From Cairns Into the Heart of Darkness and Back Again with a Stop at Hostel Anthrax

This is the final part of a series on driving in Queensland. Read parts 12, 345 and 6.  

Note: Names have been changed. 

Driving north felt splendid. My mood was cheerful: I had full command over my music; the windows were rolled down, the funnel of air shared with the world my singing of Johnny Cash songs; and I was tolerant of my company. And my view: a road north out of Cairns sculpted from rock hills heaping into the ocean and opulent with low brush. Teal water stretched into the palest joint of sky, the contours spotted by clouds. A vapored brightness rested on the lowly waves whose energies lay spent in the high coral of the reef just past the horizon. Clouds ahead gathered dark, and farther ahead, over land, looked to be night shapes condensing into stratospheric fluted bulbs with white electric undersides. A vast mournful gloom daunting across the oldest forest on earth. 

I’d arrived in Cairns three days earlier and resolved to do nothing, a vow I mostly stuck to. The room I had faced west, blinds fixed to shade. Through these narrow plastic bands came the scraps of indirect sunlight that would fill my space. The room had a bulb, an atrocious one noosed to the ceiling. When on its whiteness washed the furnishings of varnish and my eyes of color. But the air conditioning was sacrosanct and perpetual, the Wifi blessedly fast. I had thirty empty pages in my Moleskine, and I filled them in an afternoon. The finishing entry was a tragicomedy Lisa shared before the Abandonment.

While discussing absurdities unique to social media, we agreed that society has yet to establish online customs for dealing with death. Is it appropriate to use Facebook’s sad face emoji when a friend posts about the death of a sibling in a car accident? Consider that this is the same sad face emoji you might choose when reacting to a viral video of a man dropping his beer to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. Is the like (“Like”) button just a showing of acknowledgment? Or is it support? How much about the circumstances surrounding a person’s death should be shared, or is that a determination solely within the subjective purview of the person posting? There’s no more need to abide by strict newspaper obituary word counts. We thought certain practices were earnest and well-intentioned: Facebook allows a person’s profile page to change to an in-memoriam, one that survives indefinitely as a sort of digital tombstone. Each of us had seen death posts. Some were austere, listing service details only. Others were hysteric with Facebook being used as the immediate outlet for grief. We felt it was never our place to make judgment. Yet Lisa’s story placed a marker at what might be the edge of acceptability.

In this story, the father of a family Lisa had been close to suffered a stroke while making breakfast and died. This family was faultless, possessing and projecting that illusory ideal of domesticity that inspires other families to jealous hatred: they shared attractive physical features, were kind and attentive to each other and acquaintances, they were responsible, the kids did well in school and excelled in sports. Being young, the kids were on social media. They posted photos of school outings, parties with friends, the type of activities kids everywhere engage in, but here there was nothing brazen or reckless. Nor did the kids indulge their vanities with selfies or status updates laying out long and detailed personal matters.

The dad died with such electric quickness that no one outside the family knew until a son posted to Facebook: “I am absolutely in shock and disbelief. I will always love you Daddy, RIP.” Secretive and inquiring text messages and calls went around town, probing closer to the full backstory. The dad’s death was confirmed. A majority of the son’s Friends list Liked the post, a few hundred at least. Lisa felt uneasy Liking it but did and followed up in person with condolences. (This was before Facebook added additional reaction options.) One year later, the eldest posted a photo of himself in cap and gown holding a diploma. “Wish you could have been there Dad to celebrate my HS graduation,” he wrote, “But I know you are looking down and smiling.” As with the first post, a majority of those on his Friend list Liked it. Years passed; the children attended college. They posted to social media regularly, and a pattern emerged: somehow, a reference to their father was incorporated. The family posted a picture of themselves around a kitchen counter with caption: “Still using the French toast recipe you taught us Daddy, RIP, love and miss you.” The family went skiing: “Going down these slopes isn’t the same without you Daddy.” A person’s death stirs facts about them for the public domain, but here the facts came in torrents. No activity, no matter how mundane, became the solemn province of his memory. Sunsets: “Dad always enjoyed sunsets, he would have loved this one. RIP.” Biking: “Wish you could be here for this ride Daddy. RIP.”

