Kevin and I had been hammering over the highway with the A/C cranking since dawn. I imagined the sun blasting its way through the windshield and my massive pair of Blue-Blockers, tanning the surface of my actual retinas. Kevin wasn't sweating it. A sixty year-old man raised in the bush, he had trained as a kangaroo shooter and roof carpenter since the age of eight. Apparently he had never worn a shirt to work, either-- the man looked like a crocodile hide stretched over a human frame, a frustrated expression by a taxidermist who went to art school.
We were driving ten hours each way to a million acre plot of red sand and sun-blasted rock to slaughter four and a half tons of kangaroos. I was there as a hired hand, working on a story for Vice magazine. I'd come to Australia for all kinds of adventure, and this trip was it. Today was just another day for Kevin.
Kevin had already played both his Elvis tapes by eleven and was saving the Jerry Lee Lewis ones for the all-night drive back. On the way back from a shooting trip you've gotta drive all night so the meat doesn't spoil. It takes all the novelty you can muster to stay awake on a drive like that. We ended up eating fifteen sausages apiece and drinking enough water to make our straining bladders keep us awake, but that's later.
"Mate, let's pull off for a piddle here, then have a stretch up in Geraldton when we check the tires at the petrol station, ay," Kevin barked.
"Why don't we just use the bathroom at the gas station? It's only like 3k away."
"Shit, I know, I just hate going to the toilets at a petrol station if I'm not buying anything. It just feels fuckin' wrong, mate."
I had nothing to say to that one. I'd been doing it all my life, but I saw his point. For a lifelong kangaroo slaughterer and a heavy user of the word "cunt," Kevin had a unique sense of honor.
"Ah, shit, what do I know, though, you're the guest," Kevin said. Let's sort these tires out and celebrate with an indoor piddle, hey? Fancy an ice cream while I'm in there?"
"Nah, I'm cool," I said.
"Bullshit you're cool, we've been driving all morning and we've got five hours to go yet. This is the last fuckin' store you're gonna see for a week, mate. That's it, you're having an ice cream and put your purse down." Kevin's face split into a massive, crooked grin. "I told you, while you work for me, I buy the food, and last I checked, ice cream was fuckin' food."
You couldn't help but smile at that, and I must have beamed. It was the last time I smiled for several days.
Five hours passed with nothing much to report. The red dust and spinefex all ran together into one long ribbon of alien terrain under a Technicolor blue sky. The only event of note was when we turned off the paved road into the dirt tracks that led us deep into the bush. Kevin navigated on pure instinct, muttering to himself "must've had rain up there, that bit's all washed out from floods, there's some green, have to remember that." The cab filled with the roaring tires on bumpy corrugated roads, Kevin's muttering and the two metal barrels full of petrol sloshing around in the back of the Ute.
Camp was in a stretch of bush more godforsaken than all the rest. Cans rattled aimlessly across the landscape and tatters of newspaper flapped from sticks in a silent, manic greeting propelled by the desert wind. We pulled up to a long shack, like a corrugated tin tube sliced in half and graced with a concrete slab porch. Two giant refrigerators sat out front like fat metal marshmallows dotted with mysterious reddish stains.
"Go on, pick your room, mate, just not the one with me cooler in it," Kevin ordered. "I brung that up special."
My bedroom was a segment of tube with a low metal cot and an extremely suspicious looking foam mattress. Everything was covered with a thin layer of red dust: my bed, the table, the toothbrush and wadded-up tissue the last guy left behind. A table scarred with the cuts from a million knives, stained with oil and old, clotted blood sat next to a forlorn, dusty generator out on the front porch. Our camp was like an abandoned prospector's cabin on Mars, or an axe murderer's holiday home.
"Whoa, Kevin, this is so cool," I shouted cheerfully. "It's the most godforsaken place I've ever seen in my life!"
I meant it with the sort of joyful, artificial exuberance that my friends back home use to describe roller-skating, duckpin bowling or their supposed love for Journey. You know the tone, it's ironic detachment in a cheap mask of sincerity, meant to say, "Hey, friends, dig me digging this lame experience!"
Kevin grunted. "Call it what you want, mate, but it's me fuckin' life, and I like it."
Embarrassment shot through my veins and I stuttered out an unnecessary apology. I later learned that it's impossible to hurt a 'roo shooter's feelings with a bunch of tiny words. And as I would discover when I chopped the paws off of my first kangaroo, its blood spraying into my eyes and open mouth, our lives were more different than anyone could hope to imagine.