lost ironies

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Tag: addiction

shame wheel

the shame wheel spins
only slowing round shift change, the fentanyl dawn
after doing the graveyard
handing out rigs at the door and listening to plights
having to be tough at times
down here where no one backs down
no, no bread tonight no sandwiches
yeah, I got socks no razors
yer right, I don’t know what it’s like
fuck me, another OD in the men’s room
as the neighbourhood tilts into daytime
throwing its own mercury switch
naloxone doesn’t always work it’s all about timing
sirens ambulance and fire the cops stay away
we’re good Samaritans after all
though none of us has heard of the Samaritan Pentateuch
it was Eric he had a bed in the sanctuary
did he have family?
the Mayor calls it a bloodbath
then has an organic lunch
the shame wheel spins

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graveyard shift at the homeless shelter

if I were a saint
I’d lay on hands &
change all the crack
meth
heroin, rigs & fentanyl
into the pure cold orbits of stars
for all of us to see out front
on the 3am street, looking up

magnificent
someone rejuvenated might say
like the word was sanctuary
beneath a childhood staircase

but the stars move too slow
to compensate for outrageous hurts &
saints should mind their own goddamn business
where were they when the first shit sample
hit the wall & a child mind found
that the real estate of refuge
had fences & gates
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everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

It’s when you secretly slide it down into your lower frontal region that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide in your pants. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. That means you have to be careful, because store security watches the cheese. Which is why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it into my jockey shorts.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, some Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time, but you don’t know what to do first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics—like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me. I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?” He focussed on what I held in my hand.

“Shut up.”

Then looked up from the cheese, at me. “You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off of the top of the refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity—I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

Then I said, “Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No,” I said. “Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky starts talking that kind of shit that he overdoses or gets knifed or gets, in some other way, dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern, man?” said Myron.

“Shut the hell up, I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation—Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin?—that kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me that I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“Back when I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the Sunshine Coast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said, in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing, and I figured there must be more where that c-note came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?” said Myron.

“Yeah. Turns out, the dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

China-girl

The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending, a sign said, and there was an arrow pointing up toward a platform bathed in light, from which the ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither Abigale nor Loomis were ascenders. Loomis turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the light.

“This isn’t what you said,” said Abigale, fingering two tiny, but bulging, plastic envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said that this was just a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high.”

“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” Loomis said. “It was just bedbugs and bare lightbulbs.” He peeked through his fingers into the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”

The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen happier days in the age of zeppelins and flappers. The grand marble staircase had always been one of its best features, but now it had undergone a bizarre change and the rough couple stood in the ramshackle lobby made golden by it. Behind them were the bevelled glass doors that led out into rainy midnight.

“Well,” said Abigale, her voice rising, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, then trip all night in a back alley. You said you had a place. That’s why I came.”

“I do—I did—it’s on the third floor.”

“Then let’s take the elevator.”

“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in. We’ll have to take the stairs.”

“I ain’t going up there.”

Then they heard a ding. “What the fuck?”

Abigale grabbed Loomis by his collar and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When they slid open, the two of them saw a tall woman in a dark blue uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her smartly done-up hair was black. Her lips, the colour of a bullet wound. The inside of the elevator had been transformed from its former ruined state into a plush chamber of oak and brass.

“Will that be down?” she said.

“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis held her back.

An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.

“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.

“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before and this elevator’s been busted since I arrived over a year ago.”

“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”

“Up,” Abigale said again.

“There is no up.”

“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.

“Nope,” said the operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled like a reptile.

“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.

“Then take the stairs, if you like.”

“But the stairs lead up into some kind of blinding nothingness.” Loomis couldn’t believe what he’d just said.

“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her tongue.

“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” Abigale said. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chance to reboot, and then come back in.”

“Won’t make a bit of difference.” The operator blew smoke out of her nostrils, dragonishly. “I’ll still be here when you come back.”

“And the staircase, too?” said Loomis.

“Yes sir.”

“What’s this all about?”

“It’s about the smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or in your case, the China-girl.”

Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.

“Where is it?” She gasped.

“Gone,” the elevator operator said. “It’s so so gone and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little confused. Fentanyl’s some lethal shit.”

“I….” Loomis looked lost.

The operator said, “You don’t get it, right?”

Abigale stiffened suddenly. In an inner room somewhere in her head the movie of her life began threading through a projector, and onto a screen. Child abuse, the pain of blows. Penniless Christmases. The desert of her empty belly, a razor blade pain, the pale watercolour hurt of hunger. An abandoned little girl shivering in the cold and gloom of an empty house. Rape, dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers. Hateful parents. Alienation. Running until there was nowhere else to go. Men with fists. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street. A show for all of the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, the anguish and the filth. Finally, her gaunt colourless face in a mirror.

She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she’d tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.

But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. There was a spent syringe there. She watched it drop out of her vein onto the floor. Blood ran down her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm and saw the same thing; he swatted it away like a fly.

“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”

When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”

Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.

“So it’s you or the mysterious staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes.”

The operator smoked, and tapped a finger impatiently on her knee.

“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”

“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me, so to speak. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps—yada yada—no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”

“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.

“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there.”

For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button: No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.

“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along.

The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.

They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.

“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.

 

 

 

 

 

the photo booth

I wouldn’t recommended it, trying to thumb a ride on the road just out front of the locked gates of a mental hospital. It was cold and white, and there hadn’t been a car by in more than an hour. The two or three that had already passed by, had accelerated as they did. That it was Christmas morning didn’t help, I was sure.

The idea of me, an ex-patient, hitching a ride on a country road out front of the asylum from which I’d just been released, made me smile. But I had my shoes and a donated coat, and my pictures of her and I, and I knew that with these few things, I could wait until spring for a ride, if I had to.

By now she was just a dot on the rise in the road a mile away. We’d never been separated by such a distance before. Maybe I was finally on my own.

It was hard to believe, standing there, under the circumstances, that it had only been days before that Veronica told me that the walls of my room would bleed if I cut them with a razor. She said that the old hospital was dying anyway, and that the room I occupied was its last pulsing organ. Its acre of wooded land was its deathbed, and that I would be its final near-death experience.

