Tibbit Crow Girl and the Queen of Halloween

dedicated to the crows of Vancouver

Anyone will tell you, Halloween past is a far darker neighbourhood than Christmas past. The property values are lower and the sun never shines very brightly through the smoke of burning leaves and spent firecrackers. And it was once in the dimness of Halloween past that the Queen of Halloween cast her spell on the crows. Ever since then, the crows have never flown over a Halloween to serve themselves. Since the casting of that ruinous spell, the crows, on All Hallows’ Eve, have done only as the Queen of Halloween decrees and maraud on her behalf alone.

What is less well known is that the Queen of Halloween lives in a discarded refrigerator in an abandoned warehouse, off Terminal and Main Streets.  She often presents in the guise of an old woman, wondering back alleys by the light of the moon in search of bottles and cans and the occasional human soul. Other times, she’s a black coyote that feeds on children’s pets. Mostly, however, after dark, she will open the door of her discarded refrigerator home and emerge as a pale young woman of unrivalled beauty, dressed in a splendid flowing gown of ravenous cockroaches. And it is this ghastly writhing gown that is the source of her shadowed magic.

* * * * *

The Crow King walked the branches of the castle tree like a sea captain made mad by an unachievable horizon. His eyes, bottomless black, swallowing the dregs of chemical light at dawn. His coveted crown of shiny, found items askew. His fragile mansion on the edge of creation, tilting on the lip of a chasm. The Crow Court watched and pondered disaster.

“Bring me news,” he cawed, “bring me news. Fly out and bring back news. Find the Queen of Halloween and ask of Her demands. It is impossible to do bidding unknown.”

The flock surrounding him cawed loudly, a cacophony of assent. There was much flapping, bobbing of heads and shifting from side to side.

The Crow King’s Wizard sidled near to him with his scaled and talon feet, his taxidermy eyes too deep to be real, his told-you-so voice hissing like a maleficent snake. “Your Grace,” he rattled and cooed, “perhaps there is no bidding to be done this year. Perhaps this year we maraud freely over Halloween and take what we will to line our own nests. We have been Her slaves long enough.”

“Yes we have,” clicked the Crow King thoughtfully. “We have been her slaves too long, surrendering our plunder. But a spell was cast long ago and we still suffer beneath it. What is the remedy?”

“A child, I foretell,” the Wizard cooed. “One to challenge Her on our behalf. One to end the spell that holds us in thrall.”

“Who is this child?” the Crow King crackled.

“She sits in this castles tree, among us now,” clucked the Wizard with a conspiratory voice. “But none can point to her. She must fly as the flock flies and be divided by fortune. Only then can she face the Queen of Halloween.”

“Then let it be so. Morning breaks,” cawed the Crow King looking east. “It is time for us all to fly.”

And with that the inhabitants of the castle tree took to the sky, flying en masse toward the city.

It was a massive flock of thousands that flew into the city, blackening the sky and obscuring the setting moon before scattering to feed. The flock made a terrible noise as it flew, knowing it would wake the city below from its safe and contented sleep.

Tibbit Crow Girl flew among them, still young enough to fly at her mother’s side. And Tibbit’s mother preferred the grounds round the abandoned warehouses off Main and Terminal to feed.

“It be a good day to fly,” Tibbit’s mother cackled. “And I smell nuts and tender bits of carrion on the wind.”

Tibbit Crow Girl liked nuts and carrion just fine but also enjoyed the bread and seeds handed out by elderly humans all over the city. Devouring this free meal involved little effort and the elderly people seemed so pleased by her and the other crows. Of course the pigeons ruined everything with their gluttonous inhalation of the handouts. But occasionally, a pigeon would eat too much to fly away, and made delicious eating.

“Let’s land and see what’s to eat,” Tibbit’s mother cawed, and they banked away from the main flock and whirled and spiralled down toward the ground. They flew low over the busy intersection of Terminal and Main, over the speeding trucks and cars. And Tibbit’s mother cawed, “Be careful. Not too low. Watch the trucks.”

Tibbit had heard this before, however, and thought her mother worried too much. She’d seen other crows fly much lower than she ever did. It was a thrill and a good way to observe what tasty bits of food might be lying round on the ground. Tibbit flew lower that morning than she ever had before. She flew in and out of the traffic, laughing in the faces of the wide-eyed drivers.  Laughing, that is, until she was struck by a passing delivery truck.

The truck knocked Tibbit high in the air and she fell onto the sidewalk. When she hopped to her feet, she felt a sharp pain in her wing. Suddenly she couldn’t fly, and had a paralysing thought of the pigeons that ate too much to fly and what happened to them.

“Fool of a girl,” Tibbit’s mother cawed from overhead. “What will you do now? You be food for the rats.”

These were not the comforting and encouraging words she’d hoped to hear from her mother.  Tibbit saw the road that lead into the old industrial park of abandoned warehouses and began to hop toward it, looking everywhere for rats and humans with their big feet and unpredictable tempers.

After a long while of exhausting hopping, Tibbit was safe among the empty warehouses. There was no traffic there, only the occasional transient with a shopping cart. Tibbit’s mother landed next to her. “I can smell rats here,” she said. “They be watching us now. They be up on their haunches sniffing the air filled with the scent of wounded crow.”

“I will not be eaten by rats,” Tibbit cackled and cooed, hopping up a decaying wooden staircase. The staircase lead to a warehouse door that was opened just a crack. They both entered. It was dark and vacant except for a refrigerator. “I will take a corner here and fight all comers with my claws and beak. I will heal and fly again.”

Tibbit’s mother knew better of the plight of downed crows, how ill at ease a crow is when not in flight, how a crow should choose flight rather than fight. But she said nothing. She sidled about looking for something dead for the both of them to eat, but there was nothing.

The old refrigerator was an unfortunate 1960s shade of sky blue, and had a single door with a large handle of chrome and rust. Frigidaire said a rusting chrome name plate, hanging askew by a single remaining rivet. The refrigerator shook. Then it sat quietly for a moment, and shook once more. Then the chrome and rust handle was pulled out by an invisible force, and the door opened.

Inside, the refrigerator was completely black. It looked like a passageway into a dark incalculable recess. There was a cold wind blowing out of it as though it was still a functioning appliance. But it hadn’t been plugged into an electrical socket for decades. Screams, shrieking and human pleas for help could be heard on the cold wind emanating from within. And the smell was that of an animal so dead and far gone that even a crow wouldn’t eat it.

Tibbit’s mother hopped back from it and Tibbit sidled round for a better view. “What is it, mother?” she cooed.

“It be a human thing,” Tibbit’s mother cawed. “We should go. There be better places than this.”

Then there came a commanding voice from deep inside the blackness of the refrigerator’s interior, an evil, echoing voice. It said, “Who stands before the door to my bottomless pit without my permission? Speak now before I chew your souls in my mouldy mouth and swallow you into the abyss of my belly.”

Tibbit’s mother jumped back but Tibbit only cocked her head. “I’m hurt and in danger of being eaten by rats,” she cawed. “What difference would it make being eaten by a mob of rats or by you? I’ll fight you all and you’ll suffer for your meagre meal.”

Tibbit’s mother looked concerned when no reply came from the refrigerator’s dark interior. Then smoke began to spill from the derelict appliance, onto the floor. The smoke piled up and up into a column, and the column took on the smoky appearance of a woman. Finally the Queen of Halloween in Her grand and magical gown of cockroaches emerged and stood before them.

“Oh,” She said, wrinkling Her nose. “Crows. I’d hoped for something more interesting.”

“It be Her,” Tibbit’s mother reverently cooed. “The Queen.”

The Queen of Halloween walked around Tibbit and her mother, taking in the situation. As she did, her magical cockroach gown made crawling and clicking sounds.

“You’re the one,” Tibbit said. “The one who has placed a spell on the crows.”

“Really?” the Queen of Halloween said. “Am I? You must forgive me for not remembering. I’ve spun so many spells, it’s hard to keep track.”

“We are doomed to fly at your behest every Halloween night and place at your feet all that we find. It is a night of great treasure and we deserve to keep what we steal for ourselves.”

“Rubbish,” snapped the Queen of Halloween. “The rats, the bedbugs and all of the vermin of the world pay tribute to me on Halloween night. Why should crows be any different?”

“We are not vermin,” Tibbit cawed proudly. “We do not scramble about on the ground; we fly above the world and look down upon you.”

Tibbit’s mother felt fear but couldn’t help, at the same time, feeling pride in her daughter.

“I fly, too,” the Queen of Halloween said, and in a flash an ancient corn broom appeared in her hand. “It would appear, however,” She said to Tibbit, “that your flying days are over.”

“But you cannot fly faster than our flock,” Tibbit rattled.

Tibbit’s mother looked at her with a glint of worry in her dark eyes.

“You can try to out fly us,” Tibbit cawed. “You can try to fly faster and out manoeuvre us. You can even attempt to surpass us as marauders. But you will fail.”

“Ha!” the Queen of Halloween yelped. “Even if that were true, how would it help you with your broken wing, surrounded by a warehouse filled with hungry rats?”

“I challenge you,” Tibbit cawed. “Ride your broom tonight and try to beat my flock. And when you fail, you will use your magic to mend my wing and you will remove the spell that enslaves us.”

“And what if your flock does not out fly me,” said the Queen of Halloween. “What will I have?”

“You will have me,” Tibbit said. “To chew in your mouldy mouth and swallow into the abyss of your belly.”

Tibbit’s mother was stunned by this. “No!” she cawed.

“Yes,” cooed Tibbit.

“But I have you already,” said the Queen of Halloween. “I could chew you up and swallow you now, and be done with it.”

Tibbit thought about this and realised the Queen of Halloween was correct. “If the flock cannot out fly you, and you fly past them at dawn,” she cooed, “the crows will be your marauders every night, not just Halloween night, but forever.”

“That is an intriguing offer,” said the Queen of Halloween.

“It’s not an offer,” said Tibbit. “It’s a bet.”

The Queen of Halloween rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue as she pondered the possibilities. The crows did deliver some impressive swag every Halloween. If She out flew them, She could have it every night of the year. Forever. And She could have this impudent little crow girl for dinner. She raised Her broom and brought it down on the ground, with a loud explosion of light.

“It’s a bet,” said the Queen of Halloween. “You are protected from the rats. For now, that is. Until after we fly tonight. Assemble your flock nearby this evening and we will see who will out fly who.”

Tibbit’s mother hopped and sidled out of the crack in the warehouse door and flew away to gather the flock.

And as darkness fell over the city, the magnificent flock of crows gathered and landed round the warehouse, creating a deafening and discordant cacophony of caws. Above them, out of the darkening east, flew the Queen of Halloween on Her ancient and twisted broom, cackling a crazed and demented laugh.

Seeing Her above them, the thousands of crows took off over the city blotting out the stars and the moon as they did, swirling in circles like a vast black tornado, then rocketing forward in an infinite swarm, leaving the Queen of Halloween behind. Then the Queen of Halloween, determined in Her evil cause, raced past the flock, leaving it in Her rancid dust.

The Crow King seeing this cawed and commanded his flock forward, progressing in the night. It traded the lead with the Queen of Halloween again and again. And when She realised that She might not fly faster than the Crow King’s flock, the Queen of Halloween decided to use magic to cheat Her way forward. She created a sudden pulse of blinding light and like a supersonic bullet shot past the crows.

Meanwhile, in the warehouse, Tibbit hopped into a corner and prepared to defend herself. She saw the bright red light in the eyes of the rats around her. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. And she began to fear for the first time that the rats might disobey the Queen of Halloween.

Above the city, the race continued and the Queen of Halloween was winning. She cast spell after spell, placing obstacles before the crows. She pelted them with stones and had Her ghosts fly against them. The Crow King wondered what to do. As the flock flew and manoeuvred as best it could, he consulted with his Wizard.

“How can we beat this evil witch’s magic,” cawed the Crow King.

“She is powerful and has many evil allies,” the Wizard cawed. “But I think I have a plan.”

“What is it?” cawed the Crow King. “Tell me fast or all may be lost.”

“My magic is no match for hers, but I might enchant two or three of our strongest youngsters with the speed to catch up with Her.”

“Will they be able to fly past Her by dawn?” the Crow King cawed.

“No,” rattled the Wizard. “But by now they will be hungry and the cockroaches that make up Her splendid gown, the source of her evil magic, will be tender and tasty.”

“That might be a very good plan, Wizard Crow,” cawed the Crow King. “Do it!”

And so, the Wizard Crow endowed certain of the younger crows with the power to fly as fast as the Queen of Halloween, and sent them in pursuit of Her with instructions to eat heartily. They flew fast and soon saw the Queen of Halloween ahead. Then one of them cawed, “It’s dinner time!”

There were three of them. All that the Wizard Crow could manage with his limited magic, but they were ravenous and fell on the splendid magical gown of cockroaches with gusto. The roaches squirmed and wiggled and scrambled to escape.

“What is this,” the Queen of Halloween shouted. “The impertinence! Get away.”

But the hungry young crows continued to feed. As Her gown and its magic began to disappear, the Queen of Halloween began to slow and the flock caught up. She had cheated with Her magic, so the flock of crows saw no shame in attacking Her gown.

“Stay away,” the Queen of Halloween shouted as she slowed and the flock caught up, falling upon Her in midair. As Her magic waned, spells were being broken all over the world. “Get away, get away,” She yelled as Her unrivalled beauty began to fade, and the pitiful thing that She was under the splendid gown was revealed. Soon Her gown was completely consumed and only a skeleton rode the ancient broom. It fell to earth like a meteor.

The flock cawed and cheered. They were free of the evil spell. But the Crow Wizard was still very concerned.

“All of that evil witch’s spells are broken,” he cawed. “Including the one keeping the warehouse rats away from Tibbit. Fly faster than you ever have before. We must get to Tibbit before that mob of rodents.”

The Crow Wizard was right. In the warehouse, Tibbit was fighting a brave fight but her time was running out. The rats attacked in waves. She used her beak and claws to flight them back, but they lunged and bit. The first crow through the crack in the door was Tibbit’s mother. She attacked with abandon and she and Tibbit fought gallantly together until the flock took down the door and flew in to peck and eat the rats that didn’t escape.

Then the flock lifted Tibbit high into the air and she was taken back to the castle tree to heal and fly again, just as she had predicted. But not before the flock pillaged what it could from Halloween night. And with it, the shiny objects, choice sticks and tender morsels of food, they lined their own nests.

