Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch

flash fiction—under 500 words

This is him in my neighbourhood back in 1948, pissing in the men’s room at the Chevron gas station on Broadway, then shaking off and moving to the mirror over the sink, muttering hate you on seeing his reflection, his lips out of sync with those in the glass. He combs his tangled hair with a five cent comb.

It’s a cloudy autumn day just outside of the restroom door.

There’s a tiny kind of grit on the sidewalk that wears away shoe leather.

There’s diesel exhaust in the air.

There’s an elementary school up the street where girls play hopscotch after classes.

There’s something he’s supposed to have done, and maybe he has, perhaps many times, that results in the dark moving cellar of his loneliness.

Someone’s at the door, savagely twisting the locked doorknob, but he has the key.

The girls in the playground have invented a cry that they all yell as one of them jumps from square to square toward a ring of keys—Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch!—like a kamikaze shouting on his way to glory.

He could stand at the fence and watch them all day. His Timex says quarter past two. The girls play hopscotch again shortly after three. He pulls up his fly. Now someone’s knocking hard on the door.

He believes he picked up his inclinations by chance, in a divine paper bag. Blissful inclinations, hard to resist. He needs a place to be until the three o’clock bell. Coffee’s a nickel. He finds it in his pocket. He can sit in a cafe until school’s out. Someone’s shouting through the door, louder than street traffic. Someone’s kicking it.

Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch—the little girls are ferocious in their perfect skirts and dresses. They’ve braids, and clean white socks to their ankles; their shoes shine like black brass-buckled moons. The familiar tension returns at the base of his neck. He wants to lick his lips but stops, believing it’s a giveaway to the world, a curse of a helpless animal in a forest. More banging and kicking.

He was laughed at once. The high pitched taunt of a girl he’d offered to guide home. Best intentions, he’d promised. No, she’d said standing there like a whisper. We’re not supposed to. Then she laughed, surprising herself. Child cruel as a woman. An angel needing an angel escort to paradise.

This is him laying on hands, flat on the door, then an ear, feeling the decent-fisted on the other side, feeling trapped. Blameworthy, maybe, of a clumsiness, the error of forcing a whisper and then dropping it onto a red and orange floor of leaves, leaving it there, looking up at an autumn-cast ceiling.

The hat of the first cop through the door falls off, his gun dead black. They strike again and again, fists eagerly, and he sees his blood, liquid shrapnel, spray the mirror. Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch. Just like that, he’s a bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas Lucas Quil

1923

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

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

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

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

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now he’d stalked down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going away,” he said.

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

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

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

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

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

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

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

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

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

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Retired Private Eye

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.

Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.

“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”

“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”

“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.

It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.

“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging  ‘em up.”

“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”

“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”

I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.

“Thelma,” I said.

He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”

“Yes.”

“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”

“But, you’re a drunk.”

“Only my friends call me that, mister.”

“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”

He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.

Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.

I started taking notes.

“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”

“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”

“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Thelma,” I said again.

“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”

I shrugged.

“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”

“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”

“Fuck no.”

This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”

“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”

“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”

“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”

“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”

“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”

“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”

Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”

“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”

“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”

“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”

“No he didn’t.”

“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”

“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.

“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?

“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.

“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties.  Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”

The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.

“I ain’t proud,” he said.

“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”

“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”

It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.

“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”

Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?

“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.

“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”

“Then?” I said.

“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”

“What?” I said.

“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”

I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.

“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”

We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”

“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”

“I guess I should thank you.”

“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”

A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.

“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”

“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones Chapter 4: Rabble Town

Late evening, darkness falling

It wasn’t really a town, only a bleaker neighbourhood in a bleak city. And across its busy Centre Street, lined with shabby carts, a threadbare sex trade, dead storefronts and hawkers, was strung a multitude of crackle screens, like paper lanterns hanging over a once brighter Chinatown, each screen with the face of the Chief Victor, leader of the Federated States, speaking, all day every day, assuring the People of the brightest and winningest of futures, interrupted only by advertisements.

Noah Bones leaned against a brick wall at a corner, sipping cheap street cart tea from a paper cup, watching an advert for a sugar confection called Pokyfun, a thin brightly wrapped bar of cheap genetically modified carob gown in rooved-over reclaimed asbestos mines in the irradiated Western Wastes, and tempered with hydrogenated pork fat, paraffin and microcrystalline wax.

