East Van

There are events that occur so long ago that our failures are forgotten—the failure to achieve a fitting rage the moment someone is torn away. And then the failure to cry.

But when the moment arrives, and is right, we do make our fists. Hold them tight until all the blood is gone, and the remaining white is ivory. And then we do weep. When it makes no sense. Like someone once predicted.

*   *   *   *   *

We were the outcasts. Leaky sneakered, bargain clad by our mothers. Maria Hart and me, Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan. Bookish to faults. A poets’ archipelago, by-and-by. Forever black and white in family photos, unaware that we were the future of art and anarchy. We were the exiles of our neighbourhood, unseen.

And yet, we saw everything.

We were 10 years old in the summer of 1971, and were, on that poplar cotton morning, certain that we saw Maria’s ghost in the high grass, kneeling next to her own body.

And since she lingered there separated from us, Vincent, Zack and me stood alone.

“Maria.” Zack was the first to speak.

Quietly.

Releasing her name into the air. Maria, a water colour suspended in the morning.

The three of us numb as her body was lifted onto a stretcher. The blanket the police had hidden her under falling away. Revealing her hollow cheeks. Her rigidness. Her once perfect auburn hair, tangled with twigs and yellow willow leaves. Fixed still cunning eyes. The wrongness of her left arm, too elbowless and deficient to be real.

The body of our friend.

Thalidomide girl. (Maria’s hated handle, that only the cruel would use.)

Found murdered, having not returned for dinner the evening before, in the vacant lot left behind by old Mrs Mackenzie’s demolished house.

Mrs Mac who had died in her double lot jungle garden 2 years before. Assailed by her own heart at 80 years old.

The garden where now the irises and deep red paeonies grew wild.

Where stones still bordered the deserted pathways and flowerbeds beneath the cherry and apple trees.

Where resided, in their branches, the china dolls that Mrs Mack had enchanted and made barely visible on high, and behind the shrouds of low hanging leaves and in the dense creeping thyme.

“Only a child can find them,” she said, correctly. “Because only a child is as magic.”

Maria, her throat crushed, in a wild garden. Watched over by unmoving eyes on porcelain faces.

And there was something else my mother could only murmur, after she’d heard the story on the radio. A word defined for me then by its lone blunt syllable. A whispered scream. A calamity word that once uttered found space in every fracture of my life. An act of awful dreams. That I associated then and now with the evidence in Maria’s dead milky eyes, the banner of her blood, a host of flies.

Rape.

Cowardly, cruel and stupid.

That night I woke in my bed from nightmares, my distressed father looking down on me.

My father was tall and lean then. Severe sometimes with his unwieldy love. Gentle other times, always made anxious by his children’s fears. Now standing magnificently in the dark room, in the dim streetlamp light coming through my bedroom window.

“You were screaming,” he said. “Like a girl.”

Like a girl.

A nearly wordless man whose words when spoken could sting. Failing, as he sometimes did, to understand the duties and consequences of fatherhood.

My father of the proletariat. Born and raised in East Van. Missing out on high school, but now a union carpenter. A tattoo on his right hammer hard forearm, a dagger through a dark red heart, encircled by flame and wrapped in a banner with my mother’s name, Bridget, forever burnt in to it. A neighborhood legend within his circle of lifelong friends. Proving their confederacy with incontrovertible stories of his savage rebellion and extraordinary courage. Who had a trick of hitting every green in the city. Still street smart and good in a fist fight, he thought the same would be good enough for me. Never able to comprehend my need to understand not only facts, but also the subtleties that cemented them together.

He pulled my small desk chair to my bedside and sat. Just jeans, no shirt no socks. Obviously roused from sleep.

“Your mother’s still in bed,” he said. “I can go get her.”

“No,” I say, reticent. He was  still a stranger to me, eerie yet comforting to have nearby.

He shrugs, “OK,” and lights a cigarette. “It must have been pretty bad, seeing what you saw today.”

Now I shrug, still feeling the nightmare on my skin. Suspicious even of my bedroom’s familiar shadows.

“That poor cripple girl, eh?” he said.

“Cripple’s a bad word.”

“She was your friend, your mother says.”

I said, “Yeah.” And the world went hush.

I’d yet to read even one tragic romance.

I couldn’t explain it to him then, or myself, my fascination. My attraction to her. How vast it was. Her child-wise insights and beauty in spite of what people whispered. Her aura, surrounding her like the Virgin in Catholic tracts. Only I saw it. But I was too young to know, that in the minds of others, my childish crush on a cripple made me a defendant in a crime of the grotesque.

But now, a crime that I could never fully commit.

Then, “Why can’t I cry?” I said. “Shouldn’t I cry?”

“You’re gonna, kid,” he says, tapping a cigarette ash into the palm of his hand, and rubbing it into his jeans. “When it don’t make sense,” he said. “It’ll hit you like a brick. And then you’ll cry, just fine.”

It already made no sense.

“What happened to her was what you were dreaming about, I guess.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Wanna tell me about it?”

An unexpected question.

But how could I explain it to him? I did my best. My exact words are lost, only a vague memory now—

In my dream, I was with Maria in the wild garden. In night’s darkest room, spied on by China dolls. Her face is pale, unwashed. She’s missing buttons. Her fingernails are broken from a fierce fight. She’s post-mortem. Her spirit is imperfect.

I remember a long audible lament from somewhere hidden, nearby.

“I’m dead,” says Maria, “aren’t I.”

Things are running through the puzzle of jungle around us.

“And this place is haunted,” she says, suddenly very afraid of something I cannot see. “I’m scared,” she says. Her milky terrified eyes moving rapidly left to right as suddenly the hands of a multitude reach out from behind, and pull her into the darkest of the dark. Jumping forward, I reach out for her hand. And have it for a moment. But then it’s gone. Leaving only a cold night behind. Grief, silent and complete.

I wake screaming, at that moment, to see my father standing over me.

I remember thinking it was a dream too strange for a simple carpenter to understand.

But—

“Hmmm,” he said. “That’s a good one.” Then draws on his cigarette, nearing its end. The orange ember momentarily lighting up the dark room. “I have dreams like that sometimes, too,” my father says. “Must be hereditary. Don’t forget ‘em, neither. Not like regular dreams. I’ve got a garage-full in my head.”

This is surprising. Like I’d just peeked over a wall at the real man.

A dream itself is but a shadow,” he said, snuffing out the cigarette between a callused finger and thumb. “That’s Shakespeare, Hamlet. You read more than a kid should, that must be hereditary too. So you’ll get to the Bard, eventually. Sooner than most, I’ll bet. Some say he didn’t write any of it, but who gives a damn.”

My opinion of him changed then, and I finally paid attention, discovering that he did read. Had all along. Dog-eared stacks. Hammett, Faulkner, Chandler, Orwell and more. A disheveled easy chair in the basement furnace room. A crooked lamp, recent copies of the New Yorker. Scattered journals on mysterious subjects, like socialism. A few empty beer bottles and an ashtray.

I tried to read his copy of 1984. But at 10 years old, I couldn’t finish it.

When I told him, he said, “That’s a bit heavy, ain’t it?” Then he asked me what I thought of what I’d read.

“People in novels are mean,” I told him.

“It’s called tension, kid,” he grinned. “That’s what all the dames, gats, villains and tough guys are about. Riddles at the start, heartbreak in the middle, redemption in the end. A novel’d just be bad cover art without the tension. But watch out.  Sometimes there ain’t no redemption. Nothing obvious, anyway. Just injustice. Those stories can be the best, I think. You gotta mull ‘em over. Maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.”

“Nothing’s forever.”—everyone said so.

“Maybe,” he said. “But an ending never walked away from the story it belonged to. Good or bad. That’s kinda like forever, isn’t it?”

It made me think of Maria. Her ghost kneeling over her own body in the tall grass, on the morning she was found. The ending she’d never escape.

My father made me a writer. Made me a dissident. And I thank him for it.

*   *   *   *   *

Zack Stavros, Vincent Chan and I were in the garden the next morning. Watching the cops like bees on the scene. They even questioned us. But we didn’t know anything. Except that she was our friend. That she was smart.

I quietly remembered the last time she and I spoke.

A debate, almost an argument, over who was cooler, Barbie or Ken. Barbie was, as it turned out.

If either Vincent or Zack had dreamed a dream like mine, neither would say. That is until hours later. After we’d walked round the neighbourhood. Tried to sneak into the Rio Theatre, and failed. Tried to play a round of street hockey we were all to sad and confused to pull off.

