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Read an Excerpt
By Ron Elliott
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2013 Ron Elliott
All rights reserved.
Forgive quickly, kiss slowly
Love truly, laugh uncontrollably
And never regret anything that makes you smile.
— James Dean (... and others)
It was after midnight and we were on our way home when there was a loud bang like a rifle shot. The car veered left and I hit the brakes. It jerked further left across the breakdown lane and into the cement freeway dividing wall. The car moaned and shuddered then stopped.
I looked over at Robin and said, 'That was fun. Wanna do it again?'
She didn't smile.
I got out and wandered around to the front left wheel. The tyre was shredded. It had been bald for a while, the accident waiting to happen finally had.
Robin looked out the open passenger window, at the twisted fender then up to me, faintly accusing but also just a little bored. 'Have we got any cigarettes?' she said.
'They're in your bag.'
I went to the boot and kicked it in the right spot which made it pop. I could see Robin in the front, head bent, rummaging. She found the cigarettes and lit one, blowing a long grey breath out the passenger window.
I rummaged too. There was a stained windcheater in the boot and some basketball boots and a lot of spoiling comic books and graphic novels that I had meant to find a good home for.
I waited for a car to go past then went back to the driver's window.
Robin said, 'No spare.'
'I got a spare. What makes you think I haven't got a spare?'
Silence. She knew.
'I haven't got a jack,' I said. I smiled and raised my eyebrows in a way I know cracks people up.
Not Robin, not tonight. She turned away from me and opened her door, thudding it on the cement retaining wall. She banged it again and one more time but the concrete wouldn't move.
'Want to have a picnic?' I said.
She pushed across the bench seat and out my door.
'I'll call Greg,' I said.
She got her handbag and got out the packet of Winnie Blues and pushed them into my hands. I looked at the packet and up to her, but she was walking away.
'See you at home,' she yelled.
She stuck out her thumb and a black BMW appeared out of nowhere, cut across three lanes and she got in.
I probably should have taken down the registration – popped it in my phone so if he was a deranged killer, the police could have traced him. I thought this as the car's rear lights turned into a spot of red and disappeared. I suppose I'm not such a good man to have in a crisis. Maybe I'm just not such a good man to have.
* * *
My car, a Valiant Regal, wagged its tail behind, its front wheels hitched up on Greg's tow truck as we drove through the burbs. I had my feet up on his dashboard, looking out the big windscreen. Greg is one of my Slav mates from way back before kindergarten even.
'I don't believe you haven't got a jack,' he said for about the tenth time. 'Everybody's got a jack.'
'Oh I got a jack, Zac. I got the biggest jack in the world.' He pointed out the cab's back window.
'That's not what the girls say.'
Greg laughed, then said, 'Get stuffed,' then asked, 'Where's Robin?'
'You ever see The Misfits? Old black and white movie. Marilyn Monroe. Clark Gable drives this pickup truck. Bit like yours I reckon.'
'You tell me every second time you get in. You know, they have made movies in colour.'
'Really? I bet they never catch on. Turn down that street.'
'Turn down here.'
'This isn't the way to your place.'
'No, a detour. You'll like it.'
Greg reluctantly turned down past Perry Lakes and back towards the ocean. I looked through his CD collection in the glove box. It was mostly Heavy Metal with a sprinkling of Death Metal.
'You know it's after three a.m.?' he said.
When we got to the padlocked gate at the end of the no through road, he said, 'What's this?'
But you could see what it was in the truck's headlights. It was a long-abandoned drive-in. There were the speaker-less cradles and tufts of yellow dead weeds that had come up through the broken waves of bitumen.
Greg threw the tow truck into neutral, but left the motor running. He looked around behind him making sure he could back somewhere before he relaxed.
I took out my plastic sandwich bag and started to roll us a joint.
'They closed this one down about twenty years ago. Before we were born, I reckon. Just left it.'
'To spite you. Land must be worth a bomb,' he said.
