lost ironies

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Tag: Christmas

Merry Christmas Lucas Quil

1923

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

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

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

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

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now he’d stalked down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going away,” he said.

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

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

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

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

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

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

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

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

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

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

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

“Oh God I’m sorry.” He touched his own gruesome fatal head wound, slowly revealing itself, and then looked at his bloody fingers.

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

“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. Turns out the dead don’t just fall to the ground, though. We disappear piece by piece, until we ain’t there no more, disappeared to all we loved.”

“And you thought you were bullet-proof, when the next day there wasn’t a hole in your head and your brains were still in the same place. I guess I thought the same thing when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world of the dead, millions fading each at their own pace. Some of us standing still and watching, witnessing what we can while we’re still able. Others sick with wishful thinking, convincing themselves that what they see in the mirror is a lie.

“Which were you, Lucas? I think I know. You’re not the standing still type. You believed you’re such a big man that he could return from the dead.”

“At first, I guess I thought I’d live forever,” he said. “Now I know I’m a vanishing ghost. Best I can hope for is to be a memory.”

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

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

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

“Maybe.”

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

“Christmas Eve,” she sighed.

“Yes.”

“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.

“Yes?”

“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.

“No.”

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

“No.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bugger off,” I yell.

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Shut up.”

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

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

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

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

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

“You got a match?” Myron said.

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

“You got a match?” he said again.

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

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

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that swell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Myron.

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

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Gibson L-5

As a boy I knew that he was my father by the grim eyes I’d inherited, the mouth that remained a straight grave line at all occasions, and our close proximity in the house on Parker Street.

He was a man who calculated loss on a false scale, which never measured in his favour. As a result, he was inclined to despair. He reckoned the loss of my mother, five years before, by that scale, and lived his life evermore orbiting in an abode of desolation, separated from our physical one.

If I could describe him now, being what I have become at his behest so long ago, surrounded by Jazz, it would be as a winter ghost, played in the song of a throaty sax out of sight, a secret brush on snare, a piano limping like a hero, in spite of liquor and the rainforest rain most nights I can recall, oceans in the city, rumors of floods, the missing man in the room with its single small window, his eyes closed only in sleep.

Could he have been the miscalculation some claimed? Was he already, by the time I knew him, a field of his own sepia bones, the frets and inlays of his guitar, the one he played in bars for next to nothing, the one he chased into disappointment and delirium?

It was a Gibson L-5, the instrument that obsessed him and that he said was better than him. Its music was better than him, he claimed. These words emerging out of his setting of silence, then vanishing only to appear again.

More than once, he grieved over my broadening boyish and ready hands. And even then, I was dimly aware of a plot.

“Those are Jazz hands,” he said once, holding them in his own. Then looking at his, chipped red, black and blue and too early arthritic from his day job in a wrecking yard, which kept him from a latent greatness.

What happened occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1971. It had snowed the week before, at Christmas, and at the age of ten, I was still delighted with the mystical impossibility of it. It was Vancouver, after all, where green cursed the expectant child almost every 25th of December, and though there was a decorated tree in the living room, and gifts beneath it, it was the coming of the snow on Christmas Eve that made all of what was suggested by the holiday seem possible. Even today, it remains my most supernatural of Christmases.

The snow was still on the ground a week later, refreshed by flurries I preferred watching at night as they eddied through the vapour glimmer of streetlights, and laced white the trees on our street.

He disappeared, after saying at the quick breakfast I shared with him that morning, that the new year brought an obligation to change things, even if in a small way. The idea had weighed him down the second he said it, though it only represented a fondness for frail resolutions by most. Then he lightened, smiled and said, in some unknowable context —

“Your mother was fairer than Spring, and she still dances somewhere in the land of my heart.” Here he paused, as though it were a stanza break in a poem, then continued, “I get lost there every time I go, and haven’t found her yet, but I will. I’ll hear her singing and see her from a hill. There are hills in my heart, you know, left over from a time when they were mountains.”

Then he kissed me on my head, and was gone with his lunch pail. In a moment, I heard the sound of his black Ford as he backed out of the driveway.

I’d never seen the boy in him, because he was my father, but there’d once been mountains in his heart, now worn down to mere hills. Perhaps those peaks had been high and impassable when he was a boy. Now they were grassy and pleasant, and rolled away into an ashen evening distance. But maybe they were coal colour, and the only green was in a deep treed valley where my mother waited. Maybe it was his guitar she danced to.

What happened after that remained a mystery to me, until I made educated guesses later in my life.

He’d had a New Year’s Eve engagement in a club that night, but didn’t return after work to change. His one suit and thin tie remained in his closet, but the guitar was gone.

A few days later, they found his Ford parked out of place on the Campbell Avenue Pier, with the guitar in its case on the shotgun seat. There were two notes. One I was never allowed to read, and burned ceremonially by nameless aunts. When asked, one said she would identify him, but that she didn’t need to see him to know what had happened.

The other note was in an envelope with my name on it. It came to me with the Gibson L-5.

I leave you this guitar, it said, because it is the only material thing I ever loved. Play it, but do not obey it. You will grow and know more than me, but for all of that, you will be as frail and prone to surrender.

I placed the note in the guitar case, and sometimes read it before I take the stage.

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

 

Christmas Cake Confidential

Two weeks before

There can be respect in silence, sometimes held gently, while waiting for a moment to pass. Other times held like a rock, while waiting for the moment to come. Jason Abel now held his silence for neither of these reasons. His days of freely going on the hush were over, so complete was his newly acquired stillness. Wrapped in night, silent but for the harbour sounds from the inlet.

Geezer Haney stood over him, with the hot barrel of his revolver cooling in the frosty air. He told himself that this was all about business, ignoring the sadistic delight that had come in the act of murder. He couldn’t smile at what he’d done. He wasn’t a smiler. But he managed to pull off a smirk, and then ordered an underling to do something with the mess.

Vancouver, Christmas Eve 1951

Police Detective Olaf Brandt sat across from Trudy Parr at her desk. She was talking on the telephone, while Brandt sipped a cup of stale office coffee and stared down at a slice of Christmas fruit cake, on a chipped saucer. The cake had been thrust on him by the office secretary as a festive treat, compliments of Dench and Parr Investigations. He hoped his aversion to the impenetrable slab didn’t show.

“Yeah?” said Trudy Parr, to someone at the other end of the line. “Well I never miss an opportunity to be misunderstood.”

She listened for a moment, toying with a .45 calibre cartridge. She wore a white silk blouse, and her green eyes gleamed. A disassembled automatic handgun lay on the blotter, next to a pencil caddy.

“That’s Chinatown for you, Mr Wong,” she said. “It’s always something.” She paused and listen once more.

