Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol

#2 in the accordion suite
see #1 here
see #3 here

Ophelia Vladimirescu was the last of her line to ever make an accordion.

I was a kid when it happened, and now as an old man, when I wake in the night shouting her name, there she’ll be, responding to my call as if she were still alive, hard as stone standing next to my bed in rippling petals of flame.

I’d cut off my legs if it meant I’d never see her again, but cowardice restrains me.

Such a claim requires context to be taken seriously, I know. So allow me to make what happened very plain, for all of those who read this.

The Vladimirescu family had been in the business of making fine European inspired accordions for more than 100 years, and Ophelia had inherited the company along with the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1910 just after her debutante year. She was an elegant young woman whose demeanor spoke of old money. And though her hereditary wealth was a little mouldy at the edges, it had long ago launched an accordion empire that had cornered markets worldwide.

I won’t go into the swampy genealogy of the Vladimirescu family here, though it may come up later. For now, you’ll have to content yourself in knowing that the family line included a succession of eastern European patriarchs who it was alleged slept in coffins, and played their own accordions by the light of the moon, accompanied by the distant music of howling wolves. There are empty tombs and disturbed graves far away, and secrets that abide in dark corners, but that is all for another time.

Several trademark lines were manufactured by the Vladimirescu factory, including the world renowned Schrammel Extravaganzo and the Concertina Republica. Each instrument was assembled by hand by skilled but hoary Europe craftsmen, whose specific origins and precise ages were impossible to calculate, and whose continued presence in Canada relied upon the procurement of ill-gotten work visas.

The widely held rumor that there was a small unseen army of illiterate orphan slaves, paid in tobacco and candy bars, in the service of Ophelia Vladimirescu, is true. I know, because I was one of them.

We carved the mother of pearl inlays and the perfect onyx buttons, and used our clever little hands to produce the reeds, ranks and switches, as well as the silver and brass accents. We orphans were invisible because we lived in the factory’s unnavigable maze of deep subbasements, in which the Vladimirescu family hid us, and other unforgivable secrets. Hence, there was no proof of our existence. We were only the whispered racket of lunch counter gossip, but mysteriously, the buttons and other accoutrements of manufacture were always in plentiful supply.

Cruelly, when a soldier in our army of orphan slaves grew too old to continue, due to ever growing hands and increasing appetite, he or she was given a midnight bus ticket out of town.

On the night it happened to me, I was dragged from my bed, given a worn out coat, and escorted up to the surface of the planet in a freight elevator. Then I was driven to the city’s Greyhound station, where a ticket and a ten dollar bill was forced into my hand.

I remember watching the deep green Packard sedan that brought me there that night, drive away into the unconditional darkness, as I stood in the parking lot. The mysterious driver of the car, a man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots, told me to get out of town, or else. And that was it.

The ticket was for Moosejaw, and the moon was full.

In the bus station, I noticed a calendar on the wall, as I sat and waited for departure. I’d never seen one before. It was the photograph of a sleek wheeled vehicle with a dog on the side that caught my attention, and I asked a hollow cheeked woman with a gaunt child at her side what it said. April, 1938, she replied. The woman’s coat was ragged, and her shoes were salty and cracked. It was the Great Depression.

I and my fellow passengers that night were a nondescript gaggle of shabby dustbowl drifters, citizens of a prairie commonwealth of midnight, where shadowy farm houses floated like derelicts on tideless black sea. A woman in a faux fur coat and a leghorn straw hat adorned with a flower, sat next to me eating something, and dropping husks onto the floor. The light was very dim; she was nearly a silhouette. She paused when she saw me looking, and then handed over the bag.

“Go ahead kid,” she said. “I’ve had my fill, and you look like you need ‘em more than me.”

“What are they?” I said, taking the bag.

“Peanuts, of course.”

I put a whole one, unshelled, into my mouth, unaware of my error. It was terrible. I began to gag.

“No, no, no,” the woman said. “Spit that out. Here, you open ‘em like this, and you eat what’s inside. See?”

She cracked one open, and popped the contents into her mouth. It made so much sense.

“Where’ve you been, kid?”

“In the subbasement,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

In a moment, I’d eaten my first ever peanuts, crunchy and good. Then I ate more as quickly as I could.

“Slow down or you’ll puke,” said the woman. Then she held out her hand. “Felicity Crenshaw’s the name,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”

I looked at her hand, as I wiped peanut skins off of my face with my own.

“Shake, pal,” she insisted. “Good to meet cha.”

I shook my shoulders for her, a little confused.

“Na! You tryin’ to be funny? Shake my hand, like this.”

She took my right hand in hers, and moved it rapidly up and down.

“That’s how one compadre greets another, get it?”

Not really, but I kept that to myself. It seemed a very strange thing to do, shaking hands. But I’d never seen a Greyhound before, either. Nor had I known that it was April, 1938.

“Now you tell me your name, see?” Felicity Crenshaw said.

I didn’t want to tell her my name. I wasn’t sure that it was a fair trade for a bag of peanuts.

“Huh,” she said. “You gotta have a name. Where’s your momma?”

I shrugged.

“Maybe someone oughtta hand you over to a church, or something, if you ain’t got no folks.”

