stolen can of beans at Christmas


she heated the stolen beans that Christmas, sharp as holly
and the ivy twisting round the street mission city,
beneath a bridge over a small fire of bigger sticks laid upon little
upon newspaper upon a burning cigarette the glow
surrendering its soul in smoke upon the air so cold









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.”


“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.”


“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.







Christmas on the Reykjavik Express


not for those who won’t believe it possible

The final run of the Reykjavik Express began on Christmas Eve, 1939, as the dragon of fascism spread its dark wings over Europe. The world was in chaos, and the age of the glamorous gilt carriage was ending. The Express’ devotees grieved, and its last passengers were in mourning. For after that run, the majestic red and gold Art Deco engine and its gleaming cars, steaming along the coastal tracks surrounding the small nation of Iceland, would be but a memory.

It was 6 a.m. on the morning of December 24th as the locomotive, having taken on coal, coupled in shades of steam with the cars of the Express at the platform of Reykjavík station. On the concourse, a palm court ensemble played traditional seasonal music near a tall well-lit and splendidly decorated Christmas tree. Passengers boarded as a light snow fell, and a man with a cart hawked espresso, hákarl and risalamande. The Engineer and Conductor stood at the caboose, smoking.

Elinor Warkentin, famous for her excellent writings on world travel, rumoured to be of Manitoban origins (a town named Grunthal? my goodness!), and believed by many to be an international spy, had, followed closely by a porter, boarded first in what might have been mistaken for an over-enthusiasm for train travel, but was merely to overcome a bout of boredom that had set in as she sat in the station’s waiting lounge.

Once on board, she was pleased to find her cabin, thought to be the most luxurious there was to offer, was an exquisite suite of rooms of mahogany, moss green leather and beveled glass. The porter, a small man named Bergþór, having, placed her carry-on luggage in the proper cupboards, now stood waiting, either for further instructions or his gratuity. Elinor was unsure why he wouldn’t go away, his duty done,  before realising what the moment meant.

“Oh,” she said, her tone revealing a dubious opinion of tipping as she opened her purse. Finding the smallest coin she could, she placed it in the porter’s open palm. Bergþór stared at it.

“Yes?” Elinor said. “Is there something wrong?”

“No,” Bergþór sighed. And realising there was little point in irony, he clicked his heels and left the cabin.

More of the first-class passengers boarded soon after Elinor. Notably, a most fashionable couple, Count Jan and Countess Helga of Oslo. With them was a quiet little girl, with green eyes and a head of loose auburn curls, named Gabriel, an orphan who’d the Countess and Count had taken custody. Later, it would be learned that her Mother and Father had died during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Her Father in a gunfight, her Mother by other horrible means. Gabriel and the couple took the suite next to Elinor’s, tipping Bergþór far better in recognition of services.

The next passenger worthy of mention, who took rooms in Elinor’s car, was a mysterious man named Vlad Schröder, grimly dapper with a pencil thin mustache, who described himself as a prominent Director of films in a cult style referred to by experts as Cinema Obscura Nouveau. His valet, who he referred to as his Tattoo Artist, though Vlad Schröder had no visible tattoos, was a sinister looking man who carried a riding crop and wore knee high cordovan boots. His name was Svyatopolk Zima, and he smoked ceaselessly.

The Reykjavik Express left the station at noon that Christmas Eve, shortly after all of the passengers, luggage and mail were aboard. And as it steamed its way out of the city through the orderly, snow covered suburbs, Elinor read a novel, enjoying the rhythmic music of the rails beneath her car.

That evening at dinner, Elinor, the Countess,  Count and the little girl, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima, found themselves all seated at the same table.

The dining car was a long splendid room, in shades of plush burgundy with hardwood and shining brass accents, and a fat and festive Christmas tree in the corner. The china was fine, the cutlery true silver, the napkins linen and on the walls were fine silk tapestries.

Their table had been positioned to accommodate them all lengthwise, three on either side. Elinor Warkentin, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima on one side, and the Countess, Count, and the distant little Gabriel on the other.

Once seated and provided with menus by the MaitreD, they were greeted by their waiter, a gloomy, perhaps despondent, perhaps utterly hopeless character who stood gravely at their tableside, waiting much too long before he spoke. Then…

“Good evening and Merry Christmas,” he said, “though I find the festive season a cheerless time of wretched desperation. My name is Beauregard, and I’ll be your waiter.”

“Are you well?” said the Count, who’d seen friends and family suffering the gloom of long dark Oslo winters.

“As well as can be expected,” Beauregard said. “Now pay attention while I describe the delights of our Chef’s menu. He’s a bastard, you know, the Chef. French. He spits on foreigners. He spits on me frequently. He can hit me from the far end of the kitchen.

“That’s terrible,” said Elinor.

Beauregard sighed and began to describe the menu items.

“This evening’s soup is a Cream of White Corn with hints of Alsace Foie Gras, though that combination seems an oddity to me.” he said. “The specials are as follows: a Filet du Boeuf Bourguignon with Rigatoni in a Delicate Buttered Fig and Truffle Cream Sauce. There is also a Nova Scotia Salmon in Béarnaise Sauce with carrots, asparagus tips and baby potatoes. Tonight’s special dessert will be a flaming figgy pudding, in light of the festive mood I’m sure you all feel, but that I cannot.”

“Flaming?” said Vlad Schröder, indignantly. “Figgy? Are you being clever? This some veiled insinuation aimed at me and my Tattoo Artist, isn’t it! Why not just come out with it, and say fruity.”

Zima kicked Schröder under the table.

“I’m not nearly clever enough to insinuate anything,” Beauregard said. “My mother told me as much when I was very young, after she’d lost hope I’d grow up to do great things. The rest of this evening’s fare is on the menu, all in English, though I understand your party is international and multilingual. A phenomenon some still might appreciate, in light of the current state of the world. I, however, find it suspicious, and I’m proud to live in a nation that still allows me to say so, by virtue of a tradition of free speech. This is the wine list.” He bent slightly, and handed it to Vlad.

“This should be interesting?” murmured Schröder. Then having scanned the list, ordered two bottles of the Chateau Branaire Ducru Bordeaux, assuming all round the table shared his tastes.

“What do you recommend?” asked Elinor, already taking notes for the article she planned to write. “One of your specials, or is there something on the menu you personally prefer?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Beauregard said. “It all starts to look and taste the same after a while, doesn’t it? Besides, I only get the leftovers at the end of the night, if there are any, maybe an overdone carrot or a bit of fish past its time. If there isn’t anything, I go back to my tiny cabin—so small I hardly fit, I don’t mind telling you, and so cold sometimes I don’t sleep for a week, just lie there shivering—and there I eat stale saltines and the rancid Nutella the Sous-Chef allows me to spirit out of the cupboard.

“Besides,” he said. “to answer your question would demonstrate an improper bias, and infer that I know your tastes better than you know your own.”

“But can we buy you dinner?” Elinor asked. “You could eat it later, in your cabin. Will you be alright? You seem so unhappy. Maybe you need a holiday?”

“Isn’t life already a holiday?” said Beauregard. “Maurice, the MaitreD, says it is. I’ll return momentarily to take your orders.”

Just then, Gabriel whispered into Count Jan’s ear, who nodded as she spoke, and then said to Beauregard, “Gabriel wishes to tell you something.”

Beauregard hesitated a moment. Then stepping round the corner of the table, bent to listen to Gabriel speak. It was a short message, spoken so softly that only he could hear, and when Beauregard stood erect again, he smiled kindly at her, with a warmth and elation that didn’t seem possible moments ago.

“Thank you, Gabriel,” he said. “I shall never forget.” Then walked away with a new confidence.

“I like him,” Elinor said.

“He’s a loon,” said Svyatopolk Zima. “We’d have eaten him alive in Berlin.”

This time Schröder kicked Zima on the ankle.

“Stop it!” Elinor snapped, looking from the two of them to Gabriel.

“What’s she going to do,” said Zima, “whisper about our bad behaviour in someone’s ear?”

“What’s this about Berlin?” asked the Count.