'Rob and I used to come here all the time. And I'd tell her a movie. She'd say a title, and I'd do it. You know, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'
'I haven't seen it.'
'It's in colour. By the guy who did the Smirnoff ad. Gondry. He does clips.'
I couldn't think of any. 'He slows stuff down and speeds it up in the same shot, like they do in The Matrix. Calls it bullet time.' I lit the joint and took a hit. Passed it to Greg. 'Put your high beam on.'
'Put on your high beam.'
Greg switched to high beam. The light hit the white screen in the distance. A large sheet had come away, leaving a corner of black, but the rest of the screen was mostly intact, like it was hanging in the sky.
'See,' I said.
'Does this mean we're going steady?'
I got out of the cab. The air was cold and brittle and burnt my lungs with each breath. I looked at the screen in time to see it disappear as Greg dipped his lights again. I went round the front through the headlights watching half my shadow on the ground and the other half climbing up on the mesh of the gate. I went to Greg's window and took the joint.
Greg was watching me, waiting, patient.
'She can be quiet. You know. Sometimes, she's really quiet. Inside herself.'
'Ah,' said Greg. I gave him the joint.
'Other times you can't shut her up.'
'No, in the middle of the night, once she gets going. Lately ... It's just that lately – people get grumpy, you know. Normal, happy, together people sometimes get the shits, and it's okay. After a while. I mean, in the morning it's all okay again.'
'Sure,' said Greg.
I stood looking at the Valiant, red in the tow truck brakelights, hanging up like a caught fish. 'We don't need a jack.'
Greg didn't even look back. 'No.'
'It's already up. We can change the tyre, now.'
'Yep. Or back on the freeway.'
He's a good man, Greg.
'So how can you tell? When someone – when it starts to turn into something else, something bad? If no one says and it happens slowly, how do you know?'
Greg shook his head, looking at the decayed drive-in.
* * *
I stood in the doorway of our bedroom for a while until I could make out Robin in the bed. Then I turned the light on. She rolled onto her stomach.
She didn't say anything.
I stepped past her jeans and top and her small piles of dresses and underwear and went to the wardrobe and hung up my jacket. I looked at my rifle leaning against the back of the cupboard.
'We went to the old drive-in.'
The room smelt mouldy. It was a damp old house with creaking floorboards, especially upstairs.
'Haven't been there for a while.'
She didn't move.
I went back to the door and turned the light out and stood in the doorway again, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light from her clock radio. The bed glowed green.
I took off my boots and then my shirt.
'Are we finished?'
She might have been asleep.
* * *
Robin wasn't in bed when I woke up. She sometimes wasn't, if she had an early lecture. I never started at the restaurant until just before lunchtime. I found her downstairs, arguing on her mobile.
'All I'm saying is, I don't remember reading it. I can't remember what it said. Okay?' She started to listen, her jaw grinding. She saw me watching her and turned to the wall.
I put the kettle on and tipped the coffee grounds down the sink.
She walked across to the other side of the kitchen, keeping her back to me. 'Oh well, if Terry said Jack said. Why would it be sent to me anyway? I'm not even in Kalgoorlie.'
Robin listened again. Then she staggered slightly like the bus setting off when she wasn't ready. She said, 'But, why would she do that? What possible reason? Look, Gail, this isn't getting us anywhere. You and Liz are there. I don't need to be dragged into it. Tell Jack to give you another invoice, for Christ's sake.'
I moved some wine bottles out of my way and got a bowl of muesli.
'Gail, I'll look. I know you don't ask much. I know I missed it. I'll look. I told you I'll look. Tell Terry, I'll look. Tell Liz. Tell Jack. Okay. I'll look. Byeeee.'
Robin grabbed her knapsack and started stuffing in the books that were on the table. 'What? Oh, some stupid invoice was sent here by mistake, and now the guy's hassling them about the bill, and they don't believe Jack, and Jack – stupid Kalgoorlie stuff. Kal-flamin'-goorlie.' Robin gave up trying to stuff a big dentistry book in with the rest, and pushed it up into her armpit.
