Brussels

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

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

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

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

“How much?” he asked.

“$10.”

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

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

He stopped there, and asked, “May I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, sheepishly.

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

I shrugged.

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

“No. Look, who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand?”

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

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

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

“A pleasure, my Lady,” he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They treated it like smut,” Beatrix said.

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

“Uncle Malcolm,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who were they?” Beatrix said.

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

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

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

“And he beat you again,” I said.

“And a little more.” He put his hand to his scarred cheek. “I know that this all must be very difficult for you to hear,” he said.

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

“All copies of the script were held onto by MGM,” Timothy said, “before and after the read-through. They were studio property, after all. Malcolm managed to rescue them from the incinerator, though. He knew people: a receptionist, who knew a secretary, who knew the sister of an associate to the assistant producer, who knew a studio page, who knew the custodian who had wheeled them away toward destruction.

“Once secured, he brought them home, and put them in an old beer crate labelled Miller. Then after his breakdown, he forgot about them.” Timothy Colt stopped there, looking round him. Then he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I moved away,” he said, looking again at the gem on his finger. “Not wanting to live through a similar heartbreak. In a last effort to hold on, he gave me this ring at a special dinner at the Dal Rae. “Eighteen karat gold,” he said, holding out his hand. “And an emerald of exquisite clarity. A gem of finest water they would have once said. Not too big, not too garish. But I know it cost him a small fortune. It’s just right, isn’t it?”

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

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

“Yes, I imagine it would have.”

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

“He priced it at $25.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gave me back the box the ring came in.

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

The crows in the trees and on the roofs flew away in a great dark cloud shortly after Timothy Colt was driven away in his Continental, and I made a gift of the two Chippendale chairs to the misty-eyed Beatrix Faulkner.

 

 

 

 

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the survival rate of nighttimes

darkness drew gravely on its last cigarette
watching dawn from a bridge
arriving without invitation—

what was the survival rate of nighttimes anyway?
grim
in a word
even a solstice night dies too soon

so
that was why the dark
already had holes in its shoes the
nightmares of children were already forgotten
the uppers and booze were gone and

darkness now
was only for sealed closets and
the manners of man

 

 

 

 

 

the Sluggo riot

a melancholy proletarian romp

lost ironies

Ovaltine Café, 9.30 a.m.

“Ha!” said Ethan Liss from behind his copy of the Vancouver Sun. “I love this Nancy comic strip. That chubby little kid really cracks me up.” The corner of his newspaper drooped as he reached for his coffee.

“I prefer Dilbert,” said David Okin, from behind his copy of the Province. “It’s sort of insipid in a postmodernistic sense, but at least it’s got an underlying message. At least it hints at the problem of expressing objective truth against a global narrative that instructs a chauvinistic planetary peonism, emphasising a manufactured need to surrender to corporate and political ideologies that strip the individual of the right to independent thought and problematises the achievements of the collective – and I liked the art.”

“Well,” said Liss, “I really like how that Nancy kid gives that Sluggo Smith character a run for his money.”

“Oh man,” Okin said. “Don’t…

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the spreading of ashes

they were heavier than I thought they’d be, the ashes I mean
5 pounds each perhaps, in their practical containers
(you might think urns but don’t)
and I left the little grove with traces of my mother and sister on my shoes
wondering if it was correct to brush them off

it rained heavily like so many novels I’ve read
but we gave up our umbrellas the
spreading of ashes being a hands-on task, after all
and when the now purely mineral burdens
they’d left behind
lay beneath the cedar pines and rhododendron
I—the family braggadocio with only contempt for all things
and a deep fear he loves nothing—
improvised some words in a downpour
choosing not to say that I’d already discovered
the room where they both now sat
happily at a gentle spring-time window

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Saint of Silver Dollars

On an empty highway on a Tuesday morning in 1936 a silver dollar fell out of the sky and landed at the feet of Brian Van Bueren. Looking up, he waited for more. But no more fell. So, he bent down and picked it up. It was a miracle. He’d been walking the highway for two days with only dust to eat. A buck meant a seat in a diner, eggs and bacon, all the coffee he could drink and a pack of smokes, besides. There’d even be a few pennies left over, by his reckoning. And by his reckoning, in all of Heaven and Hell, there was no Saint finer than the Saint of Silver Dollars.

