from Hell of a Thing (2020)
The moment we agreed Matt Lamb Junior was the coolest kid was when he turned the tables on Jake, who was like a mean-as bully. Jakeyboy had this thing he loved doing – sticking his finger up his butt then jamming it in people’s noses, progressing from the back of the class up to the front while the teacher was off running errands and class was unattended.
See, this one Tuesday, Jakeyboy was flitting around the class all demented, his eyes blue with insanity, hair shocked white as a lightbulb, when he arrived at Matt Lamb Junior’s desk and jammed the finger right up in Matt’s nostril. Matt didn’t flinch. He looked in the eye of the pale-skinned, googly-eyed bully and calmly said, ‘Smells like your mum.’
A torrent of laughter flooded our eardrums. Kids were getting out of their chairs and falling to the ground in hysterics. Jakeyboy began twitching, looking over his shoulder at the howling seven year olds, not sure which way to react.
Matt coolly folded one knee over the other, laced his fingers behind his head and eased back in his chair.
‘If I’m dead, why you talkin to a zombie?’
It was the sassiest comeback any of us had ever heard. Already popular because his mum drove a cool car and he was allowed to watch R-rated movies and because he always had snacks in his lunch that hadn’t even been on commercials yet, Matt now had a non-stick coating of cool. The rest of us would have to eat shit from bullies occasionally, but not MLJ.
At eight, he ran the cross-country race backwards, glancing over his shoulder every ten seconds to stay on track. We dumped an avalanche of cheers on him.
At nine, Matt Lamb Junior put a story in the school newsletter, labelling a photograph of Principal Finlayson standing beside the newly-raised war monument with the legend, ‘Finlayson shows off his erection.’
At ten, Matt Lamb got Missy Chrissy Townsend, the big redhead girl in the wheelchair who’d been held back a year, to surrender her bra. Matt strapped Missy Chrissy Townsend’s bra round his belly, pulled his Reebok shirt down over it and charged each of us fifty cents for a peek. We imagined we saw milk stains on it, perhaps a crimson curl of pubic hair, the imprint of her nipple, maybe. It was an artefact from an alien dimension.
By eleven and twelve, Matt was getting other kids to do stuff for him. That kid from the Outback was dared to climb to the top of the water tower and piss off it. Cedric Chang was tasked with writing his history speech in Igpay Atlinay. Matt bullshitted to Avinash Rao that Friday was a Pyjama Day fundraiser and you should show up in your jammy-jams with a sleeping bag and a hot water bottle.
Thirteen was the turning point. Our parties were suddenly hardwired into the rest of the world. There were expectations, now. You had to play Spin The Bottle and get with somebody. It began in a basement at the house of that rich prince-kid from Germany, Matt shushing the party with a conductor’s finger, spinning his bottle deftly and sharing a perfect pash. The trend was set. We copied the spin of his bottle, the positioning of his fingers, the dance of his eyebrows.
Pussies wanted to know how they could stare someone like Jakeyboy in the face and say real-life Schwarzenegger shit. Nerds wanted to know how they could keep pimples repressed. Matt Lamb’s hair grew as long as a rockstar, thick tight curls like a river of tater tots, sometimes in a topknot, a couple times as an undercut. Once, threaded in glowing golden braids. A gorgeous fleece no other kid could sport.
Girls wanted to date Matt, of course, though you couldn’t get to him. Soon as the bell rang and Matt’s mum picked him up, he was inaccessible. Every day she dropped him at school in her convertible and fetched him at 3, often early, always revving and rumbling, never leaving the driver seat before whipping him away from the parking lot, as if she didn’t want a drop of dirt on him. She had a fierce ferret face, tiny lips, eyes ringed with black. People said her spine was fused. A short woman with a head of blonde that didn’t seem to belong to her. A smoker, a driver of an expensive glowing car. A buyer of weekly Reeboks and NBA caps for her son, always shopping and tossing bags at her boy. Mrs. Lamb had clawed her way out of some slum, some monetary miracle that elevated her from pauper to posh overnight, it was said, though this raised questions about a husband. Trinidad claimed to have seen a father-figure in a fragment of memory from kindergarten, though the man in his story had wheels and a cape, that story went. Trinidad had an X-men pencil case, so he was probably just thinking of Professor X. We all assumed that if there ever was a dad, the man had given up competing to be man of the house when Matt was two and scarpered.
