FEEDING THE EEL

I’m like a fuckin eel. People laugh when I tell them that, but I mean it—dead-set. You ever go down to the botangs and see them there? You might have tried to, but they hide good. You know they’re there, in the muck, but they only come out if you chuck in the bread.

That’s because they aren’t dumb. They’re patient. They might be slimy, but those bastards know how to wait, and they always get fed when they need it.

I came up on the street, my head spinning and my throat dripping like a grease trap. My mind fixed sharply on the orange sign up ahead:

BAKERY. 

That’s all it said. No names. No title. It was what it was. Just that. A bakery.

It used to have a cartoon chef pressed into the glass from when it was a pizza joint in the 80s, but that had long faded. In fact, the whole place was so run down that you might think it was closed—but it wasn’t.

There was just one old man who worked in there. When I lived on the street, I used to see him pulling out the chairs in the morning from across the road. I used to watch him drag them in every evening. I used to watch him count the cash on a small plastic stool, the door hanging open while he chuffed on his cigar.

I don’t live here anymore. The rent’s gone up, they sold the place to Chinese developers and I got booted out. Now I was only here to visit. 

I was only here to get fed.

I sucked in a breath through my nose, pulled the balaclava down, and housed my weapon on my belt so that if I slipped open my jacket, he’d know just how fucked he was.

As I came to the door, I didn’t flinch. I brushed the leaves from my step. Ignored the cars screeching by. Nearby some kids were riding bikes on the footpath with ice creams in hand. 

Yeh. It was hot. The clouds slipped from the sun and it just got hotter. I was feeling it under my woolen balaclava. My sweat stunk of gear, and it was all I could smell now. Didn’t anticipate that. Didn’t matter. I stepped in, and saw him sitting there.

The place was all wood and metal, no trace of electronics. The walls were chipped paint. Once it was a mural, a Greek scene, a brightly colored painting of a port. Now it was all horseshit. Now it was all falling to bits.

We’re closed, big fella. He waved his hand.

I slid the door shut behind me, the bell clanged and I slipped the bolt in.

We’re closed, he said.

I looked at him through the cigar smoke, he was looking older than I remember. His eyes milkier. His face craggier, like sunburnt leather. 

Where’s the money?

The what?

Where’s the money?

I can’t hear you, you’ll have to speak up.

I ripped the balaclava off.

Behind me I heard something go SPLAT against the glass. I turned and saw a small chocolate-smeared hand batting against it.

HEY! You closed, or what? It was a young voice.

I cleared my throat.

We’re closed. Door’s locked.

No, it’s not.

You blind?!

Why you closed, but? It’s too early.

I kept my hand over my nose and kicked at the glass.

Fuck off home, kid, we’re closed I said!

The old man stood up, brushing off his apron and ashing the cigar in the crook of the old empty till.

Peter, go home to your mum. We don’t have lollies left for you. Go home, mate.

I held my hand up to his swollen chest to prevent him from getting closer. 

For a moment it was silent, and I could hear the radio. Through the crackle of the bad reception, two men were arguing in Greek.

I looked at him.

The old man was at least two feet shorter than me. We both waited until the kids jumped back on their bikes and left, and then when they were gone I cleared my throat again.

Thanks...

I pulled out my weapon and levelled it between his eyes.

Where’s the money?

He laughed.

Why you gunna rob me, big fella? What you think I got that a bank don’t got for ya? Or a grog shop? Ey? Whadda you thinking?

Sit down. I commanded him.

He came back to the stool but didn’t sit, he peered into the glass, inspecting what goods were left behind the counter and rubbed his large belly, circling flour around and around.

You didn’t answer the question.

I coughed. Whatever was going on in my throat was getting worse, like it was tightening up.

I rob a 7/11 or a bank and I’ll never walk out of there. They got wireless camera security. They got silent alarms. They got cunts with phone cameras and now there’s cops on every street. I’m not dumb. I don’t need much. I just need to get fed. Now where’s the fuckin money?

He laughed.

Stop laughing. Where is it?

I’ve got bad news big fella…

He pointed down at the empty till.

I shook my head. 

Do I look dumb, or what?

