lost ironies

© dm gillis and lost ironies, 2012 -2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to dm gillis and lost ironies with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Month: November, 2013

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.

mouth farts

’cause smoking is soooo satisfying

a tear in Jimmy’s beer

Jimmy is a Vancouver busker with a Nashville connection,

Riel on art, cigarettes and turkey cruelty

F-Bomb warning. Street wisdom Riel style.

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.

posse

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.

erosion

Metaphor falls like snow in the night, and can’t be seen until we peek through the blinds in the morning. By then we’re surrounded by it. It’s just the way of things, and ever-linked to the universal law of irony: The easier it is to recognise a string of events, the less precisely its outcome can be known.

She’d been observing pieces of herself being worn away for years. Linearly the current of life, like a river, had flowed over her and converted her once stone solidity into a field of silt. The process began before she reached middle age, in her late thirties she reckoned. First her youth was stripped abroad and never seen again. Then her husband was exogenetically undermined by an undetected undercurrent, and she watched him carried downstream to a place named for the younger woman upon whom he’d settled. Later, as they matured and flourished, her children fashioned lives of their own and were scoured from her surface. And now, in her fifties, her employment had disappeared over night like a rock that had unexpectedly succumbed to a tiny trickle from some unknowable glacial source.

Now she stood on the street with her separation papers and severance, looking like an oddly sculpted rock formation in a desert, left behind by the sea that had shaped her. One could see her ages in the countable sedimentary rings. Realising this, she concluded that she’d never been igneous at all, but consisted of mineral and organic materials instead. She was an epoch of layers, dead things having fallen to the bottom. She considered this a trivial revelation, in light of things, like a newly discovered facial crease or line, and moved on.

At first, her state of unemployment lacked sovereignty and was without boundaries. It lacked governance and could not establish its own uniqueness. She sent out resumes, pursued hobbies and spent money. But no one hired women in their fifties anymore. Her friends became concerned. They told her to start a business or be witness to her own ruin. It was a strange recommendation. She’d never considered going into business before. Business was the domain of the bombastic and the self-affected, she said. She was too good to flog her wares, and she had, after all, no wares to flog.

That all changed with the impetuous purchase of a machine, one ubiquitous in the city. It was called a power-washer. She’d been persuaded by her desperate circumstance to buy a monster, a 13 horsepower monster. It delivered 3000 PSI maximum pressure, had 12 volt DC ignition with a diesel fired Beckett burner. It provided a maximum temperature of 190F, had adjustable pressure & temperature control, a pressure gauge, heavy formed steel body, high pressure hose, gun, wand and tips. It had a heavy duty welded wrap around roll cage, 360 degree burnable wheels with brake on-off switch, easy pull handle, OHV engine for high efficiency and reliability. It had a general triplex plunge pump with stainless steel valves and brass manifolds, a direct drive pump system and corrosion proof diesel fuel tank.

Realising that it wouldn’t fit into her Smart Car, she bought a brand new red Ford F-150 pickup truck. And she was in business.

But business is a hard thing in which to be. Customers do not assemble at one’s door anxious to buy. In fact, they tend to stay away in droves. She knew this to be true by the end of her first month as a self-employed power washing engineer. She went door to door sermonizing on the benefits of her services. She could use her monster machine to clean sidewalks, siding, decks and even windows. She could remove filth, grime, gum wads and stubborn stains. And she could do it for both domestic and commercial properties. “Just imagine,” she’d challenge potential customers. “Just imagine the gloriously unsoiled sparkle of your surroundings when I’m done.” Then she’d show them the before and after shots of her own home that she had power washed to gleaming perfection.

But the heinous truth was that no one could imagine a fifty year old woman operating a power washer. In people’s minds, the image of her small feminine form out front of their home or business pugnaciously scouring away the grunge in her yellow rubber suit was too much. She’d never considered this, of course. A friend explained to her that it was all a question of perception management. But this was a perception she couldn’t manage. Power washing, it seemed, was the province of men. Exclusively. And though this unorganised, but apparently universal, pattern of thought had the men’s room smell of male privilege and entitlement, it was, nonetheless, what she was faced with. Even the bookish City Hall clerk who issued her a business license smirked.

