I feel so alone.
it trended not
I feel so alone.
it trended not
summer surprised us
yes it did, TS.E
with anfractuous parades
& the popping rhyme of fireworks
wishing for the relief
of half abandoned winter
in my neighbourhood by the beach
& me wishing all of the time
for a first time perhaps
a tow truck flummoxing
double parked UFO
or the moon’s green cheese
& Water Table Crackers
with a beer by the bonfire
ever watchful for the Jabberwock
escaping the fires
to the east
Quil was a calm man, though some said cruel in appearance, who watched the world through dark eyes that decrypted all he saw without astonishment or sympathy. And though prone to hatred and a grim violence, he baffled those who knew him by his introspection and apparent pining for a mysterious lost heart. Indeed, he was the conundrum in his own mirror, where, of late, he seemed to have become increasingly transparent.
Having boarded in Toronto, he now disembarked from the CPR Transcontinental at its Vancouver Waterfront terminus, stepping into a steam dragon on the platform. There, he checked his pocket watch, nearly 8pm and cold. Pulling up the collar of his wool coat, and with his suitcase in hand, he climbed the stairs from the platform, and walked through the station. Light snow was falling on Cordova Street, silhouetted against the yellow light of streetlamps, as he exited. It was Christmas Eve. He hailed a cab.
Taking the backseat of the taxi, he felt the butt of the vicious little gun he carried in his belt, against his waist. Trying to ignore it, he said, “Yale Hotel,” to the driver.
“Just got into town, eh?” The cabby was looking at Quil in the rear view mirror, observing a man in an expensive coat and hat. The suitcase, he noticed, was fine leather, a pricy item.
“Good guess,” Quil said, “since you picked me up out front of a train station with a suitcase in my hand.”
“Well,” said the cabby, “I just wanted to worn you, that’s all. The Yale’s a bit of a dump. We got better in this burg.”
“And yet the Yale is where I want to go.”
“Swell,” said the man at the wheel. Then he said, “By the way, mister, this can be a very lonely town. I can get you ladies, or, you know, whatever’s yer fancy.” He turned and offered Quil his card. Quil didn’t take it, and they drove on.
The furniture in the shadowy Yale Hotel lobby consisted of worn velvet and cracked leather sofas and chairs. An elderly man listed to the left as he snored on a once grand chesterfield. A dilapidated piano stood in a corner, and the chandelier had lost many of its crystals.
The clerk behind the counter was an untidy man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers. Quil gave him his name, and the man lazily scratched it into the leger with a fountain pen, writing Quill with two Ls.
“It’s one L,” Quil said.
“That so?” said the clerk, annoyed, scratching out Quill, and saying out loud, “Mr Lucas Quil,” as he wrote with a faux flourish. “Esquire. One. L.” Then, looking up smugly, he noticed a certain change in the quality Quil’s posture, and immediately regretted his little drama. “Sorry,” he said, nervously. “I’m a little tired. My relief hasn’t shown yet. I’m beat, but it means I might be here all night.”
“Just get me the key to my room,” Quil said. “And I’m looking for a Miss Lilith Drakos. I understand that she has a room here.”
Now the clerk grinned a dirty little grin. “If there’s a guest here by that name,” he said, “I can deliver a message.”
“There is no message,” Quil said, conjuring a ten-dollar bill out of the air, as though it were fruit from an invisible tree. “I want to know what room she’s in.” He held the bill under the clerk’s nose, as the shabby little man licked his lips.
“Preserving our guests’ privacy is important to us,” said the clerk. Then he took the bill, and inspected it. “That was a clever trick,” he said.
“I’ve another trick,” Quil said. “One I do with a straight razor, in the dark of night.” There was nothing minacious in his tone. It was a simple statement of fact. The clerk believed it.
“#205,” he said, anxiously pocketing the cash. “The woman you’re looking for’s in #205. I’ll put you in #207, if that’s agreeable.” He held out a battered skeleton key.
“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.
“That’ll be a dollar for the night,” said the clerk.
Quil said nothing. During the transaction, he’d unbuttoned his coat to reveal the revolver in his belt.
