It is ten o’clock when the beer runs out. Tony is the first to notice. He brings a stubby to his mouth and tilts his head back. He holds it that way for a second, until he realizes that nothing is coming out. He holds the bottle at arm’s length, turns it upside down and gives it a tap with his free hand. Still nothing. He looks over at Reggie Scamander who is sitting on a half collapsed deck-chair, which is propped up on somebody’s sleeping form.
“Salamander,” he says, “s’no more beer.”
Reggie has not had a drink for the last half hour. He has been sitting in the deck-chair trying to work out who it is he is sitting on. Which he can’t do because, whoever the guy is, he is folded up like a doll and turned onto his side, cradling his face in his arms. Reggie has thought about getting up out of the deck-chair to find out who it is, but he knows that if he does, he will never be able to balance the deck-chair again on this guy’s hip. And the deck-chair won’t stand up by itself since he illustrated his contention that deck-chairs are shit against the side of the garage. All he can tell is that the person is male, probably, and wears a gold Citizen watch.
“Shit,” he says. He squints up at Tony, who is anonymous and blurred, standing directly in front of the floodlight mounted on the garage wall. “No beer?” he says.
Tony looks at him. The beer bottle falls from his grasp and rolls away into the grass with a dull clunk. ”What did you say?” he says. ”No beer?”
”You said it, you dumb shit. There’s no beer.”
“Shit,” Tony says and sits down heavily on the path beside Reggie. He brushes impatiently at something that passes in front of his face, then again, finally rubbing vigorously at the side of his nose.
They hear the toilet flush inside and the screen door bangs against the wall as a girl comes out onto the back steps, still hitching her stockings up. She is frowning and biting her lip as she finishes up and smooths her straight black skirt down to her knees.
Tony calls out from across the yard, where he sits against the garage wall. “Love,” he says, “would you mind very much telling me-“
The girl is startled at the sound of his voice. She looks up and sees Tony struggling to get to his feet, a string of saliva hanging from his chin. “Fuck you,“ she says and gives him an elegant middle digit before stepping lightly off the back steps and disappearing around the side of the house. A minute later they hear a car start up and take off.
“Charming,“ Tony says, wiping the drool off his chin with his shirtsleeve. “Salamander, he says, “is there any more beer inside?“
Reggie shrugs. “Why don’t you go in and find out?“
“Because I can’t stand the wankers. The lot of em. Wankers. You go.“
“Nah, I’m comfortable right here.“
“But Salamander, I’m thirsty. We need more beer, don’t you reckon?“
“Shit. Alright, but mind me seat while I’m gone. Here, hold the legs so it’ll stay steady. No, not his legs, the bloody chair’s legs you goose. That’s right.“
Reggie gets up and goes inside. When he gets back, Tony is sitting on the ground, the deck chair half collapsed around his head and shoulders like an elaborate, Ikea-catalogue man-trap. “Any?“ Tony says, looking up hopefully before the pressure of the deck-chair on his neck forces him to slump forward again.
“Nope,“ Reggie says, pulling Tony’s arms free and lifting the chair over his head.
“Did you check?“
“Everywhere. Kitchen. Laundry. Bathroom. Nothing.“
“What are they drinking in there?“
“Kahlua and milk.“
“Shit. What are they doing?“
“Shit. Then we gotta go.“
Tony stands up again, leaning against the wall for support and rubs at his neck where the deck-chair had got him.
Reggie squats down next to the unconscious deck-chair support and prods him once in the back. The man makes a snuffling sound. “Give me a hand first, will you?“ he says.
“To do what?“
“Get this guy on his back.“
“I want to see who it is.“
Together they pull the man out from the wall and roll him over onto his back. Upturned, his arms spread, he coughs and gasps like someone drowned. His t-shirt is stained with vomit. Flecks of it trace down his neck and there is a thin film crusted around his mouth and chin. He moans. His eyes open, fail to focus, and close again.
“Nah, never seen him before.“
“Well.“ Tony turns away.
“Wait, better put him back on his side.“
“So he doesn’t choke if he spews.“
The loose sole of one of Tony’s gym boots slaps against the asphalt as they cross the road. As they pick their way through rows of parked cars along streets of fibro houses and the newer, mottled brick places a light rain starts. Reggie stops and turns his face upwards.
“Where are we going?“
“To get some beer.“
“Where from? I haven’t got any money.“
“How much have you got?“
“Dunno. Couple dollars. What difference does that make?“
“Where are we going to get the beer then?“
“Ah, mate. Wouldn’t you like to know.“
“Yeah. I would.“ But Tony has already moved off and doesn’t hear him.
