Christmas Eve with Bucky at the Coffee Shop on the Corner

 

Bucky hadn’t been the same since something mysterious happened to him when he was about fourteen years old. He and I had been in high school together until grade nine, when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he was twenty-five, and sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters over wi-fi, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford on his own. (Recently, they’d been leaving him wrapped Christmas presents also.)

It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat with him, mostly pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from whatever site he’d fallen on that day.

“Says here,” he said that Christmas Eve, reading from a Reddit page, as I sat and placed an eggnog latte and chocolate croissant in front of him, “that someone at SETI has leaked classified files the information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”

“Oh?” I said, knowing that by doing so, I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Bucky. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came to our house it was on a Christmas Eve like this deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, a fresh unpunctuated word sauté, a marathon mixture of misplaced word emphasis, concept fragments and idea run-ons, all of it headed toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories swirling like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed, always wondering what it all might look like written down on a page.

Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to say more. On his forehead, his bizarre tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper, only backward. He’d done it himself, in the mirror.

“It was Christmas card apocalypse,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city you couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift into a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked what choice did they have they made him into soap I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, hoping to cut myself free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. I could move on; my sins were forgiven.

Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down. The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, and he said, “Please don’t go.”

“Fine.”

“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Bucky.

“What?” This was new.

“The grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last people I’d ever loved were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”

He seemed desperate now, seeming to want to snatch up something skirting round his craggy terrain. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away that I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour I know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes did I ever tell you that?”

Actually, he never had. Like the rest of the regular coffee shop patrons, I’d believed that all of his peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a serious dissociative disorder of nameless origins. Now, I thought this might be it—that he’d never wanted to relive some horrible moment, that he was certain had taken place,  until now.

“I looked out the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched that spaceship streak across the black Christmas Eve sky.”

Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.

“It flew over the venting mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon and I watched it disappear it was temporarily finished with our world the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones the unceded lands and occupied territories the corporations and open-carry Christians it was moving at light speed now out of sight having flown through the tar of our slaughtered environment and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone once brightly like a Bethlehem star and out of place while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon but it really wasn’t so that when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”

“You okay, Bucky?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us get it a centimetre a second 604,800 seconds a week they throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of what we are that’s their plan but it’s never enough they always want more so from time to time when they go home to visit they take a trophy something extra a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow that was Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Ah.” What else was there to say, except, “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? How am I supposed to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty is a bit fucked up.”

“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”

“I guess I trust you that’s all as far as believing me goes you will because you’re a geek a skinny awkward white boy open to anything in pursuit of any goddamn reality other than what’s so depressingly obvious.”

Ouch. “There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I stuttered.

“Yeah well I ain’t virtual I’m for real you can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”

He was right, I could.

“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day it’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias I’m living forever one day that window’s gonna bust and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”

“Stop talking like that. I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows and I guess I feel lighter for it maybe that puts you in the doghouse somehow because there are villains out there who want a piece of me but I don’t think so if anyone asks you can just tell them that the retard with the forehead tattoo was just talking shit.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.

He was there Boxing Day morning. No one had beamed Bucky up, or whacked him. His hollow cheeks seemed a little greyer, though, and based on his mutterings, his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracies and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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how I began 2016

Thurston and I had been in high school together until grade nine when he was abandoned by his family, and was put into the care of social services. There he remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday, when I found him standing on a street corner downtown with a grocery bag full of his few personal belongings. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. Clearly he hadn’t been the same since being abandoned, and it was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly only pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from poorly photocopied sheets of interstellar intrigue, or retelling his own story of familial rejection.

“Says here,” he said, last New Year’s Eve morning, reading form a toner smeared sheet of paper, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.” I sat down and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him.

