last mothers’ day at Tito’s

Tito lived over Imelda’s Dime-a-Dance Parlour at Broadway and Main where the lackadaisical musical stylings of The Martin Sentimental Band began every evening at 5.00 p.m.  During the day, he worked at the Sunrise Market, stacking carrots, turnips and onions, and chasing off produce thieves with a razor sharp vegetable knife. He was an unrated middleweight waiting for his crack at a title.

At night, in the winter, he lay on his bed waiting for the melodies that matched the time register of the clanging steam pipes, usually 2/4 time give or take. In the summer, he lay there naked, perspiring until the night cooled and the nocturnal breezes off the Pacific began their cycle. He burned candles and incense and reread 1940s vintage boxing magazines, waiting for Cole Porter tunes to come up through the floor.

Sometimes Martin’s younger brother, Melvin Sentimental, would sing with the band. He had a voice like Sinatra’s after he’d met Eva Gardner, after she’d rescued Frankie from his lonely hell.

Around midnight, fights that broke out in Imelda’s spilled out onto the street. Tito would draw back a corner of a curtain and peak out at the men on Broadway, only half as drunk as they thought they were on the cheap, watered down booze. They brandished knives and unforgivable insults while the dime-a-dance girls stood languidly by, bored and pouting and wishing it was closing time. Occasionally some mook would pull a cheap .38 that would explode when the trigger was pulled. Sometimes the money Imelda paid out couldn’t keep the cops away.

Every Mother’s Day, Tito’s Mamma returned from the dead to tell him how much she loved him, and complain to him about the state of his messy flat. Anticipating this, he worked hard to keep his apartment clean during the days that led up to the annual visit. So, on the morning of the second Sunday in May, when he awoke and saw her smiling ghost standing at the foot of his bed, the place was spick and span.

“Hello, Tito baby,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.

“Hello, Mamma.”

“I’ve just come to tell you I love you, Tito baby.”

“I love you too, Mamma. How is it being dead?”

“Not so bad. But we ain’t got no Army & Navy, and sometimes I have to put up with relatives who aren’t any better dead than they were alive. Your father’s brother, Uncle Sal, for one. What a bum. You’d think that death would change a man, but no. Not a man like your Uncle Salvador.”

“I’m sorry to hear this, Mamma.”

“Oh, don’t concern yourself,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “That’s death for you. Just the troubles of an old woman’s ghost. The living have other things to worry about. Like this apartment, Tito. Can’t you do something?”

“But I cleaned…”

“I mean it’s tidy enough, but you couldn’t take a moment to paint?”

This was new and distressing. Tito’s dead Mother had always restricted her comments to cleanliness. She’d never mentioned the apartment’s state of disrepair. Tito located the beginnings of a hangnail on his left index finger and began to rub it with his thumb. It was a natural and inevitable nervous reaction to his dead Mamma’s natural and inevitable prodding. “I cleaned it up for you, Mamma,” he said.

“It’s tidier than other years, I’ll admit. But those drapes…”

Tito stopped rubbing the hangnail with his thumb and began picking at it with his thumbnail. “I only rent, Mamma.”

“Stop that,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “That thing you’re doing with your thumb. You’ll only make that hangnail worse. It’ll start to bleed. It’ll look like you’ve got bloody nail polish. Girls don’t go for boys that bite their nails.”

“But I don’t bite my…”

“And it’s 7.00 a.m. Why aren’t you out of bed yet? If your father were around…”


“Don’t ask,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “I never see him. Salvador, his underachieving brother, I see daily. But your father, the man I married, who I spent 30 years cleaning up after, forget about it.”

Tito continued to pick at his hangnail with wretched enthusiasm. It was getting longer, more pronounced. It was starting to sting. It was probably bleeding onto his brand new white bed sheets. He couldn’t look, and hoped his Mamma wouldn’t either.

“You know what it’s like trying to get a blood stain out, Tito? Didn’t I teach you anything?”

“Yeah,” came a voice from the wall where Tito had hung glossy black and white 8x10s of famous 1940s middleweights. “Didn’t your Mamma teach you anything, Tito?” It was Jake La Motta, standing in his photo like all of the framed boxers around him. The black and white image not only representing a lack of colourful distraction, but the revelation of shadow, muted radiance and grainy highlights on the powerful shoulders, heavily scared brow ridges, cheekbones and a bent and swollen nose. Wearing silk boxing shorts, his head down, up on his toes, his feet placed directly under his shoulders, his mitted fists up and ready. When he spoke again, he did so in a mocking, falsetto voice.

“Didn’t your mamma tell you about stains?”

Tito began to pull more anxiously on the growing hangnail. He’d pulled it out of the nail bed, and it was now a fleshy string of skin and sinew that stretched all the way to his knuckle. He was peeling his finger like an apple, round and round, leaving only muscle, nerve and bone behind.

“He’s coming undone,” said the 8×10 of Ray Robinson.

“What a bum,” said Kid Gavilan. “Folds under pressure like a house of cards. No wonder he’s just an unrated gym rat. Definitely not a contender.”

“Ha, gym rat,” Jake La Motta said. “That’s rich. Look who’s talking.”

“Back off, La Motta you stupid wop,” said Kid Gavilan.  “You clubfoot, I’ll take you apart.”

“You and what army, you half a girl.”

“Shut up,” Tito yelled with his hands over his ears, one of them dripping blood. “My dead Mother’s visiting. Leave us alone.”

“You hung us here,” said La Motta.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”

“Just sayin’.”

“Shut up.”

“Maybe I should just go,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said.

