lost ironies

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Tag: Satan

the exorcist

The exorcist hunkered down in the alley, between two dumpsters. He was a rumpled man in a shabby dark suit and grubby clerical collar. There was a crucifix on a chain round his neck. A windstorm had put the power out. The city was dark. He’d have lit a candle if he could.

“Is this you?” he said, looking up at the Man standing over him. “The windstorm, I mean.”

“I don’t deal in windstorms,” said the Man. “I deal in souls.”

“Yes, I see. That’s very clever.”

The Man was dressed in a glossy teal sharkskin suit and alligator shoes.

“Are you prepared for the girl?” He said.

The girl? The exorcist turned some pages in his head, and there she was. Innocent, very young. Said to be crawling across the ceiling. Possessed. He had an appointment with her and her mother in an hour.

“I’m ready,” he said, lighting a cigarette. He took a flask from his jacket pocket and drained the liquor from it in two gulps.

“And try to make it look like something this time,” said the Man. “Throw in a little of that old Catholic witchcraft. The last one was a little too in-and-out.”

“Fine. Witchcraft. I’ll make a note.”

“You resent me instructing you, don’t you. Still, after all of this time.”

Resent, thought the exorcist. Yes. The Man was God, after all. Resentment, even disappointment, were inevitable. Besides, exorcism was for youngsters. The exorcist was ready for retirement.

“You don’t need me,” he said. “You could handle all of this just fine on your own. From a distance, too. You’d never even have to leave your living room, and I could settle down, maybe read a little.”

“But I like a good show,” said God.

“You’re a sadist.”

The exorcist opened his bag and rummaged. Everything was there, at least enough to get him through the next gig.

“Remember that thing you did for me in ’74,” God said, “in Genoa?”

“Yeah, that was rather good,” the exorcist snorted. “Satan wasn’t expecting me to put the old broad into a tub of holy water, and use the host as bath salts. The tabloids loved it.”

“They still do that bathtub thing, you know.”

“I know.” The exorcist smiled and drew hard on his cigarette. There was at least some joy in all of this. Even if it came out of events that happened so long ago.

“We’re good together,” said God, “you and me.”

“But I’m sixty-nine years old now. I need some rest.”

“Yes,” God said, “I know all things.” He lit a cigarette of His own.

“Then you know that this’ll be my last exorcism,” the exorcist said. “Then it’s quits-Ville.”

“You’ll hate retirement. There’s no glory in it, no honour.”

Honour and glory. The exorcist shook his head.

“You know,” he said, “you’ve coerced me into doing this, and I have nothing to show for it, no friends, no property, no family. And I’m still a virgin. All I have is a headful of fragmented memories, distorted by tragedy and time, and absolutely meaningless. My devotion has run out, and you’re to blame.”

“You took your vows,” God said.

“Yeah? Well fuck the vows. What could they possibly mean to you, anyway? You’re not Catholic. Hell, you’re not even Christian. You have no religion. You’re God.”

“Try to keep that part to yourself, please. It’s bad for business.”

“I’ve met a woman, by the way,” the exorcist said. “She’s very beautiful. She reads beautiful books, and she goes to beautiful movies. She says that she loves my smile, when I smile, which is rare I know. Her name is Rose. We’ve become close, and she brought up the whole vow thing the other day. She’s worried that I might be making too great a sacrifice in loving her.”

God looked down upon His alligator shoes, dropped His cigarette and snuffed it out. Then He sighed and said, “Religion is just politics, you know. Just a matter of opinions and tribalism.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t give a damn what two people do together, or that one of them is a priest, as long as no one gets hurt, outside of the usual hurt that comes with love.”

“She likes caramel corn,” said the exorcist. “There’s a place downtown that makes it from scratch. It’s her favourite.”

“Yes,” said God. “I know all things.”

the woman in the red raincoat

Vancouver, 1949

Trudy Parr had been falling all of her life. It was an enduring dream. From a hotel room window, high over the street. She would open it and edge out, earnest in her aim, nauseous from the height. And, having written her brief neatly folded note of apology, she’d fall. Past flags and lighted windows, the moon and tresses of neon, the redemptive pavement rushing toward her. Since childhood. But she had always woken before impact. In her bed, in the dark of night or grey dawn, hearing perhaps a lonesome bird just outside.

But not that night. That night she didn’t wake before shattering like a mirror, seeing herself reflected ten thousand times.

Now she sat on the edge of her bed, smoking a cigarette, seeing the concrete, reliving the stunning ruby flash.

It was 4 a.m.

From her window, she saw the freighters on English Bay shine like cities on the water. It was early July. The sun would be prodding the eastern horizon. She looked west. Her dream had had the density of stone. It would have sunk into the bay, had there been a way.

She snuffed out her cigarette, and had a shower.

10 am Commercial Drive

“Caffè lungo and Cornetti,” said Trudy Parr. “Have you seen Melisa?”

“She no come in yet today,” said Tony Nuzzo, in his broken English, starting Trudy’s order. “That’s strange because she’s usually in round eight o’clock. She come in yesterday, but she very sad I think.”

“Sad?”

“She gets that way, you know?”

“Yes.” Trudy knew. Melisa Patton did get sad. They’d been friends of all their lives, and she could remember Melisa’s long years of sadness. She was an artist, a painter of stunning canvases, sold in galleries as far away as New York and London.

“You take a table,” Tony Nuzzo told Trudy. “I bring it to you.”

Trudy sat by the widow. Commercial Drive was a busy east Vancouver high street, in an Italian neighbourhood. Through the window she saw merchants and customers hurry by. Tony Nuzzo arrived with her order. He’d placed two small chocolate cookies next to her Cornetti.

“A little chocolate for you,” he said. “You too thin, Miss Parr.”

After twenty years in Canada, Tony Nuzzo still held onto old country ideas. “A man likes a woman with a little width, if you don’t mind me to say so.”

Trudy smiled.

“I’d like to sit down with you,” Nuzzo said. “May I?”

“Of course.”

“Grazie, grazie.” Nuzzo sat. “It’s about your friend, Melisa. It’s none-a-my-business, but she really didn’t look so good yesterday. She’s pale. No smile. No, Hello Tony, how you today? And it’s July. It’s warm. But wears this paint stained sweater, long sleeves. And I see bandages poking out. Some dry blood. Her wrists, maybe her whole arms, wrapped in bandages.”

Trudy tried not to look worried. She’d attempted to return Melisa’s call from the day before, last evening and this morning. Her secretary had said the caller, Melisa, sounded especially unhappy. There’d been no answer when Trudy called back. It was Melisa’s studio number. She was almost always there. Now this. Bandages. Melisa had cut herself before, when things were bad. Her arms. Her legs.

“Did she say anything when she was here?”

“No,” said Nuzzo. “She just had two espresso, bang bang, one after the other, and left. Maybe she’s unlucky in love, huh?”

“Maybe,” Trudy said. She bit a cookie and sipped her coffee. “I’ll ask around, check her apartment and studio. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

“That’s fine,” said Nuzzo. He stood up with a broad smile. “You good at that kinda stuff, you bet.”

The apartment and studio were on the Drive, a half block away from one other. The apartment door was locked, no answer. But she found the studio door open, when she arrived. She went in.

The large room reflected Melisa’s obsession with neatness, in spite of the paints and canvasses, splattered palettes and linseed oil soaked rags.

On the easel was an unfinished painting of a woman, seen from behind. She was walking away from the viewer, in the rain, without an umbrella. Her coat was bright red, with darker rustier shades in its creases and folds. The surrounding colours, however, people, buildings and automobiles, were bleak and hopeless. It was a treasure, nonetheless, even to Trudy’s untrained eye.

On a countertop, under a lamp, she discovered a roll of gauze and a small metal case containing blue Gillette razor blades. Next to them was a bloody rag and a beaker stained with a dry rust coloured substance. She shivered. Melisa was talented and a striking woman, educated and revered. What provoked her?

