lost ironies

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Month: May, 2015

Monsanto Jesus

Things happen overnight. Objects materialise that weren’t there before, popping up like mushrooms, taking their permanent place in the world. When I wake up sometimes, I see trees on the street and boxy civic buildings in the distance, that weren’t there the day before. At night I hear the workers on hushed coffee breaks, pretending not to be there.

Daphne, the Social Worker at the drop-in, says that’s impossible, that I should increase my meds. She resembles a Disney character. When she talks to me, she’s all calm and full of hope, with her Pixar complexion and disproportionately large eyes. She tries to hide it with this Tank Girl thing she’s got going, multiple piercing, purple buzz-cut, wearing army surplus cargo shorts and combat boots. She even smokes cigarillos on her breaks, but none of it helps. When she sits with us in Group, she leans forward, nodding a lot and making hmmm sounds. When she talks, all of her sentences begin with, I wonder what it would look like if…. She calls it reframing. I think she needs a girlfriend.

I bring this up because of what happened last week. There’s been a billboard across the street from my room for as long as I can remember. It’s typically used to advertise the dreck of modern consumer society, thirty-six by twenty-four foot depictions of people blissful in their unfailing affection for useless products manufactured by companies and corporations that despise humanity, but love its money. The advertising is frequently misleading, illiterate and chalked full of elementary school errors. A recent ad, for example, for a Chartered Accountants’ office, stated that Truth is never objective. I had to look at that for months. I tried to help. I called the Accountants’ office to point out the faux pas. But maybe I was too emphatic. They used *69, and reported me to the police.

Anyway, it was round 2 a.m. last Wednesday morning. I was a little stoned on bud, and listening to Conspiracy Cavalcade, a radio program, hosted by Blake Willy, that skips into town off of the ionosphere every night from Portland, Oregon. They were talking about Bible prophecy and how Monsanto’s use of GMOs in food crops is hastening the Second Coming. I was taking notes, cross referencing on the internet and sending Monsanto vicious emails. I didn’t need anyone hastening the return of Jesus. My karma’s a little crispy.

After the top of the hour news, the special guest came on, the Very Reverend Clive Firefield of the Pentecostal Church of the Puissant Zealot. Puissant, what the hell was that? On the surface, at least, it was a word that absolutely oozed pornographic potential. I looked it up. Google corrected my spelling. I was disappointed.

“So, Reverend Firefield,” Blake Willy said, opening up the show. “Your new book is called Genetic Apocalypse.”

“That’s right, Blake,” the Reverend said. “It’s in stores now, and available on Amazon in hardcover and for ebook readers. Jesus has told me that He wants all of your listeners to buy my book, without delay. And just so you know, I’ll be donating 10% of the proceeds to the Church of the Puissant Zealot’s Outreach Program.”

“We’ll be opening up the phone lines in just a few minutes,” said Blake Willy. “But first, Reverend, tell me about this outreach you’re doing.”

“I’m so glad you asked, Blake. This is an angelically inspired program that reaches out to the shut-ins in all of the exclusive gated communities of America, especially in the Palm Springs area, where many of our wealthy seniors are shunned and isolated for reasons of their extreme prosperity, which has come to them through no fault of their own.”

“That does seem unfair,” Blake Willy said.

“It is,” said Firefield. “It’s desperately and unspeakably unfair when the rich are blamed for their good fortune under Jesus. Donations are welcomed. Halleluiah! Will you say a prayer with me, Blake?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“So,” said Blake Willy, “explain, for the listeners, your ideas round the inevitable genetically induced Armageddon.”

“With pleasure, Blake,” Reverend Firefield said. “Man is absolutely facing a genetic apocalypse. Animal genes spliced into turnips and apples. Rodent DNA changing men into rat-blooded chimeras. Bacteria breeding with viruses to create vacteria.”

“Vacteria?”

“Jesus weeps, Blake. I saw it on the internet. What has man done to the natural order of things? How could man have been so negligent, so irresponsible?”

“It’s like a bad acid trip.”

“Indeed,” the Reverend said, “but I believe, based on revelation, that it’s actually none of man’s doing. I’m convinced by prophecy, that man’s attack on the genetic structure of Earth’s living things is really occurring due to divine necessitarianism. Monsanto maybe facilitating the genetic apocalypse, but it is the influential hand of God at work, hastening the fall of an evil world. It is the wage of sin. And when it happens, it will happen very quickly.”

“Just so the listeners know,” Blake Willy said. ”Another word for necessitarianism is determinism, which means the cataclysmic genetic alterations you describe in your book, Reverend Firefield, were bound to occur and are the inevitable outcome of antecedent states of affairs, is that not true?”

