during the 2nd war
So, there was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was—maybe that was it. Maybe he came from a long line of Romances, some moldy old lineage going back to the Old Country. Whatever the hell that is, Old Country I mean. Sounds like something somebody forgot in a bus station men’s room, and never claimed at the lost-and-found, something some guy wakes up in a motel room in another city and says, “Holy shit, I left the Old Country in the can at the Grey Hound station before I boarded the bus, a thousand miles ago. What do I do now? I guess I gotta start over in this shitty little town, sans ancestry. How’s a guy do that? I guess I’m gonna find out. I guess my lineage starts all over, right here.” Then he drinks enough liquor to kill an elephant and his lineage never actually starts over, because he’s shit face and smokes in bed, and dies in a mattress fire. I’m just saying that that’s what might have happened. I’m speculating, get it?
Anyway, Romance was a musician. He played piano at bars round town, but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray dance studio down on Main Street above the White Lunch—the place with the one armed head cook, that tenor who’d been bounced out of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna for fondling the wrong soprano backstage during a performance of La bohème, so he moved to Canada and now he sings Puccini all day over the burger grill and the bacon and eggs. How he lost his arm is some kind of a mystery, though, and he gives anyone who asks the High C fuck you.
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, quiet like Doom was in the room with him, smoking a cigarette, sitting on the kitchen chair next to the window, across the alley from another building’s fire escape where a dishy lass sleeps out on a mattress with almost nothing on in the summer, which is beside the point I know. But, more to the point, this one time Billy says all gloomy and unequivocal-like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa Billy boy, I thought. Where’d that come from? Besides, you’re a righty not a lefty (I guess that was his point). I mean, your life really would be a mess if you wrote it out with your left hand. Never mind spelling mistakes and tense-confusion.
But I should move on with the story. I don’t want to digress.
Some people say that I do that, occasionally. Digress, I mean. Like a girl I dated once named Ethel. Ethel the Red, they called her on account of her red hair, which is kind of a preference of mine. But then I found out she was just a blonde on our second date—don’t bother asking how—not a red head at all, and we had to break up as a consequence of my disappointment.
“You’re a bum!”—were among her last words to me, as I got up from the table in the Savoy Barroom and walked away into the tobacco smoke. That’s the Savoy on Hastings, by the way. Not the one they tried to open on Columbia Street for the Navy boys, but there were too many fights so the Shore Patrol shut it down.
“And all you ever do is digress,” she said way too loud for such a little room like the Savoy, on a Wednesday night when it was kind of empty. “I can’t keep up when you tell me all those crazy stories,” she shouted. But by then I was exiting onto Hastings, because that’s the street the Savoy’s on, in case you’re wondering and you didn’t get it the first time I said it.
So, it was back in 1944 when something strange happened to Billy, maybe I should’ve mentioned at the beginning that this is a story about the strangeness of something that happened once, but I guess it’s too late now. Anyway, he had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war (I had the bone spurs, by the way), and the skirts really went for him, his frailties making him sort of sympathetic. Just picture a paler Frank Sinatra, round the time Louis B. Mayer bought Franky’s contract from RKO and moved him over to MGM. The dames love that kind of shit, 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 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 Spike’s real name, by the way. Maybe that was it. But I gotta picture a new mother, to believe it, still in the Maternity Ward, looking down at the wailing little bastard in her arms and saying, “Spike,” for the first time, with all the love in the world, forgetting the pain of delivery, forgetting the absentee bum who knocked her up, forgetting that she didn’t have two buttons to rub together. Now that’s someone who never knew there might be an Old Country waiting for her to pick up at the bus station lost-and-found.
Trouble for Billy, though, was that Spike Dillinger was a ladies’ man, and he was all squishy over this quail named Rosita Sangria—a name just dopey enough to be real—a beautiful yet volatile underwear model for the Hudson Bay Company with a blue rose tattoo on the back of her left shoulder, and that was pretty hot stuff back in ‘44. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist? Too bad he lived in that tarpaper wharf-shack on the docks off Campbell Avenue, brushed his teeth with sea water and only took a bath once a week at the Mission to Seafarers on Waterfront Road. Plain enough that he and Rosita moved in different circles. How could she know he even existed? And even if she did, what were the chances of her and Spike consummating his drool-soaked fantasies?
