03 March 2006

Pitman House

Kay dabbed a paintbrush at her chin. I fixed the alternator with a hatchet. When I lowered the hood, and gave her the thumbs up, she flicked the playing card twirling from the rear-view mirror. St Christopher stood on one side. On the other side, a naked blonde rode a dildo. I should have untied it, but it was too late now.

“It was in the trunk when I inherited the Valiant,” I explained, cranking the ignition. “Might have been pushing my luck to discard it.” The 225 Slant Six Electroglide rumbled. Wrapping my toes around the steering wheel, I clambered through the window and bounced up and down.

“Does this guy know where you live?”

“He should do.” Kay juggled her cosmetics over to her side of the bench seat and tried to pack as much as she could into her bag. “He designed the place.”

“Won’t he look there first?”

“He’s my husband.” She pulled off the seatbelt buckle and put it on the dashboard. Her voice had become robotic, fatalistic. “Thomas Pitman, the architect.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Why would you?”

We were silent as the Valiant inched along Cathedral Street and rolled onto the Eastern Distributor. After a minute, I tore through the lid of a 7-Eleven popcorn carton that I found in Ma’s closet. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Kay Pitman, but does your husband often humiliate you in front of strangers and threaten murder and suicide?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“I was just making conversation.”

“At least I don’t live with my mother.”

“Some psychiatric people might think different.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kay’s face glowed blurry, as if it was on an old television with a broken valve. The pills that I gobbled while she was in the toilet were kicking in. I stuck my elbow out the window, ran my hand through my hair, and shuddered. Kay reached across and adjusted the steering wheel. “I can drive,” she said. “I’m pretty sober now.”

“The Valiant can drive by itself. It likes you. I think. Have some popcorn.”

Kay brushed crumbs from her golden Rolex and chopped the Tandy radio cassette player. An orange beam sparked up, and noise from the speakers mounted in holes cut out of the ledge above the back seat wafted fumes from the gas pipe in the trunk. Kay’s dress was up over her knees, near where her stockings met her suspenders. Empty cassette boxes and blank tapes rained onto her lap when she hit the glove compartment. “Can I hear one of your songs?” she said.

“Ma reckons it’s impolite to confront new acquaintances with your latest masterpiece.” I was trying to concentrate on Ma’s advice about getting involved with a femme fatale. My penis was stirring under my Levis for the first time in eight months.

Kay yawned and snuggled up to the gunmetal passenger door. “Thomas will have cooled down and gone to sleep by now.” I caught a glimpse of her black panties as she leaned out the window to scan the vacant road for BMWs.

The gasometer needle hopped from full to empty and off the dial. The Valiant wheezed and spluttered before loosening back to its usual drone.

One of the lanes over the Sydney Harbour Bridge was closed because there had been a fatal accident. Red and blue light doused the area. Men in plastic overalls waved orange batons and arranged rubber cones in front of a lemon Nissan Tarago on its side with a crash barrier wrapped around its face. A Kawasaki’s handlebars and fuel tank stuck out from under the back of the Tarago.

“They must have had a fantastic view.” Kay was watching the tourists in boilersuits and hard hats climbing the arch of scaffolding over the bridge.

On the walkway, in a swirl of oil and tyre tracks, lay a bloody saddle. Two young paramedics with sideburns wheeled a white lump onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.

“There’s been a record number of traffic accidents this year.” Kay frowned but didn’t look sad. She looked disappointed that she hadn’t been involved in this accident. She’d missed out by over 30 minutes. I thought about her husband driving around Green Park and wondered if he was one of those guys who only get off on car crashes.

“It’s because of the smoke,” I said.

“I know. I can’t stand it. Living in this city makes people despondent. I’d get out if I had a chance.”

I rested the 7-Eleven popcorn carton between the dashboard and the windscreen. It felt like we were on a first date at the drive-in.

“Have you ever thought about a divorce?” I said.

“Why would I do something like that?”

“Because your husband’s a bastard.”

“Did you know I was in Neighbours and Home and Away?”

I shook my head and pressed my right index finger to the windscreen like an assassin picking off the climbers.

“I never got many roles because my acting was too professional. I made the regular girls look bad. I once had stupid Hollywood dreams.”

“Ma says dreams are more important than reality.”

Kay took some popcorn and smiled at the opera house.

A tall man in a leather jacket limped from behind the ambulance with a hand on his hip. He poured glass out of a disfigured helmet, scuffed his boots on the asphalt, and slipped the helmet on his head. A policeman prodded him in the chest with a notebook.

Orange batons waved the Valiant forward. We rolled over to the north shore, past St Leonards Park, and for a while, there were hairdressers, boutiques, flower shops, coffee chains, and real estate offices. Then there was nothing but brick houses with terracotta roofs.

The Valiant’s TorqueFlite three-speed automatic converter transmission clunked and jerked approaching the hills of Northbridge. The chassis bottomed out over each incline, and the brakes sucked and squalled on the way down. My foot rocked the pedal and my knee thumped the steering column. The hills got steeper and the curves got sharper. Mansions rose above the suburbs. Harbour lights shone through the trees.

Kay’s phone was buzzing in her hand because she hadn’t answered it. “Slow down,” she was saying. “There’s an intersection over this hill.”

“Don’t worry. The brakes will kick in soon.” I patted the dashboard and let the steering float from curb to curb. “I’m sure the Valiant likes you.”

“Stop it, Henry. Don’t be a lunatic? I’ll throw up in this piece of junk.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that.”

“Why the hell not.”

“You’ll hurt his feelings.”

“It’s just a fucking car.”

When the brakes took hold, Kay’s phone flew out the window. I offered to go back and get it but she just pointed to the next corner and then the next one after that. She vomited in the gutter outside a school with a granite wall that she said she used to study behind. I decided to let her stay in the Valiant as long as she didn't mess up the carpet. When her right breast almost came out of her dress, I wanted to lean over and tweak the nipple, but I thought about Ma and stopped myself.

Eventually, the Valiant rumbled two metres up a white gravel driveway at the end of a cul-de-sac.

The handbrake cranked out.

The engine hummed in time with the popcorn rattling in the bottom of the carton.

Dim light glowed from the glass terrace circling the highest level of a triple-story California bungalow gazing down from the edge of a harbour outcrop. The overhanging eaves twisted shadows across rare native shrubs and boulders dragged down from the Blue Mountains. A cream Mercedes E320 Wagon guarded a double carport, next to the flamenco red BMW.

“Thanks for a fascinating evening.” Kay pumped out Visine until it ran down her cheeks. “Everything will be back to normal in the morning.”

I tapped the instrument panel to let her know that I wanted fuel to get home. The needle jumped.

Kay rooted around inside her bag, shifting plastic bottles, metal cylinders, glass jars, and other smaller bags. I eased my left hand behind the seat and played with the ashtray. She came up with a horseshoe key ring and a silver box. She flipped open the box and handed me a white business card with KAY’S PLACE in black ink and an address on Darlinghurst Road. Then she hauled herself out of the cockpit. The TorqueFlite shifted into neutral and the Valiant crunched back to the street.

Pitman House loomed behind Kay. She stood there in the driveway, pouting, still wearing the cowskin boots.

I spat the business card onto the dashboard.

She shuffled to the curb, picked up the popcorn carton, and funnelled down the crumbs.

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