The ad consisted of a bald mustachioed man in an orange pinstriped suit and purple tap-shoes capering madly across a stage to frenzied music with a Pokyfun bar in each hand as a line of scantily clad dancing girls in gold lame kicked and smiled deliriously behind him.

“Pokyfun,” the mustachioed one finally shouted, as confetti fell, bright coloured lights flashed and strafing jet fighters flew across the length of the stage on green screen, dropping napalm on fleeing victims, “it‘s the Chief Victor’s favourite bar!”

Then after a snowy pause, the Chief Victor himself appeared on screen to deliver a brief pre-recorded message, one viewed and heard by millions ad nauseam.

“I smell dog on the air,” he said, his creased pastel expression hardening, his small hands gripping the podium top. “Underground influences, enabled by Koslov himself, have delivered sham tidings. Koslov, the enemy. He’s the heaviness you feel. The promise of thunder, rumours of disaster. He’s what estranges us and isolates you, and why long ago I intervened on your behalf, placing all art and expression under my gracious care. Fake dispatch is a disease that weakens the Greater Plan, and undermines the righteous authority of your Great Leader—sad.”

“He’s stopped ad libbing,” said a man coming to stand next to Noah, and lighting a cigarette, the smoke mingling with the stagnant odour of Rabble Town.

“That’s old news, Markus,” Noah said, sipping his tea. “I’m not even sure it’s him anymore. Suddenly he’s downright eloquent. He must be being handled by some spook in the background. On the other hand, maybe he’s retired to some tropical island, laughing his head off. Or maybe he’s already dead.” Noah pointed at the image on the screen. “Maybe this is an automaton or data generated.”

“Then what’s the point of this meeting?”

“The point is that we’re here,” Noah said, “like we promised we’d be. The point is that Dr Vlad promised he’d be here too, sometime close to dark.”

Marcus sneered, “I don’t trust that little queer.”

“It’s too late for that. We needed an insider disenchanted with the Plan, and Vlad’s definitely that. He’ll be our push against their shove. Besides, Sylvia M says he’s on the square. That’s good enough for me.”

“I don’t trust her neither,” Markus said. “Vlad’s her little slave. There’s something kinky going on there. Plus he’s a puny little zealot, and I bet he’ll be cashing in big if we pull this off. While we’re sent packing with just a pay cheque.”

The video on the screens hanging above and down the length of Centre Street distorted for a second, the sound crackling noisily as the Chief Victor’s image disappeared, replaced by a manic ad for hand soap, featuring battle tanks and missile silos.

“And don’t forget,” said Noah Bones, “we’re just the hired guns. We aren’t the thinkers. That means that we—you—can leave anytime.”

“No,” Markus said. “We can’t. We’re in too deep now, know too much. If any of us left now, he or she’d be dead in a day.”

“Then why not just enjoy the ride?” came a voice from behind them, as small well-dressed man stepped out of a shadow cast by a street light. “We’re plotting history here. You’ll be heroes soon.”

“Or in a corpse pile,” said Markus, “awaiting trial, post-mortem.”

“Heroically dead, then,” said Dr vlad. “What’s not to love?”

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Noah Bones is a story written in short chapters, not quite flash fiction. This due to the fact that I now have a real job, and less time for writing.

Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones Chapter 3: Sylvia M

Read Chapter 1 here
Read Chapter 2 here
__________________________________________________________________

There came the words whispered, “Who’s there?” after a too long silence that followed her knocking.

“Sylvia,” came a female voice. “Let me in.”

Light shone through an eye hole drilled in the door. Then it didn’t.

“But you’re dead,” said the man behind it.

“A dirty rumour,” the tall darkly dress woman said. “Something I’ll deny, if pressed. Now open up.”

A bolt slid, loud in the hall that time of night, and the door opened a crack. A single bright eye peeked out.

“Hello Vlad,” Sylvia said, smiling halfly. “Open up.”

Dr Vladimir Cromwell knew the woman, Silvia M, and her clique well enough. He’d been forced into their plots before, as they raged against the Greater Plan. Violence and certain disappearance came to the noncompliant. He moved back and away from the door, and let Sylvia M enter.

