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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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34 across

What are those little plastic dishes called?

Clothes arrive in loose bundles, scattered through with teaspoons or Monopoly hotels. Magazines shed grocery lists from between their leaves, and a suitcase hides underwear in its secret compartment. There's a whole shelf in the back room dedicated to unfinished embroidery kits, their needles still threaded and their threads still tangled.

Gus takes the boxes of other people's lives and disinfects them, stripping them of dirt and personality until they're fit for sale. Occasionally it's easy: mugs that somebody's soaked in disinfectant for hours, books with their fly-leaves clipped to hide an old inscription. Usually, though, the mugs are still ringed with faint coffee; the books spill open with receipts and photos, tissue paper, sticky notes, the jack of diamonds.

Gus separates a business card from its trouser pocket. The trousers go into the laundry pile, and the business card into the bin, landing on top of a wedding invitation and three chipped marbles and a papier mache balloon painted with a clown face. It annoys him that people treat the shop like a rubbish bin, and then feel virtuous about donating to charity: children's school projects, an uncle's collection of 1968 chocolate-bar wrappers.

The next box has a toaster. He adds it to the bin (they haven't taken electrical goods for years) and crumbs cascade down, filtering through odd socks and soiled blankets. Presumably Lily abandoned her toasters and wedding invitations at a charity bin in California, or maybe she paid someone else to do it instead. She's late, too.

He keeps sorting, picking through a carton of toys until he hears her in the front of the shop, asking Tess where the back room is. When she comes in, she's carrying a box. "Hello," she says.

He looks up. "An incomplete deck of Go Fish cards—rubbish bin or the twenty-cent bargain box, but I'm not sure which."

She puts the box down. "Sorry, I've no idea."

"And you brought a present," he adds. "Gosh, you shouldn't have. Some baby shoes, how cute. Three Nancy Drew books, and this one looks like it might have all its pages. A little straw hat with a ribbon, too. Oh dear, I hope you kept the receipt, though, it doesn't look like it's my size."

"They're not for you, they're for the shop," Lily says. "I left a pile of boxes at Mum's when I moved to Oakland, and she pulled them all out again last night. A lot of it was just garbage."

He stands up to get a better look. A book of logic puzzles under the hat; a stuffed elephant.

At the bottom there's a chemistry set. He should put rubber gloves on and throw it away; there's a policy document up by the back room door, and handling chemicals is item 9b (9c covers medicine, 9d is other hazardous material, 9e is radioactivity and a joke). It's gorgeous, though, two shaded rows of test-tubes, white through to black on the top and red to purple on the bottom. He slides the box open.

"I brought some cookies as well." Lily pulls them out of a plastic bag. They're nestled in wicker and cellophane and ribbons.

"Ah, sorry," Gus says, pulling the safety glasses out of the chemistry set and putting them on, "the shop doesn't accept food. Official policy item 9a."

"They're not for the shop, they're for you," she says with conspicuous patience.

He twists the test-tubes around so he can see the labels. "Oh," he says. "You've used all the Sodium Bicarbonate. Still, maybe I can use the Sodium Carbonate and just put in twice as much." He picks a few of the test tubes up and holds them to the light; thousands of tiny crystals.

"I like this place, anyway." Lily looks around.

"We do our best. This Potassium Hexacyanoferrate sounds fun, too. I wonder what it does." He shakes the tube gently, and the crystals rearrange.

"I'd forgotten how wet it gets in Adelaide."

"Potassium Permanganate sounds ominous, I'm not sure why." He puts it down on the table and takes off the safety glasses to adjust the strap. They're a bit tight.

"But it's nice to have a change," Lily says. "And it's good to see you and Mum again."

They're silent for thirty seconds while he looks through more tubes, and then Gus hears her pull out a chair and sit down.

"The Potassium Hexacyanoferrate, it's used in photography I think," Lily says. "I can leave if you like, and get dinner on the way back to Mum's. Or we could just have a coffee and see if you feel like eating something afterwards."

In the coffee shop he balances a few grains of sugar on the back of his spoon. Lily breaks a piece off her lamington. "I suppose you're going to wear those goggles all night."

"Not if you want a turn." He passes them across, and she slides them into her handbag. "Ah," he goes on, "keeping them for later, in case you need to do science on short notice. Cunning."

She picks off another mouthful of lamington. Desiccated coconut falls across her plate. Gus doesn't have a lamington; he has the chemistry set instead, spread out across half of the four-seater table. He lifts the spoon gently to his face and smells the grains. "What are those little plastic dishes called? Pass one over, would you?" He's quiet, careful not to disturb the sugar by talking too loudly. When Lily doesn't pass him anything, he just waits, spoon poised, until she does. It only takes a minute or two.

"Bonnie seems well, too, better than last time I visited," Lily says.

Gus tips his grains of sugar into the dish, then adds a few drops of coffee. He reaches for a lid and seals them in. It's like clearing postcards from a donated book, or pulling handkerchiefs from the bottom of a chest of drawers: sifting out the personalities and abstracting everything down to nice clean fundamentals. Coffee and sugar, sealed in plastic. "These are good."

Lily smiles tightly, and he grins back, slipping the dish into the bag with the chemistry set.

It's raining again when they leave, and Lily says something about an umbrella. Gus catches a few drops of water in another dish and looks around. "Are you coming over for dinner or not, then? We'll have to get the bus, there's no parking near my place." It's not quite true, but he likes public transport, and he doesn't like being driven places by Lily, especially not when she's spent the last six years learning to do it on the wrong side of the road.

They arrive at the stop as one bus pulls away; twenty minutes later they miss the next one as well, distracted from the road by a girl offering apples. Gus takes one, and wipes it free of raindrops on his shirt.

"You're not actually going to eat that, are you?" Lily steps back further under the bus shelter.

He puts down his bags on a dry patch of footpath and sticks his fingernail in through the apple skin. "Not yet," he says, picking a chunk of the flesh free and then squatting down; into another dish with it. "Now, though," he says, and takes a bite. It's a bit sour. Not too bad. "And we'll have to walk," he says after he swallows, gesturing with the new dish at the back of their disappearing bus.

"I rented a car." Lily's beginning to sound exasperated.

"I told you, there's no parking. And it's only a twenty minute walk. Look, the rain's almost stopped." It hasn't, not particularly, but he's buoyant and cheerful and he strides off without waiting, and a few seconds later he can hear her rush to catch up.

"This science stuff," he says, "is brilliant. I should have taken it up ages ago." He bends down to seal an ant in the next dish, and puts a twig in the one after that while he's there. He can see a bus ticket as well, but a man walks by dialling a mobile phone and almost trips over him, so he stands up.

"Putting a bit of apple in a plastic dish isn't science," Lily says.

"Of course it is," he says, "I bet it's what scientists do all day. Except with a bigger budget, so they're really huge pieces of apple. Laser apples. And the dishes are made of diamond instead of plastic, but we all have to start small." He bends down and scoops up a leaf.

She's striding ahead now; he waits till she walks too far down the street, then calls after her. "This way," he says, nodding across Hurtle Square. There are trees, and a scruffy man with a CD in his hand, but they're all too big to fit in another dish, and Lily's walking even more quickly now. He must have been rude.

"Lily," he calls, and she stops. He catches up.

"What?"

Yes, she's upset; he can hear it. And he's feeling guilty. That's not right, surely? "Here." He picks a thread of cotton off her coat. That'll fix it, he thinks, careful with the thread between his fingers, and he reaches into the bag for another dish to put it in.