Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Rainbow Motel

Here comes the knock on the door, Jimmy Smith, but you don’t respond, do you?

“Get me my money and get out.” It’s the manager, Jimmy Smith. But you’re still under the white sheets, and you don’t even move.

The manager slams the door.

Your head lifts and looks out from under the white sheets, making sure he’s gone, then your head drops back onto the pillow, waiting for a few moments, gathering strength enough to get the whole body up.

“One, two, three . . .” You lift yourself, Jimmy Smith, in an imitation of push-ups, and twist that bony torso around until your legs are hanging over the edge of the bed and your feet are about to touch the ground.

You sit there, naked except for a dirty white tank top, grey against the clean white motel sheets.

Did you notice a kind of silence emanating from the motel this morning, Jimmy Smith?

Yes, it was enough to make anyone sleep late.

Saturday night you were drinking, sitting alone in the warmth of this smoky room, while outside the temperature hit an all time low for this time of year, and people turned to the nearest stranger for comfort.

But you couldn’t find a stranger, could you Jimmy Smith?

You must have thought about the other guests, and what they were doing to avoid the cold. Maybe you hadn’t met any of them, you hadn’t been here long enough, and it’s not the sort of place where you get to know the other guests.

A man and a woman checked into the room next to yours late that night, didn’t they Jimmy Smith? You were about to go to sleep when you heard voices outside your door.

You knew the story straight away, the laughing, the fumbling with keys, the kissing each other with alcohol breath and passion. But all that desire evaporated, as quick as spilt whisky, once the door opened and the man dumped the woman.

“No,” she said, and you listened. “Don’t do this.”

“Can’t you understand a simple goodbye?”

“But I love you.”

“Go back to your husband. He loves you.”

The door slammed and the woman started to cry. Then the woman started to hammer on the door. And the hammering kept on going until the door opened.

You pick up the pair of jeans on the floor, Jimmy Smith, and wonder what happened in there last night. It’s none of your business, but you still think about it, don’t you?

The man was in love with the woman, and she was in love with him. But she was married, had a career, and couldn’t bring herself to leave that comfort for this man and their late night rendezvous. Things would be the same if they were together anyway. There’d be no more motels, just a different suburb in a different town.

He knew she was never going to leave her husband. She was using him. So he decided this would be the last time. He took her out to an expensive restaurant and got her drunk and then he brought her back here with the intention of humiliating her, playing with her the same way she’d played with him, getting her all wet and ready to go and then slamming the door in her pretty face.

But she was persistent. She really did love him. She was confused. She loved him and she loved her husband. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t have both. And he heard that confusion, as she hammered on the door, the bluest beat he’d ever heard, because he loved her too, his lost little girl waiting out there, waiting for him to make everything alright.

His pride needed to believe that she loved him more than she loved her husband, that she’d run away with him when they’d saved up enough money. So he let her in like he always did and they made love like they always did. But in that fog after coming he realized again nothing was going to change. She’d sober up in the morning and go back to her husband. He’d take a drink in the morning and go back to work.

He saw her lying there next to him in the flickering television light, so beautiful, the image of all that he ever wanted, and he strangled her. He killed her right there in the room next door to you, Jimmy Smith.

Then he left in a panic, left her lying there, lying dead in there, his hand marks around her throat, his semen bathing inside her cunt. She grabbed at her last breath through a bushfire fog in this motel.

That’s why all the rooms are so quiet this morning, isn’t it Jimmy Smith?

Her lungs have drawn all the life out of the place.

So remove the leather belt from the waist of those jeans and hold it gently in your hands, running thin fingers along the smooth surface.

You feel sorry for the woman in the room next door, don’t you, Jimmy Smith?

Your hands are dirty and your nails are long but your cock is half erect from waking and it grows fully erect responding to the texture of the leather belt.

If you had a drill you could drill a hole in the wall and look at her.

Flick cigarette butts at the bitch.

Burn down the Rainbow Motel.

You thread the strap through the buckle and put the belt around your neck, holding it tight in your left hand as you rest back on the bed, leaning on your elbow.

You take your cock in your right hand and start to stroke it, first slowly then gradually faster.

It doesn’t take long before that face of yours is swollen and the eyes are watering.

