lost ironies

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Tag: Canada

the hunger axioms

The unspoken rules of poverty in Canada

  1. Hunger in Canada, and the systemic poverty alleged to cause it, are myths.
  2. Hunger and poverty, resulting from disability, age, isolation and/or systemic disadvantage, are fabrications, created by seditious elements within Canadian society.
  3. If the myths of hunger and poverty in Canada were realities, its response, as a wealthy, just and compassionate nation, would be immediate, addressing hunger and all other poverty related issues with efficiency and empathy, by providing the adequate financial assistance and gateways to education and accommodating employment necessary to establish and maintain the dignity and comfort of those effected, while striving to eliminate poverty itself.
  4. If the myths of hunger and poverty in Canada were realities, a robust and unprejudiced charity model would quickly evolve, generously funded by spontaneous and unsolicited public and private gifts and contributions, to seamlessly and more than adequately address the problem in an equal and dignified fashion.
  5. The redistribution of wealth through a basic livable guaranteed income is unnecessary and unrealistic. Its suggestion is subversive, and Canada as a nation of good and informed citizens adhere to this unproven truth without question.
  6. Those who spread myths of hunger and poverty in Canada are disloyal, lack the motivation to prosper and lack the gratitude consistent within the nation as a whole.
  7. Canada, as a nation, finds these axioms irrefutable, and the questioning of them, or disagreement with them, is a betrayal of the Nation and its people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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here’s what it’s like to drink water, 1980

we found a stone animal the size of a credenza
in a canyon round about Drumheller

it getting dark &
knowing no one questions night
we lit a lantern & ate beans

the water’s near gone one of us said
there were but two of us

hoodoos & goddam dinosaurs I said
then threw an empty can so far
that all we heard was a dime store echo

beans the other of us said
fuckin’ goddam beans
have some water?

sure
& I spilled a splash onto the gritty dirt we’d sat our asses on

for the critter I said
that’s one dead fuckin’ critter
deader ‘an a goddam hoodoo

righteous

 

 

 

Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peanuts, of course.”

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

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

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

“Where’ve you been, kid?”

“In the subbasement,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

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

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

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

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

I shook my shoulders for her, a little confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged.

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

I shrugged again.

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

“No one asked you to,” I said.

“Then stop making it with the big eyes.”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Sheet music’s stupid,” I said.

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

“Rufus,” I surrendered.

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

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

“So you improvise. What do you play?”

“Accordion.”

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

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

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

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

“Never had one of my own.”

“Then how…?”

More peanuts.

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

I shrugged yet again. It was fine by me.

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

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

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

“Hotel Wilhelmina,” Felicity told the driver.

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

“Just get us there alive, fella.”

“Okay (your funeral).”

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

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

“It smells,” I said.

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

I tried to hold my breath.

“Okay, sunshine. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

“How old are you, boy?” Barney said.

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“I can’t,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I said, “Requests?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It ain’t the best,” I said.

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

“Twenty bucks,” said Barney.

“Piano rolls and sheet music, in trade?”

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hesitated. Where was Felicity?

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

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

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

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

Now the door unlocked itself, and swung open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ain’t got no ambitions,” I said.

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

“It’s too big.”

“It will make you strong.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She died in a state of rapture.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’d believe it, anyway?”

“And what about the squeezebox?”

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

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

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

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

smoky Vancouver haiku

smoky Vancouver?
is there ash in your latte?
just wait for sunset

Leonard Cohen – 1966

I don’t post video very often, but this is very cool…

the soup line

Whiskey’s hard to get to know. A guy can spend his whole life trying, trying real hard. But in the end, laying there, raving in his wet brain hospital bed, with the priest shriving and the Catholic sisters tut-tutting, he doesn’t know whiskey any better than the day he met his first amber shot glass. And when he finally checks out, there isn’t enough left of him to look a friend in the eye and thank him for a hell of a good time.

Lots of guys turn to booze, sure. But Arson Willkie waited until misfortune whispered into his unguarded ear. He didn’t meet whiskey until after the trouble hit. So, I guess Arson was a drunk in the waiting. His reason and biology just itching to jump out of the window, when the moment was right. And you can’t help a guy like that. He isn’t going to take the pledge. He knows his feverish way of drinking is suicide. But if you say so, he’ll just ask why it’s taking so damn long.

The times of apple pie and stacked ham sandwiches ended when the market went bust in ’29. That’s when I first ran into Arson Willkie. Like him, most of the men who ended up in the soup line had been working in the woods, mining or fishing off the coast. Vancouver was where we landed, a stockpile of excess labour waiting for high noon.

