The truck made it into town before being overtaken by its white exhaust plume. I’d been nursing it along for the last 40 k’s, one eye on the temperature gauge, the other on the shimmering road. It was flat out here, treeless and brown, so monotonously sunfucked that I’d seemed forever stuck to the same length of tacky road.
I killed the engine and popped the hood, stepping out into the glaring heat.
The slam of the truck door brought two men into the strip of shade in front of the garage. I was relieved to see them. The tiny town had looked abandoned – just a war memorial set amongst red dirt, and a sagging weatherboard house surrounded by dead grass. Plus this place, Boolibar Motors, a couple of petrol pumps beside a corrugated iron shed.
The men wore the sleeves of their blue overalls rolled to the elbow, front buttons open to expose singlets as faded as the sky. One man was lean and knobby, adrift in overalls several sizes too large, as if the heat had rendered the fat from his body. The other man had a straggly grey beard, thick forearms and a gut that had got away. Cricket commentary trickled through the torn flywire door behind them.
We gathered around the engine like mourners around a coffin. The truck, an International C1100, was more than 40 years old. Gita had warned me not to buy it.
‘Internationals,’ the thin man said wiping his hands on a red rag. ‘We used to get them heaps, but it’s all imported Asian shit these days.’
The bearded man peered beneath the oil cap. Under his beard his face was red like raw meat. I knew that face: too much beer, too much swearing, too much time spent on the couch watching TV. The face of my father.
‘Water in the oil.’
‘Yeah. Head gasket.’
They showed me the grey scum beneath the cap.
‘Get us a ratchet would ya Pete?’ the bearded man asked.
Pete went into the garage and returned with the tool. The bearded man removed a spark plug and they examined it between them.
The office was small, dirty and cluttered. A paperwork-swamped desk stood between two battered chairs. Everything was covered in a film of black grease like a layer of smudged newsprint. The boxy radio on the shelf behind the desk was so oily it looked like an engine part. The bearded man gruffly introduced himself as Tom and nodded at a chair for me to sit.
‘Ya could tow it, but that would cost ya a shitload,’ said Tom fiddling with a pen between his stubby oil-stained fingers. ‘Ya’ve definitely done ya head gasket, it’s a bit of a fiddly job; ya’d be looking at least 1000 bucks, probably more like 1500. But if ya head’s cracked then, well,’ he shrugged, ‘that’s ya motor fucked.’
I was trapped. Gita could hardly drive six hours each way to pick me up between studying, working and collecting her parents from the airport.
‘I don’t have much money,’ I said sheepishly.
‘What are ya, a student or somethin’?’ asked Tom.
‘No, I’m a woodworker.’ The term sounded ludicrous, as if I had said I was a cowboy or an astronaut. ‘Like a carpenter. I make chairs and tables, that sort of thing.’ I looked down at my hands. ‘I’m just starting out.’
‘You up here stealin’ our wood?’ Pete asked, but he was grinning.
Tom stopped fiddling with his pen. ‘Ya must have some money.’
‘About two hundred dollars.’
Tom swivelled in his chair. ‘Cost you nearly that much in petrol to get back to the city!’ He tossed his pen back onto the table. ‘Well, ya fucked then.’ He leaned back in his seat and put his hands behind his head. ‘Sorry.’
The cricket chattered on, as soporific as chloroform. A blowfly buzzed against the screen door.
Pete pushed his wide face further into the office. ‘Just thinkin’, Boss. There’d be an old International gasket out back, wouldn’t there?’
‘What do ya think this is, a fuckin’ charity?’ Tom glared at Pete, then sighed and seemed to soften. ‘Maybe.’
‘That would be great,’ I said cautiously. ‘How much would that cost to put in?’
‘Nothin’.’ Tom looked amused. ‘You’d be the prick doin’ all the work. Might take you a day or so, but. Don’t worry, we’ll run ya through it.’
I bit my lip. If I wasn’t back tonight Gita would be worried. And more than a little bit pissed off.
As if reading my mind Pete asked, ‘Anyone ya need to call?’
‘Yeah, would you mind? My mobile’s out of range. I can pay.’
‘Two hundred bucks!’ Tom laughed and pushed the oily old phone across the desk.
I could tell by Gita’s terse ‘hello’ that things were busy at the store.
‘It’s me,’ I said.
‘I can’t talk long, I’m working.’
I pictured her with her head tilted, holding the phone to her shoulder with her cheek, her long black hair draped over it, her delicate fingers deftly refolding and smoothing piles of jeans, T-shirts and jumpers. She was so very beautiful.
‘I might be late back. The truck broke down, but there’s a garage here; two guys are going to help me fix it. But I probably won’t be back until tomorrow night or the day after.’
Gita clicked her tongue. Her voice became clearer; she’d taken the phone from her shoulder. ‘You know my parents are only here a couple of days! Are you deliberately trying to avoid them? I don’t know why you even went up there!’
Although we had been going out for nearly two years, I’d never met Gita’s parents. They lived in Indonesia where her father was some kind of senior Agriculture Department official. This was their first visit to Australia. Not that Gita had met my parents either. My mother wasn’t around much – she lived in a commune outside of Brisbane – and Dad didn’t even know I had a girlfriend, although, with his double entendres and raised eyebrow, he clearly suspected something. His jokes would stop if he knew she was Indonesian.
‘I’ll be back as soon as possible,’ I said.
I listened to the sound of the store’s music through the greasy handset. ‘Well, be careful,’ she said at last. ‘See you when I see you.’
