lost ironies

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Tag: Romance

first date

you should know, my dear
that there is no romance
like the romance of rhyme

& not just the sound
of sounds in time

but the spoil & echo of a night judged too long
when someone’s left weeping
& the air lush with wrong

________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

a Vancouver moment

“Oh Bjorn,” asked Winola, “what ever will become of us?” .

“Don’t worry, Doll Face,” Bjorn said. “This town has never seen a Finnish tap dancer like me. I’ll take this city by storm.”

“But, Bjorn…,” Winola said, with a hopeless whimper.

“What is it Sweet Cheeks?”

“People in Vancouver hate Finnish tap dancing.”

“Then I may have to rely on ventriloquism, Cupcake,” said Bjorn. “Come on over and sit on my knee and only move your lips when I speak, Kitten Whiskers.”

“What a wonderful idea,” Winola said. “The world will be our oyster.”

“That’s right, boo-boo-blossom!”

“But Bjorn?”

“Yeah, Sugar Britches?”

“Would you please just call me by my real name?”

“Certainly, Love Chicken, but what the hell is your real name?”

 

 

 

 

 

fez

The guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it becomes short bursts. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity. The sticky darkness adhering to it, giving it weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs also wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks Absinthe. He listens to opera on his Victrola, too. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the Absinthe. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish Cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he yelled. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He had a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You are no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered, and then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot for emphasis. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point would have been insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top.

Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I never knew the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold, and they believe it when they hear it. No matter how incredible or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. That is woman’s greatest flaw. Is that my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top. Two, three, four of spades onto that.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouted. Another slap, hard this time. And the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!” Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I would take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor, small feet, high heels. The door upstairs slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark reddish stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t be such a big deal no more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the Absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.

my cheating psychosis — a hurtin’ poem

lie to me, I have said to the voices
tell me I’m the only one
not that the silent nights come
only when you’ve slipped away
to waltz with other minds

tell me that I’m yours, alone
that in this broken down alleyway
when all night you have surrounded me
and synapsis and neurons
are planets in the sky
and we have clutched and made love
until only the sidewalks of dawn remain
tell me that there is no one else
that each of you speaks
only to me

the daemon casket

Vancouver 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ goddam ’72 Chevrolet.”

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

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

“Felicia,” Gatti said again, monotone.

There was a blunt pause.

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

“She just came to mind.”

“That don’t mean you gotta say it.”

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

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

“Alright, alright.”

Another silence, then –

“She was okay,” said Costantini.

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

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

“Meant to fail?”

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

“And you with a busted heart.”

Costantini sipped his beer.

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

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

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

“Drop it.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

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

“Dye pack,” said Costantini.

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

“Chump deserved to do time.”

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

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

“Windsor somewheres. Said she was from there.”

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

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

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

“Then shut the fuck up.”

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

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

1975

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wicks weren’t no gumba, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When she woke, he immediately asked her –

“Would you go home, if you could?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-two.”

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

“Maybe I ran an errand,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“Fucking, eh,” Panelli said.

The two men high-fived.

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“Then they’ll want in,” said Panelli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck around!” said Zaro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Read me a couple, then,” Ricco said.

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

“C’mon.”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Sandroni’s Florists, down the Drive.”

“That funeral place?”

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

“They’d better.”

“They do.”

“This better not be bullshit, Ricco.”

“It ain’t.”

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

“Whatever….”

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

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

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, I told you it was weird.”

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

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

“Really? Holly shit!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he said. “I won’t ask again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?” she said.

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

“But why give it to me?”

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

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

“That’s a gun,” she said.

He straightened and zipped up his jacket.

“Why do you have a gun?”

“Because. Just forget it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll fucking go,” he said.

“No.”

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

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

She didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Ricco, and walked away.

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

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

1995

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

“Never,” said Ricco.

“Nothin’?”

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

“Did you cash it?”

“Nah.”

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

“Johnny the pimp.”

“Got his pinky cut off.”

“Fuckin’ pimp.”

“Waddaya gonna do?”

“Fuckin’ Johnny the pimp.”

“Without his goddam pinky.”

have a day

Image

Stella Garfield

1969

As a child I lived on East Broadway in Vancouver, right next to an ancient, once elegant Victorian home that had been converted into a boarding-house. It was owned and run by a Portuguese couple named Joseph and Maria. Joseph was a carpenter; Maria attended beauty school. They were not the only Portuguese people I have ever known, but they were the first. Later I discovered that the Portuguese, a people of the Mother Church, habitually named their children Joseph or Maria, perhaps in hopes of tilting the odds in favour of divine future outcomes. But even though Joseph and Maria were devoted Catholics and not indifferent to the possibility of having passed on celestial genes, they were also people of the new world. So, when their first child, a boy, happened along, they named him Mitchell.