A working man can be a fragile item, and our new found unemployment and poverty unnerved us. The women in the line had to be stoic on our behalf, as we queued up with our tin cups, meditating on the riots to come. The dismal relief camps hadn’t been thought of yet, and the conversation in line was about striking, occupying, pain and protest.

It was a rainy afternoon in February when Arson Willkie showed up in the city dump soup line, the day he finally gave in to his hunger. That’s the way it was with a lot of us, being too proud for too long for the good of our own bellies. At first, a guy would recognise things had gotten tough, but believed that hunger would never overtake him. But in 1929, hunger was catching up to everyone. The same way sleeping in a flea mansion flophouse or squatting in the dump was.

Before the crash had closed down the mills and logging operations, Arson had been a blunt, profane gang foreman, who’d rode a motorcycle from camp to camp, wearing leather jodhpurs, goggles and high laced logging boots, in full charge of himself and the men around him. Now he was at the mercy of a stony world. Maybe he always had been, but never knew it.

A soup line moves slowly; it gives a guy time to think about the ways he’s gone wrong. The march toward the tall steaming pots was nothing more than an ankle iron shuffle, while a preacher, standing on a beer crate, busted a gut over the mercy of Jesus and the grace He’d bestowed upon us, even those in league with Satan, because for a simple down payment of a forgiveness prayer, and a commitment to sin no more, Jesus would greet a man with open arms.

The trick was that a man had to find Jesus to enjoy salvation, like a drowning man might have to take time out from drowning, in the midst of his thrashing and gasping, to find his own rescuer to pull him out of the choppy grasp of the chuck. It was a strange kind of logic, only understood by those blinded by a certain sort of light. For the rest of us, it was just a Victrola playing backward.

Arson was greeted by some of the men in line, fore and aft, on his first day. But he held his head down, in the shame the new ones sometimes showed, the ones who’d thought that they were different and would survive, with a grin, what was shaping up to be the Great Depression. He took his tin cup, and rambled up to the soup pots, and the church women, with their ascetic calm and blame assigning eyes.

One of them handed him some bread and emptied her ladle into his cup.

“Say a thankful prayer to Jesus, friend,” she said.

Jesus was on furlough if He didn’t know, without a prayer, how grateful Arson was for his crummy little cup of soup and slice of sawdust bread. And he wanted to say so, but the woman’s terrible earnestness was a sword and shield, and he was unarmed.

“I prayed last night,” he said, gentler than he felt. “Before I went to sleep here in the rain, and I woke with a rat in my beadroll. Jesus sure is a puzzling fella.”

The woman blushed. Not for what Arson had said, but for how he had said it. It didn’t come out verbose, like so many other penniless censures of the obvious. And she feared him. She recognised the latent fury and subversion in his unshaven face, and saw a storm, of other men’s making, on his horizon.

“Well, that’s fine,” she muttered. “You move along, now.”

And he did.

What the church woman didn’t know was that even a man like Arson Willkie ached for passage into the mystic, same as her. But he knew it wasn’t in the cards for a bum in a squat, who didn’t belong anymore, who’d been pegged surplus by the world. He couldn’t reach the divine, riding on the same Sunday school chauvinism as her. And that night he spent his last dollar on his first bottle of hard liquor. It was the first and last bottle he ever shared. Within days, he’d taken to the streets, begging for pennies to buy more.

For a decade, I watched him drink like a true believer in the salvation of self-annihilation, during the chaos and hobo uprisings, and for another five years after that, as we fought through Europe, him drinking what he could find along the way, and detoxing painfully when there was nothing. He was hip deep in his own strange divinity, by then. By the time we were demobilised, he was ready for the soup line again, even though the Depression was over. He removed his stripes and badges, and sold his medals, then he slept in his fatigues for two years before he ended up in Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, tied to a bed.

I was there the moment he died, his wild eyes gone blind and his mind tied to a rock.

“You there, Mickey?” he said, sensing my company. I stood by the bed.

“I am,” I said.

“Got a drink for your ol’ sergeant?”

A nurse in the room looked up form a chart.

“Sorry, Arson,” I said. “There’s a no hooch order in effect.”

“That never stopped us.”

I looked at the nurse, and said, “I think the order sticks in this vicinity.”

“Do you think I’ll see God?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied. I wasn’t religious. But in the war, I’d lied to a lot of dying men asking after God. “God’ll be there,” I said, “behind the bar with a bottle and a jigger.”

“That’s a fine picture, Mickey.”

His hand was cold but strong when I took it. Another thing I recalled from comforting the dying at war.

“I guess there’s nothing after this, for a fella like me,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Nothingness can be a fine thing, though,” he said. “Quiet as a forest after a rain.” His grip on my hand weakened.

