The Guitar Player’s Wife

“If you aren’t careful. The whole thing will seize up.” The guitar player slithered out from under the Valiant on a skateboard. The license plate snared a moth hole in the washed-out faces on the Scientists T-shirt stretched over his gut. He tried to lift his head into his Kenworth baseball cap, but a skateboard wheel tangled up his hair, and then the license pate had a go at his crotch. When he finally got up, and fastened his overalls, he looked like a baby with a hunger for auto parts. He plucked some cotton from his crotch in the same pose that he used on stage, skinny arms and no neck, chin resting on his chest, shoulders fixed into a shrug from always looking down at his Stratocaster.

I gulped a can of Victoria Bitter and squeaked bicep curls from a dumbbell. He pulled a car battery off his tattoo gun and transplanted it into the Valiant. Rust ate the hood and bunged up the wires and tubes looping around the red engine. I’d driven over to his Bondi compound after work to show him I was fit for the band competition and to get a free service for the Valiant. His bib held enough oil to lube the engine for a month.

“The prognosis remains terminal,” he told the Valiant. His fingers were too stubby for solos. He stuck to riffs. He unscrewed the radiator and it belched out rust. “Maybe wise to get out of Sydney for a week. Just let things cool down. There’ll be other gigs.”

“What are you rambling about?” I tugged out the bass drum and navigated around the carport until whacking a phoney shark-bitten surfboard that fell from its support beams, knocked out the Valiant’s side-view minor, and landed on the guitar player’s coconut welcome mat.

“I left a message with your mum this afternoon. I thought that’s why you came out here.” The guitar player picked up the surfboard and rubbed the faded stickers of extinct bands on the fibreglass. “The others don’t want to come last again. We haven’t got any new songs.”

“I told you not to worry about the songs.” I cradled the mirror to the workbench and pulled a mobile phone from a sticky toolbox.

“I’m not calling them.”

“I’ve just got to polish up the last verse.”

“There’s only two verses.”

“Come on. All the classics are simple. Give it one more shot. You don’t want to be stuck out here forever, do you? We could be in Amsterdam or New Orleans.”

“We haven’t practised for eight months.”

“So? We’ll sound fresh.”

The guitar player looked down the driveway at a tricycle lassoed by a garden hose. He slanted his cap over his right eyebrow and twiddled his thumb on the keypad.

I finished my beer and slapped him on the back.

“Don’t drink that water,” he said, “pour it in the radiator.”

He raised the phone along with the pitch of his voice. “Me and Hank been talking and we figure that seeing as we haven’t chickened out yet we might as well give it a go. We’ve got nothing to lose. We could be in Amsterdam or New Orleans.”

The bass player would be in the Blue Mountains smoking pipes and watching SBS on a black and white television with the sound turned down below a crackling Pink Floyd album. After listening to the phone, and tweaking his eyebrow for a while, the guitar player clicked off. “He doesn’t care. A fire juggler burned down his shack. He’s finally getting to move over to Newtown. But she’s at work. You’ll have to call her.”

I capped the radiator. “What’s the point? She’ll just give me a lecture and then I’ll get sick of listening to her and hand you the phone and she’ll go on to you about how you always stick up for me and you’ll agree with her and then she’ll agree with me.”

The guitar player sulked around the carport as he talked to the singer. “He couldn’t practise. His car was broken. He had to carry his mum to hospital.”

I nodded and oozed K-mart engine oil over the dipstick hole. “Just tell them what they want to hear. Play with their sympathies.”

The guitar player lowered the phone abruptly. “She heard what you said.”

“So? It’s nothing new.”

“She hung up.”

“Give her a minute. She’ll call back.”

“You’re an idiot, Hank.”

I slammed the hood.

“Search and Destroy” by the Stooges blared from the phone.


“Talk to her.”

“You’re doing fine. Tell her my girlfriend wants to come. No, don’t tell her that. She might get jealous. Yeah, what the hell? Tell her anyway.”

“His girlfriend wants to come. She’s never seen him do his thing. Just a moment.” The guitar player covered the mouthpiece and waved the phone at me. “She just wants you to promise not to get too wasted or disappear.”

I massaged my wrist. “Tell her my girlfriend bought me new skins.”

The guitar player shook his head and wandered down the driveway. “She bought him new skins.” He looked back after 30 seconds and gave me the thumbs up.

