the exorcist

The exorcist hunkered down in the alley, between two dumpsters. He was a rumpled man in a shabby dark suit and grubby clerical collar. There was a crucifix on a chain round his neck. A windstorm had put the power out. The city was dark. He’d have lit a candle if he could.

“Is this you?” he said, looking up at the Man standing over him. “The windstorm, I mean.”

“I don’t deal in windstorms,” said the Man. “I deal in souls.”

“Yes, I see. That’s very clever.”

The Man was dressed in a glossy teal sharkskin suit and alligator shoes.

“Are you prepared for the girl?” He said.

The girl? The exorcist turned some pages in his head, and there she was. Innocent, very young. Said to be crawling across the ceiling. Possessed. He had an appointment with her and her mother in an hour.

“I’m ready,” he said, lighting a cigarette. He took a flask from his jacket pocket and drained the liquor from it in two gulps.

“And try to make it look like something this time,” said the Man. “Throw in a little of that old Catholic witchcraft. The last one was a little too in-and-out.”

“Fine. Witchcraft. I’ll make a note.”

“You resent me instructing you, don’t you. Still, after all of this time.”

Resent, thought the exorcist. Yes. The Man was God, after all. Resentment, even disappointment, were inevitable. Besides, exorcism was for youngsters. The exorcist was ready for retirement.

“You don’t need me,” he said. “You could handle all of this just fine on your own. From a distance, too. You’d never even have to leave your living room, and I could settle down, maybe read a little.”

“But I like a good show,” said God.

“You’re a sadist.”

The exorcist opened his bag and rummaged. Everything was there, at least enough to get him through the next gig.

“Remember that thing you did for me in ’74,” God said, “in Genoa?”

“Yeah, that was rather good,” the exorcist snorted. “Satan wasn’t expecting me to put the old broad into a tub of holy water, and use the host as bath salts. The tabloids loved it.”

“They still do that bathtub thing, you know.”

“I know.” The exorcist smiled and drew hard on his cigarette. There was at least some joy in all of this. Even if it came out of events that happened so long ago.

“We’re good together,” said God, “you and me.”

“But I’m sixty-nine years old now. I need some rest.”

“Yes,” God said, “I know all things.” He lit a cigarette of His own.

“Then you know that this’ll be my last exorcism,” the exorcist said. “Then it’s quits-Ville.”

“You’ll hate retirement. There’s no glory in it, no honour.”

Honour and glory. The exorcist shook his head.

“You know,” he said, “you’ve coerced me into doing this, and I have nothing to show for it, no friends, no property, no family. And I’m still a virgin. All I have is a headful of fragmented memories, distorted by tragedy and time, and absolutely meaningless. My devotion has run out, and you’re to blame.”

“You took your vows,” God said.

“Yeah? Well fuck the vows. What could they possibly mean to you, anyway? You’re not Catholic. Hell, you’re not even Christian. You have no religion. You’re God.”

“Try to keep that part to yourself, please. It’s bad for business.”

“I’ve met a woman, by the way,” the exorcist said. “She’s very beautiful. She reads beautiful books, and she goes to beautiful movies. She says that she loves my smile, when I smile, which is rare I know. Her name is Rose. We’ve become close, and she brought up the whole vow thing the other day. She’s worried that I might be making too great a sacrifice in loving her.”

God looked down upon His alligator shoes, dropped His cigarette and snuffed it out. Then He sighed and said, “Religion is just politics, you know. Just a matter of opinions and tribalism.”


“I don’t give a damn what two people do together, or that one of them is a priest, as long as no one gets hurt, outside of the usual hurt that comes with love.”

“She likes caramel corn,” said the exorcist. “There’s a place downtown that makes it from scratch. It’s her favourite.”

“Yes,” said God. “I know all things.”


diary of a Walmart Greeter

When I woke up this morning, there was a new continent on the map on my Word Press statistics page. It lay in between Tierra del Fuego and the southern tip of Africa, and was roughly the size of Madagascar and the shape of a 1965 Volkswagen van. When I looked closer, it turned out to be a dry crumb of organic matter, stuck to the computer screen. I guess I coughed something up last night. I scratched the crusty thing off the face of the planet with my fingernail, and meditated on impermanence. Then I made coffee and ate cold pizza.