I shrugged again.

“Well I’m on the road,” Felicity Crenshaw said. “I’m a travelling saleswoman. My old Model A gave up the ghost in Swift Current, so I’m riding the dog. Maybe I can pick up an old beater next stop. My point is, don’t get too attached to me. I can’t look after no kid.”

“No one asked you to,” I said.

“Then stop making it with the big eyes.”

That was how Felicity was, I found out later. She saw a rotten world, and assumed it wanted to be saved, but she didn’t know how. So she tried to be tough, instead.

I looked away, not knowing why, and stared down at the peanut shells on the floor. It got quiet after that, except for the sound of the wheels on the road and a passenger snoring in the seat behind us. Felicity had the window seat, and watched the stars.

Then, after a while, she said, “You read music, kid?”


“’Cause that’s what I sell, quality sheet music and piano rolls to the yokels. Finger snapping hits from the Iglehart Music Company of Chicago, Illinois. I’m a wholesaler, to reputable retail outlets.”

“Sheet music’s stupid,” I said.

“Say, what is your name? I don’t wanna talk to a kid without a name, if he’s gonna call a girl’s bread and butter ‘stupid’.”

“Rufus,” I surrendered.

“Well Rufus, how do you figure sheet music’s stupid?”

“I just do better without it. Too many rules. There usually aren’t enough notes on a sheet of music, anyway.”

“So you improvise. What do you play?”


(Learning to play the accordion at the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory wasn’t guaranteed. An orphan needed to show some talent, and even then it was only for those who worked in quality control. I was pretty good at quality control, which was why I was sort of surprised when I got my bus ticket.)

“I never knew a fella could improvise on an accordion,” Felicity said, “without him makin’ a racket, that is. You look a little bit too young for that, anyway. What are you, ten?”

I didn’t know my age then, any more than I know it now. So I ate some more peanuts.

“You got it with you?” said Felicity. “The accordion, I mean.”

“Never had one of my own.”

“Then how…?”

More peanuts.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “So now you got me curious. I’m dropping in on a particular music store in Moosejaw. The proprietor’s a good egg, and he sells musical instruments. If he’s got a squeezebox in stock, you can play it and show me your stuff. Just fer fun. But I gotta drop you after that, understand? You can find a soup kitchen somewhere, and see what happens from there.”

I shrugged yet again. It was fine by me.

We arrived in Moosejaw at 6 in the morning, and Felicity retrieved her luggage from under the bus.

“Samples,” she said to me, kicking the larger of her two suitcases. “Heavy, too. It’s why I gotta get a goddamn car.”

A porter put the suitcases in the trunk of a taxi, and we were off.

“Hotel Wilhelmina,” Felicity told the driver.

“That dump?” the driver said. “You sure, lady?”

“Just get us there alive, fella.”

“Okay (your funeral).”

The Hotel Wilhelmina was, as the cabby had put it, a dump, whose single greatest outward accomplishment was looking lopsided from the street, while the lobby, where I sat in a dusty, threadbare overstuffed chair until she returned from her room, resembled an abandoned funeral parlour, in both sight and smell.

“What a joint, eh?” Felicity said when she arrived back, wearing clean white blouse, and a different hat. “They’ve really done things with the ol’ place, yessiree. The manager says there ain’t been a murder here in five months.”

“It smells,” I said.

“That’s the perfume of antiquity, kid,” she said, taking an unhealthy whiff. “Just savour the pong of time.”

I tried to hold my breath.

“Okay, sunshine. Let’s go.”

We arrived at Barney’s Music Barn after breakfast at a diner called Chinese Joe’s. As it turned out, the proprietor of the Music Barn, Barney himself, did have an accordion in stock, and I recognised it immediately as a Vladimirescu model 1021-Q, also called the Romanian Pearl. I was still just a small kid, but the Pearl was big. So I sat down in a chair to play, after I struggled into the straps.

“Made in Saskatoon, that baby is,” Barney said. Then, “Say Felicity, what’s this all about?”

“A bit of a lark, Barney-boy. I met the kid on the dog. Says he’s so good that he can play without sheet music. I figure that’d be really something for just a pup, and I wanna see if he’s rattlin’ my shackles.”

“How old are you, boy?” Barney said.

“I don’t know.”

“He ain’t no more than ten,” said Felicity. “Just look at him.”

“Alright then,” Barney said to me, “play us something.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Well shit-niblets,” Felicity said. “I guess I knew it all along.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, I can play. It’s just that I need a cigarette, something awful. I haven’t had one since I got dropped off at the bus station, and I’m getting shaky fingers.”

“A cigarette?” said Barney. “Forget it. What if someone comes into the store, and sees a little squirt like him smoking and playing accordion?”

“Okay.” I began to take off the instrument.

“Wait! Whoa there,” Felicity said, and pulled out a pack of Player’s. “Take one. Here’s a light. I ain’t missing this over a little delinquency.”

My eyes rolled up to heaven as I took my first puff, and I held it in for so long that there was nothing to exhale. It tasted better than breakfast at Chinese Joe’s, which had been pretty good.

Then I said, “Requests?”

“Kid seems a lot older than ten,” Barney said.

“He’s an artist,” said Felicity. “That’s how it is with them.”

