The Jerry Can

map The Jerry Can

by Nadine Browne

Published in Issue No. 220 ~ September, 2015
Photo by Daniel Scally (Los Angeles, CA)

Photo by Daniel Scally (Los Angeles, CA)

When I saw Melita walking across the street with a jerry can, I took note. It was not so much the jerry can that intrigued me, it was her leaving her house. I’d never actually seen her in the full light of day and her obesity was astounding, especially for someone so young. Her pink night gown only came halfway down her thighs and exposed heavy clouds of white flesh.

I’d just gotten out of bed. I was usually woken by the kids coming home from school and the reason I peeked out the venetians in the first place was because I could hear one of them screaming. It was Melita’s eight-year-old, Justin, from behind the screen door. “Mum, mum,” he wailed, ‘Come back!’ I could see his fingers coming through the large rips in the fly screen of their security door.

I watched as Melita’s body shuddered with each aftershock of her bare feet hitting the ground, the jerry can swung by her side. Just putting one foot in front of the other seemed like a great act of defiance. I stood in awe at my bedroom window and a part of me thought: if she can do it, I can too.

A moment later she disappeared from view, into the front yard of the house next door to mine. “Muuuum!” The kid at the flyscreen pushed the sound out from the bottom of his throat; it had that terrorised, distressed quality, which makes you really feel another’s pain. Settle down kid, I thought, she’s just crossing the street. I waited, standing mesmerised and half blinded by the harsh white light coming through the gap in the blinds. The kid’s wailing filled the whole street, echoing off the asphalt. I waited, and after a few moments I heard her shout, “It’s all right Jay, I’m just here.” Her voice was impatient as she puffed her way back across the street, past a couple of discarded shopping trolleys. Her dimpled skin shimmering in the sunlight, she made her way up her short toy-strewn driveway and then back through the front door of her house.

About an hour later, after taking my assortment of pills, I went outside to water the trees. Most days this is the only time I ever leave the house. I put my sunglasses on and looked over at Melita’s house. Directly across from mine, her house had the unkempt and unloved finish which many of the welfare houses in the area had, the once-bright orange of the front rendered wall now a faded dusty pink. Many of the small decorative pickets of the front fence were missing and wild oats grew high between the fence and the foot path. There was no sign of Melita.

I watered the six lemon trees I’d grafted, then onto all my other assortments of trees: pin oaks, silky oaks, black wattles, olive, avocado and fig, all in pots. They take up my entire back yard and most of the front yard, too.

Soon enough Melita’s kids came out. She’s got four kids, all under eleven. They’re all lithe and thin and wispy, like they could be blown away in a gust of wind; all blonde with tanned little bodies—the opposite of Melita. The twins went running off down the street, then Justin ran towards my house. They always run; everywhere they go, they’re running.

He jumped over the small brick fence and said, “Can I help water?” I handed him the hose, then busied myself with some weeding.

“Will these trees grow big like that one,” Justin pointed to the Cape Lilac, “if I keep watering them?”

“They should do.”

“Why do you keep all these trees in pots for?” Justin asked.

“I like trees,” I said. He looks at me with wonder, like he’s never heard of anyone liking trees before—like it’s never crossed his mind.

“You must like ‘em heaps.”

For some reason, even though he’s just a little kid, I felt a hotness at the top of my ears and I was a little lightheaded from holding my breath. I looked back down at the ground, concentrating on the few stubborn weeds left.

“But what are you gonna do with them all?”

“I don’t know,” I said, chewing my bottom lip. What I didn’t tell him was that the trees are what I used to fill my nights with, that the trees were the reason I got into trouble, the reason I had to start seeing Georgina, the psychologist.

“So, did your mum run out of petrol before?” I asked.

“No.” He sounded defensive. “She just needed to tell those people, Akira’s mum and dad, something. My mum hates Akira’s mum and dad.”

“Why?”

“They’re bad.” He shrugged. “They take drugs.”

At that moment Akira came riding her bike down the sidewalk.

‘What are you starin’ at?’ she shouted to Justin.

“Your mum ‘n dad are gonna go to jail coz they takes drugs.”

“Shut up Justin.” Akira stopped her bike at the fence, one foot on the ground anchoring her to the spot. ‘They don’t even take drugs anymore.” She wore a pink one-piece that roped around her neck, and it was too small for her tubby young body.

“My mum said they do.”

“Well your mum’s a fat cow and she only eats McDonald’s which is funny coz her second name is Mcdonald!” Akira threw her bike down and hoisted herself up on the brick wall of my yard. I looked up at her from where I crouched, in front of the garden bed. Despite her small chubby limbs and pink one-piece, she looked imposing.

