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Sport 12: Autumn 1994

Emily Perkins — Can’t Beat It

page 79

Emily Perkins

Can’t Beat It

Here we are in the United States of America! We are so excited. It’s like a dream. It’s like the movies. It’s just like the movies. Except there are more fat people. At the airport everyone was fat. Cecilia stuck out like a sideshow freak, Skeleton Woman. I’m travelling with Cecilia Sharp, art star and supermodel. She is here to make Art—paintings especially—and I am here to record it. The Official Diarist and Record Keeper. Not, as Cecilia pointed out on the plane, a record holder, or record breaker. No. Well, that’s all she knows. Maybe there’ll be time for some Art of my own.

Everything is so American here. It’s beautiful. There is a fake waterfall in the lobby of our hotel. (Lobby, see, not foyer. I’m practising.) Our food at dinner was just like the food on the aeroplane—smooth, vibrant colours, perfectly formed, tasting of nothing in particular. Plastique. We ordered a bottle of wine and the glasses came with parasols in them. And this isn’t even a tourist part of town. The hotel receptionist is called Mindy. I wanted to say Nanoo Nanoo but Cecilia said she’d be on the next plane home. We can’t have that.

There was graffiti on a wall outside the airport saying Welcome to Amerika. Tomorrow we hit the road!


We spent a lot of money today. We had to buy a car. It’s fantastic. We bought a used car off of a guy called Morty. I love America. It’s a blue convertible automatic. What could be better? I can’t say how much it cost. We’ve decided not to itemise our expenses. People back home might not understand.

Cecilia has to do most of the driving, for now. I tried but the wrong side of the road thing freaked me out too much. Cecilia is more confident I suppose, so she’s okay with it. It even spooks me sitting in the passenger seat and not doing anything. Where is the steering wheel? I keep thinking. Who is controlling this thing? Then I remember Cecilia on my left and I’m reassured. Kind of.

We bought a car, and some maps, and a carton of cigarettes—I don’t page 80 smoke, but Cecilia tells me American cigarettes are the best in the world. She smokes Kents, because Audrey Hepburn used to smoke them. Cecilia does look a little bit like Audrey Hepburn. Gamine, they call it. I didn’t point out that Audrey Hepburn died of throat cancer. You don’t say that sort of thing to Cecilia.

So, we packed up all our stuff—my notebooks, Cecilia’s Super 8 camera and book ‘for ideas’, film. (Cecilia is an abstract expressionist. It seems to make life difficult for her.) And our clothes—one whole suitcase for Cecilia’s shoes, don’t get me started—and Cherry Cola, and off we went. Perfect.

It seemed like all day just to get out of the city. The freeways are terrifying. I thought maybe we should have oxygen masks—not being used to the pollution—but Cecilia said I was crazy. She’s chainsmoking Kents.

We’re in a dirty little motel off the side of the highway. We had our choice of the Honeymoon Deluxe All Nighter Suite (vibrating heartshaped bed and specially soundproofed walls), the Businessman’s Pleasure Weekend Bargain (48-inch TV screen, mosquito netting, mural of harem on wall), or the Nuclear Family Shelter (four beds, no windows). After carefully reviewing our options, we chose the Nuclear Family Shelter. ‘We’re from New Zealand,’ we told our host (Marvin), an irony which I’m afraid was lost on him.

Tonight we plan to find a diner to eat in, and hopefully a waitress named Merle.


Our first drugstore! Cecilia bought ‘a pack a Trojans’. They were the most American things we could think of. I recorded the event on our Super 8 camera. The guy asked what kind, and Cecilia said Ribbed, buddy—for her pleasure. I was so embarrassed. She’s a real showoff that way. If this was the seventies she’d be doing performance art for sure.

The drugstore was in a small town called Table. Cecilia pronounced it to rhyme with Schnabel. Luckily we weren’t there for very long. It’s hard to say what people do in these places. I expected a nuclear power plant or an ammunitions factory or something. No sign.

The land is kind of desert-y between towns. The towns, so far as I can gather, are all pretty much the same. Tonight we plan to go to a bar and drink beers. But not Budweiser, Cecilia tells me. ‘Bud’s for losers.’ Apart page 81 from me filming her in the drugstore, we haven’t gotten a whole lot of Art done. Cecilia’s kept the Trojans though. She plans to use them later, ‘in a piece’. I hate to think.