“No, Mamma,” said Tito peeling off more of the flesh from around his finger. He was down to where the index finger met the hand now. Blue veins had been revealed. They glistened and pulsed.

“And stop picking at that,” the ghost of his dead Mother said. “It’ll get infected.”

“It’ll get infected,” La Motta lisped.

Tito threw off his bed sheets, and got out of bed. He wore a pair of lime green cotton boxers with purple geckos. There were whistles and hoots from the wall of 8x10s. “Mamma, please stay. I’ll make tea.”

“Tea,” whispered Joey Maxim’s 8×10. “Isn’t that precious?”

“One lump or two,” said Archie Moore.

“I’ll give you lumps,” said Jersey Joe Walcott.

“Will you ladies be having scones and strawberry jam,” said La Motta.

“Stop it or I’ll take you all down,” Tito said. “I’ll throw you all into the trash.”

“Couldn’t be any worse than hanging round this joint,” said Ezzard Charles.

“Anything be better than watching this homo skin himself alive,” said Rocky Graziano.

“I’m not a homo,” Tito said.

“Homo gym rat,” La Motta said.

“Shut up,” Tito yelled.

“Have to go,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.

“Mamma, please.” Tito continued to peel himself. He was exposing the flesh beneath the skin of his wrist and beginning to proceed up the forearm. Pinkish white tendons were showing. The ribbon of skin and flesh had gotten wider. He was feverishly pulling it off with his right hand now.

“Look at you,” the ghost of his dead Mother said. “Go run some cold water over it. It’ll stop the bleeding. Then put on a Band-Aid, for goodness sake. I told you not to pick at it.”

“Oh please do stop picking at it, Tito darling,” La Motta said.

“Hey La Motta, looks like your face after our fight in ’44,” Ray Robinson said.

“Shudup, you bum,” said La Motta. “I coulda murdered you that night.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t,” said Jersey Joe Walcott. “I was there in the third row. Ray sure took you apart.”

“Who’d you blow to get a third row seat,” said La Motta.

“Watch it La Motta,” said Walcott. “You dive artist.”

“No, you watch it, Jersey. You don’t want me coming over there.”

“You can’t come over here, you dim wop. You’re just a lousy 8×10 glossy. Even uglier than the real thing, if that’s possible.”

Laughter from the wall.

Tito was nervously tearing skin off from just above his elbow, a long ribbon now, some of which lay on the floor trailing blood.

“Look at the mess,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.

“That’s some sick shit,” said Maxim.

“You’re making me do it,” Tito said. “Shut up and leave me alone.”

“Hey, we got a right,” said Kid Gavilan.

“Yeah,” said Graziano. “We gotta hang here all day and all night with nothing to look at but you, you morose mamma’s boy. Watching you sweat over those out of date boxing magazines makes me sick. What goes on in that head of yours? I think you are a homo.”

“He’s a homo,” La Motta said.

“I’m not a homo,” said Tito, peeling away below his opposite shoulder.

“He’s a sensitive boy,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.

“Oh, here we go,” said Maxim. “Dead Mother’s ghost to the rescue.”

“Stay out of this Mamma,” Tito said.

“I will not stay out of this. You’re my baby.”

“My little baby with the geckos on the shorts,” said La Motta.

“Actually, I kind of dig the geckos,” said Robinson.

“That makes you a homo, too,” said La Motta.

“What was that, La Motta,” Robinson said. His framed photo shook slightly on the wall. “You fat, degenerate, alcoholic slob,”

“I said that you’re a homo, too. Let’s face it, a fella doesn’t comment on another fella’s shorts unless he’s a homo. It’s a homo thing. So, you’re a homo just like him.”

“I’m not a homo,” said Tito as the ribbon of flesh and gore progressed around his back and across the front of his collar bone.

“Stop picking,” the ghost of his dead Mother said.

“Come and get it, La Motta,” said Robinson. “I’m gonna beat your lily white honky ass to a pulp. I’m going to take you apart piece by piece.” Robinson’s frame began to rattle violently on the wall as he spoke, and then fell to the floor. The glass shattered. “Pick me up, pick me up,” Robinson’s yelled. His voice muffled beneath the overturned frame and matting.

“Ha, that’ll teach you not to mess with the champ,” La Motta said. “Look at you down there with the dust bunnies.”

“I swept up the dust bunnies,” Tito said. “There are no dust bunnies.”

“My boy’s very neat,” said the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother.

“You only show up once a year, lady” said Archie Moore. “He cleans up for you. The rest of the time it’s like a garbage barge in here.”

“That’s a lie,” said Tito.

“The hell it is,” said Gavilan.

“Shut up,” said Tito, peeling away the skin from above his nipples.

“Pick me up, Tito,” yelled Robinson. “Or I’ll kick your homo ass.”

“I’m not a homo,” said Tito.

“He only ever had one girlfriend, come to think of it,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “And she was sort of butch, if you ask me.”

La Motta guffawed.

“Don’t try to help, Mamma.”

“Well, I love you even if you are a homo, Tito,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.

“I thought you were going, Mamma.”

“I thought you were making tea.”

“You can’t even drink tea, Mamma,” Tito said peeling the ribbon of flesh off from around the small of his back and stomach. “You’re dead.”

“It’s the thought that counts, boyo,” said La Motta.

“Pick me the hell up,” yelled Robinson. “If I was a white man, you’d have picked me up by now.”

“If you was white,” said La Motta. “You’d fit in better with polite company, instead of floppin’ around on the floor like you was tap dancin’ or something.”

