Stewart had picked up girls that way before. His damsels, they signalled to him. Their malleable morality leeched sweetly into the dark night air and reflected in his headlights. The first time, his nerves had stumbled all over his still forming intentions, but that little blond had stirred him up and turned him into a frequent driver. It had cost him a Big Mac.
Always the same stretch of road, it linked North Canberra to the city and rolled through kilometres of brush land, inhabited by clusters of gums and that indestructible long grass that is almost uniformly straw coloured for ten months of the year. The landscape looked dry even when the winter green had come back to the rest of the city, when the temperature dropped below zero and frost made everything sparkling brittle. Here, water was often preoccupied with its decorative role. It was present, pretty, but unnourishing.
Stewart braced himself. The ground was frost hardened, and he knew his back would take all the force of his weight jolting through the shovel. Beyond the dirt road and the dirt road, there was nothing. It was like humanity had made a play at commandeering the brush land, but the effort had been a token one. The gate led nowhere. Well. Now it led to this business.
They were always the same girl—hair too dark or too fair for a face that was still unwrinkled but grey and parched, the youth siphoned off without a thought. She was always heading into town. There was always a scruffy overnight bag. Sometimes she had fractured bones, or the yellowed purple blush left by screaming angry fists and objects close to hand. Her multi-coloured skin intrigued Stewart, but he found missing teeth distasteful, and when gaps flashed from behind chapped lips, he would focus on her lobes. They were always soft, rolling between his thumb and forefinger. She usually preferred to face him with her ear anyway, cheek to lips, eyes open but her focus snuffled up by something that used to be, or would be soon. Every time, after a time, he would drop her off in the city. She never looked back.
He’d been to visit his mother that night. He’d sat by her narrow bed and listened to her breathing, her just breathing. He’d signed the visitors’ book, pressing hard and scratching out his name so his dad couldn’t miss it. After exactly ninety minutes, or one management designated unit of visiting time, outside the grey, window pocked facility that had been his mum’s home for almost ten years, Stewart got into his Mercedes. He closed the door and deleted his mother’s face for another month. He deleted both their faces. And he went searching.
He saw the girl’s figure while it was still a few hundred metres away. She materialised in the light beam of a passing car. He felt the thrill. He readied himself. The jazz compilation was at the right volume; he smiled at how well the music went with the leather seats. The pinstripe suit jacket was moved from front seat to back; the salon tipped hair was smoothed at its side part; the top shirt button was opened; the two hundred dollar cuffs were rolled; the erection was tucked into the waistband of his forty-dollar underpants.
She slid into the passenger seat and peeled off her heavy fleece-lined coat, rustling the inside of the Mercedes with clingy night air.
“Where’re you headed?” It was his driving voice, and it suited the leather, too.
“Wherever you’re going, I guess,” she replied, and the clear-eyed flash of her reply stopped him with his hand on the brake; it halted his foot on the accelerator.
She clipped her seatbelt and, for a moment, they both sat as still as the car.
“Are we going?” she asked and turned to face him, her ponytail swinging over her shoulder, and fanning him with a clean, floral scent.
He closed his eyes for an instant, and breathed her in. Pictures sprang into his mind. Stewart saw himself kicking her out the door. His shoe would leave an imprint on her arm and the car would spit gravel as he drove away. He would return her and go on searching.
It wasn’t her, but Stewart drove forward anyway. He knew it wasn’t her. The flavour of this girl was too sharp on inhalation, missing a sourness. Her scent confirmed his mistake and drew his hand to his top button.
“Don’t dress on my account,” she said, smiling at his nervous fingers and shoving her bag and coat down at her feet.
Stewart concentrated on keeping pressure on the accelerator and directed his gaze outwards—rear lights, white lines, high beams, grass, dark. The night buffeted against the speeding car. She hummed along with Norah Jones, filling the interior, and he bristled. She should have been smaller, hushed up, her eyes glazed with pinprick pupils, ready. She should not be humming. Stewart’s erection retreated. It crawled backwards while his mind fermented with practised civilities battling with disappointment. There was the unforgiving cold of the evening to mention, the clear sky, her business with the road this late, but he was rigid, pulsing with indignation. He was struggling to form an introduction, something effortless, when his mind flashed with the image of his hand over her mouth, her eyes wide open in her little white face. He set his mouth and his gaze remained forward. Rear lights, white lines, high beams, grass, dark.
