lost ironies

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Month: January, 2016

my best story of 2015 (IMHO)

sushi with Caravaggio

 

On the second day after he arrived, Caravaggio swallowed a handful of pebbles.

“It’s the food, Yorick,” he said. “It’s indigestible any other way.”

“Stones seem a tad extreme,” I said. “Or, maybe it’s just unusual. But let’s keep it to ourselves.”

We were sitting together at English Bay. He, near weeping. Me, with my arm round his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

Caravaggio was the name that he’d chosen for himself, after Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Baroque, Renaissance artist.

I’d reserved a computer for him at the Joe Fortes Library, the day before. There, he’d scanned what he could of the web in the fifteen minutes allotted, and in the process, somehow managed to shut down the Vancouver Public Library’s citywide servers. But before he did, he’d seen the Italian painter’s work, and immediately adopted his name.

The artist’s work, he said, best exemplified the human species’ kinship with the irrational and imperceptible, even better than the surrealists. I thought he lacked enough Earthly experience and knowledge of art theory to say so, but I’m generally not looked to for such insights.

“The colours,” he said, hands trembling. “They bring me close to violence.”

I didn’t see the colours, myself. Not many, that is. Mostly just dimly illuminated Caucasoid patriarchs against black backgrounds, depicting a fair-skinned male governed allegorical narrative that rested on the reverence for, and the worship of, deeply flawed human characters, each now occupying an idea named Heaven for a fantasy called forever.

I told him this, and he said, “Precisely!”

I had panhandled all morning on Denman Street, and had bought us sushi with the proceeds. Now we sat together for lunch on the beach. There were planets in his eyes—I saw them there—nebulae and vast black hushes.

“You eat it like this,” I said. “This is wasabi and this is soy sauce. These are chopsticks.”

“Home is too far away, now,” he said, analysing his California Roll. “Returning is impossible. I don’t know how I let it get away so easily. Miscalculations, poorly made decisions, bad assumptions. There were no maps beyond a certain point. Only the nose of my spacecraft to follow.”

“That’s how we lose our way on this planet, too,” I said. “And none of us has even been beyond the moon. You mix the soy sauce and wasabi together like this.”

“I may fade because of grief. We do that where I come from; it’s the only thing that can kill us. Those who love you watch as you slowly vanish.”

So that’s what was happening. I swore I could see through him already.

“Don’t things ever just pass for you, and get better?” I said.

“Things never pass.”

He was very good with chopsticks, and enjoyed his sushi. That night we slept in the park because we were broke. By morning, he was fading fast, and was nearly gone by noon, but I could still hear his voice. We spoke for a while, and I threw rocks at crows. Then there was a long silence. Finally, I heard him say—

“Thanks for the sushi, Yorick.” And then he walked into the bay.

 

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rockets to the wastes

we will forget in a week
it will return to suggestion
and a fundamentalist may even say
it was swallowed by Jesus

but for now we laugh
and smoke cigarettes
#rocketstothewastes trends
and terror confines itself
to its little red room
above the garden

 

the most dangerous woman in the galaxy

Her only dream since Tuesday had been of its escape. The thing jumping its bounds and flourishing at the expense of creation. But then, it was a part of creation, was it not? The calculations wouldn’t matter anymore. It would be free. And in the lead up to their doom, the people of her planet, and perhaps of others, could only stand and watch.

She’d awake from the dream mildly, the winter morning light dim and struggling, and she’d smoke in bed until the alarm.

*   *   *   *   *

Theoretically, if not for the limits of the slate blackboard, the chalk-drawn Finster Cube might have unfolded infinitely, eventually consuming the lecture theatre, the campus, city, planet and universe. Professor Abigail Finster stepped back and watched as her creation repeatedly blossomed like a flower and collapse again, attempting to break the confines.

“What have you done?” said the Provost. He was a jowly man in a tweed jacket, sitting with a startled expression on his face, in the front row of theatre seats. Only he and the Professor were present.

“I’m not sure,” said Abigail Finster. “Isn’t that funny? The equation seems to be disobeying the concept of negative infinity, even though I’ve included it.”

She pointed at a spot near the beginning of the long lines of numbers and symbols.

“You see, the chain reaction begins approximately here, and that’s where it begins to take on a life of its own. It’s where the groundwork begins for the sum to become animated. You can see the result.”

“Disobeying?”

“Yes, it’s being defiant, like a child. Naturally, I haven’t had time to properly analyse what’s motivating it. It may never be completely understood. It’s difficult to see the exact spot where logic-decay begins, and it rebels, and I’ve no idea how many rules of physics are being broken. The Cube could destroy worlds or open doors to Paradise, and yet it can be easily erased with a blackboard brush. Don’t you just adore irony?”

“This is ridiculous,” the Provost said. “You’re anthropomorphising. How can a string of numbers be defiant?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question for the Philosophy Department. I just know that I’ve encountered some very impetuous equations in my time.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh yes. Equations can be impetuous, cranky, timid, depressed, gracious, vain, courageous, selfish, boastful, charitable, rude, ruthless and/or perverse. Shall I go on? And believe me, they all share the same twisted sense of humour. People like you just can’t see it. That’s why you’re an administrator.”

The two of them watched the chalky white lines of the cube regenerate and ricochet off of the outer edges of the blackboard, closing and reopening again and again, as though it were trying to break free.

“It’s unbelievable,” said the Provost, looking closer. “It’s too fantastic. This must be kept under wraps.”

“It will be, until I publish. I smell a Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure in what category.”

“You won’t publish.” The Provost stood, taking a chamois to the calculation. “You won’t even share it with colleagues.”

“Erase it if you like,” Finster said. “I have it memorised.”

“Nothing practical can come out of it, anyway,” the Provost said.

“Why is that important? We’re not capitalists.”

“And what if it can’t be contained, then what?”

“I can be speculative, too.” said Finster. “What if the Nazis got The Bomb before us? I’m an academic, and I thought you were, too. This is pure math.”

She lit a cigarette, and watched the Provost feverishly wipe the board clean.

“Who’s seen it?” he said.

“No one.”

“That’s a lie.”

Finster smiled, and blew smoke threw her nose.

The Provost wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and then left the theatre in disgust.

Professor Abigail Finster spent the evening drinking wine, and grading papers in her apartment. She had written the equation out onto an 8×11 sheet of paper, and pinned it to a corkboard, pausing occasionally to watch the Cube shrink and flower. Eventually, she forgot her work, and just stared. It was magic.

the next day

A lifelong resident of the city, Abigail Finster endured the Vancouver rain with meek resentment, as she would an annoying acquaintance whose bad habit was to show up when least welcome. But going out was unavoidable, since the man had told her that it was of the greatest importance in regards to her discovery.

She arrived for the appointment at the café early, shaking off her umbrella at the door. Then, with her coffee, she took a stool at a window, wiping a small hole in the condensation to watch the rain soaked traffic, vaguely recalling the dream, and wondering about the Cube’s character.

Her mathematical equation personality theory had been evolving since her doctoral years. Now it was a bit of light humour she enjoyed during quiet moments, constructing, assigning and assessing. But it had seriously consumed her in her early years as an academic. Mathematical formulas were as varied in disposition as people, after all, and responsible for much more. She’d once even considered it a legitimate thesis topic. Fortunately, her advisor didn’t have a sense of humour.

But, she argued —

Would so much importance have been placed upon E = mc2, if it was revealed that the formula could behave like a neurotic adolescent? Certainly, it was plausible that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light (c2) is constant, and that therefore mass can be changed into energy, and energy into mass.

But, what if E = mc2 was known to suffer like a high school debutant from anxiety, mood swings, confusion and indecision, lethargy, irritability, and dabbled in self-harm? What then? Would we have built the bomb? What if the equation had had a tantrum in the Jornada del Muerto desert in 1945, and zapped the entire western hemisphere out of existence?

Abigail Finster shivered. There were dark numbers at work, controlling everything, unseen yet exceeding infinity. Their sums were rash. Constants were a contradiction. She knew, that in reality, the human understanding of physics and mathematics was the stuff of multiversal pulp fiction.

The man had told her over the telephone that she would recognise him by his fedora and trench coat.

“That’s a little cloak and dagger, isn’t it?” she’d said.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Never mind.”

In the end, he recognised her first, and sat down next to her quietly and without a greeting, with a large Americano and a slice of cake. He was tall. His trench coat was old and the colour of mud, as was his hat, and he wore soft yellow leather gloves. His face was eerily irregular, as though it had been poorly fitted. A birth defect, she guessed, and felt sorry for him.

