Authors: Brooke Davis
, Karl says, panting, already regretting the flicking incident, leaning into the side of the car, trying to catch his breath.
Seriously, man, that was not cool
I said I’m sorry
, Karl says.
The girl appears next to Karl.
she says, hands on hips.
, she says, pointing up the road.
Karl walks forward, beyond the bonnet of the car, raises his hand over his eyes and looks toward the direction of Kalgoorlie. The bus has stopped up ahead.
It’s right there
, Karl says.
, he calls down the road, waving.
Thanks for the lift
, he says to the couple.
It was wack!
He grabs Manny from the backseat and slams the door.
As he shuffles down the road, he hears the girl say,
What the hell is wrong with you?
He flicked me in the face
, the boy answers.
God, you’re pathetic
, the girl says.
Mum was so right about you
Their voices drown out behind him.
, he says, shuffling as fast as is possible for him.
Wait for me
. He wishes he could break out into a run like he used to, wishes he could be boisterous and careless with his limbs. He focuses on the white square of paper on the back window.
Please don’t go
, he whispers. The couple drive up alongside him and Karl’s jacket is thrown out the passenger window. It hits Karl in the face. The couple speeds off, fishtailing in the gravel on the side of the bitumen, a cloud of dust settling over him. Karl removes the jacket from his face and watches the couple drive off into the oblivion of youth. He takes a deep breath and yells at the top of his lungs,
HE WILL DIE, YOU KNOW
he bus driver is a woman, but she looks like she’s wearing her dad’s clothes: blue shorts, a collared short-sleeved shirt that’s too big for her, socks pulled up to her knees, black lace-up shoes. She’s very skinny, with spiky hair. Millie walks down the aisle, bringing the mannequin’s leg with her.
The truth of
to go to the toilet?
She finds a seat behind the driver. There’s a sticker on the dashboard that says,
Would you like to speak to the man in charge, or the woman who knows what’s happening?
She watches the white dashes on the road. She loves how, if the bus moves fast enough, they join together in one long white line that splits the world in half.
Have you ever seen chicken come in a bucket?
Millie says to the bus driver.
The bus driver doesn’t answer for ages. She just sits there and drives as if Millie hasn’t spoken at all. Millie’s about to say it again when the bus driver says,
I done this for thirty years
. She’s gazing out over the road and it’s hard to tell if she’s talking to herself or to Millie.
You reckon you wouldn’t learn much, driving up and down the same patch over and over.
They pass a bright-green paddock with one gray, leafless tree sticking out of the middle of it. It looks like a person trying to attract attention. Millie waves at it.
On either side of the road, the ground is flat and wide, and completely white. The sun shines directly on it, and Millie has to shield her eyes from the glare.
Is that snow?
The bus driver snorts.
You never seen the salt flats?
, Millie replies, wanting to lick the paddock of salt more than anything. Her forehead bumps softly on the window.
There was water there once
, the bus driver continues.
Then the salt came up and—
she makes slurping noises—
sucked it all up. Killed off everything around it.
There are swirls and shapes all over it, like giants have been finger-painting.
But then all sorts of things turn up that couldn’t grow there before. Pretty beaut, eh?
The salt glitters at Millie in the sunlight.
It’s tough out there, though
, the bus driver goes on.
hippies down our way goin’ to find themselves in India or wherever. Hangin’ upside down, eatin’ lentils. It’s nothin’. Walk in the park! Spend a night out here and you’ll find yerself pretty quick.
Millie can see herself in the reflection on the window. It seems strange to want to find yourself. Wouldn’t you want to find somebody else? Aren’t you the one thing you can be sure of? She puts her real hand on the glass, up against her reflection hand.
They drive past rows of gum trees, leaning out over the road and into the sky, like dancers posing.
Those trees there
, the bus driver says.
See how pink they are?
Millie nods. They make her think of the inside of her mouth.
Salmon gums. Always looks like the sun’s setting on ’em.
Millie stares at them.
That yer granny back there?
What’s that on yer wrist?
the bus driver says.
Millie looks down at the beer cozy.
It was my dad’s. He died.
The bus driver looks at Millie in the rearview mirror.
What did he go and die for?
The bus starts to slow.
I’m Millie Bird.
