roses are red violets are blue
St Valentine was martyred in the 3rd century so
his girlfriend really actually couldn’t say…
“Oh stop being such a martyr, Val!”
because he sort of actually was one
roses are red violets are blue
St Valentine was martyred in the 3rd century so
his girlfriend really actually couldn’t say…
“Oh stop being such a martyr, Val!”
because he sort of actually was one
It was a big box joint, out on a low overhead stretch of highway, with the large pink neon sign arching over the entrance to the parking lot reading CRYPTS, a division of Marshal Memorial Inc. Below that was a flashing white neon sign reading Drive-Thru, my destination.
I drove on, and waited in line for the order window. There was only one car ahead of us, a red Cadillac, circa 1975. The driver had been talking into a speaker next to his driver’s side window for several minutes, before two large men arrived with a gurney at the passenger side of the car. Opening the door, they pulled out the body of an elderly man, wearing a rumpled brown suit and only one shoe. The two men placed his body onto the gurney, while the driver watched and waved a slow, sad good-bye. Then the deceased was wheeled away, as a slot below the speaker spat out a paper receipt. The driver of the Cadillac took it, and drove away.
I drove forward to occupy the space, and cut the engine, tapping my toe on the clutch pedal for a quiet moment, before a young woman’s voice welcomed us over an intercom.
Vivian, my wife, had just passed away. She was in the back of the Subaru. A hospice grief counselor had recommended several funeral homes. This one hadn’t been at the top of her list, but it had the best prices and fit well with my tendency toward doing things myself.
“Welcome to CRYPTS,” said the young woman, “a Division of Marshal Memorial. This week’s specials are double Air Miles for all conventional embalming treatments, Armit Kevlar Headstones, purple and tangerine colours only, at 25% off, all sales final, and Carlucci Himalayan Granite Plinths—buy three and get the forth plinth for free. There are many more specials in this week’s flyer. Be sure to ask how you can be put on our mailing list, and receive 25 CRYPTS Points absolutely free. My name is Kim, how may I help you? Our conversation will be recorded for quality assurance purposes.”
The speaker squealed, and then Kim came back. “You’ll have to speak up, sir. Are you distraught? At CRYPTS we understand. CRYPTS Brand Bereavement Counselors are available to help, should you require their assistance. And this week you can speak to a CRYPTS Brand Bereavement Counselor for only ten dollars a minute. That’s a 30% savings, and you still receive full Air Miles and CRYPTS Bonus Points. You don’t even need to leave your car. Will you be using Visa, Master Card, Amex or Discover Card?”
“Discover Card? You take Discover Card?”
“Yes sir,” Kim said. “And this week, you earn triple CRYPTS Bonus Points when you use your Discover Card.”
“Who even has a Discover Card, anymore?”
“I do,” said Norm. “It’s a bit dusty, but….”
Norm was a friend. He had helped me put Vivian’s body into the back of the car, and now sat in the passenger seat.
“I’ll use my Master Card,” I said. “And I don’t need a counselor.”
“Alright sir, please place your Master Card into the slot marked Payment. That’s great. Now, how may we help?”
“It’s my wife, in the back,” I said with a sniff.
“I understand,” Kim said. Then taking my name from my credit card, she said, “And you wish to inter her with us, Mr Owen? Thank you for choosing CRYPTS, a Division of Marshal Memorial.”
“Yes…,” I said, “…inter.”
“Do you wish her interred locally?” Kim asked.
“Of course, where else?”
“Well, interment locally is more expensive than the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program. With the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program, we place the deceased in a cargo container, with others taking advantage of the terrific value. Then the container’s put on a bulk carrier. We guarantee that the loved one is interred at the first port of call that has space. Please note that embalming is mandatory for the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program. An important embalming benefit to you is that cosmetics and hair styling are included in the price. That adds even more value!”
“Local,” I said. “But does she have to be embalmed? I mean it seems a bit unnecessary if she’s going to be buried.”
“If the family wishes to say a final farewell, it’s necessary, I assure you. At CRYPTS, we believe it’s important for family and friends to say a final good-bye to the loved one. In life, your wife would have bathed and used an under arm deodorant, I’m sure.”
“I guess,” I said. Then, “Well, of course she did.”
“And she did so to be pleasant and presentable?”
“Well,” said Kim, “embalming is like underarm deodorant for the deceased. It allows for the final adieus to take place without any unwelcome odoriferousness.”
“Odoriferousness? That’s not even a word.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Kim. “Odoriferousness, antiodoriferousness, quasidoriferousness, megaodoriferousness and polyodoriferousness are all trademarked words belonging to CRYPTS, a division of Marshal Memorial. And they’re slated for inclusion in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
“Gawd,” I mumbled, ”you’re killing me.”
“What an odd thing to say, Mr Owen,” said Kim.
I was beginning to feel a little disgusted. I caught Norm squirm, in the corner of my eye.
“Whatever. What’re the alternatives to embalming?” I asked.
“Well, there’s refrigeration and ice,” Kim said. “We can store the deceased in refrigeration, and then display the deceased on ice during the Final Farewell. It’s not unlike a salad bar.”
Kim invited me to park the car, and accompany her into the CRYPTS ten acre display space to choose a casket and the place of internment. I declined her invitation. I chose to stay in the car, instead, and selected CRYPTS Convenience Package B from the large colourful plastic menu next to the speaker. It included CRYPTS trademark Embalming Lite for the environmentally minded, a patented CRYPTS Brand China-made styrene reinforced pine aggregate casket with fabric liner made of recycled plastic beverage containers and bronze coloured hardware made from repurposed bicycle parts bought by CRYPTS, a division of Marshal Memorial Inc., at the Beijing Police Department’s stolen property auction.
For Vivian herself, the package included a sateen choir gown with CRYPTS, a Division of Marshal Memorial Inc., tastefully embroidered over her heart. As for the headstone, the package included the CRYPTS Brand Kevlar-Patriot Headstone, guaranteed bullet and holocaust proof. It came in 35 CRYPTS copyrighted tertiary colours. I chose Genoa Olive over Norm’s suggestion, Rings of Saturn Magenta.
Kim counselled me that the best place for Vivian to spend all of eternity was a small memorial park called Frog Hollow Grove, a Division of Marshal Memorial Inc., near the border between Canada and the United States. She assured me that plots were selling for a song at Frog Hollow, as low as $20,000. And the US Department of Homeland Security drones made an ever-so pleasant humming sound as they regularly passed over, day and night.
I knew my Drive-Thru experience was nearly over when I heard the tailgate open, and looked down to see Vivian’s left hand disappear slowly from between the front seats, as she was taken out to be placed on a gurney. That’s when I noticed that her engagement and wedding ring combo was missing. Looking up, I saw Norm was holding the two rings out to me in the palm of his hand.
“She won’t need these where she’s going,” he said.
I smiled and took them, and said, “Thanks Norm, for being here today.”
“We’ll be in touch,” said Kim over the speaker, and then clicked off.
The slot under the speaker spat out my receipt and Master Card, as a black, late model Mercedes behind us revved its engine. In my rear view mirror, I was able to see someone in the Mercedes’ passenger seat listing far over to the left, held in place by the seat belt. I started the engine, and drove back onto the highway.