You brace yourself, tightening the belt, eyes rolling back in your head, your body a gaunt convolution, as semen spurts onto the white motel sheets.

After loosening the belt you are on the white sheets panting, Jimmy Smith.

When you recover, you get up and pull on the jeans that have fallen back onto the carpeted floor. You take off the belt hanging limp around your neck, thread it around your waist, tighten the buckle, and walk over to the bathroom.

You look through the mould on the mirror, feeling for marks on your neck with one hand, for marks that can’t be seen, for incipient belt buckle marks, as you turn on the cold water tap.

Cool liquid runs through a few fingers. The hands make a cup, full and overflowing with water. You bring the cupped handful of water up to meet the face as it stoops to meet the handful of cupped water.

Splash that face awake, Jimmy Smith.

Run wet hands through the hair to flatten it as best you can.

Satisfied? Wipe the droplets of excess water from that face with a clean white motel towel. Turn off the tap and wonder who needs a shave.

There isn’t much in the room for you to pack, is there Jimmy Smith? Just one suitcase on the floor and a laptop computer on the table. Empty packets of Marlboro, an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch.

Put on the T-shirt that hangs across the chair, then the sweatshirt. Pick up the mushroom boots next to the suitcase and sit on the chair.

You look as if you don’t know what to do now, Jimmy Smith. Let me explain.

Check the empty cigarette packs to make sure there’s none left. When you’re convinced there’s none left, pull the damp socks from the mushroom boots and put one on each foot. After you’ve tied off the laces, close the computer, walk over and open the door, take the key from the pocket in your jeans and let it slide onto the table.

Pick up the computer in your right hand and the suitcase in your left, walk out the door without closing it, pass the manager in his booth, don’t say goodbye as he cracks a fresh nut, don’t clap at the hole-in-one on the sports cable television screen or the wailing karaoke love songs from Vietnam, don’t even mention the dead woman in the room next to yours. Once outside the Rainbow Motel, you can fade into the grey afternoon.


The Ross River winds from the Lavarack Barracks and James Cook University, in Mt Stuart’s foothills, to the base of Castle Hill, a 293-metre red granite rock with a white saint painted near the peak, the central business district’s Sphinx-like citadel, and from there past the hospital, wharves, beaches and out to the Coral Sea. Land originally cleared for cattle slaughter has now been pruned and neatly subdivided into marketable plots for army families, a sprawling military village, a training ground for suburban warfare that resembles a movie set for a post-apocalyptic epic requiring the aesthetics of a Cold War nuclear warning advert. Tanks patrol Ross River Road, the only route wide enough for heavy artillery, this grand four-lane boulevard that runs bracingly parallel to the river’s warped trajectory. Other curving streets, with tiny speed bumps and roundabouts, are too small to drive down in the Valiant. Only the latest bubble car will do. You clip painted gutters, novelty letterboxes, and sides of two-storey houses that all have a carport and a games room downstairs, a veranda, lounge room, dining room and bedrooms upstairs, a swimming pool and tropical garden out the back. Recreational parks have exercise equipment, boat ramps, bikeways, BBQ areas, picnic tables, benches, and playgrounds with swings and slides. Everything is bright pastel, coated in plastic to soften the edges and calm the senses. It’s the artificial calm created after a military coup. Every morning the residents wake expecting air raid sirens to howl and drums of war to beat. The vapours of boiling cattle clear from the bloodied waters of Ross River to reveal the suburbs along its banks glowing in beautiful 1950s Technicolor. This is the desert of pre-fabrication that infected the river as noxiously as the virus that made it famous, a virus of the blood, carried by mosquitoes, that causes pain and lethargy and hallucinations for which there is no cure. This is Townsville. Painful. Lethargic. Illusory. Incurable.

“Where are we?”


“That’s my urine,” Jimmy Smith shouts, squirming his way towards me. He has rolled from the imitation Chinese rug and kicked dents in the trunk lid. I thought he was banging away back there to accompany my dashboard beats. His golden hair has grown, and his beautiful face has deep sleep-creases from lying on the wheel arch. His clothes are ruffled. His white shirt hangs out, unbuttoned, around his black pants. Screwdrivers, spanners, socket sets, a hammer, a wrench, a crow bar, jumper leads, a tyre jack, and clamps that I never used off the drum kit, have been thrown around. Everything is covered with ripped plastic party ice bags and gluey lumps of donut and sugar. He is silent for a moment, scanning the sky. Then he empties the bottle, which was by the fuel pipe, onto the cement at my feet. Warm liquid splashes my toes and the cuffs of my jeans. Parrots are twittering in the trees, flying into the 30-degree morning to get drunk on fermented nectar.

