uncertain cities

words and sequences of them by Rhett Davis

Filtering by Tag: Writing


He was driving in the city and he was past the zoo and it was the time of day when the cars come out, and so he was driving among the cars in the fading winter sun. He was playing music loud and Sonic Youth’s Youth against fascism came on, and he turned it up. He’d done this many times before, driven this road, driven this highway, played this song, turned it up. But never when he was thinking about actual fascists. When it finished, he played it again. He did this four times, as he drove past the zoo, past the tree-lined parade, past the university he attended an increasingly long time ago. On the highway he’d been thinking about emboldened, dark voices that were rising from the ground. On the highway, he’d been thinking they were all around him. That history could repeat. On the highway, they were in the cars passing him. Their neck sweat, their grinding teeth, their empty eyes, their purposeless yet remorseless spite. On the highway, he couldn’t get away from them. He was going to a book launch and he was going to listen and buy the book and drink a glass of wine and talk to good people. Late winter was wild and windy and the city was where it had always been. It had never been his city. It was cold and he’d only ever arrived and left. He’d never stayed for long enough. And yet it was there, up the road, where it had always been, sometimes closer, sometimes at his feet, sometimes too far away to see, and it was entirely new and familiar. The dust that settled on it was the same dust, but it had been disturbed by passing cars and humans and winds and money; had settled on different cracks and door jambs and footpaths and windows; had shifted the light. He passed a pub he’d been to decades ago. It was the same pub. But everything around it—the people with new faces, new clothes, the way they walked, talked, the air itself—had a different shape. At the traffic lights Sonic Youth sung about impotent jerks. The people in the car next to him might not be so different. And the people next to them, and next to them. He played the song again. And again. And again. At the lights, he turned right and tried to find a park, but it wasn’t that easy. History could repeat, but the dust always settled a little differently.


I’m not the one who ordered the bloody cake, he said.

I don’t know what the cake has to do with anything Lem, I’m just nervous, okay? Feel sick.

She wasn’t sure where she was, but that was normal. Whereas he was always sure of where he was in relation to everything else on earth. He was good with directions. Instinctive. Always knew the way to go. It’s to the left, he said, as she walked unsteadily out the door.

The exit is to the right, she said.

But what about the cake?

I don’t care about the cake. I’m leaving out that door with that sign that says exit.





At least let me go get a slice of cake.

No, you come with me.

Jan, that cake looked superb and I am simply not going to pay five hundred dollars for a cake and not eat a slice. I simply won’t do that.

They’ll see you.

You wait in the car. I’ll be there in a mo. He threw her the keys and walked back down the corridor.

He held two slices of cake in his hands as she drove away. She waved and disappeared, and he took a bite. She wasn’t sure where she was. How would she find her way to wherever it was she thought she was going? Whereas he, he knew where he was. He was sure he knew where he was at all times. He chewed and swallowed. It was good cake. Gooey and buttery and chocolaty. It would feed him for a week. He was right to have stayed.

He looked up at the sky and didn’t recognise the stars. He walked back inside and the room was empty and the floor was dirt and the walls were full of ivy and moss. The windows had been broken by angry trees. There was a stink of mould and dank. The cake would last for a week, but how would she find her way back to him if she didn’t know where she was?

Recurring bone

At the end of our street, there is often a bone. It is usually a different bone than the bone that came before, but it is always the same type of bone. It looks to me like the knee joint of a cow, but then, I don’t know much about knee joints or cows. The bone is always in the gutter, on the same side of the street. Something or someone removes it each time, and every week it is replaced by another. There are any number of suspects. On our way to work or unwork we sometimes speculate about who, or what, it might be. My suspicion is the old people with old dogs who roam our neighbourhood in the mornings. I imagine the old person spoiling the dog with cheap knee bones from the butcher a short walk away and then both of them walking home. The dog appreciates it, but it’s old and is worn out by the time the pair reaches our street corner, and drops the bone. Better yet, the dog has a secret friend it communes with by scent, and to which it bequeaths the bone after some quality time with it. Later, the secret dogfriend picks it up on their walk, and their owner doesn’t mind. The dogs never see each other. They only know each other by scent, and this knee bone. 

