by Steve Himmer
Ansett flight 125 sets down outside Alice Springs at 2:00 PM, give or take a few seconds. Right on schedule. Thomas Maxwell closes his laptop and collects the sheaf of papers spread over his tray table and the one next to it, and slides them into a leather courier bag. He returns both tables to their upright and locked positions, and turns to his sleeping wife. “Elaine... Elaine...,” he whispers, forcefully, while nudging her shoulder, “wake up, we're landing.” She stirs, mumbles, and the two of them take down a conspicuous number of carry-on bags before moving forward with the rest of First Class.
Tuesday afternoon, the air-conditioned shuttles from the airport to the hotels are forced to contend with ten, maybe twenty, private cars on the streets of Alice. The rest are identical tour buses, taxis, hire cars, and shiny new Land Cruisers piloted inexpertly through the always flat streets of the desert city by clean-faced men in safari suits and Akubra hats. Elaine, still groggy from her ritual in-flight Valium and two cocktails, slides down the seat and comes to rest against the window in a rustle of nylon track suit, trying hard to stay awake. Her husband, Akubra-crowned, leans, almost climbs, over her trying hard to take in everything outside. His head turns, eyes caught by a group of black men drinking beer outside an off-license. Now we're in the real Australia... the Outback,” he says to no one in particular, except maybe his wife whom he knows has nodded off again.
Tom rubs his hands together, settles back in his reclining coach seat, and draws out a thick guidebook from the shoulder bag that matches his briefcase. He reads that Alice Springs is, or was, the Soviet Union's second highest priority target in a nuclear war. He considers the addresses of all the galleries full of Aboriginal art that await him. Also, and this most of all, Thomas Maxwell dreams of Uluru—even though he doesn't know that name. His guidebook has a photograph, “Ayer's Rock at sunset”, which he's book marked and often returned too. He's imagined the view from atop the great Australian monolith, high above thousands of miles of unspoiled desert, under a cloudless sky as the sun comes up pink and young. He and Elaine have two seats booked on what they've been reliably told is the best Ayer's Rock tour, leaving on Thursday, which gives them plenty of time for art hunting. A Kangaroo Dreaming would be just the thing for his library wall back in Boulder.
Tuesday morning, the sun begins to creep over the top of the five ramshackle buildings of William Creek, South Australia long before 6:00, but well after all five sleeping bags stretched out on a canvas ground sheet are moving. Bluey, the red-headed one, gets a fire going under the pot, and throws in dried oats and apple chunks and raisins. Attempts are made at rinsing the dust from bowls but any effort at drying them—with shirts, towels, or still air—just puts back twice as much. But no matter, dust is the secret to Bluey's porridge anyway.
Breakfast devoured, buckets of sand shaken from sleeping bags, the nylon and goose-down settlement piled back into the trailer, a game of footy is gotten up in the street. One of the world's few streets where football can be played without a single traffic disturbance.
By the time the dust from the football game has been rinsed off in the swimming pool, the sun is getting high and the air is already thick with flies. Only the flies have numbers to challenge the armada of dust specks.
After completing all preparations for leaving, the quintet heads into the William Creek hotel for one final beer. This town, the population of which they have temporarily doubled, boasts the world's most remote pub, over 250 miles from anything at all. Surrounded by the desert, which may as well be an ocean for its habit of devouring trespassers and strewing them on its edges broken and unrecognizable, William Creek is an island. But, as of a couple of years ago, it is an island with a solar powered, satellite linked telephone booth.
In the bar's back room this morning, Graeme is busy trouncing Patrick at a last game of pool, although Patrick insists that once they get to Alice, where he'll be able to play without bumping his cue into the wall,he'll kick Graeme's limey ass. “Still,” he adds, “this'll do,” and pulls deeply from his schooner of Cooper's Stout.
Next door, Bluey and Petra sip Victoria Bitters, talking with Jim the owner/bartender, his wife, and the local bush-pilot about the Simpsons, who visited Australia in last night's episode, although nowhere near the Simpson Desert which looms outside. Roellie, still outside practicing with the hotel's bull-whip, can be heard occasionally shouting and less often cracking the whip.
Last night, she had been admiring the ten foot long kangaroo leather whip (a raffle prize with all proceeds to benefit the South Australia Flying Doctors), and longing to give it a try, so the entire drunken clientele had followed her outside, some more steadily than others.