“Okay,” Barney snickered. “Flat Foot Floogee,”

“Nah,” said Felicity. “Get serious. What do you wanna play, kid?”

An ash fell onto the carpet as I thought. Then placing the cigarette back between my lips, I began to play one of my favourites, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. It wasn’t exactly written for the accordion, and the Pearl wasn’t built for it (known to play a little shrill), but I loved making it all work. My body moved with the music as it always did, as the cigarette smoke coiled up past my eyes, shut in the ecstasy. I might have played for six minutes or six years, but when I opened my eyes again, the two of them remained silent.

Until Felicity said, “Ho-ly shit.” It was almost a whisper, as though she’d just witnessed the risen Jesus with a kazoo.

“Ain’t that something,” Barney said. “And isn’t that money I smell over the tobacco smoke?”

Turned out that it was. A switch had been turned in Felicity Crenshaw’s brain, and in that moment, she made the mental transformation from prairie sheet music saleswoman to accordion child prodigy promoter.

“How much for the squeeze box, Barney?” she said.

“It ain’t the best,” I said.

“Too bad, kid. We gotta start somewhere.”

“Twenty bucks,” said Barney.

“Piano rolls and sheet music, in trade?”

“I guess.”

Felicity opened her sample case. “Take what you want,” she said. “I won’t be needin’ it anymore.”

It turned out that he was right. After three auditions, I was on the radio and playing the evangelist circuit, Closer My Lord, to Thee being my trademark tune. Every God fearing dirt farmer, truck driver and lunch counter waitress from Fort St John to Winnipeg was listening in.

It wasn’t long before I was able to replace the Vladimirescu model 1021-Q for a model 1235-B, bigger even than the Pearl, fuller sound and greater range. It was the best instrument ever made by the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, so far, and they called it the Transylvania Star.

“You ain’t big enough for it,” Felicity said, when she saw it in the Winnipeg showroom.

“Maybe it ain’t big enough for me,” I replied, haughtily. Stardom having already gone to my head.

“We’ll see.”

I played it that night on the Reverend Philip St Philip’s Rival Radio Hour — playing How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Closer My Lord, to Thee. Near the end of the program, just after the Jell-O commercial message, reminding us all of the manifesting season of Jell-O salad, the Reverend Philip St Philip, talking to the whole of dirt farmer Christendom through his microphone, had this to say.

“Lord Jesus, you say it is right to rejoice in music, in your name. But music is often of the devil, diverting good men from the road to righteousness. On our stage this evening, however, is sitting a gift that you, Lord Jesus, have bestowed upon us, and Rufus is his name.”

Here the Reverend closed his eyes, and placed a hand redolent of rancid hair oil, on my shoulder, and said —

“Dear Lord, bless this marvelous boy with his ear for your crystal composition. His music is Holy, and inspired by Thee. And I say onto you in the radio audience tonight, rejoice in it. The Bible testifies to the power of music, for all good Christians, in the worship of God. It is a joyful sound, when played by the angelic.”

Then Reverend did a double jointed trick, squeezing my shoulder and running a finger tenderly up and down the back of my neck. After which he tugged gently on my earlobe, and looking down upon me, seated in my chair, pinned beneath the ponderous Transylvania Star, he blew me a silent kiss off the tip of his middle finger.

All of the studio technicians and special guests looked away, all except for Felicity, who after the director said cut, walked up and whispered something into Phillip’s ear. Whatever it was, it was enough to make the Reverend step back with horror in his eyes, and I was spared the predatory temptations of Christian pastors for evermore.

Indeed, I was a celebrity on the Evangelist Circuit. I had money, and all of the tobacco and candy bars I wanted, and I had the protection of my manager, Felicity Crenshaw (who took her 25% off the top).

How could I have known, under such glad circumstances, that Ophelia Vladimirescu was listening? Since my expulsion from the factory basement, she had mysteriously achieved an unexpected, scheming wickedness, and listened to me on her parlour radio whenever a performance of mine was broadcast.

No one could have known, in fact, until the evening I stepped out of the back door of the CFAM radio studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for a cigarette. It was during a commercial break on the Pastor Peak Perkins Revival Revolution program, sponsored by Jell-O Gelatin. (Seems the Christians loved their Jell-O.)

There in the alley, as I lit a Player’s plain, appeared the deep green Packard sedan I remembered from another time. It stopped and out stepped the mysterious driver, the man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots.

“Get in the car,” he said, holding open the backdoor.

I hesitated. Where was Felicity?

“Don’t make me put you in the trunk, boy.”

No, not the trunk. Who knew what lurked in there? I complied, and the door closed behind me, locking magically without aid of a human hand.

And so, I was driven against my will, to the Vladimirescu mansion, on the outskirts of the city. It was a cheerless palace, both Gothic and Baroque at once, menacingly placed on a rise on the land at the end of a long private road, guarded by a sinister-looking gate. Silhouettes of massive, looming animals – elephants, bears and lions – trimmed out of boxwood, roamed the front lawn, as a single light burned in a top floor window.

“This is it, boy,” said the mysterious driver. “Get out.”

Now the door unlocked itself, and swung open.