“Ah, that wasn’t on the preprogram list of questions your producer provided me with, Blake.”

“Okay,” said Willy, “let me ask you this, then. You keep using the word man in reference to the cause of the genetic apocalypse, where do women enter into it?”

“Women?”

“Yeah, women. You must know some.”

“Ha! Of course,” Firefield said. “You mean women.”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is an equal opportunity Armageddon, Blake. Women, household pets. Everyone is welcome to either ascend to Heaven or fry for all eternity in a lake of fire. Praise the Lord!”

“Does this have anything to do with the apocalyptic Blood Moon theory?” Blake Willy said. “The one that says we’re all toast come September?”

“Indirectly.”

“Because if it does, I have a question about that.”

“Shouldn’t we be breaking for station ID, or something?” said Firefield.

“Let me worry about that,” said Willy. “And answer me this. You evangelical nutty bunnies always predict the same thing: The End Times are coming, and with them the collapse of institutions. Banks closures. The Stock Market doing a face-plant. Planes falling from the sky. The disintegration of governments. Families being ripped apart. You predict the gnashing of teeth, confusion, despair, gerbils doing it with chinchillas, mass chaos, fear, grief, zombie squeegee kids and judgment by a higher power. And yet you inevitably do two very interesting things, considering the physical world is coming an end. First, you try to instill fear by claiming that the apocalypse will make our nation vulnerable and that our enemies will attack us, even though we won’t be here to be attacked because God will have assigned us to other areas of the multiverse. And second, you plan on making huge profits off of books and movies, even though your publicists will be in hell, and you, supposedly, will be sitting at the right hand of God. In light of this, how do you claim moral legitimacy? How do you square it with God?”

“Let’s leave God out of this, Blake. We’re talking about Christianity, at the moment.”

“Okay,” said Blake Willy, “you heard it here first, folks. Now we’ll take a break to hear from our beloved sponsors. Coming up, your calls, and later – when things go terribly wrong and evolution happens out of sequence – archeologists find evidence of a failed ancient civilisation that discovered the aerosol can before the wheel, and sprayed itself out of existence. Back in a few.”

That’s when I turned it off. I had another toke, and began to write haikus. I’m good at haikus, and I do my best work before daybreak.

welfare cut me off
food bank just gives me tuna
I feed alley cats

That sort of thing. I know, it’s pretty impressive, but I’m humble. I intend to be published posthumously.

So, it wasn’t long after I started writing that I heard noise coming from across the street. It was 3:00 a.m., and a crew was taking down the billboard ad for Starbuck’s new Marshmallow Pineapple Macchiato, and replacing it with something else, which was fine by me. I was sick of looking at dementedly enthusiastic youngsters quaffing back candy flavoured fidget-provoking genetically modified café plonk. I just wished Daphne was there to witness it. This proved that things did happened at night, while the world slept and I tried to shoehorn life’s meaning into seventeen syllables.

Changing a billboard sign at 3:00 a.m. was strange enough. But the crew doing the job was even stranger, dressed in choir gowns with wings and drenched in an eerie light without a source. And were some of them actually flying? Holy fuck, yeah! I looked at what was left of the blunt in the ashtray — still half a joint. It was some good shit, but seeing floating choirboys was unexpected, even a little scary. Then it occurred to me that they were angels. Maybe it was the olanzapine. Irrationally, I thought for a minute of quitting weed, but I still had a quarter kilo in a watertight container in the toilet tank. I couldn’t exactly donate it to the Boys and Girls Club. I lit up again, and watched the angels do their good work, whatever that was.

At some point I fell asleep listening to the Butthole Surfers on YouTube, and didn’t open my eyes again until after 10:00 a.m. After I had some tuna for breakfast and read some of the more interesting overnight spam, I took a look out the window. And there it was, the new billboard sign.

Monsanto. Proud to partner with God to bring you the end of the world.

Son of a bitch! Firefield was right.

And I had to admit, it was brilliant. There He stood, a twenty foot high Caucasian Jesus, whiter than Beaver Cleaver, holding a GMO turnip, surrounded by genetically modified people and foods from all of the nations of the world. He had a wide toothy grin and an I♥Monsanto badge pinned to His robes. Everyone was smiling and ready for the Rapture, even the Hindus, Taoists and Pagans. No more niche marketing, no more bullying farmers. Now Monsanto would be righteous, and everything to everybody. And the Lord would be their spokesman.

At the drop-in, most of the guys were in the back alley drinking pilfered hand sanitizer, so I had the place to myself. I sat on a couch and was leafing through a back issue of Guns & Ammo when Daphne came by.

