the angel of 1913

Every year has its angel. And don’t make the mistake of believing each angel is a good one. For in any age, there are only half as many good angels as there might be, and twice as many wicked angels as there should be. And  even this estimation fails to take into account the ambivalent angels that can feebly preside over a year, and in so doing, cause more grief and discontent than any legion of demons.

It is always on the last evening of each year that the new angel assigned to the new year arrives to acquaint itself with the world over which it will hold sway for 365 days. And so it was on December 31st, 1912, when The Angel of 1913 arrived in town.

The streets were cold and foggy, and the snow, so fresh and white two days ago, was hard and grey. The Angel of 1913 sat in Morrey’s Diner with a cup of coffee, having just finished dinner. He smoked a cigar, and watched a river of souls walk past the steamy window.  He wore a freshly pressed suit with a red silk tie.

The Angel of 1913 was notable among angels. Some angels denied that he was an angel at all. A mere imp, some said. Or a fallen angel, perhaps. But The Angel of 1913 didn’t give a damn what other angels said. He ignored the gossip of cherubs.

For a few moments, he’d been aware of his waitress standing at the counter watching him. This happened frequently. Over the millennia, he’d become used to his power over humans. He relit his cigar. The ember sizzled and glowed bright as a furnace. He deeply inhaled a mouthful of smoke, and made a show of it for her. It disappeared into his undying and incalculable lungs, and he exhaled far more than he’d taken in. It was a Vesuvius of cigar smoke and misty wraiths. The waitress shrieked, and disappeared into the kitchen.

He laughed at this, and in doing so, almost missed sight of a rough looking character with a battered backpack walking down the street past the diner window. There was an air of failure and homelessness about the woman. But there was something else as well; something difficult to define that interested The Angel of 1913. And though it was still 1912, and he had little power over the events of the remaining year, he thought he’d use what power he did have to cause some mischief.

He stood up, snuffing out his cigar in the remaining mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. A silver dollar appeared from nowhere in his hand, and he let it drop into the remains of his meal. It made a sloppy plop sound in the congealing gravy that made him smile. He put on his overcoat, and exited.

The Angel of 1913 walked quickly, staying a few paces behind the backpack woman. What a coup it would be to cause pain and suffering before his year had even begun. He finally caught up at an intersection where a traffic cop presided. There, he stopped next to the woman and said, “Hell of a New Year’s Eve, eh?”

“All the same to me,” said the woman, looking straight ahead.

“Sleeping rough, are you?”

“Maybe. You got some spare change to help me out?”

The Angel of 1913 chose that moment to look down at the curb, and the woman beside him did the same. A twenty dollar bill had somehow appeared there without her noticing; it was unlike her streetwise eye to miss such a rare prize. The Angel of 1913 stepped on the bill, and said, “I saw it first.”

“Fine,” said the woman, looking away. She bit her lip as a familiar spasm of failure travelled through her belly. It merged with the ever-present hunger pangs to create a vicious light headedness.

“But I’ll tell you what….”

“What?” said the woman.

“I’ll take my foot off of the twenty, and you can pick it up. It’ll be all yours. That means a couple week’s worth of room and board and a little hooch, all for you.”

“Okay,” said the woman and she began to bend down to take the bill.

“Or,” said The Angel of 1913, not moving his foot, “you can take a chance on what’s in my right hand pants pocket right now. Before you decide, though, I should tell you that I often carry with me far more than twenty dollars – far, far more, my friend – enough, perhaps, to make you comfortable for all of 1913. However, I feel that I’m equally obligated to inform you that I just had a splendid meal that set me back some considerable amount. There’s a chance that I don’t have much of anything in my pocket at all. You can play it safe and take the twenty now, or gamble on what you can’t see. The twenty under my shoe, or all the money, whatever the amount, concealed in my pocket.”

“You’re nuts. Just let me have the twenty.”

“Are you sure, Maxine?”

“Hey, how the hell you know my name?”

“It’s New Year’s Eve, Maxine. A night of magic and miracles. A night when angels might descend form on high, and change the luck of a down-and-outer like you.”

“You a cop?” said the woman.

“I can assure you that I am not,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You want sex?”

“My goodness, no.”

“Because I ain’t for sale.”