Lisa’s sympathies remained with the family, yet she couldn’t shrug the feeling that they were merchandized their Dad’s death for Likes. Then the family went to New Zealand. They went skydiving and posted a photo of themselves in the air together to Facebook. The caption: “Skydiving in Abel Tasman so we could be closer to you Daddy. RIP.” 

I wrote nothing about the Abandonment or saying goodbye. Following the breakfast where I told Lisa off, she shut herself off from me and wouldn’t speak. We tolerated each other’s company an hour more, a tense and quiet one, as I drove to drop her off in a town she’d wanted to see. Grateful, we left each other.

During the evenings I watched Chef’s Table, a refined Netflix show about the creative upbringings (and, ergo, egos) of the world’s top chefs, all men it seems. In watching I realized their ambitions exceeded my own, their passion for anything far and above any one of mine, sleeping excepted. Their culinary boldness inspired me to do nothing more than consume take-out noodles and select next episode. I did have access to a rudimentary kitchen: out on the second-floor balcony behind a screen door. Lisa had made me take our food, a kind enough gesture I suppose, though looking inside the tote I couldn’t recall what the ingredients were for a particular dish or were a mobile pantry of foodstuffs. I ended up tossing the spring onions, wrinkled fruits, capsicum dip, noodles, desiccated feta, and bruised tomatoes.

Other people were in the boarding house. Who I’m not sure as we abided by a tacit rule to avoid contact. Before stepping out into the hallway we made sure of its silence. Our timings were impeccable, often one door closed as another opened. The misanthrope coordination was glorious, I never had to see more than a person’s ankle. That was the character of the place. One blessed for the solitary.

When it was not too hot and humid, which it nearly always was, I stepped outside for a walk. These left me bathed in sweat, but during them, I learned that Cairns is a rather silly place.

Let’s begin with its namesake, a diminutive, hypochondriac Irishman whose given names were William Wellington. He’d been engaged in civil service in Ceylon, Malacca, and then Trinidad in the mid-1800s where he learned that he had a poor affinity for tropical climates. Heat and humidity, exacerbated by his hypochondria, made his health deteriorate. In one of history’s comic quirks, the Crown appointed William Wellington Cairns to be governor of Queensland, a post he very much looked forward to, apparently never bothering to look at the Weather.com averages for the place. Prior to arriving, he wrote to Queensland authorities, “I am not physically so well…as I would like to be and as I have no doubt your climate will soon make me.”

The tropical town that bears his surname is the extent of his legacy, as he was an unpopular governor—in part due to the public’s characterization of him as a weak man who could not “ride and shoot”—and after a few years he removed himself to Adelaide, where his health fared no better. He returned to London and died there without fanfare. There is this footnote to his life that deserves mention: as Queensland’s governor, he condemned the cruel treatment of Aboriginals, claiming “inhumanity should never be resorted to, or palliated, or left unpunished.” This, combined with a concern for the treatment of immigrant workers and hope for the positive reformation of prisoners, suggests he was a humanitarian well advanced for both his time and, apparently, ours.

Down the road from my lodging, on a wide thoroughfare called Sheridan Street, was a massive concrete statue of Captain Cook standing astride a shelf built atop two pillars. He’s in a powder blue, three-quarter lengths coat with cream lapels ribbed by gold buttons, a red vest, and white breeches. On his head is the bicorne hat typical of navy Royal Lieutenants.  He has an arm extended as if performing a Nazi salute. The statue’s presence would make sense in situ, as there used to be the Captain Cook Motel beside it, but that’s been demolished so the statue stands now without context. It’s 10 meters tall, higher than the palm and fig trees around it, higher than the telephone poles. Australia used imperial units until adopting metric in 1974, and this fact makes it easier to absolve the poor Cairns council members of blame for approving the statue’s 1972 construction application. When they saw the projected height of “10”, they gave it a go, figuring it signified feet. Their horror in seeing the statue’s actual height upon completion, I imagine, is akin to the horror of having to see the statue now.