At fourteen, Matt was dressing years ahead of us. He wore a bandana to the exact day that bandanas entered the mainstream – then dropped his bandana that very afternoon. He got to Rubix Cubes before they got to us, and Chatter Rings, plus he knew yo-yo tricks. He taught us how to glue our lunch trays to the tabletops with McDonald’s ketchup. He showed us how to get lifetime free refills at Burger King by buying a single 99 cent cup, folding the waxed paper cup down to the size of a postage stamp and cramming the cup between the cushions of the vinyl booth where you could extract it any time. Matt Lamb told us tales of napalm and alleyways and how to rattle a fence and make a pitbull so angry it would explode.
His boogers were flicked effortlessly into the backs-of-heads of kids in front of us. His paper planes were stealth bombers. He would flip his bag over one shoulder and head for the exit door at 2.59.59 every day, saying ‘Smell you later’ and high-fiving hands and the bell would herald him as he headed for the convertible growling in the parking lot. Mrs. Lamb would lurch out into traffic and hoon away, leaving us in her wake. Mother and son, Bonnie and Clyde, sitting on some mountain of mystery money.
Around 15 or 16 we all got obsessed with wrestling, which of course led to weights and protein powder and we convinced Mr. Mears to let us in the gym at lunch time. Matt was dating Gemma Lancaster at the time. Gemma Skankass-ter, we secretly called her, because she dressed like a slut but didn’t put out for anyone who wasn’t elite. She had suspicious eyes and a body that mutated constantly, purple hair and black leather one month morphing to red the next month with neon and highlighter tights. Piercings in her eyebrows, her lips, her tongue. Gemma despised everything – except Matt Lamb. She knew she should never take him for granted.
Gemma Skankasster would walk Matt to the gym door and leave him with us to lift through lunch, though she never had any place in the gym itself – she disdained sports and preferred vodka, which of course made her ten times sexier. She’d guide him in then go wait in the parking lot in her car, sipping Smirnoff poured into a plastic bottle. Most of Matt’s workout session would consist of chestbumps and hugs and wassups. Actually pumping iron was too low to stoop. Matt got changed into expensive white cotton and immaculate Air Jordans but he never broke a sweat. He had just enough muscle to appear like he belonged in the gym, while also being slim enough to be accepted by the soccer kids, what with soccer shooting into popularity because of our country kicking ass in the World Cup and all the European kids suddenly becoming cool.
It was for a Thursday night soccer practice, actually, that Gemma Skankasster picked us up. We slid into her ride and clicked our belts without commentary, looking forward. Watching TV on a weeknight just couldn’t cut it any more. Talking to people on the phone for an hour was pretty rad, but driving someplace was even cooler, and driving to a viewing of Matt Lamb was the coolest.
We pulled into the carpark by the soccer field and eeled up to the edge of the lights. Ahead, in the green misty heaven, the soccer boys had Matt on their shoulder. It looked like he’d just scored a goal. The players scattered for a break and began zipping hoodies over their steaming bodies.
There was a spare three minutes before practice resumed. Gemma tugged Matt towards the concrete bunker bathroom with a female sign on top of it and Matt whistled casually as he followed her in. Someone had to keep watch outside the toilets while Gemma got Matt inside her. Matt was the first to exit – jogging briskly, boots hitting the backs of his buttocks. Gemma swore and complained and was scratching inside the straps of her tank top as she emerged half a minute after.
We watched our boy immerse himself back in the team, receive the ball, make some serious metres, boot for goal.
He got some decent headers. When he was asked to play Back, he stopped a couple goals. A fistfight broke out. Matt strolled through the melee, stretching his arms theatrically, calling encouragement. The coach dashed around like he was trying to herd bees back inside a hive.
Afterwards, Matt said he was going off to play Dance Dance Revolution with the Chinese kids. Of course he was. Chinese stuff would be trending soon.
Gemma drove around the park, pissed, directionless without Matt Lamb Junior. She smoked five cigarettes in a row, smashing them out half-smoked, then drove home.
Her place was a caravan bobbing in an ocean of grass out the back of a house with an old lady snoring on an armchair, waking occasionally to suck a cigarette. Inside Gemma’s caravan, yearbooks from school were Sellotaped open showing the parts with Matt. In the Year 9 photo, Matt had a Ssh finger over his lips. The Year 10 one, he was doing a hilariously serene Gandhi pose. By the third photo, Matt had inspired the rest of his class to pull goofy faces, while Matt alone held up his chin and with a dignified smile.
‘I got more,’ Gemma said, pulling a box from under her bed. In it were clippings, love notes, condom wrappers, assorted drinks — a Nestea bottle with a little juice in the bottom; a Diet Coke from the clean eating fad he’d introduced; an apple juice.
‘He drank that, umm, let’s see… .’ Gemma pulled a diary from under her mattress, fingered the pages. ‘Oh yeah, duh: that’s Last-day-of-school Juice. Matt was drinking that final day, last term. ‘Bout 1 pm, 1.15.’