As the months passed and the bills accumulated, she looked at her newly obtained but unused machine and truck and became more and more depressed. People whispered and pointed. And when she drove round the city, she saw men with power washers fully employed. Soon, her depression turned to bitterness. And being a woman of action, she began to plot.

She knew the potential of her leviathan machine. She’d gone all out in purchasing it. And when she looked out on the pitiless city she now hated, the city that had expedited her own personal erosion, she knew what she had to do. It was a small city, after all. How long could it take?

She began on a Monday morning at the western edge of town, using water from available faucets when she could and drawing from a tank in the back of her pickup truck when no faucets could be found. She set her machine to its highest pressure setting and went to work, knowing that with concentrated effort, she could use her machine to blast and erode the city out of existence.

She began with the sidewalks first, then the roads. They soon disappeared under the explosive influence of her high pressure nozzle, and were flushed away in streams of silt. Then she concentrated on structures, the houses and high-rises, department stores and business towers. She undermined them and they collapsed at her feet. The occupants screamed in terror and ran, gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair. The chemical and mechanical bonds holding the aggregate of the city together dissolved at her command, and she felt the ecstasy of her vengeance. When the police arrived, she aimed her hose at them and they too were flushed away forever. When the Mayor and Aldermen approached to plead with her, she blasted them into non-existence. It was only when her six year old granddaughter arrived to beg her to stop that she paused and thought. But just long enough to insist that the precocious child and her family get out of the city before it was entirely wiped off of the map.

It took her three days to reduce the city to a sludgy landscape of muddy deposits and puddles. Only she, in her rubber suit, and her machine were left. She loaded it back onto her pickup truck and drove away, unable now to remember where anything had once stood in the new wasteland. And as she did, she thought of the transitory nature of the satisfaction that comes from impetuous behaviour. But she only thought of it briefly.

where clocks reign time part 3.1

Read Part 1 here, Read Part 2 here, Read Part 3 here, Read Part 4 here

I’ve written part 3.1 of where clocks reign time to add context to a TV pilot script based on the story. If you’re a Trudy Parr fan, and I know many of you are, this will definitely be your cup of tea. If you’ve never met Trudy Parr, then now’s your chance.
          In this part of the story, we find Crispin Dench and Trudy Parr in the Rothschild Mansion in 1943 Paris. They are masquerading as a SS Officer and his date attending a Christmas Party, hoping to get to the secret behind Operation Time Clock and eliminate it. This is where Trudy Parr almost assassinates the antagonist, Hansel Orav, with her trademark straight razor, and thereby sets the tone for their feature engagements. 

Rothschild Mansion, Paris 1943

Crispin Dench and Trudy Parr followed the small group of seven down a dark staircase and into the cellar of the mansion.

“When the shit starts,” Trudy Parr whispered to Dench on the stairs, “that fat fuck is mine.”

Orav led the group through a large reinforced blast door and into the laboratory. The light inside was bright white and all of the surfaces were spotlessly hygienic.

“This is the centre of our little universe,” Orav said with a sweeping gesture. “Here we are endeavouring to use our greatest enemy’s own tricks against him.”

“What does that mean?” an officer in the group asked.

“The Jews have their own magic,” Orav said. “It’s wicked and unclean, but it’s effective. And we have tapped into it.” He walked over to a tall stainless steel closet and opened the door. Inside stood a tall man-like figure made of what looked like clay. It was broad shouldered and nearly seven feet tall, and it had long cruel claws on both of its hands.

“A statue?” said another voice in the small group.

“A golem,” said Orav.

“Does Herr Hitler know about this,” asked the officer.

“To this point,” Orav said, “it has been a ‘need to know’ affair. Recent advances ensuring the projects success, however, have changed that. Hence your presence here. We are now in the process of informing the upper echelon.”

Having said this, Orav clapped his hands twice and the golem opened its eyes. There were gasps of surprise in the crowd. One woman fainted and nearly fell to the floor as the military men reached for their side arms. Trudy Parr undid the clasp on her bag.

“Golem,” Orav snapped. “Step out.”

The golem obeyed and stepped out of its container.