Also, Cairns is the epicenter of one of humanity’s more infamous ecological blunders: introduction of the cane toad.

Cairns’s earliest development came from its being an agricultural center, with the area’s vast lowlands seeded for sugar cane. Sugarcane remains central to the economy—the cane’s broad, bladed leaves shoulder most roads—but is susceptible to the predations of the cane beetle, a most destructive pest native to Australia. In a pea-brained move, Australia’s Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations introduced the cane toad as a more natural method of pest control, at least in comparison to the arsenic and copper pesticides that had been used. To say the plan failed is to grossly ignore a thesaurus. Other options are backfired, met with disaster, was cataclysmically awful. The 102 toads that were released in 1935 are the progenitors of the more than 200 million toads that now exist in Australia. They spread across Queensland at a rate of roughly 25 miles per year, are now found in the Northern Territory and New South Wales, and have been blamed for the near eradication in Queensland of certain native marsupials. Also, cane toads do not eat cane beetles.

(There’s an incredible, quintessentially Aussie documentary on this called Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. Here’s a quote from a Queensland local, which is delivered as a voice over in a scene where he’s weaving his van across a road to run over cane toads: “I know I’ve made a clean kill particularly if the toad is facing towards the vehicle because the air that’s inside the toad is trapped within the head and blown out towards the back end and the toad really goes off with a bang like a balloon going off.” Here’s the clip.)

After an hour in the heat, air conditioning became necessary for convalescence, and I found that the public city library, free to enter and arctic in temperature, had the best. It is a Greco-Queenslander building, akin in its white to the buildings of Santorini, and has ionic columns and art-deco lettering. It possesses a fastidiously tended grass purlieu that’s spotted with Australian banyan trees. Banyans are gorgeous: all shallow rooting, so these ridged roots appear to flow from out the trunk half-visible, half-buried like water making its course. The trunks are stout and barely out of the ground before a dozen or more branches divert from it to make an expansive, nebular crown. These branches are nearly the same girth as the trunk itself. On my first approach, I swore the trees were teeming. There was a slight breeze. Banyan tree leaves are waxy and heavy, so I knew they wouldn’t be fluttering about the way a featherlight gum leaf might. As I closed in, I heard squeaking, things alive and mammalian. Squinting to the tree, I realized that the agitation came from bats: hundreds of flying foxes roosted on the branches, some had wrapped themselves in the blankets of their wings, others groomed. They were larger than lapdogs in all cases and had tan fur, like scarves, around the bases of their necks. Occasionally they looked down on me with marble shooter eyes. Come sundown they’d un-roost and become nearer stars imprinted on our dusk. 

When my time for tourist lethargy was up, I went to Port Douglas, Cairns’s one-time economic adversary who tried in vain to become the town of regional prominence. It lost when Cairns received the major highway. That was right before the 20th century, and after that it retired underneath its dense rain-fed canopy, invited in compound style resorts, and built a magnificent marina that is the best departure point for a Great Barrier Reef visit.

I stayed a single night in Port Douglas in such hot agony that every two hours I rose from bed and showered. Returning, I spied both sides of the hallway to confirm the all clear and then tiptoed naked across the stretch, dripping wet, before jumping back into bed. I imagined that the slow blades of the ceiling fan were twisting the air into a dense knot that twirled down to suffocate me.  

At breakfast I tried to recoup hydration lost to the sheets, ate corn flakes, and cozied up with that morning’s copy of The Cairns Post, an old Berliner of tabloid quality. Make note that there’s no surer way for a visitor to lose their sense of romance for a place than to open its local newspaper; on the front page was the headline: “TROPICAL TERRORS: LATEST FATALITY SHOWS DEADLY RISKS OF LIVING IN PARADISE” along with images of those local dirges: saltwater croc, jellyfish, shark, and taipan and then the scoreboard tally each of them had rung up, respectively: three attacks (two dead), 35 stings, two attacks (no fatalities), and one dead. Even leaving Cairns I passed the sign “DO NOT SPREAD ELECTRIC ANTS.” I thought, “Where the hell am I?”