Maxine looked down at the twenty dollar bill. It was a lot of dough, by her standards. But maybe this crackpot did have a wad in his pocket. Maybe this was a night when something good could happen. She looked up again at the man standing there, and licked her lips. Then she ran her finger under her nose and sniffed. “You do this stuff all the time, mister?”

“Sometimes,” said The Angel of 1913.

“Based on your experience, what are my chances?”

“Chances are you will always find life to be unpredictable.”

“That ain’t much of an answer.”

“That traffic cop has changed the direction of traffic twice now during our exchange, Maxine. I hope our business here can be completed before it changes again.”

Maxine ran her thumb under her pack’s shoulder strap. The strap had been digging in all day. It was painful, a disheartening pain. A pain that made the night seem colder, wetter, darker. In her mind, she attempted to calculate the impossible. Could she cash in on what was in this man’s pocket? Could he be a good hearted trickster ready to commit an act of charity? She looked him in the face, and The Angel of 1913 smiled a bland, confident smile.

“Okay,” she said. “Forget the twenty. I’ll take the cash in your pocket, every damn dime.” Maxine held out her hand. “C’mon,” she said. “Give.”

The smile on The Angel of 1913’s face grew broader, and he pulled his clenched fist out of his pocket. It could have concealed a hundred dollars, or a thousand. She waited for the fist to open. And when it did, Maxine felt a familiar spasm in her gut. In the palm of the man’s hand was a nickel and two pennies.

“Shit,” she said.

The Angel of 1913 bent down, and picked up the twenty from under his fine shinny leather boot.

“How do I know that’s all you got in your pocket, buddy,” said Maxine.

“I’m a Gentleman,” said The Angel of 1913. “You have my word.”

“Shit.”

“It’s just stupid bad luck. Isn’t it, Maxine?”

“I guess.”

“You made a bet – you took a risk – and you lost. It’s just too bad.”

“Hang on,” said Maxine. “You’re nuts. That wasn’t no bet. I didn’t lose a damn thing. In fact, I’m up seven cents.”

“Well, that is entirely the wrong attitude.”

“Look, mister, you might have all the money in the world and look real swell in your snazzy duds, but you got no business telling me I got a bad attitude. Now fork over my seven cents. I can get a bowl of soup with that.” Her belly growled at the thought.

The Angel of 1913 didn’t like the way this was unfolding. He’d hoped his little trick would have helped to demoralise this woman. Instead she stood there talking about soup, and how his seven cents could buy some. Perhaps he’d miscalculated. He wrapped his tight fist round the nickel and two pennies.

“How ‘bout we try this,” he said. “I’ll….”

“You’ll do nothing, mister,” said Maxine. “Not a damn thing ‘cept hand over my seven cents. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’m gonna scream blue bloody murder and that traffic cop is gonna come on over, and I’m gonna tell him you mistook me for a women of ill fame.”

“Ill fame?” said The Angel of 1913. “Mistook you for…? My dear woman, have you looked in mirror lately?”

“Fine,” Maxine said. She took a deep breath of air, as though she were preparing to yell very loudly.

“Wait,” said The Angel of 1913, who had yet to receive the advantage of all his powers over the world – the powers that would be bestowed on him a tick after midnight on New Year’s Day. Until then, he was restricted to what were, in his estimation, mere parlour tricks, like the conjuring of coins and bank notes, and the correct guessing of people’s names. Dissuading a dutiful cop from rescuing a shabby woman in distress might be beyond him at this point.

He looked across the street at a bank. Its ostentatious clock read 6:29. He was still five and a half hours away from full influence over Earthly goings-on. He had a thought.

“How would you like to double your money?” he said. “Turn seven cents into fourteen. That’s two bowls of soup.”

“I just need one, mister.”

“Well now, isn’t that just the sort of thinking that keeps a good woman down?”

“You’re too tricky for me, fella. But you owe me seven cents. Now give.”

“Okay, okay,” said The Angel of 1913. He held a pacifying hand in the air. And with that hand, he produced another twenty dollar bill out of thin air. “How would you like another crack at one of these?”

Her patience was wearing thin. The cop in the centre of the intersection blew his whistle, and encouraged the traffic through. It occurred to her then to simply walk away. Even if she could get the cop’s attention, she’d been sleeping at missions for weeks. She was grubby, and the sort of person the cops loved to run off the street and put in the clink. The twenty in the man’s hand seemed to glow, however. And a gust of icy wind blew up the sidewalk. The twenty could buy a lot of comfort.

