snow angels

based on actual events – you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids in the east end of Vancouver, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I too had tried dealing drugs to make a living, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was such a pathetic lightweight that they just couldn’t be bothered. Whatever the case, the east Vancouver cops contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. I got sick of this eventually and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.  Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood audaciously out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing to my house half a block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer. But he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood and he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there.” We did. “Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of Christmas cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.” It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake. Toby thought a moment and then he said, “News is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy,” Toby went on. “If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to some of the homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a friend and roommate. He’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake; they were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece. I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. But it was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever retuned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of dugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better to not just being a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets.

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand. “Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on nameless streets. Eventually, Gabriel pulled over next to an endless field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t and shook my head. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, unblemished field of snow. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

She got out of the car and I followed. In a moment we stood surrounded by acres of undisturbed snow, illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. She stood up again and jumped to remove the snow from her clothes.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home? Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle? Yes. And was I there with her?

Ha! I knew better than that.

It began to snow again, and we sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood. I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Amorous Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle. I offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but turned the bottle down when I offered it to her a second time. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

As the snow continued to fall, Gabriel’s snow angels disappeared. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of snow in front of us, there could have been millions of them.

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the Aftertown graphic novel part 1

read part 2 here

Introduction
The characters in the story of Aftertown don’t know that they’re characters at all. Their lives are real to them and unfold in an unfailingly ordinary fashion. Time is marked according to a calendar of days, but no day can exist outside of a numbered graphic novel frame. And no none can escape form the sequence of frames, drawn by an unknowable hand, and sometimes narrated by an equally unknowable voice.

There are, however, individuals like Matthew Roseland, Shamus Guild member. He’s a private detective able to move from frame to frame with a freedom other characters in the story do not possess. This freedom to move back and forth, from one moment to the next, makes him an outcast, but also provides him with unique insights into the criminal intrigues of the smoky dark distopic urban landscape of Aftertown.

* * * * *

Evidence
Runic on the clouds. Cryptic in the sky. Dissecting a piece of evidence is a process of increasing its surface area, exposing more of it to the light. But where was there light significant enough? Where and when did the day arrive? Where was light something more than a yellow incandescence swaying at the end of a brittle wire? 

Frame #3 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.)
Another bad news day. The papers didn’t show up at the news-stands this morning. Aftertown newsies and their families go hungry again. Sometimes even misinformation is just too difficult to deliver, better to just shut the presses down and stay home.

News of this dead girl in the street will never make the papers, except as a celebration. One more lost soul finally found, her suffering ended, Aftertown rid of another undesirable.

A silver blimp flies over the city, slow and menacing. Its crew shines a beam of arc light down on the scene. Cops on the ground look up into the blinding radiance and wave. The dirigible gunners have everyone in their sights, that’s certain. The squinting cops waving like school children.

The rain continues to wash away blood and evidence. No one cares to secure the scene. It’s just a dead castaway. What’s for certain is that she’s not connected to the any of the Imperial Guilds, at least not directly, not in any way that would earn her a more private dignified death.

“You shouldn’t be here, Roseland.” It’s McDermott talking, standing a little behind me and to my left. He’s hankering for me to turn around, to meet him face to face. It’s a control exercise that’s never worked on me. It’s pure Deterrent Guild conduct, though. Practised school-yard bullying behaviour the Deterrent Guild refers to as street delicacy, believing its practice requires artfulness and intellect. Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. Maybe he’s waiting for me to turn around one day and slap him one. That’ll never happen, though. McDermott is always surrounded by backup. He’s a coward playing a brave man’s game. He’s a dead man waiting for his own moment to lie in the rain.

“It’s my town too, McDermott,” I say. “Where else should I be?”

“It’s a Deterrent Guild crime scene. Besides, you shouldn’t show up until frame #85.”

“This stopped being a crime scene the moment you clowns appeared,” I say lighting a hero with a soggy match. “And I checked out frame #85 before I arrived. It makes more sense for me to appear here first.”

“You don’t decide that, Roseland.”

