lost ironies

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Tag: poverty

the hunger axioms

The unspoken rules of poverty in Canada

  1. Hunger in Canada, and the systemic poverty alleged to cause it, are myths.
  2. Hunger and poverty, resulting from disability, age, isolation and/or systemic disadvantage, are fabrications, created by seditious elements within Canadian society.
  3. If the myths of hunger and poverty in Canada were realities, its response, as a wealthy, just and compassionate nation, would be immediate, addressing hunger and all other poverty related issues with efficiency and empathy, by providing the adequate financial assistance and gateways to education and accommodating employment necessary to establish and maintain the dignity and comfort of those effected, while striving to eliminate poverty itself.
  4. If the myths of hunger and poverty in Canada were realities, a robust and unprejudiced charity model would quickly evolve, generously funded by spontaneous and unsolicited public and private gifts and contributions, to seamlessly and more than adequately address the problem in an equal and dignified fashion.
  5. The redistribution of wealth through a basic livable guaranteed income is unnecessary and unrealistic. Its suggestion is subversive, and Canada as a nation of good and informed citizens adhere to this unproven truth without question.
  6. Those who spread myths of hunger and poverty in Canada are disloyal, lack the motivation to prosper and lack the gratitude consistent within the nation as a whole.
  7. Canada, as a nation, finds these axioms irrefutable, and the questioning of them, or disagreement with them, is a betrayal of the Nation and its people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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pale bread and honey

 

hunger dances alone
in dark empty places
but though it is harder
than sidewalks and hate
it is smaller than a plate
of pale bread and honey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the angel of 1913

a new year’s day story

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 she crossed the street and disappeared into the dark, wet city.

 

 

 

 

The Charity Model, a Weak Reaction to Hunger in Canada

Charity: kindness and pity in one tidy act of giving, inadequately addressing needs that shouldn’t exist in our wealthy nation, and providing the giver with a warm and satisfying feeling.

Sadly, the much coveted charity model, and a sorry system of government welfare, appear to be as close as we’ll allow ourselves to get to an equitable redistribution of wealth. It also provides the charitable license to cast mild, if unconscious, shame upon recipients while preserving expectations of cheerful and unqualified gratitude. The giver gets this, and a tax deduction along with bragging rights. Maybe even a place in Heaven.

The emphasis of this brief article is limited to food insecurity in Canada, the harsh income disparities that cause it, and how we might mitigate their impact on those effected by hunger—people facing barriers to employment, the underemployed, seniors, many people with disabilities and others. And don’t forget child poverty. They live with hunger and malnutrition every day, and our nation’s inadequate reaction is absolutely necessary to the maintenance of a charity model that fails to effectively address this injustice.

If you’re a fan of the charity model, however, no worries. Food insecurity isn’t likely to end in Canada anytime soon. Nor are the profound feelings of isolation, humiliation and physical pain it causes. Indeed, it’s likely that charity will remain one of our most robust reactions to the manufactured social and financial gaps that cause such severe hardship.

Good hearted folks will continue to put change into coin boxes, food into grocery store foodbank boxes and make year-end donations. Meanwhile, the self-congratulatory cult of the corporate executive will continue to create vast charitable facades, costing them nearly nothing, and supported primarily by their customers (think McDonalds[1] and Donald Trump[2]). For big business, charity will continue to be a thrifty form of brand enhancement, and their need for cheap branding remains never ending.

If we wanted to, though, could we eliminate poverty and hunger in Canada by stepping away from our reliance on charity? Perhaps we just need to rethink reacting with sympathy, and instead provide those in need with opportunities, gateways into employment that pays a living wage, safe housing and guaranteed minimum incomes that differ from welfare in that they come in livable amounts, and are made universally available so that pity and shaming, in this regard, are rendered obsolete.

But if all of this happened tomorrow, and charity was no longer necessary, would those who support the model feel cheated? Would they want back that special feeling they get when they deliver packages or write a cheque? If so, one might wonder if this need to commodify poverty is burned into our DNA, and if that is true, couldn’t we consciously endeavour to evolve beyond it? Can we ever advance beyond a charity model in which the net benefit goes to the charitable rather than those living in hunger?

