lost ironies

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Month: October, 2014

Horoscope of the Apocalypse the Halloween 2014 edition

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

Hey Aries, ever eat one of those little foil wrapped chocolate pumpkin balls without removing the foil first? That’s how Mars rules your sorry, haunted ass. You’ve got decisions to make, baby. But procrastination can be so fulfilling in a backward sort of way. Remember those skeletons in the closet? Yeah, John Wayne Gacy had those too.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Do you recall that time you were in Guatemala, and you were approached by that greasy drug lord who offered you a sack of money to deliver a parcel to an associate in Moose Jaw? Remember how you thought you just might take the guy up on it until you noticed he was wearing gold lamé huaraches and he kept insisting you call him Gladys despite the beard and sideburns? Remember that? No? Oops! Wrong horoscope.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Ain’t Halloween swell? Time to do those disgusting monkey things you want to do all year long. Let someone else be decent for once. You’ve always wanted to self-immolate. But without suffering all those nasty side effects. So why not find someone to wrap you up in latex and roll you down a hill? I know a woman who’ll do it cheap. She does good work. People respect her. She gives group rates, and she’ll retrograde Uranus for cheap.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Well, isn’t this convenient. Cancer is ruled by the moon. Halloween and the moon were made for each other. Did you know that there are alien space stations on the dark side of the moon? I know because I saw it on the internet. Did you know that they call the internet the World Wide Web? Spider webs are very well thought of round Halloween. Did you know that I have a canker on my tongue that’s been there since 1982? Is any of this helping you, Cancer? Am I revealing the invisible universe to you in a way that’s timely and helpful? No? Well, up yours!

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Leo is the fifth sign of the Zodiac. Five plus five equals ten, but I’m not sure why you’d add five and five together in the first place. Maybe you hate prime numbers and enjoy combining them to create non-prime numbers. Like three plus three equals six. Did you know that six is divisible by two, which is also a prime number? Why are you yawning and looking away, Leo? Does what we’ve had together mean nothing to you? Oh sure, just walk away. I’ve got a quart of gin and a medicine cabinet full of psychotropic drugs, partner. I’ve got incriminating Polaroids stashed away, baby. Eleven of them, actually. Did you know that eleven is a prime number…?

Virgo (Aug 23 – September 22)

Hey Virgo, it’s like this. I write horoscopes for decent people.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Libra is the only sign of the zodiac not represented by an animal. Like that makes you special, or something. Like everyone is saying, Oh look. Libra ain’t a fish or a bull or that creepy Capricorn goat/fish thing. Actually, that freaking Capricorn sign gives me the willies, man. Capricorn makes me want to run screaming from the room with nothing on but a Niagara Falls commemorative tea towel. Yeah, I have one of those. I bought it in 1999. Hey, stop looking at me.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Hey Scorpio, for you it’s all black and white, isn’t? You don’t care about subtleties and nuance. You don’t care that that freaky thing we did together in your Smart Car was like a religious experience for me, even though the door handle kept jabbing into my Airy Triplicity. And now that it’s Halloween, I don’t get any candy do I!?! When you gonna pay your Love Taxes, Scorpio?

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Do this for me, Sagittarius. Take a deep breath and hold it. I’ll tell you when to let go. Just think good thoughts. That’s right. Remember that Halloween back when you were eight years old? You went out as a dinosaur, but everyone said you were a dragon. Remember you got so angry that you wanted them all to die horribly, tied to their beds in an out of control house fire? Remember that? Oops, damn. That was me. Still holding your breath? Sucker.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Let’s just call this a UN Capricorn-free zone. And watch the progress bar below to see when you can go out for trick or treat.
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Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

When I was a kid, everyone wanted to be Aquarius. Aquarius was supposed to be sooooo cool. Well, I knew this Aquarius guy who was a taxidermist. He stuffed animals. One day they found out that he’d actually stuffed his brother, Murray. Murray was a real jerk, and he had it coming. But this Aquarius taxidermist posed Murray picking his nose. There stood ol’ Murray in the taxidermist’s basement, next to the moose and musk ox, with his finger all the way up his nose. I hate Aquarius.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Poor Pisces. You’re at the end of the list. Even Aquarius comes before you. Did you come last as a kid, too? Standing in line for trick or treats waiting and waiting and when you finally got to the front of the line all they had left were those crappy candy kiss things that stuck to your teeth and pulled out your fillings so your mother wouldn’t let you have them so you never got any Halloween candy and had to steal it from your siblings who all went to university and you only went to beauty school? Just asking.

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the near death session

It was a shape in a room. It was a circle. Looking down from above, there were the tops of heads. Shoulders. Hands on laps. An assortment of shoes, all facing inward. There were four of them. Two men and two women. And a fifth – one who hadn’t shared in their experience, a facilitator. The psychiatrist. Dr Theodor, dressed casually, expensively. He smiled and tapped his Mont Blanc ball point on a notepad, as he faced the group. The group looked back, expressionless.

“Ok,” said Dr Theodor. “This is the second of two group sessions on Near Death Experiences, NDEs. Each of you has claimed to have had such an experience, and have consented to share your experience in this group environment. Last session we spent most of our time introducing ourselves. Today we’ll get right into describing our experiences. So, who would like to start today?”

There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats. One of them coughed quietly into her hand.

“We’ve come this far,” said Dr Theodor. “We must trust one another.”

“Must we?” said a woman, Edith Calderón. She was prim and sitting erect in a navy business suit. She wore a small crucifix.

“Yes, I think,” said Dr Theodor. “You each share a rare experience. Who else do you have, if not each other?”

“I have Jesus,” said one of the two men, Matthew Quipp. Grey and a little stooped in his chair.

The man next to him snickered. It was Terrance Winkle, fortyish with tattoos, wearing ragged jeans and a tee-shirt.

“You think faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is funny?” Quipp said.

“It’s a bloody musical comedy,” said Winkle.

“I’ll pray for you.”

“Don’t bother.”

The room became quiet again.

“Oh please, you two….” It was Tammy Janwari, mid-twenties in a leather jacket, plaid skirt and heavy boots.

“It’s alright, Tammy,” Dr Theodor said. “You’ve made similar statements at least twice before, Mr Quipp. Can you tell us more about your relationship with Jesus, and how it relates to your NDE?”

“Yeah,” said Winkle, “Was He there with a cocktail to welcome you home?”

Quipp hesitated, then said, “I saw Him. I felt His fathomless and unending love. And….”

“And?” said Dr Theodor.

“It’s difficult to describe, to understand.”

“Please try.”

“Well, I sat at a table with Jesus, and his disciples. Many of the patriarchs were there. There was food and wine. It was like the painting, The Last Supper.”

“Yes?”

“And Jesus, Mary and Paul and I were playing cards, while all of the others looked on.”

“Cards?” said Theodor. “What game, specifically?”

Quipp was uncomfortable. He wrung his hands. “It was poker,” he said. “I’d never played poker before. I didn’t know the rules. But suddenly I did.”

“No way!” said Winkle. “That’s fucking hilarious.”

“I was winning, and Jesus was losing,” Quipp continued, shaking his head. “I was up 18 denarii.”

“You were beating Jesus at poker?” Winkle laughed. “Wish I could’ve been there for that. What He do?”

“He seemed to be getting angry,” Quipp said. “It just wasn’t His night, I guess. He wasn’t getting the cards.”

“What happened?” said Theodor.

“We played one last hand,” said Quipp. “This time He bet big, kept raising. Like He’d finally drawn a winning hand. Mary and Paul folded. Finally, He bet everything, all he had. I matched His bet, and it was time to show our cards. But Jesus looked very sheepish.”

“He’d been bluffing,” Winkled said. “The Lord your Saviour was bloody well bluffing. What’d he have?”

“Pair of tens.”

“And you?”

“Full house, Queens over sevens, though I’m still not sure what that means.”

“That’s worth the price of admission, that is.”

“Let Matthew finish,” said Theodor.

“Well,” Quipp said, “He and Mary just stood up and began to leave the table. Then he turned, looked at me and snapped his fingers. In a second I was back in the operating room. The surgical team was trying desperately to get a pulse. But my heart had stopped for five minutes. As the surgeon looked up and asked the nurse for the time, I returned to my body, and my pulse resumed. I wish they hadn’t resuscitated me. I was dead. I was with the Lord.”

“You were hallucinating,” Winkle said.

“How do you know?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because he was dead,” Winkle said. “Not breathing. Lack of oxygen leading to hallucination. Plain and simple.”