“Virtually indestructible,” Orav said addressing the group. “And completely obedient. Imagine sending our troops home and letting an army of these fight our enemies and conquer the world.”

Dench and Trudy Parr’s eyes met and a silent message passed between them. Dench reached into his tunic and pulled out a Walther PPK with a silencer. He stepped back from the crowd and began firing well aimed headshots. There was quiet confusion as the group began to die and fall to the floor. Trudy Parr pulled a straight razor from her bag and went for Orav.

Orav saw her coming but was as surprised by the unfolding events as everyone else. He reached for his Luger, but not fast enough. Trudy Parr slashed his throat and blood splattered on the walls and floor, but it wasn’t a killing wound.

“Bitch!” he coughed wide eyed, holding his hands to his throat.

“I ain’t done yet, you filthy Nazi bastard,” she said and lunged at him, but the golem pushed her away. Orav turned and made for the back of the lab, exiting through a sliding door. He trailed blood all of the way.

Dench dropped an empty magazine, reloaded and fired on the golem. The bullets merely passed through it.

“Stop,” said Trudy Parr. “You can’t kill it.”

“Then I’ll fucking die trying,” said Dench.

“No,” said Trudy Parr, looking at the thing inscrutably. She still held the straight razor, dripping Orav’s blood. It was a bizarre scene, but she’d comprehended something in that moment that only she could.. “It’s blameless,” she said. “Orav’s the bad guy, the one who pulls all the strings. There’s always some prick in the dark, pulling strings.”

Dench relented. “It’s a killer, Trudy.”

“I guess it is. We have that in common, don’t we. But it was conjured up by a maniac. I don’t know how I know it, but I know it’s innocent. That’s how it is, right?” She said this stepping up to the golem.

“Fuck, Trudy,” Dench said. “Back off. It’ll tear you apart.”

“No it won’t,” Trudy Parr said, reaching out to it. The golem stood perfectly still and looked back at her. “You don’t want to. Do you?”

“Then let’s get the hell outta here,” Dench said. “By now Orav’ll have the whole German army coming down on us.”

They looked around for an exit. Going back up the stairs didn’t seem smart.

“I don’t see a safe exit,” Dench said.

“How do we escape this place?” Trudy Parr said the golem.

“Try that,” the golem said, slurring its words. It pointed a clawed finger at the sliding door Orav had used.

Dench looked at Trudy Parr and shrugged. “Why the hell not?”

They exited through the sliding door, leaving the golem standing in the lab. It watched them leave and then closed its eyes.

the baloney chef

Vancouver, 1952

He was a tenor, and though no one could say if he was classically trained, when he wept, he did so with perfect pitch. And so, when his neighbours in the Hotel Empress heard his mournful sobs, they would say nothing and listen. His weeping was like a tragic climax to a third act, and those who listened couldn’t help but consider deeply the pitiable pathos that sometimes bleeds into the world. He never shared the secret of why he was so prone to lament. After all, what would be the purpose of one more sad man, on a planet of sad men, revealing his story for humankind to ponder?

This being said, it is also worth noting that there were days when he was filled with overwhelming joy. On those days, he walked against the Hastings Street crowd, tipping his hat to the ladies and singing enthusiastically an aria from Vincenzo Bellini or Giuseppe Verdi. He’d stand for hours at the corner of Main and Hastings singing in his perfect operatic Italian. Not for the nickels and dimes passers-by threw his way, but for the profound delight that came from the expressions of love and calamity that lived in the libretti. Even the beat cops of the day, instructed to move the indigent on, never forced the tenor to move. All in all, he was viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Whatever it might have been once, and though it shares its name with many grander establishments in the world, by the time the tenor came to live there, the Hotel Empress in Vancouver had seen better days. As had the patrons passing through its Ladies and Men’s entrances. The tenor’s room was a longer than wide affair that he kept neat as a pin. There was room for a single metal frame bed, a sink, a small table and chair, a radio and a hotplate. His window provided a view of the Main Street bustle and the majestic Carnegie Library. And at night, the light of the red and turquoise neon sign flooded in, producing an atmosphere that was at once both bizarre and festive.

