smithereens

love and loneliness

And there the two of them stood, next to a hill of burning tires, each puzzled by the other’s gaze, surrounded by the shabby slow-moving chaos, hearing the distant song of the last Civil Defense sirens. Then without knowing why, they reached across the tremendous distance between them, and held hands. Earl and Vladimir, a sudden awkward love. Vladimir, a stylist at the city’s most prestigious salon, and Earl, a carpenter, nail gun still in hand.  Zombies now ruled the city, perhaps the world.

Vladimir was still human, though, unturned and on the run. While Earl was one of them, made a zombie only days before, blood and grey matter still oozing. In spite of that, a sliver of Earl’s soul still remained. He felt love and loneliness, even though his heart would never beat again. And seeing this in Earl’s frank, slack-jawed expression, Vladimir pledged his heart would beat for both of them, for as long as it could and beyond, in this town where love had vanished, and a kiss was only a memory for those who’d enough brains remaining to remember.

So it was that their devotion would guide them, without fear, into the smoldering glow of the Apocalypse.

And that was it. The End. Two hundred words written during my flight north, ballpoint on an airline cocktail napkin. Now Earl and Vladimir were a balled up serviette in my hip pocket. They’d nothing more to say. Their entire story, three paragraphs long. Less than a page, and I needed at least two hundred. There was an idle cursor blinking in my brain. The rain outside smelled of Smirnoff and crack. Fiction’s a bitch. There was a panic sandwich for lunch. I was ruined.

There was a pink touch tone telephone on the nightstand. I picked up, and punched in Vera’s number as I looked out of the window, listening to the long distance ghost whispers between rings, faintly heard conversations native only to a long distance landline, far away and hard to make out. This time, a man softly repeating a name over the gentle background hiss, “Agnus.” Saying it three times, then saying, “Are you still there, honey?” Then after some seconds, the shadowy sound of hanging up. Surrender. A call made maybe fifty years ago, maybe more, still echoing through the circuits. The man calling Agnus, long dead now, or maybe still alive, sitting alone on a chair in an otherwise unfurnished room, chain smoking and listening to a radio. A selfishly calming thought. My agent, Vera, picked up on the ninth ring.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Vera. It’s Nathaniel.”

“Nathaniel! Where are you? What’s 604? This isn’t your number. Is this a landline, a payphone? God, are there still payphones? Are you in jail? Where’s your iPhone? I can call a lawyer. We’re all so worried.”

Words worthy of a sigh.

“It’s Vancouver,” I said, “604, YVR. My iPhone’s in my coat pocket on the bed. I’m in a motel. In Vancouver.”

“Washington? Why?”

“No. Canada. Vancouver, Canada.”

“Canada?” She said. “My God, but that’s so far away.”

“It’s only a few miles north of the Washington Vancouver. “

“Why are you there? When are you coming home?”

“Vancouver was the first flight out of LAX,” I said. “So I took it. Turns out that it’s nice here. Kind of like Disneyland, without Donald Duck. The streets are clean. I’m on a street called Kingsway. The Way of Kings. It’s raining.”

“Do you have your Big Book? I’ll call your AA sponsor, or NA, which one? Tell me. Give me a name. You haven’t had a drink, have you? Get to the airport. They have an airport, don’t they? Get to an airport, and get a ticket home. Call and tell me your arrival time. I’ll be there, waiting for you.”

“No, Vera. I’m staying. I like it here, for the moment. People say thank you like they mean it. The air doesn’t smell like smoke. It’s just air. There’re mountains with green trees. I’m looking at them now. I mean, I’m looking in their direction. I can’t really see them because of the rain clouds, but the girl at the desk assured me that they’re there. Maybe I can write something here. Maybe not.”

“Do you have your medication?” she said. “You have to have your medication. You know what happens when….”

“I called because I need your help, Vera. It’s sort of about last night. It’s a creative issue. Maybe even writer’s block, but I have an opening to the story, I think, maybe just scribble.” Vladimir and Earl, French necking in my back pocket.  “Angela’s a bitch. Do you want to hear it?”

“You’re hearing voices again, aren’t you,” Vera said. “You should listen to Angela.”

“I just need a little feedback.”

“Okay, I’ll have your psychiatrist call. What’s her name, again?”

The call was going Vera’s way. The way I knew it would. The way it always did. The desperate shriek of Vera’s soul.

“I have to go,” I said.

“No. Not fair. These things you do….”

“You’re not helping me, Vera. Time to hang up.”

“No, please.”

There was a bit of dreamy long distance static, then Vera saying my name, “Nathaniel. Are you still there? Nathaniel?” Then the sound of her hanging up.

The picture window had drawn me to it when I first entered the suite. Beneath the shrouded mountain view was the wet parking lot. Rain ripples on the oily surface of puddles. I hate poetry.

“So I’m Roy, Mr Reed,” said the porter when I arrived at the motel. He was wearing an Insane Clown Posse tee shirt and tool belt. “Sometimes I’m the handyman, when necessary. I’m a big fan of your novels,” he said, “When’s your next one coming out?”

“They’re not really novels,” I said. Novel was a big, serious word. “They’re more like hurried words on cheap paper, held together with even cheaper glue.”

“They keep saying they’re getting better and better, though, and I agree. I belong to a discussion group online. You’re about due for another, aren’t you? We’re rereading your old titles, so it sure would be good if you wrote another. Anything you need while you’re here, by the way, just give the office a call, and I’ll get it for you.” Then he winked like a pimp, and repeated it, “Anything. Have a nice stay.”

What ever could he have meant by, Anything?

Vera was back home panicking now. Sort of my fault, but I couldn’t think about that now. I turned my back to the window, and looked at the satchel on the bed. The laptop inside contained the greatest half written novel in history. Once finished and published, I’d finally be praised as a serious writer. But something was wrong. The story had stalled out, themes and characters were migrating, overlapping. The story despised me. And people were getting impatient. Especially Angela.

“What’s this shit?” she said the night before, sitting across from me in a Santa Monica deli, surrounded by wildfires. Angela, the Jabba the Hutt of independent pulp fiction publishers. I’d presented her with the story on a USB drive the week before, as a teaser, sending it to her via courier, believing that that’s what respected artists do. An email attachment seemed so wrong. Included was a note that read: The beginning of my serious writing career. The USB was now in its envelope on table between us.

