lost ironies

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Tag: Drugs

Never hold a gun on a woman

the 2nd in the .38 trilogy
read The Retired Private Eye here

1973.

We were all sitting in the dining hall watching Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite—live on TV, drinking coffee and smoking cheap cigarettes. Elvis had walked out on the stage with a crown in his hand, he was the King after all, dressed in a white bejeweled suit. A bit much. I wasn’t an Elvis fan, but it was a distraction from the routine. I found myself, nonetheless, thinking about how I got there. I did that a lot. Life wasn’t fair.

I’d been living in a cold colourless third floor room, with a sock in a hole in a windowpane and a pile of explosives on the floor next to my bedroll.

Vaillancourt, a friend from back on the way, didn’t object to visiting such squalor. Not completely, since this was a recruiting call. He’d asked me to work for him many times before, retailing methamphetamine etc. on a nearby corner. I could live well, he told me, on what I earned, provided I didn’t get hooked. (Secretly, I knew that he liked his street dealers hooked. It made them loyal, until they got too messed up, at which point he’d have them disappeared.)

“So you wanna live like an artist,” he said when he saw the place, “is that it? Like van Gogh during his hard times? Can you even paint write or compose music? I don’t think you can. You’re just a pretender, aren’t you, but I bet the chicks love it. It’s just some pretentious dedication to poverty, right? Suddenly you don’t like money, is that it?”

Maybe it was. But it was the cops and some closet case of a Judge, named Harold T Swallows—swear to God—that put my fencing business to bed, leaving me without a source of income.

After my court ordered detox, my parole officer suggested that I consider a career in fast food. I said I’d give it some thought, and for my next appointment, I shaved off my beard to reveal the colourful grinning anaconda tattoo that slinked from one jaw, over my chin, to the other (a speedball induced error in judgment on my part). Never again did the PO bring up the topic of fast food.

“I’m transitioning,” I told Vaillancourt, “ever since I got clean and started twelve step, NA and AA, baby. My life’s become fluid, like a dream. I’ve become a changing sea of change—” an awkward phrase, I knew. Even I cringed when I heard myself say it, but I’d yet to come up with something better. I thought I’d try improving on it when the tide came in on my serpent-infested sea of changingness.

Vaillancourt made no secret of it, as he considered the sock in the hole in the windowpane, then looking down at the box of C4 on my floor. “Bomb-vests and bank jobs don’t mix,” he said.

He broached the subject again a few days later in a bar down the street, telling me to, “Use a gun.”  That was his advice. “A bank robbery wants a gun. Better yet, get a damn job and forget the whole thing. You’re gonna fuck up this bank job you’re all excited about. Come work for me, seriously. I’ll move you up faster than any other loser I’ve got out in the field.” (in the field. Jeez. He always talked about dealing drugs like it was legit.) “You’ll be in distribution in no time, then accounts and acquisitions, cost benefits analysis—you can add and talk on the phone, right?

“You may be hungry now,” he said, “but you’re not angry or nasty enough to rob a bank. Not yet, anyway. In the end, with that bomb you’re talking about, it’ll just be body parts and dinero falling like autumn leaves. Just think of the moms and dads not taking the bus home after work. All the leggy lady tellers never leggin’ it nowheres ever again. You want that on your conscience? And you’ll be bug splat a second after you flip the switch.

“It’s the street that’s in yer blood, man. Look to accumulate your wealth and status slowly, over time. You could be big one day, with my help. You could go into business for yourself. I’d have to kill you if you did, of course, but that’s way off in the future. Don’t think about that. For now, just come over and work with me.”

Then he leaned in, across the bar table, and said the words I knew would stick with me for the rest of my life, no matter how short it was. He said, “You’re an aesthetic, Arlo.” He grinned warmly when he said it. Like I’d never seen him before. Vaillancourt was a killer, and liked to get kids hooked on coke and heroin, or whatever his trolls could sell at schoolyards and out front of the 7-11. But suddenly, he was like the camp counsellor a kid gets a sweaty juvenile homoerotic crush on—a crush that makes the kid wonder if checking his pals’ junk in the gym shower ain’t so wrong, after all. (Fortunately, I got over that.) “You may not be an artist, but you’re willing to sacrifice for art’s sake. You’ve proved it by going sort of straight. That roach motel yer living in proves it. Are you seeing what I mean? You ain’t no bank robber. You can’t flip the switch on a bomb-vest.”

