lost ironies

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Month: July, 2015

3 rules

In the neighbourhood where I grew up, we had three rules.

Beware of the guy on the curb, with dark glasses, saying — Crazy man, crazy — snapping his fingers out of time to absent music, and smoking cigarettes without inhaling. This is the guy who bought his zoot suit at a department store with his mother’s money, instead of from a teamster off the back of a truck in an alley. This is the guy with the loafers where there oughta be spectators, and corduroy where there oughta be sharkskin.

And never ignore the passions of a one armed woman, the one on Union Street who washes dishes at the White Lunch, and reads the Raymond Chandler novels to the old blind Navy boys. The one with the room over the butcher, just up from the Dime-a-Dance, where the cheap .38s explode on Saturday night, but the cops don’t show because they’re playing blackjack in a room at the Ivanhoe Hotel.

And never accept absolution from ol’ Father Nick at St Mary’s Cathedral. The guy with the pencil mustache and the patent leather collar. Who smells like sulfur the way some fellas smell like Aqua Velva. Who clips his nails in the confessional, anoints the dying with hair tonic and locks the joint each night with a Solomon key. Who cheats at bingo, calls Jesus Jake and offers up saltines and Orange Crush for the Eucharist.

These were the rules we lived by in my day. Things have changed mightily.

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the pollen eaters

They had come to the point in their conversation where one was supposed to say something hurtful, or at least I know you are but what am I. Surprising himself, he said neither. She, on the other hand, called him an ungrateful bastard, which is not to say that he didn’t appreciate all she had done, or that she was a difficult person. He was grateful enough, and she was normally a very pleasant and intelligent woman. But every romance is born with a stale date, and acknowledging theirs, he had decided to do what others might think unimaginable, and end the liaison rather than face the quiet self-inflicted sorrow of a loveless relationship.

“I truly believe we must depart each other’s company,” Thomas Wilcox said, there in front of the art gallery, where the van Gogh exhibited hung. Then he turned and walked away.

“Real men don’t walk away,” Natalie Bellamy shouted at his back, making small fists at her side.

“Then real men are rare,” he said, without turning round.

Their romance had been a splendid one. Or, at least like most lovers, this is what they believed, and belief is always the sworn enemy of fiction.

And their lives, on the surface, were good, each enjoying personal prosperity and apparent occupational satisfaction.

She was a ghostwriter, creating honoured thespians out of dreadful actors, and admired statesmen out of hated and moronic politicians, by stealthily writing their autobiographies, which otherwise would have been illiterate and delusional.

He was a psychologist, who, thought to have an uncommon tolerance for blood soaked histrionics, specialised in adolescent counselling.

They had met at a lecture entitled The Rise and Long Awaited Fall of Idiot Culture. Afterwards, there was cake and coffee in the lobby, and they chatted over Sachertorte and steaming lattes. As her clients’ conversation-killing need for confidentiality became obvious, he bravely attempted to explain why idiopathic avascular necrosis of the femoral head was still lacking as a clinical entity. And by 11:00 p.m., they were swimming in an ocean of rhapsodic sexual bliss only the truly repressed are capable of, when their moment has finally arrived.

After that, it was all candlelight, dreamy eyed weekends, and journeys out of town to quaint bed-and-breakfasts where they would playfully bicker over the Sunday New York Times crossword, walk hand-in-hand on beaches, and in the spring and summer, do the thing they loved most when in each other’s company. They would watch the bees.

“They’re all dying,” she said grimly one day, on an island in the Gulf. They were standing in a field of sunflowers, watching as a flock of healthy bees flew from one flower to the next. “It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. They’re made by Bayer, the aspirin people.”

“I know,” he said. “I had a patient who committed suicide over it.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, she sent Bayer an email demanding that they stop making the stuff. If they didn’t, she said, she’d cut her wrists. They didn’t stop, and, well, you know. There was more behind it, of course. I’d had her GP prescribe an SSRI, but finding right one before a tragedy occurs is problematic sometimes.”

“That’s terrible.”

It was, and a tear fell.

“How do you cope?” she said.

“Mostly,” he replied, “I try to keep my screams to myself.”

She stopped thinking about bees when she heard him say it, and reached out and touched his cheek.

“You’ve never said anything like that before, Thomas.”

“You’ve never asked. Besides, the fear of an outcome always goes away eventually.”

“What does that mean?” she said.

“It means that you’ll eventually get used to the idea that the bees are doomed, and I’ll ultimately become accustomed to the idea that I lose teenaged clients to suicide.”

“That can’t be true,” she said, and wondered if the comment was made on impulse, or if it originated elsewhere.

“It’s a textbook truth, nothing more.”

“I don’t want to get used to the idea of doomed bees,”

Somehow, the trip lost its magic after that. Things had shifted, something hidden was revealed. They departed early.

On the ferry, they stood together on deck, silently watching the sea. It seemed very still, in spite of the ferry’s pace. He only spoke once, asking her to drive when they docked. They didn’t touch.

He presented her with his silence in the days that followed. There were no more playful work-interrupting phone calls, no more shared coffee bar detective novels. When she called, he wasn’t home; at his office, his receptionist told her that he’d cancelled appointments and would be away until further notice. She sent texts and email, and even knocked on his townhouse door, refusing to use her key to let herself in. It was a timid but necessary knock. But there was no answer, no evidence of a curtain drawn back inches for a reclusive peek. He had disappeared, and she waited for a reason.

Then on the twelfth night of his absence, her telephone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” he said.

She was silent for a moment, wondering if, after all of her anxiety, there was anything to share.

“Where have you been?” she said. “And I don’t mean geographically, I mean in terms of being the other half of this thing we’ve been doing for over a year.”

He was sitting at a desk, in front of a blank computer screen in his home office, surrounded by a debris field of isolation. On the screen were four Post-it notes, each with a name: Janis, Roger, Matthew and Naomi. His four suicides. The clients who, over the years, had slipped out the back door, when no one was watching. Each no older than seventeen years. One, Janis, only fourteen.

“I’ve been thinking about bees.” His voice was different.

“What does that mean?”

“They eat pollen,” he said. “That’s why they go from flower to flower. It’s such a wonderful plan. The pollen sticks to them, and they pass it on, the genetic messages.”

“Please, I just don’t get it.”

“But it’s all so damn brittle, no matter how good the plan, or its righteous intent.” The names on the screen were like eyes. “Bees and people, are so brittle.”

“Where are you?” she said. “Let’s meet.”

“I really don’t know what tortured them. I mean, on the surface there were the obvious problems. But what was underneath? What didn’t I see? It was my job to see it, and I failed. Naomi Oby cut herself vertically, up both of her forearms. What makes a child act so self-destructively? I tried it the other night. I held a blade to my arm, just to see how far I could go, and it made me physically sick.”

“Who’s Naomi Oby?” she asked.

“My bee suicide.”

“It’s a defect in reasoning,” she said. My bee suicide. “A deficit of thought.”

“I’m not looking for gentle answers.”

“You need help.”

He was silent.

“Are you home? I’ll drive over. It’s late, so we’ll go to the emergency.”

“No,” he said.

“Then why are you calling me, goddam it? Is it just to brighten my evening, or are you asking for help?”

“I don’t know. My thoughts right now, they’re…. They’re a little disorganised.”

“What would you tell a client to do?” she said.