“You wanted to play the dead man,” I remind him as I help him up.

“You didn’t have to cover me with ice.” He sits on the rubber seal around the trunk, fingers scouring his face.

“I thought it would make things more authentic.”

“Is that why you’re wearing my clothes?”

I put my hand on his shoulder to apologize for keeping him in there. “I suppose I got carried away.”

“Just find Ludwig,” he says, finally, breathing out the words. “Show him my body and get the dope.”

He holds my hand for support, starts coughing, doubles-over, and tries to vomit, his head in his lap, sweating and shivering, mumbling to himself, but nothing comes out of his mouth except bile, thin yellow beads of bile. I run my hand over his head. His scalp is clammy and bloated. He lifts his head and tries to smile. I bend to meet his lips and feel the dryness on his tongue. He kisses me thirstily, trying to suck the moisture from my mouth. His breath is thick and rancid. I have to push his face away. He stands up and turns around. I loosen his pants and let them fall to the ground. He reaches for the belt with the golden buckle. His fingers run along the drumsticks shining in the sun. I unzip his jeans and free my penis. He moans and leans over the trunk. I kiss the back of his neck as I pump it in.

He turns his head and tries to kiss me but his mouth is solid and locked too far open. I grip his neck and twist his face into the rim of the spare tyre. His anus contracts around my penis, sending me near to coming with the tightness. My arms stretch out around the sides of the Valiant. My fingers are transformed into drumsticks. They are thick, long, hickory drumsticks. They scrape down onto the cement, against the wheels, and along the frame. I’m playing a calypso rhythm. The metal and the steel make the beautiful tropical tune of Caribbean tympani drums.

Now my penis is a massive erect drumstick inside Jimmy Smith. There’s an optic fibre camera in the head of my drumstick penis and it probes inside his body.

I look down, gasping for breath, and he’s gone, a corpse again, slouched over the spare tyre, but I’m still inside of him, conducting an autopsy with my drumstick.

His body lapses from rigor mortis to decay below me, and I’m still thrashing away, screaming, “Where are you, Jimmy Smith? Tell me where you really are.”

But he can’t speak anymore, and I’m bursting the flesh for an answer to my question. Chunks of flesh are peeling off in my drumstick fingers and in my drumstick teeth. I’m drinking putrid fluids and black blood. The taste and the smell are so bad they could kill. Drunken parrots are singing on branches and kookaburras are laughing at me.

The Cowskin Drum

Every Sunday morning that Step was in town, he uncurled his drawstring tie, fastened his bull’s head belt, and drove to Church in his white Ford Transit van. He said he had to top up his mercy tank. Ma stayed home cooking lunch. She lathered me with suncream and draped a hat on my head. She wore oil instead of suncream whenever she used to lie on her rubber deckchair in the front garden until her skin bubbled with blisters and melanomas.

I hid my hat in the tree where I kept my stick and my knife, along with the pair of second-hand leather sandals that Ma made me wear to school. My feet were as tough as the hoofs of the racing horses that used to swim with me down the river. I walked past the cotton plantation and waved to the black men working. Steamboats shipped carcasses from the abattoir. Chimneys poured rancid smoke into the clear blue sky. Wallabies scuttled from the banks as I leapt into the long dry grass where the cattle grazed. A path led to a barbwire fence that surrounded the shorter grass of the mushroom fields. It took fifteen minutes to adjust to their wavelength. Some rain had dropped the night before. Not much. Enough to raise several small mushrooms that were starting to shrivel like unloved penises in the heat and the shit. I picked them anyway, ate them, and waited for some effect, but it was a minor dose, and I’d been eating them regularly, so not much happened.

When I heard something in the long dry grass, I immediately thought of snakes, but this wasn’t the sound of a snake. It was moaning and gurgling, so I went to have a look.

A cow lay there emaciated, sucking in its last breaths. Its eyes stared at me, pleading, and its tongue was hanging out and lapping dry at the flies and the dust.