“Yes,” said the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother. “It’s the thought that counts. And if you don’t stop picking at that, I’ll scream. You were always such an obsessive, picky little boy.”

“Homo,” said La Motta.

“Pick me up,” yelled Robinson.

“I’m not a homo.”

“You spent an awful lot of time with that Jeremy Blinker boy in high school,” the ghost of Tito’s dead Mother said. “Wasn’t he in ballet?”

“Ballet,” gasped La Motta.

“Well, there you are,” said Archie Moore.

“Pick me up.”

“He was in figure skating,” said Tito.

“Same damn thing,” said Maxim.

“Is not.”

“And you dressed up like a girl that time,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.

“It was Halloween,” said Tito. “I was only ten years old. And it was your idea, Mamma. You dressed me up as Marilyn Monroe.”

“Ooo, daddy!” said La Motta

“Well, I always wanted a girl. A boy can be disappointing in so many ways. You have no idea.”

Tito had now peeled away the epidermis from his torso to just above the waist band of his gecko shorts. He looked down at the gruesome blues, reds and pinks of his exposed tissues. “I thought I’d bleed more,” he said, mildly surprised, as he began to pull down his underwear.

“Stop right there, young man,” said the ghost of his dead Mother. “I’ll just collect myself and leave. Then you can abuse yourself as you see fit. But I suggest that you visit a doctor tomorrow and have him provide you with some ointment for that.”

“That must hurt like a son of a bitch,” said Graziano.

“It’s indescribable,” said Tito as he sat down on the bed, holding the balled-up ribbon of flesh in his hand.

“All joking aside, kid,” La Motta said. “You should maybe call an ambulance or something. You need stitches.”

“Don’t you call a damn ambulance before you pick me up,” yelled Robinson.

“Why can’t you people leave me alone,” said Tito.

“Well, I like that,” said the ghost of his dead Mother.

“You’re the one who hung us on the wall, boyo,” said La Motta.

“But you’re so vicious,” said Tito.

“Vicious,” whistled Archie Moore.

“Pick me up.”

“Unrelenting,” said Tito.

“I’m your mother, Tito. If I’m not unrelenting, then who will be?”

“Look at what I’ve done.”

“I told you to stop picking at it. It’ll probably get infected now.”

“A homo and a head case,” said Kid Gavilan.

“Pick me up the hell up.”


life is a mysterious room

They sat in the Ovaltine Café drinking coffee, each with a copy of the Vancouver Province.

“Look at this,” said Ethan Liss scanning the obituaries. “Phillip Balsam has died.”

“Phillip?” David Okin said. “Our Phillip, dead? You know you really shouldn’t read the obits. It’s bad juju.”

“Survived by his sons Nathan and Roger,” Liss went on. “The bums. They’ll sell the store, you can make book.”

“You think?” said Okin.

“Anything worth a damn that isn’t nailed down,” Liss said. “Dollars to doughnuts.”

“You mean Phillip’s Shaughnessy store?” said Okin.

“The one and only,” Liss said. “His obit quotes him describing it as a bizarre but glamorous masterpiece collection of antiques, exotica and the violently esoteric in a bland and tenaciously Occidental city.”

“Strong of opinion.”

“Well, that was our Phillip. He did have a great inventory,” Liss said.

“A lot of it came straight out of Kiev after the war, you know,” Okin said.

“That I didn’t know.”

“Well it’s true. Did you ever see the 700 year old church alter he had in the store? Christ, Himself, appeared there every Yom Kippur and Pass Over?”

“Yes,” Liss said. “I heard there were many conversions.”

“There were no conversions,” Okin said. “That’s just trashy Catholic propaganda.”

“There was also the bow, quiver and arrows said to have once belonged to a warrior from an ancient and extinct Antarctic tribe of nomadic hunter gatherers.”

“He got called on that one,” Okin said.

“True,” Liss said. “That and the propellers from Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra. Phillip did dance on the boundaries. But he always said that an antique is a story before all other things – sometimes a whole book of stories – and it’s the stories that give a piece its legitimacy.”

“How about the legendary alabaster vial of mysterious Egyptian oil,” Okin said. “It had once belonged to a Pharaoh. A tiny drop of that oil could remove a tattoo. Now that was the genuine article.”

“Use too much, though, and the user vanishes as sure as the tattoo,” Liss said.

“Used with extreme caution, even by the most reckless. It’s said that a burlesque entertainer bought the whole vial.”

“Cost her everything she had,” said Liss.

“Paid for Phillip’s house in Dunbar.”

“She was a tattooed lady,” Liss recalled. “Retired.”

“Her name was Tattoo Tess,” said Okin.  “She used the oil in the vial to remove decades of tattoos. Then one day, she just wasn’t there anymore.”

“Like she’d never been there in the first place,” Liss agreed.

“As a result of her mysterious and suspicious disappearance, they hung her husband,” said Okin. “One of the last people to be hung in Canada. He’d been in burlesque, too. A magician and escape artist. People were laying odds on whether he’d escape the gallows. He never did.”

“They convicted him on purely circumstantial evidence, as I recall. Canada’s always been good at convicting the innocent. It would have been hard for him to escape.”

“Canada should be so good at other things,” Okin said. “But I’ll not talk ill of the country that took Vera and me in after the war.”

“Amen, said Liss.”

“Amen, sure, but he was hung even though there was no body. And he never even attempted to escape.”

“Maybe he didn’t escape because he didn’t want to,” said Liss. “I remember a Toronto Star interview, in which he claimed that life was meaningless without his Tess – even though everyone knew she’d done him dirt.”