She’s an amateur, said an inner voice. It wasn’t her fault, but he still damned her for not knowing that that was the first question a professional asks.

She wondered if four suicides was a high number for a counselling psychologist, practicing for fifteen years. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of clients in that time. What was the acceptable ratio of teenaged suicides to non-suicides?

“Just come over here,” she said. “We’ll talk here.”

He looked round the room, and saw them all. Janis, who had jumped from a fog veiled bridge after texting that her father sexually abused her, stood in the doorway to the living room; Roger, who, exhausted by bullying, had hung himself, sat in an easy chair; Matthew, who was crucified for being gay by his family church and found his father’s handgun, now stood with his back to him, looking out of the large east facing window.

Naomi stood directly in front of him, ashen with her undisguised wounds, staring.

“I shouldn’t have called,” he said, looking into Naomi’s eyes, and rang-off. Then he turned his iPhone off, and put it into his desk drawer.

Within an hour, there was a knock at his door.

“Open, please.” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “This is the police.”

He realised then that he hadn’t moved for hours, or was it days. He was surrounded by empty paper coffee cups and fast food trash.

“Mr Wilcox? Are you in there? We have to enter whether you are or not. Please don’t make this difficult.”

Yes, he thought. He mustn’t make it difficult, unseemly.

“Well?” Naomi said. “Are you going to answer the door?”

“But the bees,” he said, absurdly.

Bang bang bang, “Mr Wilcox? We have to make sure you’re okay.”

“The bees are beside the point,” Naomi said. “They always were, and you know it.”

They always were.

He could hear a muffled conversation at the front door. Then the lock turned. It was Natalie. She followed two police officers into the townhouse.

A walkie-talkie crackled, and a cop answered. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said.

“That’s not necessary,” said Wilcox.

“It’s out of your hands, sir.”

“You have to let us go,” Naomi said. “Go to the damn hospital, and get some fucking help.”

*

Their trip to the van Gogh exhibit was a gift from her, to him for enduring two weeks on a psychiatric ward. She sensed his nervousness as they moved from canvas to canvas, and attributed it to residual anxiety. He took his hand away when she tried to hold it.

“Despairing textures,” he said, wishing he could reach out and touch Sorrowing Old Man. “I’ve touched those textures on my body. I see them in the mirror, in clouds and on billboard signs. This artist and his damn scheming won’t leave me alone.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have come,” she said.

He wanted to wait until that evening to say good-bye. On a stroll after the restaurant. But he confronted her with it as they descended the steps and walked out onto the concourse.

“I’m not here, anymore,” he said. “I no longer occupy space. I’m closing the practice, or an accountant and a lawyer are. And I’m going away, alone.”

“Don’t,” she said. “You can’t make a decision like that now.”

“It’s now or not at all.”

“What about me, us? And don’t say it’s all about you.”

“But you know it is.”

That led to her desperate words, and his walking away, followed by four broken ghosts.

Rosetta

The psychiatrist peered through the lower half of his bifocals, as he turned the pages in the folder. A woman sat across from him, in restraints, adorned in cascading spiralling blue interlaced tattoos, visible from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and extending down to where they disappeared beneath the neckline of her t-shirt.

The psychiatrist was reading her casefile as though it were a grocery store tabloid. His eyebrows raised when he discovered juicy slivers of glib clinical gossip, something the neurologist had added, or a nurse. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encountered less titillating synoptic gibberish.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he said, a fingernail on his left hand having temporarily caught his attention. Then he turned the pages back to a place near the front, and said, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient claims not to have slept since 2001.

“No sleep for three days…; we’ll have to work on that. But you say you haven’t slept since 2001? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

The psychiatrist shifted impatiently in his chair.

“Are you hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”

“I hear your voice,” she said. The psychiatrist shifted in his chair again.

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork,” he turned more pages, “there are reports of observed symptoms of psychosis, perhaps even severe.”

It was the usual line of interrogation. Next, she thought to herself, he’ll ask me if I see things that aren’t there. He’ll without the apostrophe is hell. Then hell will ask me if I smell shit when there is no shit to smell.

“Can you see things that others don’t?” he said.

“Of course.”

“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”

“Because they’re blinded by their mediocrity.”

“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”

“Why?”

It was true, she hadn’t slept in fourteen years, not since 2001, a result of a gravitational collapse, when her life reached a terrifying mass and density. Memories had become dreams and dreams memories, the molecules of each bonding into such close proximity that they were inseparable, perhaps irreversibly.

The cloudiness of childhood had returned, along with a ghost that had sat on her bed and stroked her cheek, saying it loved her. It had become a spider, crawling over her, then a leering thing looking down at her in her childhood bed, in the glow of nightstand lamplight. The doctors had attributed this to childhood sexual abuse. But maybe, she thought, it was just how a ghost loved a child, with grimly curious hands, a taut mouth and wide frenzied eyes. Suddenly, the only thing more frightening than sleep was the thought of awakening.

To fill the sleepless nights, she’d begun playing solitaire and drawing a mural on her walls and ceiling, in colourful pastels, as everything around her rejuvenated in the dark. During the day, she watched the cars on the highway from the window of her room in the boardinghouse, as everything decayed.

She had also begun to keep a journal on her computer, refusing to backspace as she typed. Backspacing was murder. It killed innocent letters, punctuation and numbers that existed only because she’d made typing errors.

At first she did this out of compassion, but then she realised that the protected letters were a code. In the beginning, the code was indecipherable, but then she became its Rosetta Stone. And only by decrypting the decree she had inscribed upon her body, from the top of her head to her toes, could she understand the code that described when and how to take action. She’d etched the decree into her flesh using razorblades and blue pigment. The ghost had tried to stop her, as though the code might reveal something horrible. It had.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” the psychiatrist said.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

As the sleepless years went by, she began to see the mural as an extension of the code, and used the Rosetta to interpret it. In the mural, the ghost had a body and a human face. And an accomplice. They walked confidently through their lives. They had family and security, and were loved and had respect.

“We’re also concerned about your cognitive impairment,” the psychiatrist said — “your decline. Your untreated psychosis is causing a loss of short term memory and other faculties, and it’s going to get worse without therapy. Soon, without medication, you won’t be able to recognise the passage of time, from one moment to the next.”

“Can you assure me that the moment that’s just passed is worth recognising?”

He paused a pause that filled the room, even the filthy corners and the spaces between the bars on the windows. Was he pondering her question, or just planning to retreat?

“Look,” he said. “This isn’t prison, but it is confinement. We want to help, but you can appreciate our need for security and structure. You’ve been found not guilty of a serious crime by reason of insanity. Refusing therapy is not an option here. I’ve asked them to be gentle with you, but that won’t last.”

“I can escape,” she said.

“No one ever has.”

“I can. Now that the work is done, I can finally sleep. That’s how I’ll escape. The dreams and memories have separated. I don’t fear sleep anymore, not since I found the ghosts, the faces in the mural. Fourteen years is a very long time to be awake, so I may never wake up again once I finally lay down.”

It was just the natural order of things. A year was how long it took for a tree to sprout and drop its leaves. It took twenty-five years for Saturn to orbit the Sun. And fourteen sleepless years was what it took to understand and find the ghosts.

She had first encountered them in a foster home a very long time ago, as the trees dropped their leaves and Saturn orbited. She was six years old, a foster child. It was the house of mister and missus ghost. She was a cast-off, and they had taken her in. But they had wanted something from her in return, something she didn’t have to give, something they intended to suck out of her.