“How are you, Arthur?” she said. “What’s new?”

“People never really want to know that,” I said. “Why do they ask?”

“No,” she said, sitting next to me, “I’m truly interested.”

She smelled of musky chocolate and sounded sincere, so I told her about the billboard, and she said –

“Hmmm, I wonder what it would look like if we lived in a world where humans didn’t rely on invisible gods and evil corporations.”

“I guess if those things disappeared tomorrow,” I said, trying to sound sane, “it would just create a vacuum that would likely be filled by other human systems, perhaps far worse than what we have now. Who knows what they might be? Maybe God and Monsanto are protecting us from a far more odious and unknowable fate.”  

“That’s a very interesting observation, Arthur,” she said.

“Thanks. I read it in an issue of National Review in my psychiatrist’s waiting room.”

“So,” Daphne said, “you’ll be looking at Monsanto Jesus on the billboard across the street for the next couple of months.”

“It won’t be so bad, if I can forget about all the splicing.”

“Maybe the angels will come back,” she said.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

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the woman in the red raincoat

Vancouver, 1949

Trudy Parr had been falling all of her life. It was an enduring dream. From a hotel room window, high over the street. She would open it and edge out, earnest in her aim, nauseous from the height. And, having written her brief neatly folded note of apology, she’d fall. Past flags and lighted windows, the moon and tresses of neon, the redemptive pavement rushing toward her. Since childhood. But she had always woken before impact. In her bed, in the dark of night or grey dawn, hearing perhaps a lonesome bird just outside.

But not that night. That night she didn’t wake before shattering like a mirror, seeing herself reflected ten thousand times.

Now she sat on the edge of her bed, smoking a cigarette, seeing the concrete, reliving the stunning ruby flash.

It was 4 a.m.

From her window, she saw the freighters on English Bay shine like cities on the water. It was early July. The sun would be prodding the eastern horizon. She looked west. Her dream had had the density of stone. It would have sunk into the bay, had there been a way.

She snuffed out her cigarette, and had a shower.

10 am Commercial Drive

“Caffè lungo and Cornetti,” said Trudy Parr. “Have you seen Melisa?”

“She no come in yet today,” said Tony Nuzzo, in his broken English, starting Trudy’s order. “That’s strange because she’s usually in round eight o’clock. She come in yesterday, but she very sad I think.”

“Sad?”

“She gets that way, you know?”

“Yes.” Trudy knew. Melisa Patton did get sad. They’d been friends of all their lives, and she could remember Melisa’s long years of sadness. She was an artist, a painter of stunning canvases, sold in galleries as far away as New York and London.

“You take a table,” Tony Nuzzo told Trudy. “I bring it to you.”

Trudy sat by the widow. Commercial Drive was a busy east Vancouver high street, in an Italian neighbourhood. Through the window she saw merchants and customers hurry by. Tony Nuzzo arrived with her order. He’d placed two small chocolate cookies next to her Cornetti.

“A little chocolate for you,” he said. “You too thin, Miss Parr.”

After twenty years in Canada, Tony Nuzzo still held onto old country ideas. “A man likes a woman with a little width, if you don’t mind me to say so.”

Trudy smiled.

“I’d like to sit down with you,” Nuzzo said. “May I?”

“Of course.”

“Grazie, grazie.” Nuzzo sat. “It’s about your friend, Melisa. It’s none-a-my-business, but she really didn’t look so good yesterday. She’s pale. No smile. No, Hello Tony, how you today? And it’s July. It’s warm. But wears this paint stained sweater, long sleeves. And I see bandages poking out. Some dry blood. Her wrists, maybe her whole arms, wrapped in bandages.”

Trudy tried not to look worried. She’d attempted to return Melisa’s call from the day before, last evening and this morning. Her secretary had said the caller, Melisa, sounded especially unhappy. There’d been no answer when Trudy called back. It was Melisa’s studio number. She was almost always there. Now this. Bandages. Melisa had cut herself before, when things were bad. Her arms. Her legs.

“Did she say anything when she was here?”

“No,” said Nuzzo. “She just had two espresso, bang bang, one after the other, and left. Maybe she’s unlucky in love, huh?”

“Maybe,” Trudy said. She bit a cookie and sipped her coffee. “I’ll ask around, check her apartment and studio. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

“That’s fine,” said Nuzzo. He stood up with a broad smile. “You good at that kinda stuff, you bet.”

The apartment and studio were on the Drive, a half block away from one other. The apartment door was locked, no answer. But she found the studio door open, when she arrived. She went in.

The large room reflected Melisa’s obsession with neatness, in spite of the paints and canvasses, splattered palettes and linseed oil soaked rags.