When we returned to the wild garden in the afternoon, and watched the few cops remaining talking in a corner across the property from us, smoking and drinking coffee, laughing at whatever it is cops have to laugh at at the scene of a child’s murder, Zack opened up.

“I dreamed about her last night,” he said.

“How?”I asked. “I mean, what was the dream about?”

He was quiet for a minute, then he said, “She looked like nothing had ever happened. Better, even. Just stood there in a weird light.”

“Where?”

He nodded in a hazy direction. “Kinda off the path.”

“So, what happened?”

“I don’t know.” He look down at his ragged runners. Kicked a stone. “She just kinda smiled and disappeared. It made me feel good, though. I wasn’t sad anymore, ‘til I woke up.”

“You weren’t scared,” I said, without grace.

“I felt like I was falling,” said Zack, “With nowhere to land. Just a lot of light.”

“That’s it?”

“I just woke up,” he said.

They arrested everyone in the Cesare Fiocco gang the week after.

The Fiocco gang were the dropouts. 18 or 19 years old. Each never more than a lunatic glance, an injured laugh away from the other. They bullied. Stole. Shot pool at the Lusitania. Ran errands for the rotten cops and the Capos on the Drive. Each dying too young. Leaving no vacant space behind, my father said, when they did.

And each, in unison, ratting out Dante Bonazzoli as the perpetrator of the crime. Dante Bonazzoli, the oldest of them at 20. Who committed Maria Hart’s rape and murder. Bonazzoli who called her a freak because of her birth defect.

He died in the BC Pen a year after sentencing. Bleeding out in a shower. Stabbed eleven times with a screwdriver. For being a rapist, and refusing the advances of an inmate as monstrous as himself.

I was jealous of Zack’s dream. Resented that what I thought was my last glimpse of Maria was so different from his. But my envy didn’t last long. It only lasted a few days. Until I began to see her again.

Maria over my shoulder. Reflected in storefront windows. Opposite on busy streets. Standing very still on downtown sidewalks. Each time, only for seconds. In nearly every corner of my life. No longer lost in shadows. Her face bright. Her eyes sharp. Was it more dreaming? No. It wasn’t.

Maria clothed in paradise. Whispering in tongues. Wise and just beyond touch. In a room next to me, then vanishing.

Time passed and she faded away, completely. I forgot, and I failed to ever cry.

I grew and learned and worked and got older.

Forgot to cry, that is, until the other day. When it hit me like a brick. Out of nowhere. When it made no sense. And then I cried, just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook

a Trumpish fantasy from 2016

 

Day #16

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #1Once you have arrived at your assigned location, hunker down and wait for ancillary instructions from your Assignment Coach.

4 a.m.

A lamppost lit view from the window—crows quarrel over a dead rat in the gutter.

CNN, I haven’t turned it off for two weeks. Images of desert proxy-wars percolate through the cable; ISIS driving US Iraq-abandoned Humvees and armoured vehicles; teenage recruits firing AK-47s into the Mosul sky. Domestically, unarmed American black men shot dead while reaching for their ID; the unqualified buzzkill of the Republican National Convention.

The assignment is to instigate a shakeup, by diverting the ginger haired sociopath’s motorcade down the street below my window. I have his picture taped to the wall, a smug man in orbit round himself. He’s got Secret Service protection, naturally. That will complicate things. There’ll be revolution if I accomplish my assignment. A master class in failed democracy, for all those who care to attend, and everyone must.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #4Continue to take prescribed performance enhancing drugs until instructed to discontinue.

There’s food for a few more days, and I keep my iPhone charged. They may have forgotten me, or abandoned my mission without bothering to call. This happens from time to time. I continued to inject the methamphetamine they supplied me with in ever increasing dosages, against protocol, and my supply ran out two days ago. The situation has become dire.

The room’s haunted, or I’m hallucinating. The ghosts walk through one wall, across the room, and disappear into the other.

Out of boredom, I disassemble and clean the rifle twice a day, being careful with the scope. Its zero’s set. The octanitrocubane satchel charges are in an Eddie Bauer backpack on the nightstand. An RPG launcher, with rocket mounted, stands in the corner by the door, like an umbrella waiting for rain. I’ve spent days wondering if these are the right tools for the job, but they’ll have to be.

My room is well situated over the busy skid row street below, Central Avenue. The hotel is old, though. It disgusts me. It’s a slum, on the edge of a vast precinct of slums and housing projects. There are rats in the walls, junkies in the halls. Roaches fuck in the empty soup cans I’ve thrown onto the floor. The deranged and the addicted come here to die. A woman’s body was retrieved from the stuck elevator, yesterday. She died waiting for rescue that never came. Her screams and weeping went on for days, getting quieter over time, until only the hush of ordinary cruelty remained. She must have died slowly in the dark, jonesing all the way. Her body had been in there for a week, before a repairman found it. The rising smell alerted no one.

7 a.m.

The iPhone rings. For some reason the ringtone is Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock. I make sure that the triple encryption is on, and answer.

“Hello?”

“There’s been a delay,” someone says. “The target’s gone off the radar, so to speak.”

It’s a voice I know. A woman I must have met at indoctrination, or during training. Nameless, monotone. A survivor of enough assassination assignments, I assume, to have earned a telephone on a desk in a cubicle, surrounded by a hundred other Assignment Coaches, each managing multiple operatives in various stages of waiting, execution or flight.

“Yes?” I say. “What do you mean by delay?”

“I mean that you have to hold on,” she says.

“For how long?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“Wait! Don’t hang up.”

“What?”

“I need things,” I say.

“We gave you expense money.”

“I can’t leave, though—in case….”

“Don’t worry about that,” says the woman. “The target’s stationary, for the moment. It’s his day off. He’s at the Marriott downtown, probably sweating all over some twelve year old they scooped at the mall. He won’t go mobile for another eighteen hours. Besides, yours is only one of several possible routes to the airport. The itinerary is open to change. Go out and get what you need. Get receipts.”

“I need more shit. I don’t think dealers give receipts.”

“Shit? What do mean?”

“Crank,” I say. “Meth.”

“Discontinue use. You don’t need it at the moment. Things have stalled. We’ll let you know when it’s necessary to start taking it again. Stand down, rest up.”

“You can’t be serious. Fuck, I need it. I can’t go without it now.”

“Symptoms of withdrawal are to be expected,” says the woman. “You’re sleep deprived. Take a nap, and endure.”

“You must be joking. I’m crashing like a Malaysian 777. I was told to take it, to keep myself ready. Now I really need it. You’re right, I haven’t slept for days. There’re ghosts….”

There’s a click, and a fresh silence on the line.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I’ve been watching the dealers on the street from my window since I arrived. They’re mostly pink-cheeked, clean-jeaned juveniles who drive in from out of the neighbourhood. Their bosses use them because they aren’t hooked, yet. It’s thought that they won’t swallow, snort or inject the inventory. But when they finally do, which is inevitable, they’re damned where they stand.

10:30 a.m.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #10When told to stand-down by your Assignment Coach, rest, restock and study analysis.

For the first time in days, I leave my room to go outside, and pass through the lobby on my way. The lobby’s post-apocalyptic. It’s an impact crater. More ghosts. There are three frail old men, sitting in a shabby row. Threadbare clothes on a threadbare couch. Hoary hands on canes. I can see right through them. A woman in a corner confers with her own personal invisible, beneath a dark and dusty framed picture of a nineteenth century aristocrat on a stallion in the countryside. The clerk sitting behind the wire-mesh glass looks up from his internet porn; someone naked, in handcuffs on the screen.

Outside, the sidewalk’s a perpetual motion machine. Dead storefronts, faded graffiti, prison tattoos. Scammers, hookers, junkies and dealers. Bodies nudged over to the curb. Vehicle traffic hardly moves. There’s a slow procession round the block, men driving family cars, looking for bargain basement sex. Lunatics cross the street blindly. The cops cruise through occasionally, but never stop. It’s a bottleneck. Only a major emergency detour would force the target’s motorcade down such an impassable street. That must be the plan.

I haven’t changed my clothes or taken a shower for more than two weeks. I blend in. There’s a dealer I recognise from looking out of my hotel room window a few feet away, talking to a drag queen. The dealer’s white, dressed like a department store rapper, trying too hard. I approach, and stand next to him with my fists in my pockets, tight and trembling. He takes one look and walks away. Shit.