They’d called her the girl, refusing to use her name. And they insisted that she call them father and mother, but she had refused, even after the beatings.

She knew these ghosts weren’t her parents, and her obstinacy had earned her a place in the cellar, in the cool dusky light of it, with things that creeped. She’d be left there for a week at a time. Then taken out and asked if she would concede, and call them father and mother. But she would not and, each time, she was returned to the hole beneath the house.

There she ate from shelves, hard to open jars of home-canned peaches and pears, and looked out of a small square window in the wall onto the winter lawn, covered in frost and then in snow.

Before the lady from the foster agency would come round, the girl was brought up, bathed and fed. Then missus ghost took her up to the room that was supposed to be hers, with the warm clean bed and the plush toys and picture books, and missus ghost would lock her in.

But before she did, missus ghost would say, “You tell that agency lady that you love us, dearly. And you tell her that you love your room, and all of the toys, and that we feed you good. You understand?” Then she twisted the little girl’s ear until it felt on fire, and shook her hard by her shoulders.

The girl only stared back in silence, though. And behind her blank stare, disorganised childish thoughts were forming into designs and an awareness of the importance of time. She knew no words for it, but sensed she had time for redress, and an endurance they lacked.

For a few days before the agency lady would arrive, the girl was allowed to sleep in her room to smooth over her gaunt fatigue. And that was when mister ghost came. Late in the night, turning on the lamp. When she awoke from her deep sleep, she saw him and his wide eyes, licking his lips, rubbing his hands together, perhaps to warm them, but they were always cold whenever they touched her.

“I’ve already prescribed a combination of medications,” the psychiatrist said. “I must insist that you take them. They’ll help you to sleep, and have other beneficial effects. But I’ll repeat that you must take them. The nurses and orderlies here follow strict policies of persuasion.”

Mister and missus ghost were surprisingly easy to identify by their mural faces, revealed by the Rosetta, and differentiated from the long strings of approach code in her journal. There were also her compressed memories of location and name.

She’d travelled by train, walked and hitchhiked to the house with the cellar. Then she hunkered down and watched them move through solid objects and conjure abundance. They were old ghosts now.

“I have come for you,” she whispered, on the outside of nighttime windows.

The psychiatrist released her onto the ward. The ghosts there were slouched, long fingered things. The hospital staff cast spells, fear and disunity, the patients shrinking. She took a corner in a threadbare easy chair, and wakefully dreamed of dreaming.

Her vengeance came on a night when the moon was a thin bit of scrap in the sky. She’d costumed herself in darkness, and was a mist that passed through recesses and knots in wood. And when she materialised, she stood above the ghosts in the house as they slept. It was strange that ghosts slept.

Her weapon was a knife that had found her years before, lying in an alley where she often walked before dawn. When it came into her hand, she immediately knew its history, knew why it had been thrown there, shimmering, calling out. There was murder in its blade. It was an experienced killer.

She yawned in her easy chair now, a thing she hadn’t done in fourteen years. The chair was so comfortable, and she was suddenly so drowsy. She closed her eyes, and glimpsed the possibility of dreams.

Soon, the staff would come with their medications, doctors and strong-armed goons. They’d smile and talk to her like she was a child, but would be ready for a struggle, unaware of her Rosetta Stone strength, of the hardness and wisdom, how the blue markings upon her skin would decipher their veiled anxieties, estrangements and hatreds. The staff might even try to strap her down, and inject her with potions. But she would be too powerful.

She’d sat on the edge of the bed, next to mister ghost, and stroked his cheek. He smiled and shifted, half-heartedly clearing his throat, but not waking. Then her hand went lower, as his always had, but she didn’t go nearly as far. It rested upon his chest, and he sighed deeply, his eyes moving rapidly under their lids. Then she ran the blunt edge of the knife along his throat.

When his eyes opened, he saw a woman in the feeble moonlight, behind a curtain of densely configured blue tattoos cascading down her face. He gawked with the once crazed eyes she remembered so well. The ones that had exposed his thirsts and obscene accelerated fascinations. She turned the knife round, so he felt the sharpened edge.

“Those are the eyes,” she said, with quiet satisfaction. “They’re what I’ve come for.”

“Please,” he said, so awake now, not recognising her. “Anything….” He swallowed hard, involuntarily, and it caused a trickle of blood.

“I never said please,” she said. “I never could. You never would have allowed it. You’d have hurt me more. I was powerless. It was rape, and I was so young.”

Missus ghost rolled over now, and her arm fell across her husband’s belly. She was almost snoring.

“You don’t know who I am, do you.”

“No,” he said. She was unrecogniseable behind the Rosetta Decree.

She said her name and he tensed further, but had no words. Then she removed the knife from his throat, and went for his once leering eyes.

His screams were soon accompanied by those of missus ghost, and were enough to fill the neighbourhood. Dogs barked, and a few nearby houselights came on, shining brightly. A man in his robe appeared on his porch across the street, with a cellphone in his hand. She remained sitting on the bed until the police cautiously surrounded her, then she dropped mister ghost’s eyes onto the floor.

Now she sat silently in the chair, surrounded by the team that had come to administer drugs.

“How come she won’t wake up?” said a doctor.

“Weak pulse,” a nurse said, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”

“Forget the cuff. Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Let’s get her up. Call for a gurney.”

She was finally dreaming, and her dream had the mass and density of one that had waited too long to be dreamt. And as her heart gently failed, she was a child once more, but free of interference in the tall grass of a blue sky field surrounded by the buzz of summer insects. There was a tall wooden house nearby, that was a true refuge and that she could call her own. A bright red car motored by on the quiet highway, and someone waved out of the window.

The blue markings were gone. They’d fallen to the floor in a clatter. She was no longer her own Rosetta Stone. There was no need.

in the eighties

then
I sat at a typewriter
with a cigarette, in my
dog-eared hollow of songs
positioned in the east light
by a magazine photographer
firing bullets of black and white
because poets, in the storm of it all,
are always monochrome

I recall a university press
in a gush of its kind
praising how I brutalised my nouns
with adjectives

it was a utopian decade
of art, paper pages and time

the casefile

Vancouver 1949

Her name was Rachel Wild, and she had never married. Instead, she’d spent her years at a kitchen table, smoking and looking out of a window. She’d not been doomed to this. She felt no self-pity. It was just what happened. Like an unexpected incident that makes a woman say, Oh!, the moment she discovers her involvement in it. A lifetime passing. Focussed on a past personal moment. The way she might have worshipped an idol or a scrap of text. The sacredness of which was dependent upon context known to her alone.

Perhaps it had come down to a battle of anxieties, hers and those of another. The failed unsaying of a word. When the unsaying of a word might have meant so much. She’d become content in never knowing the truth of it.

But the world is news and dispatch. Story upon story expelled through the reflective conduit of time. In shapes of sparrows and sorrows. And news had finally come to her. But the news had only been a fragment of a larger story. A fragment chipped away from the end of something much larger.

Knowing this, she’d made a cup of tea.

