lost ironies

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Month: February, 2015

the first time I ever saw a cyborg cry

It’s Earth-like, but not quite Earth.

And isn’t that always the way? The Company sells it like it’s a goddam resort, and it turns out to be just another exoplanetoid with shitty nightlife, surrounded by a barely breathable atmosphere infused with sulfur/carbon particulate.

The Company doesn’t care, of course. Not after you’ve signed on. After that you’re a mere interstellar underling. And if you don’t like it, you can catch a ride back on the next cargo shuttle – and fuck you.

The planetoid in question was 46 Catalan-5.9, but most of its human inhabitants called it Catatonia. I had other names for it I might share with you some other time.

They paid me to keep an eye on the Company’s cyborgs. All fifty of them. I have a Master’s Degree in Organic Biomechatronic Psychology, which would make me an ace office monkey back on Earth. I was even on my way to having a Doctorate Degree, once. But I got into electro-synthetic narcotic opiates, and my Doctoral thesis ended up reading like an indefensible Hunter S Thompson novel.

So, there I was.

The psychology of cyborgs is weirder than you think. To begin with, their neuroanatomy differs radically from that of humans – big surprise. And the last three generations had been plagued with defects. They wanted to masturbate but didn’t have the equipment, which caused a lot of tension in general. And they dreamed like sons-a-bitches. Even when they were awake, which was 90% of the time. But their dreams were never about puppy dogs or whiskers on kittens. They were always about the ukulele apocalypse, or zombie dilithium crystals, or something else on an ever-growing list of inexplicable shit. Think of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, powered by banks of psychosis inducing cobalt-oxide nano-batteries. The result was like a violent form of diode activated human dementia in subjects with 250 IQs, accompanied by extreme personality changes and severely impaired reasoning, but without the ultimate cognitive decline that we all wish upon our ageing evil uncles.

It made them expensive mechanical maniacs with fleshy coatings, the effect of millions of abnormal neuro-nuclear transistors in their wistful little Pakistani-made IC chips. The Company worked on the problem back Earth-side. But the Pakistanis were the lowest bidder. And they’d signed a twenty year contract, which made them difficult to motivate. And until the problem was solved, I was guaranteed a bizarre mode of corporately funded psycho-cyborg counselling employment, as long as I wanted it.

Now, it was never my job to get personal with my clientele. I didn’t stare wonderingly into their creepy fixed-iris tartrazine eyes, and ask them about their algorithmnic hopes and aspirations. Mostly, I asked them who they wanted to tear apart that day, and left it there.

But sometimes there was a subject who sat across from me, on the other side of the titanium reinforced glass, for whom I had a strange sort of empathy. And one of them was an Ursa.5 Class labour cyborg named Buster.

In his kind of work, Buster didn’t require a 250 IQ. So, his circuit neurosis was minimal. But he had too much time on his hands, because he was waiting for the Company to deliver a replacement elbow joint. It was meant to replace the one he broke lifting a five hundred pound container of butter scotch pudding cups off of a warehouse shelf. Butter scotch pudding was very popular on Catatonia.

As a result of all this free time, and a naivety only an Ursa.5 Class labour cyborg can have, Buster had been doing chump jobs for humans — running numbers and playing lookout for nefarious activities. He’d been sucked into it by an evil cadre of space mafia called the Black Hole Gang, or BHG. And yeah, I know it’s a goofy name. But I can’t be held responsible.

The planetoid’s cities were set up like cities back home. There were three of them, then. Each owned by a separate corporation. The one that me and Buster lived in was called Area 2, but was generally referred to as Schtooperville.

It was mostly factory and industrial park squalor. Just like most of planet Earth. But the section of the city Buster worked in at that moment was a little bit different. It was called Jupiter Street, a two mile long strip mall of sex shops, Jack in the Boxes, Olive Gardens and 7-11s. It was also where human Area 2 workers went to spend their dough. There was gambling, whores, booze and drugs. And even a few illicit electro-neuro stimuli plugins, the average machine offering up to 180 exabytes of serotonin saturated neuro-ecstasy goodness.

I tried to avoid Jupiter Street. Enjoying the debauchery offered there ran counter to professional standards set out by the College of Organic Biomechatronic Psychology. But like I said, I tried, and mostly fail. So, fuck the College and all of the hyper-anal paper pushing wieners who ran the joint.

I’d observed Buster occasionally on Jupiter, as he plied his new found trade in an alley that snaked off of the street, the one that ran just parallel to Chinatown and under the open windows of Wicked Alfreda’s House of Cosmic Ill-repute.

I saw him there, sitting on an old upside down crate with Chinese lettering and a picture of a plump Chinese boy smiling at his mysterious golden good fortune.

What Buster did there was watch the staircase that lead down to the entrance to the Tunnel. He got $25 a day for his trouble, and enough erotic CPU massage to get him through to the next morning.

His instructions were simple. Ignore the familiar regulars who walked past and down the stairs. And fight to the death anyone he didn’t recognise, rather than let them sneak by.

“To the death,” Tito the String Durante told him. “Knife ‘em. Get ‘em on the ground and kick their fucking heads in. Break their necks with your good arm. Hit ‘em here, like this.” The String made a karate chop gesture to the back of his own neck when he said this.

“And if I catch you talkin’ to any of your degenerate goddam cyborg buddies while you’re on the job,” said the String, “I’ll drive a screwdriver so far into your chipset that you’ll need a keyboard and a mouse to scratch your ass. I’ll cut your fucking head off and use it for voice mail. You understand?”

Buster sort of did.

We can see from this that Tito the String was some kind of psycho cyborg-phobe. Most probably because he was a pimp, and cyborgs don’t go in for the kind of all you can eat, pay as you go S&M scene that he ran in the Tunnel beneath the alley.

So, Buster just sat on his China boy box, and watched the leather and latex regulars slide on by with their whimpering Company executive slaves.

Sometimes after he was done work, I sat with him and talked small talk. Concepts he understood. Like forklifts, and the molecular structure of haemoglobin based hydraulic fluid fusion mixtures, and pi to the hundredth decimal.

He told me once that the thing he regreted most was his inability to love. Then he asked what love was like. He wanted to know the difference between romance and loving one’s mother, fundamental things like that. I pondered for a moment, the ethical aspects of discussing a purely human experience with a cyborg so clearly experiencing what amounted to heartache. Especially when there was no context into which I could place an answer.

But then, because I was tripping on vodka and mescaline, I told him that love is like two asteroids travelling side by side in space, far away from humans. And the two asteroids have been together for a billion years, and love each other madly – their crazy trajectories, each other’s sexy cratered surfaces and the way that they would each playfully dip over the horizon of this planet or that that they just missed impacting and obliterating all together.

And then I told him that one day one of the asteroids unavoidably flew into the Earth and killed all of the dinosaurs, and that that ultimately made way for humans to evolve and create cyborgs. But the surviving asteroid was left all alone for the rest of eternity. And it wept, because that’s the way asteroids are, and it was very, very sad.

That was the first time I ever saw a cyborg cry. Not cry, really. It was more of a mineral oil sniffle, and a deep sigh followed by a long pause. But it was significant.

“That’s beautiful,” Buster said. “Now I feel even more hopeless, but kind of hopeful too. Does that make sense?”

I told him it did.

Then I told him that love can also be like being carved up like a cheap pot roast with a blunt knife, the kind of knife that hasn’t been taken out of a woman’s knife drawer for a decade.

But that we’d talk about that another time.

Buster’s replacement elbow never arrived. The Company decided it was too expensive. And a couple of months later, he was sent out on a garbage barge headed for the chromosphere of the sun that Catatonia orbits. I was able to retrieve his data storage before he went, though. And wrote the paper that made me famous.

You can read about me anytime on your Google Visual Cortex Implant®, at MWW.buster.tre.

Railway Journal – rewrite

please note that this story will be change slightly in places over the next week or so, as the deadline for its completion approaches 

part 1

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, British Columbia. 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, he knew 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 Leopold, 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. He’d been 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 darkness 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 Leopold 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. And 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 earlier, 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. Not enough to portray a man’s whole life, he thought. 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. Those years 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 for repair. 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 many, including 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. If you go, 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.

part 2

Langdale, BC 1953

The vessel shook, as the Black Ball ferry entered the slip. Isaac Brunel had arrived. He could see nothing through the passenger lounge window except trees and misty low cloud. Supposedly, there was a town out there in the mix. He picked up his army surplus duffle bag and marched to the exit. There were incoherent announcements coming over the intercom. A ramp that lead onto the wharf was being secured by two untidy men. The rain was still falling.

“Have a nice stay,” said one of the ramp men to Isaac Brunel, as he disembarked. Brunel was an obvious tourist.

Smiling grimly, he walked off between the two men. There were mumbled words and snickers behind him. Perhaps the crisp new Burberry pea coat and rust coloured cashmere turtle neck were a bit much, now that he thought of it. But a man must dress for the climate, and must never apologise for it. Olivier certainly wouldn’t. But then, Sir Laurence would never find himself here, in the rain, on a wharf, in Langdale.

He stopped at the top of yet another ramp that lead down, off of the wharf. In the parking lot below was a knot of expectant persons, greeting his fellow passengers with laughter, hugs and slaps on the back. It occurred to him once more that he’d done very little to inform the people on this side when he would arrive. An avoidance maneuver, he thought with mild panic. Isaac had been uneasy from the start about who might greet him here. He steeled himself and descended, and immediately thought about a car. He’d need one. How was that done in this place? He’d called ahead, but there was no agency.

As he stepped off of the ramp, he saw a lone Chevrolet with wooden sides at the far end of the parking lot. It had the word Taxi hand painted on its side. That was it. No line of them round the block, and no Porter to take his bag and place it in the boot. This was the new world. He put his head down and began to walk into the wind and rain.

“Hey mister,” said someone off to his left. He ignored whoever it was. “Hey! Mister! You from London?”

Isaac Brunel stopped and looked over his shoulder at a young woman under the overhanging eaves of a shed.

“’Cause you kinda look like you’re from there.”

She had a pleasant round face, and wore a blue wool car coat. The hem of a floral dress was visible emerging at the bottom. There was a worn baseball cap on her head, and saddle shoes with perfect white bobby socks on her feet. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and a black patent leather purse hung from her wrist. She was moving up and down – heel to toe, heel to toe – to stay warm.

“Are you Isaac Brunel?” she said.

He stood in the rain, and said, “Yes.”

“Well hello,” she said. “I’m Mary Brunel. Your cousin. Gosh, I’ve been coming here for a week, waiting for you. Your cable was scarce on information. But Granny Wilhelmina said I had to. She said you was polite company and we had to treat you with kid gloves. But you look like anyone else I ever seen. ‘Cept you’re real wet, right now. Granny Wilhelmina says you London Brunels break like China dolls. Is that true?”

He wondered.

“Do you have a dry cigarette?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Care to share?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Mary Brunel. Her pronunciation was short and clipped. She pulled a pack of Players from her handbag.

He walked over to the shed and ducked under the dripping eaves. She offered him the deck, and he took one. She lit his and her own with battered Zippo lighter. Isaac looked at her carefully now, for the first time.

“You’re an Indian,” he said, like she might not already know. It was an involuntary observation. A curse of fatigue or a hitherto hidden prejudice. He sounded surprised, and was immediately ashamed.