“You’ve done this before.”
He could smell her breath. Apple juice. “Done what?”
She smiled. Her finger tapped on her knee. He was about to repeat himself, when her arm shot out and she ejected the CD. Norah’s voice vanished.
“Hey. Uh, um . . . What are you doing?”
Her smile deepened at the sight of his creased brow and she opened the glove box.
“Hey. Just be careful with those,” he said, and blushed at the whine in his voice.
She clasped the pile in both hands and lifted it onto her lap.
“Wow. Do you own any proper albums?”
“What do you mean?”
“Best of the Blues, Women of Jazz volume four, The Best of Nina Simone?”
“The Best in Smooth Lounge?” Her eyebrows were raised. “Well, Jazz Man, what’s your favourite Nina Simone album?”
He drew in a breath and frowned. “I’ve done what before?” he asked.
She fell back into her smile. “This. Taxied?” she said. “Picked up passengers. Rescued distressed damsels.”
“A few times. It’s not safe out there.” Stewart’s shoulders began to feel stiff. His arms pressed into the steering wheel as plastic casing clacked in her lap beside him.
“I mean look at this. You’re missing at least three or four of her best songs from ‘I Put a Spell on You’ on this compilation.” She shook her head. “They only ever include the title track in these stupid best of albums.”
The crispness of his shirt was wilting as his skin dampened beneath. His own salty, evening dew bloomed, and a crystalline drop off the end of his nose flashed into his eyes; it was a wet glint in the dimmed headlights streaming from his car. The Mercedes stood with Stewart in the middle of nowhere and marked out his place in the night. He pounded the ground, and the ground pounded him back with each strike until the top layers shifted and dark clay was exposed. He just needed a person load.
He said nothing. He’d bought the music for the cold smiles of the girls wearing seven hundred dollar suits and high heels. Improvement was key. So now, the same songs rotated with the mileage. A few of the seven hundred dollar girls had, at one time or another, climbed into his car after an Australian Chinese fusion dinner in Manuka and a bottle of New Zealand Pinot gris, and they had mewed and fluttered about the soundtrack, and then they had left the car and gone inside their townhouses and apartment buildings. Every one alone. But now the songs formed part of his everyday self, looping as disc followed disc. The songs had sparked no curiosity in him nor had they become monotonous. They seeped in, held him in place, and then changed track. Plus, they suited the leather, the soundtrack of the Big Mac girls.
He glanced at her while her head was lowered over the discs. Her dark blue jeans were taut across the top of her thighs before gathering up just below where her hipbone would be, her t-shirt grabbing at her breasts and biceps. Her late walk had produced dark, moist shadows under her arms. The ponytail was inky and moving as a single shining creature, falling across her shoulder and framing her ear. Her lobe was unpierced, tucked in and tidy, adhering to her jawline which dipped around, downy and uncoated, white. Pure flesh, it would roll under his fingers, modest, unscarred. It would taste like salt and night air.
Her blue eyes caught him eating her and she laughed through her nose. “I suppose you’re safe, then?”
Stewart’s face prickled. It glowed in the dashboard light. “Of course.”
“Of course,” she repeated in mock seriousness. “Aren’t you worried about me, though?”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you know I’m safe?” she said with a sly lift to her mouth. “Murderous Hitchhiker Decapitates Good Samaritan,” she laughed. “It happens.”
Stewart wiped his damp palms on his thighs one at a time, and didn’t respond. She selected a CD and slipped it into the stereo. Clarinet wailed through the car. He darted a look at her.
“This is the same disc.”
She shrugged, and slammed the glove box shut on his albums. “We’ll start from the beginning.”
They both stared ahead as the instrument mingled with the rest of the big band and twisted along the road with them. Canberra glinted lights in the distance. They were multi-coloured, and the silhouette of Black Mountain crept around to reveal more and more of the electric clusters. Alongside the car, a few dirt roads led to heavy gates and, then, to more dirt road. No houses sat atop hills or amongst trees despite what the well compacted strips of earth promised. The car was racing forward, and it was all bundled up in darkness until, intermittently, another car beamed over the crest, rushed past, and was gone again.