Fumes leaking from the Valiant’s trunk seeped through the kitchen, lounge, and bedroom, and drew out the guitar player’s wife. A pregnant Disneyland T-shirt bulged against the screen door. A fluffy crocodile slipper scraped a mosquito-pecked leg, tattooed with a marijuana leaf sprouting dolphins. “What’s that creep doing here? He’s not sleeping over tonight. Did he pay for that battery?”

“He’s got to work the early shift tomorrow,” said the guitar player. “I’m taking his drums to the band competition to do the sound check.”

“You told me you cancelled that gig because you didn’t want to play with him.”

“I never said that.” He turned to me. “She’s having twins.”

“What about my parents’ fucking barbeque on Bronte Beach?”

I once had sex with the guitar player’s wife when she was drunk and bleeding and fighting with the guitar player about becoming a tattoo artist. He was the genius behind the devil’s tattoo on my right shoulder, a marching devil with a snare drum going BOOM. He did it on the right because that’s the side the audience see when a drummer keeps time on the hi-hats. She didn’t want him to ink anybody else except her. A few days later, Ma found a rag under her pillow and dangled it in her teacup. I chiselled the rag from the window ledge and gave it back to the guitar player’s wife. She refused to talk to me after that. The guitar player had also tried to be a surfer, a body builder, a truck driver, a mechanic, and a father. But he could never escape from his real identity.

The Cold Room

Mushrooms curled up like aborted foetuses under oil-proof paper in a box with green writing and red stripes. These mushrooms were much smaller than the ones I used to pick down the Ross River in Townsville, golden tops growing up to your knees in shit dumped by cattle heading for the abattoir, but I sat there, nonetheless, washing some down with an icy Foster’s while the cold room engine pumped gas from the airway onto my shoulders.

This beat washing dishes. There were no machines to battle and more things to unearth.

The emergency bell clanked when I stacked the box of mushrooms in front of the temperature gauge. I whipped the mop under the wooden slat shelves, pounding the handle on the wall, and thought about the last time I’d played the drums. Beetroot, salmon, lettuce, sweet corn, chicken skin, minced meat, and fermented onions formed a salad between my toes. At the end of the line, I punched my kidneys and took a bite of a carrot with a dusty stem.

When the telephone rang, I drove the mop through the slats and, without disturbing the boxes, squeezed around the door. “They’re adults now, not children.” Ma’s tears bubbled down the line. “They’re building cages around the apartment, locking me in, dismantling the place brick by brick. They’ve substituted my medicine for vitamins. You can’t move in with that stick insect. Are you listening to me, darling? Do you even know what day it is? Why is she keeping you there? You’re supposed to be playing the drums?”

I noticed a cheese grater in the pink bucket and hung up the phone. I couldn’t talk to Ma when she was being negative. It might affect my performance on stage. I slopped cake mix from the bucket onto a stir-fry in the trashcan and power-hosed away the clotted residue.

Under the sink, behind three tubs of Jackson Super Industrial Strength Mopping Liquid, I discovered a cask of Snowhite Bleach. I went back into the cold room and used the blue dishrag to cut broad strokes through the calcium on the door. Then I used a yellow toothbrush to attack the rust creeping from the emergency bell. When the phone rang again, the toothbrush snapped, and the glass shattered over the temperature gauge.

“Is that the drummer?” Thomas Pitman was hyperventilating.

“Yeah, sure. What’s the problem?” I pushed my T-shirt into my eyeballs and went blind until a vision of Kay formed in my brain. She was trying on a white swimsuit to wear on a tropical island when we made our getaway. Was it too small? She wanted another opinion. A teenage shop assistant poked her nose through the curtain. The sight of this perfect woman made those adolescent hormones thirsty to experiment.

“I need you to listen to me very carefully. Understand? Now, when Kay left the restaurant last night was she alone? Has she been in today? Has she called?”

“No to all of the above.” My mind was running images of lesbian sex.

“What are you trying to say? This is very embarrassing for me.”

“Negative. I left before her yesterday and I haven’t seen her since.”

A warning beep pulsed from the receiver.

“Hold on. This could be her.”

Muzak floated down the line.

I stretched the phone lead over to the back door and eased my head out to look at the rain clouds mixing with the bushfire smoke that filled the sky. Palm trees waited motionless in front of the semidetached cottage at the entrance to White Lane. A twisted Coca-Cola can was squatting in the Valiant’s parking space.

