Steph’s note: This post is a continuation of Converting to Celsius While Down Under. My family and I had just arrived in Adelaide, South Australia to live for one year while I taught as an exchange teacher.
Adelaide, Australia: January 2010
We had already met Diesel, the massive bullmastiff that lived next door — at least from the ferocious pulsating muzzle up. Since our arrival five hours earlier to our new home in Adelaide, whenever Kurt, the kids or I set foot in the back yard, Diesel rocketed straight up his side of the corrugated metal fence. While his incessant barking reverberated against the fence the entire time, we only saw his face at intervals. It was like watching a carnival game when a recurring animal head pops up in random holes as contestants try to smash it down with a hammer.
I wished I had a blunt implement after crossing the front yard and walking over to the next-door neighbors’ house to meet Diesel’s owners and ask to use their phone. Our power was out. Consequently, I hoped they could help me although we didn’t even know their names. We knew Diesel’s, however, since his barking and canine teeth-bearing appearances were always accompanied by a guttural, “Diesel! Shut the f**k up!” from the male head of the household — who was also reputed to be a drug dealer.
I was willing to take my chances with The Dealer. With a temperature of 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and with no electricity or air movement inside, our new house felt like it could easily be annexed by The United Arab Emirates.
Diesel must have been inside of his house, since I didn’t hear his wrath until getting closer to the front door. After I rang the doorbell, immediate barking, a crashing of objects and scuffling along the floor followed. I can only imagine what Diesel would do to if a shady customer or supplier tried to double cross The Dealer. I’m guessing serious carnage and the shredding of limbs would ensue.
“Diesel!” Shut up and move it,” came a raspy female voice from inside.
Opening the door part way, a petite bleached blonde, heavily tanned woman in a tank top and ripped short shorts took a dangling cigarette out of her mouth and blew smoke to the side. I felt cold air escaping and heard a stereo playing inside. They had power.
“Hi,” I began awkwardly. “I’m your new neighbor. The teacher who is doing a swap with Dash Taylor.”
Blondie stared at me, took a drag of her cigarette and then her eyes widened.
“Oh, you’re the Yank!” She said as the smoke tumbled out with her words. Coming fully out of the house on to the front steps, she took another drag of her cigarette.
“Yes, I’m Steph.” She rattled me for a minute since I had never been referred to as a Yank before, aside from being called a Yankee in Tennessee when I visited a Southern friend back in high school. It was really rather exciting. “And umm, I was wondering if you could help me call the electric company. We have no electricity.”
She said nothing and just stared.
“And wow. It’s a bit hot here,” I continued with a nervous laugh, trying to think of other conversation starters. “Yeah, it’s not quite this hot in Colorado,” the rambling continued.
“You’re from Colorado? Is that near California?” Blondie asked with her eyes saucering out wide again.
“Well, not quite. We live in the Rocky Mountains.”
“Does it snow there?” The inflection rose on the end of her sentence.
“Yes. A lot, actually,” And, really, right about then, I thought sub zero temperatures would feel pretty good, especially since my clothing was dampening and beginning to stick to me in rather troublesome spots.
“Oh, I would LOVE to see snow!” Blondie said as her cigarette, perched on her lower lip, teetered with a curling ash stack about to fall off the end.
Just then, a boy who looked to be about nine years old came out of the house. He held a video game controller in his hand.
“Hi,” I said to him, relieved that another person showed up to help me get back to the topic at hand. “I’m Steph, and I’ve come to borrow a phone.”
The boy also stared, nodding slowly. At that point, I was convinced it looked like I had peed in my pants.
“Ah, Crikey! Where’s my bloody manners,” Blondie said. “I am Shawna and this is Hunter,” she added dragging Hunter over. I was taken aback and speechless for moment since it was the first “Crikey” I’d ever heard aside from in an episode of Crocodile Hunter. Cool.
“Hunter is an American name,” Shawna beamed and flicked her cigarette butt on the parched ground. It was my turn to stare.
“It’s so nice to meet you guys.” I wiped my forehead to clear the sweat that was rolling down my temples. I focused for a few seconds on the butt on the ground that was not quite out.
“I’d invite you in, but, Pete, my husband, got heaps pissed and he’s passed out,” Shawna rolled her eyes. “Let me get the phone and we can ring the power company — if I can remember which one it is.” She hustled inside. Meanwhile, Hunter picked up the smoldering cigarette butt, examined it and then threw the butt back on the ground. Finally, he took his flip-flopped foot and smashed it out.
Shawna returned with a cordless phone, two phone directories and a pack of smokes that barely balanced on the palm of one hand, and she had a newly lit cigarette in between the fingers of her other hand. I sat down on one of the front steps since it looked like the process may take a while.
“Do you smoke?”
“Oh, no thank you,” I said, marveling at how anyone could have any extra lung power to puff anything besides oxygen in the oppressive heat.