“So how about you?” said Dr Theodor. “What did you see, Terrance?”

“I said it last session. I didn’t see a damn thing.”

“Really?” said Dr Theodor.

“Then why are you here?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because participating pays $75, and I was dead and resuscitated. That qualifies me,”

“Yes,” said Dr Theodor, “you consented to being in this study. And you made a detailed statement to the interviewer. Would you mind if I read what you said in that statement, for the group?” Theodor flipped through pages in a file.

“Go for it, Sigmund. I don’t give a shit.” Winkle crossed his legs, leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly round his chest. He began rocking in his chair. “Tell the whole fucking world. I don’t care.”

Theodor read silently for a moment and then recited, “It was calm and warm. I’d risen out of my body, above the scene, over the filthy street with the paramedics and the cops below, trying to get me to breathe, pumping me full of naloxone. The light was bright, but not blinding. Wilma Waits was there. She’s an ex, who’d walked stoned into rush hour traffic a year before. She ended up bug splat on the grill of a dump truck. But there she was, and she said I didn’t have to suffer anymore. And I suddenly didn’t feel like using. It’s funny. I wasn’t really anywhere, but I could have stayed there forever.

“But then, everything changed. Suddenly I was driving this bad ass black 1950 Studebaker along an empty desert highway at the bottom of a canyon. Wilma riding shotgun, and Roy Orbison on the radio.

“After driving for a while, we finally arrived at this wide open area where there were hundreds of derelict airplanes, all lined up, gleaming in the sun. I parked and we got out to look it over. There were passenger liners and fighter jets. Some of them corroded and broken, others like new. But there was one that really seemed outta place.

“It was this old Qantas 747. The paint was faded and a lot of the windows were knocked out. But there was music playing somewhere inside. Zeppelin and the Stones. There was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.  And some stairs. So, Wilma and I went up to take a look inside. What I saw blew me away.

“There they all were, sitting in the rows of seats. All my friends who’d died on the street. Freddy the Tank, who’d gotten stabbed in a bar fight at the Balmoral. Bobby Needles, who’d cashed it in shooting up on rat poison. Agnes the Angel, who’d had the ultimate bad date and was found buried at a pig farm up the valley. Tommy the Troll, who had a heart attack when he got Tasered. And a lot more, drinking beer and eating pizza. And they all yelled, ‘Hey Terry, glad to see you. About fucking time. We thought you were indestructible.’ Shit like that.

“But then Agnes the Angel comes up and says, ‘It ain’t your time, Terrance.’ And I said, ‘Fuck if it ain’t, this place is cool.’ And she says, ‘Ain’t your decision to make, boyo.’ And I guess I looked kinda tragic, so she hugged me, and that hug was the sweetest thing I’d ever felt. Pure love, baby. Unquestioning light and warmth and happiness. None of that street love that’s only round as long as you’re sharing your shit. This was for fucking real.”

“Do you remember saying that, Terrance?” said Dr Theodor, looking up from the page.

“It’s bullshit. When I get my cheque, I’m gone.”

“And you’ll shoot that money right into your arm,” said Edith Calderón.

“That’s none of our business,” Tammy Janwari said.

“You died of a heroin overdose,” said Quipp. “Shame.”

“And you died of congestive heart failure,” said Winkle. “From too many bacon cheese burgers. Shame on you, you bastard.”

“Please, please,” said Theodor holding up a hand.

“It offends me,” said Quipp, “that we’re all here talking honestly, in the company of someone so profoundly dishonest.”

“What if I challenged you, Terrance?” Theodor said, ignoring Quipp. “What if I said that your statement is not bullshit, and that you’re really just afraid of what you experienced? What would you say to that?”

“I’d say fuck you,” Terrance Winkle said, hugging himself and scratching.

“You were gone for eight minutes, Terrance,” Dr Theodor said. “Long enough to have witnessed something.”

“Fuck off.”

“I was gone for seventeen minutes,”

“Yes?” Dr Theodor said.

“It was a lot like what Terrance experienced, the warmth and love I mean. But there was something like a tunnel. Beautiful sounds, like singing almost, but it was like I was a note in the music, delightfully repeated again and again. I saw Krishna dancing. And then there were elephants. Lovely, lovely elephants. I love elephants.”

“Death fairies,” Winkle said.

“Elephants?” said Quipp. “Krishna?”

“Lovely elephants,” said Tammy Janwari. “Someone had drawn exquisite chalk patterns on them, in all of the colours in the universe. And I was a note in a universal song being sung by saints and angels.”

“That simply can’t be,” Quipp said.

“Why not?” said Edith Calderón.

“God wouldn’t allow it.”

“How do you know?” said Tammy Janwari.

“There’s no place for Krishna and elephants in Heaven,” said Quipp. “You must have been in Hell, Miss Janwari.”

“How dare you?”

“Well, just look at you,” Quipp said. “With your blue hair, dressed like a….”

All eyes fell on Tammy Janwari.

“Like a slut?” she said. “I’m a punk, not a slut, Mr Quipp. Though there’s nothing wrong with being a slut, if that’s what you want.”

“Punk’s dead,” said Winkle, rocking and scratching.

“Punk’s not quite in style at the moment. I know it’s gone underground. But I like it, all the same. And my hair isn’t blue, it’s turquoise.”

“Alright, alright,” said Dr Theodor. “Let’s focus on what we’re here for. Edith, can you share with us?”

“Yes, of course.” Edith Calderón sat up and pulled at her skirt. “I was on a ship at sea. It was always dark. It was a ship of demons. There was an endless storm, and what little light there was glinted off of the high waves. The ship rolled violently and I was seasick all of the time.”

“Hell,” Quipp said, shaking his head.

“None of the passengers had faces,” said Edith Calderón. “Where there should have been a face, there was just a blank space. When I tried to talk to any of them, a hole would open in that blank space, and they’d scream. A man named Stick was the Captain, Captain Stick. He had a face. White with black eyes and red lips. He’d sit at his own table during dinner, staring at me, even as he ate the bloody rare meat on his plate.”

“Satan.” It was Quipp again.

“Yes…,” said Edith Calderón, “…maybe. But my cousin Iván was there; he was the Ship’s Purser. He came to my table one evening and said I had to go back, that being there was wrong for me, that there had been a mistake. It may have been hell, but he had such love in his eyes. At first I couldn’t believe him. In life he’d been a killer. He murdered a woman in Durango in 1986. Later, he was shot by police. He’d been forsaken by our family. My family talked about him like he was evil. But there he was, helping me to understand. He reached across the table and put his hand onto mine, and it was warm.”

“Then what happened?” Terrance Winkle said.

“I came back,” said Edith Calderón. “By then, my body was surrounded by firemen and paramedics, and one of them said the steering wheel had impacted my chest too violently, that the trauma to my heart was too severe. I stood watching, outside of my body, as all of them stood up at once, like they’d given up and were going to walk away.”

“And then?” said Tammy Janwari

“I saw myself cough,” said Edith Calderón. “And then I was back in my body, and the firemen and the paramedics came back and started working again. Later, a nurse whispered miracle to another at the hospital.”

“How did it feel to return?” said Dr Theodor.

“Just a temporary reprieve,” Quipp said.

“Let her answer,” said Winkle.

“I’m a Catholic,” said Edith Calderón. “It’s confusing. There must be some reason I was there. Perhaps I haven’t prayed hard enough. I haven’t confessed everything…. I don’t know. But God is God, and if He puts me in Hell, then that’s where I belong.”

“That’s just wrong,” Tammy Janwari said.

Edith Calderón began to weep. She held her head in her hands, and wept from deep inside.

“God is God,” said Quipp. “Amen.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Winkle said. “You Christ psycho.”

“That’s enough,” said Dr Theodor. “There’s twenty minutes left in the session. We should all take a five minute break.”

“I’m outta here,” said Winkle. “This whole thing is just some creepy, voyeuristic shit for scientists and philosophers to chuckle over as they sip their fucking lattes.”

“You’re leaving without your cheque?” Quipp said. “How will you pay for your next fix?”

“I’ll get some one way or another. I always do.”

“This shouldn’t end this way,” Tammy Janwari said. “Let’s acknowledge what we all have in common, it makes us unique.”

“What the hell do I have in common with you lot?” Winkle said.

“Death,” said Edith Calderón, sitting up now, with almost perfect posture. “We have death in common, all of us. And I am stronger than Hell. I have seen it and it is small and inconsequential compared to the love Iván showed me.”

