lost ironies

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Tag: suicide

photographing Spencer

It’s just me and Spencer, alone in an alley on the Downtown Eastside. He’s struggling with the Brillo in his crack pipe.

“Just hang on man,” he says—“I just scored. I’m really jonesing.”

He’s been sleeping on benches, shoplifting and begging. He’s filthy, a stunning ruin of a man. Finally he lights the tiny nugget in the glass tube and inhales. Then he shudders, exhales and says, “Ahhh fuck me.”

I’ve come to take his portrait so he can send it home, but now he’s wrecked. His eyes’ve gone reptile, and he’s confused by gravity. It’s not the picture his family will want to see.

“Damn you’re a mess, Spence,” I say, and he grins at me with his blistered crack-lips.

“Go ahead then. Take my fucking picture.”

And bam, I do. Sometimes I think the D-300 sounds like a gun going off. Bam bam bam…. Holding down the shutter release, circling him. It’s evening and the light is runny, the colours blunt. Every line on his face is accentuated, every deep hungry hollow, every childhood abuse stitched into his psyche.

“Last I got my picture taken, it was the cops,” he laughs. But his buzz is changing, even now. He lights up again, inhales/exhales and says, “I’m running out already. Lend me some cash.”

“I’ll buy you dinner at the Ovaltine, but I won’t lend you money.”

“Shit, I don’t want no dinner. I can get dinner at the mission.” Then he says, “Check this out…,” and attempts a pirouette. He falls on his ass, and I catch the fall in six shots, like the frames of a motion picture. I’m not cruel; I’m just a photographer. I offer him my hand. He ignores it.

Now sitting in the gutter sludge, Spencer says, “My old man fucked me, you know?”

“Yeah, Spence. You told me.”

“Like I was a bitch. Tore me open every time. Stopped when I was about fourteen. Guess I wasn’t pretty no more. Kept beating the crap outta me, though. The prick had a heart attack a couple of years back, died. Shit his pants when he did, my brother says. My mother’s fifty-five. Looks ninety.”

“Pictures are for her, huh?” I say.

“It was hard for her. ”

I’m silent for a moment. Crows are massing overhead for their night-flight back into the suburbs.

“I’ll work on the pics tonight,” I say, “colour and black & white. I’ll track you down tomorrow. We can use a computer at Carnegie to send them home. Try to make that shit in your pocket last.”

“I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“I’ll look for you, anyway.”

“No,” he says, handing me a grubby note, “I mean I really don’t know.”

He’s already walking away as I read what’s written on the slip of paper—

Please send these words with the pictures: All my love too family and friends. Good-bye. This is followed by a short list of email addresses.

I shout at him, “What’s this mean, Spencer?” Then I run after him, grab his shoulder and turn him around. “What’s this mean?” And I know what it means just by what’s on his face. I let him go. I’m just a photographer.

________________________________________________________

note

whether I clutch my creation too tightly
or it clutches me
there will be no suicide today

the note will go into recycling
and be made into newspaper
that will tell other stories
as unimportant and
no one will ever know

reflecting on this
I return a box of blades to the art store
and pick up an evening edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Gibson L-5

As a boy I knew that he was my father by the grim eyes I’d inherited, the mouth that remained a straight grave line at all occasions, and our close proximity in the house on Parker Street.

He was a man who calculated loss on a false scale, which never measured in his favour. As a result, he was inclined to despair. He reckoned the loss of my mother, five years before, by that scale, and lived his life evermore orbiting in an abode of desolation, separated from our physical one.

If I could describe him now, being what I have become at his behest so long ago, surrounded by Jazz, it would be as a winter ghost, played in the song of a throaty sax out of sight, a secret brush on snare, a piano limping like a hero, in spite of liquor and the rainforest rain most nights I can recall, oceans in the city, rumors of floods, the missing man in the room with its single small window, his eyes closed only in sleep.

Could he have been the miscalculation some claimed? Was he already, by the time I knew him, a field of his own sepia bones, the frets and inlays of his guitar, the one he played in bars for next to nothing, the one he chased into disappointment and delirium?

It was a Gibson L-5, the instrument that obsessed him and that he said was better than him. Its music was better than him, he claimed. These words emerging out of his setting of silence, then vanishing only to appear again.

More than once, he grieved over my broadening boyish and ready hands. And even then, I was dimly aware of a plot.

“Those are Jazz hands,” he said once, holding them in his own. Then looking at his, chipped red, black and blue and too early arthritic from his day job in a wrecking yard, which kept him from a latent greatness.

What happened occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1971. It had snowed the week before, at Christmas, and at the age of ten, I was still delighted with the mystical impossibility of it. It was Vancouver, after all, where green cursed the expectant child almost every 25th of December, and though there was a decorated tree in the living room, and gifts beneath it, it was the coming of the snow on Christmas Eve that made all of what was suggested by the holiday seem possible. Even today, it remains my most supernatural of Christmases.

