Lee unfolds The Age, reads the headline on the front page, then goes straight to the back page of the business section to sport. His strong latte gets placed in front of him, he says,
“Thanks Ahmed, this is great.” Lee pays him exactly $3.05 because sometimes he forgets to pay and just walks out. He smiles up at Ahmed, who says,
“How about something to eat? A big breakfast, a burger, some bread and dip? You can’t survive on coffee.”
“Um, I can’t really afford it.”
“$10 breakfast. Eggs on toast, bacon, mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. Any sauce you want. Be a big spender.”
Lee is a singer/songwriter who isn’t getting many gigs lately, which is something he can’t work out. He doesn’t usually have breakfast until about midday, after the first joint, and he cooks at home. He works part-time delivering pizzas. Can’t afford even the $10 special but that’s about to change courtesy of an unexpected benefactor.
Lee shrugs his shoulders, says,
“Hey Ahmed, have you ever been to America and eaten in one of those diners over there? I hear you can get these massive meals for like three or four dollars and an endless cup of coffee.”
“You want a four dollar breakfast. Go. Go to America. This café isn’t good enough for you.”
“No man. I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, you know, you see them in movies and stuff and…” But Ahmed had walked away cursing Lee.
It’s 10AM and Lee lights the first cigarette of the day.
Ella walks in at 10.15am, tall and gorgeous in black skinny jeans, a black skivvy, wearing short, black, Cuban heeled boots. Her blond hair cut short, like Andy Warhol’s it girl, Edie Sedgewick. Huge brown eyes staring at Lee.
“What the? How did you know I was here?”
“I stopped in at the house and Sarah said you’d gone out early so I took a guess.”
“Hey,” she says, “are you fucking her?”
“What is with you? No, I’m not, She…”
“You tried and failed.”
“Hey Ella, guess what?”
“I’m finally going to America.”
“Oh yeah, right. On all that money you saved delivering pizzas three nights a week at ten bucks an hour.”
“Oh, you of little faith.”
“Yeah. My uncle lent me the money.”
“You never even mentioned you had an uncle.”
“Have you told me about your uncles and aunts?”
“OK. This is getting stupid. Why did he lend you the money?”
“My dad and my uncle had a talk, my dad thinks I’m wasting my life trying to be a muso and they came up with this scheme. My uncle is a picture framer and he’s going to lend me the money on the condition I come back and learn the business. They think I need to get this whole America thing out of my system.”
“How much money?’
“I asked for ten but he gave me eight.”
“Eight thousand dollars.”
“When we were going out you said over and over you had no money and now this and OH NO, you’re never going to pay him back are you?”
“Of course, I am. I’m going to make it.”
“Of course, you are but if you don’t you’ll pay him back in your own special way over about fifty years like all the cash you borrowed off me. You’re betraying your dad and your uncle and me too.”
Both of them say nothing for a while until Ahmed comes over and says,
“Hello pretty lady, you want your cappuccino?”
“Thanks Ahmed, it’s so cool that you remember my coffee preference.”
Ahmed stares at Lee as if to say, this is how a good customer should be. And he walks back behind the counter.
“He’s got a hard on for you.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be stupid.”
They both sit and say nothing. Ella stares at Lee wanting to kill him. They had made plans so many times to go overseas together but he never had the money. Ella’s working in a Chapel St dress shop as a sales assistant so she doesn’t earn much money but if her dad lent her money she’d damn well pay him back. Lee continues to read the sports section.
“You know sometimes when I’m on the tram going to work. I start thinking about us doing it, like when we were going out, and I get so wet I want to touch myself.”
Lee sits back, looks at her and Ella stretches back and runs her right hand through her short blond hair, smiles at him. Lee says,
“God, Ella, you’re the most amazing girl.”
“And you cheated on me, you rat. The pizza boy cheated on me.”
“I thought you forgave me for that.”
“Why did we break-up?”
“Because I cheated on you and…”
“And that means I don’t forgive you, otherwise we’d be together. But you know what. If we hadn’t broken up I bet your dad and uncle wouldn’t have come up with this scheme because they knew, everybody knew, that I was in love with you and I’m a good person and you would have changed eventually and got your shit together for both of our sakes. So, again, you’re in debt to me for…”
“Mike Connors is having a party tonight. One of his fantastic wild parties in that big house on Punt Road. His parents are in France so it should be a wild…”
“A wild night. Shit. I wish I had five dollars for every time you said that. I have to go,” she says just as Ahmed puts down her cappuccino.
“I’m sorry Ahmed I have to go but here,” and she digs into the money pocket of her black skinny jeans and hands him four dollars and says, “it’s OK, a tip for putting up with this idiot.”
Ahmed laughs and Lee smiles in spite of himself. Ahmed says,
“He’s a big shot. Going to eat in American diners.”
Walks off shaking his head again.
“You told him?” Ella says.
“Will you pick me up from work this afternoon?
“Hey, when do you leave, Lee?”
“Two days,” he says and he can see the look of disappointment on her face and she looks away for a few seconds then says,
“Don’t forget, pick me up on Chapel St, we can go and eat together before the party.”
“OK. Hey, I love you,” Lee says.
“Yeah, right,” Ella says not looking back.
Ella hops on the tram at Church Street to go to work. She knows Lee loves her, he just can’t keep his dick in his pants. She thinks she might kiss a guy tonight, right in front of Lee. But most probably she won’t. Lee should’ve… It should be his second name, Should’ve. He’s going to take his guitar and songs to try and get gigs in America. She wonders what city he’s going to in America first? Where’s he first touching down?