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all saints day

Last week of October. The light changes now, lends a translucence to things that never quite achieve transparency. The curtain hung between worlds never really comes down, not even now. But it’s now that the light from beyond shines through the strongest. Silhouettes and snippets of things can been seen if one stands still long enough and waits, watching. Mostly at dusk. Dusk is a room we briefly occupy as the house of the day ends and the abode of night begins. Some see better in the night. And there are others who can see through the curtain, to the other side. They see the invisible surge and manifest as October fragments in the undertow of November.

psych ward #1

At night they turn out almost all of the hall lights. But they leave some on, the ones that no one can ever turn off. The forever lights. They go on shining, no matter what. I close the door to my room when I go to bed. But when the nurses check on me, with their flashlights, they never close the door all the way again. Then the forever light across the hall shines into my room. I close my eyes tight or roll over. But sometimes I can’t close my eyes or roll over because I see something standing there, black because of the glare from behind. Mostly, the thing will disappear if I blink. But occasionally, it will stand there looking into my room until the next nurse comes round on suicide watch. Then it’ll creep away.  A hospital’s like that, I guess. There’re people that don’t make it out alive. They become ghosts like a caterpillar becomes a moth.

I have a ghost in me. The doctors, nurses and police call it suicide, the thing I keep trying. The thing I feel so compelled to do. But I call it letting the ghost out. It’s all I want to do. Not because I’m crazy. But because if I were a ghost trapped inside somewhere, I’d want out too.

The halls never end at night. It’s like they get longer in the dark, with just the forever lights shining. I notice it when I go to the toilet on the other side of the ward. Then the halls start to slope up like hills. It’s exhausting trying to get to the top where the washroom is. It takes hours to walk to the toilet, sometimes. And then it’s hours getting back. The halls are just as long and slope up the same in the opposite direction.

All along the way there’s dead people standing around in their hospital gowns and pajamas. Some with tubes still hanging out and real bad wounds that’ll never close. What’s it matter if a wound closes when you’re dead? They don’t care. They just stare with the bulging bug eyes the dead have. They all look like they’re caught in the headlights. And they’re real still. Like they’re stuck in a moment, maybe their last. But the eyes move. The eyes see. They follow me to and from the toilet at night. And they whisper. Even when they scream, it’s just a whisper. I’m always surprised at how loud a whisper can be. Even though they don’t move when you see them, some of them always find a way of following me from the toilet back to my room. Then they just stand in the door for the rest of the night. Their lips don’t move, but they whisper.

Sometimes I dream the dreams they dreamed when they were alive. They’re in the dreams, that’s how I know. They say, “This is the dream I had once. This dream gave me cancer. This dream caused my emphysema. This was the dream that made my boyfriend stab me five times and then take too much heroin.” They’re not the kind of dreams you forget in the morning. You never forget them. You never forget the screaming, the desperate scratching at the firm yet fleeting elements of life speeding past as the moments disappear into a nearly invisible mist against the empty dark. The dead in the dreams look so calm, like it’s all a matter of going through a simple series of steps toward their individual ends. But underneath it all, behind the fake calm, the acquiescence and beatific smiles, they’re screaming. Like hell.

It’s 5.30 a.m. I awake to a lab tech prepping my arm to draw blood. I hate waking up this way, and I hate it when they try to draw blood in my darkened room. They rarely hit the vein right, first time. They make a show of wrapping the latex strip around my arm and slapping my forearm at the elbow joint to bring up the vein. They leave the lights off because, they say, they don’t want to wake me.

The light coming through the curtained window is dim. Dead people move in to watch. Their eyes really bulge when they see the needle go in.

“No,” I say, still weak and groggy. “Turn on the lights.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

“You can’t see what you’re doing. It hurts.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.”

It’s because of the insulin. They give me four injections a day. Then they test and test and test. My life is punctuated by needles.

This morning I see someone standing at the foot of bed. Just her head and shoulders showing over the mattress. A little girl, maybe five. She’s dressed in a tiny stained hospital gown. “Hello,” I say as I look at her between my feet. She doesn’t respond, except to stare. “What’s you’re name?”

“Amanda,” the lab tech says.

“Not you,” I say pointing. “Her.”

Amanda looks over her shoulder and then back at me. “Ain’t nobody there, honey,” she says. She’s smiling the satisfied smile of a person whose most contented moments in life come from knowing that, despite her innate and considerable deficiencies, she is not numbered among the truly deranged. “I’ll let your nurse know you’re seeing little friends,” she says as the vacuum vial fills too slowly with my blood.

“No,” I say, a little too loud.

Amanda feigns mild shock, like she didn’t expect me to protest at her plan to inform on me. “For your own good, buddy boy,” she says. Then she wiggles the needle unnecessarily as she removes it, causing a blunt pain. She tapes a cotton ball onto my arm but intentionally misses the wound. Then she pushes my hand up to my shoulder, using too much force.

The little girl stands impassively, watching. “She’s mean,” she says. “I can push her down the stairs.”

I shake my head, imperceptibly I believe. But no. Amanda sees it. Inhales triumphantly, packs her kit and leaves the room.

“What’s your name,” I ask again.

“Ruby,” the little girl says. Her lips barely move, not enough to really form words.

“That’s a sweet name,” I say. “Don’t hurt Amanda, though. Okay?”

“She hurt you.”

“Not that much,” I say. “Not so bad that she needs to be hurt in return.”

“She’s mean to everyone,” Ruby says. “She was mean to me. She went through my things. She took a dollar and ninety-three cents out of my Hello Kitty purse.”

“That was a mean thing to do,” I concede. “Was that all of your money?”

“Every penny.”

“Were you saving up?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“Just saving.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Now I’m like this,” Ruby says.

“Like what?”

“Like a ghost, I guess. I guess I died.”

“Does that make you sad,” I ask. It’s hard to know what else to say.

“It’s scary. I don’t know when to go to bed anymore, and the other dead people just stand there and never say anything I can hear. They just watch me wherever I go. I guess I don’t really need my dollar and ninety-three cents now. They put all my things in a bag.”

“Will someone come for them,” I ask.

“Maybe,” Ruby says. Then, “I have to go.”

“Where?”

“Back. There’s still some of me left. They’re keeping me in the cold. I’ve never been so cold.”

“No,” I say getting up. “Don’t go back there.” But she’s gone.

The early sun is rising. Shining, for a moment, between the two curtains. The light is a narrow, vertical beam revealing particles moving on currents through the air. A lifeless galaxy of abandoned planets swirling.

psych ward #2

This part of the hospital is over a century old. It suffers the dull, monotonous ache of dissolving stone and warping timbers. There are rooms that have been sealed shut and are lost to the world. Inside of these rooms, the oldest ghosts fret and remember. I know these rooms are there when I walk past. The dark inside of them is absolute. But there’s the occasional sound of water dripping, steam pipes banging and, sometimes, there is weeping. A deep melancholic weeping for which there is no comfort. These are the ghosts with the biggest eyes, who see the most. They know Ruby’s death is a recent one, and they cannot condone her innocence. They hate her, but observe her greedily. They’ll feed on her if they can, even though she is little more than mist.

I know this like I know my own name. And I know the name of the oldest ghost, the most ravenous one. Danfort. I can’t make out when he died. Only that it was a long time ago. A century, perhaps more. When the hospital was a single granite building, some of which is still visible against the more modern, sprawling construction. Danfort was an amputee. His leg was smashed as he fell a tree. His stump went septic, then gangrenous. When they finished slicing away to the hip, and there was nothing left to cut, they injected him with ever increasing amounts of morphine. But the infection and pain grew in him like a monster. The monster thrived, and left him raving until the end. The end, when the nurses thanked Jesus that the horror was over and they were no longer required to endure in His name.

When he died, as Danfort’s ghost rose out of his body, it continued to rave and seethe. It was decades before the memories of the physical pain faded. He became a jealous ghost, envious of physical human existence. Unable to impact it, he directed his jealousy onto the newly dead and their fresh memories of tangible life. He became a predator, hunting them down and consuming them. Grinding them down with his blunt, grudging spectral molars, then swallowing them into his interior hell. There they shared his ever-growing anguish, hopelessly and without end.

I have seen Danfort in the halls at night. He chooses the darkest corners of the longest and most remote passages, avoiding the forever lights. He sees me and whispers my name, confident that human frailty will deliver me to him eventually.

I’ve watched him stalk the newly dead. They drag themselves, and the insubstantial remnants of what they left behind, an IV tower, a respirator or catheter, through the depths of the darkest corridors. I know what they’re looking for and know it’s nowhere to be found. They seek welcome and induction into their new world. Their expectations and inclinations remain, for now, the same as those they had while living. But here, there is no spiritual conduit. No hand for them to clasp that will lift them above. Perhaps that’s what Ruby hopes for. But there’s only darkness and isolation. Only immeasurable things.

“So,” Danfort says to me one night. He’s cornered me as I walk the darkness. “You speak with this Ruby.”

“No,” I say. “No Ruby. No talk.”

“Yesss,” Danfort says. “Yes, I think you do. You and Ruby, talking. She’s charming. You want to protect her. How darling. How hopeless.”

“No.”

“Oh, yes….”

psych ward #3

During the day Danfort hunkers down in shadow, gnawing on his discontent like a bone. I, on the other hand, must face those who staff the ward…

“How is your mood today,” a nurse asks. “On a scale of one to ten?”

“One,” I say.

“That’s very low,” she says looking down at my chart as though it’s some newly discovered artifact. “No better than yesterday. Any suicidal thoughts?”

“I’m swimming in them.”

“Thoughts of hurting anyone else?”

Our eyes meet, and I say, “Absolutely.”

“Hmm. That’s not good, is it?”

“Let me out of here,” I say. “My mood will improve vastly.”

“If we let you go, you’ll try to hurt yourself.”

“I didn’t say I’d hurt myself if you let me go.”

“But you just told me that your mood is one out of ten, and you’ve admitted to having suicidal and homicidal ideation.”

“But that’s because I’m here, you see. In these crappy pajamas, answering these ridiculous questions, eating the god-awful food, enduring your loathsome company.”

“The lab tech who took your blood sample this morning reported witnessing you responding to auditory hallucinations. Looks like we’ll have to increase your seroquel.”

“It wasn’t a hallucination,” I say a bit too loud. “This place has ghosts up the wazoo.”

The nurse begins to scribble. “Have you thought about ECT? Dr Myer asked you to consider it.”

“Forget it,” I say and slouch in my chair. Down the hall, Danfort steps out into the middle of the corridor. He’s smiling, displaying his considerable incisors. I sit up. “Look,” I yell, pointing.

The nurse calmly looks over her shoulder, but Danfort is gone. He’d never let her see him. She returns to her scribbling, and sighs the words, “Haloperidol injections….”

“Fuck,” I say. 

Pavilion: Ruby Night #3

It’s night again. They’ve increased my medication. I feel sedated and go to bed believing I’ll sleep straight through. The forever lights are burning when Ruby wakes me up.

“Don’t like it here,” she says.

“Me neither,” I say propping myself up on my elbows. She stands perfectly still at the end of my bed.

“My birthday’s tomorrow,” she says.

“Really? That’s November first. All Saints Day.  In honor of all saints known and unknown. That’s you, sweetheart. Saint Ruby, the unknown.”

“Huh?”

“Forget it. How old?”

“Seven.”

“A noble age.”

“You sick?”

“No,” I say.

“Why you here, then?” she says.

“I contradict conventional philosophy,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

“Crazy,” I say. “Because I want to let my ghost out.”

“Why?”

“It says it wants out.”

“That’s stupid,” she says. “It’s better inside of you.”

“Oh.”

“You know that thing with the big eyes?”

“They all have big eyes, sweetheart.”

“The biggest eyes – and the teeth.”

“You stay away from him,” I say sitting up.

“I can’t. He finds me where ever I hide.”

“Then stay here.”

She’s quiet for a moment. Then she says, “I want to go back.”

“Where?”

“Inside of me, my body. I don’t think he can get me there.”

“Your body gave you up,” I say. “You can’t go back.”

“I’m still in that cold place. I can hide there, inside of me.”

“No, baby. You can’t. That thing in the fridge, down in the morgue, it ain’t you no more. You’re all that’s left.”

“It’s too scary here. I hate it. When do I get to go home?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I say. There’s something like a tear in the corner of my eye.

She’s fading now. Perfectly still and expressionless, slowly disappearing. When she’s gone, her weeping begins. The sound of it penetrates all that’s substantial within the room, tearing it apart. I’m overwhelmed, powerless. I throw off the blankets and stand on the cold floor, weakened by the meds and staggering. I swing at the empty air like a boxer going down, and I move toward the glare of the forever lights.

* * * *

There’s an obscure logic that dictates the morgue must be in the lowest basement of a hospital’s oldest section, buried completely in the element of our ultimate end. There are tunnels here, nothing as civil as halls or corridors. Above me are dripping pipes and dim yellow bulbs strung on brittle wire. They expose the rough, unfinished century old concrete. The floor is smooth from a hundred years of gurneys conveying the dead. Somebody has written the word farewell on the wall in small cramped letters using a red felt pen. It’s the only graffiti.

I push through the double set of swinging doors at the end. Here there are white florescent tubes emitting an incomplete white light. There’s dripping in a sink, and a chemical smell that fails to mask decades of solemn human decay. Water from some unchecked source has pooled on the floor. On a counter, next to an array of electrical outlets, sits a soiled autoclave, opened with used scalpels and other sharp implements glinting in the light. Ruby stands beneath a square dingy door to a cooler. Her lips are moving rapidly now, as if she is speaking very fast. But I only hear a hiss. Danfort is here also, loitering maliciously in the bricks and concrete.

“You can’t be here, sweetheart,” I say.

“Then where,” she says, sounding strangely adult.

“I don’t know.”

“Mine,” Danfort whispers. “She’s for me.”

“No,” I shout, looking for him everywhere.

“Then intervene, weakling,” Danfort says. “Be her hero. Confront me.”

I look down at my cold bare feet on the wet yellow tiles. The blue veins conspiring to sustain a wasted life.

A bolt disengages and the cooler door swings open on its own. Somewhere a compressor begins to hum as the pallet cradling Ruby’s wasted corpse rolls out. Whatever took her life ravaged her body. It’s jaundice and skeletal; its eyes partially opened and lips parted, dried spittle on its cheek. The little gown it wears makes it seem obscene. The tiny hands are clenched into helpless fist.

“I want to go back,” she says.

Danfort laughs.

“No,” I say. “There nothing left to go back to.”

“Delicious,” Danfort whispers. Now he’s standing on the other side of the room. His huge eyes are moving wildly, back and forth and in exaggerated circles. He grins to reveals his teeth. “Come, my dear. Time for us, now.”

“No,” she says. “I won’t.”

I step in front of her, between her and Danfort. It’s a pointless gesture I know. I can only truly face him on his terms, on the other side. It’s an idea that came to me hours ago, or was it a lifetime ago? Not to end my life for my own selfish reasons, but to come to Ruby’s rescue. To find a way to guide her away from this place and out of the hands of Danfort. He appears before me and begins to walk towards us. Eyes wild but unseeing.

Scalpels in the autoclave shine through the gore. I reach over and take one. I hold it to my forearm and encounter a sudden, unfamiliar conflict. Something inside won’t allow me to apply the blade.