“Show me who does, and I’ll have it out with him. ‘Til then, you know anything about the girl?”

“Don’t know shit about the girl, ‘cept she’s dead. But I knew a guy once…”

“Spare me. We all knew a guy once.”

“He skipped frames and appeared where he wasn’t supposed to, where he wasn’t welcome.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and he fell under a truck one day. Just like that. Got caught under the differential. Got dragged down the street for blocks. Screamed like a little girl with her hair on fire most of the way. So much of him got left behind on the pavement, it was like the truck had just spit him out from behind. Pretty gruesome, had to bring in the Fire Brigade to hose things down so the upper guild ladies wouldn’t swoon. But that son of a bitch never jumped a frame again.”

“A lesson for us all.”

“You think you’re smart, Roseland. But there’re rooms at the Deterrent Bureau where smart guys like you go in and never come out, not intact anyway.”

“Thought we fell under trucks, just like that.”

Then there’s just the sound of the rain and the dirigible engines receding. McDermott is gone, along with the sound of his laboured breathing.

A shabby hearse drawn by a single slope backed, matted mare pulls up. No black prancing geldings dispatched for this pick-up. The two man Mortician Labourer Guild crew roll the soaked corpse into a stained canvass blanket and heft it into the back of the wagon. 

Frame #47 (October 30, 1912, 6:35 a.m.)
The Sceptic Guild Optimist’s News Paper headline reads

Act of War: Titanic Sunk on Maiden Voyage by Chan Cult Torpedo –
More Than 1,500 Perish.

The Titanic left on its maiden voyage in May of this year and never arrived at The Port of Montreal. No explanation was given. The massive steamship was swallowed up by a passive sea of denial. Now this.

The Optimist, the first newspaper to be printed in days, insists the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago. Readers believe every word. The violent and mystifying Chan Cult has struck again. It will not declare war, will not make demands; it only wants to kill and destroy. The Imperial Guild System is in peril. Every able bodied male must present himself for enlistment to fight against Chan.

The Anti-Chan League marches through the dark, rain soaked streets. Theirs is a slow, righteous, rhythmic stride. They’re so young, so willing to believe, so prepared to sacrifice everything to their sponsor guilds. There’s a blue poppy tattooed upon each of their left temples, and, though they’re dressed like everyone else, they each have a red silk sash tied round one of their wrists; the right wrists of the males, the left wrists of the females.

Before I step into the City Morgue, a fresh faced young woman hands me a pamphlet. She curtseys but doesn’t smile before she moves on. On the cover of the pamphlet is the caricature of an obese Asian man with an evil grin. This, we are supposed to believe, is Chan. The image depicts him as wicked and cunning. He has effeminate features; his fingernails are too long. He holds an opium pipe in one hand, the severed head of a causation woman in the other. Turning the document over, I see that the pamphlet’s production was paid for by the Munitions Guild. I drop it onto the wet pavement. Mine is the only one that’s been discarded. It floats away on a rivulet of oily rain water.

In the City Morgue reception area there is no receptionist, only a shy tube built into the wall. It’s spherical, reflective and black like a dark crystal ball. There are smudges and bits of dried matter on it, including what looks like clotted blood and human hair. Beneath it is a dented metal grill like you’d see on a radio. On the floor in front of the shy tube is a pair of painted shoe prints indicating where one is to stand in order for the shy to have full audio visual advantage. I step up and wait.

“What?” a voice from the metal grill says.

“Matthew Roseland,” I say holding my credentials next to my face. “Shamus Guild, here to see a corpse.”

“No.”

“Let me speak with Melville,” I say.

“No.”

“Melville, now.”

“No,” again. But this time there’s background noise, a tussle and a yelp, then what sounds like a body hitting the floor.

“Roseland?” a woman’s voice says over the speaker. “Please run a sleeve over the shy, will you?” I pull my handkerchief out of my breast pocket and do my best to polish the shy tube. “That’s fine, Roseland. Please move over to the door, and I’ll buzz you in.”