Arson Willkie died in the ghostly isolation of the insane, his hasty spirit blowing town like a guy dodging a loan shark, riding his motorcycle on a highway somewhere toward his own Heaven, before God knew a damn thing about it. A couple of days later, I poured a swallow onto his grave, and left the rest of the bottle at his tombstone. It was February, and it was raining.

the high school reunion organiser

It was still December, but Reggie had a bug up his ass about the high school reunion in June. He didn’t seem the type to me, to organise something so mundane. But he was on the line, breathing heavily, while I examined an ancient list of guests to our long ago graduation party. How the list came into my possession remains a mystery.

“You there, Reuben?” said Reggie. The line was bad.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Just hang on.”

“I’d like to get this done today.”

“Well you’ll have to bear with me, Reggie. This isn’t digital, and it’s a very long list. It’s not even alphabetical, and it’s written in yellow felt pen from the 90s that’s hard to see on white paper and smells like bananas.”

“It’s important, man.”

“Hang on….,” I said, coming to the end of the list for the third time. “Okay, that’s it. No Nipsey on the list.”

“He’s gotta be there, man,” Reggie said.

“But he’s not.”

“Look again,” he said.

“No way, Reggie.”

“C’mon. It’s right there in front of you, on your desk. This could be a national security issue. I’m trying to keep the NSA off your door step.”

“Really?” I said.

“Fuck yeah.”

“It’s a class reunion, Reggie. You’re organising a crummy class reunion. How can that be a national security issue?”

“It wasn’t at first,” he said. “Now it is.”

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll scan it into my computer. Then I’ll email you the file.”

“Don’t scan it, for Christ sake. If it goes digital, we’ll lose control of it. If you email it, it’ll end up parked on every cloud server from here to New Delhi.”

“Then I’ll send it ground mail.”

“They’ll snag it somewhere along the line.”

“Courier…?”

“Fuck no!”

“Then what?” I said. “And why are you so paranoid? If the spooks want this so bad, if they’re willing to go to such lengths to get it, then I don’t want it in my house. And maybe I don’t want to be talking about it on the telephone, either.”

“Don’t worry about this telephone call,” Reggie said. “I’ve arranged for it to be scrambled at both ends.”

“How?”

“White label STU-VI voice encryption device,” Reggie said. “I bought it at the Espionage Barn. The one on the highway, just outside of Mississauga.”

“Espionage Barn? You’re starting to scare me, Reggie. I thought you were a journalist, not a spy.”

“Think about it, man,” Reggie said. “I can get killed for being either one, now days. Why shouldn’t I expand my horizons?”

“Yeah?” I said. “Well I just design progress bars and little arrow wheels that go round and round in infinite circles for software companies. I don’t want your world coming into my living room.”

“Okay, okay,” said Reggie. “I guess it doesn’t matter that much, anyway. Finding Nipsey this way, I mean. I’d just hoped that that old list might have some traceable info, like an old phone number.”

“Well, it’s a real shame Nipsey can’t come. Look, why can’t you just look in the phonebook?”

“It’s alright,” Reggie said. “In fact, let’s forget about it. In the end, he just turned out to be a special ops clown, anyway. We’ll party without him.”

“Special ops?”

“Yeah,” said Reggie. “He was recruited by the Canadian Army back in 2005.”

“But isn’t it a little hard, on your part in that case, to call him a clown, if he made that kind of sacrifice for his country.”

“No no,” Reggie said. “You don’t get it. He was an actual special ops clown. He joined the Canadian Special Operations Regiment Evil Clown Unit, and was deployed in Afghanistan in operation Look Under Your Bed. It was just a small part of a bigger alternative frontline combat experiment called Cultural Torpedo. They used the scariest elements of western culture to freak out the Taliban fighters – zombies, Catholic nuns, that sort of thing.”

“And evil clowns,” I said. “How come you know all of this, but you still can’t find him in the phonebook? This is all a little hard to believe.”

“An evil Special Operations clown only gets found if he wants to, I guess.”

“Are you on medication, Reggie?”

“Hell no!” he said, a little too loudly. “And it’s all true, man. His character was Tipsy Nipsey. He walked around the battlefield half-cut, in costume and full makeup, with a bottle of cheap fortified wine in his hand, showing his fangs and puking on insurgents. That was his gimmick. His weapon of choice was a Benelli M4 Super 90 combat shotgun.”

“An evil clown with a shotgun….”

“There was about thirty of them in the unit,” Reggie said. “One day it’ll all come out, baby. I learned about it by mistake when I was investigating the shady goings-on at the Kandahar Tim Horton’s, for the Globe and Mail.”

“You’re killing me, here.”

