lost ironies

© dm gillis and lost ironies, 2012 -2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to dm gillis and lost ironies with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tag: Commercial Drive

the barber

Vancouver, 1932

A shave and a haircut hadn’t been two bits for fifty years, but it was still cheap. Which made cutting hair a less than lucrative business, and it meant that a barber had to have something on the side. He had be a fence or a bootlegger, or run the numbers out of his shop for the mob boys up the street. There wasn’t any shame in it, it was just free enterprise.

The barber at 1st and Commercial wasn’t any different. For him, though, the sideline was the skinny. He was a purveyor of information, but not just any barbershop gossip. He was a scissor wielding encyclopedia of the hush-hush. Everything reliable, undeniable and verifiable, from the merely personal and private, to the absolutely classified. He’d always been surprised at just how much people were willing to pay for the daintiest scrap of dirt, but that was good for the business.

The barber was a medium man, in height and disposition, and in his opinions. This he knew meant safety in a world of extremes, and though some took it for weakness, he attempted to touch each of his days with the same gentle hand.

His shop was an immaculate model of polished oak, brass and leather, that some said was too good for the neighbourhood, the light saturating the deep reds, greens and browns of masculine retreat, as a Victrola in a corner played Italian opera.

Now, it’s been believed to this very day, that it was on a Wednesday in December, as he trimmed the oily moustache of Emilio Panza, that the barber said, “Pittsburgh,” the word coming out like a sneeze. He said it, or sneezed it, as the afternoon sun slanted temporarily through the west facing windows, in response to a question asked by Emilio Panza.

“He’s got a girl down there,” the barber said. “He took the train to Winnipeg, then hitchhiked to St Paul. Then he finagled his way onto a deadhead, and from there he rode the dog incognito the rest of the way.” Snip snip snip.

“How do you know all this?” said Panza, laughing a soft surprised laugh, knowing that this was a sticky question, few ever asked. The barber’s source was private, hard to explain, occult. How could a fella like him tell a mob boss sitting in his chair that he was a clairvoyant, that enlightenment for him oozed invisibly out of the woodwork, fell from the ceiling and sometimes shared his bed? The barber kept snipping.

“How’s he ever know?” Ralphy Garufi, Emilio Panza’s sulky bodyguard said, turning a page of the Vancouver Province sports section. “The guy’s a fucking machine.”

“I got a telephone call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati,” the barber lied, deciding a dangerous man like Panza needed some credible answer. “She and I, we got a past, see? Anyways, she knew the whole story. She says the bastard’s livin’ it up in Steel City on your nickel, Mr Panza.”

Panza ground his teeth on hearing this, something his dentist had warned him against.

The bastard’s name was Verner Frisk, the chump who had run some important errands for Panza, like picking up a suitcase of cash from Chinatown a couple of Fridays ago. It was meant to be delivered to the counting room at the back of the Lusitania pool hall, but never was. It wasn’t a job Panza would have trusted to just any mug, but Frisk had humbly climbed the rungs of the chump ladder, and even though he’d never amount to anything more than a delivery boy, Frisk had come to be trusted by Emilio Panza. What a mistake.

The problem with the lost money was that it didn’t really belong to Panza. It was a protection payout from the Chinatown casinos, brothels and mah-jong parlours meant for the boys upstairs, and Emilio Panza was now short a few thousand bucks. But what could he do? He’d asked for a little time to make up for it. But it wasn’t clear whether the time had been granted. Panza figured himself well enough placed, though. Maybe he’d get away with it for a month, or so. Maybe it wouldn’t draw any attention at all, in fact, a detail lost in the voracious trade of the Cosa Nostra.

The barber tilted his head, and examine Emilio Panza’s moustache closely. It was perfect. Then he smoothed Brilliantine into the mob Captain’s thinning hair, and combed it through.

“Are we hooked up in Pittsburgh, Ralphy?” Panza said.

“Yeah, we got an in.”

“Send ‘em a telegraph.”

“Sure sure boss.”

“Use that whacky code of yours. Tell ‘em to give the shit a good going over, but not to ice the prick, just hold on to him. I’ll send in Toronto Ricco Zeolla to finish the bum off. You can count on Ricco Zeolla to do a real good job. He took out Angelo Durante about six months ago. Remember, Ralphy?”

“Yeah yeah, Boss,” Ralphy said. Everything Ralphy said sounded like a put down. Panza never noticed.

“Even though Durante was hid real good in Montreal,” Panza went on, “in one of them fleabag joints they got downtown there. He was registered as John Jones – can you believe it? Him with that Sicilian complexion of his.”

“Nope nope,” Ralphy said. “Can’t believe it, Boss.” Ralphy had moved on to the Daily Racing Form. He had a fix in on the third race that day, at Lansdowne.

“There’s a guy that zigged when he shoulda zagged, that Durante,” Panza said, admiring himself and the barber’s good work in the wall mirror. “He unfixed a fight it cost me big time to fix. It shoulda paid large, but it ended up costin’ me a bundle instead. You remember?”

“Sure sure boss,” Ralphy said. “Shoulda paid large, like the fuckin’ Grand Canyon.”

“He took the money and took a powder, but he couldn’t enjoy it hole up in that crummy hotel. I told Ricco to finish him slow, and boy, did he. He tied Durante to the bed, gagged him and used a goddamn screwdriver and a pair of tinsnips. He really made Durante suffer good. That’s good value for the money, huh?”

“Absolutely absolutely, Boss. Ricco’s a goddamn bargain for all you get out of him.”

“Then there was that skirt in Saskatoon. That Valery Monica broad that ran the cathouse out on the highway, on the outskirts. She was skimming, boy, and how. It ain’t my territory, but I had some money invested. We move a lot of booze through there, on its way to the states. God, I love prohibition. Anyways, I suggested the local boys call Ricco in. They did, but they didn’t even know he’d been in town until Monday morning, when the dayshift found Madam Valery in a locked walk-in meat freezer at the slaughterhouse, stiff as a plank. That Ricco’s a magician, I wanna tell ya.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Ralphy. “Goddamn magician.”

“Do the nose hairs, willya,” Panza said to the barber, putting his head back. The barber clipped away, then stepped back to look again, then sighed.

Panza was a dog-homely man, corpulent with dirty fingernails and a scant comb-over. There was only so much a man like the barber could do, and he’d done it all. Panza, on the other hand, thought of himself as being very handsome, and a gift to the dames. His greasy sheen would have probably disappeared with a bath, but that seemed to have never occurred to him.

“What do I owe you?” Panza asked the barber.

“The usual,” the barber said.

Panza pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it over. It was ample payment for the barbering, the information, and for the barber to keep his mouth shut, and it was big money back then, for a little operator like the barber, nearly a month’s rent.

But that day the barber blushed a little as he took it. Sometimes seeing the future could wear a guy out. And now he didn’t know whether to keep Panza in the shop, or let him go.

“Just let me take care of that ear hair,” he said to Panza.

“Hell no, we’re done.”

“Scalp massage then, Mr Panza,” the barber said.

“No, we’re finished here. Whatsa matter with you?”

“It’s just that it’s good that you’re in my shop, is all. People walk by, they see a big shot like you in the chair, and….”

“Ha! You hear that Ralphy?” said Panza. “I’m a big shot. Who knew, eh?”

“Yeah boss, big shot,” Ralphy sniffed. “Goddamn King of the goddamn Drive.”

“Damn right.” Emilio Panza started to struggle out of the chair.

“Let me help,” said the barber. “I’ll help.”

The barber swept the cape off of Panza, revealing the fat man’s girth, and tightly fitted clothing. Then he began to brush nonexistent clippings off of the portly man’s shoulders.

“That’s enough, for god sake,” Panza said pushing the barber away. “What’s got into you?”

“Maybe today, Mr Panza,” the barber said, “it’s a good idea to leave through the back.”

“The back? You hear that Ralphy?”

“The back,” said Ralphy. “Ha! Like you was some deadbeat duckin’ a shylock.”

Suddenly, Panza got a strange look on his face, almost like a lightbulb had come on over his head.

“What do you know you ain’t telling?” he said to the barber.

“Maybe a nice vacation,” the barber said, “catch a train tonight, get outta town.”

“Why?” Now Panza was getting irritated, and as he struggled more to lift himself out of the chair, the door of the barbershop opened and a tall dark man in an elegant suit and trench coat walked in. He lit a cigarette, and didn’t remove his hat. He turned the open sign on the door to closed.

“Holy cow!” Ralphy said, impressed for once, and let the Daily Racing Form fall on the floor.

Emilio Panza fell back into the barber chair. “Toronto Ricco Zeolla,” he said. “We was just talkin’ about you.”

“Swell,” Zeolla said. He drew on his cigarette and inhaled without taking it out of his mouth, and blew smoke out his nose.

“Yeah,” said Panza. “I got a job for you, if you don’t mind goin’ to Pittsburgh, I mean.”

“You mean Verner Frisk?” Zeolla said.

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“They took care of him the other day,” Zeolla said. “He’s salami by now.”

Panza looked at the barber.

“This I didn’t know,” the barber shrugged, and it was true. He didn’t.

“How come?” Panza bellowed.

“It’s hard to know it all, in the order it happens. I didn’t know whether Ricco was coming here, either. Maybe it’ll come to me later, like tomorrow, when I wake up. It happens that way sometimes.”

“Maybe if you get another call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati, eh?” Panza said. “But you knew Ricco was in town. That’s what was with all the backdoor talk.”

“No,” the barber said. “Yes, but…. Parts of it came to me this morning, while I was opening up, too late to do nothing about it. I figured Ricco would be in town a little while before he looked you up. Give you some time to go underground.”

It came to you?” Panza said.

“Yeah,” said the barber. “This stuff just kinda comes to me. I tried to warn you, Mr Panza.”

“Whaddaya think? That you’re some sorta psychic, you bum?”

“He ain’t never been wrong, boss,” said Ralphy. “Never wrong, just maybe a little late on the uptake sometimes.”

“What’s this all about, anyway?” Panza said to Zeolla. “I don’t like you comin’ into my town without calling first.”

“Word from on high,” said Zeolla. “It says you’ve been too sloppy too many times. Says you shoulda never given Frisk that kinda dough to pack round. Says there’re irregularities in your bookkeeping. Says there’s a dozen up-and-comers could do better.”

Antonio Vivaldi’s Sperai vicino il lido played on the Victrola in the corner.

Emilio Panza had begun to sweat, and dug his dirty fingernails into the leather arms of the chair. He’d always believed that his deceits were too small to be noticed. That he was actually on his way up. That he was too smart for the upper echelon mooks to know anything. Now this. He’d laughed at a dozen or more guys over the years who’d shit their pants in the face of imminent departure. Now he was ashamed of his own gut response.