Screaming hangovers. Less said, the better.


In honour of our American friends, and for the purposes of easy assimilation, I have decided to change my name for the duration of our visit. Henceforth, I will be known as Marcie. Cecilia refuses to change her name under any circumstances, and keeps quoting annoying bits of literature to justify her position. If she’s not careful I’ll start calling her John Proctor. She has agreed to humor me, however, and calls me Marcie in public. I am pleased with the choice of name. It conjures up appropriate images of blond hair, big teeth, and a non-threatening intellect. Also, it sounds better if you say it in an American accent.

I am trying to train Cecilia in the American style. ‘Don’t spit your chuddy out on the footpath,’ she says, and I have to tell her that it’s gum, not chuddy, a sidewalk, not a footpath, and that everybody does it. She is a sullen student, but not slow. Mainly I think she resents the all-pervasiveness of Amerikan Kulture. I explain that it’s exactly what we came here for and she nods, scowling, lighting another Kent. ‘America’s better in New Zealand,’ she says. I don’t agree. I think what worries her is the cities. She knows that when we get to one, every second waitress will be an art star and supermodel. She’s a big fish from a small pond who has just been dropped into the Atlantic. I feel for her. But she’s just going to have to get over it.

We are in a town called Truckee. We are in search of a laundromat. Soon we will be in the desert and we may have to sleep in the car. Totally road.


We’ve had a week devoted to Art. I have been driving through the desert. Cecilia has been making secretive notes in her exercise books. Today we filmed an interview, discussing her artistic intentions. I say interview—it was more like a monologue. We filmed her sitting on the car bonnet in front page 82 of an oasis—she thought it was an appropriate setting, the ‘life-giving water in the arid desert’, the ‘fluid feminine’, that sort of thing. Here’s a sample:

‘I really want to tackle paint, you know, really directly, in a really direct kind of way.’ (She runs her fingers through her hair and scowls.) ‘But it’s important to be somewhat elusive as well, elusive without being evasive … It’s like this road tour.’ (She gestures expansively.) ‘Here we are taking a very thrusting action, a very direct and straight forward tradition if you like, and … well … we’re drifting with it. We have no direction—or do we? We’re playing here—at least I feel I am,—with the idea of a non linear narrative, with subverting the road, using mimicry and yet attaining something entirely original.’ (She smiles.) ‘And entirely feminine. And what is the feminine if not a frontier? We are rewriting the desert here, and I aim to capture that on canvas, the essence, the … It’s like—a worn, dusty old piece of rope—that’s been used for tying steer and towing trucks—and suddenly it’s stretched and pulled and extended, until there’s a lot of space within it—until it’s more hole than fibre, if you like, and you look at it again, and it’s a lace tablecloth. You know?’ (Lights a Kent.)

I mean. Call me simple. But really.

‘In a way, we’re paying homage to Kerouac and to Cassady—they refused to accept a strict, narrow time structure; they also rejected the suffocatingly moralistic society of the 1950s, with its creeping Victorian shadows. They paid a price for this attempt to stand outside the patriarchy—their early deaths are testament to that. And yet they also colluded with phallocentrism—look at the benefits they reaped, the fame, the ‘freedom’, the access to naive—I don’t say stupid—women. So we must look further than these men. We look to the road itself and pay homage to that, to the passive, ‘female’ land that must bear the scar of the road that man has carved through it, the burdened road, burdened land that carries its traffic in much the same way as the female carries the male …’

And on and on and on. I left the camera and the tape deck running and went for a little walk towards the horizon.

I think the work will be very popular, anyway. I myself have written two poems (not in the beat style) about the desert. I am struck by, more than anything, the sky. It is a lot higher than the sky back home. The clouds are different too, only clean white streaks with no gray or depth to them. Looking at the sky too long is like taking drugs, or being trepanned. I could develop agoraphobia. I feel very very small.

Every night we open a bottle of champagne and toast the Queen page 83 Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand for making this excursion possible.


‘Are you two girls from South Africa?’

That is our most commonly asked question. We deny it emphatically, though Cecilia says once we’re in the Southern States, maybe we should say yes.