“Oh yeah, man,” Reggie said. “Turns out Nipsey’s cover, when he wasn’t on a mission, was manager of the only place in Afghanistan you could get a double-double. When he was working in the store, he had a hairnet, latex gloves, false name badge, the works. Great disguise.”

“This is disturbing, Reggie.”

“Yeah?” said Reggie. “Well you should have been on the other side. You gotta understand, the Taliban recruited fighters from all of the Islamic countries. Some were pretty savvy citizens of the world. But mostly, they were just a bunch of bumpkins with AK-47s. And there may be no God but Allah, baby, but you should see a bunch of Taliban farm boys shit their drawers when thirty evil clowns jump out from behind a rock and attack, fully armed, most of them cannibals, degenerate drunks, tax evaders and sexual predators, with the really creepy makeup and the spandex costumes.”

“Spandex?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” Reggie said. “Beer bellies, genital warts, skinny legs and spandex. Whoa! I’m breaking out in a sweat just talking about it.”

“Cannibals?”

“A couple of ‘em, maybe. Sure, why the hell not? It all depends on how you define the word.”

“You know, Reggie,” I said. “Maybe you’re not the guy to organise a high school reunion.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What about Isabelle Waslington?” I said. “Why don’t you hand the torch to her? She was a good little organiser, back when I knew her.”

“Sorry to break your heart,” Reggie said. “But she’s a Stasi agent.”

“What? The Stasi doesn’t even exist anymore.”

“Ha!” he said. “That’s what you think.”

“Okay, what about Elmo Spitz? He organised the high school seniors’ Summer Dance. The theme was Rhumba to the Toppa, remember?”

“He’s a Fundamentalist Christian Survivalist,” said Reggie. “Wanted by the FBI. Connections to the Area 51 Truth Through Sublimation Guerrilla Movement.”

“Impossible,” I said. “He’s a female impersonator with seven cats, and an indoor herb garden. He does needlepoint. He belongs to Greenpeace, for the love of Pete.”

“Good cover, huh?”

“I can’t believe this, Reggie. I went to high school with these people.” Line two on my telephone started to blink and buzz. “Look, there’s someone on the other line. I really have to go.”

“You gotta listen to me,” Reggie said. “Nipsey’s out there. And he’s one dangerous S.O.B. He’s been a full-on psychopath since the UC Berkeley intensive medical crack cocaine trials, and the CIA neo-MK-ULTRA experiments. Now he’s part of a secret domestic evil clown death squad, sponsored by Canada, the US and Venezuela. They’re targeting environmentalists and Keanu Reeves. I just hope he doesn’t show up at your door. And just so you know, the high school reunion’s just my cover, man. I’m doing pure investigative journalism, here. I swear, I’m gonna blow the top off the evil clown story. If you hang up on me now, I can’t help you.”

“I have to go, Reggie,” I said. “I’m sure that if Tipsy Nipsey’s loose out there, the NSA or the RCMP or the FBI will catch up with him, and get him the help he needs. By the way, I know you say it’s just a cover, but send me an invitation if you pull off this high school reunion thing. And maybe you should visit your doctor, just to touch base, you know?”

“Don’t do it,” said Reggie. “Don’t hang up.”

“Goodbye, Reggie.”

I hung up, and punched line two. Things were starting to stack up. I had email to catch up on, and deadlines to panic over. My day was turning out to be grimmer than I’d hoped.

“Hello?” I said.

“That you, Droolin’ Reuben?”

“Yeah, Nipsey. It’s me.”

“Reggie’s been callin’ round,” Tipsy Nipsey said.

“I know. I just got off the phone with him.”

“He’s gonna be a problem if we want to ice Keanu.”

“We’ll see,” I said. “We’ll know more in the fullness of time.”

“Maybe,” Nipsey said. “But I say we wack Reggie hard, before he goes leaking something to AP.”

“Let’s wait and see.”

“We still on for the David Suzuki job, tonight?” Nipsey said, mercifully changing the subject.

“Yup, the spandex is in the dryer.”

“How are the genital warts?” he asked.

“I got ointment.”

top 10 reasons Bill C-51 might not work

  1. Suddenly CSIS will be able to track all of your pull my finger jokes.
  1. Why do we need surveillance legislation to track people’s activities when we have Air Miles cards?
  1. Mass surveillance is just another Mary Kay pyramid scheme.
  1. Real terrorists use incomprehensible tattoos, graffiti and gang hand signals to communicate, just like the Conservatives Party of Canada.
  1. Tracking keystrokes is useless because most terrorists can’t spell.
  1. Prohibiting free speech will only really effect Don Cherry – oops! I guess that would be a good thing.
  1. Radicalisation is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals. Holy shit, that’s Stephen Harper!
  1. Canadians will have to sew the Turkmenistanian flag onto their backpacks when travelling abroad.
  1. Counterterrorism must begin with getting Justin Bieber off the streets.
  1. All Citizens of Canada must leave DNA sample at the Stephen Harper kissing booth.

sidewalk man

10 p.m.

