the revised Devil and Billy Romance

 

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?”

“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.

Oh my?”

“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?”

“He could.”

“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.

So, now—

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.”

“Maybe.”

“You want his attention.”

“Maybe.”

“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.

Anyway,

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.

note

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the angel of 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sleeping rough, are you?”

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

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

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

“But I’ll tell you what….”

“What?” said the woman.

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure, Maxine?”

“Hey, how the hell you know my name?”

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

“You a cop?” said the woman.

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

“You want sex?”

“My goodness, no.”

“Because I ain’t for sale.”

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

“Sometimes,” said The Angel of 1913.

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

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

“That ain’t much of an answer.”

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

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

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

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

“Shit,” she said.

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

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

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

“Shit.”

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

“I guess.”

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

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

“Well, that is entirely the wrong attitude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just need one, mister.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hate ‘em,” said Maxine.

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

“Okay, fine. Hit me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me a minute.”

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

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

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

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

“Which is it?”

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

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

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

“Well?”

“Fine. We’ll do another riddle.”

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

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

“Well,” said Maxine. “I’m waiting.”

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

“You can’t,” said Maxine.

“I already have.”

“Then give me my seven cents.”

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

“You cheated,” said Maxine.

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

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

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

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

“Nothin’,” said Maxine.

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

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

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

“You are crazy,” said Maxine.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it?”

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

“Why that’s easy, it’s….”

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

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

“Well?”

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

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

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

“Nope,” said Maxine.

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

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

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said Maxine.

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

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

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

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

“Two seconds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”