Port Douglas has a vast beach, and when the tide turns out it becomes brilliant, for left behind is ribbed sand with a still film of vitreous water that reflects whatever is in the sky above, doubling the immensity. Yet the terror here is hidden. Even if seen, it’s placid. The lunge and snap are what’s deadly, the scored line of water towards your wading legs. There are signs everywhere that warn of saltwater crocodiles and implore that dogs be left on leads. Aussies disregard this to their pets’ peril: one spaniel was snatched the week before on just that beach. I wouldn’t venture near water whose source I didn’t know, or whose bottom I couldn’t see, but a minority of Aussies are resistant to this fear. Or dumb. Most waterways are illegal to swim in, but people do anyway. Alcohol is generally a factor. Often, their last act is to scream.

The month after I left, a woman waded with a friend into crocodile-infested waters at 10pm. The woman felt movement against her leg. One moment later her friend screamed and was pulled under.

A macabre twist in some of these attack stories is when officials euthanize the suspected crocodile and, when analyzing its stomach contents, find the remains of a different human victim.

From Port Douglas, it was not far at all to reach the Daintree.

A holdover from when I was little, is a passion for explorers. As a kid, I had a book about them and spent hours flipping through its old maps. The cartographers had left broad and empty spaces beyond sight of their knowledge and where they suspected landmasses might be. These were very old maps, so there were many blank spaces. As a child I wondered what feeling one might have walking into a place not yet shaped in ink: to be the one to shade behind your steps coastal shores and the names of mountains and lakes. My passion mellowed as I aged, in large part because Magellan, Gama, Cook, Burton, and dudes of that ilk did such a commendable job that cartography and land exploration waned as a viable career choice (with some exceptions).

What did not lose its glamour is the concept of a last, blank space, one at map edge where life teetered to wild. The Daintree felt like this end.

The feeling is, by all objective measures, a false one: the forest is filled with commercial enterprises such as hostels, a tree-walk, and a roadside stand that sells pre-scooped cups of ice cream. People live here in comfort. Yet it remains a place of fundamental darkness: the verdure of its plants yields to the darkest colors of the spectrum, the canopy is a clot against sunshine so the floor remains in night even into dawn. And in a taxonomic sense, the Daintree is a reversion: a single step in is a leaping descent down botany’s evolutionary ladder with a landing place among the oldest plants on Earth. Of nineteen extant ancient flowering families, twelve are found in the Daintree. To view this jungle is to view the Cretaceous Period.

The Daintree would be my final stop. Any farther and I’d need an off-road vehicle and ample supplies. But I came too for a specific reason. I came for the cassowary.

Spotting a rare bird in the wild is a charming idea. I never have, though in New Zealand I tried to, going so far as donning red-light headgear and disappearing into a kauri rainforest at 2 AM. I heard the kiwi’s trademark sniffle and scream, but saw nothing.

The cassowary is, at least, a larger bird, and one that is not nocturnal. It’s most active at dawn and doesn’t grovel amongst the topsoil. It stands upright, emus and ostriches are relatives and it stands taller than the former. Cute is not the appeal here. It is actually quite a homely bird, not unlike a Park Avenue dowager far past her prime who nonetheless adorns herself in outlandish vogue clothing. A bird’s body is round, like a shaggy ottoman, with feathers more hair-like than feathery. Legs are stout and scaly with bladed talons (a recorded death notes that a boy died after such a talon split his jugular artery). The bird’s neck is radiant: a glittery, blue with two soft red wattles that hang from it. From the head juts a bony crest that resembles a giant, unclipped toenail. As could be guessed from the fatality anecdote, cassowaries are mean and also possess a child’s tendency to run in front of cars. Multiple yellow signposts warn: cars kill cassowaries. A cheeky duo of “before” and “after” signs shows on the first a standing silhouette of a cassowary and on the second a cassowary laid dead flat.