“Alright,” she said. “What’s the gimmick this time?”

“Do you like riddles,” said The Angel of 1913 with a greasy smile.

“Hate ‘em,” said Maxine.

“Well here’s the gimmick,” said The Angel of 1913. “I ask you a riddle. If you answer it correctly, you get the twenty. Answer it wrong, and you still get the seven cents.”

“Okay, fine. Hit me.”

“Alright, listen carefully,” said The Angel of 1913. “The riddle is this: It has hands but no fingers. It tocks but says nothing. What is it?”

“It talks, but says nothing,” said Maxine.

“Yes,” said The Angel of 1913, tapping his well heeled foot. “It tocks but says nothing. Do hurry; I have tickets for the stage.”

“Hmm,” said Maxine, putting her finger on her chin. “What talks and says nothing?”

“That’s the riddle, my dear. Can you answer it or not?”

“Give me a minute.”

“You don’t have forever. We can’t stand here all night. Time’s a wasting. C’mon, c’mon.”

Just then the bank clock across the street rang the half hour.

“Hey,” said Maxine. “Do you mean talk or tock? Like as in tick-tock.”

“Well….” said The Angel of 1913, looking sheepish.

“Which is it?”

“Must I answer the riddle for you?” he said.

“No, but I think you’re cheating. Talk or tock? Fess up.”

“Do you accuse me of cheating?” said The Angel of 1913. “Me? How dare you?”

“Well?”

“Fine. We’ll do another riddle.”

“The hell we will,” Maxine said. “Talk or tock? Come clean.”

Had he miscalculated? Maxine was obviously no great intellect, but she was proving that she wasn’t simple either. Perhaps he should have given the riddle more thought before asking it. But it had worked before. He’d been asking the same riddle since the invention of the mechanical clock. There was something tediously assertive about this awful woman. So, what now? What could be worse than surrendering the twenty dollar bill to this unwashed trollop? What could be worse than conceding? He never had. For a second, he thought about pushing her into traffic. But he was unsure he could get away with it before midnight came. She might put up a fight.

“Well,” said Maxine. “I’m waiting.”

“I’m calling off the bet,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You can’t,” said Maxine.

“I already have.”

“Then give me my seven cents.”

“Absolutely not,” said The Angel of 1913. “You were only to receive the seven cents if you lost the bet. You didn’t lose the bet because I called the bet off. Therefore, no seven cents.”

“You cheated,” said Maxine.

“I most certainly did not,” said The Angel of 1913. “I’m incapable of cheating,” he lied.

“Then I want another chance,” said Maxine. “And this time, I ask the riddle.”

He frowned and thought for a moment. Then he tried to read her mind, but all he got were bits and pieces. A broken vase and burnt eggs. This would be a challenge. He hated challenges. He liked to win. But he couldn’t turn and run now. It would be admitting defeat. It would be undignified.

“Very well,” said The Angel of 1913. “But let’s up the ante, and make it a real bet.” He bent over and picked up a candy bar wrapper from the sidewalk. He closed his fist round it, and when his fist opened again, the wrapper had morphed into a large roll of bills held tight with an elastic band. “There’s ten thousand dollars here. What have you got to put up?”

“Nothin’,” said Maxine.

“You might have something,” said The Angel of 1913, smiling his greasy smile. “Something you may have never considered risking.”

“Mister, all I ever had I left behind in a shack on a dead and dusty plot of land in Manitoba.”

“Then consider this,” said The Angel of 1913. “If you win, if you can ask a riddle I cannot answer, you get the ten thousand. If you lose, I will take from you everything you ever were, and more. There won’t be enough of you left to deliver to the infirmary, or even for a priest to offer last rights.”

“You are crazy,” said Maxine.

Hearing this, The Angel of 1913 reached out and tightly clasped Maxine’s hand. He hissed: “Don’t count on it.” Eyes dead and colourless now, all humour gone from his face. His teeth sharp for a second, like those of a dog. Somehow, from somewhere, a choir of deep lament, a chorus of anguish and defeat. And there was the smell of something burning.