As he allowed his gaze to slowly shift toward Ralphy, who was slowly reaching for the .38 on his belt, Panza heard the quiet whoosh and thud of a well-aimed throwing knife land in Ralphy Garufi’s chest. Ralphy struggled to stand, then fell dead onto the floor.

“Jesus,” Panza said, looking at the barber. “I want my twenty clams back.”

The barber shrugged. “I got something to do in the back,” he said, and exited the scene.

“For God’s sake, Ricco,” Panza said. “Ain’t you and me like pals, or nothin’? Ain’t I sent a lot of work your way?”

Zeolla snuffed out his cigarette on the floor.

“I get told where to go,” he said, “what to do. It’s all the same to me. Word comes down from Toronto, and I take a train out to Vancouver.”

“Yeah?” said Panza, pushing again to get out of the chair. “Well, you and Toronto can go eat lunch.”

Zeolla stepped up close to Panza, and smiled as he gave the man swift flat foot in the belly. Panza puked up his breakfast ham and eggs, and his lunchtime osso buco. Then Ricco picked up a jar of Barbicide, and poured it over the fat man’s head.

“You know,” Zeolla said, “this has got to be the best place in town to ice a guy, with all of the sharp objects and all.” He picked up a straight razor and tested the blade with his thumb. “I mean, you really sorta set yourself up, huh.

“Look,” Emilio Panza said, “I got some dough, hidden in a wall in this slum I own just up the road. I mean a lot of cash. I kinda been skimmin’, myself, see? You and me, we’ll go there and I’ll give it to you. Then I’ll get outta town. No one’ll know. I’ll just disappear.”

“No one ever gets that disappeared. You’ll show up again. A cock sucker like you always does. You’re too stupid to know better.”

“I won’t,” Panza hollered, tears in his eyes.

Ricco Zeolla stepped round behind the man and placed the razor to his throat.

By now Sperai vicino il lido had ended, and another wax disc was put in its place. There was a hiss and popping as the needle travelled through the silent opening groves, and then came the opening strings to Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera.

It had come to the barber after he walked into the back of the shop. There, he’d psychically discerned three things. First, that Ricco Zeolla would certainly kill him next. His throat would be cut; it seemed his fate. The second thing he saw, was that Vivaldi’s Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera was Zeolla favourite. Realising this, he wondered if a cut throat was truly his fate, after all. His third vision was of a bag containing a fortune in paper money, behind the lath and plaster of a wall in a moldy room with the number twenty-one on the door, in a slum six blocks away.

Zeolla’s back was to him as the barber listened to the soprano’s voice fill the shop. He turned up the volume, and watched as Emilio Panza’s blood sprayed the walls and the mirrors. Ricco Zeolla had pulled the razor through Panza’s fleshy throat with a graceful well-practised sweep of his hand. His upper body moving in unison with his right arm as it swung up high in the air with the dripping blade casting blood in a dazzling arc. It was like a ballet. The music, combined with Ricco Zeolla’s grace, made it seem as though exquisite minutes had passed, rather than mere seconds. Then, hypnotised by the fabulous music, Zeolla stood perfectly still.

Picking up a seven inch pair of cutting shears, the barber wondered if he could change his fate, and walked quietly but quickly toward the assassin. As he came close to striking distance, Zeolla turned to face him.

“Ah, bastardo!” Ricco Zeolla hissed and swung the razor.

Then the barber, the meek and medium man, thrust the sheers into Ricco’s heart as the crescendo of Vivaldi’s masterpiece accentuated the wide-eyed astonishment of the elegantly dressed cutthroat.

Zeolla stumbled, trying to remove the scissors, but couldn’t before his wounded heart stopped, and he dropped.

* * * * * * * *

To his mild amazement, his knock on the door to room number twenty-one was answered by a small old woman and her dancing barking dog. Holding a hammer in his hand, he asked to be let in. The old woman stepped aside and let him enter.

In a moment, he had hammered a hole in the wall at exactly the right place, and recovered a large mail bag of cash. Opening it, he saw stacks of hundreds and fifties. He pulled a stack of hundreds out, and gave it to the old woman.

“For my rude invasion, and the damage I have caused,” he said.

The old woman took the money with a trembling hand.

On the train out of Vancouver, the barber was overcome by nostalgia. He was leaving his shop and Commercial Drive behind. But he was rich now, and it came to him that Florida seemed like a very nice idea.

Advertisements

the woman in the red raincoat

Vancouver, 1949

Trudy Parr had been falling all of her life. It was an enduring dream. From a hotel room window, high over the street. She would open it and edge out, earnest in her aim, nauseous from the height. And, having written her brief neatly folded note of apology, she’d fall. Past flags and lighted windows, the moon and tresses of neon, the redemptive pavement rushing toward her. Since childhood. But she had always woken before impact. In her bed, in the dark of night or grey dawn, hearing perhaps a lonesome bird just outside.

But not that night. That night she didn’t wake before shattering like a mirror, seeing herself reflected ten thousand times.

Now she sat on the edge of her bed, smoking a cigarette, seeing the concrete, reliving the stunning ruby flash.

It was 4 a.m.

From her window, she saw the freighters on English Bay shine like cities on the water. It was early July. The sun would be prodding the eastern horizon. She looked west. Her dream had had the density of stone. It would have sunk into the bay, had there been a way.

She snuffed out her cigarette, and had a shower.

10 am Commercial Drive

“Caffè lungo and Cornetti,” said Trudy Parr. “Have you seen Melisa?”

“She no come in yet today,” said Tony Nuzzo, in his broken English, starting Trudy’s order. “That’s strange because she’s usually in round eight o’clock. She come in yesterday, but she very sad I think.”

“Sad?”

“She gets that way, you know?”

“Yes.” Trudy knew. Melisa Patton did get sad. They’d been friends of all their lives, and she could remember Melisa’s long years of sadness. She was an artist, a painter of stunning canvases, sold in galleries as far away as New York and London.

“You take a table,” Tony Nuzzo told Trudy. “I bring it to you.”

Trudy sat by the widow. Commercial Drive was a busy east Vancouver high street, in an Italian neighbourhood. Through the window she saw merchants and customers hurry by. Tony Nuzzo arrived with her order. He’d placed two small chocolate cookies next to her Cornetti.

“A little chocolate for you,” he said. “You too thin, Miss Parr.”

After twenty years in Canada, Tony Nuzzo still held onto old country ideas. “A man likes a woman with a little width, if you don’t mind me to say so.”

Trudy smiled.

“I’d like to sit down with you,” Nuzzo said. “May I?”

“Of course.”

“Grazie, grazie.” Nuzzo sat. “It’s about your friend, Melisa. It’s none-a-my-business, but she really didn’t look so good yesterday. She’s pale. No smile. No, Hello Tony, how you today? And it’s July. It’s warm. But wears this paint stained sweater, long sleeves. And I see bandages poking out. Some dry blood. Her wrists, maybe her whole arms, wrapped in bandages.”

Trudy tried not to look worried. She’d attempted to return Melisa’s call from the day before, last evening and this morning. Her secretary had said the caller, Melisa, sounded especially unhappy. There’d been no answer when Trudy called back. It was Melisa’s studio number. She was almost always there. Now this. Bandages. Melisa had cut herself before, when things were bad. Her arms. Her legs.

“Did she say anything when she was here?”

“No,” said Nuzzo. “She just had two espresso, bang bang, one after the other, and left. Maybe she’s unlucky in love, huh?”

“Maybe,” Trudy said. She bit a cookie and sipped her coffee. “I’ll ask around, check her apartment and studio. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

“That’s fine,” said Nuzzo. He stood up with a broad smile. “You good at that kinda stuff, you bet.”

The apartment and studio were on the Drive, a half block away from one other. The apartment door was locked, no answer. But she found the studio door open, when she arrived. She went in.

The large room reflected Melisa’s obsession with neatness, in spite of the paints and canvasses, splattered palettes and linseed oil soaked rags.

On the easel was an unfinished painting of a woman, seen from behind. She was walking away from the viewer, in the rain, without an umbrella. Her coat was bright red, with darker rustier shades in its creases and folds. The surrounding colours, however, people, buildings and automobiles, were bleak and hopeless. It was a treasure, nonetheless, even to Trudy’s untrained eye.

On a countertop, under a lamp, she discovered a roll of gauze and a small metal case containing blue Gillette razor blades. Next to them was a bloody rag and a beaker stained with a dry rust coloured substance. She shivered. Melisa was talented and a striking woman, educated and revered. What provoked her?

“Hello.” A voice came from behind her. She turned round and saw a small dapper man, in a suit and holding his hat in his hand. “Have you seen Miss Patton?” he said.

“No,” Trudy said. “Who are you?”

“A patron. An admirer. A costumer.” His eyes fixed on the painting. “Ah, she’s nearly done. It’s exquisite.”

Trudy Parr looked over her shoulder.

“For you?” she said.

“Indeed,” said the man. “A special commission. A vision.”

He walked into the studio, up to the painting, removing his soft leather gloves. Then he ran his fingers over it gently, feeling the texture of the brush strokes. His eyes were closed, as he seemed to experience a strange ecstasy.

When he was done, he wiped his brow with a yellow silk handkerchief. “Do you know anything of her whereabouts?” he said.

“No.”

Trudy saw odd markings on the backs of his hands. Circles and cruciforms, a cursive script she didn’t recognise. They might have been tattoos, but looked more like blemishes. The man noticed, and put on his gloves again.

“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” he said.

“Some have said so.”

Suddenly he didn’t seem so small, his eyes were dark. She swore she heard a whispering chorus.

“It’s a hard life for a woman,” he said. “Is it not?”

“That’s a peculiar thing to say.”

“I mean,” said the man, “for a woman to establish herself, in the world of men.”

“What’s your game, mister?”

“If you find her,” he said, taking a card from his shirt pocket, and handing it to her. “Would you call me? I understand that you find people for a living, among other things. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Trudy Parr looked at the card. No name. Only a phone number.

“I think you’re the last person I’d call if I find her,” she said.

“That’s entirely the wrong attitude, Miss Parr.”

“You know my name?”

“My knowledge of things here is limited, but I know that much.”

He grinned, but if he meant it to be agreeable, he failed.

Putting on his hat, he walked to the door. But before he left, he turned and spoke again.

“This painting,” he said. “Melisa is only repaying a favour, in creating it. A favour she asked of me, and that I granted. Do you think I’m wrong for expecting something in return?”

Trudy Parr said nothing, only wished that he would go away. He did, with a nod, but without a sound, no footfalls as he proceeded down the hall.

7 pm Tony Nuzzo’s

“And so far that’s all I know,” Trudy said. She had intentionally failed to mention the small man and the strange whispering refrain that had surrounded him.

“A mystery,” said Tony Nuzzo. “She’s gotta be round somwheres.”

“She’ll show up.”