I had to help it, had to stop that noise.

I stuck my stick in its belly. Real hard. Never forget that sound. Rip. Never forget that sight. Rip. It went right in and left a hole. First clean and white. Then shot full of red. And the blood came pouring out.

The breathing stopped when I threw away my stick. I got to my knees. The silence was unbearable. It was too quiet. I had to do something to stop that silence.

The dead cow’s eyes watched me because they knew what I was going to do before I did. I looked away, looked around, and looked up at the sky for some smoke to pass over the sun and save me from what was happening inside of me, for the voice of God in Stereophonic sound.

An eagle circled overhead.

There was no smoke, no booming voice-over narration, the sky was bright blue, and the sun was a merciless ball that I had to obey.

I knelt by the beast and touched the black and white coat, stroked it gently to get to know it better. Then I carefully sliced a piece of skin from the rump, next to the hole, inching it away with a tender hand.

The removal of the skin was not easy. It was tough and it ripped, but I managed to get a large square piece of the stuff as the jealous flies investigated my work. They followed me, thought the eagle would too, expected it to swoop down and try to steal my prize. Blood ran down my arms and into my face, as I gripped the skin and held it high. I splashed water in my eyes to remove the blood, but then they stung from salt.

The edge of the river was strewn with fishing lines, muddy cans, broken glass, and baby box-jellyfish left in the foam by the tide. A crocodile smelled my harvest and decided that he wanted his share. I scrambled out of the water, sinking into the mud, falling on the garbage, and caught my hoof on a crab pot. After untangling the pot, I clambered through the mangroves and headed for home.

The skin hung out to dry on the washing line. It flopped there. I was extra careful placing the wooden pegs on the skin, but the blood dripped into the peg bucket and onto the cement path under the washing line.

Ma came out screaming about the peg bucket, my hat, and my shoes. I was soaking wet and there was blood on my hands and in my face.

Step jerked into the driveway in his white Ford Transit van. He wrestled up the garden hose and sprayed me down. He sprayed the clothesline and it swung around.

Then he ordered me into his workshop. I’d never been allowed in there before. It was dark and damp, crowded with tools, boxes of nails, piles of wood, broken benches, the lawn mower he brought out every month to drag around the garden until ready for a heart attack, and everything smelled of dead cane toads and turpentine.

He let me use his extra sharp carving knife, and I set about my job eagerly. I cleaned the skin and removed the chucks of flesh that my knife left behind. He found some wood from his collection and sawed off four even pieces. And over the next few days, he stained the box and decorated it with a white stripe of electrical tape. Then he stretched the skin over the top of the box and nailed strips of metal to each side to hold the skin tightly. He even whittled drumsticks from Ma’s broom handle.

I sat in the garden. Sat in my bedroom. Sat in front of the TV. Sat in school until they told me to go home. Always playing that drum. Ma got sick of the noise, but I think she was jealous, said I had to go down the river to play. I loved that drum, loved Step for making that drum, sat down there every day, in the same spot, leaning against the same tree, the edge of the drum resting between my legs, to get the right pitch and protect the base from the rocks and the dirt, banging away every day on the cowskin drum.

Cyclone Mahina

After I was born, Ma walked across the road and got herself a job as a cleaner at the Hotel Allen. The manager let me sit on the carpet, with a spoon and an ice-cream tub, next to the poker machines, so I imitated the rhythm of the lights flashing and the sound of the coins dropping. When Step came into the pub one day, I thought he was another mental patient from Ward 10B who’d wandered over to wash down his medication with a beer, but he said he was a travelling salesman. The manager wasn’t interested in vacuum cleaners but Ma was interested in men with white Ford Transit vans. He paid our rent and moved in with us whenever he came to town.

On the only road trip that Step ever took me with him, a cyclone twisted towards the coast of Capricornia, and the Bruce Highway got washed out, so the two of us had to stay outside Cairns at a place called the Bruce Highway Motel. The room smelled of paint and crushed ants. There was one double bed and a big General Electric television and a bar fridge. There were no pictures or decorations on the walls. Everything, including the curtains and the concrete floor, but not the bed or the TV screen, had been slapped with whitewash. There was no air-conditioner, and the fan only worked on the lowest speed. I followed each blade, grinding through the odour. The world outside was full of cane toads croaking because of all that steaming tropical rain.

