ReadingRoom

Short story: Warpaint, by Tracey Slaughter

"She’s back in the mirror, busy with her blindfold of eyeshadow, blending it with a thumb, and double-exposing her teeth to patrol for plum smudges": a rock'n'roll story set in smokey, lipsticky, sexy small-town New Zealand by Thames writer Tracey Slaughter.

It’s your basic pub accommodation – walls pockmarked a candy-mint. Chunk bashed out the blue formica bedside table, forked on four metal legs. A sagging old sash window that won’t lever up, a clapped out single under it. Bunk beds door side, low slung aluminium hammocks. I test out both, but they whine like a bitch. Teen bedspreads read Warning Angel! Don’t Cross: Queen of Hearts! Two towels, green-grey, gone stiff with sun, a stub of plastic-wrapped fern-print soap propped on them. The blonded goddess on the bedspread pattern has thick green satisfied eyelashes and a smirk that looks c**tstruck at herself. Universal Girl Power! Kiss Command! Her wink triggers a pink graffiti trail of mini-hearts.

I won’t even get to bags the single, and rib Bruz all night about his stocky arse squealing the bunks. He asked the owners for separate rooms tonight. He’s bringing his new girlfriend.

He tells me I’ll like her. I’m prepared to try.

Apricot blanket on a locker, punctuated by moths. Rectangle of nothing-to-see-here mirror glued to pastel wall. Creak of doors up and down the hall, but somehow no footsteps. A navy-blue and white striped bin, plastic-lined for sicking in. Bruz could fill it and then some, after a good binge. Pirouette of hair crimped into floorboard dust. Bolt-on sink with a brown mouth stamped Royal Doulton. Out the sash, an acre of corrugated roof, and off its stretch the town – wharf, red cones, jacaranda, Liquorland, big fucking deal. The fire escape’s a joy-ride over split level tin, strap on steel-punched tread and wonky rails like bits of fairground knocked off some old attraction and clipped on at random to the vintage pub. Downstairs in the bar, above our stage, there’s a game on the wall called Chase the Ace!, the whole 52 pack framed with loser cards purple-dotted, mostly bad picks of diamonds. And a cartoon strip of three wise men bringing gifts of hard grog to a Mary who’s no damn virgin.

*

His guitar gets your blood up. All these years and that’s still true.

Fuck gently weeping. Bruz gets going on a solo and it can make you moan from where you’re frozen, right down into old pain.

And who wouldn’t want that?

But I doubt his new girlfriend has any. Bruz backs the van up on the kerb, ready to unload gear, and she climbs out the cab. Little sugarcane bleat of laugh. Patent heels that should come with a warning. And what’s worse, she tries to help unload, stabbing about in the lethal things, humping stands and amps. Up on the shonky stage she teeters way too close, unstacks bins, tries fishing out cables and mics. I’m in my rights to give her a stormy look. One false step, her stilettos could skewer me.

At least Bruz picks up on it. “Babe, we’ve got kind of a system. How ‘bout you just go get us some drinks eh.”

To her credit, she totters off. Her hair is a palette of over-dyes, jet to blue to astronomical blonde, and her bralet is a fierce piece of scaffolding. Flag of black silk sketched into a see-through shrug. Bullet hole of lipstick, dark clouds of blush. If Bruz and I had ever had a daughter, she’d be this age. Warning: Pout Power!

Her epic fingernails make shouting us a drink difficult – she can hardly grip one glass, let alone weave back with three of them. But she pulls the trick off. “There you go,” Bruz grins at me, from where he’s crouched on stage, daisy-chaining the monitors. “Get some of that into you. Bit of the old waipiro.” I can’t resist the old shithead’s wink.

I’ve never been able to.

So I go over, to down a drop.

“Fun fact,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve even heard him play.” Bruz is just soundchecking the first few scratches of chord, an easy jangle. Sampled from a setlist that would have been written before this girl was even born.

“Well, you’re in for a ride kid.”

Bruz glides into a lick that shimmies all the hairs on your spine.

A little femme snicker. “Yeah, I’ve already had that.”

He coasts off the edge of a riff, lets a chime of harmonics glint from the fingertapped bridge.

“Oh I’ll bet.”

Which is as good as it gets, before there’s a big belt of feedback warping from stage-left, and something terminal cuts through Bruz’s amp.

He yelps, kneels down, tries resuscitation, checks leads and knobs. Stomps pedals. Pleads. But it’s a goner.