“The front door of the house is unlocked,” said the man. “Go in, take the lighted candle, and climb the staircase to the third floor. You’ll figure it out from there. And don’t do nothing stupid, like run. She’s got a hundred ways to make you suffer, if you do.”

Here he adjusted his sunglasses in the moonlight, as though they caused him some great discomfort, and then he drove away.

The front door of the mansion was huge and carved with the faces of gargoyles, damned it seemed from their expressions of horror. It opened without a sound, and I stepped into the dim and cavernous entry hall, filled with dusty alabaster and thickly carve mahogany. Here skulked the shadows of statuary, bent and smirking.

A lighted candle was on a small table, at the foot of the staircase. I took it and began my ascent, past marble carved dragons, and bitter grinning angels holding swords and severed heads.

Arriving on the third floor, I discovered a vast, glass domed ceiling, allowing whitish moonlight to fix in crystal a once magnificent, but now cobwebbed, ballroom.

“Come in my beautiful orphan,” a voice called out.

Yellow light surrounded a partially open doorway, off on the far side.

I approached, but stopped at the door, dreading what I might see inside. It was Ophelia Vladimirescu’s voice, certainly. I recognised it from her visits to the basement sweatshops. But an animal fear had overcome me.

“Enter, Rufus,” said Ophelia Vladimirescu. “I have something for you. Something I’ve had made especially for you.”

Then I heard a strange plaintive whisper in E flat major. An accordion sigh? Perhaps, but the sound it made was different than any instrument I’d ever heard before. Just a breath, heard through the door, expressing ages of joy and anguish. It was a low exhalation of grief so beautiful that even in my childish mind, I knew that I was being seduced.

I pushed open the door, and there she stood, in the centre of a chamber with a cherub painted ceiling. Ophelia Vladimirescu, pale and lovely, dressed splendidly in purple silks and golden brocade, the room filled with an oddly unwholesome lantern light and the hushed scent of day old roses. The uncanny effect was that her youth remained unbroken, in spite of her age.

And next to her, in a chair resembling a royal throne, sat the instrument I’d heard breathe through the door, gilded and covered in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

I stood in wonder, sure that it was now calling me by name.

“It’s exquisite, no?” Ophelia placed a hand upon it. She had the husk of a Eurasian accent, passed on to her in the cloistered company of her eccentric and reclusive parents.

“I heard you on the radio,” she said. “If I’d known of your true talent, I never would have let you go. But happily, I have made it right. Come, look at my gift to you.”

I stepped forward and touched it with my fingers, and heard disembodied weeping. There was no adequate reverence or esteem.

“It drove my father mad,” said Ophelia. “He spent half a lifetime designing it, all the while tormented by the voices of his forefathers, imploring him to carry on, to the unending sound of Thême varié très brillant pour accordéon methode Reisner, performed in the candelabra shadows of a distant Carpathian chateau. It was mere torment until he took up the task, and then it became torture. Though he finished the plans for its design, he died believing it would be impossible to build.

“The finished diagrams were given to me when he passed away, and I worried over them for more than twenty years. I asked darkness for guidance only when the light failed me, and then I found a way. Now it is done, and you are the one chosen to play it. No one else. It needs to feed. Your youth will be its food. And in return, you will prosper beyond your wildest ambitions.”

“I ain’t got no ambitions,” I said.

“Shoulder it, hear it whisper, and you will. Its name is Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol.”

“It’s too big.”

“It will make you strong.”

“Put it on boy.” It was the man in the sunglasses who spoke now, standing like an idol in the shadows, the candlelight mirrored in his dark lenses.

He stepped out into the flickering light, took the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol from its throne, and forced the straps over my shoulders, an action verging on brutality. I wonder to this day if it was necessary. My fascination with the Diavol was increasing rapidly, and it was inevitable that I would shoulder the instrument.

“It’s light as feather,” I said, amazed, when finally I wore it.

“You begin to see its magic,” said Ophelia. “Play it,” she gasped. Her fists were clenched, and her eyes had grown wide.

Without a thought, I found myself playing Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, an epitaphic masterpiece, and the last composition I’d ever have thought would come out of an accordion. There was a choral accompaniment, its source invisible, filling the room, Ophelia swaying in a trance with the dark candle chandeliers above. And when the blood fell from the clouds surrounding the cherubs painted onto the ceiling, we three were coated in a slick shimmering crimson black.

And that is when the unwholesome lantern light exploded into an inferno.

“Yes, my demon!” Ophelia shouted to the man. “Come to me. Our work is finally done. Now is our time.”

The man in the sunglasses then took her in his arms, and forced her to the floor. Falling with her, he and Ophelia embraced and immersed themselves in the pooling blood. And when his dark spectacles fell away, I was stunned to see that he had no eyes at all, only skin stitched tightly across the sockets where they once had been. He took that moment to grin at me, and then turning back to his lover, stuck out a long reptilian tongue, wrapped it round Ophelia Vladimirescu’s throat and snapped her neck, as he entered her in intercourse.

She died in a state of rapture.

I continued to play throughout it all, unable to stop, as the blaze engulfed the chamber, and I surely would have burned alive had not a hand reached in, gripped me by my collar and yanked me out of the room.