Life goes strangely on. Norm and I went for a late lunch at Uncle Bob’s Big Box Chicken Infestation Restaurant, a Division of Marshal Poultry Inc., home of the Why the Chicken Crossed the Road Sandwich. We used several thousand of my recently acquired CRYPTS Bonus Points, and ate for free. As a result, I received 10,000 new Air Miles and 50,000 Uncle Bob’s Cross the Road Bonus points, redeemable at any division of Marshal Corporation Inc.
‘Twas in the midst some long lost February that Fiona moved in next door, with her accordion and zydeco repertoire. And though I would have normally defended a woman’s right to practice her instrument, play it and generally follow her bliss, at the beginning I thought the 5:00 a.m. renditions of Follow Me Chicken might be a problem.
To be fair, it is an artsy building , writers and musicians, suicidal poets, that sort of thing. All of us slightly insane and near starvation. And it was wonderful how the music in the evening spilled out through the open windows, onto Parker Street, where, during the warmer months, many in the neighbourhood congregated for free nightly concerts, the many musical genres overlapping into a splendid symphony, to which the locals danced, rumbled and loved.
I still live here after so many summers, writing obsessively, receiving rejection letters stoically, and in love with this threadbare neighbourhood, doomed as we all know, to be bought up soon by a cruel moneyed class, wanting to live vicariously by way of the banished hearts of hungry artists, actors, poets and performers.
Anyway, the relationship between Fiona and me sort of unfolded like this (And just so you know, this is strictly a creative exercise. I don’t want your sympathy):
Like so many writers, I work past midnight, when the spiders of the mind come out to creep. Then I sleep ‘til noon during the day. Fiona on the other hand, rose early to get to work at a coffeehouse in the financial district, where she put in long hours adorning cappuccinos and lattes with her celebrated foamy art, to the delight of a crooked chintzy-tipping stockbroker clientele.
Then, in the evening, after only a short break, she would work one gig or another with her all girl band, Pussy Zydeco. This left her with only the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which to practice her accordion.
(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, and how an all-woman zydeco band gets regular gigs in this town is anyone’s guess, no matter how good they are.)
Our first conversation regarding her early morning sessions took place at her door on a February 2nd, after the gaudy sound of her warming-up first passed uninvited through the wall, causing panic in my little room—
An air raid siren? I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Had kitschy little North Korea finally gone berserk? Were we all to become mere sidewalk shadows that frosty morning, nuked before the little brown birds had their chance to sing?
It was an accordion.
Being played next door.
Instantly I’d pulled on my jeans and was knocking at her door, ready to demand silence. But when a woman, with a red, pearly keyed accordion bridled to her front, opened the door, I was made speechless by her startling beauty.
The building manager had told me that Fiona was moving in, and I’d heard her directing movers the day before. But this was the first time she and I had met, face to face.
“Hi,” I said, rubbing a knuckle into my eye. “Umm, good morning.”
“It has possibilities,” she said.
“So, you’re a musician.”
“The accordion,” I noted.
Perfect silence. Then bang went the steam heat.
“But it’s 4:55 a.m.”
“Yes,” said Fiona, “it’s always an early start for me. I know I should still be in bed, but it’s a sacrifice I make for my art.”
I wanted to protest. Instead, I stood dazed by the soft gift-giving gaze of her hazel eyes, her long ginger hair and the grace with which her neck drifted elegantly into her strapping, load-bearing shoulders. Then there was the succulent cleavage, visible just above the accordion’s bellows between the v-shaped boundaries of her gauzy India blouse, and accentuated by the pressure placed upon her bosom by her ample instrument.
I imagined her moving in her apartment, a delicate wraith to the sound of her own music. A squeezebox ballerina, au-naturel except for where I imagined the to-and-fro mechanics of her instrument made personal protection necessary.
But then I saw the extraordinary thing that sealed my love for her, forever. It was the blood red, heart shaped Valentine tattoo, with its black outline, the size of a nickel on her left cheek, pierced by an arrow, straight and true.
“Got a camera, mister?” Fiona said. “A photograph’d last longer.”
“No,” I said, looking down at the hall carpet, at a cigarette burn I hadn’t seen before. “I’m sorry. I’m not the staring type. Not normally, I mean. It’s just that it’s very early.”
“And you should be in bed,” she said.
“Yeah, I just live next door.”
“Then you’ve not got miles to go before you sleep, do you.”
I’d been dismissed, and she was right. Who was I, looking the way I do every morning when I crawl out of bed? I was the undead, until shower time. I saw my open apartment door over my shoulder, so turned without complaint and zombie shuffled home, where I lay down and looked at the ceiling, as the bayou melodies began once more.
The predawn terror of the accordion, combined with raw unrequited passion and lack of sleep, had led me to hallucination—Wolf Blitzer interviewing Elvis at the end of my bed. Love me tender, Wolfe says, taking the King’s hand into his own, Love me sweet. I came to sitting up, hugging my pillow and shouting, eyes shut tight, as I shamefully had before: “I’m not a homosexual, damn it! My aunt Phillis never dressed me as Shirley Temple when I was a kid, when I was forced to stay with her on summer vacations, while my parents abandoned me for dirty weekends.”
—There wasn’t beer in the refrigerator. Fuck.
On the days that followed, I’d peek through my window blinds, and watch Fiona as she walked out onto the sidewalk, at the way she put the strap of her bag up onto her shoulder, her head held high, everything in motion from the shoulders down, her appearance at the corner of Parker and Commercial Drive demanding the street traffic stop to let her cross. It always did. The world was her own.
To her, however, I was only the insect who lived next door. But insect or not, love was love. I had to have her for my own. I had to kneel before her fashionably distressed Doc Martins, and grovel. If she only knew how I longed to fold her laundry, and how at night I held my ear to her door, listening to her sleep. If Fiona only knew, I was sure she’d appreciate how deep my feelings were. Fortunately, Valentine’s Day approached. Amore was at the door. If my love for her wasn’t already obvious, then this would be the time to make it so. And I had a plan, a plan that stood on a plinth of poetry.
I knew most poems of deep meaning took years, even decades to write, but it was already the 12th of February. My muse would have to give up her vintage DC comics, and get out of her chair in the corner.
I composed my poem of love to Fiona in the sly hours, long before dawn, with only a pencil and paper, in a dim lamplight accompanied by the sound of vinyl jazz from an upper floor, ballads as soft and sad as falling snow, hours before I would hear through my wall the wheezy sound of her instrument being removed from its case, the poem’s title coming to me as the thickest black of night became a hooded thing, staring at me through the window. It would be called, my zydeco valentine.
I worked steadily, rewrite after rewrite, and was ready to recite my work the morning of V Day. It was my magnum opus. Visions of beatniks had danced in my head, with the ghosts of Goethe, Shelley and Byron. A poem that would eclipse the power and profundity of every poem that had preceded it. I was no longer mere dandruff on the shoulders of giants. Now I was a giant; I’d make Fiona melt.
But how and where to deliver my verse?
The answer came to me while watching her through my window as she left for work. And while refining my idea, I struggled to put on my coat. Once outside, I followed her at a safe distance.
I knew how to give her the gift of the poem, in a way that would surprise and honour her. I’d put it right into her hand, for all to see. Her female coworkers would be envious, and every man present would know that he’d failed his lover. But was that still too bashful?