“Look Mr Wong,” she continued, “you asked me to investigate this thing. I did. It’s not my fault that you’re in a snit over what I uncovered. You have my verifiable report, and the billing information. And just so you know, I’ve been described as tenacious in the collection of outstanding debts owed to this agency. Don’t make me come to you.”

She hung up, and looked across her desk at Brandt pushing his cake around the plate with a fork. He was a plump man in an untidy overcoat.

“Not your idea of good eating, Olaf?” she said.

“It’s just that it doesn’t look homemade.”

“I don’t bake,” said Trudy Parr.

“But my wife does, you see, and she bakes a very fine Christmas cake, and I….”

Reaching across her desktop, Trudy Parr took the saucer from Brandt’s hand and dumped the cake into the trash bin.

“It was on sale at the Army & Navy,” she said. “A girl does what she can. It comes in a big tin, five solid pounds of it, with sleigh bells and holly. I figured that made it okay.”

“I meant no offence.”

“Forget about it. So, what’s so important to the VPD that you’re sitting here without an appointment?”

“It’s about Jason Abel.”

“And?”

“You’re investigating,” said Brandt.

“Funny,” Trudy Parr said, “it’s a little too early for you to have that information. I got the call only a couple of days ago. You tapping my phones?”

“No,” said Brandt. “It’s just one of those bits of intelligence that echoes off the walls until we end up hearing it. So, we know you’ve got someone out there asking questions. Abel ran round with a rough crowd—boozers, failed gamblers, druggies, the kind of people who talk too much in general, but never say the right things. Not to us, anyway. I was hoping you’d share a little about the murder, if you know anything.”

“Okay,” said Trudy Parr, slipping the .45 cartridge into a clip. “I’ll tell you what’s what, but it’s confidential, so don’t push it. I’ll confirm that I’m investigating at the request of some rich aunt or other. That’s all there is at the moment.”

“It’s just that the Captain doesn’t like parallel investigations,” Brandt said.

“Back off, then. Let us do the footwork. We’ll clear it up, tout suite. We always do. You take the credit, and we get the cheque. It’s just a missing person gig, anyway. If it was anyone else, other than some member of the local aristocracy, you’d wait a month before you started nosing round. He’s probably shacked up with some dame from the skids, someone his rich relatives wouldn’t approve of. I hear he likes that kind of gal.”

“Do me a favour, Trudy….” Brandt sounded tired.

“I already gave you Christmas cake,” she said, sitting back and smiling.

He gazed back with sad hound dog eyes.

“Look,” said Trudy Parr, “I’ve got one of my assets out there asking round. She’s good. She’ll have it sewn up by week’s end.”

“It’s that Warkentin woman, isn’t it.”

“Yeah, Elinor. Is that a problem?”

“The boys don’t like female PIs in the first place, and Headquarters really doesn’t like her.”

“That’s because she makes you look like dopes. She’s a better detective than most of the local gendarme, and she does it all with a smile and very little gunplay. I call it jealousy on your part. As it stands, I’ve received a non-refundable deposit from the client, and I intend to see the investigation through.”

“I told them you’d say that.”

“You convey that message to your Captain,” said Trudy Parr, “and wish him a merry Christmas. Hell, bring him a piece of cake.”

Brandt tipped his hat before he left.

It had snowed steadily for the past few days, and it remained cold enough to make Zackery Steinkraus wish he was doing anything but selling Christmas trees. The lot was out back of a church at Hastings and Main, and he couldn’t help thinking of how warm a jail cell would be right now. A judge had sentenced him to community service for a petty misdemeanor, however, and threw in a little irony by making him work selling trees until the day of the commencement of Hanukkah.

Compounding Zackery’s misery, Elinor Warkentin had just driven up in her MG. She parked, and looked in the rear view for a moment, straitening her hat and checking her lipstick.

“Shit,” he said, getting the attention of a self-righteous church lady shopping with her young daughter for a tree.

He’d dealt with Warkentin before. She made him damned uncomfortable, the way she could trick a guy into saying too much by making even a murder suicide sound like a birthday party.

“Season’s greetings, Zack,” she said, stepping onto the lot. She wore a red winter coat over a practical Dior dress. “Helping to raise funds for the Baptists, that’s mighty big of you.”

“Yeah well, it would break my bubbe’s heart if she knew. What do you want?”

“I’m looking for a friend of yours — a Jason Abel.”

“Never heard of him.”

“That’s not what Veronica Dempsey says.”

“Veronica doesn’t know her ass from a bump in the road.”

“She says you and Jason were into the rye and cocaine the other night, in the back of the Metropole. That is until you were interrupted by his girlfriend. I wouldn’t mind knowing where she is, too.”

“Look, I’m at work,” Zackery said.

“Yeah,” said Elinor, dreamily. “I just love the smell of a Christmas tree lot, the pine, the cedar and the bark mulch. It reminds me of the holidays back home on the farm. The presents, the kjielkje and schmaunt vat. We raised chickens, you know?”

“Sounds swell.”

“I hear Jason Abel’s a good egg, Zack. The sort of fella that people wouldn’t mind going out of their way for. Isn’t that how you think of him, Zack? Wouldn’t you fill in the blanks for me, if you knew where he’d disappeared to?”

“I’m telling you, I don’t know the guy.”

“Really, Zack? Can you look me square in the eye and say that? Because I know that sometimes I get things mixed up.”

“That’s what I’m sayin’. You’re mixed up”

She reached out and stroked the lush green bough of a spruce. Zackery was cold, dancing from foot to foot, but he was jittery too.

“Okay,” she said, enjoying the scent of the tree on her glove. “I’ve got a couple of other stops to make before Christmas Eve sets in with a vengeance. By then, I want to be sitting by the fire reading a good book, with a little glass of tequila. I love tequila, don’t you? It makes a girl feel like she’s been places. And who knows, magic happens on Christmas Eve. I still might dig something up?”

“Yeah, you could solve the Black Dahlia.” Zackery blew on his hands.

Elinor smiled cheerfully, and said, “That’s just what I mean, Zack.” Then she began to walk back to her car, but turned round at the last minute, before she got in.

“Gosh, Zack,” she said, pretending to look for her keys in her handbag, “I forgot to tell you, Veronica told me that Millie, that’s Jason’s girlfriend you see, was angry because she said that you stole her watch and twenty dollars out of her purse the other night at some ol’ poker game. Veronica says that that’s what the commotion was all about when she walked in the back of the Metropole, and saw you two there. That’s a hell of a thing to say, huh?”

Zackery Steinkraus began to turn red, hearing this. And though he tried very hard not to, he yelled it out anyway: “That bitch! I told that Millie cow that she was barking up the wrong goddamn tree. It was Jason Abel who stole that crummy watch and the twenty dollars. I don’t know what he thought he’d do with the watch, it was too cheap to pawn.”

“Golly, Zack,” Elinor said, “it sounds like you know Jason, after all. But you say you don’t. That’s very confusing.”