In the distance was a sign that claimed a town named Vemiera lay just ahead, and now that he was flush he dropped the silver dollar into his pocket, shouldered his pack and carried on.

At the outskirts of Vemiera he beheld a tarred dirt road, Main Street, running through the town. It was a small commercial centre for loggers and homesteaders, people who might not sneer at an untidy traveller like him.

The Vemiera Diner was next to the Texaco on the corner at the town’s only intersection where a car might turn left and disappear into dense woods dark as a cave or turn right, past a hardware store and end up in the lake. Parked at the curb out front of the diner was a ’29 Ford pickup and a ’31 Chevy coupe. Stepping up onto the porch and through the diner’s door, Van Bueren was struck by the perfume of Orange Crush and Salisbury steak. His stomach howled.

At the counter sat a woman in a pink dime store dress and straw hat drinking a vanilla milkshake and smoking a cigarette. She watched him as he entered. Three other scattered patrons did the same. It was a long moment before anyone spoke, and when someone did it was a portly man behind the counter wearing a stained white shirt and a grubby car hop hat. Cook, counterman and proprietor, Van Bueren’s guessed. “Hello there, stranger,” the man said. A friendly greeting, if slightly cool. “My name’s Puck. Take a seat and I’ll get you a menu.” Van Bueren took the stool nearest the door and looked straight ahead, aware of the milkshake lady’s stare.

“Hey, mister,” she said. “I’m Helena—Helena Jollis. Waddaya know, waddaya say?” She held out her hand for him to shake.

“Hey,” Van Bueren replied quietly, hoping that the single syllable wouldn’t commit him to too much. He left her hand unshook.

“Where you from?” She nodded at his pack next to him on the floor.

“East,” he said. It was as good an answer as any. He really didn’t know anymore. For the longest time it’d only been the highway stinking of distance.

Puck came and poured a cup of coffee, then leaned over the counter and whispered in Van Bueren’s ear, “You got money to pay, right?”

“A dollar, Heaven sent,” Van Bueren said pulling it out of his pocket and laying it on the counter.

“Well that’s just fine,” said Puck. “Have what you want then, within reason.”

“We don’t get many hobos round here,” Helena said. She had the loose curls and apple shaped face of Clara Bow. “Have you seen my cat anywheres? She’s run away.”

“Cats don’t run away,” said Puck. “They wander off to die. That tom of yours was pretty old.”

“Rico ain’t dead,” Helena said. “He’s gone off to run with the coyotes, but I want him back.”

Puck looked at Van Bueren, rolled his eyes and walked away.

“Well, mister? You’ve been walking the highway. Have you seen a fat cranky old Siamese in the company of coyotes?”

“No ma’am.”

“Wanna cigarette?”

“Sure,” Van Bueren said.

She slid a package down the counter. He took one and slid it back. There was a book of matches in an ashtray next to the napkin dispenser. He lit up and inhaled. Nicotine was a firm friend when all others failed.

“I guess you pretty much live on the road, huh? I live at the end of a cut-away off the highway you just walked in on, a half mile down.”

It was more than Van Bueren wanted to know, but reasonable grounds for conversation. In fact Helena Jollis lived in a small cabin left to her sympathetically by an old logger named Simon Ilchman who had died believing, like most residents of Vemiera, that Helena was touched. Before the cabin came into her possession, she’d lived rough out of a lean-to out back of Main Street where she near-froze in the winter, and fed corn to the deer and bannock to the ravens in spring. Some said the cabin saved her.

Now she still fed wild things in the spring, and every night in the warmth and safety of that cabin, she’d lie down in her own bed chanting the words, “No bad dreams, no bad dreams,” then sleepily visit her private warehouse of planets.

“That highway’s a mighty pretty walk though,” Helena said. “Day or night. Just like a line of poetry out of a book, ain’t it mister? Waddaya think?”

“Some hungover Pushkin, maybe,” Van Bueren said looking at the menu.