Stella, love. The name’s Stella.
The bus driver yanks her collar.
These are my brother’s clothes. His bus, too. He went and died too.
What about yer mum?
Listen here, Toilet Brush
, Agatha interrupts. She has made her way up the aisle and steadies herself by holding on to the back of Stella’s seat.
Does the train still leave from Kalgoorlie?
Stella squints at her in the mirror.
, she says.
They got the flying cars now. They’ll take you straight there. Fast, too.
, Agatha says.
Okay, Toilet Brush. If you don’t want to help, just say so.
Hey, lady, I’m not the bloody info center. I can drop you at the station. Work it out yerself.
Can’t you just yell out the window to one of your relatives?
Hey, Mary! When’s the train go?”
Stella flicks on the indicator and pulls the bus off the road, gravel skidding beneath the wheels. She brings the bus to a halt at a bus shelter.
, she announces. The door opens and a tall boy with earphones in his ears walks down the aisle of the bus and down the steps.
Stella turns her body so it faces the door, one arm resting on the top of her seat, the other draped over the steering wheel.
Not my problem
, Stella says to Agatha, but she doesn’t look at her, and instead watches the passengers file onto the bus. A little boy with glasses and slicked-down hair takes big lunges up the stairs.
G’day, young Lawrence
, Stella says.
, Lawrence says without looking up. Stella knows all the new
passengers by name—
Mrs. Cranley, Timbo, Vince, Felicity—
and they all know her name back.
The last man on is big and wide and wears a bright fluorescent vest. He has dirt on his face and arms and hands.
, he says.
, she says, flicking her head upward in recognition. He pauses at the top of the stairs and points a thumb in the direction that he came.
There’s some bloke on his way
, he says.
Gonna be waitin’ a while. He’s about a hundred and seventy-five
. He grins.
Give or take
And then there’s a surprise like balloons bursting, because Karl appears at the bottom of the steps. He has the mannequin tucked under his arm and is breathing heavily. Sweat drips down his face. Millie feels her heart in her chest as she jumps down the steps and wraps her arms around Karl’s neck.
, he says.
And then Agatha says,
Did you follow me, Gene Wilder?
She reaches into her handbag, pulls out an Anzac biscuit, and throws it at him.
arl used to walk past her house, always wearing that purple suit. Sometimes he wore a long jacket, too, one that reached his toes.
Not enough hair!
she might yell from her Chair of Discernment.
Ridiculous suit! Annoying face! Trying to look like Gene Wilder!
He stood there, once, for more than a few moments, and caressed her fence. She had initially been so flabbergasted that real words wouldn’t form outside her head.
she said, eventually. She stood up, blood rushing to her head, and stuck her index finger out the window as far as it would go.
Stop molesting my fence!
She pushed her head through the window and pointed her finger at him. The
man jumped, and looked toward her.
Yes, you! You’re touching!
He grabbed the top of her fence with both hands.
, he shouted back, his hands tapping on her fence.
I didn’t mean to—it’s just that—I can help you with those weeds.
Agatha pointed her finger down the street.
Know how to do that?
He did walk, but ran his finger along her fence as he did so. He was back the very next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. He would lean over her fence and rip out her weeds. She would lean through the window and try to hit him with day-old Anzacs. He bothered her, he bothered her very much.
You bother me!
she’d occasionally yell as he walked off down the street. She’d press her face against the window, her breath fogging up the glass. He never looked back, and this bothered Agatha even more. She didn’t know why.
Why does he bother me so much!
she yelled, as she watched him scamper down the street, peeking into front yards. And then one day he stopped coming, suddenly, and she stood at the window from 12:51
for a week, dipping her fingers into a bowl of rock-hard Anzacs, waiting, and he didn’t turn up, and it felt like vertigo.
e had hugged Millie and it felt like something he didn’t deserve but wished he did. Surely he had once held his son like that. But the feeling seemed brand-new. And now the other woman is here, making his life more interesting, more complicated.
He knew the woman’s story, the whole town of Warwickvale did. Scott and Amy had driven past her house one day after they’d taken Karl grocery shopping.
Amy turned to his son and said,
I hope you don’t expect me to barricade myself in our house if you cark it
Too right I do, Ames
, his son said.