A man in a summer suit, needing a press, came into the shop, and looked at the menu.

“Can a fella get an ordinary cuppa joe round here?” he said.

“I make,” said Tony Nuzzo, getting up. He knew a flatfoot when he saw one. “I make. I know whatsa guy like you likes.”

It was police detective Olaf Brandt.

“That’s fine,” he said, and dropped a nickel onto the counter.

Nuzzo looked at the small coin, and rolled his eyes.

Brandt took a seat across from Trudy Parr.

“I hear you been looking for Melisa Patton,” he said.

“That’s right.” She braced herself. Cops like Brandt didn’t patronise places like Tony Nuzzo’s, unless there was a reason.

“It’s bad, Trudy,” he said. “We found her this afternoon. She took a room at the Astoria Hotel.”

“And?”

“She jumped,” he said. “Early this morning round four a.m., best we can tell. She mentioned you in her suicide note. How you were best friends. How she was sorry.”

“Four? This morning?” Trudy recalled the sequence and terrible clarity of her dream. “Why’d it take you this long to contact me? I’ve been calling in to the office all day.”

Tony Nuzzo arrived with a cup of black coffee and put it down in front of Brandt. Then he stood and listened.

“No one noticed her until this afternoon,” Brandt said, “when somebody looked out of a window. She fell onto an awning, not the street. Sorry, Trudy. Her note said something about a fella that wouldn’t leave her alone. He wanted a painting in the worst way. She said she didn’t have the blood in her to finish it. I guess that’s artist talk. Her note said that you should run like hell if you meet the runt. A real little swell. Dresses like a millionaire. She didn’t want to write his whole name in the note, said it would be bad juju for anyone who read it. Called him Bub, for short. We’ll keep an ear to the ground, see if he shows up.”

“He ran his hand over that painting like he was gonna have one hell of an orgasm,” Trudy Parr recalled.

“Who?” said Nuzzo.

Brandt sipped his coffee, and raised an eye brow.

“That’s some good coffee,” he said. “You don’t get this downtown.”

the daemon casket

Vancouver 1995

Metro Moe’s was a bar that tried to be hip once, but failed. Now the abandoned trappings of hipness hung from wire on the walls, and the bar had returned to its former self, a joint for flunked out tough guys, who had once believed that life was a Scorsese film.

Now they sat at the bar and at tables hunched over three hour old glasses of warm beer, remembering the scant highlights of their attempts to achieve the tailored suit and cheap cologne cachet of wise guys.

There were no guns in the room. They’d all been hocked years ago. There was a hole in every shoe, and a belt pulled tight round every empty belly. Metro Moe’s was a dead planet, without an orbit. It didn’t spin, and it was oblivious to the universe that had rejected it and its clientele.

Ricco Costantini and Victor Gatti sat together in a corner, each wearing an untidy black suit and yellowing white shirt without a tie, not talking except for the occasional word or phrase that would come out like a hiccup. When this happened to one, the other would nod in absolute agreement.

“1989,” one might say, for example, out of nowhere.

“Fuckin’ right,” would say the other. Without looking up. Then, perhaps, add something like, “Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ goddam ’72 Chevrolet.”

After that they’d move their beer glasses round in little circles for a moment, looking down at them. And then become perfectly still. Not a peep, maybe for hours.

It was about a year ago that Victor Gatti hiccupped a name. This in itself was no big deal. Names were a big part of the stagnant narrative. But there was a silent rule that forbade the saying of certain names, even the mention of particular events. That’s why that when Gatti said – “Felicia” – Costantini said nothing, only sipped his flat beer.

“Felicia,” Gatti said again, monotone.

There was a blunt pause.

“You know not to say it,” said Costantini.

“She just came to mind.”

“That don’t mean you gotta say it.”

“Alright,” Gatti grunted. He lit a cigarette, and then he said, “She shouldn’t had done it.”

“It happened twenty years ago,” Costantini said. “For fuck sake. You don’t know what really happened, anyways. Only I do. Don’t make me relive it ‘cause you ran outta shit to say.”

“Alright, alright.”

Another silence, then –

“She was okay,” said Costantini.

“She left you cold, Ricco.” Gatti said. “Just before the biggest job you was ever gonna pull.”

“That job was a fuck up from the start,” said Costantini. “It was meant to fail. Then she would’ve left anyway or be hooked to a jailbird.”

“Meant to fail?”

“Wrong people, bad planning and a target too big,” Costantini said. “They wanted to go before it was all worked out.”

“And you with a busted heart.”

Costantini sipped his beer.

“And why was the target too big?” said Gatti.

“It just was,” Costantini said. “We were kids. You saw what happened to Paulo and Little Leo. Shot dead. I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“They fucked it up ‘cause you wasn’t there,” Gatti said.

“Drop it.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

After about twenty minutes, Gatti said – “Richie Mueller,” – getting back into the old routine.

“Dye pack,” said Costantini.

“Red dye all over him and the inside of his fucking car,” said Gatti.

“Chump deserved to do time.”

Then after another thirty minutes and a couple of glasses of fresh beer were delivered –

“Where’d she ever go?” Gatti said. “Felicia, I mean.”

“Windsor somewheres. Said she was from there.”

“That job could’ve made you,” said Gatti. “You could’ve made Soldato. Then, who knows?”

“Have I gotta take you round back, Vick?” Costantini said.

“Golly no, Ricco. Don’t say shit like that.”

“Then shut the fuck up.”

The day’s exchange ended there. Ricco Costantini stood up, dropped a couple of bills onto the table and walked away from Victor Gatti.

It was raining and cold on Commercial Drive. Costantini put up his collar and walked into the wind. In five minutes, he was in his room over the Quality Butcher Shop, with the pig carcasses and the aged salamis in the window. It was 7pm. He turned on the radio, opened a fresh bottle of rye and a deck of cigarettes, and sat down at a wooden table next to the window that looked out onto the street.

1975

She had entered his life through an acquaintance, Billy Wicks. Wicks had a reputation as a disciplined and efficient killer. He was expensive, but most of the people who hired him considered him an excellent value, like shopping for a hitman was like shopping for a pound of coffee. Wicks travelled a lot for business, and one day he came back from a job in Windsor with Felicia.

He went round town for a week with her on his arm. Until the cops came after him.

It was his fault they finally found him. Billy Wicks had a thing about colouring his fingernails with black shoe polish, and then buffing them up with a shoe brush. It made them look shiny and sort of grey. He figured it set him apart, made him look cold and a little crazy. And it did. But it was something a hood shouldn’t do, get a tattoo or piercings or colour your fingernails. It was something the cops could look for when they were rounding up the usual fishy characters. And witnesses close to that Windsor job remembered a guy with shiny grey fingernails.

The cops cornered Billy in his apartment down on Terminal Avenue, and shot him dead after a three hour stand-off. That left Felicia by herself in a strange city with no friends. She was just a kid. Nineteen, she claimed. And Billy had been footing the bill. Now Billy was dead. His apartment was shot up and off limits, and Felicia didn’t have a friend. So, that’s when she started tricking down on south Seymour Street. Ricco Costantini found her one night after he left the Penthouse Night Club.

He’d been cruising the Seymour strip looking for something new. There was a booze can called Heidy’s in an old two story garage under the Granville Street Bridge, where he and a girl could get a room and drink until dawn.

He found her down past Drake, close to Pacific Street where the new girls had to work, under the scarce street lights.

“I know you,” he said, pulling up in his second hand Coupe de Ville.

Felicia bent over all smiles, and leaned into the car through the open window.

“Sure you do,” she said. “We’re old friends. You wanna make it?”

“No no, really,” Ricco said. “You was with Billy Wicks, for a while, ‘til he got wasted. What are you doin’ down here?”

“Working,” Felicia said, backing off. “Fuck off. You gumbas ain’t my scene no more.”

“Wicks weren’t no gumba, honey.”

“He hung out with you,” she said. “And you all want it for free, stinkin’ like day old Aqua Velva.”

“I’m no Aqua Velva man, baby. And I don’t want nothing for free. Get in.”

He leaned across and opened the passenger side door. She stood back for a minute, doing the arithmetic, and then got in.

The booze at Heidy’s was high priced rotgut, and their room was a dimly lit closet with pictures of Hindu gods hanging from the walls.

“This is bizarre,” said Felicia, looking around her from the tatty bed.

“Heidy thinks it’s exotic,” Ricco said. “And the smack addicts like it.”

“How do you like it?” she said, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Let me show you, doll,” he said bravely, as though on a dare.

His kiss was a childish thing, and his hands weighty and inept. Other working girls had pushed him away, had laughed and lit a cigarette, then proceeded with a roll of the eyes and an apparent sense of profession duty. He often wondered why he bothered, and what terrible inventory of secrets his bungling efforts in bed revealed.

He was unhappily awake at dawn, laying on his side and gazing at her sleep. She was beautiful. She wouldn’t be for long, though, if she stayed in her current line of work. She’d be back out there now if he hadn’t paid her for the whole night, knowing that most of it would go to a sick pimp named Johnny.

When she woke, he immediately asked her –

“Would you go home, if you could?”

“Well good morning to you too, big boy,” she yawned. “That’s quite the question, this early. Are you gonna play the hero and pay my way back. What do I have to do for that?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It was just a question.”

“Most guys talk big and don’t deliver,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “So, don’t get any ideas about saving me from myself. You’ll just embarrass the both of us.”

Later she didn’t let him take her home, just leave her at Hastings and Main. She’d spent her time on the ride silently writing in a small black book.

“You really one of them?” she said, before she got out of the car in front of the Carnegie Library.

“Them?”

“Them swaggering mobster fucks Billy used to hang out with. Always grabbing their dicks and giving them a hoist in front of everyone in the room.”

“No,” Ricco said, a little ashamed, and a little amused. “I haven’t done nothing to earn it.”

“But you’re gonna, right? I can tell. You got some big plan up your sleeve.”

He had been working a certain job out, but what was it to her? It’d be a sweet little heist. The plan was a blueprint plotted out on the surface of his brain, scratched into the backs of his eyes where the light was supposed to collect. It was like a movie playing over and over, with a single flawless outcome. But a lot of guys with flawless plans were doing time, looking stupid for not knowing what they didn’t know, their names passed round by guys on the outside whenever they needed a laugh. He didn’t care about prison. He just couldn’t stand anyone laughing.

“I get by okay on my own,” he said. “I know who to stand by, who to avoid, who to pay respects.”

“But that’s just it,” she said. “You’re alone. Guys like you ain’t no good on their own. They get itchy.”

“Itchy? Hey, what the hell makes you know so much? You’re just a fucking teenager.”

“And what are you?” she said. “Twenty?”

“Twenty-two.”

“And how’d you pay for last night, you rob a gas station?”

“Maybe I ran an errand,” he said.