An aesthetic, he’d said. It wasn’t a jab, either. But who said anything about flipping a switch?

“I don’t want to flip no switch, man,” I said. “Why even say that? You’re gonna jinx it.”

“I’m saying it because, and you keep this to yourself or I’ll cut your thumbs off with a pair of poultry shears, I’ve done a bank job or two myself. It’s how I set myself up in my current profession, and what I know from my experience is that you can’t go in assuming you know what’s going to happen, except that there’ll be chaos. Sometimes it’s a quiet subtle chaos, just between you and the person across the counter, other times it’s a violent kinda chaos, screams and crying, the gnashing of teeth, with the sound of sirens in the background. And when it gets like that, you want everyone to see that you’re serious, that you really will shoot someone if everyone doesn’t just shut the hell up. Except in your case, you’re gonna flip the switch.”

“No,” I said, wondering if he was right. “I only want some respect when I stand  there in the middle of the bank and shout holdup. I don’t get any respect no more, not like back when I was the man with the bones to buy all the hot swag and sell it at a big profit, and loan out money at outrageous interest rates. This job’s gonna be my Renaissance. My AA sponsor says gaining respect is an important element of my sobriety, and I got my three-month chip the other day. I don’t wanna blow it.”

 Vaillancourt looked at the beer in my hand.

“Beer just takes the edge off,” I said to his shady gaze. “You ain’t got no idea what it’s like going dry and clean all at once. Besides, it’s just the arm motion I miss, mostly. A guy misses bending his arm at the elbow, bringing the glass up to his lips and taking a swig. And when a fella’s bending and swigging, it’s beer he wants.” I raised my glass in a false salute and took a gulp, the end of my seventh pint. “See what I mean?” I said. Then I chanced paraphrasing something I’d read somewhere, “The elbow thing, it’s sort of an embedded physical behaviour. It’s psychological.”

Vaillancourt finally blinked, and I got up to go to the men’s room. He followed me moments later, and stood farting fruitilly at the urinal next to me. Then, after shaking off, he followed me to the sink (yeah, I washed my hands) where he looked back at me in the mirror. Then, pulling a gun out of his jacket pocket, he slid it to me across the wet countertop.

As a responsible Canadian, I was conditioned to be suspicious of guns. This one, though, made me shiver. It was an obvious hand-me-down of indeterminate age. Blunt, black and mute in the dim yellow cast of the only functioning lightbulb. It held no opinions on its intended function or its place in the world; it didn’t care. No eyes to see, ears to hear, no soul to take.  No court could convict it; it was a lethal innocent.

“Pick it up,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s loaded, so be careful.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Don’t be an ass,” he hissed, grabbing my wrist and forcing it into my hand. “You hold it like this.” He used his right hand to show me, index finger and thumb. “Your arm out straight, no bending at the elbow. Both eyes open.” I did it. “It’s part of you now, get it? Your blood’s pumping through it. In the bank you walk up to a teller. Choose a man. Men are cowards. Women aren’t. Never hold a gun on a woman unless you’ve already made up your mind to shoot. She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb, otherwise, and that’s not the point of using a gun. And when you aim that roscoe at the guy, you hold it so close to his face he can taste the gun oil.”

Suddenly, I was facing my armed and dangerous self in the men’s room mirror. I was a domestic terrorist, a bag of monster meat.

“Then you cock it,” he said. “You don’t actually have to, of course. It’ll fire fine either way. Cocking a revolver used to be something only pussies did, but it’s what people expect now days. So you cock it, hear me?”

I heard a stony click as I thumbed the hammer down into place.

“And now that it’s cocked, you shout—you shriek it like a motherfucking freak of nature—give me the fucking money! DO IT.”

“Do what?”

“Do it, now.” He slapped the back of my head. “Say it.”

Give me the fucking money now,” I yelled.

The bartender opened the door and looked in.

“Fuck off, Morrie,” Vaillancourt said. Morrie gave a short wave and vanished.

“More,” said Vaillancourt. “Louder. Crazier.”

Give me the fucking money now.”

“Don’t be a bitch,” he said. “Do it again.”

This time I took a deep breath, like they taught in the Sunday school choir when I was a kid, and let loose with my diaphragm—“Give me the fucking money now.”

“That’s better, but try looking crazy when you say it.”

“Crazy?” Another slap to the back of my head.

“Tilt your head like this,” he said, tilting his head ever so slightly in the bathroom mirror.

I did the same.