“You are Professor Finster,” he said, as though informing her.

“Yes.”

“You have somehow come across a variant of the Vermillion Equation.” He wasted no time getting down to brass tacks.

“I have?”

“Yes,” said the man. “Vermillion Equation is a sloppy translation, however; Вермильон Уравнение; Vermillion Jafna. I apologise.”

“Apology accepted. What the hell are you talking about?”

He looked at his drink as though it were an animal, then gulped it back.

“Hot,” he said, absently. “It is hot; es ist heiß; meleg van; je horúco.”

“So, you’re a linguist,” said Finster.

“No.” He removed a glove and stuck a thorny finger into the cake. “Soft. Sticky.”

“Look, will you tell me why we’re here. I’m busy. I have papers to grade.”

He took his finger out of the cake, and looked at it, squinting. And after a moment, he put out his narrow purple tongue and tasted.

“Sweet,” he said, then put his finger into his mouth and sucked.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Finster.

“The Cube is not yours,” the man said, removing his finger and smacking his oddly molded lips. “You will shatter planets.”

“How do you know about the Cube? How will I shatter planets?”

“You are more curious than intelligent.”

“Fine.” Finster began to get off of her stool. The man reached over, took hold of her shoulder, and held her in place.

“Shall I shriek now?” she said.

“Nine. Bitte hinsetzen.”

“So, you’re German.”

“No. Spoken languages are difficult, however. P-please sit down.”

She sat, looking again at his crooked face. The eyes and ears poorly arranged. One nostril of the broad nose completely closed.

“You’re not from here, are you?” Finster said.

“Immaterial.”

“Yes it bloody is material,” she said, trying not to raise her voice. It came out as a hiss. “And get your goddamn hand off my shoulder.”

He did, then picked up his fork at the wrong end, and began to eat his cake. Finster snatched it. Then, having turned it round, forced it back into his hand.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the tines.

“What about the Cube?”

“It is unkind,” he said, as he chewed. A chocolatey brown rivulet of saliva dribbled down his chin.

“Unkind?” said Finster, taking a serviette and wiping the spit away. She was experiencing strange feelings of empathy. The man needed a nanny.

“Cruel.”

“How is it cruel?”

“The equation has seduced you,” he said. “It loves you, and you are smitten. You’re already lovers. It craves kindness, and you believe that only you can come to understand it. However, even though the equation loves you, its sum hates you, which you are too deluded by passion to believe. When it asks, you will set it free. You will write the equation in the sand of an immense desert with a stick, or drop it written on a page, onto the surface of an ocean, and the sum of it, the Cube, will unfold, building momentum, smashing its boundaries. It will achieve its third dimension, no longer be mere lines, and smother Earth first, before it moves on, etc. and on and on….

“You mustn’t succumb,” he said. “You know this instinctively, that this romance is already ruined. But you deny it, and that makes you the most dangerous woman in the galaxy.”

“Say, where’s your spaceship, spaceman?”

“Please, do not condescend. I’ve come to protect you.”

“Me?” She placed a hand above her breast, melodramatically.

“You, the planet, the people, others you don’t know, cannot see. We have invested. You’re no longer merely an experiment. We will go to any lengths.”

The man didn’t stop her now, as she stood and fixed her scarf, preparing to go. Her eyes didn’t leave him as he sat in grim profile.

“What are any lengths, tough guy?” she said.

He ate his cake, and hummed: “Mmmm, cioccolato.”

*  *  *  *  *

The next day, as she stood with papers in her arms, waiting for an elevator, a favourite student of Abigail Finster’s nearly commented on the way the Professor’s left ear and right eye had somehow moved ever-so-slightly out of place, giving her face a new noticeably asymmetrical appearance. Her lips seemed thinner, too. The student, however, was even more taken aback by Finster’s refusal to recognise her.

 

 

copyright (from 2012)

The type font name is Spinoza Acclaim®, a pathodigital rogue sans serif first used during the advent of Confined IR®, or CIR®. It is compatible with fibre optic and microwave communications as a binary code enhancer/de-enhancer, replicating organic thought patterns at speeds of up to 10,000 times. It was designed as a cipher-boost font by Johan Mac of Holland in answer to a lack of virtual military Molten Metal© field cryptography, and for the ease with which it is set and broadcast under rigorous urban military situations and Fear® ops. Spinoza Acclaim® is recognised for its design based on engraved Delta Garamond, Cripto-Sabon roman and Italic Faux-font® Decoy-logic® algorithms developed during the last century by Jobs®–Wozniak® Granjon and Wozniak Strategics Corp©®™. It remains a durable contemporary standard for use by covert inner city military and extrajudicial extermination squads.

seizures

Inexplicably, I have Oscar and Hammerstein music playing in my head. It’s a signal. I shiver. I’m expecting the onset of seizures soon. I’m standing at an intersection in the city, aware of the surveillance camera at the top of the lamppost next to me. Its servos need cleaning and graphite. They grind audibly as the camera manoeuvres onto its target, me, standing beneath it. Somewhere, there are military personnel watching screens.

I feel the seizures coming, and I run out into the intersection in front of oncoming traffic. I don’t care. I don’t want to be recorded thrashing on the concrete. They’d send a recovery crew to sweep me up like a piece of litter. I’d rather take a hit by an approaching vehicle. It won’t matter much. I still have the Medcap® next to my jugular vein. It contains drugs for low to moderate trauma, pain and infection, along with an ever ready remotely activated two gram dose of Gelmight®, an explosive C5®/algae Sporaphil® derivative specially prepared so that the military underachiever charged with pushing my button won’t have to think too much about it.

I reach the other side of the intersection. Car drivers honk their horns. The frequency of the sound exacerbates the brain shivers. My inner ear fails. I fall and get up, fall and get up. An elderly woman nearby looks on but doesn’t help. I don’t blame her. I look like shit. I’m emaciated, my face is heavily scarred and pitted, my left eye is missing and my right arm is rotting in a dumpster somewhere. To her, I’m the enemy. But what TV fails to mention to its audience of little old ladies is that no enemy actually exists. No nation has the energy or resources to be another nation’s enemy – there are only Blackfact® and Fear®. I’m hungry enough to eat her little dog. It sits so well behaved. I begin to twitch on my feet. I don’t deserve her consideration. I know this. It’s getting dark. It’s nearly 1 pm. My head begins jerking uncontrollably, from side to side. Seizures.

the big what the hell

No one expected the failure of world economies to hit as severely as it did, or to create the horror. With what seemed minimal incitement at the time, people panicked. It started with them looking inward and losing the human capacity to share. Then came the looting in the cities and private citizens arming themselves. Eventually people left their urban precincts thinking rural areas safer. Only the poor, those who lacked mobility and the military remained. Even the police split town. The army started to use the poor and housebound as target practice, and that began the Urban Wars. The wars, along with the myriad conspiracy theories about who was responsible for it all eventually lead to Blackfact® and Fear®, the two conspiracy theories of all conspiracy theories. They were so seamless and functionally placating that the media, and then what was left of the government, began to use them as mainstays. And conspiracy evolved into actuality. 

earlier, Stanley Park, Vancouver

The mist on the snow is the result of an inversion. I know it will pass soon, and I’ll have a clear shot. This is overgrown and derelict Stanley Park. Once the pride of the city, now a toxic waste dump, pet cemetery, dumping ground for human body parts and camp ground for those too far gone to ever return.

But the adventurous can still find a semi-safe trail to hike.

The .50 calibre Remington® Biomatic® I’ve been assigned is attached to my right wrist by a locked coupling unit near where my hand, fingers and thumb come into contact with the trigger and safety. It only disengages after my handlers have witnessed the successful completion of my assigned op, or things have so turned to shit that my stealthy escape is required for reasons of debriefing and/or Discomfiture-Avoidance™ — a.k.a. blameful secrecy.

Hypodermic needles in the coupling unit pierce the skin on my wrist at varying depths depending on the nerve they’re meant to encounter and have influence over. This is also true of the micro-fibre optic matrix that envelopes my entire body. These injection regions are always mildly to moderately infected, and cause my dry, diabetic skin to itch like mad, but the coupling’s housing denies me access for the purpose of scratching. I’ve never missed a target because of this, but it’s come close.

This isn’t cutting edge technology; no one knows what that is anymore. There is talk, however, of a mythical, parallel world existing somewhere on the planet, where black operatives work with highly accurate, non-penetrating personal laser operated weapon systems that kill with tremendously accurate low frequency sound waves that smash a target’s internal organs to a pulp. Such is myth. I often dream of the possibilities and wake biting my tongue, believing that I’m on fire.