I took a different bus than hers, arriving moments after she had donned her apron. The weather had been foul, so customers were soggy and impatient. Fiona, on the other hand, was cheerful, executing perfect daffodils, rosebuds and butterflies in the froth of cappuccinos, lattes and mochas. It made damp patrons smile. I was about to make her my own
There were five people ahead of me when I got into line, holding Fiona’s poem in my moist hand. And things moved nicely until a plump junior executive, in a bad suit, slowed things down by ordering hot breakfast bagels and pour-overs for four. People checked their watches, and tapped their toes. That’s when self-doubt set in. The longer I waited, the more I wanted to run. But I finally made it to the counter to face Fiona, and caught myself staring once more at the valentine tattoo on her cheek.
“It’s you!” she said. “The little geek from next door.”
Fellow employees snuck peeks over their shoulders.
“Yes,” I said, and looked at the folded sheet of paper in my hand. Then looking up, I said, “I came to say I love you.”—What!?! What the Hell did I say? It just slipped out. I was possessed. Fiona’s eyes got hard. I knew I had to backtrack, and rescue us both.
“I mean, I want a double Americano,” I said.
“You get that order, Wendy?” she said. Our eyes were locked. In hers, I saw homicide. “Double Americano.”
“Yup,” Wendy snickered, pressing the espresso.
“Are you stalking me?”
“No!” I said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been here. What makes you say that?”
“For some guys, just showing up amounts to stalking. Are you one of them?”
“Pffft, of course not.” I shoved the poem into my pocket. “I’m a writer, a poet. I belong in a coffeehouse.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But not in mine. Get it?”
Wendy placed the Americano in front of Fiona, and she pushed it to me, across the counter.
“Five bucks,” she said.
This, I hadn’t foreseen. I patted my pockets. I only had two dollars and thirty-seven cents. My wallet, with my debit card, was on my desk.
“Is there a problem here?” a beefy man said, coming up from behind the counter. His name tag read, Manager Bob.
“There was a problem,” Fiona said. “But he’s leaving. After he pays.”
“I seem to be short,” I said.
“Then good-bye,” said Fiona, taking the coffee back. “And don’t let me see you in the hall, when I get home.”
“Yeah, uh okay. I guess I’ll go to Starbucks.”
I turned and walked away, defeat sticking to me like a gummy coating of mouldy caramel macchiato.
Outside, I ducked under an awning, and took a quick inventory of my fatal failings. I was an obnoxious, puffed-up, self-absorbed wanker who people avoided. I was soft and unattractive, flabby even, from sitting all day, trying to write prose and poetry of importance, and failing. In spite of this, I was fool enough to believe I could entice a woman like Fiona into my little, meaningless life.
I pulled the poem out of my pocket, tore it in two and let it fall into a puddle, where it could drown for all I cared.
Then as I began to walk away, a truck sped by, through a much larger puddle, the size of a carp pond, creating a tsunami of oily water. I was drenched. It was the final humiliation. There was a blunt razor in the bathroom cabinet at home. Too blunt for a shave, but sharp enough for what I had in mind. My time had come. Wasn’t it expected of every writer that he eventually commit suicide?
I carried on, trying to shake off the oily water, then felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning round, I saw a small rain-soaked old man in a tattered raincoat, with the two torn halves of my poem in his hand.
“This yours, fella?” he said.
“Didn’t you just drop it? I think you’re a litter bug.”
“No,” I said. “I’m very environmentally conscious.”
“Then take it,” he said. “Take it and put it where it belongs, in a garbage can.”
A garbage can? My poem belonged in a garbage can? How dare he? I was ready to give him a good kick, but changed my mind, thinking he might be a veteran. I snatched it. A new light had been shed.
“Bugger off, old dude,” I said, now finding the indignation to re-enter the coffeehouse. “Go pull some posters off a lamppost, you mothball-stinking Precambrian old geezer.”
“Hey!” I heard him say, as I walked away. “I was a Rotarian, once.”
It was muggy, crowded and close in the coffeehouse when I returned. But it was time to apply the strength good art instills. I climbed up and stood on the only empty stool I could find, unfolded the two halves of the poem, and held them together. Then I shouted over the noisy crowd—
“This is a love poem for Fiona.”
No one stopped talking, so I yelled even louder —
“A love poem, I say! For Fiona.”
Now the room went quiet, except for some soft coughing. The last words spoken came from a petite older woman who said, “What’s this shite?”
“It’s called my zydeco valentine—all lower case.”
(some more subdued coughing, then silence)
“Damn it,” I heard Fiona say, from behind the counter.
Then I began—
all valentine faced, as you are
how you haunt my love-empty rooms
I ask thee to be with me
on my journ-ey
to our destin-y
let me squeeze your accordi-on
we’ll walk into the sun
ignoring the weather
both light as a feather
I love you, Fiona
All eyes were on me. In the distance, a coffee cup was heard breaking on the floor.
“Is that it?” someone hollered from the back of the room. “I never know for sure when a poem ends.”
“Yes,” I said, and bowed.
“Who’s Fiona?” someone else shouted. “I knew a Fiona, once. She was a prison guard. Retired to Florida. Has nine cats, and a girlfriend named Stella. Is that who you mean?”
“No, ma’am. I mean….”
“Don’t you say it!” Fiona screeched. “Someone call the police.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manager Bob stepped in and tackled me to the floor. It was a long fall from such great heights, and I landed on top of him. Then he applied a hammerlock, and shouted for someone to call the police.
I struggled madly, but literary genius and physical strength rarely strive hand-in-hand. Fiona came up and gave me a kick, as I lay there with Bob’s hairy arm round my neck.
“You’re sick,” she sneered. “And that’s the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written.”
“She’s right,” I heard someone in the crowd say.
“Don’t quit yer day job,” laughed another.
Almost immediately, I heard a hiss at the counter. Milk was steaming once more.
* * * * *
Fiona moved out at the end of the following month, which made complying with my restraining order much easier. Soon after, I began to write my novella about my relationship with her, our joys, our aspirations and our heartbreaks. They say novellas sell best nowadays.
I call it my zydeco princess. (working title, okay?)
A literary agent named Maxine, a friend of my aunt Phillis, said she might be interested, whenever it’s finished. Maxine always wears pantsuits, and drives an old mint condition Mercedes convertible. She has the sad blue eyes of a person full of unresolved hurt, the way that all literary agents do.
She walks her Schnauzer, Fritz, every morning at 7:30. In the evening, she likes to go to foreign movies, and eat at good restaurants. I think the men she dates are sort of creepy, however. Narcissists in turtleneck sweaters and expensive shoes.
Sometimes, I put coins in her parking meters when they run out of time. I make sure to be nearby when that happens. I even polish her hubcaps when she’s eating truffle mousse pate and duck foie gras with some turtleneck. She doesn’t know that I do it, though. She doesn’t need to. Just call me Mr Invisible.
I’m writing her a poem.
The retired producer drove east with all the windows down on Interstate 40 through the moon glow Mojave. He checked his watch. It was 1:01 a.m., and he thought about all of the chumps out there, all the way to the invisible horizon, who’d dug their own graves in the desert.
He was ready to drive Pacific to Atlantic, to avoid the same fate. Hollywood was a history lesson. Now he hoped to end up in a small town. Maine, he imagined. That sounded good. Nice and anonymous. Maybe he’d write. Publish under a pseudonym. Use a woman’s name and remain underground for as long as he could. Maybe forever. Forever sounded real good.