On the easel was an unfinished painting of a woman, seen from behind. She was walking away from the viewer, in the rain, without an umbrella. Her coat was bright red, with darker rustier shades in its creases and folds. The surrounding colours, however, people, buildings and automobiles, were bleak and hopeless. It was a treasure, nonetheless, even to Trudy’s untrained eye.

On a countertop, under a lamp, she discovered a roll of gauze and a small metal case containing blue Gillette razor blades. Next to them was a bloody rag and a beaker stained with a dry rust coloured substance. She shivered. Melisa was talented and a striking woman, educated and revered. What provoked her?

“Hello.” A voice came from behind her. She turned round and saw a small dapper man, in a suit and holding his hat in his hand. “Have you seen Miss Patton?” he said.

“No,” Trudy said. “Who are you?”

“A patron. An admirer. A costumer.” His eyes fixed on the painting. “Ah, she’s nearly done. It’s exquisite.”

Trudy Parr looked over her shoulder.

“For you?” she said.

“Indeed,” said the man. “A special commission. A vision.”

He walked into the studio, up to the painting, removing his soft leather gloves. Then he ran his fingers over it gently, feeling the texture of the brush strokes. His eyes were closed, as he seemed to experience a strange ecstasy.

When he was done, he wiped his brow with a yellow silk handkerchief. “Do you know anything of her whereabouts?” he said.

“No.”

Trudy saw odd markings on the backs of his hands. Circles and cruciforms, a cursive script she didn’t recognise. They might have been tattoos, but looked more like blemishes. The man noticed, and put on his gloves again.

“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” he said.

“Some have said so.”

Suddenly he didn’t seem so small, his eyes were dark. She swore she heard a whispering chorus.

“It’s a hard life for a woman,” he said. “Is it not?”

“That’s a peculiar thing to say.”

“I mean,” said the man, “for a woman to establish herself, in the world of men.”

“What’s your game, mister?”

“If you find her,” he said, taking a card from his shirt pocket, and handing it to her. “Would you call me? I understand that you find people for a living, among other things. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Trudy Parr looked at the card. No name. Only a phone number.

“I think you’re the last person I’d call if I find her,” she said.

“That’s entirely the wrong attitude, Miss Parr.”

“You know my name?”

“My knowledge of things here is limited, but I know that much.”

He grinned, but if he meant it to be agreeable, he failed.

Putting on his hat, he walked to the door. But before he left, he turned and spoke again.

“This painting,” he said. “Melisa is only repaying a favour, in creating it. A favour she asked of me, and that I granted. Do you think I’m wrong for expecting something in return?”

Trudy Parr said nothing, only wished that he would go away. He did, with a nod, but without a sound, no footfalls as he proceeded down the hall.

7 pm Tony Nuzzo’s

“And so far that’s all I know,” Trudy said. She had intentionally failed to mention the small man and the strange whispering refrain that had surrounded him.

“A mystery,” said Tony Nuzzo. “She’s gotta be round somwheres.”

“She’ll show up.”

A man in a summer suit, needing a press, came into the shop, and looked at the menu.

“Can a fella get an ordinary cuppa joe round here?” he said.

“I make,” said Tony Nuzzo, getting up. He knew a flatfoot when he saw one. “I make. I know whatsa guy like you likes.”

It was police detective Olaf Brandt.

“That’s fine,” he said, and dropped a nickel onto the counter.

Nuzzo looked at the small coin, and rolled his eyes.

Brandt took a seat across from Trudy Parr.

“I hear you been looking for Melisa Patton,” he said.

“That’s right.” She braced herself. Cops like Brandt didn’t patronise places like Tony Nuzzo’s, unless there was a reason.

“It’s bad, Trudy,” he said. “We found her this afternoon. She took a room at the Astoria Hotel.”

“And?”

“She jumped,” he said. “Early this morning round four a.m., best we can tell. She mentioned you in her suicide note. How you were best friends. How she was sorry.”

“Four? This morning?” Trudy recalled the sequence and terrible clarity of her dream. “Why’d it take you this long to contact me? I’ve been calling in to the office all day.”

Tony Nuzzo arrived with a cup of black coffee and put it down in front of Brandt. Then he stood and listened.

“No one noticed her until this afternoon,” Brandt said, “when somebody looked out of a window. She fell onto an awning, not the street. Sorry, Trudy. Her note said something about a fella that wouldn’t leave her alone. He wanted a painting in the worst way. She said she didn’t have the blood in her to finish it. I guess that’s artist talk. Her note said that you should run like hell if you meet the runt. A real little swell. Dresses like a millionaire. She didn’t want to write his whole name in the note, said it would be bad juju for anyone who read it. Called him Bub, for short. We’ll keep an ear to the ground, see if he shows up.”