My hip pack is full of ammo, small explosives, rudimentary first aid supplies and candy bars. I have type 1 diabetes, but who cares. Only the rich have access to human recombinant insulin now. The rest of us use cheap, toxic, poorly refined porcine insulin that kills most of the people who use it within a year. My days are numbered. That’s why they chose me for this shit op.

The thing I hate the most about having no insulin is the endless and intense thirst and having to piss every three minutes, along with the obvious bodily atrophy I see in the mirror whenever I bother to look. I’m wasting away. There was an idea once that I might be paid in vials of human insulin, but that would have put my income way over what Fear® Op Specs are paid. Besides, it was said, I would probably have sold it on the grey meds market, anyway.

My blood glucose runs high, which means I’m hungry all the time. I open what currently passes for a Snickers Bar™ and dig in. The peanuts are soy analogues and that’s what they taste like. The synthetic chocolate is made from GMO carob seed grown in low Earth orbit, but tastes like shit. The sugar, however, is real, and even though it’s killing me and my body can’t use it for energy, it’s sweet and comforting.

target(s)

I’m told the target is a government official – a bureaucrat, but one with too much popularity and power.  According to briefing, he stayed in the city while the exodus to the countryside took place, like he was making a statement, which he was, and which has since paid off far too well for him. He may win most of the popular vote in the next farce that passes for an election in these parts. Such are the subtleties I’m not supposed to be able to understand, as a flunky assassin.

I unzip and piss, and risk being given away by the sight of steam rising from my position. The near panicked voice of a handler comes over my Earport® informing me that I’m functioning outside of procedure. ‘Fuck your procedure,’ I say, and a powerful electric shock is sent through the hypos into my body. I convulse and kick on my back in the snow, as a result, which is just as likely to reveal my position as the piss steam. This kind of conditioning is counter-productive. It numbs my hand and trigger finger, and rattles my brain making for a potentially less accurate shot, but my handlers aren’t the brightest pennies in the jar.  Anyway, the target is still five minutes away according to the best recon, which is actually for shit.

There’s the usual crackle over my Earport®. It’s all in undeciphered SA® — Spinoza Acclaim®. It sounds like a fast hiss with the occasional contrasting pop and short, medium or long silences. The silences, they say, and their duration, mean more than the hiss and pops.

SA® can be used by handlers looking out from, or listening in through, my inverse Eyeport® and Earport® to take over my weapon actions when/if required. It works on CIR®, closed circuit as well as microwave. Its codes are top secret and updated randomly at periods as short as every few nanoseconds to as long as every thirty-seven and a half minutes using a Wozniak Strategics Corp®™ algorithm that we’re told has never come close to being cracked.

Across the bottom third of my Eyeport®, SA® text travels quickly in a SingleLine®, from right to left. At some time in the distant past, before the world went into unremitting meltdown, I learned to read. I was a child then, of course, and diligent teachers worked hard to fill my mind with essential facts and beautiful if benign magic. They’re probably all dead now. Intellectuals, however defined, don’t live long in worlds where conspiracy theories are copyright.

As the air cools, the inversion subsides and the mist begins to disappear. I make a small mound of snow on which to mount the Biomatic®. No handler has ever taken over my weapon action. They’ve never had to. I’m a fucking rock, and they hate me for it.

I watch the line where the woods end and become an open field. I’m 300 meters back looking through the Biomatic’s® Vidscope®. This is where the target is known to carelessly appear like clockwork every day at this time. It’s his daily exercise. I blink and there he, or should I say she is, preceded by a rare and expensive Golden Labrador Retriever.

“Confirm target, please,” I say to my mystic handler, sitting somewhere in relative comfort.

“Confirmed.”

I draw a bead, but behind her comes a child, a little boy maybe five years old. My thumb hesitates over the safety, and then flicks it over, back into safe mode. The trigger remains locked. Another handler’s voice comes over my Earport®,

“Shooter, disengage your weapon’s safety.”

“I’m thinking,” I say.

“You’re paid to shoot, not think.”

“Unintended mark with target,” I say. “Request permission to abort.”

“Negative, unintended mark is also target.”

“He’s a fucking kid.”

“Both parties,” the handler says. “Or surrender weapon action.”

So, it’s a matter of pride. A competent shooter does not lose weapon action. I now have approximately 45 of the 60 seconds given by Spinoza Acclaim® to undecided shooters to make up their minds, or overcome whatever snafu they face. The little boy is exerting his independence by following several paces behind the target. I move the Vidscope® back and forth between them. If I fire over their heads, they’ll have warning to drop or run. But SA® will take control of the Biomatic® in a flash, and its caseless ammo will tear down the old growth forest and obliterate every living thing in view.

I’m a slave, but I don’t kill children.

I take a Snickers Bar™ from my hip pack; I tear it from its wrapper and push it into the muzzle of the Biomatic®. Physics, etched into cosmic stone, dictates that a bullet fired now will lead to a violent and unavoidable reaction. Heavy, high velocity ammunition passes through the blocked barrel of a rifled weapon too fast for pressures to dissipate before said pressures blow the muzzle area of the weapon’s barrel wide open, resulting in physical catastrophe. In other words, the normally soft and gooey Snickers Bar™ is a brick wall that a solid, ultrasonic projectile cannot penetrate. Spinoza Acclaim® has no solution for this snafu. It’s a bug I encountered by mistake two years ago while on ops in Calgary. Shooters aren’t supposed to put their own health and safety at risk in this way, so no contingency exists.

Sixty seconds has passed and SA® takes weapon action away from me. I feel, for the first time ever, my Biomatic® move with seeming independence across a 180 degree plane, taking in all possible targets, and then falling on one.

Somewhere in an Ultra-secure™ climate controlled operations viewing room, Ops Handler Management is weighing the pros and cons of initiating my explosive Gelmight® sequence, or leaving me alone until after debriefing. Pre-recorded muzzle obstruction warnings are crackling over my Earport® and flashing red across my Eyeport®. A handler breaks in and demands I take action to remove the muzzle obstruction or abort immediately.

“I’ve lost weapon action,” I say, stating the obvious. “Muzzle obstruction is an SA® quandary now.”

Another handler demands I describe the makeup of the muzzle obstruction: “SA® cannot determine nature of obstruction, is unable to decide correct course of action.”

“Obstruction,” I reply, “appears to be a sugary combination of elements including paraffin based imitation chocolate, heavily hydrogenated soy oil based caramel and soy peanut analogues.” Then I say, “Available almost everywhere you shop.”

The safety automatically disengages, and the Biomatic® accepts a .50 calibre bullet into its breech. Electrical pulses move through almost all the muscles on my right side, and some on my left. There’s a tensing emphasis on my right wrist, upper hand, and thumb and trigger finger. I hold the small and light, yet massively lethal Remington Biomatic® out in front of me with a straight captive arm. The Vidscope® shows the little boy will be first. Bewildering. It’s the law of the jungle, but an unpleasant discovery, that an undetected bug in Spinoza Acclaim® indicates that, when left to its own devices, it will go after the smallest and weakest target first.

SA® follows the little boy for a few of his small steps, confirming its calculations, and then fires. The barrel of the Biomatic® explodes, and I’m showered with molten material, and at least one sizable piece of super-heated carbon fibre has been shot into my brain from the blast. The blast’s resulting kick takes off my arm at the midpoint of my upper tibia, and I am, for the moment at least, blinded.

much later, snickers bar morbidity

There’s a worm in my brain. Words from the Oscar and Hammerstein musical South Pacific are cycling through my head. Why the line “there is nothing like a dame” of all things? I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had her.

I’m sitting on a bench at a transit stop. The seizures have begun, and a little girl with a grape Popsicle™ stands at the curb five feet away, impassively watching me twitch and convulse with increasing ferocity. It’ll be grand maul, across the scale soon. The chunk of carbon fibre that landed in my brain all those months ago was never removed, after I was canned as a Fear® Op Spec. A recovery crew is probably already on its way, and I’m becoming convinced that there really is nothing like a dame, after all.©

the giver of eulogies

piano, please

and make it something blue
some film noir theme
that no one even hears
but will never forget
once they’ve left the room

see me
how I sum her up
she was lonesome to write

— there was no wrong exit
— she was fairer than spring

yes, I did not weep at her bedside
but held her close on the page

iTime

June 24, 2013

I flinched as she reached across and brushed something off my cheek with a balled up paper napkin. “Just a crumb,” she said.

“You’re not my mother.”

“I could be your grandmother.”