Stewart had been surprised there was a shovel in his car at all. He couldn’t remember putting it there. The Bunnings tag had swung on the hand grip. The head had been virgin. He and the shovel bit into the ground like amateurs, both failing to yield sufficiently to avoid injury and lacking the necessary force for blue collar headway. His dad would have had this hole dug in half an hour. The earth scratched back at the shovel as Stewart dug in again.
“This is when songs had a proper beginning,” she said, curling up in her seat as Lena Horne began to croon ‘Stormy Weather’. “Enough time to ask someone to dance, walk them onto the floor and pull them close . . . all before a word was sung.”
She began to hum again. She tucked her knees into her chest and wrapped herself up in her arms. Stewart glimpsed her bare toes under the hem of her jeans. The nails were painted fuchsia pink, glossy and unchipped. Her sandshoes were sitting on top of her bag. He wasn’t sure when they’d come off.
“Although, nobody dances that way anymore, do they?” she said, seeking out his gaze. “I mean, Nanas do, in old folk’s homes, with each other. All these ladies dancing together cos the men have dropped off. But it’s not the same kind of thing, is it? No weak knees. No anticipation. I guess we just don’t need music like this anymore, do we?” she said. “People just pick each other up and bypass the music altogether.” She sighed, dropped her head back and began to hum again.
This girl vibrated, resonated, and moved the air around her like her skin was not container enough. The Big Mac girl always filled the passenger seat with an energising vacancy. She was all flesh and habit. Perhaps her fingers would have already found his knee. His senses would be full of her broad caustic fragrance. She’d have muttered a thank you and a name—Tracey, Amber, Lisa—and begun to repay the favour, kneading fingers, sometimes cracked lips, nodding head. He didn’t even mind the pilfered cuff link or watch. The script was memorised. It worked. There was little talking. There was no humming.
“I was named after her, you know,” she said.
“Lena Horne. That’s my name. Lena.”
“I know,” she said, laughing at the look on his face. “You very sensibly sticker label all your CDs.”
“Oh.” Her voice lowered to an artificial deepness as she imitated him. “I bet you label everything, don’t you? Clothing, books, spices . . .” She paused and ran a finger over the shining nail of her big toe. “People?”
Stewart thought of raw bite marks on warm soft lobes and frowned.
“No,” she repeated in her smiling imitation.
“Can you stop that, please?”
Lena giggled and reached forward, turning up the volume as far as it would go. The first chorus of ‘Stormy Weather’ pounded out of the speakers. There was just the faintest hint of static at the edges of the sound. Stewart had to shout.
“That’s too loud!”
“What?” She was laughing again.
Stewart’s agitated fingers flipped the dial too far, and for a moment his ears were full of Lena’s giggling breath.
“I like it on twelve to fifteen, thank you,” he said, as he set the volume, his voice coiled up in his throat.
“Okay. Okay,” Lena said to herself. “Mr Labels.”
She sighed, and the song hung between them. Soon, Lena’s hum settled over the melody, again.
Stewart flicked his gaze over her, her white skin emerging from her neckline. There had been a news story the week before. A group of chefs had died because they had eaten milky-white death cap mushrooms. They’d pulled over on a Canberra road and picked their death. They’d chopped and sautéed it. Stewart wondered if that meal had been delicious. If professionals were fooled, it was clearly difficult to tell what was safe to eat by the side of the road, particularly in the dark.
“I’ll just drop you in Civic. Somewhere on Northbourne, you can get a bus anywhere from there.”
How deep would she have to be? How far could a fox dig? A dog? What else was out here? She had to be settled, moulded up safe in the clay. It was a shame about that hair. It was a shame about those lobes. Should he take them? Where would one keep such a haul? He chortled to himself, breathless, and wiped the sweat off his face. What a ridiculous thing to consider.
Lena turned and looked out her window, still humming, the back of her shoulder fronting him, and he felt the challenge. He felt the fuck you.
