He turns off the engine, and the whole ute shakes, rattling a music of panels. But he’s timed this just right, he’s got the thing planned; the last climb to the top of the tower. And a train is pulling through with its evening grain on the way from Mildura to Adelaide, crossing bells calling out every carriage on a hot, clear Saturday night. Dog will keep barking until he reaches the top, until she’s bored and jumps back in the cabin. One rung at a time, he has to concentrate, two hundred and seventy-five feet.
Up there he’ll see televisions streaming through their windows, out the frames of their flywire doors. He’ll be alone with a town that’s watching Hey Hey It’s Saturday, while he’s smoking on his own fat joint. He gets to the top and the train is gone, past the grain sheds and lights of the silo, past the spot where those twin boys drowned in wheat – they pulled them out by the hoods of their parkas.
He lights up and takes his first long drag now the tremors can’t be hidden in a fist. The sound of AC/DC from the golf clubhouse – Narelle’s fortieth and he wasn’t invited. Which is fine, that’s fine. It’d be awkward anyway. They had their fling, which is secret for now. She’ll be dancing with her girlfriends and school principal husband who was dumb enough to bring her out this far.
It’ll be her that splits if the affair comes out. Her bloke will play the fool for a while. The Vennings will cook him roasts and try to match him with their daughters until things get weird and he follows her. But Narelle, she’s ice queen pedigree, and the school needs a boss who’ll stay. So it’s fine for now. Let there be rock. ‘So it goes,’ as the Americans say.
Of course he’s never really heard an American say that. But he read it in an American novel. Plus he likes the phrase ‘as the Americans say’, and not many come through here, so…
It goes one night that they arrested a guy after Meena stumbled back to the roadhouse. She’d been hitching from the border, which she’d done for years until that sick-as-fuck yank picked her up. He got lost on the back roads and they found him out there trying to hide in the gully scrub. But the one in the novel, that guy was harmless. It was about aliens and war and time travel.
Meena never claimed she was psychic again. He used to love her for that looney stuff. She was the dustbowl loon until she took that ride, but after it she couldn’t live with herself. Everyone measures their own disgrace – for some the rungs aren’t worth the view. All they find is that long time surrounds them, then blame the climb for the aching hurt.
What happened to his rage living out here, the rage of trying to escape this place? The need for him to thump that centre half-forward, the punch he’d saved until the pub that night? It all slid away with the shift of living, fronting up despite the gossip and drama, learning the relief of standing around with men he could trust not to start nothing up. Gone were the burnouts, the clouds of dust that he steered with a souped-up Commodore, the need for him to see a different road beyond the insects on his windscreen and bull bar.
The weed’s kicking in, which means relief at last, means he can relax and enjoy what’s left. He can’t climb down until the high wears off, until that moment before the tremors return. Early onset Parkinson’s and it’s all about timing, about medicating from here on out. It’s getting harder to manage; the windows are shrinking. If he had the guts he’d probably throw himself off.
Narelle’s out there and soon the party will spill into the darkness the fairways own, strangers disappearing for a quick fumble, making up stories for where they’ve gone. He’ll be back with Dog when they wake in the morning with a new hang-up to add to their load. Like the farmer that went and sold the wheat of those twins because the drought was so bad he had to.
The silo lights are blinking red, this town from the top of the tower. What would he change if he could travel in time? The twins, or else Meena? That moment? Would he go back to the banjo and just keep playing for as long as the motor of his nerves would let him? Every cup of rainwater draws a wriggler from the tank, and to think he’ll end up just like one.
Sometime later, Narelle’s party is over, it’s given in to the quiet Mallee roar. The wind has picked up, and he’s steady up there, but he always gets bored at this hour. It’s the only part of this that he seems to forget so he calls down to Dog in the cabin, the way he’s called before, all those other nights when the dog’s too asleep to answer.
He knows he’s too stoned to climb on down because he’s starting to think he’ll try. He could tackle that ladder, all the way to the ground if he keeps it together, which means he can’t. He’s tired of waiting for the next moment – so what if it’s his last time up? So what if Narelle’s shagging someone new? It’s fine, and every rung seems to say it.
Suddenly he’s back in that taxi again, years back, going to Newcastle airport. Newcastle is as far as he ever got, and he’s there after Roachey’s bucks night. He’s riding up front with that taxi driver, streetlights sliding over them both until they reach the limit and they’re driving in the dark, receivers of the dashboard glow.
He’s praying that the driver knows something about heartbreak, some advice that can sort him out. He asks ‘What’s the best to way get a woman out of your head?’ The bravest thing he’s ever done. The driver just slides in a tape with one finger, and Back in Black comes blaring out.
It’s in that moment he knows he can’t be sure if he’s holding on or letting go.
Image credit: Donald Lee Pardue