“Uh-uh! What about the way the wind turns a leaf green to green, every turn’s got rhythm. What about the lake through them trees? It’s just goddam lyrical. You know it’s a tidal lake, don’t you? Comes in and out twice a day ‘cause we’re so close to the ocean. If that ain’t poetry, I don’t know what is. Every day you see what the out-tide reveals, the boats that got sunk over the years, an old rusty car, snags that got sunk too. It’s awful mysterious. Once there was even the body of a woman in the mud.”

“Not now, Helena,” said Puck. “Leave the man in peace.”

“Her name was Agnes Quickley,” Helena said. “Or at least that’s what we figured ‘cause it was the name embroidered on a tag in her dress.  Ain’t that a funny way to know a dead woman’s name? It was a very nice polka dot dress, too. I’d’ve taken it, since she didn’t need it no more, but no one offered. I didn’t get her hat neither, still pinned in her hair with all the gauzy flowers. Just one shoe though.” Helena looked down at her own tattered plimsolls. “But no one knows how she drowned. She looked like she might have been waiting for the bus somewheres. Ain’t no bus stops round here though. The lake’s that way. It grabs hold of you, pulls you under and you drop like a rock. Most people drown out there never get found, but occasionally they’ll come back and that’s a wicked thing.” Helena stopped talking a minute, drank a little more milkshake through the straw then said, “It’s kinda tragic. No one claimed Agnes Quickley while she was laid out in the icehouse. RCMP tried to find someone, but their weren’t no relations come forth. So, they just loaded her onto a refrigerated truck with a bunch of half-butchered pigs and drove her into the city.”

“I’ll have bacon and eggs over easy, bacon not too crisp,” Van Bueren said. “Fried potatoes and toast.” Fifteen cents and comes with coffee. “And a deck of smokes.”

Helena said, “Waddaya think happened to her, mister?”

“Why should I care?”

“’Cause someone had to love her. It’s a shame the way people just vanish. It makes sense in a way that sometimes you disappear and don’t come back, but it’s just calamitous that that’s how it goes.”

He hated those words. He was a disappeared spirit himself, and unproud. He remembered leaving a city long ago and the woman he loved, in full knowledge she’d already removed him from her drawer of trivial things. He knew he’d been an abuser of the word sorry. And sorry had been his last word to her, on a clean city street in the fall, the air smelling like smoky tea, where she had stopped him from saying more by placing a finger on his lips. Then walked away.

The gravity of love breaks you.

Now he knew from the lines round his eyes that all of those departed autumns ago, when joy seemed so plentiful and he’d always a scrap of it in his pocket, he’d miscalculated in a young man’s way, and vanished having made promises.

Puck placed a plate down in front of him, and Van Bueren wondered if it was right to eat after such a recollection. His belly was an empty collection of hungry seconds that might never amount to a minute; perhaps that was justice.

“That’s an awful thoughtful look, mister,” Helena said.

“Look,” he said, nearly shouting, “what is it you find so interesting about a man with nowhere to go?”

The diner patrons became silent, as the neon sign in the window quietly buzzed.

“Golly, I just figured you’d have something to say. You looked a little lonely comin’ in here. I thought maybe a word or two might…. Every word plots a conversation, same as every raindrop does a river.”

Van Bueren shook his head and ate his eggs.

“It’s the small things we can’t forgive ourselves for, ain’t it,” said Helena. “The ones without glamour. A hand reaches up out of a lake and drowns a woman, and no one cares. But a fella walks away from somethin’ unfinished, and he just can’t cut himself no slack.”

“That’s enough, Helena,” Puck said, wiping glasses.

Van Bueren cut his bacon and gulped his coffee. Then he lit a cigarette, and she watched him.

“It’s a nice little cabin I got up the road,” she said.

“Helena,” Puck said in a scolding tone.

“It’s got marigolds roundabouts.”

“Helena.” This time Puck spoke louder.

“Well it does, and I’ve been awful alone for the last ten years. And now my cat’s gone. Ain’t neither one of us special, mister, but I think you get damn lonely too.”

“You’re nuts, lady,” said Van Bueren.

