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.


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