Portable Curiosities (8 page)

BOOK: Portable Curiosities
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‘Fuck your mother.'

The sun begins to set. Orange moves into blue, and the six or so cones still haven't killed her.

‘You know what, darling?' she says to me. ‘I'm lactose intolerant.'

She pushes an index finger into her throat, and throws up. She throws up on the grass, on the road, on her own trousers. The puke is somehow beige.

‘There, there,' says Mrs Tracey, hurrying over, patting her on the shoulder. ‘Someone needs a little rest.'

In an instant, Mrs Tracey has stabbed her with a needle, strapped her into a stretcher, loaded her into the back of the HiAce and driven off.

By Wednesday, Mrs Tracey has designed a $4.99 Cream Reaper app downloadable to smartphones.

She gives a demonstration to G and Lee.

‘This transforms the venture into an on-demand service. You press this button to request a cone. You enter your location. If you select “Deliver Now”, the closest van will respond to the request. When the van is within a kilometre of your location, you can watch it move towards you on a map. Alternatively, you can choose a date from this calendar so there's time to get your affairs in order in case you end up dying.'

G agrees to trial it.

For most of the day, no requests come in. Lee wonders out loud if the app actually works. Mrs Tracey gives him the finger behind his back.

Near midnight, just as the shift is about to end, the first request comes in. Ten ice-creams to be delivered to the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney.

We arrive to discover a handful of drunk young suits playing parkour.

Two short ones have clambered onto the sandstone wall of the museum cafe and are taking bets on who can jump the furthest from it. The only perceivable difference between the two is that one is wearing a red tie with blue stripes, and the other is wearing a blue tie with red stripes.

‘Three hundred says Murphy's going to win by a metre.'

‘I'm putting four on Babiak. Look at those legs!'

Someone wolf whistles. They laugh.

G leans out of the van. ‘You called?'

‘Ah, fuck!' shouts Red Tie. He checks his watch and looks at G. ‘You got here before twelve.'

Blue Tie laughs and mimes a basketball shot. ‘That's a cool hundred, right there, Jimmy boy. Two fiddys, mate.'

Red Tie gets out his wallet and hands over the notes.

They get off the wall and follow the others to the van. Their breath reeks of beer.

‘What's going down this fine evening, gentlemen?' says G.

‘Put a few away at The 'Stab,' says Red Tie. He shoves Blue Tie. ‘It's this guy's birthday. Took his wedding ring off to celebrate. Chatted up some of the ladies.'

Mrs Tracey, hovering again, asks them what they do for work.

Red Tie whips out business cards. ‘We're institutional banking analysts. For all your institutional banking needs.'

G looks at the name on the card. He takes us aside. ‘He's the brother of one of my suppliers. Can't sell them the cones.'

‘Are you kidding?' says Mrs Tracey. ‘No kills?'

‘I'm giving them plain vanilla. They won't know the difference.'

Mrs Tracey goes red in the face. ‘No one wastes my time.'

She turns to the bankers and tells them there's an extra charge of three grand each for a tasteful, though modest, pre-paid funeral should they experience death by Cream Reaper. She holds out her hand for their credit cards.

‘That's a bit much,' says Red Tie.

‘Didn't realise you were cheap,' says Mrs Tracey.

‘Ooh,' say the other bankers. ‘Burn!'

Red Tie surrenders his credit card. The others follow.

G hands out plain vanilla cones. The bankers stand in a circle nudging each other and laughing, making bets on who's going to drop dead first.

Ten minutes later, they're still standing.

Now that they've tried the best taste in the world, they declare that it's pretty shit after all. But it dawns on them that they've just been given a second chance at life. The hairs on the backs of their necks stand up. They feel all-powerful. Their senses are heightened. They were meant to live!

They run back to the sandstone wall and start taking more bets.

I get into Mrs Tracey's van for a lift home.

As we drive off, I look back at the bankers. Red Tie has jumped further than Blue Tie, and is rolling around on the ground in pain, clutching a broken foot.

‘Little superdicks,' says Mrs Tracey, wiping the app from their phones remotely.

We are gods of the streets. Winners of the ice-cream war.

Our bells clang through the suburbs of Sydney.

Mrs Tracey never flags, picking up the bodies one by one as they slump over front gates and garden gnomes and azalea bushes.

Drivers of pink and white ice-cream vans give us the finger as we cruise past.

‘That's all you got?' G yells.