The door buzzes and I enter. On a desk immediately inside the morgue is a shy CRT panel. Behind it, a young cadet is just standing to his feet and brushing dust off of his uniform. A desk chair lies on its side.  A tall red-headed woman with an athletic build stands next to the young man. She’s wearing a Deterrent Guild Intelligence Sect uniform with Principal NCO stripes. There’s a disgusted look on her face. The cadet looks up at her. He’s wearing rumpled Intelligence Sect black serge. He recognises something in the Principal NCO’s expression. He comes to attention.

“May I be excused, Principal?” he asks.

“Get the hell out,” Melville says. “Don’t let me see your filthy, overfed snake face for at least an hour. And have a crease put into those trousers, you disgraceful little slob.”

“Yes, Principal,” the cadet says, clicks his heels and exits.

“You know I can get in easier through the back with the judicious distribution of cigarettes,” I say to Melville.

“Perhaps,” Melville says, then sighs, “but then your evidence would be inadmissible. Besides, if I found out you bribed your way in I’d have to disappear a whole shift of workers. That never works out as smoothly as one wishes. And then there’s the question of the instigator, Roseland. What would I do with you if I caught you sneaking in the back?”

“Have me disappeared with the rest. I’m not too good to be erased along with them.”

“Yes you are,” Melville says. She smiles almost proudly. She’s a square peg, secretly proud to consort with the likes of me. We each wonder to ourselves when the other will be disappeared. It’s inevitable; the charm is in seeing how far we can push before we’re erased. Before we are invited by Special Courier’s Note to attend the offices of the Deterrent Bureau from which we will never leave, if McDermott is correct, intact.

Melville and I walk together down a hall.

“It’s the Nash Way whore, I imagine,” Melville says.

“I guess,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling her? Anything else as interesting come in during the last 7 hours?”

“Of course,” Melville says. “Would you like to see a list?” She’s toying with me. “You’re not even supposed to show up until some time after frame #85.”

“My appearance in frame #85 is inconsistent with Shamus Guild SOP. Whoever’s creating this mess should know that. He or she wrote the book, after all.”

“So you pop up wherever it suits you? There’ll be consequences.”

“Just doing what I can for the cause. Besides, we’re all hip deep in consequence. We’re fuelled by it. We’re consequence engines.”

We arrive at the coolers. They’re a soiled, gaseous row of 35 meat lockers, each with the Intel Sect seal, each containing twenty bunks. Even with Intel Sect’s trademark efficiency and frequent rotation, every bunk is usually full. The number of occupants is always high, but these aren’t the disappeared. The disappeared aren’t processed through the morgue. The disappeared never existed.

Melville picks up a grubby clipboard. “Number 11,” she shouts to no one in particular, but all those present jump. A gurney appears accompanied by three men in splattered off-white lab coats. They move together officiously to Locker One and open it while Melville and I retire to an examination room.

In the examination room, even before the Nash Way corpse is rolled in, there is the smell of death and decay. Each smell separate in its implications, but joined irrevocably. There is a shy tube in each corner. Their black spherical surfaces are the only things that shine here. Melville and I will not be the only ones present. I dab eucalyptus ointment below my nostrils. Melville does the same. Official protocol requires her to be present while I examine the body.

When it arrives, the body rolls in on a conveyor through a curtained portal in the wall. It is naked and has no sheet covering it. A sheet would be superfluous and its use might risk providing the corpse a dignity the Deterrent Guild and Intel Sect believe it doesn’t deserve. The corpse, once the supple, strong body of an aware young woman, is now the broken, mute proprietary emblem of the Guild and Sect.

“Twenty-five, perhaps,” I say.

“Agreed,” Melville says.

“Toxins in the blood or tissues?”

“Unknown,” Melville says. “No tests ordered.”

“Does she have a name?”

“None yet.”

“Massive trauma to the left thorax over the heart,” I say for the wax disc recording being made in an adjoining room. “Star shaped entry wound and,” I turn the body over. “Corresponding exit wound through spine. I won’t guess at what exact vertebrae are involved here, that’s for a ME, but they’ve been pulverised. I will mention, though, that the wound was caused by a .50 calibre bullet fired from a medium distance.”