The muzak choked off. “Who’s Jimmy Smith?”

I scrubbed the mouthpiece with the broken toothbrush. I couldn’t feel my hands. I wondered if I’d said the name aloud. I was thinking of it. Could Thomas Pitman read my mind? Maybe Kay’s paranoia was warranted.

“Are you still there?” Thomas Pitman said.

“I think so.”

“Jimmy Smith’s the waiter, isn’t he?”


“Where is he then?”

“He’s gone to get a haircut and look for the people who are looking for him.”

“What are you talking about? This is serious. Don’t play games with me. Has Kay ever mentioned a place called the Rainbow Motel?”

“I don’t think so.” I turned out my Levis. There were no pills in the lining.

“Look. I need your help. I’m desperate here. Have you got a car?”

“Of course, I’ve got a car. A drummer without a car is a nobody.”

“I think this little prick is fucking my wife. I need you to follow him out to this motel and take some photos. I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m a wealthy man.”

“I don’t have a camera. I’m not a cameraman.”

Jimmy Smith punched me in the spine.

I dropped the phone. He reeled it in and rotated his shoulders to the saloon door.

I didn’t know what to do, so I hobbled across the kitchen with the broken toothbrush in the pink bucket.

I steadied the bucket on the oven rings in the sink and yanked out the plug. Jimmy Smith wore his white shirt and black trousers. He said over the gurgling, “When you’re a dead motherfucker you’ll miss watching me lick your wife’s juicy cunt.” Then he hooked up the phone and walked away from the cold room with a grin on his swollen, battered face. Razor nicks smeared his shaven scalp, chin, and eyebrows. He looked like he was getting ready for a lunatic military exercise.

“Did you find the people who were looking for you?”

“They’re in the desert.” Jimmy Smith whacked the blue dishrag against the draining rack. “We don’t need to worry about old Tommy Boy no more.”

“Is Kay still coming to the gig?”

“She’ll wet herself when you touch the sticks.” He unfolded the rag, pulled out the Valiant keys, and slipped them into the bucket. The veins in his arms plotted the boundaries of an unknown town below his skin.


A Cry Baby wah-wah squealed over a Fender bass drone vibrating the tiles on the Hopetown’s lower façade. Rain fell from the awning to the street. The Valiant’s front wheel nudged the curb. The suspension croaked and a hubcap fell off. A sandwich board leaning under a window displayed a chalk picture of a rodent in a leather jacket with a loudhailer barking in stars and a speech bubble TONIGHT - BAND COMPETITION.

My band slow-clapped from the doorway.

I used the window handle to chisel my hickory drumsticks from the dashboard, sucked in a lungful of the gasoline fumes leaking from the trunk, pounded 27 triplets on my Levis, and charged from the Valiant.

The singer bowed her black hair through the rain curtain and caught the sticks in her left hand. A Nepalese shoulder bag concealed her right hand. “How’s your mum?” she said. “Had to fly the poor thing to hospital again?”

“What’s that on your nose?” said the bass player. He chewed his fringe and wormed over towards the singer.

“It’s a bandage.” The guitar player picked at the white skeletons on his grey Birthday Party T-shirt, which was older than his Scientists T-shirt, and then shook his fist in the sign of a telephone call at his baseball cap.

“What happened to your new skins?” The singer whacked the sticks into my right palm. “Keeping them for the solo album?”

The beer-drenched imitation Chinese rug, used on stage to keep things immobile, blocked the pub’s entrance. “What’s going on? Why are you all standing there like you’re at an intervention. Changing skins so soon before a gig would have been a disaster. Surely you don’t expect me to play with another man’s kit?”

Inside the doorway, an upturned chair straddled a desk holding a Seiko calculator, a dry stamp pad, and an empty cash tray. There was no guest list. On stage, an unknown band hung their heads over black boxes and laptop computers with tangled leads below strobe lights rigged up by wire coat hangers. Dark figures leaned on the bar and the scattered tables. The mixer glanced up from his knobs, tweaked his beard, and then looked away from me. I followed the singer to the toilets, hammering my sticks on the cubicles, until she told me to fuck off. Then I ducked my head under her door.