The snow was still on the ground a week later, refreshed by flurries I preferred watching at night as they eddied through the vapour glimmer of streetlights, and laced white the trees on our street.

He disappeared, after saying at the quick breakfast I shared with him that morning, that the new year brought an obligation to change things, even if in a small way. The idea had weighed him down the second he said it, though it only represented a fondness for frail resolutions by most. Then he lightened, smiled and said, in some unknowable context —

“Your mother was fairer than Spring, and she still dances somewhere in the land of my heart.” Here he paused, as though it were a stanza break in a poem, then continued, “I get lost there every time I go, and haven’t found her yet, but I will. I’ll hear her singing and see her from a hill. There are hills in my heart, you know, left over from a time when they were mountains.”

Then he kissed me on my head, and was gone with his lunch pail. In a moment, I heard the sound of his black Ford as he backed out of the driveway.

I’d never seen the boy in him, because he was my father, but there’d once been mountains in his heart, now worn down to mere hills. Perhaps those peaks had been high and impassable when he was a boy. Now they were grassy and pleasant, and rolled away into an ashen evening distance. But maybe they were coal colour, and the only green was in a deep treed valley where my mother waited. Maybe it was his guitar she danced to.

What happened after that remained a mystery to me, until I made educated guesses later in my life.

He’d had a New Year’s Eve engagement in a club that night, but didn’t return after work to change. His one suit and thin tie remained in his closet, but the guitar was gone.

A few days later, they found his Ford parked out of place on the Campbell Avenue Pier, with the guitar in its case on the shotgun seat. There were two notes. One I was never allowed to read, and burned ceremonially by nameless aunts. When asked, one said she would identify him, but that she didn’t need to see him to know what had happened.

The other note was in an envelope with my name on it. It came to me with the Gibson L-5.

I leave you this guitar, it said, because it is the only material thing I ever loved. Play it, but do not obey it. You will grow and know more than me, but for all of that, you will be as frail and prone to surrender.

I placed the note in the guitar case, and sometimes read it before I take the stage.

the pollen eaters

They had come to the point in their conversation where one was supposed to say something hurtful, or at least I know you are but what am I. Surprising himself, he said neither. She, on the other hand, called him an ungrateful bastard, which is not to say that he didn’t appreciate all she had done, or that she was a difficult person. He was grateful enough, and she was normally a very pleasant and intelligent woman. But every romance is born with a stale date, and acknowledging theirs, he had decided to do what others might think unimaginable, and end the liaison rather than face the quiet self-inflicted sorrow of a loveless relationship.

“I truly believe we must depart each other’s company,” Thomas Wilcox said, there in front of the art gallery, where the van Gogh exhibited hung. Then he turned and walked away.

“Real men don’t walk away,” Natalie Bellamy shouted at his back, making small fists at her side.

“Then real men are rare,” he said, without turning round.

Their romance had been a splendid one. Or, at least like most lovers, this is what they believed, and belief is always the sworn enemy of fiction.

And their lives, on the surface, were good, each enjoying personal prosperity and apparent occupational satisfaction.

She was a ghostwriter, creating honoured thespians out of dreadful actors, and admired statesmen out of hated and moronic politicians, by stealthily writing their autobiographies, which otherwise would have been illiterate and delusional.

He was a psychologist, who, thought to have an uncommon tolerance for blood soaked histrionics, specialised in adolescent counselling.

They had met at a lecture entitled The Rise and Long Awaited Fall of Idiot Culture. Afterwards, there was cake and coffee in the lobby, and they chatted over Sachertorte and steaming lattes. As her clients’ conversation-killing need for confidentiality became obvious, he bravely attempted to explain why idiopathic avascular necrosis of the femoral head was still lacking as a clinical entity. And by 11:00 p.m., they were swimming in an ocean of rhapsodic sexual bliss only the truly repressed are capable of, when their moment has finally arrived.

After that, it was all candlelight, dreamy eyed weekends, and journeys out of town to quaint bed-and-breakfasts where they would playfully bicker over the Sunday New York Times crossword, walk hand-in-hand on beaches, and in the spring and summer, do the thing they loved most when in each other’s company. They would watch the bees.

“They’re all dying,” she said grimly one day, on an island in the Gulf. They were standing in a field of sunflowers, watching as a flock of healthy bees flew from one flower to the next. “It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. They’re made by Bayer, the aspirin people.”

“I know,” he said. “I had a patient who committed suicide over it.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, she sent Bayer an email demanding that they stop making the stuff. If they didn’t, she said, she’d cut her wrists. They didn’t stop, and, well, you know. There was more behind it, of course. I’d had her GP prescribe an SSRI, but finding right one before a tragedy occurs is problematic sometimes.”

“That’s terrible.”