He laughed again and came behind the counter and I held the gun up a little closer. Before I knew it he was already standing back there, bunching up the cracked bread rolls and brushing bees off the wrinkled donuts.

Now on the radio an old Greek folk song had started playing. I knew the kind well. It would start off slow, but it was going to get faster and faster, before I knew it this was gunna be impossible. The gear in my blood would make it impossible to think straight.

I had to hurry.

What’s the bad news? I asked.

My daughter was just here. She handles the banking on Sundays. She helps me out, to get the money to the bank. I’m afraid there’s nothing left for you here.

Bullshit.

Har, har. I’m afraid it’s not your lucky day.

Enough. I shot over the counter. Seizing up the man by his collar so hard that my balaclava came off and slid down the glass, the flour seized up like a cloud and I couldn’t help but cough.

My lungs. Whatever misery was in my throat had snaked its way down into my lungs.

QUICK—my head was live with the sound of my voice—HURRY THE FUCK UP.

Stop fucking around!

He just laughed again, his hands becoming busy.

Let me make you a sandwich.

I don’t want a sandwich.

You hungry? I’ll make you a cheese roll. Like you used to get.

I froze.

His milky eyes met mine.

Oh yes. I remember all my customers, big fella. Salami, hommus, capsicum, tasty cheese. I remember how you liked it.

I felt my adrenalin tugging at the corner of my attention, like clawed hands ripping at a table cloth, trying to pull everything awry.

Hurt him. That’s what my blood wanted. To hurt him.

He laughed. The folk music picked up to a new pace. I could tell he could read my mind. For all I knew I was mumbling it all out loud.

You don’t want to hurt me. You are only here because you hungry? Eh? You aren’t trying to get rich, so let me help you.

As though it could hear him, my stomach churned.

Ohh, I know you want to eat it one more time, he said. Allow me this! Then we can discuss money.

I licked my lips.

Fine. Hurry up.

The man laughed again, and started making the sanga under the glass, whistling to the ever-increasing rhythm of the track. Now the trumpets were blaring and the guitars getting more staccato, and I watched how he moved in time, like he was dancing.

It reminded me. In the good times. When I had enough cash to eat these every day. Before Centrelink cut me off, and the pandemic, before I got the eviction notice. I had to admit to myself. I wanted this sanga, I wanted the sanga real bad.

After that, I promised myself I would hurt that man. I would do whatever I needed. I’m not an idiot. I would beat the guy to a pulp. I knew well that it would just take once punch, then the guilt would go. There was money here. No doubt about it.

Then, a loud metallic clunk seized my attention. I spun, seeing someone tugging at the lock, a tall man with bright red hair.

I could barely make him out. The gear had my heart pumping, and I was coughing so bad I could hardly stay still.

What’s going on in there? Everything alright?

I raised my weapon, and to my surprise, big red fingers slapped around my wrist.

I’m fine, no worries! The old man said.

He looked at me, chewing his tongue. I fought against his grip, ready to pull up the gun. He was stronger than me. He kept me down.

I wouldn’t, big fella, he whispered. That bloke’s a copper.

Before I could call him a liar the man knocked again.

Nico? Everything okay? I can’t hear you over the music.

The old man slipped from me and came to the door.

Yes. Yes. All good, how are you? Closing up early for the day.

The bloke looked over me, his face coming into view. He had a slapped dumb face with eyes that were razor sharp. The kind of dude who thought he was far more cunning than he was. A cop. Dead set.

The old man pulled open the door slightly, all I could do was stand back, feeling another coughing fit erupt in my chest.

Who’s that?

Pork delivery. Making the sausage roll mix tomorrow.

I felt my head spinning bad. Around me the radio was full of men cheering and whooping over the folksy beat.

I grabbed a serviette, spluttering into it.

You all good, mate? The cop asked, his voice low. That cough sounds nasty.

I tried to answer but my eyes were fixed on the serviette, it was dripping with blood. Fuck. Shit. It was worse than I thought. It was all worse than I thought. I felt my body starting to droop.

The old man started closing the door.

You Aussies are too paranoid, the big fella is alright? Ain’t ya? Said the old man.

I caught them and nodded.

Yeh. Just fine.

I slipped my boot under the counter, dragging the balaclava out of sight.