“Thumping mature skins sounds deeper than tickling virgins,” I shouted in a voice reminiscent of Jimmy Smith. “Some drummers prefer virgins because slapping them is gentle on the wrists and the tightness allows for easy stick twirling, but no real drummer, except Keith Moon, would ever raise his sticks above his shoulders unless going for a cymbal. Each divot in a mature skin tells a story like brail hammered out on a ribcage.”

Two bouncers came in and dragged me outside.

The bass player and the guitar player were slow-marching my road case towards the Valiant.

“I’ve been working on folk songs in Newtown,” said the bass player.

“Excellent.” The guitar player yawned and adjusted his cap with his shoulder. He deepened his voice when he saw me. “What did Hank ever contribute?”

“‘The Ballad of Mad Max’,” said the bass player.

“That’s right. No words. No melody. A dumb concept and a Russian strip beat. Instead of acting like a drummer he should have stuck to playing the drums.”

“He might get a gig with that leopard-skin prostitute.”

“Where’s Kay? What have you been telling her?”

They ignored me and lowered the road case into the trunk. I felt like a ghost watching my own funeral.

“Alright, I’ll use another man’s kit. What time are we on?” I kicked my floor tom and snare drum onto the back seat before jamming the rack tom between the road case and the fuel pipe. I stuffed the imitation Chinese rug behind the driver’s seat and rolled the bass drum in the back until the tuning pegs clawed the oxblood vinyl.

The guitar player thumped the roof. “She didn’t turn up, Hank. No one turned up. You saw the crowd. The manager slashed the playing time to finish early. I phoned your mum with our new slot. The restaurant line was busy.”

“Why didn’t you come and get me?”

“It’s fate,” said the bass player. “He was going to tell you last night, but you sent him on a guilt trip, so we decided to give you a swan song.”

“What the fuck is he talking about?”

“We’re worried about you, man.” The guitar player wiped his mouth. “You need professional care. You’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.”

“No one’s telling me how to look after my drums.”

The singer came out with my cymbals and fumbled them behind the road case. The tailor-made rips in her jeans revealed goose pimples and red skull panties and the spiky fragrance of marijuana and tea tree oil. She used to be in the Cockfighters and the Newtown Dolls, but her main interest now, according to her website, was irrelevant filmmaking. Her eyes were clear but the edges were red. “Are you coming with us to smoke a peace pipe or waiting here for your mystery woman?”

The bass player slammed the trunk. “We’ve already told him he’s out of the band.”

The Body That Jimmy Smith Left Behind

The Valiant reversed down City Road before swinging onto Broadway. The wipers staggered across the windscreen, their perished rubber slipping off the hood. Rain seeped under the glass, behind the instrument board, and onto my accelerator foot. The steering wheel tilted independent of my grip as it followed the hood ornament.

European buildings on George Street looked down on billboards advertising American movies that I would never watch. A man in a turtleneck sweater flagged Japanese tourists onto an airport bus that almost scraped the downtown monorail tracks. Discarded pizza boxes and beach towels drooped from fence posts in Hyde Park. Salsa rhythms thumped from a brown Honda Civic of kids in LA Lakers jerseys who ran a red light on Williams Street, firing water pistols and choking out an air-horn version of the theme from The Godfather.

I wanted to believe that Kay had called the Hopetown, discovered the times had changed, and come back to let me know, but the angle of the fluorescent beams glowing from the kitchen door, and the rain slanting across the tiles, told me that I might be wrong.

The Valiant had to reverse park around a blue rented Ford Falcon XD sedan. I didn’t want to get out but I did. I was working on automatic like a metronome. The window jerked sideways when I slammed the passenger door. I couldn’t get it up from outside so I unclipped the inner shield, balanced the glass on the runner, and then cranked the handle. I already knew the score with my band. The guitar player’s wife wanted the guitar player to hang up his strings without it looking like he quit. The singer and the bass player were easily conned. I never got with the singer, so she was jealous of Kay Pitman. The bass player never got with the singer, so he was jealous of me. The guitar player didn’t want to kick me out of the band. He couldn’t kick me out of the band. It isn’t the guitar player’s job to kick someone out of a band. It’s the drummer’s job. Drummers don’t get kicked out. Drummers either die or disappear. They were miles from understanding “The Ballad of Mad Max”.