But bang! One day it happened. People start seeing Dillinger and Sangria round town, like a couple of kids that just arrived in the Shangri-La of Love. Spike had stalked her, of course, haunting the streets for weeks until the moment was right. And it finally happened in the rain, as she came out of the Hudson Bay store onto Granville Street. She couldn’t open her dime store umbrella, so he stepped up to help, and just like a puppy, pathetic and weepy-eyed, he shucked and golly-geed his way into her heart, the way that only guys, so often referred to as big lugs, can do it.
That was hard on Billy, because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at the Metropole Hotel Bar, on Abbott Street across from Woodward’s Department Store, where Spike Dillinger was now spending a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there all evening, happily quaffing beers, with his arm round the shoulder of Rosita Sangria who’d be sipping her Smirnoff and Coca-Cola and nagging him about all of his short-comings, while Billy pined and sadly played slow jazz renditions of Hit Parade love songs.
And I mean the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy. He was just playing for tips, a thing which I hear was common for musicians back then, bar owners being tightwads, real cheap rat-faced sons-of-bitches. There was even this jazz guitarist named Aldo Ferrari—not a real name, you must agree—who went on a killing spree once round Christmastime. He ended up killing five club owners who’d done him wrong, reimbursement-wise, before the cops cornered him in the lobby of the Georgia Hotel and shot him dead. In a hail of bullets said the Vancouver Sun. A hail that also killed a bell-hop named Wally Goebbels—don’t get me started. Aldo had waited hours in the hotel lobby, on a couch under a palm tree, before he got a clean shot at the manager—whose name I never got, but I bet it was a doozy—who’d refused to pay Aldo on the basis he’d played The Surrey with the Fringe on Top in the wrong key one night. I’d have murdered the prick, too.
But back to Rosita and Dillinger. They were on a fling. Rosita had a new tattoo on the back of her right shoulder, an anchor, the most secure thing in a sailor’s life, the tattoo artist said. She’d even had the artist weave Spike into the rope that coiled round it. That’s what finally broke Billy’s heart, Spike’s name in a rope. Some tried to console him, but the more they tried, the more he wept.
So, eventually Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a green glass eye, which is important to the story because her other eye, the real one, was blue, and that made her all the more mysterious to the common Post-Toasties-kind-of-guy off the street. You see, she’d been getting a little less sexy over the years, poor girl, and different coloured eyes made all the difference, because nothing sells fortune-telling like sex and/or mismatched body parts. And that’s what she was, a fortune-teller. Elga Coal (Now if that ain’t a made up name, I don’t know what is.) : A clairvoyant of repute, said her Yellow Pages ad.
Billy went seeking her guidance because he needed to know if the future held any chance of him wooing Spike Dillinger. By then he’d have even settled for a fractious ménage à trois—him, Dillinger and Rosita, as long as it would last forever. For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer.
It was dark outside when he arrived at Elga’s, her lair dimly lit with candles and oil lamps. Sitting at her table, he let her read his tea leaves, watched her lay out the tarot deck, and finally held out the palm of his hand for her to analyse.
“Your palm is mountainous,” she said, her voice tangy and guttural. “There are deep river valleys and alpine meadows. But there are also ogres in the caves higher up, where the snow never melts. They sleep on the bones of ruined hopes. They’re your sworn enemies. Your greatest aspirations are especially delicate and delicious, and these ogres tear them with sharp claws and gnaw on them with their blunt teeth.”
“Then these ogres must be defeated,” he said, quiet as though Doom was in the room with its cigarette.
“Defeated?” said Elga. “One’s ogres are never defeated. You might chase them back into their caves, but they will always be there. Watching and waiting for their next chance.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Then go home,” she dismissed him.
“What will be my future, then? Let’s forget about ogres for now.”
“Maybe loneliness and death,” Elga said, shrugging.
“Maybe long life and happiness?” She began to roll her own cigarette.
“But, that’s not helpful!” said Billy. “It leaves me no better off than before I came to you.”
“Fate’s that way.” She stuck out her tongue, and heartily licked the gluey strip of the cigarette paper.
“What about love? Will there be love in my future?”
Elga looked again at Billy Romance’s palm. This time she saw something new and said, “Oh!”
“Oh?” he said. “Look, I need more than that. I’m paying for more than, Oh.”
“You’re a homosexual,” said Elga, grimly, as though she’d just discovered the Old Country dead in her closet. “That’s difficult.” She sparked-up her rollie with a match, drew hard and inhaled deeply. “I should have seen it right away in the alpine meadows—and there’s something else, oh my.”