“He ran his hand over that painting like he was gonna have one hell of an orgasm,” Trudy Parr recalled.

“Who?” said Nuzzo.

Brandt sipped his coffee, and raised an eye brow.

“That’s some good coffee,” he said. “You don’t get this downtown.”

the soup line

Whiskey’s hard to get to know. A guy can spend his whole life trying, trying real hard. But in the end, laying there, raving in his wet brain hospital bed, with the priest shriving and the Catholic sisters tut-tutting, he doesn’t know whiskey any better than the day he met his first amber shot glass. And when he finally checks out, there isn’t enough left of him to look a friend in the eye and thank him for a hell of a good time.

Lots of guys turn to booze, sure. But Arson Willkie waited until misfortune whispered into his unguarded ear. He didn’t meet whiskey until after the trouble hit. So, I guess Arson was a drunk in the waiting. His reason and biology just itching to jump out of the window, when the moment was right. And you can’t help a guy like that. He isn’t going to take the pledge. He knows his feverish way of drinking is suicide. But if you say so, he’ll just ask why it’s taking so damn long.

The times of apple pie and stacked ham sandwiches ended when the market went bust in ’29. That’s when I first ran into Arson Willkie. Like him, most of the men who ended up in the soup line had been working in the woods, mining or fishing off the coast. Vancouver was where we landed, a stockpile of excess labour waiting for high noon.

A working man can be a fragile item, and our new found unemployment and poverty unnerved us. The women in the line had to be stoic on our behalf, as we queued up with our tin cups, meditating on the riots to come. The dismal relief camps hadn’t been thought of yet, and the conversation in line was about striking, occupying, pain and protest.

It was a rainy afternoon in February when Arson Willkie showed up in the city dump soup line, the day he finally gave in to his hunger. That’s the way it was with a lot of us, being too proud for too long for the good of our own bellies. At first, a guy would recognise things had gotten tough, but believed that hunger would never overtake him. But in 1929, hunger was catching up to everyone. The same way sleeping in a flea mansion flophouse or squatting in the dump was.

Before the crash had closed down the mills and logging operations, Arson had been a blunt, profane gang foreman, who’d rode a motorcycle from camp to camp, wearing leather jodhpurs, goggles and high laced logging boots, in full charge of himself and the men around him. Now he was at the mercy of a stony world. Maybe he always had been, but never knew it.

A soup line moves slowly; it gives a guy time to think about the ways he’s gone wrong. The march toward the tall steaming pots was nothing more than an ankle iron shuffle, while a preacher, standing on a beer crate, busted a gut over the mercy of Jesus and the grace He’d bestowed upon us, even those in league with Satan, because for a simple down payment of a forgiveness prayer, and a commitment to sin no more, Jesus would greet a man with open arms.

The trick was that a man had to find Jesus to enjoy salvation, like a drowning man might have to take time out from drowning, in the midst of his thrashing and gasping, to find his own rescuer to pull him out of the choppy grasp of the chuck. It was a strange kind of logic, only understood by those blinded by a certain sort of light. For the rest of us, it was just a Victrola playing backward.

Arson was greeted by some of the men in line, fore and aft, on his first day. But he held his head down, in the shame the new ones sometimes showed, the ones who’d thought that they were different and would survive, with a grin, what was shaping up to be the Great Depression. He took his tin cup, and rambled up to the soup pots, and the church women, with their ascetic calm and blame assigning eyes.

One of them handed him some bread and emptied her ladle into his cup.

“Say a thankful prayer to Jesus, friend,” she said.

Jesus was on furlough if He didn’t know, without a prayer, how grateful Arson was for his crummy little cup of soup and slice of sawdust bread. And he wanted to say so, but the woman’s terrible earnestness was a sword and shield, and he was unarmed.

“I prayed last night,” he said, gentler than he felt. “Before I went to sleep here in the rain, and I woke with a rat in my beadroll. Jesus sure is a puzzling fella.”

The woman blushed. Not for what Arson had said, but for how he had said it. It didn’t come out verbose, like so many other penniless censures of the obvious. And she feared him. She recognised the latent fury and subversion in his unshaven face, and saw a storm, of other men’s making, on his horizon.

“Well, that’s fine,” she muttered. “You move along, now.”

And he did.