“Then do this shit with your eyes,” he said. “It’s all in the eyes, and the face follows the eyes. See, like this.”

But I couldn’t copy it. All I could do was stare at his reflection. Just knowing that he was a sociopathic street dealer capable of murder hadn’t prepared me for what I was seeing.

“What’s the matter,” Vaillancourt said.

“That’s fucked up, man.”

“What?” His face had softened.

“Your crazy-look,” I said. “You’re Satan.”

“Nah. I know Satan. I ain’t even close. I’m just doing this to show you that, if you’ve really gotta rob a bank, there are easier ways than a bomb-vest. A hold-up’s all show, I’ll give you that, but a guy can go overboard. Small is large. Remember that. It’s all about art. Be an artist. Now un-cock the revolver, and put it in yer pocket. Take it home. Get used to it, but don’t play with it. Put it where you can see it. Meditate on it. Count your breaths. Empty your mind of everything but it. There’s beauty in its costume of night.”

“Its costume of night?”

“I told you, it’s art. Your chance to be the artist. And just so you know, it’s a .38.”

A .38. My hand was on it in my pocket. I was already counting my breaths. Surely there weren’t many left. I’d become a contradiction: a Canadian, packing.

When I got home that night, I placed the revolver on the table by the window with the sock in the hole in the windowpane. Small, I thought, looking at it. Then I looked down at the makings of the bomb-vest on the floor. Large.

It came to me then; the vest was just an absurd symbol of my lazy rage, comic and sad. Vaillancourt said that I wasn’t angry enough to rob a bank, but maybe I just wasn’t angry enough to do it wearing a bomb.

I picked up the gun again, and found its shape had changed. It fit my hand differently than before. Now it felt like it belonged there. It wasn’t blunt. It was elegant. Straightening my arm out before me, I cocked it and whispered, “Give me the fucking money now.” Then I shouted it, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.” My blood was pulsing through the weapon. It was part of me.

The next day I took the bus downtown to the Fidelity Credential Bank of Canada, walking in shortly after opening. I’d been planning to rob it for months, attracted by its interior neoclassical revival features, the kind of architectural features that made it a bank any man would be proud to rob.

Before entering, I put on a baseball cap and sunglasses. I had re-grown my beard to cover my anaconda tattoo.

Once inside, I stood a moment taking in the scene. It was busy. There was a line up, and that didn’t seem right. After all, should I, the guy with the gun, have to stand in line to rob a bank? Vaillancourt hadn’t mentioned this. And as I glumly took my place in the queue and pondered the unfairness of it, something else became unpleasantly obvious. There were no male tellers, just three women, each wearing cat’s-eye glasses, each with a matronly blue rinse, each looking like somebody’s grandmother.

Never hold a gun on a woman, Vaillancourt had said. Or on someone’s granny, I quickly added.

But Vaillancourt also said that this was art, and I was an aesthetic. Pondering further, I realised I had no choice. I had to proceed, for art’s sake. And fuck lining up to do it. I pulled the revolver from my pocket and pushed ahead, to the sound of shouts and slurs coming from the customers in line.

Arriving at the counter, I took off my sunglasses and quickly chose the teller I thought most likely to fold under the weight of the horror I was about to bring down on her, a sad and timid looking crone with bright red lipstick, the lipstick obviously constituting a mask behind which she hid from the world. Her name badge read Daphne.

Stepping up, and cocking the gun, I thrust its muzzle so close to her face she could taste the gun oil, maybe. How could I know for sure? Then tilting my head a little to the side and putting on my most depraved crazy-face, I yelled, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.”

A heinous spell had been cast. I was a gun-toting demon now, at the height of his demonic game, the peak of his season. What else could she do but stand transfixed by my absolute evil and hand over the cash. “DO IT,” I shouted, tilting my head the other way now ever so, squinting wickedly and letting my face follow my eyes.

That was when Daphne folded her hands on the cool marble counter, pursed her red lips and said, “You’re not gonna use that gun, junior. I’ve been robbed before. You’re not the type.”

What the fuck?

“THE MONEY,” I hollered, using my diaphragm. Stepping back I swung my aim back and forth, including all three tellers. All three looking at one another, shaking their heads.

“Just someone’s little boy,” one of them said. Rachel, her name badge read.

“Well, shouldn’t we give him just a little,” said the third of the three, her name badge reading, Vanesa. “Maybe something for lunch and bus fare home.”