“Where’re the crack head sword swallowers,” she said, “the masturbating paranoids howling at Venus? The opioid addicted bariatric surgeons? Where’s the kink? You write about whack jobs, psychos and repulsive sexual desires, Nathaniel. Not this crap.” She nodded at the drive.

“I don’t want to write pulp anymore,” I said. The ever-on-edge Vera sitting next to me, speechless, terrified.

“Your readers expect pulp,” said Angela. “It’s what they want, and it’s what I want because it’s what they want. I write the cheques round here. Now repeat after me, just like you always do….”

“No Angela, I won’t.”

“Don’t do this, Angela.” Vera’s first words since the meeting began.

“Say it, Nate: contractual obligation.”

“I want to write about real people,” I said, “normal people.”

“You’re not repeating after me, Nate. Now say it: contractual obligation.

“Fuck you, Angela. I want to write about ordinary people living conflicted lives, stories with elegant endings, characters of profound spirit, their tangled loves and tragic separations, history and moral growth. Read the teaser again.”

“I’ve read it once, already. Or at least as much as I need to.”

“Okay,” I said, “you have a bias against me. I get it. You’re an asshole. Just pretend someone else submitted it to you. Someone you’ve never heard of. Just forget, for a moment, that its written by me.”

“You can’t write about love and moral growth, Nate, never in a million years. You’re incapable. You’re cursed. It’s depressing, but there you are. You’ve never been published in hardcover, for God’s sake. You’ve never even been published on acid-free paper.”

“Read the teaser again,” Vera said. “I don’t believe even you have.”

“This isn’t a teaser,” said Angela. “It’s smithereens.” She pulled the USB out of the Purolator envelope, held it to her ear and gave it a little shake. “Yup, all I hear in there are smithereens.”

“You’re a bitch,” Vera said. “Nathaniel wants out of his contract.”

“I do?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Angela. “But listen. I just think you’re stuck. That’s all. I’ve got an idea. Been thinking it over for a few weeks. You haven’t done a zombie novel yet. Write a damn zombie novel. People love zombies.”

“Zombies are sort of out of fashion,” I said. “Just a bit too 2010, don’t you think.”

“Well crack’s out of fashion, too. I still can’t figure out why you haven’t moved on to meth, or any of the fine opioids out there. Do what I’m telling you, anyway. It’ll be a Zombie Renaissance. There’s the history angle, kind of. Make it G rated, too. Get those little post-Gen Z bed-wetters ready to eat brains. Give me a zombie with a big heart, alone against the world. I know….” And here she held up a triumphant index finger. “Make him gay. That’s it! With a boyfriend who’s not a zombie. A mixed relationship. Very frowned upon in Zombieville. There’s your tangled up romance. It’s great! A gay zombie love story. Lots of tension—should the non-zombie boyfriend become a zombie, himself? Let his lover eat his brains. It’ll be the ultimate sex act, imagine the ejaculation. It’s a sacrifice one makes for another, selfless, so they can be undead together, in a cruel world that hates zombies, not because they’re evil, but just because they’re different. No one’s done gay zombies, before. It’s time has come. We’ll sell it to Netflix.”

“You’re mad.”

“Nathanial doesn’t do crack anymore,” Vera said.

“I wanna see a draft in a month,” said Angela.

“I can’t,” I said, “not anymore. I’ve done it for ten years. Zombies won’t make a difference. I’m sick of it. I deserve to move on. I’m on decent meds for the first time in my life. I’m clean and sober.”—Or so said the circles and swirls on the whiteboard in my head—“I wanted to give you first shot at publishing. You don’t want it? Fine. Vera’s talking to Harper Collins, anyway.”

“I am?”

“I want to try writing something normal.”

“Fuck normal, Nate,” said Angela. “This is a money making gig. Freak shows sell—for all of us, including you. Your readers pay for junkies, raging schizoids and hermaphrodite nymphomaniacs, two hundred pages at a time. It gives them street cred, without having to leave their man-caves. You know the formula, now get on it.”

“I read Atonement while I was in rehab,” I said.

“Oh shit, here it comes.”

“I want to write my Atonement.”

“Every hack wants to write his own Atonement,” Angela said. “Some want to write their own Lolita. But if everyone could do it, McEwan and Nabokov would be working at Burger King. You owe me and your fans two books, sport. You’re a year late because of your rehab stunt. So be a player, and stick to psychotic masturbation fiends using 10W30 for lube and biting off their own toes. And give me zombies, damn it! What more do you want? It’s the ultimate writer’s prompt. Now get off your ass and do it.” She picked up a butter knife. “Don’t make me stab you to death in Izzy’s.”

Those were Angela’s last words, shouted at me with her mouth full of corned beef on rye, extra sauerkraut. That was last midnight in Izzy’s Deli on Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica California, as the wild fires raged.

When I got home, I half-ass packed a suitcase, grabbed my laptop, and took a cab to the airport. Angela was right, in her feral way. I hadn’t written anything for my fans since I began my recovery from the junk and booze, and sobriety was a failed muse. It’d left me dim enough to stand in line for a Caramel Macchiato, and grumble over the price of avocados.

Not for the first time, I thought of how my addictions still lived in their pretty little house, on the bright leafy street in my head. They didn’t pay rent, but spent all my money. I washed their floors, took out the garbage and cleaned their toilets. They said they loved me, that they’d never abandon me or their pretty little house, but I hated them. They knew they’d have to leave when they killed me, but they didn’t care. They’d always find a place to stay. Everyone has a pretty little house in their head, most ready for immediate occupancy.

So fuck it. I needed to produce, and the Serenity Prayer sucked. If it meant a return to fifty page nights, burning rock behind back alley dumpsters, vodka delivery on speed dial and my true muse a paranoid crack dealer named Veronica, with a stutter and a Jim Jones tattoo on her back, so be it. A decade of those days had nearly killed me, and ten more probably would. So, cremate my body on some rocky shore. That’s all I ask.

At LAX, I poured my meds, the colours of planets, down a men’s room toilet, flushing twice. They deserved to drown in a septic tank. I can still hear them screaming, asking why-o-why? Why? Because it only took a meeting with Angela to realise that sanity wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t on its list.