“We vacation there. Not for some time, though,” Schröder lied. “Not since that dreadful little man with that ridiculous moustache took over. He likes little boys, I hear.”

“It’s innocent enough,” said Zima. “In Berlin, we indulge in the cocaine and leather scene. There are hard men and soft, whichever’s your taste.”

Now there appeared to be a small war of kicking beneath Zima and Schröder’s table.

“She is a quiet one,” the Countess said, stroking Gabriel’s cheek, “and mysterious, if a child can be called that.

“What’s that mean,” said Zima. “Is she a spy?” He chuckled.

“No, but she was accompanied by a woman, you see, who told the Minister at the Cathedral where we found her that Gabriel had lived with her parents, in a poor neighbourhood in Warsaw. She became an orphan when her Father died fighting and her Mother was shot on the street in front of their tenement by the Nazis. The woman who brought Gabriel to the Cathedral hinted that her Mother was a member of the Armia Krajowa.”

Elinor was intrigued. “Where did you say you found her?” she asked. “What Cathedral?”

“Somehow Gabriel ended up in Oslo. We were made aware of her by an associate, who took us to her in the Oslo Cathedral where she’d been given sanctuary. Our children have moved on into adulthood, and our house is empty. So, we took her into our custody and brought her home.”

“But why?” asked Vlad. “Why not just leave her for the priests?”

“Because her situation seemed so tragic, and magic at the same time,” the Countess said. “It sounds strange when I say it now, but….”

“That isn’t quite right,” said the Count.

“Alright,” the Countess said, smiling softly, “perhaps it was only the circumstances of our meeting her that seemed magic. You see, she was sitting near the altar in the Cathedral. Not in a pew, mind you, but huddled in a corner, reading, where the sun was shining on her, through the stained glass far above. You must understand that the Cathedral is quite ancient, but the blues, purples and reds that fell upon her from above were so pure—subtle yet vibrant at the same time. Seeing her there was simply spell-binding, when she finally looked up at us.”

“What was she reading?” Elinor asked.

“Well,” said the Count, “I think that the image of her, in the that corner, in that light, was only part of what Helga means by our first encounter being magic. You see, she’d somehow gotten her hands on an artefact that was being held in the Cathedral’s vault, a parchment copy of the Vulgate. Specifically, and inexplicably, she was reading a copy of the Apocrypha Gospels. And as we drew closer, we heard her talking quietly, reciting from the text in its original Latin.”

“Impossible,” Vlad said. “She’s Polish, and a child! Your story’s a fake.”

“Yes, so it would seem,” said the Countess. “She is just a child, but it’s true, nonetheless. I’ll also say that in that fine light, her back against the wall, focussing so intently on that text, she seemed to have a halo.”

“That’s simply your impression, my dear,” said the Count. “I didn’t see a halo.”

“And what of the woman who’d accompanied her,” Elinor said. “Wasn’t she responsible for her?”

“We were told by the Minister that she disappeared days before,” said the Count. “She and Gabriel, both, had been granted sanctuary until they could be settled, but one morning it was discovered that the woman had vanished. There was a search. Even the police were involved, but nothing.”

“She was my Mother,” said Gabriel.

The table was silent for a moment.

“This is news,” the Count said.

“But, if she was your mother, why’d she leave you alone?” said Elinor.

“She had to.”

“But why?”

“Because she died,” Gabriel shrugged. “They shot her on the street, like Countess Helga said. It was her Angel that spoke to the Minister in the Cathedral. It was her Angel that brought me there. She said I’d be safe, and then she left. Because angels go where they go.”

The party was impressed by her eloquence.

“This is too much,” said Vlad. He called out for Beauregard to bring cognac.

“Well, how did your mother, her Angel, get you to Oslo?” the Countess said.

“First we walked,” said Gabriel. “But sometimes we were flying. Then there was a sailboat. We sailed for a long time.”

“It must have been awful,” Elinor said.

“It was scary sometimes,” said Gabriel. “The sea was like a street through very tall clouds. Clouds with windows that children and old women with their cats looked out of, as days passed away and we passed by. There were storms as big as the World, and then it was so quiet I couldn’t sleep, because beneath the silence there were songs I didn’t know. But we arrived in Oslo, somehow. When I asked Mother how, she told me that the stars guide Angels, and Angels guide little girls—except that I’m six years old, which really isn’t little.”

“She talks like a politician,” Vlad said, suspiciously.

“Leave her alone,” said Elinor. “She’s a smart kid. Her English just happens to be better than yours. Lord knows how, though.”

“But how could you read Latin?” Zima said.

“I had to,” said Gabriel. “There were things I needed to know.”

“Things?” Elinor said.

“Things about people. Stories are more about the people who write them than the people in the words.”

“She’s scaring me,” said Vlad. “No kid talks like that.”

“I needed to know,” Gabriel said again.

“That copy of the Gospels is very rare,” said the Count. “ The Cathedral Curator said so. And a peculiar choice, too. We still don’t know how she got her hands on it. It was locked up tight.”

“Maybe that’s why she ended up in Oslo,” Elinor said. “She needed to see that document.”

“Oh please,” said Vlad.

“Mother said I’d meet you there,” Gabriel said, addressing the Countess Helga and the Count.

“See,” the countess said, “magic.”

“A child’s fantasy,” said Vlad, snapping his fingers impatiently for Beauregard.

“She said I’d meet you, too,” Gabriel said to Vlad. “She said you’d be funny.”

Beauregard arrived with a snifter. Vlad Schröder gulped it back.

Suddenly, the dining car shook and the train came to a slow stop.

“What the hell?” Zima said.

“Don’t ask,” said the Conductor, passing through the car. “I’ll know more as soon as I talk to the Engineer. My guess is that we’re five miles out of Akureyri. If necessary, we can send someone out to walk there and bring back help.”

They all looked out of the window.

“It’s freezing out there,” said the Countess. “It’ll be cruel to send anyone on that walk.”

“I hope I don’t have to,” the Conductor said.

“I have to go now,” Gabriel said, standing.

“Go where?” asked Elinor, “The ladies room? Shall I go with you?”

“No. I need to go out there.” Gabriel pointed out of the window at the frozen landscape.

“But you mustn’t,” Count Jan said. “There’s nothing out there except the cold and the wind.”

“But it’s why I’ve come,” said Gabriel, standing and stepping away from the table.

“I won’t allow it,” the Countess said.

And as everyone at the table stood, Gabriel paused and held up her hand.

“This is why I’m here,” she said.

Her sudden severity took them by surprise. And as she stood there, there appeared a small wound over her heart—a small reddening hole in her dress, blackened at its edges where a bullet had passed through. There was a strange whiff of magic in the air, and they each felt powerless to stop her as Gabriel shouldered past the Count.

At the dining car exit, she turned round for only a moment to face the company at the table. “I’ve heard the church bells,” Gabriel said. “The candles have been lit. Jól has begun.” Then she vanished through the door.

The storm subsided, and a short distance away, standing beneath a sky lit with green and blue northern light, stood a slender woman with a wound of her own, holding out her hand, beckoning Gabriel.

“That’s her,” said the Countess.

“Who?” Val said.

“Her Mother.”

“Impossible. And how could you possibly know.”

“It’s strange, but I do.”

“I do too,” said Elinor. “We’re witnesses to something.”

“It’s a kidnapping,” Zima sneered.

“No, don’t be ridiculous,” said Elinor. “This is something else.”

They all exited the car.

“She died with her Mother,” said Countess Helga, the wind off the sea now warm against her cheek.

“That can’t be,” the Count said. “How could it? How could you even know?”

“We’re meant to know. All of us are, Jan. We can feel it if we try.”

And then they saw the greenish light above them populated by spirits. Ghosts of paradise and lament, churning, some pleading, others brave and giving, hunters and scholars, wise women and children. Some with sad, knowing eyes, standing perfectly still, seeming to promise something silent.

“War will be everywhere soon,” said Gabriel, now holding her Mother’s hand. “This much has been said. But there will be peace here. That has been said, also. We’ll be here to ensure it.” She looked up at lights.