She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb…. Was this what Vaillancourt meant? I looked over my shoulder. The bank patrons were watching. “I’ve got an appointment,” said a fat man in badly fitted suit. “You wanna hustle this up?”

“Look,” I said, turning back to face Daphne. Now I was confiding, wondering how it had come to this. “This is really important to me. A friend of mine says I’ll fuck….”

“Language!” said Vanesa, holding up her index finger.

Screw this up,” I said, “and I’ve been planning this for months.” I pulled a laundry bag out of my coat pocket and handed it to Daphne. “Just fill the bag. Put what you think’s a reasonable amount in it. Then I’ll go. I was going to use a bomb-vest, you know?”

“Oh, that wouldn’t have worked,” said Daphne. “What if it went off? You’d have just made a mess.”

Now Vanesa was rummaging through her handbag, and said, “Look,” holding up a fiver. “The cafe up the street has a very nice lunch special. $2.99. Includes coffee. It’s usually quite good, isn’t it, girls?”

Daphne and Rachel nodded enthusiastically.

“And you’ll have some change left over if you don’t over tip,” said Rachel.

Vanesa handed the five-dollar bill to Rachel, who handed it to Daphne, who, smiling warmly, held it out to give to me.

“I just want some respect,” I said.

“Give some and get some,” said Rachel, primly.

I stared at the five for a moment. Then I said, “Fine,” and took it.

But then Vanesa said, “Oh dear, I think I hear a siren.”

She was right, we all heard it.

“Now you’re in for it,” said the fat man.

“But he’s not really a bad person,” said a woman with a child at her side.

“I think he’s bad,” the kid said. “I hope they give him the chair.”

“You should go,” Rachel said to me. “And let this be a lesson to you.”

I and my revolver had been defeated by three women with blue hair.

 * * * * *

All of the inmates, including me, cheered at the end of the televised Elvis concert, as the voice of the prison guards’ Shift Supervisor came over the loudspeaker telling us to return to our cells.

 

 

 

 

 

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China-girl

The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending, a sign said, and there was an arrow pointing up toward a platform bathed in light, from which the ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither Abigale nor Loomis were ascenders. Loomis turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the light.

“This isn’t what you said,” said Abigale, fingering two tiny, but bulging, plastic envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said that this was just a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high.”

“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” Loomis said. “It was just bedbugs and bare lightbulbs.” He peeked through his fingers into the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”

The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen happier days in the age of zeppelins and flappers. The grand marble staircase had always been one of its best features, but now it had undergone a bizarre change and the rough couple stood in the ramshackle lobby made golden by it. Behind them were the bevelled glass doors that led out into rainy midnight.

“Well,” said Abigale, her voice rising, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, then trip all night in a back alley. You said you had a place. That’s why I came.”

“I do—I did—it’s on the third floor.”

“Then let’s take the elevator.”

“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in. We’ll have to take the stairs.”

“I ain’t going up there.”

Then they heard a ding. “What the fuck?”

Abigale grabbed Loomis by his collar and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When they slid open, the two of them saw a tall woman in a dark blue uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her smartly done-up hair was black. Her lips, the colour of a bullet wound. The inside of the elevator had been transformed from its former ruined state into a plush chamber of oak and brass.

“Will that be down?” she said.

“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis held her back.

An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.

“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.

“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before and this elevator’s been busted since I arrived over a year ago.”

“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”

“Up,” Abigale said again.

“There is no up.”

“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.

“Nope,” said the operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled like a reptile.

“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.

“Then take the stairs, if you like.”

“But the stairs lead up into some kind of blinding nothingness.” Loomis couldn’t believe what he’d just said.

“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her tongue.

“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” Abigale said. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chance to reboot, and then come back in.”

“Won’t make a bit of difference.” The operator blew smoke out of her nostrils, dragonishly. “I’ll still be here when you come back.”

“And the staircase, too?” said Loomis.

“Yes sir.”

“What’s this all about?”

“It’s about the smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or in your case, the China-girl.”

Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.

“Where is it?” She gasped.

“Gone,” the elevator operator said. “It’s so so gone and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little confused. Fentanyl’s some lethal shit.”

“I….” Loomis looked lost.

The operator said, “You don’t get it, right?”