[1]http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/Clowning_Around_Charity_Report_Full.pdf

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-used-258000-from-his-charity-to-settle-legal-problems/2016/09/20/adc88f9c-7d11-11e6-ac8e-cf8e0dd91dc7_story.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welfare Food Challenge, is it enough?

Oh man, here we go again. It’s November, and in these parts that means it’s time for the Welfare Food Challenge, where perfectly sane, and some of them prosperous, individuals will, for a week, eat only the food they can buy with $26. It’s an action to draw attention to the criminally low amount of income provided to recipients of welfare in BC, through BC Employment and Assistance (ironically named due to its lack of gateways to employment).

For purposes of the Challenge, someone has calculated that $26 per week is the amount left over for food for a person receiving a monthly $610 welfare cheque in BC. I can promise you that it’s less than $26, but you can see their arithmetic at http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/. There, you’ll also see the earnest faces of those participating in the Challenge, and read their stories of absolute dedication, principle and hope.

To those of you participating in the Challenge, I say that you are good and caring people. And the organisers deserve an enormous amount of credit and recognition. Raise the Rates is an awesome organization. But having written and worked on issues of local food insecurity, and having lived with hunger in this wealthy province, I wonder if it’s enough.

So, having said this, you’re probably wondering if I’m just some jerk who doesn’t get it, but I do. I’m a person with a disability, and I have lived on welfare in BC, as a result. Now I live on BC Persons with Disabilities Assistance, administered by the same Ministry as welfare. BCPDA pays more than welfare, and it comes with some welcome add-ons that people on welfare don’t get, like some dental coverage, but it’s still less than $1000 a month.

In spite of the higher amount, the second half of the month is a very hungry one. And before some troll tells me to go back to where I came from, if I don’t like it, you should know that I was conceived, born and raised in Vancouver. I also worked and paid taxes here, all of my life, until my disability made working impossible.

The thing about the Challenge is that I don’t want anyone to spend a week going hungry, not one person. I want all people to live in comfort and safety. And I’d prefer to see the energy, confidence and sense of inclusion commensurate with the right to food, fulfilled, used to kick some government ass, year round, every day. I want us all together to make government fear the people again.

After a week on a poverty diet, you’ll be slimmer, and after a remedial meal or two, you’ll probably feel shiny and new. But the Challenge itself can never inform a person of the profound humiliation, insult, isolation and hopelessness that comes along with the legislated poverty thrust upon so many in this province.

Poverty, hunger and disenfranchisement are systemic in BC. We have a government for whom foodbanks are a primary part of their business plan. That’s why I’d rather that participants in the Challenge save their strength and do things like vote, show up en masse at the BC Legislature, and the offices of Michelle Stilwell and Christy Clark, and make demands. Flood their offices daily with letters, petitions and emails. (But keep records. The emails will probably be deleted.) And cc the opposition. Tell them that the poor are not a complicated problem, they are people. And tell them that poverty need not continue simply because it has always been with us.

Many of you have already taken some of these measures, and I humbly thank you. And if you choose to go through with the Challenge, may I recommend Sunrise Market at 300 Powell Street in Vancouver as an excellent place to shop on a budget.

the casefile

Vancouver 1949

Her name was Rachel Wild, and she had never married. Instead, she’d spent her years at a kitchen table, smoking and looking out of a window. She’d not been doomed to this. She felt no self-pity. It was just what happened. Like an unexpected incident that makes a woman say, Oh!, the moment she discovers her involvement in it. A lifetime passing. Focussed on a past personal moment. The way she might have worshipped an idol or a scrap of text. The sacredness of which was dependent upon context known to her alone.

Perhaps it had come down to a battle of anxieties, hers and those of another. The failed unsaying of a word. When the unsaying of a word might have meant so much. She’d become content in never knowing the truth of it.

But the world is news and dispatch. Story upon story expelled through the reflective conduit of time. In shapes of sparrows and sorrows. And news had finally come to her. But the news had only been a fragment of a larger story. A fragment chipped away from the end of something much larger.

Knowing this, she’d made a cup of tea.