“You know the Skeena Terrace Housing Project, Sergeant Avakian?”

“Sure,” said the cop at the other end of the line. “I used to drive through a couple of times a week, on shift.”

“I lived there when I was a kid,” said Eli Fink. There was a blue eyed Australian Shepherd sitting at his feet, staring up at him as he spoke on the telephone.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Fink. “It was in the 70s and the cops loved to beat the hell out of us. We was just a bunch of monkeys with nothing in our pockets. They’d have a bad day somewhere else, then come to Skeena Terrace with their billy clubs and kick some poor kid’s ass.”

“I’m sorry about that, Mr Fink,” Avakian said. “I can assure you we do things differently now.”

“Oh c’mon, Avakian. The cops are doing the same shit they’ve always done, because they’re cops. You give some prick a gun, a company car and seventy grand a year, and he thinks he can do whatever he fucking wants. And mostly he’s right.”

“I see,” said Avakian.

“Good,” Fink said. “Now where I’m going with this, is this. Back then, the Vancouver cops and local cab companies drove the same car. Four door Plymouth Fury. It was the fleet car of choice. But in the mid to late 70s, Plymouth put out models with squeaky brakes, and they were loud too. You could hear ’em coming from a couple of blocks away. We got away with a lot of shit back then because when we heard that squeaky brake sound, we knew it was either the cops or a cab. Probably a cop.”

“That’s interesting,” Avakian said. “I was born in 1984, so I….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” said Fink. “Just listen. So one day I get this idea after watching some shit on TV about Northern Ireland, and I run it by the boys. And they all laugh and say they’ll do it – of course they’ll do it! So we collect up all the rocks of a certain size we can find, which ain’t easy in a housing project if you want a lot of ‘em. Anyways, we spend a few days getting rocks together, and on Saturday night we settle in on the high ground over Herman Drive, behind the shrubs so we can’t be seen from the road. We smoke some shit and drink some beers, and wait for the squeaky brake sound to come.

“A couple of cabs went by, and then Philly the Rope who had a surplus cop Fury. And then came an actual cop car. A couple of fat pigs eating hoagies and drinking Slurpees, coming down Herman, the driver squeezing his brakes, looking all over for some delinquent to belt around.

“And when the fuckers were right below us on the road, we stood up from behind the shrubs and let ‘em have it, baby. You should have seen the pussies in that black and white piss themselves as all these rocks start comin’ outta nowheres. Bam! The windshield busted. Bam! The lights on the light bar shatter, blue and red pieces all over the road. The side windows blow out and rocks are bouncing off the body, dents and scratched paint. What a fucking mess. Then we split and hid, because every cop in Vancouver rolled in and they were pissed.”

“That’s a very interesting story, Mr Fink,” said Avakian.

“Call me Eli.”

“Okay, Eli,” Avakian said. “But I wonder what it has to do with the current situation.”

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Eli Fink. “I was just thinking about another time I was up against the cops.”

“We’re just here to keep people safe and facilitate the exchange.”

“And blow me away,” Fink said.

“Do you think that will be necessary?” Avakian asked.

“I don’t know,” Fink said, sounding a little confused. “I just know that after we pelted that cop car, the pigs spent weeks hunting each of us down. A couple of us ended up in the hospital. I got clobbered in a stairwell at night by this big fat fucker named Wilken. I still got numbness in my left hand from him grinding his heel into it, while his partner gagged me with his Maglite. The cops just wanted to let us know that they was the toughest street gang in town.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, fuck.”

“Do you think that what you’re asking for now is reasonable, Eli?”

“None of this is reasonable.”

“That’s true,” Avakian said. “I’m glad you understand that. You can’t hold the dog responsible, Eli. He’s just a dog.”

“I don’t hold him responsible. He’s just my hostage. If I could get my hands on its owner, I’d have a knife to her throat right now.”

“Careful what you say, Eli.”

“Fuck, it’s a dog,” Fink said, sounding slightly crazed. “How’d this all happen? It’s just a fucking dog.”

“And you’ve got that going in your favour, Eli. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says the most you can do is two years for causing an animal distress. You’d be facing serious time if it was a human being, instead of a dog.”

“Frankie ain’t in no distress. Are you, boy?” Eli reached out and petted the dogs head.

“All the better.”

earlier that day

How many of his dawns had come this way? Eli Fink waking from a dim dream of sleep within a wheel, with an idea of some significance lodged inside of a fragile sphere, ready to burst at the first hint of wakefulness.