What the church woman didn’t know was that even a man like Arson Willkie ached for passage into the mystic, same as her. But he knew it wasn’t in the cards for a bum in a squat, who didn’t belong anymore, who’d been pegged surplus by the world. He couldn’t reach the divine, riding on the same Sunday school chauvinism as her. And that night he spent his last dollar on his first bottle of hard liquor. It was the first and last bottle he ever shared. Within days, he’d taken to the streets, begging for pennies to buy more.

For a decade, I watched him drink like a true believer in the salvation of self-annihilation, during the chaos and hobo uprisings, and for another five years after that, as we fought through Europe, him drinking what he could find along the way, and detoxing painfully when there was nothing. He was hip deep in his own strange divinity, by then. By the time we were demobilised, he was ready for the soup line again, even though the Depression was over. He removed his stripes and badges, and sold his medals, then he slept in his fatigues for two years before he ended up in Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, tied to a bed.

I was there the moment he died, his wild eyes gone blind and his mind tied to a rock.

“You there, Mickey?” he said, sensing my company. I stood by the bed.

“I am,” I said.

“Got a drink for your ol’ sergeant?”

A nurse in the room looked up form a chart.

“Sorry, Arson,” I said. “There’s a no hooch order in effect.”

“That never stopped us.”

I looked at the nurse, and said, “I think the order sticks in this vicinity.”

“Do you think I’ll see God?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied. I wasn’t religious. But in the war, I’d lied to a lot of dying men asking after God. “God’ll be there,” I said, “behind the bar with a bottle and a jigger.”

“That’s a fine picture, Mickey.”

His hand was cold but strong when I took it. Another thing I recalled from comforting the dying at war.

“I guess there’s nothing after this, for a fella like me,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Nothingness can be a fine thing, though,” he said. “Quiet as a forest after a rain.” His grip on my hand weakened.

Arson Willkie died in the ghostly isolation of the insane, his hasty spirit blowing town like a guy dodging a loan shark, riding his motorcycle on a highway somewhere toward his own Heaven, before God knew a damn thing about it. A couple of days later, I poured a swallow onto his grave, and left the rest of the bottle at his tombstone. It was February, and it was raining.

the propagandist

There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined, and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do, he knows that they’re smiling with him.

It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra, with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world, my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.

So, on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago, I had decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. Now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership, where I would finally take delivery.

I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways, with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers, all headed toward some undiscovered place, worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious, sky-high burgundy draping, beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance, with drivers and passengers standing on roads, admiring their cherished vehicles, with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.

The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine design. It was to be a joy to possess, for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.

Now, if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.

“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”

“Bean & Flintch,” I said

“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

He engaged the metre.

“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.

“I’m taking delivery.”

“Hey, that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”

I thought about that for a moment – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha; remembering the months it took to get it right on paper; and then what it took to convince my agent, and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.

“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading, almost on his knees.

Then there were the bribes, payouts and payola.

“Nah,” I said, to some kinda operator, remembering it all. “I was just lucky.”

Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city, and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day, and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.

“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.

“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”

“But you’re driving like a tourist.”

“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”

His hat was a faux military officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.

“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”

“Then take my word for it, and relax.”

We stopped in a stationary line of traffic, and he turned up the a.m. radio. After an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.

Almost instantly, Jimmy tapped the dashboard above the radio and said, “That’s a red tune.”

“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s red, commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”

“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”

“Mass subliminal conditioning?”

There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, no more WW2. The dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands. There was a fear vacuum, and space to shoehorn in a conspiracy or two.

“I don’t get it,” I lied.

“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”

“I read the papers.”

“Well, McCarthy claims there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US,” said Jimmy. “In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song, and the homo who’s singin’ it.”

Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready bobby-soxer harem say?

“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.

“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy continued. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”

“I guess.”

“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of listening to the song, ‘til I learned ‘em.”

Jimmy turned down the radio.

“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —

Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property 

Samantha Samantha
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Samantha Samantha
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common 

“What do you think, huh?” Jimmy said.

“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.

“You gotta agree, if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey, I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”

“It’s shocking.”

“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”

“No,” I said.

“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”

“It’s free, by the way,” I said.

“What?” said Jimmy.

“First verse, third line should be: In a jar where it can never be free. You sang it, seen.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.

“No,” I said.

“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”

“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.

“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.

“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”

“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.

“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”

“As close as it gets, this model year.”

His look of suspicion returned.

“Red,” he muttered, and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”

Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —

“You fight in the war?” he said.

“No, I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets and movie trailers.”

“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”

He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had lead me to a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. But I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.

“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, eating almost nothing, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”

“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.

“I’m sorry. Things change”

“Say, what’s your name?”

“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.

“So you wrote that song, then!”

“Yes I did.”