There it was again.
“Unrequited love,” she said. “But, this is no surprise. There’s always unrequited love. If I only had $2 for every one-sided love that came through that door….”
“Well don’t you?” Billy said, “Isn’t $2 what you charge people to tell them their love is one-sided?”
“Don’t be so literal,” she snapped. “This is art.” Then she said, “I see a big man with muscles and tattoos. Needs a bath. A sailor, of sorts. Not very bright. Doesn’t seem your type.” She looked at Billy, who was suddenly dreamy-eyed. “You got it bad, mister,” she said.
“I guess,” he said, “but will my love ever be requited?”
She thought some more, considering the Himalayanesque terrain of his palm, then threw up her hands and said, “No way José.” Which seemed an odd and insensitive way of putting it.
But then she said more, telling Billy Romance that it’d be easier to get blood from a parsnip, than for him to hook-up with his grubby dreamboat. Which is funny, but not the way you’d think. But because at the time there was this faith healer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was doing just that, getting blood from parsnips, to prove his Holy connection with God. Tea pots, car tires, stones—you name it—he was drawing blood from everything he could lay his hands on. Just held his breath and rolled his rheumy eyes until it happened.
People in need of healing were lining up at his revival meetings, with him at his pulpit in a big tent in a field on the outskirts of the city. Arthritis, deafness, ascending colons, the clap—both gonorrhea and Syphilis—he healed them all, right after he showed off his blood-letting talents, so that the unbelievers in the crowd would cast off their demon-doubts and kneel and pray to the Lord God and the miracle-worker himself, whose name was Felix Deuteronomy. And yeah, that’s got to be a fake name. It’s just got to be. I mean what mother who loves a child is gonna name her kid Felix?
But back to the story.
So, Elga sees the bad news is depressing the bejeebers out of Billy Romance, and says that maybe there’s a solution—and bear in mind, I wasn’t there. I’m only paraphrasing here. Because had I been there, I would’ve told Romance to take a powder, to vamoose, to amscray. But I couldn’t have intervened. I was in Winnipeg at the time, for my own reason. Don’t even ask.
“Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine,” says Elga Coal, puffing on her smoke.
“Mr Shine?” Billy Romance says. “Who’s this Mr Shine?”
“Oh, Shine’s an old friend, a great solver of problems,” says Elga Coal, her glass eye suddenly blue, and the other green. “He may be able to help you, but he doesn’t work for free.”
“So, what’s it gonna coast?” Billy says.
“That’s between you and Shine,” says Elga, “but it won’t be cheap. Sometimes souls are his preferred currency.”
“Can he help me have Spike Dillinger?”
“Okay,” Billy says. “That’s for me. Bring on Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Tell me where I can find him.”
Here Elga Coal grins, and says, “Don’t worry, he’ll find you.” And as her glass eye turned a burning vermilion, she held out her hand and said, “That’ll be five bucks.”
“I thought it was two.”
“Referrals are extra.”
She didn’t work cheap, either, but he handed over the cash.
Very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks, coming back down to Earth as he exits onto the street. On the sidewalk, it seems like some fairy-tale from the Old Country. And five bucks, at that! But what was the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?
Convinced he’d been conned, Billy Romance walks away tragically toward Shanghai Stella’s, the only place in town where sensitive young men of Billy Romance’s ilk could congregate and be themselves with one another without fear of penalty.
But he never makes it.
It’s tenish, dark and damp after a rain, and Romance is walking through Chinatown, down a shortcut back alley to the music of mah-jong tiles from the open windows above when, without warning, he encounters a smooth looking individual with a flirty smile and perfect black hair, stepping into the yellow light of a bare bulb over the back door of an herbal emporium. Billy, not being the sort to participate in back alley high jinks with strange men, walks on by, and almost makes it down the lane before he hears the man behind him say—
“Hello, Mr Romance. I understand I might be of service.”
“Not interested, fella,” Billy says, still walking, nearly overwhelmed by the strange man’s bituminous odour, but wondering how the perv got his name. Then, overwhelmed by curiosity, he stops, turns round, and says, “What’s your game, mister?”
“No game. The name’s Mr Shine.”
“Yes, and?” says Billy Romance, taking a stab at quick thinking and failing, standing straight and throwing back his shoulders. Elga Coal hadn’t conned him, after all, and it scared him.