“Well that’s right I am, mister—awful crazy. And I wouldn’t be no goddam good to no one round here if I wasn’t. It makes ‘em feel all uppish and a little less unlucky. They figure it gives ‘em the right to look at me with disappointment. Some even like to pretend they’re scared. I think you know what that’s like. Ain’t that what half a life on the road does to a man?”

He looked at his fried potatoes.

“I ain’t so crazy I’d expect you to stay, though,” Helena said. “But if you did, maybe some of that misery would get up and walk away.”

“Misery,” he said, no rebuttal.

“You got some, don’tcha? Misery and monsters eating misery. You ain’t got nowhere to go. You said so yourself.”

Half a life on the road, he thought. Not quite. Not nearly, but somehow close enough. Gas stations and raggedy towns, bumming pennies and nickels. Railroad cops, and coal smoke he’d be coughing up until the day he died. And maybe the Saint of Silver Dollars couldn’t be relied on for another miracle.

“How far up the highway?” said Van Bueren.

“A half mile,” Helena said. “It ain’t pretty, but there’s an apple tree the old logger planted a long time ago, and a grand old path to the lake out back. It ends at a stony beach where you can sit and watch the moon makin’ the tide high. And in that cabin, if I teach you the right words to say before you go to sleep, there ain’t never no bad dreams.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlyle Stoke

It wasn’t a very strange first conversation. Not the kind I prefer to have at 3:30 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking. None of the usual human truths filtered through a crank mesh of deliriousness, booze and embellishment. But how do you measure the strangeness of a conversation in the back doorway of a bar at closing time?

I discovered the dense overlapping network of scars on her wrists and forearms during our chat and found it difficult to take my eyes off of it. She noticed and said, “Oh, I cut myself once. Or maybe I mean, once I cut myself. Or maybe it’s, I used to cut myself. It’s something like that. I did it for a long time. It’s kind of hard to look at now. It’s not the sort of thing a good Chinese girl does.”

“Are you a good Chinese girl?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. But I guess I was a teenage masochist. The psychiatrist called it self-harm.”

She had me there, no quick come back. I took the easy way out and said, “What was that like?”

“It was like being alone on a hidden continent where hope and doubt both have sharp edges.”

“And what happened to the teenage masochist?”

“She does bit parts in movies now, and works at Starbucks. And she tries to avoid razorblades, pointy objects and bits of broken glass.”

I knew I had it coming, but I’ve never been a fan of conversations where people portray themselves in the third person. When it’s a woman, I keep waiting for the Audrey Hepburn pout. When it’s a guy, I keep waiting on the commencement of an incoherent personal manifesto. I watched her and waited. She did neither.

“My name’s Virginia Wong,” she said holding out her hand.

“People call me Roscoe,” I said shaking it, seeing a scarred red forearm attached.

I walked her home from the bar that night, no strings attached. We parted at her door with a tame little kiss and I took the long way back to my place.

And I didn’t see Virginia again for a couple of years.

She found me by accident one night in a bar just outside of Gastown. It was a quiet place with an elderly bartender and no cues for the pool table. The clientele was there to drink and to occasionally offend one another. I was reading a two week old copy of the Georgia Straight.

I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, you’re the man people call Roscoe.” I looked up at the mirror behind the bar and there she was.

“Virginia Wong,” I smiled. “Pull up a stool. What’ll it be?”

“Vodka on ice. Nothing Russian.”

The elderly bartender poured.

“How’s show business?” I said.

“It’s slow for a Chinese girl. Movies are for white people.”

“That’s tough.” There were fresh livid cut marks on her wrists, poking out from under her sleeves. I looked at them a second too long and she moved her hands down to her side. “You okay?” I said

She looked down at her drink and sighed deeply. “There’s a demon after me,” she said with absolute conviction.

“What?” She’d done it again. Left me without a quick come back. “You’re being metaphorical, right? Is some guy stalking you?”

She shook her head. “No. It isn’t a stalker; it’s a demon. He doesn’t know I’m here. I gave him the slip but he’ll find me. Always does.” She seemed oddly calm and resigned. “He’s an eerie little bastard. Three feet tall. Wears a black tux. Calls himself Mr Stoke. Big eyes that darken a room – all pupils, no iris, no whites.