I’m sure I would be disappointed by the truth of why this knee bone, or knuckle, or shoulder joint, appears and disappears when it does. All I know is that there is a bone, it appears in the same place weekly, and disappears the next day. I prefer to believe in paths that don’t cross, in dogs that don’t meet but share something profound, and in the lines between each of us that we will never see. Sometimes I’d rather not know the truth.

His job

It was his job to drive people to work. People would drop off their cars and wait in a lounge and he would ask them where they needed to go. Based on their responses he would pick three of them. His colleagues would take others. It was his job to be polite to these people; to call them sir and madam. He would not have called them this normally, but it was his job, so he did. It was also his job to gently ask them to get into his car and take them to their jobs. They usually did not want to go to their jobs, but the society in which they’d found themselves necessitated the illusion of productivity above all else. In this society it was important that things kept growing, or at least appeared to keep growing, so they went to work and tried to grow things that were very rarely physical things that could be seen to grow. Because they couldn’t see the things they were supposedly growing it was sometimes hard to tell if they were growing at all, and this often contributed to their waking up in the mornings full of sickening dread. He could usually tell when one of them was experiencing this dread. They stared out of the car windows at the city they couldn’t stop seeing and grunted a lot. 


There were four towers in the complex. Wide swinging doors—the sort that you have to time just right—led to their entrances. There was gold and black shimmer and warm yellow light and glass and reflections, and men and women with expensive clothes and important business swarmed around. I was dressed well, but not well enough. I wasn’t sure where I had to go, so I circled for a while. There was a food court and I found a cafe that wasn’t busy and I bought coffee and decided I would pretend that I knew what I was doing. I walked up the stairs to the tower I intended to enter. I walked through the swinging doors like it was something I always did. I found the reception desk and a woman approached me from behind. She was tall and there was a frightening symmetry about her. She asked if she could help me and called me sir. I hadn’t shaved and my shirt was hanging out and my backpack looked a little scruffy. I didn’t feel like a sir. I said where I wanted to go, and she pointed to the elevator I needed, and I thanked her, and she looked at me for a little too long. I went to the elevators and I looked around at the people going to their elevators, these people needing people with frightening symmetry to make sure they get to their destination, to make sure only the right people were permitted. The elevator was full of mirrors and a television and I couldn’t look anywhere but up, and I ascended with these people. And I got out at my floor and I found a table in the office and I plugged in my laptop and pretended I belonged there. I reminded myself I had a card that proved that I did. Others with frightening symmetry walked around, removing plates and correcting placements and calling people sir and madam. It occurred to me that I could only be in that complex in that tower on that floor on that table with my laptop plugged if I had passed a test conducted by someone, somewhere. Perhaps the woman at reception. Perhaps someone looking at video screens, or device tracking statistics. There were four towers in the complex, and I was on one of the floors, and there were hundreds of towers in the city and thousands of floors and millions of people and none of us were satisfied with how high we were. I wondered when they were going to ask for my ID card.


You know when it’s been a relentless blue sky summer, and you wake up and there’s a light fog, and you’re in a bus going to the university you’re now attending, and you break over the hill to see the suburb that has been built in your lifetime obscured by fog, so obscured you can only see the waterslide, built in your lifetime, you can’t even see the shopping centre, built in your lifetime, and you look around and you see an Aldi you don't recognise and recall that it used to be a place where people like your mother ordered interesting varieties of dirt, and you look at the petrol station and recall that it was once just some rough space, and you look again at the suburb on the hills that you cannot see, and it feels, for a moment, as if none of this happened at all, as if it is all still farmland stretched out over hills on the way to the home you no longer have, and for a while you can't stop thinking, what if?