“Weakling,” Danfort whispers. “Yesss. Cut your wrists and take an hour to die. I will have devoured her whole by then. Go ahead.” Then he reaches out as if to take Ruby, and I see the 220 volt outlet next to the autoclave.

“I have a better idea,” I say, pushing the surgical steel knife into the outlet.

doppelgänger fantasia part 4

read part 1 here, read part 2 here, Read part 3 here

the abduction of Bethany Rafael

Trudy Parr sat at her desk with her .45 calibre M1911 pistol field stripped and laid out before her. She held the slide in her hand and studied it closely. Then she wiped it clean with a soft cloth dipped in a mild solvent. Her mind was at peace. She counted her breaths. It was a meditation on semi-automatic firearm maintenance.

The intercom buzzed.

“What is it, Gladys?” Trudy Parr said.

“Some gal named Bethany Rafael,” said Gladys. “Says she knows you.”

“Put her through,” said Trudy Parr, picking up the recoil spring. The phone rang.

Trudy Parr put down the recoil spring and picked up the gun’s barrel. She looked threw it as if it were a telescope and panned the room. She put it down gently on the fifth ring, perfectly aligning it with the other dismantled parts. On the sixth ring she picked up the phone. “Hello, Beth. What’s rattling?”

“It’s that Bittle character again,” Bethany Rafael said. “He just sits there. Sometimes I catch him staring at me. He’s giving me the creeps.”

“Want me to come down, shake the guy up?” As she said this, Trudy Parr weighed a .45 calibre cartridge in her hand. Its heft was comforting.

“No, I don’t wanna squawk. It’s just that we’ve had some eerie personalities in here before but this guy wins the prize.”

“Call the cops.”

“Can’t. The manager says it’s bad for business.”

“I’ll drive you home.”

“No, Trudy. You can’t drive me home every night. I guess I just needed to tell someone. I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I guess I can take care of myself.”

“Okay. Call if you need to.”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

Among the many things she knew, the ephemera of which waitress wisdom consists, was that the troublesome customer was never a permanent customer. He or she could not be listed among the regulars. They always grew bored of pestering the same girl, day in and day out. The troublesome customer, man or woman, might became infatuated with her, fall in love with her and bring her unwanted gifts. When she responded to them with indifference, they would wheedle and cajole. And ultimately, they would rage against her and curse her name. But even the worst of them would eventually disappear into an abyss of their own erroneous affections.

Despite her confidence in this theory, though, Bethany Rafael would always worry when a new problem customer entered her ordinary life. What if this was the one, she’d ask herself, the one who is completely uncontrollable. The one that disproves what she had comfortably come to know. The one that doesn’t disappear. The one so besotted and obsessed that he takes her along for the fatal, unknowable ride.

She looked down the lunch counter at the man who’d introduced himself a week ago as Dr Alasdair Bittle. He sat on his lunch counter stool and chain smoked. It was 5:55 pm. Five minutes to closing. His cup was full of cold coffee. There was a half eaten doughnut on a side plate at his elbow. He didn’t read a newspaper or a magazine. He only stared at himself in the mirror across the counter, in a haze of blue smoke.

“We’re closing soon, Dr Bittle,” she said.

Dr Alasdair Bittle looked up at her. His eyes were bloodshot and watery. Beth could smell the booze. He had the appearance of a thoroughly defeated man. “I’m waiting for a colleague but it seems unlikely he’ll arrive before closing time.”

“Well maybe you should pay your bill, Doc.”

“Yes,” Bittle said placing a two dollar bill on the counter. “Please keep the change. My associate may still make an appearance. He’s a tall Russian fellow named Alexei. Tell him, if he does come in, that I’ve returned to the laboratory.”

“Yeah sure, Dr Bittle,” Bethany Rafael said.

Bittle left the Woolworth’s store and Bethany Rafael closed the lunch counter. By 6:30 she was walking east on Hastings Street toward the BC Electric Interurban Line. It was dark and fellow pedestrians were few along the block in front of Woodward’s Department Store. She was aware of the heavy footsteps trailing her and she gripped her umbrella tightly. At Abbott Street, as she stopped for a red light, the heavy footsteps stopped behind her.

“Hello again,” Dr Alasdair Bittle said as he stepped out from a shadowy doorway.

“Doctor,” Bethany Rafael said, startled. She looked over her shoulder at a large man behind her, the source of the heavy footsteps. When he smiled at her crookedly, it all began to make wicked sense. She looked back at Bittle. “What’s this all about?”

A dark Chrysler drove up to the curb, its passenger door open.

“We have need of you in our laboratory,” Bittle said. “Please accompany Alexei and me in our car.”

Alexei put a hand on her shoulder and leaned over her from behind. He had beer and onions on his breath. She felt the umbrella in her hand and thought about hitting him with it. It seemed too weak a response. Instead, she turned on Alexei and shoved the blunt point of the umbrella into him like a shiv. She saw a dark patch of blood emerge and pulled the umbrella out.

Alexei looked stunned and held his hands to the wound. “Fuck,” he said and bent over.

Bittle got into the Chrysler as she turned to run down Abbott Street. The car did a u-turn in the middle of Hastings, stopping traffic, and followed after her. But by then, however, she was gone from sight.

“That bitch,” Bittle slammed the dashboard. “Turn down that alley.” Bittle pointed to the right and the driver turned.

The car stopped at the alley entrance. “You drive,” the driver said to Bittle. He was a stocky Russian with tattoos on his fists and neck. “I get out and hunt.” Bittle shimmied over when the Russian got out.

The Chrysler’s headlights illuminated the alley as the Russian looked behind trashcans and in doorways. Bethany Rafael knew then that she should have kept running. Now she knelt absolutely still in a shadow cast by a stack of empty boxes, listening as the car came closer and the Russian’s breathing got nearer.

“Come out little girly,” the Russian sang as he looked everywhere. “Come out, come out, come out. I am not Alexei. You cannot stop me. I chew the bones of little girlies like you. I am the devil. Don’t make me work so hard to find you.”

Suddenly the Russian was in front of her, scanning the other side of the alley but seeing nothing. He violently scattered trashcans and refuse. Then he turned around and looked in her direction. His fists were clenched with blue and red star tattoos. She stood and ran again and he ran after her. A car winged her as she ran through traffic where the alley crossed Carrall Street. She spun and fell. The Russian caught up and looked down at her lying in the street. Another car blew its horn but manoeuvred round them when the tattooed Russian gave the driver a stern look.

The Chrysler came to idle in the middle of Carrall and Bittle got out. He opened the rear passenger door and the Russian heaved Bethany Rafael inside.

“She’s useless to us now,” Bittle said, gritting his teeth. “She was a perfect specimen but now she’s injured.”

“It’s nothing,” said the Russian. “A bruise. If it’s worse, we’ll dump her in the ocean. But we can’t leave her here. She can identify us. Get in and drive. We must see to Alexei.”

Bittle turned onto Hastings and headed back to where Alexei had been stabbed with the umbrella. When they arrived, Alexei sat against Woodward’s below a display window where a happy family of mannequins frolicked in the latest fashions. The tattooed Russian stepped out of the car and looked down at the wounded man.

“This is very inconvenient, Alexei.”

“Please, Vlad,” said Alexei. “It’s not so bad. Dr Bittle can fix me.”

“You fool. He’s a Doctor of Theoretical Physics, not medicine.”

“Then leave me at a hospital,” Alexei said. “We were once soldiers together, Vlad. We were brothers. You owe it to me.”

The tattooed Russian looked up and down Hastings. There were still a few people on the street but no one paying attention to what must be a drunk on the sidewalk. He pulled out a TT-33 pistol.

“No,” Alexei shouted, holding up his hands.

The tattooed Russian fired two rounds in his head.

Warren Garbo’s greatest error

Prisoner Narrative Project
Kent Maximum Security Institution

 
May 11, 1978
Project Manage: Dr W.A. Armstrong
Prisoner: David H. Serving 4 to 7 years for manslaughter
Affiliation with Prisoner: Prisoner is a participant in the Prisoner Narrative Project, and has committed to providing a written narrative of his crime and the events leading up to it. We have spoken together three times as doctor/patient.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Warren Garbo

He was gifted with a way of reading a child’s mind, and he enjoyed telling stories. In fact Warren Garbo was a prodigy, a successful author by the time he’d hit twenty years old. And it was his storytelling that drew me in.

He wasn’t born evil. That evolved along the way. At first, he didn’t condescend or tell stories in an immature or tattle-tale way, the way my third grade cohorts did. He would launch into a story with ease, and made an effort to include aspects of his audience’s lives, mysteriously acquired and ingeniously conveyed.

Later, I recognised myself as the model for all of the victims in his published work. And I knew then that Warren Garbo would look back fondly on that summer when everything worked in his favour. It was before the idea of a neighbourhood pedophile crept into the minds of parents. And before it had occurred to anyone that a pedophile could be a youthful, brilliant and trusted member of the community .

I was never aware of his actual age, only that he was much older than me; nearly ancient by comparison. What he did to me took place in the late 1960s, at which time, if I had to guess, I’d say he was about twenty years old. I was seven. By then, he was already on his way to becoming an accomplished author of science fiction and fantasy novels, and a popular writer of children’s fiction. We’d meet again a decade late, in what would be less innocent times.

The Lusitania

I would never learned to play pool the way my friends had. It was never on my to-do list. Besides, each of my friends at the time ran on the agitated energy that came from being an adolescent male perceived by the world as objectionable. These were single parent raised teenagers, housing project inmates with nothing to lose but the intangible. Pool was of great importance in their philosophy. I, on the other, lived in a secure family home owned by my parents. The fact that I desperately yearned to be a ghettoised, criminal white trash pariah like my friends was never enough to in inspire me to take up the cue, except when it was required as a weapon.

The shit my pals had learned to pull off with a stick on the green was pure Cool Hand Luke/Colour of Money/sweaty, fat-ass Jackie Gleason/Hustler fuck-a-cide. From age fifteen on, they routinely separated the family grocery money from the family man down at the Lusitania Pool & Billiards Hall at Broadway and Commercial in the east end of Vancouver. Here was where Joey, Mac, Sock and The Fabulous Lagoona strutted the boards as I sat by, whacked on acid, reading Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger and drinking Italian coffee. This was where you could find us when we weren’t involved in some petty larceny or at the Marr strip pub watching peelers.

Watching strippers was something I really never got into, either. But I ran with a crowd that followed the Vegas circuit, of which Vancouver was a part at the time, like some guys follow racehorses or the NHL. Without being able to say why, and embarrassed to talk about it in detail, I was always embarrassed watching strippers. But since Joe, my best friend, had always assured me that all of the girls were working to pay their way through university, and that supporting their efforts was therefore a noble thing, I was content to sit back, drink draft beer and watch them parade across the dais.

ten years before

What happened that summer when I was seven and he was twenty went like this. Warren Garbo drew me in and treated me like a friend, an equal. I the archetypal geek-child and outcast, equipped with only an endearing and inquisitive nature with which to defend myself from the monsters of the world. Garbo showed me where he wrote his stories in the house on Eighth Avenue he stilled shared with his mother, the desk in his bedroom placed beneath a north facing window surrounded by cherry trees with a typewriter and grownup bric-a-brac on it, copies of magazines and paperback anthologies in which his stories were published and his stacks of notebooks dating from nearly a decade previous. When we spoke, he looked me in the eye, but in a gentle, constant fashion. He listened, accused me of nothing, congratulated me on my childish successes, encouraged me to pursue my interests and asked me for my opinion on matters I thought were strictly the domain of adults.

My parents saw this in bits and pieces. The full story would come out later.  They were happy for me for finding such a unique friend. They, like all of the other adults around me, were too naïve and swimming in the ambient joyous ignorance that prevailed at the time to conceive of what was about to happen. I was being sized up for the kill. The predator stalking me had lethal intelligence, but he lacked the insight to recognise the depravity of his plan. When he finally attacked, he would rip me to shreds, and, in an effort to fend off accusation, he would vilify and humiliate me. When he visualised this, he could only stand paralysed by the ecstasy of it, shaking with his face angled to the sky, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, there on the periphery of human existence, alone.

The execution of his plan would initiate my severance with the real world, resulting in my absence throughout the remainder of my childhood, adolescence and most of my adult life. Moments of clarity became ghastly visits to a past of excruciating emotional and physical agony. My psyche tried desperately to insulate me. There were huge vaults of time and remembrance made unavailable. I became an addict. Relationships with others routinely failed. I sabotaged opportunities for personal happiness. And though I could never really fully recall the events that had lead to any of this, I lived fully aware that relief could only come with my own death.

It all began with a black and white photograph, one of a little boy about my age.

Warren and I sat in his bedroom on his neatly made bed. We’d been reading comic books. Warren produced the photo out of a back issue of Green Lantern. The boy in the photo was lying naked on his back on a bed of rumpled linen, sucking his thumb. He stared blankly into space, and his legs were spread. There was a dark spot coming out from under his ass, as though he were bleeding.

“See that?” Warren said to me.

I nodded.

“See the little baby suck his thumb?”

I nodded again.

“You suck your thumb like a little baby, David?”

I shake my head knowing, even at seven years old, that ‘no’ can be the only answer to such a question.

“He’s pretty, though, isn’t he?”

I don’t respond. Instead I look at Warren, hoping there’s something more that he’s going to say. Something humorous, perhaps, that will rescue me from the impossibleness of the photograph. He says nothing, but we’ve established a strange and intense eye contact I haven’t shared with him before.

“Like looking at his puny little dick, David?” Warren says. “You do don’t you? You’re a little homo like him, aren’t you?”

“No,” I say. Homo is still a mostly alien word to me; I learned it on the playground. Older boys like to call younger boys homos. All I really knew was that it was bad to be one. I didn’t know why.

“Wanna touch his cock, don’t you? You wanna kiss him like a girl, admit it.”

“No,” I say. I look down at the floor. The pristine floor, dusted and scrubbed by his mother twice a week. Then I feel his hand on my thigh. I jump to my feet, not sure why I’m so frightened. Running to the door, I stop, turn and look back at him sitting on his bed. He’s smiling. I’ve wet myself. I’m struck by a wave of shame. He throws his head back, claps his hands and laughs. I run out of his house, across Eight Avenue and take the shortcut through Mr and Mrs Smith’s yard. When I get home, I undress and hide my wet jeans and underpants. I go find my mother who’s hanging out clothes. I ask her if I can have a snack. Then I take a rare three hour long nap. After that I avoided Warren Garbo for a week. It was a long time for me to be away from him. I didn’t have any friends to fill the space.

His mother was one of my mother’s first choices for babysitter. Mrs Garbo collected a pension and worked part-time at a Salvation Army Thrift Shop. She was always in need of extra income. One Friday night, my mother and father went to a movie and left us at the Garbo house for the evening.

When we arrived, I heard Warren using his typewriter. I was relieved, knowing that if he was working, I may avoid seeing him. Mrs Garbo sat us all down in front of the TV for the evening. We watched Bonanza, and then Mrs Garbo brought out popcorn and Coke. High Chaparral was about to come on when Warren came into the living room.