Then bang, the great idea was gone, upon Fink seeing the worldly ceiling above him. As across the street a coin operated newsstand was refilled with the morning news, and its spring loaded door slammed shut. Was the sound of it a crash or a thud? It happened so fast, so unexpectedly every morning that no one cared to think. Then the newspaper truck sped away, and it was quiet again. A second chance at sleep.

But there’d be nothing for it. Eli would be fully awake, if a bit sticky of mouth and in a fog. And that idea of some significance had floated away. The residue of the fragile sphere it occupied had sunk to the ground, while the vapour of the idea itself had migrated into its surroundings, and twisted and bound with the atoms of the walls and floors, lost there forever. How many of his dreamed ideas had bound with those atoms? God might know, if God gave a goddam.

He thought for a moment of Rachel, so recently gone that her perfume lingered in the bedding and bathroom towels.

You’re mad, she had said in her kitchen table goodbye note, which he had found the night she’d fled. I thought it was aestheticism, she had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

He’d had to look up aestheticism on Wikipedia. It was a compliment that had come too late, and it broke his heart. Rachel’s absence was an abyss that absorbed all available light. Eli Fink would now and forever stumble in the dark.

He turned in his bed and placed his feet on the floor. The clock suggested 5am. A sound offer. He’d take it, and wash his face. Then eat from the refrigerator. And after that, drive his flat black ’68 Ford to the job site, where the labourers lingered at the coffee truck, the surveyors played the angles and the foremen dreamed of empty desert highways, souped-up Chevrolets and any floral print damsel they could find, other than their own untidy wives, riding shotgun in the republic of doo-wop.

It was Wednesday. The day they’d pour his concrete. His curving masterwork through a maple grove and around a fountain in the park would come to life.

The excavation for his sidewalk conformed absolutely to the lines and grades specified. He had taken great care in avoiding damage to areaways, and appurtenances.

The cement would be type Normal Portland GU with a minimum 28 day compressive strength of 32 MPa, and a maximum nominal size of coarse aggregate of ¾ of an inch. Slump at point of discharge 3 ± 1 inch. All laid over an immaculate granular backfill.

His forms were of flexible plywood and were of sufficient strength to resist the pressure of concrete when poured, and all vibration from nearby construction. They were staked in place with three pins per yard, and he’d placed a pin on each side of each form butt joint. There’d be no more than a fraction of an inch of deviation from the grade.

He had chosen his trowels, edgers and a broom of the correct coarseness the day before. He would etch in the cut-marks with scrupulous precision.

After this magnum opus, he should retire. He could never top it. But he couldn’t retire. He was only fifty-four. There were still hundreds of sidewalks, avenues, boulevards, ramps, corners and curbs to lay. Hundreds of miles of them, to join the hundreds he’d laid before this. Would the length of them eventually reach round the world, or to the moon? Who kept track of these things? Perhaps some manless prude at city hall, who stayed overtime to check her arithmetic. Then went home to her pitiless cat.

The first cement truck arrived at 7.30am, and began to pour at 7.35.

He watched the fluid concrete flow down the chute, and into the forms. It was full of stony viscous metaphor. A river one might travel down, but upon which he could never return. There were tides of it, hard and in its liquid form, made high and low by the gentle moon. It lay wet and vulnerable for a time, at the mercy of cruel circumstance, but then solidified to a hardness and resilience beyond measure. But during that time of vulnerability, any number of things could happen. The worst of which were the careless footprints of senile oldsters, and unrestrained children and pets – and graffiti, who the hell was Ziggy, after all? There was no adequate protection against these things. He could only return from further up the length his work to find the irreparable damage, and inside, weep.

That day’s damage would be caused by an unrestrained pet, a friendly Australian Shepherd named Frankie. Frankie’s human was a woman named Francine. The closeness of their names was one of those things that made one wonder about human/pet relationships. Eli Fink would learn the names of these two when in a desperate fit, he did a desperate thing.

Francine, as it turned out, rejected leash laws, believing that they commodified and degraded animals as intelligent as dogs. In a newspaper interview yet to come, Francine would observe that leashes were only appropriate for cats.

Like all dogs of his breed, Frankie was born to herd the sum of all sentient beings on planet Earth into a tight maneuverable knot that could be run from one pasture to another, or back to the shearing hut. But lacking a medial orbitofrontal cortex, he had never regretted the fact that he had failed to ever do so – he’d just kept trying. And on that day, after the cement was poured and Eli Fink was creating his master work, as he moved up the walk with trawl, edger and broom toward the fountain roundabout, Frankie the dog would lock onto a grazing flock of Canada geese in the vicinity of the Fink’s finished work, and after sneaking in a crouched position so as not to alarm his quarry, he would launch into a genetically preprogramed dash meant to corral the rabble.