“Hello.” A voice came from behind her. She turned round and saw a small dapper man, in a suit and holding his hat in his hand. “Have you seen Miss Patton?” he said.

“No,” Trudy said. “Who are you?”

“A patron. An admirer. A costumer.” His eyes fixed on the painting. “Ah, she’s nearly done. It’s exquisite.”

Trudy Parr looked over her shoulder.

“For you?” she said.

“Indeed,” said the man. “A special commission. A vision.”

He walked into the studio, up to the painting, removing his soft leather gloves. Then he ran his fingers over it gently, feeling the texture of the brush strokes. His eyes were closed, as he seemed to experience a strange ecstasy.

When he was done, he wiped his brow with a yellow silk handkerchief. “Do you know anything of her whereabouts?” he said.

“No.”

Trudy saw odd markings on the backs of his hands. Circles and cruciforms, a cursive script she didn’t recognise. They might have been tattoos, but looked more like blemishes. The man noticed, and put on his gloves again.

“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” he said.

“Some have said so.”

Suddenly he didn’t seem so small, his eyes were dark. She swore she heard a whispering chorus.

“It’s a hard life for a woman,” he said. “Is it not?”

“That’s a peculiar thing to say.”

“I mean,” said the man, “for a woman to establish herself, in the world of men.”

“What’s your game, mister?”

“If you find her,” he said, taking a card from his shirt pocket, and handing it to her. “Would you call me? I understand that you find people for a living, among other things. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Trudy Parr looked at the card. No name. Only a phone number.

“I think you’re the last person I’d call if I find her,” she said.

“That’s entirely the wrong attitude, Miss Parr.”

“You know my name?”

“My knowledge of things here is limited, but I know that much.”

He grinned, but if he meant it to be agreeable, he failed.

Putting on his hat, he walked to the door. But before he left, he turned and spoke again.

“This painting,” he said. “Melisa is only repaying a favour, in creating it. A favour she asked of me, and that I granted. Do you think I’m wrong for expecting something in return?”

Trudy Parr said nothing, only wished that he would go away. He did, with a nod, but without a sound, no footfalls as he proceeded down the hall.

7 pm Tony Nuzzo’s

“And so far that’s all I know,” Trudy said. She had intentionally failed to mention the small man and the strange whispering refrain that had surrounded him.

“A mystery,” said Tony Nuzzo. “She’s gotta be round somwheres.”

“She’ll show up.”

A man in a summer suit, needing a press, came into the shop, and looked at the menu.

“Can a fella get an ordinary cuppa joe round here?” he said.

“I make,” said Tony Nuzzo, getting up. He knew a flatfoot when he saw one. “I make. I know whatsa guy like you likes.”

It was police detective Olaf Brandt.

“That’s fine,” he said, and dropped a nickel onto the counter.

Nuzzo looked at the small coin, and rolled his eyes.

Brandt took a seat across from Trudy Parr.

“I hear you been looking for Melisa Patton,” he said.

“That’s right.” She braced herself. Cops like Brandt didn’t patronise places like Tony Nuzzo’s, unless there was a reason.

“It’s bad, Trudy,” he said. “We found her this afternoon. She took a room at the Astoria Hotel.”

“And?”

“She jumped,” he said. “Early this morning round four a.m., best we can tell. She mentioned you in her suicide note. How you were best friends. How she was sorry.”

“Four? This morning?” Trudy recalled the sequence and terrible clarity of her dream. “Why’d it take you this long to contact me? I’ve been calling in to the office all day.”

Tony Nuzzo arrived with a cup of black coffee and put it down in front of Brandt. Then he stood and listened.

“No one noticed her until this afternoon,” Brandt said, “when somebody looked out of a window. She fell onto an awning, not the street. Sorry, Trudy. Her note said something about a fella that wouldn’t leave her alone. He wanted a painting in the worst way. She said she didn’t have the blood in her to finish it. I guess that’s artist talk. Her note said that you should run like hell if you meet the runt. A real little swell. Dresses like a millionaire. She didn’t want to write his whole name in the note, said it would be bad juju for anyone who read it. Called him Bub, for short. We’ll keep an ear to the ground, see if he shows up.”

“He ran his hand over that painting like he was gonna have one hell of an orgasm,” Trudy Parr recalled.

“Who?” said Nuzzo.

Brandt sipped his coffee, and raised an eye brow.

“That’s some good coffee,” he said. “You don’t get this downtown.”

Mr Shine and the diamond dice

After the dust had settled, he remembered that the old broad had said something about the ending of a song.

wartime
35 Blood Alley

The old woman’s parlour of clairvoyance and spiritualism was a busy one. They came from all over the city to witness her divine powers, and ask how they could better themselves in business, choose a lover, reap petty revenge. And that was where the man was that Saturday night, a week before he lost everything. He’d borrowed two dollars from Wilma Briar Yeats to pay for the visit. He considered it an investment, and when the old woman beckoned, the man anxiously entered her inner sanctum. It was a familiar place; he was a regular.

The old woman’s name was Elga Coal and the room was dimly lit by cheap sputtering candles. She sat at a round table with what looked like a crystal ball in the centre. “The spirits told me of your arrival,” Elga Coal told the man. “An old gypsy knows.” Her thinning hair was grey and bound in a faded bargain basement scarf. Each of her fingers had a ring.

The man couldn’t help notice a distinct odour in the air as he entered the parlour. One that differed from the mouldy smell in the waiting room. Something was strange. There was a glossy looking fellow dressed in an expensive suit and bright red silk tie sitting on the settee. Next to him was a gold handled walking stick. Though he was a regular, the man had never seen this character before. But the crystal ball was familiar, a snow globe from the Chicago World’s Fair.

“Allow me to introduce Mister Shine,” Elga said, nodding at the interloper on the settee. “He has generously consented to sit with us tonight. Haven’t you, Mister Shine.” Mr Shine bowed slightly, where he sat. Shine smoked a slim cheroot. The man wondered if the cheroot was the source of the strange odour, but realised that it couldn’t be. The prevailing stink wasn’t that of fine or even inferior tobacco. Mister Shine couldn’t help it. He always smelled like a freshly lit match.

As soon the man handed over his two dollars, Elga Coal began to wave her hands over her Snow Globe and squint into the past and future, her face illuminated by candles. He’d had bad luck all of his life, Elga said. It was a fact well known to her, since the man was a constant customer. Coal then said that there was a woman, devoted but regularly disappointed. Again old news, the man had told Elga about Wilma many times.

“But there is an opportunity in your future,” Elga said. “A game of dice that travels through the city.”

“A craps game?” said the man, leaning forward.

“Yes,” said Elga. “And I see….”

“Tell me,” the man said.

“I see….”

“Yes? C’mon. Tell me.”

“I see….”

“Oh, for the love of God! Tell me what you see.”

“I see nothing.” Elga threw up her arms in frustration. Her snow globe had gone blank.

Now it was Mr Shine’s turn.

“Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps I may be able to offer some assistance.”

The man had forgotten about Mr Shine for a moment. Now he looked over at him.

“I have certain charms at my disposal,” said Mister Shine.

“Charms?” said the man. He was suspicious. Mr Shine didn’t seem like a straight shooter. Besides, charms were a dime a dozen.

“Just so,” said Mister Shine, as he dug his hand deep into his breast pocket. From there, he retrieved two small objects and presented them in his left hand.

Elga and the man both looked, and saw a curious pair of transparent dice.

“Diamond dice,” said Mister Shine.

They appeared to be diamond dice, sure enough—if there was such a thing. Could it be? The two objects caught the room’s dim yellow light and returned it pure white and exquisite to the eye.

“They’re magic,” said Mister Shine, with a grin. “They’ll change your luck.” Then his smile disappeared as he leaned forward on the settee. His eyes blazing, he said, “They’ll change your life.”