“Hey, was she ever found?”

“Oh yeah,” Liss said. “They found her in a seedy neighbourhood of Montreal where show people once resided. A private dick hired by the lawyers handling the magician’s estate tracked her down,”

“So, she didn’t disappear from using too much of the Pharaoh’s oil,” said Okin.

“No, she just removed herself from what she considered a loveless marriage. But before she did, she planted some very damning and misleading clues that lead to the conviction of the magician.”

“For example?” said Okin.

“For example,” said Liss, “and this is where it gets a little sinister: she looked into how she could collect some of her own blood. The blood had to be her type for what she planned. She settled on the setup used at blood donor clinics, acquiring the equipment she needed over time using pseudonyms. Then she actually sat down, and stuck one of those monster needles in her own arm and pumped her blood into a jar. She collected four pints over three or four days. When she was done collecting, she went to work. She splattered it all over the walls of the bedroom she shared with the magician. She knew she had to make it look like arterial spray, but she poured the majority of it onto her side of the bed.

“Then she took a knife belonging to the magician, coated it in blood, and hid it the backyard garden. In the basement of the house, she placed a torn, blood soaked negligee behind the water heater. Then she just walked away, but not before she made an anonymous call to the police.”

“So there was a ton of false evidence, but no body,” said Okin.

“Correct,” said Liss.

“Why didn’t she just ask for a divorce?”

“How should I know?” said Liss. “She was show people. Thing was, anybody who cared to look for the living Tess was looking for a tattooed lady. But she didn’t have tattoos anymore. So, in a pre-digital age she was lost to the world. When they finally did catch up with her, her tattooless state was thought of as an evil sort of miracle. Tess, however, knew it was the magical 3,000 year old oil in the alabaster vial.

“In the end, she did three years of a five year stretch for falsifying evidence. The papers said her conviction and the relatively stiff sentence had more to do with her making jackasses of the cops and the courts.

“Upon her release, to the indignant rage of many, she received the money she’d inherited from her state executed magician husband. With the cash, and the cheek and temerity of the truly unrepentant, she opened a tattoo parlour.”

“But if she didn’t have any tattoos left to identify her,” Okin said. “How could they be sure they put the right woman in prison?”

Liss smiled and said, “Vanity is a harsh mistress, my friend. Tess couldn’t help herself. She kept one tattoo, her prize: The Sanskrit Tiger. It was a one of a kind tattoo with arcane code and the answers to mystic riddles incorporated into the stripes of the fierce, swooping cat. Few scholars could decipher it. And there’s only one place in the world where such work is actually done, by monks in an isolated Himalayan village by the name of Punt.

“Tess travelled there and had it done in 1937. She had the tattoo situated in an area where only her most intimate relations, or those who’d pay the price, would be able to see it. In her youth she was famous for the Tiger. People journeyed from the other side of the planet to gaze upon its mystery. The magician had been careful to reveal all of this in his last will and testament, and it was the existence of The Sanskrit Tiger that they used as evidence in the conviction of Tess.”

“Vengeance from the grave,” Okin said.

“No, it was the magician’s way of ensuring Tess and only Tess received the inheritance.”

“Her husband still cared enough to provide for her after his unjust death,” said Okin.

“Life is a mysterious room,” said Liss.

once upon a time on the Downtown Eastside

Loosely based on possible past events 

It’s the Tuesday before Welfare Wednesday. The hungriest day of the month for the hungriest people in the city. My name is Darren Hornsby. I’m in my office at Mission United Church on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I’m a Legal Anti-poverty Advocate, and I’m using a ruler to catapult sharpened pencils into the acoustic tiles above my desk. The phone rings.

In my line of work, a ringing phone is almost never a good thing. It usually means someone’s ass is falling off. People know that that’s my intervention criteria. Don’t even think of calling unless your ass is falling off. I usually let the phone ring seven times before picking up. It helps to weed out the unmotivated. On the Tuesday before cheque issue, however, I always let it ring eight times.

It does. I pick up.

“Darren here.”

“Hey Darren, ol’ buddy,” the caller says. “Guess who this is.”

“Don’t know,” I say. “Your ass falling off?”

“Darren, pal. It’s Hal from the Food Bank. How you doing?”

“I’ve got a feeling things are about to change for me,” I say.

Hal’s a Food Bank employee. A broker really, responsible for foisting large amounts of the world’s most unwanted food onto the world’s most unwanted people. Hal and people like him are the dirty little secret of food banks everywhere.

People like Hal are the go-betweens for contributors using the food bank as a dumping facility. Donors delivering rotten or near rotten perishables by the truckload, and behaving like it’s manna. The Food Bank has rules, but these donors are usually large companies who provide monetary donations as well. They think not accepting two hundred and fifty pounds of poisonous, decaying chicken wieners they’re too cheap to take to the landfill is the same as not wanting the all important cheque come Christmastime. So, what’s the Food Bank to do? They get a guy like Hal.

Hal doesn’t get rich doing what he does. Like most of us living off of the avails of the non-profit sector, he probably brings home just about enough to avoid having to use the Food Bank himself. What makes guys like Hal so annoying is that they love their work. He gets off on making his mouldy cheese your mouldy cheese. No one else in the mission office will talk to him. Only I’m capable of saying no.

“Sounds like you’re burning out, Darren,” Hal says. “It’s time to go to Disneyland.”

“I already work in Disneyland,” I say looking out of my window. On Hastings there’s five uniform police holding down a struggling, emaciated woman as they go through her backpack. “What’s up? Spit it out.”