It was, and a tear fell.

“How do you cope?” she said.

“Mostly,” he replied, “I try to keep my screams to myself.”

She stopped thinking about bees when she heard him say it, and reached out and touched his cheek.

“You’ve never said anything like that before, Thomas.”

“You’ve never asked. Besides, the fear of an outcome always goes away eventually.”

“What does that mean?” she said.

“It means that you’ll eventually get used to the idea that the bees are doomed, and I’ll ultimately become accustomed to the idea that I lose teenaged clients to suicide.”

“That can’t be true,” she said, and wondered if the comment was made on impulse, or if it originated elsewhere.

“It’s a textbook truth, nothing more.”

“I don’t want to get used to the idea of doomed bees,”

Somehow, the trip lost its magic after that. Things had shifted, something hidden was revealed. They departed early.

On the ferry, they stood together on deck, silently watching the sea. It seemed very still, in spite of the ferry’s pace. He only spoke once, asking her to drive when they docked. They didn’t touch.

He presented her with his silence in the days that followed. There were no more playful work-interrupting phone calls, no more shared coffee bar detective novels. When she called, he wasn’t home; at his office, his receptionist told her that he’d cancelled appointments and would be away until further notice. She sent texts and email, and even knocked on his townhouse door, refusing to use her key to let herself in. It was a timid but necessary knock. But there was no answer, no evidence of a curtain drawn back inches for a reclusive peek. He had disappeared, and she waited for a reason.

Then on the twelfth night of his absence, her telephone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” he said.

She was silent for a moment, wondering if, after all of her anxiety, there was anything to share.

“Where have you been?” she said. “And I don’t mean geographically, I mean in terms of being the other half of this thing we’ve been doing for over a year.”

He was sitting at a desk, in front of a blank computer screen in his home office, surrounded by a debris field of isolation. On the screen were four Post-it notes, each with a name: Janis, Roger, Matthew and Naomi. His four suicides. The clients who, over the years, had slipped out the back door, when no one was watching. Each no older than seventeen years. One, Janis, only fourteen.

“I’ve been thinking about bees.” His voice was different.

“What does that mean?”

“They eat pollen,” he said. “That’s why they go from flower to flower. It’s such a wonderful plan. The pollen sticks to them, and they pass it on, the genetic messages.”

“Please, I just don’t get it.”

“But it’s all so damn brittle, no matter how good the plan, or its righteous intent.” The names on the screen were like eyes. “Bees and people, are so brittle.”

“Where are you?” she said. “Let’s meet.”

“I really don’t know what tortured them. I mean, on the surface there were the obvious problems. But what was underneath? What didn’t I see? It was my job to see it, and I failed. Naomi Oby cut herself vertically, up both of her forearms. What makes a child act so self-destructively? I tried it the other night. I held a blade to my arm, just to see how far I could go, and it made me physically sick.”

“Who’s Naomi Oby?” she asked.

“My bee suicide.”

“It’s a defect in reasoning,” she said. My bee suicide. “A deficit of thought.”

“I’m not looking for gentle answers.”

“You need help.”

He was silent.

“Are you home? I’ll drive over. It’s late, so we’ll go to the emergency.”

“No,” he said.

“Then why are you calling me, goddam it? Is it just to brighten my evening, or are you asking for help?”

“I don’t know. My thoughts right now, they’re…. They’re a little disorganised.”

“What would you tell a client to do?” she said.

She’s an amateur, said an inner voice. It wasn’t her fault, but he still damned her for not knowing that that was the first question a professional asks.

She wondered if four suicides was a high number for a counselling psychologist, practicing for fifteen years. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of clients in that time. What was the acceptable ratio of teenaged suicides to non-suicides?

“Just come over here,” she said. “We’ll talk here.”

He looked round the room, and saw them all. Janis, who had jumped from a fog veiled bridge after texting that her father sexually abused her, stood in the doorway to the living room; Roger, who, exhausted by bullying, had hung himself, sat in an easy chair; Matthew, who was crucified for being gay by his family church and found his father’s handgun, now stood with his back to him, looking out of the large east facing window.

Naomi stood directly in front of him, ashen with her undisguised wounds, staring.

“I shouldn’t have called,” he said, looking into Naomi’s eyes, and rang-off. Then he turned his iPhone off, and put it into his desk drawer.

Within an hour, there was a knock at his door.

“Open, please.” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “This is the police.”

He realised then that he hadn’t moved for hours, or was it days. He was surrounded by empty paper coffee cups and fast food trash.

“Mr Wilcox? Are you in there? We have to enter whether you are or not. Please don’t make this difficult.”

Yes, he thought. He mustn’t make it difficult, unseemly.

“Well?” Naomi said. “Are you going to answer the door?”

“But the bees,” he said, absurdly.

Bang bang bang, “Mr Wilcox? We have to make sure you’re okay.”