“Shíshálh,” she said, nonchalantly, as she smoked. “Welcome to our land.”

“I’m sorry, I….”

“Maybe you haven’t gotten to that part of great Granddad’s journal,” said Mary Brunel. “So, you didn’t know. White folk think the whole goddamn world is white. And what ain’t, should be. It’s not, you know. But I guess you’ll adjust.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at the pavement.

“So, let’s forget it.”

“Alright.”

She was right. For all of the importance he’d placed in investigating the journal, and what it meant, he’d neglected reading it seriously and in depth. He’d been carelessly relying on his visit here to supply the questions and their answers.

He was startled when she suddenly whistled. She seemed too small for it. It was the whistle of a London hooligan, loud and piercing. She waved at the taxi, and the driver started the engine.

“That’s Roger, driving the cab,” Mary said. “He’s a little rough, and a little stupid. But he’s our only ride to the house. Just ignore anything he says. I’ll make sure he don’t deviate from the directest route. You’re paying. Don’t tip too much.”

Roger drove his taxi in an unnecessarily wide arc round the perimeter of the parking lot to get to them. He rolled down his window when he arrived, and a cloud of stale cigarette smoke curled out.

“Where to, yous two?” he said, getting out and putting Isaac’s duffle in the trunk. His face was pale and pockmarked, and his hair vampire black. It was held in place with that week’s application of Brylcreem. He wore a leather biker jacket and engineer boots.

“Granny’s house,” said Mary Brunel. “You know the way.”

“I discovered a better route the other day,” Roger said. “We’ll take that.”

“The hell you say,” said Mary Brunel. “Just go the way I tell you.”

Mary and Isaac got in, and Roger headed for the highway. As he drove, he looked in the rear view.

“Who’s the chump?” he said.

“My cousin, Isaac.”

“That’s Isaac?” Roger said. “The fella everyone’s so up in the air about?”

“Don’t talk about him like he ain’t here, Roger.”

“Looks like a bit of a fag,” Roger said. “To me, anyways.”

He lit another cigarette off one already dying in his mouth.

Isaac raised an eyebrow.

“Everyone looks like a fag to you and your Legion buddies,” Mary said.

“You fight in the war?” said Roger. “I fought in the war. Seaforth Highlanders. Went to Vancouver to sign up. Lied ‘bout my age. Wasn’t eighteen yet. Landed on the beach, day after D Day. We went in on the seventh, not the sixth. But I still almost go my ass shot off a dozen times. Saw a lot of my pals die, liberating England.”

“We weren’t occupied,” said Isaac. “We didn’t need liberating.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I was too young to fight in the war,” said Isaac. “I was only a child.”

Roger made a quiet, self-satisfied ha! sound.

“I lived in a terrace in London that was bombed,” Isaac said. “My parents and little sister were killed, and our house destroyed. The whole neighbourhood was destroyed.”

Roger shrugged and went quiet.

Isaac had never seen so many trees, not even in Scotland. And the road was unpaved. Roger turned right at Stewart as instructed, and drove down the potholed lane. It came to a sudden end, where a large and unexpected house stood. It was well kept, in spite of its location and age. The large front yard had well-tended, winter-dormant gardens and a tire hanging from a rope tied to one of the many leafless deciduous trees.

Roger stopped, and said, “That’ll be five bucks, mister.” He hadn’t engaged the metre. Maybe he was right.

“Roger…,” Mary said.

“Okay, $3.50,” he said. “I was just roundin’ up for wear and tear.”

“Keep it,” Isaac said, handing over $6.00. He knew from living in London the value in keeping cab drivers happy. All the more so in this case, where there might not be an alternative.

“Thanks, mate,” Roger said, smiling in the rear view mirror. Three of his front teeth were missing. He was a vampire approaching toothlessness.

As Roger retrieved Isaac’s luggage from the trunk, the front door of the house opened and a young aboriginal man emerged, followed by an excited mutt.

“That’s Nathan,” Mary said. “Another of your cousins. He’s my brother.”

Nathan was tall, young, and handsome. Isaac guessed he was about 20 years old. He came the remaining few feet to stand and look Isaac over. Then he held out his hand.

“I’m assuming you’re the London Brunel,” he said. The mutt danced and sniffed Isaac’s shoes.

“I’ve come to understand that that’s how I’m known round here,” Isaac said. “And that I might break like a China doll at any moment.”

“I further assume,” said Nathan, “that you’d rather be referred to by your proper name.”

“Yes,” said Isaac, as he shook Nathan’s hand.

“I’ll pass that along.”

Isaac decided he like him.

The young man hoisted the duffle, and said, “Let’s head on in, then. Granny Wilhelmina awaits, like a Buddha on a pedestal in an antiques emporium. She’s been speaking your name for weeks now.”

In the entrance of the house was a small cloakroom, with friendly hats on shelves and many coats. As Nathan took his pea coat, Isaac couldn’t help noticing him sneak a peek at the label and give an approving nod.

Then he said, “Come along.”

They entered the parlour and there she was. The matriarch of the Sun Shine Coast Brunels. Wearing a snugly fitted red and white polka dot dress over her vast girth. The room truly did resemble a well-kept antique shop. It wasn’t what he expected. Wilhelmina Brunel had a tea cup in her chubby fingers. To Isaac, she looked like an enormous, jovial ghost from a Dickens novel.

“Fill me up, Mary dear,” Granny Wilhelmina said, and Mary Brunel rushed to fill her empty tea cup. Then Granny Wilhelmina watched as Mary dropped in four cubes of sugar, a splash of milk, and then stirred it for her with a tiny spoon.

“This is Isaac Brunel,” Mary said as she stirred.

“You can call me Granny Wilhelmina, boy,” she said to Isaac. “Pardon me if I don’t get up. It’s a goddam chore moving this fat old body, let me tell you. Come over here and shake my hand.”

Isaac did. Wilhelmina’s hand was moist and warm.

“You’ve read the whole journal I sent to you?” she said.

So, it was her who sent it.

“I only scanned it. It was a busy season. I have the volumes with me.”

“Did you know you’re related to Indians?”

Mary smiled.

“No,” said Isaac.

“Does it matter to you?”

“No, not especially.”

“Ha!” Wilhelmina said, looking at Nathan and Mary in turn. “…not especially. The boy talks like a goddam book. What’d I tell ya?” She paused then for the sake of gravity, and said: “But you know Mad Granddad Leopold came here to build a railroad.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t know why he ever thought it was needed round abouts,” said the big woman. “Turns out it never was. Turns out a gravel road’s all we need round here. The train’s lost in the bush now. It broke the old man’s heart. He died angry as hell. Sad, too. I guess them two things go together, don’t they? Nathan can take you to see parts of it. But it’s just a lot of rusty rails, rotten ties and a few beat up old depots where the raccoons sleep now. Why the hell you come all this way to see that?”

“It’s difficult to explain.” Isaac faltered a moment “Leopold’s family. You’re family. What he did here was amazing, even if it didn’t work out in the end. I haven’t seen it or fully read about it in his journal yet. I don’t understand it. But I know it must be wonderful. Maybe I’ll write about it. Besides, you sent the journal to me. You must have expected some kind of response.”

“Don’t know what I expected,” Wilhelmina said. “I thought you was an actor, not a writer.”

“I am an actor. But maybe I can write, too.”

“Maybe,” Wilhelmina said. “I like them Harlequin romances, myself. Why don’t you sit down? Mary, make the boy some fresh tea. I ‘spect the boy knows his tea inside out.”

“He’s not a boy, Granny,” said Mary, as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Wilhelmina’s eyes were hazel and bright. She was a zealot, for something. Isaac didn’t know what. Maybe she didn’t, either.

“So,” Wilhelmina said. “I’ll start the story of Mad Granddad Leopold’s railroad in a minute. But first you have to understand that there’s a big difference between what I have to tell you, and what’s in them diaries. A man like Leo tends to glamorize and exaggerate a bit. Men do in general. The truth always comes down through the women. You with me so far?”

“Yes, Granny Wilhelmina.”

She paused for a moment and smiled. Her name sounded mighty fine when spoken with an educated English accent.

“Good,” she said. “I ain’t in no mood to debate that last point. Fact is men play fast and loose with the truth. It’s in their blood.”

Mary came back into the parlour with slices of cake. She placed one onto a side plate along with a fork, and handed it to Wilhelmina.

“Tea’ll be ready soon,” she said.

“Now,” said Wilhelmina. “I suppose you know that there’s insanity in the family.”

“No,” Isaac said. “I mean, I know there are rumours.”

“Well, there is. And Leopold Liberty Brunel may have been crazier than all of us put together. That’s where the Mad Granddad Leopold bit comes from. He talked to a ghost named Imelda. At least some said she was a ghost, since she wasn’t there for them to see. And Imelda was the one, far as I can tell, that pushed him on the whole railroad idea. Then she ridiculed him when his plans started to fall apart. She also might have been the one that drove him to suicide.”

Wilhelmina stopped there, and had a bite of cake.

“Mmm,” she said. “Raisins.”

“Suicide?” Isaac said.

“Yessiree,” said Wilhelmina, chewing and sucking the cake raisins. “Hung himself from a rafter in his office. His farewell note’s in the back of the last diary,”

“I had no idea.”

“Well, it ain’t his suicide that’s interestin’, I figure. It’s what lead up to it. Now get comfortable, sit still and listen….”

part 3

Sechelt, BC 1888

This he had noticed when he first arrived, the strange way that sound travelled in the dense rain forest. The way a raven’s crackle would echo for miles. The way a woodpecker’s intermittent hammering would as well.

He was convinced now that that was the case with the blunt and increasingly emphatic hammering on his cabin door. Then there was the hollering of the priest from Sechelt. The confused and pointless shouting of a Christian extremist, misplaced in the northern wilds of North America. Those combined sounds must also be travelling through the rain soaked jungle of ancient pine, fir and cedar.

“Open up,” Father Breckenridge roared, in his thick Belfast accent. “Brunel, you debauched heathen bastard. Let that young girl go. It’s Sunday. She should be in church.”

Leopold Liberty Brunel looked over at the woman sharing his bed. Nancy Pete was reading a book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ignoring the priest’s tantrum. She was sitting up with her lovely, firm breasts revealed, and her long black hair falling over her shoulders. The hot stove was nearby.

She was seventeen, and their lovemaking the night before had been a wondrous rolling brawl that she had ultimately won. He wondered if the priest knew a single damn thing about women. Of course he didn’t. What a thought! All Breckenridge knew about was seminary buggery and sweaty confessional pedophilia.

“Go away, priest,” Leopold shouted. “This is a happy home. Your dogma is an anathema here.”

Nancy Pete smiled and turned a page.

“That ought to get him, eh?” Leopold whispered, then leaned over and kissed her ear.

“I’ve been sent here by Christ, Brunel,” Father Breckenridge shouted back through the locked door, “to protect this savage race from sin.”

“Then have the government stop feeding them whisky,” Leopold yelled.  “Reinstate the Potlatch. Hell, go off to Ottawa and have them stop giving the Indians blankets infected with smallpox. It’s not the Indians that need protection from sin. It’s the goddam politicians and robber barons. Besides, mister priest, there’s a fine tradition of good Englishmen taking savage lovers throughout the colonies. I am simply doing my duty, and carrying on that tradition.”