He searched through the windscreen. Rear lights, white lines, high beams, grass, dark.
He refused to look her way, and yet her face was there. Her hair. That ponytail would twist around his hand at least twice. Its glossiness would slide against the dry skin of his palms and it would take a fair grip to stop it slipping out. It would be her lever, his lever. He could hold her up and drop her wherever he liked.
Then, beside him, as the mountain passed by on their left, Lena’s hum opened up. The sound shifted from her palate to her chest, the low humming vibrations rounding out and colliding with the air around Stewart, forcing his mind to let go of her hair. Lena began to sing, her voice deep and exposed, enveloping each note.
Stewart lifted his hand; he moved as if trying to turn her down. His fingers fluttered in the air above the steering wheel unable to help him. His breath caught in his stomach. He looked at her and her eyes were closed. He was flayed with the sense that he was intruding on her; the sense he was being pushed out of the way. His objections lodged in his throat.
Lena’s vibrato was round and warm. Her lilting words ran on until their meaning and the music became the same heartbreak. Lena and Lena sang together.
A car passing in the other direction lit up the inside of the Mercedes. The undipped beams shot through the windscreen. Stewart squinted.
Her voice rang on and struck him like jutting elbows and knees. It persisted. It scoured him. His composure was ulcerated, dragging away the anchor that normally stuck him fast—pursuer of seven hundred dollar girls, self-made man, driver, rescuer.
Car lights blinked in the sky like northern auroras, the illumination disconnected from its source, the vehicles passing by completely out of view. He sat by his hole to rest. Someone might have seen him turn off. Of course, it was a road and people turn off roads, and there was no reason to think it wasn’t his road. No one would have doubted how he opened that gate. It was casual, just as if he did it every day.
Lena was flushed and drew each breath with her whole body. She smiled as she sang about the rain.
His knuckles prickled. Nausea smeared through his centre. He pushed to hold it down, to hold it all down. His lips moved, pleading, chanting to himself. Not again. Not again. But she was selfish. She was hogging. She had laughed. Get out. Shut up. Please.
Rear lights, white lines, high beams, grass, dark.
She sang. Weaving, undulating, her voice grasped at the dark stillness in the car.
Stewart, Stewart. Paranoia and anxiety are common. What your describing is called disassociation, son. Rear lights, white lines . . . We’ll make another appointment. Rear lights, death caps . . . Drive.
She sang. Her fingers flitting, and her eyes still closed
It’s your bedtime boy. What the hell are you staring at? You wanna kiss her too, hey? Kiss your mama? Stew, stop gawping and go to your fucking room.
Straighten up boy. Toughen up. She’d be fine if you weren’t so fucking hopeless. If you just kept your fucking mouth shut. Just turn your head that way. It’s Amber right? What can I get you?
The last song on the stereo was about summer time and easy living. That was the last song before they were all scooped up. Each CD case cracked when it hit the earth, the silver discs rolling out and settling in a digital shimmering nest. The jutting edges would hold her in place, piercing and adhering, and she would hold them, like a dead weight.
Lena raised her arms above her head as the chorus reached its crescendo, and rested her bare feet on the glove box, her voice joyous and rising above the speakers.
“Fuck! Shut up!” Stewart’s arm lashed across the car. He swung until his knuckles struck her face. Her lip split across her front teeth. He felt the calcium hardness give way, and something in him sighed. He saw her head bounce forward onto her knees and then into the glove box, crack, crack. He watched her slump over into her own lap.
“Shut up,” he breathed, pinching the bridge of his nose with his bloodied hand.
Lena’s upper body now swayed with the movement of the car, her arms limp by the sides of her legs. Her mangled mouth was kissing her knees and the blue jeans were soaked and dark, re-smearing her face with red. Lena Horne sang alone.
She was warm and pliant. The smile was now replaced with a vacancy unlike the Big Mac girl’s. This was an absence not a shadow of something. This was a dirt filled hole with teeth left somewhere on the complimentary floor mat. He covered her legs first. He took all the air one scoop at a time. Seven hundred dollar girls pay for mud packs. What a treat. It was a shame about the hair. And those lobes.
Stewart turned off at the next dirt road.