it was well into the afterwards
when all of the gods of cave paintings & psalms
had finally left us behind
when even the devout had found
that things were good
that we put our noses to shop windows
& dreamed each of our own narrations
our gracious personal pardons
I’m still living close to the park
in the same old building on Haro Street
where once we were seen
I keep my madness in a jar
now too late for you
it’s at the back of a cupboard
in case it rattles on the shelf
I’m pleased you’re still in Montreal
with your students & your prose
are they warriors in common
the way we used to be?
do they share resolutely
the lulls in their furies?
& do they cry on pay phones
on cold Saturday nights?
please write me back soon
as nostalgia always says
here it is evening
& a promised rain
has finally come
It troubled him, if he allowed it to, just how long it took to arrive again where once he’d briefly been, and where, from whence, he was cursed to depart again. It had taken long enough for him to forget things, details of creed and sect, how the mob required no prerequisites, no references or basic education, to tear a planet from its orbit. And here he was once more.
The news on the widescreen television on his office wall was sedate now, a ribbon of minutia running by beneath the talking heads, filling in the empty corners of the a.m. primetime cycle with newly manufactured memes and worn cliché. There was a slideshow behind them, frames of world landmarks slowly fading into one another, lighted or otherwise colourised, in blue white and red: A world mourns, it prays for Paris.
It was raining in Vancouver. The low cloud over Stanley Park made it a brooding day. He was a slender good looking man with a dark complexion. He pointed the television remote like a gun at CNN, and pulled the trigger. The screen went dark.
His office phone beeped.
“Yes,” he said, picking up.
“It’s Barry Winters,” his secretary said, “on line three, Mr Haddar.”
“I’m ignoring him,” said Saif Haddar. “Take a message.”
“I’ve taken four, already.” His secretary was a good and patient woman.
“He’s evil, you know,” Haddar said – evil in a Hollywood North sort of way.
He sat back and exhaled, everything from within himself, while twirling his computer mouse on its pad. The arrow always stopped on Vin Diesel’s doughy face. Haddar was on the actor’s IMDb page, and was losing at Vin Diesel roulette. How a mutt like him, in his dotage, remained associated with fast cars and sexy young women was a mystery to Haddar. But that was show biz. He checked his watch, seventeen minutes until his next appointment, ninety-three minutes to lunch. He consulted the daybook in his head. There were no lunch meetings.
“Has my next appointment come in early, by any chance?” he said.
“No, in fact they called to say they’d be late.”
“I must agree, Mr Haddar,” said his secretary.
“Then put Winters on.”
Haddar listened for a second to the dim standoffish buzz of cloud farms and orbiting telecommunication satellite relays, then he pressed line three.
“Saif Haddar speaking,” he said.
“Saif, baby. It’s Barry Winters here. How does it hang?”
“There is nothing hanging here, Mr Winters. Please state your business. My next appointment is in two minutes, and I cannot be late for a very important lunch meeting.”
“Alrighty, then,” Winters said. “I hear you’ve got Vin Diesel’s agent coming in today.”
“Yes, I help her when he’s in town. She reciprocates when I need her to.”
“What’s it about, pal? New movie? You can tell me.”
“That information is confidential.”
“Is this why you called?”
“Naw, it’s about Felix Wheeler. He’s come over to our agency, now that his contract with you’s expired. I need you to send over his file.”
“But I faxed you his signed release.”
“Then tell me what you need, and I’ll send you copies.”
“It’s his file, Saif ol’ buddy.”
“No, it’s mine, and you know it. He’s welcome to view it at any time. In fact it’s in storage at the moment, and it will be an effort and some expense for me to get it back to my office, but he need only make an appointment and I’ll bill you.”
“Jeez, that’s hardball, Saif.”
Haddar didn’t reply. There was nothing more for him to say. This was obviously an exploratory expedition on Winters’ part, focussed primarily on property acquisition. Haddar spun his mouse again.
“Well can you at least tell me what his last job was,” Winters said. “Felix says it was some Pixar thing, but I can’t find it on the web.”
“I got him a reading with them,” Haddar said. “He auditioned for Additional Voices in Up. He didn’t get it, though. His file went dormant after that. His last actual paying job through me was Customer at Checkout in a 7-11 television commercial. He almost got bounced for demanding a pink grapefruit Perrier rider in his contract. He is not worth the trouble, Mr Winters.”
“Call me Barry, Saif.”