The drag queen looks me over.

“You’re some kinda fucked up, boy,” she says. “You gonna follow him, or just stand there and melt?”

I shiver and smile. Now I get it. I’m supposed to follow the dealer to a more practical spot. I go and find him in the crowd.

The deal takes place mid-block, away from the corner, beneath a broken surveillance camera. We’re surrounded, hidden in the chaos. Our eye contact is brief. He’s impatient.

“What you want?” he says, trying to sound bad, missing the mark.

“Meth,” I say.

“You stink, man.”

“I know.”

“You shit your pants?”

“I might have,” I say. “I don’t remember.”

“How much you want?”

“Fifty.”

“Fifty what?”

“Fifty dollars,” I say. “What will that get me?”

“What kinda junkie are you, don’t know what fifty’ll get you?”

“I’m new.”

“You’re a cop.”

“Hell no. Do I smell like a cop?”

“No,” he says. “You smell like a pig.”

“C’mon, I got the money here in my hand. See?”

What follows is a relaxed current of motion, a clandestine double jointed hand-off. The ease of it surprises me. I’ve never done this before, but something occult inside of me has assumed control. Drugs and money exchange simultaneously, in what looks like a failed handshake, after which the dealer looks away. It’s over, fast. I got more for my money than I’d guessed.

For the dealer, though, I no longer exist. If I was on fire, he’d just step away. He hates junkies. I should go and shoot-up, but I resent his attitude. I stare, and hate him back.

“You have nightmares,” I say, but don’t know why. Maybe it’s the same death wish that got me here in the first place.

“What? Fuck you. Fuck off.”

“It’s the junkies,” I say. “People like me, your clientele.”

“Don’t push it, freak. Disappear.”

“We occupy your sleep, like insurgents.”

“I’m warning you,” says the dealer, drawing a switchblade, making a show of it. It snaps open.

I can’t stop, though. Violent isolation and vivid cravings have transformed me, have somehow made me telepathic. I see deeply inside of him. He’s a piss-puddle of dread. The knife in his hand is meaningless.

“Junkies surround you in your worst dreams,” I continue. “Don’t we? Clawing at you, grasping and pulling you down onto the pavement. Legions of us. Tearing your skin right down to the bone, ripping out your eyes with our filthy fingernails, stabbing you with dirty syringes, each one of us looking for a fix. Ten thousand fixes, a hundred thousand. We want what you can’t possibly deliver. You struggle. You call out for your mamma. You seek Jesus. You’re desperate to escape.  You’re in agony, but we won’t back off. We’re mutilating you. Smothering you in our stench. But you can’t stop us. You wake up screaming; you’ve wet yourself. The fear feels like a bullet in your gut. You fumble like a fool, reaching for a weapon. But who are you gonna kill, nightmare tweekers or yourself? And when the nightmare’s all over, and you’ve put the panic back into its tiny cupboard somewhere in your sick little brain, you still know that you have to return here, this sidewalk, with your pockets full of junk, the terror phosphorescent on your skin. Just look at you, you pathetic sack of shit.”

His eyes are wide, chin back, shoulders up. I’ve tapped into something. How or why’s a mystery. Maybe clairvoyance is a gift of sleeplessness, appearing without restraint.

Without warning, he thrusts his blade into my side, through the ribs. The force of the blow, his fist on the handle of the knife, throws me off balance. I stagger and fall. He walks away. The fluid crowd fills his vacated space. No one looks down at me, as I scramble to stand.

Then I hear Jailhouse Rock, and answer the phone.

“Hello,” I say. The knife has pierced a lung. I’m coughing blood. I try to focus. I’m drooling dark red spittle.

“He’s moving,” I hear my Assignment Coach say. “We didn’t expect it. Protests are springing up across the city, and the protesters are way more organised than we thought they’d be. They’ve blocked nearly every possible escape route. His motorcade may be coming your way. Where are you?”

“On the street.” I touch my side where the knife went in. Lung blood, everywhere.

“Get back up to your room,” says the Coach. “You’ll know if the motorcade is coming your way when you hear three explosions a couple of blocks away. Car-bombs. The blasts will box them in on three sides, we hope. Turning left down Central will be their only option. The bombs will detonate simultaneously. Wait for them before you make a move. The cops will try to clear the street. The SUVs may even take to the sidewalk, but even if they do the convoy will be moving slow enough for you to get off your shots.”

Get off my shots.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say. “The rifle you gave me, and the SUV’s bulletproof glass, they don’t add up.”

“You have what you need. Take the initiative. Do what you have to.”

“Yes, but a little direction from your end would…. Hello?”

A familiar silence.

I run into the hotel and up the stairs. The lock on the door to my room is sticky—the key won’t turn. Several tries, and after dropping the keys multiple times, it finally opens. The rifle is disassembled and lies on an oil cloth on the bed. I’ll have to reassemble it. Where did I put the shells? Panic.

Rigs and other paraphernalia are on the dilapidated dresser. I throw down two small baggies of crank, and then look into the cracked mirror above the dresser. In just two weeks, I’ve become a zombie. What happened? Who cares? I begin the mix, using water from the swamp toilet down the hall. Two points—no, three points—to 12 units of water, then I load the syringe. There are still good veins in my arm, in spite of the bruising and spreading infections. Finally, it’s time to inject. The sting of the needle piercing the skin sets off a conditioned flow of endorphins in my brain, not the buzz I’m looking for, but at last a sign of hope. I’m moments away—

And in a second long precursor to catastrophe, time dies, and is then ferociously resurrected.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Appendix 6, Sec. 9.7—Explosives in an Urban Setting—Lateral DamageA blast wave is pressure expanding supersonically from an explosive core, preceded by a shock of compressed gases. The detonation of explosives in a city setting differs from that in an open area, like a battle field. In a city, the blast wave will be forced to funnel along the street grid, and be constrained by structures along its path, making the potential for significant lateral damage very high.

The sound of the blasts is deafening. The building quakes, and I look up from my arm in time to see the window shatter, and feel a fast moving wave of glass missiles, large, small and microscopic, wash over me as I’m pushed off of my feet and onto the floor.

My face and other exposed bits of me have been torn to shreds. My clothes have been ripped to pieces. I’m oozing blood and macrophage from the neck up, and I’m nearly deaf. The syringe remains full, but its needle is bent in my vein. Blood runs into my now lidless right eye, from above where the flesh of my forehead once was. I blink, and try pushing the plunger down. It won’t budge.

From somewhere nearby, I hear a faint rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I answer the phone: “What the fuck. Are you using nukes?” I lisp and slur my words. Large portions of my lips and cheeks are gone.

“It was a bit too much, I admit,” says my Coach. I can barely hear her, but it’s obvious that she’s rattled.

“Speak up,” I shout.

“We’re sorry,” she hollers. “We used ISIS defectors to build and plant the car bombs. We flew them in from Iraq last week. They’ll provide us with a plausible deniability mechanism, but they clearly lack the subtlety necessary for a more civilized milieu. That’s beside the point, though. Are you still viable?”

Viable? I’m on the floor with much of my facial epidermis ripped away, I have what I must assume is an ultimately fatal stab wound to my lung, and I still need a fix.

Standing up, I jam the iPhone between my shoulder and what’s left of my ear. It nearly slithers away in a smear of blood.

I try to remove the syringe from my arm. It breaks, but the needle remains steadfastly hooked into my vein. What’s left of the meth and remaining syringes have been blown off the top of the dresser, to who knows where. I begin to hack up blood again, more with each cough.

“I’m viable,” I say—cough, cough, cough. Spit.

“Good,” says the Assignment Coach. “Maybe we overdid it, but the plan worked. The motorcade was forced to turn left. We’re following it now, via satellite. They’ve stopped for the moment, but they’re headed in your direction, very slowly. There’re bodies everywhere, but there’s also a mob forming on the road. Mass-hysteria caused by the blasts, who knows? Radio chatter indicates that the police, wherever the hell they are, are preparing to use tear gas. Your neighbourhood’s gone berserk. Looting’s already begun. Looks like we’ve provoked a riot. Unintentional, but perhaps to our advantage. Get to work.”

I disconnect, and do a quick inventory. It’s time. The sniper rifle, the Armalite AR-50, even with the armor piercing incendiary shells, probably won’t do the job unless I’m closer. I’m going through serious withdrawal now, my hands too shaky to reassemble it properly, or get off an accurate shot.