'What was the bill for?'
'What?' She looked at me as though I'd insulted her.
'I can have a look for it. Before work.'
'It's got nothing to do with you,' she shouted.
I didn't say anything; didn't even know where to start.
She was already heading out of the kitchen, but she stopped. She came back a step and said, 'It's not lost. It's probably in a pair of jeans. I'll find it later. I'm late.' Tight smile, half a shrug. Gone.
The kettle whistled like a scream. It wasn't really like a scream, but it was shrill and I felt like screaming.
I started to clean up the kitchen. There were a lot of wine bottles on the table all with a bit of wine in them: booty/looty from the restaurants. I always took about six home and made a bit of a red blend. The white went in the fridge with the doggy bags. Free booze if you like average wine and free food if you like Mexican. The lunch restaurant has better, but with fewer leftovers.
Our house is old. The rent is cheap because they're going to bulldoze it anytime and build upmarket apartments like all the others around us. The kitchen is small and dark with hot and cold running cockroaches and those flat striped whistling crickets. There's a big casserole pot that is a Robin heirloom that we never use up on top of the cupboard which I suspect may be the cockroach condominium. There's nothing worse than seeing them pop out behind one of the movie posters we have up on the walls: A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and cockroach. Paul Newman IS Hud. Winner of three cockroaches. We could stick up a WALL-E poster and then it wouldn't matter.
I put the empty wine bottles in a crate next to the bin which is under our noticeboard. There are bills and Robin's class timetable and postcards and birthday cards with movie themes, but mostly there are photos people have printed off their mobiles. Lots of me at the restaurants. I do Scarlottas for lunch and Gringos for dinner. There's me at other restaurants I've worked at, but I'm happy with Scarlottas and Gringos. Fun management, not hard arses. And tipping customers, of course. Me in a sombrero is a theme. I look a little bit like James Dean. Hey, I never said that. Other people say it. So lots of the cards are of James Dean. In the rain. With that puppet. In a cowboy hat.
Robin looks more like Audrey Tautou, but not in Amélie. All her other films, especially Dirty Pretty Things. It's the dark hair and the dark eyes. Her eyes are sometimes wary but every now and again in a photo, you can see them alight and burning. Most of the photos don't catch that. She pulls it back and smiles politely. It can make her look guarded.
Our whole history is up on the noticeboard. A photo of us in Margaret River. One of us at the top of Bluff Knoll. Us camping in Pemberton. Us camping in Kalbarri. Rotto. Lots in Rotto. She looks very good in a bikini. She looks good in a coat too, all black clothing and layers and the eyes. Someone even snapped a shot early on the night we met. She's with laughing girlfriends and I'm in the background carrying plates. It was a night they were going to forget men, and then they played a game of who could bag the cute waiter.
* * *
Later, when I was at Scarlottas, she texted me. Going to Kal.
I phoned her, but she wouldn't pick up.
I texted her: What the?
She texted: Saturday.
I texted: Me too?
Then nothing. I tried to phone. She wouldn't pick up. I sent :(
She turned her mobile off.
I broke some plates. I yelled at Carlo, the chef, which is never a good idea. I broke a glass. They sent me home but I didn't want to go there.
* * *
Instead, I went to the movies and saw a shit rom-com which was perfect because it gave me the chance to think.
I drove to Greg's workshop and explained the car part of my plan. His workshop was dark inside and smelt of many kinds of car oil.
The acetylene hissed nicely, the oxygen adding a deeper rush. Greg had set the dials. He stood back and watched as I clicked the flint and set the big lazy yellowy flame. More oxygen and the flame got pointed coming back to a tighter bluer thing with no soot.
'Behold, the neutral flame,' I said looking out at him through the dark safety glasses.
'Don't blow the place up,' said Greg.
'Oxygen off. Gas off. At the tanks. No smoking. Key in the Coke can when I leave.'