The cop stared at me, and I back at him. With all my soul I fixated on looking like just anyone. Just some dumb fuckin pork delivery cunt. Maybe I had a house of my own. Maybe I had a garden. Maybe I owned the delivery truck. It was hard to imagine that could ever be true, but I had no choice.

The cop relented.

Okay, then. I’ll see ya tomorrow, Nico. Sausage droll’s sound good.

The cop ran his hands over his smooth ginger curls and disappeared.

Before I could say a word, I felt my chest seizing up again. More blood? No. Not again. Please anything. Not fuckin again.

I spluttered again with such force this time that my body jumped back like a grenade had blown up in my stomach.

Argh!! Shit!

Big fella?

A puddle beneath my feet. Red speckles. I’d done it. It had finally happened. I’d cooked my body. It was all over.

Jesus, fuck, it’s over, it’s all over. I was barely into my mid-thirties. Now I was going to die.

The gun clattered between my feet, landing in the bloody mess. I didn’t care. It was all too late. I was fucked. It was clear as day.

Hey, what’s up, big fella?

The folk music had reached a crescendo, I could feel the gear wear off, replaced by a cold wash of fear that rippled through my body like a lighting strike.

The old man approached, and came so close that I could feel his breath on my neck.

Whaddayou doing?

Look up. Open your mouth. He said.

I did. The old man looked in my throat, murmured something in Greek and tapped his flour-covered fingers over my glands, running up and down my throat.

Is it cancer? I know its fuckin cancer, or something worse? Just tell me!

He laughed, shaking his head. The old man let me go and approached and pulled the empty till out of its black steel holder and grabbed a fresh fifty dollar note.

You okay, big fella. Most likely it’s okay. You’re young. Go to a doctor.

He placed the money in my left hand, leaning down and popping the gun in the other. Then he ushered my trembling body over to the door.

Go. Get a taxi. Don’t spend it on drugs. Alright?

I nodded. Kicking the toe of my shaky boot against the door. It opened and I felt the hot air rush out to meet me.

Hey. Big fella. You forgot something.

The old man came waddling out as fast as his little round frame could carry him. In his hands he held something, wrapped up in a thin butcher’s paper.

My sanga.

Oh. Yeh. Thanks.

He laughed and sat out against the wall while I glanced down the street, looking for a yellow taxi through the endless stream of traffic. I tried to catch my breath, but it was all fucked in my lungs, and it took all my strength to keep my arm raised up. 

A minute passed.

You remember? This street wasn’t so busy once, said the old man.

Nah. It was always busy.

I remember… I remember when everything moved just a little bit slower.

A taxi took the corner, making a beeline up over the hill. I lifted out my hand, feeling the fifty dollar note shaking in the breeze.

How you keep it gowan? 

The old man squinted.

Every other place like this seems to close down. What’s the big secret?

The taxi came screeching to halt on the side of the street, the cabby keeping his eyes front, popping the locks. I caught my wheezy breath and came toward him.

The old man laughed and walked me toward it, propping me up from my waist.

I’m still here, because I don’t go giving my money away to dumb boys like you. 

I waited, then his face became serious.

Really though? I asked him.

I won’t be here forever big fella, no one will. Life will take everything away eventually. Even me.

With that, he slapped my back so hard that I saw stars. I brushed him off and jumped into the backseat, feeling relieved the cabby had the aircon on.

From the driver’s seat, he caught my eye, his hands suddenly diving for his phone.

Huh?

Then I realized. I was still holding the gun.

No, no! I begged.

The cabby grabbed his phone.

The old man leaned in the window and slipped it from my hand. 

It’s a water pistol, mate. The old man told the cabby. No need to worry about it. See.

With a booming laugh the old man levelled at my face, pulling the trigger.

Fuck off! I shouted.

He laughed and laughed, squirting my face with cool jets of water. 

He knew… He knew the whole fuckin time.

I felt the heat in my gills. Like a mild fire. Like I was being bitten by ants.

You’re lucky I’m in a medical emergency! Or I would come out there and beat the fuck out of you, old man.

Get him to Royal Melbourne Hospital, mate. The old man said to the driver.

The cabby took my fifty and nodded.