The table trembled and the snow swirled in Elga Coal’s crystal ball.

“I can’t throw those in a craps game,” the man said. “It ain’t allowed.”

“But they’re only a charm,” said Mister Sine, smiling once more. “Their value is in their hidden magic. Keep them in the pocket nearest your heart.”

“But remember this,” said Elga Coal, interjecting and cocking an eyebrow. “The song never knows when it’s about to end.”

The man stood up from the table and looked at the pair of dice in the palm of Mister Shine’s hand. Then, with a tremor in his fingers, he quickly reach out to take them. But as he did, Mr Shine’s fist closed round them.

“Be certain,” Mr Shine said. “Be very certain that you want these.”

“I am,” said the man, though he wasn’t sure why. What could the dice possibly do for him? He could buy lucky charms anywhere, each one as useless as the next. But that was immaterial, he realised. He couldn’t help wanting these glistening items, seemingly free for the taking. He had to have them.

Mr Shine opened his hand again, and there they gleamed. The man snatched them up, quickly as he could. And as he did, it seemed that his name was at once confirmed on a list in some dark ledger in some far darker and unknowable place.

“We’re done here then,” Mister Shine said, and then faded from the settee with his gold handled walking stick in hand. The smell of a freshly lit match disappearing with him.

* * * as luck would have it * * *

It was December in Vancouver, 1942. And Canada was at war with half the world.

Rufus Piggs walked down the street snapping his good fingers. The song on his mind had something for everyone, pessimist and dreamer alike. But though the tune ran endlessly through his head, he’d never really stopped to learn the words. Something like, Momma may have, Papa may have….. Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood and his Orchestra. That’s about all he knew, and he didn’t care. His luck was going to change that December.

You see, Rufus Piggs was a compulsive gambler. And like all gamblers, he almost always lost. It wasn’t his fault. He was just born that way.

People love to point and whisper, though. And what they whispered, as they pointed at Rufus Piggs, was that he was a hopeless loser. They all said this while failing to practice much in the way of self-examination, since most of them were hopeless losers too. But that wasn’t their fault, either. They, too, were just born that way. Seemed the whole damn town was just a bunch of boobs waiting for the fast hand of chance to slap them silly.

By the autumn of ’42, Rufus Piggs’ losing ways had put him in Dutch with some of the fishiest characters in town. And his reputation was plummeting faster than a clipped Spitfire over the white cliffs of Dover. He had markers outstanding all over town, and he’d been living through one of the worst streaks of hard luck ever.

One outstanding debt was to Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who wasn’t a good person to owe money. His Jewish mother, the Widow Margolis, hated that her son was a loan shark. She dreaded the tag Shylock. And she knew ‘The Pearl’ would cut the throat of any wisenheimer who’d use it.

“Join the Navy and fight the Nazis,” the Widow Margolis told her son, during tearful telephone calls. “Be a hero,” she said. “You’ll look good in a uniform.”

But Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ wasn’t dope enough to enlist.

“I ain’t getting my ass shot off for some chump cause,” he said.

He sneeringly endured the contempt of all those who knew he was a shirker. In fact, he spent most of his time shooting pool and lending cash to suckers at the Commodore Billiards hall. And he’d blind anyone who gave him trouble with the silvery glint of his deadly bone handle switchblade.

For Rufus Piggs, on the other hand, joining-up might have meant some relief. He could have hidden a while from his creditors in Nazi occupied Europe or even Jap infested Borneo. He even considered the tank core. But he’d been wounded in the Spanish Civil War fighting on the republican side, and suffered partial paralysis in his left arm. He tried to disguise it by placing his left hand in his suit jacket pocket, a fashionable pose in Hollywood at the time. That might have made him look dapper, had it not been for his pockmarked face and unmanageable hair. All this combined, made him look desperate and sinister, which some were convinced he was.

Now there’re a couple of characters of consequence occupying this yarn, and some others of less significance who might just pop up here and there as events unfold. But the one worth bringing up here is Wilma Briar Yeats. She lucked into the Yeats portion of her name when her Swedish mother married a fellow by the name of Fergus Yeats, who was an Irish-American member of Clan na Gael, cooling his heels here in Canada after blowing up a railway station in Wisconsin.

Fergus named his daughter Wilma Briar Yeats because the name could be shortened to WB Yeats, after the Irish Poet and reluctant nationalist. This was a fact lost on most, including Rufus Piggs, who was all soft for Wilma on account of her brown melancholy eyes and ironic smile.

Wilma was more than a bit stupid for Rufus Piggs, too. They’d talk for hours over coffee at the Ham ‘n Egger Café. Everyone said they made such a great couple because not only was Rufus Piggs all broken up from the Spanish Civil War, Wilma Briar Yeats had six fingers on both of her hands.

It was like a romantic union of misfits that some said made each of them whole again. It was all ballroom manoeuvres in the Valley of Balloons, and screwy crap like that. Seeing them together even made some people weep a tear of two, and have hope for humanity after all. What a load of crap.

“I’m gonna score real big,” Piggs told Wilma Briar Yeats, more than once over coffee. His cold, nearly vacant blue eyes looking into hers a split second at a time, then darting away to track something unseen by the rest of the room. “I’m gonna roll big one night soon, and then it’s just you and me, baby.”

Wilma smiled weakly at this every time.

“Sure you will, doll,” she’d say. “You was destined for it.”

But she knew better, and she knew she could support him with the little she made from war work, if he’d just get sick of losing and stopped gambling.

But Rufus Piggs would never stop. Wilma knew she was just a moon orbiting his compulsion, like a million other dames that had fallen for a sucker. She watched as his obsession tore him to pieces. Gambling was going to kill him, and then she’d be alone. But that didn’t matter. He was her man, win or lose.

It was on a foggy night that December when Rufus Piggs really got himself into a jam. He’d been following a floating crap game, suggested to him by an old broad named Elga Coal, for a week and was actually doing pretty good for once. He was up for the first time in a long while. Up by over $3000.

But when a guy like Rufus Piggs starts to win, people he owes start coming outta the cracks like cockroaches. And one of those people was Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who Rufus Piggs owed $1739.87. The amount was growing daily due to the peculiarities of street economy, and ‘The Pearl’ wanted his money before the amount owed made payment impossible.

That night ‘The Pearl’ stood at the rear exit of the Balmoral Hotel with a brawny associate named Gleason Quinn. The Balmoral was that evening’s location for the floating crap game. They stood in the back-door gloom because ‘The Pearl’ knew that the rear exit was always the deadbeat’s exit. He had a chain smoking heel by the name of Nester Dayton watching the front.

Hastings Street had a haloed neon glow that foggy Saturday night that made things seem exotic, in a dime store sort of way. There were cops on Harleys and working girls smoking in dim doorways. There were radios playing jazz in the windows above the street. And a drunk had caused a near-riot by wondering out onto Hastings to direct traffic. It was unseasonably warm, and deals were being made on every dark corner. It was greasy wartime port city chaos.

Nester Dayton was watching dames hanging off the arms of sailors, rather keeping his eyes peeled for Rufus Piggs. He lit an endless succession of next cigarettes on the ones preceding, and scratched himself nervously while trying not to pick his nose.

Upstairs, Piggs had been rolling point numbers all night, and had turned his $3000 into $12,000. From a radio somewhere down the hall, he could hear Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child. He knew that tune, but was damned if he could ever remember the words.

He figured his luck had really changed, the dice were hot, and players were betting on him for once. He wondered how long it could last, even with the charms in his breast pocket. The ones that the strange Mr Shine had handed him.

His last rolls that night went like this.

He placed his twelve large on the pass line. Then he blew on the dice and let ‘me fly. The dice soared down the green felt, past the stacks of chips and loose currency. And then they tumbled until they hit the rubber on the back wall and finally came to rest. Two threes smiled up at the crowd. The point was six, Rufus Piggs’ favourite number. Winner! He blew and rolled again, a four and a two. Winner! The crowd gasped then cheered. Rufus Piggs’ eyes bulged. Mr Shine’s charms were working, all right.