But if you go first, I’m throwing a party
Amy poked his son playfully in the ribs.
, she said.
Let’s have a peek.
, his son said.
Let’s leave her alone
, Amy said.
Sometimes you can see her looking out the window.
Karl had never thought this woman’s story to be relevant and had quarantined it to the realm of things Amy found interesting (the misfortunes of others, pigs small enough to be put in handbags, a man called Dr. Phil). But now that he was looking at this woman’s house, he saw the story was very relevant. It was like looking at the inside of his guts in the form of a house. Dark and dying, it had waved its white flag long ago.
Ooh, there she is
, Amy said.
The woman looked straight at them out of her window, her face cold and hard.
, Amy said. As they drove off, she added,
Shutting yourself in like that. Is that romantic, depressing, or just plain lunacy?
All three, I reckon
, his son said.
Whaddya think, Dad? She’s a single lady. Want me to leave you on her doorstep?
Karl didn’t say anything. Everything about that house and that woman’s face had made him feel less alone.
They stand outside the train station in Kalgoorlie, next to a war memorial, the statue of a soldier with gun at the ready looking out above their heads. Four-wheel-drives whizz past them, huge sprays of rusty red dotted and caked on their cars like art. The roofs of the pubs sweep across the sky in regal, commanding lines. On the bus on the way in, Karl had read the chalkboard outside one of the pubs.
Hot Topless Skimpies
, it read, which sounded to Karl like something you might catch in a saltwater lake. He stared at the sign for a few minutes as the bus idled at the traffic lights. The slow realization of what it actually meant spread over his cheeks in hot red patches.
Back home on the southwest coast, the people have dazed eyes, blond edges, waterlogged strides. The people here are different: scratchy, like they’ve been sketched roughly on paper, like they are born of the very red dirt they scuff their feet in, made out of the salmon gums that line the streets. They yell outside the bakery, the supermarket, the pubs, and in the main thoroughfare, chopping at words as though throwing their sentences into a blender. Karl doesn’t feel like he fits in here. Then again, Karl doesn’t feel like he fits in back there, either.
The sky is between day and night, that deep blue it gets when it’s shedding one for the other. Agatha storms toward Karl and Millie. She’s difficult to make out in the deepening dark, but there’s something about the way she walks that means he will never mistake her for anyone else. As though she is fighting
with the air; as though the air is as thick as a sheet and she has to tear her way through it.
Well, it doesn’t leave until tomorrow
, she says, a cloud of dust surrounding her like a force field.
I bet that Stella woman knew it too! Never trust a woman skinnier than you! Write that down! What are we going to do? Typist! I’m not going to sit around here all night, gawking at you lot! It’s seven thirty-seven at night! We don’t have any money!
Karl feels a rising sense of panic when he realizes he is the only man there. Men have certain obligations in these circumstances, he knows. He can feel the eyes of all women on him. Not just the ones with him now, but generations of women, spanning centuries, countries, cultures.
, he says, in what he hopes is a commanding voice,
We have to do something.
He points at the air with his index finger to punctuate the sentence. He begins to pace, hoping that the movement might jiggle the decision-making part of his brain.
Let’s . . .
, Millie suggests.
Karl considers this.
That sounds pretty good.
A friend of mine came to Kalgoorlie once!
Never came back! Don’t know what happened to her! No one said for sure! But I know! She’s in one of those brothels right now! Doing her business!
She takes a deep breath but then snaps her mouth shut. It appears something has caught her eye. She holds on to the fence of the war memorial and glares at it.
They Shall Grow Not Old
, she reads.
As We That Are Left Grow Old.
Agatha seems unable to move.
As We That Are Left
, she repeats. She rests a hand gingerly on the base of her throat.
Millie puts her arms through the gap between the bars in the fence and looks up at Agatha.
What’s a brothel?
Agatha turns her back on the war memorial. Just as she says,
What are you two looking at?
a bus pulls off the road into the parking lot and stops next to them.
The bus door opens. It’s Stella.
, Stella says.
Agatha says, peering into the bus, her stance thick and wide, planting her feet on the ground as if in a standoff.
The train, Grumble Bum. Leaves at seven in the morning.
Thought we weren’t your problem
, Agatha says.
I changed my mind, haven’t I
, Stella says.