“Let go,” said Maxine, pulling free. She stumbled backward a few steps, and looked at the man. He’d become a grinning dandy again, but the burning smell lingered.

“Since this has turned so serious, mister,” she said. “I have one condition that I want understood. By that clock across the street, you answer my riddle in sixty seconds. That’s one minute, got it?”

“That’s acceptable,” said The Angel of 1913. He smiled, and was suave and self-assured. “Do you have your riddle ready?”

“I think I do,” said Maxine. Her belly growled again. Ten thousand dollars would buy a lot of soup. She could sleep on clean sheets, and take the tram where she liked. Maybe for the rest of her life. “Here we go,” she said. “My riddle is this: Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. What am I?”

“That’s it?”

“Yup,” said Maxine. “And you now have fifty-eight seconds.”

“Why that’s easy, it’s….”

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

“Oh, stop that,” said The Angel of 1913. “It’s annoying.”

“Well?”

“You enter a room and it’s empty, in spite of you being there. Ha, you’re a ghost. That was so easy!”

“Not so fast, mister. It ain’t a ghost. It’s something you don’t even know anything about, so you ain’t never gonna guess it right.”

“Not a ghost? Then, hmm. Then the fog, of course. You’re the fog. The room is empty, but there you are.”

“Nope,” said Maxine.

“Well will you at least tell me if I’m warm?” said The Angel of 1913.

“Not a chance,” said Maxine. “And times runnin’ out.”

“I wonder if you’re not the one cheating this time,” said The Ghost of 1913. “Maybe you’re all riddle and no answer.”

“We’ll see.”

“Something I know nothing about, is it? That certainly narrows it down. But what’s the point if I don’t know about it?”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said Maxine.

The Angel of 1913 was starting to worry. No one had ever asked him a riddle he couldn’t answer. Over the centuries, they’d asked him complex, esoteric riddles. The more complex and esoteric, the easier they were to answer. But this riddle was so simple. Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence.

He had a thought; he tried his luck at slowing the clock. But it didn’t work. His full powers on Earth were still hours away. He cleared his mind and focussed.  …empty, in spite of my presence; …empty, in spite of my presence.

Finally, Maxine said: “Five seconds, mister.”

“I have it!” said The Angels of 1913. “I have it, and now you’re mine, you infuriating little bitch. I’ll make you suffer, I will.”

“Two seconds.”

“Air!” he said. ” …empty, in spite of my presence. It’s air. I have you now.”

“Nope,” said Maxine. “You ain’t got jack shit.

“Then what is it?” said The Angel of 1913. “Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. Tell me what it is, or I’ll throttle you!”

“Hunger,” said Maxine. “I told you you knew nothing about it, and I was right. That’s why it didn’t even occur to you.”

“Surely it’s too metaphorical! It was a trick. You tricked me. I’m calling off the bet.”

“Can’t. I played by the rules. Now hand over the cash.”

“Do you know who I am?” said The Angel of 1913 in a last-ditch effort to intimidate. “Do you know how bad I can make things for you throughout the year to come?”

“Worse than what you see now?” said Maxine as she reached out and took the wad of bills from the hand of The Angel of 1913. “I don’t think so.”

She removed the elastic band with a snap, and began to count. There were too many hundreds, fifties and twenties to get through, but she had an idea that it was all there. “Thanks,” she said, and smiled.

The Angel of 1913 watched, slack jawed, as Maxine waited for the traffic cop to wave her through. Then crossing the street, she disappeared into the dark wet city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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haunted shelter

3am

Gustav Holst plays in the dim gymnasium
—the gentle decay of orbits

I pass through the gym with my eyes on the floor
for there are monster faces in the shadows
of this old and long haunted church

then comes the two-way Narcan(!) crackle
someone dials 911

the face of the man on the washroom floor is blue when I arrive
the first two naloxone injections haven’t worked, and I
see flap in the faces of my unflappable coworkers
we wait on the third dose then hear
the fabulous deep inhalation

it’s raining outside
a trivial detail
but it fascinates me
after the ambulance has gone
__________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

graveyard shift at the homeless shelter

if I were a saint
I’d lay on hands &
change all the crack
meth
heroin, rigs & fentanyl
into the pure cold orbits of stars
for all of us to see out front
on the 3am street, looking up

magnificent
someone rejuvenated might say
like the word was sanctuary
beneath a childhood staircase

but the stars move too slow
to compensate for outrageous hurts &
saints should mind their own goddamn business
where were they when the first shit sample
hit the wall & a child mind found
that the real estate of refuge
had fences & gates
__________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spoons

from December, 2008 — can anything have taken place that long ago?