“What about your own home?” Vlad said.

“We’ll be there, too.” It was Gabriel’s Mother speaking now. “But this war’s haste and brutality is terrible, and there will be so few places left unhurt before it ends.”

The quiet that fell round them then, and on the surrounding hills, lasted for hours, or perhaps only seconds before Gabriel and her Mother became the light, and were gone.

“Well, that’s worth a postcard home,” said Beauregard, standing behind them, eating saltines from a box.

*  *  *  *  *

The Reykjavik Express was up to steam an hour later, and on its way to Akureyri where it would stop for the night, while the Engineer looked for the cause of the stall. It was hoped that the train would leave Christmas morning.

Back in the candle-lit Smoking Car, the group of five, joined by Beauregard, each sat with a small glass of Icelandic vodka, wondering.

After a while, the Count said, “She was in our custody. How will we explain it?”

“I have a feeling we won’t have to,” said the Countess. “It’s like she only ever revealed herself to us, for her own reasons. We were her.”

“Witnesses,” Elinor said.

Then Svyatopolk Zima, sipping his vodka, said, “My Mother told me things like this happened on Christmas Eve, but then she also believed that the world was flat and that cats were Satan’s fifth column.”

“She’d no education, and worked in a Kielbasa shop,” said Vlad. “What possible insights could she have.”

“She could count money, and place her thumb on a scale undetected,” countered Zima. “That made her invaluable. And she could cast charms. Many came to her for relief from the worries of life, each of them left the better for her help.”

“Was it magic,” the Countess asked anyone who’d answer, “what happened out there in that strange light?”

“Magic’s a sliding door,” said Beauregard, drawing all eyes upon him and his new confidence. “May I?” he said to Elinor, who’d earlier had the Chef make a plate of kleinur, an Icelandic delicacy, according to her own recipe.

“Of course,” she said. “Help yourself.”

He reached over, and took one before saying more. “There are good witches that make the daylight last longer in the spring and summer.” He popped the kleinur into his mouth, resuming as he chewed. “There are elves and trolls in the hills, in the stones and on the roads. Mithras and the Moon. There are even farm animals that speak in tongues, in stables where babes are born into poverty under stars of wonder. And ghosts round every corner, hungry ones and ones quite content. There are angels who go where they go. And many magical things we can’t see. Some fall into the dark, others watch from the light. All things that are good, and the magic that sustains them, enjoy renewal this time of year; a door that has slid shut slides open again.”

“Do you think that that’s what Christmas is?” asked Elinor.

“Christmas and a hundred other worthy celebrations.”

“Will there ever be peace?” Vlad wondered.

“It may be selfish to say,” said Zima, “but there’s peace here, right now in this railcar. For the moment, at least. And I’m enjoying it very much.”

“It’s not selfish,” Elinor said. “It’s all we have. Tomorrow, or a week from now, may be very different.”

“Then peace to each of us,” said Beauregard, raising his glass.

They all toasted and drank, and the Count asked, “What did Gabriel whisper into your ear, Beauregard?”

Beauregard hesitated, seeming not to want to reveal a secret. Then he said, “It was a simple thing,” and said no more.

“That’s it?” said Vlad.

Beauregard sighed a fortunate sigh. 




The Akureyri Depot was nothing more than a small platform and a lonely shack in a farmer’s field.

At 5:30 a.m. that Christmas morning, shortly before their departure from the Station, Elinor Warkentin was seen on its snowy platform, happily surrounded by a stray flock of winter-woolly sheep as its shepherds rounded it up to bring back to the barn from which they’d escaped. Elinor petted and made friends with each of the creatures before boarding the Express once more.

The Countess was correct; no one, except the group of five, plus Beauregard, ever remembered that the Countess and Count had taken custody of Gabriel. When Jan and Helga returned to Oslo Cathedral to tell their story, neither the Minister nor the Curator of the Cathedral’s collection of ancient texts could remember a little girl taking refuge there. Any memory they had of Gabriel had simply faded away.

The Express faded away too, long ago, and is now thought to have never existed, except by an elderly man, affectionately known as Beau, who’d not so long ago, strolled his neighbourhood on his cane, taking coffee each afternoon at his favourite cafe with an equally elderly, but nonetheless spry, woman named Elinor. Elinor shared Beau’s conviction that the Reykjavik Express had been a reality.

The two of them faded away in their own time, but no one can remember when. Nor can anyone recall if Christmas of ’39 was the Express’ last run, or if there really was a mysterious little girl who vanished before everyone’s eyes?

Some say that the train can still be seen, occasionally, by anyone who cares to believe. Perhaps legends are born this way.

The war never came to Iceland, as Gabriel promised, though the Americans invaded, after a fashion, over-staying their welcome until they left in1949.

Today the island nation has a mighty Coast Guard, but no standing army.







Merry Christmas Lucas Quil


Quil was a calm man, though some said cruel in appearance, who watched the world through dark eyes that decrypted all he saw without astonishment or sympathy. And though prone to hatred and a grim violence, he baffled those who knew him by his introspection and apparent pining for a mysterious lost heart. Indeed, he was the conundrum in his own mirror, where, of late, he seemed to have become increasingly transparent.

Having boarded in Toronto, he now disembarked from the CPR Transcontinental at its Vancouver Waterfront terminus, stepping into a steam dragon on the platform. There, he checked his pocket watch, nearly 8pm and cold. Pulling up the collar of his wool coat, and with his suitcase in hand, he climbed the stairs from the platform, and walked through the station. Light snow was falling on Cordova Street, silhouetted against the yellow light of streetlamps, as he exited. It was Christmas Eve. He hailed a cab.

Taking the backseat of the taxi, he felt the butt of the vicious little gun he carried in his belt, against his waist. Trying to ignore it, he said, “Yale Hotel,” to the driver.

“Just got into town, eh?” The cabby was looking at Quil in the rear view mirror, observing a man in an expensive coat and hat. The suitcase, he noticed, was fine leather, a pricy item.

“Good guess,” Quil said, “since you picked me up out front of a train station with a suitcase in my hand.”

“Well,” said the cabby, “I just wanted to worn you, that’s all. The Yale’s a bit of a dump. We got better in this burg.”

“And yet the Yale is where I want to go.”

“Swell,” said the man at the wheel. Then he said, “By the way, mister, this can be a very lonely town. I can get you ladies, or, you know, whatever’s yer fancy.” He turned and offered Quil his card. Quil didn’t take it, and they drove on.

The furniture in the shadowy Yale Hotel lobby consisted of worn velvet and cracked leather sofas and chairs. An elderly man listed to the left as he snored on a once grand chesterfield. A dilapidated piano stood in a corner, and the chandelier had lost many of its crystals.

The clerk behind the counter was an untidy man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers. Quil gave him his name, and the man lazily scratched it into the leger with a fountain pen, writing Quill with two Ls.

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

“That so?” said the clerk, annoyed, scratching out Quill, and saying out loud, “Mr Lucas Quil,” as he wrote with a faux flourish. “Esquire. One. L.” Then, looking up smugly, he noticed a certain change in the quality Quil’s posture, and immediately regretted his little drama. “Sorry,” he said, nervously. “I’m a little tired. My relief hasn’t shown yet. I’m beat, but it means I might be here all night.”

“Just get me the key to my room,” Quil said. “And I’m looking for a Miss Lilith Drakos. I understand that she has a room here.”

Now the clerk grinned a dirty little grin. “If there’s a guest here by that name,” he said, “I can deliver a message.”

“There is no message,” Quil said, conjuring a ten-dollar bill out of the air, as though it were fruit from an invisible tree. “I want to know what room she’s in.” He held the bill under the clerk’s nose, as the shabby little man licked his lips.

“Preserving our guests’ privacy is important to us,” said the clerk. Then he took the bill, and inspected it. “That was a clever trick,” he said.

“I’ve another trick,” Quil said. “One I do with a straight razor, in the dark of night.” There was nothing minacious in his tone. It was a simple statement of fact. The clerk believed it.