“You’re wrong,” said Quipp.

“There is hope,” said Edith Calderón. “Even there. Iván proved it.”

“That’s an interesting insight,” said Dr Theodor.

“Fucking lack of oxygen,” said Winkle.

“The elephants were lovely,” said Tammy Janwari.

 

winner, 2014’s worst Halloween costume – zombie stamp collector

winner, worst Halloween costume

happy halloween

Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

I was seven years old when this happened, so you can imagine my pride and my shame.

* * * * *

My Aunt Sparky, whose real name was Ophelia Florence Iglehart, but who everyone called Sparky for obvious reasons, never made a left hand turn in her life.

Okay, that’s not quite true. She made two. One when her father, Great Uncle Regis Philip Iglehart tried to teach her how to drive, which he later described as ‘…the most frightening experience of my life, and I was in the Korean War’, and once for her driver’s test which she would have failed if the tester hadn’t passed her in exchange for her promise never to return.

So, driving with Aunt Sparky was always an adventure of right hand turns. She was aware that, where appropriate, a left hand turn would get her there faster, but the thought of willingly driving into oncoming traffic terrified her. And that was fine in the end, on account of Aunt Sparky having been left a large inheritance by her dead boyfriend, Spike Willburley, who was really named Felix, but who everyone called Spike for obvious reasons, and since she was therefore set for life, if she didn’t spend her dough like a sailor, she had the time to travel via right hand turns wherever she went.

It was all good until the summer of 1968, when she bought a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air with over 150,000 miles on the odometer. It was a flat pale green that may have been in style at some point in automotive history, but was dreary in comparison to the day-glow colours flowering round us that year. It had no hubcaps, the interior was in tatters and the windshield was cracked. But she called it a classic rather than second hand, and no one bothered correcting her.

I had time on my hands that summer. Both of my parents worked and I was on vacation. So, I went everywhere with Aunt Sparky. She’d pick me up in the morning, and we’d go on a right hand turn mystery tour round the city. To make it sound like even more of an adventure, she’d say that she was kidnapping me, with a wink and a secret smile. We’d go to Whitespot for lunch, and I’d have a cheese burger with fries, and she’d have cheese cake, coffee and a cigarette. It was a weirdly blissful arrangement for a seven year old kid. No one ever interfered, saying I should be playing baseball or be at camp. It was just me, Aunt Sparky and the Bel Air, and I loved it.

So, I’ve mentioned the overall less than showroom condition of my Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. But there was one more feature peculiar to its state of disrepair, the one that caused all the trouble that year: the car horn sounded every time the steering wheel was turned to the right. This was annoying, of course, considering the sheer number of times Aunt Sparky turned the wheel to the right. And it wasn’t long before she brought the car into Rufus’ Service Station on Nanaimo Street. Rufus assessed the problem himself, because he was sweet on her, said Aunt Sparky. He examined the wiring in the steering column for a full ten minutes. Then stepped out of the car, sucked his teeth and announced with profundity and severity, that it was a fuse.

Replacing the fuse would cost five dollars, including labour. Apparently Rufus wasn’t as sweet on Aunt Sparky as she thought. She gave it deliberate consideration, then and there. Five dollars in 1968 was a lot of money. Gasoline, all by itself, was thirty-five cents a gallon! Never mind the cost of groceries, shopping out of the Sears catalogue and Whitespot meals. What was a girl to do in such hyperinflationary circumstances?

She finally said no to Rufus’ terms, and we drove away, making a horn-tooting right hand turn out of the station and back onto Nanaimo Street. The Beatles were on the radio, and all remained well with the world.

In fact, the sounding of the horn while turning right became a sort of friend, something familiar, something I could trust. It never failed us; it was always there.

And the horn was there, one sunny morning in July, as we drove through downtown Vancouver on our way to Stanley Park. Aunt Sparky had brought along a large bag of thin chocolate coated cookies, and we feasted, while listening to the Doors and Otis Redding on CKLG. At the corner of Granville and Georgia Streets, Aunt Sparky turned right. The horn sounded as usual, and we found ourselves in a traffic jam.

“Jumper on the damn bridge again,” Aunt Sparky grumbled.

Now, once upon a time in Vancouver, there was a cop on nearly every street corner. They’d stand there twiddling their thumbs and looking officious, torn between dreams of heroic deeds and hoping their shifts went off without having to give sweaty chase. And on that sunny July morning, a cop stood at the corner of Granville and Georgia Streets. We’d just passed him by as we turned right, immediately getting stuck in the traffic jam. The Bel Air’s horn had sounded, and the cop thought he was being beckoned. He stepped off the curb and went round to Aunt Sparky’s window.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said, touching his thumb and index finger to the peak of his cap. “How may I help?

“Help?” said Aunt Sparky. I watched, ate more cookies, and sipped a Coke. I was a great fan of the sugar rush.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the cop, “you honked your horn as you passed me by.”

“I never did,” said Aunt Sparky, by which she meant that she hadn’t intentionally honked her horn.

“But you did,” said the cop.

“Look,” said Aunt Sparky, remembering the Detroit Riots from the year before. “I’ll report any police brutality to my Member of Parliament.”

The traffic was now moving ahead of us. The driver in a car behind us honked his horn.

“But you sounded your horn as though you wanted my attention,” said the cop.

“Again I say, I never did.”

The cop looked past Aunt Sparky to me, sitting there with a chocolate stained face and sugar crazed eyes.

“This your boy?” he said.

“Certainly not,” said Aunt Sparky.

“Whose, then?”

“Alright, mister,” said Aunt Sparky, who’d never responded well to authority, “the traffic’s moving ahead of me, and I’m holding up the traffic behind. It’s time I moved on.”

“Pull it over,” said the cop, “and step out of the car.”

“I will not. I’m a citizen and a tax payer, going to Stanley Park for a picnic. We’re having fish and chips.”

This was the first I’d heard about fish and chips. This was getting exciting.

“Is that why you kidnapped me this morning?” I said, hungrily.

“That’s right,” said Aunt Sparky.

“Kidnapped?” said the cop.

“Oh just shoo,” Aunt Sparky said, “you tiresome little man.” And then she drove away.

I looked back, over the seat. The cop stood there for a moment, fists clenched, and then ran into the crowd on the sidewalk. He disappeared there, and I was glad. He was boring for a cop. Mod Squad was better.

It didn’t take long before a big black Ford began tailing Aunt Sparky. The traffic on Georgia was increasing in speed. Aunt Sparky said the black Ford was tailgating. I looked over the back of the seat again and saw a man in the passenger seat waving madly, as if he wanted us to pull over. Aunt Sparky accelerated instead. The Ford spat out a brief siren sound.

“Why don’t they pass, if they want by?” she said.

“It’s the police,” I said. “Maybe they want us to pull over.”

“Don’t be silly.” She accelerated again. She was now going forty miles an hour, and the needle on the speedometer was moving up on the dial. “We’ll just put some distance between us and them, so they can pursue whoever they’re after without hindrance.”

The Ford was catching up. Its siren was on full now, and there was a red light flashing on the dashboard.

“Fiddle sticks,” Aunt Sparky said. “We’ll just have to get out of their way to let them pass.” She turned a hard right onto Cardero Street. The horn honked and the police Ford followed. “Oh darn, looks like we’re headed in the same direction as them.”

She turned right onto Bayshore Drive, and then right onto Nicola Street, honk! honk! The police Ford followed, but now there were some black and white police cars following it.

“Maybe they really do want us,” I said, despondent, coming down from my sugar high.

“They’re after criminals, honey. Just sit down and think of what a good story you’ll have to tell tonight when you get home.”

“But there’re three of them now.”

“Well we’ll have to turn on Robson to get out of their way.” She did, honk!

We were approaching Cardero Street again, and there were police cars there, blocking the road.

“Oh now what?” she said. “Something really big must be happening.”

She assessed the approaching roadblock and decided she could just make it. Turning right onto Cardero again, honk!, she went up onto the corner and squeezed past a black and white cruiser. Then it was right onto Alberni, honk!; right onto Jervis, honk!; right onto Haro, honk!; right onto Broughton, honk!

Disappointingly, we never did have the fish and chip picnic in the park. Some smart cop realised Aunt Sparky was going in a circle, making only right hand turns, and set up another roadblock in the middle of Nicola. They stopped us with guns drawn. Aunt Sparky protested that it was all too much as they cuffed her, and I was handed over to a Social Worker named Gladys, who had big ears and smelled like bug spray.