So, on a night in late December, I took two hits of my smuggled-in acid and looked out of my second floor window, past the bars, believing that I saw gravity collapse stars into endless heroic outlines. Then I cut and waited to wash in the blood of the ancient hospital. But the walls didn’t bleed, so I had taped my razorblade back onto the underside of my night table drawer, and listened for the rest of the night to Perseus tap on the glass.

Veronica had been wrong. She was unreliable sometimes, too flamboyant, a thespian at heart. She took advantage of my boredom. I was her fond audience, and the dark spilling in through the window was her limelight. She was strong, too. Antipsychotics feared her. They stepped round her, respectfully, and obliterated everything else. And during morning rounds, she would cling to the florescent ceiling like a spider, and look down on me as the horn-rim, herring bone psychiatrist conducted his interrogation.

“Housekeeping says you’re destroying hospital property,” he’d said, the morning after the acid night. He said this tracing the cut lines on the walls with his fingertips. I was still tripping. It was the morning of Christmas Eve.

“So, evict me,” I said.

“Your next stop will be Isolation, Molly.” He paused for effect, still closely examining the wall. He was a thespian, too. “You don’t want to go there again.”

“Release me, then. Give me my shoes.”

“No.” He came and sat near my bed. “You’re still too vulnerable.”

“And the others schizos you cut loose, they aren’t? I’ll get along just fine on the outside, with a few pills.”

“And suicide…?”

“I hardly ever think of it anymore,” I said, “except at moments like these when I’m faced with your mania for it.”

“Are you having ideas? Are there voices encouraging you?”

“No. The voices are gone.” It was a lie, but fuck him. “You killed them all. It was a fucking slaughter. Now I’m stepping over bodies.”

He regarded me sternly for a moment, silent in saying the unsaid things of psychiatry.

Then I said, “It’s a trinket for you, isn’t it? Suicide, I mean. It’s a little paste jewel in your pocket. You finger it all day, worry over it, in with your coins and your keys. You even take it out occasionally, and gloat over it. Take an inventory, as you hold it, of all your patients devoured by the word.”

“Do you still believe in what happened in the photo booth?” he said. It was a quick unexpected thrust. Touché. He even allowed a trace of triumph to escape into the air, through his eyes. “You’ve only told us pieces of that story, but it seems very important to you. Central, even, to your being here.”

“You’ve made up your mind about it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what I have to say.”

“You still associate the photos with Veronica, don’t you?”

“Leave her out of it.”

“Is she still lurking, a voice that I haven’t yet slaughtered?”

The photographs. Oh how the doctors had smirked when I tried to explain them. Veronica and I, the two us jammed into a midway photo booth and posing for the camera. Photographic evidence of her existence. Two friends at a summer fair. Her smiling, me looking tired and a little hopeless. Four small precious snaps in a strip. I’d kept them safe for so long, fiercely preserving them from the deep hole that inevitably swallows all of the meaningful property of the insane and destitute. But the psychiatrist said that I was imagining Veronica, that only I appeared in the pictures.

Now they were in a file, under lock and key.

“She’s real,” I said, ashamed of the confusion I hoped didn’t show. “You can’t drug-away what’s real.”

“You’ve certainly tried over the years,” he said.

“Yeah well, have a drink on me tonight, doc, and celebrate your reserve and resistance to all that’s mind expanding.”

“Tell me what the photo booth experience means to you right now,” he said. “What happened?”

“It would be impossible to describe to someone whose entire philosophy is based on doubt.”

“Then pretend I’m someone else.”

Veronica floated down now, from the ceiling like a leaf from a tree, and sat next to me.

“I don’t believe in the photos, anymore,” I said.

“You’re lying.”

I felt Veronica stroke my hair. “It’s okay,” she said. “Tell him again. He’s just a failed bully. Tell him ten thousand times, if you must. Destroy him with honesty.”

Outside, crows had noisily descended onto the hospital courtyard. I walked to the window to watch, glossy stones black on the snow. I’d take Veronica’s advice, if only to move another dull morning along.

“It was late August,” I said. The crows fought over something dead. “A Saturday. A crummy little town full of dented pickup trucks and dilapidated tractors. Everything a bit rundown and faded. I’d been hitching. It was where my last ride had dropped me.”

“How old were you?”

“Eighteen,” I said. “There was a fair in town, the kind that comes to a small town late in summer. It was rundown and faded too, but not as much as the town. Especially at night when it lit up.”

“And you were very sad,” said Veronica, putting her hand on my knee.

“Sad.” The word was too small. “I was very sad.”

“You’d raised a little money….”

“I’d begged on the street, and had gotten enough for admission into the fair, and a little besides. Seemed the whole town was there that night. I ate a hotdog, and watched the midway from a corner. Loud out of date music over the PA. Devout born-again farmers playing crown and anchor, and trying to toss dimes into milk jugs. There were rides, too. Nothing too big. Just what could be brought in on the carny trucks. It smelled good, in a greasy smoky sort of way, like childhood.”

“It was already getting dark,” Veronica said.

“It was dark when we went into the photo booth,” I said. “I still had a few coins in my pocket. Veronica asked me to sit on her lap, so we’d both fit, and then she said, ‘Smile’.”

“But you didn’t smile,” said the psychiatrist. He jotted notes.

“No, I didn’t smile. The camera must have been broken. The flash popped four times, without me pushing a button, before I could compose myself.”

“And those are the pictures we have?”

“Give them back.”

“No.”

“But they’re mine.”

“They only reinforce this delusion of yours,” said the psychiatrist. “I think you’re ready now to hear me say that.”

I wanted to be with the crows, to be unrecognisable in their strange order.

“Then the booth spit out the pics through a slot,” Veronica said, “and we stood in your corner on the midway looking at them, for a long time. You wept, a little.”

“Veronica and I looked at them for a long time, until the fair shut down for the night.”

“And the pictures were so beautiful, that you wanted to die,” said Veronica.

“I wanted to die long before we took the pictures.”

“What was that?” the psychiatrist said.

“All of the others,” I said. “The ones who’d followed me, everywhere since I was a kid. The voices and the faces that I couldn’t shake no matter how far I hitchhiked and doubled back. They wanted me dead. They harassed me until I bought the junk, enough to kill three people. I hid it in my backpack with the syringe and the spoon. Then they plagued me even more, to take it. Why aren’t you taking the goddamn heroin? End the pain, the pain. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I hadn’t slept for weeks, before we got to that shitty little town.