“What are you’s doing?” she said, looking down on us.

“War-terin,” Justin said proudly.

“Can I do some?”

“No. I’m only allowed.”

“She can have a turn,” I said.

She jumped down from the wall and ran across the yard to where the end of the hose was. She yanked it off Justin, then tucked her brown un-brushed hair behind one of her ears and concentrated on the line of heavy water shooting towards the big avocado tree.

“Anyway, Justin, my mum says that your mum goes out and hocks stuff while you’re at school. That’s why she never has any money; she’s always at the hock shop hocking things to buy junk food. She looooves junk food.”

“Hey,” I said. “You shouldn’t talk about people like that. It’s not nice.” I hated the sound of me telling them off. I was never sure how to communicate with children, always frightened of inadvertently dabbing them with the poison that had afflicted me my whole life.

“She doesn’t even hock stuff anymore, Akira,” Justin explained. “She only did it coz we had no money.”

That night, I lie awake thinking about Melita and her kids. I thought I should give them a tree each to grow themselves. The vision of her crossing the street lingered in my mind; she seemed so vulnerable and exposed. How did she keep up with those kids when she could hardly move? I wondered. Then I thought I’d be sure and tell Georgina, my psychologist, all this on Friday. She’d be happy. She was always telling me I needed to make friends, become more involved in my community. I also needed to realise, Georgina said, that I had something to offer. But I didn’t ever think that was the problem. It’s just what I had to give, nobody wanted.

What I hadn’t realised was that staying up all night ‘doing things’ and obsessing over the trees was the beginning of my mania. I had to watch for signs, keep vigilant, adhere to an achievable routine, and that took a lot energy.

At about 3 a.m I smelt smoke. I put down the book I was reading, concentrating on the smell, and quickly realised that it was all around me. The room had filled with it. As I listened I could hear people yelling outside. I tiptoed on the floorboards to the front door and before I’d opened it I could already see the orange light coming through the glass. I stepped out and could hear the roar, and, running out onto my front veranda, I could see big, robust flames galloping upwards, the flames reaching up, round and fierce, towards the black night sky. I couldn’t look away: the house next door was completely swallowed by fire. It cracked and popped and banged but somehow the sound seemed muted by its all-encompassing roar. I could feel the heat coming from it and felt exposed in my synthetic nighty.

I didn’t know what I should do. Then someone yelled at me from the street: “You gotta hose? Where’s your hose, love?” It was the old woman on the other side of me. She walked through my front gate and straight up to the corner of my house where the hose lay neatly in a circle. Before I got to the tap she was turning it on. “You gotta watch out for the embers, just keep water on that side.” She dragged the hose around to the far side of my house and started spraying water on it.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Who knows? I just come out to see what all the noise was about, ‘n there it was, in full force.” I’d never seen the old lady up close before. From a distance she looked younger, but now I could see she only had a few yellow teeth and the deep crevices in her face were highlighted by the orange glow of the fire. “Just keep the water on,” she instructed, handing me the hose and then walking away. I squinted into the heat of the fire and just when I thought the flames couldn’t get any stronger an explosion erupted at the back of the burning house. Red embers shot up into the sky like fireworks. Shouts came from the street where a crowd of people had gathered. Akira’s mum was there, I could just make her out, silhouetted under the street light. She was thrashing about, being held back by two men from the street.

The sirens from the fire station got louder until two red trucks, a big and a small one, pulled up in the front yard of the house. The firemen unravelled hoses and shot water at the base of the flames. Within a few minutes it was all out and the black flatness of where the house had been was remarkably quiet. The fire truck remained at the front. The old woman left the crowd and came towards me again. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like her face was wet.

“The girl, Akira, she was inside.”

“Inside what?” I asked.

“She, she got left in there.” She pointed to what remained of the house next door. “Poor sweet little baby.” She shook her head, and I noticed the wrinkles under her chin quiver a little.

I looked over at the still smoking, collapsed frame of the house, the tin roof now at ground level. I kept repeating the old woman’s words in my head: ‘She got left in there, got left in there.’ But my brain was slow and old and wouldn’t catch up. Akira was in there?

“But I just saw her this afternoon.” I said, looking at the old lady. She shrugged, and her eyes, I could see now, were red. Her face looked like all the air had been let out of it.

The police said that the fire had been started by the meth lab. I didn’t know what a meth lab was and the two officers that came to my house had to explain it all to me. I kept wanting to talk about the girl, like if I built enough of a picture of her, she could be restored, the police would find her, like she was a missing person. They said if I remembered anything else to call them. I put their card on the fridge. I’d forgot all about Melita and the jerry can.