“Life’s strange,” Zackery said, lighting cigarette. She was playing him like a harmonica, and he knew it.

“Well jeepers, I…,”

“Oh, will you can the jeepers, golly, gosh baloney,” he said. “You wear a guy out with that BS.”

“Sure,” Elinor said, her tone changing to street tough. “That malarkey kinda wears me out, too. So what about it? Where’s Jason? And don’t try to snow me.”

“I think maybe you should just bugger off,” said Zackery, “Leave this shit alone. There’s some players in this Jason Abel caper you don’t wanna meet in person, and besides, you’re starting to piss me off. Shouldn’t you be at home, baking cookies or somethin’?”

“Now you listen to me, you little shit.” Elinor looked at her watch, then pulled a ten dollar bill out of her purse and waved it under his nose. “It’s 4 p.m. right now. I want this little mystery wrapped up by this evening, so I can go home and trim the tree and have that glass of hooch I was talking about. And don’t get tough with me, Zack. I’ve got the angels on my side.”

That made him stop for a moment, and ponder. It was strange, but he knew she was right. She and Trudy Parr both seemed bomb proof; Trudy because she was smart and the meanest skirt in the room. Elinor was smart too, but her gimmick was the spooky way she played the odds, somehow knowing every possible outcome before anyone else did, and then knowing how to react. Neither of the two women was a quail. And with their connections to the cops, and his record, stalling either one of them could mean jail.

“Okay,” said Zackery, grabbing at the bill. Elinor yanked it away.

“Spill first,” she said, “then you get the dough.”

“I’m sticking my goddamn neck out here. I hope you appreciate it.”

“In spades,” Elinor said.

“You know that Geezer Haney arsehole. He likes to sell white to the rich kids. Gets ‘em hooked and into hock. That’s what he done with Jason. And no one can snort a wrap faster than Jason Abel. He’s a goddamn fiend, I tell ya. That’s why he owes Geezer a bundle he can’t never pay back.”

“Why can’t he pay? His family’s stinking rich.”

“Yeah but Abel’s on an allowance until he’s twenty-one, see? I figure he’s almost there, from how he talks, but not quite. The allowance ain’t enough for a junky like him, so he’s in hawk to Geezer. He’s sold everything he owns that’s worth a damn. Now he says he’ll just wait ‘til he comes into his money in a month or two, and pay then. But Geezer don’t wanna wait.”

“So?”

“So that’s it, ‘cept….”

“Except what?” Elinor said, slipping the sawbuck into his coat pocket. “C’mon Zack, we’ve come this far.”

“Alright,” said Zackery, looking over his shoulder. “Geezer’s held a gun to my head enough times. And I ain’t talkin’ figurative like, neither. I mean it for real. He slaps everyone round, him or his boys. So I don’t mind tellin’ you this, because I owe him a slap-back or three. But you walk away, and don’t tell no one I ever spoke to you, got it?”

“Sure Zack, I got it.”

“Maybe what I’m gonna say will fuck him up for good.” He looked over his other shoulder. “He said somethin’ the other day about collecting what he could from Abel, and then settling his hash. Making an example of him, sorta. That ain’t good, because when Geezer says that, it means missing body parts or worse.”

“Worse?”

“Use your imagination. And just so’s you know, Geezer’s been coming a little unhinged of late. He’s been shootin’ up on speed balls, and he’s landed on a whole other planet.”

“Where is he now?”

“How should I know? The Astoria, maybe. Or maybe that condemned old shipping warehouse out on Oppenheimer Pier, where he holes up sometimes. But I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. Now get the hell off of my tree lot.”

“Sure,” she said, “and best of the season.”

Zackery flicked his cigarette onto the sidewalk and watched Elinor drive away.

“Are you selling trees or not?” the church lady said.

“Yeah yeah yeah.”

The Astoria was a dead end, but she got her ass pinched as she stood at the bar, grilling the bartender. The pincher was a toothless longshoreman with a big smile. He made her wish she’d brought her .38.

The next stop was Oppenheimer Pier. She knew she had to go, in spite of Zackery’s warning.

It was dark and getting colder as she drove onto Commissioner Street, and left the lights of the Christmas city behind. Arriving at the pier, she wondered how far she could drive as she passed through the broken gate. The wharf was rotting and poorly lit, and she came to a quick halt at the last planks before a dark hole in the decking.

There were several dark doorways visible from her car, all leading into the warehouse. But a soft light glowed in one, and from there came the sound of a man singing Away in a Manger, in a splendid voice, somewhere between a baritone and tenor.

Entering through the door, she discovered the voice belonged to an old man dressed in old throw-away clothes, sitting against empty crates, warming his hands over an array of candles.

“Hello mister,” Elinor said.

The startled old man looked up, and said, “Why, merry Christmas, young lady.”

“And to you, sir.”

“Thank you, dear,” the man said. “Christmas wishes are rare in these parts. Call me Barney. Would you have a few pennies for an old drifter?”

Elinor dug into her purse, and handed Barney five dollars.

“That’s very generous, dear,” he said, eyes wide.

“Don’t worry, the old broad paying for this job can afford it. So, what goes on here?”

“There are some rats,” Barney said.

“What else?”

He was clearly troubled by the question, but said, “There’s some traffic back and forth occasionally. And some shouting and a scream or two, from time to time.”

“When was the last time anything like that happened?” said Elinor.

“Yesterday,” Barney said, swallowing hard and looking off into the gloom.

“Can you point me in the right direction?” she said.

Barney hesitated. “It ain’t no place for a lady on Christmas eve,” he said.

“Don’t worry, mister,” said Elinor. “I ain’t no lady. I’m a private detective.”

Barney shrugged and smiled back, and then pointed to a freight elevator, lighted by a single dangling bulb. It looked surprisingly functional, considering the ramshackle condition of the surroundings.

“Some go up, but don’t come down,” Barney said.

“Anyone up there right now?”

“They aren’t breathing, if there is.”

She handed him a business card, and said, “If I don’t come back down in ten minutes, find a telephone and call that number, understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” Barney said, squinting to read the card.

Elinor listened to Barney hum his Christmas song, as she guessed the most direct route to the elevator in the dark. She tripped only once, and quickly recovered.

At the car, she lifted the gate and stepped in, slamming it closed behind her. Then she scanned the panel for clues, and pushed button number three. It was the cleanest, and clearly the most used. There was a jolt, and she began to ascend, past the shadowy second floor and on to the dimly lit third. Another jolt, and the elevator stopped. She stepped off.

Here there were more weak lightbulbs hanging from wires, and a stiff breeze off the inlet coming through broken windows. Under one lightbulb, in particular, was a table and some chairs. There she found scales and other paraphernalia. There were also empty beer bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette ends. All of which a cop might call evidence, but irrelevant to her current search.