“Tell me more.” The psychiatrist was leaning forward, greedily. “Tell me how they wore you down, how they whispered and tormented, how they surrounded you and made it impossible to escape.”

“They didn’t,” I said. “Not like that.”

“Tell me, every detail.”

“Tell him that I wouldn’t let you take the heroin,” Veronica said. “That you’re too dear to me. That’s all there was to it. I fought the others off. I protected you. That’s what this fool refuses to understand.”

“Veronica saved me.”

“Nonsense!” The psychiatrist began to rapidly tap his pen on his knee.

“He’s fishing for something,” said Veronica.

“She told me to dump the junk down a storm drain, and I did. The others shrieked at me not to do it, but Veronica told me that death always comes on its own to the patient heart. She protected me because she loves me, and I love her.”

“That’s impossible,” the psychiatrist hissed. “No one can love a hallucination. Now don’t you see why it’s our goal to cure you of all your false perceptions? You can’t live a normal life loving something for which there is no actual stimulus.”

“Yes you can,” Veronica said.

“Yes I can.”

“I’m increasing your medication,” said the psychiatrist. “And introducing some others.” He wrote furious notes.

“I won’t take it.”

“Then you’ll be punished.”

“Punished?” said Veronica.

“Punished?” I said. “Did you just say I’d be punished?”

“No. Yes, but I meant placed in isolation, for your own protection.”

“Veronica can walk through walls, doctor. You’re throwing pills at a fortress, and they’re just bouncing off.”

“This is noncompliance.” He spit the word out like a curse. His most dreaded enemy.

On Christmas morning, as the other patients lined up for their medication and Christmas stockings of mean charity, I was escorted, with my backpack, out of the building, through the courtyard and left outside of the gates in the falling snow.

A sour nurse had given me back my strip of photographs, and had me sign my Release. Veronica and I stood together on the road for a moment, and looked at ourselves caught in that long ago August moment; her smiling, and me looking tired and a little hopeless.

Then she stroked my cheek. “Merry Christmas,” I heard her say, as she slipped away.

there is a forest here

There is only one way to satisfy those who want you sober, and that is by walking away from the comfort of alcohol, and into a room of uncushioned, dark-hearted truths, an act that defies all layers of logical self-defense.

Virginia Quipp had just entered that room, leaving behind the vodka, and the splendid but unwholesome hush of 4 a.m. It was her second day in that room. Her hands didn’t shake and her nausea was only slight, but at eight in the evening, she sat at her desk facing another night of hateful abstinence. What was it about sobriety that zealots found so alluring?

She looked once again at her thumbnail image on the computer screen, the one gracing her page on the Federation of Canadian Poets website. Above the photograph was her name and a year, 1961. It was the year of her birth, and it was followed by a dash and a blank space, 1961 –    . It was a ravenous space, hungry to be filled, but also very patient. Beneath the photograph was a brief bio referencing, among others, her Governor General’s Award, a ponderous stone. And the words, near the bottom: Her next collection is due out in 2016.

1961 –     . She placed her hand on the mousepad where a drink should have been, but was not. Perhaps there was a book of poetry in this: the hell of anonymity or closet bottles.

Various worldly collisions. Gravities too savage to escape.

Was there tea? Yes, some tea might do in the absence of vodka. Had she brewed some, earlier? Tea, into which she had once poured smoky Tennessee whiskey. It was nostalgia, tea and whiskey. The drink she had enjoyed in her youth, sitting at camp fires or in roadhouses during her lone hitchhiking journeys through Canada, India and the United States, back before she felt the need to apologise for her choices. It was the drink that had helped her earn her graduate degree, so long ago. Her favourite cocktail, until she discovered the fast-acting convenience of Smirnoff, neat.

She brought up MS Word and looked at her stanza, the one that harassed her by its presence, and its refusal to be followed by another:

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Her editor had asked for more nature references. Vancouver was surrounded by rainforest, after all. Weren’t its citizens masters of the wilderness?

“No,” she said to the stanza.

It was the junk logic of book-marketing campaigns.

How was a poem written by a sober poet, anyway — when the words lose their mobility, as a result? When there is no river of them, no tsunami, no latent current to pull her under, gloriously? This would be a collection without grace or poise, solely inspired by a previously signed contractual agreement — Her next collection is due out in 2016. Perhaps panic would move her. Perhaps a laps back into vodkaesque suicidality.

Virginia Quipp knew that a tranquillising world of liquor existed just outside of her door — That’s right, 007, it’s an abundant, colourless, almost flavourless poison. Administered orally, it renders the victim temporarily paralysed, in a state of euphoria.

Her finger began tapping the mousepad, hitting the centre of the circle left behind by her last glass as she stared at the stanza, and suddenly thought of Susan. Why, for goodness sake? It had been months. Susan, a woman who was now so gone from her life. The one who’d tried to impose herself upon a lonely drunk poet, but in the end was repulsed by Virginia’s infatuations.

They’d met by accident on a Saturday night, an innocent occurrence, in a rough and tumble east side bar, frequented by longshoremen and failed young Bukowskis. Virginia was there trying to relive some of the rawness of her long departed youth, when Susan arrived at the bar.

“You’re Virginia Quipp,” said the graceful brunette.

“Yes,” said Virginia, uncertain for a moment.

“May I buy you a drink?”

“Of course, but do I know you?”

Susan didn’t ask what Virginia was drinking. Virginia’s choice of poison was well known. Susan ordered a flute of Prosecco for herself, an unusual drink to have in an establishment with worn felt pool tables and crooked cues. She sipped it so painfully slow.

“Do you have an agent, right now?” Susan had asked.

“Yes, of course,” said Virginia. “What an odd question.” She began to dismiss the idea that this was a chance encounter.

“It’s that Rachel Victor woman, right?”

“Yes,” said Virginia, almost bleakly. Rachel, the woman pressuring her to quit drinking — too many missed meetings, too many forgotten deadlines, too many frightening blackouts.

“I’ve noticed that ol’ Rachel has landed you a very comfortable deal with Harper Collins,” Susan said. “Your last two collections, isn’t it? HC’s rather a stodgy house for a once radical eco-feminist like you, no? I’m an agent myself, just so you understand.”

“I’m not sure I do understand,” Virginia said.

“Well I am, and I’m taking on new clients. Some friends are trying to start a new publishing house, as well, a little like Black Sparrow, we hope. We’d love to have you on our list.”