“Am I your savage lover?” said Nancy Pete, looking at him over the top of her book. She was unapologetically Shishalh.

“When you really get going, you are,” Leopold said.

“We shall meet in town, Leopold Brunel,” Father Breckenridge said. He’d become calm now, in his own savage Catholic way. “You cannot avoid me.”

“This is amply obvious,” Leopold said. He threw off the covers and put his feet onto the cold cabin floor.

There was quiet now, no more ferocious Christianity. The priest had gone, leaving behind just the sound of the forest shedding the most recent rain, in the form of drip-drops, the sound of Nancy Pete turning pages, and the most mysterious sound of all, the barely perceptible hiss of the rolling mist that almost always enveloped the cabin.

Leopold pulled on his long johns, put on his boots and walked over to the table where the surveyor’s map lay open. He drew out a wooden chair and sat down to study it once more. His design – his dream – was beginning to look like a railroad.

From Gibson’s to Doriston. Along the coast and east from Garden Bay. Sixty miles over tough territory. To carry timber and passengers. Not bad for a beginner. It would modernise the region. Business would flow in. The people’s poverty would be eliminated. He’d be a hero.

A direct route over the peninsula was impossible. There were small forest company lines, moving logs to rivers and tidewater. But a direct and continuous line was out of the question. The surveyors and cartographers had said as much. The mountains, trees and deep valleys were the obstacles. Those and the land’s refusal to accommodate a straight line. The prairies would have been a better choice, but those had been sacrificed to the CPR. The GDR, the Gibson Doriston Railway, was his alone. There were already depots built, twenty-three miles of track laid along the coast and an army of navvies camping along the way. He’d stun the world when it was done. He’d stun them even sooner if he could get the news out. Attract more investors. Every penny of his Honeycutt inheritance was gone, and his debts were enormous.

He said it out loud, “More investors.”

He took his treasured gold penknife off of the table and began to peel an apple.

“Investors?” said Nancy Pete. She was dressing now. “Who, for example?”

“The lumber companies. The government. Surely they see the value in it.”

“They don’t surely see nothin’.”

“Am I a fool, then?” It was his self-doubting voice. She’d heard it before.

“No one knows that for sure, yet,” Nancy Pete said. She came and hugged him from behind, and kissed the top of his head. “It’s too early to say. Crazy men always secretly doubt themselves more than anyone else, until they do something magnificent. They thought your father was a fool. In the end, maybe he was.”

She meant the SS Great Eastern, a project too big for its time. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last great dream. It had been meant to sail from London to Australia, nonstop. It never did, and ended up laying telegraph cable instead. But before that there were the Great Western Railway, bridges, tunnels and a prefabricated hospital for the Crimean War.

The Great Eastern had given Isambard a stroke. But he’d worked right up to the end. Leopold would too, if it came to that.

“I need to get water for tea,” Nancy Pete said. She put on her coat. There was a well in the small yard.

“Yes, yes,” Leopold said, with a dismissive wave, looking at the map again.

“And I’m pregnant.”

He looked up from the map.

“How do you know?”

“I haven’t had a flow for two months.”

“But it’s impossible.”

“It happens every day,” she said. “It’s how we get little Indians. Though this one’ll be half a crazy Englishman.”

She opened the door and took a pail into the yard.

“Hey, babies,” he heard her say to the chickens as she exited.

This was the wrong time for a child.

Ha! Pregnant!  — Imelda said, the voice of the ghost that had followed him since he was a young man. And shadowed his every move.

Leopold tried to ignore her.

A child will ruin everything. We didn’t begin this to be held back by a woman.

“It is becoming of a man to have children,” he said calmly, placing the illustration of the Fairbanks Morse twenty-three wheeled Mountain Master locomotive over the map.

It would be Locomotive 1022. The locomotive. The only truly tangible emblem of his success, so far — that anybody cared about, that is. In the eye of the investors, it was more important than the miles of track laid. The colossus had already been manufactured to his specifications, and was on its way from Kingston. That and the custom passenger coach and caboose. He had agreements to lease the lumber cars and other rolling stock locally.

It’s fun to have a little Pocahontas, isn’t it – said Imelda.

“Please leave. You have no relevance to today’s undertakings.”

You’re already in hock for your toys, all that land you purchased.

“That’s business,” he said. “Debt is a reality of it. That’s how it works.”

There was a consortium of mill and logging company owners putting up money, but not enough. They expected results. And then there were the banks, one in Victoria and one in Vancouver. The faces of the bankers haunting his dreams.

A child will be another expense – Imelda said – I can make her not pregnant.

“You can’t,” he said. “You won’t.”

It would be easy.

“Leave her.” He needed to eat something and harness the horse to the trap, for the ride to the railhead.

You’ll have to marry her now – Imelda continued – Don’t think she’ll accept anything less, her or her relations. And don’t forget how things are changing on the railroad. The first twenty-three miles of track were easy. But there’s a steep grade ahead, then the turn inland and your first deep gorge. The white navvies don’t like the Chinese, and the Chinese hate the whites. It’ll be hard to keep them separated when things get narrow.

It was true, he’d rather not have the Chinese in camp. But only the Chinese would set the black powder charges. Some had already died doing so. They were essential, but their presence was a complicating factor.

He went to the barn to harness the horse.

* * * * *

From the railhead, he rode the small steam mule that hauled rails and ties up the line. Now it was hauling telegraph poles and wire, as well. The telegraph would be a valuable source of income.

The first twenty-three miles was like a dream. Gibson’s to Halfmoon Bay. The Gibson’s, Roberts Creek and Sechelt depots were already built. The Halfmoon Bay depot was under construction.

There was an ocean on one side, most of the way, and steep cliffs and overhangs on the other. It was smooth and picturesque, a postcard of sound planning and investment.

But further up the line lay the first great challenge, where it would turn inland. A 3.4% grade with compensation for curvature. A spiral tunnel was an alternative, but there weren’t the funds. His Mountain Master would have to work hard, even with another engine to assist in the ascent. Then its brakes would work overtime on the descent.

Approaching Halfmoon Bay now, he saw the navvies standing around and smoking. Something was wrong. When the mule finally stopped, his Foreman, Basil Duffy, greeted him. Duffy was a massive Scotsman with a blunt Scottish brogue.

“I thought we agreed the men would work Sundays,” Leopold said, as he stepped off the mule, “to speed things up. Why aren’t they working?”

“It’s the new rails,” said Duffy, greeting Leopold. “They’re cracking when we hammer the spikes into the ties — at least some are. Too much carbon in the alloy, I’d estimate.”

“How many?” said Leopold. His belly sank.

“Five of the last ten we laid. I’m afraid to lay anymore. They certainly won’t take the weight of a train.”

“Then what do we do?” Leopold said.

“It’s you railroad,” Duffy said. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But if a rail broke here and a train derailed, it could end up in the bay with all its passengers and freight.”

Leopold thought for a moment. Isambard would have a solution. Another shipment of rails was essential. But it would arrive only after a long, time consuming series of telegrams between him and the steel mill in Hamilton, ordering and making sure the next load was properly manufactured. Then there was the matter of funds and refund, and what to do with the current stockpile of defective rail. It could be a month or more of delay. He did the arithmetic in his head. It could mean ruin.

“Lay off the navvies,” he finally said. “I’ll arrange for each of them to receive an extra week’s pay. They can leave if they like, but I’ll feed the ones that remain in the camp until we’re back laying track.”

“There’ll be a riot, Mr Brunel,” Duffy said. “You know there will. Some of ‘em will return to camp. But most’ll make it back to Sechelt and tear the place apart, after they’re done with Halfmoon Bay.”

“They must understand the situation,” said Brunel. “We can’t lay inferior track.”

“They understand a hard day’s work, grub and payday,” Duffy said. “And some whiskey, thrown in. That and the fact that they were guaranteed two to three year’s steady employment. After that there ain’t much they understand, at all. They’ll use that week’s pay to get terrible drunk. And there’s no local constabulary. It’s beyond the local citizens to handle what will happen. I’d call in the RCMP, if I was you.”

Beyond them…. Duffy had said it with unqualified Macbethian gravity in his voice, as was his birth right. He knew his navvies better than Leopold, better than anyone. It sent a shiver through Brunel. But there was nothing for it.

“Just do it,” he said. “The locals will benefit from the railroad in the end. For now, they must suffer the inconvenience.”

For a moment, Duffy seemed to hold his ground. As though he might refuse the order. After all, what was he if not a high priced navvy, himself? Then he sighed deeply and kicked the gravel at his feet.

“I’ll announce it, but I won’t try and hold ‘em back. And after that, I’ll be leaving for Vancouver. You’ll have to finish this alone. There won’t be one goddam Foreman in the country or the continent that’ll work for you now. It’s a shame, though. This railroad was a dandy idea.”

Duffy grabbed an empty dynamite crate and stood up on it. Then he made the announcement.

“It’s bad news boys. And I guess some of you figured as much.”

His voice boomed but was slow, giving the English speaking Chinese Foreman time to translate.

“There ain’t no track for the time being. You all seen how it busted driving spikes. It could take more than a month….”

“More than a month?” came a voice from the crowd. “Wadda we do in the mean time?”

“You wait here. You’ll be fed and taken care of. You’ll get a week’s pay on top of what you’re already owed.”

“That means no pay after that until we get more track,” came another voice. “More than a month, you say. Probably longer, I say.”

“You won’t need no money. There’ll be grub, coffee and shelter for you here.”

“My children need money, though,” said a young man. His was the loudest voice yet. “I didn’t come to Canada to sit around waitin’ while they go hungry.”

“Then there’s work in Vancouver,” Duffy said. He had no stomach for this.

“Vancouver?” It was a shout, an accusation. “But we were promised work here.”

A man hollered, “I want my money now.”

The crowd yelled and shook their fists in agreement.

Now Leopold stepped forward and waved his hands for the men to be quiet. They went silent. Even the birdsong was lost.

“The money’s in the bank,” he said. “In Sechelt. It’s Sunday. I’ll have it for each and every one of you tomorrow.”

“You mean you get on the mule, steam back to town and catch next boat to Vancouver.” This time it was the Chinese Foreman with his broken English who spoke. He was hated by the whites. But he’d incited them, all the same. The crowd was becoming violent. A rock shot past Leopold’s head.

“It’s not like that.” He couldn’t shout louder than the navvies.

“Says you,” a man yelled, followed by another rock. This one grazed Leopold’s forehead.

Meanwhile, Duffy had signaled the mule driver to get ready for a quick escape. Then he grabbed Leopold, put him over his shoulder and began running. The engine was already moving backward, away from the uproar. Duffy sprinted as fast as a man his size could, and was helped up onto the mule’s platform by the fireman. He dropped Leopold onto the floor, as the locomotive gained speed, and began kicking navvies off on one side as the driver and fireman did the same on the other.

Soon they were moving too fast for the navvies to catch up.

“I think I just sold my soul to a wicked Englishman,” said the driver. “Ain’t no place on this coast for me now.”

Duffy pulled Leopold to his feet by the lapels of his coat.

“There’re foot paths,” he shouted over the steam engine. “They can follow the track. Them boys’ll be in town by tomorrow for sure. And they’ll be looking for you.”