This was new intel. So, “Oh?” I said, realising then that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. Stirring my coffee, I looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston (of course he had). He bit down and tore off a flaky bite of croissant; crumbs went everywhere. “It was a Christmas Eve long ago when they came for my mother and sister deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury vapour streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, word salad fresh and crispy, with only a drizzling of commas. And I knew from experience what was on the page he was reading from: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, bombastic nonsensical sentences, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled, mostly unconsciously, like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. All of it taken from the curling yellowing edges of the internet, small densely packed Times Roman font on pages with nearly no margins, and completely devoid of graphics, except for hand-drawn moonmen and their rocket capsules. Many of the webpages had been in existence since the 90s.

Placing his ball cap on the table, I saw once again the mysterious tattoo on his balding head, a thin blue sequence of prime numbers, 2—3—5—7, looking, at first glance, like something done for him by a cellmate in a dimly lit death-row prison cell with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. The numbers were backward, though. So instead of the prison cell theory, I chose to believe that at some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it to himself, in the mirror.

“It was like Christmas card salvation really,” he began again, “when the aliens came for my mom and sis. Salvation from the industry-dead rot of a city lost to the world. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have in the end they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash. I say a little soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink he had and the way he’d hid in a room down the basement and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free after that. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made that day’s offering of croissant at the altar of his madness. My sins were forgiven, and I began to get up.

But he pulled me back down as I rose, grabbing my arm too tightly. I winced. “Please don’t go,” he said.

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, but none of the other customers looked up. I was on my own.

“Christmas Eve,” said Thurston, “way long ago yeah you bet. They took my mother and my sister the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone in a nightmare and now the last two people in the world I ever loved. My mother and sister taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of sci-fi reruns thick with code and insinuation. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them intentionally or to the contrary and I’d been betrayed by television.”

“I’ve heard this part before, Thurston,” I said, but I had to admit that it was coming out stranger than normal this time. He sounded a little more vulnerable. Hopeless, or content to have arrived somewhere, finally.

“But did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I watched the spaceship fly away?” He paused and stared a moment. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour. I actually know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes. There’re government spooks who’d like to know, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye, thinking I’d give empathy a try. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell anyone this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance and befuddlements arose out of his never wanting to relive those horrible moments, so real in his mind if nowhere else. And all empathy aside, I wondered if I should be the one to hear the important details first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “that special window of mine and I watched them streak across the black Christmas Eve sky. They flew over the chimneys of the yellow lit reduction plant a mile away where the ghost of my father now played lunchroom Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a bright moon on the horizon. I watched it linger there. It was finished with this fentanyl planet the foreign no-fly zones proxy wars the unceded land occupied territories the corporations and Trump-devout-open-carry-Christians. The aliens had moved at near light speed through the taint and tar of our wasteland above the institutionalised poverty and starvation. But it didn’t disappeared completely until after it’d stopped a moment suspended like a star and all of us who cared to look wished upon it. Because that’s what people do even in a shit-storm. But when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They left that night most of us supposed never to return but they’re back now. They’re colonising us—get it? A centimetre a day ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of who we are. That’s their plan. We didn’t invent the extermination of selfhood and the theft culture after all even if we are real good at it. That’s just a part of why they took Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? And why should I believe you? It’s too fucking weird, Thurston.”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty does look a bit fucked up but there are deeper meanings to simple things. I’m telling you this now because I’m not sure how much longer I have. But also because you’ve asked and some of us believe that you have a right to know. That’s just a fact. You see you’re at the centre of a system of orbits Jeffery. You’re like a deep hole in space that things can’t help falling into. Things that are good sure but things that aren’t so good like hatred too. Planets like hatred. Hatred like planets. Invisible because hatred is only a thought and thoughts are invisible. Somethings are torn from their orbits by their ferocity and that’s good but some never are. You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you naturally. But try to imagine a class of Number Sum Inheritors of Equation Legacies sworn to absolute secrecy and existing in unimaginable isolation in order to protect universal rudiments like gravity and time and that all desirable futures depend upon these Inheritors’ inherited knowledge remaining concealed from another class of predatory Opposites who would deconstruct current realities changing all possible outcomes to their own ends. Now try to imagine that sometimes in rare cases when an Inheritor is in possession of a greater truth than all others it means that that Inheritor is made unaware of who he is and what he holds. It’s done this way for his own protection certainly but mostly for the protection of universally accepted categories of pliable chaos necessary to ensure welcome evolutions. Then there are those of us who are Guardians of the Inheritors and the Guardians bear a mark.” He touch the backward numbers on his head. “Someone was watching over you even when I was gone all of those years. So the answer to your question: Why should I believe you? Is that you likely never will. Happily.”