She smiled at that, and put her Moleskine in her bag. She got out of the car and walked away, without looking back. Ricco headed to the Drive and drank espresso. He had a meeting at Little Leo Panelli’s apartment at noon.

“When the armoured truck gets to Broadway and Renfrew,” Leo Panelli said, “it parks down the alley behind the bank, because the whole area round that intersection’s a no parking zone on account of the traffic. Then they take the cash from the front round to the back. It’s a perfect spot for the hit.”

There was a map on the table, with arrows, squares and circles drawn in blue and red crayon Little Leo had stolen from his niece. Ricco was troubled. Paulo Zaro and Leo were both wearing revolvers in shoulder holsters. That was new.

“And then the twenty grand or so is all ours,” said Paulo Zaro. “We’ll be big time, then. People’ll be calling us Sir.”

“Fucking, eh,” Panelli said.

The two men high-fived.

“You two just concentrate,” said Ricco. “What’s important is the job, timing and escape, not getting busted later. We’ll count the money after it’s done.”

“Those dumb fucks get there the same time every day,” Panelli said. “10:45 a.m.”

“And the driver and guards are old timers,” said Zaro. “They’re ready to retire, and don’t wanna pull a gun. Even the armour truck company don’t want ‘em pulling their weapons. They don’t want no dead passersby. Those guy’s guns probably cobwebs.”

“There’s always something, though,” Ricco Costantini said.

“Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know what,” said Costantini. “The unknown, the unpredictable. Like there’s no passersby in a back alley. None of us has done this before. We should ask some of the guys who know about this shit.”

“Then they’ll want in,” said Panelli.

“You got the balls for this, Ricco?” Zaro said, sounding concerned. “You having second thoughts? You happy being small time? Because if you are, we can get someone else.”

“Now’s the wrong time for that,” Panelli said. “There ain’t no one else. We’re neighbourhood guys. Ricco’s good. He’s got brains, that’s all. He’s considering all the angles.”

“Well,” said Zaro. “Maybe his brain is thinking too much.”

Ricco looked at the hand drawn map, and thought about Paulo and Little Leo with their newly acquired guns.

“I’m in,” he said. “Don’t get tough, Paulo, just ‘cause you suddenly got a gun. I wanna work this out in my head. We’ll meet on Sunday and set a time and work out the cars and the escape route.”

“Jeez, Ricco,” Panelli said. “That’s four days away. This is taking longer than I thought.”

“It might take a lot longer, too,” Ricco said. “You in a hurry to do this thing wrong, Leo? This ain’t no convenience store robbery.”

“Fuck around!” said Zaro.

“Alright,” Panelli said. “Sunday. Same time.”

In fact, it took another month and a half to work it out. Ricco talked to some of the quiet old pisans, who’d been around. The hand drawn map of the heist had changed three times. Paulo and Leo could see the logic every time, but were growing impatient.

Meanwhile, Ricco had gotten Felicia a job at a coffee shop and was helping her out with rent. He knew he had to pay off Johnny, but when Johnny said it wasn’t enough, Leo and Paulo held him down while Ricco used a pair of pruning shears to remove the pimp’s left pinky finger. They promised that the rest of his fingers would go the same way if he didn’t back off. It raised Ricco’s profile on the darker side of the city, but it had given him bad dreams.

Their lovemaking had changed. Ricco stopped trying so hard and Felicia was tender and patient. They were being seen with one another, and it was understood they were together.

One night they sat together in the coffee shop, after she’d gotten off shift. And Felicia wrote quietly in her notebook while Ricco watched and sipped his coffee.

“What do you write in that book?” he said.

“Just things that come to me,” Felicia said. “It’s a journal. It’s just short lines about stuff I see.”

“Read me a couple, then,” Ricco said.

“Nah, they’re personal, kinda weird. It’s not stuff anybody wants to hear.”

“C’mon.”

“No.”

“Tell you what,” Ricco said. “You read me something, and I’ll buy you a rose.”

She looked at him for a moment, and said, “Yellow?”

“Yellow? Sure. A big fat yellow rose.”

“Where you gonna find a yellow rose in this dumpy neighbourhood?”

“Sandroni’s Florists, down the Drive.”

“That funeral place?”

“Sure. I know them there. They got the yellow roses.”

“They’d better.”

“They do.”

“This better not be bullshit, Ricco.”

“It ain’t.”

“Alright,” she said. “But I warned you it’s weird.”

“Whatever….”

Felicia leafed through the pages, making faces as she did.

“Okay okay,” she finally said. “You listen, and don’t laugh. Here it goes. This one’s called the cat. Goes like this: In the moon, he is a monster. He leaps from a shadow onto the back of night, and rips it into shreds of dawn.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, I told you it was weird.”

“Well read me another. Now I know what to expect.”

“Hmm, okay. This one is called the daemon casket.”

“Really? Holly shit!”

“Just listen, the daemon casket: He laid a trail of wax and lit it on fire. It led her into his angel domed room of candles, where he dreamed in the casket, and planned what would make him like men.”

“Oh,” Ricco said, needing words and finding none. He flashed back to Johnny’s finger, bloody and inert on the floor.

“It’s just some crazy fiction, baby,” said Felicia. “It’s like poetry. Don’t you read books?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not so good with books.”

“I don’t want to read this anymore,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I won’t ask again.”

At last Paulo Zaro said, “We go next Wednesday. The weather should be good. We can’t work this out any better.”

Ricco knew he was right. The plan couldn’t be improved on. But that didn’t make it achievable. They’d arrive and leave in three separate cars, and meet up later. But it was a busy intersection, bottle necks everywhere. The city was full of pinch points. They could go south or east, but any escape route was tricky. It proved they were amateurs. If Ricco had learned anything from the planning, it was that Vancouver was probably the worst city in the world to rob an armoured truck.

“Yeah, Wednesday,” Ricco said. He looked at yet another map on the table.

“You better be up for this,” Paulo said.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Ricco. “Just worry about what you gotta do. No cowboy shit. Try to behave like a professional.”

When he met Felicia that night, he had an envelope of cash. He slid it to her across the table. They were in a booth at a café on the Drive.

“What’s this?” she said.

“I sold the Coupe de Ville, hocked a few other things. I had a few bucks under the mattress.”

“But why give it to me?”

“Get outta town,” he said. “There’s enough there to get a plane ticket, and hold you over wherever you end up, until you get a job. I wish it was more.”

He was sitting forward at the table, and she saw something under his open jacket.

“That’s a gun,” she said.

He straightened and zipped up his jacket.

“Why do you have a gun?”

“Because. Just forget it.”

“Ricco, this makes no sense. Talk to me.”

“Something’s gonna happen,” Ricco said. “If I pull it off, I’ll track you down, after a while. If I don’t pull it off, I’m going to jail, or something else. Either way, you don’t want to be in town after Wednesday.”

“If you’re in trouble,” she said. “I’m the one who should be here.”

“Just get outta town,” Ricco said. “Tonight. Call me tomorrow form wherever you land.”

“I won’t,” she said. “I love you. I can’t leave like this, with you talking like this way.”

Ricco sat back for a moment. There was a peculiar weight to her words, he couldn’t comprehend. They were massive in his small world. They knocked to wind out of him. Love was the unknown, the unpredictable. There was nothing in his plan for this.

He reached across the table and grabbed her by her collar, and pulled her forward so they were face to face. Buttons from her blouse popped, and fell onto the floor. For the first time since they met, she was scared.

“You’ll fucking go,” he said.

“No.”

He grabbed her bag with his free hand, and pulled out the Moleskine.

“You see this?” he said. “You see it?”

She didn’t answer.

“It’s a piece of shit, and I don’t like you writing about me in it.”

“I never,” Felicia said, but she heard her lie before he did and was ashamed.

He let her go, and began tearing pages from the book.

“There,” he said, in his rage. “Now it looks as shitty as it sounds. Get the fuck outta town, tonight.”

The neighbourhood knew something was up. For the moment, Ricco and his behaviour were considered too dangerous to question. The patrons looked away as he exited the café. It was Monday night.

In her own rage, Felicia returned home and took what she needed. She boarded a Greyhound that night and headed east. Riding the dog would save money, and she had no idea where to go anyway.

Ricco went home and drank. On Tuesday afternoon, he met with Paulo and Little Leo for what should have been the last run-through of the plan.

“I’m pulling out,” Ricco told the two men.

“Fuck,” said Paulo. “I knew it, Leo. The guy’s a pussy. It’s that bitch you’ve been hangin’ onto, ain’t it?”

“Don’t say that, Paulo,” Leo said. “You saw how he took care of that pimp Johnny.”

“You guys should reconsider, too,” Ricco said. “Get in on a couple smaller jobs, and get some experience first.”

“Fuck you, Ricco. Leo and me are a go for tomorrow. And when it’s done, when we’re making it and you’re still scratching round for your lunch, don’t come to us.”

“It’s only twenty grand, Paulo,” Ricco said.

“It’s what it fucking means,” said Paulo. “You know it. It means we got the balls, we’re moving up, we’re going somewheres. It means no one’s gonna spit on us no more.”

“Okay,” said Ricco, and walked away.

The next day, the plan failed. Paulo and Little Leo went in cocky, and were shot dead in the alley by the two retirement aged guards before they even got their hands on the bag of cash. By noon, no one on Commercial Drive even knew their names.

Ricco Costantini pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiracy, and got off. Afterwards, he ran errands and played the horses, but he was never trusted to plan or pull off another job, and ended up sitting his life out in Metro Moe’s, before and after its attempt to go hip, but not during.

1995

“She ever call?” Victor Gatti asked, a couple of days later, after Ricco had cooled down. They were sitting in their usual corner of the bar.

“Never,” said Ricco.

“Nothin’?”

“She mailed me a cashier’s cheque for the money I gave her.”

“Did you cash it?”

“Nah.”

They were quiet for an hour after that. Then Gatti hiccupped the name –

“Johnny the pimp.”

“Got his pinky cut off.”

“Fuckin’ pimp.”

“Waddaya gonna do?”

“Fuckin’ Johnny the pimp.”

“Without his goddam pinky.”

Valentine skywriter

everyone watched as the biplane wrote hearts above the city
then the wind blew them over Commercial Drive
over the cult of the fedora and the wide lapels
where the cops played poker with the Cosa Nostra
and the radios in their ’54 Fords
in the alley behind Joe’s
crackled analogue and
felony endured
as a matter of opinion

Justice Weekley

Vancouver, 1949

Justice Weekley had had a wooden leg since the Somme, and had owned the shoeshine concession in the lobby of the Marine Building since 1930. If yours were shoes of distinction in the city of Vancouver, Justice had probably run a rag over them. His stand consisted of five seats. He employed two boys. But when sitting down, everyone hoped they’d have Justice Weekley shine their shoes.