The Ford was new but basic. Dealer plates. It would get him where he wanted to go in simple proletariat splendor. He’d wait until New Mexico before he insured it. He laid a hand on the Piggly Wiggly grocery bag on the seat next to him. The contents, the stinkin’, ill-gotten cash, would last a year or two if he was careful. Buy a house with cash like he did the car, and sit on the porch in the evening and make like it was all Norman Rockwell.
He got Barstow on the radio, the late night news. The LA crime Family had been up to no good. The body of a character named Rosy Cola, a mob up-and-comer, and two unnamed associates had been found in an alley with their throats cut. A professional hit the cops said. The wages of crime said the pious announcer.
The retired producer wondered if it would be madness to write about it one day, then threw his father’s razor out into the desert, leaving it behind doing sixty.
Hollywood California, in his office on the phone, a few days before, sort of round the late 1950s…
“Thank you for calling Central Casting,” a cheerful switchboard operator said. “Call volume is extremely high, so I’m putting you on hold. One of our agents will be with you shortly. Thank you for calling Central Casting.”
“Son of a bitch,” Oscar Child muttered. “Goddamn bastard son of a bitch.” He picked up a sharpened pencil and twisted its tip into a note pad. “Fuck!”
And so came the thoughts of a desperate man amplified in the near silence between him and a distant switchboard, a man who’d been placed on hold indefinitely—We all pray in the end, Oscar Child thought, if not to God, then to the End itself—Child decided he preferred a prayer to the latter: Dear the End, you Dirty Son-of-a-Bitch, let it be dignified when you finally knock on my door. You Prick. Just a bullet or a quick toss out the window. Maybe a little something in a drive-by shooting. Please, no drawn out trip to the waterfront in the trunk of a car. No shit kicking preamble. No switchblades, no icepicks. Amen, you Fuck.
Then there came a click.
The operator repeated herself, “Central Casting, The switchboard’s busy due to a high volume of calls. I’ll put you on hold and get right back to you.”
“No, wait. I don’t want to be on hold. I’ve already been on hold for ten minutes. Wait, no! I’m a producer, goddam it! Shit!”
Dead air all over again. Hisses, clicks and crackles. “Never in Burbank. I’ll cut my wrists first!”
Then the sound of a receiver being lifted out of its cradle and a woman coughing.
“Hello?” Child said, remembering to be cautious. These people were barracudas; they could smell fear. “Look,” he said, “we need a one legged woman. The right leg preferably, but a missing left’ll do if that’s all you’ve got. We can change camera angles if we have to.”
“What for?” said the woman on at the other end. Her chewing gum voice might have been familiar. Or maybe all the dames sounded the same.
“A movie,” he said. “What else? This is Oscar Child speaking, the producer.”
“I don’t usually do the casting work, ‘cept in a pinch. But this ain’t no pinch. It’s just a rush call, so don’t go thinking I’m panicking or anything. Everything’s copacetic at my end.”
The line went quiet, only other agents talking in the background.
Then the woman said, “Oscar Wild, you say? I’m checking.” Pause. “You’re not on my Rolodex, mister. Let me check the file cabinet. Wild, Oscar, right? Like that fag writer from a hundred years ago? I hope this ain’t no joke, fella. I don’t have time for joking around.”
“No it’s Oscar Child, Child. Willya just listen? We can talk about how much I hate my mother later. The broad we need’s gotta be an opera singer, too. It’s slapstick. It’s a Three Stooges feature, get it? It’s gonna be their big comeback. But that’s hush-hush, understand?”
“A one legged opera singer, eh? That’s kinky. Oh yeah, here you are, Oscar Child. You’re on the Rolodex, after all. A to C. But we ain’t got no dames with one leg that sings opera. I think we got a tap dancer, but I might’ve been drinking.”
“This is Central Casting, isn’t it?” Child said. “Aren’t you supposed to have a variety of experienced performers for bit parts? Who am I talking to?”
“It’s Rebecca Malinowski, Mr Child. We’ve worked together before, you and me. Remember, that circus comedy thriller with June Russell, before her bust went bust, with the riot scene in the second act with all the dwarves tryin’ to unionize but the circus owner’s a real fascist bastard and brings out the elephants and fire hoses, but the day’s saved by a strapping young and handsome but tragic quasi-socialist war hero whose probably a homo with a hula girl tattoo and a heart of gold? What was the flick called again?”
“Birth of a Socialist Nation.”
“That was quite the call,” said Rebecca Malinowski, “200 dwarves, I’ll say.”
“Yeah well you came up short and we had to fill in an awful lot of empty space with non-dwarves. Wound up shanghaiing winos off the street, and had ‘em running around on their knees. Had to pay them extra hooch, thanks to you, for all the scraped knees.”
“And what a flop, huh?”
“It was meant to be a statement not a block buster.” Child wondered why it sounded like he was apologising. “It was for, and of the people.” He was tired of apologising for Birth of a Socialist Nation.
“I heard it was financed with mob money. What a mistake, I’ll say.”
“Look, just say you got what I need.”
“Well this is a rare bird you’re asking me for,” Malinowski said. “I guess we could run an ad.”
“No we need her like yesterday. The whole damn plot hinges on it. But don’t get me wrong, everything’s just swell on our end. I’m not worried, really. How about just some gal with the one leg, no opera singing necessary. We can do a voice-over, even if it ain’t in the budget.”
“I don’t know. I’ll check the files and get back to you. You may be in a pickle, though. I’m thinking we may have to charge a little extra.”
“No!” Child barked. “I mean c’mon, I’m a good customer. You said so yourself. I’m spending other people’s money here. You’re taking advantage of the situation. It’s un-American.”
“Hey, I was in the USO, fella. I spent the whole Second World War in Honolulu slappin’ fresh sailors. Don’t tell me I’m un-American.”
“You’re killin’ me here,” said Child, “you know that? This is mob money again. Keep that to yourself, though. And just before they blow my head off, my last request will be for them to drop my body off on your desk so you can live with the result of your jacking me around like the fucking useless bimbo you are when you could have done your goddam job. Hopefully I’ll crap my pants when my brains splatter so I really stink up your office and make you wish you were more accommodating businesswise when you had a chance. Put that in your pig shit crapping mother fucking Rolodex and smoke it, you US Navy slut.”
“Hello?” Oscar Child shouted to the dead line. “Fuck. I’m not worried, you hear what I’m sayin’?”
After throwing the phone across the room, he went into his bathroom and opened the cabinet. Reaching the end of one’s rope, he noticed, came with a spookily calming sense of deliverance.
He knew what he had to do, but had only a vague idea of how. The alley behind the automat, greasy and dim, maybe there. Irony in spades. How ever it turned out, he knew it would be his greatest achievement.
Sitting the lowest shelf in the cabinet was his father’s old straight razor. He’d never used it before. It scared the hell out of him. He stuffed it into his pocket and put on his jacket.
a month and a half earlier—the meeting that led to this whole mess…
“So zip it and listen,” Rosy Cola said to Oscar Child, who hadn’t yet spoken. They sat together in the busy Finster’s Automat on South Main.
Rosy was a smallish man with a boyish face and soft hands, who tried to make up for it with a cigarette behind his ear, a book of matches in his hat band and a balisong knife in his sock. Finster’s was Rosy’s favourite joint, and he was a late night regular for dinner and off-the-radar meetings.
Two of Cola’s larger associates sat a few stools down, slurping back their Spaghetti Bolognese.