* * *

Detective Olaf Brandt wasn’t a bad police officer. But popular opinion was that he just wasn’t sergeant material. He wasn’t afraid to use his wide Norwegian feet to chase down leads. But it was thought by those higher on the cop food chain that he had to be fed those leads. He wasn’t the sort to independently deduce his way through an investigation. He could, however, be relied upon in a street fight, to inform families of criminally dead loved ones and to go on coffee and doughnut excursions as required. It was generally accepted that he’d retire in a few years, and parish shortly after of an unremarkable illness related to the lonely excesses of a mostly friendless life.

For the time being, though, he was vital and healthy of mind and spirit. And as he sat leaning forward in the waiting area of Dench and Parr Investigations, he stared determinedly ahead at an empty point in space.

“Olaf, old boy,” Crispin Dench said, calling Brandt in. “Come into my office and tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Hello, Mr Dench,” Olaf Brandt said, getting up and giving a half-hearted wave. He stepped into Crispin Dench’s office and took a seat. Dench seated himself behind his desk.

“Coffee?” Dench said.

“No,” said Brandt.

“A Coke?”

“No.”

“Water?”

“No.”

“A shot of rye?”

“No, Mr Dench, nothing. Look, I’ve been sent here to ask you to surrender a case file.”

“Drop the mister, Olaf. Call me Crispin.”

“All right, Crispin. I’m here to ask you for a case file.”

“A case file.”

“Yes. One we, the police I mean, believe contains important information on a case that went cold some time ago, but that has now warmed a bit.”

“Case files are private property containing confidential information, Olaf.”

“Yes, Crispin. This is understood and I had hoped that we’d be able to skip this predictable part of the conversation. But if you don’t surrender the file to the police in the amicable, mutually beneficial way I’m suggesting, we’ll just get a court order.”

“Mutually beneficial?”

“Yes. One hand washing the other. That sort of thing.”

“This is a business, Olaf. Our clients have certain reasonable expectations. They pay for privacy and confidentiality. Those are products this agency sells.”

Brandt shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. There was a moment of silence.

“You still with me?” Dench said.

“It’s that Edgar Tully thing,” Brandt said. “The body, or what was left of it, in the car they pulled out of Lost Lagoon last week. It was in the papers.”

“Yes it was.”

Brandt took a notepad from his inside jacket pocket and flipped through it. It was a well practised move, meant to add gravity to the moment. But it was wasted on Dench. Brand stopped at a page and said, “You conducted a missing person investigation in 1947, for a Rachel Wild.”

“Did I?”

“Edgar Tully was the subject of that investigation.”

“Was he?”

“That’s the case file we’d like to see.”

“Are you and I involved in the same conversation, Brandt? Dench and Parr Investigations doesn’t hand out case files. Not to the cops or anyone.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Tell me something, Olaf. Why’d they send a B team player like you here for this? What was the last case you really worked on? They know I’d never give you a damn thing.”

“I worked on the Edgar Tully case back in ’42,” Brandt said. “So, it’s personal in a way. It was just a missing person case to most. But when you scratched the surface….”

“What? What was revealed beneath the scratched surface?”

Olaf Brandt stood to go. “I’ll return with the court order in a day or two, Crispin. See you then.”

“You know, I’ve heard your fellow officers talk about you,” Dench said. “They never have anything good to say. But you’re not as dumb as they make you out to be, are you? Why’re you still just a detective?”

“Good-bye, Crispin.” Olaf Brandt left the office.

Vancouver 1942

Sleep was somewhere in his room, hiding like an outlaw. Edgar Tully knew it would expose itself eventually, and crush him. He lay on his bed, drinking cheap rye from the bottle. Could he drink enough not to dream? Most nights he could not. It was August and the night was humid and warm. He closed his eyes and returned once more to the dream.

He walked a little behind the Canadian lines. Vimy Ridge. A Master Corporal in the Canadian First Division. The 12th of April, 1917. His rifle was clean but his body was filthy. Seven days out. Most of it spent marching. Then three days of concentrated battle. No promise of leave. Who knew how much more action there’d be. His section was on a routine patrol. They were also looking for the wounded and the dead left behind by the advance. He hated doing it. They never found the wounded. There were none. Only the bodies of the dead. With their blank faces. He recognised every one.

They’re with the angels now, a chaplain once said in a sermon he was duty-bound to attend. Fuck that, the Master Corporal had said when they all bowed their heads to pray. A sergeant next to him heard this and said amen, brother.