But the geese flew away instead, leaving Frankie momentarily confused, until he started biting away at what might have been a flea on his haunch. Regrettably, in his pursuit, Frankie had run along the sidewalk of wet cement and permanently added his paw prints. They’d remain there for all eternity.

Eli Fink ran back to the spot as fast as he could, when he was informed. But all remedial efforts were for not. The concrete had been too close to setting.

Frankie and his human, Francine, now stood by and observed the visible signs of Eli Fink’s heart sinking, and Francine stepped up and said –

“Frankie and I are real sorry, mister.”

Fink thought about those words for a moment and recalled all of the times he’d heard them before, from dog and cat owners, and mothers of wicked children with gummy soled shoes. In 1985, a car drove across his just laid sidewalk, and the driver, stinko drunk, got out of the car and vomited on Eli Fink’s boots – he’d said he was sorry. In 1989, a group of punk rockers had etched FuCK boN jOvI in two foot letters on a curb – they’d said sorry too, then fuck you cement boy. In 2006, a blind man tripped and fell trying to walk a just laid avenue – he said he was real sorry. But a week later, he began a civil action, claiming Fink and the City were negligent for allowing wet cement to just lay around, a hazard upon which anyone could injure themselves. It took three years, but it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Fink was suspended a week without pay. Even the union couldn’t help.

There were other examples of the public’s carelessness and disrespect of his vocation and art. And then –

I thought it was aestheticism, Rachel had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

“Fuck!” Eli Fink yelled, and grabbed Frankie by the collar. He began walking toward a park gardeners shed, pulling the dog behind.

“Wait!” Francine called out. “What are you doing with my dog?”

She ran after him as more and more people stopped to watch, and Fink turned, pulling a small Swiss Army knife from his pocket. He fought to open it with his teeth, as he held onto Frankie’s collar. But in his struggle, he succeeded only in producing the corkscrew. He swung it round wildly, so the world could see that he meant business. He’d always wondered what use he had for a corkscrew on a knife. Now he knew.

“Don’t hurt my dog, you psycho,” Francine shouted.

“Just back off,” Eli Fink said. “I got demands. (Actually he didn’t, yet.) You don’t get Frankie back until those demands are met, baby. And if they aren’t, the mutt gets it.”

Fink pulled Frankie along, looking over his shoulder once or twice, until he was in the shed. Then he closed the door and jammed a shovel under the doorknob, and waited. For what, he didn’t know.

Sergeant Avakian arrived twenty minutes after the first squad car, along with the Vancouver Police Department ERT, and an Officer of the BCSPCA.

“He’s just got a dog as his hostage?” said Lieutenant Black, of the VPD Emergency Response Team. He had his balaclava pulled back so the world could see his ruggedly handsome face, and what a swell bunch of good natured guys his heavily armed, black clad paramilitary team was.

“Hell, we can have him outta there in a couple of minutes,” he said. “With a stun grenade. We just got these new ones that….”

“No you don’t,” said Officer Wilma Muson of the BCSPCA. She was four foot, six inches to Black’s six foot, three.

“Why the hell not?” said Black.

“Because,” said Munson. “Section 23.2 (1) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says: A person must not cause an animal to be in distress. I think a stun grenade would definitely cause that poor dog one hell of a lot of distress.”

“It’s a dog, for the love of Pete,” Black said. “Since when is a dog a legitimate goddam hostage?”

“You’ve gotta admit, Lieutenant,” Munson said, “that there is a chance that the dog will be killed or injured in any attempt you make to free him and take the hostage-taker into custody, right?”

“I guess,” said Black. “There’s always a very slim chance that….”

“Well,” Munson said. “Section 23.2 (2) (b) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says that: A person who kills an animal must not, in killing the animal, cause the animal to be in distress or do anything that is prohibited by the regulations. I’d wager that being shot and wounded or killed in the confusion you and your crew would cause, would be very distressful to that animal. It’s the law, Danno.”

“This is a joke, right?” Lieutenant Black said. He clenched his fists and kicked at the grit on the ground. “We just got in a brand new goddam shipment of stun grenades to try out. They’re from the Mexican Federal Police. They’ve been using them on the cartels down there with mucho goddam exito. Now we want to give ‘em a tryout, Officer Munson, and this is an excellent opportunity. You’re just getting in the way. Go rescue a fucking gerbil.”

“I’m pretty sure, Lieutenant,” Wilma Munson said, with a smile, “that you’re used to having things your own way. But now’s not the time for you to have a hissy-fit.”

“A what!”

“Look,” Sergeant Avakian said. “I haven’t even spoken to the hostage-taker yet. Let’s try that first, shall we? We just got his cell number a moment ago.”

