitting locked in there behind the wheel of his big Mack. Smack in the mouth was what friend Smaff would’ve loved to have delivered smug shit of a boring truck driver but burrowed down instead into the collar of his lumber jacket and tried to close his eyes and be miserable alone and think it out. No such luck of course as talk yak talk in accent thick as his wrist this driver talked and bored the boy about his boring wife and boring kids and boring boring self till Smaff became allergic to the very names of Donna, Debbie, Troy and Luke and felt quite sick in future days if anyone revealed to him their name was one of these.
For Smaff we see continues on not dead of boredom or depress but coming up again and thinking hard and thinking all right world if you don’t want for me to be a lumberjack fuck you I’ll be some other bloody thing or else. See if I don’t. See if I won’t just look around, now, town to town around the continent I’m in will do for starters, yeah, America let’s have a look and see.
Worked round he did as you name it he’s done it. Every state ‘cept Illinois he’s saving that till last. Fancies himself in Chicago where he’ll make it rich as you can think. Think in comparison that is to bits of money here and there he’s made along the daily way of wages low for earthy miners, wages high on Texan oil rigs freezing arse off in the gulching gulping Gulf of heigh ho Mexico, and wages medium for tedium of bouncer at the all night all go boring little New York imitation no doze discotheque in Maine.
There Peggy Sues live on with glitter now and chances high for love come by each night, all night every night in tight arsed cunt revealing hard on causing skin tight tights and christ I’ll come before I ever get to speak to her if I don’t watch myself, oh shit, she’s so delicious — how can she be really really real, oh shit she’s so delicious how can I? I’ll die if I don’t get to her to get her fall for me the way I have for her. Could she be mine? She’s mine. Tonight, all night she’s really truly fuck oh man she’s mine. Oh love don’t disappear don’t go in morning air be here. She’s here. She’s here. Still here. Oh hell I’ve had enough, go home. Well yes another night, some other night, smother night O.K. I’ll see you soon oh big balloon of water burst all over her and carry her away. What’s wrong with me all up in flames then down and out and nothing more to say except you bore me now and sorry girl I really am it seems so odd and definitely queer that things I thought so beaut and cute to start with now just make me want to chuck. Goodbye. The last word was the only one he out loud said to Peggy Sues. Nerve failing him he swerved the rest and kept them to himself.
Chicago flopped and Smaff gave up and homesick now returned to say Missouri Mum not Mississippi, now . . . are you not listening at all? Look Mum and Dad I can’t believe I’ve just come home and you don’t care can’t even listen to a word I say about the world I’ve seen and where I’ve been. Christ Almighty I did it for you why else would I force feed myself all those shitty experiences if it wasn’t to tell the folks back home — yeah, folks back home, I guess that’s just one of those American expressions I’ve picked up now like down South uptown pick up downtown yeah can’t help myself amazing isn’t it hey Mom hey Pop aren’t you intrigued at all? You’re not? Well fuck you two. Fuck you.
His bedroom door was closed. All day and night and Mum would hesitate outside and think and gnaw a knuckle cook a stew and offer it but no. And Dad would think and brew then grump and thump come out of there I want to talk to you. You can’t just stay in there all day and night and anyway I know you’re up to go to loo and eat, you must. So come out here and sort this out — there’s work around but it’s not going to come and find you here be reasonable son you need a job don’t need to sit and brood, not good for you. And driving me mad and your mother’s tense and I’d appreciate it if you’d buck up and out of there and frankly son enough’s enough you’re giving me the pip and I’ll tell you now if you’re not out of there by time I’ve finished this I’ll just come in. My house after all and who do you think you are holed up in there. Act like a child and I’ll just have to — Dad you take one step inside that door and I’ll knock your bloody head off Got it?
What do you mean?
He’s alive. He spoke to me.
What did he say?
Now dear he must have said something, for you to say he spoke dear.
I’m telling you he’s alive. That’s all.
Well I knew that dear. Cold sausages gone and peanut butter scooped out in the night. Of course he’s alive but what’s he doing in there and what’s he going to do that’s what I want to know what’s he going to do? Well? What?