“You’re not that either,” I said.

I was starting to hate myself, for showing no respect.

We were in a Robson Street coffee shop, where the owners had let artists and photographers hang their overpriced works on the walls. I looked around with mild contempt.

“Why’d you choose this place,” I asked.

“It’s a nice place.”

“I need a drink. A bar would have been better.”

“You drink too much.”

“How would you know?”

“You always did. Too much liquor, among other things.” She gave me a maternal smile.

And there it was. She was 80 years old, and I was 27. We’d only dated a little while, but she knew me well. I’d never been so infatuated with another person. It had been like torture, when we split. I promised myself then that I would never allow myself to go through anything like it again. Now there she sat, so damn old now. Was that anger in her voice? Of course it was.

“Besides,” she said, “you said on Facebook that I could choose the spot. You were never big on keeping your word, were you?”

“Guess not.”

“I brought you something,” she said.

“I don’t want anything.”

“Here you are, nonetheless. Don’t worry. It’s really not a gift. Just a reminder of different times.”

She pulled a small, crumpled CHANEL bag out of her purse and pushed it across the table. I looked at it for a moment. Michelle could be hard, complicated, mean even. I grabbed the bag, opened it and took out the contents: three boxes of Botox and a package of nicotine patches, all of it still unopened. The boxes were yellow with age; decades had passed. Yet I’d given them to her only the night before.

“I never bothered trying any of it,” she said. “The syringes are in the bag as well.”

“Just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“Me and you both,” she said. “Now I’m going outside to have a cigarette. You can join me if you want.”

She shuffled out of the coffee shop with her cane, and stood smoking on the boulevard. I hated watching the elderly smoke, the way their failing bodies struggle. Then, for a split second and without warning, her eyes met mine. A critical beat in time that summed up so much. She smiled crookedly, then turned and walked away. It’d been a brief meeting, briefer than I’d hoped.

Knowing that you’re incapable of committing to a lifelong relationship with another person is a painful thing, and lonely. But I’d always feared the organic flow of time, with all its consequence. I could never standby and watch a lover age and decay.

A photograph of Michelle at her finest was the best I could do. Taken on some New Year’s Eve long ago. Just before she left her apartment for a party. Looking every bit like a dime store Audrey Hepburn. That was the picture I had of her, framed and sitting on my desk. She was young, and stunning. How could she have grown so old over night?

* * * * *

It was in 1955 that I first learned that I’m a dirty dog. A woman named Edna told me so on May 23rd of that year. I’ll explain how I got to 1955 in a minute.

“Tucker,” she said. “You were supposed to meet me at the Commodore Ballroom at 9:30 p.m. last night with a bottle of rye and your dancing shoes on. I waited for you until 10:45, and you never showed up. So I went to the White Lunch to cry in my coffee, and there you were with another girl. You’re a dirty dog.”

I decided then that women named Edna were too much for me. Their expectations were far too high, and a guy like me didn’t have a hope of delivering.

And it wasn’t just the Ednas of the world, either. During the month of May, 1955, I swore off all Debbies, Gildas, Sallys, Daphnes, Jo Annes and Joannes, Robertas, Francines and Amelias, for similar reasons. But in the end, it was Michelle who really made me want to return to 2013.

She filled out a blouse better than any of them. That’s how I fell.

After all, it was the fashion and the look of the time that drew me to the period between 1955 and 1965 in the first place. Women gave up on glamour after that. They forgot how to dress. Whining all the while about uncomfortable foundation garments, and the tricky intricacies of stockings and garter belts. Oh, how the shoes pinched, they complained. And heaven forbid they should watch their damn weight. All they seemed to want to wear after 1965 was tennis shoes and potato sacks. Think of Mamma Cass in a muumuu – see what I mean? I absolutely shudder.

Now think of your average Vogue models, say 1957, with their wasp waists and ample topsides suitably accentuated by expertly engineered and constructed brassieres and corsets, full skirts and seamed stockings. It was stunning.

They sat in twos at stylish tables gossiping over endless cups of calorie-free, gloriously diuretic black coffee, daintily chain smoking appetite suppressing Benson & Hedges 100s, allowing the scent of the tobacco smoke to mingle lusciously with their CHANEL No. 5. They wore perfectly coordinated accessories, like gloves and hats. It all matched exquisitely. Women were works of art in the fifties. Suggest to a woman that she present herself thusly in 2013, and prepare yourself to be mocked by some half-done quail who’s mortgaged the farm to look like she’s dressed her chunky self out of a Salvation Army dumpster.

But wait. I said it was how Michelle filled out a blouse that made me fall for her, but that isn’t completely true. There was definitely something else. An intangible feminine quality that’s different in each woman. The item a woman will bring out and subtly fling at a man when the moment is right, like a barbed harpoon delivering nearly equal amounts of agony and ecstasy. Once it’s in, it’s nearly impossible to remove. Michelle had let me have it big time, no mercy.

Now you may be asking how I got from 2013 to 1955? I travelled there of course, no big thing. It’s really just kind of like hopping into your Jetta, and driving to the mall. Did I go back in time just to ogle women in general? Well yes, but more specifically there was Audrey Hepburn.

I remember seeing her for the first time in Sabina with Humphrey Bogart. I must have been eight years old when I first saw the movie on VHS. My jaw dropped the moment she walked onto the screen, and I haven’t been the same since. It was my ultimate goal to see Audrey live and in person in 1955. That was her best year.

Michelle looked an awful lot like Audrey Hepburn. She didn’t have Audrey’s diction or carriage, and I doubt Audrey was a gum chewer, but Michelle had the big dark eyes and the modest chin that followed the little nose up into the air whenever she was confronted by a slight or something she didn’t understand. That’s how I got stuck in 1955 Vancouver, and never got to fly to Hollywood to see A.H. in person. Instead I saw Michelle in a night club and that was it.

Michelle Gibner was twenty-one, and a very junior secretary at Maxim Forest Products when we met. She was from the east end of Vancouver, and had struggled to complete secretarial school. She confined her reading to pulpy American scandal rags and second rate glamour magazines. But she dressed and did her hair like Audrey. She knew what she was doing. She was a real tomato.

But as much as I like to obsess over Michelle, I think this might be the time to explain the discovery of the human ability to move nonlinearly through time. And understand, I do this for purposes of context only. Don’t try this at home.

Back in the eighties when Steve Jobs was busily stealing from other sources all of what would ultimately become Apple and Mac, he stumbled across a quirky little algorithm developed in the Quantum Physics Department at MIT by a pathologically introverted young woman named Nancy Limpinchuck.

Nancy Limpinchuck’s time flex equation first appeared on a Burger King napkin that Limpinchuck had left behind in a computer science lab. Those who remember, say that there was an endearing smear mustard across the napkin upon which Nancy had scribbled her masterpiece. For those first to see it, however, it was just another tidbit of genius in a place where the genius ran thick and fast. It was fascinating but still theoretical, nothing special.

Nancy wrote a million of ‘em. She was brilliant and prolific. But once she wrote out some small bit of earth shattering virtuoso brilliance on a scrap of paper, it was all over. The thrill was gone, and she moved onto the next. Only the conniving and malevolent mind of Steve Jobs was able to recognise the algorithm for what it was. It came his way via a classmate of Nancy Limpinchuck’s named Bruce, who followed her around, picking up and inspecting her discarded scraps.

When Jobs got his hands on it, he called it the iTime© code.

Nancy went on to marry a Boston stockbroker named Floyd Nipslim. The two of them did fairly well together until 1994, when Floyd got caught with his hand in someone else’s cookie jar. When Floyd realised he was going to do time over it, he took it hard. So one night, after a completely depressing meeting with his lawyer, he came home and shot Nancy where she sat working away on that day’s New York Times cryptic crossword puzzle. She’d almost finished it, too. Then he turned the gun on himself, and did what any right thinking American in his position would do.

Now this might seem like a digression, but it’s not. Because with Nancy Nipslim nee Limpinchuck out of the picture, Jobs could do more than just underhandedly hold on to her algorithm, secretly tucked away at the bottom of his virtual sock drawer. Now he could take the iTime code, and put it to use without having to give Nancy credit or share any of the proceeds. You see, Nancy’s scribbling provided mankind with its first practical insight into how time endlessly twists around upon itself, and where all of the prime jumping-off points are, and how to get to them. It was exactly what the planet needed. Just think of all the grief, prevented.