“Ah yes,” the clerk said sheepishly, eyeing the butt of the gun. He patted his pocket where the ten dollar bill now nestled. “Shall I’ll take up your suitcase for you.”
“I’ll carry it up myself.”
“A pleasure to have you, sir. Just shout if you need anything.”
Quil climbed the staircase, stopping a moment outside of #207. There was the faint scent of fresh sandalwood from inside, bringing back memories of an unhurried time of jazz, and a passion too dear to last. He lingered and listened, and then moved on.
His room was stale. An exposed electrical wire ran up the wall, and was strung across the ceiling to where it connected to a bare light bulb. The drapes hung loose and dustily from a rod over the window. The bed linen wasn’t fresh, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t sleep. He sat on a kitchen chair looking out onto the street until shortly after dawn, Christmas morning, then decided to leave for breakfast.
Surprised at seeing the man leave the building from her window, she donned her coat and went to the lobby, stepping out when she was sure that he’d moved on, and following him to the Aristocratic Cafe. There, she waited on the sidewalk until he was seated, then entered unseen, taking a booth in the back.
Lilith Drakos was a pale, slender woman in a bland flower print dress and a second hand coat, purposely drab in hopes of moving through the world unnoticed. A chill ran through her as she watched Quil at his table, drinking his coffee and reading a newspaper. He was exactly as she remembered him, the handsome crime boss with a hard-earned elegance that hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.
He was a demon, or had been—the delinquent fog that had fallen upon a city, and its underworld. A dark paint of whispers, the lips of others that had moved, but out of fear, confessed nothing. She’d met him in that place of cast shadows, of nights that had rendered the red of her lipstick black. He ate the dark; it had sustained them both. She’d seen it run wet down his chin, and in his in ruthlessness, he ruled the city. For all of that, though, in the end he’d succumbed to his greatest weaknesses, jealousy and greed.
And now he’d stalked down.
She stood, and walked to his table where she took off her coat and hung it over the vacant chair. “So,” she said, sitting down, “you’ve found me. How?”
“Hello Lilith,” he said, trying to sound pleasantly surprised, but sounding sorry for something instead. “Let me buy you breakfast.”
“No.” Quiet rage in her voice. “Answer me. How’d you find me?”
“I’ve always known where you are,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “Here, and the other places you’ve been. I’ve developed a talent for clairvoyance, since our parting. You have too, I’m sure.”
She had, but didn’t say so. “Why have you come?” she said instead.
“To apologise.” He looked at her a moment, poker-faced, before shifting his gaze onto the once vibrant red rose tattoo on her wrist. Its colour was nearly gone. Fading. The thing he’d noticed in himself, when he looked in a mirror.
“Apologise?” Lilith said. It was a broken word when he said it. “That’s rich, all things considered.” She absently placed her hand over her heart.
“Why are you dressed that way?” he said, hoping to change the subject. “You look like a dime store frump.”
“It’s how I prefer to be seen now days. It’s how I looked before you recovered me from the trash, and had me dressed up like your silky little harlot.”
“Those weren’t such bad days, were they?” said Quil. “At least you ate every day. You had money and a warm bed. You had your jewelry box filled with little golden trinkets. And there was romance, wasn’t there?”
“It’s how I chased away the poverty,” Lilith said. “It hurt going hungry, and you rescued me for some reason—a woman running errands for nickels and dimes, and sometimes selling myself for a few dollars to your torpedoes. I still don’t know what you saw in me, I was nearly ruined by the time you salvaged me, but at least you weren’t a pimp. You were mean, though. They weren’t always such happy times for me.”
“You remember it differently than me. I remember that you were young. I saw such beauty in you.”
“That sounds fake.”
“And I loved you,” he said.
She stared at his straight face. Then, “Bastard,” she said, standing and putting on her coat. She left the cafe.
It was a necessary sign of civility, simply knocking on a door to gain entry. One he’d acquired later in his career, to replace more violent or stealthy ways. Lilith’s door didn’t open immediately, though, when later that Christmas evening he knock.
“Please let me in, Lilith,” he said gently. Then quietly waited.
“No,” she replied through the door, moments later.
“I’m not going away,” he said.
“Then you can wait ’til Hell freezes over.”
“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”
“Because it’s Christmas.”