“Disappeared,” Melville says.

“Yes, with extreme prejudice. But if so, how’d she end up here and not in a landfill. And how do we explain this?” I point to a dried, scabbed over patch on the back of the right shoulder measuring approximately seven metric inches by ten where the epidermis has been removed. “Any insight on this from any of you looking in?” I say this without looking up at a shy tube.

A specimen tray is spit through the curtained portal and rolls along until it bumps the feet of the corpse and splashes formaldehyde over its sides. Now I do look up at a shy. In the tray is a tattooed piece of apparently human skin, likely removed to avoid use as an identifier. The art is primitive and obviously tribal, but I can determine no more.

“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice says over a speaker. “Three S’s in a circle. It’s Celtic in origin and is representative of the Triple Goddess and the Three Ages of Womanhood. And much more, of course.”

The door opens and McDermott strolls in with his overly armed retinue.

“Not now, McDermott,” the unseen voice says. McDermott waves his people out of the room as he sits on a counter-top. “It seems impossible to simply eliminate an inconvenience in this dystopia of ours, doesn’t it McDermott?” the voice continues. “

“Yes, sir,” McDermott says.

“I wonder, Roseland,” the voice says, “just in passing. Do you think you’re the only one who jumps in and out of frames where he doesn’t belong? Sticking his nose where it shouldn’t be stuck?”

“Never gave it much thought,” I say.

“And therein lies the rub, eh? Not thinking. Plague of the deficient, heroic mind, hmm. I was always against the creation of the Shamus Guild, you know. Others thought it would provide a modest level of tension, but I knew it would only lead to inconvenience and extra effort. You see, you were only supposed to appear in frame #85 in order to drop an important bit of information, Roseland. Nothing more. Then you were to be run over by a Deterrent Guild anti-personnel vehicle. Your role in all of this was meant to be nothing more than a sentence fragment.”

“Who was she?” Melville says.

“Just something I manufacture, my dear. Like you. And like you, she took on an overly developed character. Prohibited, of course. But who can stop it? Not me, that’s obvious. Once brought in to being, all of you seem to proceed along your own track, quite against all plot and logic. As a result, she became involved in two movements that hitherto never even existed, not to my mind at least. She became a feminist and an anarchist. Where, one wonders, could that have come from? I’d meant for her to be a ballerina, a fine mind but an artistic heart, tragic and destined for an early death at the hands of a deceitful lover. Sordid, trite, but necessary to the narrative. I wonder if she somehow caught wind of it all, and that’s why she rebelled so. What do you think, McDermott?”

“I think it’s better to take yer lumps than skip around from frame to frame,” McDermott says.

“Ah,” the speaker voice says. “Spoken like a character who truly knows from which direction his dinner is served. But I say, McDermott. How do we move forward from here? I am surrounded by rebellion, and only have incompetents like you to protect me from rogue characters.”

McDermott doesn’t answer, just looks down at his enormous feet, his shabby shoes.

“You loved her,” Melville says.

“Not possible,” says the speaker voice.

“Obvious,” I say. “But you didn’t love her enough to protect her. She frightened you.”

“You go too far.”

“Maybe,” I say. “But you’ve proven yourself fallible. You’d have done better to remain shrouded and had her properly erased, delivered to a municipal pyre.”

“Perhaps, but we’ll never know now. I have begun manufacturing a glorious funeral for her. She will rest in Guild Field. She will sleep with giants. You’ll both attend, of course.” 

Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.)
McDermott’s body has been found in a subway stairwell. I see his face just before a white sheet is drawn over it. He seems not to have been in any distress when he died, in spite of the multiple stab wounds.

A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult has partnered with The Ulster Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic for Imperial Guild merchant vessels. There is further curtailment of rights and privileges.

Melville vanished for several months and has reappeared promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. She has put a warrant out for my arrest. As a result, I now have free run of Aftertown and the valuable, hands-off status of a man wanted by the GI, herself.