“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”

When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch, the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.

“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”

“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”

“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac, and run it into a wall.”

I handed him four dollars.

“You know,” I said. “Maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”

“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.

I did.

On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried hosey figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.

“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!

“Yes it is,” I said, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.

“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”

He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me and it off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.

“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb, and shoot at it from my apartment window with a .22.”

“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”

“I will.”

Flintch was now thoughtfully inhaling the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth through his nose, like a carny in a tattoo parlour.

“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His finger nails were sharp, and too long.

“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”

“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.

Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”

“That seems possible,” I said.

“And never sneak up on his left.”

“Okay.”

“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”

“Is my car ready?” I said.

“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”

“What? How do you know?”

Daryl stared at me a second, like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up.

Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.

“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”

“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.

That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt, too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts, and from which the tackle of an idle age would be carelessly trafficked.

the high school reunion organiser

It was still December, but Reggie had a bug up his ass about the high school reunion in June. He didn’t seem the type to me, to organise something so mundane. But he was on the line, breathing heavily, while I examined an ancient list of guests to our long ago graduation party. How the list came into my possession remains a mystery.

“You there, Reuben?” said Reggie. The line was bad.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Just hang on.”

“I’d like to get this done today.”

“Well you’ll have to bear with me, Reggie. This isn’t digital, and it’s a very long list. It’s not even alphabetical, and it’s written in yellow felt pen from the 90s that’s hard to see on white paper and smells like bananas.”

“It’s important, man.”

“Hang on….,” I said, coming to the end of the list for the third time. “Okay, that’s it. No Nipsey on the list.”

“He’s gotta be there, man,” Reggie said.

“But he’s not.”

“Look again,” he said.

“No way, Reggie.”

“C’mon. It’s right there in front of you, on your desk. This could be a national security issue. I’m trying to keep the NSA off your door step.”

“Really?” I said.

“Fuck yeah.”

“It’s a class reunion, Reggie. You’re organising a crummy class reunion. How can that be a national security issue?”

“It wasn’t at first,” he said. “Now it is.”

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll scan it into my computer. Then I’ll email you the file.”

“Don’t scan it, for Christ sake. If it goes digital, we’ll lose control of it. If you email it, it’ll end up parked on every cloud server from here to New Delhi.”

“Then I’ll send it ground mail.”

“They’ll snag it somewhere along the line.”

“Courier…?”

“Fuck no!”

“Then what?” I said. “And why are you so paranoid? If the spooks want this so bad, if they’re willing to go to such lengths to get it, then I don’t want it in my house. And maybe I don’t want to be talking about it on the telephone, either.”

“Don’t worry about this telephone call,” Reggie said. “I’ve arranged for it to be scrambled at both ends.”

“How?”

“White label STU-VI voice encryption device,” Reggie said. “I bought it at the Espionage Barn. The one on the highway, just outside of Mississauga.”

“Espionage Barn? You’re starting to scare me, Reggie. I thought you were a journalist, not a spy.”

“Think about it, man,” Reggie said. “I can get killed for being either one, now days. Why shouldn’t I expand my horizons?”

“Yeah?” I said. “Well I just design progress bars and little arrow wheels that go round and round in infinite circles for software companies. I don’t want your world coming into my living room.”

“Okay, okay,” said Reggie. “I guess it doesn’t matter that much, anyway. Finding Nipsey this way, I mean. I’d just hoped that that old list might have some traceable info, like an old phone number.”

“Well, it’s a real shame Nipsey can’t come. Look, why can’t you just look in the phonebook?”

“It’s alright,” Reggie said. “In fact, let’s forget about it. In the end, he just turned out to be a special ops clown, anyway. We’ll party without him.”

“Special ops?”

“Yeah,” said Reggie. “He was recruited by the Canadian Army back in 2005.”

“But isn’t it a little hard, on your part in that case, to call him a clown, if he made that kind of sacrifice for his country.”

“No no,” Reggie said. “You don’t get it. He was an actual special ops clown. He joined the Canadian Special Operations Regiment Evil Clown Unit, and was deployed in Afghanistan in operation Look Under Your Bed. It was just a small part of a bigger alternative frontline combat experiment called Cultural Torpedo. They used the scariest elements of western culture to freak out the Taliban fighters – zombies, Catholic nuns, that sort of thing.”

“And evil clowns,” I said. “How come you know all of this, but you still can’t find him in the phonebook? This is all a little hard to believe.”

“An evil Special Operations clown only gets found if he wants to, I guess.”

“Are you on medication, Reggie?”