I looked at the old man once last time. He smiled and threw the plastic weapon onto my lap, slamming the door.

The cabby seemed pretty pissed off, but he pocketed the money and jetted off into the street. 

It had been a long time since I’d been in the backseat of a car. It’s not like a tram. You get the feeling when someone is driving you that the whole world is yours. If I could stick my hands into my life and reshape it, that’s how it would be. Just mine. 

It sounds selfish, but that’s god’s honest truth. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I tried to catch my breath, the aircon made my lungs feel dry, I rolled down the window.

The cracked, shimmering Northside burbs became swallowed up by slick cafes and vintage shops. Outside of them I could see people sitting in the sun on laptops, teenagers with flashy wireless headphones, children sailing down the asphalt on electric scooters.

The further we went, the more the streets became smooth, slated and shaded with lush green trees, and I knew we were in the city as I closed my eyes and breathed. The air through the half-open window. It was like the world had aircon. Like we were inside but we weren’t.

After a moment stuck in traffic, I noticed just how clear my head had become, and I took in the car. The smell of the leather. The muted rumble of the engine. The pop song slipping into the jabber of afternoon chat radio.

Then I realized. My lungs. I was fine.

I leaned over and checked the meter.

It read $35.50

I tapped the cabby on the shoulder and smiled.

Take me to the botangs…

He furrowed his brow.

What, sir?

Bo-tan-ical Garrrdennnsss.

I said it slow.

The cabby chewed his lips and slipped off without giving me the change. I was at the foot of the lush gardens, palm trees awaiting me with plastic covers, flowers blooming, tourist and ice cream stands.

I took a bite of the sanga. 

I had to laugh. It was damn good. Although my stomach had shrunk to the size of a nut. I knew from the gear there was no way I could actually eat it.

I slunk down toward the shimmering lake, the stink of the algae coming up to me. The sight of me ambling along smoking my pipe made all the lovely-young-things raise their eyebrows immediately.

I hitched up my trakkies and popped a squat down on the bright green grass.

Alright. I said. Let’s go then.

Plop!

I flung half the sanga in and waited.

After about two seconds I saw one of the long wiggling beasts slink up and take a chunk.

BANG! I shouted.

I fired a cool jet of water at it. 

The beast slipped off.

Around me I heard hushed whispers and I stuck the handle of the gun in my teeth and ripped off another chunk.

Plop.

Two seconds.

BANG! BANG!

DIE YOU DUMB CUNTS! NO DINNER FOR YOU!

Again, my aim was perfect, and the slimy thing missed its lunch again. At that point I felt the adrenaline find me again. My lungs were wheezing, but I was fine.

I fished in my back pocket, grabbing the half smoked ciggy I’d left there that morning and lit it, chucking the rest of the sanga in.

Plop!

I turned and saw that all the lovely-young-things were getting up and leaving, packing up their picnic blankets and housing their little ones up in spotless prams.

What’s wrong? I shouted. Don’t like it? Huh? Watching someone miss out on a dinnah? You all seem to like it just fine. You all seem to not give a fuck when you do it, but when I do… When I do it…

I spluttered again, feeling the ciggie fly out of my lips and hiss in the bank of the mud.

You are all a pack of rats. You are all rats. All of ya. Worse than that.

I heard some barking voices. I turned, three cops were coming up over the bank, striding toward me, arms crossed sternly.

We’re going to have a chat, are we? I murmured to myself. Is that what’s going to happen?

I looked back at the brackish, green water. It stunk like shit. It all stunk of mud, and gunk and algae, and crap, and ice cream and lattes and leather bags in the rain, hair gel and cologne and crisp ironed shirts. It all reeked.

In the water the eels were writhing, their slick rubbery bodies sliding up from the mud and arching over, taking chunks of the sanga and slipping off, writhing over each other like rotten tree roots come to life.

I smiled.

Not patient enough. You bastards.

I raised up my weapon, took aim.

Now I’m gunna shoot ya dead.

Bang.

Thomas Huntington is a writer from Melbourne, currently living in Berlin. His favorite sandwich will likely contain pickles, cheese and mustard. He has been published by Grattan Street Press, Berlinable, and Soyos Books.