Now, it’s clear from the words above that the tenor was not a wealthy man. Some said that this was why he wept alone in his room, but most said no. He had fished and logged and been a miner as a young man, all occupations requiring a strong and healthy body. But in its way, time had caught up with him. He could no longer swing an axe or heft a net the way he once had and now braved the poverty that comes to some in their later years. His rent was reasonable but difficult to secure, and his daily victuals scant. But as a child, he’d been raised in a home of meagre resources. And he’d learned much from his frugal and creative mother. She’d been forced by circumstance to learn to do things with mere beans and bacon that rivalled many examples of haute cuisine. And she was a master at exploring the possibilities of baloney, the universal loaf of budget processed meat.

The tenor’s mother didn’t restrict herself to fried baloney. She stewed it, grilled it, baked it, simmered it, roasted it and barbecued it. She basted it and delivered it to the table fricasséed and in sauces. As a child, he’d watched her at work as she created baloney tours de force to place before her hungry family. And he knew from his own happy palate and his father’s satisfied smiles that his mother was a culinary genius. As an adult, he remembered and put his mother’s low budget culinary ideas to work for himself in his small room over the main entrance of the Hotel Empress in Vancouver.

What is little known, because of its ultimately disastrous outcome, is that Jehane Benoît visited Vancouver in 1952. Madam Benoît was born in Montreal and was trained as a chef at Parris’ famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was thought to be Canada’s premier chef, and had come to Vancouver to appear at Woodward’s Department Store on its famed Food Floor to promote her recently debuted television cooking show. This was made known to the tenor by Malcolm Riddle, the Food Floor’s manager, when the tenor came in to purchase a large baloney sausage for his newest creation, Baloney Chateaubriand.

Now, the quintessential Chateaubriand is a recipe prepared of thickly cut beef tenderloin. It was said to have been originally created for François-René de Chateaubriand, a diplomat who served Napoleon. When classically prepared, it is believed to be among the most appetizing and tender cuts of beef. The recipe consists of seared beef tenderloin roasted to perfection in a reduced shallot and wine sauce, then sliced on the diagonal. The tenor, however, had adjusted the recipe by substituting the beef tenderloin with a thick slice of baloney, shallots with cheaper garlic and onions and by using an inexpensive British Columbian wine in the reduction. The spices remained his secret and the roasting method was replaced with a hotplate process especially developed by him. When his recipe was followed to the letter, and accompanied throughout its preparation by the appropriate Verdi aria, the result was succulent and mouth-watering.

Rumours of this had reached the jealous Madam Jehane Benoît as her televised appearance at Woodward’s Department Store approached. And at first, she dismissed the rumours. Why should she have done otherwise? But as the day of her appearance grew nearer, she began to worry. How could such a low budget version of the classical French dish exist? And how could it be the creation of such a down-and-outer as the tenor, who not so secretly wept alone in his hotel room and made his living by singing on street corners? She decided as her self-promoting Vancouver date approached that she was offended by the idea, and sent her spies ahead of her.

The word she received back was that yes, there was a tenor who wept in perfect pitch alone in his cheap hotel room. And yes, he sang on street corners for nickels and dimes. And yes, he even had a talent for cooking tasty dishes using baloney as the key ingredient. But could he cook a dish equal to her Chateaubriand using baloney? Her spies could not establish the truth. Malcolm Riddle said yes. He’d tasted it, having been invited to the tenor’s room. Riddle claimed it was a masterpiece. But Riddle was a glorified grocery clerk. Still, Madam Benoît obsessed and fretted over the possibilities.

“We must confront this impostor,” she shouted at a production meeting, slamming her tiny fist on the table. “This will not stand. Bring him on to the program with me and we’ll see once and for all if his tasteless concoction rivals the real thing. We must challenge him, on the television, for all to see. He must be humiliated and put in his place.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary?” said a senior producer sitting nearby.

“I demand it,” said Jehane Benoît. “We cannot encourage this behaviour. The dignity of haute cuisine is at stake. We who hold elite positions in this backward little country must stand up to the riffraff or it will be September 1792 all over again!”

“September 1792?” said the senior producer.

“Oui monsieur, la Révolution ! Cela ne peut être toléré!”

“Oh,” said the senior producer, who worried for a moment about his standing in the CBC hierarchy and his paycheque. The he said, “I’ll make some phone calls.”