“Hell no!” he said, a little too loudly. “And it’s all true, man. His character was Tipsy Nipsey. He walked around the battlefield half-cut, in costume and full makeup, with a bottle of cheap fortified wine in his hand, showing his fangs and puking on insurgents. That was his gimmick. His weapon of choice was a Benelli M4 Super 90 combat shotgun.”

“An evil clown with a shotgun….”

“There was about thirty of them in the unit,” Reggie said. “One day it’ll all come out, baby. I learned about it by mistake when I was investigating the shady goings-on at the Kandahar Tim Horton’s, for the Globe and Mail.”

“You’re killing me, here.”

“Oh yeah, man,” Reggie said. “Turns out Nipsey’s cover, when he wasn’t on a mission, was manager of the only place in Afghanistan you could get a double-double. When he was working in the store, he had a hairnet, latex gloves, false name badge, the works. Great disguise.”

“This is disturbing, Reggie.”

“Yeah?” said Reggie. “Well you should have been on the other side. You gotta understand, the Taliban recruited fighters from all of the Islamic countries. Some were pretty savvy citizens of the world. But mostly, they were just a bunch of bumpkins with AK-47s. And there may be no God but Allah, baby, but you should see a bunch of Taliban farm boys shit their drawers when thirty evil clowns jump out from behind a rock and attack, fully armed, most of them cannibals, degenerate drunks, tax evaders and sexual predators, with the really creepy makeup and the spandex costumes.”

“Spandex?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” Reggie said. “Beer bellies, genital warts, skinny legs and spandex. Whoa! I’m breaking out in a sweat just talking about it.”

“Cannibals?”

“A couple of ‘em, maybe. Sure, why the hell not? It all depends on how you define the word.”

“You know, Reggie,” I said. “Maybe you’re not the guy to organise a high school reunion.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What about Isabelle Waslington?” I said. “Why don’t you hand the torch to her? She was a good little organiser, back when I knew her.”

“Sorry to break your heart,” Reggie said. “But she’s a Stasi agent.”

“What? The Stasi doesn’t even exist anymore.”

“Ha!” he said. “That’s what you think.”

“Okay, what about Elmo Spitz? He organised the high school seniors’ Summer Dance. The theme was Rhumba to the Toppa, remember?”

“He’s a Fundamentalist Christian Survivalist,” said Reggie. “Wanted by the FBI. Connections to the Area 51 Truth Through Sublimation Guerrilla Movement.”

“Impossible,” I said. “He’s a female impersonator with seven cats, and an indoor herb garden. He does needlepoint. He belongs to Greenpeace, for the love of Pete.”

“Good cover, huh?”

“I can’t believe this, Reggie. I went to high school with these people.” Line two on my telephone started to blink and buzz. “Look, there’s someone on the other line. I really have to go.”

“You gotta listen to me,” Reggie said. “Nipsey’s out there. And he’s one dangerous S.O.B. He’s been a full-on psychopath since the UC Berkeley intensive medical crack cocaine trials, and the CIA neo-MK-ULTRA experiments. Now he’s part of a secret domestic evil clown death squad, sponsored by Canada, the US and Venezuela. They’re targeting environmentalists and Keanu Reeves. I just hope he doesn’t show up at your door. And just so you know, the high school reunion’s just my cover, man. I’m doing pure investigative journalism, here. I swear, I’m gonna blow the top off the evil clown story. If you hang up on me now, I can’t help you.”

“I have to go, Reggie,” I said. “I’m sure that if Tipsy Nipsey’s loose out there, the NSA or the RCMP or the FBI will catch up with him, and get him the help he needs. By the way, I know you say it’s just a cover, but send me an invitation if you pull off this high school reunion thing. And maybe you should visit your doctor, just to touch base, you know?”

“Don’t do it,” said Reggie. “Don’t hang up.”

“Goodbye, Reggie.”

I hung up, and punched line two. Things were starting to stack up. I had email to catch up on, and deadlines to panic over. My day was turning out to be grimmer than I’d hoped.

“Hello?” I said.

“That you, Droolin’ Reuben?”

“Yeah, Nipsey. It’s me.”

“Reggie’s been callin’ round,” Tipsy Nipsey said.

“I know. I just got off the phone with him.”

“He’s gonna be a problem if we want to ice Keanu.”

“We’ll see,” I said. “We’ll know more in the fullness of time.”

“Maybe,” Nipsey said. “But I say we wack Reggie hard, before he goes leaking something to AP.”

“Let’s wait and see.”

“We still on for the David Suzuki job, tonight?” Nipsey said, mercifully changing the subject.

“Yup, the spandex is in the dryer.”

“How are the genital warts?” he asked.

“I got ointment.”