“I’ve got the new Superman if you wanna see it,” he said to me.

I don’t look at him, just at the TV and say, “No.”

“C’mon, David,” Warren says. “It’s really cool.”

“Go on, David,” Mrs Garbo says.

“Sssshhh!” says my older sister.

I get up and follow Warren into his bedroom. After I enter, he shuts the door. I’m scared. He’s no longer behaving like a friend. He’s become sinister. He stares at me as he sits on the bed.

“Come here,” he says.

“No,” I say. “Where’s the Superman comic.”

“Fuck that. Come here.”

“No,” I say again and go for the door.

He moves fast and grabs my collar, pulling me back to the bed with a hand over my mouth. I scream, but it sounds like nothing. I struggle, but it’s pointless. He throws me onto the bed. I’m on my stomach when he climbs on top. His hands are sweaty; his breath moist and smelling of cigarettes and onions. He whispers into my ear. It’s a string of obscenities. He’s telling me what he wants to do me. He tells me how I’m going to hate every second of it. I scream again, this time a little louder. Mrs Garbo taps on the door and asks if we’re okay. Warren says we are, and Mrs Garbo goes away.

“When I get off of you,” Garbo says. “You just lay still and be quiet, or I’m going hurt you really bad.” As he says this, he twists my ear hard. It’s a dull and unbearable pain. I scream again and he twists harder. “Stop squealing like a sissy,” he says. “I have another picture to show you.”

He gets off of me. I remain on my stomach, trembling. I hear him shuffling around behind me. My eyes are open wide in horror. I scan the room over and over. The line-dried sheets smell like fresh air and laundry detergent. I begin to think about the door and the possibility of escape, but he sits back down on the bed and rolls me over with a shove. He sits over me with another photograph in his hand. He shows it to me.

“Not exactly Superman,” he says.

It a black and white photo of a young black boy, naked except for his underpants, performing oral sex on a man.

“No,” I yell and squirm to get off the bed.

“Fuck,” Warren says. “Shut the hell up or I’ll cut your fucking ears off. You understand me?”

I can only stare back wide eyed.

“What are you two up to in there,” Mrs Garbo hollers.

“Never mind, mom,” Warren says. “Go watch TV. And you,” he says to me. “Get on the floor, on yer knees.” He shoves me off the bed and I fall onto the floor. I hit with a thud. “C’mon, c’mon,” he says pulling me up so that I am kneeling in front of him.

For the first time, I begin to experience a separation between consciousness and physical being. The old and familiar recede and are replaced by the bizarre and unfamiliar. I’m floating in the air above the catastrophe below me. My floating self wants to intervene, but is powerless to do anything but observe. It’s weird. My stomach is sinking into itself. Can this be death? My floating self sees Warren grab a handful of my hair. A burning pain comes from a body I no longer occupy.

“Don’t worry, faggot,” Warren says. “It’s considered good luck to suck dick in India. Now open wide and keep your teeth to yourself.”

Later, he sodomizes me for the first time. It is my introduction to a world of blood and misery, humiliation and powerlessness. No one comes to rescue me like in a comic book. Mrs Garbo, my floating self sees, is seated in front of the TV eating obsessively from a box of drugstore chocolates. Warren wads toilet paper between the cheeks of my ass to staunch the bleeding.

“Soak in the tub before bed,” he says as though he cares for me again. “But lock the bathroom door. Don’t let yer mother see, understand?”

I nod vacantly.

Then his tone changes, “You tell any one about this,” he hisses. “And I swear to God I will murder your whole fucking family, understand? I will come in the night with a knife and cut their throats, and I’ll only spare you so that you’re who everyone blames. You hear me?”

I nod again.

ten years after

It was the autumn of 1976. My friends and I had two tables at the Lusitania Pool and Billiards Hall. On this rare occasion, I was actually playing rather than watching from the side. Joe had me beat almost from the start. But there were one or two opportunities for me to sink a ball. During one of those opportunities, as I moved round the table looking for a shot, I recognised someone bent over an adjacent table, lining up a shot. It was Warren Garbo. I recognised the face. I gripped my pool cue.

He played alone, sinking entire racks without a miss. Shark, I thought. When it finally came down to the eight ball, he sank it and looked up. “Hey faggot,” Warren Garbo said. He’d known I was there all along.

“What was that?” said Joe, looking up from his next shot.

I stood paralysed. I began to feel the familiar separation of mind and body. Part of me was looking down on the meeting from above.

Joe said, “That prick just called you a faggot, David. Do something.”

“Yeah,” said Garbo. “Do something, cock sucker.”

“Watch you mouth,” Joe said. “If he won’t do anything, I will.”

“Kiss my ass,” Garbo said.

Out of body, I watched as I turned the pool cue up side down in my hands and gripped it like a baseball bat.

Garbo saw this and dismissively said, “Oh, fuck off.”

This was the greatest error in Warren Garbo’s short life. He turned his back to me. He was unaware, in the way that many who occupy the wrong end of a power differential are unaware, that his actions a decade before had changed the trajectory of my life. I’d become callous and confused about my place in the world, a world where the vulnerable endure the transgressions of the powerful without recourse. A world where victims are forced to take justice into their own hands, when they’re able.

I don’t remember how many times I struck him with the cue. Court records say between five and ten. I only recall that, after the cue broke, I stuck the resulting spear-like shard into his back multiple times as he lay prone on his pool table.

doppelgänger fantasia part 3

Read part 1 here Read part 2 here Read part 4 here

Evil Science Comes to Vancouver
BY ROSCOE PHELPS, THE VANCOUVER SUN October 28, 1949 
Ain’t it the truth, Vancouver? That beneath our rainy Pacific skies, we walk on streets of gold. We’re a city of blameless citizens confronted daily with boundless opportunity. Every family housed and fed, every woman safe and every child schooled and rosy cheeked. Government is good and the bad guys quiver in fear of our brave and robust police force.
    But maybe it’s time to grow up a little bit. Is Vancouver really the virtuous City upon a Hill that we believe it is?
    Maybe not. Up until this moment, who could have known? That our small metropolis could be home to a criminal mob of foreign spies, experimenting with the very composition of the universe. It came as a shock to this reporter, I can assure you.
    Picture, if you will, a gaggle of intellectual goons bent on inventing a machine that can duplicate matter. A gizmo that when one chicken is put in, two chickens come out. Now imagine that this machine is here now. In a Chinatown warehouse where this band of maniacal geniuses is testing it on the innocent citizenry of Vancouver.
Imagine this coven of shadowy academics creating this machine for its own wicked ends. Creating female armies of salacious hedonistic slaves from a single loose-minded harlot; or perhaps a fighting army of malicious minion warriors, each a copy of the most violent, mindless and sadistic ogre imaginable.
    Then imagine it happening here, in our quiet paradise by the sea.
    The first light shed on this evil plot came in a phone call from a distraught woman, a hysterical citizen of Vancouver, claiming that she’d been part of a depraved experiment.  An experiment in replicating matter. That’s right, dear reader, she, let’s call her Lady B, claimed to have been duplicated by a gang of seedy itinerant highbrows who have come to our home and native land to turn science on its ear.
    Lady B maintains that she was kidnapped from her work-a-day world as a waitress at a Woolworths lunch counter. Then brought to Chinatown and held for several days in a fetid cell. She was finally placed in a chamber connected to a wall of gauges and flashing lights. And it was there that she witnessed her reproduction in another chamber across from her in the same room.
    As fantastic as it sounds, Lady B and her doppelgänger escaped from their Chinatown prison and found themselves pursued by a gang of punks and thugs. Sadly, one of the two Lady Bs was murdered in a tunnel beneath Chinatown. She died alone and confused at the hands of a callous killer who snapped her neck like it was the fragile stem of a delicate flower. Her lifeless body left discarded there in the dark, beneath the weight of the ignorant city above.
    Where’s the justice in this? What have the police done? And what, dear reader, was the reason for last night’s clandestine meeting of the Godfather of Chinatown, Agustin Ho, and two of the city’s most notorious private investigators, Crispin Dench and Trudy Parr? Why did they meet in a dark lot behind the BC Electric tram garage?
    You can depend on this reporter to crack this case and expose these alien miscreants and their accomplices. That’s my commitment to you, Vancouver.

* * * *

“Dead? She’s died? How can this be?” Alasdair Bittle buried his head in his hands.

“It was a business decision,” said Wilfred Beacon.

“You’re mad,” said Bittle.

“No, just practical.” Beacon sat behind his desk, sipping a scotch and water. The two men were in his Marine Building office.

“You murdered her. We might at least have tried to reverse the experiment.”

“Are you certain you could?”

“No, of course not,” said Bittle. “This is science. It’s replication theory. Nothing is certain.”

“In that case,” Beacon said, “you’ve confirmed the correctness of our actions. We couldn’t risk the discovery of the replication. We have the interests of our investors to consider. There are several hundred patents pending. Besides, we only killed one of her. We’re almost certain it was the duplicate. And if it was the duplicate that got killed, then it isn’t really murder?”

“You’re rationalising. The replication was human, as surely as you or I.”

“Not anymore,” said Beacon.

“But what will be the future outcomes of this?” said Bittle. “You may have put the entire universe out of balance.”

“You replicated her, Doc,” Wilfred Beacon said. “All we did was eliminate an inconvenience. And since it’s almost certain that the original survives, we might have put the universe back in balance.”

“Almost certain?” said Doctor Bittle, “What if you’re wrong? What if you killed the original? What if the replication is still loose out there? We don’t know yet how stable the replications are. There are a hundred different ways that a replication could self-destruct. What will happen if it does? What if it falls into the wrong hands? What if there are bizarre physiological aspects we never considered? That only prolonged scientific observation can discover? What if the replication turns out to be a breeding ground for a deadly virus? There’s so much we do not know. That’s why we needed to keep the replication alive. Innocent lives could be at risk.”

“Then I guess we’ll have to ice the survivor, as well.”

“You’re a monster,” said Bittle.

“I’m a Project Manager, Dr Bittle. I deal with reality. And the reality is that you should never have created that replication in the first place. Not before we had trials with lower life forms.”

“It was accidental,” said Bittle.

“Accidental?” said Beacon. “You placed her in that chamber and you pulled the switch. You instigated the sequence of events that resulted in the replication, Dr Bittle.”

“I was drunk.”

“You’re always dunk, you juicer.”

“And this outcome demonstrates that the technology isn’t ready for humanity – or, more likely, that humanity isn’t ready for the technology. Either way, what has occurred proves that we cannot continue, that we mustn’t continue. I have to publish my findings and face the consequences.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” said Beacon. “Your findings are Company property.”

“This company is unethical,” said Bittle.

“No more than any other, Doctor.”

* * * *

Trudy Parr let it ring seven times and then picked up the phone. “Dench and Parr Agency,” she said.

“We need to talk,” said the voice at the other end of the line. “You, me and that partner of yours.” It was Lieutenant Oly Schmidt of the Chinatown Squad. “Says here in this morning’s Sun that you were hobnobbing with known underworld types last night. You know the piece I mean, this thing Roscoe Phelps wrote? He implies that you’re in cahoots with Agustin Ho. That true?”

“It’s all the lies of a desperately lonely newspaper reporter,” Trudy Parr said. She turned round on her office chair and looked out onto Hastings Street. It was raining.

“We still need to meet.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re lying to me,” Schmidt said. “Or at least holding back. I hear you recently had Barney Polenski in your office. I hear he was shadowing the murder victim. I hear you nearly cut off his head before he spilled a ton of dope on the case.”

“You’re only partially correct,” said Trudy Parr. “Polenski played dumb under rigorous interrogation. I made the mistake of believing him. That was wrong of me. Maybe I’m going soft. But word is that he’s still in town, even though Crispin told him to vamoose. I’ve got calls out. People street side know I want him. I should get news of his whereabouts soon. Then maybe I’ll start by cutting off his smaller more delicate pieces, before I threaten decapitation. There’s a notebook of his I want to see.”

“There’s a warrant out for his arrest, Trudy,” Schmidt said. “That makes him ours, not yours. So hands off.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Trudy Parr. “I’m a real hands-off kinda girl.”

“Don’t push, Miss Parr.”

“You just grab a doughnut and stand down, Oly,” Trudy Parr said. “You’ll be called in to mop up and take all of the credit. Until then, stay outta my way.” She hung up the telephone.

* * * *

Crispin Dench owned and drove a white 1948 Jaguar Xk120 with red leather interior, but he left it at home that night. Instead, he borrowed a ’46 Chevrolet sedan from Hatless Andy Picard, a broad shouldered labourer for hire who’d earned his nickname for his vast collection of hats. Dench preferred the big backseat and trunk of the Chevrolet for the work he had that evening. Hatless Andy rode shotgun. It was 10:00 pm. Dench tuned the radio to a jazz station. They listened to Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli play All the Things You Are.

There was a large bundle in the backseat. It squirmed, grunted and convulsed. It was held together by a series of knotted ropes.

“Settle down back there, Barney,” Crispin Dench said. “Save your energy.”

Barney Polenski was gagged and nearly silenced. But there came a run of muffled expletives.

“We’ll be there in a minute, Old Man,” Dench said.

The soft suspension of the Chevrolet allowed the car to rumble smoothly over the railroad tracks that crossed the road leading onto the Rogers Sugar refinery wharf. When it was halfway out on the wharf, the Chevrolet stopped. The wharf was dimly lit. Dench had counted on that.

“Shall we?” he said.

“Sure, sure,” Hatless Andy said.

They got out of the car and pulled Barney Polenski from of the backseat. Then they positioned him on his knees at the edge of the wharf, under a light standard. Dench placed a noose round Polenski’s neck and Hatless Andy shimmied up the pole with the other end of the rope. He tethered it there securely.

Crispin Dench removed Barney Polenski’s blindfold. Polenski felt the noose round his neck and looked out over the open water twenty feet below. He nearly swooned, fighting to keep his balance.

“What the fuck,” Polenski said. “You can’t do this, Dench. They’ll find out if I fall over. You’ll hang for it.”

“Not before you do,” Crispin Dench said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t leave town,” Polenski said. “That Trudy bitch cut me bad. I wasn’t in any shape to travel.”

“Be nice with what you say about Trudy Parr,” said Hatless Andy.

“Yeah be nice, Barney,” Dench said. “The hatless one here believes that I should just push you over the edge and let you swing. He thinks I should do that because you’re a goon and a liar. I, however, believe you have some redeeming qualities and at least one item in your possession that might save you.”

“Name it, Dench,” Polenski said, “and it’s yours.”

“Well there’s really only one thing, Barney. Only one thing that I’d risk handling after you’ve molested it with your grimy meat hooks.”

“What? What is it?”

“It’s that notebook you took notes in while you talked to the now murdered woman in the Lily Lounge. I have a golden source that says you took plentiful notes during your chats with her. That’s what makes you a liar; you said the notes were all in your head. You lied to me Barney. What made you think I’d let that slide?”