Now I write this on my blog. It’s intended as a confession, but maybe it’s more. Who knows? Maybe it’ll hold some meaning for the internet archeologist who discovers it on an abandoned server in a long lost cloud farm, five hundred years from now. Or maybe I’m only writing it to say, fuck you very much.

The seriousness of what I’ve done isn’t for me to weigh. I’ll let others do that, and if they’re harsh, they can kiss my ass. Just let it be known that at least I tried to go straight.

Today would have been my third day working at my new job as a Walmart Greeter. It also would have been the third time that I was forced to do the pre-shift cheer and bumble bee dance. But that isn’t going happen, for reasons I’m about to explain.

I got the job through a seniors’ employment program at the YMCA, where my Employment Counsellor was an intern named Debbie. Debbie liked Disneyland, energy drinks and Taylor Swift, and was surprised to discover that I’m only sixty-nine. She could have sworn, she said, that I was much older. Nice.

“It was my last three marriages,” I said. “The first two were okay, but the last three, well, they aged me something awful.”

“Wow,” she replied.

Then Debbie asked me straight out, with a fresh wad of bubble gum in her mouth, why I was looking for employment, instead of enjoying my retirement. In response, I tried to explain the ins-‘n’-outs of the endless asymmetrical underground war between the Mexican Government and assorted drug cartels, and how easy it was to lose one’s life savings getting caught in the middle, with a shipping container full of brickweed destined for the US college market, and a counterfeit Maersk Line bill of lading.

She didn’t get it, just stared at me a moment, and then ended our brief meeting by handing me a slip of paper with the Walmart job information on it.

Most of the Walmart employees doing the bumble bee were weary looking high school dropouts with nervous ticks, dilated pupils and scabs on their faces. Baba Henry was the shift lead, a poorly dressed man in a polyester Chinese checkers shirt and grubby blown-out Nikes. He was a gesticulating fiend, and possessed a dexterity rare in the obese, and lacking in many of us in the room who were much slimmer. He shouted louder and wiggled his hips more than any of us. I guess he simply had more heart, in the way that the truly idiotic often do. It only took me three minutes to come to hate him.

My first day was a four hour shift, dedicated to orientation. I and other new employees learned about the meaning of customer service, Walmart policy and the importance of absolute unquestioning obedience to management. Then we were introduced to the corporation’s secret website, accessible only to Walmart administration, staff and an elite force of NSA shock troops.

And we were warned to avoid ever being Coached.

Coaching, it turned out, was the word Walmart used for disciplining low end staff who were in the shit. It was an extreme form of corporate bullying, and a brutal and unequivocal reminder that though we could go home at night, we were the slaves of the new self-perpetuating recessionary epoch. Our situation was hopeless. Slackers, complainers and people with ideas were nails to be hammered down into the vinyl flooring. Union organisers, on the other hand, were summarily and ritualistically executed on the loading dock, and disappeared into the massive laneway trash compactor. Afterwards, their homes were incinerated in the night with all occupants locked inside.

I walked away from Orientation feeling like I’d leaned out of a car, and held my tongue to the pavement going 80 mph.

On my second day, after the bumble bee and cheer, I took my position near the main entrance, facing a large milling rabble on the other side of the locked doors, waiting to take advantage of a special bargain price on a limited supply of Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken without Giblets in the 50oz Can, limit: two cans per customer, no rain checks, double the Air Miles.

The crowd stared at me through the glass doors with blank expressions, as though they were fish in an aquarium, making blub-blubbing movements with their mouths.

Something like panic was growing in my gut. I wanted to run; I should have run. I was beginning to realise that I would be an obstacle to these canned chicken crazed demons. To them, I would be the Chicken Keeper — the only thing standing between them and canned chicken bliss. I was nothing but stampede bait. They were going to rip me to pieces.

9 a.m.! I heard Baba say, as he came up from behind me. It was time to open up and let our valued customers in, but he must have seen something my eyes, something that disgusted him, because he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it hard.

“You stink of fear, old man.” There was scorn in his squinty eyes. “Remember, a true Walmart Greeter knows no fear, only the joy of greeting, of directing customers to Walmart’s excellent selection of quality value-priced merchandise, and deflecting all criticism away from management and the Corporation, onto yourself. You understand me?” he hissed. “Do you need Coaching?”