“What’s that have to do with it?”
“It’s a time for forgiveness,” Quil said. “God and sinner reconcile, and all of that. Get it?”
“Which of us is the sinner, in this case? You always thought you were God.”
Quil was quiet again, then said, “It’s a metaphor, Lilith. Maybe God is what passes between us, when we speak to one another. Please let me in.”
That was poetic. The door opened a crack, and she peaked out. “You’re a murderer,” she said.
“Several times over.”
“There is no forgiveness for that.”
“Then let’s just have a drink.” He held up a brown paper bag. “Bourbon,” he said. “The good stuff.”
“You’re getting easier to see through, Lucas.”
“We have that in common, don’t we,” he said.
“I ain’t been drinking lately,” she said, but invited him in.
Her room was immaculate. A small Christmas tree stood on the nightstand. The bedcover was a colourful eiderdown. There were oriental carpets on the floor, and a comfortable chair by the window.
“Please sit,” she said, and taking the bottle from him, she poured them each a drink in glasses she took from a cupboard above a small kitchen table.
Quil sat on the bed. She sat next him, handed him his drink and put the bottle on the floor next to them.
“So.” she said. “Let’s talk forgiveness.”
He gulped back his drink, and for the first time revealed the butt of a gun in his belt.
“You still carry that damn thing?” she said, with disgust.
Quil looked down at the .38 revolver in his belt.
“You brought it for old time’s sake, I guess,” she said. ”Is that it, you bastard? Memory Lane and all that?”
“No” He sighed. “It’s a curse, a small part of Hell. I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve tried. I threw it into the St Lawrence once, but there it was again the next time I looked.”
“That’s some story.” She gulped back her own drink, and poured them each another.
“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.
“I guess. Why the hell not?”
“We’re both easier to see-through than ever,” he said. “I guess we’re finally on our way out.”
She placed a hand over her heart, where her fatal wound was now slowly becoming visible.
“Does it still hurt?” he said.
“It never did,” said Lilith. “How could it? It happened too fast. You’re a quick draw.”
“Oh God I’m sorry.” He touched his own gruesome fatal head wound, slowly revealing itself, and then looked at his bloody fingers.
“I’ve suspected it for quite a while,” she said. “This fading of ours. We’re disappearing. It’s a symptom of having finally reached the end. It sure took a long time.”
“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. Turns out the dead don’t just fall to the ground, though. We disappear piece by piece, until we ain’t there no more, disappeared to all we loved.”
“And you thought you were bullet-proof, when the next day there wasn’t a hole in your head and your brains were still in the same place. I guess I thought the same thing when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world of the dead, millions fading each at their own pace. Some of us standing still and watching, witnessing what we can while we’re still able. Others sick with wishful thinking, convincing themselves that what they see in the mirror is a lie.
“Which were you, Lucas? I think I know. You’re not the standing still type. You believed you’re such a big man that he could return from the dead.”
“At first, I guess I thought I’d live forever,” he said. “Now I know I’m a vanishing ghost. Best I can hope for is to be a memory.”
She put her hand to her breast again, and felt the deep wound of the heart, manifest once more after so long.
“It’s the final insult,” Quil said, “in the end our wounds appearing again.”
“And you dare bring that gun with you.”
“I can’t get rid of it, I tell you. It’s a kinda Hell.”
“You killed us both, and you expect angels?”
“Forgive me, Lilith,” he said. “Please, before we’re both completely gone. We were in love once, weren’t we? I did it because I couldn’t face it. You were ready to leave.”
“No. You did it because you’re sick, jealous and obsessed with what you can’t have. I was a piece of property. You’ve killed a lot of people who wanted what was yours, and because you wanted what was theirs, and you couldn’t stand losing me to my own freedom.”
He wept in his final earthly misery, and she tenderly stroked his cheek. Their invisibility was now so nearly complete that she could see the vivid colours of the eiderdown through them both.
“It’s hard,” she said, “and I don’t know what good it’ll do either of us, but I do forgive you, because it’s Christmas.”