It was the kind of luck that always causes consternation and suspicion. Which in this case was leading to some profound eye contact between the dealer and a heavyset zoot-suited boxman named Smoothy Cox, sitting in a chair near the door. Then a barely perceptible nod passed between them.

The dealer stepped forward and checked the dice Piggs was throwing. They were legit, but he removed them anyway. The stickman offered a bowl of new dice to choose from. Piggs was too hot to care. He snatched up a pair, indiscriminately. Then he rattled them in his fist and let ‘em go. Six again. The crowd dropped a collective jaw and then cheered once more. Piggs was relaxed now. Suddenly, winning was what he did. It was what winners naturally did. And he was a winner. No need for excitement here, folks.

Smoothy Cox didn’t see it that way, though. He stood up and blocked the doorway out of the room.

Rufus Piggs let his stacks of loose bills stand. Winning the next roll was worth nearly a hundred grand. Every promise he ever made to WB Yeats was about to come true. The house in the country, the nice car and the respectful neighbours. All only a roll of the dice away. And he had the diamond dice next to his heart. He was made in the shade.

He pitched the dice and watched, knowing in all confidence that another six was just around the corner. The dice flew again, like a couple of fiery ivory meteors flying past the unbelieving eyes of onlookers and fellow punters.

But this time, when the ivory meteors hit the end of the table, the six never materialised. He had rolled a twelve.  The crowd moaned quietly, stoically.

“Bastard,” one of the losing players muttered.

Rufus Piggs watched his hard won money disappear in the hands of the dealer, and Smoothy Cox moved away from the door and took a seat once more. Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of God Bless the Child had come to an end down the hall, without Piggs noticing. And now that it had, he remembered what Elga Coal had said — The song never knows when it’s about to end.

Piggs’ good hand fell at his side. He felt a nickel in his pocket. Enough for a morning time cup of java.

No one round the table would lend him a dime to start over. He knew it. Maybe he could go to ‘The Pearl’ for another loan. A small one this time, just to hold him over until his luck changed. After all, this wasn’t how it was supposed to have happened. That bastard Mr Shine had promised the world was his, hadn’t he? But what a nickel and a promise could get you in this town wasn’t much.

He shouldered past a grinning Smoothy Cox on his way out.

“You’re still a loser,” Smoothy said. Then he said, “Come back anytime – and bring money.”

Awaiting him was the familiar lonesomeness of hallways and stairwells navigated after all the money was gone. He’d broken distance records walking these. He ignored the elevator and left through a door with an exit sign above it. Then he descended the stairs and went out through the lobby onto Hastings Street. He was blind to the carnival there, but Nester Dayton spotted him in a second. Dayton nodded to a newsy across the sidewalk, and the boy ran round to the back of the hotel to alert ‘The Pearl’ and Gleason Quinn.

Dayton watched Piggs through the dense crowd as best he could, while looking back over his shoulder for ‘The Pearl’. ‘The Peal’ appeared in a minute, shadowed by Gleason Quinn, and the three of them ran to catch up with Piggs.

They did at Columbia Street. Gleason Quinn grabbed Rufus Piggs by the collar, and dragged him into the alley behind the Broadway Hotel.

“I hear you been winning big,” said The Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Maybe it’s time to share the wealth and pay me back what you owe.”

“I ain’t got nothin’,” Rufus Piggs said. “I bet it all and lost.”

“That’s too bad,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I think you ain’t never gonna pay, so that means you’re only good for one thing. You know what that is?”

Piggs looked down at his shoes and shook his head, like he didn’t know what ‘The Pearl’ was driving at. But he knew good and well.

“A deadbeat bum like you,” ‘The Pearl’ said, “is only good for being made an example of.”

“Yeah yeah,” Nester Dayton said, lighting another cigarette. “An example of, yeah.”

Gleason Quinn pulled a knuckle knife out from under his coat and ran its point down Piggs’ cheek.

“I ain’t gonna squawk,” Rufus Piggs said, looking Gleason in the eye. “Maybe it’s better like this.”

“Give it to him in the belly, Gleason,” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Let’s watch him roll round on the ground fer a while.”

“Yeah, on the ground, on the ground,” said Nester Dayton, as he scratched himself and picked his nose.

And that was how it might have ended in that moment, but then Rufus Piggs remembered the charms.

“Wait!” he said, as his hand went to the pocket nearest his heart. “I’ve got something you might want instead of money….” Then he pulled out the diamond dice. They shone in the palm of his hand, under the single naked incandescent bulb that swung above them.

“What the…?” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’, as his eyes bugged out. He seemed to recognise, with his street cunning, what the dice truly were.

“They’s just some glass dice,” said Gleason Quinn.

“They sure as hell ain’t,” said ‘The Pearl’. He reached out and was about the snatch them up, when another man spoke.

“Sure as Hell?” said Mr Shine. “It’s funny, that little turn of phrase. You all pray it doesn’t exist. And yet you say it everyday – sure as Hell.

“Who’s this chump?” said Gleason Quinn. “And what’s that smell?”

Piggs saw Shine and knew why he was there.

“Don’t worry, Quinn,” Piggs said. “He’s here for me.”

“Yes I am,” said Mr Shine. “You’ve had your little moment in the sun. Now it’s time to go.”

“I thought there’d be more,” said Piggs. “More to win and more to keep.”

“Well,” said Mr Shine. “Like the lady says, You can help yourself, but don’t take too much.”

Suddenly, Rufus Piggs knew the words to the song in full. He looked down at his shoes again and shook his head, his good hand still clenching the diamond dice.

“I want ‘em,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I want them dice.”

“Are you certain?” said Mr Shine. “Really, really certain?”

“Walk away, Roscoe,” Piggs said.

“Shut up, Piggs,” Roscoe greedily shouted. “Hand ‘em over.”

“Do it,” said Mr Shine. And Piggs handed the diamond dice over to ‘The Pearl’.

“Now you two scram,” ‘The Pearl’ said to Piggs and Mr Shine.

“That’s fine,” said Mr Shine. “See you soon, Mr Margolis.”

“Like hell.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Mr Shine. And he and Rufus Piggs faded into the fog.

read the other two stories in the Elga Coal trilogy
Billy Romance and the dirt

the near death session

It was a shape in a room. It was a circle. Looking down from above, there were the tops of heads. Shoulders. Hands on laps. An assortment of shoes, all facing inward. There were four of them. Two men and two women. And a fifth – one who hadn’t shared in their experience, a facilitator. The psychiatrist. Dr Theodor, dressed casually, expensively. He smiled and tapped his Mont Blanc ball point on a notepad, as he faced the group. The group looked back, expressionless.

“Ok,” said Dr Theodor. “This is the second of two group sessions on Near Death Experiences, NDEs. Each of you has claimed to have had such an experience, and have consented to share your experience in this group environment. Last session we spent most of our time introducing ourselves. Today we’ll get right into describing our experiences. So, who would like to start today?”

There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats. One of them coughed quietly into her hand.

“We’ve come this far,” said Dr Theodor. “We must trust one another.”

“Must we?” said a woman, Edith Calderón. She was prim and sitting erect in a navy business suit. She wore a small crucifix.

“Yes, I think,” said Dr Theodor. “You each share a rare experience. Who else do you have, if not each other?”

“I have Jesus,” said one of the two men, Matthew Quipp. Grey and a little stooped in his chair.

The man next to him snickered. It was Terrance Winkle, fortyish with tattoos, wearing ragged jeans and a tee-shirt.

“You think faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is funny?” Quipp said.

“It’s a bloody musical comedy,” said Winkle.

“I’ll pray for you.”

“Don’t bother.”

The room became quiet again.