We asked her about the empty packet of pork rinds. Matt had eaten them during assembly right behind the principal’s head. Every time the principal’s head had turned, Matt had held the pork rinds packet up and frowned, playing the part of an authority disappointed to have discovered the unhealthy snack.
The prank worked on so many levels.
Gemma smoked as we pored over the Matt Museum. We got to flicking through his baby photos – that cheeky twinkle in his eyes! It was so Matt Lamb! – and we eventually crawled into bed with a thick photo album and fell asleep on each other.
Matt Lamb’s seventeenth birthday, at Bowlapalooza, was widely open to anyone. Nobody was surprised that, yet again, the party wasn’t at his house. One kid had snuck onto the lawn and taken photos of Matt’s supposed property, but no kid had ever seen inside.
The Bowlapalooza crowd gathered early, humming like a hive, waiting for our leader to show up. He was five minutes late, then 15, then 25. We wondered if we’d been pranked, humiliated large-scale, for which we would have given our leader a round of applause.
We flinched every time Bowlapalooza’s sliding doors opened, expecting to see Matt enter. Instead, when it hit 12.30, Matt coolly spun around from the Speed Racer slide-in game he’d been playing all this time, hiding over in the games corner, and got up and stretched. All of his clothes were white – a cotton hoodie contoured perfectly to his body, tearaway trackpants and puffy white Nikes.
‘You niggas got PUNKED,’ he said to our stunned ensemble, hefting a bowling ball. ‘Ladies? Gentlemen? Shall we get down to business?’
Many of us got spares, turkeys, with the occasional strike. We occupied four lanes. Matt’s name was on each. He strolled from lane to lane, keeping up four or five conversations; he’d toss in ripostes when required. A joke here; sarcasm there. A sprinkling of philosophy; a threat against one kid who borrowed his ball; some sexy suggestions whispered in ears that made the girls titter.
Three strikes in a row earned him a bonus roll, and he came from behind to lead two, then three, then all the games. ‘Oh, sorry, have we started?’ he would say, tossing his bowling ball into the ten pin tonsils.
His anxious, irritable mum was the only person at Bowlapalooza unimpressed. She shuffled the handbag on her shoulder, checked her watch, fielded phone call after phone call, pacing, resting her leopard print pants against the wall, rubbing her knee-high leather boots together. Something about the pharmacy was overheard. Something about ‘What do you mean my painkillers aren’t ready?’
A birthday cake arrived, gifted from a bowling alley manager besotted with our haloed leader. Matt – who was leaning against the bar, sipping the same gin and tonic as his mum – took a twenty metre run-up, blew the candles out in a single breath as he walked through our claps and cheers before bowling a final strike, bowing, strutting out to his mum’s car and into history.
School began spluttering and fizzing out. We’d all hit seventeen-and-a-half and a few of us were toeing 18 and spilling over. Booze; driver licenses. The first few pregnant girls. Yearbooks. There was the first party where a kid got stabbed; the first quiet wallflower kids who enlisted in the army, sending us instant messages, imploring the rest of us to be all we could be.
It was disappointing, to us, to be outside of the terrarium of school. To not get to glimpse Matt Lamb Junior every day. Still, it would have been wrong to stain him with our boring ordinariness. He had great things to achieve out in the real world.
We tried to keep the group coagulated where we could. We chose Gemma’s checkout at the supermarket and made chit-chat with her while she beeped our groceries. No matter what her hair color that month we could spot her from the colored patch on her on her throat, the dark letters she’d been dared to get etched one night when we were passing around a goon bag of wine. In curling, graceful script, she’d had Property of Matt Lamb inked forever on her neck.
We talked about these things when we hooked up. Gemma was always available a couple times each month for sex. Inside her trailer (her parents were dead; the trailer lived on) she adjusted us behind her till our angle was perfect, exactly the angle Matt Lamb used to make love to her, and she guided us inside. She got us to nibble her spine exactly as Matt had. Gemma told us precisely where Matt’s fingers slotted between her ribs, sliding till the fingers could pinch her nipples. There was one hot night when Matt had ejaculated deep inside her with no condom when they were drunk on summer. She’d counted each of the 148 thrusts and made notes. We recreated the sex exactly and erupted warmth into Gemma’s core, our eyes rolling back inside our skulls. For a moment, we were him, a titan, a god, living on a cloud.