I grab a Glock and extra clips from the nightstand, and the backpack of satchel charges. Then the RPG launcher, with the rocket attached.

Then I take a moment to tug at the needle hooked into my forearm. It’s good and stuck. Looking into the mirror again, I see the zombie only without a face, just gore and flesh fragments, exposed bone, teeth and lidless left eye. The zombie’s carrying a polymer-framed automatic handgun, rocket launcher and enough explosives to take down the hotel and every adjacent building for a block and a half. I open my hotel room door and run, through the haunted lobby and out onto the street.

Bedlam.

In a very short time, the desperate people of a desperate neighbourhood have risen up. Whore hunting family men are being pulled from their cars, robbed and beaten, their vehicles set ablaze. Pawnshops and convenience stores are being raided, the proprietors shooting back. Three motorcycle cops try to navigate and take control of the throng. They blow their whistles, sound their sirens and rev their engines, and are quickly taken down. A pickup truck drives by with thugs in the back, wielding AR-15s.  Suddenly, it looks like Baghdad, only with Hip Hop music and gangbanger wheel hubs.

Standing on a bus stop bench, I scan the stormy scene. Then I see them. A half a block away, approaching through the swarm, three SUVs. All of them with men wearing flack vests over their starched white shirts and striped ties, standing on the running boards, firing indiscriminately into the crowd with fully automatic assault rifles.

It’s my target; my long awaited love.

I jump off the bench, moving mechanically, getting closer, looking for the best vantage. I’m walking quickly, as implanted data begins to flow in my head, like an organic code. Then I hear, with my nearly deaf ears, what might be the screech of tires behind me. I turn round, and there’s the pickup, with seven heavily armed locals in the back.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #28Recruit local inhabitants to your ends, wherever and whenever possible.

The passenger side door opens, and a well-dressed man of the hood steps out, with a .45 auto in his hand. This is no department store rapper. From his stance and cold approach, I can tell that he’s something else, altogether. He’s a warrior, and this is the beginning of his war.

“Where’s yo face at?” he says, making me aware once more, that I’m a virtually faceless man, bleeding profusely from my side. I hack up more blood.

“Most of it’s back in my room,” I say, lisping and slurring.

He folds his arms and strokes his chin.

“And what’s that for, Frankenstein?” He points at the rocket launcher.

“I’m on an assignment,” I say. “You see those SUVs stuck up the street?” I thumb over my shoulder. “That’s the apricot dick-weed nominee you’ve been watching for the past year, saying he’s gonna build a wall and make America safe for white people again. Someone on high thinks he might win the election, so I’m here to frost his cake.”

“For real?” says the Warrior. “You a shooter?”

“Absolutely.”

“And that be him, Mr Whitey Man Tan?”

“Yup.”

“I hate that mother fucker.”

“He hates you more,” I say.

“He ain’t got no right comin’ down here after the shit he’s been sayin’.”

“Hey,” a teenager shouts from the truck, “his guards are killing everyone.”

“Shit,” says the Warrior. “How much you want for that rocket gun, you got there?”

“Waddaya you give me?” I say, my allegiance to the cause rapidly dissolving.

“Hundred,” he says.

“Two,” I counter.

“Deal.”

He pulls out a wad, and peels off the bills. I offer over the weapon.

“Glock for sale, too?” he says.

“No way. This chunk might help me get out alive.”

“Ain’t no one gettin’ outta this alive,” says the Warrior, and taking the rocket launcher form my hand, he aims it at me. I wink back, reach forward, and release the safety.

“Now you’re ready, my friend,” I say. “But don’t waste it on me.”

“Ain’t gonna,” he says. “Just seein’ what you’d do. You cool, for such a gruesome mother fucker.”

“Thanks,” I say, and pulling a small brown booklet out of my back pocket, I recite—

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #11When attempting to disable a lightly armoured civilian vehicle with a rocket propelled grenade, fire first on the front wheels to disenable steering, forward mobility and braking capacity, thus rendering the vehicle immobile. Then attack the body of the vehicle with remaining rockets and or whatever weapons remain.

“Righteous,” says the Warrior.

Then I take a satchel charge out of the backpack, and recite again, The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #17Nothing is bombproof, provided the bomb is large enough, and well enough placed.

“I’ll throw these in,” I say, pointing out the triggering mechanism. “You only got ten seconds to get the hell outta Dodge once that’s set. Then take cover, baby. Works best when placed directly under the vehicle, so you or one of your homies has got to get in close.”

“Fuck yeah!” he says, grabs the pack, and gets back into the truck. He smiles and waves as he and his crew drive away, up the street toward the stationary trio of SUVs.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #35: After successfully completing an assignment, wait for the Assignment Coach to contact you. Be patient, as this may take a while. Do not seek medical aid if injured, no matter your condition, as doing so may draw attention to, and compromise, your mission.

I think about Rule #35 as I lay in a morphine haze, watching a TV screen, from a gurney in a hospital emergency ward gone mad. I arrived here in an ambulance filled with six other seriously injured street people, and have been triaged to near the front of a very long line.

Fox News footage shot from a helicopter is repeated over and over as the world marvels at the unanticipated and improbable end of a wanna-be politician. Some mourn and some cheer as images of his body, in a lake of blood on the pavement fades into a television commercial for Walmart.

 

 

 

 

 

‘East Van’ paragraph lab

opening to East Van, an upcoming story 

I was 10 years old in the summer of 1971

I could begin with the cops playing poker in the back rooms of the Italian clubs on the Drive. With how the city smelled back then, the pulp mills on the river, the diesel and the fishing boats down Campbell Avenue. How I’d crouch like a monk on a wharf edge, lost in the hilly oily surface of the inlet, my father nearby smoking, drinking beer from a paper bag bottle. The city was red brick and rainforest back then. And sometimes when I woke before the August dawn, I’d watch the sunrise cloudless, and see the hateful outdoor cats just in from the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the revised diary of a Walmart greeter

Where do I begin?

How about this: Hi, I’m Larry and this is my last blog entry. It’s me telling the world that I really tried to go straight. That I really wanted to be a good guy, just like the suckers out there. And it’s me confessing to a crime, that by now, everyone knows I’m guilty of.

For years now, this blog has been my diary. And who knows? Maybe it’ll hold some meaning for the internet archeologist who discovers it in the drizzle of some abandoned cloud, five hundred years from now. Or maybe I’ve only written it because bloggers come in two flavours: manic egoists and the desperately lonely. Each obsessively seeking the approval of others.

Try to guess which flavour I am, by the way. Hint: I haven’t cleaned up my apartment in over 6 months, and my last girlfriend started an Instagram account exclusively to smut-shame me after dumping me when she found my stash of  ‘70s vintage pornography. Her Instagram account features dozens of adult entertainers displaying a diversity of sexual eccentricities. Each pic attributed to me, with my photo, email and Twitter handle attached, cycling over and over for all the world to see.

I don’t know what flavours Instagrammers come in.

Tomorrow is supposed to be my third day working at what was meant to be my new and redeeming job as a Walmart Greeter. And the third time I was to be forced to do the “motivational” pre-shift Bumble Bee Dance. But it didn’t quite get through my shift, for reasons I’m about to explain.

I got the job through a seniors’ employment program at the YMCA, where my Employment Counsellor was an intern named Debbie. Debbie liked Disneyland, energy drinks and Beyoncé, and was surprised to discover that I’m only sixty-nine. She could have sworn, she said, that I was much older, in a sort of sweet grandfatherly way. Nice. And it was there, sitting together in her tiny three walled cubicle with a Beyoncé calendar pinned to the portable fabric wall above her desk, that I tried to explain my unduly aged appearance.

“It was my second marriage,” I said. “The first wife was okay. Her name was Valentina. We did some really weird shit together.” I shrugged and sighed. “They found her dead in her Ford Pinto one day. Bullet in the head. Didn’t change a thing, though; she was still gorgeous when I identified her in the morgue, head wound or no. Maybe it was the loan sharks that got to her, like the cops said. Who knows. We ran with some mighty rough hombres, back then. I still miss her sometimes. She was good in a knife fight.

“But it was the second wife, Amelie. She was a Scientologist. Aged me something awful. Guess that’s why I look the way I do.

“And then there’s my last girlfriend. Dumped me a little over a year ago. I’m reminded of her every day. By little things. Wanna see her Instagram account?”