But screw Angela, chain smoking, wrecked on cocaine and absinthe, nothing left of herself to tattoo or pierce. And Vera, too, who hadn’t slept a wink since 2012, when her acrobat boyfriend dumped her. Each with their own dirty plans for me, demon or darling.

Angela wanted gay zombies? I’d give her some zombie love. Five hundred pages of literary zombie genius. Fuck Netflix. Nobel Prize, here I come.

Those were my thoughts, waiting in line to buy my ticket to Vancouver. Zombie Renaissance, here I come.

So now there I was in a Kingsway motel, reviewing the situation, in the land of invisible mountains.

The addictions had been laying low, but now they were in their front yard, wearing Ray-Bans  in the dappled light and sipping Pellegrino. And as service to me, graciously pointing out the minibar next to the bed, a host of tiny bottles behind its small door, beer and wine, and even snacks for the peckish. I knelt and noted the price list. Outrageous! Too bad. I opened up and took out the four bottles of vodka, poured them into a glass, sniffed and sipped and sipped again.

It was warm in my belly, the way some rare childhood memories are.

I took the napkin out of my pocket, and there were Earl and Vladimir, their backs to me as they walked away. Off together to buy home furnishings, holding hands in the thin morning light of doom, Earl with his nail gun, Vladimir’s platinum blond hair flowing in the blood treacle breeze, taking the hope of my Atonement with them.

They were escaping. I had to have them back.

I put the napkin next to my laptop on the tiny desk that jutted out from the wall, and admitted I was powerless. My life was unmanageable. Absolutely. I called the front desk.

Roy picked up.

“Roy?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“I need Smirnoff. Red label. A couple of monster bottles. You got those in this country?”

“Forty pounders, yes Mr Reed.”

“How about fifty or sixty pounders?”

“No, Mr Reed.”

“Okay, then forties it must be.”

“I’ll get on it as soon as I fix the plumbing accident in cabin nine.”

“And, umm, Roy?”

“Yes, Mister Reed?”

“I’m not sure how to ask this.”

After an appropriate pause, Roy said, “I’m the handyman, Mr Reed. What could you possibly ask of me that hasn’t been asked before?”

The Handyman, protagonist or antagonist?

There was a certain macabre logic to it. So, I spit it out, “Rock, pipe, brillo.”

Rock paper scissors.

“Not instantly available. Crack’s not exactly the rage nowadays.”

“Yeah, yeah. So I hear.”

“And a bit pricey under the circumstances.”

“Whatever. You take Visa?”

“We’ll arrange something.”

“Good.”

“And a word of caution, Mr Reed.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“You’re in a non-smoking suite. I’d turn on the bathroom fan, when your order is delivered. And put a sock over the smoke alarm.”

“Yes. Sound advice. But fuck the plumbing in cabin nine, Roy. I’m running out of mini-bar choices. I’ll be onto the rye soon. I hate rye. Please hurry.”

I hung up, sat at the computer and began to type. Writer’s block gone, I looked out of the window one last time, onto the parking lot. It was getting dark, purple in the mercury light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol

during the 30’s

Ophelia Vladimirescu was the last of her line to ever make an accordion.

I was a kid then, and now as an old man, when I wake in the night shouting her name, there she’ll be, responding to my call as if she were still alive, hard as stone standing next to my bed in rippling petals of flame. I’d cut off my legs if it meant I’d never see her again, but I guess cowardice restrains me.

Such a claim requires context to be taken seriously, I know. So allow me to make what happened very plain, for all of those who read this.

The Vladimirescu family had been in the business of making fine European inspired accordions for more than 300 years, and Ophelia had inherited the company along with the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1910, just after her debutante year. She was an elegant young woman whose demeanor spoke of old money. And though her hereditary wealth was a little mouldy at the edges, it had long ago launched an accordion empire that had cornered markets worldwide.

Here, I will not go into the swampy genealogy of the Vladimirescu family. For now, content yourself in knowing that the family line included a succession of eastern European patriarchs who, it is alleged, slept in coffins by day, playing accordion by moonlight, accompanied by grim harmonies, sources unseen. There are empty, unsealed tombs down mossy ancient lanes, and vacant graves lorded over by hooded granite death angels, undermined and dine upon by time. But this is digression.

Several trademark lines were manufactured by the Vladimirescu factory, including the world renowned Schrammel Extravaganzo and the Concertina Republica. Each instrument hand crafted by skilled but hoary European masters, whose specific origins, crimes and precise ages were impossible to know, and whose continued presence in Canada relied upon absolute secrecy. And along with the well-worn secret craftsmen, was the underground army of illiterate orphan slaves; children paid in tobacco and candy bars, in the service of Ophelia Vladimirescu. I know, because I was one of them.

We carved the mother of pearl inlays and the perfect onyx buttons, and used our small clever hands to produce the reeds, ranks and switches, as well as silver and brass accents—a workforce living and working invisibly in the factory’s unnavigable maze of deep subbasements, in which the Vladimirescu family had hidden us, and other unforgivable secrets. Our existence could never be proven. We were only the whispered racket of lunch counter gossip. Mysteriously, though, the buttons and other accoutrements of manufacture were always in plentiful supply. Cruelly, when a soldier in our army of orphan slaves grew too old to continue, due to ever growing hands and increasing appetite, he or she would be given a midnight bus ticket out of town.

The night it happened to me, I was dragged from my bed as I slept, given a worn out coat, and escorted up to the surface of the planet in a freight elevator. Then I was driven to the city’s Greyhound station, where a ticket and a two dollar bill was forced into my hand. I remember watching the deep green Packard sedan that brought me there drive away, as I stood in the parking lot. The driver, a man wearing sunglasses near midnight, and a black overcoat, told me to get out of town, or else. And that was it.

The ticket was for Moosejaw, and the moon was full.

In the bus station, I noticed a calendar on the wall, as I sat and waited for departure. I’d never seen one before, or anything else around me. It was a photograph of a sleek wheeled vehicle with a dog on the side that caught my attention. On a sheet of white paper stapled below the image, was a grid of what I learned later were numbers, and I asked a hollow cheeked woman, wearing a ragged coat and salty cracked shoes, with a gaunt child at her side, what it meant. “Means it’s April, 1938,” she replied.