He opened the corrugated metal door that was cut into the roller. Sunlight washed in around him making him disappear in the burst of white for a moment, until he came back in as a phantomy silhouette. The Greg silhouette pointed at my car, which waited in the centre of the workshop.
'For a start, the chassis will probably fall in on itself. B – water will get into the panelling. And three – it's so rusted out to begin with, the roof's probably the only thing holding it together.'
I tried a horror voice as I went towards the car. 'That's what they said to Doctor Frankenstein and Furter. That's what they said to Tim Burton. And James Cameron, three times. Tonight, I make history!' I tried a maniacal laugh. It sounded good in the tin shed.
I punched Greg's boom box where I'd put a Coldplay CD. Parachutes.
My car is a 1969 Falcon Valiant Regal VF. It is a very dull green. I like that it's a car that is double my age. I like that it is battered enough for me not to worry about it in the city at night. I love the bench seat in the front and the two strip lights on either side of the hood. The new dent and scrape from the freeway add perhaps too much character, but that can be up for discussion.
I put the flame against the back strut until it glowed red, then hit the cutting lever. The paint flamed with thick black smoke as the metal sliced and melted and stank. Sparks poured out, scattering inside the car and dying on the workshop floor.
I flicked off one of the heavy gloves and got a smoke and held it into the tip of the flame. At one point the rear window exploded when it got too hot. After that I wound down the front windows before cutting through the other struts. A thousand pieces of broken glass reflected the blues and whites of the flame. I was careful around the front windscreen, cutting back about five or six centimetres into the roof. I crawled inside and teased out the ceiling light and wiring before I took the roof off completely.
Coldplay was the soundtrack as I worked. It had seemed perfect for how I felt. All those break-up songs. Sad bastard. But some pretty neat song titles too. 'Sparks'. 'Yellow'. 'High Speed'. I thrashed the one album all afternoon and evening as I cut up my car. The last song on the album is 'Everything's Not Lost'.
* * *
I turned on the bedroom light and went to the wardrobe and started stuffing clothes into my pack.
Robin sat up in bed. 'What are you doing?'
'Get up. Get dressed.'
I grabbed our sleeping bags and my pack and the rifle.
'Oh, and grab a jumper. It's colder than you think.'
I had a box of stuff ready on the kitchen table and I'd piled more stuff on the path ready to put in the boot. Food and toilet paper and two flagons of wine.
She came down the stairs in a jumper and skirt. 'It's two a.m.'
I grabbed a CD I'd chosen and raced out the front door so I could be ready when she came out. I jumped onto the back seat and over into the front and put the CD in the car stereo. I unlatched the passenger door, put on my Wayfarers and lounged back. That's how she found me, in my convertible.
She laughed, short but right. 'It's good,' she said. 'It's very, very good.'
The cutting was rough and there were bits of glass still on the back seat, but it did look like the real thing, not so much convertible as roofless.
I kicked my foot out so her door swung open towards her. 'Your pumpkin awaits.'
'Where's the ball?'
She got it. She nodded. Then she looked doubtfully at the pile of provisions.
'Camping,' I said.
She kicked at the rifle.
I tried a southern accent, 'An' a huntin' an' a fishin'.'
'Yeah, well good luck with fishing. You know it's in the middle of the desert, right?' She was smiling.
I pushed the play on the car CD to clinch it. Bo Diddley's 'Tonight is Ours'. It wasn't one of his pared back blues numbers. It was lush, romantic and nostalgic. He had back-up singers. A crowd.
She was still smiling but started to shake her head. 'Tomorrow.'
With Robin, you can never tell which way she might go. 'You're not listening to the song.' I pushed my sunglasses up and worked my eyebrows, letting the car and Bo Diddley do the work.
Excerpted from Now Showing by Ron Elliott. Copyright © 2013 Ron Elliott. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION – ADAPTING BACKWARDS,
FOR THE BIRDS,
DOUBLE OR NOTHING,
ALSO BY RON ELLIOTT,