Paul Kavanagh

Soft Target

The television says that soft targets are those that order drinks at a bar, those that sit down at a table for a late meal, those that smoke under a street lamp losing their heat, those that give thanks that it is no longer a work week. He turns the television off. The silence adds to his misery. He goes to the window, moves the curtain, presses his face to the window, grimaces. “It’s still there.” His wife tells him to put down the telephone, go into the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea. She is at work. “I know you are busy. I just said I know you are busy. Wait. What? I know you have a very important job. I know you deal with complex issues, but it’s been there all morning.” She says something, sounds exasperated, bored, not interested. He clears his throat, scratches, rubs his chin, pinches a small amount of fat on his belly. She tells him she will talk to him when she gets home. “Wait. I want to talk now,” he says. She mumbles inaudibly. He puts down the telephone, goes into the kitchen, fills the kettle with water, turns on the kettle, throws a teabag into his mug, sprinkles artificial sugar over the teabag.

The goal is to turn the soft target into a paranoid idiot drooling, the goal is to turn the soft target into one of those caged beasts that refuse to leave the house, the goal is to turn the soft target into a Russian protagonist from the most depressing, nihilistic novel ever written. “What do you mean you can’t talk now? It’s not every day you get a call from America. Wait. What? Fine, I’ll call you tonight.” He waits, rests an elbow on the side, watches the water boil within the glass kettle, thinks it is symbolism, even a metaphor, the huge chaos, the huge turmoil, the water boiling. He waits, inspects, preens, removes the white of a nail, spits the splinter, realizes that he is angry. “I’m pissed, I really am. It’s me, Tom. Wait. Sorry. I’ll call back in a minute. What yes I know you are busy.” From the spout steam appears, swirls, ascends, and the kettle as designed whistles like a very old kettle. He pours the hot water over the teabag, waits, he has a minute, spits, look at the other eight nails, huffs, removes the saturated teabag, drops it into the trash can, pours milk into the brew, stirs, watches the milk be absorbed, another allusion to the riot within.

The soft target turns into Panofsky seeking signs and symbols, the soft target moves like a ballerina, the soft target travels the streets like Villon and Francisco de Quevedo down back streets like a rat, the soft target quits drinking and smoking and lives like an ascetic father of the desert. He goes into the front room and stands by the window. There is a strong scent of celery in the air. He is puzzled and then he remembers Strindberg and Strindberg’s neuroses. He looks at the tea in the daylight, which is different from the electric light in the kitchen, the tea resembles chicken soup. He didn’t allow the teabag to brew long enough. He swears. “It’s me. Yes. Thank you. Sometimes you can be dumb. What? I’m sorry. Listen, I have to tell you something, listen, Pete, it’s important. Would I call you if it weren’t important? I didn’t mean it like that. Listen, I know you are at work, but listen, I never text, listen, chained to the utility pole, the utility pole out front, is a scooter. So what? It’s being held together with tape and rope. The front wheel is slightly deflated. There’s an A for anarchy sticker on the back. It’s a terrible eyesore.

The soft target buys the Ouija board, the soft target reads the stars religiously, the soft target is an expert of the tarot cards, the soft target prays to Osiris and Isis. A young mother pushing a pram is stopped by a neighbor. They chat, gesticulate, pull those funny, silly faces without words. He presses his ear to the cold glass. The condensation obfuscates them. Nothing escapes his neighbor, not even a squirrel jumping from tree to tree. When there is a blackout she waits by the telephone for the inevitable calls. She wishes for the death of more squirrels. “Your baby looks like a fun guy,” she says he imagines. They laugh. He laughs. He agrees with his neighbor – all babies are ugly. He goes back into the kitchen, pours the chicken soup down the drain, washes out the mug, fills the kettle, waits, teabag needs a good stew. –“They’re going to think the scooter belongs to me,” he says. His wife says something about New York and the weather. It is snowing in February. “Are you listening?” he asks. She says yes she is listening. “Our neighbors are going to think the scooter belongs to me. Did you not see it this morning? The chain is huge. The padlock is unbreakable. The scooter is a monstrosity. I mean it. You must have seen it this morning. She tells him that she had a bad night’s sleep. She was plagued with terrible nightmares. She says work is exploding. She might have seen it, she says, she can’t remember, but she does remember one dream: An old man was in the cupboard and he wouldn’t come out. They tried to drag him out, but he wouldn’t leave. He was lodged in there, tight. They had to call the bugman to spray the old man with pesticide.