Quil’s tears were bloody from his suicide wound, and out of a strange sympathy, she said, “Merry Christmas, Lucas Quil.” And as she did, the still solid .38 in Quil’s belt fell to the floor, as they finally disappeared like ghosts.
sometimes she heard words in the minutes
in the stiffening before things snapped
and though she was an eloquent woman
no one believed a word she said in her
room in the quiet, the complicit verbatim
her once poetry once onto magnetic tape once
goose-stepping reel to reel over radio empty rooms her
standing in the empty centre of no one believed
a word she said
the girl clothed in wisteria stands
under the thunder moon with
midnight in her fists
next to the bedroom window
with the single light still on
upon the nightstand Ray Bradbury
page eighty-nine, the
burning of books-—
They say you retain knowledge
even when you’re sleeping,
if someone whispers in your ear
whispers under the July moon
life is obvious she says, but lonely
phases written in hands
dystopias sketched aloud
the 2nd in the .38 trilogy
read The Retired Private Eye here
We were all sitting in the dining hall watching Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite—live on TV, drinking coffee and smoking cheap cigarettes. Elvis had walked out on the stage with a crown in his hand, he was the King after all, dressed in a white bejeweled suit. A bit much. I wasn’t an Elvis fan, but it was a distraction from the routine. I found myself, nonetheless, thinking about how I got there. I did that a lot. Life wasn’t fair.
I’d been living in a cold colourless third floor room, with a sock in a hole in a windowpane and a pile of explosives on the floor next to my bedroll.
Vaillancourt, a friend from back on the way, didn’t object to visiting such squalor. Not completely, since this was a recruiting call. He’d asked me to work for him many times before, retailing methamphetamine etc. on a nearby corner. I could live well, he told me, on what I earned, provided I didn’t get hooked. (Secretly, I knew that he liked his street dealers hooked. It made them loyal, until they got too messed up, at which point he’d have them disappeared.)
“So you wanna live like an artist,” he said when he saw the place, “is that it? Like van Gogh during his hard times? Can you even paint write or compose music? I don’t think you can. You’re just a pretender, aren’t you, but I bet the chicks love it. It’s just some pretentious dedication to poverty, right? Suddenly you don’t like money, is that it?”
Maybe it was. But it was the cops and some closet case of a Judge, named Harold T Swallows—swear to God—that put my fencing business to bed, leaving me without a source of income.
After my court ordered detox, my parole officer suggested that I consider a career in fast food. I said I’d give it some thought, and for my next appointment, I shaved off my beard to reveal the colourful grinning anaconda tattoo that slinked from one jaw, over my chin, to the other (a speedball induced error in judgment on my part). Never again did the PO bring up the topic of fast food.
“I’m transitioning,” I told Vaillancourt, “ever since I got clean and started twelve step, NA and AA, baby. My life’s become fluid, like a dream. I’ve become a changing sea of change—” an awkward phrase, I knew. Even I cringed when I heard myself say it, but I’d yet to come up with something better. I thought I’d try improving on it when the tide came in on my serpent-infested sea of changingness.
Vaillancourt made no secret of it, as he considered the sock in the hole in the windowpane, then looking down at the box of C4 on my floor. “Bomb-vests and bank jobs don’t mix,” he said.
He broached the subject again a few days later in a bar down the street, telling me to, “Use a gun.” That was his advice. “A bank robbery wants a gun. Better yet, get a damn job and forget the whole thing. You’re gonna fuck up this bank job you’re all excited about. Come work for me, seriously. I’ll move you up faster than any other loser I’ve got out in the field.” (in the field. Jeez. He always talked about dealing drugs like it was legit.) “You’ll be in distribution in no time, then accounts and acquisitions, cost benefits analysis—you can add and talk on the phone, right?
“You may be hungry now,” he said, “but you’re not angry or nasty enough to rob a bank. Not yet, anyway. In the end, with that bomb you’re talking about, it’ll just be body parts and dinero falling like autumn leaves. Just think of the moms and dads not taking the bus home after work. All the leggy lady tellers never leggin’ it nowheres ever again. You want that on your conscience? And you’ll be bug splat a second after you flip the switch.
“It’s the street that’s in yer blood, man. Look to accumulate your wealth and status slowly, over time. You could be big one day, with my help. You could go into business for yourself. I’d have to kill you if you did, of course, but that’s way off in the future. Don’t think about that. For now, just come over and work with me.”