“The bees are beside the point,” Naomi said. “They always were, and you know it.”

They always were.

He could hear a muffled conversation at the front door. Then the lock turned. It was Natalie. She followed two police officers into the townhouse.

A walkie-talkie crackled, and a cop answered. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said.

“That’s not necessary,” said Wilcox.

“It’s out of your hands, sir.”

“You have to let us go,” Naomi said. “Go to the damn hospital, and get some fucking help.”

*

Their trip to the van Gogh exhibit was a gift from her, to him for enduring two weeks on a psychiatric ward. She sensed his nervousness as they moved from canvas to canvas, and attributed it to residual anxiety. He took his hand away when she tried to hold it.

“Despairing textures,” he said, wishing he could reach out and touch Sorrowing Old Man. “I’ve touched those textures on my body. I see them in the mirror, in clouds and on billboard signs. This artist and his damn scheming won’t leave me alone.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have come,” she said.

He wanted to wait until that evening to say good-bye. On a stroll after the restaurant. But he confronted her with it as they descended the steps and walked out onto the concourse.

“I’m not here, anymore,” he said. “I no longer occupy space. I’m closing the practice, or an accountant and a lawyer are. And I’m going away, alone.”

“Don’t,” she said. “You can’t make a decision like that now.”

“It’s now or not at all.”

“What about me, us? And don’t say it’s all about you.”

“But you know it is.”

That led to her desperate words, and his walking away, followed by four broken ghosts.

the woman in the red raincoat

Vancouver, 1949

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

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

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

It was 4 a.m.

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

She snuffed out her cigarette, and had a shower.

10 am Commercial Drive

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

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

“Sad?”

“She gets that way, you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

Trudy smiled.

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“Did she say anything when she was here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Trudy said. “Who are you?”

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

Trudy Parr looked over her shoulder.

“For you?” she said.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“Some have said so.”

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

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

“That’s a peculiar thing to say.”

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

“What’s your game, mister?”

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

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

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

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

“You know my name?”

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

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

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

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

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

7 pm Tony Nuzzo’s

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

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

“She’ll show up.”

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

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

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

It was police detective Olaf Brandt.

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

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

Brandt took a seat across from Trudy Parr.

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” said Nuzzo.

Brandt sipped his coffee, and raised an eye brow.

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

the bust

you the suicide?
says the cop
black in wish and uniform

not yet
I say
bewildered

you better come with us
your psychiatrist called

oh, I say
my psychiatrist
¿the lonesome alcoholic? who
sits in the corner
nodding like a dog
on the dashboard of a vintage Chevrolet

the one with the pink noise
in the waiting room
blunt crayons
and colouring books

that must be her, says the cop

to him, I am torment
he didn’t join up
to scoop forlorn poetasters
with tricksy razor blades
and teary notes good-bye

he’s tragic, I can see
his head imbued with
procedure, heartache
and internet porn
his state granted gun and
the power of arrest

he’s heard of jazz and
thinks it’s the blues

he has parcels coming UPS

and yet
I am to go with him
in the backseat as though
he is the chauffeur
and I am the fiery fine King
of Tuesday Afternoon

fallen

She stands on the road, back from the ditch that separates her from the cow field, remaining alert for signs of ghosts, lurking in the rural night. There is dirt beneath her fingernails and mud on her shoes, from scrambling up steep hillsides on all fours and climbing trees for better views. That was earlier, before it became dark and the clouds began to conceal and reveal the stars, before sounds became menacing, before the air grew so cold against her bare legs and arms.

Now she crouches down and watches the road for headlights, approaching from either direction. She listens for the distant rev of an engine. Is it a stranger at the wheel? In his universe of darkness and the dashboard’s glow, accelerating behind the roll of a hill or a stand of trees, with only the engine’s sound as proof of his existence? Is he looking for her? She listens. There is only the silence, and her shadow cast by the moon.

The voices are quiet, for a moment. The voices that belong to no one, but that are adamant nonetheless. The voices that drive her into frenzy, lie to her, calm her with false friendship and relay bitter secrets that drive her to self-destruct. Voices of an inner society endeavouring to ruin its host. She listens. They are quiet, but they will return.

Then they will move slowly, dragging themselves. She will hear them, far-off, gasping, mouths open, snaggle-toothed, skin pitted and grey, their eyes moving too quickly and struck with rust. The voices will return. But please, she prays, not here in the dark.

Above her again, the stars come and go. One falling, burning, tearing itself apart in a blazing stripe across the sky.

Devon and Seth say she’ll climb too high. Devon, the voice that hisses like a snake, always sounding calm as he makes predictions.

“You’ll fall,” he hisses. “In and out of rivers flowing through outer space, whirlpools and zephyrs. Physics will distort you, and no one will know your name.”

“I can’t go so high,” she says.