Abigale stiffened suddenly. In an inner room somewhere in her head the movie of her life began threading through a projector, and onto a screen. Child abuse, the pain of blows. Penniless Christmases. The desert of her empty belly, a razor blade pain, the pale watercolour hurt of hunger. An abandoned little girl shivering in the cold and gloom of an empty house. Rape, dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers. Hateful parents. Alienation. Running until there was nowhere else to go. Men with fists. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street. A show for all of the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, the anguish and the filth. Finally, her gaunt colourless face in a mirror.

She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she’d tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.

But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. There was a spent syringe there. She watched it drop out of her vein onto the floor. Blood ran down her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm and saw the same thing; he swatted it away like a fly.

“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”

When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”

Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.

“So it’s you or the mysterious staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes.”

The operator smoked, and tapped a finger impatiently on her knee.

“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”

“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me, so to speak. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps—yada yada—no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”

“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.

“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there.”

For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button: No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.

“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along.

The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.

They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.

“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.

 

 

 

 

 

then, in the town of Asylum

Someone with bigger gonads than me, and half the IQ, had recommended the place. He said it was good hunting country, plenty of deer. And killing a deer was unquestionably on my to-do list. I figured every man should kill at least one defenceless, big eyed animal in his life. And not with his car. Hunting propelled whole economies, and brought a guy closer to the downward swirling vortex of creation. He should bathe in the blood of his prey beneath the moon, and then have it skinned, butchered and wrapped by a FOODSAFE accredited professional. That was modern masculinity, baby.

It was unincorporated, which meant it wasn’t even on the map. Just a small coastal population of genetically compromised cousins, and the church that had married them. I knew the moment I arrived that this was the place the zombie Elvis apocalypse would begin. I hoped to be gone by then, though. I was only there to kill a deer, and get the hell out.

I arrived by floatplane on Thursday, with Veronica from the steno pool. She was still wearing heels and Christian Dior when we stepped onto the dock, and she immediately made the locals twitchy. There was a cluster of them gawking, slack jawed and purple eyed. Borderline geezers whose daily thrill was watching what the beaver brought in. They sniggered, slapped each other on the back and wiped there slobbering mouths with the backs of their feculent hands. I gripped my rented 30.06 tightly, in its bag without a bolt or ammo. If I had to, I’d use it as a truncheon, or maybe we’d be eaten alive.

Fortunately, a plaid husked troll named Jasper stepped in and asked if we needed a taxi. We did, I said. And he ordered some of the rabble to take our luggage to his cab. I held Veronica close. She was an innocent thing. A simple office girl with spreadsheets in her head, tattoos in secret places and a spikey stud in her tongue. How could I protect her from this cannibal horde? Only time would tell.

“You here for the deer?” Jasper said, as we drove away.

“Yes,” I said grimly, knowing real men didn’t mince words.

“You got a guide?”

A guide? The Andromeda blotter acid was just kicking in. Now this. Did he mean spirit guide? Was this the land of pixies?

“No,” I said, looking out of the window for road construction postponed for elf mounds. “We’re not here for the tour. Just into the bush – BAM! – and out again.”

He gave us the once-over in the rear view mirror, me smelling of hand sanitizer in my vintage DOA tee-shirt and Veronica touching up her lipstick.

“I think you two need a guide,” he said.

“Nonsense,” I countered. “The girl and me are seasoned outdoorsmen.”

I proudly placed my hand of Veronica’s silky and dependable knee. She was now using a compact mirror and one of her well-manicured false fingernails to dislodge a morsel of salmon sashimi from between her incisors. We’d lunched in the city before boarding the plane. Jasper shook his head.

I’d made reservations at the Asylum Motel. It was situated on an empty street, between an abandoned bowling alley called Asylum Lanes and an abandoned hardware store once called Asylum Paint and Nails. Was this a trend? I’d wait and see. Jasper heaved our bags into the motel lobby and handed me a business card with a woman’s name on it.

“It’s my cousin, Stella,” he said. “She’s an excellent hunting guide. Do yourself a favour and call her before you step into the woods. She’s busy this time of year, but I’ll see that she makes time for you.”

“Ah,” I said. “So it’s all in the family.”

The Andromeda was stronger than I’d hoped. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken so much at once. Domestic LSD had lost its edge, post 9-11. But this had been made by Chechens. I hadn’t been this stoned since 1983, when my IBM Selectric began spontaneously typing out the words to the Botswana Land national anthem. Now Jasper’s plaid was morphing into dancing paisley spermatozoa, and his eyes didn’t seem so close together anymore. In fact they’d migrated to a place roughly over his ears.

