Books, On the Run

I am going outside and might be some time

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic are in the midst of a US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment JOCK SERONG goes in search of a computer cable, plunging into an increasingly unsettling walk through Dallas.


It’s said that a man standing some considerable distance from the motorcade in Dealey Plaza felt a burning on his cheek, and upon touching it felt blood upon his fingers. He’d been struck by a fragment of bullet, a ricochet.

Ricochets feel like an apt metaphor for the spatial strangeness of Dallas. If the city has one unifying characteristic, it is an overwhelming tendency to flat reflective surfaces which at times appear utterly devoid of human presence. On a Sunday, one might expect to be ambushed by urban absences, but this sense of mass desertion can descend any day of the week. It doesn’t occur everywhere, it needs to be said. But it is a common enough occurrence to find oneself alone with concrete and thoughts.

When it comes it feels like falling into a Jeffrey Smart painting, despite the vast removal from context that implies: barricades, freeways, asphalt and pale cement, straight lines giving way to soaring dark arches in the overpasses and all the people inexplicably gone somewhere, the civic equivalent of the Mary Celeste. The only evidence they ever existed is their works: doorways, ramps, parapets. Signs that politely direct nobody to do things. No trees or grass – the natural world exists to add only sunlight and shadow.

I was walking across town in exactly such a state. I had a mission to fulfil: we needed a cable for the computer that produces these letters. We’d been given solid leads (see what I did there?): the helpful young waitress at a Mexican restaurant had written down the names and addresses of two electronics businesses she’d presumably googled. Both were within easy walk of the hotel.

Ricochets feel like an apt metaphor for the spatial strangeness of Dallas.

So I went back through the tunnel (shiny, empty, echoing) that links the hotel to downtown – they’re awkwardly separated by a railway yard – got the computer so I could match the cable, and headed back through the tunnel and into town. These were not great distances, and the emptiness meant there was none of the high stakes fender-dodging of New York. A mere few blocks of more interesting terrain, and there were people! Ah, so here they were.

But at the first address I found nothing but roadworks. The building was an empty shell, long since vacated.

No problem, I thought. I’ve got a second option.

Across town, through an old quarter filled with grand brick towers founded by the oil barons. The Red Pegasus (the winged horsey of Mobil, to the uninitiated) features heavily here, especially atop huge buildings.

I followed a paper map because there’s reassurance and no data limits on them, and along with the scrawled note on the back of the Mexican restaurant receipt, it led me to a gleaming modern office tower on the edge of the CBD. Suspicion dawned: why would an electronics retailer have premises in an office tower? Never mind, up we go. At the 47th floor I looked right and saw an empty corridor., adhesive splodges where the nameplate of a business had been. To the left, there was a small law firm – the floral arrangements are the same throughout the legal world. I stood in reception looking stupid, and eventually a man appeared, most likely a lawyer. He was clean-shaven, neat and indoorsy but wearing jeans and an elaborate belt buckle, which was very Dallas of him.

There’d never been a computer business on this floor, he told me. Helpful American instinct took over: he was not remotely interested in who I was, where I was from or why I had a funny accent. But he was determined to solve the problem. Searching intently on his phone, he led me back to ground level in the lift. We all fear talking to lawyers (am I paying for this?), so I thanked him profusely. He waved it away. “Hey, I was going downstairs anyway to buy a lottery ticket. Friday treat.”

He recruited a security guard and they decided that the thirteen miles to a Dell shop was excessive, but that I could walk a few miles to the Office Max store out of town past the freeway. But this is not the straightforward advice is appears to be. The thing about walking here is that the distance is one thing: the ability get past the endless freeways and railways, to merely follow a footpath, is quite another. This is not a walking town.

Helpful American instinct took over: he was not remotely interested in who I was, where I was from or why I had a funny accent. But he was determined to solve the problem.

But I began to walk, a bag slung over one shoulder containing the computer and my other belongings. The instruction was to keep looking for a tall red granite tower that had the shopping centre at its foot. I walked out and out and out, into the gloom under freeways and out again into the sunshine. It got rougher, bleaker. Each soaring, dark overpass did further work towards separating me from naïve comforts, but my understanding of the separation, at this stage, was only visceral. I hadn’t consciously registered it.

The pavements broke open and grass sprouted from their decaying edges.