Hatless Andy tightened the noose. Barney Polenski choked and coughed, and then he spoke. “It all comes down to this, Dench. I got myself in a real pickle. I gotta choose who’s gonna kill me, you or that bunch of foreigners with that duplicating machine. I tell you what’s what and the foreigners ice me. I shut up about it and you push me off this wharf with a rope round my neck. Maybe you can understand my reticence.”

“The time for reticence is over,” Dench said.

“Are you and that psycho partner of yours gonna protect me if I spill, Dench?” Polenski said.

“No, but maybe we can use the information in your little notebook to mop these bastards up and eliminate all the perils you face.”

“Or maybe not,” Polenski coughed. “Maybe you’re out of your league with these characters. Maybe they’re smarter than you.”

Crispin Dench bent down and looked at Polenski in profile. Polenski turned his head and faced him. Polenski’s throat hurt. The rope was burning into the open wound Trudy Parr had inflicted. “Do you really believe that, Barney?” Crispin Bench said with an uncanny calm.

Barney Polenski licked his lips and looked down at the water he’d hang over if he was pushed. “No,” he said. “I guess I don’t.”

“Is that book up in your room, Barney?” Dench said.

“Yeah,” said Polenski. “It’s in a safe in my closet under some shoe boxes.”

“What’s the combination?”

Barney Polenski hesitated, hating to give in. Dench saw this. Standing up, he said, “Alright, Andy. Kick the fat fuck over.”

“Be a pleasure,” Hatless Andy said.

“No, wait,” Barney Polenski yelped. “10 right, 4 left, 9 right.”

“Say it again,” Dench said, “so I can write it down,” Barney Polenski did.

“So now you cut me loose, right?” Polenski said. “We’re square, right?”

“What do think?” Dench said to Hatless Andy. “Should we release this lying bitch? We don’t even know if this combination’s correct, do we?”

“It’s good,” Polenski whined. “The combination’s correct.”

“I say we leave him here,” Hatless Andy said. “Let him watch the sunrise.”

“That’s a damn fine idea,” Dench said.

“No,” said Polenski. “I could slip and break my neck.”

“You should have thought of that before,” said Dench. “There’ll be some longshoremen round in six or seven hours. They’ll cut you free, one way or the other.”

“Dench, you prick, cut me loose.”

“See you in the funny papers, Barney.”

In a few minutes, Barney Polenski heard the Chevrolet start and drive away. He remained kneeling until morning, listening to the song of foghorns.

Morey Amsterdam’s corset, a Christmas story

“Remember Morey Amsterdam?” David Okin said.

“Of course,” said Ethan Liss. “I remember him from the Dick Van Dyke show with Mary Tyler Moore. She was gorgeous. And wasn’t Amsterdam an elegant name? Those were the days.”

“And don’t forget Rosemarie,” Okin said. “But that Van Dyke character was a real boozer. And he was crazy when he drank. You’ve no idea.”

“And you do?”

“I’ve read some stories.”

“The stories you’ve read,” Ethan Liss smiled, “they come out of those rotten tabs you buy at the grocery store checkout.”

“So shoot the messenger. I’ll tell you this, though, I heard this one story about Morey Amsterdam and Rosemarie from a very reliable person who was in New York at the time.”

“What story?” said Ethan Liss, flagging the waitress for more coffee.

David Okin leaned across the table and said in a hushed voice, “They had an affair, those two. Morey Amsterdam and Rosemarie.” Sitting back in his seat and holding up his right hand he said, “Swear to God.”

“Everyone in TV in New York during the fifties was having affairs, though the thought of them together is a little hard to conjure.”

“Well, that ain’t nothin’,” Okin said. “This fella who told me about it said that Morey Amsterdam was a transvestite. I mean, he made himself out to be a real lady’s man, but he was a dyed in the wool crossdresser.”

“David,” said Ethan Liss, “the value of any story lies in its relevance and whether a person wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear this. Let Morey Amsterdam rest in peace.”

“Rest in a negligee, you mean,” said Okin. “And anyway, this is relevant. It took place at Christmas and this is Christmastime. So anyway, Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam are just two crazy kids in love. It’s Christmas Eve 1958 and they’re in New York, love capital of America.”

“Who said New York is the love capital of America?”

“I said it was the love capital of America. Now it’s a toilet without a handle for flushing. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam were staying the Waldorf Astoria, a nice place. And it was the year of the Park Avenue blizzard, if you remember; the one that shut Manhattan down tighter than a gulag in February. Rosemarie had taken Amsterdam on a crossdressing shopping spree that morning, all over the city. It’s strange what some women will do for love, eh?”

“Vera married you,” said Liss.

“Ha, very funny. So, the two of them, Morey Amsterdam and Rosemarie, get back to the hotel and it’s starting to snow. They need help with all the boxes and bags so there’s these three bellboys and the cab driver all carrying stuff up to the tenth floor, because they’re in #1005, which is almost immaterial to the story but it just goes to show you how detail oriented the fellow who relayed this story to me is. Thing is, they’re so busy with all the boxes full of Morey Amsterdam’s lady’s wear that they miss seeing this guy at the front desk checking in. He’s some big, fat, oily Texan with more money than any hayseed like him should be allowed to have. And he’s pinching the women’s asses and yelling ‘Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, girlies.’ I mean this guy was a real clown. And he’s got this foul cigar in his pie hole that’s polluting the whole place.  So, guess what suite he gets.”

“Ah, I…”

“That’s right, #1006. Right next to #1005, the suite belonging to Rosemarie and the soon to be voluptuous Morey Amsterdam. So anyway, up at #1005, Morey Amsterdam is handing out one dollar tips to the cab driver and the three bellboys at the front door when the elevator spits out this Texan who is now drinking from a bottle of Jim Beam. He’s followed by his own bellboy who is straining under the weight of the Texan’s luggage. Morey Amsterdam watches the Texan and the bellboy disappear into #1006, and when the two of them re-emerge the Texan tips the bellboy twenty-five cents, cheap bastard. For a moment, Morey Amsterdam’s and the Texan’s eyes meet, and the Texan says, ‘Merry Christmas, little feller. Saw you walking through the lobby, looked like yer little lady done bought out the whole city of New York. Hope she’s worth it.’ When he said that last bit, he gave Morey Amsterdam a big wink. Amsterdam smirked and closed his door. ‘Little fucking Jew,’ the Texan said and retired into #1006.”

David paused and sipped his cooling coffee.

“Then what happened,” Ethan asked.

“Time went by, my friend, and snow kept falling in ever increasing amounts and intensity, and if our POV remains the hall, nothing more than that happened. But, if we go into #1006, we see the Texan stripped down to his boxer shorts, tank top and overpriced socks reclining on the bed, gulping down his sipping whiskey and seemingly contemplating the incendiary possibilities of his odious smoke. Suddenly, he is struck by a thought. Where, he asks himself, does a guy get a dame in this town? He picks up the phone and gets the hotel switchboard.

“Thelma Bickel answers. She’s a senior member of the Bronx First Baptist church and a Waldorf Astoria switchboard operator of thirty years; she takes the call. ‘Waldorf Astoria Hotel switchboard, how may I help you?’

‘You know this town, Missy?’ the Texan asks.

“‘What do you need to know, sir? I’ll try to direct you.’

“‘What’s your name, honey?’

“‘It’s Hotel policy for employees not to provide their names to guests, sir. My employee number, however, is 237.’

“‘Well don’t that beat all?’ says the Texan. ‘The first woman I talk to in New York City is called Miss 237. Well Miss 237, where’s a guy pick up a squeeze in this burg?’

“‘Excuse me…’

“‘Yah know, a girly, a dame, an inamorata. Somethin’ in a skirt, for crying out loud.’

“‘I’m afraid that I’m unable to provide that sort of information, sir. I can, however, provide you with information about city bus tours, museums…’

“‘Only thing I want to tour right now, Miss 237, is the behind of some tightly clad wench with a sweet face and an accommodating nature. Would that, perhaps, come close to describing you?’

“‘Would you like to talk to my supervisor, sir?’ Mrs Bickel asks.

“‘Hell no,’ says the Texan. ‘Guess this is something a man’s gotta do hisself. Where’s my damn hat?’

“This last question Mrs. Bickel considered rhetorical” Okin said, “and allowed the Texan to hang up without further utterance on her part. In suite #1006, the Texan dresses and prepares himself for a night on the prowl.

“Now, if we secretly enter #1005, we see something very different: ‘I want to do my makeup now,’ said Morey Amsterdam.

“‘Let’s get your corset on first, honey.’ Rosemarie insisted. ‘I think it may be a bit of a struggle getting you into it, and I want to get it over with.’

“‘Why do I have to wear a damn corset anyway? It’s torture.’

“‘You wanna be a lady, Blanche?’ Rosemarie said. ‘Then you’ve got to dress like one. The corset is designed to give a girl a wasp-like waistline.’

“‘None of the women in the Amsterdam family has a wasp-like waistline,” said Morey Amsterdam, ‘or any waistline for that matter.’

‘Whatever you say, Blanche,’ said Rosemarie. ‘But it’s time to strip, time to hit the silk.’

“So,” said Okin, “Morey Amsterdam undresses and mentally prepares himself for the battle to come.

“Now, we men are arrogant in our position of comfort. Our trousseau consists mostly of comfortable clothing that fits only snug enough so as not to fall off. Women, however, have for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years endured the anguish and affliction of a myriad of garments and undergarments, mostly devised by men, that bind, lash and fetter the female form into what men believe to be a more natural configuration. And, though in the past the odd fop was known to wear a man’s corset in order to cast a slimmer profile, the man’s corset has always been a pale shadow of the woman’s equivalent.”

“This is a dissertation or a story?” Ethan Liss asked.

“Hush, my friend,” said Okin. “I’m on a roll.

“So, cast your mind back to the day when Morey Amsterdam was on every television screen in North America. He was, to be fair, a short, flat footed, stocky, swarthy man with a regrettable over abundance of body hair. His facial features were those of a bull dog. He was an extraordinary comedian and entertainer, but he looked like an overfed hell-clown. His was an unfortunate body type for one aspiring to feminine beauty. But there he stood in #1005 in front of a floor to ceiling mirror wearing nothing but a pair of pink panties while Rosemarie presented him with the corset.

“The corset was purchased at Lady Olga’s Corset Shop in the Village. And Lady Olga herself had quite a story to tell.”

Ethan made an ‘hmm’ sound into his coffee cup.

“She came to New York after the war,” said Okin. “And she was what was then referred to as a displaced person or a DP. Today she would be called a refugee and granted a gentle hand up by a compassionate and welcoming government, but not back then. In fact, the United States government wanted to send her back to Poland, but she disappeared long enough to find Mr and Mrs Brodski, relatives to sponsor her in America. The sponsoring Brodskis weren’t really relatives at all, but the husband and wife owners of the Little Poland Borscht House in Brooklyn. They welcomed Olga into their midst and rented her space on the bare floor on which to sleep and employment her washing pots and peeling beets for which she was paid $5 a week, perhaps not coincidentally the same amount they charged Olga for renting her space of bare floor.

“Olga was no sucker for punishment, however. She endured for as long as she had to until the day she was able to walk away from the Little Poland Borscht House with a temporary form of American citizenship that afforded her greater freedom to pursue her bliss. As it turned out, her first blissful act was to burn down the Little Poland Borscht House in the night while Mr and Mrs Brodski slept in their apartment above the restaurant. All that was left of Brooklyn’s king and queen of borscht was a few bone fragments, and Olga never looked back.

“To her credit, Olga had been trained and had become quite accomplished as a corsetiere in Warsaw before the war. During the Nazi occupation, she had made most of her meagre living creating gloriously feminine silk and satin corset confections for crossdressing Nazi officers, of which there many. She soon found out that the occupying German forces were chalk-a-block full of crossdressers who minced like delicate little fascist ballerinas during their off hours. It was there that she grew accustomed to fitting men in ladies wear. At first it was difficult not to laugh or be repulsed. But the Nazis had hard cash, and Olga had a growing reputation.

“Now she had transferred her seamstress’s talents to America and welcomed customers of both sexes to her dainty storefront.

“Weeks before, Rosemarie had measured Morey Amsterdam for the corset Lady Olga was to make for him and sent the information by mail along with an approximate description of what the finished product should look like. She emphasised that it must be full in construction and be made completely of the highest grade of corset satin. It must not be pink, but Parisian Lavender with Niece Lavender, a subtler shade, used for the lace trim. There must be no whale bone used to reinforce the garment, but there must be laces, the tying kind, on the back so the corset could be tightened or loosened as need be. It must have removable shoulder straps and the bust’s top line must be accentuated by faux gemstones and silk rosettes consistent with the overall lavender colour scheme.

“And so the corset appeared that Christmas Eve in 1958 when Lady Olga brought it out from the backroom of her shop. As Lady Olga removed the corset from its box and held it up for all to see, there was a hush of respectful astonishment throughout the shop.  Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam were both pleased with the license Olga had taken in the placement of lace, the depth of the cleavage and the placement of garters.”

“‘Do you approve, Mr Amsterdam?’ Olga asked.

“Morey Amsterdam said nothing. He just licked his suddenly parched lips. ‘It’s wonderful, Lady Olga,’ Rosemarie said and began writing out a cheque for the corset and all of the other items she and Morey Amsterdam had purchased there together.

“Soon they were in a cab being driven through the ever snowier streets of Manhattan. Their next stop would be the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where the cabbie and a couple of bellboys helped transport the bags and boxes up to the tenth floor.

“‘In we go, Blanche,’ Rosemarie said to Morey Amsterdam, and working together they were able to finally confine Amsterdam in the pleasingly tight corset. Rosemarie had to place her foot on Morey Amsterdam’s mid-back in order to obtain an effective purchase while tightening the laces. Morey Amsterdam, for his part, smoked throughout the procedure and even took a moment, while his paramour grunted with effort, to bend over and place a call to order a bottle of Chivas Regal from room service. In the end, though, he achieved the coveted hourglass figure and was ready to don his stockings and the frothy layers of snow white crinoline that would provide further shape and dimension beneath his satin lavender evening gown.

Here Ethan Liss interrupted, “It sounds to me as though Morey Amsterdam was lacking in gratitude for his lover and her substantial efforts.”

“This,” David Okin said, “is a true and a worthy observation on your part. It’s always gratifying to know that one is being listened to whilst telling a story of importance. As for Rosemarie, who can know what sentiments she harboured toward the now corseted Morey Amsterdam, as he twisted and posed in the mirror like a sinister and oily she-homunculus. But her actions later in the evening may give a clue. For now, however, as Rosemarie guides her boyfriend cum girlfriend to the makeup table, we might take a moment to revisit the Texan in his search for, if not Miss Right, at least Miss Without Further Ado.