We made it a regular thing, Gemma and us, adding a sand-colored curly wig which roughly approximated Matt Lamb’s head of hair, drawing his tribal tattoos on our arms with a Sharpie. We kept his memory alive. He wasn’t erased, he’d just taken a plane to Surfer’s Paradise one evening during a party. It was his biggest mike drop ever, a stunt that spanned years. A pop-up advert to come work in Australia had materialized on his phone, he looked at the foam lapping the land, the salt air and skyscrapers and blue horizon. He went to his room, packed a suitcase, took a taxi and left us standing around his house holding plastic cups of beer and debating when he’d be back.
Gemma was the first to turn 21, or was it 25? She’d always lived a couple of months more of life than the rest of us. She’d been scarred and scared and shocked by what was out there in the future. The cold cruel grownup world had pocked her cream skin, made her voice sharp, made any optimism in her eyes dwindle and die.
Her party was in a country barn in a cornfield. People heaped pallets and broken armchairs on the bonfire. There were shitloads of new faces at the party. It wasn’t a school thing anymore now we were all in our 20s. Our circle been infiltrated by new people from other schools, other codes. Churchies, musos, thugs, personal trainers. New haircuts. Adult jobs. Some kids even trained as teachers and went to work at our old school.
Out among the gravel and cornrows Gemma went from group to group, squinting into the black to check on each of us. She was getting fat around the arms and she carried heft in her hips. She’d been partying since she was 10. Tonight was just work to her. We asked her how were things at the supermarket and she snorted and sucked her ciggy. She was working full time as a massage therapist, now, well, with some sideline stuff as an escort. Her voice had sunk so deep it seemed to thud on the ground.
Matt Lamb Junior didn’t make the surprise entrance into the party some of us bet money on. Every conversation slowed to namedrop him, though, as if we could summon him from the night. Charn and Trinidad recreated that time Matt had been set upon by a pack of juveniles in the city, how he’d laughed as he tossed one of the hoodrats into the fountain, pushed another through the safety glass of a bus stop, shoved the third kid into the path of a passing car. The boys’ wild violent theatrical re-enactment, lit by lapping bonfire flames, attracted one or two of us at a time, till we were all standing in a circle, contributing lines, details, keeping Matt Lamb alive, and then he did this, and can you believe he said THAT, and you’ll never believe what he did next! Gemma had a new anecdote she agreed to unwrap only when everybody was silent and the bonfire was under control and she had a fresh white cigarette and a glass of brandy. Gemma sat on a beer keg, cleared her throat, held her hands up for silence, then began. She had once needed to hand in an assignment about Hamlet, and she’d been clubbing and driving all night. 9 am was looming and she had nothing to hand in. Matt had escorted her right up to old Mrs. Rahmati’s desk then looked Mrs. Rahmati right in the eyes to hypnotize her while his subtle spider fingers deftly pasted a sticker saying Gemma Lancaster right over the name of some poor other kid. Gemma had gotten an A-minus thanks to the other kid’s work. Mrs. Rahmati even wrote in red pen her appreciation for the neatly printed name.
When there was five seconds’ silence and we realized her speech had ended we gave Gemma a standing ovation. This woman had lain with a king. That made her a queen.
New tidbits about Matt Lamb emerged first as a trickle, then a spout. B-sides, offcuts, demos. Undiscovered insight. There was one new story about the time Matt Lamb persuaded girl scouts that came to his door to give him a dozen packets of cookies, which he promised to on-sell and – at a later date – return profit to the scout troupe. Of course he ate half the cookies and threw the rest at the neighbour’s labrador.
There was the story about Matt secretly recording an R&B album, though he supposedly did it under a pseudonym so you’d never know.
There was a story revealing Matt Lamb’s middle name, the effortlessly cool Ethan, about which we nodded and said ‘Ohhhh’ and raised our cans in a toast.
Rumour had it there were little Matt Lambs out there somewhere, with powerful blue eyes and incredible angles in their little faces and that HAIR, the golden fleece. Perhaps Matt wouldn’t be hard to find. He was a builder, apparently, which somewhat rang true, though it wasn’t exactly sailor or secret agent or rockstar. His new-built three bedroom house in Surfer’s looked exactly like that of his neighbours. It was buried in a maze of suburban cul-de-sacs with freshly-poured tarmac and weed matting and baby trees, nowhere near the beach, a well-informed source had told us. He had bikes and a boat in the garage, a patio and a four burner barbecue. He rolled his truck onto the same blacktop at 7 every morning and drove to work like a normal person.