“So, that’s it then.” Barry Winters said. “You say Felix Wheeler’s more trouble than he’s worth, and you won’t send over his file.”
“That’s it,” Haddar said. “Now I really must go.”
Winters hesitated for a moment, and Haddar wondered if it was the shrewdly pregnant pause of an astute businessman, or if Winters had simply drawn a blank.
Then Winters said, “Say, you know, it’s really too bad about that whole Paris thing.”
“Paris,” said Haddar, flatly. So, there it was, on the first day of business after the fact. Had he been expecting this? Yes, he decided, he had. His therapist might even have suggest that he had asked for it, in some occult way worthy of her hourly rate. It had been bound to come up somehow, somewhere, and Barry Winters was just the buffoon to broach the subject.
“Yeah,” said Winters. “All that shooting last Friday, the bomb belts and shit. You must have heard.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Winters. Of course I heard. How does this relate to our conversation?”
“I just wanted to say that I sympathise, man. I mean, here you are an established and respected Vancouver businessman, and your people are over there shooting the whole goddamn place up.”
“My people?” Haddar sighed.
“Yeah, all them ISIS Muslim types.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” Winters said, “the ones with all the AK-47s, chopping peoples’ heads off. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got so many traffic tickets, sometimes I feel like going into traffic court wearing a bomb belt. See, I sorta get where your people are coming from, just not totally, really. Get it?”
“I don’t know any terrorists, Mr Winters, nor anyone remotely related in any way to ISIS. Besides ISIS is hardly Muslim. They slaughter more Muslims than anyone else. Surely you’ve discerned that much from the media coverage.”
“I’m just sayin’, buddy.”
“I really have to go, Mr Winters.”
He silently but bitterly thanked Barry Winters, as he hung up the telephone. Now there was the unwelcome knot in his belly, and he sensed the onset of a familiar flashback. This assault of memory had ended some years before, but potential triggers were legion of late. There was no logical self-defence, no safe territory to claim.
The memory was of the streets of West Beirut, 1982, where he grew up. A group of boys, a twelve year old Haddar among them, standing on a pile of rubble, throwing rocks at a platoon of militia soldiers. It was only a late afternoon distraction. They were playing childish warrior games. The soldiers, however, stood their ground, tense, with their automatic rifles at the ready.
Haddar and his friends laughed and shouted names, and were soon joined by three young men, strangers, maybe university students, each with a slingshot in his hand and faces covered.
Haddar and his friends stood and watched as the newcomers began firing stones at the soldiers, all of them missing at first. Excited, but not understanding the gravity of the attack, Haddar and company began collecting projectiles for slingshot ammunition.
A non-commissioned officer shouted for the slingshot shooters to cease. But they didn’t, and finally one of them hit a target, with a cue ball sized fragment of brick. A Private staggered, blood having sprayed from the region of his left eye, and he fell.
Immediately, the air was filled with Galil assault rifle fire, and Haddar’s friends began to fall round him. Then, he felt a burning shock to his arm that twisted him round, and he fell onto the rubble, facing an eleven year old boy named Adeem, Adeem who always won at chess and backgammon. He had a wide pulpy black wound to his forehead, his eyes opened wide but lifeless. As the gun fire and shouts of a Sergeant and a Lieutenant subsided, Saif Haddar closed his own eyes and lay very still.
The militia left, quickly and quiety. No one checked for survivors. In the end there were none, other than Haddar. After dark, he crawled away. When he looked back, he saw that all of his friends were dead. Tomorrow, his neighbourhood would be nearly empty of boys.
The bullet had only grazed his shoulder, and a doctor came to his house to dress the wound, and provided a course of antibiotics. Days later, an investigation concluded that Saif Haddar had been among the boys that afternoon.
The bulldozer had come at dawn, during the call to prayer, while his family slept. They barely escaped the crushing of their home. Now they were refugees, and shortly afterwards found themselves in Canada, where Haddar spent his adolescent years in a shock of rage and mental chaos.
But none of that was what woke him screaming in the night, or paralysed him in the day. It was seeing Adeem’s wide eyes and dark bottomless wound, again and again, that did that. Now sitting at his desk, he saw it clearly once more. He perspired and breathed deeply, having difficulty exhaling, and watched as his trembling hand picked up the phone.
“Yes, Mr Haddar?” said his secretary.
“Cancel all my appointments.”
“That may be difficult, sir.”
“Why, for goodness sake?” Haddar said.