“Washing the cash,” said Rosy Cola, “goes like this. And remember, I’m tellin’ you this because you’re a tenderfoot, not because I like you. I don’t want you ruining an excellent opportunity out of ignorance.
“With the washing of the moolah,” Cola continued, “I give you the dough that stinks because it’s ill-gotten, see? That’s what’s in the grocery bag.” Cola glanced down at the Piggy Wiggly bag at his feet. “Then you transform it into semi-legit assets by putting it into your bank account and using it to make a movie, and then paying me back my investment plus the profits. Real square, kinda. That’s the washing part. Simple, right?. ‘Cept it ain’t really washing unless I get the clean dough back after it’s got washed. That’s where the pay-back part comes in. You with me so far, daddyo? Then after you pay me back my investment and profits, you pay me back what you already owe me from before with the interest. Isn’t that great?”
“Of course, terrific, wonderful.” Child took a bite of his lemon meringue pie, and chewed stoically.
“Now I gotta tell ya though,” Cola said. “I gotta a niece, see? A real brainiac this girl is, and she says a situation like this is called a paradox. And if I understand her right, a paradox ain’t a sure bet. You see, you’re gonna do this for the Family because you’re a bum who owes the Family big time, but you’re also a bum because your films are flops and that’s why you owe the Family big time. That’s the paradox. But I don’t want no flop this time. I want a masterpiece, a cinematic achievement that’ll have the squares and the suckers linin’ up. I want it to rake in the wampum, capisce?”
“Of course, sure, real capisce.” Child gulped his coffee and burned his tongue. “But it’s really a distribution problem.”
Cola said, “I get it. You was black-listed. No one wants to touch you or your sick degenerate commie merchandise. But that don’t mean you don’t still owe my Family and me twenty-three grand.”
“That much?” Child said.
“That’s this week’s total,” said Cola.
Oscar Child chased a crumb round his plate with his fork and said, “With all due respect, Mr Cola, I’m an artist, not just a business man. I’m not a machine. Besides, no one’s sending me scripts anymore.”
Rosy Cola stared back, quiet for a moment, unused to backtalk, visibly disappointed in Child’s negativity and straining to keep the murder out of his eyes. Then he grinned and looked down at his untouched tuna fish sandwich and glass of milk.
“There I can help,” he said. “I gotta a nephew, see? He’s got a corker of a script for you, a real masterpiece all ready to go. The squares are gonna love it. It’ll star the Three Stooges, see? Larry, Curly and Mo. Their manager says they’re ready for a comeback, and my nephew’s script is golden. It’s a romantic historical drama with a message, understand? The Stooges wanna go straight, and do some dramatic work. The script’s spicy hot and ready to blast-off, baby. You just have to raise the cash and put it all together.”
“But I thought you were making the investment,” Oscar Child said, “with the ill-gotten dough.”
“I already have. I bought my nephew’s script. Cost me ten grand. The kid knows how to bargain, I’ll give him that.”
“Ten grand for a script?”
“Now you see why success is an absolute necessity,” said Cola.
“Look Mr Cola, I’m broke. The standard Hollywood money’s out of the question. The studios and the legitimate lenders won’t come near me.”
“Then I guess you’ll need another loan. I’m ready to write the cheque.”
“In a manner of speakin’.” Cola gave the Piggly Wiggly bag a gentle kick.
“I’m not a good risk, Mr Cola. I think you know that.”
“But there ain’t no one in town who recognises my nephew’s script writing genius. You will, though, because what the hell else you gonna do? You’re the guy, see? You gotta read it. It almost sings. Sal, bring over the script.”
A couple of stools down, one of the big men put down his fork, rummaged through a satchel and then held up a stained, dog-eared and unbound type-written stack of pages. Then he reverently placed it in Cola’s small soft hand.
“Just listen to this,” Rosy said. “This is the opening where he’s setting the scene. It goes like this: The pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova is on the air. Poolside, there are cabana boys and a marimba band plays the Mexican Hat Dance. Happy hotel customers sip rum and pineapple cocktails, as dancing chiquita girls greet our three stars. Larry lights Mo’s exploding cigar.
“Waddaya say?” said Rosy Cola, beaming like an imbecile. “Pretty damn classy, huh?”
Oscar Child said, “But how can the pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova be on the air if a marimba band’s playing the Mexican Hat Dance? And what’s a chiquita girl?”
Rosy Cola’s imbecilic beam faded.
“You listen to me,” he said, gulping back his milk and slamming the glass down on the counter. Then lighting the cigarette from behind his ear, he drew so hard that half of it disappeared first drag, and he inhaled like it was his terminal breath. “I don’t gotta do this. You’re just some pinko fucking castrato that owes me money, just like all them other deadbeats whose graves I had them dig for themselves out in the desert. I could mail your intestines to yer fucking Aunt Tilly, in a plain brown parcel, and there’re people in the Family who’d like that.”
“But not just anyone can write a script,” Child pleaded. “There has to be a basic talent. It’s not only an art, but a science. There’s serious technique involved. Technique that has to be learned. Some scripts take years to research and develop, to write and workshop, and then be rewriten again and again. How many scripts has your nephew written?”
“Just this,” Cola said, lovingly stroking the pile of smeared pages. “He’s only twenty years old, just breakin’ into the business.”
“Then he’s still a youngster. Let him go to school. UCLA has a great program. I know people. I can get him in, even with a third grade education.”
“Don’t be a smartass. He’s got grade five.”
“I want a business plan by Monday,” Rosy said.
“Monday? Which Monday?”
“The Monday after Sunday.”
Rosy Cola nodded.
“That’s only four days away. It’s impossible.”
“Your own hole in the desert,” Cola said. “Think about it.”
“And I want production in full swing within the month. Actin’ and directin’, the works.”
Child said, “You don’t understand the business, Mr Cola.”
“Franky,” Rosy Cola said, and one of the big men got up, pulling the napkin out of his collar.
“Okay,” said Oscar Child. “Sure sure, alright.”
“Here’s some green to get you started.” Rosy handed Oscar the grocery bag. “Get receipts and keep ‘em.”
Cola and his boys got up and went to leave by the backdoor, through the kitchen. But before they went behind the counter, Rosy said, “Hey Franky, here’s a good one, waddaya call a fella sitting alone in an automat with a bag full of dirty, stinkin’ mob money, with no choice?”
“I don’t know boss,” Franky said. “What do you call a fella sitting in an automat with a bag full of stinkin’ mob money, with no choice?”
“HA! A Hollywood producer! You get it?”
Franky laughed and slapped Rosy Cola on the back. “Sure, I get it! That’s a good one, boss!”
Cola said, “I already told ya, Franky. No slappin’ of the back.”
“Sure boss. Sorry boss.”
* * *
Now Oscar Child, the newly retired producer, was on the highway chasing the moon across the Mojave toward freedom. Barstow radio was calling for clear skies, and playing Doris Day. And he was whistling Sentimental Journey when he remembered Cola’s good one, which really was a good one, worth a slap on the back, and chuckling, Child knew it would make a hell of a good movie some day.
you gotta get in through the eve
the cop says
pointing at a door just down the way
past the teargas coming undone
like a head of long long hair
Bucky hadn’t been the same since that thing happened to him when he was fourteen. We’d been in high school together until grade nine, when he was removed from the world by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he was twenty-five, and sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters over wi-fi, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. (Lately, they’d been leaving him wrapped Christmas gifts as well.)