* * *

Detective Olaf Brandt wasn’t a bad police officer. But popular opinion was that he just wasn’t sergeant material. He wasn’t afraid to use his wide Norwegian feet to chase down leads. But it was thought by those higher on the cop food chain that he had to be fed those leads. He wasn’t the sort to independently deduce his way through an investigation. He could, however, be relied upon in a street fight, to inform families of criminally dead loved ones and to go on coffee and doughnut excursions as required. It was generally accepted that he’d retire in a few years, and parish shortly after of an unremarkable illness related to the lonely excesses of a mostly friendless life.

For the time being, though, he was vital and healthy of mind and spirit. And as he sat leaning forward in the waiting area of Dench and Parr Investigations, he stared determinedly ahead at an empty point in space.

“Olaf, old boy,” Crispin Dench said, calling Brandt in. “Come into my office and tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Hello, Mr Dench,” Olaf Brandt said, getting up and giving a half-hearted wave. He stepped into Crispin Dench’s office and took a seat. Dench seated himself behind his desk.

“Coffee?” Dench said.

“No,” said Brandt.

“A Coke?”

“No.”

“Water?”

“No.”

“A shot of rye?”

“No, Mr Dench, nothing. Look, I’ve been sent here to ask you to surrender a case file.”

“Drop the mister, Olaf. Call me Crispin.”

“All right, Crispin. I’m here to ask you for a case file.”

“A case file.”

“Yes. One we, the police I mean, believe contains important information on a case that went cold some time ago, but that has now warmed a bit.”

“Case files are private property containing confidential information, Olaf.”

“Yes, Crispin. This is understood and I had hoped that we’d be able to skip this predictable part of the conversation. But if you don’t surrender the file to the police in the amicable, mutually beneficial way I’m suggesting, we’ll just get a court order.”

“Mutually beneficial?”

“Yes. One hand washing the other. That sort of thing.”

“This is a business, Olaf. Our clients have certain reasonable expectations. They pay for privacy and confidentiality. Those are products this agency sells.”

Brandt shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. There was a moment of silence.

“You still with me?” Dench said.

“It’s that Edgar Tully thing,” Brandt said. “The body, or what was left of it, in the car they pulled out of Lost Lagoon last week. It was in the papers.”

“Yes it was.”

Brandt took a notepad from his inside jacket pocket and flipped through it. It was a well practised move, meant to add gravity to the moment. But it was wasted on Dench. Brand stopped at a page and said, “You conducted a missing person investigation in 1947, for a Rachel Wild.”

“Did I?”

“Edgar Tully was the subject of that investigation.”

“Was he?”

“That’s the case file we’d like to see.”

“Are you and I involved in the same conversation, Brandt? Dench and Parr Investigations doesn’t hand out case files. Not to the cops or anyone.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Tell me something, Olaf. Why’d they send a B team player like you here for this? What was the last case you really worked on? They know I’d never give you a damn thing.”

“I worked on the Edgar Tully case back in ’42,” Brandt said. “So, it’s personal in a way. It was just a missing person case to most. But when you scratched the surface….”

“What? What was revealed beneath the scratched surface?”

Olaf Brandt stood to go. “I’ll return with the court order in a day or two, Crispin. See you then.”

“You know, I’ve heard your fellow officers talk about you,” Dench said. “They never have anything good to say. But you’re not as dumb as they make you out to be, are you? Why’re you still just a detective?”

“Good-bye, Crispin.” Olaf Brandt left the office.

Vancouver 1942

Sleep was somewhere in his room, hiding like an outlaw. Edgar Tully knew it would expose itself eventually, and crush him. He lay on his bed, drinking cheap rye from the bottle. Could he drink enough not to dream? Most nights he could not. It was August and the night was humid and warm. He closed his eyes and returned once more to the dream.

He walked a little behind the Canadian lines. Vimy Ridge. A Master Corporal in the Canadian First Division. The 12th of April, 1917. His rifle was clean but his body was filthy. Seven days out. Most of it spent marching. Then three days of concentrated battle. No promise of leave. Who knew how much more action there’d be. His section was on a routine patrol. They were also looking for the wounded and the dead left behind by the advance. He hated doing it. They never found the wounded. There were none. Only the bodies of the dead. With their blank faces. He recognised every one.

They’re with the angels now, a chaplain once said in a sermon he was duty-bound to attend. Fuck that, the Master Corporal had said when they all bowed their heads to pray. A sergeant next to him heard this and said amen, brother.

There were shell holes and blasted trenches here. Each shell hole filled with rain water. The dead were often in these. Some floating; some held submerged by the weight of their kit. He stopped at the edge of a shell hole where he saw a body, face down in the water. Tully’s section wasn’t a burial detail. They’d only have to get the name on the dog tag and record the body’s location for later retrieval.

“Private Crumb,” the Master Corporal yelled. “Bring me the hook.”

A frightened boy arrived holding a pole upon which a hook had been securely tied with wire. The Master Corporal used it to reach out into the shell hole and hook the collar of the corpse’s greatcoat. He tugged and the body began to move toward him, a great fish intent upon beaching itself. The Master Corporal felt a deep and familiar apprehension then. The kind reserved for nightmares. The sound of shelling in the distance ceased, replaced by a loud hissing sound. He was alone now. His section had disappeared into a mist. He hesitated as the dead man came within reach. He wanted to drop the hook and run. Like he’d never run before. Even under fire. But then he crouched down, grabbed the dead man’s collar and pulled him out of the hole.

He saw the corpse’s grey face when he turned the body over. Contorted with its eyes and mouth opened wide, having died in mid-scream. There was a perfectly round and bloodless bullet hole perfectly placed in the centre of its forehead. And the foul odour of decomposition. He thought he saw the fingers twitch. But how could that be? Then the corpse resumed its scream. Impossible. A horrible and wretched noise. And the Master Corporal saw the echoing geography of it. It was a scream of headlands and gullies. The roads that ran through it. The gutted homes and foetid rivers. Ranks of the dead marching on to nowhere in lockstep. Then the corpse stopped its screaming and smiled. Its eyes at once dull and piercing. Its sudden exhalation smelling of the battlefield dead. And Edgar Tully awoke yelling. His fists clenched and raised. Swinging at the empty air.

Someone in the neighbouring room banged on the wall. “Shaddup in there,” a voice hollered. “I gotta get some sleep, gawd dammit.”

Edgar Tully sat by his window for the rest of the night. Sleep had left the room. Vimy Ridge was 25 years ago. He was forty-five now. The dreams and visions were never going to end. He took a pen and paper and wrote a short note.

In the morning he drove his Ford Coupe up the busy retail section of Commercial Drive, in the east end of the city. He expected it would be a standard handoff and delivery. He parked near Graveley Street and waited, reading a Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying. And he wondered how descending into Hades would differ from a morning of the Drive.

It looked like rain, but he left the passenger side window open. After ten minutes or so, a large man with a pencil moustache, wearing a freshly pressed summer suit,  walked by and dropped a fat leather satchel onto the car seat. Then he stuck his head through the open window. His face was doughy red and scarred, but his hair was Hollywood perfect.

“Take this to the Water Street office,” he said. “And by the way, this ain’t your average delivery, Tully. Better you should die than fuck this up.”

“I don’t fuck up,” Edgar Tully said. “That’s why you trust me.”

The big man dropped twenty dollars in tens onto the seat, and said, “Just sos you know. Experience tells me that the fatter the bag, the more likely a driver is to fuck it up. And you’ve been smelling like a real juicer lately. A man’s gotta be drinking most of the day and night to smell the way you do. Take a bath, brush your teeth and don’t dream of bettering yourself on my nickel. Get it?”