“I’m the ranking officer here,” said Lieutenant Black.

“So far,” said Avakian. “But I’m the negotiator. Procedure says we talk first, and you know it.”

“Well, fuck me,” Black said, walking away and yelling at his men to take their goddam balaclavas off and stand down.

“Wow,” said Munson. “There goes an angry man.”

“Never mind,” Avakian said, and punched a number into his phone.

Inside the shed, Eli Fink’s cell phone rang. He thought it might be Rachel. It wasn’t her ring, but then she’d changed her number.

“Hello?” he said. “Rachel?”

“No, Mr Fink,” Sergeant Avakian said.

“Look,” said Fink. “I’m not interested in a time share.”

“I’m not selling anything, Mr Fink. This Sergeant Avakian of the Vancouver Police Department.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“Who’s Rachel? Is she someone you’d like for me to contact?”

“No.”

“I will, you know?”

“I wouldn’t know where to find her.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“Ah, no,” Fink said, disarmed by the cop’s calm tone and kind questions.

“How’s Frankie?” said Avakian.

“He’s a little shit,” Fink said. Frankie sat and looked up at him. He looked wise, for a dog. He looked like he might say something profound. For the first time, Fink noticed dried cement between the animal’s toes.

“There’s a woman out here who wants him back, Mr Fink,” Avakian aid.

“I want things, too.”

“Tell me what they are.”

“I want that sidewalk replaced,” Eli Fink said. “And I want every sidewalk I ever laid, that was ruined by animal or human, pulled up and replaced.”

“That might take a while,” said Avakian.

“Then get started.”

“This isn’t a typical demand. Replacing sidewalks will take a while.”

“I got a corkscrew at this little mutt’s throat, right now. (Actually, the Swiss Army knife was in Fink’s pocket.) You get the ball rolling or I’m gonna delete his cookies. I know it’ll take a while. You just get me a promise from the Mayor that he’ll do it. Then Frankie’s free to go shit on the lawn.”

1 a.m.

There was chanting coming from a short distance away from the shed. People were yelling animal rights slogans and lighting candles. Twenty cops in riot gear stood their ground. Eli Fink’s effigy had been hung by a noose from a tree. Special high powered lighting was focused on the shed. For some reason, the fire department and five ambulances was there.

“So, when do you think the Mayor’s gonna come through?” Fink said. “It’s been hours.”

“He’s been informed of your demand, Eli,” Avakian said. “He says he’s talking to the City’s lawyers.”

“I want kibble, water and some capicola pizza and beer.”

“Good,” said Avakian. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Hurry. Frankie looks hungry.”

“Eli?”

“What?”

“Did those Skeena Project cops ever have to face disciplinary action?”

“Doubt it,” Fink said. “Someone would have had to rat them out, and we wouldn’t do that. My money’s on karma. Maybe they got prostate cancer.”

“Ah.”

“What about your SWAT boys? They ready to dance on my head?”

“ERT’s on alert, but they’re holding back for the moment.”

“How long will that last?”

“I don’t know. It’s dark. They like to work in the dark.”

“Frankie probably needs to take a piss, I guess,” Fink said. Then he heard a commotion at the other end of the line. After a moment, Avakian spoke —

“The Mayor’s office just called, Eli. He’s says no.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

“Am I gonna die?”

“Come out with your hands up, Eli. No one needs to die tonight.”

Frankie was asleep, curled up at Eli’s feet. Eli reached down and scratched the dog’s ear.

“People think I’m high strung,” he said.

Avakian didn’t reply.

“I just got kicked around a lot when I was kid. Now I want some control over things. I like to do things right. You pay a price for that, you know?.”

Avakian remained quiet.

“You there, Sergeant?”

There was more commotion on the cops’ end of the line. It sounded like the phone had been dropped.

“Just give me a little more time,” he heard Avakian say.

Fink opened the door a crack and peeked out. There were animal rights protesters and media on the sidewalk. The energy of the crowd was changing.

Frankie barked twice, and began to growl, looking up at a small window. Then something burst through the glass. It was hard and the shape and size of a can of soup. It came to rest on the floor after bouncing off the walls. On its side were the words uso de explosivos extrema precaución. Mexican soup, Eli Fink thought a second before the stun grenade blew.

Fink lost the hearing in his right ear, and spent the rest of his life having to turn his left ear toward the source of pleasant sounds. He taught many of his fellow prisoners how to work with concrete while doing federal time. There were the animal endangerment charges, and other subsequent charges that added up to five years. While in prison, a psychiatrist prescribed him a benzodiazepine medication.

Frankie recovered after three days of deafness, and Francine now uses a leash.