It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat with him, mostly pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from whatever site he’d fallen on that day.
“Says here,” he said that Christmas Eve, reading from a Reddit page, as I placed an eggnog latte and chocolate croissant in front of him and sat down, “that someone at SETI has leaked classified files and the information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”
“Oh?” I said, knowing that by doing so, I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.
“I’ve known it all along,” said Bucky. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came to our house it was Christmas Eve dark deep snow making the cars huge blue shapeless lumps under the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”
This was how he spoke, a fresh unpunctuated word sauté, a marathon mixture of misplaced word emphasis, concept fragments and idea run-ons, all of it headed toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories swirling like manhole steam. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed, always wondering what it all might look like written down on a page.
Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to say more. On his forehead, his bizarre tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper, only backward. He’d done it to himself, in the mirror.
“It was Christmas card apocalypse,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city you couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift into a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked what choice did they have they made him into soap I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”
It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.
“I think I’ll go,” I said, hoping to cut myself free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. I could move on; my sins were forgiven.
Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down. The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, and he said, “Please don’t go.”
“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Bucky.
“What?” This was new.
“The grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last people I’d ever loved were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of sci-fi reruns dense with code and insinuation cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”
He seemed desperate now, seeming to want to snatch up something skirting round his craggy terrain. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away that I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour I know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes did I ever tell you that?”
Actually, he never had. Like the rest of the regular coffee shop patrons, I’d believed that all of his peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a serious dissociative disorder of nameless origins. Now, I thought this might be it—that he’d never wanted to relive some horrible moment, that he was certain had taken place.
“I looked out the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched that spaceship streak across the black Christmas Eve sky.”
Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.
“It flew over the venting mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon and I watched it disappear it was temporarily finished with our world the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones the unceded lands and occupied territories the corporations and open-carry Christians it was moving at light speed now out of sight having flown through the tar of our slaughtered environment and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone once brightly like a Bethlehem super nova and out of place while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon but it really wasn’t so that when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”
“You okay, Bucky?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”
Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us get it a centimetre a second 604,800 seconds a week they throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of what we are that’s their plan but it’s never enough they always want more so from time to time when they go home to visit they take a trophy something extra a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow that was Rebecca and my mother.”
“Ah.” What else was there to say, except, “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? How am I supposed to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”
“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty is a bit fucked up.”
“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”
“I guess I trust you that’s all as far as believing me goes you will because you’re a geek a skinny awkward white boy open to anything in pursuit of any goddamn reality other than what’s so depressingly obvious.”
Ouch. “There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I stuttered.
“Yeah well I ain’t virtual I’m for real you can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”
He was right, I could.
“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day it’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias I’m living forever one day that window’s gonna bust and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”
“Stop talking like that. I don’t believe it.”
He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows and I guess I feel lighter for it maybe that puts you in the doghouse somehow because there are villains out there who want a piece of me but I don’t think so if anyone asks you can just tell them that the retard with the forehead tattoo was just talking shit.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.
He was there Boxing Day morning. No one had beamed Bucky up, or whacked him. His hollow cheeks seemed a little greyer, though, and based on his mutterings, his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracies and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.
What surprised her was how the burden hadn’t fallen heavily upon her heart, but had gently wrapped itself round, like a mist. She’d had a successful year in business, and was able now to give her friends this gift of a train trip through Christmas. But intuition told her that success was only one wheel of many, and some wheels turn best at the expense of others.
Of this she was certain, standing there in her red wool coat, surrounded by porters, passengers and newsies, in the frenetic motion around her on the platform, aware only of it all slowing down in that moment, nearly to a stop, as the CN Super Continental rolled into the station, the perfume of diesel filling the air. In contrast to her melancholy, this was fantasy come true, the anticipation of travel, her greatest love, and Christmas aboard this luxurious behemoth. A waking dream, in which she was absolutely lost. Until she felt someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Wakey-wakey,” the someone said, and Elinor’s dreaming moment quickly faded, along with her escape from the blues. It was her friend Margy at her side. “Time to board,” she said. “Are you coming with us?”
“Yes,” said Elinor, “Of course.” She took a ticket from her coat pocket, and held it in the air for all to see.
“You okay?” Margy asked.
Elinor quietly nodded.
And there they all were with her; Margy and Ian, Harland and Michelle, Marijus and Jennifer, Cindy and Geoff.
The Conductor and his assistants were on the platform checking tickets and directing passengers, First Class and Second, and ensuring luggage was loaded. And as the friends lined up to board their First Class car, Elinor noticed the private coach just down the way. Private, she knew, because after some consultation with the Conductor, only three people boarded. A large and dapper bearded man in a tweed overcoat and shoes with the burgundy gloss of fine leather, followed onboard by a young man and woman, equally well dressed. And that was it. No line of passengers behind them waiting to board. Only the three. And as Elinor looked on, before he boarded, the large and dapper man looked back and gave her a wink.
Elinor had seen private rail coaches before, and was glad each time to have the chance to play her own secret game of guessing, and sometimes even discovering, the identity of the grand passengers.
Once aboard, the group of friends stood a moment deciding where to sit, when greeted by a young man in a white jacket to the waist neatly fastened by a double row of polished brass buttons, and black expertly pressed pants. He bowed slightly, quietly clicking his heels and nearly smiled.
“The Warkentin party I presume,” he said, with a bored European accent difficult to place, The man’s posture, gold piping and spotless white gloves made him seem terribly important. Perhaps he thought he was.
“That’s us,” said Marijus.
“Well welcome. I am Maurice, your Car Attendant, assigned to make your journey a comfortable one. Please be seated, or explore the cars. The cocktail lounge and dining room are in that direction, but please,” he said, looking mildly repulsed, “please avoid second class.” Then changing his attitude, he said, “And please, there is a private coach. You’ll know it, if come to it, by the sign on the door. The door will be locked, naturally.”
“I think he tweezes his eye brows,” Harland whispered into Michelle’s ear. He took an unseen but expertly executed elbow to the ribs.
“Your personal accouterments have been placed in each of your sleeping compartments. I’ll take you to them for inspection as soon as I attend to another party. Are there any questions?”
“I think we’re fine for now,” said Cindy.
“But who’s in the private car?” Elinor asked.
“But one never asks that,” Maurice pointedly answered, the slick of his Brilliantined hair becoming a bit slickier. “It’s just not done. His privacy must be absolute, as with all private passengers.”
The railcar shook gently, as the trip commenced. The Christmas trip Elinor and company had planned for a year.
“Please leave your coats at the coat check,” said Maurice, guiding them, then walking away.
“Do you think he tweezes his eyebrows?“ Geoff said, as they all sat down.
“Looks like it to me,” said Ian.
“See?” Harland whispered into Michelle’s ear.
“Cocktail time, I think,” Jennifer said, as the train ran the cut through Vancouver’s east end.
“That’s a girl,” said Marijus. “Maurice pointed that way for the booze can, so let’s go.”
“Let’s go, indeed,” Cindy and Geoff said together.
At the lounge entrance, they were greeted by a gaunt and elderly man, grey and slightly stooped, who like Maurice, wore a snuggly fitted white jacket. His name tag read, Jack.
“There are nine of you,” Jack said.