But then Seth tells her, “We will take you up. We have wings, we are rockets, we are comets. Take my hand, and let me take you there. I’ll release you when it’s right. I will follow you down, sing you songs, And in the end, I will weep.”

“Weep?” she asks. “Why weep?”

“I will weep for having let you fall.”

“Then leave me be,” she says, desperately. “Do that, and there’ll be no need for weeping.”

“But I enjoy a good cry,” Seth says. “And it is good to be seen weeping for a fallen creature.”

“Insanity,” she sneers.

“Is it? Wouldn’t your pills and injections work, if it were insanity?”

“No,” she cries, hands on her ears. “You don’t exist. You’re leaking out from inside of me. You’re rain water.”

“You’re ours,” Devon hisses. And she feels hands on her, a multitude of hands, pulling her up. She rises fast like a planet. The lights of the countryside are under cast stars. She passes through rivers in the sky, and soon sees the sun bleeding over the arc of the Earth, fingers reaching into the valleys and canyons. Filling her eyes with a golden throbbing.

“You think we are the product of a disordered mind,” Devon whispers into her ear, calmly and quietly, as she ascends. “But we are legion, my beloved.”

“Following you from your childhood,” Seth says, “to this place. Can you see us now?”

She can see them. Two at first and then thousands, dissolute angels, cruel faces and extorting hands. Then she’s let go, falling toward Earth, an incredible speed. She has a tail of fire. Seth does as he promised, and follows her down, singing strange songs. She lives lives she has never lived. She is men, forests, starving children, messiahs and wasteland. All of them placing grief into the palms of her hands.

She is falling past unseen things, suspended on the wind. Their minds are childish. They are dark.

“Look now,” Devon says, pointing down. “See how the Earth rushes at you like a bullet? Feel your stillness in space.”

“Yes,” she surrenders.

She closes her eyes. She stands in a field. Dawn. Lost, but looking. A car sounds its horn as it stops on the road, nearby. A man gets out. He smiles and waves, elated to have finally found her.

She has fallen.

dog and tonic

loosely based on some places I’ve been

The light was brown, and the smell. Sirens blunted and yells, even screams, from adjacent rooms. There was a toilet down the hall. A window that wouldn’t close. Stuck in place since 1974, but he couldn’t have known that. All detail lost on the door beneath uninterrupted layers of paint; the perimeter moulding gone long ago, drowned in layers of beige, blue and yellow. The brass doorknob buffed to a gloss by the hands of thousands of previous tenants; the hand of each tenant more desperate than the last as the decades passed. The bed, a single iron pipe pallet.

His eyes saw it all. They were blue, red and quick. His hands clenched into arthritic fists. He was certain this was the place. The place that would hold him, fixed like a monster in amber.

There was a heavy chrome kitchen chair and a small table, a half finished can of beans. There was a knife and fork. A tow yard ashtray. A transistor radio. A torn copy of Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant. He’d read each line of that book like it was a stone in a slingshot. Page 127 marked with a corner store receipt. A wall socket without a faceplate. The sink, the drain, a gateway into a bitter underworld that would rise up in the night and possess him. It was where the demons came from. From whence the voices came.

This was the place.

He’d always known that when he did it, he’d do it away. Away from anyone who knew him. Away from any street upon which he’d ever made eye contact with another. They wouldn’t find him. They wouldn’t have his mess to deal with.  No sorrow to know. No tight lipped conflict between regret and nuisance. In this place, there would only be his uncomfortable absence, as the inconvenient spice saturated the hall. Familiar to weary management who would hesitate at the door, but who would, nonetheless, dutifully, turn the key. Then the police and the coroner. And then, namelessly, he would be physically gone. Only the ghost of him remaining. To stand in the corner. To vex the next poor bastard in his dark and heroin night.

The mental health worker, a weary psych nurse in a storefront office, had said to him, “Do you have a plan? The Confidentiality Agreement we signed together states very clearly that I have to report any and all cases of suspected suicidal and/or homicidal ideation.”

A plan? he’d thought. Forever.

He’d sat in his chair, silent and smiling. Passive. Across the desk from her. In his shoes without socks. With his filthy fingernails. His hair uncombed. Smelling like the thirteenth century.

I’ve had a plan since I could recognise myself in the mirror.

“No,” he’d replied. “No plan.”

He had fought the plastic razor blade cartridge into submission the night before. Plastic, hard and hostile. He’d taken it from the trash. Blunted by a stranger’s face. Contaminated with a stranger’s epidermis. He, himself, hadn’t shaved for weeks. Fresh, sharp razors were a luxury of the sane. He remembered cutting a girlfriend’s name into his forearm when he was young. He turned his arm over now to look. Rebeca. Misspelled. For life.  He smiled and bit down hard on his tongue.