I tucked in my T-shirt, hitched up my Levis, and wrapped my thumbs around the belt with the golden buckle. The security camera above the back door of Kay’s Place didn’t work. It was only there to frighten junkies and vagrants. As I slouched towards the camera, I imagined I was on the set of my own film noir, my mind welding together black and white images of Kay and Jimmy Smith, naked under disposable transparent plastic aprons, fucking in the suds on the draining rack. She was on top, slapping herself down on his penis. His head was in the dishwasher. His hands up on her breasts, fingers tweaking the nipples. Her hair soaking wet.

I didn’t want to witness that scene. I didn’t want to hear that soundtrack. I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears before going through the door.

When I opened my eyes, I was glad that there was nobody on the draining rack.

The kitchen looked almost the same as any Monday night. The tap gushed over the pink bucket in the sink, peppershakers spilled from cups, spatulas jutted from piles of dishes, and nachos and salad poured from the trashcan. I stepped over the garbage and shut off the tap. I yanked up the dishwasher and kneeled through the steam drifting out.

The body on the floor didn’t look that much like Jimmy Smith. The beaten face pointing at the dishwasher wasn’t as beautiful as Jimmy Smith’s face. The teeth gritting a seedless hamburger bum weren’t as white as Jimmy Smith’s teeth. Dotting the stubble along the bruised jaw, there were pimples that Jimmy Smith never had. The right eye no longer moved and the left was a darker blue. There wasn’t even that old stiffness. I’ve seen dead folk before. Suicides, overdoses, car jobs, and misadventures.

I prodded the voice box but knew I wouldn’t get a pulse, and when I flopped the body onto its back, urine stained the trouser crotch, the shirt pocket absorbed a dribble of blood, and a clear button spun from the collar and vanished behind a tub of Jackson Super Industrial Strength Mopping Liquid.

I uncovered the blue dishrag and spread it over the head. An eight-centimetre bruise in the middle of the ribs fanned out from a charred puncture wound.

The sound of breaking glass pulled my attention away from the body. The sound could have come from the restaurant, upstairs, or outside. I looked over my shoulder and saw the lock hanging open on the cold room door. I picked up the cook’s best fish knife and stepped over in that direction. Not wanting to go in there, and find Kay on a meat hook, I stared at the latch and waggled it seven times before pulling the door away from its seal and stooping inside.

The engine hummed a fresh lemon mist onto clean walls and empty shelves. In the middle of the floor sat an open carton of baking soda.

After checking on the wine in the storeroom, I crawled out to the restaurant, where I got down behind the counter and felt my way towards the cash register.

Kitchen light spread below and above the saloon door. Engines revved over the buzz and drone of the bar fridge. I stopped when I kneed a matchbox under the grill and noticed a faint smell of gas. I waited and watched headlights from the street bending chair-leg shadows around the walls. Then I clunked out the cash tray. It was full of coins in plastic bags and bills in rubber bands. Figuring that this wasn’t a robbery, and whoever the murderer was had gone, I got up and strolled around the tables to the slightly open front door.

When I stumbled into the only chair not resting on a table, and the chair hit the floorboards, the bar fridge noise became a whirl in my head. The whirl accompanied me up the stairs as I drew a line with the cook’s best fish knife on the banister and down the hall. With my forehead resting where the PRIVATE sign used to hang, I rattled the doorknob and tried not to meditate on what might have happened if Kay had come back.

The whirl faded to a distant slush of traffic.

A cowskin boot cracked open the door.

After fumbling for the light switch, and catching my reflection in the window facing Kay’s upturned desk, I slipped the knife in the back of my Levis. This time someone had gone on a rampage.

The filing cabinet, the plant holder, and the chrome lamp had been poured over the desk. Magazines, shoes, bags, and wigs filled the spaces. On top of the pile, legs spread around dripping tins of beige paint, sat Kay’s ergonomic throne. The Bondi painting lay head down on a drop sheet below a gaping wall safe that reeked of cold metal and contained a single US 100 dollar bill. I dug up the cordless phone and pounded the buttons but the thing was dead.

Back in the kitchen, I got a signal and cranked the dial. I waited until a recorded message told me that I’d dialled an incorrect number.

Please try again.

I clicked the receiver and dialled again, slowly.


It looked as if Jimmy Smith was finishing the washing up when he got shot. He wasn’t having sex with Kay on the draining rack. She was still alive. I picked the seal off a bottle of 1997 Wolf Bass Merlot and hunted for a corkscrew in a tray of can openers.