“I do. It’s an old habit,” she almost apologized while also taking a seat on the front step and rifling through the phone directory. “I wonder if they’ve got it listed in the front, or in the back. You know, I’ve never had to ring the the electric company.” Meanwhile another extraordinarily long stack of ash accumulated at the end of the cigarette.
Hunter sat down with us and told me he would be entering Year 5 at school. We talked for a minute about what classes he liked and what sports he played (cricket and “footy” Australian Rules football.) I wasn’t quite sure yet what either sport entailed.
“Ah, luv, I think this may be the number,” Shawna said and dialed away. She paused for a while — just enough time to take a few more hefty drags of nicotine. Somehow, with her calling me “luv,” her chain smoking became more of a quirky character flaw than an annoying addiction.
“I’m on hold,” she whispered with her wide eyes. Despite Shawna cupping her hand over the talking end of the receiver, a Muzak rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” sounded in the background.
“Hunter, doesn’t she sound just like Pink?” Shawna brought up the comparison in her own rapid-fire, gravelly voice (it was not the last time someone likened my voice to the American pop star, and I would find out it was quite a compliment since she was huge in Australia.)
Hunter nodded. “Pink is heaps good.”
“We love Pink,” Shawna assured me and then suddenly repositioned the receiver toward her mouth. Her look now made sense.
“Yes, Hi. How’re ya going?”
“I’d like to report a power outage,” Shawna began to explain that although her house had had full power and it was working quite well, her new neighbor, who is American, did not have power. And yes, American had “sussed” it out despite being a Yank new to the country.
“Oh my, God, yes!” Shawna continued on the phone. “Thankfully, we’ve got lights, fans, internet, everything. I’d be big sook without the aircon,” she laughed.
I didn’t know what a sook was, but guessed I was on my way to being one since my patience was eroding with every sweat droplet.
“No (which sounded like “noy”) Really?” Shawna responded. “Well bugger me.”
“Okay, thank you.” She sounded hopeful, hung up the receiver and reached for another smoke.
“Well, I guess, because of the heat wave, everyone has their air-cons on and it’s blown the power. But only on some sides of the streets. And they don’t know when it will be fixed.”
I wanted to cry although it was hard to tell if that was already happening, since salt water dripped past my eyes and down my cheeks anyway.
“You know,” Shawna said. “Come in the house, because I think I have candles somewhere. Pete is so bloody pissed he won’t care,” she got up and waited for me.
We walked into the house along with Hunter and it felt like I had walked into a holding cell for polar bears waiting to be transferred to a zoo. It was a beautiful moment, really, until Diesel steamrolled into the room.
“Diesel! Diesel! Back off you ratbag!”
I stood riveted to my spot.
“Ah, come in here, Steph. He won’t hurt you.”
Even if he came up to me in a friendly manner, I was sure his wagging tail could flog me into an oblivion of extreme pain.
I shuffled forward while Diesel’s rumbling growl let me know where I really stood.
The kitchen had ultra bright yellow walls, stainless steel appliances and interesting art that appeared to be surrealist nuclear meltdown scenes. I wondered if it was meant to create an intimidating atmosphere to the clientele.
Shawna flung several random items onto the kitchen counter as she looked for candles. I guess drug dealers have junk drawers, too.
“Where in the hell are those candles?!” she stuffed both hands in the drawer for a few minutes. Ah, “Found em!” She revealed some rather gothic, medievalish candles. “And let me get you an extension cord — I’ll leave it plugged into our power and you can use it for whatever. I’ll chuck it over the fence.” She became more animated as her plan formulated.
“You go back and I’ll throw you the cord,” she commanded as she looked around for something and then located the cigarette, resting in an ornate crystal ashtray.
I went back over to our house, opened the screen door and walked into a heavy wall of heat. Kurt and the kids were lying shirtless with wet washcloths on their arms and legs on the living room floor.
They looked red, sweaty and miserable. For a brief moment, I felt guilty about getting a dose of Freon, but I didn’t think Shawna would wait forever. I hustled back outside to our side of the fence. It was hard to decide whether it was hotter inside or outside. The air didn’t move in either place.
“Shawna…Are you there? I’m at the fence.”
“Yeah. Here it comes, luv,” she rasped.
The cord came flying over the side of the fence and banged into the corrugated metal as it hit. Diesel reacted immediately. Shawna yelled, “Diesel! Shut the f**k up. Did you get it?”
“Yes, yes…thank you so much. I really appreciate your help.” I shouted over Diesel’s barking. Shawna wasn’t bad at all. In fact, we had a very pleasant encounter. There was really no sign of the house being a drug dealer’s lair. I only hoped Pete wouldn’t miss his candles or extension cord. It might mean seeing one of my dismembered limbs in Diesel’s mega muzzle.