On the first day of year seven she looked so grown up; she had boobs and everything. I think all the boys fell in love with her then, or they wanted to fuck her anyway. Not that any of us really knew what that was. But I think I really was in love with Lexi that year, like how your dad loves your mum.
That February the days were hotter than they’d been all summer. It was that heat that sticks to you, that makes your head a little giddy and everything blur. A few of us rode up to the catchment for a swim, Lexi came and brought some weed she stole from her brother. She straddled the wall, one leg in the water, the other hanging above the twenty-meter drop. She rolled us a joint like she’d done it before. She was the only girl there; all the boys kept pushing her in the water and trying to undo her swimmer top. A yellow bikini. She squealed and giggled as though she liked it.
The water’s green up there, its so deep no ones ever been able to touch the bottom. Not even when there’s a drought and the water sits below the wall instead of flowing over it. The lantana on either side of the water grows real thick; it drowns the gum trees and the red cedars that grow there. It also poisons the animals that eat its orange flowers and its berries, sometimes you’ll find dead foxes or possums by the catchment, their eyes all puffed up and leaking.
It was too hot to ride home so we hitched a ride from this guy with a Ute. We chucked our bikes in the tray, still warm inside and sleepy from the weed. The car seats were made from that carpet shit that gets real itchy in the heat. I didn’t mind though because I got to ride shotgun with Lexi. We had to squish up so close I got a stiffy; lucky I had my towel to cover it up.
The mountain ranges that surround our town are covered in gum trees. Driving down from the ridge you can look across at them as they curve around town. When it’s dry the dirt gets stuck in the air and you can’t make them out so clear anymore, they become just layers of blue. As we drove down the ridge I remember thinking that’s what Lexi’s eyes looked like. The bruises on her arms were blue like the mountains too, they wrapped all the way around. I never asked her about them though; mum says you can’t ask people about the kind of stuff.
Lexi lived across the street from me. It was the road into town from the East, the only road to the beach. On Wednesday nights I used to sit on the front verandah and pretend to play my Gameboy, but I’d really be watching Lexi take the bins out. She’d come around the side of her house rolling them behind her; she’d struggle a bit because they were always so full. She’d park them under the bottlebrush tree on the nature strip and look down the street to see if her dad was coming home. I especially liked to watch her on evenings when the storm was coming in from the ocean, when the clouds were all purple and the easterly wind would pick up her blonde hair. She looked so beautiful in the wind, not many people do but Lexi, she did.
Lexi would wait on the curb until her dad came home, she’d sit in the gutter and draw in the dirt or sometimes just look at the sky. Her dad never pulled into the driveway straight, he’d mount the curb as he turned in from the road or a wheel would end up on the grass. My dad has a few beers after work too. Dad’s tactic is to drive the back roads after he knocks off; past the old train tunnels and the chicken farm because the cops don’t patrol out there.
As he’d get out of the car she’d watch him, and then she’d turn and walk away. Sometimes he’d yell something after her real agro, but she’d just keep walking; around the side of the house and out towards the sugar cane. Mum would come out for a smoke and sit on the steps; she’d watch them too. She looked differently then me though, she watched like you do when there’s a rerun of a show on the telly and you know what’s going to happen in the end. She’d stand, looking across at Lexi’s house, and throw her cigarette butt into the yard.
‘Stop watching that bloody family, Owen,’ and then she’d go back inside.
It’s September when the farmers burn the sugarcane. In the evening time when it starts to cool down black ash falls from the sky and that’s when you know. A few of my mates ride their bikes over to my house and we climb up on the roof to watch. From the front yard it looks like Lexi’s house is on fire. I told her this once and she said, ‘I wish it was’. On the roof though, you can tell that it’s controlled. The fire never leaves the fence line.
That last September Lexi invited me over after school. We dumped our bikes in the front yard, back wheels still spinning.
The place smelt like the windows had never been opened and everything was still stuck inside. Bad air and smoke deep in the carpets. Her mum was sitting on the couch, a tailor hanging out of her mouth, frowning at the game of Sudoku in the newspaper.
‘I can’t fuckin’ get this one Lex.’ Her thin hair was scrapped back into a greasy ponytail, I could smell her shampoo as though she’d just washed it, but it still looked dirty.
Lexi didn’t reply to her mum, she just kept walking through to the kitchen.
‘Oh that’s fuckin’ right just go on and ignore ya bloody mother then.’ She lent forward, elbows resting on her knees, frowned and took a long drag on her cigarette.
In the kitchen Lexi dumped her bag on the linoleum floor. The light was on; sun didn’t get into their house very well. The light flickered and a fly hung around some dishes by the sink. They made the same noise; a buzzing like if you were to listen too long you’d go crazy. She stood for a moment; she looked at the fly, then at the light.
‘Actually lets go to your house.’
She swiped a packet of cigarettes from the kitchen counter before we left. She looked back at me and said, ‘he’ll get me for these later.’ They must have been her dad’s. We left out the back door so we didn’t have to pass her mum again.
As we walked across the road to my place the sugarcane ash started falling. She stood there a minute, in the middle of the road, and looked up at the sky. She let the ash fall on her face and then she smiled into the sun.
On the roof you can see really far; you can see the footy club, and the cow paddocks behind Ann Street and you can even see the swimming pool on the other side of train tracks. You can also see where the smoke from the sugarcane goes. It wanders out west towards the mountains; it gets caught in the gum trees and also the valleys, turning purple in the setting sun. It sticks around for a while, then the rain comes or the wind blows it away.
Lexi invited me to one of her brother’s parties once. I climbed out of my window with a couple of dad’s beers from the case he kept in the back fridge. I hoped he wouldn’t notice they were gone. There was a fire going in a pit of old bricks, someone had hung a goonie on the hills hoist beside a ripped towel and some undies. Lexi and I sat beneath the mandarin tree in her backyard, and sipped on dad’s beers and her vodka. I kissed her there, underneath the mandarin tree. Not a kiss like your dad kisses your mum; a rough jaw, after a day at work, a kiss before he makes his way from the front door to the couch. This kiss was different. Maybe I love Lexi more than your dad loves your mum.
Her dad came out of the house then, cigarette in one hand, stubby in the other. He was still in his work clothes; a pair of shorts, all dusty, and hi-vis. He sat down on a picnic chair beside a few girls, he wasn’t looking at them but they got up and left. He was looking at us.
That time of year the mosquitos are everywhere. From under the mandarin tree I could see them buzzing around the windows and the outdoor light. Without looking away from us he slapped at his arm. I bet he killed that mozzie.
I watched a snake eat my guinea pig once. Apart from that Lexi’s the only thing I’ve known to die. It’s summer again, that sticky February heat is everywhere. Two weeks ago I sat on the front verandah and watched the ambulance pull up. Her brother ran out of the house, the screen door slammed. He headed out the back, towards the sugarcane. I could hear her mum and dad wailing inside; these old weatherboard homes don’t hold much noise. They let TV shows and sex and fights drift down the street. After the ambulance came the police pulled up too. It was one of those purple cloud evenings that come in from the east, the ocean and the wind and the storm. I didn’t get to see her in the wind though, blonde hair all tangled.
Her body came out of the house in black plastic, wrapped all the way around. The police brought her dad out of the house. Handcuffed he collapsed on the front lawn. He was howling, screaming her name. I’d never seen a grown man cry before. It looked like he really did love her; he just hit too hard this time.
Door Without a Handle
John Wayne was a Seasoned Cowboy
Salem, June 1692