Verisimilitude is death. Every writer knows that. Any and all attempts to make a fictional character, place, or event true to any kind of an original guarantees the failure of the work. The truth is best expressed in stretchers, and no writer worth her salt can do it any other way.
But sometimes life falls at your feet so pre-stretched and warped that you don’t need to touch it. So broken and fragile that you fear too much handling will tear it apart. If you have the presence-of-mind to cup it in your hands, or the artist’s hardness of heart to make a note and file it under ‘material’, you do, but so often you don’t. It slips through your fingers, too beautiful (or something) to live. But it marks you, changes you.
There is a character who haunts my work, a flesh-and-blood person, as unviable in life as he lingers beyond it. Like a monster. There has been a film made about him, which I won’t watch until after I’ve written this piece, until after I’ve exorcised the memory, tried to work out for myself why Richard Blackie just won’t die. And I may even decide to visit his grave. One day.
I met him in true fairy-tale fashion by getting lost. We’d just moved to one of Sydney’s salubrious waterfront neighborhoods because it was close to family and good schools. We did the whole ‘worst house on the best street’ deal, but the thing was that I couldn’t afford to shop on the North Shore. The supermarkets played techno and sold artisan bread; the malls were carpeted; the corner store had given way to luxe delis that offered squid-ink linguine. A straggle-haired neighbor who lived in the second worst house on the street, suggested I try ‘crossing the bridge’ to get a better deal. It’s where the real people shop, she said: immigrants and bohemians, students and factory workers. So once a month I’d make the trek to Sydney’s so-called Inner West, a labyrinthine cluster of reclaimed industrial neighborhoods sprawled in the shadows of the skyscrapers where the trains rumbled through and planes thundered overhead and junkies sat on milk crates outside street cafes. Gentrification over the last few years has seen a rise in property values and artisan bakeries, but back then you could still buy bok choy for 50 cents a bunch and toilet paper by the bale, which worked for me. And it was fun—the kids and I would often make an outing of it.
What wasn’t so fun for me was the lack of road signs, the (to me) uniformity of the modest streets with their brick vines and modest bungalows, the seemingly endless arterial roads bisecting grimy warehouse districts, the kids losing patience in the back seat. But this time there were no kids with me as I inched tentatively down Stanmore Road with the trucks and cabbies hurtling past. I must have missed my right hand turn (again) and found myself at a strange crossroads. Ahead of me a vaguely familiar strip joint called The Oxford Tavern advertising Jelly Wrestling and Topless Tuesdays and to the right a Victorian Gothic Church with moss staining its slate roof and a perky billboard out the front assuring me that Jesus was the Real Superhero. The traffic slowed. I drew up beside a storefront painted a dead cobalt with a sign saying Antique Toy Trading Co. An almost life size model of The Blues Brothers in their squad car was parked on the awning. On the sidewalk listed a motherfucking Wookie. Life size. I hooked a right into the lane beside the church. What I told myself was that I needed to turn around and go back. But what I did was get out to check out the Wookie.
The shop was in a tired row next to a Korean Launderette. The door was shut, over it a heavy security grille. The plate glass window was covered with thick steel bars, behind which creepy toys and manikins pressed their faces to the dusty glass. The signs on the outside were detailed and informative. Battery operated, one said. Pop and Rock Memorabilia, said another.
I pressed the bell.
I sometimes wonder why I do these things. It’s one thing when you’re young, with no responsibilities, no kids waiting at home, no ice cream melting in the trunk. Like the time I took a teenage prostitute called Sparrow out the back door of a club and home with me because she was being chased by bikers, she said. Or the time a man on the school bus invited me up to his apartment to drink beer and I said yes. But this was different. I’d survived all that and was a wife and mother with a car full of hamburger meat, so by the time Richard Blackie opened the door and let me in and locked the door after us, I had no way of knowing why I do what I do (I still don’t).
It wasn’t long before I knew that where I was, the realm into which I’d stumbled or been pulled, was special. I knew that I should leave but I couldn’t. I tried to take it all in. The store was a hoarders paradise, as creepy as it was compelling. The rare and the common crammed together indiscriminately. Porcelain dolls and trolls and Homer Simpsons and antique toy soldiers. A model train set under glass, a vampiric Betty Boop, a life-sized Crusader. The hallway opened into the main room, which had been further segmented by the sheer volume of cabinets and shelves crammed with memorabilia. The ticking of hundreds of clocks, thousands of glittering eyes in the gloom, the smell of must and damp paper and time.