Unfortunately, Jobs sold a limited share in the algorithm to the highest bidder, first chance he got. That happened to be Halliburton, for $350,000,000. That’s right, $350,000,000. And when a Satanic pack of corporate ogres like Halliburton pays out that kind of cash for a share in a sticky, used Burger King napkin, you know it has to be worth it.

Dick Cheney and the boys used it first to determine the best way to pull off 9/11, thereby reinvigorating the American Military Industrial Complex that had suffered so tragically as a result of the planet’s first Peace Dividend delivered under the Clinton administration.

Halliburton continues to use it to this day to decide how best to squeeze every possible tax dollar out of the citizenry through prolonging America’s various shady and illegal military operations around the world. And, thanks to the iTime code, every future war that the US plans to start has been mapped out, scheduled and budgeted for right down to how much money they’ll need to borrow from China, and the number of beauty school dropouts required to keep the various arms of the American military fully functioning.

Of course, many other upper echelon bottom feeders have dashed in like pigs to the time travel trough. Stock market speculators among them, which is ironic considering Floyd’s ultimate plight. But there you are; life’s unfair, and then you become orally intimate with a snub-nosed pawnshop .38.

Now, I said The Evil One Steve Jobs sold a share of Nancy’s algorithm to Halliburton, which is true. But not before Hal Snimlings tossed a digital spanner into the machinations of His Wickedness. Hal Snimlings was a software designer who worked on the little known Ocelot version of OS X. (Let’s face it, they were running out of cats species to name it after.)

Hal was a decent guy who recognised something criminally inelegant in his boss, the man who ran Apple. Besides, Snimlings carried with him a significant resentment for having been severely reprimanded for installing pornographic Easter eggs into previous versions of OS X. So when, one day, in what turned out to be an epic case of industrial sabotage, Nancy’s equation mysteriously appeared in Hal Snimlings’ inbox, put there by an Anonymous sender with complete instructions, he knew he had his chance to shake things up. He immediately installed it into the H Section of the OS X Ocelot World Book Reference Suite, under the heading How to Time Travel.

There it sat in Beta limbo for nearly a whole year without being noticed, until a review by some nameless systems manager revealed it. The systems manager couldn’t identify it for what it was. He just knew the code’s presence in the operating system was all wrong. He brought this to the attention of some higher-ups, and they initiated an investigation. Snimlings’ deed was uncovered, and he was snuffed mob style in a back alley in Pasadena, California in the summer of 2007. But not before he had distributed an undisclosed number of copies to various hacker miscreants worldwide, including me.

It arrived at my condo in Vancouver via FedEx at 9:27 a.m. on Thursday April 17, 2007. To avoid any obvious digital trail, encrypted or not, Hal had sent it by land.

I recall being surprised that it was actually Thursday, when receiving the package at my door, surprised that it was 2007 for that matter. More than a week on mescaline will do that, even to the finest mind. I also discovered that morning that there’s nothing intuitive about opening a FedEx package. After giving it a couple of tries, I put it on top of the iguana tank. Then I heard the lava lamp call my name.

Next thing I knew, it was Saturday. I took a couple tabs of Ecstasy, stopped by the liquor store for a bottle of Jack and then went skeet shooting. In short, I’d forgotten all about the FedEx envelope. I forgot about it for three months, until I discovered it mouldering in the tank.

It took weeks to properly understand how the iTime code worked, even with the detailed instructions. Central to understanding it was the fact that it was the modified CPU that did the travelling. Peripherals, like the user, were only along for the ride. This was why the instructions stated over and over that only a battery powered laptop should be used. A desktop computer was useless, as it would become unplugged the moment time travel commenced. The instructions also made it clear that a backup computer go along. And that the further back in time one went, the more fully charged batteries one must bring. This applied to future travel as well, as one never knows what condition the planet will be in tomorrow.

First, I used the iTime code to travel into the future. It was a no-brainer; I needed cash. I went ahead to the following Wednesday, and got the Lotto 6/49 numbers. But I discovered that even if I played all the numbers correctly, extra included, some Bozo in Mississauga was going to do the same. I’d have to share what was going to be a $20 million jackpot.

There’s something about sharing a loto jackpot that doesn’t sit well with me. So, I got all the info I needed regarding his whereabouts and returned to my home point in time, or hPIT. (FYI: The hPIT is a very important element of the iTime code. It means the difference between returning home and floating forever in a randomly changing cloud of events, for ever.) Then I flew out to Canada’s most boring city, and iced the mother fucker’s cake before he could buy the ticket. And why the hell not? The iTime code had made me superhuman. I didn’t have to play by the rules anymore. Besides, the guy managed a Money Mart. It wasn’t like he’d be mourned.

It was nice to get the cash. I quit my job and bought a vintage 1956 Studebaker, which helped me travel the present in style. But in order to tour time in style, I travelled ahead to 2022 to shoplift a MacBook Super Stealth Pro with an iFlux25z Cool CryoGel Corp chip.

Returning home, I modified it with iTime.

I snatched the beast, by the way, from the Pacific Centre Mac Store in Vancouver. Their security gets a little slack after 2018, in case you’re interested.

It took me six years to learn how to travel safely, and it didn’t take long to discover that the future will suck. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments. Like when the photos of President Donald Trump crossdressing for a dominatrix (who looks an awful lot like his daughter) get published in The LA Times. That’s just a couple of years away, incidentally, so be patient. But mostly, the future’s a boring, beige coloured Walmart dominated shit-hole. In other words, the future is mostly kind of like now.

The 1950s, however, were magic. There was a pleasant blend of innocence and elegance in the air. Sure, there were economic disparities and fears of war. There were racial tensions too, same as today. In June of ’55, the Rosa Parks thing was still a few months away. But all in all it was a grand time. Sadly, though, the pot was crap. And when you asked people where to score a blunt, they looked at you like you were a communist.

So, anyway, I eventually arrive in 1955 Vancouver via my laptop using the iTime code, and I meet Michelle in a night club. We go out the next evening and the evening after that and so on, and we really hit it off. She knows I’ve got an Audrey Hepburn fixation, but she’s okay with that. I have cash to throw around, and we go places she’s never been. Things go so smooth in fact, that I figure it might be time to reveal a few things about where I really come from. That, though, didn’t go so well.

In fact, it kind of went like this:

evening of June 23, 1955

I’m sitting in the lounge of the Sylvia Hotel. Michelle will meet me in a few minutes, and I’ve brought along some gifts from my hPIT. (I’d slipped back to 2013 to get them, because I thought she’d be impressed.)

The night before was difficult, and I’m still a little raw. We went to this swank joint for dinner, and I told her over wine that I was from the future. I told her that I travel time via my computer.

At first she laughs, like it’s a joke. Says she thought that she was my laptop. Then of course, I had to explain a computer to her. Later in the evening when I show it to her in my room, she reacts strangely. She gets angry and asks me if I’m dumping her because I think she’s stupid, or because she’s gaining weight, or because as much as she tried to look like Audrey Hepburn, she could never actually be Audrey Hepburn.

Maybe my truth was too much for her. Let’s face it, Chevys didn’t even have fins yet. How was she supposed to grasp a MacBook Pro, which I myself had snatched from the future?

Anyway, I’m stirring my drink and basking in the low light ambiance of the Sylvia Lounge. All of it seeming far more of an authentic and enjoyable barroom experience with the blue cloud of cigarette smoke. I smile thinking of how explaining the MacBook was nothing compared to what it would take to convince someone in this crowd that smoking would one day be banned on the premises.

I’m wearing a suit with some zoot lines but not the full-on zoot suit cut, since that’s kind of out of style and has a way of attracting the cops.

When Michelle enters the lounge, she’s still wearing the cloak of hostility from the night before. In my mind, I fastened my seatbelt. I figure this is going to be another perilous journey.

“How’s my intrepid time traveller this evening?” she says seating herself. “Bump into any little green spacemen today?”

“None,” I say hailing the waiter.

Michelle lights a cigarette and says, “I looked up the word computer today in the dictionary. I had to go to the library to use the really thick Webster’s with all of the words in it. It said that a computer is someone who counts things. So, whatever that thing is upstairs, it isn’t any computer.” She takes on a triumphant look. Score one for the steno pool.

“That’s purely a matter of etymology,” I say.

“Huh?”

“Word usage, honey. It changes over time. The language evolves.”

“Why’d you wear that suit,” she says. The waiter arrives. “I’ll have a Manhattan.”

“Another Johnny Blue Label,” I say. “Double.” Then, “You don’t like the suit?”

“You’re not a negro or a Mexican, or you?”

“Pure Irish white trash,” I say.

“Hmm.”