I get between 1000 and 1500 hits on my Flickr page daily, and it’s always interesting to see what’s trending. Lately, a popular pic has been one named spoons, taken a long time agoIt comes with a short article attached, which is unusual for me. I tend to let photographs speak for themselves. I guess I thought this small glimpse into Mary’s life was worth writing about. It went like this…

I was sitting on a window sill outside of Waterfront Station today, when a young woman arrived. She pulled three Georgia Straight newspapers out of the venders’ box a3099565652_b05424ca8a_znd slapped them onto the ground in front of a row of three mail boxes. A panhandler, I thought as she sat down and moved back and forth until she was comfortable. Then she pulled out a paperback novel and began to read and I thought, not a very assertive panhandler.

But that’s how Mary (pseudonym) pans. “People know why I’m here,” she told me. “I don’t have to put on a show.”

Sure enough, the occasional passer-by dropped coins into the paper cup she’d put out for that purpose.

Hmm, I thought, smart panhandler. This thought didn’t have time to spawn another before two well dressed women happened by, and offered Mary a brand new backpack. She knew from past experience what this strange gift was, and asked if she might have another for her boy friend. The two women obliged and then walked on, disappearing into the Gastown crowd.

Cracking both packs open, she took a quick inventory. There were socks, some canned soup, a box of Breton crackers, fruit, three metal utensils and a few other treasures. Mary peeled back the lid of a can of soup and ate her first meal of the day. When she was done, I went over to talk to her. I do this kind of thing a lot. It’s okay, most street people get that I’m slightly insane.

I asked her if it was okay if I wrote about whatever we discussed. “It might end up on the web,” I said.

She shrugged, seeming unsure why anyone would care. Then she said, yes.

“Who were those women who gave you the packs?” I said.

“Christians,” Mary replied, as though they were an exotic species. “They do this every year at Christmas and Easter.”

“Wow,” I said. “There’s some choice loot in there. What’s that red card?”

“A Tim Horton’s gift card,” Mary said, “for ten bucks. I like their chili.”

I looked down and spotted the utensils, again. “Knife, fork and spoon,” I said. “Stainless. That’s cool, but I wonder if plastic wouldn’t be cheaper for the Christians.”

Mary thought a moment and said, “I eat off plastic everyday, in the shelters and soup kitchens. It’s nice to have a stainless knife and fork. And needle users grab all the metal spoons in the neighbourhood.”

“You a needle user?” I asked. I’d learned a long time ago not to beat around the bush with street folk. If you’ve got a question, just ask. If they don’t want to answer, they’ll just tell you to fuck off — what could be more simple and honest?

“I was,” Mary said. “I’m on methadone now.”

Then I asked the inevitable question, “Can I take your photo? It might end up on the net.” There, I said it again.

Another shrug, “Sure.” And then she gave me a sad but winning smile. As usual in such cases, I promised her a print.

* * * * *

Note (2014): Homelessness continues to be a big problem in Vancouver. It isn’t a big city, and its homeless rates are disproportionate to its size. Many of the proposed plans to eliminate homelessness are, not surprisingly, turning out to be just talk.

The backpacks Mary received were generous and welcome, but what she really needed was a home, not a temporary shelter and not Christian charity. Maybe by now, she is housed. I hope so. But Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and Canada as a whole, continue to ignore poverty and homelessness, and the human suffering they cause.

According to the homeless hub,

Individuals estimated to be

  • living on the streets in Vancouver: 957 (2014)
  • living in facilities (emergency/transitional beds), Vancouver: 1820 (2014)

parenthesis

To be homeless in a land of the housed, or was it homed? It was a common reflection for Rita. To her, not to be housed on her own terms was more than insult; it seemed a ridiculous waste of her energy and talents, spending every conscious moment in pursuit of a place to rest for the time when rest became compulsory, then risking it all fighting to maintain it. No one had mentioned this possibility to her in her youth, when security in her future middle age hadn’t been an unreasonable imagining.