“Jeepers, kid!” Felicity hollered over the roaring flames. “You sure do get around. Let’s vamoose before the whole damn place comes down on our heads.”

We ran out onto the lawn, and through the prowling menagerie of looming boxwood creatures, Felicity pulling me along by the hand, while I dragged the bejewelled accordion behind me.

Looking out of the back window as we drove away, I watched the growing conflagration fade into the distance.

“That’s a caper you don’t wanna share with no one, kid,” said Felicity.

“Who’d believe it, anyway?”

“And what about the squeezebox?”

“It’s one of Ophelia Vladimirescu’s suckers, just like me,” I said, aware that, in my boyish way, I was feeling an irrational empathy for what appeared to be an inanimate object. “We got things in common. I figure I’ll keep it close-by, until I know better.”

Felicity’s story was that she’d seen me get into the car as she came out through the studio’s back door with a cup of coffee, too late to intervene, but soon enough to get into her new Plymouth and follow along.

“The biggest problem,” she told me later, “was getting into the goddamn house. It was sealed up tighter than a killing jar. Good thing a city girl like me’s got a little lock-picking savvy, or you’d be a pile of ash same as them two monkeys. Lordy, what a pair. I mean, I like a good rascally romp every now and then, but there’s a limit.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

It lives now in a large safety deposit box in the basement of the Royal Bank at 685 West Hastings St, in Vancouver. That makes the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol just a short drive away.

Felicity Crenshaw was killed on the street during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, where she’d followed a no-good US Amy Sergeant in 1940, who dumped her like a hot rock first chance he got. Zeros were strafing the city, as she sat on the sidewalk comforting a dying sailor. She didn’t even know the guy. I know this because she visited me shortly after, in a dream. She said it was swell on the other side, and I’d get there just fine, as long as I minded my Ps and Qs.

I haven’t willed the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol to anyone, but I’ve left instructions that it be dismantled after my death, the valuable parts sold, and the proceeds donated to orphans’ charities.

I still hear Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, when I wake out of my recurring nightmare, and see her in the dark. I probably always will.

The box containing the Diavol is opened only once a year, on the anniversary of the day I first played it. Then the sound of me sitting in the little safety deposit box guest room, playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, echoes through the halls, and the bank staff are all smiles.



The guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it becomes short bursts. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity. The sticky darkness adhering to it, giving it weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs also wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks Absinthe. He listens to opera on his Victrola, too. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the Absinthe. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish Cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he yelled. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He had a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You are no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered, and then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot for emphasis. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point would have been insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top.

Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I never knew the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold, and they believe it when they hear it. No matter how incredible or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. That is woman’s greatest flaw. Is that my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top. Two, three, four of spades onto that.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouted. Another slap, hard this time. And the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!” Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I would take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor, small feet, high heels. The door upstairs slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark reddish stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t be such a big deal no more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the Absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.

the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written

see # 2 here
see #3 here

It was February a few years ago when Fiona moved in next door, with her accordion and zydeco repertoire. And though I would have normally defended a woman’s right to practice her instrument, play it and generally follow her bliss, at the beginning I thought the 5:00 a.m. renditions of Follow Me Chicken might drive me mad.

To be fair it was, and still is, a building of artists, actors, writers and musicians, all of us slightly insane and near starvation, and it was wonderful how the music in the evening spilled out through the open windows, onto Parker Street, where in the warmer months, many in the neighbourhood congregated for free nightly concerts of rap, classical and jazz, each played at the same time, overlapping into a splendid symphony, to which the locals rumbled, loved and danced.

I still live here, writing obsessively that which goes mostly unpublished, loving my view of the street and its sounds, and being a part of a threadbare but artistic neighbourhood, which will soon be bought up by an artless moneyed class, wanting to live vicariously through the starving creators and performers they displace through gentrification and the introduction of Best Buy and Whole Foods stores.

Anyway, the relationship between Fiona and I sort of unfolded like this:

Like so many writers, I worked into the small single digit hours, when the spiders of mind come out to creep, then I slept past noon every day. Fiona on the other hand, rose early to get to her job at a coffeehouse in the financial district, where she worked long hours slinging espresso drinks, adorning each cappuccino and latte with her celebrated foamy art, to the delight of her crooked chintzy-tipping stockbroker clientele.

Then, in the evening, after only a short break, she would work one gig or another with her all girl band, Pussy Zydeco. This left her with only the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which to practice.

(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, and how an all-woman zydeco band gets regular gigs in this town is anyone’s guess.)

Our first conversation on the subject of her sleep-disrupting habit took place at her door on February 2nd of that year, after the gaudy sound of her warming-up her instrument first passed like a ghost through my wall.

It shocked me out of sleep, and into a panic attack. Disoriented, I asked all of the important questions: Was it an air raid siren I was hearing? Was there even such a thing, anymore? If so, was it signalling a nuclear attack? Had the kitschy little Republic of North Korea finally gone berserk? Were we all about to be transformed into mere sidewalk shadows on that frosty morning, before the little brown birds of winter had their chance to sing?


Bizarrely, it was an accordion.

Being played next door.