Then he leaned in, across the bar table, and said the words I knew would stick with me for the rest of my life, no matter how short it was. He said, “You’re an aesthetic, Arlo.” He grinned warmly when he said it. Like I’d never seen him before. Vaillancourt was a killer, and liked to get kids hooked on coke and heroin, or whatever his trolls could sell at schoolyards and out front of the 7-11. But suddenly, he was like the camp counsellor a kid gets a sweaty juvenile homoerotic crush on—a crush that makes the kid wonder if checking his pals’ junk in the gym shower ain’t so wrong, after all. (Fortunately, I got over that.) “You may not be an artist, but you’re willing to sacrifice for art’s sake. You’ve proved it by going sort of straight. That roach motel yer living in proves it. Are you seeing what I mean? You ain’t no bank robber. You can’t flip the switch on a bomb-vest.”
An aesthetic, he’d said. It wasn’t a jab, either. But who said anything about flipping a switch?
“I don’t want to flip no switch, man,” I said. “Why even say that? You’re gonna jinx it.”
“I’m saying it because, and you keep this to yourself or I’ll cut your thumbs off with a pair of poultry shears, I’ve done a bank job or two myself. It’s how I set myself up in my current profession, and what I know from my experience is that you can’t go in assuming you know what’s going to happen, except that there’ll be chaos. Sometimes it’s a quiet subtle chaos, just between you and the person across the counter, other times it’s a violent kinda chaos, screams and crying, the gnashing of teeth, with the sound of sirens in the background. And when it gets like that, you want everyone to see that you’re serious, that you really will shoot someone if everyone doesn’t just shut the hell up. Except in your case, you’re gonna flip the switch.”
“No,” I said, wondering if he was right. “I only want some respect when I stand there in the middle of the bank and shout holdup. I don’t get any respect no more, not like back when I was the man with the bones to buy all the hot swag and sell it at a big profit, and loan out money at outrageous interest rates. This job’s gonna be my Renaissance. My AA sponsor says gaining respect is an important element of my sobriety, and I got my three-month chip the other day. I don’t wanna blow it.”
Vaillancourt looked at the beer in my hand.
“Beer just takes the edge off,” I said to his shady gaze. “You ain’t got no idea what it’s like going dry and clean all at once. Besides, it’s just the arm motion I miss, mostly. A guy misses bending his arm at the elbow, bringing the glass up to his lips and taking a swig. And when a fella’s bending and swigging, it’s beer he wants.” I raised my glass in a false salute and took a gulp, the end of my seventh pint. “See what I mean?” I said. Then I chanced paraphrasing something I’d read somewhere, “The elbow thing, it’s sort of an embedded physical behaviour. It’s psychological.”
Vaillancourt finally blinked, and I got up to go to the men’s room. He followed me moments later, and stood farting fruitilly at the urinal next to me. Then, after shaking off, he followed me to the sink (yeah, I washed my hands) where he looked back at me in the mirror. Then, pulling a gun out of his jacket pocket, he slid it to me across the wet countertop.
As a responsible Canadian, I was conditioned to be suspicious of guns. This one, though, made me shiver. It was an obvious hand-me-down of indeterminate age. Blunt, black and mute in the dim yellow cast of the only functioning lightbulb. It held no opinions on its intended function or its place in the world; it didn’t care. No eyes to see, ears to hear, no soul to take. No court could convict it; it was a lethal innocent.
“Pick it up,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s loaded, so be careful.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Don’t be an ass,” he hissed, grabbing my wrist and forcing it into my hand. “You hold it like this.” He used his right hand to show me, index finger and thumb. “Your arm out straight, no bending at the elbow. Both eyes open.” I did it. “It’s part of you now, get it? Your blood’s pumping through it. In the bank you walk up to a teller. Choose a man. Men are cowards. Women aren’t. Never hold a gun on a woman unless you’ve already made up your mind to shoot. She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb, otherwise, and that’s not the point of using a gun. And when you aim that roscoe at the guy, you hold it so close to his face he can taste the gun oil.”
Suddenly, I was facing my armed and dangerous self in the men’s room mirror. I was a domestic terrorist, a bag of monster meat.