Aunt Sparky appeared in court the next day, and was fined $250 for reckless driving and failure to stop for the police. When the judge said she was indifferent and disregardful of consequence, she attempted to stand and defend herself. Her lawyer pulled her back into her seat by the back of her dress.

That September, she appeared with me at show and tell. Everyone said it was the best one that year. At recess, they all got to see Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. Regretfully, though, by then Aunt Sparky had shelled out, and Rufus had replaced the fuse.

being radicalised is not a form of insanity

Since the tragic events unfolded in Ottawa yesterday, everyone has become a psychiatrist, claiming that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was everything from a whacko to deranged. But really, no one will ever know what his mental state was at the time of his horrible crime.

Today at a press conference, BC Premier Christy Clark correctly defended the Muslim community. She pointed out the obvious, that by far, most Muslims are good and peaceful people. Later in her speech, however, she claimed Zehaf-Bibeau must have been deranged – and nearly spit when she said it. At no point did she offer Mental Health Consumers the same respect and curtesy she extended BC Muslims, by pointing out that by far, most people living with mental disorders are good and peaceful people. In fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators.

The sole psychiatric assessment that media are desperately clinging to is several years old. In it, Zehaf-Bibeau is reported by a psychiatrist to have said that he wanted to kick his crack addiction by being placed in jail. Later in the assessment, however, the psychiatrist states that he could find no evidence that Zehaf-Bibeau had a mental illness.

Even the Montreal Gazette has come out with an article entitled Radicalization and mental health: Looking for answers that relies primarily on professional guessing in retroactively diagnosing Zehaf-Bibeau.

Michael  was a murderer, inspired by radical Islam, but was he  mentally ill? We’ll never know. But politicians and media are once again making their living, in part, by depicting those with mental disorders as harmful to the greater community. To them I point out the obvious, that being radicalized, like Zehaf-Bibeau, is not a form of mental illness.

I work hard, as many others do, to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. But the current circus of media conjecture and political opportunism in guessing Zehaf-Bibeau’s mental condition ruins that work.

how to invest in the future

Vancouver 1949

Crispin Dench pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. Driving up the driveway and parking at the door may have given the wrong message: that they really wanted to be there.

The house was a boxy number, an elegant ruin, set way back from the street and surrounded by tall gates and a high stone wall.

Trudy Parr sat in the passenger seat. “I still don’t know why we’re here,” she said.

“Good will,” said Dench, checking his Omega.

The residents in the neighbourhood paid well, but the work was tedious. Wives and husbands competing with one another at a game called betrayal, calling in private investigators to compile evidence to make accusations stick. The firm of Dench and Parr Investigations had stopped taking fidelity jobs long ago – leaving that work for amateurs, breaking into the business. Since then, they’d been handling cold cases, murders and missing persons the cops couldn’t be bothered with, but that families or friends would pay to solve. Whatever this call was about, they were ready to say no.

Their appointment was with a Dr Thornton Dallas at 10 a.m. It was now 9:50. They sat in the Jag listening to the radio. Trudy Parr wished she’d brought a Raymond Chandler novel. As she sat regretting the oversight, an Asian woman in a maid’s outfit walked up to the passenger side of the car and tapped on the window. Trudy rolled it down.

“Dench and Parr?” said the maid.

“Guilty,” Trudy said.

“Dr Dallas will see you now,” the maid said, and walked back up the driveway to the house.

Dench sat back and lit a Gitane, then tuned the radio to another station – Nat King Cole was singing, Nature Boy.

“This might be fun, after all,” said Trudy Parr. “It’s already a little flaky, and we haven’t even knocked on the door.”

After taking his time finishing his cigarette, Dench started the car and drove up to the front door. They parked and knocked. A grim looking elderly man answered. A butler, thought Trudy Parr. She smiled. His right hand shook a bit. He said, “Yes?” Two small dogs stood at the door, wagging their tails. The butler looked down with disdain.

“Dench and Parr,” said Trudy. “Here to see Dr Dallas.”

“That meeting does not commence until ten o’clock,” the butler said. “You’re early.”

“But the Chinese woman…,” Dench said.

Ignoring him, the butler showed them chairs in the hall next to the front door where they were to wait until summoned.

Trudy Parr looked the situation over. “This is why everyone thinks the butler done it, Jasper,” she said to the butler. Then she walked past him, into a formal sitting room beyond. It was all mahogany and leather. She took an overstuffed chair. “Tea if you got it,” she said.

Crispin Dench followed her in and began to inspect the bric-a-brac.

“The name is not Jasper,” the butler said, stoically. “It’s Julio. Please wait, and don’t break anything.”

Trudy Parr picked up a New Yorker from a stand. They waited.

“Well, Nathan is an asshole.”

The words came from a sofa facing away from them in front of a window.

“I wouldn’t su…. I did not. The prick is lying, so ignore what he says. Hang on.”

A face popped up, looking over the back of the couch. It was young and pretty.

“I have to go, Daphne,” she said. “There’re a couple of desperate looking characters in the room. Bye.” She hung up the phone and said, “Have you two been looked after?”

“What floor’s sportswear on in this joint?” Dench asked.

“Ha, ha! That’s real funny,” said the girl. “Servants and trades belong in the back, shoo.” She said ‘shoo’ while making a dismissive gesture with her hand and looking off in another direction.

“I’m not the help, Sugar,” said Trudy Parr. “Someone named Dallas called us. We were supposed to meet at ten. It’s now seven minutes after.”

“And who do you think this Dallas person is, Miss?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out, Junior,” Trudy said.

The girl’s eyes widened. “Are you Communists? Daddy just hates Communists.”

“That depends,” Dench said. “What do you think of Communists?”

“I think Communist boys always look so crazy and dreamy.”

“…and they rarely bathe,” Dench said. “As for the two of us, we’re private investigators.”

“Really?” She sat up in excitement. “Even her?”

Dench looked over at Trudy Parr, and said, “Especially her.”

“You carrying guns?”

“No.”

“Well, why not?”

“Because they go off and people get killed.”

“Don’t some people have to get killed? Isn’t it you or them?”

“I leave the gun at home in my freezer,” said Trudy, “next to the ice cream and the fish bait.”

“Some private eyes you are.”

“There’s always the movies, Sugar. They’ve got a million private dicks and each one’s got a gun, maybe two, and a million young broads laying face down in the family swimming pool.”

“I don’t think I like you, lady,” the girl said.

Then someone interrupted, “Samantha? Samantha, is that you?” It was Dr Dallas walking into the parlour. “Oh, there you are, Samantha. I’m so glad you haven’t left yet.”

“Daddy, I don’t leave for boarding school for another week.”

Dallas saw Dench and Parr. “And who are you?”

“They’re private eyes, Daddy. Not a very nice ones, either.”

“Their job probably doesn’t inspire much in the way of niceness,” Dallas said. “It’s Dench, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Dench said, “but please don’t call me by my last name.”

“Very well, what is your first name?”

“Mister,” Dench replied.

“Ah, Mr. Dench,” Thornton Dallas said, “just so. And who is this lovely creature?” Dallas looked at Trudy Parr as an afterthought. “Did you bring your secretary?”

“Maybe we should have brought guns, after all,” Trudy said.

“She’s my partner,” Dench said. “You said you wanted to see us both, over the telephone. So, here we are.”

“I’d no idea…,” Dallas said.

“Now you do,” said Trudy Parr, as she turned a page of the New Yorker.

Dallas was an obese man, balding, in an expensive suit and shoes. But Trudy Parr thought his tie was bad. He was greying and jowly, and had small porcine eyes.

“I think we should go to my study,” Dallas said. “Please follow me.”

The house was a maze of hallways and doors. Dallas stopped at what seemed a wall and slid a large panel to one side and directed Dench and Parr in.

The study was large, two stories high with a mezzanine, more of the same leather and mahogany as elsewhere. Every inch of wall was covered with books. The grim elderly butler appeared.

“Would you like a drink, Mr Dench?” Dallas asked.

“Too early for me,” Dench said. “But do you mind if I smoke?”

“Not at all,” Dallas said and patted himself down for something, a lighter as it turned out, “perhaps I’ll have a pipe at that.”

“Glenlivet,” said Trudy Parr, taking a chair and lighting a Black Cat. “Or whatever passes for a single malt round here.”

“Ah,” Dallas said, looking as though he’d forgotten about Trudy Parr. “Julio, Glenlivet for the lady. Ice, Miss Parr?”