Looking further, into the darker reaches of the vast space, she found, among long forgotten crates and barrels, something rolled up into an old India carpet. She gave it a kick, but it didn’t budge. Looking closer, she saw the soles of a pair of shoes at one end, and the frosty top of a hairy head at the other.

“Bloody hell,” she whispered.

Putting down her handbag, she took hold the upper flap of the carpet, and strained to unroll it. It was several minutes of heavy work, but finally, at the end, an emaciated body rolled out onto the floor. Striking a match and taking a photograph out of her bag, she held them both close to the corpse’s gaunt and sallow face. It was Jason Abel, lying there in a tailored suit, now two sizes too large. He had the eyes of a mild man who had finally surrendered to his torment. There were bloody bullet holes in his chest and belly.

From below, she could now hear Barney begin to sing Silent Night.

Only a desk lamp shone in Trudy Parr’s office. She’d been invited to a Christmas Eve party, had even donned an evening gown, but had picked up Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and couldn’t stop reading. She had just put it down between chapters, and lit a cigarette, when she heard the window of the Agency’s main door into reception break. Then came the sound of the doorknob turning.

“What the hell?” she said, standing and taking a .45 out of the desk drawer. She turned off the desk lamp, and snuffed the cigarette.

“Well well,” came a voice from the office lobby, “isn’t that just like you, Trudy you bitch. You turn the lights out, when everyone else would be turning them on.”

The voice was familiar, but hard to assign. She stepped back into a corner.

The silhouette of the intruder filled the door to her office, before a hand reached in and switched on the ceiling light. And then there he was, Geezer Haney, in a steely sharkskin suit, holding a Sterling submachine gun. He had the crazed look of a coke dealer who’d been snorting too much of his own merchandise. Trudy Parr cocked and took aim.

“Go home, Geezer,” she said.

“I thought it’d be like this,” said Geezer. “So I brought a guest.” Reaching out to his side, he pulled a man in overalls into the doorway with him.

“Damn,” said Trudy Parr.

“Yeah,” Geezer said. “Oh shit look, it’s Michael the janitor. What’s he doin’ working Christmas Eve, anyway?”

“What’s this about, Geezer?”

“It’s about that little sugar plum fairy of yours, that Warkentin woman. She’s been nosing around my private affairs for a few days now, and I thought it might be time to shut Dench & Parr down – permanently.” He threw Michael into the room. “Put the gun on the floor, Trudy, and kick it over. Or the janitor gets it.”

She hesitated a second, and Geezer laughed hysterically, pulling Michael closer and putting the muzzle of the gun to his head.

“Go ahead,” she said. “You shoot him, then I shoot you. And bingo, show’s over. All I’ll have to do is get me a new janitor to clean up the mess.”

Michael looked desperate.

“That’s not what you’re made of,” said Geezer.

He was right. She dropped her gun and gave it a kick.

“Now both of you have a seat.”

“Why are you still here, Michael?” she said, as they sat down on a small couch.

“Bonnie, my wife, she’s working the late shift at the White Lunch. I was gonna pick her up when she got off. ‘Til then, the wainscoting in the lobby needed attention.”

“Wainscoting!” Geezer shouted like a madman. “There’s a ten dollar word, for ya.”

“What if Elinor doesn’t come back tonight?” said Trudy Parr.

“Oh, that little wench will show up. She’s the checking-in-at-the-end-of-the-day kinda chicky. She’ll probably be here ‘til midnight typing up her notes.”

“I told her not to bother. It’s the holidays.”

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we.”

Elinor found a payphone under a wharf lamp and called the police, telling the sergeant who answered that she wouldn’t be there when they arrived. She’d had enough for one day.

Driving through downtown, she wondered whether her next stop should be home or the office. Knowing that she couldn’t enjoy the rest of Christmas without checking her messages and filing some notes, she steered the MG down Hastings and headed for Cambie Street. A black Ford pulled up behind her as she parked out front of the Dominion Building, and Police Detective Olaf Brandt got out.

“Damn,” she said, as he crouched down and looked at her through the side window. She rolled it down. “What?”

“You can’t just call in a dead body in a warehouse and then decide to leave the scene, Miss Warkentin.”

“Not even once?”

Brandt shook his head.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t want to talk about this here. Let’s go upstairs.” She opened her door fast. Brandt nearly fell on his ass.

Elinor saw the hole in the glass first, and held out her hand to stop Brandt beside her.

“This is different,” she whispered, ironically.

Olaf Brandt drew his weapon.

“Hold off,” she said. “I’ll go in first, you’ll be my back up.”

At the door, she bent over and looked through the broken window. She could see directly into Trudy’s office from there, and saw the back of a large man waving a machine gun wildly in the air. His babbled was confused, and he laughed madly as he spoke.

Then she heard him say, “Where is that Warkentin bitch? I got presents to wrap.”

Brandt came up beside her, and she let him look in.

“That’s Geezer Haney,” he said.

“What a night.”

Brandt’s hand went for the doorknob.

“No,” Elinor spoke softly. “I’ll go in first.”

“That’s ridiculous. I bet you don’t even have a gun.”

“I don’t, but there’s one in my office, just round the corner from the reception desk. I can go in quietly, and get it before he knows what’s going on. Besides, it’s me he wants. You go back down to the lobby and use a payphone to call this in. Do you need a nickel?”

She opened her purse and began rummaging, delighted to find some chocolate she’d forgotten she had.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Brandt said.

“Here,” said Elinor, triumphantly holding forth a nickel. “I knew I had one.”

With his gun in his right hand, Brandt went for the doorknob with his left.

“No,” she said, pulling it away.

“You go down to the damn lobby,” said Brandt. “You’ve got the nickel, and I’ve got the gun.”

His hand went for the knob again, and again Elinor tried to push it away.

“I’m a cop,” he said. “It’s my job.”

Now there was a wrestling match, each trying to push the other away. Then the door, slightly ajar, opened and they both fell through and onto the floor, coming to rest as Geezer Haney turned round. Brandt fired two shots immediately, both missing their target. Then Geezer chambered the first bullet in the clip, and began to fire. Elinor and Brandt rolled out of the way, in opposite directions. Geezer crouched down, looking for the chubby cop with the gun.

“Now you’re mine, boyo,” he said.

Brandt looked out from behind an overstuffed chair, and answered with two more shots. Geezer fell out of the way, unharmed. Recovering, he fired several rapid shots in the policeman’s direction. The overstuffed chair seemed to explode.

In Turdy Parr’s office, Michael took cover next to filing cabinets, and Trudy jumped off the couch, ending up lying on the floor under her desk. Looking up, she saw the straight razor. The straight razor that was always there, held in place to the underside of the drawer with a strip of masking tape. She reached up and took it.