Still, this place was a fortunate discovery. She stood there in the tall brown grass, in her threadbare raincoat and dull rubber boots. It was a wonder, she thought, as she dropped her bags in the wild untended garden, how a place like this could go lost to the city surrounding it, behind its overgrown hedges and hidden gateway. It was sure to be inventory on some realtor’s list. It was a mansion, after all. Even if it had seen better days – shutters hanging by single hinges and windows broken, the front door having been forced. It was a gothic tragedy.

She was standing next to a dormant fountain, a centre piece around which a weedy driveway arced, leading up to and then away from the grand front steps that went up to a splendid, if ramshackle, wraparound porch. The fountain was a little taller than her, made of marble, once alive with showery glistening cherubs and lavishly carved fish standing erect on their tautly coiled tails. The cherubs reaching skyward with their chubby hands, as if to touch the outer membrane of creation to exchange plasmatic sparks with God’s holy outstretched fingers. Now the pool at its base was dry and scattered with dead leaves.

Wasn’t this the very definition of fixer-upper? Where was the young couple, with more of the bank’s money than sense, to buy it and make it a home?

It was a romantic domestic idea. Just one of thousands that streamed into her head hourly. They would not cease.

“It’s a fucking dump,” said Henry. Henry was a new voice, acquired since she abandoned the olanzapine. He was a working class Londoner with a broad uncouth accent. “I’d rather live in a fucking tent.”

“It’s lovely,” Rita replied, dreamily.

“It’s a bad house,” whispered Natalie, the voice of Rita’s shaman. “Don’t go inside,” she warned. “You’ll be courting ghosts.”

“These ghosts scarier than you lot?” Rita said. She meant her collection of voices.

“Careful with that,” said another voice, familiar but without a real name, the voice of The Nun. The one that insisted Rita was possessed by demons, and that only prayer could save her. Rita ignored The Nun, slightly offended by the idea that she was possessed by mere demons and not Satan himself.

“I will go inside,” Rita said.

It was late October, cold overcast and now becoming dark. She hoisted her bags and climbed the stairs. The front door was long gone, leaving a dark open portal. She crossed the threshold and entered what must have been a greeting hall.

“It’s dark,” said Tony, her timid little boy. He needed her. The other voices bullied him. He’d disappeared while Rita was on antipsychotics, missing in some undiscoverable province of her mind, frightened and alone. But now he was back, and in her care.

“Don’t worry, Tony,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here together.”

The house smelled of mould, though the weather had been dry for two weeks, and something else. She opened a bag and took out a candle, lighting it with a plastic lighter she returned to her pocket. The candlelight illuminated the hall and part of the larger room beyond, the tall ceilings and ornately molded plaster, pale blue paint peeling, walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Rita heard the sound of small animals darting in the dark.

“Malevolence,” Natalie whispered. Her whispers always sounded like the hiss of wind in a darkened alley, setting Rita on edge.

“It’s a bit premature for that, Natalie, you old hag.” It was Samuel, mostly the voice of calm and reason. “This place is shelter. Shelter we need, yes?”

“I need no shelter,” Natalie said. “I am energy. My shelter is the cosmos.”

“Very poetic,” Samuel said.

Rita said, “Please, not now, you two. I want to explore before we settle down.”

Rita knew she must look in every room. There might be other homeless in the house, unwilling to share. Crazed on drugs. Drenched in murder. Demons and ghosts. This was an observation she had shared with Dr. Mazari, the city psychiatrist, nervous when she mentioned it casually during an appointment.

“Why don’t we find you a home, Rita?” he’d said. “A little apartment you can call your own. Somewhere where there’s staff to watch out for you. We could get your psychosis under control. No more taking chances in derelict buildings, exploring empty rooms.” Dr. Mazari loved his metaphors.

But she said she wouldn’t go back to one of those places. Where the youngsters they hired forced pills down her throat and laughed at her behind her back, as if she didn’t know. Where she was placed in the dusty papery continuum of some weary Social Worker’s caseload. Appointments with the last one so tedious that she pitied him. His face and wringing hands exposing his anguish as he evaded the daggers of his various office quandaries and catastrophic relationships. His obvious anxieties powering the orbits of moons round the planets of his cruelly acquired cynicism.

“Tell me who’s the caregiver then, doc?” she’d said.