“I can pay them then,” said Leopold.

“Pay or no, that’ll be just the start of your troubles.”

part 4

Gibsons Landing, 1953 

“So, did he marry Nancy Pete?” asked Isaac Brunel. The old fat woman sat sipping her sugary tea.

“Oh, sure.” She took another bite of cake. “Married her and they had a pretty little girl, Wilhelmina Alisa Brunel. She come after, tough.”

“After?”

“After Granddad Leopold hung himself,” said Granny Wilhelmina.

“But wait a minute,” said Isaac. “Your name is Wilhelmina. That means that you’re her. You’re his daughter, Wilhelmina Alisa Brunel. But you call him Granddad. That doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t you tell me what makes sense, boy,” said Granny Wilhelmina. She chased a cake crumb round her plate with a fork. “It’s a term of endearment. It comes with the story, the legend some call it.”

She cornered the crumb and jabbed it with her fork.

“You know,” she said. “A legend grows like a tree. The tree trunk’s the truth of it. Even though it grows bigger with every year that passes. The branches, though, they’re the ways a story can be wrong – goin’ off in all directions. Fact is Leopold died too young to be a father or grandfather to anyone, except in name. And that leaves the story open to misinterpretation.

“Your grandmother was Nancy Brunel, nee Pete, and the man she went off with, after Leopold died, was Basil Duffy. He was Leopold’s Foreman, if you recall. They went off to Scotland and left me here with relations. They were going to send for me when they were set up over there.”

She stopped a moment and stared at Isaac, and said, “That’s right. Your Great Granny was Nancy Brunel, herself.

“Now, as I said, Basil Duffy was Scottish and was gonna take Nancy back to Edinburgh to get married, after Leopold died. But they only got as far as London. He got some bug there, and died. The flu, I guess. It was killin’ everyone in London back then. Seven months after that, Nancy gave birth to your grandmother, Veronica Rachel Brunel. Veronica gave birth to Thomas. Thomas married Miranda, and Miranda gave birth to you. And so it went until right now, in this parlour.”

“I never knew,” Isaac whispered to himself. “My parents didn’t tell me anything. Maybe I was too young to hear it. They died before they could tell me.”

“But they must have told you something about Granddad Leopold.”

“It was just a story told at Christmas, over punch, around a fire in the hearth. Like a ghost story.”

“It’s ironic,” said Nathan, sitting in a chair with his mutt at his side. “Miranda’s Shakespeare’s heroine in The Tempest. That’s the play you were in this season. Prospero, am I right?”

“Yes,” said Isaac.

He shook his head, amazed. These people knew so much about the family, about him. Nathan was obviously a man of the world beyond Gibson’s Landing, but he’d still have to do some considerable research to know Isaac had landed the role of Prospero.

“Mary,” Granny Wilhelmina said. “How about some of them little baloney sandwiches you make? The ones with the sliced up gherkins and mayonnaise.”

“What about your diabetes?” Mary said.

“Damn the goddam diabetes. A woman’s got to eat. Go on, now.”

Mary got up, and went into the kitchen.

“I still don’t understand,” Isaac said. “What made him come here to build a railroad? Here of all places.”

“It’s as good a place as any,” said Nathan. “Leopold came to the Pacific coast for the same reason people still come nowadays, looking for solutions they’ll never find to problems they never had to begin with. And once they’re here, they stay put because the next stop is the Strait of Georgia.

“It was a good idea, the railroad,” Nathan continued. “But Leopold just didn’t know how to build it to scale. That was the Isambard in him. Leopold wanted his own CPR. Something big and heroic. Something to unite a nation. But that’d already been done, by then. And this isn’t the Rockies, or the prairies. It’s just a small stretch of coastline with some passable mountains and river valleys. In his mind, it was all grander than that. But it really wasn’t in the end.

“All he knew was railroads, though. That’s what he learned at university. How to build them big and make them run like a top. It was in his blood. All he wanted was greatness. But by 1888, any chance at greatness for a man like him had been taken. That left him with a dream too big for this little place.”

“So, he hung himself,” Isaac said.

“Now hold on,” said Wilhelmina. “Don’t say it like you know the man. None of us do. Let me finish the story. Then you can judge him, if you still feel up to it.

“The riot Duffy predicted over the lay-off never happened, or at least it was delayed to another day. Leopold got hold of the situation and worked some magic. He held onto Duffy too. But I guess it was just too late by then.”

* * * * *

Gibson’s 1888

A short man in a dark overcoat and bowler hat, named Marvin Talbot, arrived in town on April 18th, and took a room at the hotel. After settling in, he began inquiring as to the whereabouts of one Leopold Liberty Brunel. Being a stranger, and considering Leopold one of the easiest men in town to find, the people of Gibson’s Landing said nothing when asked.

But the stranger was a man accustomed to biding his time. There was talk of a wedding in a day or two, a cheerful town celebration. He had no desire to dampen the mood with the execution of his task — until the happy day was over. So he lay on his hotel bed, drank coffee and read his Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde.

“It’s too damn big,” Basil Duffy said, when he saw it. “Too damn long.”

Locomotive 1022 was finally assembled from its aggregate parts, having arrived by barge from New Westminster two weeks earlier. Now it sat steaming in idle at the Gibson’s Depot, making a self-contented hissing sound as white puffs of steam were discharged.

“What the hell were you thinking, Mr Brunel?”

“It’s a fucking piece of art,” Leopold said, dreamily. His Eton accent made Duffy almost believe it.

The colossus was bright red, the entire expanse of it, with black and green trim. Its brass and exposed iron gleamed, in spite of the overcast. Its matching tender was filled with split stove-length timber. The passenger car and caboose were masterworks.

Leopold climbed the three rung ladder, into the cab. Duffy followed.

“There’re at least two curves too tight for it to take,” Duffy said. “Maybe more.”

“We haven’t laid that track yet,” Leopold said, admiring the gauges and levers. “We’ll alter the rail bed’s blasting pattern. We’ll compensate.”

“There’s no room for compensation. We can’t blast away entire mountains. The Bankers aren’t gonna like this.”

“But this is exactly what the Bankers want to see, Duffy.” Leopold took an apple from his coat pocket. “They want to hear it breathe. They want it to talk to them in their mean little dreams. Bankers deal in tangibles. 1022 is the ultimate tangible.”

“Hmm,” Basil Duffy said, biting a chaw of tobacco off a plug. “You know, I’ve worked for fellas like you before. Fellas that escape into oratory whenever they’re facin’ trouble. And I’ve noticed that the fancy words never make much difference.”

“We need an engine that can pull a load up a grade, Mr Duffy,” Leopold said.

He used his treasured gold handle pen knife to slice off bite-sized pieces of apple.

“Maybe, sir. And I’ll grant you this monster’s got pulling power. It could pull the goddamn moon out of orbit. But we could have joined up multiple smaller engines as need-be. We could’ve leased ‘em locally, and you know it.”

“Just look at it, Duffy,” Leopold said. “It’s history in the making.”

“So was Krakatoa, Mr Brunel.”

The problem of the defective rail had been solved, for the time being. A warehouse in Vancouver was filled with CPR surplus. Leopold asked for more credit, and ordered all he needed. To keep them busy, he convinced the towns along the existing track to have his navvys paint their public buildings, and any others that needed sprucing up, during the two weeks it would take for the paperwork to clear and the track to be transported.

“Well,” Leopold said. “It doesn’t matter for the moment. My wedding’s tomorrow. The riddle of 1022 can wait until after that. Turns out the women of Nancy’s family are great planners of weddings.”

“I hear it’ll be Father Breckenridge doing the service,” Duffy said.

“Yes,” Leopold shrugged. “Nancy’s God is poetry, but her mother’s a Catholic convert. And we must keep Mother Pete happy.”

“He’ll be smirking like a Belfast monkey.”

“Let him,” said Leopold. “I’ll be back here the very next day, building something grand, while he sits in the dark hearing the confessions of loggers and yokels. Tell me which has more meaning.”

“Don’t ask me. I’m a Methodist.”

Then Leopold yelped and dropped the apple and pen knife. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed a cut finger.

“Where’s that damn knife?” he said looking down.

“I can’t see it,” Duffy said.

“It must be found. It was the only thing Isambard left me in his will. And it’s worth a small fortune. They’ll be drunk for a month if the Engineer or Fireman find it.”

Both men searched the floor and under outcroppings of steel, but the knife was nowhere to be seen.

“It’ll turn up, sir,” Duffy said.

Leopold looked grim.

The next morning, Leopold woke alone in his bed. Even his normally free-thinking bride-to-be had succumbed to Catholic histrionics, and stayed chaste the night before the wedding. It was April and the sun was shining. He rose and heated water to shave and wash.

Later, in Sechelt, in a small ramshackle church, Leopold Liberty Brunel and Nancy Pete said their vows. Nancy was magnificent in a gown from the Hudson’s Bay store in Vancouver, Leopold slightly less so in a frayed swallowtail jacket.

And as Father Breckenridge smirked like a Belfast monkey, he pronounced, “…in so much as the two of you have agreed to live together in Matrimony, have promised your love for each other by these vows, the giving of these rings and the joining of your hands, I now declare you to be husband and wife.”

There was a hushed sigh in the church, when that was done. Nancy would start to show soon. Her family had been in a state of panic. Now it was time to celebrate.

As far as her new husband went, if she had to marry a white man, then why not an English engineer?

The couple was showered with rice and barley as they left church.

The newlyweds sat at the head of a row of tables laid out down the centre of Gower Point Road, surrounded by Shishalh Elders sitting in places of honour. Basil Duffy sat further down in a too-snug jacket and tie, from his youth.

There were many speeches, and one by the Mayor who lauded Leopold for his great works. Then an Elder and Father Breckenridge blessed the wedding feast, and everyone laughed, ate salmon and venison and drank cold beer and hot tea.

Through it all, in unexpected and growing despair, Leopold pondered the question of 1022. Had he miscalculated?

You have, you know.

It was her again, Imelda. The voice. The witch ghost that dwelt in his head, and haunted him.

“Not here,” he whispered, and shook his head. “Not now.”

“What was that?” said Nancy. She was drinking beer from a small China tea cup, for the fun of it.

He shook his head again.

Duffy’s right. – Imelda said – You should have known better. It’s your ego sitting on that track with nowhere to go. It’s too big. It doesn’t fit this little place. And it cost you a fortune. Even if you succeed in building this silly little railroad, how can you possibly make it pay?

There was a bottle of whiskey in front of him. He poured a large drink.

“Careful with that, Romeo,” Nancy said into his ear. “I want you functional for tonight.”

He swallowed it and poured another.

That won’t help, Mr English Engineer. – Imelda mocked.

“Fuck off!” He slammed his fist down.

“Pardon me?” This time it was Nancy’s mother, the newly minted Catholic Molly Pete, who heard him. Her and the other Elders sitting nearby. Some looked shocked, others smiled awkwardly.

Nancy stood up and took him by the elbow.

“Let’s go for a walk, big boy,” she said to him. Then to the Elders, “He’s under a lot of pressure right now.”

They walked over to a row of storefronts, and Nancy sat him down on a bench.

“The voices?” she said.

“The voice.”

“You have to ignore it. It doesn’t know anything. You said so, yourself.”

“She might be right about this,” he said.