Crispin Dench took a seat and placed his wingtips on the brass footrests. It was Monday at 2:00 p.m. Business would be slow until five. Dench had the whole stand to himself.

“Waddaya know, Justice?”

Justice Weekley looked at Dench’s shoes and shook his head. “This ain’t like you, Crispin. These shoes are a mess.”

“Been jumping backyard fences after the bad guys,” Dench said, looking around. “You got the Daily Racing Form?”

“Right next to you, between the chairs.”

“Ah, so.” Dench picked up the tab and began to read.

Justice Weekley went to work, rolling up Dench’s pant cuffs. He brushed off the surface soil, the debris of all those felonious backyards, and applied just the right amount of black Kiwi. Then he brushed again to bring out a shine. After that, he went to work with the rag, popping it now and again for effect.

“I hear Salamander in the third,” Weekley said, concentrating on the shoes. “To win.”

“I saw that written on the men’s room wall, Justice. Sure that isn’t where you got it?”

“You know better, Crispin.”

Indeed, Crispin Dench did know better. Justice Weekley was an excellent handicapper, and had track connections. Dench made a mental note. Then he said, “I like Call Me Catherine in the third. That filly’s been running real sweet lately. Three to one, though.” He made a face.

“They been dopin’ her up,” said Weekley. “It can’t last much longer. She’ll be doin’ a homestretch nosedive any day now.”

“That’s a shame.”

“That’s the horses in Vancouver, my friend.”

Dench nodded and turned a page.

“Had a guy drop off a pair of Allan Edmonds the other day,” Weekley said, smoothly changing the subject. “Soaked in this sticky rusty cakey stuff. Said he’d had an accident. Told me if I made ‘em like new again, and kept my mouth shut ‘bout it, he’d give a $20 tip.”

“Sticky rusty cakey,” Dench said, still looking at the racing form but no longer reading. “Sounds like melted strawberry ice cream.”

“Weren’t no ice cream.” Weekley gave the rag an extra loud pop.

“What was it, then?”

“Blood,” Weekley said, looking round for anyone who might overhear.

Dench let the racing form fall into his lap. “So, what you do?” he said.

“I did what he said. He came to get ‘em. He wasn’t happy.”

“Why?”

“Because they didn’t look like new. They just looked less sticky rusty and cakey.”

“He pay you?”

“He gave me fifty cents for the shine and a twenty dollar bill for a tip. Then he reminded me to keep my mouth shut. Said if I didn’t, he’d break off my good leg and feed it to me.”

“He seem the sort who could do it?”

“He seemed the sort who might try.”

“Why do you think he didn’t just throw the shoes out?”

“They were expensive. Besides, people got peculiar feelings for their shoes, especially tough nuts. It was like that in the east end. Don’t forget I had a stand there before here, on Commercial. I had some real Cosa Nostra types as regulars. I tell you, they loved their shoes. They’d bring ‘em in after this job or that, who knows what, but these characters weren’t any boy scouts. The shoes would look like they’d just done a shift on a slaughterhouse killin’ floor. But we’re talkin’ some fine Italian footwear, here. Make ‘em new again, Justice, they’d say. Where I come from, they ain’t got no shoes like these. Hey, they ain’t got no shoes! They’d say some shit like that, then laugh.”

“And?”

“And, so I got good at cleaning up shoes after this gumba or that had committed a capital crime. Sometimes I was successful, other times not. But they were always grateful that I tried. I told ‘em, get a pair of rubber boots. No one will know. No sir, they said. Lookin’ good is part of the job. The other thing I got good at fast was keepin’ my mouth shut. Cops came lots-a-times, asked me questions that could get me killed if I answered them. But I just played the dumb one legged shoeshine jerk. The mob boys appreciated that. Good tips at Christmas.”

“You think this character from the other day knew about your reputation?”

Before he answered, Justice Weekley made a performance of seeing his reflection in the toe of Dench’s shoe. He pretended to use the mirror-like result of his artful science to pick a crumb of something out of his teeth.

“He was from somewhere else,” Weekley said. “If he was mob, that is. The Vancouver Pisans would be peasants compared to this guy. He looked like a lawyer from upstairs. Expensive suit. Expensive tie. Hundred dollar shoes. No visible scars. But he had that flip my switch and see what happens look about him. I’ve seen it in a few of the east end boys, the ones that go A-Bomb real easy and cause a lot of sorrow. Oh, and the twenty bones he tipped me was American. He might be Chicago or New York, maybe even Toronto.”

“What’s street-side say?” Dench said.

“Street says there’s a guy in town, real cool and real nasty. But the street ain’t always right. Special job. I guess it’s a done deal now, judging by the shoes. He got into town a week ago. Whereabouts unknown. Seen on the sidewalk, a couple of bars. Matches the description of the fella we’re discussing.”

“Any local wacks?”

“That’s the thing. There have been three. Two Mafia wannabes who should have stuck to knockin’ over gas stations. And, wait for it…, Walter Catalano. If he done all three, then this guy’s giving a group rate. The bodies of the two wannabes were found under the bridge over the cut at Broadway and Commercial — old news, as they say. Each with a bullet in the head and heart.”

“But Catalano,” Dench said. “That can’t be. He’s way up there in the Vancouver Family. It’d be all over the news by now.”

“You know better,” Weekley said. “It’ll be all over the news if they ever find a body. Until then, and it might take a while for the dust to settle on this, Catalano’ll just be a missing person. The mob boys aren’t gonna say nothin’. They’re just gonna reciprocate, if they can. But for now ol’ Walter Catalano’s coolin’ his dead heels in some newly poured concrete foundation round town. This is all conjecture, of course. I’m just the shoeshine jerk.”

“Of course,” Dench said. “But just think of it. All of this linked to a single pair of bloody shoes you held in your own hands. You live an oddly charmed life, Justice Weekley.”

Weekley rolled down Crispin Dench’s pant cuffs, and ran two pinched fingers down the creases. “My life’s like a fucking dream, Crispin. And I gotta tell you, it’s Salamander in the third. Swear to God.”

the dirt

Vancouver, some time ago

Back in the war, Vincent ‘Vinny’ Bologna was the Don of the east end made boys. And he actually did some good work, raising money for the YMCA Military Service to run their tea cars over seas. But really, the guy was a major dick. I mean he was a rude farting-in-public, spitting-on-the-sidewalk, nose-picking-slob son of a bitch. And he was a bully, too. He liked to pick on dames and little kids. During the 1939 little league season, he stole every baseball in the city and packed them away in a warehouse that belonged to his brother in law. For a whole month, there wasn’t one goddam baseball in the whole city that wasn’t in that warehouse. The fat prick laughed ‘til he wet himself. It ruined the whole little league season. But Vinny Bologna ran the east Vancouver mob, so whatta you gonna do?

Anyways, it turns out that Vinny Bologna was big into having his fortune told. He based every business decision he made on what some broad in a dime store gypsy costume told him. He even said he knew when the war was gonna be over because this Roma dame with a glass eye named Elga Coal had told him. He never told no one the actual date, though, even if it would’ve been some first-class inside skinny for the Allies. And if things hadn’t changed, he probably wouldn’t have told a soul until the cessation of hostilities made the headlines. What an asshole.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I never had nothing against Elga Coal. She paid her taxes, and she relied on dimwit chumps like Bologna for her daily bread. One of the ways she sucked ‘em in was with this sign she had over her parlour door. It read: I won’t tell you you’re going to die. That really cut to the chase, and she knew it. The fact is, no one ever wants to know all the dirt, just the juicy bits that might give them a leg up.

And that was Vinny all over. Like this time a rival was running prostitutes down in Chinatown. The crumb doing it was some kingpin wanna-be named Tang Ho. He was Chinese and it was Chinatown, after all. But Chinatown was still part of the east end mob’s turf at the time, and Vinny Bologna had a right. So, he goes to Elga Coal to ask what he should do, and Elga says she sees a hearse proceeding down  Keefer Street. That was it, a hearse on Keefer. For that she gets $20 and a two buck tip. Vinny Bologna’s happy. He figures that since Keefer Street runs through Chinatown, the hearse must be the one that carries the future dead body of his rival, Tang Ho.

On Christmas Day 1940, Vinny Bologna sends a hit squad into the Mother Chang’s Mahjong Parlour on Pender Street. It’s Tang Ho’s hangout, where he holds court and counts his money. The hitters were Vinny’s cousin Antonio, his other cousin Sammy and a dark-hearted bastard named Tomaso ‘The Card’ Fontana. They called him The Card because he always flipped a card onto the bodies of his victims. It was like a business card that read: O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet. That’s from St Augustine, of course. But what it meant in regards to mass murder, no one knew. It was just that Tomaso ‘The Card’ got a charge out of it.

So, when they arrive, the hit squad opens up with Thompson submachine guns, and slays Mother Chang and twenty-seven of her mahjong playing customers. It’s a blood bath. I mean, the blood soaked right through the floor and fell like rain from the ceiling of the tea shop below. The only survivor was a sixteen year old girl, who played dead in a corner. The murders and the blood raining down from the ceiling below were considered bad juju, and the whole joint needed to be torn down and rebuilt to get rid of the ghosts. That really pissed Tang Ho off.

Thing was, though, Tang Ho wasn’t at the Mother Chang Mahjong Parlour on Christmas Day 1940. He was flying the Clipper down to Panama to visit with his brother Melvin who ran a couple of hotels in Panama City, and controlled a big chunk of the Central American cocaine trade. Tang Ho had mules running coke into Vancouver 365 days a year, so it was like a business trip over the festive season. Long story short, Antonio, Sammy and Tomaso ‘The Card’ missed their primary target. There never was a hearse on Keefer Street, at least not then. The procession of hearses that carried the dead from the Christmas Day Mother Chang Mahjong Parlour hit went down Georgia Street.

Lousy fortune telling is easily forgotten, and life goes on. Vinny Bologna put out another hit on Ho. Only he doesn’t go so big this time. He figures Tomaso ‘The Card’ still owes him, so he sends him out on a solo job. Get in close somehow and cut that fucking chinks head off, says Vinny Bologna. And Tomaso ‘The Card’ says OK. He stalks Tang Ho for a week, waiting until Saturday night when Ho’s goofy on opium. The Card sees the Chinatown mob boss stumbling down an alley behind Powell Street. For some reason, Ho’s body guard leaves him in the alley and goes back into the opium den they just exited. The Card moves in with his balisong knife, but ends up with a .38 slug in the back when Tang Ho’s body guard re-emerges from the den with Ho’s sable collar coat.

A Sable collar, can you imagine? Geez, what a pimp.

So now Tang Ho doubles his security and doubles the number of working girls in Chinatown, just to spite Vinny Bologna. Vinny goes nutso. He offers ten large to whoever can ice Ho, good money for a whack back then. A few hitters try, but none of them can get past Ho’s goons. Tang Ho lives on, and Vinny Bologna gnashes his teeth.