“Don’t let these genteel trappings fool you,” I said. “I’m an Editor. A big publishing house on the mainland. I manhandle writers and their finagling agents everyday. And believe me, there’s nothing more loathsome or virulent. A few squirrels don’t worry me.”

He took my sawbuck, smiled and walked away with the change. Clearly these people were nepotistic grifters. I made a mental note, and went to check in.

The nametag on the woman at the counter identified her as Blanche. I was suspicious. She looked more like a Janet, to me. She was obviously a woman of brackish passions. She wore cat’s-eye glasses like my dipsomaniac third grade teacher. And her hairdo was a full four feet tall. How could that be? It looked like she was wearing a grandiloquent bottle blond cremation urn on her head. I wondered if she knew it. Should I have told her? Would doing so have saved her from further disgrace? Maybe she was a refugee from the Brazilian porn industry, here out of the munificence of the Canadian people.

I placed my gold card on the melamine laminate, and tried not to stare.

“Would you like a separate room for your daughter,” Blanche said.

I looked at Veronica wondering what the torpedo headed woman could possibly mean. And then I had a jarring thought.

“There is no daughter,” I suddenly shouted, perhaps a little too quickly to conjure trust. “We settled that out of court years ago. How could you even know?”

“No, sir,” Blanche said, and gave Veronica a subtle nod.

I was appalled.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “She’s not my daughter, she’s my protégé. We room together. I’m her protector. I’m teaching her the publishing business. This is a professional development field trip. She’s a naive and artless child, defenceless in a cruel and extortionistic world. Where do you keep the tequila?”

“Room #304,” Blanche said, waggling the key in my face like a pernicious sex toy. “Liquor store’s down the road a bit, open ‘til five. Motel lounge is open ’til eleven. The pool’s been closed since 1965. There’s no elevator, but Willard will take your bags up for a couple of bucks.”

She pointed at the only thing in the lobby that could possibly be named Willard, a tall weedy adolescent with the brown eyes and reserved enthusiasm of a Bassett Hound. He’d been standing absolutely still and camouflaged next to the Coke machine all along. Now, as he moved, he sucked the wallpaper off the wall with him. Those Chechens really knew their stuff.

“Any hydroponics hereabouts?” I asked him as we climbed the stairs.

“You a cop?”

“What do you think?”

He smiled and reverently said a man’s name: “Sam.”

Willard unlocked the room to let us in. It had all the insipid polyester character of a Walmart sidewalk sale. The bedspread was a malignant floral print. The Chinese produced hundreds of thousands of square miles of it every year. There was even a black velvet painting on the wall, a sad girl clearly disabled by the enormity of her liquidgelous eyes. It was a relief. We were safe. No self-respecting bedbug would live in such abjectly lugubrious lockup, wholly sealed off from the world, the only possible escape through the air conditioner port. I gave Willard a fiver, and sent him on his way.

That done, I unpacked the Cuervo Gold and unwrapped a glass. Veronica took her suitcase into the bathroom and was gone for an hour. The TV only had a cheap Mexican version of Netflix, with the Beverly Hillbillies over dubbed in Spanish. I turned it off, lay on the bed and read the sexy bits of the Gideon Bible instead.

When we entered the dimly lit Asylum Motel Lounge a couple of hours later, Perry Como was playing on the jukebox. A man fitting Sam’s description was sitting at a table in the corner, drinking a martini with two more waiting in line. He was reading a paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago.

“You the deer hunter?” he said when we arrived at his table.

“Yeah,” I said, posturing with my thumbs in the belt loops of my Adriano Goldschmied jeans. I hadn’t fired a gun in my entire life, but my stone cold reputation was already preceding me. It was grand to be a man.

“And this one?” Sam said.

“This is my protégé, Veronica.”

“Do you hunt too, honey?” Sam said to her. “Do you prowl the night like a long cruel feline, pouncing fiercely from the shadows? Do you eat your prey alive, just to feel them squirm as they go down?”

I stepped between them.

“That’s no way to talk to an Editor in training,” I said.

Veronica looked confused for a moment, then put in her earbuds.

“She don’t say much,” Sam said.

“She’s been like that since the reactor accident. Look, I understand that you might–.”

Sam held up his hand with Pasternakian solemnity.

“Since we both know why we’re here,” he said. “There’s no point us giving it a name. Have a seat. I’m the waiter and the bartender, so tell me what you’ll have to drink.”