We walked on the beach at night and felt the coarse fine sand squeeze between our toes. The water was unfamiliar and almost warm. A man with a large fluorescent lamp ran around a posing woman, illiuminating her for a long exposure photograph. She held her arms high and her dress blew like a flag and the man ran around and around. The stars were appearing over the last lines of orange haze. First one, then another, winking timidly into life. Nearby, other people, shadows lying on the sand, hidden and anonymous and unknown. It had been a hot day, but the wind was now coming off the water, and the two who were with me were talking and I was quiet and I felt like something of me was here, in this place I did not know. 


One had the feeling in those days that you had to be someone. Being someone was difficult, particularly when everyone else was trying to be someone. Being someone, he decided, required many other people believe that you were, in fact, someone. Your own opinion of yourself was largely irrelevant. To get people to believe you were someone required a great magic trick to be performed. It was possible, for example, to be someone when you were dead. Sometimes, you were no one when you were alive but someone after you had died. You could be someone for a few minutes, or a few days, and then become no one again immediately after, for the rest of your life. Sometimes, if you pretended you were someone hard enough, for long enough, and told enough people about it, you would, in fact, become someone. It was possible to become someone entirely accidentally, by falling off a roof, for example; or by singing particularly badly while being filmed by your brother in secret; or by being a carpenter, hired to fix a film prop, whom the director believes looks better suited to the role of the pirate king than the weak, temperamental someone-soon-to-be-no-one he is currently working with.


At night, someone parks a car down our street. They park there for a long time and play loud music. I can’t tell what music it is. I just hear a beat, a thumping, over, and over, and over. It’s not loud enough to be bothersome, but loud enough that I consider walking over to the car and knocking on their window. Consider, but would never do. After a while, the car drives away. I don’t know what or who they’re waiting for. Are they dropping someone off, or picking someone up? Are they meeting someone? Is it a drug deal? Is our quiet street just a convenient place for loud music and waiting in an idling car? Sometimes I smell the fumes through the window. Or, I think I smell the fumes. It may be that I have imagined the fumes, that I have willed them into being to justify my pseudo-conservationist rage. All the while glimmering on a laptop, poking at a goddamn phone, both raging with toxic, otherworldly metals and magic, envenomed glass. It is quite possible, now that I think of it, that I have never, in fact, smelled any fumes. It is similarly possible that this car does not exist. It could be that the music is coming from a rowdy neighbour a few houses down, and the car that I imagine parked there has already been and gone. I haven’t actually seen it. All these cars and people and houses outside my door, all of them causing noises I associate with other noises. All of them being, doing. It could be that I have imagined them all. That I am in my dark room in my dark house and there is no one else and there is nothing else and outside there is only infinite dark my eyes cannot parse. That were I to stand up and open the door and take a look I’d be swallowed by the relentless, all-consuming absence of every single thing. How strange to then create a reality from this darkness, where people sit in cars and play music and leave their engines idling for too long. How astonishing that I can sit here, tired and unread, and believe that people are, and do. I’m tired. The music has stopped again. The engine, if it was an engine, no longer idles. Whether a car remains or has left, I can’t say, and I’m not about to get up to check. Whether it’s night or not, it’s time to go to bed.


We expressed our misery through inflicting it. It was the easiest way. It felt like everything was running out. The fiction we read, the television shows we watched, the movies we saw, the games we played, the news we made; all were about the end of the world. Or if not that, the end of kindness, perhaps. It was understandable that we were miserable. It was getting hotter. The houses we had built had become fortresses. The rents we charged vicious. We didn’t know our neighbours. We didn’t like our families. We argued with everyone, all of the time, over the tiniest of things. It was as if there could be no agreement anymore. No common ground. There could only be your opinion, and my opinion, and no matter how much we agreed that yes, the sun was up, the fact that it was in a slightly different position relative to where you sat meant that we simply could not understand one another at all. Sure, the sun coming up was the single-most important thing to happen to the earth that day. But I saw it from my backyard after a heavy night of drinking; a brilliant shaft of orange light poking through the eye of a horse-shaped cloud; and you saw it from your backyard, without your glasses; a brilliant shaft of orange light poking through the rectum of a cloud you thought looked like a dancing pig; and so we agreed on nothing. We could only imagine things running out until we finally believed it. Only then did it come true.