The ferry to the Daintree rattled forward at an oblique angle, tilted so by the river’s rush and pulled prow by a metal coil anchored to both shores. Rain came in sheets. The river, tinted by humus, stormed the alley it’d coursed for itself and rose as if to annex more. Tucked like a card in an envelope, a flaxen billboard appeared in the tree line ahead. Variegated with rust and wet, it warned of power lines that carried 22,000 volts. Its appearance, its lone square of human color, lent a sinister aspect to my approach.   

Any energy I’d reserved from the nothing I’d done the week before garnered me no benefit in the Daintree. For two days all it did was rain. I cooped up again, this time against my will, in a deep brown hut that I shared with two British girls. One of these attended Oxford and was proud of the pedigree. Her friend poked fun of her, stating that she was in Australia to meet a dumb man to sleep with as all she had in Oxford were intellectual British blowhards. I said that, based on at least one of those criteria, I should be ruled out of consideration. They interpreted this as bravado and didn’t really speak to me for the remainder of their stay.

I waited for a change in weather, but none came. Rain fell so hard that the force created its own wind. Spinning from treetop to soil top, it made spider webs the size of trampolines spring side to side between their arboreal anchors. The resident orb-weavers clinging central had no idea of the fright they caused everyone by being swung to and fro across the paved path. When the rain broke for an hour or two, I rushed out for jungle hikes and beach marches, going as far inland as I could and never spotting evidence of a cassowary. On the coast, every step looked the same, as if I had not moved. Rounding one peninsula point yielded to another, the entire coastline a crenelation of rock and white sand with jungle ramparts.

  The evening prior to my departure, I set my alarm to coincide with sunrise. Though it had rained and rained, a more prodigious storm was expected to arrive. Talk among locals suggested the Daintree’s one street would be shut down as temporary freshets were likely to overwhelm it. I couldn’t imagine having to spend additional time in that brown hut should I be stranded.

By daybreak, the promised storm was already lashing against the forest. Rain broke the hope of morning peace, and a thick, oppressive fabric of mist draped the coastal mountains from view.

I drove cautiously and passed a few cars. In most parts, the forest strove to overtake the shoulder, and the sole buffer was a strip of a grass as broad as the lawn mower that cut it. If all warning signs projected the risk of hitting a cassowary, the road’s configuration with nature made the risk imminent, a clash nearly assured.

The road curved, straightened, and fell into a slight dip. My speedometer was below the speed limit. Both my hands held the wheel. Suddenly my right foot—in a reaction over which I had no conscious control—left the gas pedal and rammed the brake to the floor. The tires sputtered, and as the car lurched to a stop, my thoughts rattled back into my head. Sprinting past my car was the object of my visit: a young cassowary. No higher than my car’s grill, it ran with its head forward. Once it crossed the road, it stayed on the shoulder, appearing to want to remain. I thought I’d have enough time to pull my phone for a photo. When I did, raising the phone for a picture, the bird ducked into the lowest part of the underbrush. What I snapped was its final stride before entering the forest’s protection.

So I saw my rare bird, but the wonder came after. What I thought of then was the intersection of fate between that bird and me, and how I’d just avoided a high rental car bill and taking a life. 

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Going south was melancholic compared with the ride north. It was April. Fall in Australia meant spring in America. Spring in America meant baseball. Hot dogs, fly-overs, the creeping heat of a noon line across a pitcher’s mound, that mold unique to seasonal sports where poured in are nostalgic return and hopeful premonition. My witness to Opening Day were friends who sent me photos and text messages wishing for my return, I more than them. My cultural homesickness was acute.