“About what?”

He closed his eyes.

You don’t even love her – said Imelda – You’re a fool. She can’t replace me.

“No no no!”

“Don’t answer her,” Nancy said.

1022’s too big.

Then there were more voices. Loud ones. Shouting that even Nancy Brunel could hear. Coming from the end of Mermaid Street. She looked and saw a crowd coming toward the reception tables.

“Leopold?” she said.

“What?”

“Did you invite your navvys?”

He opened his eyes and said, “No.”

Then he looked in the direction of the shouts, and there it was. A wall of unwashed labourers, hollering and pumping their fists.

Basil Duffy rose from his seat at the table and went to face them, with Father Breckenridge close behind. Leopold followed.

“What’s with you lot?” Duffy said to the navvys.

“We come to celebrate a gentleman’s wedding,” said a big man named Bob. “The fella who’s got us paintin’ the Mayor’s office and outhouses like we was a bunch of niggers.”

“You’re navvys,” Duffy said. “What do you care what you do to eat?”

“We’re railroad navvys, not housepainters.”

“Well, you weren’t invited here,” said Breckenridge.

“Kiss my ass, priest.”

There were shouts of agreement from the mob.

“Gawd!” a man near the back yelled. “He’s a paddy, to boot.”

“What’s wrong with that?” shouted a man with an Irish accent, and the mob laughed.

“I can stand me an Irishman,” Bob said. “At least he ain’t a chink. But I can’t stand an Irish priest. Telling me I’m goin’ to hell while he eats outta the collection plate.”

“Go back to the table, Breckenridge,” Duffy said.

“I won’t,” said the priest. “I’m not intimidated by a rabble of goons.”

“Well I am,” said Leopold quietly, as he stepped forward. He raised his hands in a placating gesture, and said, “You men have put up with a lot.”

There were grumbles of concurrence.

“And this is a day for celebration,” he said.

Nancy came and stood next to him.

“So, every man of you can have two glasses of beer. But then you must go back to camp.”

“There must be thirty of them,” Nancy said, with a taut smile. “How much beer is there?”

“We’ll get what extra we need from Tommy Braiggan’s bar.”

Duffy turned away from the crowd, and spoke quietly into Leopold’s ear: “Don’t do this, Mr Brunel.”

“It’s as good as done,” Leopold said.

“You seem to be the one in charge here,” he said to Bob. “Line up your men, and we’ll bring over the keg and some glasses.”

The big man hesitated a moment, looking Leopold in the eye. Leopold didn’t blink.

“All right, you navvys,” Bod bellowed. “Line your sorry asses up, and behave while you wait for your beer.”

The navvys had their beer, lining up twice. They stood on Gower Point Road, drank and talked. It was a quiet jumble of words that sounded suspiciously like conspiracy to Basil Duffy’s ever-cautious ear.

“I’m nervous about this,” he told Leopold. The two of them stood together on the road, between the throng of men and the tables. “I’ve never seen a navvy drink just two beer in my life.”

“They’re fine,” Leopold replied.

“You’ve miscalculated in that regard before, sir.”

Father Breckenridge returned after fanning another fire. He had Shishalh Chief Julius Victor and Sechelt Mayor Jedidiah Wilks with him.

“I understand you appeasing these men, Mr Brunel,” Chief Julius Victor said. “You may have avoided trouble this way. But it brings no honour to this day.”

“It is my sincere hope that honour will be restored,” Leopold said.

“They should be ready to leave about now,” said Breckenridge.

“You stay out of this,” said Duffy.

“You listen to me, Mr Duffy,” Breckenridge said. “There are no RCMP here. This coast has never needed them. Not until Brunel started to build his ridiculous little railroad, that is. Now all that stands between the welfare of this town, and out and out savage anarchy, is the love of Jesus Christ. And I am His delegate here.”

“Oh piss off,” Duffy laughed. “You can’t be serious.”

“All right you men,” Breckenridge shouted, stepping past Duffy. “You’ve had your beer. Time for you to return to camp. But before you do, let us bow our heads and thank our Lord Jesus Christ for His grace and forbearance with the Lord’s Prayer.”

“We want wedding cake,” came a shout from out of the mob, followed by cheers of accord. A jarring chant of wedding cake, wedding cake, began.

“Goddam it, Breckenridge,” Duffy said.

“Father Breckenridge is right,” Leopold yelled above the noise. “You can forget the prayer, but we agreed on two beer each, and you’ve had them. Thank you for blessing my Bride and myself with you presence here. But now you must go.”

“There’s more liquor at Braiggan’s bar,” Bob roared. “Let’s go, boys.”

“No!” hollered Breckenridge.

“Damn,” said Leopold.

The thirty navvys moved up the street, past the wedding tables, taking food off of plates and serving platters. One grabbed the wedding cake and tossed it to another, who couldn’t catch it. It fell onto the ground and was marched over by the many hobnailed boots. It was left behind, only a stain in the dirt.

When they arrived at Braiggan’s bar, they kicked in the door and looted the place. There were plenty of bottles of whiskey and other liquors, and the navvys drank heartily.

The guests of the wedding reception watched in dismay as the shops along Gower Point Road were looted. Then a man with a bottle in his hand poured whiskey onto the straw in the stables of Pritchard’s tack and livery, and lit it on fire. The blaze that developed traveled with the wind. Citizens rose to douse the flames, but the navvys blocked them. Soon the entirety of Gibson’s Landing was alight. That night, the glow of the burning town could be seen as far away as Vancouver.

 * * * *

“Well,” Duffy said the next morning, as the fire died. “Isn’t this fucking magic.”

He and Leopold sat on two of the few wooden chairs that had survived the fire. The citizens of the town had been evacuated the night before, but were returning to see the disaster. The navvys were gone for good.

It was Monday.

Soon, Mayor Wilks arrived and said, “It is my considered opinion, Mr Brunel, that compensation is in order.”

And Leopold Liberty Brunel knew it was. He drank from a bottle of whiskey he’d found discarded on the street.

“Let him be,” said Duffy to the Mayor.

“For now,” said Wilks.

Later that day, Marvin Talbot finally found Leopold sitting in the cab of 1022.

“Are you Leopold Liberty Brunel?” said Talbot.

Leopold sighed, and said he was.

“Tragic what happened,” Talbot said. “I hardly had time to retrieve my books and suitcase from the hotel.”

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” Leopold said.

“Yes, well,” said Talbot. “Mine is a profession burdened with inconvenience. One learns to endure.”

“And your business,” Leopold said. “What is it?”

“I destroy dreams, sir,” Talbot said, handing Leopold an envelope. “Not out of malice, but necessity.”

“I won’t like the contents of this envelope, will I?” Leopold said.

“No sir. You will not. But that’s not my concern. Now I have to arrange transportation back to New Westminster. I thank you for your kind attention.”

Talbot tipped his hat and strode away.

The envelope contained a Liquidation Order. Leopold had finally pushed his creditors too far with the purchase of the surplus CPR rails. He read the order through three times as he drank from a whiskey bottle.

“Well,” said Nancy. “Who was he?”

She’d been helping with children made homeless by the fire, when news of the two men meeting came to her.

“A bailiff,” Leopold said. “Not a bad fellow, actually.”

“And…?”

“And, it’s over,” Leopold said, handing her the document.

“We’ll start again,” Nancy said.

Leopold shook his head.

“All of the money’s gone” he said. “No one will write me a loan now. Besides, they’re taking everything back.”

Duffy arrived in time to hear.

“Not 1022,” he said. “We’ve taken care of that.”

“She’ll just sit on the track and rust, no matter what,” Leopold said.

“Maybe,” said Duffy. “Probably. But at least the bankers won’t get her. And it won’t be the first steam locomotive abandoned by Bankers.”

*  *  *  *  *

Gibson’s Landing, 1953

They came upon the massive locomotive in the morning. It was hidden in dense bush, just up from the water. The sun was breaking through, and birds were singing as Isaac, Nathan and Mary arrived on the trail.

Coming there was Nathan’s idea.

1022, the tender, passenger car and caboose sat on the rusted rails. The locomotive’s boiler was mute and cold. A hulk silent in its sixty-five years of secrets. Its red paint peeling. Its steel rusting and its brass long ago gone green.

Isaac stepped up and ran his fingers over corroded bullet holes in the tender’s side. The once glossy smooth red finish was flat and coarse now.

“I could never figure out why they do that,” Mary said. “Shoot a stationary thing like this, like it’s an animal making a run for it.”

“It’s beautiful, even now,” Isaac said.

“It was a gamble getting her here,” Nathan said. “Story goes, that when things started to look uncertain, Nancy and Duffy conspired to build a partial spur line to the main track. That way they could get 1022 here, in case of an emergency. When axe fell, they completed it. They paid some of the navvys handsomely to do it, and keep it secret. Duffy drove her here himself. And when he parked her, they tore up the spur line and camouflaged everything until the forest took over.”

Despite the decay, 1022 was a message in a bottle. Leopold Liberty Brunel had been here, and had attempted something wonderful. It rivalled any abandoned Inca city in its magnificence.

Isaac had brought the fifth volume of the journal. Now he took a note from where it was tucked into the back. Unfolding it, he saw it was written in a graceful, slanting hand.

Dearest Nancy, 

I came to this rainy place to build something splendid, and saw it fail before it even began. I was too foolish-proud, and my plan too grandiose, even for a Brunel. I wanted so to be Isambard.

Now there is so much that I owe, in currency hard and hypothetical, that only my extinction will erase the debt.

You are bound to weep over what I am about to do. I won’t ask you not to. But please do not grieve long. For there were moments of joy as well, mostly with you. But also in witnessing small things, in true context to their surroundings. You helped me to see them. Thank you.

I regret not leaving this place better than when I arrived. But mostly I regret leaving you in this unavoidable way. An inner voice tells me that this must be the way, and it’s not the voice you think.

If you cannot forget me, then please remember me well. 

All my love,
Leopold
 

Isaac placed the note back into the fifth volume of the journal. Then he hoisted himself up and into the cab of 1022. There he rattled levers and lamented over the gauges’ broken glass. He tried to free up both hands for this by placing the journal under an arm, but dropped it instead. And as he knelt down to pick it up, he saw something in a corner, on the floor. Reaching out, he saw that it was a gold pen knife.

Picking it up, he turned it over and over in his hands, and saw that its handle was engraved with two names. On one side was Leopold Liberty Brunel; on the other, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

the worst goddam car chase in history

a Vancouver moment, remembered

You’re probably not gonna like this story, but too fuckin’ bad.

This town was too small for a proper car chase back in ’63. There were a couple of good stretches. Broadway or Hastings, east to west; Cambie, Burrard or Granville, north-south, over one bridge or another outta downtown. But there were pinch points everywhere, especially the bridges. And the intersections, too. A few of them still controlled by traffic cops.

No stops, no cops. That’s how I like it.

Anyways, so Jasper Marx stood in the hardware department of the downtown Army & Navy store, looking at sledgehammers. He had a score to settle with Rake Philbin who hung out at the Number Six Legion on Commercial Drive, and a sledge seemed like a good fix.

Marx liked the three pond short handle. It’d fit nicely on the shotgun seat of his red 1962 Chevy Impala, but the five pound long handle was a better choice. He’d keep it in the backseat, and pull it out like it was a rifle when the moment was right.