“Oh please, you two….” It was Tammy Janwari, mid-twenties in a leather jacket, plaid skirt and heavy boots.

“It’s alright, Tammy,” Dr Theodor said. “You’ve made similar statements at least twice before, Mr Quipp. Can you tell us more about your relationship with Jesus, and how it relates to your NDE?”

“Yeah,” said Winkle, “Was He there with a cocktail to welcome you home?”

Quipp hesitated, then said, “I saw Him. I felt His fathomless and unending love. And….”

“And?” said Dr Theodor.

“It’s difficult to describe, to understand.”

“Please try.”

“Well, I sat at a table with Jesus, and his disciples. Many of the patriarchs were there. There was food and wine. It was like the painting, The Last Supper.”

“Yes?”

“And Jesus, Mary and Paul and I were playing cards, while all of the others looked on.”

“Cards?” said Theodor. “What game, specifically?”

Quipp was uncomfortable. He wrung his hands. “It was poker,” he said. “I’d never played poker before. I didn’t know the rules. But suddenly I did.”

“No way!” said Winkle. “That’s fucking hilarious.”

“I was winning, and Jesus was losing,” Quipp continued, shaking his head. “I was up 18 denarii.”

“You were beating Jesus at poker?” Winkle laughed. “Wish I could’ve been there for that. What He do?”

“He seemed to be getting angry,” Quipp said. “It just wasn’t His night, I guess. He wasn’t getting the cards.”

“What happened?” said Theodor.

“We played one last hand,” said Quipp. “This time He bet big, kept raising. Like He’d finally drawn a winning hand. Mary and Paul folded. Finally, He bet everything, all he had. I matched His bet, and it was time to show our cards. But Jesus looked very sheepish.”

“He’d been bluffing,” Winkled said. “The Lord your Saviour was bloody well bluffing. What’d he have?”

“Pair of tens.”

“And you?”

“Full house, Queens over sevens, though I’m still not sure what that means.”

“That’s worth the price of admission, that is.”

“Let Matthew finish,” said Theodor.

“Well,” Quipp said, “He and Mary just stood up and began to leave the table. Then he turned, looked at me and snapped his fingers. In a second I was back in the operating room. The surgical team was trying desperately to get a pulse. But my heart had stopped for five minutes. As the surgeon looked up and asked the nurse for the time, I returned to my body, and my pulse resumed. I wish they hadn’t resuscitated me. I was dead. I was with the Lord.”

“You were hallucinating,” Winkle said.

“How do you know?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because he was dead,” Winkle said. “Not breathing. Lack of oxygen leading to hallucination. Plain and simple.”

“So how about you?” said Dr Theodor. “What did you see, Terrance?”

“I said it last session. I didn’t see a damn thing.”

“Really?” said Dr Theodor.

“Then why are you here?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because participating pays $75, and I was dead and resuscitated. That qualifies me,”

“Yes,” said Dr Theodor, “you consented to being in this study. And you made a detailed statement to the interviewer. Would you mind if I read what you said in that statement, for the group?” Theodor flipped through pages in a file.

“Go for it, Sigmund. I don’t give a shit.” Winkle crossed his legs, leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly round his chest. He began rocking in his chair. “Tell the whole fucking world. I don’t care.”

Theodor read silently for a moment and then recited, “It was calm and warm. I’d risen out of my body, above the scene, over the filthy street with the paramedics and the cops below, trying to get me to breathe, pumping me full of naloxone. The light was bright, but not blinding. Wilma Waits was there. She’s an ex, who’d walked stoned into rush hour traffic a year before. She ended up bug splat on the grill of a dump truck. But there she was, and she said I didn’t have to suffer anymore. And I suddenly didn’t feel like using. It’s funny. I wasn’t really anywhere, but I could have stayed there forever.

“But then, everything changed. Suddenly I was driving this bad ass black 1950 Studebaker along an empty desert highway at the bottom of a canyon. Wilma riding shotgun, and Roy Orbison on the radio.

“After driving for a while, we finally arrived at this wide open area where there were hundreds of derelict airplanes, all lined up, gleaming in the sun. I parked and we got out to look it over. There were passenger liners and fighter jets. Some of them corroded and broken, others like new. But there was one that really seemed outta place.

“It was this old Qantas 747. The paint was faded and a lot of the windows were knocked out. But there was music playing somewhere inside. Zeppelin and the Stones. There was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.  And some stairs. So, Wilma and I went up to take a look inside. What I saw blew me away.

“There they all were, sitting in the rows of seats. All my friends who’d died on the street. Freddy the Tank, who’d gotten stabbed in a bar fight at the Balmoral. Bobby Needles, who’d cashed it in shooting up on rat poison. Agnes the Angel, who’d had the ultimate bad date and was found buried at a pig farm up the valley. Tommy the Troll, who had a heart attack when he got Tasered. And a lot more, drinking beer and eating pizza. And they all yelled, ‘Hey Terry, glad to see you. About fucking time. We thought you were indestructible.’ Shit like that.

“But then Agnes the Angel comes up and says, ‘It ain’t your time, Terrance.’ And I said, ‘Fuck if it ain’t, this place is cool.’ And she says, ‘Ain’t your decision to make, boyo.’ And I guess I looked kinda tragic, so she hugged me, and that hug was the sweetest thing I’d ever felt. Pure love, baby. Unquestioning light and warmth and happiness. None of that street love that’s only round as long as you’re sharing your shit. This was for fucking real.”

“Do you remember saying that, Terrance?” said Dr Theodor, looking up from the page.

“It’s bullshit. When I get my cheque, I’m gone.”

“And you’ll shoot that money right into your arm,” said Edith Calderón.

“That’s none of our business,” Tammy Janwari said.

“You died of a heroin overdose,” said Quipp. “Shame.”

“And you died of congestive heart failure,” said Winkle. “From too many bacon cheese burgers. Shame on you, you bastard.”

“Please, please,” said Theodor holding up a hand.

“It offends me,” said Quipp, “that we’re all here talking honestly, in the company of someone so profoundly dishonest.”

“What if I challenged you, Terrance?” Theodor said, ignoring Quipp. “What if I said that your statement is not bullshit, and that you’re really just afraid of what you experienced? What would you say to that?”

“I’d say fuck you,” Terrance Winkle said, hugging himself and scratching.

“You were gone for eight minutes, Terrance,” Dr Theodor said. “Long enough to have witnessed something.”

“Fuck off.”

“I was gone for seventeen minutes,”

“Yes?” Dr Theodor said.

“It was a lot like what Terrance experienced, the warmth and love I mean. But there was something like a tunnel. Beautiful sounds, like singing almost, but it was like I was a note in the music, delightfully repeated again and again. I saw Krishna dancing. And then there were elephants. Lovely, lovely elephants. I love elephants.”

“Death fairies,” Winkle said.

“Elephants?” said Quipp. “Krishna?”

“Lovely elephants,” said Tammy Janwari. “Someone had drawn exquisite chalk patterns on them, in all of the colours in the universe. And I was a note in a universal song being sung by saints and angels.”

“That simply can’t be,” Quipp said.

“Why not?” said Edith Calderón.

“God wouldn’t allow it.”

“How do you know?” said Tammy Janwari.

“There’s no place for Krishna and elephants in Heaven,” said Quipp. “You must have been in Hell, Miss Janwari.”

“How dare you?”

“Well, just look at you,” Quipp said. “With your blue hair, dressed like a….”

All eyes fell on Tammy Janwari.

“Like a slut?” she said. “I’m a punk, not a slut, Mr Quipp. Though there’s nothing wrong with being a slut, if that’s what you want.”

“Punk’s dead,” said Winkle, rocking and scratching.

“Punk’s not quite in style at the moment. I know it’s gone underground. But I like it, all the same. And my hair isn’t blue, it’s turquoise.”

“Alright, alright,” said Dr Theodor. “Let’s focus on what we’re here for. Edith, can you share with us?”