“#205,” he said, anxiously pocketing the cash. “The woman you’re looking for’s in #205. I’ll put you in #207, if that’s agreeable.” He held out a battered skeleton key.

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

“That’ll be a dollar for the night,” said the clerk.

Quil said nothing. During the transaction, he’d unbuttoned his coat to reveal the revolver in his belt.

“Ah yes,” the clerk said sheepishly, eyeing the butt of the gun. He patted his pocket where the ten dollar bill now nestled. “Shall I take up your suitcase for you.”

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

“A pleasure to have you, sir. Just shout if you need anything.”

Quil climbed the staircase, stopping a moment outside of #207. There was the faint scent of fresh sandalwood from inside, bringing back memories of an unhurried time, jazz and a passion. He lingered and listened, and then moved on.

His room was stale. An exposed electrical wire ran up the wall, and was strung across the ceiling to where it connected to a bare light bulb. The drapes hung loose and dusty from a rod over the window. The bed linen wasn’t fresh, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t sleep. He sat on a kitchen chair looking out onto the street until shortly after dawn, Christmas morning, then decided to leave for breakfast.

Surprised at seeing the man leave the building from her window, she donned her coat and went to the lobby, stepping out when she was sure that he’d moved on, and following him to the Aristocratic Cafe. There, she waited on the sidewalk until he was seated, then entered unseen, taking a booth in the back.

Lilith Drakos was a pale, slender woman in a bland flower print dress and a second hand coat, purposely drab in hopes of moving through the world unnoticed. A chill ran through her as she watched Quil at his table, drinking his coffee and reading a newspaper. He was exactly as she remembered him, the handsome crime boss with a hard-earned elegance that almost hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—a delinquent fog that had fallen upon a city, and its underworld. A dark paint of whispers, the lips of others that had moved, but out of fear, confessed nothing. She’d met him in that place of cast shadows, of nights that had rendered the red of her lipstick black. He ate the dark; it had sustained them both. She’d seen it run wet down his chin, and in his in ruthlessness, he ruled the city. For all of that, though, in the end he’d succumbed to his greatest weaknesses, jealousy and greed.

And now he’d stalked her down.

She stood, and walked to his table where she took off her coat and hung it over the vacant chair. “So,” she said, sitting down, “you’ve found me. How?”

“Hello Lilith,” he said, trying to sound pleasantly surprised, but sounding sorry for something instead. “Let me buy you breakfast.”

“No.” Quiet rage in her voice. “Answer me. How’d you find me?”

“I’ve always known where you are,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “Here, and the other places you’ve been. I’ve developed a talent for clairvoyance, since our parting. You have too, I’m sure.”

She had, but didn’t say so. Instead she said, “Why have you come?”

“To apologise.” He looked at her a moment, poker-faced, before shifting his gaze onto the once vibrant red rose tattoo on her wrist. Its colour was nearly gone. Fading. The thing he’d noticed in himself, when he looked in a mirror.

“Apologise?” Lilith said. It was a broken word when he said it. “That’s rich, all things considered.” She absently placed her hand over her heart.

“Why are you dressed that way?” he said, hoping to change the subject. “You look like a dime store frump.”

“It’s how I prefer to be seen now days. It’s how I looked before you recovered me from the trash, and had me dressed up like your silky little harlot.”

“Those weren’t such bad days, were they?” said Quil. “At least you ate every day. You had money and a warm bed. Your jewelry box was full. And there was romance, wasn’t there?”

“It’s how I chased away the poverty,” Lilith said. “It hurt going hungry, and you rescued me for some reason—a woman running errands for nickels and dimes, and sometimes selling myself for a few dollars to your torpedoes. I still don’t know what you saw in me, I was nearly ruined by the time you salvaged me, but at least you weren’t a pimp. You were mean, though. They weren’t always such happy times for me.”

“You remember it differently than me. I remember that you were young. I saw such beauty.”

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

She stared at his straight face. Then, “Bastard,” she said, standing and putting on her coat. She left the cafe.

It was a necessary sign of civility, simply knocking on a door to gain entry. One he’d acquired later in his career, to replace more violent or stealthy ways. Lilith’s door didn’t open immediately, though, when later that Christmas evening he knock.

“Please let me in, Lilith,” he said gently. Then quietly waited.

“No,” she replied through the door, moments later.

“I’m not going away,” he said.

“Then you can wait ’til Hell freezes over.”

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”


“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

“It’s a time for forgiveness,” Quil said. “God and sinner reconcile, and all of that. Get it?”

“Which of us is the sinner, in this case? You always thought you were God.”

Quil was quiet again, then said, “It’s a metaphor, Lilith. Maybe God is what passes between us, when we speak to one another. Please let me in.”

That was poetic. The door opened a crack, and she peaked out. “You’re a murderer,” she said.

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

“Then let’s just have a drink.” He held up a brown paper bag. “Bourbon,” he said. “The good stuff.”

“You’re getting easier to see through, Lucas.”

“We have that in common, don’t we,” he said.

“I ain’t been drinking lately,” she said, but invited him in.

Her room was immaculate. A small Christmas tree stood on the nightstand. The bedcover was a colourful eiderdown. There were oriental carpets on the floor, and a comfortable chair by the window.

“Please sit,” she said, and taking the bottle from him, she poured them each a drink in glasses she took from a cupboard above a small kitchen table.

Quil sat on the bed. She sat next him, handed him his drink and put the bottle on the floor next to them.

“So.” she said. “Let’s talk forgiveness.”

He gulped back his drink, and for the first time revealed the butt of a gun in his belt.

“You still carry that damn thing?” she said, with disgust.

Quil looked down at the .38 revolver in his belt.

“You brought it for old time’s sake, I guess,” she said. ”Is that it? Memory Lane and all?”

“No” He sighed. “It’s a curse, a small part of Hell. I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve tried. I threw it into the St Lawrence once, but there it was again the next time I looked.”

She gulped back her drink, and poured them each another. “That’s some story,” she said.

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

“We’re both easier to see-through than ever,” he said. “I guess we’re finally on our way out.”

She placed a hand over her heart, where her fatal wound was now slowly becoming visible.

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

“It never did,” said Lilith. “How could it? It happened too fast. You’re a quick draw.”

He touched his own wounds, slowly revealing themselves, and then looked at his bloody fingers. “Oh God I’m sorry.”

“I’ve suspected it for quite a while,” she said. “This fading of ours. We’re disappearing. It’s a symptom of having finally reached the end. It sure took a long time.”

“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. I guess the dead don’t just fall to the ground. We just get disappeared to all we loved.”

“You thought you were bullet-proof. I guess I thought the same when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world vanishing .”

“I thought I’d live forever,” he said.

She put her hand to her breast again, and felt the deep wound of the heart, manifest once more after so long.

“It’s the final insult,” Quil said, “in the end our wounds appearing again.”

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

“I can’t get rid of it, I tell you. It’s a kinda Hell.”

“You killed us both, and you expect angels?”

“Forgive me, Lilith,” he said. “Please, before we’re both completely gone. We were in love once, weren’t we? I did it because I couldn’t face it. You were ready to leave.”

“No. You did it because you’re sick, jealous and obsessed with what you can’t have. I was a piece of property. You’ve killed a lot of people who wanted what was yours, and because you wanted what was theirs, and you couldn’t stand losing me to my own freedom.”

He wept in his final earthly misery, and she tenderly stroked his cheek. Their invisibility was now so nearly complete that she could see the vivid colours of the eiderdown through them both.

“It’s hard,” she said, “and I don’t know what good it’ll do either of us, but I do forgive you, because it’s Christmas.”

Quil’s tears were bloody from his suicide wound, and out of a strange sympathy, she said, “Merry Christmas, Lucas Quil.” And as she did, the still solid .38 in Quil’s belt fell to the floor, as they finally disappeared like ghosts.