Soon after learning the date and year, I followed a gaggle of shabby dustbowl drifters onto the bus. For some reason, I imagined I saw each had a shadowy farmhouse floating above their head, derelict shacks on a dry tideless prairie. Once aboard, I sat next to a woman in a faux fur coat and a leghorn straw hat adorned with a flower, and I saw something else new and strange. She was eating strange little items from a paper bag, crackly and brown, and dropping their husks onto the floor. The light was very dim; she was nearly a silhouette. She paused when she saw me looking, and then handed the bag over.

She said, “Go ahead kid. I’ve had my fill, and you look like you need ‘em more than me.”

“What are they?”

“Peanuts, of course.”

I put one into my mouth, unshelled, unaware of my error, and began to gag.

“No, no, no,” the woman said. “Spit that out. Here, you open ‘em like this, and you eat what’s inside. See?”

She cracked one open, and popped the contents into her mouth. It made so much sense.

“Where’ve you been, kid?”

“In the subbasement,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

A moment later, I’d eaten my first ever peanut, crunchy and good. Then I ate more as quickly as I could.

“Slow down or you’ll puke,” said the woman. Then she held out her hand for me to shake. “Felicity Crenshaw’s the name. Pleased to meet you.”

I looked at her hand, as I wiped peanut skins off of my face with my own.

“Shake, pal,” she insisted. “Good to meet cha.”

I shook my shoulders for her, a little confused.

“Na! You tryin’ to be funny? Shake my hand, like this.”

She took my right hand in hers, and moved it rapidly up and down.

“That’s how one compadre greets another, get it?”

I didn’t, not really, but I kept that to myself. It was odd, shaking hands. But then I’d never seen a Greyhound before. Nor had I known that it was April, 1938, whatever that meant.

“Now you tell me your name, see?” Felicity Crenshaw said.

I didn’t want to tell her my name. I wasn’t sure that it was a fair trade for a bag of peanuts.

“Huh,” she said. “You gotta have a name. Where’s your momma?”

I shrugged.

“Maybe someone oughtta hand you over to a church, or something, if you ain’t got no folks.”

I shrugged again, suddenly a great believer in shrugging.

“Well I’m on the road,” Felicity Crenshaw said. “I’m a travelling saleswoman. My old Model A gave up the ghost in Swift Current, so I’m riding the dog. Maybe I can pick up an old beater next stop. Point is, don’t get too attached to me. I can’t look after no kid.”

“No one asked you to,” I said.

“Then stop making with the big eyes.”

That was how Felicity was, I learned later. She saw a rotten world, and assumed it wanted to be saved, by her alone, but she didn’t know how. So she tried to be tough, instead.

I stared at the peanut shells on the floor. It got quiet after that, except for the sound of the wheels on the road, and a passenger snoring in the seat behind us. Felicity had the window seat, and watched the stars. Then, after a while, she said, “You read music, kid?”

“Yeah.”

“’’Cause that’s what I sell, quality sheet music and piano rolls to the yokels. Finger snapping hits from the Iglehart Music Company of Chicago, Illinois. I’m a wholesaler, to reputable retail outlets.”

“Sheet music’s stupid,” I said.

“Say, what is your name? I don’t wanna talk to a kid without a name, if he’s gonna call a girl’s bread and butter ‘stupid’.”

“Rufus.” Huh, I’d never said it out loud before.

“Well Rufus, how do you figure sheet music’s stupid?”

“I just do better without it. Too many rules. There usually aren’t enough notes on a sheet of music, anyway.”

“So you improvise. What do you play?”

“Accordion.”

(Learning to play the accordion at the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory wasn’t guaranteed, or required. An orphan needed to show some talent, and even then it was only for those who worked in quality control. I was pretty good at quality control, which was why I was sort of surprised when I got my bus ticket.)

“I never knew a fella could improvise on an accordion,” Felicity said, “without him makin’ a racket, that is. You look a little young for that, anyway. What are you, ten?”

I didn’t know then, any more than I know now. So I ate some more peanuts.

“You got it with you?” said Felicity. “The accordion, I mean.”

“Never had one of my own.”

“Then how…?”

More peanuts.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “So now you got me curious. I’m dropping in on a particular music store in Moosejaw. Proprietor’s a good egg, sells musical instruments. If he’s got a squeezebox in stock, you can play it and show me your stuff, just fer fun. But I gotta drop you after that, understand? You can find a soup kitchen somewhere, and see what happens from there.”

I shrugged yet again. It was fine by me.

We arrived in Moosejaw at six in the morning, and Felicity retrieved her luggage from under the bus.

“Samples,” she said to me, kicking the larger of her two suitcases. “Heavy, too. It’s why I gotta get a goddamn car.”

A porter put the suitcases in the trunk of a taxi, and we were off.

“Hotel Wilhelmina,” Felicity told the driver.

“That dump?” the driver said. “You sure, lady?”

“Just get us there alive, fella.”

“Okay (your funeral).”

From the taxi window, Moosejaw looked just the way a Moosejaw should, and after that, no city I’d ever visit could compare.

The Hotel Wilhelmina was, as the cabby had put it, a dump. Even a recently evicted subbasement dweller like me could tell. It was visibly lopsided from the street, while the lobby, where I sat in a shaggy overstuffed chair until Felicity returned from her room, resembled an abandoned funeral parlour, in both sight and smell.

“What a joint, eh?” Felicity said when she arrived, wearing clean white blouse, and a different hat. “They’ve really done things with the ol’ place, though, yessiree. The manager says there ain’t been a murder here in five months.”

“It smells.”

“That’s the perfume of antiquity, kid.” She took an unhealthy whiff. “Just savour the pong of time.”

I tried to hold my breath.

“Okay, Sunshine. Let’s go.”

We arrived at Barney’s Music Barn after breakfast at a diner called Chinese Joe’s. As it turned out, the proprietor of the Music Barn, Barney himself, did have an accordion in stock, and I recognised it immediately as a Vladimirescu model 1021-Q, also called the Romanian Pearl. I was still just a kid, small in stature, and the Pearl was big. So I sat down in a chair to play, after I struggled into the straps.