“That’s a very serious burden to lay on a guy, Thurston.” And I wondered if I actually did believe him.

“I’ve told you this because the window I looked out of and watched the spaceship so long ago is all that protects me. The window’s a metaphor of course but a powerful one and it’s panes of glass are getting a little more brittle every day. It’s all that stands between me and them and therefore them and you. You shouldn’t be surprised if one day soon they find me dead in a culvert.”

“You’re right,” I decided. “I don’t believe you. You’re insane, and I pity you like everyone else.”

“Well now you know the basics at least,” he said, “and I feel a bit lighter for it.” He took another bite of his croissant.

He wasn’t in the coffee shop the next morning, and I checked the crime sections of the local newspapers for news of his demise. Nothing, and I was glad. I had an uneasy feeling, though. The night before had been one of uneasy dreams. Out of place stars setting on eerie horizons, and dark planets in a room circling slowly as I sat in the centre in a wooden chair turning in the opposite direction.

The barista behind the counter was new that morning too, his grin a little too wide and curled at the corners. I ordered a double shot latte, and recognised a constellation of stars in his foamy art that made me feel oddly lonesome and homesick.

“Chaos is a funny thing,” the barista said, holding out his hand to shake. “Hi, my name’s Bradley and I’m gonna be here for you from now on.” He was prematurely bald and had a shaven head, but didn’t have a tattoo.

Thurston’s body was found three days later.

2016 got even stranger after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee with Thurston—a Christmas Carol in June

Thurston hadn’t been the same since the abduction. He and I had been in high school together, until grade nine when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly feigning to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from his poorly photocopied sheets of intrigue, or retelling his story of visitation.

“Says here,” he said one June day, reading form a smeared sheet of paper, as I sat and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”

This was new and, “Oh?” I said, guessing that SETI didn’t keep classified files, and realising that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came it was on a Christmas Eve deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, a fresh and crispy word salad, and I had an idea I knew what it might look like written on the page: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, misplaced sentence emphasis, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. He was a man trying to be someone—anyone—in the absence of identity. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed.

Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to carry on, and I saw not for the first time his balding head with the mysterious tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. It was done backward. At some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it himself, in the mirror. He was about twenty-five years old.

“It was like Christmas card salvation,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. My sins were forgiven.

Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down and said, “Please don’t.”

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat.

“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Thurston, “the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last who I ever loved. They were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation. Cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”

I said, “I’ve heard this part before, Thurston.”

Odd, though. He seemed desperate this time, to snatch up something skirting round the craggy terrain of his truth. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away?” He asked the question with unusual succinctness. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape, the direction it took, its colour. I know the trajectory and speed, or speeds, latitudes and longitudes, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye. He looked back with a strange and sustained candour. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance, peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a dissociative disorder, his never wanting to relive those horrible moments. I wondered if I should be the one to hear it first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched it streak across the black Christmas sky.”

Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.

“It flew over the venting, mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon, and I watched it disappear. It was finished with the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones, the unceded land and occupied territories, the corporations and open-carry Christian fanatics. It was moving at light speed now, out of sight, having flown through the taint and tar of our slaughtered environment, and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone brightly, briefly and out of place, while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon. But it wasn’t. So, when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more, the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace, ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another, forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us, get it? A centimetre a day, ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics, and while we kill each other trying to monetise it, they take more and more of what and who we are. That’s their plan, I guess. We didn’t invent the theft of land and culture, after all. But it’s never enough for them. They’re just like us; they always want more. So from time to time, when they go home to visit, they take a trophy, something extra, a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow. That was Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? Who’s ever going to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The tatty is a bit fucked up.”