Elinor, Brian, Veronica and Melissa—a Christmas Story

Author’s Note—

At Christmas, my friend Elinor commissions me to write her a personalised story, and she always asks me to include certain items and characters that will make the story unique to her. This year’s character: Veronica, her real life niece. This year’s items: a camping trailer, like Veronica’s, a Shasta Airflyte, and portzelky, a deep fried delicacy usually enjoyed by Mennonites around New Year’s. The rest is up to me…


Christmas Eve morning after the storm, just outside of Grunthal, Manitoba

It was important, Melissa Winter knew, to conjure context when peering out of a steamy window onto the prairie after so remarkable a snowfall. When landmarks had perished and the horizon was an absent keepsake. Imagine the road, she thought. Remember how it is in the summer, neglected by tax payers, scattered roadside shrines riding high on its shoulders, just ten or twelve trucks and cars passing in a day.

In the end, it was the electrical pole at the gate to the property that proved that there was still an up-and-down. The old reliable pole and the infinite east/west line that hung from it, and the service line that drooped under its own weight as it approached the junction box on her property. Her trailer was plugged into it like a blunt appliance—her old Shasta Airflyte that now, under a deep and peaceful white mantle, looked like an igloo.

Most in town said it wasn’t a proper home for a woman of eighty years, but she wouldn’t leave. Behind the trailer stood the empty, slowly decaying, Winter family homestead, after all, one hundred and eleven years old. She’d been born in it, and raised, back when the land grew wheat and barley. She’d raised her own children there, lived in it all of her life, until everyone was gone and she’d become its last lone occupant. And when it became too much for her, she’d moved into the Airflyte, leaving the house abandoned and hollow. But she’d never really let it go, it and the land were hers.

“Now the world sleeps,” she whispered, looking out onto the white landscape, “like a seed dreaming of its garden in spring.”

“That’s lovely,” said a pale, gray-haired man sitting at the tiny dining table for two, on which stood a tiny, well-lit Christmas tree. “I’ve always loved your poetic side.”

“Thank you, Brian, and I’m so glad you stopped by, though I don’t know how you got through the snow.”

“Perhaps it’s love that moved me.”

“Oh stop it.”

“How are you, my dear?” the pale man said.

“A little lonely. A variety of lonely only Christmas brings on. Memories, you know? I never learned how to arrange them in any sensible order, so they’re just in a heap in my head. There’s a wind up there that blows them around sometimes, like scraps of paper.”

“Be careful with them, Melissa,” said Brian.

“That’s a strange thing to say.”


A slow rendition of Silent Night came over a transistor radio by the sink.

“Christmas Eve,” she sighed.


“Time to make portzelky, I think,” Melissa said. “It’s more of a New Year’s thing, I’ll grant you, but I feel motivated.”

“Not in this tiny trailer, you won’t.”

“Of course not,” she said. “The burners on that little stove don’t get nearly hot enough. Besides, I don’t have to. Thomas was splitting wood yesterday. I can make it on the woodstove in the big house. Proper portzelky has to be made on a woodstove. That’s all there is to it.”

“That’s impossible, Melissa, and you know it. That old stove’s cracked and blocked.”

“But Thomas stacked the wood right there on the porch. Kindling, and all.”

“Thomas is gone, Melissa. The wood’s been stacked there for ten years, and that old woodstove’s broken. You’ll burn the old place down, with you in it. I won’t allow it.”

“You know, Brian,” she said, sitting down across from him and taking his hand, “sometimes in the evening I see the lights on in the front parlour room. I can hear everyone talking, and I can hear Michelle playing the piano. And I think, why am I living in this old trailer? It gets so cold with just that little heater. Why don’t I just move back into the big house?”

“Because you can’t, my dear. No one can. It’s a wreck. It should have been torn down years ago, and you should be living in town.”

“Michelle’s so gifted on the piano. I don’t know where she gets it from.”

“Melissa,” Brian said, “there are limits to what I can do to protect you from yourself, and you don’t make it easy.”

“Why don’t I put the kettle on,” she said. “I’ll make us some instant coffee. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Yes,” Brian said. “Thank you. I would.”

Meanwhile near Steinbach

On its website, The Rural Municipality of Hanover states that it maintains a well trained staff. Whether it is road repair in the summer or snow clearing in the winter they are always there to ensure you have access to the places you need to be.

And so, on that Christmas Eve after the storm, at 5 a.m. CST, Veronica Warkentin climbed into the cab of the Municipality’s 1962 Walter Snow Fighter Model FSB, parked in its shed in the Municipality of Hanover works yard, and started the engine and let it idle.

Days earlier she’d strung the cab with Christmas lights so that now it glowed red, blue and green against the early morning darkness. Veronica had been driving the plow part-time every winter since she was seventeen, sharing the duty with Victor Albrecht who was set to retire. Now she drove it, as required, during her winter breaks from university.

Veronica loved the Snow Fighter, it was slow but true, and its four wheel drive and 130 HP of low-end torque made its bulk unyielding. There wasn’t a snowbound road or highway it couldn’t clear, but it was its age, more than a half century old, that had sealed its fate. Despite the incalculable miles of snowbound Manitoba roads and highways it had cleared, this would be its last winter. It had spent its entire life with the Municipality, but parts had become expensive and hard to find.

For Veronica, waiting for the engine to warm up was a meditation. The 3:45 a.m. call-in had pulled her from a restful sleep. Dreams of serenity and daring, now disappointingly impossible to recall in any detail. So now it was time to ground herself, and place herself solidly in the moment. Driving the plow was a serious trade.

A voice crackled over the two-way.

“Veronica, is that you I hear starting the plow in the yard?” It was Jasper Friesen, the night watchman.

Veronica picked up the mic, “10-4, Jasper.”

“Good. They got me doing some data entry here, to fill the quiet hours. I’m trying to find you in payroll but you’re not in the computer, how come?”

“Are you spelling my last name correctly?”

“Of course: W-a-r-c-k-e-n-t-i-e-n.”

“Wrong,” she groaned, and then corrected him. “It’s Warkentin: War, as in War of the Roses; ken, as in awaken; and tin as in Tintin, the precocious Belgian teen-aged adventure-boy with the goofy dog, who hangs out with Captain Haddock, a sailor of indeterminate sexual preferences. Get it?”

There came a brief moment of staticky silence, then—

“Golly,” Jasper said, “don’t get upset at me. It’s a reasonable question, ain’t it?”

“But it’s such an obvious and easy spelling. How long have you been a Mennonite, anyway?”

“Huh? Well, I’m thirty-seven now….”

“Does anybody ever ask you how to spell Friesen?” Veronica said.

“Of course not. Half the population of Manitoba is named Friesen. It’s the Jasper part people think’s funny, which is strange since there ain’t nothing wrong with it I can figure. My father was called Jasper. No one thought that was funny.”

“Maybe,” said Veronica, “it’s because that makes you Jasper Jr., Jasper. Rolls off the tongue in an Elmer Fuddish sort of way, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, hang on,” Jasper said, “Now I’ve got you on the screen. Hey, you make way more money than me.”

“Get your airbrakes ticket, buddy.”

“I got my GED.”

“This snow’s something else,” Veronica said, changing the subject. “It’s going to be a long, slow run.”

“Well, be careful and stay in touch.”

“10-4, and good-bye Jasper,” Veronica said. “I’m signing off, for now.”

After hanging a red-berried sprig of holly from the rear-view mirror, she checked her work order. It called for Veronica to head north on Highway 12 to the Number One and back again, stop at the yards briefly to fuel up and check her Snow Fighter for damage, and then head south to Highway 302. After that, she’d turn round and come back again. By then, she was certain, someone would have found more for her to do.

Placing the clipboard on the passenger seat, she lowered the plow and she set the angle cylinders. Then shifting gear, she cleared a path through the parking lot out the gate. The snow had stopped and the sky was clearing. The temperature would drop even more now, and woe be to anyone caught out in the hard crystal cold without a proper coat, hat and gloves.

Turning up her iPod, she hit the diesel.

Vancouver, round the same time

Being a practical woman who only occasionally lingered at the edge of mysticism, Elinor Warkentin wasn’t one to seek hidden messages in the mundane. So she supposed, at first, that the phone call early that Christmas Eve morning could only have been a wrong number. But it wasn’t.