“Made in Saskatoon, that baby is,” Barney said. Then, “Say Felicity, what’s this all about?”

“Bit of a lark, Barney-boy. I met the kid on the dog. Says he’s so good that he can play without sheet music. I figure that’d be something for a pup, like him. I just wanna see if he’s rattlin’ my shackles.”

“How old are you, boy?” Barney said.

“I don’t know.”

“He ain’t no more than ten,” said Felicity. “Just look at him.”

“Alright then,” Barney said, “play us something.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Well shit-niblets,” Felicity said. “I guess I knew it all along.”

“No, I mean I can play. It’s just that I need a cigarette, something awful. I haven’t had one since I got dropped off at the bus station, and I’m getting shaky fingers.”

“A cigarette?” said Barney. “Forget it. What if someone comes into the store and sees a squirt like him smoking and playing accordion?”

“Okay.” I began to take off the instrument.

“Wait! Whoa there,” Felicity said, pulling out a pack of Player’s. “Take one. Here’s a light. I ain’t missing this over a little delinquency.”

My eyes rolled up to heaven as I took my first puff, and I held it in for so long that there was nothing left to exhale. It tasted better than breakfast at Chinese Joe’s, which had been pretty good.

Then I said, “Requests?”

“Kid seems a lot older than ten,” Barney said.

“He’s an artist,” said Felicity. “That’s how it is with them.”

“Okay,” Barney snickered. “Flat Foot Floogee,”

“Nah,” said Felicity. “Get serious. What do you wanna play, kid?”

After an ash fell onto the carpet, I put the cigarette back between my lips, and began to play one of my favourites, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. It wasn’t exactly written for the accordion, and the Pearl wasn’t built for it (known to play a little shrill), but I loved making it all work.

My body moved with the music as it always had, as the cigarette smoke coiled up past my eyes, shut in the ecstasy. I might have played for six minutes or six years, but when I finished playing, when I opened my eyes, Barney and Felicity stayed silent. Until Felicity said, in a near whisper, “Ho-ly shit. Where’d you learn that?”

“Learned it from the phonograph.” I saw its brassy horn in my head, heard the crackle beneath the music.

“Ain’t that something,” Barney said. “And ain’t that money I smell over the tobacco smoke?”

Turned out that it was. A switch had been turned in Felicity Crenshaw’s brain, and in that moment, she made the mental transformation from prairie sheet music saleswoman to accordion child prodigy promoter.

“How much for the squeeze box, Barney?” she said.

“It ain’t the best,” I said.

“Too bad, kid. We gotta start somewhere.”

“Twenty bucks,” said Barney.

“Piano rolls and sheet music, in trade?”

“I guess.”

Felicity opened her sample case. “Take what you want,” she said. “I won’t be needin’ no more.”

It turned out that Barney was right. It all started to smell like money. After three auditions, I was on the radio, playing the evangelist circuit, Closer My Lord, to Thee being my trademark tune. Every God fearing dirt farmer, truck driver and lunch counter waitress from Fort St John to Winnipeg was listening in.

It wasn’t long before I was able to replace the Vladimirescu model 1021-Q for a model 1235-B, bigger even than the Pearl, fuller sound and greater range. It was the best instrument ever made by the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, so far, and they called it the Transylvania Star.

“You ain’t big enough for it,” Felicity said, when she saw it in the Winnipeg showroom.

“Maybe it ain’t big enough for me,” I replied, haughtily. Stardom having already gone to my head.

“We’ll see.”

I played it that night on the Reverend Philip St Philip’s Rival Radio Hour — playing How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Closer My Lord, to Thee. Near the end of the program, just after the Jell-O commercial message, reminding us all of the manifesting season of Jell-O salad, the Reverend Philip St Philip, talking to the whole of dirt farmer Christendom through his microphone, had this to say, “Lord Jesus, you say it is right to rejoice in music, in your name. But music is often of the devil, diverting good men from the road to righteousness. On our stage this evening, however, is sitting a gift that you, Lord Jesus, have bestowed upon us, and Rufus is his name.”

Here the Reverend closed his eyes, and placed a hand, redolent of rancid hair oil, on my shoulder, and said, “Dear Lord, bless this marvelous boy with his ear for your crystal composition. His music is Holy, and inspired by Thee. And I say onto you in the radio audience tonight, rejoice in it. The Bible testifies to the power of music, for all good Christians, in the worship of God. It is a joyful sound, when played by the angelic.”

Then Reverend did a double jointed trick, squeezing my shoulder and running a finger tenderly up and down the back of my neck. After which he tugged gently on my earlobe, and looking down upon me, seated in my chair, pinned beneath the ponderous Transylvania Star, he blew me a silent kiss off the tip of his middle finger.

All of the studio technicians and special guests looked away, all except for Felicity, who after the director said cut, walked up and whispered something into Phillip’s ear. Whatever it was, it was enough to make the Reverend step back with horror in his eyes, and I was spared the predatory temptations of Christian pastors for evermore.

Indeed, I was a celebrity on the Evangelist Circuit. I had money, and all of the tobacco and candy bars I wanted, and I had the protection of my manager, Felicity Crenshaw (who took her 25% off the top).

How could I have known, under such glad circumstances, that Ophelia Vladimirescu was listening? Since my expulsion from the factory basement, she had mysteriously achieved an unexpected, scheming wickedness, and listened to me on her parlour radio whenever a performance of mine was broadcast.

No one could have known, in fact, until the evening I stepped out of the back door of the CFAM radio studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for a cigarette. It was during a commercial break on the Pastor Peak Perkins Revival Revolution program, sponsored by Jell-O Gelatin. (Seems the Christians loved their Jell-O, and traded recipes.)

There in the alley, as I lit a Player’s plain, appeared the deep green Packard sedan I remembered from another time. It stopped and out stepped the mysterious driver, the man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots.

Holding open the backdoor, he snarled, “Get in the car, kid.”

I hesitated. Where was Felicity?

“Don’t make me put you in the trunk, boy.”

No, not the trunk. Who knew what lurked in there? I complied, and the door closed behind me, locking magically without aid of a human hand.