“Yes, of course.” Edith Calderón sat up and pulled at her skirt. “I was on a ship at sea. It was always dark. It was a ship of demons. There was an endless storm, and what little light there was glinted off of the high waves. The ship rolled violently and I was seasick all of the time.”

“Hell,” Quipp said, shaking his head.

“None of the passengers had faces,” said Edith Calderón. “Where there should have been a face, there was just a blank space. When I tried to talk to any of them, a hole would open in that blank space, and they’d scream. A man named Stick was the Captain, Captain Stick. He had a face. White with black eyes and red lips. He’d sit at his own table during dinner, staring at me, even as he ate the bloody rare meat on his plate.”

“Satan.” It was Quipp again.

“Yes…,” said Edith Calderón, “…maybe. But my cousin Iván was there; he was the Ship’s Purser. He came to my table one evening and said I had to go back, that being there was wrong for me, that there had been a mistake. It may have been hell, but he had such love in his eyes. At first I couldn’t believe him. In life he’d been a killer. He murdered a woman in Durango in 1986. Later, he was shot by police. He’d been forsaken by our family. My family talked about him like he was evil. But there he was, helping me to understand. He reached across the table and put his hand onto mine, and it was warm.”

“Then what happened?” Terrance Winkle said.

“I came back,” said Edith Calderón. “By then, my body was surrounded by firemen and paramedics, and one of them said the steering wheel had impacted my chest too violently, that the trauma to my heart was too severe. I stood watching, outside of my body, as all of them stood up at once, like they’d given up and were going to walk away.”

“And then?” said Tammy Janwari

“I saw myself cough,” said Edith Calderón. “And then I was back in my body, and the firemen and the paramedics came back and started working again. Later, a nurse whispered miracle to another at the hospital.”

“How did it feel to return?” said Dr Theodor.

“Just a temporary reprieve,” Quipp said.

“Let her answer,” said Winkle.

“I’m a Catholic,” said Edith Calderón. “It’s confusing. There must be some reason I was there. Perhaps I haven’t prayed hard enough. I haven’t confessed everything…. I don’t know. But God is God, and if He puts me in Hell, then that’s where I belong.”

“That’s just wrong,” Tammy Janwari said.

Edith Calderón began to weep. She held her head in her hands, and wept from deep inside.

“God is God,” said Quipp. “Amen.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Winkle said. “You Christ psycho.”

“That’s enough,” said Dr Theodor. “There’s twenty minutes left in the session. We should all take a five minute break.”

“I’m outta here,” said Winkle. “This whole thing is just some creepy, voyeuristic shit for scientists and philosophers to chuckle over as they sip their fucking lattes.”

“You’re leaving without your cheque?” Quipp said. “How will you pay for your next fix?”

“I’ll get some one way or another. I always do.”

“This shouldn’t end this way,” Tammy Janwari said. “Let’s acknowledge what we all have in common, it makes us unique.”

“What the hell do I have in common with you lot?” Winkle said.

“Death,” said Edith Calderón, sitting up now, with almost perfect posture. “We have death in common, all of us. And I am stronger than Hell. I have seen it and it is small and inconsequential compared to the love Iván showed me.”

“You’re wrong,” said Quipp.

“There is hope,” said Edith Calderón. “Even there. Iván proved it.”

“That’s an interesting insight,” said Dr Theodor.

“Fucking lack of oxygen,” said Winkle.

“The elephants were lovely,” said Tammy Janwari.

 

the confession of Atticus Byrd

He dropped the headline onto the floor, Canadian Prison System Confronts Staggering Rise in Number of Geriatric Inmates. He gave it a frail laugh. It was all the laugh he had strength to give. Across the ward, the prison padre spoke quietly with a nurse, looking over his shoulder occasionally at Atticus Byrd, lying in his bed. Atticus was connected with wires and tubes to a jungle of IV stands and electronic apparatus, all of it humming, beeping or dripping. They forced large doses of anti-psychotic medication on him daily, but the army of disembodied voices they eliminated would be a delight compared to the medically necessary mechanical racket.

The padre finally broke off his conversation with the nurse and arrived at Atticus’ bedside.

“How are you, my son?” he said seating himself.

“You’re half my age,” Atticus replied. “Don’t call me your son.”

“It’s just a greeting,” said the padre, his eyes calm and sympathetic. “It’s a respectful salutation.”

“It’s conceited and condescending.”

“You misunderstand, I think.”

“Don’t think, just listen. What I’m about to tell you is important. It has to do with something that happened back in 1957, you see. It was life changing. It was brilliant. It could have changed everything, set mankind on a new path. All of that. But no one cared to listen to me because I’m mental, see.”

“My, it sounds quite grand,” the padre said. “What was it, Atticus?”

“Can’t remember. It was 1957, for God’s sake. I didn’t have a pencil, forgot to write it down.”

“And so…?”

“So just stay focussed, boyo. You come in here and start talking like you’re gonna save my life or something. All you’re doing is confusing me.”

“You asked for me. I only want to offer comfort. Have you reconsidered confession?”

“Hump confession, Father. What I want to tell you is as close as it’s gonna get. God’s the only one that’s got some explaining to do. I’m an open book. And you’re looking at the final chapter, ain’t you?”

“But to die without confession….”

“Means what, daddyo? That universe is a dangerous place? That I might miss the chance to spend all eternity in the presence of omnipotent incompetence? I’ll take my chances. A deity’s got to make himself worthy of adoration. If the only reason to confess to my sins is the threat of damnation, then god hasn’t got much going for him, has he? What I really want you to do is write something down. I can’t see or hold a pen no more.”

“I’ve brought a pad of paper and a pen,” the padre said, “Begin when you like.”

“Good. Now listen and write. 1957, understand? Ok hang on, hang on, suddenly it’s not so clear no more. Give me a minute. Yeah, okay. It’s funny, you know? Sometimes it’s like I wrote my life in drain cleaner, and it just dissolved whatever it was written on. We were talking about ‘57, right? I was seventeen and hanging out a lot downtown, on the street round Woodward’s department store. 1957 was the first time I went crazy. I mean real over the rainbow, daddyo. Voices, visions and accusations. They blamed it on reefer and booze. But it wasn’t no reefer. The reefer back then wasn’t nothing compared to now. I smoked a little here and there, and I couldn’t afford no booze. The wops up on the Drive called me touched by the angels. They’d give me free coffee and sandwiches, like out of charity. Maybe because they knew being angel touched wasn’t such a good thing. But there weren’t no angels, not at first.

“I’ve done a lot of crazy illegal shit – I’ll give you that. That’s why I ain’t been out of prison for more than a month or two, here and there. But it was mostly because of the schizophrenia. I ain’t a real bad guy. It’s just easier and cheaper to put me in prison than an asylum. And I ain’t the only one. Prison’s full of kooks like me.”

“Is kooks the right word, Atticus?” asked the padre.

“That word fits like a glove, baby. Don’t let no one tell you different. I own it. It’s mine. So you can back off on that one.

“Anyway, I wound up in Riverview in ‘57. It was my first rap. I’d broken a window and punched a cop. Agnes, one of the voices I was hearing, said the cops were a virulent worm army from the centre of the Earth, bent on world domination and destruction of the world’s televisions. I didn’t need much convincing. My lawyer said Riverview Hospital would be better than prison. So, we pled insanity. But he was wrong. Riverview was hell.

“It was the first time they drugged me, chlorpromazine. A doctor there, named Dr Wilver, told me I was lucky to be drugged. He sneered when he said it. He said he’d rescued my sorry ass from the ice baths, insulin shock treatments and a lobotomy. Just like that, my sorry ass, he said. I could hardly move or think for three years because of those drugs. And Mr Shiv never went away.