Step piled two late model vacuum cleaners, which he’d refused to sell that day, by the bathroom door. He was afraid to leave them in the van with the other models because he thought that his competitors might try to steal them. After combing his hair, and warning me not to touch the merchandise, he took off to get drunk. I switched on the TV and tried to watch the original Frankenstein, but couldn’t sit still for long because those new boxes with new instruments, an exotic cargo of plastic and electric, were too good an opportunity to pass up. I unwrapped the vacuum cleaners and plugged them into the wall so that I could play my own version of Frankenstein and the monster. I lay on the bed with the vacuum cleaner hoses ready on each side of my skull. I hit the buttons with my heels.

First nothing happened, then there was a flash, and then the vacuums came to life. It worked. Both of the vacuums came on. But unfortunately, both hoses fell straight off the bed and snaked around on the cement.

I played dead for a while, listening to the noise.

When I opened my eyes, and scanned down my body, I felt something moving in my grey school shorts. I took off my shorts to have a look. My penis was stiff and throbbing. The vacuum cleaners told me to put my penis in their holes.

A moth hovered around the bedside lamp, leaving its shadow on the whitewashed motel wall. I was asleep on the bed when Step walked in and switched on the overhead light. He thumped a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch next to the lamp, pulled me up by my hands, and dragged me towards the bathroom. I struggled and got a cowskin boot in the back. I hit my shoulder on the door and my tailbone and spine on the bathtub. I got concrete burns and tile scratches. Urine ran beneath me.

Step walked around in circles, an imitation of a deranged barnyard dance, and nearly slipped over because he was so drunk. The TV illuminated a strip under the bathroom door. I watched it glimmer and shift with the changing scenes.

I could smell perfume wafting in from the bedroom.

The pacing led Step out of the bathroom and into the bedside cabinet, searching for that Bible, and, upon finding it, back into the bathroom. He sat on the toilet and skimmed the soft pages, looking for something to instruct him, the heel of his cowskin boot tapping on a broken tile like he was about to burst into a country song. He couldn’t concentrate to read or sing because there was giggling in the bedroom, so he got up off the toilet, leaned the Bible on the cistern, and took off his bull’s head belt. I thought he was going to beat me with the big horns because I’d seen him beat Ma with them before. But he grabbed my hair, wrapped the belt around my neck and the soap dish, and threaded the buckle. Then he took a glass from the shelf and a razor from his travelling toilet bag. He unscrewed the razor, took out the blade, and washed it under the bath tap. The tap dripped slowly after he turned it off. It was the rhythm of water torture.

Step put the glass on the tiles under my right hand and took the razor to my index finger. It didn’t hurt. “This will cure you,” he said, squeezing my finger until blood ran into the glass. Then he sat on the floor with his head on the toilet seat and mumbled some drunken gibberish from a zombie movie or an African voodoo ritual.

When the glass had enough blood in it to drown a mosquito, he put my arm back into the bath. He forced the glass to my mouth and told me to drink. It tasted like rusted metal, thick in my throat, but pleasant. After that, he made me drink some Scotch, and it tasted worse than the blood. It was the first time I’d ever tasted alcohol.

I put my big toe in the spout, to stop the tap from dripping, and went to sleep.

When Step opened the bathroom door, in the morning, I noticed a blonde wig sticking out from under the bed. I couldn’t get my toe out of the tap, and the wig frightened me, so I started to cry. Step couldn’t get my toe out either. He used soap and shaving cream and hair grease. Then he bandaged my finger and called up the manager, who called the maintenance man, who didn’t get there until lunchtime because the road was flooded.

We headed back to Townsville singing along with Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three. We stopped at Ingham where Step bought me a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After the meal, while I was licking grease from my bandaged finger and wiping my face with a moist towel, he said that if I ever told anyone about what happened during Cyclone Mahina I would go to jail or die from a disease called AIDS. He said that Johnny Cash was the real saviour, not Jesus Christ. A month later, Step gave me the cowskin drum. Something must have happened to him, when he was a kid, to make him do what he did to me at the Bruce Highway Motel, but I never found out, and I never wanted to find out, and anyway it was all worth it just to bang on that cowskin drum.