All this week Kill Your Darlings is showcasing extracts from this year’s KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work at Varuna, the Writers House in the Blue Mountains, thanks to the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Matt Millikan’s This American Carnage asks: How do you save your soul in a world that can’t be saved? That’s the question facing washed-up knife salesman Conrad Black. When he wakes up in the basement of a bar, all he has is a list of names on a cocktail napkin. He is (or was) on step nine of AA – the one where you apologise. But it won’t be easy after a nuke has decimated the city above him and everyone on his list is either dead, missing or unwilling to accept his apology. Through the shattered remnants of a California that’s seceded from the Union, where security has been privatised and the revolution is live-streamed, Conrad must relive his downfall, discover his salvation and learn to forgive himself.
Diego Montero Alvarez pulls the handbrake and kills the Valiant. Through the windshield, past the porcelain Virgin Mary on the dash, four lanes crawl north towards Hollywood. Car horns and static smother the atmosphere and he twists the radio dial through crackling fuzz. The freeway has been at a standstill for two hours.
When he kicks open the door the hinge grates like his knee. Sunlight crawls from black clouds to halo rows of chrome doorframes and he slides on his Ray-Bans. Dr. Dre pulsates out of the low-rider besides him and shakesthe surrounding cars with bass. A toddler stares from a backseat, fogging the quivering glass with dirty breath. Up front the parents argue over the horn. Alvarez smiles and spreads his tattooed fingers into the peace sign. The kid bawls and he walks to the trunk.
An empty jerry can, jumper leads, masking tape and the plastic jump suit he wears while fumigating houses are inside. A facemask to keep out the poison rests on top. He snaps it over his mouth and nose, his breath softening the cardboard. He’ll need a better mask soon. The wind hauls cinder and soot from the north and soothes his sweaty forehead. The humming air prickles his skin and electrifies his body as he shrugs on the jumpsuit, pulls over the hood and zips it to his chin. He seals his wrists and ankles with masking tape. He’s safe but stewing.
People watch him coil the jumper leads around his shoulder and stuff the battery and jerry can into a gym bag salvaged from the backseat. He wraps the Virgin Mary in old workout clothes and takes the Colt.45 revolver and box of cartridges from the glove box. The weight tells him it’s loaded. Everything but the gun goes into the gym bag.
‘See you in the next life, Jezebel,’ he coos to the black Valiant.
The window of the car besides him rolls down. Hip hop drowns the crying child. ‘Where the fuck’re you going?’ the man shouts over the beat. ‘You can’t just bail your ride on the freeway!’
Alvarez tosses the keys through the window, swings the bag over his shoulder and wades through traffic jam to Hollywood.
The first butterflies of ash fall from the sky.
The sun abdicates the sky to a black haze that won’t lift for months. When he reaches Fairfax he checks his black Casio G-Shock. It’s only 3 pm but the streets are midnight. It’ll get cold soon.
There’s no life in the rows of silent houses. Street lamps spotlight the soot roaming the air like grain in old photographs. It settles on tipped lawn chairs, abandoned bicycles and greys trails of clothes strewn from locked doors and open garages. No one knows you shouldn’t be outside. No one knows you’re meant to be barricading the basement. There aren’t enough basements in LA anyway.
There’s no life in the rows of silent houses. Street lamps spotlight the soot roaming the air like grain in old photographs.
He searches garages for fuel and other supplies, finding a length of hose for siphoning and some new rope still sealed in cellophane. In one garage the door into the house is unlatched. He grips the.45 and steps inside.
The hallway is crammed with domestic debris forgotten in the rush to leave and the beds are unmade. He takes two pillows and searches for a bigger bag. The suitcases are gone and the remaining clothes won’t fit but he takes them anyway. In the kitchen he gathers all the canned food before checking the fridge. He takes a six-pack of Coke and two bottles of fruit juice but leaves the Bud Lights before scrounging the bathroom medicine cabinet. Everything goes into the gym bag.
On his way out he passes the lounge room. A Labrador pants against the sliding patio doors, its tail slapping happily despite being chained to the pool fence. He opens the door and offers the dog the back of his hand. It licks the cobweb tattoo between his thumb and forefinger, nudging up his palm to lather the lines a fortune-teller once deciphered. Apparently Alvarez would find peace after a life of violence. He didn’t find it terribly insightful. Anyone could’ve read the scars and gang tattoos. Still, he’d always held onto that promise of serenity. He peers at the sky and tries not to scoff. Ash laps the swimming pool.
He unchains the dog and slaps its hind legs.
‘Go on now pup,’ he tells it. ‘Run.’