Tom led me into the workshop and showed me the tools I’d need: wrenches, ratchets, screwdrivers, spanners. Pete helped rig a shade cloth over the engine and ran through the job, getting me started draining the coolant.
I skinned my knuckles undoing the radiator plug then burnt my arm on the rush of hot, stinking coolant. I crawled out from beneath the truck cursing.
‘See!’ said Pete, ‘You can do it! You already sound like a mechanic.’ He headed back to the workshop. ‘Exhaust bolts next,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘Yell out if you get stuck.’
The shade cloth had already trapped a layer of hot, engine-stinking air. The parts of the truck left in the sun were too hot to touch. My eyes stung with sweat.
Yanking and straining, I managed to remove the last exhaust bolt and began disconnecting the air filter.
The occasional ute stopped to fill up on diesel, rangy men in battered Akubras hitching their pants over their worn-out arses. Sweat trickled down my back, soaking the top of my shorts. Oil ground into my bleeding knuckles, smears of grease ran up my arm to the shoulder.
Every hour or so Tom or Pete would wander out and see how I was getting on, prop an elbow on the truck and give me a bit of avuncular advice.
At the end of the afternoon, with their help, I’d removed the water pump, radiator hoses, distributor and ignition coil, but there was still more stuff to take off before I could remove the head. I’d be trapped in this deep fry of sweat and oil for at least another day.
I washed my hands and face in the grotty workshop basin then joined Pete and Tom in the office. They were sprawled in their chairs, legs kicked out, drinking beer and talking ignition systems.
Earlier that afternoon they had each sidled up to the truck to invite me to return to Hay, 78 k’s further south, for some dinner and a place to crash. I was touched to be asked, and liked the stilted, embarrassed way they did it, as though they had been sent on the errand by someone kinder than themselves. But I’d been enough trouble. I declined, saying I was looking forward to camping out.
They waved as they drove off in Tom’s Kingswood ute with its huge bullbar and Australian flag sticker on the tailgate with the slogan, If you don’t love it, leave.
I plodded towards a distant line of red gums dancing in the heat further up the highway, the late afternoon sun pinning me to the plain like an insect to a board.
The river red gums threw splodges of shade across the river. I stripped off and waded in, feeling the fine mud ooze between my toes. The water was the colour of milky coffee. It was colder towards the centre where the shoulder-deep current was strong.
I floated on my back, head towards the flow, supporting myself on a submerged branch while the sweat was gently stripped from my body. The river was so low the top of the banks were three metres above the water. Red gum roots splayed down the slope in search of moisture.
River red gum was my favourite wood. It was pure Australia: hard, brittle, cross-grained and stubborn as a bastard. But if you were patient it was all there. The droughts, the rains, the heat, the soil – the whole sweep of time. I was still determined to go home with a tray of salvaged red gum, wood I’d use in the table I was secretly making Gita.
I dried off on my swag as the sky deepened, oranges and golds spilling across the fathomless blue. The light luxuriated in the colours of the gums, bringing out the bark’s mottled palette of creams, pinks, browns, oranges and greys.
I picked up a stick. There was a dolphin within the banana-sized piece of wood – the curve of its back, its fins, eyes and snout. It just needed a little work to bring out. Taking my pocketknife, I began stripping away the bark.
Gita and I moved in together five months ago. The inner-city had been her idea. She had grown up in the oldest part of Jakarta, among markets and street stalls. She was happiest in a scrum of people, pushing through the crowd, a bag of vegetables over her arm. The wide empty streets of suburbia only reminded her of how far she was from home.
I removed the rest of the bark from the wood and started shaping the tail. The sun’s glow began to dissipate and the birds fell silent as if in awe. I ran the knife down the dolphin’s back, going with the grain, working at a smooth curve.
Gita loved dolphins. When we’d seen them in Port Phillip Bay she had laughed and clapped and jumped with excitement. She said dolphins made her feel free. She wanted to take me to see the dolphins in Bali.
Tom passed me a filthy mug of instant coffee and sat back in his chair to coach me through the remaining work: taking off the carburettor, removing the head nuts, lifting off the head, cleaning it, checking it for cracks, replacing the gasket and reconnecting everything. By the time he got to the last step I had forgotten the first.
By ten o’clock a fresh sweat had obliterated yesterday’s tide marks of salt on my T-shirt. I’d managed to take off the carburettor and head nuts. I wheeled a chain-block out of the workshop and connected the head.
I hauled on the chain and lifted the head, my hands slippery with sweat. I peeled off the old gasket and cautiously wiped the engine block clean. The head wasn’t cracked.
I worked quickly, replacing the gasket, lowering the head and tightening the nuts. By the time I looked up again it was lunchtime and Pete was offering me a slice of his wife’s quiche. I bolted down the food with my dirty hands then turned back to the motor.
I began reconnecting everything – the water pump, manifolds, carburettor, air filter, ignition coil.
By five o’clock I was finished. I was sore and spent but I’d done everything I could. I reconnected the last ignition lead and poured in new coolant. If the truck started, I had two choices. I could stay with the original plan of collecting a load of wood, but if I did there was no way I’d get back to town until tomorrow morning at the earliest. If I forgot about the wood and headed straight back to town I could be home by midnight. I’d be able to meet Gita’s parents in the morning before they flew out.
I climbed into the blast furnace hot truck, rivulets of sweat running down my forehead and stinging my eyes. The vinyl seat was scalding against my legs and back. I took the carved dolphin from the dash, holding it tight as I groped for the ignition and turned the key.
This story originally appeared in the 2018 Margaret River Press short story anthology.