Several blocks away there’s an explosive flash. A split second later, a concussive wave and deafening blast. It is raining. There are arc lights scanning the clouded sky.

roadside shrine

The morning after Elvis died, the wind had blown the patio umbrellas out onto the lake where they floated upside-down like an amusement. The stockcar drivers, remorsefully hung-over, stared and sadly hummed Blue Suede Shoes like a quiet Handel chorus. The King was dead and now there were only cigarettes and whiskey left. That and the muted blush of numbered race cars waiting on trailers for their weekend of fame, and the coloured flags of speedway semaphore. Caution, Final Lap, Session Finished.

I was sixteen and the night before, the night of the King’s death, I’d sat round a campfire with the Langley Speedway stockcar racers as they smoked, drank rye and digested the news of the King’s demise. Conway Twitty was tinny on the air. We were camped at the Swan Point campground on Hatzic Lake. A vicious rumour had Elvis dying on the toilet. None of the racers believed it. I figured it was a possibility, but I also didn’t care.

Round midnight, we heard gunfire from the highway a mile away. Three loud cracks against the night. Locals, we assumed, sweaty in the hot August night, firing hunting rifles from speeding pickup trucks. In the morning, there’d be dead coyotes on the shoulder of the road. I smoked a joint with my pal Jeff and fell asleep in a beach chair.

I woke at 6 a.m. with the sun in my eyes. Sleeping stockcar drivers littered the ground round the dead fire, and snored in the front seats of cars. It had occurred to only a few of them to retire to their campers. I unzipped the entrance to Jeff’s tent and kicked him.

“What the fuck,” he mumbled.

“Get up,” I said. “Let’s drive into Mission for breakfast.”

“What time is it?”

“Going on 6:30.”

“Fuck that.”

“C’mon. You can toke up in the car.”

By 7:00, I was driving toward the highway on the private campground road, Jeff riding shotgun.

“Those shots seemed pretty close last night,” I said.

“Fucking hayseed farm boys,” Jeff said, then coughed on the skunk he was smoking. “Just shooting mailboxes. Probably all choked up over Elvis dying on the john.”

I pushed a Black Sabbath cassette into the player. We got Rock and Roll Doctor just as Tony Iommi was kicking in with his guitar. I turned up the volume. We were the first people up at the campsite; why not wake up the neighbours? Jeff began playing his air guitar. We weren’t the Elvis generation. By the time we turned onto the highway, Dirty Women was playing.

Bernie’s Café in Mission was busy with a line of good ol’ boys on stools at the lunch counter and most of the booths and tables full of tourists and truck drivers. We sat at a booth. I was fairly straight but Jeff was wrecked. He wore a pair of mirrored aviators and sat too still with his hands at his side, trying to suppress spells of stoned laughter. A waitress gave him an amused look as she dropped menus in front of us.

“Coffee?” she said.

Jeff tried to hold back a guffaw, but failed.

“Two please,” I said, and the waitress walked away. Then I looked at Jeff and said, “It’s too early in the morning to be that stoned, man.”

“What else is there to do out here, man?”

He had a point. Somehow we’d become involved with a crowd of Elvis loving, stockcar driving hicks that summered at Swan Point. They also drove overpowered V8 equipped jet boats on the lake, which meant we got to water ski. The machinery had its allure, but the hicks also had some bodacious daughters. The camp food was free, there was always weed and we even got to work some shifts at the speedway. It definitely got boring sometimes, but it would have been hard to justify going home to Vancouver before September.

I looked out of the window onto the parking lot. Bernie’s was also a Grey Hound station, and a highway-grimy scenic cruiser had just pulled in, disgorging passengers. They looked stunned as they stretched and squinted on the tarmac. Mission was a rest stop, not a destination. But one of the passengers collected his back pack, bedroll and guitar from the cargo area under the bus. He was a big overweight guy, making his full sized guitar case look like an overnight bag. He wore jeans, a billed cap, sunglasses and white boots. I looked twice to confirm that he did indeed have mutton chop sideburns.

“Holy shit,” I said to Jeff, not taking the Elvis sighting seriously. His lips were moving as he read the menu. “Look, man. It’s Elvis.”