“Look,” I say, wanting desperately to change the subject. I retrieve a bag from under my chair and place it on the table. “I zipped back to my hPIT and made some purchases. Some items from the future you might be interested in.”

The bag I’ve brought the items in is a small CHANEL shopping bag, glossy white paper with the signature logo. I’m hoping it will spark her interest. First I bring out the Botox. “I can help you with this,” I say. “It needs to be injected.”

“What?”

“It’s Botox.” I’m smiling with a new enthusiasm. “It’s a protein derived from botulism toxin. You inject it underneath your skin in order to minimize or smooth out lines and wrinkles on the face. It actually paralyzes or relaxes facial muscles, gives you a nice clean, smooth facial appearance.”

“I didn’t know I needed help in that area.”

“Well, you don’t,” I say. “That’s the beauty of the stuff. You start using it now, and you’ll never have wrinkles. Isn’t that great?”

She lights another cigarette off of the previous.

“You see,” I say pointing. “That’s the thing, you smoke. Today, you’re all smooth and gorgeous. But whenever you draw on a cigarette, your mouth goes all wrinkly. When the smoke rises from the end of the cigarette, you go all squinty eyed. That’s all gonna stick one day, baby. If you don’t do something now, one day you’re gonna look like some sad old bingo Betty, a real Walmart shopper. You’re laying the ground for an early old age, even as we speak.”

“This is getting boring, Tucker.”

“Whatever,” I say with gusto, “but just look at this.” I pull out the next miracle from the future. “It’s called NicoDerm. It’s a nicotine patch. You wear it on your skin. It helps calm the cravings that make quitting smoking so hard.”

“Quitting smoking? Who’s quitting smoking?”

“Well baby, you gotta quit. It’ll kill you if you don’t.”

“Kill me?” she says. “Nine out of ten doctors recommend this brand.”

“Oh baby, that’s just bullshit.”

“Watch your mouth, Tucker,” says Michelle, gulping back her drink. “You know, some guys buy their girls perfume. Know what else? You seemed like such a swell fella when we first met. You seemed so smart and funny and sensitive. Now all of this. You’re afraid I might age like everyone else? Well too bad. That’s how things work. You’re born, you grow old, you die. No matter what you inject under your skin.”

“But you don’t have to look bad doing it, baby.”

“Oh that’s rich, Tucker. And then there’s the time travel hooey. I think you’re a mental case, a really insensitive mental case. I’m leaving.”

So, she stands, turns and heads for the coat check. I pick up the Botox and NicoDerm, stuff them into the bag and follow her.

“Wait, Michelle. Don’t leave like this.”

“I’m not just leaving,” she says. “I’m escaping. Don’t follow me. I don’t want to see you anymore. Lose my phone number, and forget my address.”

The coat check girl looks concerned.

“Michelle, please.”

“Go away, Tucker or I’ll scream for the cops.”

“Okay, fine,” I say, as I follow her out onto the street. Freighters are lit up out on the bay. Michelle walks onto the road without looking. Oncoming traffic screeches to a halt.

“Stop following me, Tucker.”

“Okay, okay. But here,” I say when I meet her on the other side of the road. I hand her the bag. “At least take this. A memento. And as time goes by, and these things emerge into realty, it’ll be proof that I’m not crazy.”

“Fine,” she says snatching the bag out of my hand. “Now fuck off.”

“I’ll send you a message on Facebook tomorrow,” I say.

“Fine. Whatever that means. You’re so strange!”

Broken hearted, I rode the laptop home that night, and never returned.

June 24, 2013

Now it’s the next morning, and I’m sitting in a 2013 coffee shop. Elderly Michelle, who I met when she was 21 in 1955, has just hobbled away on her cane with a cigarette in her mouth.

She never used the Botox or the nicotine patches. I could have supplied her indefinitely with these and other things from the future, but she refused, at the time, to believe it possible.

If I’d stayed with her then, I’d be old now too. But we’d be old together. I still don’t understand the appeal of that.

As I leave the coffee shop, I toss the bag containing the Botox and nicotine patches into the trash.

the numbers

Asher was anemic, just a kid with dry lips and dark rings round his muddy eyes. He’d been following me around for days, and had finally cornered me on the patio of a coffeehouse on Hornby Street. That was where it all began. And now that I’m in on the joke, I don’t think the punchline could have been any different.

It was hard times when we met. I’d wagered myself into a corner, doing what all high stakes gamblers on a streak do, eventually – I’d crashed. Now there was only enough money in my pocket for a latte and a slice of chocolate cake, with a little left over.

Asher was a ghost, by the way. He told me he’d died when he was twelve, seventy-two years ago, 1943. But he’d never made it to the other side, whatever that meant. He’d been following people round ever since. I was his latest fixation. Sure, I’d tried to shake him, but he was a tenacious little shit.

“First I got sick,” he’d said, sitting across from me at my patio table. “I puked for a week, and my mamma was real worried, and the doctor came into my room and he was worried, too. I was trying real hard to hang on because of the war. Back then everybody was dying. My brother died in the Atlantic. I didn’t want to break my mamma’s heart, but I died all the same. When the moment came, I sort of stepped out of my body, and I saw myself there, on the bed with my eyes half open. The doctor shook his head, and my mamma cried, and I just walked away.”

Asher was pretty convincing as a ghost, being a little less than solid, and a little more than transparent. Bugs flew right through him, and there he sat barefooted in the grimy pajamas he’d died in. What else could he be?

“Who can see you?” I nodded to the surrounding patrons. “Any of them?”

“No,” Asher said. “Just you.”

I spoke to him with my deactivated iPhone to my ear, to keep from looking like I was talking to an imaginary friend.

“Just me, why?”

“Because I like you.”

“But why aren’t you in Heaven, or Valhalla or some shit?”

“Ralph says there ain’t no Heaven.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

Asher pointed across the street, at an unkempt crowd of semitransparent individuals, some with serious body traumas, others just pale and hopeless. I looked way, and took a gulp of coffee and a king size bite of cake.

“That’s very disturbing, Asher,” I said. “Please don’t show me shit like that.”

He shrugged. “Ralph is the one in the fancy suit with a hole in his head,” he said.

I risked another look, and saw a grinning man wearing a tuxedo. He waved. There was a bloody hole in his head. It had to be Ralph.

“What the hell does Ralph know about Heaven?” I said.

“He knows a lot of stuff.”

“Such as?”

“He knows what horses are gonna win, place and show at Ex Park, and he knows the lottery numbers.”

Horses and lottery numbers; the story was taking on a compelling density. I did some desperate arithmetic.

“The lottery numbers,” I said. “Before they’re drawn, you mean? How’s he know that?”

“Just does.”

“Can he come over?”

“He’s kinda scary,” Asher said.

“And you aren’t? C’mon, call him over.”

And then there he was, Ralph. Sitting across from me, dressed to the nines, with several spots of blood on his starched white shirt. His gaze was fixed. Clearly he wasn’t using those decomposed eyes to see with. Asher sat next to him.

“I love this goddamn kid,” Ralph said, ruffling Asher’s hair. “I knew a dame once, named Flo. She had a kid just like him. Flo did a lot of heroin, see? So the little fella was sort of at loose ends. I took him to see hockey games, and he ran a few errands for me.”

“Swell,” I said. We hadn’t even been introduced, and Ralph was telling stories.

“You know,” he said, leaning toward me across the table, pointing at my latte, every word a trashcan stinking exhalation, “I’d love to have one of them Italian coffees again. Somethin’ real strong. Somethin’ to straighten out the ol’ gonads.”

He was up close now, his mouth a slack, post rigor mortis sneer. He had a musty smell, and the blood on his forehead was still a little wet.

“What’s with the glad rags?” I said.

“Pretty sharp, eh?” He pinched the lapels and gave me a toothy yellow grin. His gums had receded considerably. Then he brushed some confetti off of his shoulder and swatted at a bright red streamer. “The Commercial Drive boys got me out back of the Hotel Georgia, New Year’s Eve, 1929. I was out back doin’ a little of the ol’ cocaine, when they came outta nowheres. Caught me flatfooted, and pop, right through the head. Felt like someone’d got me a good one, upside the skull.”

“Nice,” I said. I was starting to get a little queasy. Ralph simply oozed quease.

“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Life is hard, innit? And then you get iced by the wops, out back of the Hotel Georgia with a cocktail straw up yer nose. Ha! Waddaya gonna do?”

“They must have had a reason.”