No one can touch us.

We're putting them out of business.

We have so many customers that Mrs Tracey starts to help out in the main van.

A girl in Strathfield Square brings along her date, who loiters ten feet from the van.

‘I'm so boring,' she whispers to Mrs Tracey, almost in tears. ‘He keeps checking his Instagram feed instead of talking to me. He'd prefer to see a stream of amateur cat pictures than my ugly face. I don't know how to make myself more interesting. I thought he might like an ice-cream. I mean, everyone says this is an extreme sport.'

Taking two cones from Mrs Tracey, the girl gives one to the guy, who is still snorting at the funny posts on his phone. He holds his hand out for the cone without looking up.

Soon he's on the ground, seizing up. The girl is left standing.

‘Good luck with the dating,' says Mrs Tracey.

Mrs Tracey has a new surveillance operation going with some of the ladies, who have come into G's flagship van to show us how it works.

‘We intercept calls, texts and emails in the general vicinity. The system has keyword triggers in place that alert us to the relevant location.'

‘What sort of words?' asks G. ‘Suicidal ones?'

‘That's not interesting to us.'

The surveillance equipment beeps. A map flicks up on Mrs Tracey's laptop that indicates we should try our luck at the Paddington Reservoir Gardens.

‘Time for a joy kill,' says Mrs Tracey, with an alarming coldness in her voice.

We come upon a young man in boat shoes, lying in the grass of the sunken garden, staring at the brick arches and penning a travel article about the radical self-expression and transcendent beauty of Burning Man.

I serve him a Reaper and ask how he is.

‘I'm so tortured,' he says as he takes his first lick. ‘I'm such a tortured, tortured writer. So, so tortured. So very much tortured. In this article I'm breaking apart the genre of creative non-fiction, I'm writing the sparest of spare sentences that never ends, I'm wanking, wanking so hard over myself, I can't even write a paragraph without wanking, I'm wanking simultaneously with all the other boys in our wanky boys' club, we're all seeing who can wank the hardest, who can write the wankiest glowing reviews of our friends' work, and our cum shoots out in grand arcs over every page – can't you see all the cum on the page? – and after this I'm going to write a book that's a cross between
Ulysses
and Hemingway and Franzen, the next big black story of redemption, who cares if I'm white, it's going to be the greatest bunch of wank with the wankiest fucking climax, oh my God, oh my fucking God, it feels so good, I'm going to come, ah, ah, I'm coming now, ah, aaaaaaaahh.'

He groans. Turns cold. Mrs Tracey shoves him into the back of the van and slams the door.

She gives me a look.

‘For crying out loud,' she says, ‘don't ask them how they are.'

Word is spreading. Business is skyrocketing. It's the last day of the assignment and I don't want it to end.

Our bells toll through the night. People who hear us start to shit themselves like little Pavlovian dogs.

We top off a surprising number of customers. Hedge-fund managers in polo shirts, kicking back after twilight sailing at Rushcutters Bay. Idiot kids trailing us in their P plates, egging each other on. A tradie being ushered out of BBQ King for trying to start a brawl. A bankrupt restaurateur, smoking in an alley, trying to figure out how to tell his staff he can't pay their overdue superannuation entitlements.

‘That was a good crowd,' says Mrs Tracey at the end of the shift. She claps G on the shoulder. ‘Your next step is to narrow your whole ice-cream range down to this one flavour. This is the money spinner.'

G isn't so sure anymore. ‘I'm an artist,' he tells Mrs Tracey. ‘I wasn't born to make just one flavour. The speed of this expansion is denigrating the artistic sensibilities of my work. I don't like it.'

‘Think bolder,' says Mrs Tracey. ‘Stay ahead of the pack. Where are your balls? Did you lose them in a lake somewhere?'

‘Stop trying to take over my business,' says G. ‘Back down, bitch!'

G and Lee retire to the van to debrief on the week that was.

I hear them whispering. They're panicking that the situation is out of hand.

‘I told you an embedded journalist was a bad idea,' Lee is saying. ‘You can't invite press to cover the trial of a semi-illegal product. And now you've got this old woman, one Hush Puppy in the grave, trying to take over.'

‘You're right,' says G, resting his forehead on the steering wheel.

‘What newspaper is she from, that journalist?'

G shrugs. ‘A major one?'

‘You know what we're going to have to do,' says Lee, writing something on his clipboard with his green pen. ‘It's not going to be pleasant.'