Right away, Roellie had swung the whip over her head, slashing madly, maybe at the moon, but she had only managed to knock off Patrick's cap. Jim, with typical Oz diplomacy, had shut off the outside lights to avoid further embarrassing Roellie and terrifying everyone else. There had been no other light, save the moon. With the first sound of the whip moving through the thick darkness, bystanders had run, unsuccessfully, in all directions and ended the night a pile of laughing, dust covered bodies in the middle of the street.
Glasses empty, and two or three extra cases tucked away for the long drive ahead, everyone climbs into the oft-bruised but still unbroken Land Cruiser, an ‘83. Wearing a minimal amount of clothing just slightly filthier than yesterday, and already sweating in the unmoving 115 degree air, they rumble back into the desert trailing plumes of dust mile after mile. All that marks their brief stay in William Creek are five fresh contributions to the years of autographs on the hotel walls, and one grey sock, Patrick's.
Alice Springs, like Boulder, gives the illusion of water. Thomas Maxwell can't shake the sensation that at the end of some given street he's going to see the ocean. On this hundred degree plus day, the waves of heat rising from the tarmac in the centre of town almost look like ripples on distant water.
Tom steps out from the hotel courtyard, passes the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street, and heads into town. Really just the one main shopping drag and a few interesting side streets. Not much of a city, Alice Springs. Sydney they both had enjoyed, with plenty of museums and historic sites and tours. Elaine had been pleasantly surprised that there was such a cosmopolitan feel downtown, fashion boutiques and all. And it all felt safe, like New York or Los Angeles without the danger, and far, far friendlier. Of course, they hadn't really ventured much farther afield than the Rocks and Darling Harbour, but the harbor cruises had revealed a fair bit of the environs. Sydney, Tom thought, was the finest harbour city he'd seen. More relaxed than frantic Hong Kong, and with a better climate than San Francisco. Still, the real Australia was out here, and Alice Springs was the gateway to beyond the black stump.
He strolls past the post office and to the end of the tourist strip, and realizes for the first time just how many Aborigines are around. For the whole trip he's been surprised at never seeing any blacks in Sydney, or Melbourne, or anywhere, but here they are, in the back of beyond. Sitting under a wattle tree on the edge of town with a case of West End. Lazing about outside the Safeway or the shops. Occasionally, the odd well-dressed local has a darker face, but over all, despite the numbers, the blacks are all but invisible. Having expected Alice Springs, and all of Australia's centre at that, to be largely populated by Native Australians,·Tom is a bit let down to find himself still staring at so many white faces.
Having taken awhile to rest back at the hotel, Tom finds that the galleries are already closing and he's going to have to wait until morning before shopping for a painting. He finds, at the end of a stone-paved walkway leading off of the main pedestrian mall, a quite charming Mexican restaurant and decides to suggest it to Elaine for dinner. Knowing, however, that she'll probably feel up to nothing but room service tonight, he checks to see if the restaurant seems to encourage solo diners. Mostly large tables, but he notes a couple of smaller ones in the back. Pink threads are beginning to show through the sky, and already the sun is starting to melt into a purple band on the horizon. Tom returns to the main street and heads back to the hotel, stopping only to admire the wares in a few gallery windows.
Patrick and Graeme run a race across the grainy white floor of Lake Eyre, feet kicking up sprays of ancient salt. A sea, hundreds of miles inland and extinct for thousands of years, now with tracks trailing out behind the foreign bodies pounding across its face. The Land Cruiser rests on the edge of the sea, doors left open, buzzer ignored, and a gang of semi-clad revelers fans out from its centre, like circles spreading on any other sea.
Their trails cross once, and again, before Graeme loses his footing and collides with Patrick, bringing them both down hard. They slide across abrasive salt, skin protected by layers of sand and dust and dirt caked on thick and nearly as dark as the beards growing on their faces. As soon as they stop moving for a moment, the flies rush in to crowd on their eyes, noses, mouths. Graeme has a bloody knee from his spill and industrious flies pick the wound dry, leave it bloodless.
Sandwiches, heavy on the sand, are made and devoured. The trailer is repacked after lunch, and Bluey takes a photo of Roellie standing on the strip of sand which has served as a road, thumb out, hitch hiking to and from nowhere. Afterwards, when Roellie isn't looking, Bluey and Patrick take self portraits with her camera, a surprise for some later date.
The truck roars back to life, and begins to move north once again, fanning a copper wake behind it as it glides across the surface of the desert. Soon, nothing is visible except a cloud of dust slipping quickly off the horizon and a set of tracks leading to its edge. High up, a wedge-tailed eagle circles, scanning the sea for scraps of forgotten lunch. Perhaps he sought to avoid filling his afternoon with the hunt, desired instead to find a gum tree and nap in its arms, well fed on a free lunch.