Sitting up on his bed, he saw the naked blue blades on the table. Three from a single three edged cartridge. He’d cut himself enough in the past to know the pain involved. The ecstasy and blood. But this would be deep and lasting. He wouldn’t be returning to gloat over a scar.

It’s a thing to consider, he thought, the evolution of the razor blade. He scratched itchy Rebeca. How once they’d been awkward yet elegant. Handy in a scrap. How they had become safe at some point in insipid history. And now innocuous and rarely even thought of as they were daily applied to the skin. Hurrying over the surface of us, the flesh, over the thin barrier between life and terrible epiphany. He picked up a blue sliver of steel, and saw the glint of the yellow bulb above him.

There was no note. He had deposited his ID in a trash bin the day before. The document of his life was wordless. All that remained was the moment. The absence of angels. We die alone. Worn out stuff.  But now he concurred. He was finally, so happily, so ruinously alone.

It is an obvious thing, yet rarely thought of. That a right handed man would cut his left forearm first, and his right only upon realising it was the only reasonable thing left to do. He thought of this as the blade cut into his left wrist. He had planned it, mapped it, a vertical line from there. A river seen from space. Evolving faster than geological circumstance would normally allow. He would watch it evolve. He had thought about the moment of it endlessly, for so long.

He cut along his wrist from below his left thumb to a position below his left ring and middle fingers. He was twisting the blade now for the ascent up the length of the forearm. Into the wilderness of previously uncut, unexplored flesh. A euphoria was overtaking him. He was faced, not for the first time, with the tricky understanding that cutting didn’t sting. Instead, it created a dull and profound ached accompanied by an intense burning. He shuttered and gasped as he redirected the blade.

And then there came a loud banging on the door.

He looked up without moving. More banging. The words “Open up” shouted from the hall. A dog began to bark. It was a close, alien sound. Different from the banal ravings of his neighbours. Then the loud banging on the door and the barking of the dog began to merge. “Open up, you bitch. I want my money.” Bang bang bang. Woof woof woof. “I’ll kick the fucking door in, swear to god.” Woof woof woof.

“Shit”, he spit, and threw the little sliver of steel across the room. “Hold on, hold on.”

“Better open up, mother fucker.”

He got to the door and opened it. Standing before him in the hall was a tall emaciated man with bad skin and a stringy bread. He wore an unwashed nylon track suit and a baseball cap with the bill slightly askew. “Where’s Rosy,” the man yelled. “Bitch owes me $150 and change. Bitch can’t do me like this. Bitch is gonna pay.” In his right hand was a lead. Pulling at the end was a large, overly excited mutt. Woof woof woof. “Wadda you, her fucking pimp? I hate pimps, man. Don’t make me fuck you up. Gimme the money.”

“I don’t know any Rosy,” he said. “I’ve only been here two days. The place was vacant when I rented it.”

“’Xpect me to believe that shit?”

“I don’t care what you believe,” he said, and then saw the man’s gaze fall onto his left wrist and hand. A vein was pumping and the fingers dripped blood.

“Motha fucka,” said the man with the dog, trying to sound as much as he could like a black LA gangsta, in spite of his unlucky Caucasianness. “What you do to yourself? Whatever it is you got goin’ on in yo head ain’t worth it, man. You gotta choose life.”

“Fuck you. Come back in a couple of hours, and take what you want.” He began to close the door.

“No no, man. Listen, I had an aunt in Windsor. She ate her whole damn medicine cabinet. Didn’t find her for a week. Closed casket, baby. Had to be on account of how long she been laying there. She left an awful big hole in the world, man. My mamma ain’t smiled since.” Woof woof woof. “Shut the hell up, Nigel.”

“Nigel? You named that mutt Nigel?”

“Yeah, and he ain’t no mutt. Jus’ an indeterminate breed. He’s a killer, though. He’s stone cold.” Nigel had begun licking up the accumulating pool of blood on the floor. “Look, I’m callin’ 5-O, man. I can’t let this slide. My Karma’s thin and crispy enough as it is.”

“Don’t. Please. Just walk away.”

“Can’t.”

“Then what? You’re just going to stand there until I bleed to death?”

“That’s a bad cut, baby,” the dog-man said. “But you ain’t gonna bleed out from that. I know some shit. You die of infection before you bleed out from that scratch.”

He grasped the door and tried to close it, with force. But the man stuck his foot in and stopped it. “Don’t do it, man.” Nigel was up and barking again, actually beginning to sound dangerous. He was forcing his snout in between the door and the door jam, baring his teeth and snarling between barks.

“Down, Nigel,” said the man. “Good dog.” Then he yelled, “Somebody call 5-O! Nigel, down.” Nigel was getting vicious in the excitement.  He could see the saliva flying off the big dog’s teeth. And then he heard the man in the hall say, fatalistically, “Oh shit.” The lead had slipped from his hand. Nigel sprinted into the room.