It wasn’t long, though, until Tang Ho got his. In late 1942, he got a Niagara Falls souvenir letter opener in the heart. It was a floozy named Shanghai Leola who settled Ho’s hash, in a room on the second floor of the Sam Kee Building. It was a scuffle over broken promises, the reason a lot of gangsters get it in the end. But still, to Vinny Bologna’s dismay, there was no hearse rolling down Keefer Street. Ho’s hearse left Holy Rosary Cathedral and proceeded west on Dunsmuir Street, pulled a left onto Richards, and eventually made its way up to Mountain View Cemetery from there.

Who knew the chump was a Catholic?

On the day of the funeral, Vinny Bologna makes a special trip to Elga Coal’s parlour, walks in under the I won’t tell you you’re going to die sign, and says, what the hell? You promised me Tang Ho in a hearse going down Keefer Street. He didn’t even get close.

I never did, says Elga Coal. Be careful how you interpret what I say.

What’s that supposed to mean, Vinny Bologna says.

Sometimes, Elga says, with her glass eye looking right at him and her good eye looking out a window, two plus two equals Wednesday. And that’s it. She shuts up tighter than a nun in a navy yard, except she tells Bologna that he owes her $20. He pays but doesn’t tip.

Now it was well known, back then, where Vinny Bologna would be everyday at 1:00 p.m. — in Roco’s Café on Commercial Drive, having a head cheese sandwich and spinach salad. And oh man, Vinny loved his head cheese. He called it brain food, which I guess it was. And local head cheese wouldn’t do, no way. He had Roco bring it in from Chicago once a week. Vinny had him slice it thin and stack it high on a pane con le olive roll, smothered in fried onions and slathered in Keen’s Mustard. It was all washed down with several glasses of Barbera Barricato. And by the time 2:30 rolled around, Vinny Bologna was half cut, singing O Sole Mio and pinching Roco’s Mama’s ass.

Vinny’s cousin Antonio and his other cousin Sammy were his body guards, and they always sat in the same booth together, near the door, eating pasta, talking race horses and drinking espresso and Galvanina.

And so it was on New Year’s Day, 1943. Vinny paid Roco extra to stay open, especially for him, on all holidays except Christmas and Easter, just so he could get his favourite sandwich. The CBC radio news that day was all about Soviet troops encircling two German divisions in Stalingrad, and Vinny Bologna declared that it was the end of those Nazi pricks. He was sloppy drunk and held up a glass of wine, as Antonio and Sammy tucked into their gnocchi and linguine and consulted the Daily Racing Form. It was just your typical Friday on the Drive, until Molly Chang strode into Roco’s with two members of what was once Tang Ho’s Chinatown gang. She had evil in her eye, and a nickel plated .45 automatic in her hand.

Molly Chang was the daughter of Mother Chang, the owner of Mother Chang’s Mahjong Parlour on Pender Street before Vinny Bologna’s crew walked in with their Thompson submachine guns On Christmas Day 1940. And Molly was the lone survivor of that massacre, having played dead in a corner. Vinny, Antonio and Sammy sat still and stared back at her. Molly Chang had ’em cold. She stood on the café’s welcome mat, looked Vinny in the eye and said, you’re the dumb fucking wop who killed my mother, aren’t you? And Vinny Bologna shrugged like a wino in a three hundred dollar suit and a hand polished pair of Florsheim wing tips. I don’t know, he said, I gotta wax a lotta bums in this job.

So, Molly stepped aside and the two former members of Tang Ho’s gang stepped in and opened fire with their own Thompsons, being careful not to shoot Roco or his mamma. What a mess. Roco’s melancholy brother in law, Pasquale, worked until 3:00 a.m the next morning mopping up the place. And for months after, people were picking bits of Vinny Bologna’s heart, lungs and brains off the walls.

Roco sold the joint to a nice family from Parma two weeks later, and retied to his stamp collection and seven children. His mamma took to sitting on the porch of his Sixth Avenue home, chewing tobacco and knitting socks for Allied troops.

A week after the shooting, there was a big funeral for Vinny Bologna and his cousins at Holy Rosary Cathedral. The Rector was very pleased. Over the years, the church had cashed in big on the Vancouver gang wars. On his way to the Cathedral from the S.R. Bell Funeral Home, the driver of the hearse carrying Vinny’s body had to take a detour round a traffic accident at Main and Hastings. He was forced to turn left onto Main, right onto Keefer, through Chinatown, and then right again onto Abbott Street to get back onto Hastings. The S.R. Bell Funeral Home hearse had proudly carried Vinny Bologna down Keefer Street, as Elga Coal had almost predicted –

For, after all, as the sign over the entrance to her parlour read: I won’t tell you you’re going to die.

Eldorado

Vancouver in the eighties 

This is what happened.

Mildred Willard was nice enough, but a little flaky. We dated for a while back when. She had a little place above Falconi Restaurante at the corner of Commercial Drive and Second Avenue, and she kept it real nice. She drove this crazy old red Fiat from the fifties. I guess people were smaller then, because it had these two little midget seats and zero leg room. Which is kind of ironic, in light of her later automobile of choice.

Millie was a numbers girl, but with no university education. She was like one of those idiot savants, except she wasn’t no idiot. For her, every problem had a mathematical solution.

The made boys, who worked for Vancouver mob boss Malcolm Torrioni, down at Joe’s caught wind of this and wanted her to handicap for them. But she said no, that she wouldn’t work for a bunch of greasy men dressed in cheap track suits with switchblades down their pants, wearing way too much gold and bad cologne.

This pissed-off the boys at Joe’s something terrible, and they started going after her. They took baseball bats to her pretty little Fiat, and stole her mail. They told the merchants on the Drive not to sell her groceries, and they even swarmed her once as a way to intimidate her. But none of that worked. Millie was a brave girl, and the boys at Joe’s gave up. After a while, they were just sending out mobster wannabes to follow her and report back.

One day she came to me with this thing, like a theory she wanted to test out. She’d been thinking real quiet-like for a couple of months. I couldn’t even get her to go to the movies. I guess it all came out of what was happening with the made boys.

She said she’d figured out that every decent heist starts as an equation. That’s something people don’t get. The average mook on the street believes that every major caper is just a variant of some past caper that’s older than Jesus and His disciples. But a robbery that’s clean and true, one that takes the world by surprise with its elegance and appropriateness in time, is always based on an original and calculated manipulation of the mark’s surroundings and proclivities, and planning it requires a mathematical mind.

When it was discovered, it was found that the plan for the Vancouver Torrioni robbery was a string of complex calculus, written across the back of fourteen cocktail napkins, each one from a different Torrioni-owned barroom round town. The cops found them when they searched Millie’s apartment, after she’d split with all of the gold from the vault on Malcolm Torrioni’s estate.  A vault, by the way, that Millie never stepped foot in, and that was never cracked during the execution of the crime.

How could that be?

It took them three months to figure it out. A lot of the equation was about perception and control, the shuck and jive of the thing. But a lot of it also had to do with disparity and benefit, odds and handicapping, the reckoning of victim vulnerabilities.

They teach the Vancouver Torrioni plot in a lot of university business and physics classes now. Governments use variants of it to determine the outcomes of global conflicts, and to predict economic trends. Mildred Willard was a genius. They know she’s still working somewhere in the world. Her jobs always bear her signature. But they still haven’t caught up with her. She could be the Police Chief’s neighbour, but he’d only know it if she wanted him to.

Millie, however, was never the really interesting member of the Vancouver Torrioni crew. The guy who was really interesting was Sammy Davis. And, no, I don’t mean the Vegas lounge singer. I mean Samuel Roderick Mason Davis, or Sammy for short. Sammy Davis, who was white as Presbyterian snow, looked like a thirty-five year old boy scout, and was as vengeful, cruel and sadistic as a napalm soaked firecracker.

Sammy knew where his talents lay. He was all about logistics, and he was Millie’s leg man. Professionally, he never deviated form his role. If Millie needed a château in the French Alps or a 747 to pull something off, Sammy’d get it for her. Most people have no idea how much planning goes into a solid heist like the Vancouver Torrioni job. There’s always a huge investment in time and money. And though Millie was brilliant, it has to be said that she was a little disorganised. Think of Einstein’s hair and you’ll get the idea.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Vancouver Torrioni job – a job consisting of several remarkable aspects – was the Cadillacs. Sammy Davis was required to procure fifty identical 1973 Cadillac Eldorados, a car both distinctive and ubiquitous. Each one had to be painted in a flawless, gleaming factory coat of Shadow Taupe Firemist+(2550), have a pristine white vinyl top and 48-spoke Cadillac wheels with new, unblemished Vogue P235/70R15 Whitewall Tires. The interiors of each car had to be factory mint white leather, no after factory modifications and zero imperfections. Oh, and each one had to have a pair of those fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror, red ones, all the same make. And Sammy had to come up with fifty sets of identical Ontario license plates. Millie had a sense of humour.

It was calculated into Millie’s formula that Vincent Gardenia, Malcolm Torrioni’s valet, would call the cops immediately upon figuring out what was going on. You see, Malcolm Torrioni was in Switzerland at the time, having his blood transfused with that of a young German virgin named Gretchen. Torrioni did a lot of weird shit like that. But what interested Mildred Willard most was the three hundred pounds of gold bars he had in his personal vault, each one stamped with the Torrioni name. Torrioni was convinced that society was about to break down any second, and that gold would be the only thing that mattered when it did. He had more gold stashed round the city, of course. But Mildred Willard wasn’t greedy. She knew she’d be content with what was in the safe.

One of Vincent Gardenia’s daily tasks was checking the contents of the safe twice a day, once at 7:00 a.m. and once at 7:00 p.m. And it was when he checked the vault at 7:00 p.m. on May 28, 1982 that he discovered that the gold was gone. The story goes that the safe had never been opened, except by him, and the alarm had never been tripped. The gold had just disappeared. The only thing that had happened differently that day was that Sammy Davis had come by to drop off a delivery for Malcolm Torrioni, like he was a courier. It was a locked satchel containing something that Sammy described as important papers, for Torrioni’s eyes only.

Gardenia was later able to provide the police with a description of Sammy Davis, but it was the sort of description that the cops hate: six feet tall, Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes, thirty-five, no scars, no tattoos, no accent, dressed like an Amway salesman coming out of Walmart. The only thing Gardenia had to add was that Sammy had been driving a 70s vintage Cadillac Eldorado, sort of brownish, maybe dark beige. And the license plate number was GHD 776. He remembered the plate number out of habit. It was his job to keep an eye on things.

The Torrioni estate was situated on the high ground above Spanish Banks on the west side of the city, so the cops figured they’d have a pretty good chance at catching the thief as he drove through the city to get out of town.