So it was that on a sunny autumn day, as he sang Puccini’s Che gelida manina at the corner of Hastings and Main over the traffic and sirens, he was approached by a CBC associate producer. He was a skinny kid, really, with a bad complexion. He waited for the song to end and then, with suspicious eyes and shifting feet because he wasn’t used to talking to the unwashed, he told the tenor what CBC had planned for him. A contest between the acclaimed Madam Jehane Benoît and him on nationwide television to determine whose Chateaubriand was the best. The judges would be the Mayor, the Police Chief and three CP Hotel chefs, two of which who would be flown in from Montreal and Toronto. To the winner went bragging rights but also, for the tenor should he win, a year’s supply of baloney compliments of the Woodward’s Food Floor.

Malcolm Riddle knew the year’s supply of baloney was a sham. No one believed the tenor would win. It was all a show to benefit Madam Benoît and her new television program. The tenor would be lucky to escape without being laughed off the stage. But it was an offer the tenor couldn’t turn down. A year’s worth of baloney was mighty inviting. So, he said yes.

The show was scheduled for a time near Christmas when Madam Jehane Benoît would have rather been demonstrating baking Christmas cakes and cookies to the housewives of Canada. But the tenor, the vicious little pretender, had painted her into a corner. The papers had picked up the story and the untidy city beat reporter Roscoe Phelps nicknamed the tenor the Baloney Chef. The tenor hated it, but it stuck. He was now known as the Baloney Chef everywhere he went. He was interrupted on the corner where he sang by women asking him for recipes. And little boys stopped to tell him how much they hated baloney and that he was to blame for their mothers serving it up with new fervour and increased regularity.

But when the day of the program came, the tenor, now Baloney Chef, was ready. He’d selected the baloney he wanted from the Woodward’s Food Floor butcher’s shop and all of the necessary ingredients from the Woodward’s shelves. The cameras and sound stage were ready when he arrived and he stood watching while busy people in smart clothes smoked and immersed themselves in the production of Jehane Benoît’s cooking show.

The tenor was positioned on the set by a heavyset man smoking a cigar who introduced himself as Antonio Biocchetti, the director. But not before he questioned a producer as to the tenor’s identity. Was this unkempt little man really the Baloney Chef, and did they really want him appearing on the same screen as Jehane Benoît?

A petite woman stood in for Madam Benoît as the sound and lighting were made perfect. There were seats for a small audience and the Mayor and Police Chief were seated at a table off screen with the three chefs. All five had pencils in hand. At 10:55 a.m., Madam Jehane Benoît came onto the stage to an approving round of applause. She bowed to the spectators and looked at the tenor with disdain. The tenor had been given no instructions and there had been no rehearsal. He was flying by the seat of his baggy pants. At 11:00 a.m., a red light came on one of the cameras and the program went live.

“Today we have a guest,” Benoît said. She looked over at the tenor and said, “The Baloney Chef.” There was reluctant applause. “And we will each be making our own version of Chateaubriand. I will make it correctly and this man will make his,” and here she sneered, “with baloney.”

After saying this, Benoît began cooking. She knew where everything was. The tenor did not. The director signalled him to get busy but he didn’t know where to turn. The one time before the first break that he was on camera, he looked crazed and wide-eyed. Madam Benoît smiled. At the break, the director spoke in the tenor’s ear and pointed to the ingredients. Then the director said an unusual thing for a television director to say. He said, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici.” And when he did, the tenor brightened. He looked over at Madam Benoît, and this time he smiled.

When the red light on one of the three cameras came on after the commercial break, Madam Benoît began, “Welcome back and today we are….” But that was as far as she got. On seeing the red light, and now aware of its significance, the tenor began to sing.

Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora.
E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà
Libiam ne’dolci fremiti
che suscita l’amore,
poiché quell’occhio al core onnipotente va.
Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
più caldi baci avrà

It was the voice of the common man, and the cameras were now focused on the tenor as he sang and prepared his baloney Chateaubriand. Madam Benoît struggled to keep pace, trying to get a word in. But the tenor wouldn’t stop singing. He sang Puccini, Bellini, Verdi, Boccherini, Scarlatti and Gariboldi.  At the commercial breaks, the audience stood to applaud. But the tenor worked through the applause. And near the end of the program, the two Chateaubriands sat side by side. One made of the highest quality beef tenderloin, the other made of common baloney.