“You’ve a wish, I understand, involving another man.”
“You want his attention.”
“Are you sure?” says Shine. “He seems a little rough round the edges, could use a bath.”
“I wish people would stop saying that.”
“Alright, I know that that’s how love is. Why don’t I arrange it.”
“Can you?” Billy says, with cautious enthusiasm, and visions of dreams come true.
But so, here I have to interject on the topic of enthusiasm. Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and a guy nuts for the assembly line, once said: Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Now, I figure yeast coming into it is sort of strange since it’s just a bunch of bugs farting in the bread dough. But some people really take the yeast thing to heart, because Ford made a million off the Model-T, which was really just a little wagon-wheeled piece of crap compared to, say, the ‘41 Ford Super Deluxe Coupe with the big fat V8, but what do I know. Maybe the yeast’s got something going for it I don’t understand, farting in the bread dough. I just know that I was all enthusiastic once, about Ethel the Red. Look where that got me. I hate enthusiasm.
Shine says, “Consider it done.”
And Billy Romance says, “Swell.”
And Shine says, “Swell, indeed.”
And Romance says, “That’s it?”
“Yeah,” says Shine, grinning.
“I’ll just be going, then,” Billy says.
“That’s fine. Have a lovely evening,” says Shine. “I look forward to the time when we meet again.” And he disappears.
“Meet again?” Billy Romance whispers to himself, like a guy who’s just borrowed way too much from a loan shark to buy something he’s suddenly not sure he really wants.
But, the next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Underwear Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self.
Friends and witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested to Rosita that 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 Larry who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street, where they serve that satay honeycomb ox tripe that everyone says they don’t like, but that the Ho Ho sells out on every night.
Billy Romance was devastated, naturally, and returned to Elga Coal’s the next morning to demand she conjure Mr Shine to offer up an explanation. But when he arrived, he found that there’d been a fire in her flat and Elga never made it out alive.
After the fire crew and police left, Billy climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old woman’s walk-up, and standing down the smoky hall, dressed in a snazzy suit, holding a lacquered stacked leather walking stick, was Mr Shine. “Really messed things up, didn’t I?” he said.
“Yeah, I guess you did,” said Billy.
Death still happened to be there too, his work done, standing behind Shine—a little boy wearing a tee-shirt, sneakers and a pair of jeans with a slingshot in the back pocket.
“You!” Romance squinted, sneering at Death. “Haven’t you got other places to be?”
“Sure,” Death said, “but I wanted to hang around to see the dope who was so hot for that swabbie. Whew! He needed a bath.”
Kicking him would probably have been a mistake, Billy knew. Death was Death, after all.
Then, “Catch you later,” the little boy Death said. And after Shine had said the same, they both vanished into the stale bitter scent of the burnt-out corridor.
So here I’d like to mention a little something about fire safety, and forgive me if I digress. If the Devil’s real, then maybe God’s real, and if He is, God’s supposed to be in charge. And if Hell is real, then God and the Devil are working together to get us all there as fast as possible. And that ain’t fair, because each of us is born damaged goods, due to some hiccup in God’s fuzzy blueprint. And in a world where even the Devil can’t get things right, we’ve got to be careful round open flame; got to know where the exits are; and we’ve got to know not to play with matches, and, as in the case of Dillinger, Rosita and Romance, to not play with hearts. And even though Billy got out clean this time, that doesn’t mean that the two ogres, God and Shine, aren’t still out to get him.
As for how Billy Romance’s actual fortune unfolded, it wasn’t long after VJ Day that he met a Canadian Air Force Corporal just back from England. They hit it off, discovered leather together, and eventually moved to Hollywood, California, where the demobbed Corporal consulted with the big studios on World War Two Air Force epics. Billy bought a quiet piano bar on the Sun Set Strip, where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of penalty.
But Billy never forgot Spike Dillinger, the big lug.
As for Mr Shine and God, they sometimes have dinner together at a little bistro in Florence, Italy, near the Ponte Vecchio. The pair of them sit for hours at a time at a corner table on the shady patio discussing the old days, art and mass extinctions, catastrophe and evolution. Sometimes, they even speculate on the future. God loves the Veal Piccata, and is known as a crappy tipper, while Mr Shine sips Absinthe and offends the staff and other customers with his sulphurous odoriferousness.