But remember, Sammy had arranged for there to be fifty identical 1973 Cadillac Eldorados with the same license plates. Sammy showing up in one at the Torrioni estate was the shuck to one of Millie’s jives. They discovered later that the papers in the satchel Sammy delivered were back issues of Hustler Magazine.

Where was Mildred Willard while all of this was going on? She was on Malcolm Torrioni’s payroll, that’s where. And that’s because Malcolm Torrioni was a mob boss seeking redemption. He wanted to suffer for Christ so he’d be welcomed into the Kingdom of God when his degenerate life was over. One of the ways he did this was to hire Mildred Willard when she came to him. He knew how the Commercial Drive crew had been treating her, so he put the kibosh on that and he took her on as an employee. She falsely claimed to know about art, so he hired her as his Fine Art Consultant. Somewhere, he imagined, Jesus was smiling.

So, she’d been hired by Torrioni as an art consultant and buyer, and there was a Vermeer in Berlin that she’d been sent to scope out. In fact, there was no record of her being in Berlin during the robbery. She’d never boarded the plane at YVR, and had never shown up at the Grand Hyatt Berlin Hotel where she’d had reservations. In fact, by 7:15 a.m. on the day of the job, she was on a service road behind the estate, sitting in a lawn chair next a 1982 Chevy Van, reading chapter seven of OneHundred Years of Solitude. At 8:45 a.m., she was met by a private two ton maintenance vehicle, and the two man crew place several heavy packages into the back of the van. She gave them a lunch bag of tightly rolled hundred dollar bills, and she drove away.

So, back to Vincent Gardenia. He sees the gold is gone when he checks at 7:00 p.m., and pulls the alarm. The gates to the estate are closed and locked automatically, and the police are alerted. When the cops arrive and Gardenia tells them all he knows, they start searching for a Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, license plate number GHD 776. One is spotted in a back alley, near Hastings and Gore on the Downtown Eastside of the city. Cops arrive to check it out. The trunk is empty, and two cops are assigned to sit in a patrol car and wait for a tow truck.

As the two cops sit in their vehicle talking about how much they hate ABBA but love Pat Benatar, they see another Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, license plate number GHD 776, drive by. And as they call it in, another one goes by, and then another. The two cops are told to stay put, but all other patrol cars in the area are dispatched. By the time they’re able to start an organised search, however, the Caddies have disappeared. They could’ve have been anywhere.

The search proceeds and is expanded, and as a patrol car driven by one Corporal Gibson Iglehart crosses the Granville Street Bridge, northbound, a wave of approximately fifty Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorados, occupying both lanes, passes him by, southbound, on the other side of the partitioned bridge. Iglehart is incredulous, but calls it in. And when the parade of Eldorados reaches the south end of the Granville Street Bridge, it splits up with Caddies going off in every possible direction.

Nearly every police car in the city is redirected in search of the Cadillacs, and by 9:00 p.m. they’ve pulled forty-five of them over. Five were missing, one was with Sammy Davis and the other four were found parked without the drivers. They’d been driven by teenagers, no older than sixteen, each of them saying that he or she’d been given fifty bucks and a set of keys that morning. They’d been told where to find their respective vehicles, and been given instructions to assemble under the bridge on Pacific Street at 7:45 p.m. Each was to drive to a separate destination in the city, according to instructions taped to the dashboard. At 7:55 p.m., they were to drive over the bridge and proceed, each to his or her assigned destination.

The cops couldn’t arrest the kid drivers because of their age. When the kids were pumped for information, it was clear that the keys and instructions had been distributed by several different people. No two descriptions were the same.

So, it was mentioned earlier in the story that Sammy Davis was as vengeful, cruel and sadistic as a napalm soaked firecracker. And that’s true, and here’s why. While the Vancouver Police Department was dealing with a major robbery and fifty identical Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorados driving round the city, each with the license plate number GHD 776, Sammy Davis was boarding a flight to Lucerne, Switzerland. That’s where Malcolm Torrioni was scheduled to have his blood transfused with that of young German virgin named Gretchen, in the Burkhalter Clinic Resort near the lake.

Upon arrival, Sammy checked into the resort and started handing the cash. He was bribing his way into the backrooms of the place, and into the hearts and souls of the medical staff.

On his way to the Burkhalter Clinic Resort, he’d picked up a suitcase as prearranged, and it was one of three taken to his room by a bellboy. The suitcase contained several litres of fresh blood taken from a methamphetamine addict in Munich the day before.

It turns out that Samuel Roderick Mason Davis was once a rentboy who made his scene in several gay bars in Vancouver’s downtown. Malcolm Torrioni had been a customer, but a customer with a difference. It sort of went like this, Malcolm Torrioni had needs but was ashamed of what they were. And so, he sought to punish someone for them – anyone, of course, but himself. So Malcolm arranged to get Sammy addicted to meth, as a weird sort of revenge, and to control the boy who represented, in Torrioni’s philosophy, all that was wrong with the world.

When Torrioni witnessed what a mess he’d made out of the kid, he dropped him like a gas station toilet seat. When young Sammy Davis tracked Torrioni down to ask for some compensation, Torrioni had his thumbs broken.

So, now Sammy was in the transfusion room of Burkhalter Clinic Resort in Lucerne, Switzerland, masked and hooking up the transfusion bottles containing the blood of an unfortunate Munich methamphetamine addict named Heinricht Mueller. Meanwhile, both of Torrioni’s body guards were being driven, in the plastic lined trunk of a Mercedes, to a remote section of the lake shore to be disposed of with bullet wounds to their heads and chests.

“Everything will be fine, Mr Torrioni,” Sammy said in a fake Swiss accent, showing Torrioni smiling eyes.

The paid-off nurse in the room made eye contact surreptitiously with Sammy as she found the veins and inserted the intravenous needles. After the transfusion, Malcolm Torrioni was sedated and released to man posing as a private nurse, and driven to a walk-up flat on the fringe of the city. There he spent several weeks starving and being introduced to the joys of methamphetamine addiction. Then he was driven back into the city wearing nothing but a woman’s dress, and kicked out of the car that drove him there at a traffic circle in the middle of the business district.

I got a postcard from Mildred Willard a couple of months ago. I guess that’s why I’m taking this trip down memory lane. It’d been sent from somewhere in the world via a re-mailer in Illinois. She said the weather was fine, wherever she was. And that I should watch the mail. So, I watched the mail. But nothing unusual came until a month later, a Fedex parcel with no return address. It was heavy. It was a Torrioni gold bar with Torrioni stamp. It’s sitting on mantelpiece over the fire, gives the room a nice glow it never had before. I wonder, sometimes, what to do with it. But then work or something else comes up and I forget. It’d be nice to Millie again.

the bitter and little known history of Nora Rabinowitz’s shopping cart

So, there was this guy I knew in Toronto. His name was Harold. He had this used clothing store but he called the merchandise vintage. It made him rich and I know why. He’d buy a dress from me for like $3 and I’d go in there the very next day and he’d have it on a rack for $25. Think that’s fair? And all these little chickies would come and pay full price because it was all vintage, get it?

Then there was this one time I brought in this gorgeous little Halston number. Very glam. But I’d gained a little weight, you know. When it was new off of the rack, it cost $500. When I bring it in to Harold, he doesn’t want to pay. He wants me to trade.

“Take some shoes,” he says. Like I needed shoes.

“No way,” I say. “Gimme $50.”

“There’s some nice bed jackets just come in,” he says.

“Bed jackets,” I says. “I look like Joan Crawford to you?”

“Take a nice synthetic alpaca sweater.”

“No way,” I says. “$50.”

So he gives me $35 and acts like I’m cutting him with a blunt knife. But wait, it gets worse.

I go in there the next day, and he’s selling the Halston to this drag queen – to a drag queen! Not that I got nothing against drag queens but I knew this little twerp. He wasn’t from the neighbourhood. Wasn’t even a performer. Just hung around in bars dressed like a woman. Now he was going to hang around in bars wearing my little Halston number. And he paid Harold $150. I could’ve puked!

But Harold got his in the end, and I’ll tell you how.

He takes some of the obscene profits from the store and buys himself a little vacation in the Bahamas. Gets a hotel on the beach in Nassau. He even buys some cheesy Hawaiian shirts and a Tilley hat for his big fat bald head. What a picture; I mean he looked like a porky Hunter S. Thompson.

On the first night there, though, he gets into it with a bartender. I mean, who gets into a fight in the Bahamas? But he calls this big bruiser of a guy out because he tried to charge Harold a little extra for a beer.  Didn’t ask to see a manager, just went all primitive. Out in the alley, the bartender clobbers him. Now Harold has a bleeding nose, he’s lying in a greasy puddle and he’s crying like a baby. The bartender heads back inside, and Harold goes back to his hotel room. And this is where the story gets a little sad, depending on your point of view.

Because it’s the tropics and he’s got a bleeding nose, Harold gets this weird tropical infection. Within 24 hours he’s gone completely septic. The Canadian Consulate arranges to fly him home pronto where he can get the specialised care he needs. Off he goes like an expedited parcel.

But when he gets to Toronto, guess what. All the specialists in Canada in that field of medicine are in Nassau at a convention. Can you beat that? So Harold lays in the ICU for 10 more hours, then dies.

That’s what you get when you sell my little Halston dress to a drag queen, huh!

So, what was an old homeless broad like me doing with a Halston dress? Things weren’t always like this, you know. I was somebody once. But being somebody’s a lot of hard work and I decided to let up on myself. I still enjoy the finer things, though. Take this shopping cart. Just look at it. Damn fine buggy, eh. Full sized Safeway job. Heavy gage chrome mesh, high profile hard rubber wheels. Made in Ontario, Canada. None of this made in China shit.

First it belonged to Cranky Natalie Chalmers who used to fish the bins in the west end. She walked outta the Robson Street Safeway with it one day, full of groceries she never paid for. Cranky Natalie was a binner goddess. A real hard worker. She could yank a cart full of bottles and cans and get ‘em to the depot sometimes twice a day. But it didn’t work out so well for her. They found her one morning in January, dead and half frozen in Stanley Park. She’d been living there round Beaver Lake for weeks while the weather was warm, the way it can be in Vancouver in the winter. But then a cold front came in and she’d been boozin’ it up. She froze up like a Swanson TV dinner. And while they were hoisting what was left of her into an ambulance, a guy named Abdul Musa hoisted the cart.

Abdul was a binner in the east end – he’d been visiting the park that day to hunt geese. He was one of those poor bastards they’d kicked outta Riverview Hospital in the nineties ‘cause it’s cheaper to let mental patients die on the street. Abdul heard voices and saw shit no one should ever have to hear or see. He’d yell back and swing his fists like a heavy weight at shit that just wasn’t there. Wouldn’t take his meds, neither. Said that they made him too susceptible to inelegant Venus Omega Rays, whatever the hell those are. Abdul only used the cart for a few months. Then he overdosed on what he thought was some heroin his girlfriend had given him. Who knows what it really was. They didn’t find his body for a week ‘cause he was camped out near the Terminal Avenue rail yard. But by then a guy by the name of Whitey Kurtz had taken the cart back west, into the downtown.

