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.