“Mr Diesel and his representatives have just arrived. They’re in the waiting area. Mr Diesel is pacing; he won’t sit down.”
“But it was only supposed to be his agent and her assistant.”
“I must agree, Mr Haddar.”
I folded your silhouette
out of a razorblade
watching dawn from the fire escape
your gaze, firm —
you had claimed the hidden
but I could hold you no more, you
cut through the pocket of my jeans, the
clink of you hitting the sidewalk unheard
over the fortissimo slam
of your very own invisible
I wouldn’t recommended it, trying to thumb a ride on the road just out front of the locked gates of a mental hospital. It was cold and white, and there hadn’t been a car by in more than an hour. The two or three that had already passed by, had accelerated as they did. That it was Christmas morning didn’t help, I was sure.
The idea of me, an ex-patient, hitching a ride on a country road out front of the asylum from which I’d just been released, made me smile. But I had my shoes and a donated coat, and my pictures of her and I, and I knew that with these few things, I could wait until spring for a ride, if I had to.
By now she was just a dot on the rise in the road a mile away. We’d never been separated by such a distance before. Maybe I was finally on my own.
It was hard to believe, standing there, under the circumstances, that it had only been days before that Veronica told me that the walls of my room would bleed if I cut them with a razor. She said that the old hospital was dying anyway, and that the room I occupied was its last pulsing organ. Its acre of wooded land was its deathbed, and that I would be its final near-death experience.
So, on a night in late December, I took two hits of my smuggled-in acid and looked out of my second floor window, past the bars, believing that I saw gravity collapse stars into endless heroic outlines. Then I cut and waited to wash in the blood of the ancient hospital. But the walls didn’t bleed, so I had taped my razorblade back onto the underside of my night table drawer, and listened for the rest of the night to Perseus tap on the glass.
Veronica had been wrong. She was unreliable sometimes, too flamboyant, a thespian at heart. She took advantage of my boredom. I was her fond audience, and the dark spilling in through the window was her limelight. She was strong, too. Antipsychotics feared her. They stepped round her, respectfully, and obliterated everything else. And during morning rounds, she would cling to the florescent ceiling like a spider, and look down on me as the horn-rim, herring bone psychiatrist conducted his interrogation.
“Housekeeping says you’re destroying hospital property,” he’d said, the morning after the acid night. He said this tracing the cut lines on the walls with his fingertips. I was still tripping. It was the morning of Christmas Eve.
“So, evict me,” I said.
“Your next stop will be Isolation, Molly.” He paused for effect, still closely examining the wall. He was a thespian, too. “You don’t want to go there again.”
“Release me, then. Give me my shoes.”
“No.” He came and sat near my bed. “You’re still too vulnerable.”
“And the others schizos you cut loose, they aren’t? I’ll get along just fine on the outside, with a few pills.”
“I hardly ever think of it anymore,” I said, “except at moments like these when I’m faced with your mania for it.”
“Are you having ideas? Are there voices encouraging you?”
“No. The voices are gone.” It was a lie, but fuck him. “You killed them all. It was a fucking slaughter. Now I’m stepping over bodies.”
He regarded me sternly for a moment, silent in saying the unsaid things of psychiatry.
Then I said, “It’s a trinket for you, isn’t it? Suicide, I mean. It’s a little paste jewel in your pocket. You finger it all day, worry over it, in with your coins and your keys. You even take it out occasionally, and gloat over it. Take an inventory, as you hold it, of all your patients devoured by the word.”
“Do you still believe in what happened in the photo booth?” he said. It was a quick unexpected thrust. Touché. He even allowed a trace of triumph to escape into the air, through his eyes. “You’ve only told us pieces of that story, but it seems very important to you. Central, even, to your being here.”
“You’ve made up your mind about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I have to say.”
“You still associate the photos with Veronica, don’t you?”
“Leave her out of it.”
“Is she still lurking, a voice that I haven’t yet slaughtered?”
The photographs. Oh how the doctors had smirked when I tried to explain them. Veronica and I, the two us jammed into a midway photo booth and posing for the camera. Photographic evidence of her existence. Two friends at a summer fair. Her smiling, me looking tired and a little hopeless. Four small precious snaps in a strip. I’d kept them safe for so long, fiercely preserving them from the deep hole that inevitably swallows all of the meaningful property of the insane and destitute. But the psychiatrist said that I was imagining Veronica, that only I appeared in the pictures.
Now they were in a file, under lock and key.