“Say what you like about Rachel,” said Virginia, sipping. “But most Canadian poets are starving and can’t pay the rent. I, on the other hand, have a nice little house near the Drive, and I’m well fed. Rachel helped me make a name. Besides, I’m writing a novel at the moment, and I’m well positioned for that with HC.” It was corporate babble, and Virginia was ashamed at once. What had happened to her?

Susan placed her card on the bar. “Look me up on the web. I’m not an amateur. I’ve had some successes.” Then she began to walk away, but looking over her shoulder as she did, she said, “Dinner sometime, yes? Call me.”

Was she suggesting a date, or another recruitment opportunity? Virginia slipped the card into her bag, and waited an agonising week before she called to find out.

They dined at Bishop’s on a Friday evening, chatting over salads and the Duck Breast and Wild Spring Salmon. Virginia enjoyed the U’luvka, but really didn’t taste the difference between it and the much cheaper brands she normally drank.

They talked about everything but publishing, and after several drinks, when Susan rested her hand on the table, Virginia gambled and placed her own upon it. Susan pulled away immediately, and the expression on her face made it clear that a boundary had been sorely crossed.

“That’s not what this is about,” she said.

“Yes, I….” Virginia was mortified. “No, I….”

“This is a business dinner,” Susan said. “It’s about business. Whatever made you think it was anything else?”

“But we haven’t discussed business!” said Virginia. “You haven’t mentioned publishing or representing me, even once.” She felt flush, perspiring from every pour.

“Then you’re like all writers, aren’t you. You understand nothing. Business doesn’t have to dominate a conversation, in order to be done. There’s no need for it to be explicit. Not over the course of what was meant to be a relaxed dinner. Besides, I’m not a lesbian and I resent you thinking that I am.”

Susan was right; Virginia understood nothing about business. There had always been someone else to handle it. Rachel Victor had been her agent for twenty-five years, while Virginia skulked in the corner. Rachel did the talking, while Virginia held the business-suited fools round the table in contempt. And how could she have made such a bad assumption about Susan?

Susan signalled the waiter for the bill.

“I’m so sorry,” Virginia said.

Her mind searched for words, and there were none. This had never happened before, but she had always believed that life experience would inform her how to gracefully escape any bad situation. She and her friends had often laughed over the potential for such a gaffe. Now her eloquence had deserted her. She was on a hostile shore, and her enemy was battle-ready, with the advantage of anger and business acumen.

There were so many ways to apologise. But hers turned out to be a drunken one. She became speechless, and looked away.

The waiter was slow. “Damn him,” Susan said.

“Let me pay,” said Virginia. She reached for her bag.

“No,” Susan said, taking a gold card from her pocketbook. “It’s deductible.” Then she dropped the card onto the floor, and it disappeared under her chair. “Fuck. Shit!”

Finally, she stood and walked to the waiter’s station, to settle up. Then she went to the coat check, and walked out the door.

Three days later, Virginia was in the park reading when Susan called.

“I’m sorry,” said Susan. “I over reacted.”

“And I was drunk,” Virginia said.

“We still want you onboard, my friends and I. It would be marvellous. A name like yours is just what a new publishing house needs, and we’ve landed some new investors with deep pockets. You’ll be well compensated, based on royalties of course. When is your current contract up with Rachel?”

“I think I’ll stick with her, Susan. She’s familiar. My life is in need of familiar, right now.”

“Well have her call me, then,” said Susan. “I insist. Maybe she and I can work together.”

“Maybe,” Virginia said.

There was a moment of silence, then Susan said good-bye.

Now at her desk, nearly two days without a drink, her greatest fear was the night ahead. The wages of sobriety were dreadful memories. There was an endless supply of them, by her reckoning, each queuing up for its chance at her.

Defeated, she went to the closet and pulled a bottle out from under a stack of folded blankets. Having never been opened, it was as fresh and full of promise as a morning in June. She took a glass from the kitchen and sat at her computer again, to look at her stanza once more —

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Then she typed —

I believed by standing here
that this forest was mine and that
for a lifetime, it would remain solid above me
but a lifetime is a poetic thing
that snaps like a stick

snow angels

you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids living in a dodgy neighbourhood, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I’d tried dealing drugs for a living, myself, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was too much of a lightweight. Whatever the case, the cops instead contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. It scared away the clientele. I got sick of it eventually, and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.

Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood cool and indifferent out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing at the house, now a half block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving past them.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer, but he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood. And he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner. It was a habit from his criminal youth that had developed into a hobby. Now he actually belonged to a police scanner club. Life is strange.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there. Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.”

It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake.

Toby thought a moment and then he said, “The news is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy. If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun, at all,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a best friend and roommate. But he’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs. He’d become someone I didn’t recognise.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake. They were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece.

I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. It was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever returned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of drugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better not to be just a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets, or were they?

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand.

“Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on incognito streets, past dark blank working class homes. Some were hung with Christmas lights. I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually Gabriel pulled over, next to a vast field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, white and unblemished landscape. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

We got out of the car, and stood surrounded by acres of the undisturbed snow. It was illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. Then she stood up a second time and jumped once more.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home, now that he was free of all his confusion and prowling rage?

Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle?

Yes.

And was I there with her? Ha! I knew better than that.

We sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood, and I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle and offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but not a second. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

The snow began to fall again, and Gabriel’s snow angels vanished. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of white before us, there could have been millions of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Shine and the diamond dice

After the dust had settled, he remembered that the old broad had said something about the ending of a song.

wartime
35 Blood Alley

The old woman’s parlour of clairvoyance and spiritualism was a busy one. They came from all over the city to witness her divine powers, and ask how they could better themselves in business, choose a lover, reap petty revenge. And that was where the man was that Saturday night, a week before he lost everything. He’d borrowed two dollars from Wilma Briar Yeats to pay for the visit. He considered it an investment, and when the old woman beckoned, the man anxiously entered her inner sanctum. It was a familiar place; he was a regular.

The old woman’s name was Elga Coal and the room was dimly lit by cheap sputtering candles. She sat at a round table with what looked like a crystal ball in the centre. “The spirits told me of your arrival,” Elga Coal told the man. “An old gypsy knows.” Her thinning hair was grey and bound in a faded bargain basement scarf. Each of her fingers had a ring.