I first processed the dread under an overpass, where human shapes moved in the darkness up in the corners where the earth met the underneath of the road. I had the camera around my neck, swinging brightly there. I ripped it off and stuffed it in the bag. Ho hum, there’s the sun up ahead. The bag was heavy now: it contained the camera, a computer, my wallet, phone and passport.

Whew, quite a load. The sun offered little comfort; the streets had deteriorated and everything was broken now, everything overgrown. There were more vacant lots, boarded-up buildings. I was only fairly sure of where I was going, which is different to being lost if you maintain the glass is half-full. There were slouchers and watchers on the low walls, conversations going on in parked cars, tinted windows half-down. 

The silly fears had multiplied themselves and become real ones now, ones that would not be dispelled. What the fuck had I been thinking? The path began to follow the edge of an elevated freeway. I’d walked too far to turn around, and in doing so I might signal my isolation. By now I was in a frantic state, in an open-carry state. Desperate jokes bubbled up: Naughton and Dunne on the moors in the middle of the night in An American Werewolf in London. What did the darts player say? Don’t leave the road. And the chess-board guy? Stay off the moors. The bartender? Avoid the full moon. In Texan equivalence, I’d done them all. 

There’s an analogy here to being in the ocean: the moment when something goes wrong and that thing is not, of itself, a disaster but it adds to a tipping point created by five other dumb things you’ve done in the past half hour and not even noticed: used the last of your energy, ignored the gathering dark and the building momentum of a tidal flow. And just like that, a perfectly ordinary day is slit open and inside the wound you see your mortality.

A man swung in behind and began to follow me. Muttering, snarling, limping. He yelled a vicious insult at me, or his demons, or some other guy in a vacant lot and swung away. I was watching my feet by now. I’m someone who avoids pavement cracks when I’m nervous.

Which is how I saw the shell.

Not as in she sells them by the seashore. As in Sixteen Shells From a Thirty Ought Six, though I couldn’t attest to the calibre. And now, Toto, and now I’ve got a feeling we’re not in fucking Kansas anymore. This is edge-of-town Dallas, Texas.

It was lying in a crack in the pavement on the apron of a sordid-looking 7-Eleven. It stood out from the other things the crack had trapped by the bright brass of its percussion cap. There is no good reason on earth why there should be a spent round in the driveway of a 7-Eleven. Nervous laugh. There could be any number of good reasons this thing is lying here on the concrete outside a convenience store.

Only there aren’t. There are none.

I was covered in sweat now, but I started jogging. Just a little. The shopping mall could not appear fast enough and when it did turn up, around the corner of a bank of freeway trees that had choked to death on hopelessness, I had never been gladder to see tilt-slab and lightboxes. But even now, having reached the nominal sanctuary of a shopping centre, the passers-by were as various as American cities themselves: high-school girls, not a care in the world. Two men speaking Spanish, mothers and children and a broken man under a hoodie.  

I found the store and burst into a fluorescent world, soft musak and packed shelves. I stood dead still in the middle of the display floor, the yawning opiate retail all around me and the bag still hanging from my right hand. A salesman approached in a red polo shirt and polyester slacks. Young, his face scrubbed pink, hair gelled and wearing small frameless glasses, which were clean. There were two enamelled badges on his chest: HI, MY NAME IS EDWIN and THIS WEEK’S STAR EMPLOYEE.

We were both caught in a fraction of a second that had no forward momentum. Then he remembered to break it and smile.

Can I help you sir?

Sir, are you okay?


For other instalments in this series, click here.

5 responses to “I am going outside and might be some time

    1. Left breathless by this Jock. Well done!

      Love the contributions of all on the journey thus far. Stalking am I. What an adventure. Have read much of all your other writing so far.

      Spurred on am I to complete the span of all your oeuvre… It will define my summer here in NZ.

  1. Wow! I know whose books I will be reading next. This series is utterly brilliant. Three of the authors are new to me, but not for long.
    The creepiness of almost-deserted but imposing urban spaces is always alarming.

  2. My favourite episode so far (sorry Robert). This made me tense just reading it. Glad you’re all still alive and doing great great things. I’m going out to buy Preservation now….

  3. Very evocative writing!
    Reminded me of a day years ago when an Indian colleague and I , at a conference there, walked on to the wrong side of the tracks and were faced with angry suspicion by locals sitting on their stoops…..

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