Dr. Mazari hadn’t answered. He’d only stared at her for a moment and blinked. He’d clearly expected her to passively agree. Perhaps he also wondered at her eloquence, as though she was incapable of having thought such a proposal through ahead of time, based on her own lived experience.

They were always happier when she raved, and she had raved more often than she liked to admit. But not then in Mazari’s office. A parenthesis had hung in the room with them, then. Something subordinate, best placed in brackets and left unsaid.

Mazari scribbled something in Rita’s thin file, and dismissed her. She never returned.

Now she climbed a curving staircase, having crossed the sagging living room. The staircase was something from an old film noir classic, where Bogart might have stood, lighting a cigarette.

The light of the candle preceded her. For the moment, there was nothing else in the world. Or perhaps there was. She thought she could hear sounds beneath the creak of each ruined step. Laughter hiding behind each squeak and scrape.

“Stop laughing,” she said.

“But you’re funny, you are,” said Malcolm. Mischief Malcolm, he’d named himself. He who admonished her for not walking in traffic, cutting herself, shoplifting or spitting on cops. “Tip toeing around,” he said, “like there be monsters here.”

“There are,” Natalie said.

“There aren’t,” said Tony.

“Yes there bloody well are, little boy,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” Rita said, a little too loudly. Adding too much credence to the reasoning behind the conversation.

She reached the top of the stairs and could see a row of doors on both sides of the hallway before her. Bedrooms, she thought. She would be exploring for a half hour, at least. She hoped her candle would last.

The walls of the hallway were stained brown with water that had leaked in through the collapsing roof, and the ceiling sagged.

The first room was large and empty, obscenely spray painted. A window let in dim light. There was a decaying shoe on the floor and putrid blankets. A fuel can, likely empty, next to a broken kerosene lamp. Closet doors opened onto empty space, where whole wardrobes once hung, worn by a warm living breathing thinking person. Where was he or she now? Had there been joy in this room?

The next room was smaller and contained a solitary baby’s crib. The moon was breaking through the clouds outside and shone through the broken window. The abandoned crib seemed all the sadder in the silver light.

“Nursery,” Rita said.

“Baby ghosts,” whispered Natalie, “the most melancholy, robbed of life before life begins.”

“They’re with God,” said The Nun. “If they are baptised, that is. If not, they abide in purgatory forever. God is good.”

“God’s a dick,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” said Rita.

There was a smell in the room, sharing the air with that of mould and the foul dry rot of the building’s timber frame. It was like what she’d encountered when she first entered the house, only stronger now. A disturbing smell, triggering something inside of her. Something prehistoric, a signal to run. But she couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.

She exited the nursery into the hall and walked toward the next room, but stopped at the door. Here the disturbing smell was overwhelming. She felt it on her skin. She heard it in her ears.

“Don’t go in,” whispered Natalie.

“She might be right for once,” Samuel said.

“Enter in prayer,” said The Nun. “You shall fear no evil….”

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

Rita jerked her head and shoulders, as if to dislodge the voices. They felt like they clung to her.

“Leave me,” she said, and entered the room.

The room was the same as the others, empty but for things made insignificant by neglect and decay. An empty wooden crate, used syringes, a balled-up sleeping bag. Rita tried to hold her breath, extending her arm, holding the candle out in front of her, moving it from one side of the room to the other. Until she saw the eight ball eyes and stopped. The cloudy unseeing cataract eyes, bulging in the head of a dead man. A head with a gaping bloody bullet wound, tilted over onto his shoulder.

“Monsters,” one of the voices said.

“Shut up.” Rita jerked her head and shoulders.

“This is the fucking stink,” said Henry.

“Is he dead?” Tony said.

“Dead and in hell,” said The Nun.

Rita knelt next to the body, holding the candle close for a better view. She felt the molten wax drip across her fingers and hand. Death is so still, she thought. Nothing more silent, unmoving.

She stood abruptly. Suddenly sensing someone in the room with her. She turned and looked behind her.

“It’s him,” Natalie whispered. “Where’s God now? Nun, you bitch.”

“Blasphemer!”

There were undeniable footsteps beyond the candle light, breathing. Rita stepped forward to illuminate more of the darkened room. Nothing. But there, just beyond the candlelight. Movement, a figure dashing to the left.