The man couldn’t help notice a distinct odour in the air as he entered the parlour. One that differed from the mouldy smell in the waiting room. Something was strange. There was a glossy looking fellow dressed in an expensive suit and bright red silk tie sitting on the settee. Next to him was a gold handled walking stick. Though he was a regular, the man had never seen this character before. But the crystal ball was familiar, a snow globe from the Chicago World’s Fair.

“Allow me to introduce Mister Shine,” Elga said, nodding at the interloper on the settee. “He has generously consented to sit with us tonight. Haven’t you, Mister Shine.” Mr Shine bowed slightly, where he sat. Shine smoked a slim cheroot. The man wondered if the cheroot was the source of the strange odour, but realised that it couldn’t be. The prevailing stink wasn’t that of fine or even inferior tobacco. Mister Shine couldn’t help it. He always smelled like a freshly lit match.

As soon the man handed over his two dollars, Elga Coal began to wave her hands over her Snow Globe and squint into the past and future, her face illuminated by candles. He’d had bad luck all of his life, Elga said. It was a fact well known to her, since the man was a constant customer. Coal then said that there was a woman, devoted but regularly disappointed. Again old news, the man had told Elga about Wilma many times.

“But there is an opportunity in your future,” Elga said. “A game of dice that travels through the city.”

“A craps game?” said the man, leaning forward.

“Yes,” said Elga. “And I see….”

“Tell me,” the man said.

“I see….”

“Yes? C’mon. Tell me.”

“I see….”

“Oh, for the love of God! Tell me what you see.”

“I see nothing.” Elga threw up her arms in frustration. Her snow globe had gone blank.

Now it was Mr Shine’s turn.

“Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps I may be able to offer some assistance.”

The man had forgotten about Mr Shine for a moment. Now he looked over at him.

“I have certain charms at my disposal,” said Mister Shine.

“Charms?” said the man. He was suspicious. Mr Shine didn’t seem like a straight shooter. Besides, charms were a dime a dozen.

“Just so,” said Mister Shine, as he dug his hand deep into his breast pocket. From there, he retrieved two small objects and presented them in his left hand.

Elga and the man both looked, and saw a curious pair of transparent dice.

“Diamond dice,” said Mister Shine.

They appeared to be diamond dice, sure enough—if there was such a thing. Could it be? The two objects caught the room’s dim yellow light and returned it pure white and exquisite to the eye.

“They’re magic,” said Mister Shine, with a grin. “They’ll change your luck.” Then his smile disappeared as he leaned forward on the settee. His eyes blazing, he said, “They’ll change your life.”

The table trembled and the snow swirled in Elga Coal’s crystal ball.

“I can’t throw those in a craps game,” the man said. “It ain’t allowed.”

“But they’re only a charm,” said Mister Sine, smiling once more. “Their value is in their hidden magic. Keep them in the pocket nearest your heart.”

“But remember this,” said Elga Coal, interjecting and cocking an eyebrow. “The song never knows when it’s about to end.”

The man stood up from the table and looked at the pair of dice in the palm of Mister Shine’s hand. Then, with a tremor in his fingers, he quickly reach out to take them. But as he did, Mr Shine’s fist closed round them.

“Be certain,” Mr Shine said. “Be very certain that you want these.”

“I am,” said the man, though he wasn’t sure why. What could the dice possibly do for him? He could buy lucky charms anywhere, each one as useless as the next. But that was immaterial, he realised. He couldn’t help wanting these glistening items, seemingly free for the taking. He had to have them.

Mr Shine opened his hand again, and there they gleamed. The man snatched them up, quickly as he could. And as he did, it seemed that his name was at once confirmed on a list in some dark ledger in some far darker and unknowable place.

“We’re done here then,” Mister Shine said, and then faded from the settee with his gold handled walking stick in hand. The smell of a freshly lit match disappearing with him.

* * * as luck would have it * * *

It was December in Vancouver, 1942. And Canada was at war with half the world.

Rufus Piggs walked down the street snapping his good fingers. The song on his mind had something for everyone, pessimist and dreamer alike. But though the tune ran endlessly through his head, he’d never really stopped to learn the words. Something like, Momma may have, Papa may have….. Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood and his Orchestra. That’s about all he knew, and he didn’t care. His luck was going to change that December.

You see, Rufus Piggs was a compulsive gambler. And like all gamblers, he almost always lost. It wasn’t his fault. He was just born that way.

People love to point and whisper, though. And what they whispered, as they pointed at Rufus Piggs, was that he was a hopeless loser. They all said this while failing to practice much in the way of self-examination, since most of them were hopeless losers too. But that wasn’t their fault, either. They, too, were just born that way. Seemed the whole damn town was just a bunch of boobs waiting for the fast hand of chance to slap them silly.

By the autumn of ’42, Rufus Piggs’ losing ways had put him in Dutch with some of the fishiest characters in town. And his reputation was plummeting faster than a clipped Spitfire over the white cliffs of Dover. He had markers outstanding all over town, and he’d been living through one of the worst streaks of hard luck ever.

One outstanding debt was to Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who wasn’t a good person to owe money. His Jewish mother, the Widow Margolis, hated that her son was a loan shark. She dreaded the tag Shylock. And she knew ‘The Pearl’ would cut the throat of any wisenheimer who’d use it.

“Join the Navy and fight the Nazis,” the Widow Margolis told her son, during tearful telephone calls. “Be a hero,” she said. “You’ll look good in a uniform.”

But Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ wasn’t dope enough to enlist.

“I ain’t getting my ass shot off for some chump cause,” he said.

He sneeringly endured the contempt of all those who knew he was a shirker. In fact, he spent most of his time shooting pool and lending cash to suckers at the Commodore Billiards hall. And he’d blind anyone who gave him trouble with the silvery glint of his deadly bone handle switchblade.

For Rufus Piggs, on the other hand, joining-up might have meant some relief. He could have hidden a while from his creditors in Nazi occupied Europe or even Jap infested Borneo. He even considered the tank core. But he’d been wounded in the Spanish Civil War fighting on the republican side, and suffered partial paralysis in his left arm. He tried to disguise it by placing his left hand in his suit jacket pocket, a fashionable pose in Hollywood at the time. That might have made him look dapper, had it not been for his pockmarked face and unmanageable hair. All this combined, made him look desperate and sinister, which some were convinced he was.