“Oh that,” Ralph said, sitting back and throwing up his hands. “Let’s just say that some people can’t take a joke. So what if I had a few longshoremen on the payroll, always good for some marketable merchandise here and there. I had a couple of fighters, too, I gotta admit, training outta the Astoria, took the occasional fall. And so what if I was fixing the horses. The suckers lined up for that kinda shit. Vancouver wasn’t much back then, but there was enough to go round – I thought so, anyways.”

I looked across the street again. “What’s with your crowd of followers?”

“Them? That’s just a little pyramid scheme of mine.”

“What does that mean?”

Ralph spat out a short guffaw, and slapped a knee. “Just a little joke, innit Asher?” He gave the boy a none too gentle punch in the shoulder.

“Yeah, Ralph,” Asher smiled, rubbing his arm, “a joke.”

“Yeah, sure it is,” Ralph said. “But seriously….” And here Ralph got a little grim, as something brown dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “What’s this I hear about you wantin’ to play the numbers?”

Asher leaned over, and Ralph met him halfway. The boy whispered into his ear.

“See?” said Ralph. “This is why I love this kid. He’s right. I meant the lottery. Jeeze, the more things change…, eh? The government takes it over, and the numbers become the lottery. Same goddamn crooks, different name. Now it’s all contractual agreements, church on Sunday and expensive aftershave. I can’t keep up.”

“What about them, then?” I pointed across the street again. “I still wanna know.” The gruesome troop watched us like dogs waiting for a bone.

“We just sorta wander round together, nothin’ better to do. I lead the way. I’m kind of a guide. Hell, they don’t know where they’re goin’. Most of them’re still suffering from the same shit they were suffering from when they were alive – broken hearts, bad decisions, unresolved tribulations, that kinda crap. They brought it all with ‘em to the grave, just can’t let it go.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, and it don’t matter, neither. Now tell me, do you want help with the numbers, or not?”

The numbers. My foot started tapping. I had debts, I couldn’t pay. Now this spook was offering me a chance to cash-in, maybe big time. It was too implausible. It was a hallucination. But what could it hurt to play along?

Ralph’s musty smell was getting worse.

“Tomorrow’s Lotto Extreme is worth $25 million,” I said.

“That’s a tidy sum,” Ralph said, “a tidy sum. It’d clear up some of those gamblin’ debts. Oh man, it’d clear ‘em up with plenty of change left over.”

“What gambling debts? What do you know about my gambling debts?”

“Detroit versus Montreal, the other day,” Ralph said, suddenly refined and wise, despite the congealing drool. “That was your last bad last call, wasn’t it? Plenty before that. You were hot once, but that don’t ever last. You’ve worked your way down through the legit bookies to the bottom feeders, and the bottom feeders don’t use collection agencies, do they. I bet there’s some boys in town right now, looking to cut off one or two of your fingers.”

“How would you know?”

“Shit, boyo, if I can tell you the lotto numbers, don’t you think I know what’s what with you?”

There was silence now. The street noise had stopped. Ralph and I sat looking at each other like gunfighters. The one who looked away first, lost.

I looked away first.

“You’re a risk taker,” Ralph said, taking a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I appreciate that in a man.” He slid the slip of paper across the table to me. His fingernails were black. “Takes one to know one. I was a risk taker, too. It didn’t work out so well for me, of course. But maybe now I can do you a favour. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my own bad decisions.”

I stared down at the paper. It was folded in two.

“Go ahead, kid,” Ralph said. “Go buy a ticket. Use them numbers. After tomorrow’s draw, everything changes.”

Ralph was see-through, but the paper was solid. It slid across the table, caught in a breeze. I slapped my hand down, and caught it.

“We’ll talk later,” Ralph said, and vanished.

“Yeah,” said Asher, “later.” He smiled then and faded.

It’s hard to be cool standing in line, when you possess the winning lottery numbers for a $25 million jackpot. I was snapping my fingers like Sinatra to a song that wasn’t there. I’d written the numbers down on the chit in a frenzy. I didn’t even know what they were. The draw was the next day at 7:30pm Pacific Time.

Just ahead of me, in line, two old men were discussing the physics of trading on the stock market. It was the usual old fart drivel of lottery line-ups.

“I still say Gaussian models are the only way to go,” said the bald one. “It’s definitive.”

Definitive? Was that grammatically correct? Who gave a shit?

“And when it doesn’t work,” said the one in the I heart Stephen Harper tee shirt, “you blame chaos theory.”

“Of course. The universe is chaotic.”

“Then nothing’s predictable, nothing’s definitive, and that’s why you’re living off a pension cheque. Take the lottery for instance….”

Yeah, take the lottery. Holly shit. My foot began tapping again, and I checked my pocket for my last $5, the price of $25 million.

At the counter, I handed the five over to a smiling Pakistani man who moved like a machine, inserting my numbers into the slot, then pulling out my ticket.

“Good luck,” he said, handing it to me.

I wondered how many times he said that in a week. Again, who gave a shit? Then he said, “Do not forget to put your name, address and signature on the back – very very important!” This guy was all drama.

Now I was suddenly aware of the potential of a measly piece of paper. The ticket was nonnegotiable. Yet I trembled as I held it.

It was getting dark and cold, but going home was out of the question. Ralph was right, there were likely some of Philbin’s boys in town. ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin, that is, to whom I owed a little over a hundred grand. He might even be in town himself, for that kind of money. Max was a hands-on kind of guy. So I’d sleep at the bus station, sitting up. If they gave me the bums rush, it would be a back alley. But if all went according to plan, it would be the last time I slept with the rats.

The next morning I woke to a janitor running a mop over my shoes, as he washed the floor.

“Hey, fuck,” I yelped, jumping up. “These shoes are Allen Edmonds.”

“Then you should give them back,” he said.

“Oh, that’s a very funny fucking line for a janitor.”

He smirked as I tried to kick off the slop. Then I saw Asher standing a few feet away.

“What the hell do you want?” I didn’t bother with the iPhone trick. Who cared if a guy sleeping in a bus station talked to himself?

“Golly,” Asher said, as unsuspecting people milled round him, “this sure is a crummy part of town, even worse than when I was alive.”

“Yeah, well that’s 2015 for you.”

“You got the ticket, right?” he said.

“I thought I’d finally gotten rid of you.”

“I got nowheres else to go. What about the ticket?”

“I got the fucking ticket, okay? What’s it to you.”

He shrugged, but was that really a blank expression? What did he know?

It was raining the usual shitty Vancouver rain outside. I checked my watch. 8am, still a whole day to go. I put up my collar, and began to walk. The watch was a limited edition TAG Heuer, purchased after a big win at craps in Vegas. I considered pawning it, but thought any pawnshop unworthy. I found an awning over an abandoned storefront, and sat down. My stomach growled.

“Hungry?” Asher said.

“Bugger off.”

“There’s a soup kitchen round the block.”

“Will you just fuck off?”

“My mamma and me got real hungry sometimes,” said Asher. “She drank a lot of wine, and didn’t wanna do war work. We went to a soup kitchen, the Franciscan Sisters. They gave us food and told us Jesus loves us.”

“Yeah? Well where’s Jesus now?”

“I guess he’s home with the funny papers.”

“Terrific.”

The guy ladling out the soup in the soup kitchen gave me the once over, then a wondering look. My jacket was wet, but it was still an Armani.

“Hard times, brother?”

“Temporary,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. “But the thing about temporary, I’ve found, is that it can last an awful long time.”

“Can I just have some soup? Gawd, who the hell eats soup before noon anyway?”

“You do, bub.” He filled my bowl and handed me some bread. Then he said, “Do yourself a favour. Do whatever you gotta. Rob a bank if you have to. But don’t come back. You don’t belong here.”

The soup’s main ingredients were water, salt and a piece of carrot, and the bread was only minutes away from sprouting mould. Other patrons avoided sitting with me. Asher watched without blinking, from a far corner. Everyone but me ignored a tall grubby man at another table when he stood up and screamed for several minutes. All-in-all, it was a hideous dining experience.

As I left the building, a woman wearing a Jesus Rocks t-shirt handed me a pair of dry socks. They were red, and I was wearing taupe slacks with brown shell Cordovan loafers. It wasn’t going to work, but I took them anyway.

“Keep the faith, brother,” she said.

I would, absolutely. I felt the ticket in my shirt pocket.

I spent the rest of the day walking, my new socks soaked through. At about 7:25, I walked into the mall and up to the lotto kiosk to watch the numbers come in. It was the first time I’d actually looked at the ticket to see what mine were. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17. What the fuck? The first seven primes. My stomach knotted. What a ridiculous combination. It would never come in, all primes in sequence. It was impossible. I’d been played for a sucker by an apparition.