There were shell holes and blasted trenches here. Each shell hole filled with rain water. The dead were often in these. Some floating; some held submerged by the weight of their kit. He stopped at the edge of a shell hole where he saw a body, face down in the water. Tully’s section wasn’t a burial detail. They’d only have to get the name on the dog tag and record the body’s location for later retrieval.

“Private Crumb,” the Master Corporal yelled. “Bring me the hook.”

A frightened boy arrived holding a pole upon which a hook had been securely tied with wire. The Master Corporal used it to reach out into the shell hole and hook the collar of the corpse’s greatcoat. He tugged and the body began to move toward him, a great fish intent upon beaching itself. The Master Corporal felt a deep and familiar apprehension then. The kind reserved for nightmares. The sound of shelling in the distance ceased, replaced by a loud hissing sound. He was alone now. His section had disappeared into a mist. He hesitated as the dead man came within reach. He wanted to drop the hook and run. Like he’d never run before. Even under fire. But then he crouched down, grabbed the dead man’s collar and pulled him out of the hole.

He saw the corpse’s grey face when he turned the body over. Contorted with its eyes and mouth opened wide, having died in mid-scream. There was a perfectly round and bloodless bullet hole perfectly placed in the centre of its forehead. And the foul odour of decomposition. He thought he saw the fingers twitch. But how could that be? Then the corpse resumed its scream. Impossible. A horrible and wretched noise. And the Master Corporal saw the echoing geography of it. It was a scream of headlands and gullies. The roads that ran through it. The gutted homes and foetid rivers. Ranks of the dead marching on to nowhere in lockstep. Then the corpse stopped its screaming and smiled. Its eyes at once dull and piercing. Its sudden exhalation smelling of the battlefield dead. And Edgar Tully awoke yelling. His fists clenched and raised. Swinging at the empty air.

Someone in the neighbouring room banged on the wall. “Shaddup in there,” a voice hollered. “I gotta get some sleep, gawd dammit.”

Edgar Tully sat by his window for the rest of the night. Sleep had left the room. Vimy Ridge was 25 years ago. He was forty-five now. The dreams and visions were never going to end. He took a pen and paper and wrote a short note.

In the morning he drove his Ford Coupe up the busy retail section of Commercial Drive, in the east end of the city. He expected it would be a standard handoff and delivery. He parked near Graveley Street and waited, reading a Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying. And he wondered how descending into Hades would differ from a morning of the Drive.

It looked like rain, but he left the passenger side window open. After ten minutes or so, a large man with a pencil moustache, wearing a freshly pressed summer suit,  walked by and dropped a fat leather satchel onto the car seat. Then he stuck his head through the open window. His face was doughy red and scarred, but his hair was Hollywood perfect.

“Take this to the Water Street office,” he said. “And by the way, this ain’t your average delivery, Tully. Better you should die than fuck this up.”

“I don’t fuck up,” Edgar Tully said. “That’s why you trust me.”

The big man dropped twenty dollars in tens onto the seat, and said, “Just sos you know. Experience tells me that the fatter the bag, the more likely a driver is to fuck it up. And you’ve been smelling like a real juicer lately. A man’s gotta be drinking most of the day and night to smell the way you do. Take a bath, brush your teeth and don’t dream of bettering yourself on my nickel. Get it?”

Edgar Tully looked back at the big man with his red and rheumy eyes. “Sure, Mr Vaccarino. I get it.”

“Swell.”

Tully reached out and placed his hand on the satchel as the big man disappeared into the crowd. He was feeling lucky for once. Hopeful. He’d done his planning. But he hadn’t planned on this.

He opened the bag. It contained several large bundles of bills. Twenties, fifties and hundreds. That’s how Tony Vaccarino’s customers paid him. Because they owed him big time. He counted it. It was over twenty thousand. The Water Street office would prepare it for laundering. He’d delivered envelopes there a thousand times before, but never a package this large. The big man’s business was improving. Tully started the car.

* * *

The Hotel Balmoral rose ten stories high over East Hastings Street and advertised Black Watch Chewing Tobacco on its side. It had never been a glamorous local and now it catered mostly to retired loggers and fishermen, transients and a few unemployed women thought to be of ambiguous character. Rachel Wild fit into the last category. Though it was a mystery to her how it had happened.