In an instant I’d pulled on my jeans and was knocking at her door, ready to demand silence. But when a woman, with a red, pearly keyed accordion bridled to her front, opened the door, I was made speechless by her startling beauty.

The building manager had told me that Fiona was moving in, and I’d heard her directing movers the day before. But this was the first time she and I had met, face to face.

“Hi,” I said, weakly, rubbing an eye with a knuckle. Then, “Uh, good morning.”

“It has possibilities,” she said.

“You’re a musician.”

“Yes,” she said.

“The accordion.”


“But it’s 4:55 a.m.”

“Yes, it’s always an early start for me,” she said. “I know I should still be in bed, but it’s a sacrifice I make for my music.”

I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. Instead, I stood hypnotised by the soft gift-giving gaze of her simple hazel eyes, her long ginger hair and the grace with which her neck drifted elegantly into her strapping, load-bearing shoulders. Then there was the succulent cleavage, visible just above the accordion’s bellows between the v-shaped boundaries of her gauzy India blouse, and accentuated by the pressure placed upon her bosom by her ample instrument.

I imagined her then, moving in her apartment alone, like a delicate wraith to the sound of her own music. In my mind, she was a squeezebox ballerina, au naturel except for where I imagined the to-and-fro mechanics of her instrument made personal protection necessary.

But then I saw the extraordinary thing that sealed my love for her, forever. It was the blood red, black outlined valentine tattoo, the size of a dime on her left cheek, pierced by an arrow, straight and true.

“Got a camera, mister?” she said. “I’ll give you a minute to go get it. Then you can take a picture.”

“No,” I said, looking down at the hall carpet, at a cigarette burn I hadn’t seen before. “I’m sorry. I’m not a starer. I don’t stare, I mean, normally. It’s just that it’s very early.”

“And you should be in bed,” she said.

“Yeah, I just live next door.” — Irrelevant, I know.

“Then you’ve not got miles to go before you sleep.”

I’d been dismissed, and she was right. My door was ajar, and the rumpled linen of the bed I hadn’t made in a week awaited me, so I turned without complaint and did the zombie shuffle home. There, I lay down and looked at the ceiling, as the bayou melodies began again.

So, resolving the matter of the early morning music was made impossible by infatuation, mine that is, and I spent the following days waking to syncopated renditions of Geno Delafose and Queen Ida tunes.

Later I’d peek through my window blinds, and watch Fiona as she walked out onto the street, on her way to work.

I’d become captivated by her walk, the way she would hoist the strap of her bag up onto her shoulder, her head held high and everything in motion from the shoulders down. She would stand at the corner of Parker and Commercial Drive and demand the traffic stop, by virtue of her posture alone. The world was hers, as she strode importantly, and without pretense.

I knew, though, that I was the bug who lived next door. But bug or not, love was love, and I had to have Fiona for my own. If she only knew how I listened at her door as she slept, I know she’d have appreciate just how deep my feelings were for her.

My aching for Fiona only increased as February began to rapidly vanish. Valentine’s Day approached, and I became determined that the 14th wouldn’t pass without action.

Soon I had a plan, the foundation of which was a love poem I would write. I knew that most poems of deep meaning took years, even decades to write, but it was already the 12th. I had only two more days. I’d have to trust my passion to guide me.

I started to compose my poem to Fiona in the lonely hours long before dawn, before I would hear through my wall the wheezy sound of her instrument being removed from its case. In the dim lamp light, and with only a pencil and paper, I began to write, accompanied by the sound of a solo horn, heard from an upper floor, playing a jazz ballad as soft and as sad as falling snow.

The poem, I decided, would be entitled, my zydeco valentine. (Lower case, by the way, wherever possible, always makes the title of a poem seem more profound.)

I worked steadily for 48 hours, and was ready to recite my work on the morning of V Day. It was my magnum opus. Visions of beatniks had danced in the air as I wrote, along with Goethe, Shelley and Byron. The piece would eclipse the power and profundity of every poem that preceded it. I was no longer dandruff on the shoulders of giants. Now I would be a giant; I’d make Fiona melt.

But how and where to deliver my verse?

The answer to the question came as I watched her leave for work that Valentine’s Day morning. Gazing at her from out of my window, I struggled to put on my coat. Once outside, I followed her at a safe distance.

Now I’d chosen how to give her the poem, and she’d not only be surprised and honoured when I put it into her hand, but maybe even a bit bashful. Her female coworkers would be envious, and every man present would know that he had failed his own lover by being so incapable of creating such a masterpiece.

I took a different bus than hers, and arrived moments after she had donned her apron. Outside, it was rain mixed with snow, so customers were soggy and impatient. Fiona, on the other hand, was cheerful, confident and industrious, executing perfect daffodils, rosebuds and butterflies in the froth of every cappuccino, latte and café mocha. It made her damp patrons smile, and I held her in such high regard that I fell into a glorious state of euphoria, knowing that I was about to make her my own.

There were five people ahead of me when I got into line, holding Fiona’s poem in my moist hand. Things were moving nicely until a plump junior executive in a bad suit ordered hot breakfast bagels and pour-overs for four. The chunky bastard had slowed down the line. People were looking at their watches, and tapping their toes. That’s when self-doubt set in. Until that moment, I’d believed that simply handing the poem over would be easy. The longer I waited, however, the more I wanted to run.