We haven’t seen a lot of people, mostly old men. They’re just like movie extras, exactly. Our dream is to find a movie being made and be extras in it. Cecilia hopes to be discovered. She would make a good movie star, with her skinniness and her bones. They say the camera adds 10 pounds. That would bump me up the scale to obese. I was an extra in a New Zealand film once, when I was at high school. We had to walk across a road, behind the movie stars who were acting an argument. The first time I did it, I tripped over. The second time, a car came and I had to run across. There was also a lot of waiting around. Of course, that’s why they get paid so much money. When the movie came out I went to see it with my family. In my scene Bruno Lawrence kept shifting around so you couldn’t see me in the background.

We think the chances are good that we’ll stumble across a movie being made in the desert. For practice, we make Super 8 films of each other going into gas stations. Sometimes I go in first with the camera, like a tourist, and when Cecilia walks in later I film her. Other times we go in together, or Cecilia comes in with the camera to find me already there. Our acting routines include: Swedish tourists who speak no English; old college buddies who are delighted to bump into each other; a couple fighting; Thelma and Louise.

I am keen to buy a pistol and stage proper girls-with-guns scenarios, but the Brady Bill has just been passed and we haven’t got time to wait around 5 days in one place. Just as well, Cecilia says, guns are asking for trouble. America seems to be the kind of place you don’t have to ask for trouble, it’ll just come right on over and find you. Anyway, we are gunless. It keeps us clean. Not literally—I haven’t washed in 3 weeks. My hair’s been through the grease cycle and back again. I can’t tell if I smell, anymore. Cecilia assures me that I do. She sprays herself with Evian 3 times a day—‘toning and moisturising in one’. I am surprised to find that I like not washing. Did page 84 Martin Sheen wash in Badlands? Did Billy the Kid wash? Did Jim Morrison? No way.

God this is a beautiful country.


More sun. Sunburn. Cacti. Tumbleweeds. Kents.

We’ve given up on the movie set. Our next hope is to see a mirage.


Cecilia’s been reading this diary. Go away, Cecilia. She said this morning, Why don’t you use proper descriptions? Why do you have words like ‘kind of desert-y’? I thought you were supposed to keep a record of this journey. I thought you were a writer.

We had our first fight.

I called her a snoop, she called me talentless, I said at least my art wasn’t competely inaccessible like hers, she said how dare I call my scribbling Art, then I struck the final blow and reminded her who got the most money off of the Arts Council. She said, What did they know anyway, they’re a bunch of parochial philistines, and I said it would be a shame if I had to put that comment on record in the journal I’m submitting to the Arts Council on our return.

That shut her up.

We’re getting near a city, which we’ll probably avoid. Cecilia’s pretty twitchy. The towns are closer and closer together. There are more young people in them too, girls with white high heels and Farrah hair pushing twin strollers. ‘Look, Marcie,’ says Cecilia, ‘there goes your sister.’ Or we see a real fat pig crossing the road with his pants halfway down his backside. Cecilia toots the horn. ‘Marcie, aren’t you going to wave to your husband?’

I’m getting sick of America. It’s all the same and the food’s crap.


Conversation hasn’t been going too well, so we bought a car stereo. It’s the best thing ever. We play Bruce Spingsteen exclusively. I thought some of the lyrics would go against Cecilia’s feminist stance, but she sings along regardless. Bruce. The Boss. What a babe. At night, even when the tape page 85 deck’s turned off, I can still hear his voice rolling around and around in my head. We try and make out his shape in the unfamiliar stars above us. Constellation Springsteen. Sometimes we just find his belt, or his leather jacket. We love him. We don’t care that he can’t dance.

I had a frightening thought. We have been in America nearly a month, and what have I got to show for it? 5 poems and an erratic diary. Cecilia’s still making cryptic notes for her paintings. It’s true, she is a real artist. I’m never going to get a grant again. Writing seems futile when you’re in the desert. Here you are in the middle of the heat and the space and the most overpowering sky in the world, and there’s nothing to say. Experiencing it is everything. But somehow I just don’t think that’s going to wash, back in Wellington.


Cecilia’s undergoing some strange personal epiphany. This morning she hauled her suitcase full of shoes into the back seat of the car. I thought she was going to polish them, even though we’re nowhere near New York, the place she’s been saving them for. But as I drove, still having to concentrate to stay on the right side of the road, she started throwing the shoes overboard. One by one she threw out first each left shoe, then each right. I asked did she want me to get the camera, but she just said keep driving. So I drove.