G leans over and looks at the clipboard.

They turn and look at me through the clear window panel.

In the early hours of the morning, I am lying in my hovel licking peanut butter off a tablespoon when I hear the bell tolling.

Death is coming to collect me.

It draws closer and closer, rolling up to my hole in the wall.

G and Lee step out of the van. Mrs Tracey's HiAce draws up behind them. She must have given them my address. She shrugs at me from the driver's seat of her HiAce.

I ask them if they're here to do me in.

‘Quite the opposite,' says G. ‘We thought we'd bring you into the fold. How about it? You agree not to publish the article, you keep your mouth shut, you pocket a third of the profits. But the old bird has to go.'

I tell them it sounds like a plan. We shake hands.

I'm excited. I tell them how inspired I've been by their work. How I've been working on a new flavour I'd like them to try.

‘I can't guarantee it will make it onto the menu,' says G.

I wriggle into my concrete hole and wriggle back out with two scoops of my new concoction.

They take one lick, then a second.

‘Not bad,' says G, ‘for a journalist.'

Lee nods. ‘There's a flavour in it I can't identify.'

G smiles. ‘Our little prodigy is innovating already.'

One minute later, he's fritzing on the ground.

Two minutes later, Lee joins him.

They stare up at me, ice-cream dribbling from their mouths.

‘I'm calling this one the Magic Bullet,' I say. ‘It has a one hundred per cent kill rate.'

G curls up in pain. ‘Who
are
you?' he shrieks.

‘Good of you to ask. I'm a staff writer at
Gastronomob.
The article I'm writing is: “How to Execute a Hostile Takeover in One Working Week”. You guys think I'm the Capote of the food world? I'd say I'm more the Capone.'

A couple more spasms and they're dead.

‘Business,' I say, standing over the bodies. ‘You either get it or you don't.'

‘They never learn, do they?' says Mrs Tracey. ‘Always leave death to the professionals.' She hands over a USB stick. ‘Photos for the article.'

I wink at her. ‘We're all set, then.'

Mrs Tracey wheels the bodies into the back of the HiAce.

We get in the front.

‘Where to, boss?'

I notice the sun is beginning to rise. ‘Let's see where the morning takes us.'

The surveillance system beeps, alerting us to three stray uses of ‘
mise en scène
'. A map flashes up, pinpointing a familiar location.

‘Want to check out some new digs, Mrs Tracey?'

The hipsters hear the tolling of the bell. They wander out in their pyjamas through the front gates of the housing bubble.

‘Killer ice-cream for breakfast,' they yawn. ‘Hells yeah.'

The Three-Dimensional
Yellow Man

It was only when a one-dimensional yellow man stepped out of a cinema screen and into a plush red theatre on George Street that audience members noticed him from behind their 3D glasses.

The film from which the man had emerged was
Return of the White Ninja 3D.
Although the film was in 3D, the yellow man only appeared in 1D. He had been playing Stand-offish Ninja #13, part of a gang of 1D Stand-offish Ninjas led by a 3D white boy who had been raised by ninjas from birth.

In the middle of the closing scene, in which the ninjas had formed a circle and were bowing to the white boy with new-found respect, Stand-offish Ninja #13 had glimpsed light from the movie projector falling onto the heads of the audience. Curious, he had stepped towards the light and into the lap of a blond-haired woman – one foot landing in her supersized popcorn and the other on the spare seat beside her.

The newly three-dimensional yellow man stretched his limbs and tossed his hair. The audience gasped. He had a luminescent quality about him, having just stepped out of a celluloid dream.

He looked around.

Maybe life will be better
, he thought,
in three dimensions.

At first, the cinemagoers were calm. They shook his hand, starstruck, because they assumed he was a white actor doing yellow face. They thought his slit eyes, flat nose and jet black hair were the work of a good make-up artist.

But when the man shed his ninja costume, strolled out into the foyer and began walking the streets of the island naked, they saw that he was yellow all over.

This could not just have been make-up, they concluded, because he had been clothed in the scene he had exited. There would not have been, from a filmmaking perspective, any practical need to paint the balls of a white actor yellow.

Realising that an actual yellow ninja was on the loose, the cinemagoers started screaming in horror.

The yellow man cleared his three-dimensional throat and began to speak.

The first word that came out was
Fellini
.

Incredible
, he thought,
I have a three-dimensional vocabulary
.