“You should know better,” Trudy said.

Dallas started to go through a ritual of knocking old tobacco out of a pipe that had been resting in an ashtray. He filled it again from a leather pouch. Then, not having found his lighter in any of his pockets, he searched vigorously for a wooden match. He found one in a bronze elephant figurine next to a desk lamp. Striking it on the trunk of the elephant, he began puffing. When he was content that the pipe was properly lit, it went out. He began again.

The butler arrived with Trudy Parr’s drink. “Your single malt, madam.”

“This tobacco’s a special blend, you know,” Dallas said between puffs. “Bring it in from Ireland,” puff, puff, puff. “Ah, well,” he said at last, disappointed. ”Wasn’t meant to be.” He placed the unlit pipe back into the ashtray, and said, “So, Mr Dench, it’s certainly nice of you to come.”

“I have to agree since consultations are gratis,” said Trudy Parr. “But I’m not sure why we’re here.”

“Of course, of course.” He started to shuffle through papers on his desk. “Ah, here it is.” He handed something over to Crispin Dench. “Take a look and tell me what you think.”

It was an unopened envelope inside a transparent plastic sleeve. Dench examined it, looking for the punch line, but there wasn’t one.

“Just an unopened envelope,” he said, holding it in his right hand. “Addressed to some egghead at a university address.”

“Yes, I’m a professor there, myself. Do you know anything about physics, Mr Dench? Quantum mechanics, fractal theory, that sort of thing?”

“We were involved with some intelligence which involved weapon development during the war,” Trudy Parr said.

“Atomic weapons?” Dallas asked.

“That’s classified.”

“I see,” Dallas said. “Still hush, hush, eh? Well based on that, you may understand a little about mans’ quest to travel through time and the progress that’s been made.” He sat there with a straight face while digging a fleshy finger into his ear.

“Not really,” Dench said.

“Hmm,” Dallas said. “Well anyway take another look at the envelope, especially the stamp and the post mark.”

He did and was a little surprised. The stamp cost more than a dollar. It should have only cost a few cents. And it looked strange, more colourful and stylistically different than what he was used to seeing. Then he looked harder and saw something very strange. The postmark was Philadelphia. December, 2013 — sixty-four years in the future.

“I haven’t got time for bullshit, Dr Dallas.”

“I assure you that it is not bullshit, sir.” He was sounding bombastic, and Trudy Parr’s interest was waning. “A colleague of mine, a Dr Wilshire, died last month. That’s his name and office address on the envelope. I found it in amongst some of his miscellaneous papers. I had a feeling some time ago that he had made some break through concerning the question of time mobility. His were mostly experiments with inanimate objects and small lab animals. His primary goal was not just to send them forward in time, but to safely retrieve them. I was able to find full documentation of those experiments, but nothing to explain this. He must have somehow gotten himself to the year 2013, and spent time in Philadelphia, working in the time labs. Then mailed that to himself from there, for later delivery here, in 1949.” He pointed at the envelope. “But I can’t figure out why. Did he mean to return to open it?”

“And did he safely retrieve them,” asked Trudy Parr, “the small animals I mean?”

“According to his documentation, all the animals had to be put down,” Dallas said gravely. “They returned malformed.”

“But who mailed the envelope and how did it get here?” Dench asked.

“Well,” Dallas said, taking a deep breath. “We can’t know for sure unless it’s opened, but I suspect it was Wilshire, himself.”

“Go ahead and open it, then,” said Trudy Parr.

“It may be opened one day,” Dallas said, now toying with his pipe again. “But the contents of this envelope aren’t what concern me. Wilshire is dead, here in 1949. But a version of him may still be out there occupying a place in the future. It’s been proven to be a strong likelihood using the Hemming Multi-versal Theory. He could be causing irreparable damage to the space/time continuum every time he does something as simple as walking down a street or buying a cup of coffee.”

There were a few a seconds of silence. Trudy Parr lit another cigarette and said, “Where do we come into this, Dr Dallas?”

“Put simply, I want you to intercept Wilshire. We cannot know what took place when he arrived in the future or what damage he may have already done. So, I want to pay you to go and bring him back.”

Dench laughed out loud. “How?” he said.

“I’ve transferred the apparatus from Wilshire’s lab to my garage in the backyard,” Dallas said, his eyes starting to gleam. “I can send you off today to approximately where Wilshire might be.”

“You tried this out yet?” said Trudy Parr. “On the small lab animals?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said looking distracted by more important things.

“And what were the results?”

“I’ve made improvements, based on the results. There were just some slight mutations in morphology. You know, insignificant things, minor cranial warping, some spinal vertebrae reversal, inconsequential cross species contamination, heart and colon fusion, negligible cerebellum atrophy. However, I must say that the effects on the brain are actually nearly nonexistent. Although some trivial levels of psychosis have been observed.” He tried to light his pipe again without making eye contact.

“A walk in the park,” Dench said.

“Mmm, mmm,” Dallas sounded, pipe stem in his mouth, head nodding up and down.

“And how much were you planning to offer us,” said Trudy Parr, “for this modest expedition into the unknown?”

“Mmm,” Dallas sounded again, as pipe smoke began to fill the room around him. “What’s the going rate?”

“Look Dallas,” Dench said. “I think our office will be billing you, after all. This isn’t a consultation. It’s a freak show.”

Trudy Parr stood and began walking to the door.

“Wait,” Dallas said, suddenly in a panic. “Tell me how much you want. Let’s negotiate, hammer out a deal.”

“You haven’t even opened that damn envelope. It could answer all of your questions.”

Dallas looked sheepishly down at the envelope on his desk, and said, “My lawyer believes it’s more valuable unopened.”

Trudy Parr heard this as she was exiting the study. She walked back to Dallas’ desk. He seemed to cringe like she was going to slug him. Instead she picked up the precious envelope, and retrieved a gravity knife from her purse.  She let the blade fall out of the handle and into place, and then sliced open the protective plastic sleeve.

Dallas began pulling at his hair.

“Don’t,” he shouted. She looked at the colourful stamp and thought for a moment about a colourful future, where it cost more than the price of a diner meal to mail a letter. Then she sliced the envelope open. Inside was a piece of white eight and a half by eleven paper, nearly blank. Thirty percent rag, she guessed, by its weight. Nothing special.

It read:

December 2, 2013 

Note to self: invest heavily in AlphaLink Genetics of Ames, Iowa. This company will win worldwide licence for Ebola vaccine manufacture. Epidemic to strike 2014, be planet-wide by early 2015. Hundreds of millions to die. Also invest in armament manufacturers, unbridled riots engulf planet.

ps, to anyone who might read this before me:

The future is as disappointing as the past. 

Wilshire

Dallas wept and mumble something about suing. Trudy Parr didn’t know what it meant. She and Dench read it three times, and all that made sense were the last words. The future is as disappointing as the past.

Trudy Parr thought, Halleluiah, brother.

October story

Halloween 1955

Death grasped the excess denim round his waist, and tugged his jeans up. Modern clothing never fit him properly. He leaned against a lamppost, and watched the downtown traffic. He sniffed and lit a cigarette.

It had been more than twenty minutes. Humans in any age were unreliable. He spit, looked down, brushed ash off of his oversized black leather jacket. He had time. He was flexible.

October, he smirked, kicking at some orange leaves. He did his best work in October. The line separating things was so thin. Humanity was somehow more prone to surrender in October. The numbers were the same, but the work was somehow lighter. He often thought of taking a holiday in October. Allowing the select to be the lone witnesses to their own demise. But he knew his presence was required. Always required. By some weird quirk of creation. And Death found it tiring.

Across the street now, waiting for the traffic light, there stood the woman. Rebecca Wick. 48 years old. Dull as devotion. Dressed like a frump. The world wouldn’t miss her. He considered his options. Hit by runaway trolley, fatal heart attack, stabbed by an attacker…. The options were many, but not unlimited. For example, he thought, piano falling from a height was out — too Bugs Bunny. And usually unavailable.  Bite of asp was another non-starter, ever since Cleopatra. A stray bullet perhaps. From a careless villain’s revolver. Or a policeman in pursuit. But Vancouver was boring and provincial in the worst way. Cops stood like statues on street corners, itemizing bribes in their pea-brains.

And so, he hadn’t yet decided the nature of Rebecca’s death.