Tonight, at the diner in Pick, a woman walked in wearing a pair of high heeled silver sandals with white bobby sox and jeans. Cecilia’s drunk 50s housewife shoes. See, she said to me over the table, they’ve found their true home. And she’s right. Cecilia might not be at home in America, but her clothing certainly is.


Today, totally out of the blue, Cecilia said, ‘I reject fame. I reject the idea of an elite group of so-called masters who deserve eternal celebration. Fuck the Arts Council. What is art? What is an artist? What am I? I mean, fuck them. Who do they think I am, to give money to? They don’t know me. Do they? They don’t—’ And then she stopped. It spooked me, I’ll be honest here. It came out of nowhere. I mean, I didn’t ask her or anything.


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I really didn’t think that communication could deteriorate any further between me and Cecilia, but it has. While I’m living on cheeseburgers and Cherry Cola, The Razor has virtually stopped eating. She’s onto her 4th carton of Kents. ‘Go easy on that gum you’re chewing,’ I say. ‘Could be a couple of calories in there.’ She responds by addressing me only in Pig Latin, a comment I suppose on my junk food diet. ‘Utshay upay,’ she says.

Another source of disagreement is my driving. ‘Utpay your ootfay ownday,’ says Cecilia, snapping gum; 65 mph is ‘ootay owslay’.

I never would have come to the desert if I’d have known Cecilia would turn into a gibbering loon with an eating disorder. I saw a page of her exercise book with a sketch of me on it. Not flattering. I am a scratchy squat figure with stringy hair and a frown, titled simply, Marcie the Hog. Thanks, Cece.

Meanwhile, the desert keeps on going, blue and brown, flat and hot. The closest we’ve got to a mirage is the constant heat shimmer on the road ahead of us. I don’t even notice the towns, not unless we stop for gas or cheeseburgers. Glasso, Pick, Ideal—it seems like we’ve been through a million of them.


First the communication breakdown, now the car. Neither of us is in the least mechanically minded. Why didn’t the Arts Council put us through a car maintenance night school before we left? It looks serious—the car started whining and then hissing and then smoke came out the front. We stopped and had to wait 2 hours before a ute came by and we could hitch to the nearest town. Now here we are, stuck in Bony, population 512. Our mechanic, Mitch, sent a towtruck to get our car. He says it’ll take at least 3 days—might have to get a part sent in from Ragrug. Mitch looks like a cross between Lorne Greene and the Devil. He offered to have us stay at his trailer home, just out of town, but we declined. We’re staying in the Bony Motel for Weary Bones, run by a woman named Marcie. She got so excited when I told her my name, I thought she was going to give us a reduced rate. Marcie is surprisingly politically aware. ‘I think it’s just wonderful how you folk are letting the Africans vote now,’ she says before we have a chance to correct her. ‘That President de Klerk is a real gentleman.’ Marcie’s husband is a big Puerto Rican man, Carl. They have a teenage son, also Carl, who is very good-looking. I caught Cecilia eyeing him in a predatorial way. One page 87 thing—this car disaster has brought me and Cecilia back together. This is a relief. United, we are much better equipped to handle Bony, Mitch, and Carl Jr. I might even take a shower.


An amazing stroke of luck! Tomorrow night a bar in Ragrug is holding a Jack Kerouac lookalike competition! Apparently Jack and Neal used to pass through here quite a lot. Marcie tells us there’s a retarded girl in Ragrug whose mother, before she died of ovarian cancer, used to swear was Neal’s lovechild. Cecilia and I are ecstatic. Cecilia tried to be strict and tell me we didn’t come all this way to get boyfriends, but she didn’t mean it. What about that unopened pack of Trojans in the glove-box of our car? Besides, this is perfect for her frontier/feminist/beat project. She’ll get at least 2 paintings out of it.

I should say: it hasn’t rained once the whole time we’ve been in America. Bizarre.

Can’t wait for tomorrow night! Mitch is driving us.


Well. Here goes.

The competition was in a bar called The Lone Dude. When we arrived with Mitch, there was hardly anyone there. We ordered some whiskey sours and waited. I was nervous—I smoked one of Cecilia’s cigarettes. She said it didn’t suit me. It just about made me sick up. Mitch said he didn’t think smoking was pretty on a lady, anyhows. Cecilia spent the rest of the night aiming her smoke for his face.