I ordered a triple Bonita Platinum, and Veronica had a Coke. When Sam came back, he put the drinks on the table and placed a Ziploc bag of bud next to them.

“I’ll put it on your tab,” he said.

I picked it up and inspect the goods. The bud was a delicate green fog, stirring in the bag. There were wraiths and demons in it. The face of James Dean looking out at me with the eyes of man about to drive his Porsche 550 Spyder head-on into a Ford on a highway outside of Fresno. I could marry this bag of hooch and live with it forever in a cabin on the beach in Baja. I’d even do all the housework.

“What’s with the name, Asylum?” I finally asked Sam, slipping the bag into my pocket.

He hesitated, then said, “Government stuff. In the 50s.”

“What government stuff?”

Sam shifted in his seat. He was obviously uncomfortable with the question. He took a hard swallow of gin and vermouth. Then he leaned across the table and looked me in the eye.

“I could tell you,” he said. “I could show you where the electroencephalograph was left in the woods to rust, next to the junked unmarked ambulances. But that wouldn’t take you any closer to what really went on here. Then there’s the Electroconvulsive Therapy Ward in the abandoned secret hospital near the lake, with its strap down gurneys and gore soaked lobotomy spikes. You don’t want to know about that, my friend. Or the unmarked graves they’re digging up with backhoes now, to trace the DNA, hoping to finally identify people who vanished off the streets of Canadian cities sixty years ago.”

This wasn’t the answer I expected. I knocked back my Bonita in a single gulp. Sam produced another out of nowhere. He was a tequila necromancer.

“Then there’re the helicopters,” he said. “They come in over the open water in attack formation in the night, and hover while black figures repel to the ground. But there’s no evidence of them having done so in the morning. Nothing. Not even a footprint. Just the indecipherable markings, laser etched into rock faces near the meadow creek, like pure petroglyphic logic spilling out of a vast central processing unit, the size and weight of galaxies. The animals don’t go there. No birdsong for miles round. The wind doesn’t even blow. It’s like a stale room with the windows shut.”

It was the wrong time for this. I was finally peaking on the acid and I’d taken more in our motel room, just in case. My dead uncle Reggie was sitting next to Sam with a chainsaw and the severed head of Frank Sinatra in his lap. I said hello, but he didn’t return the greeting. He had a gun in his sock and the bullets in his mouth. How could he say anything?

Veronica was knitting chinchillas. And there was an iguana on the table drinking a martini and eating the part of Doctor Zhivago where Anna Ivanovna Gromeko gets pneumonia, and Yuri, Misha and Tonya are at university and Yuri finds out that his father had a boy named Evgraf, with Princess Stolbunova-Enrizzi.

I don’t know why I love that part of the book so much. I’ve never even read Doctor Zhivago.

I was coming-to in a Roman Polanski film, and realising that I was the only one who wasn’t a member of a satanic cult of Mazola and Jell-O salad.

“Maybe I need a hunting guide, after all,” I said. I regretted not taking Stella’s card.

“Maybe you need to get on the first goddam floatplane outta here, Jack. And go back to the city where you belong.”

“Jack?”

“Can I have another Coke,” said Veronica.

Sam said, “Sure, love chicken.” And he went to get it.

“You’re too stoned to handle a gun,” Veronica said to me, when he was gone. She’d removed her earbuds. “You’re an office jockey who’s afraid of his own shadow. Just like every other Harry Rosen khaki moron who flies into a place like this, to get his rocks off with a big gun. That’s why you’re always wired. You’re afraid of what a sober man sees in the mirror. You’ve got no business hunting a deer.”

Ouch! The woman had only spoken to me in sentence fragments for the last two years. Now she was suddenly Gloria Steinem. But maybe she was right.

I began to calculate. Even if I took Thorazine, I’d still be wrecked come morning. I couldn’t be trusted with a loaded weapon, when the world was oozing out around me from a cosmic toothpaste tube. And we were scheduled to fly out tomorrow evening. When could I get a shot off under the circumstances?

Veronica finished a chinchilla and started to knit another. The little fuckers were scampering round on the floor, and humping like fiends.

“Fucking Chechens,” I said, and stormed out of the lounge.

In the morning, I was sitting on a stony beach facing west, hoping to catch the sunrise. I’d been there most of the night, and seen the helicopters come and go. The dark figures repelling and disappearing like ghosts. There’d been bright sapphire beacons in the sky, comet tailed, maneuvering on a dime, and shooting off toward the moon.