“So this, these concentric circles here, that's where Kangaroo Dreaming begins? That's where Kangaroo Spirit came out of the ground and began his walking?” asks Tom, brow furrowed, eyes tightly focused on the six-by-five-foot painting propped before him. Oranges, browns, yellows... lines, dots, circles... what is almost a recognizable kangaroo fills the upper right hand corner, the only respite from abstraction. It is like pointillism viewed too closely, so that loosely constructed form melts into a jumble of unrelated dots.
“Um... yeah, that's about it, you've got it,” replies the gallery salesman.
“Hey, Elaine, look at this... it's a Kangaroo Dreaming of the Pitjantjatjara people, this is Kangaroo's story. The water holes he visited, fights he was in... and here's Ayer's Rock where he ended up. It's a map of his path through the desert when the world was first forming.”
“Umhum,” Elaine mumbles, examining a teatowel with a print of Ayer's Rock.
“I'll take the painting then, and... Elaine, the teatowel there?” She hands it to him by way of reply. “Right, and the towel.”
“That's $719 sir, how will you be paying?”
“Is American Express alright?” A nod. “Good, American Express then. Oh, and what was it you said Ayer's Rock was called, in the painting and all?”
“I'll just need your address for shipping then.”
“Has anybody seen my sunglasses?” Patrick calls from the back of the Landy where he's rummaging through mounds of detritus and discarded clothing.
“Did you pick them up from the table this morning, at the oasis? They were sitting there while we broke camp and packed up.”
Uh... shit, no... ah well, I'll just go blind.”
They head down a path into a stand of eucalyptus, ghost gums mostly, and emerge on the other side the trees in a rocky gorge. “Hey, I've found some paintings,” Bluey calls, “over in this cave.” Five bodies crowd into a narrow opening, trying not to block the light. “Look, here's the story...Kangaroo left his humpy...”
“When a spirit makes a camp is it called a humpy, or is that just humans?”
“I don't really know for sure, Roellie. Anyhow, Kangaroo Spirit left his camp, this semi-circle here, and began to walk. Here, he ran into Tiger Snake, who chased him all the way through the desert, to this water hole, and finally to Uluru, here at these circles.”
“Hey, Petra, check this out.”
“What's that Graeme?”
“Look at these paintings.” On the wall of the cave are three hands, outlined in copper-hued red ochre. “Do you know how these are made? Some Aborigine, maybe 30,000 years ago, ground some ochre, mixed it with water in his mouth, and spit it against the wall where he was holding his hand.” At the same time, both Graeme and Petra fit their own hands into the ghosts of the ones on the wall.
“Think of it Elaine,” Tom says, “all that desert down there, thousands and thousands of miles of sand! I'd love to cross it.”
“Why? All that driving? You'd get sick. Besides, it would all start to look the same very quickly. I get bored just looking at it from above... thank God this is only a forty-five minute flight.”
“Really, I don't know why you agreed to come along. You've been miserable for days.”
“Well, I wasn't going to stay in Sydney alone, was I? And I know how much seeing all this means to you, seeing the desert... it's just so empty, so... not quite dead, more like it never existed, was never alive at all. Like a dream maybe. I just don't see the attraction.”
Tom doesn't answer, turns his face to the window and watches the shadow of the plane slide over the surface of the desert, dreaming of a long drive. The plane has dropped low enough for Tom to notice the kangaroo, a big red, hopping beside the edge of the shadow as if afraid of its touch but drawn close all the same.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching the Ayer's Rock airport...”
“What if none of this is real? I mean, what if the world's ended and we just don't know? Or what if... what if we're all just somebody dreaming? “
“Yeah, Patrick Dreaming, an old Aboriginal legend about an American who spends too long in the desert and loses his mind. What the hell are you on about anyway?” laughs Bluey.
“Just that all of this is so surreal, like nothing else in the world except dream landscapes. What if we're all just someone else's self-aware dream fragments?”
“You're thinking too damn hard, mate,” Bluey heckles, “you're on holiday after all! Act like it!”
“I think I see what you mean Patrick,” offers Petra, “I've been thinking lately that this isn't real life, the real world... more like a negative image of life, the exact opposite of something so close to us, maybe right behind us, that we can't ever turn fast enough to see it.”