That’s the stupidest question you’ve ever asked me. Ever.
Oh jesus. No wonder he’s holed up in there. You son’s not as silly as he seems it seems.
I don’t know what you mean but he’s your son too you know.
So what are you going to do about it? Sid? What?
Oh. . .
Two bedroom doors are closed now. Mum’s in her room and Smaff’s in his God’s in his heaven and Dad is lonely all alone with no idiot to talk to except at the pub where plenty tell him what they’d do but none can affect the cold and darkening emptiness of home where no one speaks but everyone’s alive and vying for the peanut butter now as cooking’s stopped and caring’s carked it. The peanut butter’s smooth and no one knows what in the other rooms transpires as sounds like coughs are all each hears but all are totally aware of their own body smells and sighs and signs of age and bumps and lumps and hairs and all are feeling bad in varying degrees of honesty. Dad sleeps on the Converta Couch. Ouch.
The crisis which brought them closer together than ever before only to throw them furthei apart than a smelly fart was the house being about to be burned down to ground and not because son Smaff was smoking in bed or Mum was secretly frying chips or Dad was throwing petrol bombs but some mysterious malfunction of the crossed wires type tossed them tight together on the front lawn, starry night, to watch their — correction, Dad’s — house saved to sit around in drinking. Milo or the fire or feelings of togetherness moved Smaff to say,
I’m going to be a clown.
Dad restrained himself well from comment obvious, looked right in eye and said, You what?
To be a clown. Been practising tricks in there last few weeks and am all right. Juggling down pat and all that I’m on my way.
Adolescent fantasy, in choice phrase of his own was what his father thought, while mother said,
How can you — there’s no circus.
No need. Be one by myself you see. In streets, on beaches, in the town I’ll clown wherever there are people. Pass round the hat and live off that. Hey Mum, hey Dad, no bull, I mean it, your son’s a clown.
Restraining self again Dad hung on tightly saying,
Not staying here, you’re not.
Went off and round the op shops, found a household of like minded people with whom to live and with his op shop derived baggy pants, big shoes, colourful just wonderful short shirt and Al Capone inspired clown turned tie, braces of course and floppy old felt hat felt ready to proceed. Smaff wasn’t to know it and he found out the hard way that the clown bandwagon for that summer was full to overflowing. Each one had his special trick and each one had his hat and round the town, all over town they chased the brown dollar. The town wasn’t big enough for all these clowns and in a year of a world wide surplus some turned to doing nothing, others to fire eating and some to Mum. None of these appealed to Smaff who at the end of the eighteenth day of being funny for almost no money sat on a bench in the park where he and too many others had tried all day to have a good time by giving one.
Sat there until the people went, and watched them walk away with their sidelong glances at him to check what it is a clown does when he’s not trying to make you laugh. Trying to work out what the fuck to do next is what. And not just tomorrow but the long one after. A tough one, and Smaff didn’t really have the heart for it. He was sick and tired of it. Sat there with juggling balls in pocket, empty of money completely hat on head and baggy pants against his legs pressed by the cooling wind. Shivered a bit but didn’t care to move so didn’t as it darkened and faded out the colour from his clothes, and when some-one smiled at him who reminded him very much of Shapeless Hat it took a second after he’d smiled back to realise the first smile came from the same reminder. This scared him half to death.
The other half came later, not much later, in his life, and was inspired by the conviction that there was nothing else he could do — and the height to which he climbed, puffing and panting was related to his determination, when he plummeted, to be exactly what he wanted to be. Oh Smaff. Wrong again, at least to start with. For spotted there while clinging to the cross webbed struts upon the Jacob Bridge the necessary usual kitten catching forces were called in to rescue him. Two of the youngest, lithest, strongest, chosen by the chief to be the braves were ordered to go up. They checked their boots, the shining surfaces ahead and started.
Margot Giblin lives in Hobart and, amongst other things, has been a teacher, cleaner, puppeteer and magician’s assistant.