A few weeks later I was sitting in the waiting room of Georgina’s office going through what I would tell her in my head when my ear caught the receptionist on the phone. “Hello, Melita?” she said. “Hello. It’s Rachel from Morrison House Psychology Clinic. Is that Melita McDonald?”

I sat still and tense, concentrating on the receptionist’s voice. “Are you aware that you missed your appointment with Dr. Greenburg this morning?” That’s when I remembered the jerry can. I hadn’t seen her since that morning. “Well would you like to reschedule?” the receptionist was asking. “What about Friday?”

Then I heard Georgina’s voice calling my name. I got up and went into her office.

“How have you been?” She smiled and sat down in the chair across from me.

“OK. I guess I’ve been OK.”

Georgina’s office is a mixture of sophisticated coppery figurines—abstract humans and swans and Two Dollar Store knickknacks.

“And since the fire?” she asked. “Have you talked to your neighbours at all?”

“I talked to the old woman. Well, she talks to me; she said she knew they were making drugs. She’d told the police, been telling them for a long time, everyone in the street had.”

Georgina pursed her lips in some show of empathy I suppose. She was middle-aged, plump and had short grey hair. I thought she might have been a lesbian, because on the phone she sounded like a man and she always wore pants.

“I didn’t know though,” I said. “I didn’t know they were drug dealers.” My eyes moved across the mantelpiece to a doll dressed in a suit and tie. “I keep thinking about that little girl, the day she came to my house; it was the afternoon before the fire.” My eyes focused in on the doll. I held my face very still so I wouldn’t show any emotion. “I liked her. Akira. She was, I don’t know, tough. I think the word you would use is, resilient.” I picked at the corner of the arm rest. “I’m not like that. I’ve got no resilience. I’m like the wrong tree planted in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”

‘Well, you’ve had a pretty traumatic life, you didn’t get to build up a lot of resilience.” Georgina always likes to make excuses for me, she’s quite good at it.

‘She used to come and talk to me when I watered and she was always climbing the trees. She loved to climb everything, she just couldn’t stop moving.’ I stared hard at the ceramic feet of the doll and let out a big sigh. I got sick of talking pretty quick around Georgina.

“I told you about the obese woman across the road and her kids?” I said.

“Yes, you said you wanted to, possibly, reach out to them?”

“Well, she comes here.” I watched Georgina’s face for a reaction. She only furrowed her eyebrows slightly.

“And I didn’t tell you about the jerry can.”

“Jerry can?” Georgina frowned.

“I saw her. Melita. The morning of the fire, she walked over to that house with a jerry can.”

There was silence and I felt something around my jaw relax, like it was a relief to say it out loud.

But Georgina never misses a beat. She said, “Well you need to tell the police about that. That’s all you need to do, tell the police.” And then, of course, she came back to the subject we always ended up at: Trees.

“What about the tree planting and your insomnia?” she asked. “How have you been handling that?”

“I haven’t been planting any trees. I’ve been distracting myself,” I said, “reading, watching the documentaries I got from the DVD store.”

“Great. And the medication?”

‘All going fine.’ I nodded.

“I’m pleased to hear it. You know there are a lot of good organisations you can be part of that plant trees legally. They help farmers and assist with reforestation. It’s something you could think about being part of.”

I tried to look interested. The thing about the trees is, I planted them all over the neighbourhood and all the surrounding suburbs. When the council chopped them down, I planted three more for every one they got rid of. That was what I got arrested for. The judge said I was a menace to public property; I had caused the taxpayer thousands of dollars in tree removal. They said it was no better than graffiti what I was doing, and as a mature aged woman I should know better. I said I couldn’t help it, it was a compulsion. That’s when they ordered me to see a psychologist.

I couldn’t sleep that night after I’d seen Georgina. I got up and looked at the card the police left me on the fridge. I should call them, I thought, tell them what I saw. But then I thought about what might happen to Melita, and what would happen to her kids. The thing about Melita was, like me, she never had visitors. The only car I’d seen at her house was ‘welfare.’ Welfare visited a lot of the houses around here. I’d come to recognise their same model car, the same coloured folders, the same kind of harried, middle-aged women they hired, who always traveled in pairs. I paced up and down the hallway. I took a long hot bath to try and make myself tired. Maybe Melita knew they were making drugs in the house, I thought, but that didn’t make what she’d done any better.