The soft target says everything will be alright while ducking like the Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill, the soft target laughs and sighs, the soft target sleeps with one eye open, the soft target buys a dog even though the dog barks all night and farts all day. “I have to tell you about the scooter just outside my house. What? I’ve already told you. Fine, you don’t want to hear. I’ll speak to you next month. Wait.” The doorbell rings. He puts down his mug, wipes his chin, lips, looks at the seven nails, spits, wipes his lips with the back of his hand, cleans the back of his hand on his trousers, experiences a wave of disappointment, weakness. “It’s the owner of the scooter. I am sure the owner of the scooter is at our front door. I am sure he is going to apologize for all the hassle he has caused me.” He hurries to the front door, opens it, is shocked. It’s the postman. He has a parcel for them. “Thank you,” he says, collecting the parcel. “I’m sorry about that scooter. It’s an eyesore. It doesn’t belong to me.” The postman smiles affably, shrugs, understands, turns, walks away. He shuts the front door with his foot, places the parcel on the coffee table, goes into the kitchen, finds a long sharp knife, opens his wife’s parcel, finds a pair of black boots. “Your black boots have arrived. I must say they look very expensive.” She sounds very pleased. “And the scooter is still connected to the utility pole. I bet you it will be there next month. Next year. It’s going to fall apart and I’ll be the one that has to clean it up. I’m going to call the police.” She tells him to wait, to relax. He goes into the kitchen, places the sharp knife back in the drawer, looks around him, feel discomfort at the mess, there’s not really a mess, but he feels as though the kitchen could do with some work, goes back into the front room, stands by the window, eyes the scooter, sips the tea, spots another sticker, it is faded, but he is sure it is Karl Marx. He can’t drink the tea. Swabs his sweaty brow with his arm sleeve, sighs, swears, thinks. “Tom, do you think I should call the police, or should I call the Utility people, what should I do? I’m on fire. I’m literally on fire, no not literally, metaphorically, yes, I know, I know. What? Wait. No, I never text? We’ve already had this conversation. You think you are being rude. What? Yes, I know you are busy, but there’s a scooter that suffering from entropic decline, you like that, it does sound rather, well, thank you. Now what should I do? Public shaming. No. I know it works. But. What? Goodbye.” He puts down the empty mug on the coffee table next to his wife’s new black, expensive, boots, spits out a splinter, goes into the kitchen and out, into the spare room, finds the hammer, weighs the hammer, swings the hammer, smiles, tucks the hammer into the back of his trousers, with a silly gait manages to walk through the kitchen, makes the front room, stands by the window. It has started to rain.

They want you to play dead, they want you to lie down in the mud and play dead, they want you to stop, turn to stone, forget your limbs, forget time and space, turn into an inanimate object and play dead. “Jesus, those utility wires and cables look like guts. I mean they are ugly and disgusting. And the unity pole is not centered. I’m talking about the utility wires and cables that run from the utility pole to our home. The street is full of wires and cables. They look like guts. It’s ugly and disgusting. They really need to do something about it. I feel like I’m looking into the insides of a man. Jesus, pick up the telephone. It’s me. I’m calling about the guts spewing out of the sky. I’ll call back. Please answer the telephone, it is very important.”   He flops onto the sofa, picks up the mug, empty, groans, removes the hammer, rubs his coccyx, breathes, rides through the pain, turns on the television, which helps. He stays with the news. An expert says: “If you find yourself in a terror attack do not play dead.” He stands up, picks up the empty mug and the hammer, walks into the kitchen and out, drops off the hammer, goes back into the kitchen, fills the kettle with water, waits, stirs, spits out a splinter, another splinter, winches, sees blood, wipes the blood onto his trousers, sucks the finger, adds milk, goes back into the front room, stands before the television. He feels sick. He examines the chewed fingernails. The left thumb is still bleeding. He goes to the window. The scooter has gone.


paul kavanagh wrote iceberg (honest publishing)