He had previously grunted and roundhouse kicked his way through films, his only two speaking lines being:
You die now
and
Boss Man velly angly.

The yellow man acquired a smart jacket and trousers. He decided that, with his new-found dimensions, he would spend his time on intellectual pursuits, with a focus on the study of the representation of women in Italian neorealist cinema.

The yellow man wrote a book on the subject. Consequently, he was invited to participate in a panel discussion at one of the island's arts festivals. The other selected panellists were also yellow men, who were visiting from abroad to promote books they had written on diverse topics such as Olympic shot-put and the history of chemical warfare.

What is it like to be yellow?
asked the interviewer of the yellow man.

That's not the only thing I'm interested in talking about
, he replied.
After all, the book I've written is about Federico Fellini and how women are represented in his films.

I see
, said the interviewer.
But how has your yellowness impacted on your work? For instance, have you ever thought of forming a Yellow Man Group, similar to America's iconic Blue Man Group?

With my fellow panellists?
asked the yellow man.
No, that hasn't crossed my mind
,
particularly since this is the first time we've all met.

It'd be quite a novelty, though
, said the interviewer.

Would it?
asked the yellow man.

Being yellow yourself
, continued the interviewer,
why are you not writing about being yellow?

Because I wanted to write about Italian neorealism
, said the yellow man.

A long silence filled the auditorium.

The yellow man sighed.

Do you really want to know what it's like to be yellow?

The interviewer nodded.

Well
, said the yellow man. He crossed his legs, clasped his hands together and rested them on one knee.
Being yellow is like being the colour of sunflowers, or of lemons, or of pretty yellow ribbons in the hair of a young girl. It's like being the colour of a dishwashing detergent labelled with a picture of the morning sun bursting through the kitchen window and alighting on a gleaming, freshly washed wine glass.

How fascinating
, said the interviewer.

It is quite an interesting colour to be
, nodded the yellow man,
and it is, I believe, a hue that is somewhere on the colour wheel between green and orange.

My God, he can speak English well
, murmured members of the audience.
And without any sort of accent.

Yellowness
, continued the man,
gives one a certain je ne sais quoi.

My God
, they thought.
He's speaking European. These yellows can blend in when they put their minds to it.

I've been wondering
, said the interviewer,
about the faraway places where all the yellow people come from. Why is it that I'm so afraid of going there?

That's something for you to work out with your therapist
, said the yellow man. He turned to the audience.
For those of you interested in my next book
, he said,
I will be embarking on a study of Shakespeare and debt, with a focus on
The Merchant of Venice
.

Many of the audience members, as they left the auditorium, wondered why he had to be so argumentative.

Prickly
, they muttered to each other.
Inscrutable.

*

While the panel discussion was taking place, reports filtered in from around the island that a naked three-dimensional yellow woman had burst out from the very same cinema screen on George Street.

She, too, had noticed the light beaming from the movie projector while in the middle of playing a 1D character in a 3D biopic. This, her breakthrough role – as the unhinged, manipulative, gold-digging girlfriend of a white social-networking entrepreneur – had been invented by the screenwriters to serve as a plot device. Her character's primary purpose in the film was to heighten conflict in a climactic scene in which a hand-held camera followed the entrepreneur as he pleaded into his phone in an attempt to save an ailing business partnership, while she – experiencing a psychotic episode – lured him into a hotel room, locked the door, stripped naked and set the curtains on fire.

This had been her most three-dimensional one-dimensional role to date. Prior to this, her roles had been non-speaking ones – her specialty being silent waitresses and whores. She had also once played a dragon lady whose long, straight hair curled around the necks of men and strangled them in their sleep.

As the yellow woman walked out of the flames and onto the street, men bumped past her as if she were invisible. Others stopped and stared.

Ni hao
, they said.
Konnichiwa.

Bonjour
, she replied.
Guten Tag
.

When she took men home, they said,
I've never tried a yellow girl before.

They ran their hands up and down her limbs and across her stomach.

My God
, they said,
I'd heard yellow girls have smooth skin.

They cupped her breasts in their hands as if weighing them.

You've got big breasts for a yellow girl
, they said.
Because that's a problem for yellows. I mean, not really a problem but … breast size is an issue.

I have a beautiful brain
, said the yellow woman.
One day I'll be a highly regarded public intellectual.

That's nice
, said the men, pushing her head down.
Do that amazing thing you do with your tongue.