Oh, Lee can sing like an angel. She was in the shower one day, not long after she first had sex with him at her place in East Richmond. Lee was in the kitchen singing and playing guitar to that Van Morrison song, Brown Eyed Girl…it was so beautiful. It was the first time she knew she was in love with him. When she got out of the shower she hugged him, told him how beautiful it was, he said,
“Take it easy Ella you’re getting water all over my shirt.”
In those first few months he had a residency at the Armadale Hotel in Malvern and various other gigs around town. He’d sing some Jackson Browne and Van Morrison of course and a great version of Fleetwood Mac’s, ‘Go Your Own Way’. He started singing his own songs, got a good reputation. An A&R guy came to watch him one night.
Ella gets off the tram just as Lee walks out of the café. She remembers Lee being rude to the A&R guy and how when they got home he said,
“He works for some small Australian label who want to find the next Pseudo fucking Echo. He kept asking me if I do Alt Rock. I don’t even know what that is. He said I had the right look. Fuck that shit.”
Ella told him they were the biggest label in Australia but he just shook his head and said,
“If I had to work with people like that I’d go insane.”
Ella is positive the A&R guy put the word out to pubs and bars not to hire Lee because Lee was so rude to him. It’s the only explanation because Lee was, as they say, on his way.
Then the residency at the pub ended and he cheated on Ella and she dumped him and now this.
Ella was having a shit day at work. This woman fishing for compliments when she tried on a dress. Ella lying to her face about how great she looked, then Lee rang, said straight out,
“I want you to come with me to America.”
“You heard me. The eight thousand from my uncle is on top of the airline ticket. You have a couple of thousand saved don’t you. I’ll pay for your ticket, we’ll go together. Put all the shit behind us.”
“Lee, you leave in two days.
“We’ll go to Flight Centre and book the ticket as soon as you knock off.”
“What about my job? What about my boss? How will she find a…”
“Stuff her. If the situation was reversed. She’d sack you in a minute without a day’s notice.”
“Oh Lee, it’s that attitude. What if you get sick of me? What if I…”
“Come with me, please. I’ll be there at five when you knock off. Think about it babe, you and me in America.”
Ella thinks about Lee after she hangs up. He has the jet black hair of a rocker, a hard handsome face and despite the fact he never exercises, a slim, hard body. He told Ella it was from swimming at school, training three or four times a week from when he was eight or nine right up until he finished year 12. That attitude though. Stuff her he said about her boss.. But she wasn’t making it up when she told him about how she sometimes felt on the tram. And on stage he was magnetic, the whole crowd drawn to him.
Lee sits around at home, strumming his guitar, writing songs in his head and the phone rings.
“Hi Lee, it’s Ella.”
“What’s up, why’d you ring so quickly?”
“I don’t want to go with you, Lee. It’s your dream, go ahead, chase it. Take your guitar and songs and go without me.”
“Oh, um, shit, you still haven’t forgiven me.”
“It’s not that. I mean it is and it isn’t. You’re so frustrating. You didn’t ask me straight away. This is an afterthought. You think if things go screwy in America you’ll still have me.”
“No, no. That’s not it.”
Look, I’m going to my mum’s house after work. I don’t want to go to the party. I don’t want to see you before you go.”
Lee doesn’t say anything, the beats click over, Ella says,
“Meet me one more time, tomorrow, back at the café.”
“OK, tomorrow at 11am. “
“Thanks Ella, bye.”
The next day Lee is back at the café near the corner of Swan and Church St in Richmond. Ahmed isn’t there. Lee has a hangover from the party and is starving. Ella was coming to meet him soon. His uncle had put the money into his bank account so he was eating a big greasy hamburger with the lot. Ella walked in wearing all black again. Sat opposite him, said,
“This better be good. What’s so important?”
“Ella, if I don’t make it as a singer or even as a songwriter for some crummy label. Would you still love me? I mean, could you go out with, maybe live with a picture framer? Would it be so bad?”
Ella shakes her head, says,
“You know Diner that film you love so much. About those guys in their mid to late twenties meeting up at their favourite diner and shooting the breeze like it’s the greatest thing on earth.”
“Yeah, I know what it’s about. Shit.”
“But if it was you, Lee. You’d be sitting there on your own. No room for anyone else. None of us meet your great standards. We’re not cool enough. Here you are two days in a row. You arrived on our own and you’ll leave on your own. None of us are good enough for you. I’m a back-up plan if things fail.”
Lee shakes his head, says,
“Come home with me now.”
“Aah, shit, Lee, no.”
“Come on. You want to.”
Sean O’leary is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has published two literary short story collections, ‘My Town’ and ‘Walking’. His literary novella ‘Drifting’ was the winner of the ‘The Great Novella Search 2016’ and published in 2017. He self-published ‘The Heat’ his crime novella set in Darwin and Bangkok in 2019. ‘Drifting’ and ‘The Heat’ will be re-published by Next Chapter in 2021/22. His second crime novella ‘Preston Noir’ was published in 2020 in ‘Crime Double Feature…Neo Noir’ from the indie press ‘Zombie Pirate Publishing.’ His crime fiction collection ‘Wonderland‘ was recently published by the down and dirty folk at Close to the Bone Publishing in the United Kingdom. His new crime novel ‘Going All the Way’ and short story collection ‘Tokyo Jazz & Other Stories’ are both out now through Next Chapter Publishing. He is currently working on his new crime novel. He likes to walk all over the face of the earth, travel as often as he can, supports Melbourne Football Club (a life sentence), enjoys art but knows nothing about it, is a film buff and writes like a demon.