An Itch to be Scratched

A Short Story

By Nonjabulo Malinga
© Archil Menabde

Behind slouched shoulders, a hand hides in a coat pocket like a corner candy man. A strange-looking man, Marks, stumbles down a carpeted hallway flanked by dazed oldies yanking slot machine levers and sugar-high kids racing past him. 

The fluorescence of the movie theatre foyer illuminates his dark face, revealing bloodshot eyes. He steps back into the shadow, gazing on the large digital clock by the casino entrance. He flaps his coat, opens his palms and kisses four pocket-size bottles of pure vodka, his yellow teeth holding a tight grin. 

After circling the casino floor five times in the last hour, a security guard grips his baton and approaches him, but he flees to the bowling alley, ducking behind a vending machine selling non-alcohol beer. He punches its reinforced window, pressing his nose on it. His tongue squeaks on the glass, fogging it up with his hot breath.

The rattle of rolling bowling balls awakens Marks from his slumber. He wipes the drool from his cheek, frowns and looks around, unsure of where he is. He scratches his nose with his upper lip, triggering a chain of itches all over his body, so he scratches violently, jumping up and down. He tries to reach around to an itch on his back, spinning like a dog chasing its own tail. Bystanders squirm, running away, leaving their unfinished drinks behind.

 As their haunting laughter and cries grow distant, he stops and eyes a bottle of beer left on the table. A screaming white light dashes towards him, knocking him off balance. He blinks through the blur, scans the empty alley and charges towards the beer, scratching more itches on his face.

Focussed on the label of the beer, he flashes a creepy smile, the corner of his eyes squint. The unflavoured beer has eight per cent alcohol. He does an adorable shoulder dance, reaching into his coat pocket for his vodka. He sticks his tongue out, brow sweaty, carefully pouring it into his beer. He is two bottles in, and his knee begins to shake.

“I know. I know. I’m almost done. Give me a sec,” he says to himself, opening the third bottle with his teeth, spitting the lid onto the floor.

Screaming kids pile into the bowling alley carrying juice boxes. They are chasing each other around the sitting area, rowdy and unsupervised. One of the kids ramed Marks’s elbow, spilling the last bit of vodka onto the table. The kids stop and turn to apologise. He turns to them, barks in their terrified faces. His scream echoes through the alley, catching the attention of the attendant. 

He snatches the juice box from the little boy’s sherbet stained hand, his chest ventilates. He pokes through the grey seal and pours the juice on the spilt vodka and into his beer. He takes a long, breathy sip, eyeing the kid he took the juice from. 

The other kids crowd him, jaws dropped, hesitating to get too close. He sees their wide eyes, pearly white and dilated, bends over and slurps the vodka and juice mixture off the table. He groans, bathing his face in it.

“Excuse me? What the hell are you doing to my kids?” a woman screams, holding a toddler’s hand.

She looks at Marks, vodka and juice dripping from his face. He cups the last bit and splashes his face with it, licks his lips and pops his tongue. He is satisfied, quenched and not giving a damn. 

“Life Orientation. I’m showing them what their future looks like,” he says, licks his fingers and walks off. 

He closes his eyes and gulps his beer mixture, misses a step, collapsing down the three-step flight, chipping his front tooth. He leaps up, improvising a silly drunk-looking dance and hurries off, burps and hiccups out of the bowling alley into the abyss of the casino. 

The sky turns from sunny to overcast, a grey thickness blankets the city. Under the table, hands rub over a shaking knee, body rocking back and forth. A waitress places an empty glass and a bottle of still water in front of a well-groomed man, dressed in style. It’s Marks, clear eyes and a clean face, almost unrecognisable. He sways from side to side, expecting someone to enter the busy café. A burgundy briefcase slams onto the table, startling him, spilling half of his bottled water. 

“I’m so sorry, I’m late. There was traffic on the road and traffic at the printer. I can’t print out your contract without a printer,” Sibusiso jokes, tossing a bunch of serviettes at Marks.

He adjusts his ‘head of recruitment badge’ and flips through the stack of papers, showing Marks where to initial and sign. He looks at the ambiguous language, shifting his eyes between the wordiness on the page and the group of friends over Sibusiso’s shoulder, lifting their cocktails with wide smiles. 

A white light bolts towards him and he lifts a hand over his face, blocking it. He quakes his head, fighting the blinding blur. He scratches his face, wipes the sweat off his brow. Sibusiso studies him, his body spread in his chair.

“Do you have any friends, Marks?”

“All my friends are either at the bottom of the ocean or being recycled.”

Sibusiso shifts awkwardly, unsure of what to make of that. Marks shrinks his body, blocking his view of the ladies behind Sibusiso.

“No worries, my friend. Sign the contract and you can start your new life with us at Globob Logistics.”

He smiles. Marks scratches his arm and signs, letting out a deep sigh. He flips the stack closed, sliding it over. Sibusiso talks to the waitress, gesturing wildly with his hands. Marks fiddles under the table, looking straight-faced at Sibusiso.

 An empty pocket-sized bottle of gin barrels off the balcony.  He opens another out of sight, his hands tremble, struggling to pour the gin in the water bottle.

He quietly sets it on the table, scratching the back of his neck. He puts his nose right over the bottle and inhales deeply, closing his eyes.

“That must have been some great tasting water if you need to inhale it like that,” Sibusiso jokes.

Marks nods, puts his hands behind his back.  He runs his tongue over his chipped tooth and takes a big bite of the open bottle, lifting it to the sky, straining his neck. The colourless contents slide down into his throat. He gulps.