There was three minutes left for the judges to judge. They were served portions of the two finished recipes. The Mayor and Police Chief of Vancouver decided first. It was the tenor’s recipe all the way. The three CP Hotel chefs took longer and as the seconds ticked away, both contestants were aware that one vote could make all the difference.

The first chef to decide was the chef from the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. He was a stern looking man who grimaced perpetually and pulled at his earlobes. He wore a three piece suit and suede shoes. He came down squarely on the side of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. The next chef to decide was the chef from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. He wore a tweed sports coat and a thin paisley tie with a coffee stain on it and blinked as he chewed. He too voted for Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. It was now tied, with just the chef of the Hotel Vancouver left to judge. He was dressed in a vest and luxurious teal and burgundy cravat. He chewed as the seconds counted down. Then he took a drink of water and chewed some more. Then he summoned the contest referee and they chatted quietly together. The director gestured for them to hurry, but they ignored him as they consulted.

Finally word came down from the network that they were to go to a commercial break, but that the program would go overtime and cut into the soap opera that followed.

Meanwhile the Hotel Vancouver chef gesticulated fiercely as he whispered to the referee. The referee whispered back and applied the end of her index finger to the table top several times to emphasise her points. There was clearly some bone of contention. As the program returned from its commercial break, the referee threw her hands up in the air and walked away. The chef from the Hotel Vancouver sat alone, looking perplexed. Then he took another mouthful of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand and chewed some more.

Madam Benoît took this as a good sign and she smiled triumphantly. Then the chef from the Hotel Vancouver asked if he could ask a question of both the cooks.

“My two friends,” he said graciously, “your dishes are both very well done. But I wonder, what would be your suggested wine pairings with each?”

Madam Benoît raised her hand, squirming like a rabid schoolgirl, and said, hoping to keep things as local as possible, “I know of a lovely vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.” It wasn’t local at all, of course. But what was she to do. In 1952, BC wines had yet to come into their own.

The Hotel Vancouver chef congratulated Madam Benoît on her choice and she was very pleased. She looked over at the tenor and openly smirked.

“And you, sir?” the chef said addressing the tenor. “What is your recommendation?”

The tenor looked at the chef dumbfounded. He tried to think of a wine suggestion as exacting as Madam Benoît’s. But he could think of none. He’d never eaten his baloney Chateaubriand with wine. He was a poor man. He usually had tea to accompany his meals, made with water boiled on his hotplate. At Christmas, he might have a beer. Finally he said, “Labatt Blue.”

“Oh,” said the Hotel Vancouver chef rubbing his chin as though he’d never heard of such a thing. “Oh my.”

“HA!” squawked Madam Benoît happily, and she clapped her hands in a conquering clap.

The chef continued to think, then consulted once more with the referee. After that he said, “I believe I know of the vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon you speak of, Madam Benoît. It’s appropriately brawny and nuanced, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. I would have preferred something French, like a Bordeaux or even a Madiran. Beer, however, would be the perfect pairing for the baloney Chateaubriand. And I have a guilty fondness for Labatt Blue. It’s the favourite of onion peelers and dish washers. I therefore cast my vote for the baloney Chateaubriand.”

The small studio audience went mad. They stood and applauded for five minutes.  Madam Benoît was gobsmacked. She faltered and an assistant director rushed to her aid. And before the program was ended and the network joined the soap opera in progress, the tenor was gone from Woodward’s Food Floor.

He returned several times throughout the following year to collect portions of his year’s supply of baloney, which he generously shared with friends and those in need. And he continued to sign Italian opera on the corner of Hastings and Main in Vancouver. His neighbours at the Hotel Empress even continued to occasionally hear him weep alone in his room, but would never learn why. All in all, he remained viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Madam Benoît continued her Canadian television career, wrote books and promoted products for decades to come. But she would never relate the story of the battle of the Chateaubriands. It was later discovered that all copies of the program had been destroyed. But no one knew by whom.