Edgar Tully looked back at the big man with his red and rheumy eyes. “Sure, Mr Vaccarino. I get it.”

“Swell.”

Tully reached out and placed his hand on the satchel as the big man disappeared into the crowd. He was feeling lucky for once. Hopeful. He’d done his planning. But he hadn’t planned on this.

He opened the bag. It contained several large bundles of bills. Twenties, fifties and hundreds. That’s how Tony Vaccarino’s customers paid him. Because they owed him big time. He counted it. It was over twenty thousand. The Water Street office would prepare it for laundering. He’d delivered envelopes there a thousand times before, but never a package this large. The big man’s business was improving. Tully started the car.

* * *

The Hotel Balmoral rose ten stories high over East Hastings Street and advertised Black Watch Chewing Tobacco on its side. It had never been a glamorous local and now it catered mostly to retired loggers and fishermen, transients and a few unemployed women thought to be of ambiguous character. Rachel Wild fit into the last category. Though it was a mystery to her how it had happened.

She lived in a room on the seventh floor, sitting at her window smoking most days, and watching the traffic pass below. It was from there, that day, that she saw Edgar Tully park his car and cross the busy street with a bag of groceries in his arms.

She got up and fixed her hair in a small mirror over the sink, busying herself tightening curls and repositioning bobby pins. Then she freshened her lipstick and stared for a long moment into the mirror. She was thirty-seven years old, and she wasn’t pleased with the wrinkles round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Her youth was gone and she resented it. She had a hazy resentment of her poverty, as well. Something inside of her always hurt. And though she would have had difficulty saying it politely, part of her was certain that only money could take the pain away.

There was a knock at the door. Rachel Wild let several seconds pass until there was another, this one quieter.

“Yes?” she said. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, baby. It’s Edgar.”

She put her ear gently against the door to listen closer. Sometimes she could hear him breathing. “Why, Edgar,” she said. “I had no idea you were coming.”

“Sure, baby. Why not? Let me in. I’ve brought you some things.”

“Some things?”

“Sure, baby. Groceries.”

“Groceries? Edgar, dear, you don’t need to bring me groceries.”

It was an absurd statement. She lived daily on the verge of starvation.

“Just let me in, baby.”

She opened the door and let him in. The room was long and narrow with dirty walls, dim light bulbs and exposed wiring. There was a dresser with chipped paint and a free-standing closet with a broken door. Beneath the window there was a small kitchen table and two metal chairs. On the table was an ashtray and a dog-eared copy of Women’s Own Magazine. He handed her the grocery bag and kissed her on the forehead.

“I’ll get you a drink,” she said, putting the groceries down.

“Ah, no,” he said, licking his lips.

“No?” she said. “Really? You okay?”

“Yeah, baby. Everything’s jake.” He looked at his feet for a moment and said, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

“Sure, Edgar. What’s goin’ on?”

He sat across from her at the table and took her hand.

“We’ve been swell together,” he said, “haven’t we, doll.”

“Sure, Edgar. It’s been okay.”

“We’ve had some real laughs, eh?”

“I guess. A few, I mean.”

“But I know I ain’t so good to be around,” Edgar said. “I get so low sometimes….”

“What’s happening, Edgar? I hate it when you get all serious like this.”

“It’s the dreams,” he said. “Baby, they’ve gotten real bad lately.”

“Oh,” she said, looking away, out of the window. “The dreams again.”

“Yeah. Look, I know you don’t get it about the dreams, and neither do I. But they make me crazy. My head’s a haunted cave. I see all of the shit from the war again and again. Only it’s weirder. It’s so spooky. I wake up screaming.”

“Well that war’s over, mister. Haven’t you heard?” She lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the window. “There’s a new war on now. Can’t we just go out and have some fun? It’d take your mind off of those lousy dreams, wouldn’t it? All you do is lie in that room of yours and drink yourself stupid. There’re a lot of Navy boys in town that wouldn’t mind havin’ me on their arm, you know.”

“I know it, baby. And I know it ain’t never gonna change for me. It’s just the way it is. So, listen to me. I want you to wait an hour after I leave, then read this letter.” He slid an envelope across the table to her.

“Sure, Edgar,” Rachel said, taking the envelope. “But you’re kinda scarin’ me. You look all crazy in the eyes.”

“Never mind what I look like, see? Just do what I tell you, understand?”

He stood then and took her by the arm, lifting her out of her chair. He held for a moment, long enough to search for something in her eyes. Maybe he found it there; maybe not. Then he kissed her too hard on the lips, joylessly and without passion. But with rage and shame. His fingers dug into her shoulders and she would have screamed if she could. Then he let her go, threw her away almost. And he disappeared out the door.

Vancouver 1949

Detective Olaf Brandt laid a court order on Dench’s desk and said, “We Norwegians are more than the jowly, bellicose race that the world sometimes takes us for, Crispin.”

“I never said otherwise,” Crispin Dench said.

“The case file please,” Olaf Brandt said. “And perhaps you wouldn’t mind sitting with me while I read it through. You can help me understand those bits I find ambiguous.”

Dench retrieved the file in question after reading the court order and deciding it was legit. It wasn’t a thick file. Dench hadn’t had to do much after he promised Rachel Wild complete confidentiality, and that he wouldn’t go to the police with what he found. He returned to his office with it, and Brandt read the file in ten minutes.

“It wasn’t a simple caper,” Dench said. “More of an inspired heart-breaker, really. But I’m not the crying type.

“The envelope he’d given Rachel Wild contained a suicide note. For Edgar Tully, the dreams and memories of World War One had become too much.

“Rachel had waited an hour, as requested, before opening it and reading the note. That’s something she says she’ll always regret. By then she didn’t know what to do. She hates the cops and never went to them. She went to the street instead, and looked for him there. Asked the people she knew and didn’t know. She made such a show of it, that later on it didn’t take much to convince Tony Vaccarino that she really didn’t know where Tully was.

“That was important. Because Edgar Tully was an errand boy for Tony Vaccarino, a soon to be made man. It was Vaccarino’s money that Tully had placed in the bottom of the grocery bag he’d dropped off at Rachel’s that day. All twenty grand of it. He meant it as a rainy day fund for a girl who’d spent her whole life standing in the rain.

“After that, I figure Tully punched his own ticket. Drove his Ford into the lagoon as it turns out. But not before he bought a reserved room on a train to Montreal and paid someone else to board instead of him. That someone must have gotten off before the train even hit the prairies, because the train manifest showed a man using Tully’s ticket boarding, but that person never got off in Montreal. And Vaccarino had his people at most of the stops between here and there.

“It looked like Tully had skipped town with the cash and vanished into thin air. And that let everyone he knew off the hook. Vaccarino leaned on them, but how hard could he lean when it appeared obvious that Tully had gotten away with all of the cash.

“So, now they’ve found him in the lagoon. I read it in the papers yesterday morning. I guess that’s how Tully ended it all. And I guess that’s why you’re so interested, suddenly. Probably drove his car in that night. We know Vaccarino didn’t put him there, because Vaccarino couldn’t find him. And if he had, he would have made Tully’s execution a community event, to warn others with similar ideas.”

“This file,” Brandt said. “It says none of what you just told me.”

“Sometimes I forget to write things down.”