“Then you cock it,” he said. “You don’t actually have to, of course. It’ll fire fine either way. Cocking a revolver used to be something only pussies did, but it’s what people expect now days. So you cock it, hear me?”
I heard a stony click as I thumbed the hammer down into place.
“And now that it’s cocked, you shout—you shriek it like a motherfucking freak of nature—give me the fucking money! DO IT.”
“Do it, now.” He slapped the back of my head. “Say it.”
“Give me the fucking money now,” I yelled.
The bartender opened the door and looked in.
“Fuck off, Morrie,” Vaillancourt said. Morrie gave a short wave and vanished.
“More,” said Vaillancourt. “Louder. Crazier.”
“Give me the fucking money now.”
“Don’t be a bitch,” he said. “Do it again.”
This time I took a deep breath, like they taught in the Sunday school choir when I was a kid, and let loose with my diaphragm—“Give me the fucking money now.”
“That’s better, but try looking crazy when you say it.”
“Crazy?” Another slap to the back of my head.
“Tilt your head like this,” he said, tilting his head ever so slightly in the bathroom mirror.
I did the same.
“Then do this shit with your eyes,” he said. “It’s all in the eyes, and the face follows the eyes. See, like this.”
But I couldn’t copy it. All I could do was stare at his reflection. Just knowing that he was a sociopathic street dealer capable of murder hadn’t prepared me for what I was seeing.
“What’s the matter,” Vaillancourt said.
“That’s fucked up, man.”
“What?” His face had softened.
“Your crazy-look,” I said. “You’re Satan.”
“Nah. I know Satan. I ain’t even close. I’m just doing this to show you that, if you’ve really gotta rob a bank, there are easier ways than a bomb-vest. A hold-up’s all show, I’ll give you that, but a guy can go overboard. Small is large. Remember that. It’s all about art. Be an artist. Now un-cock the revolver, and put it in yer pocket. Take it home. Get used to it, but don’t play with it. Put it where you can see it. Meditate on it. Count your breaths. Empty your mind of everything but it. There’s beauty in its costume of night.”
“Its costume of night?”
“I told you, it’s art. Your chance to be the artist. And just so you know, it’s a .38.”
A .38. My hand was on it in my pocket. I was already counting my breaths. Surely there weren’t many left. I’d become a contradiction: a Canadian, packing.
When I got home that night, I placed the revolver on the table by the window with the sock in the hole in the windowpane. Small, I thought, looking at it. Then I looked down at the makings of the bomb-vest on the floor. Large.
It came to me then; the vest was just an absurd symbol of my lazy rage, comic and sad. Vaillancourt said that I wasn’t angry enough to rob a bank, but maybe I just wasn’t angry enough to do it wearing a bomb.
I picked up the gun again, and found its shape had changed. It fit my hand differently than before. Now it felt like it belonged there. It wasn’t blunt. It was elegant. Straightening my arm out before me, I cocked it and whispered, “Give me the fucking money now.” Then I shouted it, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.” My blood was pulsing through the weapon. It was part of me.
The next day I took the bus downtown to the Fidelity Credential Bank of Canada, walking in shortly after opening. I’d been planning to rob it for months, attracted by its interior neoclassical revival features, the kind of architectural features that made it a bank any man would be proud to rob.
Before entering, I put on a baseball cap and sunglasses. I had re-grown my beard to cover my anaconda tattoo.
Once inside, I stood a moment taking in the scene. It was busy. There was a line up, and that didn’t seem right. After all, should I, the guy with the gun, have to stand in line to rob a bank? Vaillancourt hadn’t mentioned this. And as I glumly took my place in the queue and pondered the unfairness of it, something else became unpleasantly obvious. There were no male tellers, just three women, each wearing cat’s-eye glasses, each with a matronly blue rinse, each looking like somebody’s grandmother.
Never hold a gun on a woman, Vaillancourt had said. Or on someone’s granny, I quickly added.
But Vaillancourt also said that this was art, and I was an aesthetic. Pondering further, I realised I had no choice. I had to proceed, for art’s sake. And fuck lining up to do it. I pulled the revolver from my pocket and pushed ahead, to the sound of shouts and slurs coming from the customers in line.