Debbie said she didn’t, but asked me straight out: why was I looking for employment, instead of enjoying retirement.

I told her it was complicated, but that it had to do with the ins-‘n’-outs of the endless asymmetrical underground war between the Mexican Government and assorted drug cartels, and how easy it was to lose one’s life savings getting caught in the middle, with a shipping container full of brickweed destined for the US college market, while holding a forged Maersk Line bill of lading with the Mexican Mafia on my tail.

There came a dim moment of silence.

“See?” I said. “Complicated.”

Bewildered, Debbie handed me a slip of paper with a  job lead scratched on it.

“This company has a reputation for hiring seniors,” she said.

And that was it.

The meeting ended with us looking into each other’s eyes. She wasn’t bad looking, but I wondered if I would still respect her once she’d aged, once the damage of time and circumstance were engraved on her face.

“You better go,” she said.

Yeah, women say that a lot.

As it turned out, the company with the reputation was Walmart. The big box supermarket/department store combo, stocking inventories of down-market consumer goods, targeting lower income costumers with lower life expectations. 200,000 different brands of merchandise spread across 15,000 square metres.

Most of the Walmart employees doomed to do the Bumble Bee Dance were weary looking high school dropouts with nervous ticks and facial scabs. Bubba Henry was the shift lead, dressed in poorly fitting clothes, counterfeit Pakistani Levis jeans and a polyester shirt—pink flamingos against a black background. He smelled a little like smoked oysters, and was a gesticulating fiend. And possessing a dexterity rare in non-evangelicals, he danced the Bumble Bee shouting louder and wiggling his hips harder than any of us. He had more heart than any anyone in the room, in the way that the truly idiotic often do.

Bubba had hired me after a very brief interview. It took me only 45 seconds to come to hate him.

My first day was a four hour orientation shift, where I and other new employees were introduced to the deep occult meaning of Walmart policy, and the importance of absolute unquestioning obedience to management. And above all, we were warned to avoid ever being Coached.

Coached, it turned out, was the word Walmart used for disciplining low end staff who were in the shit. It was an extreme form of corporate bullying, and a brutal and unequivocal reminder that though we could go home at night, we were slaves of a self-perpetuating recessionary cycle. Our situation was hopeless. Slackers, complainers and people with ideas were just nails to be hammered down into the vinyl flooring. Union organisers, on the other hand, it was whispered, were ritualistically executed on the loading dock, and disappeared into the massive laneway trash compactor. Afterwards, their homes were incinerated in the dark of night with all occupants locked inside.

Walmart hates unions.

Orientation left me feeling like I’d leaned out of a car at 80 mile an hour, and licked the pavement.

On my second day, after the Bumble Bee Dance and Cheer, I took my position near the main entrance, facing an already large milling rabble on the other side of the locked glass doors, waiting to take advantage of a special Door Crasher bargain price on a limited supply of Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken with Giblets. Limit: two cans per customer, no rain checks, double the Air Miles.

Some in the crowd stared at me through the glass with blank expressions and buggish eyes, like fish in an aquarium, making blub-blubbing movements with their mouths.

I wanted to run; I should have run. When the doors opened, I’d be an obstacle in the way of these bargain crazed demons. To them, I was the Chicken Keeper—the only thing standing between them and canned chicken bliss. I was stampede bait. They were going to rip me to pieces. Could this be what it meant to be a Walmart Greeter?

9 a.m.! I heard Bubba say, as he came up behind me. It was time to open up and let our valued customers in, but he must have seen something my eyes, something that disgusted him, because he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it hard.

“You stink of fear, old man,” he said. Scorn in his squinty starling eyes. “Remember, a true Walmart Greeter knows no fear, only the joy of greeting and directing customers to Walmart’s excellent selection of quality value-priced merchandise, and deflecting all criticism away from management and the Corporation, onto yourself. Do you understand?” he asked. “Do you need Coaching?”

I thought about the overdue rent and my empty refrigerator. Running wasn’t an option.

“No,” I said. “I don’t need Coaching.”

“Sir,” Bubba said. “You address me as Sir. No, I don’t need Coaching, Sir!”

The heat of his indignation was close to igniting the excess Old Spice he wore to mask the aroma of smoky oysters.

“No, sir,” I said. “I don’t need coaching, Sir.”

“That’s better,” he said. “Now smile and look accommodating. And don’t worry. We’ve got enough chicken and giblets back there to feed the entire continent of Africa. Limit: 2 cans per customer.”

Then, “Fuck, I hate Greeters,” he said, as he went to open the doors.

And he was the master of opening. Confident, making no eye contact with the blub-blubbing throng as he inserted the key. Cool, even as the mob heaved forward at the sound of lock tumblers engaging, causing the glass to flex and bulge. He’d studied his vocation at the Walmart Labs in Bentonville, Arkansas. He’d been top in his class. When he removed the key, he deftly stepped out of the way, like a 250 pound ballerina.

Then it began.

The onslaught of single-minded dead-eyed humanity was terrifying. It was the chicken-zombie-shopper apocalypse, and Bubba had disappeared through some hidden door in the wall. I was paralysed by a repulsive fear, but I somehow stood my ground. As the grim and unruly horde shouldered past me, I was nearly knocked to the floor several times. But I smiled, nonetheless, and greeted—Hello Ma’am, Good Morning Sir.

Then out of nowhere, she appeared. A mammalian thing I’d no idea existed. Defying all established limits of cryptozoological possibilities—

It was the Shrieking Woman.

“My God,” she shrieked, grabbing me by my new blue vest, pushing me into a stacked display of Chuck Norris Fruity Uzis breakfast cereal. “Where’s the chicken?—the goddam chicken, man! Stop stuttering, spit it out.”

When I couldn’t answer fast enough, she picked me up and pinned me against a pillar. Her grip was like a vice.

It’s true, I was stuttering. I who had faced down the Mexican Federales, as I drove a truckload of bargain basement hashish, disguised as a shipment of hand painted sugar skulls, through a checkpoint in Michoacán. And I realised then, as she held me hard against the concert load bearing member, next to the sign directing customers to the nearest washroom, that escaping this fire-sale running of the bulls would be impossible. I’d been setup as a chump. But suddenly, as the Shrieking Woman kicked me in the shin, I was inspired by the smirking image of Chuck Norris on the cereal boxes on the floor, and karate chopped her hands off of my vest, and hollered, “Fuck off, you psycho bitch!”

It was an exclamation heard throughout the store. And the marauding mass halted, turning to look at me in awe.

“Did that Greeter just say fuck off you psycho bitch to a customer?” said one of the giblet zombies.

“Yeah,” said the Shrieking Woman with the vice-like grip. Her eyes were flaring, her hair was a brittle peroxide-blonde fire hazard. “He told me to fuck off, and called me a bitch.”

“Disgraceful!” a voice called out. There were growing murmurs of agreement and rage.

“Then he struck me,” she said. Weeping, as she transformed from deranged to tragic. She’d become a black hole, sucking every scrap of sympathy out of the cold collective.

“He hit you?” a woman shouted, grabbing her husband. Making the two of them an American Gothic on crack.

“I have a disabled child at home,” said the Shrieking Woman. “Little Amy. Only six years old. She’s got the Tourette syndrome.” There were gasps. “I’m homeschooling her, because they won’t let her go to public school and play with the other children. And we’re so poor that I have to drive a ‘79 Honda Civic, with a cracked windshield and no cigarette lighter. I only asked him where the chicken was. Little Amy loves her canned whole chicken with giblets.”

“But he’s just a Greeter,” someone near the back shouted. “He can’t do that. Only management can do that.”

“But he did,” yelled another person, shaking his fist.

Then began the inevitable. A kind of benighted inquiry only possible in the age of the Putin, Trump, Hannity, Motel 6 ménage à troi.

“Don’t they bring the Greeters in illegally, from Venezuela? I saw it on Reddit. Someone has to call the Immigration Service.”

“He looks Venezuelan, to me,” said a man in a hardhat. “My brother in-law was Venezuelan. A gun nut. He made his own bullets in his basement. Blew his head off when the bullet press exploded. They didn’t find his body for a week, because my sister was in detox. That’s when they discovered he was a crossdresser, lying there dead and smellin’ up the joint in a flower print dress and fluffy pink slippers. It broke my sister’s heart. He had good taste, though. Sis was pretty happy to inherit his hidden wardrobe.”