“Okay, but you take all of the fun out of this job, you know.”

“Don’t care,” I say picking up a sheet of paper, flapping it noisily in the air, providing audio evidence of the frenzied pressure I’m currently under.

“Whatever. Look, you ever been to Mexico?”

“That file’s been sealed by the authorities, Hal.”

“Huh? Okay look, what’s the tastiest fruit they have in Mexico? And here’s a hint: you use it to make a sauce for nachos. What is it, Darren? C’mon, what is it?”

“Cilantro,” I say. I’ve stopped catapulting pencils, and have begun mindlessly pumping staples into an eraser. Talking to Hal is like this sometimes. Past mission employees have gnawed off their own limbs.

“No, no, you crazy nut. It’s the avocado. Cilantro’s an herb, not a fruit.”


“Now listen carefully, Darren.” Hal is nearly whispering now, for emphasis. He’s not sure I get just how lucky I am that he’s called. “You want avocados; I got avocados. You with me so far, huh?”

“You don’t have to whisper, Hal. The United Church of Canada has this office swept for bugs on a weekly basis.”

“Okay, but pay attention. I have five thousand avocados at their peak of perfection waiting in a reefer truck outside. Safeway over ordered. Running the reefer is costing us something like $75 an hour. That’s money we ain’t got, and I know you ain’t got no avocados, so why don’t you do your part and take these puppies off my hands.”

“Do we get the nachos and sour cream as well?”

“Take the avocados, for Christ sake.”

“What are we supposed to do with avocados, Hal? People here need ready-made – canned and bagged. Send over some Chef Boyardee.”

“Take the damn avocados, Darren. Or do I have to come down there personally and feed all 5,000 of them to you through a hose?”

Hal’s a little more reactive than normal today. If I push a little harder, he might burst like a haggis piñata in the sun.


“What, Darren?”

“We don’t want your 5,000 avocados, or any portion thereof. Our customers are homeless, Hal. Or they live in slum hotels where the only refrigeration comes during a few weeks in the winter. You know all this, yet you continue offering me your putrid rib roasts, green cold cuts and composted vegetables.”

“They’re nice and firm, Darren,” Hal says, changing his tone.

“I doubt it.”

“They’re just coming ripe and ever so lithe to the touch. “


“They’re dark with antioxidants. The pits nearly jump out of their own volition. They’re ready to be gently cubed in their own peel and spooned out onto a dish of baby romaine. Serve ‘em up with a little bit of slivered red onion, a sprinkle of toasted sesame, some freshly cracked pepper, maybe a trickle of fruity, extra virgin olive oil and a not too sweet, slightly acidic papaya salsa. Would that be so damned bad, Darren?”

“Sounds great, Hal,” I say. “But this is a frontline street mission functioning in the poorest, nastiest neighbourhood in town. It ain’t a tappas bar. On today’s fresh sheet is soup, the same soup we ladled out yesterday and the same soup we’ll be ladling out five years from now. It’s the kind of soup people line up round the block for because it’s hot and ready to go. It’s the kind of soup we serve to-go because we respect that our customers aren’t good at sitting still.

“In our own puny on-site food bank there’s only space for tea bags, instant coffee, peanut butter, crackers, canned baby food, pasta, rice, baked beans with pork, baked beans in tomato sauce, baked beans with those crappy little cocktail weenies you never know what the hell they are and wouldn’t feed your dog, infinite cans of light flaked tuna, canned sardines in tomato sauce, canned sardines in mustard sauce, canned sardines in marshmallow sauce with chocolate fucking chips, canned corn beef, Spam – real and generic, canned mackerel, canned salmon, even canned goat, for God’s sake. But there is no room for the gourmet inspired wanking of people who can afford kitchen appliances. This is not the bloody food channel. When you presume to flog this shit off on my customers for reasons that benefit you alone, you dismiss their plight as meaningless. You treat them like they’re your personal garbage disposal. And no matter how praiseworthy your agency, buddy, you’ve got no right.”

Now Hal’s gone quiet, but I can hear him breathing. He hangs up. This is routine, but it may not be a good thing. He’s probably thinking up a plan B.

After taking a suicide call later in the morning and sitting through a meeting with a low level civic official connected to the Mayor’s initiative to create a homelessness diaspora to the suburbs called Operation Share the Pain, I go for lunch. When I return, I pick up the scent of avocados on the air. I ignore it, believing it to be the result of the joint I just smoke with Harry Nathan, a plain clothes cop behind the Ovaltine Café.

Back in my office I rummage for munchies, but come up empty. There’s a knock at my door.

Gracie Dorn, the receptionist and Cree Goddess of office dysfunction, walks in uninvited. “This is for you,” she says holding out a bill of lading. “The driver says you have to sign it before he can deliver the avocados.”

Stoned, I take it and say, “Fine.” I sign it, and Gracie leaves with it, slamming the door behind her. I check my agenda for the rest of the afternoon. There are four overlapping first priority, hour and a half long appointments. There’s another knock at my door. Gracie again, this time with a cc of the form I’ve just signed.

“There’re now several flats containing approximately 5,000 avocados on the loading dock, Mr Hornsby,” Gracie says.

I’m having trouble understanding her, and starting to realise it may have been a mistake getting stoned at lunch. Cops always have the most wicked weed.

The phone rings. It’s Hal.

“You get ‘em, ol’ pal?” he says.

My jaw drops. Out of the corner of my eye, on my desk, I see the cc of the bill I’ve just signed. Then I yell into the receiver, “Bastard.”