Whitey poked around with the cart for empties for a few months until he was hit by a drunken derivatives salesman in a Range Rover as he jaywalked across Georgia Street at 2.00 a.m. The salesman fled the scene but was arrested a couple of days later because it never occurred to him to open the hood and wipe Whitey’s blood off of the radiator. Dumb shit.

Then Guido Niño had the cart for about two years before he got stabbed with a Phillips screwdriver in a payday bar room brawl with a mechanic.

After that, this guy named Aboriginal Joe got the cart. You know, Romanian Aboriginal Joe. Not the other Aboriginal Joe. Romanian Aboriginal Joe was in a dumpster one day when it got dumped into the back of a Smithrite. He got compressed with all of the garbage of course, but that didn’t kill him. It was when they dumped it all out and this big caterpillar tractor comes along. Joe’s digging his way out of the garbage, and sticks his head out just in time for the tractor to come along and squash him like a bug. Anyway, Romanian Aboriginal Joe left the cart next to the bin he’d been digging through, and Bitsy Chang got it.

Bitsy eventually inherited about a trillion dollars from some venerable old Hong Kong relative and gave up dumpster diving. But she hung onto the cart for old time’s sake, until she had a massive stroke and kicked it. When they found her, they discovered she’d been hoarding for years. Her ten million dollar west side house was full of bottles, cans, car tires, iPhones, toilets, sinks, mattresses, mannequins, patio sets, old televisions, typewriters, five gallon buckets full of spare change, Christian tracts on the Apocalypse, Betamax machines, Happy Meal toys, ottomans and hundreds of unopened boxes of Tetley Tea.

They put the cart out to get picked up, and some kids used it to race down hill. That’s how it wound up in the FraserRiver. One of the kids fell out of the cart when it hit the river and was never found. Guess the little darlin’ is sleepin’ with the fishes.

The cart didn’t get rescued from the Fraser for a couple of years. Not until Norman Affleck saw it at low tide, and fished it out. He spent days cleaning it up. He even attached a couple of rear view mirrors and some of them bicycle streamers. Real festive, like. He was binning around Commercial Drive when a bunch of nogoodnicks took him for queer – bicycle streamers and all – like that makes a damn bit of difference, and beat him to death. That’s when Roscoe Rousseau snapped it up from behind the burrito shop where they’d waxed Norman.

Roscoe removed all of Norman Affleck’s finery and used the cart mostly to contain all of his worldly possessions. He kept a ghetto blaster in the drop down kiddie seat and played Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty full blast all over town. He passed it on to me when he found out that a detox bed had opened up for him at some Christian-run recovery joint up the valley. He was gonna get Jesus, clean up and go straight, he said. Until the night before he was supposed to leave for treatment, that is. That’s when he got iced by Davie Stone, who had known Guido Niño and thought it might’ve been Roscoe Rousseau who had stabbed him with a Phillips screwdriver in the payday bar room brawl. Davie settled Roscoe’s hash with a Louisville Slugger TPX Triton baseball bat in the parking lot behind the Army & Navy. Course it wasn’t Roscoe Rousseau who stabbed Guido Niño at all and Davie Stone’s doing a twenty year stretch at Ferndale for killing the wrong man.

And now the cart’s mine. Has been for three years. I figure, with a reputation like that, I don’t gotta worry about it getting boosted.

the contortionists’ manifesto

There is no justice for the contortionist.

Sam Lytle was an old contortionist. He sat back and looked at the line he’d just written on a white paper napkin.

“I was an artist,” he moaned to acquaintances at the corner café. “An artist worthy of veneration.”

“Even the Gods struggle for veneration, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh, the letter carrier sitting next to Sam.

“The Lytle Dislocated Backbend – that was mine! I created it. I perfected it. I performed it exclusively. Those who understand contortion comprehend the move’s complexity, its extreme difficulty. Audiences marvelled. Many tried to imitate it, but no one else ever pulled it off. Only me.”

“Would you like a refill, Sam?” Millie the deadpan waitress asked. “Would you like to order something off the menu?”

“We are sadly bereft of contortionists in Canada,” Pradosh said. “In India, there is a contortionist on every corner – sometimes two or three. It is like a national past time. That and religious rivalry.”

“Nothing off the menu, Millie,” Said Sam Lytle. “Retirement has been thrust upon me, and retirement is a world of cruel poverty. Coffee will be my only nourishment today.”

“Lunch rush soon,” said Millie. “If it gets busy, you’ll have to give up your seat.”

“Perhaps you need a protégé,” said Pradosh. “A youngster, one to whom you can pass the secrets of your art.”

“Bah!” said Sam Lytle. “A dimwitted generation of hipsters that believes it discovered facial hair and irony the way previous more industrious generations discovered gravity, spaceflight and insulin. How could a single one of them realise the divine possibilities of their potential double jointedness. I’d have as much luck passing my art on to a house cat.”

“I am sad to hear it, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh. “There is much to be said about passing on one’s experience and knowledge. But alas, I have the rest of my route to complete. I must be going.”

“Yes, go. And leave me to the mercies of Millie the waitress who would cast me out for the sake of a truck driver and his cheese burger.”

“Cheese burgers pay the rent,” Millie said. “Coffee don’t.”

“Then I shall cast myself out now,” said Sam Lytle. “Before facing the public humiliation of being tossed by the cantankerous waitstaff.”

He took his white paper napkin, upon which he had written the first line of his Contortionists’ Manifesto, and stuffed it into his pocket.

It was a cold December day. He pulled up his collar and walked along Commercial Drive with all of its retail evangelism, a naturally gaunt man with a tendency to look down at his feet as he walked. Many in the neighbourhood believed him slightly crazed and perpetually destitute. He liked the idea. It created a dignified distance.

The contortionist is a solitary being, disconnected from the incommodious and the pedestrian. Isolation is the contortionist’s lot, and he stoically endures. His art being his sole companion.

Yes, he thought. That’s rather good. I must remember it and write it down.

The light at Commercial and First was red. He stopped and waited.

“Spare change for food, man?”

Sam looked up from his feet and saw an old woman with her hand out. She had the face of one who’d lived hard for too long. She wore two ragged winter coats against the cold and was carrying a tattered overstuffed gym bag.

“No,” he said. “You’ll buy drugs.”

“I ain’t no addict,” she said. “I’m too damn old for that. I’m hungry.”

“Then go downtown and stand in a soup line.”

“Need bus fare to get downtown,” the old woman said.

“Walk. What else have you got to do today?” The light changed to green and Sam stepped off the curb. The old woman followed.

“It’s a long way to walk on an empty belly, mister.”

“Life is hard,” Sam replied.

“Hey, man. Don’t be a dick. Share the wealth.”

Sam faced the panhandling old woman on the opposite corner and said, “You’ve chosen to harass the wrong man, my friend. I do not take well to being called a dick, and I have no wealth to share. I’m one pension cheque away from being right where you are now.” He turned to make his escape.

“Wait, man. I just need five bucks. I can eat pretty good on that.”

“Five dollars?” Sam pulled a puzzled face. “Is there that much money in the whole world?”

“Oh wow, man. You’re a bummer.”

“Am I getting you down, ma’am? Perhaps then you should move on and pester some more gullible citizen.”

“Okay three bucks.”

“Look, what happened to spare change? That’s what you asked for originally when you first accosted me. Spare change can be anything from a few pennies on up, no?”

“Okay two bucks.”

“No,” said Sam Lytle and he began to walk away.

“I can touch the back of my head with the flat of my foot. That’s gotta be worth two bucks.”

Sam Lytle stopped and paused a moment when he heard this. “Standing up or lying down?” he said.

“Standing,” said the old woman.

“Supported or standing free?’

“Standing free.”

“That’s a difficult move,” Sam Lytle said turning round to face the old woman. “Especially for an old gal like you. Are you a contortionist?”

“Nah. It’s yoga, man.”

“Well, I don’t pay to watch yoga,” said Sam Lytle turning again to go. “I can watch it for free at the community centre.”

“Wait. Yeah, man. Wait. I am a contortionist. Damn right I am. I contort all the time. I’m crazy for contortion.”

Sam Lytle paused once more and sighed. Then he pulled some coins out of his pocket and inspected them. “I have two dollars and eighty-five cents in my hand. It can be yours, if you are able to accomplish the move you just describe. Do you need to stretch first?”

“No, man. I’m loosey goosey. I’m steady and ready.”

“Then proceed,” said Sam Lytle assuming ahead of time that the old woman would fail.

The corner of Commercial Drive and First Avenue was busy that afternoon. A throng of shoppers and heavy vehicular traffic. An ample audience for a show. The old panhandler elevated her leg behind her and raised her arms over her head. Then she reached back, arching her back to what seemed an impossible extent and grabbed her foot. She pulled it then in a smooth and measured way to the back of her head where it landed flat. She held the pose then released. The whole move took only a few seconds to accomplish, and was completed with the grace and fluidity of a limber adolescent. But Sam Lytle could see now that the woman must have been over seventy.

“That was astounding,” he said.

A crowd had gathered and it applauded in appreciation. Now in a standing pose, the old woman was receiving handouts of change and small groceries from the spectators. She stuffed her pockets.

“You owe me two eighty-five, Buster,” she said to Sam Lytle.

Sam Lytle handed over the money. “What else can you do?” he said.

“What else? Well, I can head over to the greasy-spoon ‘cross the street and eat for the first time in two days.”

“But there must be more,” Sam Lytle said. “You’re obviously a master.”

“I ain’t nothin’ but a bum, mister. Have been for more ‘an thirty years. All this appreciation is real nice but in a minute it’ll be over an’ no one likes an old woman who’s a bum. So, I gotta go.”

She hoisted her overstuffed gym bag and waited for a green light. When it came, she evaporated into the crowd.

Sam Lytle shook his head. What other miracles were possible on a busy street corner in December? He took the café napkin and a pen out of his pocket and wrote.

The contortionist is pure and righteous in any guise. And in any guise holds within him or her the exclusive and essential mysticism required to attain divinity.

He liked that.

how to tie your shoes

we were the poor kids
black and white
spooky on Kodak paper
our bodies fixed and angled
our eyes engines of impulse
the child algorithms
of our prejudiced neighbourhood

our clocks ticked then
stupidly the time
and we studied
its three hundred and sixty degree passing
the radio active glow
isotopes like bullets
to our innocent nightmare minds

we were the future of violence and escape
legend and Harley headlines
handguns without knowing it
doing what was expected
of boys and learning to tie our shoes