Now there’re a couple of characters of consequence occupying this yarn, and some others of less significance who might just pop up here and there as events unfold. But the one worth bringing up here is Wilma Briar Yeats. She lucked into the Yeats portion of her name when her Swedish mother married a fellow by the name of Fergus Yeats, who was an Irish-American member of Clan na Gael, cooling his heels here in Canada after blowing up a railway station in Wisconsin.

Fergus named his daughter Wilma Briar Yeats because the name could be shortened to WB Yeats, after the Irish Poet and reluctant nationalist. This was a fact lost on most, including Rufus Piggs, who was all soft for Wilma on account of her brown melancholy eyes and ironic smile.

Wilma was more than a bit stupid for Rufus Piggs, too. They’d talk for hours over coffee at the Ham ‘n Egger Café. Everyone said they made such a great couple because not only was Rufus Piggs all broken up from the Spanish Civil War, Wilma Briar Yeats had six fingers on both of her hands.

It was like a romantic union of misfits that some said made each of them whole again. It was all ballroom manoeuvres in the Valley of Balloons, and screwy crap like that. Seeing them together even made some people weep a tear of two, and have hope for humanity after all. What a load of crap.

“I’m gonna score real big,” Piggs told Wilma Briar Yeats, more than once over coffee. His cold, nearly vacant blue eyes looking into hers a split second at a time, then darting away to track something unseen by the rest of the room. “I’m gonna roll big one night soon, and then it’s just you and me, baby.”

Wilma smiled weakly at this every time.

“Sure you will, doll,” she’d say. “You was destined for it.”

But she knew better, and she knew she could support him with the little she made from war work, if he’d just get sick of losing and stopped gambling.

But Rufus Piggs would never stop. Wilma knew she was just a moon orbiting his compulsion, like a million other dames that had fallen for a sucker. She watched as his obsession tore him to pieces. Gambling was going to kill him, and then she’d be alone. But that didn’t matter. He was her man, win or lose.

It was on a foggy night that December when Rufus Piggs really got himself into a jam. He’d been following a floating crap game, suggested to him by an old broad named Elga Coal, for a week and was actually doing pretty good for once. He was up for the first time in a long while. Up by over $3000.

But when a guy like Rufus Piggs starts to win, people he owes start coming outta the cracks like cockroaches. And one of those people was Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who Rufus Piggs owed $1739.87. The amount was growing daily due to the peculiarities of street economy, and ‘The Pearl’ wanted his money before the amount owed made payment impossible.

That night ‘The Pearl’ stood at the rear exit of the Balmoral Hotel with a brawny associate named Gleason Quinn. The Balmoral was that evening’s location for the floating crap game. They stood in the back-door gloom because ‘The Pearl’ knew that the rear exit was always the deadbeat’s exit. He had a chain smoking heel by the name of Nester Dayton watching the front.

Hastings Street had a haloed neon glow that foggy Saturday night that made things seem exotic, in a dime store sort of way. There were cops on Harleys and working girls smoking in dim doorways. There were radios playing jazz in the windows above the street. And a drunk had caused a near-riot by wondering out onto Hastings to direct traffic. It was unseasonably warm, and deals were being made on every dark corner. It was greasy wartime port city chaos.

Nester Dayton was watching dames hanging off the arms of sailors, rather keeping his eyes peeled for Rufus Piggs. He lit an endless succession of next cigarettes on the ones preceding, and scratched himself nervously while trying not to pick his nose.

Upstairs, Piggs had been rolling point numbers all night, and had turned his $3000 into $12,000. From a radio somewhere down the hall, he could hear Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child. He knew that tune, but was damned if he could ever remember the words.

He figured his luck had really changed, the dice were hot, and players were betting on him for once. He wondered how long it could last, even with the charms in his breast pocket. The ones that the strange Mr Shine had handed him.

His last rolls that night went like this.

He placed his twelve large on the pass line. Then he blew on the dice and let ‘me fly. The dice soared down the green felt, past the stacks of chips and loose currency. And then they tumbled until they hit the rubber on the back wall and finally came to rest. Two threes smiled up at the crowd. The point was six, Rufus Piggs’ favourite number. Winner! He blew and rolled again, a four and a two. Winner! The crowd gasped then cheered. Rufus Piggs’ eyes bulged. Mr Shine’s charms were working, all right.

It was the kind of luck that always causes consternation and suspicion. Which in this case was leading to some profound eye contact between the dealer and a heavyset zoot-suited boxman named Smoothy Cox, sitting in a chair near the door. Then a barely perceptible nod passed between them.

The dealer stepped forward and checked the dice Piggs was throwing. They were legit, but he removed them anyway. The stickman offered a bowl of new dice to choose from. Piggs was too hot to care. He snatched up a pair, indiscriminately. Then he rattled them in his fist and let ‘em go. Six again. The crowd dropped a collective jaw and then cheered once more. Piggs was relaxed now. Suddenly, winning was what he did. It was what winners naturally did. And he was a winner. No need for excitement here, folks.

Smoothy Cox didn’t see it that way, though. He stood up and blocked the doorway out of the room.

Rufus Piggs let his stacks of loose bills stand. Winning the next roll was worth nearly a hundred grand. Every promise he ever made to WB Yeats was about to come true. The house in the country, the nice car and the respectful neighbours. All only a roll of the dice away. And he had the diamond dice next to his heart. He was made in the shade.

He pitched the dice and watched, knowing in all confidence that another six was just around the corner. The dice flew again, like a couple of fiery ivory meteors flying past the unbelieving eyes of onlookers and fellow punters.

But this time, when the ivory meteors hit the end of the table, the six never materialised. He had rolled a twelve.  The crowd moaned quietly, stoically.

“Bastard,” one of the losing players muttered.

Rufus Piggs watched his hard won money disappear in the hands of the dealer, and Smoothy Cox moved away from the door and took a seat once more. Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of God Bless the Child had come to an end down the hall, without Piggs noticing. And now that it had, he remembered what Elga Coal had said — The song never knows when it’s about to end.

Piggs’ good hand fell at his side. He felt a nickel in his pocket. Enough for a morning time cup of java.

No one round the table would lend him a dime to start over. He knew it. Maybe he could go to ‘The Pearl’ for another loan. A small one this time, just to hold him over until his luck changed. After all, this wasn’t how it was supposed to have happened. That bastard Mr Shine had promised the world was his, hadn’t he? But what a nickel and a promise could get you in this town wasn’t much.