“Have I mentioned Mr Shiv yet? No? I never saw him before the hospital. And he was a creepy fucker, daddyo. He liked to stand in the corner during the day, grinning and wearing his napalm choir gown. It was like he was being baked alive in a gasoline fire, but always smiling about the whole damn thing. There weren’t no pills could make him go away. He laughed at the doctors, who couldn’t see him anyway. And he told me not to tell them I could see him, because the docs would rather kill me than admit that they couldn’t make Mr Shiv go away. And I knew it was true.

“Now I don’t know what you know about Riverview Hospital, but it was like this weird little town up there over the highway. And a town split right down the middle, with the doctors and nurses on one side and the patients on the other. Dr Wilver was the psychiatrist in charge, and he hated the world and everybody in it. Especially me.

“I lived with a bunch of other male patients in the oldest building, West Lawn. Built in 1913. It was like an unflushed toilet, full of bad psychic energy. All of the poor sick souls who came before and never made it out alive. They were invisible except to some of the patients like me. And they screamed and shook the place like they was having some sort of collective epileptic seizure. Only reason I slept a wink those years was because of the chlorpromazine. But that didn’t even work, mostly. Mostly I just sat up in bed, watching it all. Watching Mr Shiv burning and conducting that chorus of damned dead psychiatric patients as they fought with one another and sang their songs. It was all anguish and regret, daddyo. And I rocked back and forth, sitting on that bed. There was an eerie rhythm to it, and hard not to move in time to.

“Another person that rocked to the ghost music was Trevor Meatyard. Trevor was even more batshit than me. He believed he was Lord Krishna and liked to bless everyone. He saw shit you wouldn’t believe. Urinals opening like doors into other dimensions and demons swimming in the alphabet soup. I hung out with him just to see what was next.

“So, one day we’re supposed to have a trip away from the hospital, to a farm somewhere to commune with the cows. There we all were. Me, Trevor and all the other nutbars, standing sedated in the hospital parking lot. We were waiting to get on a big orange bus that said Riverview Hospital on the side, so that anybody who looked would know everyone on board was crazy. And as we stood there, the sky opened up and it rained these tiny crystals that went tink-a-link when they hit the pavement. Trevor Meatyard picked one of the crystals up and swallowed it. And that made his eyes glow all red and blue. And he levitated for a minute above everyone. He’d done this before, and the doctors and nurses hated it. So, I said, ‘Get back down here, Trevor. They see you levitating again and you’re going for electroshock, for sure.’ But then an angel floated down and said her name was Martha, but no relation to Mary like you’d have thought.”

“Goodness, an angel?” the padre said incredulously. He touched his hand to his chilblain cheek.

“That’s right, padre. An out and out angel. It’s funny how you religious types spill all that angel hooey and then act all sceptical when a body reports seeing one. And it’s funny how stories of angels make most people feel all warm and tender inside? Well, I can tell you, Martha wasn’t no warm and tender angel. She was all clock gears, levers and ratchets, wheels rotating inside wheels. She smelled like rotten wood and had a thousand eyes that all wept, and her tears were the crystals going tink-a-link on the blacktop.”

“Now Atticus, really…?”

“Put a sock in it, padre. This is my moment. You just keep writing.

“That was when I had the idea. When I saw the angel, I mean. This is the thing I need you to get down before I die, padre. I figured then that my greatest triumph would be my own death.”

“Really, Atticus! There is no triumph in death.”

“What about Jesus?”

“But you’re not Jesus, Atticus.”

“Jesus wasn’t even Jesus until the resurrection. Before that, he was just some skinny magician in possession of a certain persuasive eloquence, same as ten thousand other sunburnt desert lunatics.

“Anyway, I’d always thought that I’d be more successful dead. You get it? I was never successful in any measurable way in life. But I thought that I might be in death. Maybe that was the place for me. The voices I’d always heard said so. I’d hear them recommending death to me all the time, like it was a career choice. And Mr Shiv said so, too. He whispered in my ear round dawn on rainy days, when the only other sound was the wet hiss off of the highway.

“‘Only you can do it,’ he’d say. “‘Become fire like me. Get matches and kerosene. They’re in the basement waiting for you. You are special among men, and you belong with me.’”

“I belonged with him, you see? There was a place for me at West Lawn. Not as a patient, though. Not as some drugged zombie. But as a fully realised spirit, free of my body and brain with all of their defects. Fire would make me an equal to Mr Shiv. We’d each possess our own powerful cloak of flame.

“So, next day, I slipped down into the basement and took the kerosene and matches out of the utility room and hid them. I was going to wait for my big moment.

“But now here was Martha, the weeping clockwork angel. The parking lot smelling of rotten wood, and all of her crystal tears tink-a-linking on the pavement. And she spoke to me. I mean, she really looked at me with her thousand teary eyes and spoke to me.

“‘Atticus Byrd,’ she said. And her voice was all of the angels of heaven talking at once. It was a sound impossible to hear without dying from it, but I heard it and lived all the same. “’Atticus Byrd, Mr Shiv is a liar and a murderer. His fire is his own and you can never have one like it.’

“And I thought then of the kerosene and the matches I’d stolen from the utility room and hidden behind the boxes under the stairs. And I said, ‘But you could be a liar, too. How’s someone supposed to tell the angels from the devils in this world?’

“And that was when Dr Wilver came over and asked me who I was talking to, and I made the mistake of pointing to where Martha had been and was no longer. I guess she was a flash in the pan angel, same as them demons swimming in Trevor’s alphabet soup. And seeing the vacant space she’d once occupied, I said, ‘No one. I wasn’t speaking to no one.’

“And Dr Wilver said, ‘That’s good Atticus Byrd. That’s very good.’ He nodded all knowingly as he spoke. He was really taunting me. I could tell he wanted me to get all defensive and change my mind and say that there really was someone there. He’d have loved to hear it was some mechanical, gear driven angel. Then I really would get that lobotomy. He was asking for it, boy. So I bided my time. I waited a good six months. And when the time was right, I moved like an incendiary cat.

“Dr Wilver liked to mess around with Nurse Temple. She wasn’t nothing to look at, but I guess she gave it up easy. So, at lunchtime on a Wednesday, I went down and got the kerosene and matches.

“Wilver and Temple were in his office banging against the wall like it was no one’s business. And NurseTemple was going ahhhhhhh! oh, oh, ahhhhhhhh! Most of the patients were holding their hands over their ears, but some were doing other stuff I won’t relate to you here. I mean, Wilver and Temple had absolutely no shame.

“I’d planned to pour all of the kerosene under Wilver’s office door and light it on fire. But Trevor Meatyard came round the corner and saw me there.

“‘Bless you, Atticus’ he said. ‘Chant with me, hare krishna, hare rāma….’

“And I said, ‘Not now Lord Krishna.’

“Then he looked at the can in my hand, and he said, ‘Karma can be a can of kerosene and a book of matches as easily as a small kindness undone.’

“And I stood there for a moment, thinking about that, while Trevor Meatyard hovered several inches off of the floor with a rainbow glowing aura round him.

“Then I heard someone say, ’Do it!’ It was Mr Shiv. He standing down a ways from me, burning like tire fire. ‘Do it! But save some for yourself. Finish it now. Come over to me, Atticus.’

“And Trevor Meatyard was all, ‘hare krishna, hare rāma….’ And I was stumped. I was standing between this weird dualistic binary thing that should never happen to a guy on a Wednesday afternoon.”

“Well, what did you do?” the padre said, engrossed now. All incredulity vanished.

“I said fuck it and poured the kerosene all over me, head to toe. I mean the can was full. It pooled all round my feet, and I knew then that the whole damn place was gonna go up. But I couldn’t take it anymore, always being pulled between the good and the bad by completely unreliable people and cosmic visions, everyone a bunch of self-serving liars. Do you know what I mean, padre?”

The padre nodded, grim faced. He had to admit that he did know what Atticus Byrd meant.

“So what happened?” the padre said.

“I lit the match.”