Reggie stands underneath the streetlamp and watches the raindrops hit and soak into his t-shirt until it has turned nearly the same colour as his jeans. For a moment he can see each drop as a misshapen island in the sea of fabric, glinting in the halogen glow, then they merge into reefs and continents and he feels dizzy as he watches. Tony calls out to him from further up the street. Reggie breathes deeply and turns to follow.
“Where are we going to get the beer from then?“ he asks as he draws level with Tony who is bent over, trying to hike his jeans-leg up from around his ankle.
“From a bottle shop, mate,“ Tony says, speaking into his shoe so that Reggie has to bend down to hear him. “But we have to get the money first. So,“ he says, straightening up sharply and staggering backward for a moment before surging forward again, a look of triumph on his face, something held in one hand, a screwdriver. “So,“ he says, “we are going to get ourselves some money. We are going to break in to somebody’s place and get ourselves some money so we can go and buy some beer so we can have some fun.“
Reggie looks at him. They have walked most of the way into town and are standing at a well lit intersection just across from the late night chemist and a hot-dog stand. A Gemini full of local youth hoons past. They lean out of the windows and cheer extravagantly at the two of them. A couple of beer-cans and some chip packets are suddenly expelled from the car’s interior and narrowly miss Tony who has stepped forward brandishing the screwdriver.
“Upya,“ he yells and turns to Reggie. “C’mon,“ he says.
Halfway across the civic park, between the fountain and the war memorial, the sole of Tony’s shoe finally shakes itself loose completely. He wrenches both shoes off and hurls them at the memorial. They land in some bushes just beyond it. The socks he rolls up and stuffs into his pocket.
“This is not a good idea“ Reggie says.
“Salamander,“ he says, “it’s a great idea. We gotta get the money from somewhere. Nobody’s just going to give it to us, so-“
“Cheer up, we’re not robbing your mum. It doesn’t even have to be that much. Twenty bucks, thirty bucks. You’re not taking jewellery, you’re not nicking tvs or cars. We’ll just find where they stash the housekeeping money and take a bit. It’ll all be over before you know it. “
“Yeah,“ Reggie says. He looks over at the bush where Tony had thrown his shoes. One of them dangles, caught by the laces, from a low-hanging branch.
They move off, and Tony keeps up a constant stream of talk, gasping raggedly as they cross the park and wind through the carparks and lanes around the K-Mart and Central Arcade.
“Pick your target. Don’t go for anything fancy, the place’ll have some sort of security. Go for a quiet street. Single storey is better than double storey, saves you time looking around for the stuff. You gotta pick it so there’s nobody home, that’s why Saturday night’s so good. Everybody’s out. Just because no lights are on doesn’t mean nobody’s there but. Knock quietly, just to make sure, first. You find out if there are any dogs that way too. Check the bedroom first of course but check the kitchen next. Kitchen’s almost always where they keep it if it’s not in the bedroom. Kitchen drawers. Or the fridge. In the freezer. A jar of cash just behind the frozen peas. Then you’re away. The hardest part’s getting in.“
He stops suddenly and leans against a railing. “Take a break,“ he says, “I’m done in”. He leans over the railing, puffing like an asthmatic.
Reggie looks at him. He looks like old washing, dripping and formless. Reggie wonders what he looks like himself. He goes over to a Volvo parked nearby and tries to get a look at himself in the side mirror but with the rain and the darkness and the water streaking the glass it’s impossible to tell. He is starting to get cold.
Tony whistles sharply. “Alright,” he says, ”this one’ll do.” He steps out onto the street, avoiding the water that sluices through the gutter, heading for one of the houses on the other side of the street.
”Not so loud Salamander. This one. Hold this, while I check if anyone’s home.”
Reggie takes the screwdriver and holds it at his side. Then he thinks of what it might look like if anyone came along and slips it into his pocket. ”What do you do if someone answers the door?” he asks.
”You act drunk and say you’re looking for Pete,” Tony says, hitting the front door a couple of times with his forearm.
”Nah, this one’s okay. Nobody at home. C’mon, round the back.” In the little yard behind the house, Tony wrenches the flyscreen off one of the back windows. ”Gimme the screwdriver,” he says. He frowns and licks his lips as he levers the long blade of the screwdriver back and forth, working the tip into the join of the window. ”These sliding windows,” he says, ”easy as piss. You just- There. Lock’s not worth shit.”
They climb through the window into the laundry. Tony’s feet slap wetly on the lino. There is a hollow, metallic boom as Reggie bangs his shoulder against the washing machine, pulling himself through head-first.
Tony is already at the hall door, a dark, quivering shape. ”You look in the back of the house, Salamander, I’ll go and look up the front.”
”Right,” Reggie says. He gives the laundry a cursory search. There’s a small pile of loose change on the edge of the window sill beside the washing machine but nothing else.