Gradually a few men started drifting into the bar. They bore more resemblance to Allen Ginsberg than to anyone else. They arranged themselves in a careful, almost choreographed way, around the walls of the bar, leaning on one elbow as if we were all in a movie. I desperately hoped these weren’t the contenders. Cecilia asked Mitch if this was a gay bar. Queers? he said, downing his whiskey. Could be. Never can tell with these cowboy types.

A guy came and stood in the middle of the bar and said, I’m Fat Matt, welcome to the first annual Jack Kerouac lookalike competition, prize as much bourbon as you can drink, here come the boys.

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The ‘boys’ all traipsed out of a door in the back of the bar. There must have been about a half dozen of them. Most of them looked kind of like Kerouac circa 1965: drunk, puffy, rotten. Cecilia and I clapped halfheartedly, to be polite. Mitch said, Fuck this shit—hell, I look more like the man than any of these losers. We only just managed to talk him out of paying the $5 entry fee and getting up there.

Well, we were disappointed, but then, secretly, we had known we were going to be. It was one of those things. The Ginsbergs stayed leaning against the walls, faces impassive. We ordered more whiskey sours, doubles.

Then everything began to happen in slow motion. The back door opened. Through it walked the most beautiful man I have ever seen. You know that photograph of Kerouac taken in Cassady’s house, in a chair reading with his workboots on? He looked exactly like that. I couldn’t help it—I stood up and wolf-whistled. Cecilia kicked me.

I couldn’t imagine the next bit happening, but it did. Fat Matt presented him with two huge bottles of Wild Turkey. He carried these over to our table, where he greeted Mitch like a long-lost brother. This is Mack Maverick, said Mitch, my long-lost brother. This here’s Marcie and this is Cecilia Sharp. They’re all the way from South Africa. We drank more whiskey. Mack made a toast to Nelson Mandela. I watched Cecilia carefully to see if she was watching me. She’s always running me down for being ‘boy crazy’. It’s just not true. It’s not as if there’s anything wrong with boys, most of them. Cecilia can’t just rule out a whole gender. I usually tell her she’s being essentialist and she quietens down. Anyway, I started to worry about Mack watching me and Cecilia watching each other so much. He might have got the wrong impression. It’s amazing how easily people can do that. So I smiled at him and downed my drink. I said, Do you like Bruce Springsteen? Then he leaned across the bar and hollered, Hey Mailer! Put my music on! He turned to me and said, Marcie, may I? and as the Boss sang some low and mournful tune, Mack Maverick and I gazed into each other’s eyes and danced.


The Arts Council’s going to kill me. I’m getting married! So much has happened. Our car was fixed, just in time to be our getaway vehicle when we got thrown out of Bony. Carl Sr caught Carl Jr in bed with Cecilia. It was not a pretty sight. Carl Sr I mean, not—. Well none of it was, actually. page 89 Cecilia got very very drunk and said a lot of things she was ashamed of in the morning. I think she quite enjoyed it though, leaving Carl Jr standing teary-eyed in the dust as we drove off. She didn’t even put up much of a fight about Mack coming with us. On our first night under the stars when I pointed out to him Bruce Springsteen’s belt, he asked me to marry him. We have to wait for his divorce to come through first. It’s a long story, Mack says, one he’ll tell me all about some day. Cecilia is very suspicious, I can tell. She’ll be muttering under her breath, and I can catch words like Bundy and Dahmer. She’s taking the car on a pilgrimage to Texas to look for the Rothko Chapel. She says she wants to feel cleansed. I suppose I understand. It is hard to feel clean in this weather, so hot and still like an earthquake’s about to happen. We don’t need her, Mack says. We can buy our own car and hit the road again.

Who knows if the documentary on Cecilia Sharp, Abstract Expressionist in America, will ever be finished? Probably we should bury it in the desert for aliens to find. Cecilia says I am a record breaker now—I get the gold medal for the shortest courtship in history. I will miss her a lot. I’ll miss New Zealand too, I guess. Mack’s kind of a drifter, but he can always get work on the railroad somewhere. He says he can’t wait to introduce me to his best friend. Of course. God America I love you. Land of pilgrims, you know. Land of dreams.