“But that’s impossible. You’re here now. You’re alive and you have no burn scars.”

“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre. You see, I lit the match and Mr Shiv goes ‘Yesssss,’ kind of like a snake. But Trevor Meatyard just keeps hovering and chanting all serene-like, ‘hare krishna, hare rāma….’ And I figure, why not go out big time. So, I used the match to ignite the whole book of matches. It flared up and burned real good. Then I sort of had this out of body experience. I mean, I was watching it all from on high, padre. I could see myself soaked in a highly flammable liquid with a burning book of matches in my hand. It was weird and liberating and really frightening, all at the same time.”

“So what happened, Atticus?” said the padre. “You must tell me!”

“I applied the matches to my kerosene soaked body.”

“And…?”

“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”

“Oh stop saying that, will you. Tell me what happened.”

“I applied that burning book of matches to my body, right about here.” Atticus Byrd said again.

“And, and…?”

“Well, nothing happened.”

“But it was kerosene. How could nothing have happened, for God’s sake?”

“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”

The padre clenched his fists and said, “You are testing me, Atticus Byrd.”

“Well, it seems that Trevor Meatyard, AKA Lord Krishna, replaced the kerosene with Windex a couple of days before.”

“Windex.”

“Yeah, the all purpose window cleaner with Ammonia D.”

“I know what Windex is, Atticus.”

“Then I guess you know I didn’t burst into flames, though I did have to do extra kitchen duty for a month for making such a big mess. Anyway, Mr Shiv went away after that. I saw him from my window that night, walking across the parking lot toward the highway. He wasn’t burning so bright no more.”

“This has been very disappointing as confessions go, Atticus.”

“Weren’t no confession, padre.”

“Consider yourself absolved, nonetheless.”

“Hump that.”

the devil and Billy Romance

There was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Billy Romance. Billy played piano round the city but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray studio down on Main above the White Lunch, the one with the one armed chef who sang Puccini all day long.

The reason I bring Billy Romance into the conversation is because he used to say the craziest things. I remember once he told me that he hated walking up hill to get downtown, that sort of thing. He cracked me up. He told me once that a piano’s got eighty-eight keys but an organ’s got no strings attached. Ha! But then there were times when he’d say spooky shit. Like this one time he says all emphatic like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa, Billy boy. Where’d that come from?

It was back in 1944 when this thing happened to Billy. He had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war, but the skirts really went for him. I guess he was what was considered a little more than just conventionally handsome. He kinda had a skinny Sinatra look about him. And because a lot of the boys were overseas, he had the girls lining up. His dance card was full, if you know what I mean. But the thing was, Billy Romance didn’t go in for the dolls. He could have had a different little chiquita on his arm every night, but Billy Romance was head over heels in love with a tugboat mate named Spike Dillinger. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Spike Dillinger.

Trouble was, Spike Dillinger’s feelings weren’t mutual. He was a lady’s man, and he had the hots for this quail named Rosita Sangria. She was a girdle model for the Hudson Bay Company and had a tattoo of a blue rose on the back of her left shoulder. You gotta understand that back in 1944, a dame that modeled girdles and had a tattoo was pretty hot stuff. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist?

This was hard on Billy Romance because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at Roscoe’s Tavern on Campbell Avenue where Spike Dillinger spent a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there quaffing beers, sometimes with his arm round Rosita Sangria, while Billy played and pined. I mean, the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy Romance. He was just playing for tips, and a chance to eyeball Spike Dillinger two nights a week.

So eventually, Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a glass eye named Elga Coal. She was one of these European dames who says she’s a medium, claimed she could read the future. She got away with it because she had the heavy accent and the face of a person who knew too much. Anyway, Billy goes to her to have his fortune read, to see if he has any chance at all at wooing Spike Dillinger.

No way José, says Elga Coal. Be easier to get blood from a paperclip.

When she says this, though, she can see that it really depresses Billy Romance. So she says maybe there’s a solution. Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine, says Elga Coal. Mr Shine? says Billy Romance. Who’s Mr Shine? Oh Mr Shine’s a great solver of problems, says Elga Coal. He may be able to help. But you must be prepared to offer something in return, as payment. And you must be very sure of the thing you want from Mr Shine, for you will pay dearly. Okay, says Billy Romance. That’s for me. Bring on this Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Oh, says Elga Coal with a grin, he’ll contact you. Just keep an eye open.

Well that’s very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks. But what’s the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?

So Billy Romance leaves Elga Coal’s joint with a mind to head up to Shanghai Stella’s. Shanghai Stella’s was one of those places in town at the time where sensitive young men like Billy Romance could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. But he never makes it there. It’s 9.00 pm, dark and damp, and Billy Romance is walking down the alley behind the Carnegie Library and the Pantages Theatre when bingo, he encounters this nervous looking character in an Aquascutum coat and a $200 pair of shoes. This guy stands there all edgy-like, folding a little origami animal out of a five dollar bill and looking over his shoulder like he thinks someone’s following him.

Then he says, “Hello, Mr Romance. My name is Mr Glimmer. There’s a rumour about that you’d like for me to arrange something on your behalf.”

“Ah yeah,” says Billy Romance. Not knowing what else to say. “But I heard you was Mr Shine, not Mr Glimmer.” He’s feeling a little nervous himself all of a sudden. This stooge he’s talking to needs a tranquillizer or something. He’d look kosher if he’d just stand still, but he’s shifting round from one foot to the other and talking out of the corner of his mouth like he’s some sleazy pool hall fence.

“What you want,” Mr Glimmer says, “it involves another man.”

“Yeah,” Billy Romance says again.

“You want his attention.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe I can pull that off.”

“Maybe?”

“Well I’m just filling in for the regular guy.”

“The regular guy? Who’s the regular guy?”

“He’s…you know.”

“No,” says Bill Romance. “I ain’t got a clue.”

“He’s the Devil, for goodness sake. Jeez. He arranges things for people, and people gotta pay him back. That’s what this is about. It’s what that batty Romanian dame with the glass eye set up.”

“Swell,” says Billy Romance, wondering what’s coming next. “So, it’s like selling my soul to Satan so I can get into Spike Dillinger’s pants.”

“That’s it.”

“But you ain’t Satan.”

“No. I’m kind of a temp. He’s dealing with some personal issues and couldn’t make it.”

“Great! How come when I wanna sell my soul to Satan, he’s dealing with personal issues and I get his flunky? You got any experience?”

“I took a class.”

“A class.”

“Yeah, a class. Look, you’re not making this any easier. I gotta start somewhere.”

“Well what do I do now? How do I know when you’ve pulled this off? Shouldn’t there be a puff of smoke and some evil disembodied laughter? And do I get my soul back if I’m not satisfied?”

“I’d have to check our return policy. Keep your receipts.”

“So, that’s it then,” says Billy Romance. “I’ll just be going.”

“That’s fine,” says Mr Glimmer. “Have a lovely evening.”

The next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Girdle Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self. Witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested they might spice up their affair by inviting a third party into their bedroom. Apparently, this third party was a young Asian man by the name of Ping who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street.

Billy Romance was devastated. He returned Elga Coal’s to demand an explanation, but there had been a fire in her apartment the night before and she never made it out alive. But standing down the smoky hall in a snazzy suit holding a lacquered walking stick was Mr Glimmer. He smiled sheepishly and said, “Really messed that one up, didn’t I?” Then he just disappeared in a puff of smoke to the sound of nervous disembodied laughter.

It wasn’t long before the war ended. On VJ Day, Billy Romance met a Canadian Navy Ensign just back from the Aleutians. They hit it off, and moved to Hollywood, California where the retired Navy officer consulted on World War Two Naval epics. Billy Romance bought a piano bar where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. And Mr Glimmer, who by then had given up at being a great solver of problems, would show up at the bar occasionally, sit in a dark corner drinking screwdrivers and worriedly folding little origami animals out five dollar bills.