I thought about the rent due in three days and my new found desire to be a straight shooter. My first impulse, quitting, wasn’t an option.

“No,” I said. “I don’t need Coaching.”

Sir,” Baba said. “You address me as Sir. No, I don’t need Coaching, Sir!”

The heat of his indignation was close to igniting the excess Old Spice he wore, to mask the smell of day old nicotine and eucalyptus.

“I don’t need coaching, Sir,” I said.

“That’s better, you senile old prick. Now you take that morose look off of your face and smile, before I really give you something to pout about.”

As he walked away, he said, “Fuck, I hate Greeters.”

He was clearly a master at opening. His bearing was confident, and he made no eye contact with the blub-blubbing throng as he inserted the key. He remained cool, even as the mob heaved forward at the sound of lock tumblers engaging, causing the glass to flex and bulge. He’d obviously been expecting the crushing surge. It was something they’d undoubtedly studied at the Walmart Labs in Bentonville, Arkansas. When he turned the key, he deftly stepped out of the way, like a 250 pound ballerina.

Then it began.

The invasion of single-minded dead-eyed humanity was terrifying. It was the chicken-zombie-shopper apocalypse, and Baba had disappeared through some hidden door in the wall. I was paralysed by the same repulsive fear that urged me to run, but somehow I stood my ground. I smiled and greeted — Hello ma’am, Hello sir. And as the grim and unruly horde shouldered past me, I was nearly knocked to the floor several times.

Then out of nowhere, she appeared. The shrieking woman.

“My God,” she screamed, grabbing me by my blue vest and pushing me into a display of Chuck Norris Fruity Uzis breakfast cereal, “where’s the chicken? – the goddam chicken, man! Stop stuttering, spit it out.” She gave me a good shake, and pushed me back again. Her grip was like a vice.

It’s true, I was stuttering. I who had faced down the Mexican Federales, as I drove a truckload of bargain basement weed, disguised as a shipment of hand painted sugar skulls, through a checkpoint in Michoacán. I realised then that escaping this fire-sale running of the bulls would be impossible. I’d been setup as a chump. But suddenly, as the screaming woman kicked me in the shin, I was inspired by the smirking image of Chuck Norris on the cereal boxes at my feet, and karate chopped her hands off of my vest, and hollered, “Fuck off, you psycho bitch!”

It was a holler heard all over the front end of the store, and the marauding mass halted, turned and looked at me in awe.

“Did that Greeter just say fuck off bitch?” one of the zombies said.

“Yeah,” said the woman with the vice-like grip. Her eyes were flaring, her hair was a brittle blonde fire hazard. “He told me to fuck off, and called me a bitch.”

“Horrible!” a voice called out. There were growing murmurs of agreement and rage.

“Then he hit me,” she continued, strategically dowsing the flame in her eyes. Now tears formed. “I have a disabled child at home, Little Amy. She’s six years old, and has Tourette syndrome.” There were gasps from all round her. “I’m homeschooling her, because they won’t let her go to public school and play with the other children.” Now there was a generalised tsk-tsk-ing. “And we’re so poor that all I have to drive is a 1979 Ford Pinto, with a busted windshield and no cigarette lighter. I only asked him where the chicken was. Little Amy loves her whole canned chicken without the giblets.”

“He hit you?” screeched another woman. “That’s horrible.” She grabbed the man standing next to her. Together, they looked like American Gothic on crack.

“But he’s just a Greeter,” came a shout from the back of the crowd. “He can’t do that. Only management can do that.”

“He just did, though,” yelled another person, who shook a fist.

Now everyone began shouting —

“Don’t they bring the Greeters in illegally from Serbia? Someone has to call the police — Immigration Services.”

“He looks sort of Serbian, to me,” said a man in a hardhat and florescent orange overalls. “My brother in-law was Serbian. He made his own bullets in his basement, and blew his head off when the bullet press exploded. They didn’t find his body for a week, because my sister was in detox. That’s when they discovered that he was a crossdresser, lying there dead in a dress and fluffy pink slippers. It broke my sister’s heart, but he actually had good taste in women’s clothing, and she was very happy to inherit his wardrobe.”