Arriving at the counter, I took off my sunglasses and quickly chose the teller I thought most likely to fold under the weight of the horror I was about to bring down on her, a sad and timid looking crone with bright red lipstick, the lipstick obviously constituting a mask behind which she hid from the world. Her name badge read Daphne.
Stepping up, and cocking the gun, I thrust its muzzle so close to her face she could taste the gun oil, maybe. How could I know for sure? Then tilting my head a little to the side and putting on my most depraved crazy-face, I yelled, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.”
A heinous spell had been cast. I was a gun-toting demon now, at the height of his demonic game, the peak of his season. What else could she do but stand transfixed by my absolute evil and hand over the cash. “DO IT,” I shouted, tilting my head the other way now ever so, squinting wickedly and letting my face follow my eyes.
That was when Daphne folded her hands on the cool marble counter, pursed her red lips and said, “You’re not gonna use that gun, junior. I’ve been robbed before. You’re not the type.”
What the fuck?
“THE MONEY,” I hollered, using my diaphragm. Stepping back I swung my aim back and forth, including all three tellers. All three looking at one another, shaking their heads.
“Just someone’s little boy,” one of them said. Rachel, her name badge read.
“Well, shouldn’t we give him just a little,” said the third of the three, her name badge reading, Vanesa. “Maybe something for lunch and bus fare home.”
She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb…. Was this what Vaillancourt meant? I looked over my shoulder. The bank patrons were watching. “I’ve got an appointment,” said a fat man in badly fitted suit. “You wanna hustle this up?”
“Look,” I said, turning back to face Daphne. Now I was confiding, wondering how it had come to this. “This is really important to me. A friend of mine says I’ll fuck….”
“Language!” said Vanesa, holding up her index finger.
“Screw this up,” I said, “and I’ve been planning this for months.” I pulled a laundry bag out of my coat pocket and handed it to Daphne. “Just fill the bag. Put what you think’s a reasonable amount in it. Then I’ll go. I was going to use a bomb-vest, you know?”
“Oh, that wouldn’t have worked,” said Daphne. “What if it went off? You’d have just made a mess.”
Now Vanesa was rummaging through her handbag, and said, “Look,” holding up a fiver. “The cafe up the street has a very nice lunch special. $2.99. Includes coffee. It’s usually quite good, isn’t it, girls?”
Daphne and Rachel nodded enthusiastically.
“And you’ll have some change left over if you don’t over tip,” said Rachel.
Vanesa handed the five-dollar bill to Rachel, who handed it to Daphne, who, smiling warmly, held it out to give to me.
“I just want some respect,” I said.
“Give some and get some,” said Rachel, primly.
I stared at the five for a moment. Then I said, “Fine,” and took it.
But then Vanesa said, “Oh dear, I think I hear a siren.”
She was right, we all heard it.
“Now you’re in for it,” said the fat man.
“But he’s not really a bad person,” said a woman with a child at her side.
“I think he’s bad,” the kid said. “I hope they give him the chair.”
“You should go,” Rachel said to me. “And let this be a lesson to you.”
I and my revolver had been defeated by three women with blue hair.
* * * * *
All of the inmates, including me, cheered at the end of the televised Elvis concert, as the voice of the prison guards’ Shift Supervisor came over the loudspeaker telling us to return to our cells.
It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.
Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.
“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”
“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”
“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.
It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.
“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging ‘em up.”
“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”
“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”
I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.
“Thelma,” I said.
He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”
“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”
“But, you’re a drunk.”
“Only my friends call me that, mister.”
“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”
He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.
Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.
I started taking notes.
“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”
“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”
“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Thelma,” I said again.
“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”
“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”
“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”
This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”
“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”
“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”
“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”
“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”
“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”
“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”
“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”
Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”
“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”
“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”
“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”
“No he didn’t.”
“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”
“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.
“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?
“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.
“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties. Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”
The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.
“I ain’t proud,” he said.
“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”
“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”
It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.
“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”
Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?
“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.
“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”
“Then?” I said.
“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”
“What?” I said.
“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”
I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.
“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”
We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”
“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”
“I guess I should thank you.”
“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”
A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.
“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”
“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”
It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.