THE DREGS OF THE ROCKET FUEL HUSTLE by Garth Jones

Punk Noir Magazine

Privilege is the ability to carry on thinking the world is just, to be immune to its cruelty by virtue of your station.

I realised that a lot later.

What a wanker, eh?

It was ten AM and fifteen seconds or so.

The Centurion’s Elbow, Lord Street. Heavily gentrified but still vaguely hip inner suburban Thrivesville.

Sometime in February.

“Just don’t do it,” I said, tapping nine bucks, total, for a house sauv and Diet Coke.

I put the drink, the soft one, down in front of them, and settled my perch.

“Kill yourself, I mean.”

Outside, the city was doing its slow defrost Monday morning shuffle. 

I’d rolled off the plane sometime around 11 last night, on this work trip, and picked up three bottles of medium priced red wine at the BWS down from my Art Hotel.

They were gone by three.

I tell a lie – I’d woken up around quarter of five and drained the dregs from each, dry heaved, gut clenching, then tried to piece together another few hours of sleep to get over the arid pre-dawn hump.

The sweats had kicked in before I woke.

Bad planning, none forward, for sure, having to endure the yawning stretch between consciousness and opening time.

You get to know the equations, the waves you can ride successfully. Mostly. X standards from Y to Z, push it here, top up there.

The ritual, always immaculate:

Rock up to work half blind, early if possible.

Loudly insinuate your ethic as the rest of the pod roll in, then jack those headphones and drag your arid skull-meat to the earliest possible lunch call. Slink out and shuffle down the street past the respectables to that dank corner pub full of pensioners, get on it for an hour or so and return, triumphant and buoyant, to dazzle your in-no-way suspecting colleagues with your second wind.

Then: watch your DMs for the post-work nod as your booze spike wanes. Make for the door at four, ’cause hey, you were early, so bloody early in, right?

Get rolling again, see your mates off, hit the bottle-o and stock up.

Drink to black out.

Repeat, as per above.

The Golden Rule: never drink at your desk.

Unless you’re hot-desking at the local hole. 

Which I usually am.

I tipped my carafe and took an introspective pull, another sweaty walk of shame between here and there. 

I settled my two thirds empty glass next to my inert laptop, set to chime in the event of “work”.

It was the day after the night before, Mardi Gras season.

They were beside themselves.

“Monday morning drinking’s a shocking idea,” I’d admitted.

“But here I am.”

I’d put some New Wave bullshit on the juke.

She took a deep, rattling breath.

The locals were arriving, taking their spots in the lounge.

Poker machine.

Bar.

TAB, under the leery pink CA$HINO neon.

Here we were.

The world slipped by outside, the normals doing what normals did as the week began. 

This is what I did.

“Keep going,” I nodded, sipping deep, summoning the inevitable first quaff gag reflex.

They were done up like someone out of The Mission. Cleopatra kohl blurred down pale, made up cheeks. Bowler hat clamped down over greying roots dyed Black No. 1.

None-more-eighties.

Korean?

Maybe.

Check out that privilege.

“She dumped us and we’re going to kill ourself,” they said, accent clipped, flat and oh-so-Thrivesville.

“Well, uh, don’t?” I suggested, eyes watering as I choked back a second heavy dram of watery rocket fuel, getting that express vino transfer to the bloodstream engaged.

I was trying to be a sage, introspective bar fly zen master here. It was a rough grift these days..

“Why?” they shot back, shredding their plastic straw with spindly, black lacquered talons.

Bollocks.

Earnestness was not what you signed up for when you hit the piss first thing on Monday morning.

I wiped a tear away, a relic of the bad wine, and took another gulp.

Alright, I’d bite.

Nothing but the digital clack of rolling pokie barrels for a good thirty seconds.

“You know, I’d always thought I was going to be a rock and roll drunk forever. I’d dodge all those bullets the simps and normies took and die bloated in some regional highway motel with no one to answer to. Live fast, die-not-too-young. ”

Incredulity was her entire mood.

“But, y’know. Sexy irresponsibility slowly transitions into something listless and sad. You wake up and realise you’re ageing out of the game.”