When he came to, a female ambulance attendant was applying a pressure bandage to his wrist. She gave him a sour look. He was on a gurney in his room. Two way radios crackled. He heard the words Mental Male. Another attendant was wiping blood away from the back of his head, where he’d fallen against the table when Nigel jumped. Apparently, nothing could have stood between the dog and the half eaten can of pork and beans left over on the table from the night before. When the cops stepped in, it was finally a full house.

“Told you not to mess with Nigel,” dog-man said. “One warning per person, baby. That’s all I got to give. That’s all I’m willing to provide. And that Rosy bitch still owes money.”

the Amazing Rubeni

His suspicions regarding the overall poverty of height had transformed from an abstract concern and into a genuine source of anxiety faster than he could ever have imagined. Would such a short fall adequately fill his needs? After all, he’d chosen the rooms on the fifth floor, from which he’d just jumped, for their gentle north eastern exposure and faux Rococo styling, not for their hands-down utility in the event of some desperate suicidal leap. He was also, in that instant, perplexed by the disturbing elasticity of time. Falling such a short distance seemed to be taking a very long while.

It was irrelevant now, but he knew from casual inquiry that the weight equation defined weight, or W, to be equal to the mass, or m, of an object times gravitational acceleration, represented by g, or W = m * g. The value of g was 9.8 meters per squared second on the surface of the planet, and gravitational acceleration decreases with the squared distance from the center of the earth. For most practical problems related to atmosphere, he knew he could take it for granted that this factor was constant.

The drag equation told him that drag, D, is equal to a drag coefficient, Cd, times one half the air density, r, multiplied by the squared velocity, V, times a reference area, A, on which the drag coefficient is based. In other words, he was being opposed by aerodynamic drag – that was the point; he was always being opposed by something, and he resented it.

Another thought he had, as the wind whistled quietly in his ears, was one he’d had several times before: Why was success considered the only logical outcome of perseverance? This was an unsolvable mystery. He had practised perseverance throughout his life, without success. He was diligent in his perseverance, painstaking. One could even say assiduous. Wasn’t that how his psychiatrist described Rubeni’s bipolar personality? Mania was perseverance and depression was empathy. The psychiatrist had said this as though it was the firmest, most fundamental of universal truths. Why wouldn’t have Rubeni believed it?

But now that he thought of it, the psychiatrist had never said that to persevere was to succeed. It was everyone else who’d said that. His psychiatrist had just written Rubeni a new prescription and told him that the appointment was over. That was no way to have ended what was supposed to be a therapeutic appointment, of course. But he’d always been unlucky with psychiatrists, their profession so undervalued by everyone but themselves. Who could blame them for being bastards?

As he continued to fall, Rubeni rolled round in space and looked up at the balcony from which he’d just leapt, and saw three faces looking down at him. It was the two plane clothes cops and the priest, his small personal choir that had, up until a moment ago, been singing a hymn called Don’t Jump. Why had they brought in a priest? Another mystery. Rubeni was Jewish.

“All things come to pass,” the priest had said when it was time for his choir solo, after the cops had recited their scripted homily of reassurance and acceptance. “These feelings you’re having, they will pass.”

“And I’ll feel better?” said Rubeni, his back to the priest as he pondered the pavement below.

“Yes, that’s the idea,” the priest said.

“And I’ll be able to cope again?”

“Yes, yes.” The priest was pleased with the idea.

“All things come to pass, then.”

“Yes,” said the priest.

“Then these bad feelings will pass and be replaced by good feelings.”

“That’s right.”

“But then,” Rubeni said, “if all things come to pass, the good feelings you promise will also pass, and I’ll feel like shit again, or even worse, and want to kill myself all over again, maybe even more than I do right now. It seems very iffy, this theory of yours.”

“Our moods and emotions can be a burden at times, I agree,” said the priest. “Some of us are prone to dark thought. You must pray always, but even more strenuously and sincerely when you are struck by these extreme feelings.”

“Have you ever felt like ending it all?” Rubeni asked the priest.

“That is a weight God has spared me.”

“So,” said Rubeni, noticing his undone shoelace, “you’re really talking outta yer hat, aren’t you? I mean, this is something they taught you back at priest school, isn’t it? Not the all things come to pass thing. I mean your presumption that I will without doubt be delivered from this distressful circumstance to some peaceful equilibrium. It’s not anything that comes out of your own lived experience, is it?”

“Would my presumption be a more valid proposal if it did?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am sincerely sorry for never having been in a suicidal state, so that now my words would reflect that personal experience.”

“Thank you for saying so. I believe that’s the first honest thing you or 5-O has said this morning.”

“Consider me your student, Mr Rubeni.”

“Don’t ruin it, mister priest.”

“I’ll try no to.”

“Good.”

“Is there any material thing I can get for you?”

“No. Just back off for a while. I need to think.”

“Very well.”

