The taste in his mouth was bitter, his collar choked a him a little in the humid night air and his eyes narrowed under the cold white fluorescent light of the bowling alley car-park. Saturday night with nothing good to say about it. It was one of the first times he could remember not wanting to be seen. Was he really a victim of a robbery? Somebody had stolen his love of being around others and helping people. He intended to get back what was his. After all, he was Happy Fred.
It didn’t take a genius to work out what had happened. Someone had something against him, either one person or maybe two had hidden behind that elm tree past the fuel pumps, where he worked every day, and waited for him to leave the shop counter. Fred felt he was an average guy. He had accepted an amount of loneliness like a certain amount of sleep money or freedom.
But these people were different. They must have watched him look around for approaching customers, truckies mainly, then sidle off to the service stations courtesy toilet. As the sole service station attendant he did this as quietly and quickly as he could, straight after eating his lunch under the counter. What he did each working day wasn’t a mystery, it was same way he’d done it six days a week for the last 15 years.
That afternoon the sunshine had lit up the corrugated iron roof of the servo out-house. His return from the courtesy toilet usually meant bodily relief but today all Happy Fred got was shock and confusion.
Reflecting in white spray-paint off the otherwise pristine shop window were two 4 feet high words reading “HAPPY RAPIST”.
Whoever they were, Fred knew they knew what they were doing. The words were sprayed on with a paint that wouldn’t rub off. Fred thought about his old friend Arthur who owned the bowling alley, he’d know something or at least be able to help fix things.
The air-conditioning blasting through the bowling-alley may have come as a welcome relief from the air outside, even so Fred didn’t want to look obvious scanning the place for Arthur. His efforts yielded no sign, still, the feeling of his personal bowling ball in his bright red shammy sling felt good.
The veins in his hands tensed and gave over the ball he held snugly in the bikini like sling. Any other day of the week Fred could pretty much ballroom dance in the slippery shoes but this evening he was holding things together for answers.
Shining up that Jaffa-orange juggernaut in the sling lost its steady momentum when Rita stepped up on him like a ghost, “Your beer, Fred.”
He motioned for her to place the bottle on the bowing lane table. His hands were full and not the way he liked it.
“How was your day, Fred?”, she continued.
Rita had never taken a verbal interest in him before. She was Arthur’s girlfriend and her customer interaction skills only proved that all the more. He wanted to ask her where Arthur was but part of him knew he’d need to catch the crook himself and not run to a higher authority. Right now he couldn’t deny she’d used an inflection. It was undeniable the way she pushed the words How and Day.
Images of the graffiti over the shop window ran through his head as he dodged Rita’s fractured stare looked to him like a staring eye of inquisition. Fred knew she had to be one of them behind today’s attack. But something else dogged him. Who else had she talked to?
He could already imagine the kind of things she might say about him behind his back, although he couldn’t figure out why. In his peripheral vision were elderly ladies, little children and young families all gliding down the beech wood aisles. He didn’t like the feelings he was feeling when he thought about this. He tried to resist reacting against these uncomfortable images of the damage she could do - she was here all the time. So was he.
Suddenly his hands felt out of place in the sling. He needed to put the bowling ball down in a way that didn’t say ‘I’m scared”.
Without the ball and sling between his fingers he could calmly take control of the situation -like the way he kept a smile on his face. Bending down to put the ball down, he was trying not to seem rigid. He knew it now, this girl was the one, she was either acting as a lone wolf or the ring leader of today’s vandalism.
“Do you know?” he started, “what happened today at the servo?”
Rita stepped closer with her eyes glowing, “No. Why don‘t you tell me? “
There was that loaded tone! It was like she was forcing him to admit what had happened. It was as though she was trying to make Happy Fred say the words ‘Happy Rapist’. It was like a nightmare from hell.
Fred breathed in and breathed out.“W-we had some graff-fiti on the shop window today R-Rita...”
But before he could finish get the words out Rita was already shooting back “Oh! What kind of Graf-f-fitti, Happy Fred?”
“Ah” he had to think fast, “you know what kind R-Rita”.
Rita's look of inquisition revealed a sharp clenched up anger, she reached out to his chest with a pointed index finger. She had red and white painted nails with what Fred though were little white Chinese dragons on them. These manicured points were like antlers that started to push and dig past his cotton shirt into his skin.
Where was Arthur? Surely Rita was aware that digging into him under security cameras would not sit well with his old buddy.
Fred wasn’t sure if he’d started bleeding but his eyes had locked in with hers as though she was in his rear vision mirror. She moved back slightly and then gathered some momentum - her eyes locked with Fred's as if they were dancing.
That’s when he noticed he had his own well worked fingers around hers separating her nails from his chest. He handled her firmly but also with a gentle confidence like his left hand was operating a stick shift gear.
It was like he was possessed. Fred didn’t feel any of the pain he thought he’d feel in a situation like this. Right now was simply slowly reversing Rita as carefully as he could as though she were a Mack truck.
“You, Rita” he began.
She was listening so intently they both heard the minute cracking of an acrylic fingernail under his solid grip. “You are going to need an army if you want to win this war, Rita.”
Sunday afternoon, Happy Fred waded into the river water. The days and nights had been into the red for weeks. It was like Arthur always said, “ In weather like this some people do crazy things and think the regular rules don’t apply” but one of the benefits of the heat meant the water was warm enough to enjoy naked. Now there was a thought.
The water carried up around his shoulders and neck as he slowly dog paddled out into the deeper cooler waters. Like a little pleasure trip, Fred watched the orange peel quality of the sun dancing off the water. There were other swimmers, sun bathers and even people in sail boats on and around the river. Everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves, laughter and smiles on a lazy Sunday by the river. Fred breathed in deeply to his lungs and released. The light on the water was also inside him and he felt it growing inside him.