“Holy fuck. Oh bubs no. Don’t tell me. Ah jesus, bubs.”

“You’ll just have to use the backup,” chirps the new girlfriend. I have to fucking pity her. Because she’s right, we always cart a spare with us. But Bruz has never once had to hook it up. And it’s a B-grade fail-safe – he may as well be playing handicapped. His regular amp is an altar. There’s ceremony that goes into tweaking its settings, microtuning its galaxy of sounds. Days go into invoking the right shine on his treble, the right crunch and gain on his lead. Bruz is prostrate at its black case now, looking like he lost a kid.

“Lucky you’ve got it covered,” she follows up breezily. I watch Bruz double over with a pang.

I should put her out of her misery. “He’s superstitious. Like most musicians.” I remember the soundcheck where the wah-wah pedal started picking up AM stations, and a vengeful Christian preacher came pouring out the amp. Howling about punishment. It put the churchy shits up both of us, froze us to the ugly pub carpet. It was too damn close. Until we clicked. This one’s not so easy solved.

“Ohhhh,” she says, eye-rolling. Hooks her gaze onto me. “So what are you superstitious of?”

Bruz leans back on his heels, one fist round his ponytail, shaking his bandana. The amp head is toasted. He knows it. He glares at me. “New fucking girlfriends.”

“Yeah,” I say to him, risking a smile. He deserves it. “Feels like déjà vu all over again.”

*

Fire Hose reel located opposite Room 8. The view down the fire-escape is into a tower of white plastic buckets, off kilter with scraps. Wasps round the pulp, a-shimmy in the vegetable peelings. Three tin storeys of kegs stacked on blue stencilled pallets. Mops hinged onto outbuilding walls to bake dry, grey rope rot-flecked heads. Patchwork of sheds, lean-to with cracked slat windows, pink dregs of blind and chinks into dark wood shelves: potato sacks, yellow biohazard tubs of fat. A kitchen hand is hosing out PVC buckets and watches me clambering down, a cellulite sight for sore eyes in my leopard mini. He wipes his apron with a thick grin and tries to entertain me with yarns of all the drunks who’ve tumbled down. A fair old tally, including his young self, when he was good and unco pissed. The concrete is a maze of cracks beneath – he tries to convince me it’s all the bad bloody dismounts. But reminds me I don’t want to take the route in through the kitchen – I took it when I first got here, through the swing doors, zipped my kit and pillows in past the cookers and white coats, until the chef spotted me and had a proper go. He’s a prime c**t, the kitchen hand confirms. So my best bet down to the bar is this sheer drop. His come on is a glint of yellow canines, a scrub of palms where apron dampens cock. If Bruz were here he’d be rolling his eyes, and I’d be hating the fact that he gave zero shits who I hook up with. Tonight I give the guy’s attempt an as-if eyebrow, but not too harsh – might pay to keep him in play. Who knows? Could turn out to be that kind of gig.

Across from the shed-maze a chain of fairylights starts, and climbs into a rising cross, bursts in a web overhead of the outdoor diners. It’s twelve bucks for a cheese toasted here. Family menu for now, until the late night cranks. The kids are all sawnoff with sunburn and boredom, pulling pissed-off dances round the garden bar tables. Blend of punters, from a team of nanas sipping something naughty in their polyester tunics, to homies trying to look point-blank dangerous, basketball sheen on their tees and caps tipped back, biceps a streetscene of tatts. When I was the age of Bruz’s girlfriend I wasn’t even cool enough to glance in here from the door – couldn’t have trod four steps across the boards, let alone stood here and eyeballed the barman, who’s a young hulk kissed by the rugby gods, a nose scrummed flat but a jaw you could worship at, logo tee stretched broad over arrogant pecs. I’m more than twice his age – it’s the invisible era for me now. And I missed the visible one – too stunted with scripture to ever doll up and get messy here. Those types are flocking in now, trimmed with chem-straightened hair and jeans you couldn’t crowbar off. We’re due a feed on the bar tab, but I know Bruz and the new girl won’t be down. And if they were they’d probably be squeezed in a booth, swapping lovetalk I couldn’t stomach. So I order a burger with the works from the laminated list, and wait for it to arrive and disappoint me. Over the leaner where I sit is a black and white photo commemorating a record catch. Unbeaten, hooked in ‘35, aboard the Lady Clare, two stoked cobbers fondling the big silver body. Its landed eye looks beyond sad. And something makes me skip most of the burger, a few mouthfuls of tomato pips and beef fat in, mixed with my own lipstick. Retrace the fire escape one crabbed step at a time. Sit on an old school chair that’s waiting at the top, inhale my way to an empty pack. Keep my hands busy, and my mouth ashed, though it’s no good for my voice. But there’s no Bruz to hound me about that. And it’s not like it’s a habit I’m alone in. An overturned Steiny bottle, fag-ends and days old rainwater brim in a metal bucket.