And so, I was driven against my will, to the Vladimirescu mansion, on the outskirts of the city, a cheerless palace, both Gothic and Baroque at once, menacingly placed on a rise of land at the end of a long private road, guarded by a sinister gate. Silhouettes of massive animals beyond—elephants, bears and lions—trimmed out of boxwood, roaming the front lawn, as a single light burned in a top floor window of the house.

“This is it, boy,” said the driver, once through the gate. “Get out.”

Now the door unlocked itself, and swung open.

“The front door of the house is unlocked,” he said. “Go in, take the lighted candle off of the table inside, and climb the staircase to the third floor. You’ll figure it out from there. And don’t do nothing stupid, like run. She’s got a hundred ways to make you suffer.”

Here he clumsily adjusted his sunglasses in the moonlight, as though it caused him some great discomfort, and then he drove away.

The front door of the mansion was huge and carved with the faces of gargoyles, horrified and damned. It was another door that opened on its own, and when it did, I stepped into the dim entry hall, dusty alabaster and neglected mahogany, the shadows restless.

The lighted candle was on a small table, at the foot of the staircase. I took it and began my ascent, past marble carved dragons, and bitter grinning angels holding swords and severed heads.

Arriving on the third floor, I discovered a vast, glass domed ceiling, allowing whitish light to fix in crystal a once magnificent, now cobwebbed, ballroom.

“Come in my lovely orphan,” a voice whispered.

Yellow light surrounded a partially open doorway, off on the far side.

I approached, but stopped at the threshold. It was the voice of Ophelia Vladimirescu’s. I recognised it from her visits to the basement sweatshops. But here it was the hushed din of ruin.

“Enter, Rufus,” said Ophelia Vladimirescu. “I have something for you. Something made especially for you.”

Then I heard a plaintive whisper in E flat major. An accordion’s sigh, but different than any I’d heard before. Just a breath, heard through the door, ages of joy and grief, low and tragic, and I knew I was being seduced.

I pushed open the door, and there she stood, in the centre of a chamber, beneath its peeling cherub painted ceiling. Ophelia Vladimirescu, pale and lovely, in purple and gold, the room filled with an unwholesome lantern light and the quiet scent of day old roses. In this room, her youth remained unbroken, in spite of her age, and next to her, in a chair resembling a royal throne, sat the instrument whose voice I’d heard in the hall, a gilded instrument, pearly and peppered with diamonds and gems. There was a delicate witchcraft in its plan. Engravings on gold, enchantments ever changing. It was calling my name, even as it sat there mute and prone.

“It’s exquisite, no?” Ophelia placed a hand upon it, her voice gentle with a Eurasian accent, once taken hold in the cloistered company of her eccentric parents. “I’ve heard you on the radio. I should never have let you go. I’d no idea you have such a gift, but I hope this makes it right. Come and look, this is my gift to you.”

I stepped up, ran a finger along an edge, and heard ghostly weeping.

“It drove my father mad,” said Ophelia. “He spent a lifetime designing it, tormented by the voices of his forefathers insisting he carry on, to the unending sound of Thême varié très brillant pour accordéon methode Reisner, heard only by him, performed in the candelabra shadows of his Carpathian chateau. Torture. He died believing it would be impossible to build.

“The finished diagrams were given to me when he passed away, and I worried over them for more than twenty years. I asked darkness for guidance only when the light failed me, and then I found a way. Now it’s done, and you are the one chosen to play it. No one else. It needs to feed. Your youth will be its food. You’ll prosper, in return, beyond your wildest ambitions.”

“I ain’t got no ambitions,” I said.

“Shoulder it, hear it whisper, and you will. Its name is Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol.”

“It’s too big.”

“It will make you strong.”

“Put it on, kid.” It was the man in the sunglasses, standing like a pale idol on the threshold, smelling faintly of decay, the candlelight mirrored in his dark lenses. Stepping into the flickering light, he took the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol from its throne, and brutally forced the straps over my shoulders. But was such an assault necessary? My fascination with the Diavol was increasing rapidly, I was already near shouldering the instrument on my own.

“It’s light,” I said, “as goose down.”

“Only a part of its magic,” said Ophelia. Her fists clenching, and her eyes grown wide. “Play it,” she gasped.

And without a thought, I found myself playing Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, a masterpiece, and the last composition I’d ever have thought would come out of an accordion. There was a choral accompaniment, its source invisible, filling the room, Ophelia swaying in a trance with the dark candle chandeliers above. And when the blood fell from the clouds surrounding the cherubs painted onto the ceiling, we three were coated in a slick shimmering crimson black.

And that is when the unwholesome lantern light exploded into an inferno.

“Yes, my demon!” Ophelia shouted to sunglasses man. “Come to me. Our work is finally done. Now is our time.”

At that, the man took her in his arms, and forced her to the floor, plunging Ophelia and himself into the pooling blood. And when his dark spectacles fell away, there were no eyes, only skin stitched tightly across the sockets where they’d once been. Grinning and turning back to his lover, he stuck out a long reptilian tongue, wrapped it round Ophelia Vladimirescu’s throat, snapping her neck as she laughed joyfully, and he entered her in intercourse.

She died in a state of rapture.

I continued to play through it all, I couldn’t help it, as the blaze engulfed the chamber. I’d have surely burned alive had it not been for a hand gripping me by the collar and dragging me out of the room.

“Jeepers, kid!” Felicity hollered over the roaring flames. “You sure do get around. Let’s vamoose before the whole damn place comes down on our heads.”

We ran out onto the lawn, through the prowling boxwood menagerie, Felicity pulling me along by the hand, while I dragged the bejewelled accordion behind me. Looking out of the back window as we drove away, I watched the growing conflagration fade into the distance.

“That’s a caper you don’t wanna share with no one, kid,” said Felicity.

“Who’d believe it, anyway?”

“And what about the squeezebox?”

“A gift,” I said. Maybe even a friend, I thought.

Felicity’s story was that she’d seen me get into the Packard as she came out through the studio’s back door with a cup of coffee. Too late to intervene on the spot, she got into her newly purchased Plymouth and followed along.

