Decker's Creek

Decker's Creek wasn't really a creek. It was more like Decker's Ditch That Might At One Point Have Had Water In It. Paul Serfass was used to the optimism of place names in the Outback by now, the way they called themselves "creek" or "waters" as if that might conjure up a cloud or two. He had decided a few hundred kilometers out of Adelaide that he got the point about dry red sand and spinifex grass. But that was a while -- two days, maybe -- ago, and he still had two thousand k's to drive before he hit Darwin.

Decker's Creek was the kind of town you only found when you were lost, in the US. But you can't get lost on the Stuart Highway, because there are no wrong turns to make. Three houses clustered around a gas pump and a water bore really was the center of activity.

Paul crammed on his hat, a tooled leather imitation stockman's headgear that he bought in a tourist shop when he was trying to catch the Aussie spirit. It hadn't worked, and when he compared its clean stylishness to the cracked paint and scruffy grass of Decker's Creek he wished he had brought his old Slate Hill Pizzeria baseball-style cap. But at least his new hat shaded his eyes as he got out of his truck and examined the town. To the left was a white one-story home whose shaded southern face sheltered two palm trees. Next to that was a tin shack with two doors, labeled "blokes" and "sheilas." Directly in front of him, and nearest to the arbitrarily drawn black strip of a road, was a building that proclaimed itself the Decker's Creek Hotel, its sign's paint job recently retouched by an unsteady hand. A ratty blue tarp was stretched out from above the door, sheltering a picnic table where a middle-aged man sat absorbed in a newspaper. His top two buttons were open and his hat, of a kind with Paul's but faded and limp from wear, was pushed back to let his damp forehead catch a wisp of breeze. Walking up the rough bricked pathway, Paul saw that the newspaper was yesterday's edition of the Northern Territory News. At least, he was pretty sure October 12 was yesterday.

The man didn't acknowledge Paul's approach. Paul raised a hand in greeting and opened his mouth to say something, but as he got closer he couldn't bring himself to say anything, to force his presence on the man. Passing by, Paul decided he couldn't really blame him. What was the point of paying attention to a stranger who was just going to buy a cold drink and head off down the highway?

A jangle of wind chimes announced Paul's entry into the Hotel. A small, sour-faced woman behind the bar was peering out through curtains drawn tight against the late morning sun, toward where Paul had parked his rented truck. As he perched himself on a vinyl bar stool, she guiltily let down the curtains. "What can I get you?"

"Just a Coke."

"We're out of bottles, but I can give you a glass."

"That's fine." Paul realized he had nothing better to do today than sit here to finish his drink. It hadn't occurred to him to book hotels before he left on his trip through the Red Center, so he wasn't on any kind of schedule.

"We don't usually get too many Yanks in here," said the bartender as she scooped ice into the large glass Australians called a "schooner."

"You figured it out that quick?"

"The accent's a dead giveaway. Plus not too many Aussies are walking billboards for Addidas. What brings you to Decker's Creek?"

"Just passing through."

"On your way to the Alice, are you?"

"No, I just came from there. I rented a truck -- or I guess you'd say "hired" a "ute" -- in Adelaide and I'm working my way up to Darwin."

The bartender set Paul's Coke on one of the dry XXXX bar towels. "Name's Claire, by the way. Why Darwin?"

Paul shrugged. "Why does anybody go to Darwin?"

"Because they don't realize what a dump it is. So you're on holiday, then, is it? Seeing what you can see as quick as you can?"

"Basically. I built up a lot of vacation time at work and they decided they weren't going to let me carry it over into the next year anymore. I didn't want to spend a month sitting at home in front of the TV, so I jumped in head-first. Hopped on a flight from Allentown to Adelaide by way of O'Hare and LAX, the two funnest airports in the world."

"And your name was ..."

"Oh, sorry. Paul Serfass."

"Nice to meet you, Paul. What line of work are you in?"

"I'm an environmental lawyer, supposedly. My firm's so big the only environment I see is the plant on my desk."

Claire nodded as if she had suspected as much all along. Taking a break from asking questions, she scrutinized Paul more shamelessly than he found comfortable. Unable to return her x-ray gaze, he turned his attention to the decorative paraphernalia around the room. The walls were purple with Aussie five-dollar notes, signed and taped up by decades of passers-by. They filled the open wall space, spilling over onto the ceiling and the support pole in the center of the room. They even encroached on the row of posters by the door emblazoned with tasteless observations about life in general and sex in particular. Crunching his ice, Paul stood up to look at the souvenirs left behind by people who saw fit to leave their mark on the walls of the Decker's Creek Hotel:

Jim Howard -- 2/9/87
Dave + Betty Lancefield, 1995
Sara -- Coober Pedy, SA -- '79

"Whereabouts in the States you from?" asked Claire.

"Pennsylvania, originally."

"That's a whole state."

"A little town called Slate Hill. Well, relatively little. Now I live in DC."

"Can't be too little."

Allen Jones, Cairns
Johno Wilson 24/6/92
Kelly Rainger '86

Then, just below one particularly lewd cartoon, Paul spotted George Washington's portrait. He stepped over to read the American currency:

"Liz Hurd. Liz Hurd?"

"What's that?" demanded Claire.

Paul pulled the dollar off the wall and brought it back to the table. Claire looked at it with mild surprise.

"She a friend of yours?"

"Well ... sort of, I guess. She was in my class in high school. I don't think I've seen her since graduation. Twelve years ago. When was she here?"

"Two days ago. Two Yanks in three days, and both from the same town. That don't happen by accident."


"You don't think I remember these things? Opened her mouth when she got out of her car and didn't shut it until she got back in. Chatted to Paddy," she indicated the man outside, "for a good five minutes, and by the end he was talking back."

"That sounds like her. Short, with dark hair?"

"Yeah. Came in and bought a Magnum bar, but didn't stay to eat it all. Like she had more important things to be doing than talk to the one of us here who has an interest in talking to customers. I guess she didn't realize what a dump Darwin was either. What's it to you?"

That's so weird. It's not like I know her very well or anything. Last I heard she went to Penn State. It never occurred to me to wonder what she'd done with her life. And now I'm wandering through another country -- another hemisphere -- and I miss her by two days."

"For not wondering about her, you seem awfully concerned."

"That's just it. I am now, now that I've been reminded that I haven't seen her in twelve years."

Paul pressed Liz's dollar back onto the wall. Then he pulled out his wallet and dug through it. He'd exchanged all his American spending money at the airport, but he managed to find a two-dollar bill he'd found freshman year of college and kept as a souvenir. Claire handed him a marker and some tape. He stuck the bill to an empty spot one crude poster over, and wrote:

Paul Serfass 13/10/00 Slate Hill, PA, USA

He stood back and looked at the two American bills amid a sea of Aussie purple.

"Give me a Magnum for the road," he said, pulling a blue ten dollar note from his wallet.

Claire handed him an ice cream bar and his change. "Have a good time in Darwin."

"You too," Paul said as he grabbed the door handle, too distracted to realize that the standard response made no sense. The wind chimes jingled as he stepped out onto the improvised porch. Only two thousand kilometers to go.

Hey, Paddy, how's it going?"

Paddy kept his eyes on the News, as if he hadn't heard.

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