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Simmone Howell

Karen Carpenter comes to me in my dreams and speaks to me in rhyming couplets: Don't worry about Chick - have another carrot stick! Like most Americans she has way too many teeth and when she smiles it's like her features fall in. Sometimes she's wearing her touring jacket. It smells of sweat. I think she can't bear to wash it because then the Carpenters appliqué on the back might fade and that would be a bad omen. She says, I'm sure Richard would love to meet you, but he's got a lotta, lotta, lotta work to do. I think Richard is busy composing, creating, perfecting their sound while Karen is busy composing, creating, perfecting herself. She says, I have to be clean so when I sing it's pure, I don't even shit anymore.

When I wake up I feel desperate and hungry but when I think about Chick the feeling goes away.

The trouble started with the Forty-hour Famine. You know, for the starving Ethiopians. Kate and I were both complaining about our teenage love handles and we kind of dared each other into it. We bought a kilo sack of barley sugars and went door-knocking for sponsors. Chick decided to have a Forty-hour Foodfest instead. Sitting in Kate's rec room, Chick has a Pizza Hut Meat Lovers pizza - party size - Kate drinks Evian and says she never felt so clean and I crunch into the barley sugars, not even close to savouring them, my stomach is shrinking fast.

Chick looks cute even stuffing himself. He says we should have a piss-up after the forty-hours finish. He says, We should go down to one of those Vietnamese banquet joints on Bridge Rd. I say, Could you stop talking about food, please. We are only eight hours in.

Kate sighs contentedly and looks at me, You're not going to make it, are you? I say, I've got fifty bucks worth of sponsors say I can, and that's when Chick gets the idea. Who says you have to hand the money in? He's too cute. He can always corrupt me.

The first time I met Chick we robbed a North Balwyn bus. Kate and I had been op-shopping in Richmond and were making our way back to the suburbs. Kate was wearing a fifty cent beret which made her look like a revolutionary and I had a bargain bag of records - Dean Martin, the Beach Boys, Lou Reed and the Carpenters. We were the only people on the bus until it got to Kew Junction and then Chick got on. He sat in the seat behind us so we stopped talking about boys and started talking about homework. Then he flicked Kate's hat off, and she tried to pretend she was mad but it wasn't working, so then Chick came and sat opposite us. He said to me, What's in the bag, and I showed him. I said, I like the old stuff. He said, The Carpenters are OK.

I'd only bought that album as a joke, but now I saw it as a treasure. Kate started probing him about who he was and what he was up to and where did he go to school. He said he was on his way to work at a record store in Blackburn and we should come and check it out. He was so cute. And cool. And funny. Kate thought so too, I could tell. The bus driver made an unscheduled stop at the Harp Hotel and we all had to get off and wait for him. The driver disappeared into the pub and Kate said, I don't see why we couldn't have stayed on. Chick said, The money, honey, and shot over to the driver's window. He came back and said, Did you ever rob a bus? I need a leg up. Kate didn't want a bar of it, but I went around the side and bent over and Chick stood on my back, reached in the window, and when he came back down he had over forty dollars in notes. Kate wanted to run but Chick said if he missed this ride he'd never get to work on time. The driver returned and we got back on the bus, like nothing had happened. Kate didn't speak to us for the rest of the journey but I'd already decided I wanted to go all the way with Chick. He was something else.

Karen Carpenter doesn't get much action. She sees everything from the stage and no one can touch her. One fan got too close. He decided they were married. He used to sit outside her parent's house waiting for her to come home until they put a restraining order on him. She says, All the number ones I've had, are for Richard, Mom and Dad. She's wearing a dress with a halter neck and her collarbone sticks out more than her breasts. I think she doesn't know how to be with people and she doesn't know how to be on her own. She exists between two worlds when she'd rather not exist at all. Then she sings and it's just to me.

I wake up feeling lonely.

So we're twenty-four hours in. The half-way mark. And when I meet Kate she looks different. She says, So, Chick came back last night. I get the dread feeling. I say, what happened? She says, Stuff … and I feel like I want to throw up but there's nothing in me to throw. She says, Tomorrow night: Patterson's after Bridge Rd. She asks me how many sponsors I have now. About ninety bucks. My heartbeat has slowed right down. Maybe it will just stop. Karen's did. We're standing on Burke Rd in our uniforms and Kate's brushing her hair with her fingers. All girls named Kate have beautiful legs and boyfriends. I say, Wait here, and go into Maccas for a cheeseburger and fries. Kate says, What are you doing? How can I explain to her that I already feel like I've lost? I say, The starving Ethiopians can go fuck themselves. And I think she gets it then. Chick. Maccas goes straight through me and I spend first period with my head over the toilet, thinking hate, Kate, hate, Kate.

After school Kate says she's going to hunt up a few more sponsors. I catch the train to go home but I get off at Blackburn instead. Chick is in the back room cleaning vinyl. He says, For some reason Ash keeps buying piles of records with unidentifiable substances on them - look. He holds up a particularly smeggy-looking side and says, Linda Ronstadt. Why didn't the guy just buy a stick mag? I say, It could be some kind of food. He says, Egg on your face and I laugh but only on the outside. He says, Did Kate tell you about tomorrow night? I nod and there is an uncomfortable silence. He knows I know. He says, Hey, I thought about you today, and pulls out a Carpenters album. Have you got this one? Of course. He puts it on the turntable and Karen's voice comes through, pure and sad, and like in my dreams, she's singing just for me. But it's a bad joke because there's a scratch on the record and it keeps going back to the same line - just like me they long to be close to you. Chick laughs but I run out of there. All the way home I have that song in my head. I'm pathetic.