Her Rockin’ around the Christmas tree ring tone woke her at 3:30 a.m. PST, out of a sound sleep, interrupting dreams of chocolate and the romance of international travel.

“Damn,” she said, picking up. “Hello?”

“Elinor?” It was a man’s voice.


“It’s Brian, Elinor,” the man said.

“Brian…? I’m sorry, I…. You’ve got the wrong number.”

“Don’t hang up!” Brian said, not quite shouting. “You probably don’t remember me, I know. We last spoke a very long time ago.”

“Are you calling because you require the services of a Professional Organizer?” asked Elinor.


“Have you got clutter?” she asked, groggily. “At Goodbye Clutter we help make room for what matters.”


“Then I want to go back to sleep. Good-bye.”

“Wait!” said the man. “It’s about Melissa Winter.”

“Who?” Elinor said.

“Out there on what’s left of the old Winter homestead. You remember her, don’t you? Just outside of town.”

“Town?” Elinor said, sitting up in her bed, “What town? This is Vancouver, sport. No homesteads here. Just over-priced real estate, Starbucks and falafel joints as far as the eye can see.”

“No no,” he said. “I mean outside of Grunthal, where you grew up.”

“Grunthal? Look, mister….”

“Just listen a minute,” he said, “and my name’s Brian. I’ll help you remember. Think back to when you were a little girl, ten years old. Try to recall a day in June, by the creek on the Winter farm, under the willows out back of the house. There was a birthday party, children playing. I was the man who spoke to you that afternoon, at the picnic table over pieces of birthday cake on paper plates. No one else could see me, do you recollect now? And you wondered why. In our conversation, I said that I might contact you in the future. I said you’d forget our little talk, but that you may need to remember it one day, if I ever called.”

“That’s crazy, Brian.”

“This is that phone call, Elinor. The one where I tell you that Melissa needs your help. You need to call Veronica.”

“I’m hanging up,” she said.

“No, Elinor, you’re not. Not now, because now you can see it; that day. The sunlight on the creek and the children, your childhood friends. I’d always hoped that I wouldn’t have to make this call, but I made that connection with you back then just in case. I knew that I could rely on you, and that you could rely on Veronica. Call her, please.”

“Call her yourself if there’s something she should know. Call the cops for that matter. Hang up and I’ll call the cops for you, long distance. Then I can go back to sleep.”

“The police will take too long to respond. They’ve been called in too many times, on Melissa’s behalf, for all of the wrong reasons. Now they don’t take her seriously. Besides, the highways and roads are blocked by snow. Only Veronica can get through right now. Just make the call.”

Elinor paused and thought for a moment. The man’s voice was sincere and familiar, but unfairly so, like so much of something very important hinged upon her remembering. But she couldn’t remember, not entirely.

“Who are you? What are you, really?”

“With all of what a person like you feels about Christmas,” Brian said, “You must be at least somewhat prone to believing in a miracle here and there.”

“You woke me out of a sound sleep for this?”

“Angels aren’t perfect, and sometimes when our best laid plans fail, a miracle depends upon the intervention of a special person. And of all the possible futures I can see unfolding for Melissa, the best ones involve you.”

“Angels,” Elinor said flatly. “Miracles and angels.”

“Yes,” said Brian, “and though a miracle is a matter of faith, practically speaking, it can also be the outcome of actions taken by people in support of another. In this case, a person for whom what’s practical has been replaced by what’s magical, who has confused the tangible with the abstract. Some people, even some angels, say it’s a gift of age, but they don’t take into account the sharp edges of the world.”

Now as Brian spoke, Elinor felt herself being transported. In a moment she stood in a grassy yard between a grand old house and a large red barn, and there was everybody. She knew each child’s name and recognized the happy woman in the flower print dress, neither young nor old in the willow-shade, serving cake and supervising the unwrapping of gifts. Her hair was blond and silver, and as Elinor watched, the woman knelt and a child ran into her arms.

Elinor knew her. It was Melissa Winter, a half a lifetime ago. The wife of Thomas, mother of Michelle and Zack, all three of them passing before her, each of their own private trials.

Then Elinor found her place in the unfolding scene—a child, sitting across from a pale, gray-haired man as the birthday party went on around them. He was dressed in a soft white shirt and blue jeans. His face was fair, and she felt safe in his presence, and glad. In fact, he was magnificent—angelic?—even as he ate the sticky cake with a plastic fork.

Now returning to the present day, on the phone, she suddenly knew him in fact, and immediately understood the implications and wrongness of what was happening.

“You!” she gasped. “Yeah, I remember you now. You’re that spook. I still dream of you, you know? Weird dreams, too. You’re still taking up space in my head, you bastard, and you’ve got no business being there. You had no business talking to me then, either. I was just a kid. And you’ve got no business calling me now. My life is my own, and I don’t go chasing after things because a ghost calls.”

“I’m not a ghost,” he said. “You know it.”

“Then what do you call it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t?”


“It’s guardian angel, right?” Elinor said. “Yeah, it’s coming back to me now. You’re Melissa’s guardian angel, calling me on Christmas Eve at 3:30 a.m. Well, ain’t that swell. So I guess being all holy makes you really smart, too, right? Which, I’m guessing, means that you understand the significant psychological impact this is having on me right now. Oh hang on everyone, I’ve got Yahweh Jr on my iPhone. Nothing too freaking bizarre. I can handle irrefutable evidence of the existence of the divine all on my own. No big thing.”

“I guess you have a point, but….”

“But nothing, mister. You just listen to me. I don’t care if you’re an angel, an archangel, demon or one of those creepy little cherub characters in a Raphaelian wet dream. I don’t even care if you’re the risen Jesus himself wearing a goddamn Santa suit. You go haunt someone in Grunthal, Brian, and have them call 911.

“I can’t,” Brian said. “Yours is too strong of a link to what’s happening, Elinor. You’re the one. It was decided a long time ago. You were chosen for this by some roll of the dice neither of us can understand. Mainly, I reckon, it’s because you’ve a good heart, and Veronica does too, both better than most. And maybe I don’t have any business, but I do what I’m told. The why of it isn’t important right now. Maybe it makes no sense, and maybe you’re having trouble with this because no one believes in anything anymore, even at Christmas. But it’s just one simple phone call. Send Veronica out to the Winter place; have her bring Melissa back to town. I promise I’ll dance on the head of a pin for you when it’s all over.”

“No,” said Elinor, “it’s not just a simple phone call, and you know it. If this isn’t a dream, and you’re for real, then it’s terrifying. It’s incomprehensible. Even if it is a dream, it’s terrifying. Because you’re terrifying—invisible, sneaking around. Talking to kids without permission. How long have you been stalking me? Do you stand in the corner of my apartment, watching? Is that how you get your kicks? Do you know my Visa balance? Do you go tisk-tisk when I behave badly, or even presume to weep over my tragic failings?”

“I haven’t stalked you,” Brian said. “I’m Melissa’s angel.”

“So angels are just a bunch of perverts, huh.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s not like that.”

“Bugger off, Brian,” Elinor said. “Ha, and what kind of name is Brian for an angel, anyway?”

She rang-off, threw off her blankets and put feet on the cold floor. “Merry bloody Christmas to me,” she whispered, then check her cell for Brian’s number. It wasn’t there. Going to her contacts, she brought up Veronica’s number.

Suddenly, she remembered more of her childhood conversation with Melissa’s angel. How he hadn’t spoken in words, but in gentle musical chords, each flawless and making perfect sense.

“Do you believe in angels, Elinor?” he’d asked her that afternoon.

“Of course,” she’d said, being an average ten year old.

“Because they say so in church?”

“No. Just because.”

“Well,” he’d said, “that’s the best reason of all. My call to you may come when it’s least convenient, but I won’t ask much. You’re going to grow up and be strong and generous and smart. You’ll be a good friend to call on.”

She’d smiled, but wasn’t sure why. All she knew was that no one had ever said anything like it to her before.

Then putting down the remains of his cake, she remembered her visitor say, “Bye for now. We may never meet again. That would be best.” And then he disappeared into the music.