“She’s real,” I said, ashamed of the confusion I hoped didn’t show. “You can’t drug-away what’s real.”
“You’ve certainly tried over the years,” he said.
“Yeah well, have a drink on me tonight, doc, and celebrate your reserve and resistance to all that’s mind expanding.”
“Tell me what the photo booth experience means to you right now,” he said. “What happened?”
“It would be impossible to describe to someone whose entire philosophy is based on doubt.”
“Then pretend I’m someone else.”
Veronica floated down now, from the ceiling like a leaf from a tree, and sat next to me.
“I don’t believe in the photos, anymore,” I said.
I felt Veronica stroke my hair. “It’s okay,” she said. “Tell him again. He’s just a failed bully. Tell him ten thousand times, if you must. Destroy him with honesty.”
Outside, crows had noisily descended onto the hospital courtyard. I walked to the window to watch, glossy stones black on the snow. I’d take Veronica’s advice, if only to move another dull morning along.
“It was late August,” I said. The crows fought over something dead. “A Saturday. A crummy little town full of dented pickup trucks and dilapidated tractors. Everything a bit rundown and faded. I’d been hitching. It was where my last ride had dropped me.”
“How old were you?”
“Eighteen,” I said. “There was a fair in town, the kind that comes to a small town late in summer. It was rundown and faded too, but not as much as the town. Especially at night when it lit up.”
“And you were very sad,” said Veronica, putting her hand on my knee.
“Sad.” The word was too small. “I was very sad.”
“You’d raised a little money….”
“I’d begged on the street, and had gotten enough for admission into the fair, and a little besides. Seemed the whole town was there that night. I ate a hotdog, and watched the midway from a corner. Loud out of date music over the PA. Devout born-again farmers playing crown and anchor, and trying to toss dimes into milk jugs. There were rides, too. Nothing too big. Just what could be brought in on the carny trucks. It smelled good, in a greasy smoky sort of way, like childhood.”
“It was already getting dark,” Veronica said.
“It was dark when we went into the photo booth,” I said. “I still had a few coins in my pocket. Veronica asked me to sit on her lap, so we’d both fit, and then she said, ‘Smile’.”
“But you didn’t smile,” said the psychiatrist. He jotted notes.
“No, I didn’t smile. The camera must have been broken. The flash popped four times, without me pushing a button, before I could compose myself.”
“And those are the pictures we have?”
“Give them back.”
“But they’re mine.”
“They only reinforce this delusion of yours,” said the psychiatrist. “I think you’re ready now to hear me say that.”
I wanted to be with the crows, to be unrecognisable in their strange order.
“Then the booth spit out the pics through a slot,” Veronica said, “and we stood in your corner on the midway looking at them, for a long time. You wept, a little.”
“Veronica and I looked at them for a long time, until the fair shut down for the night.”
“And the pictures were so beautiful, that you wanted to die,” said Veronica.
“I wanted to die long before we took the pictures.”
“What was that?” the psychiatrist said.
“All of the others,” I said. “The ones who’d followed me, everywhere since I was a kid. The voices and the faces that I couldn’t shake no matter how far I hitchhiked and doubled back. They wanted me dead. They harassed me until I bought the junk, enough to kill three people. I hid it in my backpack with the syringe and the spoon. Then they plagued me even more, to take it. Why aren’t you taking the goddamn heroin? End the pain, the pain. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks, before we got to that shitty little town.”
“Tell me more.” The psychiatrist was leaning forward, greedily. “Tell me how they wore you down, how they whispered and tormented, how they surrounded you and made it impossible to escape.”
“They didn’t,” I said. “Not like that.”
“Tell me, every detail.”
“Tell him that I wouldn’t let you take the heroin,” Veronica said. “That you’re too dear to me. That’s all there was to it. I fought the others off. I protected you. That’s what this fool refuses to understand.”
“Veronica saved me.”
“Nonsense!” The psychiatrist began to rapidly tap his pen on his knee.
“He’s fishing for something,” said Veronica.
“She told me to dump the junk down a storm drain, and I did. The others shrieked at me not to do it, but Veronica told me that death always comes on its own to the patient heart. She protected me because she loves me, and I love her.”
“That’s impossible,” the psychiatrist hissed. “No one can love a hallucination. Now don’t you see why it’s our goal to cure you of all your false perceptions? You can’t live a normal life loving something for which there is no actual stimulus.”
“Yes you can,” Veronica said.
“Yes I can.”
