It was the word that changed everything…the word that I had to accept if I was going to understand what had happened to me.
Such a final word. An insulting word. A demeaning word. It dismisses you without argument, laughing at your self-worth and pointing out your inadequacies.
The word sent me into immediate denial. "Try it again," I coaxed. Beryl was her name. "Try it again, Beryl," I said with a cheerful smile. Some irrational part of my brain argued that if I could charm this toothless, one-eyed harpy behind the counter, then it didn't matter that the machine was saying "Declined" over and over again. I'd just sweet-talk her into accepting my cheerful smile as payment for the petrol and the hotel room. She would just magically forget that I'd just spent the previous ten minutes complaining to her that my mattress was not what I had come to expect from 2 Star Hotels (it had been crudely stuffed with alfalfa hay), and that, where I came from, a Continental Breakfast meant something more than white toast and Vegemite. She would accept that there had been some terrible mistake, and that I would surely mail her a check as soon as I got back to civilization. Yes. That's what would happen.
"Declined." Beryl's milky eye remained fixed in one spot as the clear, lucid eye flicked up to pin me where I stood.
I watched helplessly, a protest dying on my lips as Beryl took more pleasure than was absolutely necessary in cutting up my Platinum Intrepid Media Expense Card (which was accepted in over 300,000 locations, worldwide. The operative word here being "was.") I frowned at Beryl as she put down the hacksaw, spread her hands wide on the countertop, leaned forward, and said in a surprisingly sweet voice, "An' how'll ya be payin' for that room, then?" I looked forlornly at the tiny platinum-colored scraps that lay in the rubbish bin, and then thoughtlessly asked, "Where's your phone?"
Beryl nodded at the heavy black instrument at the far end of the counter. It wasn't the fact that the handset was shiny with the grease of a thousand truck drivers' hands that made my stomach tie up in knots, nor was it the fact that it was the first rotary phone I'd seen in over fifteen years. No, it was the fact that it was a payphone. An ancient, decrepit dinosaur of a payphone, but a payphone nonetheless. And I had no money.
"I don't suppose you would…" I began to say, stopping when I saw the look in Beryl's one good eye. It wasn't a generous look. "No…I don't suppose you would after all," I finished, somewhat dispiritedly. I turned to look back out towards the rusting blue hulk that I had rented in Alice Springs, and seriously wondered if I should make a run for it. Beryl looked strong, but not very fast…in fact, she looked as though she'd probably grown roots behind that filthy counter about 20 years ago. I turned back towards the counter, half thinking I could stall her in some way while I thought this thing out…only to be faced with the business end of the most ancient shotgun I'd ever seen. It wasn't exactly pointed at me, but it wasn't pointed away from me, either. Beryl was grinning at me in an entirely disturbing fashion, her huge bosom bouncing gently with soft laughter.
"See that big ol' dead gum tree at the end of the lot, there?" she said. I turned to look over my other shoulder. Sure enough, there stood a sun-whitened skeleton of wood, clawing up at the sky. A couple of rusted out car bodies lay in the sand to the left of it. The rear of one of them was sprung open and sun streamed through a patchwork of holes, making polka dots on the tarmac of the road.
"No one's made it past that tree, yet…if I didn't want 'em to," she said. I believed her.
Thus ended my research expedition for Intrepid Media, and began my quest to earn enough money to get home. It had all started when I submitted one of my regular "Australian" columns to Joe (or Jael) here at Intrepid. "You know," he (or she) had said, "Someone might catch on that you're just making this stuff up. Maybe you should actually go up there and do some research on Australia."
"Down there," I said. "Australia is south of us."
"See what I mean?" Jael (or maybe it was Joe) said.
So it was decided that I would go on a fact-finding mission to the Great Down Under, in an effort to lend some realism to my literary efforts. Armed with my Platinum Intrepid Media Expense Card, a misguided sense of adventure, and some updated medical records, I set out to discover The True Australia.
That lasted exactly two days, until I encountered the word "Declined."
I had flown into Alice Springs, located in the center of the continent (what better place to start?) and rented a car. Unfortunately, the only thing they had was a powder blue Holden Kingswood, but I was assured that it would get me from Alice Springs to Sydney (my next stop). It had barely gotten me to Oodnadatta before it overheated and I decided to stop for the night. I also discovered that my Intrepid Media expense account (Platinum!) was good for one international flight, one crappy rental car, and the deposit on my "room" the previous night. I had no Australian currency, no personal credit cards, a car that was out of gas, and two American $20 bills. I would probably still be at Beryl's Sleep 'N Eat, working off my debt, if it had not been for one thing: The exchange rate.
Fortunately for me, American money is worth a heck of a lot more than Australian money, and I was able to convince Beryl to accept it in lieu of indentured servitude. I also bartered for the use of the phone, which allowed me to ascertain from Intrepid that I had not only used up my expense money, but the expense account budget of the entire organization for the next three and a half years. I was stuck in Australia, and I was on my own.
Again, thank goodness for the exchange rate. That $40 not only got me to Sydney, but it set me up in a pretty nice apartment while I settled myself and found a job. Now I spend my days waiting tables at local cafes and pocketing my tips in an effort to save up enough money to make it back home to the States. I spend my nights feverishly cranking out my (legitimate!) Australian-themed columns for Intrepid Media, and plotting my revenge on those that left me here, alone amongst the marsupials, all in the interests of journalism.
"Declined!" I'll cry with feverish glee upon my return to the home office, as security hauls me away in handcuffs. In my dreams, I hear that word over and over again. "Declined! Declined!" I never sleep more than an hour or so at a time, anymore. That word and Beryl's face haunt my subconscious…spinning in a cloud of tiny platinum flakes. I can't wait to get back home.
What has Intrepid Media done for me, you ask? Well I suppose you could say…it changed my life.
Born the son of a circus monkey, Jack had to overcome the stigma of having an address south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Struggling against all odds, he finally got his HS diploma from some guy on the corner, and proceeded to attend NC State University, where his records are now the "running joke" in the admissions office. In February of 2000, he moved to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a writing career full-time. Jack currently has a husband but no wife, no children, and a dog with great fashion sense.
ABOUT JACK BRADLEY
more about jack bradley
9.16.02 @ 12:16a
"Upon my return to the home office"? You delude yourself, Mr. Bradley. Our man at INS will make sure you don't get ten feet past the jetway.
9.16.02 @ 7:14p
Here's my constructive criticism: write more, Jack.
More, more, more, more lots more.
Love and kisses,
9.16.02 @ 11:09p
Well, I loved this. I also took the time to view Savoy's web site. She is adorable. You and Norris aren't bad either, but Savoy has real star quality!
And you do paint a beautiful picture of Australia with your writings. I hope to read more.
9.17.02 @ 1:50p
Jack, who're you kidding: we've had you locked in the supply closet for two years. Ever since the monkey incident. The first one, I mean.
9.17.02 @ 5:42p
You mean "the monxey inxident," don't you?
9.18.02 @ 12:18p
You watch your hijinxing phrasology, mister.
9.18.02 @ 1:12p
Funnier with an X. No doubt about it.
Hey, that's a tag.
9.18.02 @ 1:15p
Nice reference, Tracey.
9.18.02 @ 6:10p
Very good, Tracey. My dog is looking at me funny.
I assume because I'm laughing, but I'm not sure.
9.19.02 @ 12:16p
It's 'cause you made that "noise" again.
You've gotten very good with the Australian accent. I noticed it in person, but it's particularly funny in this piece.
Jack Bradley: Particularly funny.