Mitch was my age. We were chums, and during a time when the world had seemingly taken a temporary hiatus away from eating its children alive, we had the whole of our own section of the east end of Vancouver in which to run free. We lived on the edge of a rain forest, however. And many was the day when the two of us, eight year olds both and savage with unspent, self-indulgent energy, would sit looking out at the rain soaked world with nothing to do. No comic or storybook, no matchbox toy, not even the glorious invasion of my sisters’ Barbie collections with the inevitable imposition our sadistic, little boy brand of fascist stricture could hold our attention for long. Mitch and I were born to be wild. We were creatures of the secret shortcut, the gravel shouldered side street, the vacant lot and abandoned playground.

At the time, the boarding-house concept was on its way out. Vancouver was becoming a city of apartment dwellers. Loggers, fishermen and miners, long the traditional mainstays of the boarding-house economy, were starting to earn living wages and could afford to buy homes. As a result, their operation was only a meagre supplement to Joseph and Maria’s income. On top of this was the sad fact that boarding-house tenants were never the most reliable subset. During the late sixties, however, this got even worse. The hippie movement was at its most robust and organic, still yet to be monetised by soulless corporations through its transformation from philosophy to fashion. The transient population of the city, a slippery group at best, was becoming even more mobile, fluid and unapologetic. Adopting an acronym frequently encountered in the daily news, Joseph, in his musical broken English, came to call those who skipped on rent MIAs. They were missing in action, often leaving most of the rentable rooms in the house vacant. For Mitch and I, this meant opportunity. There was rainy day adventure to be had in the empty rooms still buzzing with the eccentric energy of former tenants.

We often discovered abandoned pieces of the MIAs lives, left behind in closets and chests of drawers. There were guitars and fishing rods, vinyl LPs and wax 78s, a shiny green jacket and pants my father, upon inspection, declared, with some whimsy in his voice, to be a zoot suit. There were girlie magazines that Mitch and I, at our tender age, found strangely fascinating but difficult to comprehend. Once there was music box containing a ring of undetermined value that Maria took custody of. There were multiple harmonicas, a carved walking stick, hats, eye glasses, dresses, row upon row of shoes, power tools, photo albums, pulpy paperback novels, half empty bottles of liquor, incomplete diaries of incomplete lives, an artificial leg and even a rifle that Joseph said was cheap and dangerous after holding it for only a moment.

The boarding-house was like a mysterious castle that Mitch and I had at our disposal. We dashed from room to room playing cops and robbers, spy versus spy and complex, daylong, running games of hide and seek. And it was during one of these that Mitch and I discovered a moveable panel on the second floor, a false wall that opened into a hidden, windowless room. Inside there was an oddly shaped light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a worn wire, but no switch on the wall. We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dim light. The walls of the room were covered with a pale flowered paper. There were framed watercolours hung, land and seascapes along with three or four portraits. Placed against the wall opposite the secret doorway was what Maria called a vanity. It was like a writing desk with a large oval mirror attached to the back. Beneath a thick layer of dust was a busy collection of unidentifiable bric-a-brac, a vase containing a long withered bouquet and an ornate kerosene lamp. All of these things placed upon an intricately spun doily that hung glamorously over the sides.

“This is where a lady would do her hair and put on her face,” Maria said.

She picked up an antique frame from the vanity top and dusted it with her sleeve. The picture was of a smiling young man and woman wearing old fashioned hats and long coats. There were buttons on the woman’s boots. It was autumn or winter and they stood at what looked like EnglishBay, holding hands.

“Maybe this was her,” Maria said, and reverently placed the frame back on the vanity.

There was a matching chair placed in front of the vanity. After Maria checked the drawers for contraband, Mitch and I each claimed half of the seat and rifled through them looking for loot. We found a card of Millar’s Patented Platinum Bobby Pins, a hairbrush and hand mirror Maria said were made of ivory and very valuable and many other items we assumed to be too old to be accurately interpreted by anybody. Holding up a small tin I’d found, I tried to read a strange, new word on the label. Roog, I said. Mitch laughed, but a strange voice behind us said, “That’s rouge, honey. The girls use lipstick nowadays, but way back when it was rouge or nothin.’”

“Hello, Miss Stella,” Maria said to an elderly woman in a tattered floral housedress standing in the doorway to the hidden room with a cigarette burning down to her knuckles.

“Looks like you’ve found a secret compartment, there fellas,” Miss Stella said. “Lucky there wasn’t the remains of some fair damsel in here for you to discover as well. Don’t tell a soul about this, though, or they’ll be linin’ up to get in and pilfer yer swag. Time and this old house’ve saved this up fer you, so protect it with yer lives. If you’re able.”