After several long moments, I finally made it to the counter to face Fiona, and caught myself staring once more at the valentine tattoo on her cheek.

“It’s you!” she said, when she saw me. “The little geek from next door.”

Fellow employees snuck peeks over their shoulders.

“Yes,” I said, and looked at the folded sheet of paper in my hand. Then looking up, I said, “I came to say I love you.” — What!?! It just slipped out of my mouth. I was obviously possessed. Fiona’s eyes got hard and squinty. I knew I had to backtrack, and rescue us both.

“I mean I want a double Americano,” I said.

“You get that order, Wendy?” she said. Our eyes had locked. “Double Americano.”

“Yup,” Wendy snickered, and started the drink.

Fiona was oozing a blunt and unexpected hostility.

“Are you stalking me?” she said.

“No,” I replied — a stab at incredulity. “This is the first time I’ve ever even been here. What makes you say that?”

“For some guys, just showing up amounts to stalking. Are you one of them?”

“Pffft, of course not.” I shoved the poem into my pocket. “I’m a writer, a poet. I belong in a coffeehouse.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But not in mine. Get it?”

Wendy placed the Americano in front of her, and Fiona pushed it across the counter to me.

“Five bucks,” she said.

This, I hadn’t foreseen. I patted my pockets. I had $2.37.

“Is there a problem here?” said a beefy man, coming up from behind the counter. His nametag read, Manager Bob.

“There was a problem,” Fiona said. “But he’s leaving. After he pays.”

“I seem to be short,” I said.

“Then good-bye,” said Fiona, taking the coffee back. “And don’t let me see you in the hall, when I get home.”

“Yeah, uh okay. I guess I’ll go to Starbucks.”

I turned and walked away, defeat sticking to me like a gummy coating of mouldy caramel macchiato.

Outside, I ducked under an awning, and took a quick inventory of my fatal failings. I was an obnoxious, puffed-up, self-absorbed wanker who people preferred avoiding. I was soft and unattractive, flabby even, from sitting all day, trying to write prose and poetry of importance, and failing. In spite of this, I was fool enough to believe I could entice a woman like Fiona into my little, meaningless life.

I pulled the poem out of my pocket, tore it in two and let it fall into a puddle. There it could drown, for all I cared.

Then as I began to walk away, a truck sped by, through a large puddle the size of a carp pond, and a huge wave of oily water rose up and fell over me. It was the final humiliation. There was a blunt razor in the bathroom cabinet at home. Too blunt to shave with, but still sharp enough for my purposes. Wasn’t it expected of every writer that he eventually commit suicide? My time had come.

Trying to shake off the water, I carried on, then felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. There waiting for me stood a small rain-soaked old man in a tattered raincoat, with the two torn halves of my poem in his hand.

“This yours, fella?” he said.

“No, I….”

“Didn’t you just drop it? I think you’re a litter bug.”

“No,” I said. “I’m very environmentally conscious.”

“Then take it,” the old man said. “Take it and put it where it belongs, in the garbage.”

In the garbage? My poem belonged in the garbage? A new light had been shed. I snatched the two pieces of paper out of his hand.

“Off with you, old man,” I said, at last finding the indignation necessary to re-enter the coffeehouse. “Go pull some posters off a lamppost, you mothball-stinking Precambrian geezer.”

“Hey!” I heard him say as I walked away. “I was a Rotarian, once.”

It was muggy, crowded and close in the coffeehouse when I returned. I climbed up and stood on the only empty stool I could find, unfolded the two halves of the poem, and held them together. Then I shouted over the noisy crowd —

“This is a love poem for Fiona.”

No one stopped talking, so I yelled even louder —

“A love poem, I say! For Fiona.”

In a moment the room went quiet, except for some soft coughing. The last words spoken came from a petite older woman who said, “What the hell…?”

Then I began.

“It’s called my zydeco valentine.”

(some more subdued coughing, then silence)

“Shit.” I heard Fiona say, from behind the counter.

Fiona, Fiona
All valentine faced, as you are
How you haunt my love-empty rooms

I ask thee to be with me
On my journ-ey
To our destin-y

Let me squeeze your accordi-on
We’ll walk into the sun
Together together
Ignoring the weather
Both light as a feather

I love you Fiona

Silence. All eyes were on me. In the distance, a coffee cup was heard breaking on the floor.

“Is that it?” someone hollered from the back of the room. “I never know for sure when a poem ends.”

“Yes,” I said, and bowed.

“Who’s Fiona?” someone else shouted. “I knew a Fiona, once. She was a prison guard. Retired to Florida. Has nine cats. Is that who you mean?”

“No, ma’am. I mean….”

“Don’t you say it!” Fiona screeched. “Someone call the police.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manager Bob stepped in and tackled me to the floor. It was a long fall from such a great height, and I landed on top of him. Then he applied a hammerlock, and repeated Fiona’s call out for the police.

I struggled madly, but literary genius and physical strength rarely strive hand-in-hand.

Fiona came up and gave me a kick, as I lay there with Bob’s hairy arm round my neck.

“You’re sick,” she sneered. “And that’s the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written.”

“She’s right,” I heard someone in the crowd say.