“Just inside of the front entrance of the Waldorf Astoria, our Texan stands looking out of the rotating glass doors watching the snow fall. In his home state he had never seen much of this thing called snow, much less a blizzard. The street had become a blank still-life without a right angle to be seen. Where cars were once parked, there were now only round rapidly disappearing humps. Roads, curbs and sidewalks had long ago disappeared and now signposts and lamp standards were succumbing to the same fate. A wind from out of the north east blew in monstrous gusts that at once seemed to promise to blow away all of the accumulated snow, but only delivered more from elsewhere. Our Texan was a picture of dejection, his once firmly held hopes of gaining a gal dashed like an empty bourbon bottle against a brick wall of unmitigated, unanticipated and undeserved catastrophe. ‘If this ain’t the damnedest place on Earth,’ he said and pulled a fresh bottle of Jim Beam out of his coat. After cracking the seal and taking two considerable gulps, he cornered the concierge at his desk.

“‘I’m looking for action, there brother,’ the Texan said. ‘Where’s a fella go in this here town to have a little fun?’ Looking up from his copy of the December, 1958 Vanity Fair, the concierge, with platinum blonde hair, said in a crisp Scottish accent, ‘What type of fun did you have in mind, and just how, in this storm, did you intend to access it?’

”The Texan’s jaw went slack for a second then he recovered. He squinted at the concierge like he’d just discovered something rare and alarmingly subversive. He said, ‘You’re just a little light in the loafers, ain’t you, boy?’

“’What a delightfully rudimentary use of euphemism, Mr um… What room are you in, sir?’

“‘Number 1006.’

“‘Right, then,’ the concierge said running his well manicured finger down a typewritten list of hotel guests. ‘Just let me check. Oh here we are, #1006, Mr Jeremiah Matthews of Fort Worth, Texas. What a delight it is to have you as a guest, here at the Waldorf Astoria. We regret to inform you that we have been instructed by the New York Police Department to strongly recommend to all hotel guests that they not venture out of the hotel for the duration of the blizzard. Guests who do leave the premises do so at the own risk and are not the responsibility of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.’

“The concierge blinked his eyes twice as if to emphasise the point of the message he’s just relayed. Jeremiah Matthews of Fort Worth, Texas ground his teeth, ‘Look you little fruit cake, I want you to call me a cab and…’

“‘But there are no cabs, Mr Matthews,’ the concierge interrupted, holding up his hand. ‘There haven’t been since noon.’

“‘Then what the hell am I supposed to do on Christmas Eve in a hotel full of homos, Jews and degenerates?’

“‘Well, Mr Matthews,’ the concierge said, ‘you might start by remembering that Jesus was a Jew.’

“‘I don’t need a damn Sunday school class,’ Matthews bellowed. ‘I need me a dame.’

“‘Well, Mr Matthews, Christmas Eve can be a magical time, with farmyard beasts speaking in tongues and all. Anything is possible, no? And just in case you think I’m wrong, let me tell you this. ESAP, or the Eastern Seaboard Association of Proctologists, has been having its convention here all week. Tonight was meant to be the highlight of the gathering with all participants meeting after seven in the main dinning room for a Seasonal Gala dinner with entertainment and awards. As it turns out, however, nearly half the delegates can’t make it because of the weather. So, the organizers have opened up the gala to any and all hotel guests who wish to attend.’

“Matthew’s shoulders sank. ‘Proctologists?’ he said.

‘Why yes, Mr Matthews,’ said the concierge with new gusto. ‘In fact, tonight the Waldorf Astoria Hotel is not only full of homos, Jews and degenerates, but proctologists as well.’

“The Texan was suddenly aware of having been defeated by a Nelly Scotsman in the Gomorrah of New York. ‘I’m going to my room,’ he said.

“‘But do come down for the gala, Mr Matthews,’ said the concierge. ‘Perhaps you’ll meet a dame proctologist; perhaps you’ll fall in love; maybe you’ll even be married, and, as a result of your serendipitous romance caused by a blizzard in Manhattan, all of your future proctology needs will be met by the woman you love.’ The Texan turned and faced the concierge, pointing his fat, stubby finger in what was meant to be a threatening gesture. Smiling the concierge returned to Vanity Fair.”

“So what about Morey Amsterdam and Rosemarie?” Ethan Liss said.

“Ah, our lovers in #1005,” David Okin replied. “Their afternoon is progressing well. Rosemarie has left Morey Amsterdam to do his makeup. He’d always considered himself an expert at this, perhaps even an artist, but Rosemarie always secretly believed that he ended up looking like a tramp when left to his own devices. But who can dictate how a man should do his makeup – I ask you?”

“I imagine that makeup is a very personal thing for some men,” Ethan Liss said. “And, if I guess right, lipstick is the most personal of all makeup items.”

“That’s a very interesting thought, my friend,” Okin said, “but you’ll forgive me if I don’t take it up with you as a topic of conversation.

“For her part, Rosemarie went to the hotel coffee shop and had a Rueben sandwich and a nice green salad with grilled asparagus dressed in a wonderful virgin olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette for four dollars and thirty-five cents.”

“That’s an excellent value, even for 1958,” said Ethan Liss. “But she didn’t have the Waldorf Salad?”

“For many people,” David Okin said, “the Waldorf Salad is a celebratory meal. Rosemarie was one of these many, and, feeling a little out of sorts, opted for the Rueben. But, the point is that when she signed the bill for her meal, Rosemarie was fully informed by her waiter of the disaster that was the Manhattan blizzard of 1958 and that she and a guest were invited to attend the proctologists’ gala that evening rather than venturing out into the snowy wilderness of New York. The offer was a generous one, but she and Morey Amsterdam had planned to attend a different Christmas gala at Club Sheba where Amsterdam would be more in his element. Club Sheba being the gathering place in New York for all gender-benders and their dates. But Club Sheba was twelve snowbound and taxiless blocks away.

“She lit a Chesterfield and thought. Morey Amsterdam would not be amused. He probably didn’t realize how wicked the weather had become. She looked at her watch; he’d probably be putting on his wig at the moment and needing her to do up the zipper and fasten the clasps on the back of his evening gown, and check his back for any rogue hairs. She snuffed out the cigarette and went to the elevator.”

“That’s what this world needs,” Ethan Liss said, “elevators with attendants. I never got used to riding in pilotless elevator cars going up, up, up, then falling like a stone without someone there who had a handle on things.”

“Elevator attendants have been made redundant by technology,” David Okin said authoritatively. “Besides, one never became an elevator attendant unless he was a bit of a dim whit. Anyone who places their life in the hands of someone with a single digit IQ deserves what he gets.”

“I was just saying,” Ethan Liss protested.

“Well, you’ve said it,” David Okin said. “Now we’ll move on.

“When Rosemarie entered their suite, Morey Amsterdam was hopping around in one silk lavender high heel shoe while trying to put on the other. His brunet bouffant wig sat sideways on his head and he had only one falsie installed. Finally, on seeing Rosemarie, he fell backward onto the sofa. As a result, his multi-layered crinoline puffed up like a bowl of popcorn. He let his freshly shaven arms fall at his side and the unused shoe fall to the ground.

“‘Where were you?’ he pouted.

“‘Having lunch and you might want to delay your beautification for a moment, there Blanche. The whole city’s snowed in. There’re no cabs, and it’s doubtful any of the delicate flowers that run Club Sheba are even going to make it in to open up tonight.’

“‘That’s impossible,’ Morey Amsterdam whined. ‘This is New York City, it’s not going to just roll over and die because of a little snow.’

“‘Have you taken a look outside of late? We’re on the tenth floor; it’s a great view. Just take a look.’

“Morey Amsterdam got up and limped over to the widow wearing his one shoe and looked out. There was nothing to see, really. The snow fell so thickly that one couldn’t see even a few feet. The wind blew ferociously; Morey Amsterdam felt a chill run up his spine.

“‘Well, what then?’ he said. ‘What do we do? I was just starting to feel pretty.’

“‘Well, we’ve been invited to attend a seasonal gala downstairs.’

“‘Golly, I don’t know. What kind of seasonal gala?’

“‘A proctologists’ seasonal gala,’ Rosemarie said as she lit another Chesterfield. ‘There’ll be a lot of empty seats on account of the snow.’

“‘So, you mean these are ass doctors?’ Morey Amsterdam said and paused for a moment. ‘Well I guess I’ll get changed back into my man clothes, then.’ He moped and lopsidedly hobbled toward the makeup table.

“‘Oh no you don’t,’ Rosemarie said blowing smoke through her nose. ‘I put a lot of effort and money into the woman you are this evening, and I’m not going to let you have a tantrum and ruin the fun. Now let’s start with you cutting your damn toenails like I told you to do a week ago.’

“So now Rosemarie is clipping Morey Amsterdam’s toenails?” asked Ethan Liss.

“No. As the story goes,” David Okin said, “Morey Amsterdam clips his own toenails. But Rosemarie watches to make sure the job is done right, and then she applies a pretty pink coat of Chanel nail polish. What’s interesting, however, is what’s happening in #1006.”

”The Texan has grabbed a maid and is chasing her around his suite?” Ethan Liss said.

“Don’t be vulgar,” Okin said. “Our Texan has thrown an unopened suitcase onto his bed and has begun to undo the buckles holding it shut. When he opens it, there’s a pair of western style six shooters in a tooled leather holster. He runs his fingers over them as though he’s caressing the thigh of his lover, but then he takes the weapons out and throws them on the floor. Having removed the guns from the suitcase, he now looks down upon a tuxedo. He didn’t think he’d need it on this trip, but now he was glad to have it. What was unclear was just how well it would go over this evening at the proctologists’ gala. Though it was classically cut, it was a sky blue oeuvre of rhinestones and western embroidery. The opposing silk lapels each depicted a coyote howling at the full moon that hung in a sky filled with multicoloured stones. Across the shoulders and upper back, gun fights and stagecoach robberies were precisely hand stitched and featured even more rhinestones. The trousers had a silk stripe of a slightly darker blue running down the outside of each leg. Lifting these two pieces out of the suitcase revealed a pale blue shirt with ruffles, a gold and onyx bolo tie, a pair of suspenders and a highly polished pair of ostrich skin western boots.

“He held the boots up and took a deep breath. Then he checked the time on his Rolex. The shindig began at seven this evening. It was now half past six. He wasn’t going to be the first lone wolf through the door. He could wait until eight or even later. He pulled a fresh bottle of Jim Beam out of his other suitcase, opened it and drank deeply.”

“And our beauty queen in #1005?” Ethan asked.

“Thanks to Rosemarie, things were coming together in #1005. Morey Amsterdam had both shoes on and his bouffant wig sat straight upon his head. Even his back was now free of rogue hairs.

“For her part, Rosemarie had put on a red silk evening gown with black lace trim. On another woman it would have been garish, but it was what her fans had come to expect from her. She spent what time she had fixing her hair and applying an unusually heavy layer of makeup, the better to be seen in the dimly lit ballroom.

“As Rosemarie made herself up, Morey Amsterdam sat on the couch with his layers of crinoline once again puffed up like an angel food cake. He’d place an open hatbox on the floor several feet away, and now tried to flip a deck of cards into it, one at a time.

“As seven o’clock approached, Morey Amsterdam poured a drink for Rosemarie and himself, and they drank to being stuck in the Waldorf Astoria in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. At that moment, Rosemary asked herself if that was a glint in Morey Amsterdam’s eye. It may have been, because they put down their glasses and fell together in a long and tender kiss, the intensity of which sent them both looking for their tubes of lipstick when they’d finished. Ah, romance. It was this romantic interlude that truly made time pass, for before they knew it, it was eight o’clock and time to make their way down to the ballroom.

“‘I don’t know about this, Rose,’ Morey Amsterdam said.

“‘Don’t worry, Blanche,’ Rosemarie assured him. ‘I’ll be right next to you. Besides, I look like such a train wreck in this gown, everyone will be gawking at me not you.’

“‘Okay then,’ Morey Amsterdam said taking deep breath. ‘Let’s go.’

“And so they did, lace gloved hand in lace gloved hand. Out of their suite and toward the elevator just in time to meet our Texan standing there waiting for the next car down. He was wearing his pale blue western tux with a big buckled belt and black ostrich skin boots. As Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam approached, he looked over and said, ’Good evening ladies.’ He smiled especially at Rosemarie and then looked over at Morey Amsterdam in his lavender gown and frowned, shook his head slightly and looked away. Rosemarie nudged Morey Amsterdam and smiled as if to say, See, you’re fine. Morey Amsterdam didn’t share her enthusiasm. When the elevator arrived, the attendant called out, ‘Going down!’ But he couldn’t be heard over the singing and conversing of the eight or so proctologists and their guests already in the car. The Texan and Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam hesitated at the lack of space, but were informed by the elevator attendant that his was the only car running due to the blizzard, so they’d better try to get on if they ever wanted to get downstairs. They squeezed on, the Texan standing next to Morey Amsterdam, his size thirteen boot dwarfing Morey Amsterdam’s much smaller satin pump. Morey Amsterdam felt a strange tingle like a runaway electric current pulsing through his body. It must be the scotch, he thought. And, maybe it was, but as he looked up at the tall Texan standing next to him and saw that he was looking down at him with a curious smile. Morey Amsterdam, in his silk evening gown, felt the tingle all over again, only stronger this time. Silently, he begged the elevator down to their destination faster so that he could escape. He was about to scream like a little girl when the attendant opened the doors and said, lobby.

“‘Why are you squeezing my hand so tight?’ Rosemarie asked Morey Amsterdam.

“‘Sorry, it was just too crowded in there,’ Morey Amsterdam said, verging on hyperventilation.

“The Texan came up to them and made a gesture like tipping his hat, except he had no hat to tip. ‘I’ll see you ladies inside the ballroom, won’t I?’ He asked this and walked away after giving Morey Amsterdam a little wink.

“‘What was that all about?’ Rosemarie asked.

“‘I don’t know,’ Morey Amsterdam said. ‘Let’s just get into the ballroom and out of this light. It’s turning my skin yellow.’

“The tables inside the ballroom were already peopled with hotel guests enjoying cocktails and conversation. Morey Amsterdam led Rosemarie to the back of the vast room, far away from the dance floor, to a group of tables where a knot of men spoke together and the few women present drank with bored expressions on their faces.

“‘These have got to be proctologists,’ Morey Amsterdam said. ‘Let’s sit here.’

“‘You sure, Blanche?’ Rosemarie said. ‘These guys look real square.’

“‘That’s the point,’ Morey Amsterdam said. ‘They’ll ignore us. I’ve never wanted to be so ignored. To think I could have met Christine Jorgensen tonight.’

“‘Well, I want a drink,’ Rosemarie said holding up a beckoning hand while seating herself.

“Immediately, one of the men sitting at the table stood and walked around to introduce himself.

“‘Hello, ladies,’ he said. Rosemarie could have sworn that he clicked his heels. ‘My name is Dr Wilfred Hand. May I welcome you to our table?’