“Cigarettes,” she said stepping in, “and the good stuff. I know you have it. None of that Rabble Town canteen shit.” Vladimir Cromwell obeyed. Vanished a moment into the dark regions of his well furnished apartment and returned with a deck of cigarettes, the package embossed in gold. He handed it over. Sylvia M lit up and unbuttoned her coat.

“There’s been a killing,” she said.

“There’ve been many,” replied Cromwell. He was a meek man, slight in a dark red robe that might have been made of silk. He could have been mistaken for a woman in the low light. His toes were nervously clenched in his slippers. His was an inescapable flamboyance which he tried to hide during the day, but not now in his own home. “The dead are stacked in common refrigerators in morgues all over town, each awaiting its criminal conviction and incineration. We’re overwhelmed.”

“No, none of them,” said Sylvia M. “The one I want you to think very carefully about was a high ranking Agent of the Greater Plan. He won’t be in a stinking corpse heap. He’ll be stored in his own drawer, as is his privilege. You’ve already done the autopsy, I’m certain, Dr Vlad. You’ll remember him for the tragic gunshot wound where his manhood once dwelt, and the fatal bullet wound to his head.”

“Yes,” Cromwell said after a moment, nodding. “I know him. Chief Justice Agent Ahriman, scheduled for pick-up tomorrow,  by a funeral chapel chosen by his family.” In passing, he said, ” It was a tragic wound,” and swallowed.

“No,” said Sylvia M. “You will not hand him over to a funeral chapel.”

“No?”

“No. You’ll lose him, instead. But let him not be so lost that he cannot be found again if necessary.”

“But lose him? What do mean? It would be a criminal act to tamper with the remains. Besides, it’s almost impossible to do. Certainly with the standard operating procedures I’ve implemented since my appointment as Chief of the Forensic Pathology Department of the Justice Bureau.”

“Then, Dr Vlad,” Sylvia M said, “what you’re telling me is that you’re the primary obstacle to my plan?”

“No, not at all. I….”

“Because small effete men frequently end up in stinking corpse piles, don’t they? There’s a prevalent prejudice against ladylike men in the Greater Plan, as you know. I’m no fan of the Plan, of course. I fight against it, and I disagree with many of its phobias. But some wonder how you’ve lasted this long.”

A male silhouette moved across the dark parlour behind Vladimir Cromwell, in the pale light coming through a window from the street, then disappeared.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the doctor said.

“Good,” said Sylvia M, now buttoning her coat and pocketing the deck of cigarettes. “And there’s the wine I enjoy.” She took a card from out of her handbag and handed it to him. “You know it. That Italian red. You’ve gotten it for me before.”

“Yes,” he said, taking her card. The fingernails of his soft hands manicured, and buffed to a glossy lustre. “It’s quite expensive, though. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget.”

“Have a crate delivered to the address on the card, and you know that neither I nor any of my people will be found there, so don’t get any ideas. The wine will find its way to me on its own.”

“Yes, alright.”

“These are dangerous times, Dr Vlad,” said Sylvia M, taking a different tone, smiling halfly again. “Especially for some.” Reaching out, she stroked the smooth lapel of his robe. “But the dead sleep like clouds, don’t they? Moved along by hurricanes, or, as in this case, by soft surreptitious winds? And when they’re gone the sun always shines, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Pausing a moment, she looked into his sad eyes and said, “There’s shame in these rooms, Dr Vlad. There needn’t be, but there is. It’s because you somehow agree with the opinion others have of you. Shame’s a weakness; it reveals too much about a man. Don’t carry it out into the world with you when I’ve assigned you a task.”

“No.”

“Be sure to eliminate all paperwork, audio, video and data-chronicles. All physical evidence; identification, clothing, shoes, any trinkets found in his pockets. This Agent never existed as far as your forensics is concerned.”

“I understand.”

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

photographing Spencer

It’s just me and Spencer, alone in an alley on the Downtown Eastside. He’s struggling with the Brillo in his crack pipe.

“Just hang on man,” he says—“I just scored. I’m really jonesing.”

He’s been sleeping on benches, shoplifting and begging. He’s filthy, a stunning ruin of a man. Finally he lights the tiny nugget in the glass tube and inhales. Then he shudders, exhales and says, “Ahhh fuck me.”