He shouldered past a grinning Smoothy Cox on his way out.

“You’re still a loser,” Smoothy said. Then he said, “Come back anytime – and bring money.”

Awaiting him was the familiar lonesomeness of hallways and stairwells navigated after all the money was gone. He’d broken distance records walking these. He ignored the elevator and left through a door with an exit sign above it. Then he descended the stairs and went out through the lobby onto Hastings Street. He was blind to the carnival there, but Nester Dayton spotted him in a second. Dayton nodded to a newsy across the sidewalk, and the boy ran round to the back of the hotel to alert ‘The Pearl’ and Gleason Quinn.

Dayton watched Piggs through the dense crowd as best he could, while looking back over his shoulder for ‘The Pearl’. ‘The Peal’ appeared in a minute, shadowed by Gleason Quinn, and the three of them ran to catch up with Piggs.

They did at Columbia Street. Gleason Quinn grabbed Rufus Piggs by the collar, and dragged him into the alley behind the Broadway Hotel.

“I hear you been winning big,” said The Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Maybe it’s time to share the wealth and pay me back what you owe.”

“I ain’t got nothin’,” Rufus Piggs said. “I bet it all and lost.”

“That’s too bad,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I think you ain’t never gonna pay, so that means you’re only good for one thing. You know what that is?”

Piggs looked down at his shoes and shook his head, like he didn’t know what ‘The Pearl’ was driving at. But he knew good and well.

“A deadbeat bum like you,” ‘The Pearl’ said, “is only good for being made an example of.”

“Yeah yeah,” Nester Dayton said, lighting another cigarette. “An example of, yeah.”

Gleason Quinn pulled a knuckle knife out from under his coat and ran its point down Piggs’ cheek.

“I ain’t gonna squawk,” Rufus Piggs said, looking Gleason in the eye. “Maybe it’s better like this.”

“Give it to him in the belly, Gleason,” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Let’s watch him roll round on the ground fer a while.”

“Yeah, on the ground, on the ground,” said Nester Dayton, as he scratched himself and picked his nose.

And that was how it might have ended in that moment, but then Rufus Piggs remembered the charms.

“Wait!” he said, as his hand went to the pocket nearest his heart. “I’ve got something you might want instead of money….” Then he pulled out the diamond dice. They shone in the palm of his hand, under the single naked incandescent bulb that swung above them.

“What the…?” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’, as his eyes bugged out. He seemed to recognise, with his street cunning, what the dice truly were.

“They’s just some glass dice,” said Gleason Quinn.

“They sure as hell ain’t,” said ‘The Pearl’. He reached out and was about the snatch them up, when another man spoke.

“Sure as Hell?” said Mr Shine. “It’s funny, that little turn of phrase. You all pray it doesn’t exist. And yet you say it everyday – sure as Hell.

“Who’s this chump?” said Gleason Quinn. “And what’s that smell?”

Piggs saw Shine and knew why he was there.

“Don’t worry, Quinn,” Piggs said. “He’s here for me.”

“Yes I am,” said Mr Shine. “You’ve had your little moment in the sun. Now it’s time to go.”

“I thought there’d be more,” said Piggs. “More to win and more to keep.”

“Well,” said Mr Shine. “Like the lady says, You can help yourself, but don’t take too much.”

Suddenly, Rufus Piggs knew the words to the song in full. He looked down at his shoes again and shook his head, his good hand still clenching the diamond dice.

“I want ‘em,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I want them dice.”

“Are you certain?” said Mr Shine. “Really, really certain?”

“Walk away, Roscoe,” Piggs said.

“Shut up, Piggs,” Roscoe greedily shouted. “Hand ‘em over.”

“Do it,” said Mr Shine. And Piggs handed the diamond dice over to ‘The Pearl’.

“Now you two scram,” ‘The Pearl’ said to Piggs and Mr Shine.

“That’s fine,” said Mr Shine. “See you soon, Mr Margolis.”

“Like hell.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Mr Shine. And he and Rufus Piggs faded into the fog.

read the other two stories in the Elga Coal trilogy
Billy Romance and the dirt

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin

It’s when you secretly slide it into your pocket that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide on your person. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. But you have to be careful because store security watches the cheese. That’s why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it down the front of my pants.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean, it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time but you don’t know what to act on first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics – like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me.

I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building, man?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?”

“Shut up.”

“You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off the top of refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity. I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

“Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,’ Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No. Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky started talking that kind of shit that he overdosed or got knifed or got in some other way dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die, baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern?”

“Shut the hell up. I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation — Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin. That kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“When I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the SunshineCoast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing and I figured there must be more where that one hundred dollar bill came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?”

“Yeah. The dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?”

“Not for you.”

the opening line

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story.

Ringing at the other end of the line. Clicks and long distance ghosts. A faint far away voice, perhaps in time, saying the name Agnes three times. Then the hollow plastic sound of hanging up. Vera answered on the forth ring.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Vera. It’s Nathaniel.”

“Nathaniel. Where are you? What’s 604? We’re all so worried.”

“It’s Vancouver, 604. I’m in Vancouver at a motel.”

“Washington? Why?”

“No. Canada. Vancouver Canada.”

“Canada? My God that’s so far away.”

“Only a few miles from Washington. “

“Why there? When are you coming home?”

“It was the first flight out, so I took it. It’s nice here. Kind of like Disneyland. The streets are clean. I’m on a street called Kingsway. It’s raining.”

“Get to the airport. They have one don’t they? Get to the airport, and get a ticket home. Call me when you get it, and tell me your arrival time. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“No, Vera. I like it here, for the moment. People say thank you like they mean it. The air doesn’t smell like anything. It’s just air. There’re mountains with trees. I’m looking at them. I mean I can’t really see them right now because of the clouds and rain, but the girl at the desk assured me that they’re there. Maybe I’ll be able to write something here.”

“Do you have your medication? You have to have your medication. You know what happens when….”

“I have to go.”

“No. That’s not fair. These things you do to us….”

“You’re speaking in sentence fragments, Vera. That means it’s time to hang up.”

“No, please.”

Nathaniel hung up.

When he came into the suite, a little stucco cabin really, he was drawn to the picture window. It provided a view of a wet off season parking lot. True inspiration.