“‘Oh, why thank you, Dr Hand,’ Rosemarie said. ‘I’m Rosemarie and this is my friend Blanche. Well, I call her Blanche. Other people call her other things…’

“’Is it just Blanche?’ Dr Hand said. ‘Is there no family name?’

“‘Yes, what is your family name, Blanche?’ Rosemarie smiled.

“‘Ah, Amsterda…,’ Morey Amsterdam began. But then he saw Rosemarie shake her head slightly. ‘Ah, Dubois,’ he said instead. ‘Yeah Blanche Dubois.’ He held out his hand for the doctor to take. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Dr Hand.’

“‘The pleasure is all mine, Miss Dubois,” the doctor said taking Morey Amsterdam’s hand into his. ‘I trust it is Miss.’

“‘Why yes, doctor. Regrettably, I remain a Miss.’

‘Well then,’ Dr Hand said. ‘I recommend that you be most careful tonight for many of us, including myself, are bachelors at this table. And we outnumber the ladies.’

“Having said this, the doctor kissed Morey Amsterdam’s hand. Morey Amsterdam blushed. Looking away, Rosemarie rolled her eyes. Then she quickly did an inventory of those at the table. The doctor was right. Men outnumbered woman two to one.

“Taking a cigarette from her purse, Rosemarie turned to Morey Amsterdam and said, ‘Dubois? Blanche Dubois? What does that make me, Stella? This isn’t a drag show here, you know.’

“‘I know,’ Morey Amsterdam said dreamily. ‘But, who’d have ever thought that I could be Blanche Dubois in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Christmas Eve with a catastrophic blizzard blowing outside, and have my hand kissed by a proctologist.’

“‘Well don’t forget, Missy,’ Rosemarie said. ‘I’m your date tonight and you’re going home with me.’

“‘Ladies,’ Dr Hand said, having returned with a friend. ‘Allow me to introduce Dr Abraham Nebbler of the Nebbler Institute where some of America’s most important proctology research takes place.’

“‘My good friend, Dr Hand, exaggerates,’ Nebbler said bowing. He was five feet tall and shaped like a beach ball.

“‘Not at all,’ Hand said putting his arm around Nebbler. ‘You get all the funding because of the quality of your work. And, what is it you always say – the words they have engraved in stone for all time above the main entrance of the Nebbler Institute?’

“‘Well it’s nothing really,’ Nebbler said. ‘Just a few words I provided in order to establish context.’

“‘Such a humble man,’ Dr Hand said. ‘If you won’t tell them, then I will…’

“‘No, no my friend,’ Dr Nebbler said. ‘I will recite it from memory: Give me the sphincter, and I will give you the man.’

“‘This is poetry, no?’ Hand gushed.

“‘Poetry, not,’ Rosemarie mumbled so only Morey Amsterdam could hear her.

“‘Well,’ Dr Nebbler said proudly. My friend and I have come to invite the two of you to come around the table and sit with us as our dates for this evening. I know that Dr Hand has already been captivated by Miss Dubois’ charm. And, Miss Dubois, just let me say what a lovely name you have. So, if I might be so bold, Rosemarie, may I ask you to accompany me throughout the festivities this evening?’

“Things were getting stranger by the minute,” said Okin. “Rosemarie found her cigarette package empty and looked down at her ashtray. There were the remains of eight Chesterfields there, each one having been lit by the previous. Dr Hand was about to steal her man, who may have been a transvestite, but at least he was her transvestite. And now, she was about to be sacrificed to a four hundred pound dwarf with sphincters on the brain. Compared to this, the drag soiree at Club Sheba would have been more like a Tupperware party.

“Dr Nebbler reached out to take Rosemarie’s hand, and when he touched her she felt cold fingers. She looked at them, manicured and slightly stained with cigar smoke; on his right hand ring finger was the golden ring of a mason. The back of his hand was marbled with blue veins. They were the hands of an elderly man who should know better than to try to pick up a woman of her age. Then she looked over at Morey Amsterdam who was now speaking attentively with Dr Hand. They looked at one another in a tender almost syrupy way. Rosemarie began to shake her head and stood up throwing her arms up as a sign of defeat. She wanted to yell obscenities and was about to do so at the top of her lungs when the sound of gun fire filled the room followed by a hearty ‘Yaaahoooo!’ and ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ and ‘Merry God Damn Christmas.’

“It was the Texan with a six shooter in each hand and just starting to feel the effect of the three bottles of Jim Bean he’d consumed that day.

“‘What li’l filly wants to sit on Santa’s knee and tell him how bad she’s been?’ He said. There was silence for a moment and he fired his guns again. ‘Gol dang it,’ he said. ‘I got me one hundred thousand acres of prime grazing land down in Texas and each acre’s oozing oil. I’m not a bad sort of fella, why can’t I get a dern girl?’

“‘Oh Mr Texan,’ a woman’s voice sounded from the back of the room. ‘Just hang on there, Mr Texan.’ Rosemarie excused herself from the table. Dr Hand was talking with Morey Amsterdam about moving to Florida, and Dr Nebbler took on the look of a man who’d been disappointed before and would be again.

“Rosemarie ran across the empty dance floor like a flighty school girl. When they met, she and the Texan embraced like they had been in love all of their lives. So inspiring was their embrace that the band, that had been setting up for a nine o’clock start, began early by playing a whole Yuletide suite beginning with White Christmas. The dance floor filled up fast. Soon the strangeness of the night faded, and the room became a romantic chamber filled with soft and swirling colourful lights and long awaited promises. And, because on Christmas Eve they say anything can happen, or maybe because they were just plain crazy from a life in New York show biz, Rosemarie and Morey Amsterdam were both surprised that night, to find their true loves. And the snow just kept falling.

“But hang on,” Ethan Liss said. “Morey Amsterdam was no Blanche Dubois. Dr Hand must have found out eventually that his girl was a guy.”

“I guess,” said David Okin.

“You guess?”

“Hand had a practice in Baltimore,” Okin said. “So, they lived together there for a while. In 1963, they moved to Tampa. And that is all there is.”

“This story is very hard to believe.”

“You lack romance,” David Okin said and signalled for the cheque.

Stella Garfield

1969

As a child I lived on East Broadway in Vancouver, right next to an ancient, once elegant Victorian home that had been converted into a boarding-house. It was owned and run by a Portuguese couple named Joseph and Maria. Joseph was a carpenter; Maria attended beauty school. They were not the only Portuguese people I have ever known, but they were the first. Later I discovered that the Portuguese, a people of the Mother Church, habitually named their children Joseph or Maria, perhaps in hopes of tilting the odds in favour of divine future outcomes. But even though Joseph and Maria were devoted Catholics and not indifferent to the possibility of having passed on celestial genes, they were also people of the new world. So, when their first child, a boy, happened along, they named him Mitchell.

Mitch was my age. We were chums, and during a time when the world had seemingly taken a temporary hiatus away from eating its children alive, we had the whole of our own section of the east end of Vancouver in which to run free. We lived on the edge of a rain forest, however. And many was the day when the two of us, eight year olds both and savage with unspent, self-indulgent energy, would sit looking out at the rain soaked world with nothing to do. No comic or storybook, no matchbox toy, not even the glorious invasion of my sisters’ Barbie collections with the inevitable imposition our sadistic, little boy brand of fascist stricture could hold our attention for long. Mitch and I were born to be wild. We were creatures of the secret shortcut, the gravel shouldered side street, the vacant lot and abandoned playground.

At the time, the boarding-house concept was on its way out. Vancouver was becoming a city of apartment dwellers. Loggers, fishermen and miners, long the traditional mainstays of the boarding-house economy, were starting to earn living wages and could afford to buy homes. As a result, their operation was only a meagre supplement to Joseph and Maria’s income. On top of this was the sad fact that boarding-house tenants were never the most reliable subset. During the late sixties, however, this got even worse. The hippie movement was at its most robust and organic, still yet to be monetised by soulless corporations through its transformation from philosophy to fashion. The transient population of the city, a slippery group at best, was becoming even more mobile, fluid and unapologetic. Adopting an acronym frequently encountered in the daily news, Joseph, in his musical broken English, came to call those who skipped on rent MIAs. They were missing in action, often leaving most of the rentable rooms in the house vacant. For Mitch and I, this meant opportunity. There was rainy day adventure to be had in the empty rooms still buzzing with the eccentric energy of former tenants.

We often discovered abandoned pieces of the MIAs lives, left behind in closets and chests of drawers. There were guitars and fishing rods, vinyl LPs and wax 78s, a shiny green jacket and pants my father, upon inspection, declared, with some whimsy in his voice, to be a zoot suit. There were girlie magazines that Mitch and I, at our tender age, found strangely fascinating but difficult to comprehend. Once there was music box containing a ring of undetermined value that Maria took custody of. There were multiple harmonicas, a carved walking stick, hats, eye glasses, dresses, row upon row of shoes, power tools, photo albums, pulpy paperback novels, half empty bottles of liquor, incomplete diaries of incomplete lives, an artificial leg and even a rifle that Joseph said was cheap and dangerous after holding it for only a moment.

The boarding-house was like a mysterious castle that Mitch and I had at our disposal. We dashed from room to room playing cops and robbers, spy versus spy and complex, daylong, running games of hide and seek. And it was during one of these that Mitch and I discovered a moveable panel on the second floor, a false wall that opened into a hidden, windowless room. Inside there was an oddly shaped light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a worn wire, but no switch on the wall. We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dim light. The walls of the room were covered with a pale flowered paper. There were framed watercolours hung, land and seascapes along with three or four portraits. Placed against the wall opposite the secret doorway was what Maria called a vanity. It was like a writing desk with a large oval mirror attached to the back. Beneath a thick layer of dust was a busy collection of unidentifiable bric-a-brac, a vase containing a long withered bouquet and an ornate kerosene lamp. All of these things placed upon an intricately spun doily that hung glamorously over the sides.

“This is where a lady would do her hair and put on her face,” Maria said.

She picked up an antique frame from the vanity top and dusted it with her sleeve. The picture was of a smiling young man and woman wearing old fashioned hats and long coats. There were buttons on the woman’s boots. It was autumn or winter and they stood at what looked like EnglishBay, holding hands.

“Maybe this was her,” Maria said, and reverently placed the frame back on the vanity.

There was a matching chair placed in front of the vanity. After Maria checked the drawers for contraband, Mitch and I each claimed half of the seat and rifled through them looking for loot. We found a card of Millar’s Patented Platinum Bobby Pins, a hairbrush and hand mirror Maria said were made of ivory and very valuable and many other items we assumed to be too old to be accurately interpreted by anybody. Holding up a small tin I’d found, I tried to read a strange, new word on the label. Roog, I said. Mitch laughed, but a strange voice behind us said, “That’s rouge, honey. The girls use lipstick nowadays, but way back when it was rouge or nothin.’”

“Hello, Miss Stella,” Maria said to an elderly woman in a tattered floral housedress standing in the doorway to the hidden room with a cigarette burning down to her knuckles.

“Looks like you’ve found a secret compartment, there fellas,” Miss Stella said. “Lucky there wasn’t the remains of some fair damsel in here for you to discover as well. Don’t tell a soul about this, though, or they’ll be linin’ up to get in and pilfer yer swag. Time and this old house’ve saved this up fer you, so protect it with yer lives. If you’re able.”

Mitch and I stared at the old woman, mouths agape. Maria smiled politely.

“Brought you yer rent, Maria,” Stella said holding out an envelope. “Joseph did a good job repairing the head. Thank him for me, will ya.”

“Yes, Miss Stella. Thank you, Miss Stella.”

“And you boys look out for trapdoors in this here old floor.” Stella said this while stamping the heel of her worn slipper down on the bare floorboards. “A trapdoor will swallow you up faster than a shark knocks back a lazy Polynesian. An old house like this has got trapdoors galore, you betcha. I know what I’m saying, mind you. Lost someone important through a trapdoor once. There one second, gone the next. No time for good-byes. Just a lot of empty space where he’d been standing only moments before.”

“Trapdoors?” I said looking to Maria.

“Yup,” said Stella. “And who’s to say where they’ll lead to in an old barn like this. Not over the rainbow, I’ll tell you that much. One or both of you could end up in the lap of something carnivorous.”

“Thank you, Miss Stella,” Maria said.

“Well I guess you’re right, Maria. No point scaring the little darlings, is there? World’s a rotating horror show as it is without me adding paragraphs. Tragedy and tears, tragedy and tears. TTFN, everyone,” Stella said walking away with a half-hearted wave.

“Who was that,” I said.

“Stella Garfield,” Mitch said. “An actress.”

“She’s no actress anymore,” said Maria. “Now she’s just an old lady. The upstairs tenant. She was here when we moved in.”

“What’s TTFN, Mamma?” Mitch said.

“I don’t know, Baby. But she says it a lot.”

We continued our search, pulling each drawer all of the way out so we could fully inspect it. On the bottom of one I found an envelope fastened with brittle yellowing tape. On it were written, in an old fashioned hand, the words To Rebecca. Mitch stopped to watch me remove the envelope.

“What’s inside?” he said.

Shrugging, I checked the back to see if it was sealed. It wasn’t, so I opened it and pulled out the letter it contained. There was more of the same handwriting. If I’d had the word in my vocabulary at the time, I would have called it elegant. It was dated June 26, 1915.

Dearest Rebecca,                          

I write this to you under the most difficult of circumstances, but I must inform you of what has transpired. I have joined the Seaforth Highlanders and will soon leave for training and then sail for England.

I know that you forbade me to do this thing, but what is a man in these times that sits at home while others of his generation fight and die in France? Your reasons for me remaining home and avoiding the fray have merit, but you are not a man. You cannot know the weight of the anxiety that comes from not joining the fight.

Forgive the brevity of this letter, but what more is there to say. I love you with all of my heart, but I must go join my brothers.

I pray to God that you can forgive me. For going off to war without your forgiveness will be the first and, possibly, the most egregious wound of my service.

I will not embarrass you with pursuit. But if you wish to see me once more, meet me at the Carnegie Library in the west reading room where we have sat together so many times before. I will be there waiting for you on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. If you do not come, I will know that I have lost you to this decision of mine.           

All of my love,

William 

I understood very little of the letter, except for its unmistakeable gravity. I gave it to Mitch to read. He shook his head. Then I carefully placed it back in the envelope and later put it into a pocket atlas for protection.

After that the hidden room became the discovered room. Joseph, being a carpenter by trade, cursed himself for a fool for not spotting the anomaly in the existing floor space from the start. After inspecting the discovered room to ensure Mitch that there were no trapdoors, Joseph spent three hours comparing the floor plans and found nothing else. The impossible promise of finding another hidden cell, however, kept Mitch and me searching until Christmas.

Now that I had met Stella Garfield, she became a recognisable member of the neighbourhood. Soon she was employing me, on an infrequent basis, paying me nickels and dimes to carry her grocery bags and bring her milk delivery up to her rooms from the front porch. Summer approached and with the improved weather, Stella and I often sat together on folding lawn chairs in the backyard of the roaming-house. I was fascinated by her. She was an endless source of stories and tricky wisdom, but my mother was cautious.