There is a song I heard once on a Melbourne radio station in the mid-90s. I was driving in my yellow Gemini through Northcote and it was dark and the trams or the tram tracks sparkled. It was raining, maybe, and the shards on the windscreen and I was leaning forward slightly the way I did whenever I drove that car, nervously compelling it not to break down again, not here, not at this intersection, not here please you bastard. It was my first car and I had no money. I replaced spark plugs and alternators and changed the oil and headlights and tyres and the radiator fluid in that car. I did more to that car myself than I’ve done to any since. Now I take it to a service centre and point at it and say, can you look at it, and they do, and I pay them money and I drive away, and so far that’s worked fine. I’ve never had a car since I’ve felt so secure in yet so terrified by. It broke down on the Geelong to Melbourne road more times than it should have, and without a mobile phone this made things difficult. It broke down at unsavoury intersections in Footscray in the middle of the night, and driving it through the Melbourne CBD to get home on the weekend was something of a dice with death. 

Anyway, there was this song on the radio on this dark night road. Perhaps the road was called Queens Parade, but I don’t know and I’m not looking it up. The DJ said it was a song that a lot of people would probably be getting married to. I remember it being a fabulous raucous song with a chorus that shouted out something like, “Just marry me, marry me, marry me” in that charming yet petulant way of certain British outfits in that period. Or perhaps they were Irish. I remember it was a song that sent a shiver down my spine. It made me wonder what it would be like to feel that way about someone. I’d never heard it before and I’ve never heard it since. I missed the back announcement and so I missed it forever. I half-heartedly tried to find it, but Google in the early 2000s struggled with the vague recollections of a few very common words of a song heard on a radio in Melbourne in the nineties. The few years I spent in Melbourne in my twenties are thick and condensed like clear gelatin and echo more than they should. They don’t make much sense to me anymore. I wouldn’t want that car anymore, I wouldn’t want to live in that run-down house in Fitzroy North, and I don’t want to know what that song is.


After I wrote the paragraphs above I went and talked to Tara about what I had written. I don’t do that very often, but I did today. She asked me if I remembered any of the words to the song. I said, yes, but not many. She said, what were they. I said, marry me, marry me, marry me, and then I put my shoes on. She said, is it this song? She’s good at finding lost things. She played it, and for something I’d thought I’d only heard once it was incredibly familiar. They sounded American, and they were. It was less Britpop than nineties faux punk. It was a little desperate and disturbed. How could I have thought it was a love song? I have convinced myself of so many truths. I sat down. Yes. That’s it, I said.


There were three young people in the parking lot. We were walking next to the water, it was warm and the air was liquid. We’d made a pact to wake up early and make the most of the late rising sun. And it was there, behind the pier, behind the masts, behind the abandoned smelter with its lights still strangely blinking. The moon was still up and the light was dim. One of the young people, a woman, screamed. I said they were probably just exercising. I didn’t have my glasses on. We kept moving. There was no way around, even if we wanted one. There was a bearded man and another playing hockey with something. The screaming woman was draped across the roof of a car. From the corner of my eye I only saw her sharp bones and angles. Do you want some of this, she said, and it sounded like chainsaws. I kept my eyes down and I made up a story about turtles. It involved me meeting a group of three turtles on the bank of a river the day before. Their heads were inside their shells, and I didn’t know how to talk to turtles with their heads in their shells. It wasn’t a very good story. As we passed, the woman on the car roof screeched good morning to you both. The men played hockey and moved unpredictably. I kept watching where my feet were treading and spilling turtle words, hoping we would look serious enough to be left alone. We walked past and followed the sunrise, and the clouds turned red and gold. Enormous rays of light tumbled out of the sky and onto the water where they were sifted and muddled into little floating sparklets of sun. 

Later we went to a cafe and we drank coffee and chai and ate bread-related products. The sun was up and there were low clouds and a smell of burning pine. I looked at the coffee accessories that were against the wall and the guy said I could touch them, but I didn’t, and he joked that I was very timid, which was true, but not because of that.