uncertain cities

words and sequences of them by Rhett Davis


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.