“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”

“I guess I trust you, that’s it. As far as believing me goes, you will because you’re a geek, an awkward white boy open to ideas in pursuit of any goddamn thing to believe in in this world other than the crap he sees on the internet.”

“There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, well I’m for real. You can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”

He was right, I could.

“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day. It’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time, and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias of mine forever. One day that window’s gonna bust, and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”

“I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows, and I guess I feel lighter for it. Maybe that puts you in the doghouse, but I don’t think so. You can just tell them, the retard didn’t say shit, if anyone asks.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.

Maybe if it was a piece of fiction he wouldn’t have been there the next morning, but he was. No one had beamed Thurston up, or whacked him. His gauntness seemed a little greyer, though, and his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracy sheets and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.

 

 

 

 

 

my best story of 2015 (IMHO)

sushi with Caravaggio

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Things never pass.”

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

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

 

the most dangerous woman in the galaxy

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

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

*   *   *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“Disobeying?”

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

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

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

“Nonsense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s seen it?” he said.

“No one.”

“That’s a lie.”

Finster smiled, and blew smoke threw her nose.

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

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

the next day

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

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

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

But, she argued —

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Never mind.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“I have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, c’mon,” said Finster.

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

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

“You are more curious than intelligent.”

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

“Shall I shriek now?” she said.

“Nine. Bitte hinsetzen.”

“So, you’re German.”

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

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

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

“Immaterial.”

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

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

“Oh,” he said, looking at the tines.

“What about the Cube?”

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

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

“Cruel.”

“How is it cruel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

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

 

 

the curvature of the Earth

when the aliens arrived
they were fascinated by trees
and the pages they made in books

they would turn at a touch but
blow in the wind to
any old place in a
bedlam of plot

this wasn’t the device of an advanced race
the aliens decided — it was
backwardness! and the
stories, oh the stories

these were a rude gothic people
some of whom left up the toilet seat or
couldn’t parallel park or
ran from lovers on the flimsiest of grounds

all of the aliens wept when
after Catherine’s funeral
Isabella left Heathcliff

how could this species evolve?

the neon purple SOS

The hotel’s ancient neon sign still shines through my window every night, even with the venetian blinds closed. During the day it’s like any other sign, but after dark it blinks out an SOS dispatch in purple Morse code. · · · – – – · · ·, · · · – – – · · · , · · · – – – · · · . All night, every night. But no one responds to the plea. If this old hotel were a ship at sea, it would sink with all aboard. Without a trace. Without ever being remembered.

I told Vladislav about this once, before everything happened, mostly to fill up some of our hour together. He increased my Thorazine. I always left the pills in their bottles at the Altar of Our Lady, in the cathedral down the street. She accepted them as an offering. They were never there the next day.

A new tenant moved into the hotel, just before the shit hit the fan. He sang a cappella at night. Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer. Until about 4am every morning. With all the right breaks in all the right places. He had amazing timing. Kind of like Sinatra, after he divorced Ava Gardner. I could hear him through the air vent over my bed. It was like having a Vegas floorshow piped in — with the old neon sign going SOS SOS SOS, ad infinitum. So, who the fuck had time to sleep?

At one of my last appointments with Vladislav, he suggested that perhaps the new tenant wasn’t real, and asked if I’d been taking my meds. He used to get a little thrill out of suggesting the things I enjoyed in life weren’t real. Like all of the beautiful red and orange leaves in autumn, that blanketed the floor of my room, and crunched under my feet when I got up in the night to go to the can.

I smiled and lied about the medication, of course. And purposely failed to mention that the Virgin Mary was taking the pills now, instead of me. And that her beatific smile seemed to imply that they were working better for her than they had for me.

He shifted belligerently in his chair, and took iniquitous notes. But we weren’t friends, or anything.

In fact, by then, Vlad had become a problem. He only wanted to see me biweekly, and said I could email him if I had an issue. Except he never returned my emails. Even when I emailed him that I was surrounded by the Greys, and they were eating out of my refrigerator. The little alien fuckers would scare the hell out of me. Standing round my bed, staring at me with their big orbicular eyes, eating my KFC leftovers, throwing the bones onto the floor. Would they do that on their own planet? I don’t think so.