“That could be considered withholding evidence, in a thin sort of way.”

“So call a cop.”

The two men stared at each other across the desk for a few seconds. Then Brandt closed the file and said, “Repeating what you just told me would be bad for Rachel Wild.”

“Yes it would,” Dench said. “So, what are you going to do about it?”

“She still lives at the Hotel Balmoral,” said Brandt. “It’s a dump. Why do you think she didn’t buy a nice little house?”

“Maybe she likes it there,” Dench said. “Or maybe she’s smart. It wouldn’t take long for Vaccarino to figure things out if she made a move like that. Maybe she decided to just paint the place and buy some new furniture. Maybe even a new pair of shoes. Maybe now she can buy fresh flowers everyday, brighten the place up.”

Brandt slid the file back to Dench, across the desktop. “Maybe this should remain a mystery,” he said.

“That would be preferable to the situation,” said Dench.

 

 

 

 

Sunday poem

where it isn’t Saturday it is Sunday and people are ok with that
because the universe has a preference for round things circling
round things and days are the result

when I was young I was content with 24 hours, I could write
plot and tension, broken hearts and climax—
the antihero

now writing a day takes only hours
and they fall on my floor like leaves

 

 

 

 

 

 

the killer

Morning, May 18 1980

The killer had driven all night, navigating by the moon and a river next to the highway, past dim rest stops and off-ramp exits that fed the houses of the zodiac. Now he turned the radio dial with a trembling hand, desperate for a station running his story. The story of him in a large grocery store, the way he’d strode heroically from till to till with gun drawn, collecting the cash, then the shootout and escape. He’d left bodies behind, their eyes, the surprise and weird hush.

But now the radio was all about the volcano, a dragon waiting to roar. Nonsensical A.M. band science and evangelism. He slammed his fist on the dashboard.

The coke was running out. He knew it as he snorted more, parked at the side of the road, checking the rear-view again and again. They were after him, absolutely. Sometimes he even saw a car and flashing lights behind him, then he’d shake his head, and it was gone. Too much blow. He hadn’t slept in over forty-eight hours. Why wasn’t it on the radio? He took a hit of vodka, gulping it back. There were only a couple of swallows left. He’d buy more in the next town.

Shifting, he pulled back onto the highway and drove gripping the wheel like a rescue line, his spinning tires further forcing Earth’s rotation.

The town had been abandoned by the time he arrived. Only the café remained open, where a police cruiser was parked. He pulled up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes, checked his wet red eyes in the mirror, then went in.

There is only the lazy way to enter a small town café. Long indifferent strides to the counter. Anything else draws attention. The cop was five stools down form where the killer sat. He ordered coffee.

“Anything else?” said the waitress, pouring. “May be your last chance to get a meal for a while. We’re only open for the cops and emergency crews. We close and bugout when word comes down.”

“Ham sandwich,” the killer said.

The waitress placed the order.

“You must have got along the highway before the barricades went up,” said the weary cop, not looking up from his newspaper and coffee. “Everything’s been evacuated, highway’s closed. All this might be just a lava flow when St Helens goes. I can escort you back down the road after I’ve eaten.” The waitress put a plate of ham and eggs in front of him.

“Pyroclastic flow,” said the killer, reading a headline on a newspaper next to him. More about the volcano, but underneath were bold letters: Mad Dog Murders Three in Grocery Store Heist — his story, at last.

“What was that?” said the cop.

“Pyroclastic flow, not lava. The radio says it’s a common mistake. It’ll be moving at 500 miles an hour when the mountain finally pops.”

“Whatever,” the cop said. “I just don’t wanna be round when it happens.”

The thief killed a security guard and a mother and her child, trapped in the crossfire….

He had watched the child stagger for a moment, before he fell backward against a shelf. A strange thing to recall, he thought. There was sweat forming on his forehead, a bizarre grief stirring, for having killed or for being seen aiming the gun? The text of the story wrapped round a security camera photo, pixilated like a hallucination.

“Here’s your sandwich, mister.” The waitress placed it on the counter. “Refill?” Then, looking at the newspaper, she said, “Ain’t that a hell of a thing, some poor kid and his momma. That creep should be burned alive.”

She turned the paper round and looked at the surveillance photo.

“That’s a pretty clear shot,” she said. “They’ll get him with that, for sure.”

“We’ll get him, alright” said the cop, looking up for the first time. “A guy like that’s too crazy to get away. And maybe he won’t survive arrest.” He looked over at the waitress and the killer. “A lot can go wrong arresting a crazy guy.” He filled his mouth with scrambled eggs.

A familiar shapeless rage filled the killer’s gut. He remembered that he dwelt in a room of swirling planets, they comforted end enlightened. He needed that now. The planets were wiser than any cop at a lunch counter. There was a revolver in the killer’s belt, concealed by his coat. The planets told him to wait for his moment.

He looked over and saw the cop was still looking at him, puzzled now. He was a soft man, the way cops get after too many years of traffic tickets and misdemeanors. He swallowed and licked his lips, looked at his newspaper once more, then back at the killer. When he made his move, he was like a planet in an outer orbit, slow and with days that lasted for months. His hand went for his weapon, but the killer drew his first. And as he aimed and cocked the gun, the ground shook. The Earth rupturing somewhere, a terrestrial super nova, issuing a shockwave that deafened and heaved the café, shattering the plate glass and causing the parking lot heave like an ocean.

The killer remained standing somehow, as the cop fell onto the moving floor. The cop fired, and the bullet hit the killer, but he’d worry about it later. The killer drew a bead and fired as the building shook. He missed. The cop fired again and hit the killer once more.

Somewhere whole forests were felled. Steaming torrents were swelling in valleys, obliterating, creating topography. A plume would be rising over a massive fissure that would swallow moons.

Now as the Earth stilled, blow-back swept over the world, and glass and debris whirled and chewed. Parts of the killer’s face were torn away as he half-stepped away from the counter, dropping the gun, holding hands to his wounds. Were they fatal? Perhaps the bullets had passed through him like particles, benign and invisible. He was weak, suddenly. Weaker than he’d ever been, and the exit was miles away. He tripped the distance quickly. The cop following, remaining quiet. There was no need to shout commands no one would hear.

Outside, ash like snow had begun to fall, and the killer reached out a hand to catch some tiny flakes to observe their geometry. But they were vague opaque things, the shapes of childhood nightmares.

When he lost his footing, he fell onto his back, looking up as the ash fell on him. His blood pooled, and turned to clay. Ashen, he thought. He saw stars in the shapes of goddesses and warriors. In his room windows opened, and dark matter flowed in like water. He’d swim in it and become it, gain mass and gravity, and then be seen finally at peace by curious eyes.

little lies

I will lie and say I have hay fever
then swim an ocean of roses

deny I have finger prints
then leave evidence on your door

pretend I have just arrived
then be discovered in a pyramid

write a poem for you in the air
then declare it invisible

hold a mirror in my hand
then angle the night back into a warehouse of planets

midnight in the lobby of the Hotel Copenhagen

The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending↑, a sign said. It pointed toward a platform at the top of the steps, bathed in light, from which an ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither of them was an ascender. He turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the dazzling light.

“This isn’t what you said,” Abigale complained, fingering two small, bulging glassine envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said this was a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high and drink some wine.”