“What’s wrong with being Serbian?” asked a timid man with a foreign accent.

“They’re shifty and unclean!” yelled an old woman with broken plastic umbrella.

“We are not,” the timid man said.

“What the hell’s going on here?” It was a loud voice. It was Baba, appearing out of nowhere, oily and heroic. “Let’s clear this area. There are fire regulations, you know.”

“The Greeter assaulted a customer,” said a young woman in a Guns N’ Roses tee shirt and acid wash jeans. “He used kung fu, and the fucking bastard used the F word.”

“What’s this all about, old man?” Baba said, looking to me.

“The crowd was out of control,” I said. “That woman over there,” I pointed, “she was ready to kill me over a can of chicken. I had to defend myself.” The panic in my gut was returning.

“She’s got a daughter with Tourette syndrome,” someone cried. “I’m not sure what that is, but I hope they don’t have a vaccine for it. Vaccines cause the bubonic plague, you know. My brother got it and had to have his tonsils out, the little mite.”

“Is this true?” Baba said to me. He looked horrified.

“No,” I said. “Vaccines are perfectly safe.”

“Don’t mess with me, you old geezer. Did you assault a customer?”

“Well technically, yes,” I said, “though a judge wound probably throw the case out, considering the circumstances.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Baba said, turning his attention to the crowd and smiling, “please try to forget about this tragic incident, and know that I will handle it appropriately. Now proceed to aisle 5 to take advantage of Walmart’s sensationally low price on Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken without Giblets in the 50oz Can, limit: two cans per customer, no rain checks, double the Air Miles. And please remember to speak enthusiastically to friends and family about your outstanding Walmart shopping experience.”

“I want free chicken,” said my supposed victim, “five of ’em. And three times the Air Miles. I need them Miles real bad, ’cause I’m taking Little Amy to Jesusland USA. She’s disabled, you know.”

“Fuck,” Baba muttered at me. “I’ve got red hot pokers in the back with your name on them.”

“I want free chicken, too,” someone else said. “I found this whole experience traumatising.”

“Me too!” others in the crowd shouted out.

“Alright, alright.” Baba had his hands in the air, trying to calm things down. “Remain where you are, and I’ll have someone come out.” He took a walkie-talkie form his belt, and spoke to a crackly voice at the other end. Then he turned to me and said, “It’s the trash compacter for you, grandpa.” Then to the mob, he said, “A manager will be right out.”

Now Baba grabbed me by the collar, and pulled me to a backroom.

“Sit down,” he said, as he slammed the door.

I sat down.

“I’ve never met a single Greeter that’s worth a damn.” He stuck his finger in his ear, and started digging. “No one else is stupid enough to do the job, so they hire old sons-a-bitches like you. I hate old sons-a-bitches like you, always making stupid jokes and slapping complete strangers on the back like you’re their best pal when all they wanna do is get as far away from you as possible.”

“That’s very ageist,” I protested, not really knowing why.

“You know what I did to the last Greeter who fucked up? I really Coached her. And let me tell you, she didn’t fuck up nearly as bad as you. I put her into the trunk of my car, and I drove her fifty miles outta town and left on the highway. She had borderline dementia. I bet she never made it back. I bet she’s sitting at a gas station lunch counter right now, talking to herself and depending on the kindness of strangers.”

I almost choked on the Old Spice tsunami, when he bent over me and leaned in close.

“You know what I think?” he said. We were now nose to nose.

“Ah, let’s see,” I said, “you think that chem-trails contain mind controlling substances that pacify the population and make us all passive stooges of Shadow Government?”

He looked at little stunned for a moment, as though I’d read his mind.

“No,” he said, licking his lips and digging his blunt finger into his ear again. “I think you need to fall down a long flight of stairs. I’ve found that senior citizens break like China cups on the stairs.”

He gave me no choice; I had to take him seriously. I’d already had a near death experience that morning. I knew anything was possible. Out of instinct, I’d cased the room when I entered. There was a small fire extinguisher in a case right next to where I sat. And Baba wasn’t considering all of the possibilities, that maybe I had gotten myself out of far worse situations, that he was a lightweight compared to some of the thugs I’d faced. To him, I was just old. Bad mistake.