Anyway, I’d been planning something special for ol’ Vladislav. Something based on an idea hatched out of one of those crushing, self-obliterating darknesses I enjoy so much. The ones that permeate my inner-metaphysical assemblages at the deepest possible level, and suck every molecular spec of me down the kitchen drain. Then spit me back up in a seweratic bloom, renewed and radiant like the still-glowing hands of a long dead thrift store alarm clock.

It always surprised me and boosted my mood, the creativity that bled out of my blackest despondencies. It was like getting my bonus Air Miles in the mail on a gloomy day.

My depression inspired idea was a mind control transmitter. It turned out all I needed was a PC, an internet connection and a proper set of headphones. Not earbuds, mind you. But a full-on headset, like the hippies used to use. Skullcandy’s okay, but Bose is better.

This was the trick:

  1. Plug the headset jack into audio-in, instead of audio-out.
  2. When this is done place the headset on your head, over your ears.
  3. Twist the headset ninety degrees to the right, so that the left earpiece is on your forehead.
  4. Now you had a direct line, through the left earpiece, from your prefrontal cortex into the CPU. And you could stream your thought controlling messages into Gmail.

It took up a lot of bandwidth. But when I pressed send, my thought control messages would go out over the driftnet they called the worldwide web, and they were delivered to the addressee. When the recipient opened the email, his or her brain would lock onto the message, and they would do whatever I demanded.

I used Google Drive’s 10GB attachment size limit to avoid Gmail’s meager 25MB limit. A thought control message could be pretty huge. There was a lot of code involved. Maybe that would have changed once it caught on. Mothers could have used it to sneakily coax their children to call, and governments to convince the people that critical thought was terrorism.

The first thought control message I sent was to the Mayor, and it took him less than a week to fix the sidewalk out front. It had been cracked and bumpy before, and old people had been tripping and falling all over the place. By lunchtime, most days, it looked like a geriatric killing field, all of the oldsters fallen and unable to get up. But after my mind control message made it to the Mayor, and the sidewalk was repaired, they just floated by with their walkers, like wheeled robots blissified in their new found movability.

My point is that this was a proven technology, baby. I didn’t hold any patents or copyright on it, though. It was like shareware. You could have tried it at home. I didn’t care.

After the Mayor, it was Vlad’s turn. I didn’t have any demands like fix my sidewalk for him. He probably couldn’t even use a screwdriver. I just wanted to fuck him up a bit, introduce the cardigan-wearing comb-over mother fucker to an existent reality, separate from the DSM 5 and Land’s End deck shoes.

And so, by now you’ve probably figured out that Vlad was a psychiatrist. He wanted me to call him Vladislav, instead of Dr Pulin, because he thought being on a first name basis gave him some perversely deserved form of street cred. But it just made him seem like Sally Field in The Flying Nun. And like I’ve said, he liked to tie most of my lived experiences to my presumed psychosis. He even refused to acknowledge the presence of the Greys, with their big buggy eyes and Domino’s Pizza, whenever they’d come along with me to an appointment.

His office was on the twelfth floor of an old downtown art deco number, with a stone balcony above the busy street. The balcony was festooned with flowering potted plants, vines and shrubs. And he had a small Ethiopian man named Bruck come in once a week to take care of them. Vladislav didn’t really like Bruck though, and Bruck thought Vlad was an asshole.

Sometimes Bruck offered insights into what he overheard from patients on the balcony. Insights that seemed far more informed than Vladislav’s. Vlad really resented this. I watched it happen in the waiting room a few times, as Vlad leaned forward, breathing heavily over the receptionist, pretending to read a file on the counter. Bruck would say something clinically astute, and Vlad would sneer and send him back out onto the balcony with his pruning shears.

“That little African bastard’s really pushing my buttons,” he’d whisper into the receptionist’s ear, with his garlicky lunchtime escargot breath. “Can we do anything to revoke his citizenship?”