I’ve come to take his portrait so he can send it home, but now he’s wrecked. His eyes’ve gone reptile, and he’s confused by gravity. It’s not the picture his family will want to see.

“Damn you’re a mess, Spence,” I say, and he grins at me with his blistered crack-lips.

“Go ahead then. Take my fucking picture.”

And bam, I do. Sometimes I think the D-300 sounds like a gun going off. Bam bam bam…. Holding down the shutter release, circling him. It’s evening and the light is runny, the colours blunt. Every line on his face is accentuated, every deep hungry hollow, every childhood abuse stitched into his psyche.

“Last I got my picture taken, it was the cops,” he laughs. But his buzz is changing, even now. He lights up again, inhales/exhales and says, “I’m running out already. Lend me some cash.”

“I’ll buy you dinner at the Ovaltine, but I won’t lend you money.”

“Shit, I don’t want no dinner. I can get dinner at the mission.” Then he says, “Check this out…,” and attempts a pirouette. He falls on his ass, and I catch the fall in six shots, like the frames of a motion picture. I’m not cruel; I’m just a photographer. I offer him my hand. He ignores it.

Now sitting in the gutter sludge, Spencer says, “My old man fucked me, you know?”

“Yeah, Spence. You told me.”

“Like I was a bitch. Tore me open every time. Stopped when I was about fourteen. Guess I wasn’t pretty no more. Kept beating the crap outta me, though. The prick had a heart attack a couple of years back, died. Shit his pants when he did, my brother says. My mother’s fifty-five. Looks ninety.”

“Pictures are for her, huh?” I say.

“It was hard for her. ”

I’m silent for a moment. Crows are massing overhead for their night-flight back into the suburbs.

“I’ll work on the pics tonight,” I say, “colour and black & white. I’ll track you down tomorrow. We can use a computer at Carnegie to send them home. Try to make that shit in your pocket last.”

“I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“I’ll look for you, anyway.”

“No,” he says, handing me a grubby note, “I mean I really don’t know.”

He’s already walking away as I read what’s written on the slip of paper—

Please send these words with the pictures: All my love too family and friends. Good-bye. This is followed by a short list of email addresses.

I shout at him, “What’s this mean, Spencer?” Then I run after him, grab his shoulder and turn him around. “What’s this mean?” And I know what it means just by what’s on his face. I let him go. I’m just a photographer.

________________________________________________________

a Canadian over Hiroshima

In a favourite frequent dream he was Little Boy, released lazily from the fuselage, falling freely over the city with his eyes open wide, toward the topography and civil systems, framed by the compass horizon. This was the elegance of his descent, the landscape static below for that long minute, having been dropped from so high, decent divorcing distance. Then the dense second of his detonation, uranium-235 colliding, as he became the toroidal vortex that defined him forevermore.

He woke at 3:00 a.m., in the heat of that fire over Hiroshima. But he remembered quickly that it was August, and that the heat was merely the swelter over his dull prairie neighbourhood. He sat up in his bed, scanning the dark for ghosts. But until that night, there had been none. The dead had spent no time in his ordinary garden. They hadn’t peeked over its walls, or tried its gate. The dead danced on other planets.

He was a man of many regrets, prone to saying he had none. Alive to the murder/suicide in things, he wrote equations to forget, on his ceilings and walls, papering over the windows and writing over them. Kilometres of binaries, brackets, numbers, functions, powers and variables throughout the house, all in 4B graphite pencil. There were holes in things. He gauged their sizes and pinpointed their locations. Strings of calculus. He dusted carefully the boundaries between objects, a bit of mathematical fibre on a toothpick run along the cracks in things. 3:00 a.m. glowed in the dark. Fictitious, a fraud.

Time is equal to distance over velocity, t = d/v; anguish equal to isolation over remembering, a = i/r.

The Enola Gay, with a crew of 12, 7,000 gallons of fuel, and a 9,000 pound bomb in its belly lifted off from Tinian Airfield at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress had four engines and was propeller-driven, a heavy bomber designed by Boeing. It was advanced for its time, with a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-guns. The crew dropped the bomb over the city at 8:15 a.m.

A girl on the ground, at that moment, looked up at the silver bead falling in the sky, her head tilted back, her mouth open slightly. Curious at first. Then, “Raijū,” she said, a second before she was blinded.