The hours spilled over til 1am, then the giddying gossip kept us in a trance which lasted til 3, and then the sun was coming up and we were throwing onto the embers every detail we remembered about our leader. How he swum, how he played basketball, how his basketball hoodies smelled of fabric softener. We recounted his patois, his proverbs, his idioms. We recited what he ate for morning tea on day 24 of term 2 of Year 12. Jane Scranth had once come to his door selling magazine subscriptions and when his mum had answered (wearing a kimono), she’d spotted a shag carpet conversation pit and some mechanical lifting device, like a hoist which presumably Matt used to cultivate his power. Paul Wrightson told us he’d once seen a black van hovering outside Matt’s house, engine running as it lowered a robotic ramp. There was that one time Trinidad was walking to school and he realized that for ten minutes, Matt had been silently aping each of his footsteps, a spy with a satisfied smirk.
These days he never posted about his life on social, though you could tag his empty profile.
All of the stories combined gave us 60 percent of the man’s life, maybe 70. There remained a mystery about the man somebody had to speak on.
At our high school reunion, we nursed our bottles of beer, standing in a circle on the pitted floorboards, just off the disco, where nobody could force us to dance.
We had the election to talk about, and that thing the council was doing, putting a roundabout in instead of traffic lights, and how the polar ice caps were shrinking. There was decent sport on over the coming month and our discussion about the FIFA World Cup led to a remembrance of that time Matt scored a goal off a header. We tried to steer the conversation back to our plans for waterskiing on the lake and how some kid broke his back, which then morphed into conjecture about the zimmer frame amongst the shoes on Matt Lamb’s doorstep and the physiotherapist seen pulling up in her health board car 14 years ago.
We talked of his mailbox, his basic building qualification spotted on LinkedIn, the lichen-free sidewalks in the boring cul-de-sac where his children cycled on their BMXs. What were the children’s names? We opened our wallets and lay down bets beside the punchbowl.
We talked of the regular old Toyota he drove to his ordinary job where Matt had ended up painfully normal, surely unappreciated. We talked of the rare glimpses inside his life: a lift home in the mum’s car; a swim in his pool; seeing inside Matt’s school bag; that time Matt was encountered at K-mart.
Finally, after everyone was full of quiche and potato chips and looking at their watches, the doors opened and a man scuttled in, dodging dancing couples, and stood in the middle of the hall. He spotted us and slowly walked over.
Matt Lamb began with an apology. He’d struggled to find a babysitter, plus his motel was miles from here. He was sorry. He hadn’t lived here for a decade. He’d remembered the city all wrong.
All good Matt, we told him. We do it too.
We gave Matt a position near the middle of the circle. Everybody squeezed his hand and kissed his sunburned cheeks. His eyes were faded and scratched, now. He scratched his bald, shiny head. It was coated in fine sandpaper stubble glowing more silver than gold. He rested a glass of punch on his belly fat.
As we passed around baby photos on our cellphones, Matt became lost in the circle. Half the people were taller than him, many of us equally fat and faded. He answered questions with a hand cupped around his ear, apologizing for being slightly deaf with an occasional polite “Not to worry” or “Hmm?” Yes, he had two little boys, both with a babysitter who was costing him an arm and a leg right now. No, he’d never shagged that trainee teacher, but she had hugged him at the school disco. No, his mum wasn’t a Rothschild – she had received a payout because his father was crushed in an accident at the flour factory when he was three. His mum was an alcoholic, always angry at him cause he reminded her of his dad, a man with bent limbs shivering under a shawl where he spent decades with a colostomy bag as a friend. All the money was gone by the time Matt hit 20; his mum carried on borrowing till she died of liver failure.
Matt was surprised at the information about himself coming across the circle, but he nodded as he took in each description. His wife, sitting in the car, was texting him. He would have to go shortly. She couldn’t drink alcohol cause of her diabetes, plus she didn’t like people. He began to issue thanks and see you laters, but we convinced him to stop as he tiptoed towards the exit door. Somebody shunted a chair under his arse. We pushed his shoulders down. Just one more story.
We told him about the time Matt Lamb had climbed the rope in gym class to the top of the building then stayed up there, living in the rafters till the Fire Service brought a ladder in. We let him know it was Matt Lamb who turned the school pool pink with industrial tins of beetroot stolen from the camp supplies. We recounted the fable of Why you talkin to a zombie? which caused Matt to burst out laughing, spraying us with mist.
Gemma had a live webcast on RealGirls which had to start at 8.30 on the dot and she had to get going but she stared at him as she backed out, smiling.
Several times Matt looked poised to contradict the memories, or ask a question about himself, but he couldn’t get a word in. We were the last in the hall. The security guard yawned, checked his watch, tapped his foot. We told Matt Lamb Junior every legend we could come up with, laughing till our stomachs hurt and we had to put our beers on the ground as we doubled-over, faces burning with joy. We kept him as long as we could.