“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” said Loomis. “It was just bedbugs and lightbulbs.” He opened his fingers a bit to see what he could in the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”

The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen grander days, in the age of zeppelins and spats-footed gentlemen. Now the rough couple stood in its ramshackle lobby, as rainy light hissed off of the wet midnight pavement outside, and scratched at the bevelled glass doors.

“Well,” Abigale said, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, and then trip all night, soaked in a back alley. You said you had a place.”

“I do — I did — it’s on the third floor.”

“Then let’s take the elevator.”

“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in.” But then he heard a ding! “What the fuck?”

Abigale grabbed him by his collar, and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When the doors opened, the two of them saw a tall woman in a red uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat, sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her hair black. The gory red of her lips seemed to have been achieved without lipstick.

“Will that be down?” she said.

“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis took her arm and held her back.

An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.

“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.

“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before, and this elevator’s been out of service since I arrived, over a year ago.”

“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”

“Up,” Abigale said again.

“There is no up.”

“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.

“Nope,” said the elevator operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled, and bared a fangy set of teeth.

“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.

“Then take the stairs, if you like,” the fangy woman said.

“But the stairs just lead up into a blinding nothingness,” Loomis said, “with no explanation.”

“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her finger.

“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” said Loomis. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chace to reboot, and then come back in.”

“Won’t make a bit of difference,” the operator said, blowing smoke out of her nostrils. “I’ll still be here, when you come back.”

“And the staircase, too?” said Abigale.

“Yes ma’am.”

“What’s this all about?”

“The smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or, in your case, the fentanyl.”

Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.

“Where is it?” She gasped.

“Gone,” said the operator. “It’s so so gone, and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little bit confused. That was some lethal shit.”

“I…,” Loomis said, looking lost.

“You don’t get it, right?” said the operator.

Abigale dropped the bits of paper, while memories in sealed rooms were now revealed. Dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers, distracted from the divine by entitlement and offerings. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street, for all the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, and her weeks old layers of saturated clothing, fusing with her flesh.

She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she had tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.

But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. She saw the spent syringe there, and watched it drop out of her vein, and onto the floor. The soulless blood ran over her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm, and saw the same thing.

“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”

When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”

Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.

“So it’s you or the staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes, but the stairs are still a mystery.”

The operator smoked, and tapped a finger on her knee.

“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”

“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps — yada yada — no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”

“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.

“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there,” she said.

For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button, No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.

“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along. They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.

The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.

“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.

heartbreak garage sale

The crows flew in that morning from the wrecking yards, a black mass low over the estuary, blocking the sun, landing inky on the rooftops and perching like judges in the trees. It wasn’t until later that I realised just how wrong it was, the cocking of a thousand eyes to see what shined.

The man in the seersucker suit and pencil mustache arrived in the back lane in a black chauffeur driven Continental shortly after I opened the garage doors, at 8:00 a.m. He wore thick-framed horn rimmed glasses with dark lenses, and smoked cigarettes with gold foil filters. My neighbour, the ageing Mrs Faulkner, had arrived a moment before him, and was rummaging through crates of old first editions.

“I’ll take that box,” he said to me, pointing to an old Miller Beer crate behind him. He had an English accent and a hazy charm. His chauffeur stepped forward to fetch and carry the dusty old box away.

“But you don’t even know what’s in it,” I said.

“How much?” he asked.

“$10.”

He handed me a fifty, and told me to keep it.

The box disappear into the trunk of the car, as the man began to browse. He smiled fondly as he picked up pieces to view them, occasionally holding one at arm’s length and grinning warmly, then replacing it reverently on a table. As he browsed further, and approached the place where I had set a stool for myself and a small cashbox underneath. On the table, there was a locked display case containing jewellery.

He stopped there, and asked, “May I?”

“Yes, certainly.” I rummaged in my pocket for the key.

When opened, the man reached into the case and took out a ring in a ring box with yellowing satin. He seemed to stand straighter with it in his hand, holding it up for the sun to glint off of the green stone in its setting. There was some momentary memory of contentment in his expression, and something else. He removed the ring from its box, and placed it on his left ring finger, then held his hand out again.

“There you are,” he said. “I’ve finally found you.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I said. The words had slipped out before I could contain them.

“No,” he said, turning round to look at me. “I’m originally from Bristol, England, but now I live in Los Angeles. Does it show?”

“No. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “Isn’t that what a garage sale is for, besides the redistribution of wealth, I mean. Aren’t they for breaking the ice, getting know one another?”

I noticed a longish pink scar on his right cheek. He touched it with his finger and turned away.

“It’s a very long way to come for a garage sale,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But there was some word of it in my little circle. The last chance at some very nice old pieces from a more splendid past.”

“But this is Vancouver,” I said. “How could there be word of it in Los Angeles?”

Without answering, he placed a hand on one of two wooden chairs. “You know these are Chippendale, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, sheepishly.

“Rather a low price for such precious items.” He fingered a card attached with masking tape. $20, written in black felt pen. “Fire sale prices, I’d say.”

I shrugged.

“It’s how he wanted it, isn’t it,” said the man, sitting down on the chair. “Malcolm was a grand old eccentric.” He pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket.

“Have a nip?” he said, offering it to me first.

“No. Look, who are you?”

“Oh, just a shameless Hollywood hanger-on.”

“But it’s obvious that you knew my Uncle Malcolm, somehow.”

He suppressed a laugh, and took a belt from the flask.

“Forgive me,” he said, holding up a hand. “But to hear him referred to as Uncle Malcolm….” He shook his head, and took off his dark glasses.

His eyes were a pale blue. Now I noticed his age, his carefully disguised frailty.

“You knew him well enough to care about what’s left, to come all the way here to look?”

“Much of this we shared, my boy. At least for a time. I haven’t seen these pieces in decades, but it’s like yesterday.”

“I don’t understand?”

Malcolm Pierce had died three months before, at ninety-five years of age. In his will, he’d asked that many of his material possessions, the ones not inherited by friends and family, be disposed of in this way, out of my garage. He’d specified it be …an informal event, without hoopla. And that it be held out of my nondescript home, where the unknowing neighbours could shop the oddities and buy them for cheap, before any of the Hollywood death-savvy eBay types could get their meat hooks into them.

Everything was sent up UPS from California, with an inventory and his absurdly low set prices. Sending it must have cost a fortune, but he’d been a moneyed man.

“They were together,” said Mrs Faulkner, who had come over to listen in. “He and Malcolm. At least that’s what the gossip magazines hinted at, back then.” She was beaming. “This is Timothy Colt,” she said, then held out her hand. Timothy Colt took it gently for a moment.

“A pleasure, my Lady,” he smiled.

In Mrs Faulkner’s other hand was a book, entitled Brussels, which had come from the boxes of first editions. She opened it, and on the back flap of the dust jacket was a picture of a much younger version of the man now sitting in the Chippendale chair.

He looked up at me, his face, for the moment, hard and grim.

“Yes,” he said, “That’s what they hinted at. And even the godawful gossip magazines got it right sometimes. Of course, it never occurred to me that I’d finally and absolutely be outed by a darling old lady at a garage sale.” He grinned.

“Oh dear!” said Mrs Faulkner. “I’m sorry. We, I mean everyone, always assumed it was true, and that you’d already been outed.”