She wore a blue cotton dress like any Japanese schoolgirl of her time, and now sat on a chair near the bedroom window opened inches to the night. “I saw you in the sky,” she said to him, “that morning. And for all of the enmity and cunning that delivered you there, you were passive and imbecilic, round and ridiculous, a silly tantrum.”

“But you misunderstand,” he said. “I simply have dreams.”

She looked around at the numbers on his walls, and said, “I felt your heat for a second, and then I was ash. A silhouette. A moment scorched onto a wall.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his fists twisting the sheets, and at some point fell back to sleep.

She was gone in the morning, and he wrote a = i/r with a finger in the bathroom mirror’s morning steam. Equations and the dead have their silence, and they stand on stone.

 

 

 

 

 

how I began 2016

Thurston and I had been in high school together until grade nine when he was abandoned by his family, and was put into the care of social services. There he remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday, when I found him standing on a street corner downtown with a grocery bag full of his few personal belongings. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. Clearly he hadn’t been the same since being abandoned, and it was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly only pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from poorly photocopied sheets of interstellar intrigue, or retelling his own story of familial rejection.

“Says here,” he said, last New Year’s Eve morning, reading form a toner smeared sheet of paper, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.” I sat down and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him.

This was new intel. So, “Oh?” I said, realising then that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. Stirring my coffee, I looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston (of course he had). He bit down and tore off a flaky bite of croissant; crumbs went everywhere. “It was a Christmas Eve long ago when they came for my mother and sister deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury vapour streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, word salad fresh and crispy, with only a drizzling of commas. And I knew from experience what was on the page he was reading from: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, bombastic nonsensical sentences, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled, mostly unconsciously, like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. All of it taken from the curling yellowing edges of the internet, small densely packed Times Roman font on pages with nearly no margins, and completely devoid of graphics, except for hand-drawn moonmen and their rocket capsules. Many of the webpages had been in existence since the 90s.

Placing his ball cap on the table, I saw once again the mysterious tattoo on his balding head, a thin blue sequence of prime numbers, 2—3—5—7, looking, at first glance, like something done for him by a cellmate in a dimly lit death-row prison cell with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. The numbers were backward, though. So instead of the prison cell theory, I chose to believe that at some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it to himself, in the mirror.

“It was like Christmas card salvation really,” he began again, “when the aliens came for my mom and sis. Salvation from the industry-dead rot of a city lost to the world. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have in the end they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash. I say a little soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink he had and the way he’d hid in a room down the basement and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free after that. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made that day’s offering of croissant at the altar of his madness. My sins were forgiven, and I began to get up.

But he pulled me back down as I rose, grabbing my arm too tightly. I winced. “Please don’t go,” he said.

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, but none of the other customers looked up. I was on my own.

“Christmas Eve,” said Thurston, “way long ago yeah you bet. They took my mother and my sister the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone in a nightmare and now the last two people in the world I ever loved. My mother and sister taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of sci-fi reruns thick with code and insinuation. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them intentionally or to the contrary and I’d been betrayed by television.”

“I’ve heard this part before, Thurston,” I said, but I had to admit that it was coming out stranger than normal this time. He sounded a little more vulnerable. Hopeless, or content to have arrived somewhere, finally.