“Then when you’re all busted up,” he said, “I’ll drive you down to an alley I know on the bad side of town, and dump you there. The crack heads’ll steal your wallet and watch, and use you for a toilet.”

Swell, I was dealing with a clown who’d seen too many Joe Pesci movies.

Among the other advantages I held over Baba, was knowing that one should never stand too close to the person one is trying to intimidate. And never under estimate an old fart. There’s always an outside chance that he might be angrier and meaner than you.

I lifted my knee into his junk, extra hard, then clobbered him across the nose with an arthritic left. When he staggered backward, I elbowed the glass plate of the fire extinguisher case, and retrieved the contents. I’ve always loved small fire extinguishers. They’re just the right size.

By now, he’d fallen backward over a chair and was struggling to get up, so I walked over and hammered him over the head with the butt end of the red cylinder. It felt so good that I did it again. He fell into a black pool of his own blood.

“Greet that, asshole,” I said.

After about ten minutes of heavy lifting, I was able to heave him onto a flat dolly. Since the backdoors were locked, and my car was in the front parking lot, I put a tarp over him and rolled him out through the busy store. A couple of Associates asked me on the way what I was doing, and I told them I was rolling Baba’s dead body out to my car. Each of them laughed and said, GREAT!

So now Baba’s slouched over, sort of in a sitting position, on my couch. His mouth is open like he’s still breathing, but he isn’t. I look at him every now and then as I type, but I feel no regret. I have no sympathy.

I write this confession out of what might be a mistaken sense of duty to ageing Walmart Greeters everywhere. It may provide some hope. My message is this: Don’t take any shit. Submit to no one. Use your hard-earned strength and intelligence to smack down petty minds. It’s our age that makes us beautiful, man.

If I drive steady for a couple of days, I should be able to get to Mexico, intact. By then, even Baba’s over dose of Old Spice won’t be enough to cover up his stink, so I’m confident that he’ll be found, unlike the old gal he drove out of town.

Like I said at the start, I tried to go straight and it didn’t work. I thought it mightn’t. The world of squares isn’t for me, never was. I’ve got some cash, hidden in an abandoned mine in the Sierra Madre. Or maybe it’s somewhere else. Maybe I’m just blowing smoke. Maybe it’s under the floorboards of a ghetto hovel somewhere in Mexico City. Either way, it’s good to have an alternative retirement plan. Don’t bother looking for me. I’ll be invisible, just another old guy you think’s all used up, sitting on a park bench, feeding the birds.

woman in a doorway

There’s a derelict building, at a corner where two empty streets cross. It’s built in an old style, and was once filled with art; ideas, oceans and the joy of creation. Then plague came, and creation died. Now the building stands empty and without windows, with the wind yelling out in its rooms.

When I stand on the corner, I see a woman in a doorway. She sees nothing, I know, and remains still, even when I touch her hair. She’s a ghost sign, a recounting of a small event in a small life. A backward image, left behind in a floral wartime dress, young and serene in her moment. I’ve wondered if I love her.

To be homeless is to live in a different city, to walk an edge that’s cut into the circle of the world, begging, finding yourself in plate glass. Here, I hunker down and sleep in steel corners, invisible to evil and street Christians driven mad by creed.

Here, I divide time with a knife. There are decades in my belly, and monsters eating decades. I hold screams in my hands.

Stepping out of an alley, I see the woman in the doorway. Birds in empty windows, creeping like fascists, whispering like outlaws. There are no gardens here. No moon. The trees have walked away.

I cross the street and stand with my ear to her heart. Does she breathe? Then sit down on the stoop next to her, and look away. There’s a streetlight in the next block, and then planets.

my cheating psychosis — a hurtin’ poem

lie to me, I have said to the voices
tell me I’m the only one
not that the silent nights come
only when you’ve slipped away
to waltz with other minds

tell me that I’m yours, alone
that in this broken down alleyway
when all night you have surrounded me
and synapsis and neurons
are planets in the sky
and we have clutched and made love
until only the sidewalks of dawn remain
tell me that there is no one else
that each of you speaks
only to me

there is a forest here

There is only one way to satisfy those who want you sober, and that is by walking away from the comfort of alcohol, and into a room of uncushioned, dark-hearted truths, an act that defies all layers of logical self-defense.