As the bullets flew, Elinor crawled down the hall to her office to get her gun. She’d oiled and loaded it the day before. It was ready to fire. Brandt finally got Geezer in his sights as she got to her office, and he fired his last two shots, confident that they would be killers. One went wild, and the other stuck home — close to home, that is.

“You fat fuck,” Geezer hallowed. “You shot me!”

There was a bloody wound in his shoulder. In a rage, he stood and squeezed the trigger of his Sterling. He fired wildly, the bullets tearing up the floors, walls and furniture. Then the machine gun jammed.

“Shit!” Geezer said, and began to fight the slide.

Now, Brandt stood and took deadly aim. He squeezed his trigger and got a click, click. A six shooter out of bullets. He felt his pockets or more bullets. They were in his car. He’d never fired his gun in the line of duty before.

Finally the slide on the Sterling came free and delivered a shell into its chamber. Geezer took aim, grinning at Olaf Brandt across the room. And in that moment, Brandt finally saw it on a side table. The Christmas cake. Nearly five pounds of potential lethality remained in the festive metal container. Picking it up and aiming as best he could, he threw it as fast and as hard as possible, and hit Geezer square in the forehead. The gangster staggered backward and fell. His gun sliding across the floor.

In a second, Trudy Parr was on top of him with her straight razor held firmly to his throat.

“Break into my office, will you?” she said, her eyes blazing. “Shoot the place up? Try to ruin my Christmas?” She was all menace. Blood streamed down the side of Geezer’s neck, his eyes wide, still alive but finally quiet. All it would have taken was a slip of her hand.

“Don’t do it, Trudy,” Elinor said, finally arriving with her weapon. She knew what her boss was capable of. “Let Olaf cuff him. I’ll blast the bastard if he moves. He’ll hang for Jason Abel. Even if he doesn’t, he won’t survive the penitentiary.”

“I might have been doing you a favour,” Trudy Parr said to Geezer Haney, as she got up and walked away.

After he cuffed his prisoner, Brandt picked up the tin of Christmas cake, opened it and popped a piece into his mouth.

He chewed a moment, and said, “Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.”

A Christopher Hitchens Christmas Carol Stave 1 – apologies to C. Dickens, from 2011

see stave two here, three here, four here, five here

God was dead as a doornail.  Let there be no doubt whatever about that. The register of His burial was signed by Hitchens, and Hitchens’ name was good upon anything he chose to put his hand to.

And Hitchens missed God.  Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?  Hitchens and He were partners for I don’t know how many years.

Yes, God was dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Hitchens never painted out God’s name. There it stood, years after His death, above the door: Hitchens and God. The firm was known as Hitchens and God. And the partnership resulted in book deal after book deal for Hitchens, along with endlessly lucrative speaking engagements and a succession of ever so intriguing reality TV offers.

Oh!  But he was a vicious antitheist, Hitchens!  The certainty of a Godless universe froze his features, nipped his pointed nose, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and he spoke out shrewdly in his British public school voice.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Hitchens, God be with you.  When will you come to church with me?”  No beggars God-blessed him, no children asked him the correct words to a hymn, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to Heaven.  Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Hitchens sat busy in his office.  The door of his office was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was probing for parcel bombs and reading Christian hate mail.  Hitchens had a very small supply of toner, liquid paper, paper clips and pencils, but the clerk’s supply was so very much smaller that he recycled staples by taking them from discarded documents and straightened them back to their original configuration for replacement in his dilapidated stapler.  But he couldn’t help it, for Hitchens kept the supplies in his own office; and so surely as the clerk came in to replenish his own supply, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part.  Wherefore the clerk went back to straightening used staples and diluting his scant supply of liquid paper with trichloroethane. He tried to warm himself at his computer’s heat exhaust, in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

Just then, two men came into the office.

They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Hitchens’ office.  They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

“Hitchens, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen.

“Yes, what about it?”

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Hitchens,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Do you vote,” asked Hitchens.

“Of course,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And are you politically active,” demanded Hitchens.  “Are you pressuring your MP and the Prime Minister to institute change? Do you boycott and participate in protests against corporate greed and intransigent government?”

“Of course not,” returned the gentleman, “We are good men of business.”

“Then do you make a special point of hiring the poor and destitute,” said Hitchens.

“Not at all, sir. They smell, and demand ridiculous things like a living wage.”

“Then it seems you have some things to think about,” Hitchens said, returning to his work.

“Our goal is to furnish Christian cheer of mind and body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Not a bloody thing” Hitchens replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish you’d bugger off.  Why should we depend on Christian charity to redistribute wealth,” said Hitchens. “Why don’t you go occupy Wall Street? If a mute, invisible and inept god is all we have to count on as a defence against unmitigated greed and injustice and the resulting poverty and suffering, then we’re all sunk.”

“Many can’t occupy Wall Street; many would rather go shopping at Walmart or view internet porn. You see, they’re depending on God to intervene, to relieve them of their misery. It’s not likely to happen, but there you are.”

“If they would rather shop at Walmart,” said Hitchens, “they had better do it, and support the very corporate criminality that defeats them daily.”

“Fine,” said the gentlemen. “We’ll just nip off to the pub, and curse your name behind your back. It is, after all, the Christian thing to do.”

At length, the hour of shutting up the office arrived. Hitchens dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in the Tank, who instantly turned off the buzzing florescent lights, and put on his hat.

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Hitchens.

“If quite convenient, sir.”

“It’s not convenient,” said Hitchens, “and it’s not fair of you to go off and celebrate the birth of some fraud of a saviour on my time. If I was to stop the equivalent of a day’s wage for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound? No doubt you’d get the union involved.”

The clerk smiled faintly.

“And yet,” said Hitchens, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”

The clerk observed that it was only once a year, and that he never put down for overtime, which according to legislated labour standards paid time and a half.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Hitchens, buttoning his great-coat to the chin.  “But I suppose you must have the whole day.  Be here all the earlier next morning.”

The clerk promised that he would; and Hitchens walked out with a growl.  The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk started for home.

For his part, Hitchens went directly home to his high street townhouse on the Westside – with its tall, ornate front door and faux brass knocker that he’d ordered specially from a glossy home decorating catalogue that resided next to his commode.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large and made in China out of recycled beer cans.  It is also a fact, that Hitchens had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place.  Let it also be borne in mind that Hitchens had not bestowed one serious thought on God since his last overtly provocative speaking engagement in the American south.  So, let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Hitchens, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but God’s face.

God’s face on the knocker was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects on the street were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad Marks and Spencer lobster dinner in a dark cellar.  It was not angry or ferocious, but Godly, nonetheless.  Its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part or its own expression.

“Hit-chens,” said God’s godly face on the knocker.

“Bloody hell,” said Hitchens. He stared back at God’s face on the knocker. “What a load of crap.”