She lived in a room on the seventh floor, sitting at her window smoking most days, and watching the traffic pass below. It was from there, that day, that she saw Edgar Tully park his car and cross the busy street with a bag of groceries in his arms.

She got up and fixed her hair in a small mirror over the sink, busying herself tightening curls and repositioning bobby pins. Then she freshened her lipstick and stared for a long moment into the mirror. She was thirty-seven years old, and she wasn’t pleased with the wrinkles round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Her youth was gone and she resented it. She had a hazy resentment of her poverty, as well. Something inside of her always hurt. And though she would have had difficulty saying it politely, part of her was certain that only money could take the pain away.

There was a knock at the door. Rachel Wild let several seconds pass until there was another, this one quieter.

“Yes?” she said. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, baby. It’s Edgar.”

She put her ear gently against the door to listen closer. Sometimes she could hear him breathing. “Why, Edgar,” she said. “I had no idea you were coming.”

“Sure, baby. Why not? Let me in. I’ve brought you some things.”

“Some things?”

“Sure, baby. Groceries.”

“Groceries? Edgar, dear, you don’t need to bring me groceries.”

It was an absurd statement. She lived daily on the verge of starvation.

“Just let me in, baby.”

She opened the door and let him in. The room was long and narrow with dirty walls, dim light bulbs and exposed wiring. There was a dresser with chipped paint and a free-standing closet with a broken door. Beneath the window there was a small kitchen table and two metal chairs. On the table was an ashtray and a dog-eared copy of Women’s Own Magazine. He handed her the grocery bag and kissed her on the forehead.

“I’ll get you a drink,” she said, putting the groceries down.

“Ah, no,” he said, licking his lips.

“No?” she said. “Really? You okay?”

“Yeah, baby. Everything’s jake.” He looked at his feet for a moment and said, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

“Sure, Edgar. What’s goin’ on?”

He sat across from her at the table and took her hand.

“We’ve been swell together,” he said, “haven’t we, doll.”

“Sure, Edgar. It’s been okay.”

“We’ve had some real laughs, eh?”

“I guess. A few, I mean.”

“But I know I ain’t so good to be around,” Edgar said. “I get so low sometimes….”

“What’s happening, Edgar? I hate it when you get all serious like this.”

“It’s the dreams,” he said. “Baby, they’ve gotten real bad lately.”

“Oh,” she said, looking away, out of the window. “The dreams again.”

“Yeah. Look, I know you don’t get it about the dreams, and neither do I. But they make me crazy. My head’s a haunted cave. I see all of the shit from the war again and again. Only it’s weirder. It’s so spooky. I wake up screaming.”

“Well that war’s over, mister. Haven’t you heard?” She lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the window. “There’s a new war on now. Can’t we just go out and have some fun? It’d take your mind off of those lousy dreams, wouldn’t it? All you do is lie in that room of yours and drink yourself stupid. There’re a lot of Navy boys in town that wouldn’t mind havin’ me on their arm, you know.”

“I know it, baby. And I know it ain’t never gonna change for me. It’s just the way it is. So, listen to me. I want you to wait an hour after I leave, then read this letter.” He slid an envelope across the table to her.

“Sure, Edgar,” Rachel said, taking the envelope. “But you’re kinda scarin’ me. You look all crazy in the eyes.”

“Never mind what I look like, see? Just do what I tell you, understand?”

He stood then and took her by the arm, lifting her out of her chair. He held for a moment, long enough to search for something in her eyes. Maybe he found it there; maybe not. Then he kissed her too hard on the lips, joylessly and without passion. But with rage and shame. His fingers dug into her shoulders and she would have screamed if she could. Then he let her go, threw her away almost. And he disappeared out the door.

Vancouver 1949

Detective Olaf Brandt laid a court order on Dench’s desk and said, “We Norwegians are more than the jowly, bellicose race that the world sometimes takes us for, Crispin.”

“I never said otherwise,” Crispin Dench said.

“The case file please,” Olaf Brandt said. “And perhaps you wouldn’t mind sitting with me while I read it through. You can help me understand those bits I find ambiguous.”

Dench retrieved the file in question after reading the court order and deciding it was legit. It wasn’t a thick file. Dench hadn’t had to do much after he promised Rachel Wild complete confidentiality, and that he wouldn’t go to the police with what he found. He returned to his office with it, and Brandt read the file in ten minutes.