“She’s a sweet old gal,” my mother said. “But she’s lonely. She likes having you around, so she makes things up.”

But even though I recognised my mother to be a reliable source on almost all topics, I sensed something suspicious in her near vilification of Stella. Stella had, after all, been in show business during the end of what she called the Vaudeville era. She’d also performed in what she referred to as burlesque – a word Stella almost whispered and would say with a wink. She spoke of exotically named music halls and theatres that had existed in mystical cities, and even here in Vancouver. In my childish mind the theatre names resonated. My nostalgic father confirmed and repeated them. In Vancouver itself were The York, The Capitol, The Majestic, The Orpheum and The Pantages. We located the cities Stella mentioned on a National Geographic map of North America; Toronto, New York, Calgary, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Moose Jaw, Cincinnati, Pensacola, Halifax and Kalamazoo.

Stella’s own sincerity in the matter was confirmed for me by two things. First was a dilapidated photo album containing black and white pictures of a much younger, far more robust Stella wearing show costumes. Among others were photos of Stella in a line of dancing girls, at a makeup table, signing autographs, in a costume consisting of a gigantic array of ostrich feathers playfully boxing with a stage clown, and, the clincher, on a street in a city Stella said was Manhattan with a man I recognised as Bob Hope. It was signed To Stella, Break a leg, baby! Bob. Second was her reaction the one time I called her an actress. She was adamantly opposed.

“I wasn’t ever an actress,” Stella said. “Never some flighty, high maintenance prima donna. I was a singer, a hoofer, a chorus girl. I was an entertainer, a trooper. There was never a star on my door. Ha! Sometimes there wasn’t even a damn door.”

Showing Stella the letter from the discovered room was an exercise in show and tell. But also, I had become aware that the tiny missive disturbed me. In my mind, the two characters connected to the letter had lived out their lives and were now dead. The world they had left behind, with their thin transparent residue upon it, was now dust and cobwebs. Indeed, a room of it had been sealed shut, hidden for what may have been decades. Though unconventional, they were nonetheless ghosts. They haunted me, tapping on my shoulder and forcing me to turn and look at nothing there.

“They’re dead,” I said to Stella as I presented the letter.

“How can you be certain, David?” she said.

“The letter is so old, 1915. It’s 1969 now.”

“Yes, but how old am I? Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m 81 years old,” Stella said. “That means that when the century turned, I was already twelve years old. I was older than you are now. I’m still kickin’, aren’t I? I’m probably even older than Rebecca.”

“Yes, but the man went to war.”

“Not everyone who goes to war dies, David, though some wish they had. And not everyone who claims to be going off to war actually arrives there.”

“Where are they, then?” I said.

“Who can say?” Stella said taking the letter from me and struggling with her glasses. “Maybe they’re in the boneyard, or maybe they live in a castle on a mountain. Now, let me read this.”

I watched as Stella’s eyes scanned the sheet of yellowed paper. By the end, she was frowning. She let her hands drop into her lap and said, “Men are stinkers. Unfortunately, my dear, you’re a member of an iniquitous sex. Try to stay a child as long as you can.”

“Was he bad?”

“Not bad,” Stella said. “Perhaps not even mildly so. But when all sense tells a body to hide and be safe, most men ignore it and run into the fire. Maybe William didn’t; it’s possible something happened to interfere. Most likely, though, he put on his dandy little uniform and marched like a noble and obedient fool right into the shit, pardon my French.” She was quiet for a moment. “I knew someone like him once, a reasonable enough young man with a kind heart and good intentions. A handsome face and pale blue eyes.” She smiled but there were suddenly tears on her cheeks.

“Did he go to war?” I said.

“He most certainly did. The same damn stupid war as William.”

“Was he okay?”

“No,” Stella said. “He came home, but he was never okay again.”

“A friend?”

“Yes,” Stella said looking for something in my eyes. “If a man can ever be a lover and a friend.”

“What happened?”

Stella thought a moment and said, “You ever hear the saying, When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail?”

“No.”

“Well,” Stella said. “There is such a saying, and it applied to him after he got back, and in spades. They made a hammer out of him, and he made me his nail.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, that’s what I remember saying an awful lot – oh.”

“He hurt you?”

“Yes, but I recovered. He did not.”

“What happened to him?”

“I sent him away,” Stella said. “I never really expected him to go, of course. I couldn’t imagine life without him. But when I showed him the door, he faded faster than cheap wallpaper. Once in ’32, when I was on an extended date at The Pantages, I saw him in the front row. By then I wasn’t hoofin’ anymore, just singing, and I’d earned my own dressing room. No star of course, out of principle. After the show, someone knocked at my door. But I sat very still and ignored it.”

“Was it him?”

“I’m almost certain it was. But a moment or two after he knocked, he walked away. I remember listening to his footsteps fade as he walked back down the hall, and there’s me sitting there like a scared kid waiting for a piano to drop on my head. But it never dropped.”

* * * *

At the end of summer, Stella died. Joseph found her on her threshold. It had been a massive stroke. Fast, my consoling mother said. A week before it happened, Mitch and I came across Stella in the discovered room. She sat at the vanity Maria had restored to showroom condition and upon which she had arranged all of the found artefacts. Stella was wearing one of her threadbare floral housedresses. She gazed into the mirror brushing her long white hair with the ivory brush. It was like she was lost in a trance. We stood in the doorway watching and listened as Stella hummed a then unfamiliar tune.

doppelgänger fantasia part 2

read part 1 here, read part 3 here, read part 4 here

Vancouver 1949

…when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. That was Sherlock Holmes’ spin on things. But Crispin Dench had never bought into it. It was too flowery for starters. Besides, he’d never been interested truth. All he ever wanted were verifiable facts. He had his own practical theory; it went like this: There’s nothing more distracting than the obvious. And nothing more obvious than a distraction. He tried to live by those words. But he was frequently sidetracked by the accuracy of the principle.

He stood next to a dark and idle BC Electric tram. It was 1:00 a.m. There were no streetlights; that part of Chinatown was too low rent. The glowing end of his cigarette was a beacon. It informed anyone who cared to know that he was there, waiting.

When it finally arrived, the headlights of Agustin Ho’s immaculately preserved, chauffeur driven 1938 Packard Super 8 illuminated the rain soaked street. As the vehicle stopped, a bodyguard riding shotgun stepped out and opened Agustin’s door. Crispin Dench watched as a pair of glossy black and white spectators preceded an elegantly suited Chinese man of about forty years onto the wet pavement. Ho put on his hat, lit a cigarette and waved the bodyguard off.

“What’s the hullabaloo, Dench?” Ho said. “I don’t like being away from the office this time of night.”

“Maybe I just want to talk over old times.”

“We ain’t got no old times to talk over,” Ho said, taking off his glasses and wiping the drizzle away with a blue silk handkerchief.

“Then let’s talk about tunnel activity.”

“I ain’t got nothing to say about that either,” said Ho. “I don’t use the tunnels. The tunnels were my father’s turf. I run legitimate businesses, street side. I don’t need to sneak around.”

Dench smiled. He knew Agustin Ho ran one or two legitimate operations. But mostly he squeezed Chinatown businesses and ran a bizarre array of booze cans, dug parlours and cat houses. The kind of places cops and politicians were paid to overlook. Places where respectable citizens went to get smoked, laid or stabbed. Where a square got to make like he had a personality and street credentials were rented, not earned.

“Yeah, you’re legit,” said Dench, “but you also know better than anybody what goes on round here. And you own the Lily Lounge. A patron of the Lily ended up dead in the Keefer street tunnel the other night. Why do you think that might have happened?”

Ho looked over at his bodyguard. Meng was a deadly number with a balisong knife in his pocket and a .45 in his shoulder holster. He and Ho communicated with discreet gestures and eye contact so subtle and fleeting the average civilian would never catch it. It was a complex language of menace, silently spoken in a world where nothing was ever written down. And nothing was ever done in the light of day.

“Boss say he’s already spoken to the police about that,” Meng said. “Boss say he doesn’t want to talk about it again. Boss say it disturbs him to talk about such unpleasantness and that he is offended that you presumed to summon him here for this reason.”

“Talk to me, Ho,” said Dench. “I don’t want your goon translating your facial ticks for me. At least tell him to stop talking like he just got off the boat. He was born here same as you and me.”

“Watch how you talk, sei gweilo,” Meng said.

There was some more mysterious eye contact between Ho and Meng. Meng moved away and into the shadows. Then Ho said, “What do you care what happens underground, Dench? This dead dame a friend of yours?”

“Let’s just say the case intrigues me. And you owe me a favour or two. Don’t forget that Yakuza thing a year ago.”

The mention of the Yakuza and favours owed made Agustin Ho wince. He knew Dench was right. But he hated it. “I heard it was your own Trudy Parr that found the body,” Ho said, “I hear the dead broad had a tiff with her boyfriend, or maybe he was her pimp. She got slapped and then she ran through my kitchen and down into the tunnels. That’s when Trudy Parr followed her down, like some kind of storybook heroine. You know, I don’t never see Trudy round town with any men. I think maybe she goes in for the ladies, don’t you? Maybe she had the hots for that little chiquita. Maybe that’s why she followed her. And now Trudy’s got you out late asking questions about her dear departed little chippy. We’re both getting rained on while she’s at home getting her beauty sleep. That seem fair to you, Dench?”

“I get my beauty sleep when the works done,” said Trudy Parr walking out from behind the tram. She wore a trench coat with the collar turned up. “As for you, Ho. I hear the sunlight burns your skin so you sleep in a coffin during the day.”

“That’s just a rumour,” said Ho with a grin. He continued wiping his glasses with the silk handkerchief.

“Watch out for her, boss,” said Meng, stepping out of the shadows. “She a tricky sister.”

“I’ve got this,” Ho said and Meng disappeared again.

“And another thing,” said Trudy Parr, “my nocturnal roundabouts are my own business.”

“Fine by me,” Ho said, grinning some more. “Look, I don’t know nothing about why that woman got her neck broken underground. It can be a bad neighbourhood down there. What I do know is that a landlord on Georgia Street rented a warehouse out to some shady tenants about a month ago. Since then, everyone’s been talking about bad luck. The mah jong parlours are losing customers and fortune tellers are making a killing off of good luck charms.”

“I thought you controlled Chinatown,” Crispin Dench said. “Why don’t you step in and do something?”

“Sure,” said Ho, “I control Chinatown. But as long as a landlord pays his ice, what do I care who he rents to?”

“What’s so shady about these tenants?” said Trudy Parr. “What’s their connection to the corpse? Why are they bad luck?”

“I don’t know,” said Ho. “These peasants in Chinatown believe everything’s bad luck.”

“Peasants?” said Dench. “I thought these were your people.”

“Hey, I’m third generation Vancouver, man. Most times, I don’t know what the hell these chumps are talking about. I’ve gone by the warehouse and it’s all locked down like Fort Knox. And there’re some pretty rough looking characters, even by my standards, guarding the joint. There’re even rumours going round that the dead dame was conjured up out of some cockamamie magic going on in there that makes twins or doubles out of people.”

“Well, isn’t that something,” said Trudy Parr. “That’s closely approximates what Barney Polenski had to say.”

“Barney Polenski’s a moron,” said Ho.

“You know if there’s any connection between the victim and Polenski?”

“Sure,” said Ho. “They were in the Lily a few times together.”

“Funny, Barney said he didn’t go into the Lily. You say they were together, like dreamily staring into each others eyes?”

“Looked like it was all business to me,” Ho said. “The girl talking and Polenski nodding, taking notes and pounding back rye and cokes.”

“Polenski said his notes were all in his head,” said Trudy Parr.

“Polenski’s a degenerate liar,” said Ho. “I saw him writing shit down. Find him and get his note book. It’ll probably tell you more about what’s going on than I can.”

“If he took my advice,” said Dench, “He’s on a train heading east by now.”

Meng stepped out from the shadows again and signalled silently to Ho. Then he withdrew and Ho turned back to Dench and said, “Yeah, maybe he’s on a train. But sources tell me Polenski was seen going into Lady Ping’s tonight – round back. You know what that means. That bastard’s been a major dope fiend since he got back from the war. His throat was all bandaged up for some reason, too.”

Ho put his glasses back on. “So that’s it, Dench. Now we’re copasetic. I don’t owe you shit as of this moment. I’m going for a steam and a massage.”

As Ho began to get back into the Packard, there was a scuffle in the shadows and a cry for help. Then Meng appeared holding a skinny untidy man by the collar of his raincoat. It was Vancouver Sun reporter Roscoe Phelps.

“Look what I find in dark,” said Meng holding his balisong knife to Phelps’ throat.

“Hands off, you mongol punk,” Phelps said. “I gotta right.”

“Well well,” said Trudy Parr, “if it ain’t Roscoe Phelps. What hole did you just crawl out of?”

Ho signalled for Meng to release the reporter and Phelps stumbled to the ground. When stood up, he made a show of straightening his cheap overcoat and refitting his hat.

“I slice him up good for you, Boss,” Meng said. “I leave him in garbage can for dogs.”

“No,” said Ho. “Cutting down a reporter in this town’s bad juju. But that don’t mean we can’t teach you some manners, Roscoe.”

“It’ll be a headline in the afternoon Sun if you do,” said Phelps.

“Why you skulking round, Phelps,” said Dench.

“I’m collecting dope for a story that concerns all of you. Ain’t no surprise to find you all together here, like it’s a little club. I got a lead on some shenanigans going on in that warehouse you referred to earlier. I got me a pidgin singing grand opera. And some of the characters in that opera are mighty interesting.”

“What’s he saying, this pidgin of yours?” said Trudy Parr.

“It’s not a he,” said Phelps. “It’s a she-pidgin. But that’s all you’re getting outta me ‘til you read it in the papers.”

“Then get the hell out of here,” said Ho, “before I let Meng break your typing finger.”

“Fine with me,” said Phelps. “Looks like this shindig’s breakin’ up anyway.” he tipped his hat and walked away.

A few blocks west, lights burned bright in the Sun Building, Phelps’ destination. It was graveyard shift. They’d already put the morning edition to bed. It’d be hitting the street in a few hours and be blowing in the wind by 10:00 a.m. Already editors were tearing their hair out, agonizing over afternoon copy – shifts in opinion, missed deadlines, blank columns, ambivalent readers and pig-headed advertisers. There was an army up there, toiling over the minutia of a small and insignificant city. Nothing worth a damn ever happened in Vancouver. Not on the surface, anyway.

Trudy Parr lit a Black Cat cigarette. “I think Roscoe Phelps needs a special talking-to,” she said to Crispin Dench as Agustin Ho’s 1938 Packard drove away.

“Let’s read the papers first,” said Dench. “It’ll add context to the conversation.”