By Melrose his back aches from the canned food and cowboy boots. Every step spears his spine, his ponytail soggy between his shoulders. Parents hunched with rucksacks pull crying kids through deserted cars and sidewalks jammed with bodies, static still fizzing the screams of people desperate to choose the right street to escape through. The intersection is swathed in blue and red light spinning on a Greystone cruiser. A soldier screams into the radio while his partner watches a man carry a TV down the street. Alvarez knows what he’s thinking – he should be hauling ass from the fallout too. The soldier digs ash from his eye and searches the sky. A man spots him and approaches the cruiser, his wife and kid waiting on the corner.
Alvarez rests against a wall and watches the father plead with the mercenary. The soldier frowns and the man’s cries are lost in the crowd. The soldier shakes his head, lifting his hand between them. The man points to the backseat and the soldier shakes his head. The man pounds the car and gestures to his family. The soldier shakes his head. The man points at the sky. The soldier shoves him and reaches for his holster.
This ain’t gonna end well. Alvarez knows he should get moving. The tension swells through the crowd, bewildered anger about to burst with each twist of the soldier’s head.
The man yells and lurches forwards. The solider doesn’t draw fast enough and they’re tearing for the Beretta. The kid gawks and the wife sprints, arms out and eyes slick. Glowing cinders streak her hair.
The tension swells through the crowd, bewildered anger about to burst with each twist of the soldier’s head.
The gun pop silences the crowd and Alvarez inhales, relishing the palm reader’s promise. The moment lasts the seconds it takes the father to drop and lift his bloody hand from the hole in his chest. The soldier shakes his head, bewildered. The father face plants the concrete and the screaming is suddenly deafening. The crowd roars towards the cruiser, their faces twisted with the indignation of every checkpoint and stop search. The soldier lifts his gun like a crucifix.
This is the beginning. Just like Iran years before when Alvarez was in the boots of those Greystone boys, outnumbered and alone in hostile territory. It was meant to take longer. Ignoring his agony, he pulls up the bag and heads to Hollywood.
Behind him the mob engulfs the cruiser. The siren whoops before glass shatters and more gunshots rupture the afternoon.
While some people scream, the rest of them cheer.
Grumpy’s Carnival Cave bursts from a strip mall of Asian grocers and restaurants on the edge of Thai Town. Its grotesque sign of broken light bulbs shadows everything. There’s no relief in his heart, just his bleeding feet.
Under the awning he brushes dust and ash from the jumpsuit. Inevitably some has invaded; sinking radiation into his skin. All the pulverised people and earth in Northern California weeps on Los Angeles, the moon burning somewhere behind the clouds, the city glowing blood.
Busted red and green Christmas lights pulse faintly along the bar inside. The stereo skips on ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray. Cheap perfume and stale booze wafts through the air. Once he would’ve breathed deeply, now he spits. He’d spent too long in dives like this downing Petron until he was cut off and bounced out.
Conrad had too, but he’s not there now. He’s not in front of the strip poles or in the back booths either. There’s just the skipping high hat of the song and creaking floorboards. The last stool lies on the ground though. Suds ooze down a pint of beer besides an empty tumbler. Alvarez sniffs the tumbler – sugar cane, vanilla spice and lime. Conrad’s favourite drink is a Cuba Libre.
Cheap perfume and stale booze wafts through the air. Once he would’ve breathed deeply, now he spits.
The bathroom reeks of dried vomit, piss and piny antiseptic. He holds his breath and peers around. The plughole gurgles and a cubicle moans. He follows the sound and pushes open the door.
Conrad is unconscious, mid-prayer over the toilet bowl. His peppered black hair is a wet spider on his face and his white legs jut from a loosely knotted hospital gown. Drool ties his mouth to toilet water and drunken dreams batter his eyelids.
‘One day at a time, hey puta?’ Alvarez whispers, leaning down to lift Conrad onto his shoulder.
Alvarez dumps him on one of the black sofas and searches the stockroom, ignoring the cases of Corona and plastic bottles of Red Bear vodka. The dressing room behind the stage has racks of sequenced costumes alongside bulb-framed vanity mirrors. Lipstick, foundation and compacts are abandoned on the counter along with old gossip magazines, phone chargers, crumpled receipts and photographs of children. A lone champagne glass stained with a pink kiss stands sentinel.
He gathers the clothing, magazines and non-alcoholic drinks before barricading the door with tables and chairs. Once satisfied the door won’t budge, he studies the floor behind the bar. He snakes his finger under the latch for the basement and yanks it open. Dank rushes up the wooden stairs.
He hopes it’s not a wine cellar.