It’s not 911. That’s the American police. In Australia, it’s 000.

Why was I calling the police anyway? What was I going to tell them? Was calling the police just a reflex action? Something I’d seen in a thousand movies?

An engine surged up White Lane.

I dropped the receiver.

It bounced off the tiles.

A Fireworks Display

Swigging wine, and blinking into the headlights, I staggered out to the alley, contemplating whether to charge the bullets or run the other way and risk taking it in the back, slipping on the fashion magazines that littered the steps up to Darlinghurst Road.

A light on the roof of the car whirred orange across the brickwork. The headlights suddenly flared to high beam and then cut out. The light on the roof spun itself off. I lowered the bottle and slouched over to the yellow Hyundai Getz.

The window opened five centimetres and the air-conditioner smelled of KFC. I hid the bottle behind my back and cut my thumb on the cook’s best fish knife.

The security guard chuckled, thrust in the cigarette lighter, and began to cough, his chins sagging and rolling around his blue collar like an old accordion. “What’s cooking, stickman? Don’t tell me you’ve been busy. No one’s been busy. Rain keeps the creeps indoors. I caught a kid sleeping while his mate broke into Darlinghurst Primary. Said I’d give him five minutes before calling the cops. Did I call?”

The lighter clicked out.

I shrugged and chewed my thumb.

The security guard teased a fat joint from his pocket. He spat the tail at the windscreen. “I don’t get kids these days. Aren’t they meant to break out of school?”
Unable to answer the question, I drained the wine into my mouth.

When the security guard prodded the lighter at the joint, his eyes ballooned with the flame swelling up against the sun visor. His haemophiliac wristband grazed the window. He shook out the fire and exhaled from the side of his mouth. “Night like this I reckon there’d be plenty of leftovers,” he said.

I slobbered on the joint for a while and then handed it back and put the bottle under my arm and rubbed my hands together, indicating that I’d already cleaned up.

“You look worse than usual.” The security guard winked. “Have you been having your own party? Does your boss know about that?”

I tilted my neck and glanced at my wrist for a watch that wasn’t there.

After swallowing the joint, the security guard took a puffy red leather photo album from the glove compartment. “Have I showed you these?” he said, peeling through sticky page after sticky page of illegal firecrackers.

“I told you I’m not interested in buying any of that stuff.” I threw the bottle at the mangled blonde wig on the trash pile at the corner of White Lane.

Something moved under one of the cold room boxes.

My brain ran imagines of Kay, dead, chopped up in a black plastic bag, naked, cake smeared around her genitals.

I was kicking through the trash before I let those pictures take hold.

“What the hell’s wrong with you tonight?” said the security guard.

Bob, one of the toughest local tomcats, darted along the brickwork and slinked to the Falcon that was parked in the Valiant’s space. He smoothed the cancerous tumours and the gashes on the back of his head against the Falcon’s Victorian license plate. A closing door had stubbed off his orange tail. Kay never fed the homeless.

“I’m not eating any garbage for desert.” The security guard loosened his seatbelt and attacked the lock. With nostrils flaring and eyes pitching left and right, he pinged the door open and shut against my knees. “To go to so much trouble protecting them,” he snorted, “there must be some prime leftovers in that kitchen.”

I untucked my T-shirt to cover the knife.

He quit flapping and scratched his tear duct with his gold-banded finger. He wasn’t a real security guard. He didn’t have a license or a gun. He was just a regular vigilante whose medical condition let him down. “What are you doing in the rain anyway, creep? You think I’m a welfare case? I’ve got a family. Can’t people have a normal conversation these days?” He shut his door and put his gearstick into reverse. “Did you hear about the drummer that finished high school? No? Me too.”

The Imitation Chinese Rug

Beating a dessertspoon double-time on the kitchen tiles, and rocking against the cold room door, I imagined sitting on a vast grill above an inferno, the throbbing light edging the unwashed dishes nearer to collapse. It wasn’t the fear of being caught that I felt from the accusing stare of the security guard’s headlights. By the time I’d gone back inside and prepared him a bowl of strawberry cheesecake, the Hyundai had driven off and I was left wondering if it was ever there. What I felt was the panic of options in a world without consequences, where the only transgression was a failure to act.