“It wasn’t a simple caper,” Dench said. “More of an inspired heart-breaker, really. But I’m not the crying type.

“The envelope he’d given Rachel Wild contained a suicide note. For Edgar Tully, the dreams and memories of World War One had become too much.

“Rachel had waited an hour, as requested, before opening it and reading the note. That’s something she says she’ll always regret. By then she didn’t know what to do. She hates the cops and never went to them. She went to the street instead, and looked for him there. Asked the people she knew and didn’t know. She made such a show of it, that later on it didn’t take much to convince Tony Vaccarino that she really didn’t know where Tully was.

“That was important. Because Edgar Tully was an errand boy for Tony Vaccarino, a soon to be made man. It was Vaccarino’s money that Tully had placed in the bottom of the grocery bag he’d dropped off at Rachel’s that day. All twenty grand of it. He meant it as a rainy day fund for a girl who’d spent her whole life standing in the rain.

“After that, I figure Tully punched his own ticket. Drove his Ford into the lagoon as it turns out. But not before he bought a reserved room on a train to Montreal and paid someone else to board instead of him. That someone must have gotten off before the train even hit the prairies, because the train manifest showed a man using Tully’s ticket boarding, but that person never got off in Montreal. And Vaccarino had his people at most of the stops between here and there.

“It looked like Tully had skipped town with the cash and vanished into thin air. And that let everyone he knew off the hook. Vaccarino leaned on them, but how hard could he lean when it appeared obvious that Tully had gotten away with all of the cash.

“So, now they’ve found him in the lagoon. I read it in the papers yesterday morning. I guess that’s how Tully ended it all. And I guess that’s why you’re so interested, suddenly. Probably drove his car in that night. We know Vaccarino didn’t put him there, because Vaccarino couldn’t find him. And if he had, he would have made Tully’s execution a community event, to warn others with similar ideas.”

“This file,” Brandt said. “It says none of what you just told me.”

“Sometimes I forget to write things down.”

“That could be considered withholding evidence, in a thin sort of way.”

“So call a cop.”

The two men stared at each other across the desk for a few seconds. Then Brandt closed the file and said, “Repeating what you just told me would be bad for Rachel Wild.”

“Yes it would,” Dench said. “So, what are you going to do about it?”

“She still lives at the Hotel Balmoral,” said Brandt. “It’s a dump. Why do you think she didn’t buy a nice little house?”

“Maybe she likes it there,” Dench said. “Or maybe she’s smart. It wouldn’t take long for Vaccarino to figure things out if she made a move like that. Maybe she decided to just paint the place and buy some new furniture. Maybe even a new pair of shoes. Maybe now she can buy fresh flowers everyday, brighten the place up.”

Brandt slid the file back to Dench, across the desktop. “Maybe this should remain a mystery,” he said.

“That would be preferable to the situation,” said Dench.

 

 

 

 

the soup line

Whiskey’s hard to get to know. A guy can spend his whole life trying, trying real hard. But in the end, laying there, raving in his wet brain hospital bed, with the priest shriving and the Catholic sisters tut-tutting, he doesn’t know whiskey any better than the day he met his first amber shot glass. And when he finally checks out, there isn’t enough left of him to look a friend in the eye and thank him for a hell of a good time.

Lots of guys turn to booze, sure. But Arson Willkie waited until misfortune whispered into his unguarded ear. He didn’t meet whiskey until after the trouble hit. So, I guess Arson was a drunk in the waiting. His reason and biology just itching to jump out of the window, when the moment was right. And you can’t help a guy like that. He isn’t going to take the pledge. He knows his feverish way of drinking is suicide. But if you say so, he’ll just ask why it’s taking so damn long.

The times of apple pie and stacked ham sandwiches ended when the market went bust in ’29. That’s when I first ran into Arson Willkie. Like him, most of the men who ended up in the soup line had been working in the woods, mining or fishing off the coast. Vancouver was where we landed, a stockpile of excess labour waiting for high noon.

A working man can be a fragile item, and our new found unemployment and poverty unnerved us. The women in the line had to be stoic on our behalf, as we queued up with our tin cups, meditating on the riots to come. The dismal relief camps hadn’t been thought of yet, and the conversation in line was about striking, occupying, pain and protest.