“Yes and no,” he said, “as things go. Nothing was ever confirmed; why should it have been? I’m a writer, which made me suspect. Gossip and hints were all we had back then, all anyone needed. They were enough to inform the sympathetic and the cruel. There was much ambivalence in between, of course.”

“Would you?” said Mrs Faulkner, holding Brussels forth. She produced a pen and offered the novel to Timothy Colt.

“With pleasure, ma’am. What is your name?”

“Beatrix,” she said. Like him, she seemed to be holding back tears.

Timothy turned to the title page, and began. “To Beatrix, with my greatest regard,” he said as he wrote. Then with a flourish of the pen, he said, “Timothy Colt.” Then handed back the book.

“Oh, thank you.” She held it to her bosom. “I read it in 1955,” Beatrix Faulkner said. “When it first came onto the shelves. It’s so beautifully written, so tragic. I read it three times, the first time in two nights. Naturally, I did it secretly. It was scandalous, even dangerous. And I was just a girl working in an office.”

“Scandalous?” I said. “Why scandalous?”

“It was a romance novel, my boy,” Timothy said. “But with a twist.” He gave me a wink, his grim look now gone. “How it ever got published in 1955 remains a mystery. And the screen adaptation…! That remains the greatest mystery of all.”

“I think I know the answer,” I said. “But tell me all the same. What was the twist?”

“Two lovers,” he said. “Or, perhaps not lovers at all. I left that to the reader to decide. Although in retrospect, I think I may have made it impossible for the reader to come to any other conclusion. It takes place in postwar Belgium, hence the title. The protagonists, are both men. The critics were torn. Unwritten reviews praised it. The written ones did not. Literary critics know upon which plate their dinner is served. I blame no one.”

“They treated it like smut,” Beatrix said.

“Yes, they did,” said Timothy. “And of course I was immediately labelled a communist, and blacklisted. But I had a very enduring ally.”

“Uncle Malcolm,” I said.

“Indeed. He was one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, at the time. And I was young, and talented, if I do say so myself. Also rather handsome, some said. Malcolm took me under his wing for more than purely literary reasons, and I acquiesced without much thought. I was lonely in Hollywood, and predisposed. He arranged for us to meet for lunch one day, and the rest is rowdy history.”

“So he wrote the screen adaptation of your scandalous novel?”

“We did it together, partially in an MGM bungalow on the studio lot, but mostly in his house just outside of San Diego. We began in the autumn of 1955. By spring of ’56, we had Otto Preminger interested in directing and producing, and there were whispers that United Artists might distribute. The film would never receive the Hollywood Production Code seal of approval nor MPAA certification, we knew that much. But I was convinced, in a childish way, that its being made in Hollywood was incidental, that its meaning was far greater than that of the studio Machine.”

He paused, sighed and brushed something invisible off of his knee.

“We even had Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift,” he said, sadly. “All hush hush, obviously. Poor Monty. Poor Roy. The moments when their characters would have touched were never to appear in the script. That’s how adaptations are, and it was my duty as author of the novel to protest. But my protests were only token ones. I smelled success. Maybe I should have said more.”

“And you and Malcolm were in love,” Beatrix said, a statement that might have been a question. She was in love with the idea, for her own reasons.

Timothy twisted the ring on his finger. “Perhaps I was,” he said. “I wasn’t a boy, but I was an innocent. How could I know what I felt? He was much older. Which was more grease for the gossip wheels.

“We got the script as far as the read-through room, where everyone sits round the table and simply reads their parts aloud, without acting. Rock and Monty were there, and Preminger, and some of the money people, along with a very stern looking man and woman who sat at the back of the room. When Otto saw them walk in late, as a hired actor read the opening narrative, he sighed deeply and looked over at Malcolm.

“The man and woman listened chastely to the read-through, and took notes. At the end, they stood and left without a word.”

“Who were they?” Beatrix said.

“The censors, of course. Censors were everywhere, back then. There were more censors in Hollywood than aspiring actors. Otto told us to take heart. That he’d pull strings. So we waited a week, and then the whole production was shut down.

“Your Uncle Malcolm went into a rage when he found out. We were living together by then, in his house in San Diego. It was a lovely, very romantic time, before the censors banned the script.

“When we got the news, he drank and raved for a week. I had no idea he was capable of such behaviour. He’d considered the Brussels screenplay to be a masterpiece, and it was banned by petty bureaucrats, he said. He became violent with the servants. One day when I tried to console him, he beat the hell out of me! Can you imagine? And in my naivety, I went back to try to comfort him.”

“And he beat you again,” I said.

“And a little more.” He put his hand to his scarred cheek.

“I know that this all must be very difficult for you to hear,” he said.

I had no opinion. I’d only met my uncle once, at Christmas in my parents’ home. I was seven years old. He seemed very grand to me, a king in a throne, even though it was just my father’s L-Z-Boy. The family talk was that he was a great but troubled man, prone to outbursts and melancholy. I recalled that he smelled like cologne and Canadian Club. After dinner, when he’d had too much to drink, he gave me an American $5 bill, and sent me on my way. I never saw him again, except in the papers, and then in his obituary. It was a 1960s stock studio photo of an unsmiling man, from the waste up, sitting in a chair, wearing jacket and tie, holding a pipe in his hand. The photo told me nothing about him.

“The scripts had been held securely in an MGM safe,” Timothy said, “before the read-through. They were studio property, after all. Somehow, Malcolm managed to rescue them from the incinerator, afterwards. He knew people: a receptionist, who knew a secretary, who knew the sister of an associate to the assistant producer, who knew a studio page, who knew the custodian who had wheeled them away toward destruction.

“Once secured, he brought them home, and put them in an old beer crate labelled Miller. Then after his breakdown, he forgot about them.”

Timothy Colt stopped there, looking round him. Then he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I moved away,” he said, looking again at the gem on his finger. “Not wanting to live through a similar heartbreak. In a last effort to hold on, he gave me this ring at a special dinner at the Dal Rae.

“Eighteen karat gold,” he said, holding out his hand. “And an emerald of exquisite clarity. A gem of finest water they would have once said. Not too big, not too garish. But I know it cost him a small fortune. It’s just right, isn’t it?”

“It’s a very fine thing,” Beatrix said.

“I didn’t accept it, naturally. It would have meant going back.”

“Yes, I imagine it would have.”

“How much for it now?” Timothy said to me. “And don’t say you’ll give it to me for free, under the circumstances.”

“He priced it at $25.”

Timothy thought a moment, sighed, and then said, “I guess that is its true worth. Like any abusive lover, he had always maintained that I abandoned him. Maybe I did. It all depends on how one measures such things.” He placed some bills in my hand.

“I used the money I earned from book sales to return to Berkley,” said Timothy, “to get my master’s degree. I’ve taught there and written novels ever since—but that’s common knowledge, quite boring.”

“Ten beautiful novels,” Beatrix said. “One of each is in the boxes on the tables. Each one well read, judging by their condition. He must not have given up on you, completely.”

“You’re a love,” he said, and gently squeezed her arthritic hand.

“So, in a way,” I said, “this entire inventory is yours.”

“No no. I have what I came for, the scripts in the trunk of the car, and this lovely ring. Who could have known that two such small purchases would have resolved so much. I have a wonderful home to return to. And at the end of the day, a few small memories are more comfortable than many grand ones.”

He gave me back the box the ring came in.

“Dispose of that, will you? I won’t be needing it.”