I didn't even realise I was yellow
, said the woman, sweeping aside books on Rawlsian liberalism to make room for the men.
I thought I had blue eyes.

Be grateful
, the men said.
You can't have everything
.

*

Soon after the yellow man and yellow woman stepped out of the cinema, their kind began to multiply.

It was not difficult to ascertain the origin of these new yellow arrivals. A few were escaping gold-rush dramedies but the majority had been playing non-English speaking Illegal Fishermen #1 to #2,873 in a high-rating border protection TV series. They began to jump out of leaky boats from TV screens and into lounge rooms, shaking their hair and limbs as if reborn.

The yellow people took over whole shopping arcades with their cut-price electronics and two-dollar shops, their food outlets with the dead ducks hung up on hooks in the windows, and their grocery stores with racks of strange-looking vegetables that looked like weeds.

Human Resources departments implemented Non-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity policies while quietly passing over job applications that featured yellow-sounding names, unless the candidates in question exhibited sufficient assimilation, demonstrated outstanding academic achievement, and/or were photogenic enough to be in corporate brochures that highlighted the cultural diversity of personnel.

Whenever the yellow woman found herself stuck in a train with a crowd dominated by yellow people, she would make a point of speaking louder than usual on her phone. Taking pains to converse in the local accent with the person on the other end of the line, she sought to emphasise to the few white people within earshot that at least one yellow person in the carriage had bothered to master the native language of the island.

This demonstration of her successful integration would always please her initially, then make her feel sick.

In the end, she stopped speaking altogether.

*

By this point, locals all around the island were panicking at the unprecedented influx of yellow people. The yellows were beginning to amass cash – probably through drug deals – to buy houses in white neighbourhoods. They were infiltrating schools, universities and white-collar workplaces.

It was getting worse than a zombie invasion. The yellows walked like automatons down the street, overpowering people with their kimchi breath.

I can't tell the difference between any of them
, some shouted.

Their yellowness is blinding like the sun
, others screamed, clawing at their eyes.

Commentators blamed the first yellow man. He had failed to warn them that yellow people could be yellow like the sun. He had only said that they were yellow like pretty ribbons in the hair of a little girl.

Out of a fish and chip shop appeared a tight-lipped, flame-haired woman.

I don't like it
, she said.
We're in danger of being swamped by yellows. They stick to themselves and form ghettos. They're stealing our jobs. Political correctness is ruining our island. Please explain
, she said, because she really didn't understand.

The flame-haired woman became an island-wide sensation. She was offered a spot on a local TV show in which celebrities performed routines such as the foxtrot and tango, and were voted off according to public opinion.

In a paso doble, the flame-haired woman was dragged awkwardly across the dance floor by the chief of the island, a little frog-mouthed man with thick eyebrows, who was dressed as a bullfighter.

The crowd cheered. The punters at home texted her name each week to keep her in the competition.

She's a bit of all right
, they thought, watching from pubs and couches as she was awarded runner-up.

*

Unwilling to bend to this cultural climate, the yellow man decided he would no longer give way to locals walking in the opposite direction on the street. Expecting him to stand aside, they would charge forth and have to dodge him at the last second.

He often wondered what his father would have done in the same situation.

The yellow man's father had also been an actor, although, career-wise, he had not done as well as his son. He had been a disciple of Stanislavski's system of method acting and his tendency towards complex portrayals of the Human Condition had prevented him from succeeding as a typecast, one-dimensional actor.

In fact, he had been fired from his only proper film role for refusing to take off a New York Yankees baseball cap for a scene. According to him, the cap signified not only the character's childhood fondness for watching the Yankees with his father but also the ultimately fraught nature of that father–son relationship, which had been a key factor in pushing the character to the breaking point he was reaching in the scene.

You're just a guy carrying in a briefcase of cash so the white guy can check it out
, the director had said.
You put down the briefcase, stick a knife in the white guy, laugh maniacally. No need for a backstory. You're yellow. You're evil. That's it.

The yellow man's father became a drunk. He gave up acting and took a job with an office-cleaning company. Every night at dinner, he told his son war stories about losing yellow roles to white men, including one career-making part to Mickey Rooney. Although there was never any proof that it had happened, he always said it was the beginning of the end, losing that part to Mickey.

Such a failure
, he once shouted after recounting that story. He threw a bottle of vodka against the wall.
Can't even act my own race.

Why didn't you just take off the hat for that first movie?
his son asked.

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