I took a gulp.

“I envy people who can function without self-recrimination. Me, my emotional hangovers last fucking weeks. Most days, it’s impossible to trace the faint scar where the throb of hangover and the simmering low key disdain for the rest of humanity intersects. Brief withdrawal sticks the knife in and rotates. There’s just this low key anxious thud.”

Later, I’d reflect on my tyrannical self-absorption, my complete lack of lucid human empathy, during a 4am cold sweat freak out.

Not now, though.

I was the centre of a tiny tawdry universe, anaesthetised to the needs of every other human in my orbit.

Even the ones on the death trip sitting adjacent.

“This is good for me. I used to be much worse. My family mental health scene is not good. So many diseased minds, bad actors and loose cannons – it’s fucking terrifying. All those subjective realities walking around out there, utter chaos. I grew up thinking every human encounter was one short fuse away from a beating, you know?”

She regarded me.

I scanned the room warily.

“Imagine being named Wayne,” I feinted. “Isn’t that the quintessential piece-of-shit-Adelaide-BMW-dad name?”

Jesus, what time had I had my first top up, again?

My phone buzzed on the bar. 

“Sorry…” I nodded, flagging the bartender and tapping for another round while I checked the text.

IT’S NIG,,, ER*, WHAT TIME DO,,,,,,  ARRIVE?

Once, I’d been so smashed I’d missed my house by a couple of blocks. I’d spent a couple of angsty, paranoid moments in the ruthless midday – yes, midday – sun, trying and re-trying the door key before realising I’d fucked up by a suburban block or so.

Noone had been home and I’d spent the next few days anxiously waiting for the cops to knock on the door and tell me I’d given the resident Faye, 97, a fatal heart attack or something.

Faye, of course, had CCTV in this ideation.

“Sorry,” I muttered to her.

“Work.”

I took a screen grab for the guys in the office, poured another wine and tapped out a response:

WHAT

I was meeting my Manager, Nige, tomorrow arvo in Falcon’s Ridge.

Did I mention I’m a stand-up?

Moments passed, conversation in limbo, as the “texting” icon throbbed.

The phone vibrated again.

IT’S NIG,,,,,, ##” ER. WHEN DO! CHECK IN

There wasn’t enough time to screen grab before the next text hit.

SHIT NIG ER

Another buzz:

NIGEL

Buzz:

BLOODY PHONE

Slight pause, then a buzz:

TRAVLOG 4PM 

Another buzz:

TOMO/// R ROW?

I took a few more grabs and put my phone aside.

Ah, Nige, quintessential useless white Anglo male, still failing upwards at 55. Still using his poor, Stockholm Syndrome’d wife  as collateral in any professional exchange that might negatively implicate him.
“But she’s got brain cancer!”

Fuck it – let him marinate.

I imagine a specially engineered Boomer Virus, brewed deep in the bowels of some tech startup bro’s self-funded bioweapon research lab, designed to systematically decimate the immune system of anyone born before December 31, 1964.

Just ponder the ramifications that heroic project would have for humanity, specifically environmentally and electorally, but also perhaps just in terms of the general mood of the planet.

Nige.

What a fuckin’ dunce.

I picked up the thread:

“Why do you keep doing it to yourself? You get to be an unreliable narrator. Your faith in your own perspective, your subjectivity, is utterly blown. You notice all the details when you’re high functioning, anything to keep the story straight, but what’s what at the end of the – ”

Randomly, I wondered if motel cleaners kept colour swatches for the shades of red and brown they found on the towels.

“Sorry, lost my train of thought.”

That’s when she put down her Diet Coke, straightened her bowler hat and clocked me.

It was 10.47am.

“Any chance this round of self-flagellating onanism will be ending soon?”

A wizened dude in a WELCOME TO REALITY shirt shuffled past, en route to the ATM.

What a flog.

I remembered I’d been asked a question, but my rescue mission was up already, collected.

“You know, mate, thanks to you I won’t be offing myself.”

Me, mildly taken aback: “Uh, good for you, love?”