“Don’t be a loser,” Hal says.

“I’m going to invade your AGM, Hal. I’m going to raise so many points of order that you and your board will be busy ‘til hell freezes over.”

“I’ve already had you banned from our next five AGMs, Darren.”

“You can’t do that, I’m an associate member. I get your crappy little rah-rah newsletter every month.”

“Not anymore, pal. I just hit enter.”

“Send your boy back and get those avocados.”

“No way, man. He’s gone back into detox.”

“I’m renting a truck, Hal. I know where you live, you shit head.”

“You stay away from me, you law school washout. It’s only Tuesday. That’s plenty of time to get a restraining order.”

“Fuck,” I yell and slam down the receiver over and over, seeing Hal’s face in the cradle. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

The phone rings again. “What,” I yell. It’s Mary, a support group facilitator.

“The Mission United Battered Women’s Support Group is gathering out here, Darren,” she says. “They’re waiting for their meeting room to come free.”


“Well, we can hear you in there. You’re scaring some of the group members, Darren. And the ones that aren’t scared are looking for a rope.”

“Okay, you’re right,” I say. “I’m calming down.” I hang up and ring Gracie at reception. “Cancel all of my appointments for this afternoon.”

“Now, Darren? It’s a bit late, isn’t it? One of them is already here.”

“Just do it, Gracie. Tell them I’m dead. Say it was the Ebola Virus, that everyone on site is contagious.”

“Darren,” Gracie says. “I’m the receptionist, not your mother. You have to start taking more responsibility for yourself and your clientele.”

“I’m escaping through my window,” I say.


“If called on it, deny you ever heard me say that.”

I hang up the phone.

My office is on the first floor. I open the window and look down. Mission United was built in the sixties, back when it wasn’t considered unreasonable for an office worker to want to open a window. Mine opens enough for me to squeeze out. I’ve done it before. The only problem is that my escape hatch opens over the ramp leading down into the underground parking, making the fall about one and a half stories. It all works out much better when I’m more stoned than I currently am, but my immediate escape is imperative. There’s no other way to get to the loading dock to confirm the reality of the avocados without walking through reception.

Thirty seconds after I hit the ramp, I’m behind the building on the loading dock looking at several massive flats of Mexican avocados. Sergio, the church’s Guatemalan born janitor looks at the flats with me and whistles. We share the same ominous and ugly premonition.

“We mus hide these, Mr Hornsby,” Sergio says.

“Yeah, yeah, Serge. Get some tarps.”

Sergio vanishes, and I pick up one of the dark green, hand grenade sized objects. It’s about the weight of a hardball, and rotting. If these make it off the loading dock and into the neighbourhood, it’ll be 2010 all over again, only worse.

In July 2010, the mission received a similar delivery – 600 kilos of decomposing strawberries. The mission did what it could to get the word out and distribute them. Some of them were even eaten or made into preserves. But the rest, almost all of the 600 kilos, became projectiles in a neighbourhood-wide strawberry paint ball fight.

That delivery was Hal’s responsibility as well. I crush the plump, pulpy piece of fruit in my hand.

Somewhere in the universe, Jesus wept again. Fat lot of good that did any of us, though. Here was food going bad, and no way to safely distribute it. The second word got out, there’d be mayhem. These weren’t small, mushy strawberries. Each one was like a snowball with a rock inside. When these items started to fly, windows would break and people would get hurt.

I hang my head considering the unfairness of it all. And then I hear the sirens.

I look up the back alley onto Gore Street, and see an Emergency Services onslaught. It’s headed up by the police. The mission is being surrounded by cruisers, ambulances and fire trucks. There’s even a van of SWAT types that stops on the corner a half block away. And this is when the Reverend Moses Hawser and Wilma, his ever-present border collie, appear.

“Jesus Murphy,” Hawser says. “What the fuck now? And what in the name of bleeding Jesus is that,” he says, pointing at the avocados.

Having come to Canada from Ulster, Hawser has a healthy regard for the destructive, wounding potential of anything so easily picked up and thrown as an avocado.

“They’re…” I begin.

“…bloody avocados,” the reverend says, finishing my sentence. “What lowlife son of a Belfast whore put those there?”

“Guess,” I say.

“Food Bank Hal, eh? I’ll castrate the bastard.”

Then we hear an unexpected voice from the alley: “Okay, boyos.” It’s a female police sergeant. “You two get yer arses back inside.”

“What the hell for,” Hawser says. “What’s with you lot?”

“We’ve been called in by the City and the Centre for Disease Control,” the sergeant says. “They’ll have more to tell you when they arrive. For now, just get back inside.”

“Or what, Missus Policeman,” Hawser says. “Or you’ll arrest me for standing on the Lord’s own loading dock?”

“What you just call me, Padre?” the sergeant asks.

“’Padre’?” says Hawser. “Did you say ‘Padre’?”

Things are suddenly starting to get tense. Hawser’s the Executive Director of the Mission, and takes his job very seriously. He’s also maniacally Protestant. I’ve seen him like this before. It never works out well.

“Let me tell you something, Officer Barbie Doll. I’m no Padre. I’m no child molesting papist stooge. I’m a Minister in the United Church of Canada, the Grand Old UC of C. The church Jesus himself will attend upon His return.”

I take Hawser by the elbow and attempt to guide him away. He doesn’t budge. Under any other circumstances, this was the bullet-proof old bastard I’d want in my corner. But we needed a subtlety now that he lacked.

“They look serious, boss,” I say glancing at the sergeant and her cohort over my shoulder.