The receptionist would shrug and wheel away on her desk chair.

In the summer, I’d sit out on the balcony for sessions with Vlad. This would have been almost enjoyable if he wasn’t such a dick, smoking his pipe, nodding needlessly, raising his eyebrows and squinting critically, displaying mock empathy at what might have been the right moment, but never was. It was like a well-rehearsed alienist pantomime, probably perfected in his intern years, surrounded by slobbering imbecilic psych ward inmates in a hospital just off of skid row. And it had the adrenaline stink of his own internalised horror. But I never said anything; sometimes the patient must accommodate the physician.

Sometimes he’d say shit like, “Let me help you take joy in choosing life.” Like he wasn’t the single most suicidal ideation inducing factor in my life.

I would have split and run if the visits weren’t court ordered. Hell, if the visits weren’t court ordered, I’d have been drinking beer and snorting amyl nitrite under a bridge somewhere.

But getting back to mind control via the doubtable Windows operating system.

I’d bought a pair of Bose SoundTrue on-ear headphones the day before it all went to hell. I believed they’d work better than the vintage Sears model I’d been using, with its adapter plug and fraying cord. Besides, I probably looked like a total loser with a pair of headphones from the eighties, turned ninety degrees on my head. The eighties wasn’t a bad decade, but they had different ideas about what was compact and streamlined back then. As soon as I tried on the Bose set in the store, gave them a quick turn so the left earpiece was on my forehead, and asked to see myself in a mirror, I knew that I was making the right choice.

That night I came home, sat in the blinking neon purple SOS light and listened to the Vegas floorshow guy singing through the air vent. And I composed my mind control message to Dr Vladislav Pulin, as I did.

I’d brought home a couple of six packs and started to guzzle. This was going to be great.

I really wanted to set the shithead up for some grief, and I’d spoken to Bruck earlier in the week to tell him what to watch for, that there would be a chance to peg Vlad with a harassment complaint that might really pay off.

“Do you believe you can control world events, Tommy?” Bruck asked me.

“No,” I said. Okay, I sort of lied.

“Well that’s fine, then.”

After I explained my plan to him, he put his hand on mine and told me that he understood that realities could differ greatly, but that that didn’t deny the importance of one’s personal perception. Then he said that I should proceed with my plan, as long as no one got hurt.

It was absolutely the right thing to say, in so many ways. And it came out of the mouth of an Ethiopian grader. Ain’t that something?

The as long as no one got hurt part really didn’t sink in, though. That might have been the beginning of how it all went so wrong. And in hindsight, I might have worded things differently. Too late now.

The message sort of went like this:

Hi Vlad, (regular email salutation protocols apply to thought control messaging) Why don’t you get back at the little bastard, Bruck, and push his button? Find it and push it, Vlad. Push the button that will ruin, even eliminate, your greatest enemy. Go ahead, Vlad, push the button that will change the world and put you in charge. You know you want to.

By then I’d gotten through the first six beer. I was a little bit tipsy, I’ll admit. I forgot all about the Google ezAutoCorrect extension that lived on my computer, in an alternative reality all its own. It ended up drastically changing the spelling of key words in my message. In the address field, Vladislav.Pulin@gmail.com became Vladmir.Putin@gmail.com. And in the text field, Bruck was changed to Barack.

I take no solace in knowing that I’m not the first drunken fool to press send, when he should have held off until the morning after.

And who the hell knew Vladimir Putin had a Gmail account?

The mind control email message arrived on Putin’s PC in the afternoon, and The Button was pushed shortly after.

So, now the neon purple SOS has a new kind of importance. Worldwide electrical grids are failing, along with mass communications. A massive electromagnetic pulse wiped every hard drive and flash drive on the planet clean in a nuclear second. The Vegas floorshow guy still sings, but his songs seem a little more melancholy, and he’s developed a persistent cough that messes up his timing. The good news is that the Greys haven’t returned. I guess it’s because KFC and Domino’s don’t deliver anymore.