“But did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I watched the spaceship fly away?” He paused and stared a moment. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour. I actually know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes. There’re government spooks who’d like to know, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye, thinking I’d give empathy a try. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell anyone this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance and befuddlements arose out of his never wanting to relive those horrible moments, so real in his mind if nowhere else. And all empathy aside, I wondered if I should be the one to hear the important details first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “that special window of mine and I watched them streak across the black Christmas Eve sky. They flew over the chimneys of the yellow lit reduction plant a mile away where the ghost of my father now played lunchroom Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a bright moon on the horizon. I watched it linger there. It was finished with this fentanyl planet the foreign no-fly zones proxy wars the unceded land occupied territories the corporations and Trump-devout-open-carry-Christians. The aliens had moved at near light speed through the taint and tar of our wasteland above the institutionalised poverty and starvation. But it didn’t disappeared completely until after it’d stopped a moment suspended like a star and all of us who cared to look wished upon it. Because that’s what people do even in a shit-storm. But when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They left that night most of us supposed never to return but they’re back now. They’re colonising us—get it? A centimetre a day ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of who we are. That’s their plan. We didn’t invent the extermination of selfhood and the theft culture after all even if we are real good at it. That’s just a part of why they took Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? And why should I believe you? It’s too fucking weird, Thurston.”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty does look a bit fucked up but there are deeper meanings to simple things. I’m telling you this now because I’m not sure how much longer I have. But also because you’ve asked and some of us believe that you have a right to know. That’s just a fact. You see you’re at the centre of a system of orbits Jeffery. You’re like a deep hole in space that things can’t help falling into. Things that are good sure but things that aren’t so good like hatred too. Planets like hatred. Hatred like planets. Invisible because hatred is only a thought and thoughts are invisible. Somethings are torn from their orbits by their ferocity and that’s good but some never are. You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you naturally. But try to imagine a class of Number Sum Inheritors of Equation Legacies sworn to absolute secrecy and existing in unimaginable isolation in order to protect universal rudiments like gravity and time and that all desirable futures depend upon these Inheritors’ inherited knowledge remaining concealed from another class of predatory Opposites who would deconstruct current realities changing all possible outcomes to their own ends. Now try to imagine that sometimes in rare cases when an Inheritor is in possession of a greater truth than all others it means that that Inheritor is made unaware of who he is and what he holds. It’s done this way for his own protection certainly but mostly for the protection of universally accepted categories of pliable chaos necessary to ensure welcome evolutions. Then there are those of us who are Guardians of the Inheritors and the Guardians bear a mark.” He touch the backward numbers on his head. “Someone was watching over you even when I was gone all of those years. So the answer to your question: Why should I believe you? Is that you likely never will. Happily.”

“That’s a very serious burden to lay on a guy, Thurston.” And I wondered if I actually did believe him.

“I’ve told you this because the window I looked out of and watched the spaceship so long ago is all that protects me. The window’s a metaphor of course but a powerful one and it’s panes of glass are getting a little more brittle every day. It’s all that stands between me and them and therefore them and you. You shouldn’t be surprised if one day soon they find me dead in a culvert.”

“You’re right,” I decided. “I don’t believe you. You’re insane, and I pity you like everyone else.”

“Well now you know the basics at least,” he said, “and I feel a bit lighter for it.” He took another bite of his croissant.

He wasn’t in the coffee shop the next morning, and I checked the crime sections of the local newspapers for news of his demise. Nothing, and I was glad. I had an uneasy feeling, though. The night before had been one of uneasy dreams. Out of place stars setting on eerie horizons, and dark planets in a room circling slowly as I sat in the centre in a wooden chair turning in the opposite direction.

The barista behind the counter was new that morning too, his grin a little too wide and curled at the corners. I ordered a double shot latte, and recognised a constellation of stars in his foamy art that made me feel oddly lonesome and homesick.

“Chaos is a funny thing,” the barista said, holding out his hand to shake. “Hi, my name’s Bradley and I’m gonna be here for you from now on.” He was prematurely bald and had a shaven head, but didn’t have a tattoo.

Thurston’s body was found three days later.

2016 got even stranger after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bugger off,” I yell.

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Shut up.”

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

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

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

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

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

“You got a match?” Myron said.

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

“You got a match?” he said again.

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

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

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Swell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Myron.

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

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

respect and mercy

downtown 1947

He believed that he was king of all that he could remember, grey shades and crumbling orbits. Countless footsteps heard down hallways through so many closed doors, waiting.

He’d resurfaced for her because the offering was generous, and she was outlandish prey. An artist, she claimed, who painted her sins. The boys on the Drive didn’t like it, even though she’d always done right by them.

She’d arrive soon, and then become one more of his remembered things.

He waited, sitting at the window, tracing the outline of a handgun in his lap. One room in a slum hotel. The radio playing quietly—the blue music of insomnia. He’d have ham and eggs and coffee at an all-night diner down the street, after it was over. There was a waitress who worked the counter. They could talk about small things. He could make her laugh.

Nighttime was the best for what he had to do, though some rising-stars preferred the day. Best in the daylight, they alleged, so that the victim saw the killer’s eyes, could see him squeeze the trigger and watch the somehow slow moving slug travel through space. It was a young assassin’s conceit, as though his target hadn’t dreamed the bullet coming long ago, smelled it on the air and seen it in the clouds.