He went into the townhouse, and sat down in a room the architect called the parlour, but that Hitchens had come to call the sodding broom closet. He picked up a copy of Harpers and leafed through looking for Audi ads.

“Hit-chens,” God’s godly voice came again, as though out of the A/C vents.

“Bugger off,” Hitchens said.

“Hit-chens,” said God once more.

“Look,” said Hitchens. “Whoever you are, you really have to call my agent….”

Suddenly, the townhouse was filled with the sound of piped in Christmas Muzak, and there came the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Then, with a resounding crash, the parlour door was flung open, and in stepped God Himself. He came dressed in a tattered pair of black 501s, black high-tops and a Lou Reed tee-shirt.

“What the hell do you want,” said Hitchens.

“Much!” said God. “But first, have you got any weed?”

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Yahweh. I have been called other names. But I’m starting to like the idea of being called Brad. You, however, may call me God.”

“Can you — can you sit down,” asked Hitchens.

“I can,” said God.

“Do it then.”

“You don’t believe in me,” said God.

“Of course I bloody don’t,” said Hitchens. “Where have you been, living under a damn rock?”

“And yet, you make a tidy living off of me.”

“It is nice, isn’t it?” said Hitchens surveying his lush surroundings.

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Hitchens.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Well, I took a lot of acid when I was at university,” said Hitchens. “Sometimes I see shit that would make anybody question reality.  There’s more of bad LSD than of Heaven about you, whatever you are! You see this toothpick,” said Hitchens.

“I do,” replied God.

“You’re not looking at the damn thing,” said Hitchens. “Do pay attention.”

“But I see it,” said God, “notwithstanding.”

“Yup,” returned Hitchens. “Definitely an acid flashback.”

At this God raised a frightful cry, and made a dismal and appalling noise.

Hitchens stood and pointed, and said, “Look mate, I’ve got neighbours, and they like it quiet. So, tone it down.”

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied God, “do you believe in me or not?”

“Nope,” said Hitchens.  “Not a chance. I’ve got book deals in the works. Believing in you would void contracts from here to the sandy beaches of Belize. It could even bring down huge segments of the British economy.”

“Then what will convince you?”

“Can you bend spoons, like Uri Geller?”

“No. I mean I can, but I won’t. That’s way too 1970s Vegas.”

“Tell me what I’m thinking, then?”

“You’re thinking that I should have taken my shoes off before I came in.”

“Huh! That’s pretty close, actually.”

“Hear me!” cried God. “You will be haunted tonight by three spirits.”

“Oh, is it bloody Halloween?” said Hitchens. “I thought this was Christmas.”

“Without their visits,” said God, “you cannot hope to know me.”

“Will any of these spirits be able to bend spoons, like Uri Geller?”

“No. I mean they can, but they won’t.”

“Then I’d rather not meet these spirits,” said Hitchens. “I like a little cabaret with my haunting.”

“Tough noogies,” said God.

“Shit.”

“Look for the first spirit when the clock chimes one,” said God. “Now look to see me no more.”

And with that, God, who’d lately been thinking he’d rather be called Brad, fizzled into the wainscoting. Or at least what the architect called the wainscoting, but what Hitchens called the sodding baseboards.

 

A Christopher Hitchens Christmas Carol Stave 2 – apologies to C. Dickens, from 2011

see stave one here, three here, four here, five here

Hitchens ordered in Chinese, drank excessively and reread favourable reviews of his books on the internet before going to bed. He slept soundly, hugging a pillow while visions of royalty cheques danced in his head. In a dream, he was standing at an old fashioned bank wicket receiving a stack of thousand pound notes, when he suddenly awoke.

Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn open.

Hitchens sat up in a half-recumbent attitude, and found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor. It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, except it wasn’t an old man at all, but an old woman. Her hair, which hung about her neck and down her back, was white as if with age, and her face was a road map of deep ruts. She wore a tunic of the purest white, and round her waist was bound a lustrous belt. She held a branch of fresh green holly in her hand.

In a moment, Hitchens recognised who it was, and was shocked. “Freaking bloody hell,” he choked. “It’s a young Mother Teresa.”

“That’s right, Christopher, and you have been a very bad boy.” Having said this, the branch of fresh green holly in her hand was magically replaced by a twelve inch wooden ruler, which she used to rap Hitchens’ knuckles.

“Owe!” shouted Hitchens. “You fascist Albanian bitch.”

“That’s not the first time you’ve called me a bitch.” She rapped his knuckles a second time.

“Ouch! Hey, I apologised the first time. What happened to Christian forgiveness?”

“Haven’t you heard, you wretched little man? I’ve been beatified. I don’t have to forgive anymore.”

“Well get the hell out of my bedroom, and take your stick with you. Go back to whatever grotty little paradise dried up catholic fundamentalists go to when they kick-off, and leave life to the living.”

“Can’t do it, Christopher. I’m on a mission from God. Of course, he lets me call Him Brad.”

“Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Hitchens.

“I am.”

“Shit.”

“Watch that potty mouth!” The ghost of the beatified nun rapped his knuckles a third time. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Hitchens, rubbing his bleeding knuckles.

“No. Your past,” said Mother Teresa. “And what a wicked journey it has been.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather not relive my past, if you please. I have no desire to appear on Donahue again.”

“Rise. And walk with me, Christopher,” Mother Teresa said as the bedroom widow opened.

“Walk where? Out the window? So they can find me in the morning, dead in the snow. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, you silly cun….”

“Watch it!” Mother Teresa interjected, holding forth the wooden ruler. “Besides, it’s only two stories down. You’d probably just break a leg, if I let you fall; which I won’t, though it’s tempting. Bear but a touch of my hand, and you shall be upheld in more than this.”

Together they rose and floated out of the window, as London mysteriously vanished from beneath them and they came to drift over the city of Portsmouth. It was at once the city of the present and the city of Hitchens’ past. They soon landed on a street, and began to walk. Hitchens recognised every gate, and post, and tree, and was glad of it, until a little Anglican church appeared around a corner. He hesitated upon seeing it, and began to turn away.

“You cannot hide from your past, Christopher,” said Mother Teresa. “It is etched in stone.”

“Look, why don’t we find a pub. We could have a round of darts.”

Mother Teresa shook her head. She pointed at the little church, and soon they were in its basement watching a Sunday school lesson in progress.

“Why, that’s Miss Wickerson,” said Hitchens. “What a daffy boot she was.”

“And there you are,” said Mother Teresa.

A six year old Christopher Hitchens sat at a table toying with the gum wads stuck underneath, as Miss Wickerson taught the lesson.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said Mother Teresa. “They have no consciousness of us.”

“Good thing,” said Hitchens. “Wickerson was a batty pain in the arse.”

Hitchens and Mother Teresa listened in on the lesson.