For some reason, I began thinking about my BMW in the parkade back home, watched over by an obese Pakistani man named Vazir. I’d given him a fifty dollar tip the previous Christmas, hoping that he understood that he must give his life for my car, if necessary.

Not for the first time, I reflected on whether I was assertive enough in life. Vazir was probably in his booth right now, reading Raymond Carver, and ignoring the car alarms going off around him. Fifty dollars didn’t buy loyalty for a man like me. Just a behind my back smirk from the recipient. Maybe that’s why I thought I had to kill something.

Veronica was asleep in our motel room. And Sam and Blanche were loudly doing the wild thing on a strap down gurney in the Electroconvulsive Therapy Ward of the abandoned hospital near the lake. I guess that’s the sort of yawning banality that makes everything okay in the world, especially in the still hours round dawn.

Then I saw them on the beach, to my left and up aways. A trio of deer, standing very still and looking at me. My rifle was was in room #304 of the Asylum Motel, and I wondered, if it was in my hands right now, loaded and cocked, could actually blast one of these gorgeous beats. I was glad not to be put to the test.

snow angels

you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids living in a dodgy neighbourhood, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I’d tried dealing drugs for a living, myself, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was too much of a lightweight. Whatever the case, the cops instead contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. It scared away the clientele. I got sick of it eventually, and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.

Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood cool and indifferent out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing at the house, now a half block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving past them.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer, but he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood. And he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner. It was a habit from his criminal youth that had developed into a hobby. Now he actually belonged to a police scanner club. Life is strange.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there. Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.”

It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake.

Toby thought a moment and then he said, “The news is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy. If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun, at all,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a best friend and roommate. But he’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs. He’d become someone I didn’t recognise.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake. They were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece.

I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. It was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever returned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of drugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better not to be just a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets, or were they?

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand.

“Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on incognito streets, past dark blank working class homes. Some were hung with Christmas lights. I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually Gabriel pulled over, next to a vast field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, white and unblemished landscape. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

We got out of the car, and stood surrounded by acres of the undisturbed snow. It was illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. Then she stood up a second time and jumped once more.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home, now that he was free of all his confusion and prowling rage?

Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle?

Yes.

And was I there with her? Ha! I knew better than that.

We sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood, and I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle and offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but not a second. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

The snow began to fall again, and Gabriel’s snow angels vanished. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of white before us, there could have been millions of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

two poems when one would likely suffice

the plums

when I sit in my refrigerator light
I am touched by nothing, no
disconnect no heartache
it’s like the sun
superb in June, a
mistake forgiven

but the purple frosted plums stare back
as though they might mutiny
I’ve seen this before, they
fail to recognise
their inability to self-govern and the
inevitability of their inclusion
in a tenderloin glaze

they remain motionless in their gravity
tonight I’ll dream like a tyrant

*  *  *  *  *

circus in town

I will join the circus
and ripen into rarity
defying death
through foible

I will wave from the parade and
float upon the city
like the shadow of an airplane
over the roofs and circus tents
the car lots and strip malls the
cul-de-sacs and violence the
heroin crack back alleys

who built this bumpy town?
who stole its left shoe and
abandoned its body
to the midtown coyote and
hasty crow?

snow angels

based on actual events – you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids in the east end of Vancouver, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I too had tried dealing drugs to make a living, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was such a pathetic lightweight that they just couldn’t be bothered. Whatever the case, the east Vancouver cops contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. I got sick of this eventually and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.  Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood audaciously out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing to my house half a block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer. But he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood and he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there.” We did. “Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of Christmas cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.” It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake. Toby thought a moment and then he said, “News is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy,” Toby went on. “If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to some of the homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a friend and roommate. He’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake; they were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece. I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. But it was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever retuned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of dugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better to not just being a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets.

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand. “Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on nameless streets. Eventually, Gabriel pulled over next to an endless field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t and shook my head. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, unblemished field of snow. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

She got out of the car and I followed. In a moment we stood surrounded by acres of undisturbed snow, illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. She stood up again and jumped to remove the snow from her clothes.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home? Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle? Yes. And was I there with her?

Ha! I knew better than that.

It began to snow again, and we sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood. I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Amorous Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle. I offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but turned the bottle down when I offered it to her a second time. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

As the snow continued to fall, Gabriel’s snow angels disappeared. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of snow in front of us, there could have been millions of them.