“All of this, listening to you guys,” comments Graeme, “puts me in mind of that sculptress, Sharon Whiteread is it? She does plaster casting of space, like the space under a mattress and the inside of a townhouse. All of it has been there all along, right in front of us, but we never manage to notice it, or care enough to. Maybe that's what we're talking about when we say we can see the desert in people who have been out here a long time, like Talc Alf, that guy down near Maree. They've become mirrors, or photographs, of the space behind everyday life.”
Nobody speaks for a long moment, until Bluey draws the collective attention to a big red, at least two metres tall. He stands nearby, silhouetted against the sky up on a copper dune ablaze with sunset watching the humans as closely as they watch him. This lasts for what may as well be hours, neither party shifting its focus, before the kangaroo hops off into the desert, in apparent pursuit of a descending aircraft.
“This is ridiculous,” says Tom suddenly.
“What's that dear?”
“All of this, us, this resort. The desert is right outside that wall. Aboriginal lands, animals, Mad Max... it's all so close but still I'm sitting here next to a swimming pool drinking a cocktail. Surrounded by stucco, protected from the desert.”
“I thought you were enjoying yourself.”
“Oh, I am, I am, it's just... it's just that something feels wrong, like there's something missing or there's too much in the way and I'm missing it.”
“In the way of what? What are you missing?”
“I don't know... this resort is in the way of the desert, anyway.”
Some silent moments pass.
“I don't know what's gotten into me lately,” says Tom, rising from his chair and heading for the pool. “The more I move, the more restless I become.”
“You'll need a vacation after your vacation.”
Tom sits on the edge of the pool, legs dangling under the surface of the water, heels rubbing the smooth tile side.
“At least tomorrow we'll get to go climb Ayer's Rock.”
“I don't see why the bus has to leave so ridiculously early. I'll have to be up by 4:00.”
“They say the Rock looks the best at sunrise.”
“How are you going to see what it looks like if you're standing on top of it?”
“Feel like invading the lap of luxury?”
“How's that work, Bluey?”
“There's the Ayer's Rock Resort nearby. We could sneak in and use the showers in their changing rooms and have a swim in the pool.”
“Well, it has been two and a half weeks since my last shower...”
“We know Patrick, we can smell,” teases Petra.
“After that we can go to the supermarket and the bank and the off-license before going to set up camp. By the way, I thought we might camp within a decent view of Uluru so we can see it at sunrise. I'm told that it just glows with all kinds of colours.”
A few minutes later, a battered, mud-caked Land Cruiser pulls up outside the pink stucco walls of the Ayer's Rock Resort. The rear door opens, unleashing a cascade of unpaired shoes, beer cans, the shredded remains of Petra's straw hat, balled up socks, and unclaimed underwear.
Keeping an eye out for over-ambitious bell boys and ignoring inquiring, perhaps offended, looks from the guests, they stroll through the gates of the resort as if they belong there. Conspicuous in their filth, and suddenly aware, if only from the looks on the faces of strangers, just how terrible they smell, they quickly seek the changing rooms.
Inside, in the showers, which are all in a row with a drainage trench sloping through them, Bluey, Graeme, and Patrick watch as two and a half weeks of dirt rinses off and washes past their feet.
Tom watches three young men, darkly tanned and sporting a few weeks of rough beard, step out of the changing room and head toward the pool. Two of them, the red-haired one and the one in glasses, stop to put some clothes into a locker, and when the third speaks to them Tom is almost positive that he is an American.
The pool is conspicuously empty for this time of day, with just one middle-aged man dipping his legs at the side. Patrick walks to a chaise lounge by the water's edge, and tosses down his towel. He steps to the rim of the pool and, toes curled over the lip of the coping, hovers there for a moment before dropping full length into the water on his stomach.
Ripples fan out quickly from the centre of the pool, tinted slightly copper from the last traces of stubborn dirt still clinging to Patrick after his shower. They slide, one after another, across the surface of the water before crashing against the sides of the pool. Slight rings of dirt are left, like miniature deposits of the desert, on whatever surfaces the waves touch.
Thomas Maxwell, dozing off on the edge of the pool, is roused by the lapping water from a dream. He had shed his clothes, leaving them in a heap at the gates of the Ayer's Rock Resort, and walked into the desert towards Uluru. Suddenly awoken, he feels a bit awkward at his dreamt nudity, and draws his legs out of the water to his chest, unaware of the thin, faint bands of copper sand on each shin.
All rights reserved.
This is an early story found in my hard drive (the earliest, in fact, circa 1995), shared as part of the January 2012 "Origin Stories" project at Necessary Fiction. In other words, it isn't here because it's good but because it's old, and because I didn't want to ask NF's contributors to something I wasn't willing to do.