“Who’s there,” Rita hissed.

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“I’m scared,” said Tony.

“Show yourself,” said Rita.

And the glowing figure stepped forward. Silver like the moonlight. Different from the ruined cadaver on the floor, but the same as well. The clothes were a match, but the face was mild young and unmarked by violence. Early twenties, she guessed.

“I’ll cast a spell,” whispered Natalie. “I’ll send him away.”

“Pray,” said The Nun.

“I’ll kick his fucking ass,” shouted Henry.

“What happened?” Rita said.

“I died,” said the ghost.

“But why?”

“I owed money I couldn’t pay. What does it matter now?”

“What was your name?” said Rita.

“Nigel,” said the ghost. Then, “You mustn’t stay here. There are more than me. Predatory. Watching you now.”

He’d been good, Rita thought. Bad choices.

“There is no other place for me tonight.”

“Anywhere is better. The street.”

There was shuffling in the dark. Heavy clumsy feet.

“They’ve been here a long time,” Nigel said.

“Burn it.”

“Malcolm’s right,” Henry shouted.

“Demons,” said The Nun.

“Not demons,” said Nigel.

“Do you hear them?” Rita said, surprised. “The voices?”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “But The Nun is wrong. They’re not demons. They were were human once. Worse than demons.”

A door slammed in the hall. Then all the doors slammed in the hall. Again and again. The remaining unbroken windows in the room shattered inward, spraying Rita with broken glass. She could hear low voices, murmurs and sighs. There was movement behind her. She turned to look. Nigel’s body was shifting. Awkwardly rising of its own accord. Its bulging eyes turning in their sockets.

“It’s not me,” said Nigel.

“Bloody well looks like you,” said Samuel.

“It’s them,” whispered Natalie.

“Who?” Rita said.

“They want you,” said Natalie, loudly now, with urgency. “Eat you alive. This place is hell,” she screamed.

Now Rita remembered the first room. She moved fast, keeping her hand round the flame of the candle so it wouldn’t go out. She ran down the hall and entered. There was the kerosene can. The one she assumed was empty. She picked it up. It felt heavy enough to be full. She removed the cap and sniffed. It was indeed fuel. She grabbed the blankets and ran, but was slammed against the wall by something unseen as she took to the stairs. She stumbled. But grasped the railing and continued down.

Vast patches of plaster had fallen away from the living room walls. Leaving holes, exposing large expanses of narrow pine shiplap, dry and flammable. She put her candle down and dropped the blankets in front of one of the holes, dousing them in kerosene. Then she doused the shiplap, soaking it.

Turning then, she saw her candle extinguished. The air was still. There was unfamiliar laughter, and she was thrown once more against the wall. Something snapped in her arm this time, accompanied by a paralyzing pain that rapidly occupied the full distance from her shoulder to her finger tips. She lay motionless in her agony. More laughter. Then an impact with her stomach. A boot. A kick to the belly. She knew the pain. She’d been kicked there before. Never fall down in a fight, she’d been told by someone more experienced than her. But what could she do now?

The strong smell of kerosene was sickening. Her hand felt for it, and found her plastic lighter in a pocket. She grabbed it with her good hand and heard the house shriek as she lit the blankets. The flames rose and took hold of the expose wood. The living room was immediately brightened by flame. Rita rolled onto her back and watch as the fire worked its way into the wall.

* * * * *

The glow on the north east horizon went mostly unnoticed at first. But slowly, the sirens began. And the city, early into its night, became aware that some unassigned calamity was taking place. Maybe even something that would win an editorial race to top story, to be displayed on the handheld screens of the citizenry.

“Close call,” said Henry.

“It was good to fucking burn it down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“You’re safe now,” said Nigel.

Rita felt a clean blanket over her. There was an oxygen mask on her face. She was on a gurney. Surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. The flames of the house could be seen over the tops of the overgrown hedges.

“Not a hospital,” she said.

“Your arm’s broken,” Nigel said, smoothing the bangs out of her eyes. “And you’ve inhaled too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this lot at bay. No voices while you’re in the Emergency Ward. Tell them that there were others in the house who started the fire. Maybe you’ll get out with just a cast and some pain killers.”

His voice was soothing. And unlike the others, he could actually be seen.

May 11, 2013 Vancouver March for Social Housing

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