“Fuck off.” Jeff’s eyes didn’t leave the menu.

“No, man. Look.” I pointed out to the parking lot at the fat man walking toward the café.

“What’re pigs in a blanket,” Jeff said. “It sounds kinda obscene.”

“Will you look, for gods sake?”

Jeff put his menu down and looked. The fat man was getting closer. “Holy shit,” he said. “That’s him.”

“You gotta a camera?” I said, knowing immediately how absurd the question was.

“Camera?”

“Never mind.”

We’d been born too late for Elvis. To us he was just a flabby fashion accident, way past his stale date. He was grotesque and ridiculous, like a shabby amusement park midway in the light of day. But there he was, even though he’d died in a Graceland privy just the day before. For some reason, I thought of the 1968 NBC comeback special. The girls in the audience wept over him in his black leather like they were train wreck survivors.

“Must be an impersonator,” Jeff said.

“No way,” I said, hoping to provoke my stoned friend. “Why would anybody impersonate the fat Elvis? It’s gotta be him.”

“But he’s dead. The radio said so.”

“You believe all the shit you hear on the radio, man?”

“Why would they lie?”

The waitress came with our coffee. “What’ll you have?” she said with pad and pen ready.

“Bacon eggs sunnyside,” I said.

“What’re pigs in a blanket?” Jeff said.

“Just what it says there, fella,” the waitress said. “Three sausages wrapped in buttermilk pancakes.”

“Sounds weird,” Jeff said. “Sounds like someone’s trying too hard.”

“You want ‘em?” the waitress said.

“Of course,” Jeff said.

That was when Elvis walked into Bernie’s. He left his sunglasses on, pulled his hat down a little and waited to be seated. A hostess greeted him and seated him at the table next us.

“Anything else?” the waitress asked us.

“Holy shit,” Jeff said as Elvis parked his ass next to us. There was now three feet between our booth and his table.

“Nothing,” I said. “That’s fine.”

The waitress rolled her eyes, collected our menus and left.

Jeff leaned forward and whispered, “It’s fucking Elvis, man.”

“I thought you said he was an impersonator.”

He snuck a peak and looked back at me. “Nah, that’s the real thing, man. Look at the Rolex. Elvis is nuts for Rolexes.”

“Really?” I looked over and saw the watch and a huge gold and diamond horseshoe ring on his right ring finger.

Elvis read his menu and when the waitress came, he ordered coffee and pigs in a blanket.

Jeff went berserk at the King’s choice. “Me too, man,” he yelped, giving Elvis a thumbs up.

Elvis ignored him and picked up a newspaper, skipping the headline and lead story.

“Cool it,” I said. “You’re stoned, man.”

“Nice watch,” Jeff said to the King. “I dig Rolex, too.” He put his right hand over the Casio on his left wrist.

Elvis looked over and gave Jeff a nod and a crocked half smile. “Thank you very much,” he said with a Mississippi twang.

“That’s it!” Jeff said too loudly. Then to me, leaning forward again, he whispered, “Did you hear that? ‘Thank you very much.’ That’s his signature, man. No shit, that’s Elvis.”

Elvis was looking at us now. I was embarrassed.

“I’m trying to keep a low profile here,” he said to me. “Try to keep your friend under control.”

“I’ve been trying since forth grade,” I said.

Elvis smiled again and went back to his paper.

“What do we do, man?” Jeff said. “We can’t just sit here with Elvis, who’s supposed to be dead in Memphis, sitting right next to us.”

“I think we can,” I said.

“But it’s fucking Elvis, man.”

Elvis dropped his paper now and leaned across the three feet separating us and said in a confidential tone, “You stoned?”

“Whoa, yeah,” Jeff said.

“You holding?”

“Maybe,” I interjected.

Elvis picked up his paper again as Jeff’s and my order arrived. “Eat up, boys,” he said. “We’ll talk some more when you’re done.”

Jeff looked down at his plate as the waitress placed a syrup bottle in front of him. “What the hell’s this?” he said.