Now she checked the Manitoba weather on her iPhone, Winnipeg area. Heavy snow ending, then clearing and cooling. Okay. But what about Veronica? Elinor could call her right now, or maybe that could wait. She showered, got dressed and called a cab.

In Vancouver Airport

“Happy holidays, ma’am.,” the Agent said greeting Elinor at the counter. “How may I be of service?”

“I need a flight to Winnipeg, and I need it right away.”

“Oh my,” he said. “That may be a tough one.” He started to make clucking sounds with his tongue, and put his hand to his chin.

“Ah-huh!” he finally said, grinning too warmly. “Aren’t you a lucky one? We do have a space on the 1pm flight. You absolutely must go over to the kiosk when we’re done here, and buy a lottery ticket.”

“Don’t you have anything sooner?”

“Nothing sooner or later, ma’am. It’s Christmas Eve, you know.”

“But, that’s very disappointing,” Elinor said.

“Well it is only Winnipeg, not Toronto or Miami Beach. People aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to get there, as reflected in our limited number of scheduled flights. May I have your name, please?”

“It’s Elinor Warkentin.”

“Have you flown with us before?”


“Alright, I’ll check for you in the computer….”

More typing and clucking.

“Hmm,” said the Agent, “no sign of you in the database.”

“Last name is Warkentin,” Elinor said. “Try again.”

“Alright, W-a-r,” the Agent spoke as he spelled this time, “c-a-n-t-i-e-n.”

“No,” Elinor sighed. “It’s War, as in War and Peace; ken, as in Ken and Barbi; and tin as in Tin cup.”

“Oh my, what a lovely name,” the booking Agent said. “And there you are, Elinor Warkentin. I’ll have your ticket ready in a moment. Cash or charge.”

She gave the Agent her Visa card, and he grinned and said, “There it is, Warkentin.” Then he flicked the card with his finger and thumb. “What a rare and wonderful spelling. And look how lovely and unique Elinor is spelled.”

“Good grief,” she said, and the Agent’s grin widened. Then with ticket in hand, she went to reserve a rental car, and make a phone call.

“Hello?” Veronica said.

“Hello, Veronica, it’s Elinor.”

“Auntie! What a surprise. What’s happening? Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. Jolly Hanukah. Festive Eid ul Fitr.”

“The same to you, my dear. I have a bit of a strange question to ask.”

“Okay,” said Veronica, “shoot.”

“Well,” Elinor said, “you know Melissa Winter, out on the Winter homestead…”

“Of course.”

“Anything strange happening out there, that you know of?”

“No,” said Veronica. “She’s living in that sweet little trailer and refuses to move into town. A lot of people think it’s wrong, but that’s old news.”

“Are you out in the Snow King?”

“Yeah, it’s a real mess out here.”

“Well,” said Elinor, “can you swing by her place and check up on her?”

“It’s a little off of my route, but I guess I could. Whassup?”

“I just have a bad feeling. She’s all alone out there, and….”

“…and?” Veronica said.

“I can’t explain right now.”

“Okay, but in this snow it could take a while. I’m headed in the opposite direction right now, and I should stop back at the yard for fuel.”

“I know it might be a lot to ask of you,” said Elinor, “but maybe you can convince her to stay in town with someone until the weather let’s up, and it gets warmer. She could ride in with you.”

“Maybe, but I don’t know. She’s a tough nut.”

“Do your best,” Elinor said. “I’m flying out of YVR at 1pm my time; there by 7pm yours.”

“Okay. See you then.”

Veronica turn the Snow Fighter around at the number 1/number 12 junction. She knew she should to return to the yard sooner rather than later, but decided to visit Melissa first, clearing the road to the old girls home ASAP.

The Winter Homestead

Melissa Winter began gathering ingredients. There was flour, for sure, high in a cupboard. The other items she’d need were milk, yeast, eggs, sugar and oil. Each she found packed tight in various small corners, and in the refrigerator. The only ingredient she couldn’t find was raisins.

Watching her breath frost against the cold air, she carried the ingredients across the snowy yard, and placed them on the counter in the ramshackle kitchen of the old house. Then she opened the oven door and brushed out some litter, before checking the firebox and giving the smoke stack a gentle tap with a poker. It rattled and soot fell slowly from its joints.

“Silly old stove,” she said, and then took kindling from the wooden box next to the oven, starting a fire in the heart of the cast iron beast. Small at first, but it grew as she lay in stove-lengths. The pine was dry and caught quickly.

“Don’t do this, Melissa,” Brian said. He sat at the old kitchen table in a decaying kitchen chair.

“Nonsense, I’ve done it a thousand times. I get the stove going now, and when I’m done mixing things up, it’s warm enough to make the dough rise. Then I’ll pound the dough down, and it’ll rise again. We’ll chat, you and I, while all that’s going on. At some point, I’ll heat the oil.”

“The stove is too old, Melissa. It was old when you used it to feed your family. It’s cracked and broken, and the chimney….”

“You’re just so cautious, Brian,” said Melissa, adjusting the damper. “You just can’t help it, can you?”

WestJet to Winnipeg

Elinor counted her blessings as she stuffed her slightly oversized carry-on bag into the overhead compartment, refusing to believe that a seat coming available on the sold-out flight was a miracle. Nor, she preferred to believe, was it a miracle that a “technical issue” had delayed the flight twenty minutes at the gate, so she could board late after losing track of time speaking to Veronica.

“Can I help you with your bag?” said the man sitting in the window seat, next to hers. He stood up and made a clumsy try, but failed and sat down again.

“No thanks,” Elinor said, giving the bundle a final shove. “This is a one woman job.” She shut the compartment door and sat down.

“Lucky for you that they had a delay,” said the man.

“And that’s all it was, too,” she said. “Sheer luck.”

“Of course it was,” he smiled.

Elinor gave him a sidelong glance. Was that irony or mockery she heard in his voice?

At 37,000 feet, she brought out a bar of chocolate, and offered him some. “It’s Belgian,” she said, as he took a piece and popped it into his mouth.

“Mmm, that’s good,” the man said. “I love Belgium, don’t you? I had business in Brussels during the war. Heck, I had business in pretty much all of Europe during the war.”

“The war?” said Elinor. The man seemed no older than fifty-five or sixty. “What war? You’re joking, right? You can’t mean the Second World War.”

“Hmm.” He blushed. “That does seem a bit out of sync, doesn’t it.”

Now Elinor gave him a more serious look. He was a pale man in a soft white shirt and blue jeans, with a distressingly familiar face. He smiled again, for just a moment. Then his expression changed to concern, and then to one of resignation. Suddenly there was the faint sound of vaguely familiar music that came from nowhere on the plane; and Elinor wasn’t sure, but was it a halo or only the light from the window that encircled his head.

“Hello, Elinor,” he said.

“Brian,” she said. “You are stalking me.”

“No, but getting us our seats was no mean feat.”

“Well, I’m moving,” said Elinor, looking over her shoulder. “Where’s the Attendant?”

“There’s nowhere to move to.”

“You bastard! I’ll trade seats with someone, then.”

“This wasn’t easy, like I said. So, please bear with me. I had to find a couple sitting together on board who deserved a temporary, if spiffing, bout of food poisoning. I chose a married couple who sold junk bonds to seniors over the internet. Then I had to get the two of them off before they ejected their Sausage McGriddles all over the other passengers. Then there was the technical glitch. It had to be enough to cause the delay, but not so significant as to cause a cancellation. They cancel flights for the smallest things these days, you know? I chose to temporarily zap the aft men’s room toilet. But it’s all of your efforts that interest me. That’s why I thought it would be nice for us to meet again. And it has been such a long time.”

Elinor stared at him, and said nothing.

“Melissa still has things to do in this life, Elinor. I think you understand that, because you’re on this plane when all you really had to do was make a phone call.”

“I was thinking of visiting my family for the holidays, anyway,” she said.

“That’s a fib.”

“Look who’s talking. You’re one of the slipperiest characters I’ve ever met, Brian. Isn’t a sin to steal airline seats, by giving the rightful occupants botulism?”