Now, the thing about a car chase is that you can’t arrange it ahead of time. A chase is always kinda spontaneous-like. Otherwise it’d be a parade, not a car chase.

How it works is, you see some guy you got bad business with in a car, and he sees you in your car. And before you know it, one of you’s chasin’ the other. And usually it’s down the worst goddamn street in the city, like Denman in the west end. One of the shortest most jam-packed streets in town, because it’s the run up to the Lions Gate Bridge. And holy fuck, God forbid there’s a jumper on the bridge. ‘Cause if there is, you and the creep you’re chasin’ have gotta sit in a fuckin’ traffic jam. Which makes for one of the worst car chase scenarios possible. Believe me.

I’m just sayin’ it because it’s good to know this shit.

Anyways, Marx pays for the five-pounder long handle, and takes it out to his car that’s parked on Hastings Street. And when he gets out there, there’s this meter-maid writing him a ticket. ‘Cept he’s a fella meter-maid, not a dame. Which is significant, because back in ’63 writing parking tickets was supposed to be woman’s work. Which means this character is probably a homo. And he’s writing a ticket because as usual, Jasper Marx is parked illegally.

But you don’t just write Jasper Marx a ticket. It’s understood. I mean, the guy’s an animal. He’d bite your eyeball outta the socket and spit it back in your face. His mother always said he was a nice boy, though. She said Jasper just did that kinda shit to relieve stress and stay outta trouble. What a dope.

So, I’m straying a bit from the point of this. But try to stick with me.

Here’s Jasper Marx on the sidewalk, out front of the Army & Navy store, and there’s this homo meter-maid fella writing a ticket, and Marx says –

“What the hell you doin’?”

And the homo meter-maid fella says, “I’m writing you a ticket, sir.”

“Waddaya doin’ that for?” says Marx, like he’s gonna go atomic any second.

“Because you didn’t pay the meter, sir,” says the homo meter-maid fella.

So, Marx pulls out that pearl handled switchblade of his – the nasty one with the six inch blade — you probably remember it. And now he’s got the five pound sledgehammer in one hand and the knife in the other. And he says –

“You give me that ticket, and I’ll cut your fucking head off and mail it to your mamma who shoulda drowned your queer fuckin’ ass at birth.”

And the homo meter-maid fella holds up his hand and says, “Okay, but before you do, let me tell you a joke.”

And Jasper Marx is lookin’ like, what the fuck? But he’s also kinda sucked in now and decides to listen.

And the homo meter-maid fella says, “Three guys walk into a bar. One’s a Catholic, one’s a Jew and one’s a guy who’s got a sledgehammer in one hand and a switchblade in the other. And the Catholic says he’ll have some nice red wine because it reminds him of the Eucharist. The Jew says he’ll have some Manischewitz because it makes him think of Kiddush.”

And here, the homo meter-maid fella stops. Doesn’t say another goddamn word, quiet as a grave on Tuesday night. Just staring Jasper Marx in the eye.

So, Jasper Marx waits a second or two and then he says, “What the hell? What’s the guy with the sledgehammer and the switchblade have to drink?”

I mean it’s a reasonable question under the circumstances. Marx wants to hear the punchline, right?

So, the homo meter-maid fella says, “The guy with the sledgehammer and the switchblade couldn’t really order anything. Since he had a sledgehammer in one hand and a switchblade in the other, he didn’t have a free hand to drink with.”

“Really?” says Jasper Marx. “That’s gotta be the worst joke I’ve ever heard.”

“I know”, says the homo meter-maid fella. And kicks Jasper Marx in the balls really fucking hard, like his life depends on it. Which it does. And Marx can’t do nothing to defend himself because he’s standing there, stunned by the stupid joke, and he’s got a sledgehammer in one hand and a switchblade in the other. So, he falls over in sheer agony, rollin’ around on the sidewalk. And when he’s down there on the sidewalk rollin’ around, the homo meter-maid fella really lays into him, kicking him in the head, the ribs and all over.

When he’s done, the homo meter-maid fella puts the ticket under Marx’s wiper and moves on to his next victim, while whistling a happy tune.

All of which you might think is besides the point, because we was talkin’ ‘bout car chases. But just hold yer horses.

So anyways, Jasper Marx recovers, hauls himself up and gets to his feet. He notices that everyone’s looking at him like he’s a bug, and who wouldn’t under the circumstances. But he gets into his red 1962 Chevy Impala, and throws the five pound long handle into the backseat. Then he drives away with the parking ticket flapping away in the wind on his windshield.

Now he’s on his way to the Number Six Legion on Commercial Drive, where he expects to settle Rake Philbin’s hash. Except, when he turns right off of Hastings onto the Drive and comes up to a red light at Venables Street, there’s Rake Philbin in front of him in a brand new Corinthian White 1963 Ford Galaxie 500.

Rake had just picked it up from the dealership that morning, round about the time the homo meter-maid fella was starting to tell Jasper Marx his Three Guys Walk into a Bar joke. And his brand new, shiny car makes Jasper Marx even madder at Rake than he ever was before.

So now Marx floors it, and BAM!, he rear-ends Philbin.

Remember, Rake Philbin is still stopped at the red light. And damn if their bumpers don’t lock solid.

Philbin’s real rattled after the impact, and it takes him a minute to look in the rear-view and see Marx grinnin’ like Satan in the car behind him. And it’s then that he suddenly remembers the misunderstanding concerning that thing that resulted in the falling-out between him and Marx, and for which Marx promised to bash his head in with a sledgehammer. So, now it’s his turn to floor it. Which he does, but he don’t go nowheres because of the locked bumpers.

While this is going on, Jasper Marx, who ain’t normally the sharpest tack in the wall, has an idea. Since their bumpers are locked, he just releases his brake. And then Philbin’s 500 goes real good. Maybe not as fast as it would if Marx’s red 1962 Chevy Impala wasn’t attached, but Philbin doesn’t actually know about that. He just figures Japer Marx is following awful damn close.

Regardless, Philbin speeds up Commercial Drive and takes a hard right onto Charles Street. They’re swerving like mad, and people are runnin’ in all directions to get outta their way. And they’re missin’ running into other cars by mere inches.

Philbin’s doing sixty mph now. He’s even up on the sidewalk here and there. But can’t seem to shake Jasper Marx off. So he gets it up to sixty-five with Marx still attached, which really says something about the Ford 352 cu. inch V-8 engine and three speed manual transmission, and he goes right onto Cotton and left onto Williams. Meanwhile, Marx just sits in his driver’s seat, turns on the radio and listens to Gerry & The Pacemakers.

Then it’s right onto Mclean and left onto Napier. And Philbin can’t believe it. He looks in the rear-view and sees Jasper Marx isn’t even trying. Marx has gotta be the best goddam car chaser in the world.

That’s when Rake Philbin goes right onto Clark Drive, which is one very busy street, and speeds it up to seventy. Then seventy-five. And he’s passing on the left and the right, but there’s Marx right behind him. They even clip a trolley at Pender Street.

This goes on for blocks, past Venables, Georgia and Francis. Until they get to Hastings, another damn busy street, where there’s a red light. But Philbin can’t stop, because Marx is still right on his ass. So, he speeds directly into the Clark and Hasting intersection and KERPOW! The two of them are t-boned by a semi-trailer carrying a full load of pianos, doing forty mph. I mean, they got clobbered. And this was back when real men didn’t wear seat belts, baby.

There was body parts and piano keys everywhere. A middle C key here, an F and A there. An arm here, a leg there, a head rolling into the gutter. No one knew what parts belonged to who. In the end they just cremated all the parts together and split ‘em up evenly between a coupla urns.

And you might think that that was some kinda exciting car chase in a crappy little town like this, where nothing ever fuckin’ happens. But it wasn’t no car chase at all because Marx’s and Philbin’s bumpers was locked. In fact, as things go, I figure it was the worst goddam car chase in history. ‘Cept the ending was kinda unique.

You see, when the semi hit ‘em, all of the pianos seemed to play the same loud and melancholy chord. It was sorta musical, stupid and tragic all at once. And as the chord ended, a parking ticket floated down like outta Heaven and came to rest on what had once been the windshield of Jasper Marx’s red 1962 Chevy Impala.

bitchy-men

I made this short a couple of years ago with video and pics taken by an associate on a site in northern Alberta. that site will remain nameless here, but you can probably figure it out on your own.

a bitchy-man, named after bitumen, is a type of scarecrow. it’s placed on tar sands tailings ponds to scare off water fowl, because dead and oily ducks are bad for the fossil fuel business.

the Foncie photograph (rewrite)

Paris, May 1945 

She stood on the wet cobbles at the river’s edge, and looked across at the Eiffel Tower. The foggy dawn was clearing. There’d been a meeting arranged.

The Tower had survived, and the city had been liberated for eight months. Now she just wanted to go home. Back to the east end of Vancouver, where she’d no longer be a code name floating on encrypted radio waves between Paris and 64 Baker Street. Where she’d no longer earn her keep by killing silently.

Her neighborhood, back home, would be coming into bloom about now, in its own slightly savage way. But there was still so much to do in The City of Light. Mopping up, the Special Operations Executive called it. They who sat in London, sipping tea. Ink on their fingers, instead of blood on their hands.

“Soho,” said a man, as he came up behind her. He spoke in prefect street Parisian.

“Hello, Vicker,” she said without turning around.

Vicker was the alias for an American agent named Amsterdam, Timothy. Soho was her own. The hostilities were over, and the use of code names between spies was no longer strictly necessary. But survival habits die hard.

“I must be the first man ever to creep up on you,” he said.

“I’ve been listening to you approach for forty-five seconds,” Soho said. “French made leather soled shoes, with composition heels. Likely size nine or ten. Colour unknown. A tall, athletic man. I’d need to fire first. But I assumed it was you. Or you’d be bleeding right now.”

He was impressed, not for the first time.

“You’ll be missed by London,” he said.

“They can go to hell.”

“And Dillinger, is he nearby?”

“Very nearby.”

“But invisible.”

“It’s part of his charm,” she said, turning to face Timothy Amsterdam.

“Why am I still alive, Trudy?” he said, dropping her alias. “I understand that I’m at the top of your list.”

“Officially you’re not alive,” said Trudy Parr. “Officially, I did my job. And you were fished out of the Seine with your throat cut last night. It was the body of a Vichy operative I’d been letting live for a moment like this. He had fake papers with your name on them in his coat pocket. So the heat’s off for now. They’ll know it’s not really you when London gets the finger prints. That’ll take about a week, though. By then you should be securely underground.”

“Straight razor and slight of hand,” he said. “Your calling card.”

She said nothing.

“So, I’m free to go then.”

“Any way you can, Timothy,” Trudy Parr said. “But you should be more careful. Money isn’t everything. If it’s found out that I purposely let you live, that it wasn’t some dumb female error, I’ll be as dead as you’re supposed to be. I still have some explaining to do. Consider it a favour between professionals who worked well together in the past, but don’t expect another.”

“There’s booty involved, Trudy,” said Timothy Amsterdam. “A lot of it. And I could use an accomplice. Two, if Crispin wants in.” He looked around the general area for a trace of Crispin Dench, code name Dillinger. But Dench was playing shadow, for the moment.