Virginia Quipp had just entered that room, leaving behind the vodka, and the splendid but unwholesome hush of 4 a.m. It was her second day in that room. Her hands didn’t shake and her nausea was only slight, but at eight in the evening, she sat at her desk facing another night of hateful abstinence. What was it about sobriety that zealots found so alluring?

She looked once again at her thumbnail image on the computer screen, the one gracing her page on the Federation of Canadian Poets website. Above the photograph was her name and a year, 1961. It was the year of her birth, and it was followed by a dash and a blank space, 1961 –    . It was a ravenous space, hungry to be filled, but also very patient. Beneath the photograph was a brief bio referencing, among others, her Governor General’s Award, a ponderous stone. And the words, near the bottom: Her next collection is due out in 2016.

1961 –     . She placed her hand on the mousepad where a drink should have been, but was not. Perhaps there was a book of poetry in this: the hell of anonymity or closet bottles.

Various worldly collisions. Gravities too savage to escape.

Was there tea? Yes, some tea might do in the absence of vodka. Had she brewed some, earlier? Tea, into which she had once poured smoky Tennessee whiskey. It was nostalgia, tea and whiskey. The drink she had enjoyed in her youth, sitting at camp fires or in roadhouses during her lone hitchhiking journeys through Canada, India and the United States, back before she felt the need to apologise for her choices. It was the drink that had helped her earn her graduate degree, so long ago. Her favourite cocktail, until she discovered the fast-acting convenience of Smirnoff, neat.

She brought up MS Word and looked at her stanza, the one that harassed her by its presence, and its refusal to be followed by another:

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Her editor had asked for more nature references. Vancouver was surrounded by rainforest, after all. Weren’t its citizens masters of the wilderness?

“No,” she said to the stanza.

It was the junk logic of book-marketing campaigns.

How was a poem written by a sober poet, anyway — when the words lose their mobility, as a result? When there is no river of them, no tsunami, no latent current to pull her under, gloriously? This would be a collection without grace or poise, solely inspired by a previously signed contractual agreement — Her next collection is due out in 2016. Perhaps panic would move her. Perhaps a laps back into vodkaesque suicidality.

Virginia Quipp knew that a tranquillising world of liquor existed just outside of her door — That’s right, 007, it’s an abundant, colourless, almost flavourless poison. Administered orally, it renders the victim temporarily paralysed, in a state of euphoria.

Her finger began tapping the mousepad, hitting the centre of the circle left behind by her last glass as she stared at the stanza, and suddenly thought of Susan. Why, for goodness sake? It had been months. Susan, a woman who was now so gone from her life. The one who’d tried to impose herself upon a lonely drunk poet, but in the end was repulsed by Virginia’s infatuations.

They’d met by accident on a Saturday night, an innocent occurrence, in a rough and tumble east side bar, frequented by longshoremen and failed young Bukowskis. Virginia was there trying to relive some of the rawness of her long departed youth, when Susan arrived at the bar.

“You’re Virginia Quipp,” said the graceful brunette.

“Yes,” said Virginia, uncertain for a moment.

“May I buy you a drink?”

“Of course, but do I know you?”

Susan didn’t ask what Virginia was drinking. Virginia’s choice of poison was well known. Susan ordered a flute of Prosecco for herself, an unusual drink to have in an establishment with worn felt pool tables and crooked cues. She sipped it so painfully slow.

“Do you have an agent, right now?” Susan had asked.

“Yes, of course,” said Virginia. “What an odd question.” She began to dismiss the idea that this was a chance encounter.

“It’s that Rachel Victor woman, right?”

“Yes,” said Virginia, almost bleakly. Rachel, the woman pressuring her to quit drinking — too many missed meetings, too many forgotten deadlines, too many frightening blackouts.

“I’ve noticed that ol’ Rachel has landed you a very comfortable deal with Harper Collins,” Susan said. “Your last two collections, isn’t it? HC’s rather a stodgy house for a once radical eco-feminist like you, no? I’m an agent myself, just so you understand.”

“I’m not sure I do understand,” Virginia said.