I went for a long walk in the middle of the night. I walked fast, and even tried running, although my hip pain wouldn’t allow too much of that. I walked for hours, all through the outer suburbs. Mostly it was quiet, sometimes I heard shouts and screams, raucous laughter. I looked through windows when there was a light on. I wondered what people were dreaming of behind dark, closed-curtained windows. It seemed to me that the outer suburbs sat on the edge of a cliff that was dropping away and everyone was terrified of falling into the abyss. As I walked I could feel their terror.

I walked further and further out, beyond my own suburb and everywhere I went my mind kept seeing places to plant a tree. No matter how hard I tried to think of other things, every round-about, every barren verge, every island in the road, what they all needed, more than anything, was trees.

Two nights later I sat up in bed and decided the feeling I’d been having for the past three weeks, ever since the house fire, could no longer be ignored. I decided, despite what Georgina told me, that once in a while you have to act on your feelings, otherwise you may as well be dead. I got out of bed and got dressed.

The feeling was a type of restlessness, but it was also something my body wanted to rid itself of, like when you see children with too much energy, they need to expel it. I realised, despite the anti-depressants, the sleeping pills and the therapy, I still had nothing against it.

I grabbed a shopping trolley off the sidewalk and filled it full of my biggest trees; I piled them high, as many as I could balance on top of one another. I got the shovel, I got some compost. I piled it all up, and then I started off down the street.

I pushed the trolley along back streets, through the industrial area, under bypasses and down the highway until I came to the sandy, inconsequential island I had in mind. I took a cedar wattle out from the jam-packed trolley. I put the shovel into the ground and pressed hard on it with my foot. I listened to the satisfying sound of the shovel going through the earth. That first moment, as the shovel cuts into the soil, it feels like I’m really part of something—something so big I couldn’t even try to contain it in my mind. It was like, for once, I was not hovering about like a nervous insect banging against glass. Instead, my feet were firmly on the ground.

The digging and planting went well into the night. Tree after tree after tree, until the once-crowded shopping trolley was empty. My body felt tired and all my joints seemed to cry out, but it was a good type of pain, the pain of moving forward, the pain of progress, the pain of giving. I started to walk home. I got to my street with my shovel resting on my shoulder. A yellow hue was already coming up in the east.

As I came to Melita’s house, I noticed the lights were on and when I got closer I could see her massive figure standing in the doorway. She was looking out her front door to the block across the road where the house used to be. They had cleaned it up, taken away every remnant of the house. It looked like it had always been just another vacant block.

I stood in her driveway and faced her in the doorway. The street and the whole suburb was so quiet at that time, I didn’t need to talk very loud. In a strong whisper, I said, “I saw you, you know, with the jerry can.”

The screen door opened and she stepped out.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen.” Her voice sounded high and thin, like a young girls.

“But I saw you,” I said.

“I doused the petrol around, and I was gonna light it up, but I changed my mind. I couldn’t do it.” She let out a pent-up sigh, she had that glassy panic in her eye that I sometimes see in the mirror and I could tell she had been up all night thinking about it. “I couldn’t do it with kids in the house,” she said.

I wanted to say something mean, something to make her realise what she’d done, but I couldn’t think of anything. I felt tired now and all I could wonder about was if the little girl had died in her sleep or if she’d woken up.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about her, you know. Akira.” Melita took a few steps towards me. I tried to look at her face, but my eyesight wasn’t very good anymore and I was having trouble adjusting to the morning light. “But why did you do it?”

“I didn’t want a meth lab around here, around my kids.” She shook her head and looked at the ground. She was higher than me on the driveway, which sloped up to her door. “If you tell the cops I’ll lose my kids. I know I probably deserve to, but those kids are all I’ve got.” I looked down at her iridescent white feet on the sandy driveway paving, then I started walking across the road to my house.

I’d been thinking about it for a while; what kind of tree would Akira be? Something hardy and native, maybe something statuesque and bold. The next day, after the kids came home from school I told them. We were going to plant a tree on the verge out the front of the vacant block next door. I went around to all the neighbours and told them I was planting a tree for Akira. We all took turns digging a big hole. Then I took the silky oak out of its pot. Its white exposed roots looked so fragile and delicate. Then I gave the tree to Justin and the twins and they dropped the tree in the hole, all of us pushed the dirt around it with our hands. We all stood looking at it for a while, the old lady from next door and her grandsons, Melita and the kids, the family that lived next to her, the man from the corner. It was the perfect spot for it. Even though it had only just been planted, it looked right; strong and robust. A welling up started in my chest as I watched the cool, silvery leaves shining in the afternoon sun.