“Yes,” said Elinor.
“Nine,” Jack repeated.
“I’ll have to put tables together,” he said, without budging. “I’ve the arthritis; do you know what that’s like?”
“No,” Cindy and Geoff said together. “Oh dear.”
“It aches,” said Jack. “Carrying trays is a challenge.” He was solemn. “Getting out of bed, maintaining personal hygiene. It aches.”
“Sorry about that, mate,” Harland said, “but can we be seated, please.”
“Nine,” Jack repeated. “I’ll have to put tables together.” He gazed off in the direction of the lounge. “I’ve the arthritis, you know.”
He wondered off, grimly.
“I say we slip the bartender a few bucks under the table,” said Marijus. “Buy us a bottle of rye. We can go back where we came from, sit down and have a party. Maybe get some paper cups from somewhere.”
“Not so fast,” Jennifer said, nodding toward the lounge where Jack was instructing a young bar port on how to properly put tables together and place chairs, then lay on peanuts, napkins, coasters, candles and ashtrays.
“No, no, no,” Jack was saying quietly but sternly, pointing his finger here and there.
Returning to the party of nine, he said, arthritically taking nine cocktail menus from a caddy, “Please come this way.” He walked slowly, so the party of friends did too.
“Your table, ladies and gentlemen,” Jack said, “which was two tables only moments ago. Sorry to make you wait, but I’m not the young man I once was. My knees and shoulders are especially bad. But can life be any different? Please choose from our extensive list, and I’ll be back shortly. There’s aspirin behind the bar.”
“It’s retirement time for that old duffer,” Marijus said. “Needs to go somewhere nice, with a masseuse and soft food.”
When Jack returned, he had the bar port with him who’d arranged the tables into one. The nervous teen had pad and pencil in hand. “Are we ready to order?” Jack said.
“We’d like to share a bottle of wine,” Margy said. “Or at least, some of us do. Maybe a burgundy, Pinot noir? How is this Moorooduc 1961 McIntyre.”
“Disappointing, I’m afraid,” said Jack.
“Oh, then the Et Fille Heredity Pinot Noir?”
Jack shook his head, “Absolute plonk, sad to say.”
“Then what do you recommend?”
“No ma’am, the beer. It’s your safest choice.”
“Oh, I’ll have that,” Michelle said. “I like Becks.”
“Me too,” said Cindy with enthusiasm.
“Alright,” Margy said, with less enthusiasm and wondering if second class might be better, after all.
“What’s this hot rum with marzipan thing?” Ian asked.
“Rum with a stick of marzipan,” said Jack, without encouragement.
“Becks, then?” Ian said.
And so it went around the table until it was Elinor’s turn.
“Icelandic vodka and cranberry juice,” she said, in a mood that seemed low.
“Oh I’d like that instead,” Margy said.
“Me too,” said Jennifer, ”That sounds nice.”
“Yes, cross out the Becks,” Cindy said. “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“Well write down!” said Jack, rolling his eyes, scolding the bar port.
“And I’ll have that hot rum with marzipan, after all,” said Ian. “And pretzels.”
“Yeah, pretzels,” Marijus said. “Where are the gosh darn pretzels?”
Then after a moment of thought, Harland asked Jack, “What’s with that guy, Maurice?”
“We have two Maurices at work on board,” Jack said. “Do you mean the chef, or the one who tweezes his eye brows?”
Harland gave Michelle a nudge.
“Yeah,” said Marijus, “the tweezing guy, what’s with him?”
“Just don’t mention Vladivostok,” Jack said, and walked away with the bar port.
It was then that Elinor rose, and took the window seat at a table down the way, near the Christmas tree. Solitude sat quietly across from her, as she watched out the window at the snow on suburban streets, and as the distance grew between street lights. After a spell, Jennifer, Cindy, Michelle and Margy came to sit with her.
“Interesting view,” said Michelle, “too bad it’s dark.”
Dark, really? Maybe not so dark, the surface of snowy streets being known to reflect an absent light near Christmas, and cast eccentric shadows. Oh holy night…
Elinor smiled, sincerely sighed and took sip of what was left of her drink.
“All right, dearie,” Jennifer said, “what’s the matter?”
—the hushed rumble of wheels, a pianist softly playing—
“This trip, it isn’t what I expected.”
An answer inked in hurt.
“It’s only the first night,” said Cindy. “Has something happened? Another passenger say something? You better tell us so we can make it right. We still have a long way to go.”
“Was it that Maurice weirdo?” Jennifer asks. “I’ll have him put in a cage if he’s said or done something mean to you.”
“No,” said Elinor. “I like him. He doesn’t know he’s trying too hard, but I do.”
“That’s very generous,” said Michelle.
“I’ll say,” Jennifer agreed.
“No,” said Elinor. “It’s just something that hit me back on the station platform. Maybe it hit me before then, a long time ago, and I’ve just lived round it.”
“And?” someone said.
Elinor finished her cocktail.
“It’s a small thing,” she said. “Selfish and embarrassing. It’s boring, and I don’t want to talk about it. I just need some sleep.”
“It’s because it’s Christmas,” Cindy said.
“You’re trying too hard, Elinor,” said Jennifer. “You don’t know it, but we do. You’re trying too hard to keep things from your friends.”
Yes, that’s it, Elinor thought. Clever Cindy/clever Jennifer, or maybe it’s something completely different. Oh too bad, Jennifer/Cindy, looks like you’ve both missed the mark—
It’s when her brakes fail one more time, and in her mind, she screeches to a stop at the gate. The gate that opens with a creak, so she can’t ignore it, and she sees it from her side of the picket fence. A momentary summer, a familiar child, warm in the yard. The kitchen door’s open, but the screen door’s closed. The little girl with a ragdoll. But Elinor can never hold on to it. What she sees always vanishes, but somehow she knows the grass keeps growing.
“I left my childhood somewhere,” she whispers. To hell with them, the whisper belongs to her. Then not much louder, “And I can’t find her. My responsibility, but one day she just wasn’t there. Lost on a sidewalk or at a bus stop somewhere nearby, but invisible. And she took so many memories with her, the feelings and flavours. How I saw things through those eyes; it’s all gone. And she took some of the people I loved most with her, the brat. I don’t know why it’s all coming out now.”
“It happens to us all,” said Cindy, as the ceiling lights dimmed, and a waitress lit a candle on their table. Formal dining begins soon.
“Yeah, Elinor,” Jennifer said. “Everyone.”
“Is that what this journey’s about?” Margy asks.
You’re doomed, Baby Jesus. Run like hell as soon as you’ve got the legs for it, the world can’t leave itself alone. The stars are brightly shining.
“I’m getting out in Winnipeg,” said Elinor. “Renting a car, driving home to Grunthal.”
This was unexpected. There are seconds of surprise, a quickly evolving empathy. Heads tilted ever so slightly.
“I think you’re expecting too much of that little town,” Jennifer said, “if you’re going there for what I think you are. Grunthal’s not your home anymore. You know that, right? I mean, sure, get out at Winnipeg. Rent a car, by all means. Drive there and visit. Give everyone lots of hugs. Hell, hug ‘em all for me. But go there for family, not to break your own heart.”
“The Grunthal you grew up in is gone,” said Michelle. “All you’ll find there is the person we’re talking to right now. Come back and sit with us.”