Now he hears a key turn the lock, and the door opens. Hallway light, a silhouette. “You,” she says, seeing him there. Hush. A small bag in her hand, groceries or gin. Sometimes a victim will say You, mildly and without surprise, but not all; some say Get out, foolishly. Others start pleading. Some fumble for a weapon, something purposely placed in an awkward pocket—suicide by hitman. He says nothing. Every killer severs his connection with speech, eventually. Only the essentials words remain. Without rising out of the chair, he holds out his blue .32 and motions her into the room.

She steps in, closes the door and turns on the light. She might have run, but most didn’t in the end. Most were fascinated. Death only came once; it was important to pay attention, important not to complicate one’s own certain extinction.

“I can’t make this right, can I?” she says. “They said that there was time for me to change my ways.”

This was going to be easy, he thinks. And the getaway: Second floor, stairwell clear of obstacles, no desk clerk until 7 a.m. The gun would bark, but most people couldn’t tell a small calibre gunshot from a slammed door. He’d only be a dark sketch moving in the hall to anyone peeking out of their door. Tomorrow he’d park his car at a pre-arranged location, and someone would walk by and toss an envelope onto his shotgun seat through the open window, and he’d drive away.

She’s a tall woman. In a wool overcoat and red dress, both purchased cheaply.

“Well?” she says. “Do you even know why you’re doing this?”

“For the money.”

“And for your reputation, I’d say.”

He pauses a moment and says, “I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to,” she says, taking off her coat. “No one ever has to get it. Most don’t. The it of things don’t give a damn what you get. Wanna a drink?” She walks over to the dresser, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle. There are two glasses on top of the dresser near the mirror. She’s turned her back to him, looking at his reflection.

“You’re a cool one,” he says.

There’s a side table next to his chair. The glasses go there. She pours, and drinks hers standing over him.

“I knew a guy once,” she says. “A real mutt. He liked to pull the trigger now and then. He wasn’t in the business, though. He just did it ‘cause it solved some problem in his head. He liked to shoot women mostly. Do you like to shoot women mostly? He said a woman got a certain look in her eye that a fella don’t, when she knew she was gonna die. He said it was better than money, seeing that look. He said that only punks do it for money; that a paid killer lacked refinement. Want some more?” She pours another glass for herself.

He holds out his glass, giving her a tougher gaze. She’s dressed like a school teacher. He knows better, but can’t help looking at her fingers, checking for chalk dust. They’re clean, elegant. One simple ring with a dark stone. Her face isn’t pretty but it’s proud. A proud woman with clean hands and a reputation, living in a shabby hotel room. It occurs to him to ask, “What exactly have you ever done wrong to deserve a bullet?” He asks this sometime, because those who want the killing never tell him why. Only when.

“Who says I deserve it?”

“Maybe you don’t,” he says.

“But maybe you do.”

He thinks about it. A person’s last words could be strange. He’d heard a lot. Confessions and denials. Apologies and remembrances—memories that only come in the end. Prayers like poetry. But maybe you do. Said without spite. Just a statement of possible fact. She had him there.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says, in spite of it.

“I don’t know. It just came to me. Maybe I’m stalling.” She squeezes the neck of the liquor bottle tight. Her hand wrings it like it’s someone’s throat. “I guess a person’ll do that,” she says. “Stall, I mean.”

“Take your time,” he says. “I got time.”

There’s a quiet half a minute after that. The radio playing a romantic tune. Someone might have called it a moment of connection. And then…

…she swings the bottle like a nightstick. It shatters across his forehead, his nose. He’s stunned and bleeding, as she snatches the gun out of his hand. He tries to get up but can’t. She swings again and slashes him across the cheek with the bottle’s jagged edge. There’s blood in his eyes, tiny shards. And through the smear, he sees her standing back with the revolver in her hand, aiming.

“Fucking bitch!” he shouts, hands to face.

“That’s my privilege,” she says.

“I’ll tear you apart.”

“Nah, you’ll just sit there because you’re stunned and all cut up bad. In a minute, your eyes’ll be swelling shut. You’ll be blind, then what?”

He leans back in the chair. “Fucking bitch.”

