by Ashley Earls Davis
Dad turns our car onto the town’s main street. The mid-morning light, veiled and distorted by a swath of cirrostratus clouds, burns my eyes. He brakes, looks to his left and then accelerates. My head lurches to one side. The triangular roofs of the passing buildings seem to cut upwards through the savage whiteness like monstrous, hungry teeth.
Dad turns right and then left. He ends up parking a long way away. Opposite the park on Hatton Street.
Why here? I protest.
Because I don’t want those buggers at the bank to see it. An old, rusty Nine Biarritz. We’d never stand a chance Tye.
He takes out my wheelchair, lifts me into it. Looks around and adjusts his collar. Squints hard into the distance. He starts pushing me down the footpath, walking with the hurried steps of a hunted man; a terrifying rhythm; bustling, threatening. I suddenly wish he’d left me at home. I sense this town’s hostility toward us. As if were trespassing. And with each passing second I feel the pain of injustice growing inside him, feeding his anger and igniting thoughts of vengefulness.
We cross the street. It’s unbearably hot. My mouth is hanging open like a dog’s. My breathing is short. The heat pushes against my forehead, my temples.
Where is it?
Soon, he answers.
I turn my head, notice the framed house names on the front brick walls we pass. Names that sound like loyal servants: Morris, Charleston, Clarence, Higgins. They’re spotted with light brown dust. All the front doors are red. And every lawn is the color of ochre.
I won’t let them evict us Tye. Or ruin us. Whatever happens. I promise you son.
He pats me on the shoulder.
My left eye moves involuntarily to the right. And I think: Yes, Mum always said “hope is born of powerlessness.” Perhaps that’s what we’re doing now. Hoping.
Are we almost there?
Patience, he says.
A murky shape moves along a fence. The source of the shadow appears; an old man’s face swivels in our direction. He walks nonchalantly over to his veranda. After we pass him I realize that he was glowering at me. His yellow-brown eyes shone like those of a tawny frogmouth. His discolored teeth glinted weakly as he smiled.
Almost all the streets in this town are straight. Do you see that Tye?
And I see that all the letter boxes along the street are gaping empty. Like a row of open, horrified mouths.
But all the letter boxes are crooked, I say to Dad. I arch my head backwards. He nods and absent-mindedly repeats what I just said. He’s convulsively holding a sheet of paper against his chest. His fingers are wet. Head bowed under his black hat as if it’s painfully heavy. He sighs hoarsely. His strides have lessened, slowed. His lips move secretly as in silent prayer. I hear everything he says to himself. He practices over and over again what he’s going to say. But he’s afraid that the words will abandon him when he soon stands before the bank director.
He opens the door to the bank and drags my wheelchair in backwards. It’s cool inside. The floor is the color of amber. I peer up. A large ceiling fan rotates above us. He steers the wheelchair to the bolted-down chairs in the middle of the room. Places me between a pale, obese woman and a thin man in new overalls who stinks of tobacco. They look like they’ve done something they shouldn’t have.
He joins the back of the short queue. The man in front of him is also holding a piece of paper. He seems nervous, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The bank clerk behind the counter is wearing a white shirt and tie. His hair is shiny and black. His round glasses mirror the wall behind us, two windows, fragments of the post office, three parked cars, a shard of the sky.
The man with the piece of paper steps forward and places it on the counter. Then he puts his boney fingers on it. He starts to speak but only I hear him.
This amount, he says. I’m sure you understand. All these months. The drought. The brutality, the relentlessness of it all. To put it mildly. Sometimes life and God . . .
He tries to smile.
I mean. If we could just push that date forward. Just a few more weeks.
The clerk sighs and points to the bottom of the paper. He sways slightly from side to side. Almost playfully. The man and his piece of paper dance over his glasses.
That is the amount. And that is the date. I can’t do anymore. Unfortunately.
I know this is very audacious of me. To ask for mercy like this. But we’re talking about a life’s work. Doesn’t that count for anything? It’s all I can. All I know. And if rain were to come . . .
The clerk’s eyes narrow.
The bank sympathizes with you. And everyone else in the same situation. But we’re not running a charity here. You must understand that.
The man looks away and reddens. He bows and turns slowly around.
Only I see that he has tears in his eyes. I call to him as he makes his way to the door. I even raise my voice. I just want to say to him that he’s not alone. That Dad and I understand him.
Dad throws a look over his shoulder.
The fat woman beside me squirms in her seat. A fathomless, sinister silence spreads through the room. The clerk yawns and puts a file in a filing cabinet. He looks up at Dad.
Good morning, Dad says and rests his piece of paper on the counter. I’d like to speak to Mr. Merrivale.
Mr. Merrivale is very busy, I’m sorry to say.
But I need more time you see. I don’t have this money right now. I thought . . .
The clerk smiles. His shirt is devoid of stains. I’ve never seen a shirt without stains before. I wonder how his wife manages to keep it so clean.
The clerk starts to speak more deliberately: Regrettably, this is your due date.
He points with two fingers at Dad’s paper as if they are the barrels of a gun.
It can’t be changed. And Mr. Merrivale can’t possibly sacrifice his time on such a matter. In fact Mr. Merrivale is not even here.
You’re lying, Dad says. He raises his voice: If there’s one thing I hate it’s when someone lies straight to my face.
The man in the overalls to my left clears his throat. He searches for something in his breast pocket and removes his hand again. It’s empty. Dad’s voice becomes even louder. His lips are compressed into a flat line. He calls the clerk a bastard and then shouts that the bank is a flock of vultures and a fucking shithouse. He snatches his piece of paper and mumbles that they’ll all rot in hell.
Come, he says to me.
As if I can walk myself. Then he remembers. He marches over to me and pushes the wheelchair through the door again. It’s open, as if it’s opened itself. A door for the blind, I think. Or do they think that Dad can’t see? That he can’t read the date without help?
When we come out onto the footpath again two flies settle on his cheek. They resemble two raised moles. He doesn’t wave them off. They drink his sweat without him noticing. Their minuscule proboscises vibrate imperceptively in the harsh light.
Dad folds his piece of paper and stuffs it angrily into his pocket. We start towards Hatton Street.
I cast a final glance through the bank’s windows. A man in a blue pin-striped suit emerges from a room at the rear of the building. He smiles and beckons to the obese woman and thin man. They stand up and walk over to him.
I move my gaze to the right. I can clearly make out the clerk’s glasses behind the counter. But not his face.
It’s as if it never existed.
Ashley Earls Davis is an Australian-born author who resides in Stockholm, Sweden. He has written three novels in Swedish: Utställningen (2009), Senton Hart (2018) and Den främmande tystnadens lockrop (2023). “The Debt” is a translation of a chapter from his third novel and his first publication in English.