Going over to the avocados and picking one up, Hawser says, “Fine, girly. I’ll keep the peace and retreat back into the House of the Lord. And to prove there’s no hard feelings, here’s a wee token of my esteem. Memorize its face, because if something isn’t done to keep these from getting out onto the streets, there’s gonna be trouble tonight.”

He tosses the rotting avocado underhand. The cops behind the sergeant jump back, but the sergeant holds her ground. She smiles as the avocado comes to rest a half meter away from the toe of her boot, and pulls a pale green latex glove out of her hip pocket. She snaps it onto her right hand, kneels and picks up Hawser’s gift. There’s an astonished gasp from the officers behind her as she drops it into an evidence bag. The word, gasped and repeated, “Ebola, Ebola, fucking Ebola.”

Once inside, Hawser turns to me and says, “Darren me lad, you know when I hear words like Jihad, assassination, hostage taking, massacre, explosion, butcher the bastard, weapons cache, whites of their eyes, fire in the hole, electromagnetic pulse and Ebola, I think immediately of you”

“Well,” I say and etch out a nervous but invisible figure eight on the linoleum with the toe of my tattered black Chuck Taylor. “I guess I just, I don’t…. I mean I really don’t see….” I have nothing credible to say. I look up from the floor at Hawser’s sour mug.

“Oh dear, and what’s happened to our man of many words, Darren? The bombastic interrupter of important meetings, the pounder of desktops, the Mission’s own Men’s and Lady’s restroom graffiti artist – don’t deny it, boy, we’re short on time here.”

“It’s been a difficult day,” I say.

“Darren, my son,” and here Moses places his hand on my shoulder, and his tone becomes calm, almost angelic. “It’s a frontline street mission we work in here. We swim daily in the bottomless morass of human misery and calamity. We do it for the paycheque, sure. But we also do it because we’re called to it, no? And a calling isn’t set aside just because we’re having a difficult day, is it?”

“No?” I say.

“No, indeed,” Hawser says gently as he removes a sizeable piece of lint from the front of my shirt. “No Darren, and this is where I sometimes question the wisdom of the Grand Old UC of C bringing in dirty, filthy little pagan bastards like you to do God’s work. A calling is to be treasured and nurtured and held close to the heart, but never, never too far from the brain. And when we think we’ve lost our way, a calling is to be depended upon to guide us toward a better day. Do you see what I mean, Darren Hornsby?”


“Don’t injure yourself,” Hawser says holding up a rock solid index finger. “It was a rhetorical question, you see. I really don’t give a shite what you have to say on the matter. But I do want you to answer me this. Did you tell Gracie in reception to call and inform your remaining appointments for today that you were dead from the Ebola Virus, and that everyone on site was contagious, and that as a result all your appointments needed to be cancelled?”

“Well, there’s more to it than….”

The index finger again. “Just a yes or no answer, Darren.”

I sigh deeply. “Look, Moses….”

“Now, now, now. No more information need be divulged at this time. You see Darren, you’ve really started something. At some point in the very near future, the Centre for Disease Control is going to phone this mission, likely from a mobile command trailer out there on the street. They’ve practiced this scenario a thousand times over and are chomping at the bit to put what they’ve rehearsed to practical use. They have to justify their existence somehow, don’t they? And I’ll be damned if they don’t think that this might the place to do it. Here on the Downtown Eastside where no matter how honourably or dastardly they perform, they’ll look heroic against the perceived filth and decay. It’s like a blank canvas upon which they’ll be able to paint whatever lies suit them when it’s all over. And to think they have a crusty old iconoclast like you to thank for the opportunity.

“When they call, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a tiny red light isn’t flashing on my desk phone at this very moment, they’re going to ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. That of course would be Our Lord Jesus Christ. But being the stand-offish sort that He is, and therefore unavailable to take the call, I’ll have to take it in His stead. And I’ll have to tell them that it was our Senior Anti-poverty Advocate who bullied our modest, retiring, underpaid, overworked receptionist into spreading, on his behalf, the lie that has lead to the havoc we are now witnessing. Isn’t that about right, Darren?”

“Yes,” I say.

“HA,” he claps his hands. “And here you see why I still pray for your sorry, lost, safety-pin-punk-ass soul, Darren Hornsby. Because redemption’s for them what needs it, not those who have it already. Now that’s a thought for you to meditate upon while you get those fucking avocados off Our Lord Jesus Christ’s loading dock before the whole wretched neighbourhood arms itself for the commencement of the apocalypse.”

Hawser turns a flabby one-eighty and walks away, preceded by Wilma.

Now Sergio comes to mind. Has he placed the tarps over the avocados? My right hand falls to the place on my hip where my Mission walkie-talkie should be. Nothing there. It’s crackling away in its charging cradle on top of a filing cabinet in my office – next to a tarnished brass effigy of Ganesha. Ganesha, the Hindu remover of obstacles. That’s the elephant-headed son of a bitch we need right now. Jesus could sit this one out, no harm no foul.

I yell out Sergio’s name. His voice comes back from down the corridor and around a corner.

“Mr Hornsby? Over,” he says, then there’s the electronic crack of his walkie-talkie key being released. “Mr Hornsby, that you? Over.” Crack.

I walk the few steps down the hall and around the corner, and there he is sitting against the wall surrounded by tarps. He’s looking like the Guatemalan peasant farmer he once was, caught between the guerrillas and the government death squads. He’s talking desperately into his walkie-talkie. “Mr Hornsby, please. Over. Come in, come in. I don know wha to do. I lock the doors, all of them. But I don thank tha will hold them. I wan to phone ma wife, Mr Hornsby, over.”