“Don’t quit yer day job,” laughed another.

Almost immediately, I heard a hiss at the counter as milk began to be steamed once more.

*   *   *   *   *

Fiona moved out at the end of the following month, which made complying with my restraining order much easier. Soon after, I began to write my novella about my relationship with her, our joys, our aspirations and our heartbreaks. They say novellas sell best nowadays, now that no one has time for entire novels.

I call it my zydeco princess.

A literary agent named Maxine said she might be interested, whenever it’s finished. Maxine always wears pantsuits, and drives an old mint condition Mercedes convertible. She has the sad blue eyes of a person full of unresolved hurt.

Maxine walks her Schnauzer, Fritz, every morning at 7:30. In the evening, she likes to go to foreign movies, and eat at good restaurants. I think the men she dates are sort of creepy, though. Sycophantic morons who compensate with expensive suits and shoes.

Sometimes, I put coins in her parking meters, when they run out of time. I try really hard to be there when it happens. I even polish her hubcaps, occasionally, when she’s in watching a movie. She doesn’t know that I do it. She doesn’t need to. Just call me Mr Invisible.

I’m writing her a poem.

moon over Barcelona


I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table, outside of a small café. There was a waiter nearby, hinting with his posture that it was nearly time to close.

I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.

It was a Saturday night and the streets were still busy, in spite of the time. I’d worn a fawn suit which I’d hoped would help me blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. They were close. There was the faint telltale scent of ammonia in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. Perhaps there might be comfort in capture, I thought.

With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the onset of autumn.

Some years later, perhaps

I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, Do they still use rockets?

Yes, someone on the other side taps back, of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere, whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon, in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.

Whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement, like me. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.

Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals, all to confuse me. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.

All I have is the space in this cube that has absorbed me. The demands made on time aren’t the same as those made of space. Space need only be occupied and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me.

A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in a near vacuum. The exhaust, it is assumed, therefore, causes the rocket to move forward. The definition of forward, though, remains an open question.

I was close to providing that definition, once.

The last time I saw the moon was the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it.

This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations.

My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they incarcerated me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up and hold it to my ear. Then I sit in a corner with it. Its smooth cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.

Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blond hair where June and July took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. It’s torture now, seeing her so vividly in my mind, walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing that I’ve said.

I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.

I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. The launch. The launch.

I check for my watch, and it’s gone. But I see Jessica in the corner, smiling. Then holding out my hand, she fades.

Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold weak tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply. What about the launch?

Successful, comes the response. Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?

No, I tap.

They will be there in a few days, and then land. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.

What do you think they’ll find? I tap.

You already know, Doctor, comes the answer. Don’t you. Then, Enjoy the rest of your stay.


a writer on the street corner

Is it peace to know that gravity will break you, and that you will fall like rain?

It wasn’t really a street corner thought, but he was on a street corner thinking it, nonetheless. On a street corner with his hat held out, just short of the ice wind blowing beyond the shelter of his doorway.

“Spare change?” he said, to determined people passing.

He was a ruin, he knew. Why should anyone acknowledge him, and toss a coin? He’d be an artefact if found in a jungle, barely identifiable, catalogued and placed in a wooden box. And he was a derelict in this living city. A once stout building, he could say, perhaps of industry. Concrete in his way, wet empty open floors and broken windows.

He often recalled his youth, while on street corners, no reason to beg except for drink. Begging was a vocation, mostly comprised of recesses, separations like mediations. No counting his breaths, however, to achieve his cosmic consciousness. Instead he found transcendence through counting defeats, and by holding other moments in the palm of his bent hand.

Youth had been the greatest of his times. Adolescence with its rage, and its stink of beer and adrenaline. It was black and white now, projected poorly edited and flickering onto a screen in its dim theatre.

Cursed with voice, a pen had been thrust into his hand by frantic mentors — fear not the sentence, nor its subordinate clause. But he’d feared both, and was broken by Joyce, Proust and Hemmingway. And having dropped the pen, he’d walked away, and the years passed fast as verbs.

“Spare change?”

But there had been one story, written in a long summer ago, in a time of thorny joy. The sea hadn’t been far away, and he walked in the wind and saw women breeze-blown with their children crouching over small crabs and shells on the shore. The children in muck, with smiles looking into the sun, which they were forbidden to do. And there were seagulls too, so unhunted a bird that there seemed to be millions, all calling at once.

His story had been about a ship, anchored in the bay. Its lights at night reflected long on the water, each on its shore-bound trajectory, stopping just short. Untouchable colours, like fingers ready on a hand preparing to grasp the seawall.

And yes, there were lovers. The moon and the fog. A brief affair, thought to be over by dawn. But the moon returned the following night, sad and smaller, to find the fog had vanished, having made promises, but leaving no word.

“Spare change?”

There had been at least one poem, as well.

I left you in my drawer
of forgotten monsters…

It had unfolded from there. The stanzas, sedimentary. A ghost in a drawer. All ghost were stories. Rough iron nails in relic jars, rattling when the wine was gone.

His shoes were sail canvas, torn and wet, and he stood over the ship’s bottomless hold.

Peace now that gravity breaks you, and you fall like rain.

“Spare change?”