Her: “There’s no fucking way I want this to be my final conversation with another human, for starters.”

I was loose enough not to be knocked sideways, soaking that up as confirmation of my well greased oratory, my gift of the zen sage grift.

I gulped some wine sediment and wore that one as she elbowed through the Centurion’s front door into blinding Lord Street sunshine, gone forever.

“That was a win, I s’pose,” I half-muttered to the bar chick, gesturing for a refill. She gave me a disdainful look and jabbed the terminal in my direction. 

The binds of this world-bending year were growing ever tauter, leaning into the sort of chaos that us WASPs only occasionally encounter.

Not too long prior, I’d been out on the road with a very green journo, Khoi something, having a dry spell and doing gigs. 

Awful fucking idea.

We ended up back at some bloke’s house, as you do. Things were weird, tense, in this guy’s cluttered bolt hole kitchen.

I drank black coffee, Khoi water.

Our host, Bingo – “that’s my name-oh!” – had a very milky flat white.

Then I noticed the 9mm on the table, under a stack of gun renewal licenses.

Bingo laughed it off  – “that’s for rats!” – but I’d already spotted the laminated WW2 era Yellow Peril posters tacked up around the place.

Khoi and I had gotten out of there pretty handily after that. 
Not in too much of a rush, of course, in case Bingo had gotten suss. 

We were pretty well off-grid, where bad stuff happens.

That wasn’t paranoia talking, it was a total lack of phone reception.

On that same trip, we encountered a convicted rock spider who’d been operating a boarding house for Asian lads.

You see the issue.

We’d been introduced on the spur of the moment  by our BnB hosts, local ministers who have since been mysteriously excommunicated.

They’d introduced us to Barney, who drove cabs, over sickly sweet beef and black bean, ordered specifically on Khoi’s behalf to make him feel more at home.

He’d been born and raised in Tulla.

And was Vietnamese, not Chinese.

The things you learn.

Khoi had dutifully interviewed Barney about his philanthropic activities, his deep and abiding sense of giving back to the community via benevolent accommodation programs for young blokes. 

Colonial Boy incarnate, Barney had helped introduce grazing cattle to Samoa as a young fella, he’d proudly informed us.

Shit had felt weird, and maybe that was another bout of twitchy paranoia, but the sense of wrong was vindicated a couple of months later when a punter had seen Khoi’s piece and alerted his rag to the monster we’d literally been press-ganged by.

Nigel, who’d assigned the journo cheaply – clueless, away with the actual pixies – did his best to shield young Khoi, and, you couldn’t help but suspect, cover his own arse from the duty of care fallout.

I mean, what sexagenarian management class Anglo-Saxon fellow with means would ever ponder the unseen hazards of sending a young Asian kid and a wildly irresponsible bounder out into the interior without a proper briefing?

See what I did there? 

Brought it all back to me.

Self-obsession, a bit more mythologising, a load more unearned privilege and some incremental, heavily flagged learning to take the edge off all that. 

Barney’s back in jail now, probably, if he’s even alive.

The pirate life frays around the edges as you creep on forty. That’s when Bukowksi thought you’d probably notched up enough points to start writing seriously. 

No arguments, even though I cringe as I reference.

Lately, touring for the Trust, as ridiculously naive and whitebread as the setup is, I’ve belatedly clued onto a universe outside of my own colossal ego. 

I’ve always skated from gig to gig, no savings, not much of a plan, not giving it much thought. Sliding through on the bones of your arse and a cheeky smile gets you so far for so long. 

I met the mother of my child that year, too.

Things are going pretty good.

Sometimes I still get lost on the way home, that anxiety nags, but that’s mostly a thing of the past.

Except on work trips.

Back at the Arms, cresting midday.

I finished off my rocket fuel dregs, scooped up my phone and flicked to Nige’s text.

MEET YOU IN THE BAR

I sent.

You think you’re onto the woke hustle but it’s just another bloviating white boy story, really.

Pocketing the device, I gathered my gear, heaved up from the bar and slid out into crisp Lord Street, Thrivesville sunshine.

I had twenty four hours to kill before Nige.