“Pigs in a blanket,” she said. “It’s what you ordered.”

“Looks pornographic, man.”

“Just eat,” I said. He shrugged and tucked in.

Half way through his meal of pigs in a blanket, Elvis asked the waitress for a double order of sour dough toast. We sat in awe as we watched him eat. It was a spectacle of exaggerated karate-like upper body motion, rhythmically shifting feet beneath the table and larger-than-life chewing. He even poured syrup on his toast before wolfing it down.

“That was mighty fine,” he said when he was finished. Then he leaned back in his seat, belched and picked at his teeth. “Now, who’s got the goofy-root?”

The guileless Jeff brightened on hearing this. “I do,” he said, and reached into this shirt pocket. I reached across and stopped him.

“Then let me settle the bill,” Elvis said, “and we’ll retire out back.” He pulled a roll of American bills out of his pocket. From where we sat, it looked like an infinite number of hundreds and fifties. I thought of the handful of quarters, nickels and dimes in my pocket. He called the waitress over and put a fifty in her hand. “For me and my entourage,” he said nodding at us. “Keep the change.”

The waitress grinned like she’d won a lottery and a few minutes later, Jeff and I were standing next to the garbage cans behind Bernie’s Café with the King.

“What’ve you got?” Elvis said.

“Skunk,” Jeff said, and proudly produced a Glad sandwich bag containing loose weed and a couple of rolled joints.

“Cops come round here?”

“Never seen any back here,” I said. “But they come into the café sometimes.”

“Then let’s be quick.”

We smoked two joints with Elvis and we were all stoned immaculate in the end. That’s when Elvis started to talk.

“I guess you heard I was dead,” he said.

We both stared blankly. It was a strange thing to hear a man say.

“Well, I ain’t dead. I know it’s a strange thing to stage your own death and run away. But you boys don’t know the pressure that comes with the fame. It’s like someone’s holding a gun to your head twenty-four hours a day. People cash in on you. And when you want to slow down, they get real unfriendly. Like you’re stealing from them. As for women, they don’t last with just one man. And no one gives a damn thing back, ‘cept the fans. But you can’t connect with the fans. I know it’s a hard thing to hear me say, but fans are like zombies. They want to tear you apart and take the pieces home to show off. You ain’t fans, are you?”

“Hell no,” I said. Jeff was too stoned to talk.

“That’s good,” Elvis said. “I can tell. You ain’t pawing me and asking me for shit.”

“Where you gonna go?” I said.

“Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall. But I’ll get a motel for tonight. Drink some beer. Watch some TV.

“Looks like it’s time to take your friend home.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s been seriously wrecked for about two years now.”

“What’s your name, boy,” Elvis said to Jeff.

“Jeffery,” Jeff replied. I’d never heard him use that name before.

“Well here you go, Jeffery,” Elvis said, and handed over his Rolex. Jeff took it, dumbfounded. It was solid gold and heavy. Its heft was obvious in Jeff’s hand. “It feels real good to let go of things,” Elvis said. “Read the back.”

ELVIS
MERRY CHRISTMAS
YOUR PAL
COL TOM PARKER

“Oh wow,” was the best Jeff could manage.

“And here you go,” Elvis said, and handed over his gold and diamond horseshoe ring to me. Then he said, “You boys know anyone who can take a mansion in Memphis off my hands?”

We didn’t.

Elvis put on his pack and picked up his guitar case. And the last we saw, he was walking down the main street of Mission, BC looking for a room.

I used fake ID to buy some beer and Jeff and I spent the rest of the day down at the river. I had poles in the trunk and we made a show of fishing but we didn’t catch anything. I slept for hours and Jeff did too, and when I woke the sun was going down. I sat up and looked at the ring on my hand. It looked like it’d been ordered from the Sears catalogue. Later I found out that it was solid 18k gold and that the diamonds were nearly flawless.

As we turned off of the highway and onto the campground road that night, I saw a roadside shrine put there by some of the locals. It was a tall white cross surrounded by several lit candles. On the cross were the words Elvis Lives.