It was nice when the priest finally backed off and Rubeni could breathe. He wasn’t a religious man, certainly not a Catholic. Who could be Catholic, anyway? A religion ruled over on Earth by a man they considered infallible. A man, therefore, who didn’t have the word oops in his vocabulary. A man who couldn’t, by definition, be implicated in any mishap or, apparently, even trip on a curb. Had they built Vatican City without curbs, he wondered. That would certainly decrease the chances of the Pope tripping and unintentionally saying oops.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God. Rubeni knew God wasn’t dead; God was alive and well, and fucking with the world constantly. It was just that he couldn’t connect the God of Exodus and Leviticus with the God of iPhones and Gangnam Style. Where was Rubeni’s burning bush? Where was God’s code whispered in the leaves and deciphered in Rubeni’s dreams? Absent, he deduced, as he fell, seeing Mrs Wilshire, the tenant who lived below him on the fourth floor looking out her window.

Their eyes met, and Rubeni felt slightly ashamed. There was good-bye in Mrs Wilshire’s moist, elderly eyes. He’d carried her groceries and had looked after her three cats when she’d gone to Saskatoon. Now she was witnessing him fall from above toward the merciless pavement below. There were nightmares in her future, all of them his fault. Perhaps he should have chosen another high spot from which to jump, but that was silly.

As he once more marvelled at the slow passage of seconds, Maria came to mind. Maria, the tall dark idol he’d worshipped and nearly married. There she was, vividly driving her Smart Car through the city with her yoga mat in the back seat and her bag of organic grapes riding shotgun. What could be the point of this new torture? He had adored her. It was Maria who’d called him amazing. The Amazing Rubeni, she’d said, as though he were a circus act. He didn’t know at first if he should resent it. Had she been laughing at him?

But she’d meant his poetry, his confidence and intensity in a world too frightened to correctly name its trepidation. She’d said she loved him, that she wanted to marry him. That was until she witnessed his mania, how it had manifested out of his artful sub-sanity into shambolic inner rage that tore him to pieces. Had she known about his bipolar disorder? Of course. There were no secrets. And she’d had the greatest of empathy, until he showed symptoms. Then it was no longer a conceptual thing defined in textbooks and hidden behind a curtain of medication. Then it was too much and she’d run away to her Buddhist retreat to count her breaths.

Hadn’t it always been this way? Wasn’t this the reason for him, in this moment, arcing out through space, compelled by the downward tug of the planet’s molten core? — the world always impressed by him in the beginning, then equally appalled as he imploded into confused, teary eyed calamity, again and again, as he wrote each suicide note in rich, cataclysmic pentameter? His irredeemable couplets tattooing the red brick back alleys walls that mapped out is volatile mind. There was no pill for this shame, no prayer. No nanosecond short enough or equation comforting enough. It was an episodic landscape of jagged slopes throughout adolescence and into adulthood, mountain ranges of mood with valleys deeper than the darkest imaginable stanza.

Wasn’t it all a comedy? If so, then surely there’d be good-hearted laughter any moment, no?

His mind returned to a second before, and saw the priest approach him once more.

“Have you had time to reconsider, Mr Rubeni,” the priest asked.

Rubeni looked down at his untied shoelace. “Tell me one hopeful thing, mister priest,” he said.

“If you choose not to jump,” said the priest, “this will turn into a story of personal strength and redemption.”

“Is that it?” said Rubeni.

“Where there is life, there is hope, my son. Your escape from this will bring hope to others.”

“That ain’t much, but fuck it,” Rubeni said, and commenced turning away from the empty space below. “Maybe that was the one right thing to say, mister priest.”

The priest smiled. If Rubeni came in off the balcony now, there still might be time for racquetball at the seminary, and a previously scheduled lunch appointment.

But turning round on that small ledge, on the wrong side of the balcony railing, was more difficult than it appeared, and Rubeni stepped on his loose shoelace. It happened just in time for him to make eye contact with the priest, and they both knew then that he’d lost his balance. The priest lunged forward and Rubeni reached out, never having wanted to live so badly. But the priests hands failed to grasp his, and the Amazing Rubeni fell.

W = m * g

 

the confession of Atticus Byrd

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s conceited and condescending.”

“You misunderstand, I think.”

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

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

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

“And so…?”

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

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

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

“But to die without confession….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now Atticus, really…?”

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

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

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

“What about Jesus?”

“But you’re not Jesus, Atticus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I said, ‘Not now Lord Krishna.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what happened?” the padre said.

“I lit the match.”

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

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

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

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

“And…?”

“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”

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

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

“And, and…?”

“Well, nothing happened.”

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

“Well, that’s a funny thing, padre….”

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

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

“Windex.”

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

“I know what Windex is, Atticus.”

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

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

“Weren’t no confession, padre.”

“Consider yourself absolved, nonetheless.”

“Hump that.”