The familiar lament nagged. He knew so little about the people whose terminations he presided over. It stunted creativity. Surely there was a more appropriate death for Miss Wick than a traffic accident or heart failure. Perhaps, despite her appearance, there was some redeeming thing about her. Could the unattractive woman in the brown overcoat have been a great heroine at some stage in her life? Was she an artist? An intellect? A despicable scoundrel? Yes, he liked the scoundrel idea. Perhaps she’d secretly hacked her mother to death and composted her. No, he’d have been there for that.  He was death. He was stumped.

The light changed. He threw his half gone cigarette into the gutter, and once again hoisted up his jeans. Rebecca Wick stepped off the curb with a crowd of fellow pedestrians.  He’d meet her halfway. Introduce himself. Be completely honest about his identity. What choice did he have? She’d know him immediately. They always did. No disguise worked. He remembered the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky when they met, terminal and emphysemic in his Catholic bed. The room with a rocking chair and the stink of worthless remedies. The man fixing his eyes upon Death, and speaking his last words. Nothing clever or poetic. But instead, “Where’s your damn scythe?”

There was no scythe, of course. There never had been.  It was metaphor and fantasy. As was the hooded robe. But even without these things, he was recognised by those whose moment had come. Some looked stunned, some stoic. But they had all known him.

Death stepped into the crosswalk. Rebecca Wick stared ahead at nothing in particular. They met at the centreline. He turned and walked beside her, matching her step. “Hello, Rebecca,” he said brightly in a vaguely English accent. “May I walk with you a while?”

Rebecca Wick turned to look. She saw a gaunt, sallow face. Poorly fitting clothes that needed a wash. A studded leather motorcycle jacket. Her expression remained the same. No surprise or stoicism. “I don’t walk with strangers, fella,” she said. “Hit the bricks.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bugger off. I’ve got no time for beatniks.”

“I’m no beatnik.”

“I’ll call for a cop.”

“That’s really unnecessary. But I think we have business, you and I.”

Rebecca Wick stopped, and Death with her. They were now in the curb lane on Georgia Street where it intersected with Granville, facing each other. The lights were changing again. She looked Death in the eye and squinted. As they stood there, a delivery van turned the corner too fast and screeched to a halt inches from them both. “That was close,” said Death with a surprised look. This encounter wasn’t taking the usual course.

“Get off the road,” the delivery driver yelled.

Death preceded Rebecca Wick to the curb, bowed and held out a helping hand. Rebecca Wick ignored it, and walked past him. She carried on down Georgia. He watched her go. Could he be wrong, he wondered. But he was never wrong. The select were the select. The dead were the dead. There’d never been a mix up. “Wait,” he called out.

“You’re getting on my nerves,” said Rebecca Wick when he’d caught up with her. He noticed now that she was grasping her umbrella firmly and aggressively, that it was twitching up and down in her hand. This was becoming too much. Surely she didn’t intend to hit Death with an umbrella.

“Look here,” he said, deciding on a different approach. “It may be that you don’t know who I am. It’s unheard of, of course, and very difficult. But allow me to introduce myself…. ” He felt the blunt impact of the umbrella across his ear. Not physically painful. Death felt no pain. But it was a jolt. And unprecedented. He’d always been able to avoid this sort of thing. “I say,” he said.

“I don’t give a damn what you have to say,” said Rebecca Wick. “This town’s fillin’ up with creeps like you, that won’t leave a girl alone.” She adjusted a limp, gauzy thrift store hat on her head with the heel of her hand. “Look at you dressed like some kind of rubby-dub. It’s the middle of the day. Why aren’t you at work? Don’t have a job? And I ain’t got no spare change, neither. So don’t ask. Now blast off.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Death, puffing himself up in a way he’d never done before in all of history. “This is Death you’re addressing, and you will revere and fear me.” The time had come for the touch of his hand. The very touch of Death. He began to reach out.

“Wait a minute,” Rebecca Wick said. “Whoa and hold on there. There’s been a heap o’ crazies in this berg since the end of the war, but this is a new one. You’re Death, you say. The grim reaper. Then where’s your scythe?”

“Look, there is no scythe. There never was a bloody scythe. And before you start going on about the hood, let me assure you that there never was a bloody hood, either. That’s just some Ingmar Bergman wet dream. Only the dead can see me, and by definition they never stick around long enough to share the details of my appearance. It’s quite exasperating hearing the same questions over and over, I must tell you.”

“What, no leathery wings? No skull face?”

“None of that.”

“Well you are bloody ugly. Can’t you find clothes that fit? Death can’t visit a proper haberdashers?”

“Look, take my hand, and let’s get this over with.”

“Your hand? Why would I do that? It looks unclean.”

“Because it’s your time,” said Death. “Taking my hand is what’s done. You should recognise me, and be resign to your fate. That’s how it’s always been. I’ll have to find out what’s gone wrong. But in the meantime, let’s get this done and over with, shall we?”

“No. Why would a healthy person like me willingly touch the hand of Death?”

“Healthy people die all of the time.”

“They do not.”

“They do too.”

“Of what?”

“Misadventure, accident.”

“What have you got planned for me then, huh?”

“I don’t know.” Death felt a little embarrassed. “I’d hoped to decide once I met you, gotten to know you better.”

“Well?”

“How about something exceedingly painful,” Death sneered.

Rebecca Wick sniffed at this, and said, “You mean you’re here to oversee my demise, and you know nothing about me.”

“Lamentable failings are often visited upon supernatural beings.”

“And if I understand you correctly,” said Rebecca Wick, “you’re inferring that if I were, say, an Olympic swimmer, you’d have me die drowning in the bathtub. An ironically watery death. There’s a bit of fun in what you do, isn’t there.”

“Or a famous writer,” said Death, “falling on his quill.”

“Something fitting with a person’s station in life.”

“That’s it exactly,” said Death, surprised at her insight. And was that a hint of empathy in her voice? Empathy for him, Death? What a rare and welcome thing.

“Well, I sling hash at the White Lunch,” said Rebecca Wick. “Waddaya gonna do with that?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Death said. “Let me think.” He hummed discordantly for a moment, tapping his chin with his index finger. “It’s not much to work with, is it?”

“Maybe I should fall into the deep fryer or the coleslaw shredder.”

“Oooo,” Death said, “those are both rather good.”

“Or here’s another option,” Rebecca Wick said. “You bugger off and let me get on with my day, as a way of making up for your disappointing appearance. Come back when I’m old and don’t give a damn anymore. When I haven’t any teeth, and my food is served damp and strained. When I need a nurse to wipe the drool from my chin, and tell me what a good girl I am for making it to the toilet before I soil myself.”

“Can’t do it.”

“Then how about this? You arrange for me to foil the kidnapping of some darling but precocious five year old from a wealthy family. She’ll have pigtails and apple cheeks and a slight lisp when she says S words due to her two missing front teeth. The kidnappers will be planning on demanding an enormous ransom and then escaping to Cuba to satisfy their deviant love of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and to help finance the ongoing Cuban Revolution. I’ll snatch the child out of their evil commy clutches, enabling her escape, but be fatally shot in the process, as she runs into the open arms of her adoring upper class mother who will later laud me for my proletariat pluck and gusto, and selflessly demonstrating how the poor underclasses can aid a comparatively small population of rich and indifferent individuals in their exploitation and domination of the planet and its starving masses.”

“Can’t,” said Death.

“You’re joking.”

“I did it last week.”

“Then what for God’s sake?” said Rebecca Wick. “How am I gonna die? The suspense is killing me, as it were.”

“This is getting less and less gratifying by the moment,” Death said, looking, with frustration, up into the sky. And when he did, there it was. He hadn’t seen it being done this way since the 1930s. It just wasn’t necessary anymore. The buildings they were standing under, though, were from the last century. He guessed there really was no other way. But dare he? It would be almost satirical. Not serious. Not profound. Hardly dignified.”

“Alright, Mr Death,” said Rebecca Wick. “Let’s get on with this, or I’m going to the Knights of Columbus Hall for BINGO. Big jackpot today. And you’re holding me up. I mean maybe this Death thing ain’t right for you. Maybe you should consider janitorial work. I can get you on at the Spitz Building. Their last janitor got drunk, fell down the stairs and broke his neck. But I guess you know that, right? Ciao Mr Death. Catch you later, I guess. Ha!”

Rebecca Wick began to walk away, laughing scornfully to herself at the fool posing as Death.

Death looked up as she did and nodded.