It was a rainy afternoon in February when Arson Willkie showed up in the city dump soup line, the day he finally gave in to his hunger. That’s the way it was with a lot of us, being too proud for too long for the good of our own bellies. At first, a guy would recognise things had gotten tough, but believed that hunger would never overtake him. But in 1929, hunger was catching up to everyone. The same way sleeping in a flea mansion flophouse or squatting in the dump was.

Before the crash had closed down the mills and logging operations, Arson had been a blunt, profane gang foreman, who’d rode a motorcycle from camp to camp, wearing leather jodhpurs, goggles and high laced logging boots, in full charge of himself and the men around him. Now he was at the mercy of a stony world. Maybe he always had been, but never knew it.

A soup line moves slowly; it gives a guy time to think about the ways he’s gone wrong. The march toward the tall steaming pots was nothing more than an ankle iron shuffle, while a preacher, standing on a beer crate, busted a gut over the mercy of Jesus and the grace He’d bestowed upon us, even those in league with Satan, because for a simple down payment of a forgiveness prayer, and a commitment to sin no more, Jesus would greet a man with open arms.

The trick was that a man had to find Jesus to enjoy salvation, like a drowning man might have to take time out from drowning, in the midst of his thrashing and gasping, to find his own rescuer to pull him out of the choppy grasp of the chuck. It was a strange kind of logic, only understood by those blinded by a certain sort of light. For the rest of us, it was just a Victrola playing backward.

Arson was greeted by some of the men in line, fore and aft, on his first day. But he held his head down, in the shame the new ones sometimes showed, the ones who’d thought that they were different and would survive, with a grin, what was shaping up to be the Great Depression. He took his tin cup, and rambled up to the soup pots, and the church women, with their ascetic calm and blame assigning eyes.

One of them handed him some bread and emptied her ladle into his cup.

“Say a thankful prayer to Jesus, friend,” she said.

Jesus was on furlough if He didn’t know, without a prayer, how grateful Arson was for his crummy little cup of soup and slice of sawdust bread. And he wanted to say so, but the woman’s terrible earnestness was a sword and shield, and he was unarmed.

“I prayed last night,” he said, gentler than he felt. “Before I went to sleep here in the rain, and I woke with a rat in my beadroll. Jesus sure is a puzzling fella.”

The woman blushed. Not for what Arson had said, but for how he had said it. It didn’t come out verbose, like so many other penniless censures of the obvious. And she feared him. She recognised the latent fury and subversion in his unshaven face, and saw a storm, of other men’s making, on his horizon.

“Well, that’s fine,” she muttered. “You move along, now.”

And he did.

What the church woman didn’t know was that even a man like Arson Willkie ached for passage into the mystic, same as her. But he knew it wasn’t in the cards for a bum in a squat, who didn’t belong anymore, who’d been pegged surplus by the world. He couldn’t reach the divine, riding on the same Sunday school chauvinism as her. And that night he spent his last dollar on his first bottle of hard liquor. It was the first and last bottle he ever shared. Within days, he’d taken to the streets, begging for pennies to buy more.

For a decade, I watched him drink like a true believer in the salvation of self-annihilation, during the chaos and hobo uprisings, and for another five years after that, as we fought through Europe, him drinking what he could find along the way, and detoxing painfully when there was nothing. He was hip deep in his own strange divinity, by then. By the time we were demobilised, he was ready for the soup line again, even though the Depression was over. He removed his stripes and badges, and sold his medals, then he slept in his fatigues for two years before he ended up in Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, tied to a bed.

I was there the moment he died, his wild eyes gone blind and his mind tied to a rock.

“You there, Mickey?” he said, sensing my company. I stood by the bed.

“I am,” I said.

“Got a drink for your ol’ sergeant?”

A nurse in the room looked up form a chart.

“Sorry, Arson,” I said. “There’s a no hooch order in effect.”

“That never stopped us.”

I looked at the nurse, and said, “I think the order sticks in this vicinity.”

“Do you think I’ll see God?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied. I wasn’t religious. But in the war, I’d lied to a lot of dying men asking after God. “God’ll be there,” I said, “behind the bar with a bottle and a jigger.”

“That’s a fine picture, Mickey.”