I was about to tear the ticket up when I heard Asher say, “Don’t do it.”

“But this is stupid,” I said. People began looking at me. I should have put my iPhone to my ear. “In all of the history of the universe, something like this has never happened, and never will. I hope you and your deceased pals had a good laugh.”

“Just shut up and wait,” Asher said.

Shut up? Poltergeist Jr. had just told me to shut up. The situation was worsening by the second.

Then the first numbers started to appear on the screen behind the counter. First came 2. Then the second: 3. The third: 5. Holy shit! The forth: 7. This was sick. Unbelievable. The knot in my belly rapidly changed from one kind to another. The next numbers couldn’t possibly be a match. But they were: 11, 13 and 17.

I checked it again and again.

“Holly hot bloody fucking goddamn shithouse motherfucker,” I said.

A couple of people looked over their shoulders.

“We gotta go,” said Asher.

“I’m stinking rich!”

“Yeah,” he said, “but let’s get outta here. You’re attracting attention. Someone’s gonna follow you out if you make too much noise. I can’t protect you.”

He was right. Some members of the normally zombie-like shopping mall crowd were starting to look at me like they were either going to eat my brains or hoist my ticket. I made for the exit, and walked out onto the sidewalk.

Rain.

“You have to call the lottery office in the morning,” Asher said. He was walking quickly to keep up, his naked feet splashing through puddles.

“What do I do until then?”

“Lay low,” he said, and then vanished.

Lay low. Hell, it’d been hours since my bowl of salty soup, and I was freezing. I was a millionaire without a dime in my pocket, and no one to celebrate with. My smartphone was useless, I’d spent most of the day hiding under a bridge, and I couldn’t go home in case I ran into a homicidal bookie. There was no lower to lay.

I hugged the storefronts, weaving in and out of doorways and under awnings, to stay out of the rain. Then passing Dunn’s Tailors, I noticed that they were having a suit sale. I stopped and looked in the window. High end worsteds, nice lines. Snappy but dignified Italian ties. Dunn’s was my favourite tailor. It would be the first place I stopped after I collected my purse.

A few other guys must have shared my enthusiasm, because I was suddenly in the company of three men.

“Nice,” said one, looking into the window.

“Yeah Max,” said another. “Real nice.”

Max? It couldn’t be. What were the odds of him finding me here, now? But then, what were the chances of a sequence of primes being a winning lotto numbers?

“Fuck,” I said, quiet and resigned.

“How you doing, Lester?”

It was, indeed, ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin standing next to me. Rain streaming down his pale doughy face, illuminated in the dim store window light. He had boozy garlicky Eau de Vart funk hovering over him.

“I’m just fine,” I said.

“You really look like shit, though.”

“Thanks.”

“You know,” Max said, “there ain’t one goddamn decent restaurant in this whole toilet of a town.”

“You should have called ahead,” I said. “I would have told you as much.”

“You know why I’m here, Lester?” said Max. “Because you owe me money, and you’ve been avoiding me like it’s alimony.”

“You got a cigarette?” I said. He offered me a Camel and a light. It was mighty tasty, my first in over a twenty-four hours. “Give me until tomorrow morning. Things have changed for me.”

“Changed how?”

“I won the lottery.”

“Don’t get smart with us,” Max said, “you deadbeat son of a bitch.”

“Look, just give me until tomorrow. Have one of your boys shadow me. Lock me in a hotel room. Handcuff me to a chair. I tell ya, tomorrow I’ll pay you every dime.”

“You’re a liar, Lester,” Max said. “Which ain’t no business of mine, normally. Shit, I’ve told some real whoppers in my time, eh boys?”

The goons laughed and slapped Max on the back.

“But you owe me over a hundred grand, and lies will not be tolerated. Grab him boys.”

They pulled me round the corner, and into the alley. Then they threw me against a wall between two cars, and Max’s goons started kicking and stomping the hell out of me. They were good, and they were wearing me down. It wouldn’t be long before I received the final crippling wallop, so I struggled to pull the ticket from my pocket, and then held it up for all to see.

“It’s legit,” I spit through the blood. “Check it. Use your fucking phone and check it.”

“All right all right,” Max said to his boys, “lay off.” He snatched the ticket out of my hand.

“You got blood on it,” he said.

The goons snickered.

“Check it,” Max said, handing it to one of them. “It don’t seem impossible, I guess. You’ve been on one of the worst losing streaks I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta turn round sooner or later. Why not now?”

“It’s turned around,” I assured him.

“Holy shit!” said the goon with the Android. “Boss, take a look.”

Max grabbed the phone and the ticket, and there the numbers were, on the Lotto Extreme website.

“Twenty-five million?” he said. “That can’t be right.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and get the cheque. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days. I don’t know, but I can pay you then.”

‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin stood there for a moment, flicking the very valuable piece of paper with a finger. There was a machine in his head that could calculate changes in the fabric of circumstance as easily as it did odds and percentages, and this calculation was an easy one. Then he turned the ticket over, and looked.

“Nah!” he said.

“Nah? What does that mean, nah?”

“It means I take the ticket, and we’re square.”

“No way, I only owe you the hundred grand.”

“Call the rest interest.”

“Fuck no!”

“We should whack him, boss,” one of the goons said. “He’ll go to the cops, for sure.”

“And tell ‘em what?” Max said. He held the ticket so his henchmen could see the back of it in the yellow lamplight. “Look, the dumb shit hasn’t put his name or nothin’ on the back. I’ll just fill it in with my particulars, and badda-pow, I got twenty-five mill. If we wax him now, he won’t be able to spend the rest of his life cherishing this little moment.”

My life hadn’t been a bad one, mostly. And if it was a mess now, it was my own fault. But like most fuck-ups, I’d always felt a little like the world was awfully unfair. I figured it had a hate on for me, especially as I bled in the rain. Sure I’d made some bad bets, and taken some lumps, but I’d always lost and taken my lumps from better people than Max.

I guess that’s how the idea came to me. And what could it hurt, now that all I had to look forward to was a life of wondering, what if? So I deciding to follow through, and pulled back my knee until it touch my belly, and then let it go: my foot, heel first into Max’s junk. You could have heard him gasp and howl three blocks away, then he fell onto the ground, screaming like a little girl.

His gorillas were stunned. This was unforeseen.

“Boss?” one of them said. “Wadda we do?”

In a moment, after rolling around in the puddles, Max was able to form the last two words I would ever hear, that side of the eternal curtain –

“!!Shoot him!!”

Then I watched as both of his thugs drew and aimed. There were only a couple of muzzle flashes, that I saw. But I guess they’d kept shooting after that, because a few seconds later, standing over my body, I saw that they’d reduced it to hamburger from the waist up. Forget the open casket. They were going to sop me up and squeeze the sponge out over my open grave; yea, though I walk through the valley…, drip drip fucking drip.

“Glad you could make it, chief.” It was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I turned round and saw Ralph, with Asher at his side.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What’s to get?” Ralph said. “Like I told ya, it’s a pyramid scheme, the whole death by misadventure racket is. One dead guy enrolls as many other dead guys as he can, and they enroll as many as they can. Along the way a fella’s gotta learn how to recruit participants.”

“Enroll? Participants?”

“Yeah, participants,” Ralph said. He put his hand on Asher’s shoulder and said, “My little man here recruited you. He’s one hell of a recruiter, ain’t ya boy.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Asher said with a shrug.

“He even arranged for that Max fella to run into you,” Ralph said.

“But why?”

“Hell, I don’t know. It’s a lousy business model. You’re bound to be disappointed. Everyone is. I’m the first to admit that there ain’t no benefit to it. It’s kinda like the leaves falling in October. It just happens.”

“So now I’m dead,” I said. “And you used the lottery ticket as a scam to enroll me. Why didn’t you just have me run over by a bus?”

“Ain’t no fun in that.” Ralph laughed and clapped his hands. “Bein’ dead can get awful dull. A little bit of cabaret is always welcome. We got you a good one, eh?”

“Go to hell.”

“Been there,” he said, his eyes flashing a bright fiery red. “Shit, I even bought goddamn lakefront property.”

* * * * * * * * *

Death is weird. It’s like looking at the living through the bug splat on a windshield.

I swore the moment I heard about it, that I would never participate in The Pyramid Scheme, but Ralph was right, death is boring. So, I’ve caved-in, and I’m about to enroll my first participant. That’s why I’m here in Vegas, standing out front of the MGM.

Oh, hang on. I’ve got to go. Max Philbin just pulled up.