My salve was a friend from New Zealand who happened to be slithering down Queensland in a similar fashion. We seized the first overlap in our itineraries and made a dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef. During our schedule’s next divergence she roped into her trip two Dutch guys she met, and when we reconnected, the four of us were a happy drinking quarter all the way down to Hervey Bay. But my trip south was a rewind, with memory places passing in reverse.

The extent of Cyclone Debbie’s destruction became conspicuous. I drove 700 kilometers the first day and arrived in Bowen in the late afternoon. Bowen is near Airlie, and thus was under Debbie’s corpus. A wide, deserted street in full sunlight, spread apart houses, innumerable trees uprooted, dead silence, metal poles twisted in their foundations. I parked in a hostel’s driveway and went up the exterior stairs to a locked entrance door. It had a bell that I rang with no answer. I slipped to the side of the building and found a ground floor door ajar. Entering the common area, I saw one person, a woman seated on a decrepit couch, eating cereal, eyes downcast. I asked her whether she’d seen any hostel worker nearby. Shrug. Out back, a group of workers sat on felled logs while eating sandwiches. A high pile of wood chips they made was nearby, trees lay in cut segments around the yard. The men didn’t bother checking the stranger standing in the doorway watching them. They carried on an exhausted conversation.

Five minutes later, having driven off, I stood at the exterior to another hostel, a complex that had barred entry with a platted wood door. Next to me was an unattended window box like one guarding a small cinema. The window was slid open, so I reached inside and dinged the porter’s bell there. Out of an interior door, into the boxed space, came a sun-punched woman, old and five-five with a stern grip on her own bellicose way of doing business. Her voice was direct and accusatory when she said, “What do you want?”

I asked if this was a hostel. She said it was. She maintained a verbal frugality, and it was clear from her expression that my random presence and inquiry surprised her. I began to doubt whether I stood in front of a lodging place at all, whether it was through some mistake I’d arrived.

“Do you have a bed available?”

“Just for a night?”

“Just tonight.”

“If that’s what you’re looking for then we have it.” Again, the frugality. I expected her to say more and felt I had to tip-toe forward, suggesting the next point. This was not a woman meant for extrapolating.

“Okay, what’s the cost?” I asked. 

“That’s twenty-five a night if you’re just staying the one night.”

I wanted to buckle. Twenty-five was a high-price, acceptable in Sydney or Melbourne markets, but not Bowen, not a hostel like this one that felt unused and run-down. I considered whether this woman, Tara as it’d turn out, was an uncharitable entrepreneur who knew by virtue of my being there a want to go no further on the road. The twenty-five was a tax owed to her intuitive wisdom.

But I didn’t respond because she added, “But I reckon you’ll be wanting a look around before you decide?” This felt charitable, as it’s not standard practice. And I acquiesced, for if the place was unpleasant I at least had the other hostel to return to.

Together we stepped into the complex’s dusty yard. On the left was a low building, and it had across from it a building of equal height and length. With a view, I knew this was the worst accommodation of any kind I’d ever seen. The aesthetic was brutal, each building was made from cinder blocks painted flamingo pink. But worse was that the place was hardly suitable as a residence let alone a commercial lodging. Tara claimed it was under renovation, as she and her husband just purchased it and it was in sore need of work. I’d say. The claim was feasible as not even Debbie could be pointed to as responsible for the gross quality. Mattresses were topographic maps of human fluid, the bathrooms storage places for empty crates and non-working tools. Had you shit in a particular stall and pressed the level, you’d be in for a hell of a surprise.

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And yet, when we entered, out the first bedroom on my left side stepped a lanky blonde with hair in a ponytail and a midriff-baring shirt. “Alice,” Tara said, “This man is thinking of staying the night. His name is…”

“Antonio…

“Antonio,” Tara added.

Alice smiled. “Well hope you stay, new company would be wonderful,” she said with a German accent.

Following Alice out of the same room came Sarah, another blonde, another German, her sleeveless crew neck loose below-tanned cleavage, the excess rounding out from the shirt sides . “Hi Antonio,” she said, “Are you going to stay tonight? We have some beers.”