“What’s wrong with being Venezuelan?” asked a timid man with a foreign accent. The crowd quickly encircled him.

“They’re shifty and unclean!” said a woman smelling of nicotine and eucalyptus.

“We are not,” the timid man said.

“What the hell’s going on here?” It was Bubba, appearing loudly out of nowhere. “Let’s clear this area. Yer blocking the exits.”

“The Greeter assaulted a customer,” said a young woman in a Guns

N’ Roses tee. “He used kung fu. Mother Fucker used the F word, too.”

“What’s this all about, Larry?” Bubba said.

I told him the crowd was out of control. “That woman,” I pointed, “she was ready to kill me over a can of chicken. I had to defend myself.” Panic was peeking round a corner in my guts.

“She’s got a daughter with Tourette syndrome,” someone cried. “I’m not sure what that is, but I hope they don’t have a vaccine for it. Vaccines cause the bubonic plague, you know. My brother got it and had to have his tonsils out, the little mite.”

“Is this true?” Bubba said to me. He looked horrified.

“No,” I said. “Vaccines are perfectly safe.”

“Don’t mess with me, you old geezer. Did you assault a customer?”

“Well technically, yes,” I said, “though a judge wound probably throw it outta court.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bubba said, turning his attention to the crowd and smiling like an eel, “please try to forget this tragic incident, and know that I will handle it appropriately. Now please proceed to aisle 5 to take advantage of Walmart’s sensationally low price on Sweet Sue Canned Whole Chicken with Giblets in the 50oz Can. Limit: two cans per customer, no rain checks, double the Air Miles. And please remember to speak enthusiastically to friends and family about your outstanding Walmart shopping experience.”

“I want free chicken,” said my supposed victim, “five of ’em. And triple the Air Miles. I’m taking Little Amy to Jesusland USA. She’s got Tourette syndrome, you know.”

“Fuck,” Bubba muttered at me. “I’ve got red hot pokers in the back with your name on them.”

“I want free chicken, too,” said someone else. “I found this whole experience traumatising.”

“Me too!” others in the crowd began shouting.

“Alright, alright.” Bubba had his hands in the air, trying to calm things down. “Remain where you are, and I’ll have someone come out.” He took a walkie-talkie form his belt, and spoke to a crackly voice at the other end. Then putting the two-way back on his belt, he said, “A manager will be right out.”

“It’s the trash compacter for you, grandpa,” he whispered to me, like a steam pipe. Then grabbing me by the collar, he pulled me down an aisle into a backroom.

“Sit down,” he said, as he slammed the door.

I sat.

“I’ve never met a Greeter that’s worth a damn.” He stuck his finger in his ear and began digging, viciously. “No one else is stupid enough to do the job, so they hire rejects and old sons-a-bitches like you. I hate old sons-a-bitches like you. Always calling in sick. Always falling down and can’t get up. Always making stupid jokes, or bitching about your aches and pains, or carrying on about how things were different once, a long time ago when everything was actually just shit compared to now and they didn’t even have the Netflix. Always talking about how great your grandkids are, who really think yer fucking wanker and laugh behind yer back at how yer jeans sag in the ass.”

He took his finger out of his ear, to see what he’d found.

“That’s kinda ageist,” I said.

“You know what I did to the last Greeter who fucked up? I really Coached her. And let me tell you, she didn’t fuck up nearly as bad as you. I put her into the trunk of my car, and I drove her fifty miles outta town and left her on the highway. She had borderline dementia. I bet she never made it back. I bet she’s sitting at a gas station lunch counter right now, talking to herself and depending upon the kindness of strangers.”

I almost choked on the Old Spice tsunami, when he bent over me and leaned in close. Now we were nose to nose.

“You know what I think?” he said.

“I’m not sure,” I replied, “but I can guess and you can tell me if I’m close. You think that chem-trails contain mind controlling substances that pacify the masses and make us all stooges of a Deep State Shadow Government?”

He looked a little stunned, as though I’d read his mind.

“No,” he said, licking his lips and digging his finger back into his ear. “I think you need to fall down a long flight of stairs. I’ve found that senior citizens break like China cups on the stairs.”

Things had changed. It didn’t sound like just talk, anymore.

He was giving me no choice; I had to take him seriously. I’d already had a near death experience out on the floor. Anything was possible. Instinctively, I’d cased the room when I entered. There was a small fire extinguisher in a case on the wall, next to where I sat. And Bubba wasn’t considering all of the possibilities. Like that maybe I’d gotten myself out of far worse situations. A long time ago before Netflix. To him, I was just old. His mistake.

“Then when you’re all busted up,” he continued, “I’ll throw you into my car trunk and drive you to an alley I know on the bad side of town, and dump you there. The crack heads’ll use you for a toilet.”

Swell, so he’d seen too many Joe Pesci movies.

Among other criminal-past advantages I held over Bubba, was knowing that one should never stand too close to the person one is trying to intimidate unless that person is tied down. And never under estimate an old fart. He’s probably angrier and meaner than you.

So, I lifted my knee into his junk, extra hard. Then clobbered him across the nose with an arthritic left. When he staggered backward, I elbowed the glass plate of the fire extinguisher case, and retrieved the contents. I’ve always loved small handheld fire extinguishers. They’re hard as a rock, and just the right size and weight to cave-in a skull.

By now, Bubba had fallen backward over a chair and was struggling to get up. I walked over and hammered him over the head with the butt end of the little red steel cylinder. It felt so good that I did it again. A black pool of blood bled out round his head, where he’d fallen onto the floor.

“Greet that, asshole,” I said.

After about 5 minutes of heavy lifting, I was able to heave him onto a flat dolly. Then I put a tarp over him and rolled him out through the busy store. A few of the Associates on the sales-floor asked what I was doing. I told them I was rolling Bubba’s dead body out to my car. There was laughter, and everyone said GREAT!

So now Bubba’s slouched over on my couch, sort of in a sitting position. Mouth open like he’s still breathing, but he isn’t. I brought him home when I left the store, thinking I might bury him at night in a nearby park. It’s nice there. Better than he deserves. But I changed my mind. He ain’t worth it. He can stay on the couch. I’ll turn on the TV for him before I leave. There are rats in the wall.

I write this confession out of what might be a mistaken sense of duty to ageing Walmart Greeters everywhere. It may provide some hope. My message is this: Submit to no one and remember that it’s our age that makes us beautiful, man.

I plan to leave tomorrow morning, and should be in Mexico in a couple of days. By then, even Bubba’s over dose of Old Spice won’t be enough to cover up his post-mortem funk. He’ll be found, unlike the old gal he drove outta town.

Like I said at the start, I tried to go straight but it didn’t work. I thought it mightn’t. The world of squares isn’t for me, never was. I’ve got some cash, hidden in an abandoned mine in the Sierra Madre. And some under the floorboards of a ghetto hovel in Mexico City. Enough to live out on the desert.

Don’t bother looking for me. I’m old; I’m invisible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

riggin’

1971

“Hand me the riggin’,” said Paul Vaillancourt.

I looked at the neatly laid out array of engine parts that surrounded us, and chose a likely candidate. I wasn’t mechanical. Didn’t care to be. Didn’t care to be dirty. Didn’t want to play rough. Or exchange juvenile bullshit about auto mechanics.

There was local folklore, in fact, about my avoidance of boyishness. I sensed, though at the time I would not have been able to verbalise it, not having the vocabulary, that family, friends and neighbours were worried that I might never achieve proper boyhood, with all of the future consequences that implied. My brother and others, using words like faggot, helped to expand my personal moving glossary on the topic.

Riggin’, by the way—

Paul often used this kind of word. Old Manitoba words. Fashioned long ago. Allowing a user to never call a thing by its actual name. A tradition brought with him to Vancouver, from the town of Morden, Manitoba. Round-abouts Dead Horse Creek, he’d say. Paul believed calling a thing by its real name was for suckers.

He lived in the house next to my family’s. He was 61. And worked in a mill. A place, I imagined, not really knowing for sure, that was full of riggin’s.

I’d chosen well. The riggin’ he’d asked me to hand him was called a carburetor. For the old Ford inline 6 Paul was working on. I was 9, and had wrapped my small hands round it and hefted it up. Paul grabbed it from me with one big hand without taking his eyes off what he was doing under the hood. The carburetor was oily. I looked for somewhere to wipe my hands.