“The Russians are throwing money around like mad men,” Amsterdam continued. “They’re being sloppy about it, too. They need intelligence, badly. They’re not stopping at Berlin, you know? Americans or no, they’re planning on taking Europe.”

“And you’re going to help them?”

“No. I’m giving them crap. It looks good because I can counterfeit anything, as you know. But it won’t get them anywhere, and they won’t know it until I’m long gone.”

She watched him talk, his body moving to the words. His steady eyes. And she knew he wasn’t lying. She was paid to know.

“We can’t go home, Trudy,” he said. “You, me or Dench. Not really. You know that, don’t you? We can go back and try to make it, but they’ve used us up. And no one wants to know what it really took to win this war.”

“Crispin and I are going to try.”

“Where do two assassins fit into postwar Canada? Or greasy little Vancouver, for that matter?”

She didn’t know. But spies weren’t heroes — she knew as much. They were dirty secrets.

Vancouver, 1951
the offices of Dench and Parr Investigations 

Trudy Parr picked up the phone. It was Virginia in reception.

“There’s two mooks out here,” Virginia said. “They got revolvers stickin’ outta their jackets, like it’s a Cagney film. Say they wanna see you.”

“They show you any tin?” said Trudy Parr.

“Yeah, they showed me some.”

“Then send them in.”

“All right. I’ll tell ‘em to wipe their feet before enterin’ your office.”

Trudy Parr hung up, sat back in her desk chair and lit a Black Cat. There was a soft knock, and two men walked in, taking off their hats. It was detectives Olaf Brandt and Roscoe Finch of the VPD.

“What’s the good word, Trudy?” said Brandt.

“I don’t deal in good words,” Trudy Parr said. “You know that, Olaf. But pull up a chair, anyway.”

The two men sat down.

“Well?” she said.

“That secretary of yours is kinda rude,” said Finch.

“Maybe,” said Trudy Parr. “But she types fifty words a minute, and she’s good with a gun. That kind of makes her indispensable. Sorry if she hurt your feelings.”

“What’s a secretary need a gun for?”

“This is a private investigation agency,” said Trudy Parr, looking Finch over like he was a street shill. “We attract undesirables.”

Finch shifted in his chair.

“Never mind that,” said Brandt. “Finch and me got something we want you to see.”

“What?”

“This,” Finch said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a photograph, and slid it across the desktop face down. Trudy Parr looked at it lying there, and smoked her cigarette. It was 5×7, and had a phone number and the name Foncie Pulice stamped on the back.

“It was taken by that Foncie character,” Brandt said. “He snaps you on the street, and hands you a card, and….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Finch said. “ We all know — take a gander, Trudy.”

She flipped it over and saw a black and white image. It was a Vancouver street scene. Olaf Brandt and a skinny woman walking hand-in-hand down Granville Street on a sunny day, both smiling for the camera.

“Nice,” said Trudy Parr, pushing the photo back at Finch. “You and your girlfriend look very pleased with one another, Olaf. I wish you many years of happiness.”

Finch pushed it back.

“Take a closer look,” he said.

She’d seen something strange in the photograph on first glance, but had ignored it out of mounting boredom. She looked again. Behind the smiling couple was a man in a trench coat and fedora, his face circled with grease pencil. It was a familiar face. Handsome in spite of the dark scar on his left cheek and jaw. It brought back cold memories.

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Finch said.

“It’s Timothy Amsterdam,” said Brandt.

“Swell.” She pushed the photo back again.

“He was an American spy,” Finch said. “During the war. Mostly in Paris. He turned commy near the end.”

“That’s not what I heard, Roscoe,” Trudy said. “I heard he’s all free market and apple pie. Sure, he cashed-in selling the Ruskies dirt. But that was a couple weeks before VE day. He was gonna be out of a job soon, I heard he was real selective in what he sold. It was out of date, redundant or generally misleading. Useless, in other words. The Russians were paying in captured SS bullion, so he took the gold and ran. You know, a spy needs a plan at the end of a war. They don’t fit back into society so well.”

“Really?” said Finch. “What was your plan?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That still makes him a double agent,” said Brandt. “There’s a warrant.”

“Okay,” said Trudy Parr. “So call the RCMP and the FBI. It’s a US federal rap. He’ll be extradited.”

“We want him,” said Finch. “The RCMP will get him eventually – we’ll hand him over when the hoopla’s over. But we want to make the arrest.”

“You want your pictures in the papers, is that it?.”

“Sure,” said Brandt. “Why not. We spend all our time sweeping up other people’s messes, and don’t get no thanks for it. Now we gotta big fish in our shitty little pond, and we wanna hook him.”

“What’s it got to do with me?”

“We figure you know where he is.”

“That’s a surprise,” said Trudy Parr.

“You were a spy, yourself,” said Finch.

Trudy Parr lit another cigarette.

“You was in Paris,” Brandt said. “Your paths must have crossed.”

“C’mon, Trudy,” Finch said. “We’re the cops. We know you were an Allied spy. You’re on at least three watch lists. And we know you worked with Timothy Amsterdam. We ain’t supposed to know it. It’s classified, I’ll grant you. But we know it all the same, and that makes you a semi-legitimate lead.”

The traffic hissed by on the rainy street fifteen storeys below. Trudy Parr smoked.

“Just tell us if you’ve seen him.”

She picked up the photo once more and looked. Timothy had been a good agent. He deserved whatever he could scam out of the chaos. And he’d need it, too. He couldn’t have come back after the horror show and work in a hardware store. No one could.

She tossed the Foncie photograph back at Finch, across the desk .

“It ain’t him,” she said.

“Oh, come on.”

“Look, Trudy,” said Brandt. “We’re colleagues, you and us. We don’t wanna have to bring you in, and make this all official.”

“Don’t you?” she said. “I wonder why that is. Perhaps because you’ve obtained most of your information illegally, from classified documents. State secrets.”

“We don’t gotta bring her in,” said Finch. “We just gotta make her life difficult.”

“No,” said Brandt. “Let’s keep this friendly.”

“Friendly, my ass,” Finch said. “We cut this bitch way too much slack. She’s always slicin’ some poor bastard up or breaking an entry. Most of the private dicks in this town are standing in soup lines while she drives round in her little red Porsche and has a top floor office in the Dominion Building. Where’s the money comin’ from for all that, Trudy?”

“We solve more cases than your standard soup line dick.”

Roscoe Finch clenched his fists in his lap.

“You know what your problem is, Trudy?” he said.

“I have some ideas I haven’t shared.”

“You’re not afraid of nothin’,” Finch said, standing up. “And that ain’t healthy. It ain’t like a dame. And maybe you’re not afraid of nothin’ because you need a lesson in what to be afraid of.”

“That’s dime store talk,” said Trudy Parr.

“Take it down a notch, Roscoe,” Brandt said.

“Naw,” said Finch. “No way, She’s comin’ with us. Down to the docks. See how smart she is when she comes back with a busted nose.”

“I ain’t goin’,” said Brandt.

“What? You yellow over a skirt?” Finch said. “Ha!”

“No,” said Brandt. “I just don’t think you understand the seriousness of what you’re suggesting.”

“Fine,” Finch said, starting to move. “You go home and arrange some flowers. Me and Miss Parr are going for a ride.”

“Oh boy,” Brandt said, grimly.

Finch moved round the desk like a locomotive. When he arrived at Trudy Parr, still sitting in her desk chair, he got an unexpected size six Chanel pump to the groin, and another one hard in the chin. And as he stumbled to the floor, Trudy Parr retrieved a straight razor from where it was hidden under her chair. Then she stood, grabbed Roscoe Finch by his thinning hair, and held the razor’s edge firmly against the general area of his carotid artery.

“Don’t do it, Trudy,” Brandt said, standing up.

Finch coughed and whimpered.

“What else is there to do?” said Trudy Parr. “If I start letting this sort of thing slide, I might as well close the agency.”

“God! Trudy.” Olaf Brandt pointed at a trickle of blood dripping from Finch’s neck.

“Ah shit,” she said, and let Finch fall to the floor. “Mop this fucker up and take him back to the nursery.”

“Sure, sure,” said Brandt. He helped Finch to his feet and the men exited the office.

A moment later, the closet door next to Trudy Parr’s desk opened and a man with a scar on his left cheek stepped out.

“Glad to see you haven’t lost your panache,” said Timothy Amsterdam.

“They’re small time,” she said, and lit another cigarette. “You’ve got a train to catch.”

Amsterdam checked his wristwatch.

“Damn,” he said. “Well, it was a short but pleasant visit. Tell Crispin I said hello. And, oh! I almost forgot why I came by. We sort of lost touch, you and me, when the shooting stopped. I never got a chance to share the spoil with you. I figure I owe you something for not turning me over.”

He pulled three hand sized gold ingots, embossed with swastikas, from his satchel. They made a heavy, blunt thud when he placed them on the desk.

“That’s a load off,” Amsterdam said. “Those get heavy after a while.”

“You did kind of push your luck near the end,” said Trudy Parr. “Now nowhere is home.”

“I can’t stay put in one place more than forty-eight hours, anyway. Besides, there’s this new thing called the CIA. I hear they’re recruiting fellas like me. They’re kinda criminal, themselves. The outstanding warrant for my arrest will just make me more appealing.”

He exited Trudy Parr’s office with a tip of his hat.

She watched from her window as Timothy Amsterdam exited onto the street below, and walked toward the CPR station.

“You know,” Virginia said, coming into Trudy’s office with the mail. “It’s not even lunchtime yet, and you’ve already nearly cut off a cop’s head, and there’s a small fortune in Nazi gold on your desk.”

“It’s a glamorous life,” said Trudy Parr.

Valentine skywriter

everyone watched as the biplane wrote hearts above the city
then the wind blew them over Commercial Drive
over the cult of the fedora and the wide lapels
where the cops played poker with the Cosa Nostra
and the radios in their ’54 Fords
in the alley behind Joe’s
crackled analogue and
felony endured
as a matter of opinion

Valentine

roses are red
violets are blue
St Valentine was martyred in the 3rd century
so his girlfriend couldn’t say…
Oh stop being such a martyr, Val!
because he actually was one

(thank you, thank you. applause is not necessary)

how I came to be in prison

There was this guy I was letting sleep on my couch. He was eating me out of house and home. Which was a real drag because I’d lost my job at the 7-Eleven for stealing Slurpees and lottery tickets.

Now I was looking at the ATM keypad for the button I needed. The one that said: anything that’s left. It wasn’t there. I needed the same button on my life. There wasn’t one there, either.

My chequing account was nearly empty, anyway. What was there would be eclipsed by banking service charges soon enough. I had dimes in my pocket, and an old man with a walker wheezing behind me. I pulled my card from the slot and split.

Hunger is a planet orbiting itself. It’s its own moon and sun. And it’s pale in the sky. No one can see it, who isn’t looking for it. And its inhabitants can only see the grim surface, and feel its core burn in their bellies.

I was a new life, recently born to the hunger planet. I’d never seen it in the sky. I’d never looked. And I‘d never be a good citizen. I know I’d steal a rocket ship and escape its gravity, like a scene out of a Spielberg flick.

But first I had to dump the metaphor, and get concrete.

I sat down on the sidewalk and put an empty Starbucks cup in front of me. It was a Grande. I figured a Venti was pushing it. I didn’t want to seem greedy.