“I’m thinking about it.”

From the neighboring bedroom came a petite French girl with a small stud in her nose and a faux-diamond on her front teeth. Tara said, “Annalise, this is Antonio.”

“Hi Antonio, it’s nice to meet you. Will you be staying with us this evening?” She said, her accent an absolute spread of butter.

Tara pointed inside an open bedroom door with someone on the bed. “Li,” she said. A Chinese girl in black sweatpants and overlarge t-shirt looked up, smiled, and waved.

We kept moving, the rooms steadily getting worse. Another blonde girl with hair to her shoulder blades and a tan face came out of her room, her naked body covered in a towel. Tara made an introduction. “She’s from Sweden,” Tara said.

“Oh, I’m just slipping into the shower. We have a gathering tonight, you will stay for that yes?” She said to me.

A German girl, also naked, also wrapped in a towel, came out of the same room, “Yes, stay for the gathering,” she added, then introduced herself.

Tara reached the end of the courtyard. “Do you want the bed?”

“Yes.” 

Back at the window, my wallet open, I made an inquiry to Tara, trying not to make too overt a point. “So, what type of place is this?”

“What are you talking about? It’s a hostel. You’ve seen that.”

“Of course it’s a hostel, but, like, what kind of hostel?”

“It’s a working hostel. Most of our people are long-term.”

“I see,” I said, wanting to progress her away from all the suggestive ambiguity. “Like, work at the hostel, repair work, farm work? What type of work are we talking about here?”

“Farm work of course. What else would it be? Didn’t you see the sign?” She pointed. All it said was work can be arranged.

At night, the residents gathered for dinner. Each made their own simultaneously, and outside while eating on the sticky tables, they showed their obsession with food. Sarah had made a fried goat cheese block and a pesto kidney bean chili. Her meal became a veritable fondue pot so many people stuck their forks into it for a taste. 

Charlie, a German boy, was overhead saying, “She’s nice but she’s been with more pricks than a second-hand dartboard.” This sound bite steered the conversation from food to gossip. Those not part of the conversation—a French boy and myself—watched transparent geckos tongue insects circling the single fluorescent light tube above. Charlie rolled a joint the size of a Ron Jeremy catheter and passed it around. There were few takers, so its whole capacity wound back to him. 

They talk about their foreman, a young, teetolling son of a bitch who is unsympathetic to the workers’ need to smoke. “I have to sneak cigarettes when we’re on the back of the tractor,” Charlie says.

“So that’s what you do back there.”

“I don’t trust a man who doesn’t drink. It’s fine to not drink, but he doesn’t even drink on Christmas. There’s something wrong with that.”

No one holds a conversation thread for more than minute.

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Planting tomatoes.”

“We spent hundreds of hours planting them before Debbie, and she comes in and uproots everything. Now we need to replant all we did but in half the time.”

“What are you getting paid?” I asked.

“Minimum wage, about seventeen an hour.”

“How many hours did the original planting take?”

“A few hundred.”

“I suspect tomato prices will rise a bit.”

“Did Li get work today?”

The answer came in a whisper, “No. She got in a yelling match with Tara too.”

Charlie turned to me and explained: “Li is Chinese. Tara hates the Chinese. Calls them chinks. Li just wants to get her agricultural work in for the second year visa, but Tara won’t let her work. Never chooses her to go out into the fields.”

A girl said, “Tara hates the Chinese, but doesn’t hate their money.”

“Queensland is racist as fuck, man.” Charlie added.

I sat apart, indistinct and silent, for the rest of the evening, taking in their talk. Nobody left until the night was quite dark. In the morning I woke up late, and the road I had was a tranquil asphalt line, laid hard under a gleaming blue sky. It kept on south. When I pulled into Brisbane, the road kept on going, south to veer west on a loop around Australia, always staying near the edge. I flew up and out of Brisbane, looking down on the road, knowing I’d meet it again soon. 

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