“It’s funny how easily a demon can get into your life,” she said. “Walk down the wrong back alley at the wrong dark moment and there it is. Grinning and reciting an inventory of your secrets and lies, past and future.”

“Forgive me for asking, but are you normally on some kind of medication?”

“Medication doesn’t work. Neither does liquor, really.” She gulped her vodka. “But at least with alcohol, you can’t remember in the morning.”

I noticed then how fatigued she looked and reached out to touch her cheek.

“Don’t,” she said, pushing my hand away.

“What don’t you want to remember in the morning?”

“It talks backward to me,” she smiled sadly. “It tells me my life story over and over, only backward. Then it says, ‘cut yourself use the vegetable knife the blunt one feel it burn’. It says, ‘now cut your face bitch cut your face cut your face’. That’s the shit I’d rather not remember.” She was getting loud, sounding a little desperate. The bartender gave us a look.

“Look,” I said. “We can get a cab. I can take you to the Emergency. I can stay with you while you wait to see someone.”

“Fuck the hospital,” she said. “People die there and don’t get out. They just stand around dead in their blue gowns staring at you, like they’re recruiting.”

“I really think you need….”

“Another drink,” she said. “I need another drink. But you don’t have to buy me one. I stole tonight’s take at my Starbucks store. Three thousand bucks. I thought I’d go out big.” She pulled a handful of bills out of her purse and dropped them back in. “I just need to find a happier place than this.”

She slipped off of her stool and straightened her jacket and top. More of the fresh red cut marks were visible on her forearms.

“I haven’t cut my face yet,” she said looking into the mirror behind the bar. “He wants me to real bad but I haven’t done it yet. That really pisses him off. Maybe I will, though.”

“Don’t,” I said and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her I said, “Call if you need to.”

She took it smiling. “That’s risky, Roscoe,” she said. “What if I do?” Then she walked out of the bar.

That’s when the bartender came over. “That the sort of woman you normally attract?” he said. “Girl needs electroshock or something.”

I paid up and followed her out. But she was nowhere on the street when I exited the bar. There was a fog rolling in and I couldn’t see half a block.  She might have been nearby but lost in the mist. There were trains coupling nearby. Someone yelled the name Ruby out of a window of the Hotel Europe.

The next morning I awoke to a rapping on my door. It was a couple plain clothes cops. One was a woman. She said, “You know a Virginia Wong?”

“Not well,” I said. It was 8 a.m. Too early for me.

“Found this on her body last night.” She was holding my business card.

“Body?”

“Body,” said the cop.

“What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell us.”

“I talked to her in a bar. Then she left.”

“Why’d she have your card?”

“Because I gave it to her. She was psychotic. I wanted to help.”

“Psychotic? You a doctor?”

“No, a band promoter. What it says on the card. Do I need a lawyer?”

“Nah,” said her partner. “Probably not. She was known to us. You know a Mr Carlyle Stoke, by the way?” The cop was looking at a notepad. “Little guy. Eccentric. Overdresses. Wears sunglasses. Says he’s blind. Found him sitting next to the body, smokin’ a butt. Creepy bastard. We took him in.”

“No. Don’t know him. Why?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah I’m sure.”

“Says he knows you.”

“Never heard of him.”

 

 

 

 

 

the Moon

shortened from the original to “flash fiction” size

1965

I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table outside of a small café. A waiter nearby hinted 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 Saturday night and the streets were still busy. 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

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.”

Unlike me, whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement. 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. 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.

This cube of a cell has absorbed me; all I have is its space. The demands made of space aren’t the same as those made of time. 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 the near vacuum of space. 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 an accurate 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 and sometimes during the day, 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, 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. The pair of us walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing 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. 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 land on the surface. 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

old men

today I will leave the old men alone
the sidelong window ones
searching for lost things
each in his ghetto room

ghosts, the bullet dead suicides
& all of the natural causes
the ever-loved now extinct
somewhere in a heap

I will not look up
to see the nothing in their eyes
which once saw first times
but cannot honour them now