My host could have been twelve. Just over five feet, and slender as a boy, with all the stillness and contained energy of an exotic flower, or a snake. He blended in with the surroundings so well that at times I couldn’t separate his porcelain face from the other toys. Except that he talked like a man. Looked at me like a man. His huge kohl-lined eyes at my back, the watching eyes of his toys drawing me further in. We chatted. He seemed to want to talk, an unlit cigarette in one hand and a Big lighter in the other. He wore a mask of street-tough cool, flashed an impish green, theatrical in his speech, his gestures. Was he drunk? High? He seemed a little overwound, followed me around with a dancers grace. Pointed out the valuable and the rare in his collection, seemed flattered by my enthusiasm, my familiarity with some of the American vintage stuff, the Coca Cola bistro set, the musty games of Uncle Wiggly and Candy Cane. I asked him about a Robot for my husband. He said it was eighty dollars. I had the feeling he was lying, that he didn’t want to sell it. He said he had millions of pieces. Had I been to The Toy Museum in the Blue Mountains? (I had). They bought from him. Times were hard, he said. People didn’t appreciate the value of what they had, of history. He sold history, he said. We seemed to be getting off the track. Moving further into the shop. I smelled dog, damp, food, despair. I stumbled over a milk crate. A dog yapped and I looked down to meet the damp eyes of an aged Chihuahua. More eyes.
I didn’t want to go any further. We seemed to be at the gate to his private space. I smelled coffee and food and unwashed clothes. My groceries, I told him. But I’d like to come back, to write about the shop, about him. I asked whether he sold any of his stuff online, whether he’d tried eBay. He answered my questions absently, dismissively, watching my face the whole time. I could tell he wasn’t as young as I first thought. I began to get nervous. What at first had seemed to me to be a colorful local was now clearly more than that. There was derangement here, a lack of accountability; somewhere along the way, a betrayal of trust so monumental, that anything was possible. He was the real deal, and much too real, as Don DeLillo would say, to deal with. There was something so terribly wrong about his beauty, a terrible falseness. He looked like Michael Jackson, but not quite. But I knew that he no longer looked like Richard Blackie, whoever that once was. His face was hacked, smoothed and rearranged. He bragged about the big shots who bought from him, his life as an entertainer in America. What did I think about Michael Jackson?
There was a cage behind which sat the cash register, a chair, more stuff. A CCTV monitor. He’d been robbed, he said. He didn’t like to leave his collection. eBay ripped him off. His voice had become hoarse with desperation and he giggled frequently, a demonic bravado. He chain-smoked. He seemed to be retreating, as we moved back into the store into a territory as far removed from reality as it was from the rumble of the street now immersed in distance. I felt a sense of floating. There were more shelves heavy with dolls and toys and a scale model of a gas pump. His Peter Pan nose crinkled and his joker smile wouldn’t, couldn’t, meet his Michael Jackson eyes. Something about the overturned milk crate (for sitting on) and the smell of weak coffee and little dogs and loneliness. His face was more animated than it needed to be, as if he were hiding something dead inside.
I felt it then. An urgency to leave. Fight or fright. I don’t know what happened, but it was a turning point. He scared me. I scared him. That couldn’t be good.
Maybe it was that in the light made soupy by all the reflected glass, I registered a ropy quality to him, a psychic strength that belied his petiteness. He could hurt me even without meaning to, especially because he’d become so good at hurting himself. Pain was his default position. That was it. He emanated a strange unpredictable energy, like a light bulb just before it blows.
Or maybe it was the muffled sound of the street. It sounded so far away, further away than it should. The ticking clocks ground on and the doorbell hadn’t rung. I knew it wouldn’t.
And I was drawn to him. I liked him. There was in his crazy charm something compelling, almost terrifyingly reassuring. I felt myself sliding toward some kind of a connection, that transformative pity and fear moment. I saw in his fallen humanity, my own need for attention and recognition, the strain of loneliness and alienation, a futile nostalgia, the need to find something to love, as Bukowski, would say, and let it kill you.
So there he was, that man in the mirror. He flapped and fussed over his ciggie like a broken butterfly, blowing smoke, furnace eyed sprite with lies for sale. Michael was closing in, the distance between the man and the monster narrowing, crudely conjured from the restructured cheekbones, the permanent pallor, the inky eyes and beautiful dark hair that seemed to eat up all the light. I pulled back. I turned toward the door. I had to leave NOW.
He pretended he hadn’t noticed, but he had, and I freaked out. He kept talking. This was all going in a museum, he said, following me as I pushed toward the door. One day. That was his dream. He giggled again. Come back any time. People didn’t know what they had, he said. Right under their nose. People didn’t care.
He unlocked the grille. The noise of the street thundered in. He pointed to the strip club. Take a right, he said. That’ll take me back. Back to where I belong.
I stumbled out onto the street not knowing where I was. At first I thought my car had been stolen, but there it was, the shadows of the trees playing across the bonnet, a month of groceries in the trunk. I’d survived something, but I didn’t know what; had seen myself in his fathomless eyes, as naked as he was, as far from home. I felt relief, and rage. Rage toward the toys, the prisoner they’d made of this man, with their glistening eyes and frozen ‘Doh’s.’ I felt rage toward myself for turning away. Monsters all of us, and help is never on its way.