The piano that fell from the defective block and tackle, onto Rebecca Wick, had done so from just outside of a 10th floor window, at the moment the movers were reaching out to grasp it and pull it in. It was an 1832 vintage Bösendorfer grand, worth a small fortune. The newspaper headlines that night read, Local Woman Dies Cartoon Death.

Satisfied with his work, Death took the next day off.

Justice Weekley

Vancouver, 1949

Justice Weekley had had a wooden leg since the Somme, and had owned the shoeshine concession in the lobby of the Marine Building since 1930. If yours were shoes of distinction in the city of Vancouver, Justice had probably run a rag over them. His stand consisted of five seats. He employed two boys. But when sitting down, everyone hoped they’d have Justice Weekley shine their shoes.

Crispin Dench took a seat and placed his wingtips on the brass footrests. It was Monday at 2:00 p.m. Business would be slow until five. Dench had the whole stand to himself.

“Waddaya know, Justice?”

Justice Weekley looked at Dench’s shoes and shook his head. “This ain’t like you, Crispin. These shoes are a mess.”

“Been jumping backyard fences after the bad guys,” Dench said, looking around. “You got the Daily Racing Form?”

“Right next to you, between the chairs.”

“Ah, so.” Dench picked up the tab and began to read.

Justice Weekley went to work, rolling up Dench’s pant cuffs. He brushed off the surface soil, the debris of all those felonious backyards, and applied just the right amount of black Kiwi. Then he brushed again to bring out a shine. After that, he went to work with the rag, popping it now and again for effect.

“I hear Salamander in the third,” Weekley said, concentrating on the shoes. “To win.”

“I saw that written on the men’s room wall, Justice. Sure that isn’t where you got it?”

“You know better, Crispin.”

Indeed, Crispin Dench did know better. Justice Weekley was an excellent handicapper, and had track connections. Dench made a mental note. Then he said, “I like Call Me Catherine in the third. That filly’s been running real sweet lately. Three to one, though.” He made a face.

“They been dopin’ her up,” said Weekley. “It can’t last much longer. She’ll be doin’ a homestretch nosedive any day now.”

“That’s a shame.”

“That’s the horses in Vancouver, my friend.”

Dench nodded and turned a page.

“Had a guy drop off a pair of Allan Edmonds the other day,” Weekley said, smoothly changing the subject. “Soaked in this sticky rusty cakey stuff. Said he’d had an accident. Told me if I made ‘em like new again, and kept my mouth shut ‘bout it, he’d give a $20 tip.”

“Sticky rusty cakey,” Dench said, still looking at the racing form but no longer reading. “Sounds like melted strawberry ice cream.”

“Weren’t no ice cream.” Weekley gave the rag an extra loud pop.

“What was it, then?”

“Blood,” Weekley said, looking round for anyone who might overhear.

Dench let the racing form fall into his lap. “So, what you do?” he said.

“I did what he said. He came to get ‘em. He wasn’t happy.”

“Why?”

“Because they didn’t look like new. They just looked less sticky rusty and cakey.”

“He pay you?”

“He gave me fifty cents for the shine and a twenty dollar bill for a tip. Then he reminded me to keep my mouth shut. Said if I didn’t, he’d break off my good leg and feed it to me.”

“He seem the sort who could do it?”

“He seemed the sort who might try.”

“Why do you think he didn’t just throw the shoes out?”

“They were expensive. Besides, people got peculiar feelings for their shoes, especially tough nuts. It was like that in the east end. Don’t forget I had a stand there before here, on Commercial. I had some real Cosa Nostra types as regulars. I tell you, they loved their shoes. They’d bring ‘em in after this job or that, who knows what, but these characters weren’t any boy scouts. The shoes would look like they’d just done a shift on a slaughterhouse killin’ floor. But we’re talkin’ some fine Italian footwear, here. Make ‘em new again, Justice, they’d say. Where I come from, they ain’t got no shoes like these. Hey, they ain’t got no shoes! They’d say some shit like that, then laugh.”

“And?”

“And, so I got good at cleaning up shoes after this gumba or that had committed a capital crime. Sometimes I was successful, other times not. But they were always grateful that I tried. I told ‘em, get a pair of rubber boots. No one will know. No sir, they said. Lookin’ good is part of the job. The other thing I got good at fast was keepin’ my mouth shut. Cops came lots-a-times, asked me questions that could get me killed if I answered them. But I just played the dumb one legged shoeshine jerk. The mob boys appreciated that. Good tips at Christmas.”

“You think this character from the other day knew about your reputation?”

Before he answered, Justice Weekley made a performance of seeing his reflection in the toe of Dench’s shoe. He pretended to use the mirror-like result of his artful science to pick a crumb of something out of his teeth.

“He was from somewhere else,” Weekley said. “If he was mob, that is. The Vancouver Pisans would be peasants compared to this guy. He looked like a lawyer from upstairs. Expensive suit. Expensive tie. Hundred dollar shoes. No visible scars. But he had that flip my switch and see what happens look about him. I’ve seen it in a few of the east end boys, the ones that go A-Bomb real easy and cause a lot of sorrow. Oh, and the twenty bones he tipped me was American. He might be Chicago or New York, maybe even Toronto.”

“What’s street-side say?” Dench said.

“Street says there’s a guy in town, real cool and real nasty. But the street ain’t always right. Special job. I guess it’s a done deal now, judging by the shoes. He got into town a week ago. Whereabouts unknown. Seen on the sidewalk, a couple of bars. Matches the description of the fella we’re discussing.”

“Any local wacks?”

“That’s the thing. There have been three. Two Mafia wannabes who should have stuck to knockin’ over gas stations. And, wait for it…, Walter Catalano. If he done all three, then this guy’s giving a group rate. The bodies of the two wannabes were found under the bridge over the cut at Broadway and Commercial — old news, as they say. Each with a bullet in the head and heart.”

“But Catalano,” Dench said. “That can’t be. He’s way up there in the Vancouver Family. It’d be all over the news by now.”

“You know better,” Weekley said. “It’ll be all over the news if they ever find a body. Until then, and it might take a while for the dust to settle on this, Catalano’ll just be a missing person. The mob boys aren’t gonna say nothin’. They’re just gonna reciprocate, if they can. But for now ol’ Walter Catalano’s coolin’ his dead heels in some newly poured concrete foundation round town. This is all conjecture, of course. I’m just the shoeshine jerk.”

“Of course,” Dench said. “But just think of it. All of this linked to a single pair of bloody shoes you held in your own hands. You live an oddly charmed life, Justice Weekley.”

Weekley rolled down Crispin Dench’s pant cuffs, and ran two pinched fingers down the creases. “My life’s like a fucking dream, Crispin. And I gotta tell you, it’s Salamander in the third. Swear to God.”

The Railway Journal, Part 1

read part 2 here

read the rewrite of the entire story here

1953 

Isaac Brunel thought about place names, gazing out of a ferry porthole, as the floor of the vessel vibrated beneath his feet. The rain here was torrential and never ending. The Black Ball ferry, S.S. Smokwa, had departed a bay named Horseshoe thirty minutes before, and was now approaching its destination, Langdale. These were place names born to oblivion. They would not be included on any great scroll of cosmic remembrance. The places themselves could slide into the Pacific tomorrow, and after a perfunctory search, intended primarily to locate bank vaults and government property, they would be forever disremembered.

He lit a cigarette and wondered once more at the circumstances that had brought him here.

The man he pursued was a bastard, but of the sympathetic sort. The illicit child of a moody luminary, a Victorian mechanical engineer and a London teashop girl. His name was Leopold Liberty Brunel, or mad granddad Leo, as the greater family referred to him, the unwanted son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Alisa Tolbert, born February 5, 1857, in a room on London’s east side. Named via telegram by his father, who was too busy and too decent a man to attend the event of the boy’s birth. The naming telegram was accompanied by a ten pound note. Alisa Tolbert lived long enough to hold it in her hand and wonder at the strange economy of baring an illegitimate child.

As Leopold lay on his mother’s belly, raging loudly against his own birth, the midwife informed Alisa that she’d sent for a doctor and a priest, that Alisa was losing far too much blood to last very much longer. Alisa was indifferent to the news. She’d already hemorrhaged like a champion. The edges of her existence were dimming. Before absolute dark fell, she witnessed the midwife take the ten pound note from her hand, later to be shared with the doctor and the priest.

Mad granddad Leo had gone to Canada to build a railroad, and never returned. That much was fact. The rest was dinner table guesswork and gossip: he’d married a native princess, he’d fought in Indian wars, he’d invented the prototype for the Winchester repeating rifle. He was most definitely insane.