They didn’t call this begging anymore, which made me happy. Now it was called panhandling. That made it sound like a vocation, that you got a student loan to learn. It sounded like Florida or part of Alaska. Two places that looked mighty handsome on a map, all green and bumpy. I could live with that.

The first person to drop coins into the cup was a four year old. Her mother had given her the change and sent her over. I guess it was a lesson in charity. Either that or mom was too scared of me to do it herself. Better the kid got jumped by the bum, than her. She probably had a yoga class she couldn’t miss later on.

The second person was an old broad, hooked up to an oxygen tank she carried on a dolly behind her. She gave me a buck and started telling me about a day in 1962 when she wore a bikini to the beach and met Wayne Newton, who felt her up later that night in his hotel room. Then she lit a cigarette and blew smoke out of her nose past the oxygen tube nose piece. She forgot who she was after that, and just walked away.

The third person was a guy in a suit who gave me a quarter, and acted like he was the IMF bailing out Somalia. He asked me if I’d heard of Jesus, and I said I was letting Him sleep on my couch and that I couldn’t leave beer in the fridge because He drank it all.

The suit guy seemed a little upset hearing this. So, he called me a dirty blasphemer, and said that I deserved my poverty and would burn in hell because that’s the Christian way.

And I said, “Okay, I’ll tell Jesus to go over and sleep on your couch.”

And he said, “Fine, I’d be blessed to have Jesus sleep on my couch.”

And I said, “You better hide your beer.”

And he said, “I’ve had just about enough of you.”

And I said, “Then why don’t you go tell some Buddhist he’s going to hell, and leave me alone.”

And that’s when he kicked me.

So, I got up and slapped him one in the face. And he started yelling that I’d assaulted him. So, I pushed him out into traffic, just as the downtown bus was rolling by. And bammo! He was a stain on the grill of the ol’ number five. But I guess he went to heaven. I hope he hides his beer from you know Who.

Then there was the ambulance and the fire department and two cops named Ray and Natalie, who looked real nice together, and I told them so. Anyway, they cuffed me and took me in. And the psychiatrist said I wasn’t nuts, just a little stupid. So, they sent me to prison.

That’s how I got here.

Jesus comes to visit now and then, but he’s about the only one. He says he’s staying at a Motel 6 now, out on the highway, with the ice machine just outside of his room. I could tell you more about that, but it’s time for ceramics class.

the Foncie photograph

read the rewrite here

Vancouver, 1951 

Trudy Parr picked up the phone. It was Virginia in reception.

“There’s two mooks out here,” Virginia said. “They got revolvers stickin’ outta their jackets, like it’s a Cagney film. Say they wanna see you.”

“They show you any tin?” said Trudy Parr.

“Yeah, they showed me some.”

“Then send them in.”

“All right. I’ll tell ‘em to wipe their feet before enterin’ your office.”

Trudy Parr sat back in her desk chair and lit a Black Cat. There was a soft knock, and two men walked in, taking off their hats. It was detectives Olaf Brandt and Roscoe Finch of the VPD.

“What’s the good word, Trudy?” said Brandt.

“I don’t deal in good words,” Trudy Parr said. “You know that, Olaf. But pull up a chair, anyway.”

The two men sat down.

“Well?” she said.

“That secretary of yours is kinda rude,” said Finch.

“Maybe,” said Trudy Parr. “But she types fifty words a minute, and she’s good with a gun. That kind of makes her indispensable. Sorry if she hurt your feelings.”

“What’s a secretary need a gun for?”

“This is a private investigation agency,” said Trudy Parr, smiling at Roscoe Finch. “We attract undesirables.”

Finch shifted in his chair.

“Never mind that,” said Brandt. “Finch and me got something we want you to see.”

“What?”

“This,” Finch said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a photograph, and slid it across the desktop face down. Trudy Parr looked at it lying there, and smoked her cigarette. It was 5×7, and had a phone number and the name Foncie Pulice stamped on the back.

“It was taken by that Foncie character,” Brandt said. “He snaps you on the street, and hands you a card, and….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Finch said. “ We all know — take a gander, Trudy.”

She flipped it over and saw a black and white image. It was a Vancouver street scene, Olaf Brandt and a skinny woman walking hand-in-hand down Granville Street. It was a sunny day, and they both smiled for the camera.

“Nice,” said Trudy Parr, pushing the photo back at Finch. “You and your girlfriend look very pleased with one another, Olaf. I wish you many years of happiness.”

Finch pushed it back.

“Take a closer look,” he said.

She’d seen something strange in the photograph on first glance, but had ignored it out of mounting boredom. She looked again. Behind the smiling couple was a man in a trench coat and fedora, his face circled with grease pencil. It was a familiar face. Handsome in spite of the dark scar on his left cheek and jaw. It brought back cold memories.

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Finch said.

“It’s Timothy Amsterdam,” said Brandt.

“Swell.” She pushed the photo back again.

“He was an American spy,” Finch said. “During the war. Mostly in Paris. He turned commy near the end.”

“That’s not what I heard, Roscoe,” Trudy said. “I heard he’s all free market and apple pie. Sure, he cashed-in selling the Ruskies dirt. But that was a couple weeks before VE day. He was gonna be out of a job soon, I heard he was real selective in what he sold. It was out of date, redundant or generally misleading. He knew it would be useless as soon as the Nazis surrendered. The Russians were paying in captured SS bullion, so he took the gold and ran. You know, a spy needs a plan at the end of a war. They don’t fit back into society so well.”

“Really?” said Finch. “What was your plan?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That still makes him a double agent,” said Brandt. “There’s a warrant.”

“Okay,” said Trudy Parr. “So call the RCMP and the FBI. It’s a US federal rap. He’ll be extradited.”

“We want him,” said Finch. “The RCMP will get him eventually – we’ll hand him over when the hoopla’s over. But we want to make the arrest.”

“You want your pictures in the papers, is that it?.”

“Sure,” said Brandt. “Why not. We spend all our time sweeping up other people’s messes, and don’t get no thanks for it. Now we gotta big fish in our shitty little pond, and we wanna hook him.”

“What’s it got to do with me?”

“We figure you know where he is.”

“That’s a surprise,” said Trudy Parr.

“You were a spy, yourself,” said Finch.

Trudy Parr lit another cigarette.

“You was in Paris,” Brandt said.

“C’mon, Trudy,” Finch said. “We’re the cops. We know you were an Allied spy. You’re on at least three watch lists. And we know you worked with Timothy Amsterdam. We ain’t supposed to know it. It’s classified, I’ll grant you. But we know it all the same, and that makes you a legitimate lead.”

The traffic hissed by on the rainy street fifteen storeys below. Trudy Parr smoked.

“Just tell us if you’ve seen him.”

She picked up the photo once more and looked. Timothy had been a good agent. He deserved whatever he could scam out of the chaos. And he’d need it, too. He couldn’t have come back after the horror show and work in a hardware store. No one could.

She tossed the Foncie photograph back across the desk at Finch.

“It ain’t him,” she said.

“Oh, come on.”

“Look, Trudy,” said Brandt. “We’re colleagues, you and us. We don’t wanna have to bring you in, and make this all official.”

“Don’t you?” she said. “I wonder why that is. Perhaps because you’ve obtained most of your information illegally, from classified documents.”

“We don’t gotta bring her in,” said Finch. “We just gotta make her life difficult.”

“No,” said Brandt. “Let’s keep this friendly.”

“Friendly, my ass,” Finch said. “We cut this bitch way too much slack. She’s always cuttin’ some poor bastard up or breaking an entry. Most of the private dicks in this town are standing in soup lines while she drives round in her little red Porsche and has a top floor office in the Dominion Building. Where’s the money comin’ from for all that, Trudy?”

“We solve more cases than your standard soup line dick.”

Roscoe Finch clenched his fists in his lap.

“You know what your problem is, Trudy?” he said.

“I have some ideas I haven’t shared.”

“You’re not afraid of nothin’,” Finch said, standing up. “And that ain’t healthy. It ain’t like a dame. And maybe you’re not afraid of nothin’ because you need a lesson in what to be afraid of.”

“That’s dime store talk,” said Trudy Parr.

“Hey Roscoe,” Brandt said. “Take it down a notch.”

“Naw,” said Finch. “No way, She’s comin’ with us. Down to the docks. See how smart she is when she comes back with a busted nose.”

“I ain’t goin’,” said Brandt.

“What? You yellow over a skirt?” Finch said. “Ha!”

“No,” said Brandt. “I just don’t think you understand the seriousness of what you’re suggesting.”

“Fine,” Finch said, starting to move. “You go home and arrange some flowers. Me and Miss Parr are going for a ride.”

“Oh boy,” Brandt said, grimly.

As he came round the desk, Finch got an unexpected size six Chanel pump to the groin, and another in the chin. And as he stumbled to the floor, Trudy Parr retrieved a straight razor from where it was hidden under her chair. Then she stood, grabbed Roscoe Finch by his thinning hair, and held the razor’s edge firmly against the general area of his carotid artery.

“Don’t do it, Trudy,” Brandt said.

Finch coughed and whimpered.

“What else is there to do?” said Trudy Parr. “If I start letting this sort of thing slide, I might as well close the agency.”

“God! Trudy.” Olaf Brandt pointed at a trickle of blood dripping from Finch’s neck.

“Ah shit,” she said, and let Finch fall to the floor. “Mop this fucker up and take him back to the nursery.”

“Sure, sure,” said Brandt. He helped Finch to his feet and the men exited the office.

A moment later, the closet door next to Trudy Parr’s desk opened and a man with a scar on his left cheek stepped out.

“Glad to see you haven’t lost your panache,” said Timothy Amsterdam.

“They’re small time,” she said, and lit another cigarette. “You’ve got a train to catch.”

Amsterdam checked his wristwatch.

“Damn,” he said. “Well, it was a short but pleasant visit. Tell Crispin I said hello. And, oh! I almost forgot why I came by. We sort of lost touch, you and me, when the shooting stopped. I never got a chance to share the spoil with you. I figure I owe you something for not turning me over.”

He pulled three hand sized gold ingots, embossed with swastikas, from his satchel. They made a heavy, blunt thud when he placed them on the desk.

“That’s a load off,” Amsterdam said. “Those get heavy after a while.”

“You did kind of push your luck near the end,” said Trudy Parr. “Now nowhere is home.”

“I can’t stay put in one place more than forty-eight hours, anyway. Besides, there’s this new thing called the CIA. I hear they’re recruiting fellas like me. They’re kinda criminal, themselves. The outstanding warrant for my arrest will just make me more appealing.”

Trudy Parr watched as Timothy Amsterdam exited onto the street below, and walked toward the CPR station.

“You know,” Virginia said, coming into Trudy’s office with the mail. “It’s not even lunchtime yet, and you’ve already nearly cut off a cop’s head, and there’s a small fortune in Nazi gold on your desk.”

“It’s a glamorous life,” said Trudy Parr.

find out about Foncie Pulice here

the big what the hell

what’s happening down there
in the anywhere
where the sometime plays
and the invisible stare

where ticks blame tocks
and the strikes say we
the doc says psychosis and
I say soliloquy

where the nowhere fell
in the asylum cell
and inmates loiter
in the big what the hell