I never went back. Life pressed in. Work and family and everything in between. I got good at getting into the inner west, getting what I wanted, and getting out. I think I subconsciously learnt to avoid that neighborhood; I never missed the right turn home again; I never passed his store again, forgot where it was. But I never forgot Richard. His knowing eyes haunted me; innocence gleaming from one, guilt from the other. He made his way into the book I was writing for my degree and the one after that. The shop and its merchandise became blurred with time—I’d been too nervous to take it all in anyway. But not Richard. That pallid face peering out at me from behind the cabinet of curiosities in which he’d locked himself. I knew now what he’d been telling me, or showing me. The key. Take it, he’d said, and throw it away. I don’t need it any more.
When the absentee millionaires came back to claim the house we’d been renting from them, we took that as a sign that we needed to get to where the money wasn’t. We found a ramshackle terrace house at the outer fringes of the Inner West. By now, property prices had skyrocketed and the hipsters and yuppies had already made inroads, but it was still mixed enough for my restless spirit, cheap enough for my husband’s budget, and close to transport for the kids. Our house was in a green enclave between a strip club called the Oxford Tavern and an ancient Church with a strident billboard commanding one to ‘Friend’ Jesus Christ. I still hadn’t, or wouldn’t make the connection. But one summer day soon after we moved in – 2008 – I passed the shop on my way back from the fruit market across Stanmore Road. The blue was faded. The door was closed, this time permanently. Someone had thrown a rock in the window from which radiated spidery tentacles held together by gaffa tape. The faded lettering said, ‘Tin Toys’ and ‘Robots.’
I’m here, I said. Where are you?
There was no answer.
My husband told me he’d read about a local eccentric, a toy collector who’d been found dead in his shop under mysterious circumstance. Did I think that was him? I didn’t know. I’d gotten used to walking past Richard’s shop. To wondering what had become of him. I asked around, but our end of Petersham is strange. Largely unreconstructed – tight-lipped Portuguese shopkeepers, a brothel or two, and nocturnal creatives. It was hard to get a straight answer. And then Michael Jackson died. On that day in June 2009, someone taped a sign taped to the window.
It said, ‘Richard, we hope you are moon-walking with Michael Jackson from Heaven to Eternity.’
Standing outside the shop, I felt the ground shift beneath me. I went to work to piece together what I could from the Internet, from his MySpace site. Richard Blackie had killed himself on the 26th of May, 2006. He was 41. His beginnings were no happier than his end. He’d been removed from his parents as a child in Queensland and made a ward of the state. His love of toys was attributed to a childhood deprived of them.
He claimed to have been born with uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson and got work as an impersonator, both in Queensland and then when he moved to Sydney. His MySpace profile lists Michael Jackson as a Friend. He always denied having surgery, but in an interview with a woman’s magazine admitted to having had thousands of dollars of facial reconstruction, his skin whitened and his eyes inked to more closely approximate his idol. And it was good for getting work. He was an ‘approved’ Michael Jackson impersonator. But then when the King’s star began to fall, so did Richard’s. A victim of child abuse, it was only through the cruelest of ironies that it was Richard himself, albeit in the guise of Michael Jackson, who was now heckled at performances and on the airways for being a child molester and pedophile. He was hospitalized after being bashed by a DJ, told his reconstructed nose couldn’t take another hit. He began taking anti-depressants. He bought a toy and memorabilia business in Petersham, NSW, said he felt ‘called upon to round up all the old toys in the world.’ He hoarded more than he sold, more than he could ever sell. He bred and sold Chihuahuas. He tried eBay. He made enemies. He drank. He pushed people away. Drew others in like flies, he said, into a web (my mind went back to the broken web of glass and gaffa across the shop window) The woman in the upstairs apartment recalled seeing him bruised, beaten up. He had a new obsession: opening a toy museum in the abandoned Petersham Majestic Roller Rink.
The rink had been bought by Greek developers in 1985 and the local council repeatedly thwarted his plans. Richard became depressed, convinced that the Greek Mafia were after him. He became a prisoner, unwilling to leave his precious toys unguarded—self-medicated, tripping over his dogs, unable to pay his bills. A local student made a documentary about him. I couldn’t watch it.
I don’t know who found his body, or how he killed himself. There was apparently no note. The police could find no next of kin. His body lay unclaimed at the morgue for three months until an unnamed benefactor paid for a funeral attended by 25 people at the Rookwood Gardens Cemetery. His collection was administered by the State Trustee, what wasn’t sold was dumped. The Petersham Majestic is today being restored and converted into an apartment building and deluxe retail complex.
Richard’s store is still empty. Enough hurt and harm in that place to have taken on a life of its own. Richard has found his way into my new novel, American Monster. I like to think of him moon-walking with Michael, of a Roller Rink in heaven where innocence never dies. I still see the Wookie listing in the breeze outside his store until I blink and it goes away.