But when his mother died, he was officially a foundling, and was slid that night through the baby-hatch of the Holy Trinity Workhouse in Old Nichol. Believing in the power and importance of names, the anonymous slider had pinned the child’s handle to his swaddling rags before walking away into the London coal smog. This had taken place round 3:00 a.m. Leopold lay quietly until 6:30 a.m., when he first gave forth an inquiring squawk, followed moments later by a full-on wail of hunger and discomfort. From that moment, and for many years henceforth, hunger and discomfort became intimate companions, knowing more of his body and mind than any parent could.

Isaac Brunel knew this of his grandfather from the man’s own journal. It had arrived mysteriously in the mail at Isaac’s London walk-up a year ago, in a large bruised parcel with no return address. The airmail postage had been Canadian, but looked oddly British, some of the stamps featuring George VI’s crisp profile. They bore the cancellation marks of a dreary sounding locale, Gibson’s Landing. But now it was the origins of his grandfather’s near-legend he sought. The locations were secondary.

It was The Tempest that season. Isaac had landed the role of Prospero, and had prayerfully thanked his muse for it. Reviews had been good. But the journal was a distraction. It consisted of five identical thick leather-bound volumes. Each stamped on the spine with the binder’s name, Nettleton of Plymouth. Five volumes, he thought at the time, not enough to portray a man’s whole life. But then he didn’t keep a journal, himself. His documents of existence were the newspaper reviews, the posters and notices, all kept in a row of scrapbooks over the coal fireplace. There was some evidence of gold embossing on the covers of the journals. But they were mostly worn, many of the densely handwritten pages, water stained, and a few even stained with mud. On the title page of each was written, in the man’s steady hand, the name: Leopold Liberty Brunel, and the years each individual journal represented.

The first volume was retrospective, a remembrance of the years shortly after his birth to the age of eighteen, in 1875. They weren’t Dickensian, Isaac would say to anyone who asked. They were Victorian. Dickens wrote serialised fiction. His grandfather had written an autobiography. The earliest years of childhood were hazy, perhaps. But the later years were crisp in their recollection.

At five years old, Leopold recalled being sold by the workhouse to a match factory, operated by the finest of Church of England parishioners, Mr Samuel Constable. There, Leopold was employed dipping match sticks into buckets of toxic phosphorous. His young coworkers were routinely burned alive by the combustible substance, but not Leopold. He nearly starved and survived there until 1867, when a kicked-over bucket exploded and burned the factory down, ruining Samuel Constable, who had no insurance or savings, having spent it all on opium and depraved women.

This led to Leopold finding work on the London Underground, helping to build the Circle Line. He was a hard worker, toiling daily in a dark underworld, carrying broken iron tools as big as himself to the blacksmith. And it was there that he had the fortune to meet Lionel Honeycutt, a Civil Engineer intrigued by the young boy’s last name.

“Brunel, eh,” Honeycutt had said, one day, looking down upon the boy from his great bodily height.

Leopold shrugged. His name meant nearly nothing to him. It was just a rope his taskmasters pulled upon, dragging him into one filthy undertaking after another. Besides, Construction Engineers never spoke to the nippers. Only the Hagman did that, and then only to holler and call them lazy.

“I worked for a fellow named Brunel once,” Honeycutt said. “On the Great Western Railway. One Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He built great ships, as well. Are you any relation, by chance?”

“Ain’t got no relations,” said Leopold.

Honeycutt had wondered. There was something about the boy’s carriage, his eyes and the determined way he held his mouth and chin. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a man of the world with just enough self-pride to give his bastard his own last name, and then abandon him to the poorhouse and an unrestrained world.

“Do you know what an angle is?” Honeycutt asked Leopold one day, hoping to discover in him some engineering potential.

“It’s a racket, innit?” Leopold said. “A gimmick.”

“Well,” said Honeycutt. “I guess you’re correct, and very knowing for a nipper. How about trigonometry?”

“Sounds bloomin’ wicked to me, sir.”

Honeycutt made an hmming sound, and thoughtfully stroked his chin.

“Can you read?” he said.

The boy said nothing, only looked down at the broken stone of the rail bed. It was a delicate question for him to answer. He knew his words, most of them. He could read signs and discarded newspapers. But how, he didn’t know. He’d never been to school, never formally learned his letters. What he did know, however, was that it was dangerous to admit such a thing. The other navvys and nippers didn’t go in for reading. It was a thing best kept safely secret.

“Ah, I see,” said Honeycutt. “There’s no shame in not knowing how. Most of London is illiterate. Perhaps there’s a way I can help.”

“But, sir,” Leopold said, kicking a stone, deciding to risk it. “I kin read. Maybe not so good as an engineer, but betteran mos’ down heres.”

“Can you, then?” Honeycutt wondered, and took a small book from his breast pocket, opening it to the middle.

“Here,” he said, “pointing to a spot on a page. Read to me.”

Leopold took the book and looked over his shoulder, in case there was anyone who might overhear. The nearest navvys were far enough down the tunnel, so the boy recited: “The First Law o’ Therm – thermo….”

“Thermodynamics.”

“The First Law o’ Thermodynamics tells us that en-er-gy is nei-ther cre-ated nor destroyed, thus the energy of the uni-verse is a con – constant.”

Honeycutt raised an eyebrow. He gave the boy a good look as he replace the book in his pocket. Leopold’s face was smudged with blacksmith coal and machine oil. His cap was crooked, his clothes just rags. He was a navvy, sure enough, through and through. Except he was clever; he could read.

“That’s not easy reading, for most,” Honeycutt said. “How old are you, boy?”

“Don’ know, sir.”

“I’d guess you’re as near to eight years old as anything. I think that’s close enough, how about you?”

Leopold said nothing. He’d never had an age before. It was strangely difficult to comprehend.

“Where were you born?” asked Honeycutt.

“Always bin in London. sir.”

“What’s two plus eight?”

Leopold gave it some thought, and said, “Ten.”

“What’s ten divided by two?”

The boy shrugged.

“Would you like to learn how to multiply and divide?”

“Crickey,” Leopold said. “It sounds indecent. You a nonce?”

“It’s arithmetic, boy. Repeated addition and subtraction.”

And so the interrogation went for some time into the afternoon, as they sat on a bench trackside. The other navvys and nippers walking past, suspicious of the sight.

The next day, Leopold Liberty Brunel was introduced into the Honeycutt household. He was washed and properly dressed, and put under the supervision of Miss Constance Honeycutt, a spinster sister living in her own suite of rooms in the grand house situated on a large lot of land in a peculiar place called Surrey.

Lionel Honeycutt’s wife, Samantha, had at first refused to accept the arrangement.

“You’ve brought him here for the novelty of his name,” she said. “You’re just laughing at old Isambard, God rest him. The boy’s nothing but a curiosity to you.”

To this he said, “No,” and nothing more.

It turned out that Leopold had an endearing way about him that Samantha grew to admire. He revered and respected Constance Honeycutt, he worked hard at his lessons, and he was determined to lend a hand with household duties where he could, despite the servants. But more than all of that was Samantha Honeycutt’s empathy for the intrepid foundling who’d survived the workhouse and always had a fond smile for her.

“What will you do when you grow up?” she asked Leopold.

His answer was unequivocal, “Build railroads, ma’am. In Canada.”

She was amused by that. His love of Lionel, and his desire to follow in his footsteps, was obvious. And what boy didn’t dream of such adventure. But she knew that his future enrollment in College, and meeting the right young lady, would cure him of it.

Before he left, Isaac’s motivation to chase after his allegedly insane grandfather was questioned by his fiancée, Daphne Wild.

“Why travel half way around the world?” she said. “It’s 1953. Any hint of the man will have disappeared, long ago. The nearest hint of civilization to where you’re going is a mere village called Vancouver. You’re a Shakespearean actor, Isaac, with soft hands and a new season ahead of you. You have bills to pay. You have me to consider. You’re as insane as the old man himself!”

It was all true, he knew. With the possible exception of insanity. It was vanity, perhaps even an outrages conceit. But he’d become obsessed with the journal, and what it contained. An epic story of a passenger railroad through an impossible wilderness. From nowhere to nowhere.

“It’s because I am an actor that I must go,” he told Daphne. “It’s because of my art, don’t you see?”

She did not.

And as she stood looking through the glass of the Heathrow passenger lounge at his BOAC jetliner taxiing in the London rain, she remained overwhelmingly uncertain about their future.