Mitch and I stared at the old woman, mouths agape. Maria smiled politely.

“Brought you yer rent, Maria,” Stella said holding out an envelope. “Joseph did a good job repairing the head. Thank him for me, will ya.”

“Yes, Miss Stella. Thank you, Miss Stella.”

“And you boys look out for trapdoors in this here old floor.” Stella said this while stamping the heel of her worn slipper down on the bare floorboards. “A trapdoor will swallow you up faster than a shark knocks back a lazy Polynesian. An old house like this has got trapdoors galore, you betcha. I know what I’m saying, mind you. Lost someone important through a trapdoor once. There one second, gone the next. No time for good-byes. Just a lot of empty space where he’d been standing only moments before.”

“Trapdoors?” I said looking to Maria.

“Yup,” said Stella. “And who’s to say where they’ll lead to in an old barn like this. Not over the rainbow, I’ll tell you that much. One or both of you could end up in the lap of something carnivorous.”

“Thank you, Miss Stella,” Maria said.

“Well I guess you’re right, Maria. No point scaring the little darlings, is there? World’s a rotating horror show as it is without me adding paragraphs. Tragedy and tears, tragedy and tears. TTFN, everyone,” Stella said walking away with a half-hearted wave.

“Who was that,” I said.

“Stella Garfield,” Mitch said. “An actress.”

“She’s no actress anymore,” said Maria. “Now she’s just an old lady. The upstairs tenant. She was here when we moved in.”

“What’s TTFN, Mamma?” Mitch said.

“I don’t know, Baby. But she says it a lot.”

We continued our search, pulling each drawer all of the way out so we could fully inspect it. On the bottom of one I found an envelope fastened with brittle yellowing tape. On it were written, in an old fashioned hand, the words To Rebecca. Mitch stopped to watch me remove the envelope.

“What’s inside?” he said.

Shrugging, I checked the back to see if it was sealed. It wasn’t, so I opened it and pulled out the letter it contained. There was more of the same handwriting. If I’d had the word in my vocabulary at the time, I would have called it elegant. It was dated June 26, 1915.

Dearest Rebecca,                          

I write this to you under the most difficult of circumstances, but I must inform you of what has transpired. I have joined the Seaforth Highlanders and will soon leave for training and then sail for England.

I know that you forbade me to do this thing, but what is a man in these times that sits at home while others of his generation fight and die in France? Your reasons for me remaining home and avoiding the fray have merit, but you are not a man. You cannot know the weight of the anxiety that comes from not joining the fight.

Forgive the brevity of this letter, but what more is there to say. I love you with all of my heart, but I must go join my brothers.

I pray to God that you can forgive me. For going off to war without your forgiveness will be the first and, possibly, the most egregious wound of my service.

I will not embarrass you with pursuit. But if you wish to see me once more, meet me at the Carnegie Library in the west reading room where we have sat together so many times before. I will be there waiting for you on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. If you do not come, I will know that I have lost you to this decision of mine.           

All of my love,

William 

I understood very little of the letter, except for its unmistakeable gravity. I gave it to Mitch to read. He shook his head. Then I carefully placed it back in the envelope and later put it into a pocket atlas for protection.

After that the hidden room became the discovered room. Joseph, being a carpenter by trade, cursed himself for a fool for not spotting the anomaly in the existing floor space from the start. After inspecting the discovered room to ensure Mitch that there were no trapdoors, Joseph spent three hours comparing the floor plans and found nothing else. The impossible promise of finding another hidden cell, however, kept Mitch and me searching until Christmas.

Now that I had met Stella Garfield, she became a recognisable member of the neighbourhood. Soon she was employing me, on an infrequent basis, paying me nickels and dimes to carry her grocery bags and bring her milk delivery up to her rooms from the front porch. Summer approached and with the improved weather, Stella and I often sat together on folding lawn chairs in the backyard of the roaming-house. I was fascinated by her. She was an endless source of stories and tricky wisdom, but my mother was cautious.

“She’s a sweet old gal,” my mother said. “But she’s lonely. She likes having you around, so she makes things up.”

But even though I recognised my mother to be a reliable source on almost all topics, I sensed something suspicious in her near vilification of Stella. Stella had, after all, been in show business during the end of what she called the Vaudeville era. She’d also performed in what she referred to as burlesque – a word Stella almost whispered and would say with a wink. She spoke of exotically named music halls and theatres that had existed in mystical cities, and even here in Vancouver. In my childish mind the theatre names resonated. My nostalgic father confirmed and repeated them. In Vancouver itself were The York, The Capitol, The Majestic, The Orpheum and The Pantages. We located the cities Stella mentioned on a National Geographic map of North America; Toronto, New York, Calgary, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Moose Jaw, Cincinnati, Pensacola, Halifax and Kalamazoo.