“Rags’re over there,” he said, without pointing in any direction, as he cranked a ratchet wrench. I did a 360. Saw nothing. Wiped my hands on my tee-shirt.

“Your mother ain’t gonna like that,” said Paul. Again, without looking away from his work. Later in life, I learned the word uncanny. Paul’s Bluetooth telepathy was uncanny.

He produced a rag, pulling himself out from under the hood. And tossed it my way.

He was grey and balding. Close shave. Wearing jeans, work boots and a plaid shirt. Smelling of Vitalis and gasoline.

“A haunted house in a city just ain’t the same as out on a prairie,” he declared, wiping his hands with another mysteriously gotten rag. He was starting again from where we’d left off on our earlier haunted conversation. I came to him occasionally with the big questions.

“On a prairie,” he said, “it’d be an old farm house. Maybe abandoned since the depression—damn those were some hard times. Yup, a prairie haunted house is the loneliest place in the world. Spooks attracting spooks from miles around. Real social. But no place for the livin’. Ghosts the colour of the high grass and prairie flowers in the summer. Movin’ the same in the wind. White like frost in the winter, standing real still like something frozen, but ain’t. Inside, when you get inside and start nosin’ round, they’re the shape of the stairs and the doors and the windowpanes. Standing behind you in a mirror, if there’s still one hanging on the wall. Maybe matching yer step, walking upside down on the ceiling ‘neath the floor yer walking on. Walking up the walls, like on a sidewalk in town. Lookin’ atcha through a window, from inside or out. Gettin’ inta yer soul, if they can. Readin’ you like a poem, one stanza at a time. Yer a poem, boy. You know that? Every man is. Every woman, too. Though a man ain’t as prone to admitting it, as much as a woman. Ghosts get in a man and read him stanza by stanza. Sounds like a whisper when you try to listen.” He looked at his hands as he wiped the grease and oil from them.

I said, “I was only thinking of the big black old place up on 8th Avenue.”

“Been in there?”

“No way.” I lied.

He gave me a sly look. Like he knew a little better.

“Then how you know it’s haunted?”

“Just looks haunted,” I said, though I had a more concrete reason to believe that it was. Secret. I hadn’t shared it. I was already a suspicious neighborhood character. “Everyone says it’s haunted. Joe Farano, Bobby Jensen.” But it was all talk, on their part. They hadn’t seen the little round-faced girl looking out through a window at the back of the house. Younger than me. Maybe 7. I was braver than most. And fewer friends meant more time on my hands. So I ended up there that evening. She smiled when our eyes met. I had a rock in my hand. It was like she was daring me to throw it at her. Through one of the last unbroken windows. (Why else would a boy be in the back yard of an abandoned house, if not to throw rocks through windows?) I didn’t, though. And she came out onto the back porch, gave a little wave and then disappeared. Then there was invisible movement everywhere. It was dusk.

“Ghosts the shape of the front door, then?” Paul continued with the questions. “Shape of the gables, the porch? Leaves of the trees, the dandelions?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t the conversation I was expecting.

“Are there lights at night? In the windows. On the walk up to the steps?”

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t true. The invisible movement around me that dusky evening had turned into a parade of lights.

“Did ya feel yer stanzas bein’ read?” he asked. “Out loud? In whispers? It’s loudest just before you go to sleep at night, mostly. Just before you cross the line into dreamin’. But sometimes it’s louder when they aren’t inside of you, just real nearby.”

“No,” I said. But, maybe, I thought. And wondered if it showed, when a boy’s stanzas had been read.

“Ghosts are tricky,” said Paul Vaillancourt, lighting an Export “A”. “Some even say, artful.”

Artful. I looked the word up later. In the massive Webster’s Dictionary my father placed on the kitchen stool when he cut my and my brother’s hair with the electric razor he’d bought at Simpson Sears one weekend past a payday long ago in my family’s misty past. The big fat book made our little heads high enough for him to do a decent job. (My father, an industrial printer by trade, was a failure as a barber. So, we almost always ended up nearly bald.)

Ghosts could be artful, I decided after reading the word’s definition. They’d evolved into their own peculiar civilization, I came to believe, piecing together this theory without being able to articulate as much. Like Aztecs. Building pyramids. Block by block. Able to read the interior Stanzas of Mankind. And some of them were just up the street. Residing within their very own immeasurable, artifactual tarpaper abode. Each in a shape he or she had chosen for his or her own artful reasons.

Paul retook his place under the hood, asking me to hand him the riggin’ next to the alternator.

The alternator, what the…?

I chose another likely candidate. One as likely as the rest. Wondering at the oddness of the Ford inline 6. Choosing well once more. The engine fan. I hefted it up, into Paul’s waiting hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the revised Rosetta

The psychiatrist is Dr Slim, turning pages slowly in a folder open on his lap. The woman, sitting across from him in restraints, is Rosetta. Medium in stature, her body is densely draped in narrow streams of blue braiding Code, tattooed in crisp nine point Andalé Mono font, from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and flowing downward to where the code disappears past the neckline of her hospital gown, appearing again on her arms where they emerge from short sleeves, cascading to her fingertips. It has been reported by nurses that the vertical lines of Code cover her entire body. Only the green pupils and whites of her eyes stand out in contrast; even her lips are inked. Her stare is steady.

Slim is reading Rosetta’s case file voyeuristically. His eyebrows raised when he discovers juicy slivers of clinical gossip, something ironic or hostile placed there by another doctor or disgruntled staff. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encounters more relevant clinical notes. He has a lunch date in forty-five minutes, and thinks he’ll have the grilled chicken bruschetta.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he says, about to bite his thumbnail, then changing his mind. Then turning the pages back to a place near the beginning, he says, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient spends the night sitting cross-legged on bed, claims she hasn’t slept since 2010.

“No sleep for three days,” says Slim. “That’s easy to fix. But you say you haven’t slept since 2010? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

Slim shifts in his chair.

“Are you hearing things?” he asks. “Voices?”

“I hear your voice.”

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork…,” he turns more pages to be certain, “…there is the diagnosis of schizophrenia. You’ve had bouts of psychosis, and now you’ve committed a very serious crime. Were you commanded to do so?”

Next he’ll ask me if I smell shit, she thinks. He’ll without the apostrophe is Hell. He’s Hell. This prison is Hell. The handcuffs and florescent light. The walls too white. The isolation rooms too small.

“And the tattoos,” he says, “I understand from staff that you’re covered with them, nearly every centimetre of your body.” He considered the alphanumeric chains, and her frank expression behind them. “Done with such precision, too. Do you know what I mean when I say self-harm?”

Rosetta’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you aware of seeing things,” says Slim, “people for instance, you’ve been told others don’t?”

“Of course.”

“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”

“Because I can’t see what they see. Makes sense, right?”

“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”

“Why?”

Eight years, sleepless.

“Because this is a clinical assessment.” He says this smiling without rapport, reveling uneven teeth. “I assess, prognosticate and recommend therapy. Not necessarily in that order. And at some point, I make a recommendation as to whether you stay here or return to court for criminal sentencing. To achieve all of that, I ask you questions and, ideally, you answer them honestly.”

There were no answers to such ordinary questions.

Three days awake. The fool had no idea.

She began practicing wakefulness, and forsaking dreams, as a child, out of  a fear of sleep, slowly and carefully at first, counting breaths and heartbeats silently. Clearing her mind of everything else—the sickening touch of hands. Beginning when she was five. One touch, two, three…. The slow impossible wrongness. Ghosts sitting on her bed, stroking her cheek in the nightstand lamplight, speaking musically, slow and backward, saying they loved her. Each time taking on their spider-likeness, because that’s how some ghosts attack.

Her wholly wakeful life began much later, when she was fifteen years old, after escaping the haunted house and running to the slum side of the city. It was there, in a skid-row hotel room, that she first floated over the lawless atoms of night, her fear of sleep eclipsed by a splendid new twenty-four hour consciousness.

And there she began her journal, in pencil at first on the walls of her room, and then the corridors of the decaying hotel, refusing to correct errors as she wrote. Correction was the slaughter of blameless fractions of thought that were becoming the Code. She’d never understand it, she thought at first. But then came the moment of discovery, when she became aware that in order to understand the Code, it must be inked upon her skin.

Awkwardly at first, she used sewing needles and razor blades, and a potion of India ink and cigarette ash, later finding expert and trustworthy artists, who wouldn’t look beneath her surface at the perfect swirling binary as they marked her.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” Dr Slim says.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

She translated ghosts into humans using the Code. Human thirsts were easier to decipher. Slim was with the ghosts.