32 hours in. Mum says, Are you sick of barley sugars yet? I make a face. She says, I'm very proud of you, and hands me a ten dollar note. That's from Mrs Beecham. Mrs Beecham is Mum's secretary. Her husband's got cancer so she's the one who has to bring home the bacon. I put the note in my Tuppaware container. Mum says, what's the tally? I don't know, I lie. I stay up and watch Buffy. They're all beautiful but that's television for you. I think about how if my life was a TV show, I'd be too ugly to be on it. Before I go to bed I put a sheet over my mirror - like I read about in the Feng Shui section of Woman's Day - because I don't want to see Karen Carpenter tonight. But she makes a visit anyway.

Karen comes on with a Barbie doll dressed in 70s threads. She says, Barbie doesn't smoke or drink, Barbie doesn't even think. She leans in close so I can almost smell her breath on my face. Her teeth are capped. They are black underneath. Perpetual puking will do that to you. She says, Barbie doesn't fuck, Hey Ken, tough luck. I think Karen Carpenter doesn't fuck either. She's in her twenties now and hasn't even been kissed properly except for that time when Richard set her up with an A&R guy. A nasty joke. He tried to feel her up and told Richard it was like playing a xylophone except no sound came out. Karen's a virgin and Richard's gay, that's what all the people say.

Look out. Now she's on stage wearing a tight denim pantsuit. She's trying to sing soul but she's not sexy enough to carry it off. Look at her bones! She's a walking anatomy lesson. Doesn't she realise? I wake up and remember instantly that the forty-hours are over. But my stomach feels like its full of cement that hasn't even set yet.

I meet Kate at Maccas and she's loaded up her tray. Chick feeds her fries and sends one in my direction. Eat up, buttercup. The fast is over. We walk to school and he kisses her goodbye at the gate. I say, so is it on then? She wrinkles her perfect nose and says, I reckon. She says, did you bring your sponsorship money? I shake the Tuppaware container. I say, Pattersons tonight. I'm going drink til I can't think. Kate says, Well, I'm handing mine in. I say, Well, I don't give a shit, and stomp off to Home Ec. And all the while I'm thinking about Kate and Chick and wondering how you can win someone back when you never had them in the first place.

Me and Chick nearly kissed once. We split a cab back from the station and Chick got out first. I was in the backseat and I wound down the window the better to say goodbye. Chick leaned in and just like that the cab took off. I didn't tip the taxi driver.

It's muffins today and everybody's eating the mixture and making themselves sick. I can't even look at it. My muffins come out flat. Give them to the starving Ethiopians. The concrete in my guts has set now. I'm taking industrial action. No solids allowed.

I turn up late for the Vietnamese banquet. Kate says, We were worried about you. She looks worried. Chick says, Yeah, how are we meant to pay for all of this. The first dent in the Tuppaware container came after school. I went to Eastlands and bought myself a new top. It's bright red and tight across the chest. I look over eighteen in it. I pull out a twenty and say, it's on the Ethiopians. Kate says, It's on your conscience. Chick says, You're a legend, and pays the bill.

Pattersons has the look and feel of an RSL. By this I mean it is full of oldtimers who are more pleased to see young flesh than to worry about ID. We get a table by the piano and Chick buys a jug. I drink fast like I have to catch the last train home. Chick's all touchy-feely with Kate but she's not returning it and this gives me confidence. I keep drinking because I don't want to lose the momentum. A WW2 veteran tries to get my attention by flopping out his old fella. Chick winks, You said you like the old stuff.

Then one of the old ladies starts playing the piano and soon there are about four or five seniors at our table. Pots of beer everywhere. It's a sing-a-long but Kate pretends she doesn't know the words. Chick and I are pissing ourselves. The lady starts playing Top of the World and Chick is rushing at me, saying sing it, Karen, sing it.

I sing loud. But I sing beautiful. I sing it like I believe it. I sing it like there's an audience of millions swooning at my feet.

And then my own feet fail me and I'm on the floor hukking my guts up and Chick's holding my hair back from my face so I don't spew on it. The lady is still playing and the music sounds like it's underwater. I want to go home.

When Karen first started coming to me she almost looked normal. But now that I think about it, her eyes were a little too bright, her cheeks too rosy. She was always breathless unless she was singing and then it was like she was behind glass. Now she's wearing big dark sunglasses and I don't know how she keeps them on because it seems to me her face is all planes. Her bones have eroded. She says, I think I'm high enough to die, and looks heaven-ward. She holds my hand like she's about to say something important and there are so many things I want to ask her.


Simmone Howell was born in Melbourne in 1971. Her fiction has been published in journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas. She is a founding member of the small press collective Vandal Press, whose new anthology Adventures in Pop Culture will be launched at the 2002 Melbourne Writers Festival.

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