“The biggest problem,” she told me later, “was getting into the goddamn house. It was sealed up tighter than a killing jar. Good thing a city girl like me’s got a little lock-pick savvy, or you’d be a pile of ash same as them two monkeys. Lordy, what a pair. I mean, I like a good rascally romp every now and then, but there’s a limit.”

 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

 

It lives now in a large safety deposit box in the basement of the Royal Bank at 685 West Hastings St, in Vancouver. That makes the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol just a short drive away.

Felicity Crenshaw was killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, she’d followed a no-good US Amy Sergeant to the Islands in 1940, who’d dumped her like a hot rock as soon as she got the marrying-me-look in her eyes. Zeros were strafing the city, as she sat on the sidewalk comforting a dying sailor. She didn’t even know the guy. I know this because she visited me shortly after, in a dream. She said it was swell on the other side, and I’d get there just fine, as long as I minded my Ps and Qs.

I haven’t willed the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol to anyone, but I’ve left instructions that it be dismantled after my death, the valuable parts sold, and the proceeds donated to orphans’ charities.

I still hear Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, when I wake out of a recurring nightmare, and see Ophelia’s body ablaze. I probably always will.

The box containing the Diavol is opened only once a year, on the anniversary of the day I first played it. Then the sound of me sitting in the little safety deposit box guest room, playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, echoes through the halls, the bank staff all smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisbon

The only sounds on Saturday night. I can hear my wrist watch. She’s in the next room. Sitting on the floor. Her back against the wall. I can hear her heart beat with the stethoscope. I hold it against the peeling wallpaper.

Is she reading or just sitting? Meditating on darkness? Counting to neutrinos?

It’s midnight. I take notes. Time is everything. Time is the paint on the wall. The dust in the corner. The weight from above. They told me this at the Conservatory. In the Master Class. Before I received my credentials. The power of deceit.

The hotel room telephone rings. I pick up. The receiver’s filthy. The filth of drifters. There’s a dog barking a block away. I see the window’s open. How did that happen?

“Hello?”

“What do you know?”

It’s a stranger’s voice. But I know he’s calling from Central. Asking him to identify himself would be foolish. Against training. No one else knows I’m here. I can hear the keys of a telex machine striking endlessly in the background. Cyphers. Broken codes. Absences of code. Pleas of innocence. Broken bones in sealed rooms.

“She’s sitting still,” I say. “She has been for hours. She living, but there’s no activity.”

“We need more than that.”

“That’s all there is.”

The Central stranger goes silent on the line. A zealot’s pause. The telex machine continues. Memoranda. Surveillances. Realities obliterated.

“Visit her.”

“That’s not my assignment.”

Quiet. Then….

“Perhaps your assignment has changed,” he says. “Perhaps now you open her door. Make something happen. Accuse her. Take the initiative. Arrest her. Find a lie, and make it truth.”

Truth loses to the robust lie. First lesson, which might be a lie in itself. Now I’m silent. It’s a poem. The textbooks were poems, too. The poetics of indoctrination. Never deviate from the poetry of State.

“You still there?” the stranger says.

“Yes.”

“Time is everything,” he says.

The mantra. The mandatory salute. Demanding a prompt, duplicate reply.

“Time is everything,” I say.

There is a click at the end of the line. Central has disengaged. I am alone again. With her in the next room. I check my weapon. It’s unnecessary. She’s alone, defenseless. That’s why I’m here. Central prefers easy targets. Budgets are best met by engaging easy targets. But my instructions say she doesn’t die tonight.

The hallway has been reduced to a narrow trail running through decades of refuse. I shine my torch ahead. There are rats here. Brave as agents. Standing on their haunches. Sniffing. They look away and squabble.

Her room is number 607. I try the doorknob. Locked. I knock. Hold my ear to the door. Nothing. I knock again. Ear to the door. Nothing.

“Open, please. It’s Central.”

Nothing.

“I’ll force the door. Please open up.”

Nothing.

I step back and kick. The bottom of my foot. My heel at the bolt. The wood cracks. I kick again and it gives way. It’s dark inside. The entire city is blacked out. Only my room has electricity and a functioning telephone. Central has arranged it.

I shine my torch in the area I assume she occupies. She’s there, looking at me. Her face is dark and round. Hair black with grey streaks, tied back. Eyes brown. She’s wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

“Identify yourself,” I say.

“You’re just a boy. They sent a boy. I can tell, even in the dark. Twenty? Twenty-one?”

I repeat myself. “Please identify.”

She takes a hero from a pack, lights it, inhales.

“Smoking is forbidden.”

“So shoot me,” she says. Her accent is difficult to place. Pakistani? “I never thought they’d send a boy. Did they tell you who I am?”

I was briefed before I left Central. Subject is Rachel Kalpar. I watched her smoke. She blows a smoke ring.

“You’re a writer,” I say.

“That what they told you?”

“You have to come with me.” I say. “I have a car on the street.”

She smokes on, and says, “On what grounds?”

There is no warrant. No judicial order. Paperwork is problematic when denying a person’s existence.

“And where will we go in your car on the street?”

“Central.”

“Bullshit.”

She noble, even sitting on the floor smoking. She makes Bullshit sound like a blessing.

“You don’t even know why you’re here, do you,” she says. “So, let me tell you. You’re a recent graduate of the Conservatory. Digital savvy. Computer geek, no? This is your first assignment. They told you to observe and report on a female subject in a derelict hotel room. You’re wondering why, though. This isn’t what you signed up for.”

“Yes,” I say, an involuntarily reply.

“But just now you got a telephone call in your room, on one of the only functioning telephones in the city.”

She pauses, for emphasis I imagine.

“An anonymous caller,” she continues, “from Central. He tells you your mission has changed, and tells you what to do next, but he’s vague. So, now you’re here asking me to go with you, but you don’t know where.” She taps cigarette ash onto the floor.

“Don’t you see?” she says. “It’s an initiation. Plans will change again before the night is out, maybe several times. But in the end, we’ll be alone together in an abandoned field on the outskirts of the city where you’ll follow an order inconsistent with your textbook training. You’ll force me to kneel and then fire a bullet into the back of my head. And to confirm the kill, you’ll do as instructed and remove my left eye for biometric verification. And when it’s done, you’ll finally be one of them. An absolute graduate. No escape.”