“I’m increasing your medication,” said the psychiatrist. “And introducing some others.” He wrote furious notes.
“I won’t take it.”
“Then you’ll be punished.”
“Punished?” said Veronica.
“Punished?” I said. “Did you just say I’d be punished?”
“No. Yes, but I meant placed in isolation, for your own protection.”
“Veronica can walk through walls, doctor. You’re throwing pills at a fortress, and they’re just bouncing off.”
“This is noncompliance.” He spit the word out like a curse. His most dreaded enemy.
On Christmas morning, as the other patients lined up for their medication and Christmas stockings of mean charity, I was escorted, with my backpack, out of the building, through the courtyard and left outside of the gates in the falling snow.
A sour nurse had given me back my strip of photographs, and had me sign my Release. Veronica and I stood together on the road for a moment, and looked at ourselves caught in that long ago August moment; her smiling, and me looking tired and a little hopeless.
Then she stroked my cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I heard her say, as she slipped away.
has a river in mind
not the blanket of a homeless woman
nor the umbrella of a pipeline lobbyist
nor the windshield of a taxi
even if the driver
reads Chaucer in a hotspot
see the dread
on each drop’s rainy little face
in the eerie act of evaporation
the promises clouds make
Oh man, here we go again. It’s November, and in these parts that means it’s time for the Welfare Food Challenge, where perfectly sane, and some of them prosperous, individuals will, for a week, eat only the food they can buy with $26. It’s an action to draw attention to the criminally low amount of income provided to recipients of welfare in BC, through BC Employment and Assistance (ironically named due to its lack of gateways to employment).
For purposes of the Challenge, someone has calculated that $26 per week is the amount left over for food for a person receiving a monthly $610 welfare cheque in BC. I can promise you that it’s less than $26, but you can see their arithmetic at http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/. There, you’ll also see the earnest faces of those participating in the Challenge, and read their stories of absolute dedication, principle and hope.
To those of you participating in the Challenge, I say that you are good and caring people. And the organisers deserve an enormous amount of credit and recognition. Raise the Rates is an awesome organization. But having written and worked on issues of local food insecurity, and having lived with hunger in this wealthy province, I wonder if it’s enough.
So, having said this, you’re probably wondering if I’m just some jerk who doesn’t get it, but I do. I’m a person with a disability, and I have lived on welfare in BC, as a result. Now I live on BC Persons with Disabilities Assistance, administered by the same Ministry as welfare. BCPDA pays more than welfare, and it comes with some welcome add-ons that people on welfare don’t get, like some dental coverage, but it’s still less than $1000 a month.
In spite of the higher amount, the second half of the month is a very hungry one. And before some troll tells me to go back to where I came from, if I don’t like it, you should know that I was conceived, born and raised in Vancouver. I also worked and paid taxes here, all of my life, until my disability made working impossible.
The thing about the Challenge is that I don’t want anyone to spend a week going hungry, not one person. I want all people to live in comfort and safety. And I’d prefer to see the energy, confidence and sense of inclusion commensurate with the right to food, fulfilled, used to kick some government ass, year round, every day. I want us all together to make government fear the people again.
After a week on a poverty diet, you’ll be slimmer, and after a remedial meal or two, you’ll probably feel shiny and new. But the Challenge itself can never inform a person of the profound humiliation, insult, isolation and hopelessness that comes along with the legislated poverty thrust upon so many in this province.
Poverty, hunger and disenfranchisement are systemic in BC. We have a government for whom foodbanks are a primary part of their business plan. That’s why I’d rather that participants in the Challenge save their strength and do things like vote, show up en masse at the BC Legislature, and the offices of Michelle Stilwell and Christy Clark, and make demands. Flood their offices daily with letters, petitions and emails. (But keep records. The emails will probably be deleted.) And cc the opposition. Tell them that the poor are not a complicated problem, they are people. And tell them that poverty need not continue simply because it has always been with us.
Many of you have already taken some of these measures, and I humbly thank you. And if you choose to go through with the Challenge, may I recommend Sunrise Market at 300 Powell Street in Vancouver as an excellent place to shop on a budget.
on clear December nights
the gas giants cast shadows
this is the land of Dashiell Hammett
where only the caucasian
is entitled to his hard starkness
of combustible paper
and anger in a holster
understands his ten cent narrative
and there’s a woman who’s lost out
because what damn good would she be if she hadn’t
and when Jupiter throws her shadow like a spitball
it sticks like graffiti to the lath and plaster
and she is confirmed departed