“Well I am, and I’m taking on new clients. Some friends are trying to start a new publishing house, as well, a little like Black Sparrow, we hope. We’d love to have you on our list.”

“Say what you like about Rachel,” said Virginia, sipping. “But most Canadian poets are starving and can’t pay the rent. I, on the other hand, have a nice little house near the Drive, and I’m well fed. Rachel helped me make a name. Besides, I’m writing a novel at the moment, and I’m well positioned for that with HC.” It was corporate babble, and Virginia was ashamed at once. What had happened to her?

Susan placed her card on the bar. “Look me up on the web. I’m not an amateur. I’ve had some successes.” Then she began to walk away, but looking over her shoulder as she did, she said, “Dinner sometime, yes? Call me.”

Was she suggesting a date, or another recruitment opportunity? Virginia slipped the card into her bag, and waited an agonising week before she called to find out.

They dined at Bishop’s on a Friday evening, chatting over salads and the Duck Breast and Wild Spring Salmon. Virginia enjoyed the U’luvka, but really didn’t taste the difference between it and the much cheaper brands she normally drank.

They talked about everything but publishing, and after several drinks, when Susan rested her hand on the table, Virginia gambled and placed her own upon it. Susan pulled away immediately, and the expression on her face made it clear that a boundary had been sorely crossed.

“That’s not what this is about,” she said.

“Yes, I….” Virginia was mortified. “No, I….”

“This is a business dinner,” Susan said. “It’s about business. Whatever made you think it was anything else?”

“But we haven’t discussed business!” said Virginia. “You haven’t mentioned publishing or representing me, even once.” She felt flush, perspiring from every pour.

“Then you’re like all writers, aren’t you. You understand nothing. Business doesn’t have to dominate a conversation, in order to be done. There’s no need for it to be explicit. Not over the course of what was meant to be a relaxed dinner. Besides, I’m not a lesbian and I resent you thinking that I am.”

Susan was right; Virginia understood nothing about business. There had always been someone else to handle it. Rachel Victor had been her agent for twenty-five years, while Virginia skulked in the corner. Rachel did the talking, while Virginia held the business-suited fools round the table in contempt. And how could she have made such a bad assumption about Susan?

Susan signalled the waiter for the bill.

“I’m so sorry,” Virginia said.

Her mind searched for words, and there were none. This had never happened before, but she had always believed that life experience would inform her how to gracefully escape any bad situation. She and her friends had often laughed over the potential for such a gaffe. Now her eloquence had deserted her. She was on a hostile shore, and her enemy was battle-ready, with the advantage of anger and business acumen.

There were so many ways to apologise. But hers turned out to be a drunken one. She became speechless, and looked away.

The waiter was slow. “Damn him,” Susan said.

“Let me pay,” said Virginia. She reached for her bag.

“No,” Susan said, taking a gold card from her pocketbook. “It’s deductible.” Then she dropped the card onto the floor, and it disappeared under her chair. “Fuck. Shit!”

Finally, she stood and walked to the waiter’s station, to settle up. Then she went to the coat check, and walked out the door.

Three days later, Virginia was in the park reading when Susan called.

“I’m sorry,” said Susan. “I over reacted.”

“And I was drunk,” Virginia said.

“We still want you onboard, my friends and I. It would be marvellous. A name like yours is just what a new publishing house needs, and we’ve landed some new investors with deep pockets. You’ll be well compensated, based on royalties of course. When is your current contract up with Rachel?”

“I think I’ll stick with her, Susan. She’s familiar. My life is in need of familiar, right now.”

“Well have her call me, then,” said Susan. “I insist. Maybe she and I can work together.”

“Maybe,” Virginia said.

There was a moment of silence, then Susan said good-bye.

Now at her desk, nearly two days without a drink, her greatest fear was the night ahead. The wages of sobriety were dreadful memories. There was an endless supply of them, by her reckoning, each queuing up for its chance at her.

Defeated, she went to the closet and pulled a bottle out from under a stack of folded blankets. Having never been opened, it was as fresh and full of promise as a morning in June. She took a glass from the kitchen and sat at her computer again, to look at her stanza once more —

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Then she typed —

I believed by standing here
that this forest was mine and that
for a lifetime, it would remain solid above me
but a lifetime is a poetic thing
that snaps like a stick