“Impossible,” I say. Truth or robust lie?

“Not impossible. But you’d never believe me. I know it. Not your fault. Compliance was encoded into your basal ganglia during your training, without your knowledge or consent. And there’s a part of your unconscious that knows it. It will surface eventually and likely drive you mad. It happens. I’ve seen it. A quirk in the encoding process, put there by the developer, like a computer virus. Mischief.”

“They wouldn’t. How would you know, anyway?”

“Because I’m the developer.” She lights another hero.

“Then why…?”

“Because they don’t need me anymore. They never liked me much anyway. Didn’t like the Quirk, that’s certain. I’m a scientist. Politics bore me. So, I was suspect from the start.  After the purges, though, I was one of the few still alive who could do the neuro-programming. Until now.”

I quietly evaluate. Time is everything. I feel a sudden release of adrenaline. I can’t trace its cause. Training ought to have made me resistant.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” she says, “to die tonight. This itch to live, in spite of everything, it’s exhausting.”

“You’re not going to die tonight,” I say. I still believe it.

She says, “You’ve heard of Lisbon, of course.”

“Lisbon’s a myth.” The word alone makes my belly churn. Scripture could be written, but hasn’t. People have disappeared after saying its name.

“That’s what they’ll have told you. But I assure you it’s real. You know it, too. Boy genius that you are. And I guess that’s why they’ve finally tracked me down and sent you.”

“The State would have never allowed it to exist.”

“Don’t be a fool,” she grins. “It belongs to the State, or it did. It’s the State’s delinquent runaway. The State sponsored it and chose its victims. I wrote it, by the way. With two other programmers. We were just teenagers at the time. It was meant to be set loose on the Pious Eastern Bloc. To scuttle their uranium enrichment programs. But it went feral  as soon as it was released. A virus without a vaccination, or antidote. It mutates flawlessly, unpredictably. It destroys targets without being detected. And everything is its target. Now it’s infiltrated pre-digital analogue systems.”

She looks to her left, out of the window, onto the lightless nighttime city.

“You may be old enough to remember when the city was lit up at night,” she says. “Lisbon ended that. Worldwide. No more electrical grids. No more energy extraction or refinement. Only strategic solar, very secret. No distribution networks. No hospitals. No law enforcement. No mass communications. Technology is dead. Lisbon killed it. The virus is so entrenched, so cryptographically perfect, that they can’t find it to quarantine or kill it. It’s woven into the macrocosm. The leaves of trees. Fish in the sea. The clouds. The air we breathe. Put a finger to your throat. Feel the pulse. There it is. That’s Lisbon. Maybe that’s why they call it a myth.”

“You’re wrong,” I say. She has to be.

The telephone rings in the adjacent room. My room. The only working telephone I know of, outside of Central. She pulls on her cigarette and exhales.

“Change of plans,” she says.

I leave her and go to my room. The telephone rings like a toothache. I answer.

“Yes?”

“Report.”

It’s the familiar voice of the stranger, calling from Central. The telex machine rattles in the background.

“She’s in her room, smoking,” I say.

“Is she compliant?”

“Compliant? In what way? I haven’t asked her to do anything yet.”

Silence on the line, again. The invincible weapon of absolute authority.

“Take her to your car.”

“And…?”

“There will be instructions in the glove box.”

I hesitate, then say, “Does she die tonight?”

“Time is everything.”

I hesitate again. Fully aware that it may be lethal. No textbook says so. It is never mentioned in a lecture. It is simply assumed. It is supposed. It is resolutely rumoured. One never returns from such hesitation, to tell his story.

“Time is everything,” I finally reply, expecting to hear the distant click of a receiver returned to its cradle. But I do not. And I dare not ring-off first. Another unwritten rule.

A hush.

“Complete your assignment as instructed,” says the stranger.

Then there is the click of his receiver. I hang up also. And look out of the window at the black hole of the city. The window is no longer open. I look around for someone. I hear a footstep in the hall. I run out. There is no one. I go into 607. My eyes take time adjusting to the darkness. I see the red glow at the end of a hero illuminate the area round Rachel Kalpar. It’s amazing how bright.

“Instructions in the glove box?” she says.

“Yes.”

“But now you’re conflicted. Almost defiant.”

She’s reading my mind.

“We can get away,” I say. “I don’t need to read the instructions in the glove box.”

I stop for a moment.

I ask, “Is that the quirk in the encoding talking? Or is it me?”

“I hear only you.”

“I feel sick,” I say, run out into the hall and vomit. I fall to the floor. I remember convulsions. My teeth grinding. My body tightening into a ball.

When I come to, the lights are on in the hall. They’re blinding. A man in a black suit crouches next to me, checking my pulse. Another shines a penlight into each of my eyes.

I reach for my gun. It’s gone.

“Normal,” one of them says. “He’ll survive.”

“That’s a funny way to put it,” says the other, and they both laugh.

“That’s enough,” says Rachel Kalpar, dismissing the two of them. She stands over me, blocking a ceiling light. “We’d hoped for so much more,” she says. “Disappointing.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Understanding’s a luxury,” Kalpar says, and walks away. “Time is everything.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

little lies

I will lie and say hate
then swim across rose oceans

deny I have finger prints
then leave evidence on your door

pretend I’ve just arrived
then be discovered in a tomb

write your poem in the air
then declare it invisible

hold a mirror in my hand
then angle the night
back into a warehouse of planets

 

 

 

 

 

fez, a story of social distancing

The fat guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it’s all short bursts from there. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity, sticky darkness stuck to it, giving it a strange weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks absinthe,. He listens to opera on his Victrola. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the absinthe too. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he shouted. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He had a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You’re no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. And I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered. “Go and never come back.” Then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot to emphasise. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point seemed a bit insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top. Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I’ve never known the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold. And they believe it when they hear it. No matter how ridiculous or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And then you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. Your gender’s greatest flaw. Is it my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouts. Another slap, hard this time. And then the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!”

Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then, “Stand back,” she yells. “Get away from me. Keep your filthy hands to yourself.” And kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor, someone heavy.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I’d take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor above, small feet, high heels. A door slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark rusty stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t matter any more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold and dead. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.