I kneel down beside him. He’s sweating and shaking, staring into space. He’s reliving something that happened a long time ago. Then he sees me and bursts into tears. He throws the walkie-talkie against a wall where it disintegrates, and grabs me in a bear hug. He sobs. “They shoot everybody, Mr Hornsby. They torture and shoot.”

“No, Sergio,” I say. “Those are just the VPD out there. They aren’t the same police you had back home. Just a pale reflection.”

He continues to sob, rocking back and forth. Then I feel him deeply sigh. There’s fresh cumin in his sweat and on his breath.

“Sometimes, Mr Hornsby,” he says. “I don know wha to do with the memories. I see a police, an I thank I see soldiers.”

“It’s okay, buddy. No soldiers today.”

“Ce,” he says. And somehow manages a game face. “We mus cover the avocados. I believe we can get the tarps over the flats before the troops can ge off a shot.”

“There won’t be any shooting, Serge. You can forget about the tarps, and to hell with the stupid avocados. Go back to your office and call your wife.”

“Thank you, Mr Hornsby.”

I walk up the corridor, and look out the window onto Gore Street. I watch the police, ambulance crews and fire trucks. After an hour and a half, they start to leave. The word has come down. The Reverend Moses Hawser has worked his profane Irish magic with the powers that be. The siege is over before it starts. He and Wilma are probably up in the Eagle’s Nest now, him smoking the raunchy end of a Cuban cigar and Wilma gnawing on a knuckle bone.

For what has to be no more than a second, just long enough for it to be recognised and then sorely missed when it disappears, I feel a peaceful calm come over me. I look down and describe an invisible figure eight onto the linoleum, similar to the one I had earlier under Hawser’s intense stare. Smiling, I look out the window at the emptying street.

And that’s when I see it, a dark green blur arcing over Gore Street like a spring league homer headed directly for me. Someone across the street has drawn a bead, and I’m the target. It hits the wire reinforced window with mushy green violence, and splatters like a bug on a windshield. I duck needlessly, and then look up. Across Gore Street is Marmot Tyler and the rest of the Eastside Tylers, the street gang even burnt-out malcontents like me love to hate. Mamot smiles toothlessly and flips me the bird. Then he points to his shopping carts full of rotting avocados as if to say, “Now look what you’ve done, you dumb shite.”

I just wave back and walk away. As I slowly retreat, I hear a barrage of avocados hit the side of the church.

Tomorrow would be welfare cheque issue day, light duties comprised primarily of reaming out malicious Financial Aid Workers who’ve spitefully held back cheques as a way of compensating for their joyless lives. I sit down at my desk, and look over at Lord Ganesha on the file cabinet. His stare is infinite. Either that or he’s ignoring me.

the ghost sign (from a larger piece currently in the works)

They found a ghost sign. Out on the highway past an abandoned suicide motel, painted on the wall of a ruined roadside café. A wrecking crew had moved in and bulldozed an adjacent building, and there it was. Ninety or a hundred years old. Hand painted. A woman’s weathered, smiling face. Elegant, slogan poetry. Its discovery made the news. People arrived from all over to see.

From a mile out, it was like speeding toward a postage stamp on the envelope of the Badlands. Blues, yellows and pinks. Close up, it creaked of neglect. Dry in the night, dressed in stars and whispers. Broken windows, and the dead wires off the highway.

The photographer had driven for two days, sleeping in her car in a parking lot along the way. Eating truck stop chilli and orchard apples. Drinking water from gas station hoses. She did this sort of thing. She was a photographer. Drawn in by the gravity of the subject. Assembling planets out of images, whose place in space created gravity of their own.

She pulled up to the ruined café at 6am and sat on a fender smoking for a half hour. Watching.

The ghost sign faced away from the sunrise, and the café produced a long angular shadow. A globular cloister of hoodoos and gullies behind it. Only deserted highways thrive here, she spoke softly. Highways and roadside distractions.

She held her Nikon DSLR out at arms length, closed her eyes, and turned in a slow circle. She did this while holding down the shutter release. Nine frames per second. Bang, bang, bang, bang…. An arbitrary capture of lost optimism, poorly balanced on the thin surface of creation. Then she opened her eyes, faced the subject, and began.

By 9.30am, she was done. Arms at her side. Her hair in the wind. The eyes of the sign staring back at her, as though the faded woman knew something.

In Drumheller, she took a motel room and sat looking through the plate glass window. All pickups and semis. She heard them hiss as they passed. When she slept, the citizens of her dreams believed everything and looked away.

Three days later, home in the city. The rain. She tacked the proofs to a wall, exposing them to northern light. A travel magazine wanted them.

“Not your usual stuff,” the editor said. “No crack pipes. No bodies.”

“Catastrophe, all the same.” There was a long familiar pause over the phone. “You could taste the grief on the air. You could hear the footsteps of people walking away for the last time.”

“I wonder,” the editor said. “What do photographers do on vacation? I’ve never gotten a straight answer. Where do they go? Do they bring their camera?”

Another long pause. The sound of a cigarette being lit. “Vacations are for bankers and high school teachers.”

She rang off and looked at down the phone.

“There’s never quiet in the wasteland,” she said.

That night, a public lecture at SFU Woodward’s. Gabor Mate on Hungry Ghosts. Then jazz and too much to drink. She sat on a bench in Gastown. 3am. Dressed in stars and whispers. The rain had ended.

There was a roomful of days somewhere on an Alberta highway. The coarse wind and erosion.