“So, I’m Roger, Mr Reed,” the porter had said putting the suit cases down. “I’m a big fan. When’s the next one coming out? They just keep getting better and better. You’re about due, aren’t you? I belong to a discussion group online. We’re rereading your old titles now, but it sure would be great if you wrote another. Anything you need to make your time with us more enjoyable, just track me down on the phone. I’ll get it for you. Have a nice stay.”

Nathaniel placed the shoulder bag containing his laptop on the table near the window. The laptop with five half written stories occupying a fragment of its drive. Five half developed ideas. Products of his medicated mind. Sedate characters living uninteresting lives completely devoid of incongruity.

“What’s this shit,” Angela, his publisher, had said when he presented her with three of the five as teasers. “Where’re the crack pipe swallowers and paranoids howling at the moon? Where’s the kink? You write about whack jobs, psychos and abhorrent sexual desire, Nathaniel. That’s what your readers want.”

“I can’t anymore. I’ve done it for ten years. I deserve to move on. I’m on some decent meds for the first time in my life. The voices have stopped. I’m clean, and I haven’t had a drink in more than a year. I think I’m feeling normal. I want to try to write something normal.”

“Fuck normal, Nate. This is a money making gig here, and we publish pulp. The freak shows you write that we pass off as novels make dough. For all of us including you. Your readers pay to live like junkies, raging schizoids and hermaphrodite nymphomaniacs three hundred pages at a time. It’s how they convince themselves they’ve got street cred as they drive their beamers to Amway meetings.”

“I read Atonement while I was in rehab,” Nathaniel said.

“Oh boy, here it comes.”

“I want to write my Atonement.”

“We all want to write Atonement, Nate. Some of us want to write Lolita. But if we all could do it, McEwan and Nabokov would be fry cooks. You owe us two books, sport. You’re a year late because of this rehab stunt you pulled. So be a player and stick to addicts biting off their own toes and obeying their command hallucinations.”

That had been the last word, in a 24 hour submarine sandwich shop at midnight. And he knew she was right. He hadn’t written anything worth a damn since he’d started the medication and the idiotic 12 steps.

For this trip, he’d left the meds at home. The pink ones and the tiny white ones. Their small orange bottles stood impressively labelled in the cabinet over his sink. He’d resisted pouring them down the toilet. They weren’t worthy of such ceremony. They were just prescriptions. Did they really make him feel normal? What were the terms of reference? Was Vera normal with her nail biting and nervous life long insomnia? Was Angela, chain smoking on coke and absinthe and running out of body parts to pierce and tattoo?

He unzipped his shoulder bag, pulled out his laptop and placed it back on the table. An expensive bit of plastic housing some circuitry. And five unfinished, unwanted stories. He closed his eyes tight and tried to feel the absence of the psych meds. It had only been two days since he took the last dose. The ones that stabilised his mood; the ones that quieted the voices. He knew they were still present in his body, stabilising and quieting. It might take weeks or months to flush them out. He was detoxing all over again.

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story. It kept coming back like a ball thrown against a wall, like the urge to use and drink again. It wasn’t the opening line to a normal story. It wasn’t the sort of opening line seen in a Michael Crichton novel. It was pure pulp. But an opening line to a perfectly marketable story in an age that had resurrected burlesque and the roller derby.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

That was it. From it a novel could grow.

Definitely not Michael Crichton. But then, Michael Crichton didn’t really write novels anyway. Just exhausting overwritten outlines for soon-to-be exhausting overwritten Hollywood scripts. A script adaptation would be nice right now. It would take some of the heat off money wise. But Angela was right. Stories of reconstituted dinosaurs and courageous missionary position medical practitioners weren’t in him.

But what of McEwan. Full of irony and passion. Passion for the little things as much as for the large. Atonement, what was the opening line? He’d memorized it while in his room at the recovery house, repeating it in his head while others said the serenity prayer.

The play – for Which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

He paused to compare his recurring opening line, the one that was haunting him, to McEwan’s.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

Perhaps it wasn’t a fair comparison.

He lifted one of his suitcases onto the bed, opened it and retrieved a faded tee shirt and a pair of gym shorts. As he changed, he noticed the mini-bar. It was oddly placed next to the king sized bed like a nightstand. It hummed a cool invitation. As a writer, recovering drunk and generally curious individual, he was fascinated by the phenomena of the mini-bar. Nothing in the hotel/motel world was so closely monitored and inventoried. You could get away with stealing towels, the soap, the little bottles of shampoo. But you could never get away with pinching mini-bar items. Not even the shitty little bags of peanuts.

He crouched and opened the small refrigerator door, and saw the neat rows of little bottles and snack items. It reminded him of Hunter S Thompson’s drug inventory from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.

Here was five vodka, five gin, five rye, five scotch, five rum, five tequila, three Jack Daniel’s,  six beer and four half sized bottles of wine, along with mixer. Ice was outside and round the corner.

He poured five tiny bottles of vodka into a glass and gulped it back. More than a year since his last. But why was he drinking from a glass, not directly from the bottle? What had he become? There was a long way to go to get back. To return to that magical, moneyed and celebrated place. It was those crappy little bottles. Man had evolved to become obsessed with portion control.  Could he get crack in this sterile city?

He returned to the laptop, plugged it in and turned it on. As it booted, he made a call and tracked Roger down. The vodka was gone, and he was now drinking scotch.

“Roger?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“I need Smirnoff. Red label. A couple of monster bottles. You got those in this country?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“And, umm, Roger?”

“Yes, Mister Reed?”

“I’m not sure how to ask.”

After an appropriate pause, Roger said, “I’m the motel porter and handyman, Mr Reed. What could you possibly ask for that those before you haven’t?”

There was a soiled logic to that. Nathaniel hesitated and then spit it out, “Rock, pipe, brillo.” He said it like rock, paper, scissors. What was the hand gesture for brillo, he wondered.

“Not instantly available, and a bit pricy under the circumstances.”

“Whatever.”

“And a word of caution, Mr Reed.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“You’re in a non-smoking suite. If consuming the latter requested item indoors, I’d turn on the bathroom fan.”

“Yes. Sound advice. I’m running out of mini-bar choices, Roger. Please hurry.”

He panicked at first, after he’d hung up and sat at the computer, facing the blinking cursor on the blank screen. Then he looked out the window and knew he must give in. To remove the demon from the mind, it must be written down.