*

I can’t be bothered stripping off the day’s makeup so I just bog tonight’s on overtop. Besides, there’s no tissues in the room, and the rolls of loo-paper on the sill in the bathroom look like they’re tinted with a century of dust – they’re bunged in a pyramid, crimped and thinned with heat, and fly wings sprinkling their base. No fucking thanks. The bathroom louvres are not-so-frosted and barely holding on. Around the lightbulb in the shower, the mould has turned a kind of pink-brown beautiful. It’s possible to blink at it a long while and not see a pattern, just a loose moist weave of freckled stain. The curtain is lime green, rigged with rings ready to shatter. I strip to my cami – I know my pits are rank from the 29 degree drive down here – but then I just can’t find the will. There’s a bath instead, but sitting in its tub there’s a cracked television with what looks to be a CB radio piled on top, plus a dud single bedhead. A slash through a lit-one on a poster reminds us all this is a smoke-free area. I scrub through the basics at the sink, a scratch of flannel that the chugging tap can’t hardly change. Don’t even dress, just head back to number 8. I kept my kit light, but there’s a bottle or two in it. I drink my chardonnay warm in my room, spiked with toothpaste.

When the thump comes I recognise its tenor. The whole muscled pace. Gone twenty-five years of me and Bruz playing, I know him throat to fingertips. The thin pub walls don’t help, clap along with his efforts. I don’t hear a peep out of her. That’d be right – these nights, girlfriend-free, he’d be ready to open my hand and put his limp dick in. A tradition. “Warm up your vocals baby.” I’d just smile, croon a few bars and spit. Work him harder for our big duet. He took some priming, then came easily. Sometimes, if I whined a bit, he’d thumbnail my clit. But if I really wanted the favour back I’d have to help out. You can love a man that hardly makes you come though. Beats me how that fact is true. But all too plain, it is.

*

The cream topcoat in the shitter has bubbled and got chips kicked out, the same mint as my bunkroom. I went to the loo before playing tonight – or tried to – and there was a guy behind the Ladies door. Because the dumbfuck thing opens directly onto the sinks, a varnished balsawood swing like something from a classroom you had in Standard 3, and the guy gave a big surprising male Ugh! when it hit him, buck-towelled and shaving in the girl’s manky sink. And I said sorry and backed away – because that was how I was brought up, sorry – and had to pull the door off his trunk where the thump had half-stuck it, and he said no worries, although I should have said, what the fuck are you playing at mate, what is your lonely dick doing in here, we hardly need competition for these scodie stalls, and there’s a goddamn TV in the biggest one complete with a widescreen of custom-crushed dreams and a radio to say over and over and over and over and a bedhead slushed with stickers, not stars, just junk, just slogans gummed over your head and to get the fuckers off you would have to scratch down to the paste, to the bone, to blood’s adhesive screeching. So it’s hard to find a reason not to fuck the guy – who’s really pretty portly in his budget blue towel, and not much to speak of, and doesn’t even smell clean, though the fern-print wrapper reading Natural Body is shucked by his toes on the lino, and clearly he’s tried to rub its little wafer on his guts, give his sour bulk a scrub – but just the word wafer makes you think of that thin disc of plasticised Jesus they used to feed you weekly, as you kneeled in a white dress with frizzy hair bowtied to God, and his taste in your mouth, backing up with it, given for you, given, given, and the towel shed for you, and the cup of the sink with its hot cold faucets staking your buttocks, and nothing is porcelain, there is a gruff blue flannel you can dab yourself up with, and the guy pulls on a basketball hoodie like he belongs to a winning team, and you try to think up lyrics for him, so downstairs you can sing like this is beautiful, half as beautiful as mould in a halo round the fixtures or a merry-go-round of dead flies or a broken TV with a bootprint of glass like a long-running life that couldn’t even shatter properly. So now I’m sitting tight, for a breather, in the mint-chipped stall. Counting down to the gig.        