“And the proof of God’s love for us all is in the sunshine and the flowers and the food on our tables,” said Miss Wickerson. “In thanks, we praise Him at every opportunity.”

The six year old Hitchens raised his hand. Miss Wickerson tried to ignore it, but finally gave in.

“Yes Christopher,” she said, sounding annoyed and tired.

“That doesn’t make sense, Miss Wickerson.”

“That’s fine, Christopher. Thank you. Now, as I was saying….”

“But Miss Wickerson,” said the precocious six year old Hitchens, with his hand up and waving. “Why, if God is the creator of all things, are we supposed to praise him for what comes naturally for Him? It’s not like He was going out of His way, or doing us any favours. As I read it, creating things is just the sort of thing that God naturally does, like farting.”

“God doesn’t fart, Christopher,” said Miss Wickerson.

“Well, we don’t know that,” replied the six year old Hitchens. “And besides, I didn’t say God farts. I said that for Him creating was natural like farting. The inference being that we fart naturally. Farting is what we naturally do. No one praises us for it. Surely creating things is like that for God. It’s like what farting is for us. Do you see what I mean? And since this seems to be the case, why praise Him?”

“That will do, Christopher,” said Miss Wickerson. “My point is that the proof of God’s love for us is in the lovely sunset and the blue of the sky.”

“But surely, Miss Wickerson, the blue of the sky proves only that the sky is blue. It does nothing to prove the existence of God.”

“If you must know, Christopher,” Miss Wickerson said, “I need no proof of God’s existence. For me He is everywhere, and His existence is irrefutable.”

Now Miss Wickerson smiled as though a great debate had been won. But six year old Hitchens raised his hand again.

“What is it now,” she sighed.

“Well, Miss Wickerson, what you seem to be saying is that God’s existence is proven by His absolute invisibility. You continue to refer to nature’s beauty as proof of God, but perhaps nature’s beauty is an unconscious substitute for a God whose non-existence doesn’t fit with your personal worldview. I think, however, that you’ve proven the premise of your own argument incorrect. Isn’t it true that what can be asserted without proof can also be dismissed without proof? And therefore, isn’t my argument in favour of the non-existence of God valid without proof. Do you really need to go on and on, boring the whole class with your mind-numbingly groundless assertions?”

This stopped Miss Wickerson where she stood. She blinked, and the beginning of a small tear formed in the corner of her eye.

“Oh, dear,” she gasped. “You’re right. I have been deluding myself. There is no God, after all. My life, my vocation, my whole existence is a sham.”

“Well I wouldn’t go that far,” said six year old Hitchens.

“No, no,” said Miss Wickerson, holding out a hand to hush six year old Hitchens. “You’ve quite opened my eyes, boy. You’ve revealed to me the mysterious source of all my angst and hidden grief. There is no God, as you say. And, therefore, no God’s love.”

Here Mother Teresa turned to the adult Hitchens and said, “She left her job as a Sunday school teacher, and became a lesbian.”

“Oh, please,” said Hitchens. “One doesn’t just become a lesbian. You either are one or you aren’t. I think it was a crucial moment of self-discovery.”

“She became a radio announcer for a radical lesbian pirate radio station that broadcasted from a surplus minesweeper off the coast of Florida. It still supports radical Palestinian lesbian causes.”

“Well, there can’t be many of those.”

“That’s not the point,” said Mother Teresa, holding up her stick. “Now, having failed in countless relationships with other Godless, radicalised women, she lives alone in a walk-up flat with three cats and an iguana. She sits alone in her apartment listening to Feist and Tracy Chapman. She has no man in her life to ground her, to justify her existence.”

“Neither did you,” said Hitchens.

“Shut it!” said Mother Teresa. “Only last week she got yet one more Hello Kitty tattoo.”

“Is that so bad?” asked Hitchens.

“Not if you like Hello Kitty,” said Mother Teresa. “Do you see now how your incessant arguments against the existence of God have ruined lives?”

“No.”

“You’re hopeless.”

“Oh take me home, spirit, and haunt me no more.”

“My time with you has come to an end, at any rate,” Mother Teresa said. “I have an appointment to get fitted for my saintly robes.”

“You’re not a saint yet.”

“The Ghost of Christmas Future assures me that it’s just around the corner. A girl’s got to think ahead. There’s bound to be soirees to attend, in my honour. So good night to you, hell spawn. And good luck at the pearly gates.”

Moments later, he was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.

 

A Christopher Hitchens Christmas Carol Stave 3 – apologies to C. Dickens, from 2011

see stave one here, two here, four here, five here

There was a strange light coming from under his bedroom door, and Hitchens became convinced, in that moment, that whatever spirit was meant to come second must be in the next room. He got to his feet and went to the door.

The moment Hitchens’ hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living greenery and red paper Starbucks cups, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Hitchens’ time. There were bottles of pricey bourbon, gin and vodka. Pricey Rolex, Girard-Perregaux and Omega watches. The keys to BMWs, Ferraris and Mercedes. There were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. And a small steaming dish of tofu and brown rice for any annoying vegan visitors.

Seated in two high backed leather chairs, one facing the other, were two men in a great and heated discussion. One was animated, and pointed the chewed end of his odoriferous cigar at the other. While the other, on the other hand, made his salient points with a subtle spreading of the fingers, elbows firmly on his chair’s armrests, for emphasis.

“Who the bloody hell are you two?” Hitchens demanded.

“Come in!” exclaimed one of the ghosts, the one Hitchens would come to know as the more cordial of the two. “Come in, and know us better.”

Hitchens entered timidly, and hung his head before these spirits. He was not the dogged Hitchens he had been; and though the spirits’ eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.

“We are the Ghosts of Christmas Present,” said the cordial Spirit. “Look upon us.”

Hitchens reverently did so. They were both dapper in their dated tailored European suits, finely polished shoes and golden watch chains, though the spirit with the cigar did have a light dusting of ash across his lap.

“You have never seen the likes of us before!” exclaimed the cigar smoking spirit. Hitchens tried to place the accent; was it Austrian?

“I’m not so sure,” Hitchens said. ”But couldn’t they have sent just one of you? Is it really necessary to send two?”

“You shunned all preceding Spirits of Christmas Present, I think.”

“Perhaps I did,” said Hitchens. “Have there been many of you?”

“More than 2000,” said the cordial ghost.

“Ah,” muttered Hitchens. “A vast number. I may have been on a book tour.”

The ghosts of Christmas Present rose together.

“Look,” said Hitchens. “Before we fly off to where ever the hell it is you’re going to take me, just who the hell are you? Besides the Spirits of Christmas Present, I mean. There’s something very familiar about the both of you.”

“So, you think you know us!” said the cigar smoker.

“This is good,” said the more cordial of the two. “Allow me to introduce us both. I am Jung, and this specimen is Sigmund.”