“It was trichinosis,” Brian said. “And sin is a mostly misunderstood concept. I guess I arranged this meeting because I wonder if we might be very good friends one day.”

“Impossible. And where’s your boss in all of this?”

“Well, he’s a bit of a recluse, especially this time of year.”

“This gets worse by the moment, and you know it.”

“You know, you’ve the radiance of an unrestrainable soul,” he said.

“What does that mean?” said Elinor.

He began fading gently into the music.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“Look for me at Melissa’s side,” she heard him say, after he disappeared, “no matter the outcome.”

Then the music itself slowly faded, also.

Back on the Winter Farm

Melissa worked kneading the dough as Brian, who’d disappeared earlier, reappeared and placed a bag of raisins on the counter.

“I’m afraid that makes me an enabler,” he said, “but you deserve the basics.”

Melissa picked up the bag, and grinned. “You’re my source of small wonders, Brian dear.” She stood as tall as she could and kissed him on the cheek. “But an enabler? Such language.”

The dough was lovely and elastic, smelling of yeast. Now it would need to rise. She took it from the counter and placed it on the shelf above the stove, the only truly warm place in the house. As she did, a small puff of smoke, sparks and ash billowed out of a corroded joints in the stovepipe. The smoke rose and was blown away through broken windows. Some of the larger sparks fell and bounced on the floor. Melissa calmly extinguished them with sloe of her shoe.

“That stovepipe, Melissa,” Brian said. “Perhaps it’s blocked. You must be very careful if it is.” He took a moment re-evaluate possible futures. Some were terrible.

“Please, let’s go back to the trailer,” he said.

“So much family,” she said to Brian, changing the subject as she sat back at the old table. “So many friends and farmhands. Labour Days and Christmases. It’s just an old house fading with its memories. How many midday meals did I serve here to the men in from the fields, from the sheds and the barns? Sunday suppers for family. The laughter and prayers. Sorrows and broken dishes. All of the nearby things so hard to reach.”

“A lifetime’s worth, Melissa,” Brian said.

“Just ghosts and whispers now.” she said. “Convince me Brian, that memories aren’t a curse.”

“Blessing or a curse, yours are what make you exceptional.”

Another hour passed, and once again Melissa stood at the stove. Lifting the tea towel, she touched the pieces on a cookie sheet with a gentle finger. “Arisen, next to perfection,” she said, and then took a deep cast iron fry pan with a rusty patina off of a hook on the wall, placing it on the stovetop and pouring in the oil. More smoke issued out of the stovepipe joints, and the fire in the stove had gotten low. She added more wood.

Then suddenly as the new pine caught, there came a sound like a jet plane from the stovepipe, as the heavy stovetop lids blew vertically into the air and the oven door exploded outward. Melissa flew backward against the kitchen wall, and was left unconscious as the dry old ceiling joists above her ignited and sparks showered down, inch-by-inch setting fire to the entire kitchen.

Brian knelt at her side and whispered in Melissa’s ear, “Whatever decision you make now will be the right one. But before you decide anything, you should know that there are people on the way. There’s a good chance, if you choose, that you’ll come out of this alive.”

“I assume, by that, that you mean I might return to my little earthly life,” someone said, and Brian looked over his shoulder. There stood Melissa, as if on a spring morning, neither too young nor too old, but glowing. “Why in Heaven’s name would I want to do that?”

“Because hearts will be broken, if nothing else. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, after all. But mostly it’s a matter of a world being a lesser place with one less wise woman in it.”

“She’s too tired to be wise anymore,” Melissa said, pointing at her elderly mortal self sitting unconscious against the wall.

“Not yet,” said Brian. He stood and took her spirit by the hand. “There are still seasons ahead, in which you’ll be fit enough. They’ll be empty without you, though, and those who love you will be lonely in your untimely absence.”

“And how do you intend to remedy that?” she said, as the flames grew round her.

Driving south, and clearing the road ahead of her, Veronica saw the explosion of light appear from behind a rise in the prairie, and its flash fill the horizon. The Winter homestead was all that stood for miles in that direction. Shifting, she floored the accelerator pedal and pushed the plow as hard as she could, maybe too fast, but there was little choice.

Keying the mic, she shouted, “Are you there, Jasper?” There was no response. “Come on Jasper. Pick up the damn mic.” There was nothing but dead air. “Damn,” she whispered. He had to be on his rounds.

Then coming over the rise, she saw the once grand old house in flames. The bottom floor seemed fully engulfed, and flames were beginning to come out of some second floor windows. What chance did Melissa Winter have if she was still in there? There was only one way to find out. Veronica pushed the pedal even harder, steering the Snow King down the road and through the gate, through the front yard, past the Shasta Airflyte and up to the open door of the burning kitchen, where she hit the brakes and jumped out with a fire extinguisher.

The heat was intense, almost impossibly so, at the door as she shielded her face and triggered the fire extinguisher. Looking to her left, she saw Melissa’s singed body and targeted her with the extinguisher. Then grabbing her by the collar, Veronica pulled Melissa out onto the porch and then into the snow. In the distance was the sound of firetrucks. Veronica put an ear to the old woman’s chest. There was the sound of a heartbeat, and in a moment Melissa began coughing. Veronica surrendered her coat.

“Let’s get into the trailer,” she said, and helped Melissa into the refuge of the trailer.

The ambulance crew worked to stabilise Melissa, as Elinor drove into the yard. Veronica met her as she got out of her rental car.

“This has been a string of very mysterious events,” she said to Elinor.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Did you call 911?” Veronica asked Elinor.


“Have you seen a man hanging out, round here? Looks sort of my age.”

“Take your pick,” Veronica said, indicating the fire and ambulance crews.

“No, a civilian.”

Veronica scanned the crowd. “Do you mean him?” she said, pointing.

He stood next to the rental car wearing a vintage fleece bomber jacket, and smoking a cheroot. He gave a little wave. Elinor strolled up and gave him a gentle shove on the shoulder.

“What next?” she said. “Who needs rescuing now?”

“The whole damn planet,” he said, blowing smoke, “but you can stand down. Why don’t we sit in the car?”

Once inside the Smart Car, he handed her something colourful on a paper plate. Elinor recognized it immediately, a square-cut piece of birthday cake from a backyard celebration long ago. Next to it was a plastic fork. Brian had a piece, too. It was delicious.

“We never did get to finish this,” he said, “and it’s always someone’s birthday, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” Elinor said. “If you believe in that sort of thing. What about Melissa?”

“I think her fixation on the house may have ended,” Brian said. “Perhaps now she’ll reconsider a move into town. Maybe buy a nice little house with a garden. Who knows?”

“And what about us being very good friends one day, like you said on the plane? What’s in it for me?”

“Well, why don’t we see where you travel to next. I know a thing or two about the older bits of the Middle East, for example, and Europe. I can get you into places no tour guide can. You’d just have to listen to a few old angel stories, meet one or two of my pals, and possibly bring along the chocolate.”

Elinor gave it some thought as she ate her cake. “Can you get me travel discounts?” she asked.

“No,” said Brian.

“Well let’s give it a try just the same,” she said, “next time I fly across the pond. And from now on, please warn me when you’re about to disappear. It’s very unsettling.”

“Here’s your warning, then,” he said, and finished his cake. “Merry Christmas, Elinor.”

“Merry Christmas, Brian.”

Christmas poem

we’re gonna put you on the dime
for Christmas, baby
your profile the milky sound
of distant rockets

you’ll be nostalgia
once the queen of penny candy
and live in pockets
the spare change stared at
in the palms of disappointed hands

I knew her once
a man will say
before she became a dime
before she was silver
and stamped with the year
we failed to understand
each other’s eyes







everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bugger off,” I yell.

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

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


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

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

“Shut up.”

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

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

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

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

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

“You got a match?” Myron said.

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

“You got a match?” he said again.

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

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

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Myron.

“Yeah. It was Christmas, after all. He was doing the Santa Clause thing, handing out the hundred dollar bills to all us junkies. Turns out, the dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”