Fun fact: it was a room like number 8 where I told Bruz years ago about the baby. And he drew the line and said the music was everything. So I did what I had to, to keep the band. And I had a procedure, and it was simple, and they sent me home with a timeline to bleed. But I ran past a gig date. So it was a bathroom like this where I washed off what I needed. The final parts tacky, clinging to me. In the grouting like putty, my spread quads rattling. Then I yanked down my skirt. And went back to Bruz, onstage.

*

Downstairs in the bar the Ladies is packed with girls but none of them are pissing. They’re mostly clicking at phones – and a group by the handblowers have skirts hiked or low-riders cocked. Of all things, they’re comparing their styled veejayjays. Fritzes of dark fuzz carved into hearts they prod at with squeals and lacquered fingers. Full plucked peaches, all glitter and sting. Little bitches glare at me. I don’t take shit. I’m about to front them when the new girlfriend sweeps in.

Her make-up is architecture, but what’s really holding it up is a kid’s face. Hair raked high and sectioned into colours. Another skinny tank on, geometric bra in bold view. The paint on her mouth is a self-inflicted bruise. Eyelids powdered with violet prisms. She’s here to check it’s all staying in place. I grub a lipstick out my leathers and go to recoat too. But she grabs for it, laughs at its flattened tip, the muck round its edges.

“What the fuck you been doing with this? Deepthroating it?”

I think of all the stayovers I’ve sunk to my knees and sucked Bruz into fondling me. Halfhearted, but something.

“Just the dregs I guess. An old fave. Hard to let go of eh.”

What she gives me is not a token smile. There’s a wiliness in it, and something tight-wound. Like the general state of me is not news to her. She hands me back the tube of mongrelised colour.

I think of the teen etched on the bedspread upstairs with her logo reading Angel Bait!

“You got to know when it’s time eh.” She reinforces it with a steady voice, girlish but gritty. “When its day is done.”

If Bruz and I had had our daughter, she could have been this blend of lovely and lethal. I think of the sign in a field I passed on my solo trip here that read Deceased Estate.

Out in the bar, I hear Bruz warming up, a mundane strum, but it gets me pining.

She’s back in the mirror, busy with her blindfold of eyeshadow, blending it with a thumb, and double-exposing her teeth to patrol for plum smudges. Rejigging her bra under buckshot sequins, dark C cups not short of cargo. The group waylaid over their decorated crotches are still giggling wholesale in the corner. I want to deck the girlfriend. Punch her low, where it’s clear she’s never been hurt. But Bruz is only pissing around on his lead out there, and it still breaks chains in me. So I can’t go for her. Just stand while she’s gloating at her spotlit beauty.

And hate my motley heart.

I shove my way past the vee-jazzled and hit the stall hard. The door is a joke. It comes back at my shoulder more than once before I get to bolt it.

I’ve always known our day was done. Held on through all the girlfriends, but have no clue why. Just this: it’s Bruz. Have you been in that kind of love? If not, go fuck yourself. And fuck you too if you don’t feel the music the way I do. If a leadbreak doesn’t lure out all your ghosts. If distortion doesn’t make your chest wall feel like a dog kennel. Twenty plus years and his playing sidekicks me in the gut. What have I got to replace that with? All those girls on the dancefloor tonight think the supply is endless. But I’ll tell you what. Town after small town is dry. I should know. I’ve toured round most of them.

And Bruz is hitting the frets a little harder now to wake me up. It’s long past our kickoff. But I don’t budge until I hear a voice over my mic. Trying a melody, wannabe. She’s fucking lost it if she thinks I’m gonna hand her that. I topple the stand when I get there, and it sickles through the lights, nearly shorts the spare amp. But Bruz lets me handle her off-stage, doesn’t even put down his gat. He’s professional. And at least the scuffle comes here, and not later, on the fire escape. I grin for a moment at the thought of that. My brain zooms out on the easy ballet of it, the oops it would take to disconnect her pretty grip, to stage a stealthy trip on the croc-skin, a tweak of stiletto. The slither of peelings waiting as her mattress. The kerb of concrete jutting for her spine. Wouldn’t rule it out. 

“Fun fact,” I say through the mic when I’ve got a good grip. Eyeballing her. “This is not my first rodeo.”