His hand was cold but strong when I took it. Another thing I recalled from comforting the dying at war.

“I guess there’s nothing after this, for a fella like me,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Nothingness can be a fine thing, though,” he said. “Quiet as a forest after a rain.” His grip on my hand weakened.

Arson Willkie died in the ghostly isolation of the insane, his hasty spirit blowing town like a guy dodging a loan shark, riding his motorcycle on a highway somewhere toward his own Heaven, before God knew a damn thing about it. A couple of days later, I poured a swallow onto his grave, and left the rest of the bottle at his tombstone. It was February, and it was raining.

how I came to be in prison

There was this guy I was letting sleep on my couch. He was eating me out of house and home. Which was a real drag because I’d lost my job at the 7-Eleven for stealing Slurpees and lottery tickets.

Now I was looking at the ATM keypad for the button I needed. The one that said: anything that’s left. It wasn’t there. I needed the same button on my life. There wasn’t one there, either.

My chequing account was nearly empty, anyway. What was there would be eclipsed by banking service charges soon enough. I had dimes in my pocket, and an old man with a walker wheezing behind me. I pulled my card from the slot and split.

Hunger is a planet orbiting itself. It’s its own moon and sun. And it’s pale in the sky. No one can see it, who isn’t looking for it. And its inhabitants can only see the grim surface, and feel its core burn in their bellies.

I was a new life, recently born to the hunger planet. I’d never seen it in the sky. I’d never looked. And I‘d never be a good citizen. I know I’d steal a rocket ship and escape its gravity, like a scene out of a Spielberg flick.

But first I had to dump the metaphor, and get concrete.

I sat down on the sidewalk and put an empty Starbucks cup in front of me. It was a Grande. I figured a Venti was pushing it. I didn’t want to seem greedy.

They didn’t call this begging anymore, which made me happy. Now it was called panhandling. That made it sound like a vocation, that you got a student loan to learn. It sounded like Florida or part of Alaska. Two places that looked mighty handsome on a map, all green and bumpy. I could live with that.

The first person to drop coins into the cup was a four year old. Her mother had given her the change and sent her over. I guess it was a lesson in charity. Either that or mom was too scared of me to do it herself. Better the kid got jumped by the bum, than her. She probably had a yoga class she couldn’t miss later on.

The second person was an old broad, hooked up to an oxygen tank she carried on a dolly behind her. She gave me a buck and started telling me about a day in 1962 when she wore a bikini to the beach and met Wayne Newton, who felt her up later that night in his hotel room. Then she lit a cigarette and blew smoke out of her nose past the oxygen tube nose piece. She forgot who she was after that, and just walked away.

The third person was a guy in a suit who gave me a quarter, and acted like he was the IMF bailing out Somalia. He asked me if I’d heard of Jesus, and I said I was letting Him sleep on my couch and that I couldn’t leave beer in the fridge because He drank it all.

The suit guy seemed a little upset hearing this. So, he called me a dirty blasphemer, and said that I deserved my poverty and would burn in hell because that’s the Christian way.

And I said, “Okay, I’ll tell Jesus to go over and sleep on your couch.”

And he said, “Fine, I’d be blessed to have Jesus sleep on my couch.”

And I said, “You better hide your beer.”

And he said, “I’ve had just about enough of you.”

And I said, “Then why don’t you go tell some Buddhist he’s going to hell, and leave me alone.”

And that’s when he kicked me.

So, I got up and slapped him one in the face. And he started yelling that I’d assaulted him. So, I pushed him out into traffic, just as the downtown bus was rolling by. And bammo! He was a stain on the grill of the ol’ number five. But I guess he went to heaven. I hope he hides his beer from you know Who.

Then there was the ambulance and the fire department and two cops named Ray and Natalie, who looked real nice together, and I told them so. Anyway, they cuffed me and took me in. And the psychiatrist said I wasn’t nuts, just a little stupid. So, they sent me to prison.

That’s how I got here.

Jesus comes to visit now and then, but he’s about the only one. He says he’s staying at a Motel 6 now, out on the highway, with the ice machine just outside of his room. I could tell you more about that, but it’s time for ceramics class.

the angel of 1913

a new year’s day story

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 she crossed the street and disappeared into the dark, wet city.

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)