“Sigmund?” said Hitchens. “Jung? You mean you’re Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung?

“Nine, nine, nine,” said the dapper gentleman with the cigar. “He is Jung, and I am Freud. Don’t get us mixed up, boyo. It could go very badly for you.”

“Crikey!” said Hitchens, rubbing his eyes in disbelief.

“You see,” said Jung to Freud while pointing at Hitchens. “The personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes. This individual is a single multiplicity of complexes.”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong,” replied Freud abruptly. “In this subject, we have an example of how the conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun, and falling back into the subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises. Although, in this case, it’s a very shallow pool. And somewhat polluted.”

“Okay look,” said Hitchens. “If this is how it’s going to be, I’d rather go back to bed.”

“None of that talk, now,” Jung’s ghost said gently. “We have miles to go before we sleep.”

“That line’s not yours,” said Freud.

“But it sounded right for the moment.”

“You are a scoundrel and a plagiarist.”

“Oh, shit,” said Hitchens, shaking his head.

“Please, Sigmund,” said Jung. “We must think of the patient.”

“Yes, you are correct,” Freud said, offering a freshly lit cigar to Hitchens. “Take this and fly with us.”

Hitchens took the cigar, and marvelled at it. “Is it magic?” he asked. “Will it help me to fly?”

“Of course not,” said Freud. “It’s just a cigar. Have a good smoke. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, you know.”

“Touch the tweed of my jacket,” said Jung. “And you shall rise with us into the world.”

They rose up together, the three of them. Over London on that Christmas Day and landed on a grey street of filthy, cracked concrete sidewalks, infested with brown and brittle weeds. Before them was a dilapidated apartment building with its security door ajar.

“Shall we enter,” said Freud.

“Why, this is the building where my clerk, Bob Cratchit, lives,” said Hitchens. “I know because it’s the address on his meagre biweekly pay cheque. Gawd, what a dump.”

“And the elevator is out,” said Jung. “So we will take the stairs.”

In the apartment, Bob wasn’t present, but some of the Cratchits were sitting in front of the television watching The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. There mouths, being their primary source of inhalation, hung half open, and they didn’t seem to blink.

Just then, Bob Cratchit walked in with Tiny Tim.

“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs Cratchit, not taking her eyes off the television screen.

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting in the food fair at the mall. He thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the mall, because he was an unemployable, dim witted elementary school dropout with a bum leg, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

“That’s nice, Bob,” said Mrs Cratchit, without lifting her slack jawed gaze from the TV screen. “Pass the chips, somebody.”

“I must say, though,” said Bob. “Tiny Tim isn’t so tiny anymore. He is twenty-eight, after all. And he’s over six foot, and going on 14 stone. People are starting to point at us when I carry him on my shoulder. Not only that, Dr Knoddle tells me I’ve developed a herniated disc as a result of packing him round like that.”

“That’s nice, dear. Is there any beer in the fridge?”

Bob’s voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken. He sat on his stool before the TV.

“And what about Christmas dinner,” asked Bob of Mrs Cratchit.

“There’s Spam in the cupboard,” Mrs Cratchit said before her jaw relaxed again, and sagged for a moment. There was a commercial break on the TV, but none of the viewing Cratchits looked away. Then Mrs Cratchit said: “Though I’m worried there might not be enough. Tiny Tim’s been into it, and we’re between pay cheques.”

“Between pay cheques?” said Bob incredulously. “I just got paid yesterday. What happened to it all?”

“Well,” said Mrs Cratchit, as a string of drool dripped from her mouth, and her eyes burned into the screen. “Pat Robertson said Jesus needs cash to do His awesome work on Earth, so I sent it all to the 700 Club.”

“What? Every farthing?”

“And I sold the car and took out a payday loan from the Money Mart. Jesus should be able to do some very awesome work indeed with the wad we sent Him. ‘Course, you’ll have to pay off the payday loan next week. Interest is running at 85%.”

“Well there seems to be plenty of beer in the fridge,” said Bob.

“Oh good,” said Mrs Cratchit. “Gives us a couple, will you.”

Bob Cratchit gave his wife a couple cans of beer, and sat beside her. He’d brought a can for himself.

“Okay,” he said, sitting there. “All we have for Christmas dinner is a can of Spam. And you’ve given every penny we have to an American televangelist. Well, at least we have beer and a roof over our heads.”

“We’ve been evicted,” said Mrs Cratchit, lazily swatting at the drool hanging from her chin.

“What? When?”

“Last week,” said Mrs Cratchit. “Rent’s two months past due; we have to be out by the 31st. Pat Robertson’s building a church in Tulsa; he needed the cash.”

“So you gave him the rent?”

“Pat Robertson said we’d be assured a place in heaven if I did. And because we were among the first 300,000 generous followers of Jesus to donate, we received some very nice steak knives etched on the side with the 23rd Psalm, except they spelled shepherd wrong. It says, The lord is my shepnerd. But I’m too full of Jesus to care.” And here, Mrs Cratchit belched.

“This is very depressing,” said Bob Cratchit. He cracked open his can of Fosters. “Well, at least let’s have a Christmas toast. Here’s to Mr Hitchens, though if he knew he was indirectly funding Pat Robertson, I’m sure he’d blow a gasket.”

“Hitchens!” cried Mrs Cratchit, suddenly animated. “I wish I had that Godless bastard here. I’d give him a piece of my Christian mind.”

“My dear,” said Bob, “the children. Christmas Day.”

“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said Mrs Cratchit, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, unbelieving, antitheist tosser. You know he is, Robert. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.”

“Actually,” said Bob, “I rather agree with him.”

“I’ll drink his health because I’m a good Christian,” said Mrs Cratchit. “Here’s to him, and may he smoulder in hell for all eternity.”

“Okay, okay,” said Hitchens to the Spirits of Christmas Present. “Just what the hell is the point of this? Is this supposed to change me? Make me a better, Godlier man? Well it doesn’t. It just proves my point, and it’s pissing me off.”

“He seems to have absolutely no ability to compensate,” said Jung of Hitchens.

“As I have said before,” said Freud. “Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through the primary hostility of men towards one another.”

“He may not be able to recognise the subtleties of our unconventional therapeutic approach,” said Jung.

“Oh that’s just typical, isn’t it,” said Hitchens. “Therapeutic approach? You two are classic. I suppose you’re going to bill me for this, aren’t you? I mean, that’s what psychiatrists do, isn’t it?”

“Cigars aren’t cheap, you know,” said Freud.

“And I have my place in Geneva to maintain,” said Jung.

“That’s it. Take me home. I’ve bloody well had it.”

“Is this where we reveal the little boy und girl as metaphor for want und ignorance,” asked Jung of Freud.

“Nine, nine, nine,” said Freud. “His psyche is too fragile. He needs to get shit face.”