*

“Did we miss our turn?” was the most like love he ever said to me, lazy one night, played long past closing, too late. I think there was a time when he almost considered me. I’ve held on hard to nights when his hand might have slid my face for just a second, picking up the sweat I build singing, the bronzer turned to paste. When we’ve had to pull the shitbox van over, loaded with rig, pop the hood while the radiator sizzles, spent roadside time playing cards in the cab, a splatter of fates along the vinyl. Once he fanned my overheated cheek with his deal, leaned in for a full kiss that wiped off my warpaint, and we clawed quick to the backseat, made the van our mechanical bull. But I’ve never had any luck. Chase the Ace! Out in the audience there’s always been fresh stock for him: I watch them scoping him while he plugs in, then centrestage, his acidwash jeans akimbo, his eyes closed, priestly and horny. His playing glazes them. Good as it does me. It takes. It lasts. Not such a fun fact: I’m in no position to blame them. 

The setlist is full of songs about it. I lay into them tonight, and Bruz is proud of me. I can see it in his stance, the thrum of his hands. His head drops back like gods are listening. When the backing track cuts out on one tune his riff shrills on, and he glides off on a long shred, stalking round the stage in his docs, creating a glistening racket that fills the room with gooseflesh. And by the end my throat is going. But a bit of rough is okay. I’ve never had a clean voice, zero grace. I’ve always had to reach for the note, give it a bit of torque. It’s not the right note, it’s the real note, as some old rocker says. I work the ground either side, with an ache, delay. A dose of gravel comes natural. And even when I back off, breathe a line sweet and right, there’s some tougher tint there, lying just under it. It always comes out collarboned, tarnished. Worm in the tequila. That’s my voice, if you ask Bruz.

And what would I have been if it wasn’t for him, taking smoko from band practice out in our garage, all those years ago, just knocking round tunes with my bro, then catching the sound of me, keening some hymn out by the washing line. Striding outside to stand there like something I had in my voice was making him thirsty. A holy ghost stare. Grabbing the wet slump of sheet from my fluttering hands and turfing it, muddied, not even in the basket. Kicking over the wickerwork of pegs, and crunching clean through them, his boots spurting colour. And pulling me into the centre of the practice, unquestionable, with his eyes lightning charged. Deadset, all commands. So the choirgirl was gone. Standing me by the mic, and plummeting a riff that drove right into my loins. And came out my song.

*

The best bit of the night is: the new girlfriend is not a good dancer. She can’t get her bearings with the beat. She tries to groove her hips around, do snaky things with her hands. But unhitched from the music the routine looks half-baked. And frankly, a little special needs. And of course there’s a cast of chicks schooled in how to twerk, and they fix Bruz with stares while they’re pumping and dipping. And the new girl gets awkward. She hadn’t factored this in. She stops dancing. And she’s not a good sport.

 So Bruz and me, later, get to share a few minutes out on the roof. I give him the school chair and crank off his boots, hauling them backward clamped to my guts.

 “Fucken watch it,” he says. “You’ll arse up. Off the edge.”

 Their tread outlined on my halter, I hug them for a while. Their warm alpha doublestitched stink.

“Yeah then where would you be?”

He lights up and doesn’t answer. Bruz can be a cagey c**t like that.

“That pig amp lasted the distance but.” Sometimes I just don’t give up.

 “Yeah well. Second best is all there is. Tonight.” But he’s not looking at me.

“Sounds you got out of it though…Fully beaut. For a substandard unit, you had it really singing.”

 The weatherboards of the old pub creak where he rubs his head back, school chair on a lean. He’s got a dangerous smile.

“Yeah, she gave it up. Like she had much of a choice.”

He’s still got that infected toenail he’s had for the last handful of gigs – bashed it on the amp when we were packing in a few pubs back. Could be what rooted the head. The nail’s well-cracked now, so he has a pick, and lifts off a chunk of it while we smoke. Passes it to me like a trophy tipped with pus. Which I cheers him for, and flick into the burnt-out bucket. The rails run over the tin like a bad chart of something. And that’s it. Just the two of us in leftover moonlight. Same as always. Last of the punters out on the street bouncing on the hood of a ute, a clumsy hellraising. The bouncer, offering to waste them, had it with their antics to his back teeth, no comedy in his bloodthirsty yells. Me chatting, Bruz yawning. I get the CB from the bath, and Bruz pops the back, takes a quick jack, reckons its circuits should be passable. I trail a cord from the socket in my room, and fiddle with the thing, but nothing comes through. No over and over and over and over. Just the sound of some lonely bastard down the street still going, full throttle, at another pub.

Next week's short story is by Vincent O'Sullivan.

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