“We’re also concerned about cognitive impairment,” says Dr Slim—“Your possible premature decline. We’d like to do tests. Untreated psychosis causes neurodegeneration. Left untreated, you may even be left unable to recognise the passage of time.”

“Time or times, Doc?” Rosetta says, finally relaxing in her chair. “Epochs and eras? Or just ticks fucking tocks, spawning hours.” She grins. “Clock guts. The 6am news you wake up to every morning. I know Time. I recognise him just fine. I’ve got his phone number. I call him and laugh whenever he’s late. Time crosses the street when he sees me coming, runs and hides like a coward behind the eyes of old women.”

“That’s very poetic,” Slim says, looking again at his thumbnail.

“Fuck you.”

“Look,” says the doctor, “you’re not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. So, this isn’t prison, but it is confinement and refusing therapy, drug or otherwise, isn’t an option.”

“I’m going to escape,” she says.

“No, you’re not. No one ever has. This place is more secure than a penitentiary, in its own way.” He paused and then said, “We’ve a long list of neuroleptics at hand, each with its own charming set of side-effects. And we always over prescribe. The drug addled never wonder far.”

“I’ll escape. I’ll sleep. It’s finally time, I figure. Just try to catch me then. I’ll sleep where there aren’t any ghosts.”

“There are no ghosts,” Slim says. “There never were.”

“You’re one, you know? I didn’t think so a minute ago, but now it’s obvious.”

“No, Rosetta. I’m not a ghost.”

“You’re challenging me?”

“Yes.”

Ghost facts

  1. Ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts are of the dead, but not the dead. This is obvious to anyone who has seen one.
  3. Rosetta has lived surrounded by ghosts since childhood.
  4. There are castes of ghost.
  5. Rosetta knows each caste by its name—killer, lost, screamers, etc.

Rosetta encountered her first ghosts when she was orphaned at age five, after one parent died of a mysterious violence in the house on 8th Avenue, and the other went to prison.

These first ghosts were named mister and missus shade. They were wanting-ghosts, posing as foster parents. They wanted Rosetta—wanting the things she’d no idea breathed inside of her. And they hated her for it.

Wanting-ghost facts

  1. Wanting-ghosts want.
  2. Wanting-ghosts take.
  3. Wanting-ghosts prefer to remain visible, though they often pass through walls and ceilings when no one is watching.
  4. They’re clever.
  5. Few see them for what they are.
  6. They sulk.
  7. They worry, shout and show their teeth.
  8. Their hands are quick and fierce.
  9. They’re selfish and violent.
  10. Wanting-ghosts hate what they want.

Wanting-ghosts have mural faces—gasoline fire eyes, a cloud of planet gravity discordant orbit phases wheeling round each of them. And when Rosetta refused their raw touch, when she turned her head and cried out, or hid in closets or under her bad, their faces blistered and their fierce hands became claws. And when they failed against her defiance, when they knew she’d never be meek and surrender, they chose loneliness for her instead, locking Rosetta in a basement.

At first she fed herself from the cellar shelves, peaches from mason jars hard to open with small hands. She ate them as she looked out of a small square reinforced window onto the resting winter garden. When the peaches ran out, she starved for a week before a bowl of something began to be left each evening on the uppermost step of the stairs to the kitchen.

Other ghosts came to her in the basement, and Rosetta began to know each kind. The sad, the shining, the watchers who sat very darkly in the corners, the ones that screamed loudly but were never heard, the ghosts of children quietly unable to understand the fact of their own deaths.

Once during an uncounted spring, a little boy, who might have been a ghost, snuck into the garden, hunching down to looked at her through the wire mesh window. He’d a round face and brown eyes, and wore a clean striped tee-shirt. After staring at each other for a minute, the boy ran away and vanished through a hole in a fence, returning later and placing a candy bar and a fistful of caramels on the windowsill. An offering she’d never touch. Then he ran away again, and never came back.

A bath came once a month, the day before the lady from the Foster Agency arrived. After each bath, Rosetta was placed in a room with a warm bed and picture books. And that’s where missus shade would leave her. Each time, before she left, twisting Rosetta’s ear very hard and instructing her to tell the Agency lady that she loved her foster parents. Then missus shade locked the door behind her.

Eventually the lady from the Foster Agency stopped coming. The shades told Rosetta she’d been adopted, and left her in the basement watching from the window as the garden bowed to each season, again and again. She wanted to count each cycle, but hadn’t learned numbers. Time, a thing she discovered later was passing. More ghosts arrived, surrounding her on and on, until one showed her how to escape.

“I’ve already prescribed a new combination of medications,” says Slim. “And you will take them. The staff will make sure. The meds will help you to sleep, among other necessary things. You’ve said you want to sleep. I want you to follow the nurse’s instructions. Is that clear?”

Slim released Rosetta onto the ward, where the ghosts were slouched and long fingered, where the hospital staff cast spells. She took to a corner in a threadbare easy chair, yawning for the first time since childhood, and wondering if dreams were all they were cracked up to be. A grinning posse would arrive soon, with injections and pills.

How to kill a wanting-ghost

  1. Wanting-ghosts aren’t hard to kill.
  2. Most wanting-ghosts choose suicide.
  3. Want-ghosts must sleep, unlike other ghosts.
  4. Most sleep at night, as they did in life. Some, however, sleep during the day and haunt the night.
  5. The shades slept at night, and haunted the day.
  6. Wanting-ghosts fear sleep.
  7. The best time to kill a wanting-ghost is when it sleeps.
  8. They sleep deeply, rarely waking before their time. This makes them vulnerable.
  9. The most effective way to kill a wanting-ghost is by knife and fire.

Her vengeance against mister and missus shade came on a night when the moon was a hung high thin bit of scrap. She’d become mist for the visit. Entering the house by passing through fissures in the outer walls. Coming to float above them as they slept.

Her accomplice was a knife that had found her, where it lay one night in an alley she often walked before dawn. The knife was handsome, with a pearl handle, and she knew its history when she took it into her hand. She knew why it had been dropped there. There was murder in it. It smiled when she held it. It would kill for her, even if she hesitated.

Coming out of the mist, she sat on the edge of the bed, stroking mister shade’s cheek as she ran the knife’s blade lightly across his throat, watching as his eyes moved swiftly to and fro beneath their lids. And when those eyes opened with a start, he saw her silhouette, her posture still familiar after years, and then her face in the dim light of the slice of moon through the window. Her face behind the torrent of Code; the grownup face of the child he’d harmed so completely. She’d a strange expression of sympathy as she held the sharp edge firmly under his chin.

“Oh look,” she whispered, “you’re bleeding.”

A thin current of blood trickled down his neck as his pupils dilated, igniting the orange inferno of his eyes. The room glowed.

“Please,” said mister shade. “Take anything you want.”

“Anything? Then I’ll have grace and vengeance. And those eyes,” she said. “They’re what I came for.” The handsome knife moved quickly and in a second shade’s eyes were in her hand, still burning and too hot to hold. So she threw them against the wall, mister shade screaming as they exploded into flame. The knife moved faster again when it drew the line, deep and true across shade’s throat.

The fire caused by his eyes exploding against the wall was spreading throughout the room, and Rosetta saw missus shade, with her own napalm eyes, sitting up in the bed.

“You?” the missus said.

“Me,” said Rosetta. The knife went in deep, and missus shade’s eyes faded.

Now the fire would finish the job, as the shades lay in their bed.

Knife and fire.

Neighbours in bedclothes gathered on the street to watch the house burn.

Rosetta turned to mist and escaped.

Grace and vengeance.

Days later, the police knocked on her door.

*

Now she sits silently in the hospital ward common room, surrounded by the staff come to cast spells.

“Non-responsive,” a doctor says. “Has she been given anything yet?”

“No.”

“Weak pulse,” says a nurse, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”

“Forget that,” the doctor says, listening through a stethoscope. “Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Get a damn gurney.”

She dreamed as her heart gently failed. A good one, as dreams go. She was a girl and she was a woman, sitting on the veranda of a happily aging house in the country. Shade-trees, birdsong and crickets. Blue skies as a bright red roadster motored by on the quiet road beyond the gate, someone waving out the window. The ink was gone, the characters of the Code having flown heavenward like a swarm of blue bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.