Elinor wants another drink. She wants to say, “Line ‘em up.” But instead, she said, “I’m going for a walk,” and stands up.“ I want to check out second class. I’ll be back in a while.” But she knew that wasn’t true.
It was time for her and the private car to meet.
The Coach wasn’t difficult to find, at the end of the long of line of cars. It had been a miracle of unlocked doorways, even through the luggage car. And when she arrived, it was just how Maurice had said, the brass sign on the door said, Private, go away. But the door was unlocked when she turned the nob, leaving the question: should she enter or go away? But walking away would ensure the melancholy she’d brought with her on the journey would remain. To enter, however, would be a fantastic distraction. Perhaps a solution to an unconscious yearning, an operatic climax caused by the crime of trespass. Just what she needed. She opened the door and stepped over the threshold.
The scents of sandalwood and cinnamon greeted her as she entered the car, and the pale chiming of tiny bells. The walls were panelled in dark mahogany, and lined with shelves, floor to ceiling, each filled with ancient leather bond tomes and stacks of pulpy paperback detective novels, each row of books punctuated by small Baroque and Renaissance figurines and exquisitely carved statuettes of Shiva, Buddha and Ganesha, making each shelf an avenue of silver and gold, marble and teak, and hundreds books.
The coach was dim, though. The bulbs in wall sconces turned low, while the lighted candles set in strangely designed candelabras did little to compensate. From somewhere out of sight came the voice of Blossom Dearie singing Comment allez-vous, and in a far corner stood a tall sparkle-lit Christmas tree. Enchantment surrounded her.
Further into the coach, she found another floor to ceiling item, a cabinet topped with a brilliant dome of stained glass. Behind its bevel glass doors were shelves crowded with age-old toys, dolls with untidy hair and fixed gazing eyes, and other toys, fading tin cars and soldiers, slightly dilapidated dollhouses once crafted with care, cowboys hats and cap-guns, and more. Each, she was certain, having once belonged to a child long passed away. It was a museum. She touched the glass, wanting to know the stories.
Then down the way she saw what she hadn’t before, a sliver of light escaping from a door slightly ajar. Now nothing else mattered. She was overwhelmed with curiosity. She’d come this far, just a little further might answer every question. She stepped up the door, and opened it a little more. And peeking in with one eye, she saw him, the large man, a little on the fat-side she decided, and now up close, a little white around the beard.
He sat at a table in his shirt sleeves and red socks, with the young man and woman who’d boarded with him, each of the two pale with white hair and sapphire eyes. All three were making notes as they scanned ledgers. And without looking up or turning round to look, the big man said, “You must be Elinor, that clutter woman.” Then he turned a page in his ledger.
“Well, come in.” He pushed the heavy book away, and looked at her peeking in. “You’ve found us now, so come in and stop your spying. You two,” he said to the pale man and woman, “it’s break time.” They stood and walked away.
“They call me Sam,” he said, holding out a hand to shake, so they shook, Elinor seeing a fine kindness in his eyes.
“It’s a couple of days early, but I’m glad you came,” he said taking a key from his pocket, “and since we won’t meet again, I’ll give you the gift I have for you.”
Sam escorted Elinor out of the room with ledgers, and to the cabinet of toys.
“All so wonderful,” he said, smiling, seeming deeply move as he looked through the glass. Then, sighing, he said, “Each has come back to me all on its own.” He unlocked and opened the cabinet and took out a small wooden horse. It stood on a small wheeled platform, that had allowed it to gallop through many-an-adventure. He put it into Elinor’s hand, and said, “Go ahead, turn it over and take a look.”
She did, and saw, written in fountain pen ink, in a very serious child’s hand, a name so familiar to her. The name of her grandfather, Peter Klassen.
“Sometimes a toy will find its way back to me,” said Sam. “Part of its journey, you might say. It belonged to Peter. It was a Christmas gift. He loved it for a long time, but grew up. The way children do, and he didn’t love it anymore. So, it came to me to stand in my little museum. Now it’s yours. He’d want you to have it.” It was yellow, with a blue mane and tail, faded and a little scratched.
“How can this be possible? I don’t believe you.” She wanted to throw in to the floor, but couldn’t.
“He’d a green thumb, sat at your beside and told the most wonderful stories. Some called him Watermelon Klassen. That’s just a bit of the man, of course. There’s an entire universe more.”
“This is cruel.” Elinor handed it back, but he wouldn’t take it. “Who have you been talking to, getting this information from? One of my friends I bet. The joke’s on me.”
“Do any of them know about your grandfather?”
“No,” she said. But was she wrong?
“You believe me though, don’t you. Like anyone else, you can’t help it.”
She wouldn’t, and mustn’t. How dare he. But with holding the little toy horse came feelings, remembered times. If this was magic, then it was too much at once.
“Please keep it,” Sam said, the kindness shining in his eyes. “It’s yours now. Remember it’s on a journey. You’re only one stop along its way.”
From somewhere unseen, there was a click and a plop, the sound of a wax disc dropping onto another on a turntable. The one playing Blossom Dearie when she entered the coach, and then something after that, that she couldn’t remember. Now, after a scratchy wax intro, Sarah Vaughan began to sing It Might as Well Be Spring.
“Ah, Sarah,” he said, whimsically.
“You’re him!” said Elinor.
“Or some fraud who likes to play him.”
“We believe what we must,” Sam said, “but that’s all beside the point. Just remember this, a toy once loved never lies.”
* * * * *
Later in her sleeping compartment, warm in the soft lamplight, she looked once more at the wooden toy on the shelf next her bed. She’d taken it from Sam, the old fraud, and not left it behind, to not break his heart, but she’d wonder if that was true if she looked deeply inside of herself. Then against her better judgement, she took it from the shelf, and gave it another good look before holding it to her heart and closing her eyes. And then like a theatre gone dark, and a motion picture just beginning, what was once lost was found again, as vivid visions of childhood flickered on a screen, summer after summer, Christmas after Christmas, and wonderful story after wonderful story, until morning, the morning of Christmas Eve.
Waking, Elinor quickly dressed and rushed through the cars to the private coach. She didn’t even know why. To thank him? But thanking Sam would be like accepting the magic as real, not a dream, not merely suggested. But she’d decide what to say when she met him again.
Now she was at the door of the coach and pushed it open, and when she did, she saw the walls were bare, the avenues of books and statues, silver and gold, marble and teak were gone. The toy museum, vanished. The Coach was bare of furniture and the Christmas tree.
She found Maurice in the little room at the back, wearing his immaculate costume, supervising a cleaning lady washing the floor. Nothing of the table, chairs or ledgers remained. There was an unplugged Hoover just outside of the door.
“Where is he?” she said, nearly shouting.
“Sam, you mean?”
“Yes, damn it, Sam.”
“He’s gone, of course.”
“Gone where, how? The train hasn’t stopped all night.”
“Well, it’s a busy day for him,” said Maurice. “He can’t loiter to say his farewells.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Maurice just shrugged, and directed the cleaning lady to a spot she’d missed.
It had been a slow walk back to the seat at a window Elinor now occupied, with a cup of coffee. The sun had come out, to shine on the snowy white landscape, and she smiled between sips of coffee. She’d searched every seat in every car for him, but he was absolutely gone. They’d be rolling in to Winnipeg soon, where she’d step off the train long enough to make a Merry Christmas phone call to family and friends in Grunthal, then board the CN Super Continental for the rest of the journey.