“Question is,” she says, “how’s a guy like you live so long when he lets someone like me get in such close proximity? When you get all conversational, like we met in a bar? It’s ‘cause I’m a woman, ain’t it? You’re just old and careless, and you’ve got a soft spot for a dame living in a dump wearing a dime store dress.”

“Just give me the gun,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You don’t know what you got there. Women aren’t so good with guns. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

He’s grasps the arms of the chair, blood and gore drying on his face and clotting round his eyes. She sees him thinking. Arithmetic. Adding up the possibilities and dividing by the risks. She knows that equation. She’s done her own sums more than once.

“Just stay in your seat,” she says. Then, “What’s it you figure they do to an over-the-hill torpedo like you, huh? I mean, shouldn’t a fella like you know no one retires from this job? A guy like you who knows where all the ghosts are hiding? No, you don’t get outta this occupation alive unless you’re real smart. And you ain’t that smart, are you?”

“So, they sent a woman to kill me? And you pulled the reversal.”

“Sure. A real kick in the pants, huh. You should know, though, that I got respect and mercy. I know about you. You’re kind of a legend, and I figured you shouldn’t die in no alley. Sneaking up on a guy like you’s all wrong. So, I said I’d work it out. You think I actually live here, in this hole? What a sap. Now stand up real easy.”

“No, you can shoot me here. You’re right, I’m old and I don’t give a shit.”

“Nah, you’re gonna go lie down on the bed. I think you should die in bed. You’ve earned it. That’s what they couldn’t figure out, but I did. It’ll be sort of elegant. Respect and mercy, get it?”

He remains seated. More arithmetic, she guesses.

“Get up old man. I’m doing you a favour.”

“Fuck you,” he says.

“The bed, move. It’s your chance to die pretty. An angel with a hole in his head.”

“The boys on the Drive said you’d pull something like this,” he says. “That you like it fancy—that’s your problem. You’re an artist, like your pal who says you and me lack refinement. Yeah, I’ve heard about you too. Everything’s a gimmick. They don’t like it on the Drive, you know, too messy, too much evidence. They’ve had it with you. So pull the trigger, and see what they got to say about your little show.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that this is your night, not mine.”

“Stop playing the con,” she says, with a little less strut in her voice. “You ain’t in no position. Get up and over to the bed.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“Fine,” she shrugs. “We’ll do it your way, but it could’ve been beautiful. You pray to anything?”

“No, and I don’t gotta. Not this time, anyway.”

She’s not sure what Not this time means under the circumstance. More dead man tricks, but she doesn’t care. If that’s how he wants it, okay. She takes aim at the centre of his chest. A bullet to the heart, then she’ll put one in his head. Then have an early breakfast. She squeezes the trigger. Nothing. Just a click, louder to her ear, in that moment, than a live round.

He laughs short and quiet.

She squeezes again. Click. “What the….” Click, click, click and click.

“They said you liked drama,” he says, and pulls a revolver from his jacket pocket.

She was right, his eyes have swollen shut. His plan hadn’t taken this into account, but she’d been straight ahead last he saw. He squeezes the trigger, and his .32 shouts bluntly once and then again. A body is heard stumbling, falling.

Now he’s up and working blind, but he’d sat in the dark room for an hour before she arrived. He knows the terrain well enough, and he hears a gasp near where he stands. Taking to his knees, he finds her on her back with his hands, running one up and over her belly that still rises and falls. The hand finds a wet pulpy hole in her breast. Then it roves up the throat to her face, and over her proud chin. His fingers touch her mouth, nose and eyes and for a brief moment trace her tears, and then his hand arrives at her forehead where he plants the muzzle of his gun.

“Respect and mercy always kills the killer,” he says. “Your night, not mine.” And allowing her one last deep breath….

The envelope with the dirty bills inside wasn’t dropped through the window of his car at the curb. It was slid across a café counter. In the end the shards from the broken bottle had mostly blinded him. He’d sell the Chrysler, take taxis.

“So no more work for you, eh?” came a voice across from him.

“Retirement,” he agreed.

“That’s good,” said the voice. “You sit back and listen to the radio. Have a drink now and then. Look at the ladies—oh shit, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said, knowing that he ruled over all of his memories regadless. “The last woman I ever saw wasn’t hard to look at, and it’s what a man my age remembers what counts.”