My free hand pulled at my hairline, attempting to alter my brain chemistry and make me someone who was better equipped to deal with all this. What would Jimmy Smith have done if the roles were reversed? He probably would have walked away.

Marijuana was no good for coming down from Ma’s anti-reality pills. I needed to act more professionally if I was going to help Kay. I finished off the bowl of strawberry cheesecake that had been keeping me company and skipped it over the tiles. The bowl exploded against the draining rack. Pieces ricocheted off the trashcan. I crawled through the garbage and the broken china, next to the body, peered under the dishwasher and saw, in a divot of grout, what looked like an anti-reality pill but was actually a bullet shell.

When the phone connected, I took in some fresh oxygen and pinched the shell, warm and smooth, between my fingers.

“Misses Pitman and I are either too tired to answer your call or having too much fun to care. Leave a message only if you are unable to deal with the problem yourself.”

I scraped the shell across the mouthpiece, in circles and zigzags, until the machine cut out. I listened for more messages. I stared outside and exhaled. When I lowered my arm, the receiver expanded, becoming lighter, floating to the back door. I felt like I was watching myself, separate from my actions, spilt down the middle, and other people were watching me from suburban lounge rooms and pawnshop windows, fumbling this hunk of plastic onto its cradle.

Ma said the imitation Chinese rug was 50 years old when she lugged it back to her apartment from Paddington Market after we moved to Sydney. She let me have it when a rash crawled up to her shins and she had to get her toes amputated. She said she got frostbite flying over the Himalayas. I only unrolled it to play the drums. But I dragged it out of the Valiant now, flopped it down on the kitchen tiles, and sat there thinking about her. She loved the novel Psycho but she hated the movie. She told me that at the start of the novel, Norman Bates has this book about Incas and he’s reading about how they used to do this dance accompanied by a drum made from an enemy’s corpse. They hollowed out the organs and tilted back the head so the rhythms came from the mouth. It never said what dance they performed or what music they digged. But it must have been wild. I tapped my spoon on the ribcage and the abdomen, but no tunes came from the mouth, so I rolled up the body and stashed it in the cold room.

Thomas Pitman had done me a favour getting rid of Jimmy Smith. Once I’d spoken to Kay, and knew she was alright, everything would be fine. She’d come to work in the morning and it would look as if nothing had happened. I’d ease her into the story and then show her the evidence. We could dump the body or use it for blackmail.

The dishwasher whirled into action every time I lowered the handle. I navigated trolleys of sparkling cutlery and china over the tiles, stacked everything behind the counter without dropping a thing, massaged inside the dishwasher with my T-shirt, giving extra attention to the rotating jets, slopped off the benches with my forearm, scoured the tubs with the chef’s best fish knife and buffed the steel to a mirror, stomped down trash bags, unhooked them, tied them off, dumped them in White Lane, dragged out a mop and bucket and treated the tiles near the dishwasher and the sink to such a dose of Jackson Super Industrial Strength Mopping Liquid that the patch where the body had been stood out so clear and white against the other tiles that I had to give them all a go.

When I was done, I swabbed my forehead with the mop.

The kitchen shone brighter than a 1980s television commercial.

I called Pitman House.

The answer machine clicked on.

After splashing four fingers of Jack Daniels over two dessertspoons of Nescafe and three sugars, I picked up Kay’s chair and sat by her window, scribbling half a pencil on the flipside of a receipt for café lattes and crab sandwiches. I got up, called her every 10 minutes, and then sat down with another drink. Dawn wiped the chair-leg shadows from the walls. The cowskin boots worked a slow blues on the floorboards. When I called for the eighth time, the line was busy.

I pulled the phone off the wall and fed it to the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait for Kay and I couldn’t risk someone else finding the body. Thomas Pitman might creep back and mess with it like a serial killer who can’t leave things alone. He might move it and try to convince me the whole thing was a David Lynch-induced fever dream.

I unhooked the tuning pegs and rolled the bass drum from the Valiant’s passenger door. The rain had stopped and the clouds were thinning out. The stereo hissed at the bass drum being jammed between the front seat and the dashboard. Carbon monoxide poured from the exhaust. The cymbals and the rack tom squeezed behind the driver’s seat. The road case slanted above them. I lurched into the cold room, hauled the imitation Chinese rug out to the Valiant, and slammed the trunk over the body that Jimmy Smith left behind.