His footsteps sound loud, even over his breathing, which is heavy and ragged. He walks across the hall to the next room. He has to restrain himself from reaching to turn on the light to see where he is going. A blind has been pulled down over the window of this room so it is almost completely dark but a thin strip of light from one side where the blind meets the window reflects off a sink and draining board. The kitchen. He begins feeling his way around the wall.
He knocks something on a shelf but manages to steady it. From somewhere in the front of the house there is a clattering noise.
”Tony,” he says, straining forward on his toes. The noise stops. He waits another moment then reaches around the wall again. He passes the whole way round the breakfast bar before he finds the fridge and gently pulls the door open.
A feeble yellow light spills out onto the floor. In the fridge lie the plastic-wrapped remains of a chicken dinner, vegetables, milk, butter, bread. He bends down to look further in. Jars with homemade labels that contain jam and chutney.
He stands up and tugs at the freezer door which opens with a dull crack of ice breaking around the frame. He moves a packet of fish fingers and Sarah Lee icecream aside and sees behind them a jar stuffed with money, mostly coins but a few notes in there as well. He has just put his hand around the jar, feeling the bite of the cold glass against his palm when he hears voices from the front of the house.
”Shit,” he says and jumps backwards. The jar topples and spills money out into the freezer. He slams the fridge door and runs towards the front rooms, careening off the walls, calling out to Tony.
In the lounge room Tony is bent down by the cabinet which houses the TV and video. He has it open and is reaching inside. It takes Reggie a few seconds to work out that the light in the room and the sound of the voices are coming from the television which Tony has switched on.
”What are you doing?” he says. ”I thought you said we weren’t nicking the video.”
”Ssh,” Tony says. “Quiet, willya? Get a load of this,” he says, ripping a video cassette from its cover and pushing it into the machine. Reggie catches a glimpse of something written on its spine but can’t make out what it says.
”I found the money,” he says. ”Why don’t we just-”
”Why don’t you just shut the fuck up,” Tony says.
The screen flashes static for a second before the video picture cuts in, grainy and unsteady at first – the latest of many dubs – but gradually righting itself. At first the picture is of a park. Trees, a barbecue, ducks floating around on a pond. Then the camera pans round, focussing on a group of picnickers. There is barely enough room on the rug for the six of them and the food which is spilling out of two large picnic baskets. There are a couple of opened bottles of wine nearby. The people turn towards the camera and yell raucously. Reggie winces at the sound that belts out of the speakers. On the screen a woman turns to profile, pouting extravagantly, pushing out her chest.
“Shit Tony,“ he says. “Turn it off. Let’s go.“
“Did you see the date on the tape?“ Tony says.
“Sixteenth of September. Last week. Last fucking week.“
“What are you talking about?“
“Last week, Salamander. Look.“
On the screen, one of the men has tackled the pouting girl. Her jumper is rucked up around her ribs and he is sitting on top of her, tickling her. She is hitting him with both hands and shouting at him in between fits of laughter. Everybody is laughing.
Reggie looks at Tony. His face is pale and wet and blotchy with light from the screen. He keeps gulping and his hand is twitching, thumping rapidly on his thigh. “Last week Salamander,“ he says and his voice sounds high and pinched, like he’s being strangled. “Who the fuck is this clown anyway?“ he says.
The man on the screen has his arm around the girl and is making a game of feeding the girl a celery stick, pretending it is a train approaching a tunnel. She can hardly sit up straight for laughing and her laughter and the hooting noises he is making bore out of the speakers like they are there in the room with them.
“She could have waited,“ he says, lurching forward, reaching into the cabinet. “Fuck,“ he says, hurling videos across the room. In the dark, something smashes.
Reggie reaches to grab hold of his arms. “C’mon,“ he says, “let’s go. Forget about it mate. We’ve got to go.“
Tony shrugs Reggie off and flings out his right arm. His clenched fist catches Reggie on the temple and knocks him to the floor. “Forget about it?“ he says. “I’ll give her something to forget about,“ he says, getting to his feet and staggering down the hallway.
Reggie lies still on the floor for a minute. Light from the TV washes over the ceiling as he watches. On the tape, the laughter has settled down and he can hear birds calling, some people talking in the distance. Somewhere in the house he can hear Tony swearing. His shouts end in a choking sound and then resume. Reggie gets to his feet and walks to the front door. He hears drawers being opened, something heavy hitting the floor. A pane of glass breaks.
Outside, it has stopped raining. The water lies in orange pools beneath the streetlamps and runs in dark churning streams down the gutters and the edge of the footpath. He can still hear Tony wailing but the sound of things breaking has stopped. As he walks, he tries to concentrate on the rhythm of his legs, keeping a smooth, even pace. He watches his feet and the way his shadow is cast in a pale, blotchy stripe that bends in front, behind, in front by the streetlights as he walks. Later on he hears sirens. After a while they too fade.