Stella’s own sincerity in the matter was confirmed for me by two things. First was a dilapidated photo album containing black and white pictures of a much younger, far more robust Stella wearing show costumes. Among others were photos of Stella in a line of dancing girls, at a makeup table, signing autographs, in a costume consisting of a gigantic array of ostrich feathers playfully boxing with a stage clown, and, the clincher, on a street in a city Stella said was Manhattan with a man I recognised as Bob Hope. It was signed To Stella, Break a leg, baby! Bob. Second was her reaction the one time I called her an actress. She was adamantly opposed.

“I wasn’t ever an actress,” Stella said. “Never some flighty, high maintenance prima donna. I was a singer, a hoofer, a chorus girl. I was an entertainer, a trooper. There was never a star on my door. Ha! Sometimes there wasn’t even a damn door.”

Showing Stella the letter from the discovered room was an exercise in show and tell. But also, I had become aware that the tiny missive disturbed me. In my mind, the two characters connected to the letter had lived out their lives and were now dead. The world they had left behind, with their thin transparent residue upon it, was now dust and cobwebs. Indeed, a room of it had been sealed shut, hidden for what may have been decades. Though unconventional, they were nonetheless ghosts. They haunted me, tapping on my shoulder and forcing me to turn and look at nothing there.

“They’re dead,” I said to Stella as I presented the letter.

“How can you be certain, David?” she said.

“The letter is so old, 1915. It’s 1969 now.”

“Yes, but how old am I? Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m 81 years old,” Stella said. “That means that when the century turned, I was already twelve years old. I was older than you are now. I’m still kickin’, aren’t I? I’m probably even older than Rebecca.”

“Yes, but the man went to war.”

“Not everyone who goes to war dies, David, though some wish they had. And not everyone who claims to be going off to war actually arrives there.”

“Where are they, then?” I said.

“Who can say?” Stella said taking the letter from me and struggling with her glasses. “Maybe they’re in the boneyard, or maybe they live in a castle on a mountain. Now, let me read this.”

I watched as Stella’s eyes scanned the sheet of yellowed paper. By the end, she was frowning. She let her hands drop into her lap and said, “Men are stinkers. Unfortunately, my dear, you’re a member of an iniquitous sex. Try to stay a child as long as you can.”

“Was he bad?”

“Not bad,” Stella said. “Perhaps not even mildly so. But when all sense tells a body to hide and be safe, most men ignore it and run into the fire. Maybe William didn’t; it’s possible something happened to interfere. Most likely, though, he put on his dandy little uniform and marched like a noble and obedient fool right into the shit, pardon my French.” She was quiet for a moment. “I knew someone like him once, a reasonable enough young man with a kind heart and good intentions. A handsome face and pale blue eyes.” She smiled but there were suddenly tears on her cheeks.

“Did he go to war?” I said.

“He most certainly did. The same damn stupid war as William.”

“Was he okay?”

“No,” Stella said. “He came home, but he was never okay again.”

“A friend?”

“Yes,” Stella said looking for something in my eyes. “If a man can ever be a lover and a friend.”

“What happened?”

Stella thought a moment and said, “You ever hear the saying, When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail?”

“No.”

“Well,” Stella said. “There is such a saying, and it applied to him after he got back, and in spades. They made a hammer out of him, and he made me his nail.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, that’s what I remember saying an awful lot – oh.”

“He hurt you?”

“Yes, but I recovered. He did not.”

“What happened to him?”

“I sent him away,” Stella said. “I never really expected him to go, of course. I couldn’t imagine life without him. But when I showed him the door, he faded faster than cheap wallpaper. Once in ’32, when I was on an extended date at The Pantages, I saw him in the front row. By then I wasn’t hoofin’ anymore, just singing, and I’d earned my own dressing room. No star of course, out of principle. After the show, someone knocked at my door. But I sat very still and ignored it.”

“Was it him?”

“I’m almost certain it was. But a moment or two after he knocked, he walked away. I remember listening to his footsteps fade as he walked back down the hall, and there’s me sitting there like a scared kid waiting for a piano to drop on my head. But it never dropped.”

* * * *

At the end of summer, Stella died. Joseph found her on her threshold. It had been a massive stroke. Fast, my consoling mother said. A week before it happened, Mitch and I came across Stella in the discovered room. She sat at the vanity Maria had restored to showroom condition and upon which she had arranged all of the found artefacts. Stella was wearing one of her threadbare floral housedresses. She gazed into the mirror brushing her long white hair with the ivory brush. It was like she was lost in a trance. We stood in the doorway watching and listened as Stella hummed a then unfamiliar tune.