the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written

see # 2 here
see #3 here

It was February a few years ago when Fiona moved in next door, with her accordion and zydeco repertoire. And though I would have normally defended a woman’s right to practice her instrument, play it and generally follow her bliss, at the beginning I thought the 5:00 a.m. renditions of Follow Me Chicken might drive me mad.

To be fair it was, and still is, a building of artists, actors, writers and musicians, all of us slightly insane and near starvation, and it was wonderful how the music in the evening spilled out through the open windows, onto Parker Street, where in the warmer months, many in the neighbourhood congregated for free nightly concerts of rap, classical and jazz, each played at the same time, overlapping into a splendid symphony, to which the locals rumbled, loved and danced.

I still live here, writing obsessively that which goes mostly unpublished, loving my view of the street and its sounds, and being a part of a threadbare but artistic neighbourhood, which will soon be bought up by an artless moneyed class, wanting to live vicariously through the starving creators and performers they displace through gentrification and the introduction of Best Buy and Whole Foods stores.

Anyway, the relationship between Fiona and I sort of unfolded like this:

Like so many writers, I worked into the small single digit hours, when the spiders of mind come out to creep, then I slept past noon every day. Fiona on the other hand, rose early to get to her job at a coffeehouse in the financial district, where she worked long hours slinging espresso drinks, adorning each cappuccino and latte with her celebrated foamy art, to the delight of her crooked chintzy-tipping stockbroker clientele.

Then, in the evening, after only a short break, she would work one gig or another with her all girl band, Pussy Zydeco. This left her with only the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which to practice.

(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, and how an all-woman zydeco band gets regular gigs in this town is anyone’s guess.)

Our first conversation on the subject of her sleep-disrupting habit took place at her door on February 2nd of that year, after the gaudy sound of her warming-up her instrument first passed like a ghost through my wall.

It shocked me out of sleep, and into a panic attack. Disoriented, I asked all of the important questions: Was it an air raid siren I was hearing? Was there even such a thing, anymore? If so, was it signalling a nuclear attack? Had the kitschy little Republic of North Korea finally gone berserk? Were we all about to be transformed into mere sidewalk shadows on that frosty morning, before the little brown birds of winter had their chance to sing?

No.

Bizarrely, it was an accordion.

Being played next door.

In an instant I’d pulled on my jeans and was knocking at her door, ready to demand silence. But when a woman, with a red, pearly keyed accordion bridled to her front, opened the door, I was made speechless by her startling beauty.

The building manager had told me that Fiona was moving in, and I’d heard her directing movers the day before. But this was the first time she and I had met, face to face.

“Hi,” I said, weakly, rubbing an eye with a knuckle. Then, “Uh, good morning.”

“It has possibilities,” she said.

“You’re a musician.”

“Yes,” she said.

“The accordion.”

“Yes.”

“But it’s 4:55 a.m.”

“Yes, it’s always an early start for me,” she said. “I know I should still be in bed, but it’s a sacrifice I make for my music.”

I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. Instead, I stood hypnotised by the soft gift-giving gaze of her simple hazel eyes, her long ginger hair and the grace with which her neck drifted elegantly into her strapping, load-bearing shoulders. Then there was the succulent cleavage, visible just above the accordion’s bellows between the v-shaped boundaries of her gauzy India blouse, and accentuated by the pressure placed upon her bosom by her ample instrument.

I imagined her then, moving in her apartment alone, like a delicate wraith to the sound of her own music. In my mind, she was a squeezebox ballerina, au naturel except for where I imagined the to-and-fro mechanics of her instrument made personal protection necessary.

But then I saw the extraordinary thing that sealed my love for her, forever. It was the blood red, black outlined valentine tattoo, the size of a dime on her left cheek, pierced by an arrow, straight and true.

“Got a camera, mister?” she said. “I’ll give you a minute to go get it. Then you can take a picture.”

“No,” I said, looking down at the hall carpet, at a cigarette burn I hadn’t seen before. “I’m sorry. I’m not a starer. I don’t stare, I mean, normally. It’s just that it’s very early.”

“And you should be in bed,” she said.

“Yeah, I just live next door.” — Irrelevant, I know.

“Then you’ve not got miles to go before you sleep.”

I’d been dismissed, and she was right. My door was ajar, and the rumpled linen of the bed I hadn’t made in a week awaited me, so I turned without complaint and did the zombie shuffle home. There, I lay down and looked at the ceiling, as the bayou melodies began again.

So, resolving the matter of the early morning music was made impossible by infatuation, mine that is, and I spent the following days waking to syncopated renditions of Geno Delafose and Queen Ida tunes.

Later I’d peek through my window blinds, and watch Fiona as she walked out onto the street, on her way to work.

I’d become captivated by her walk, the way she would hoist the strap of her bag up onto her shoulder, her head held high and everything in motion from the shoulders down. She would stand at the corner of Parker and Commercial Drive and demand the traffic stop, by virtue of her posture alone. The world was hers, as she strode importantly, and without pretense.

I knew, though, that I was the bug who lived next door. But bug or not, love was love, and I had to have Fiona for my own. If she only knew how I listened at her door as she slept, I know she’d have appreciate just how deep my feelings were for her.

My aching for Fiona only increased as February began to rapidly vanish. Valentine’s Day approached, and I became determined that the 14th wouldn’t pass without action.

Soon I had a plan, the foundation of which was a love poem I would write. I knew that most poems of deep meaning took years, even decades to write, but it was already the 12th. I had only two more days. I’d have to trust my passion to guide me.

I started to compose my poem to Fiona in the lonely hours long before dawn, before I would hear through my wall the wheezy sound of her instrument being removed from its case. In the dim lamp light, and with only a pencil and paper, I began to write, accompanied by the sound of a solo horn, heard from an upper floor, playing a jazz ballad as soft and as sad as falling snow.

The poem, I decided, would be entitled, my zydeco valentine. (Lower case, by the way, wherever possible, always makes the title of a poem seem more profound.)

I worked steadily for 48 hours, and was ready to recite my work on the morning of V Day. It was my magnum opus. Visions of beatniks had danced in the air as I wrote, along with Goethe, Shelley and Byron. The piece would eclipse the power and profundity of every poem that preceded it. I was no longer dandruff on the shoulders of giants. Now I would be a giant; I’d make Fiona melt.

But how and where to deliver my verse?

The answer to the question came as I watched her leave for work that Valentine’s Day morning. Gazing at her from out of my window, I struggled to put on my coat. Once outside, I followed her at a safe distance.

Now I’d chosen how to give her the poem, and she’d not only be surprised and honoured when I put it into her hand, but maybe even a bit bashful. Her female coworkers would be envious, and every man present would know that he had failed his own lover by being so incapable of creating such a masterpiece.

I took a different bus than hers, and arrived moments after she had donned her apron. Outside, it was rain mixed with snow, so customers were soggy and impatient. Fiona, on the other hand, was cheerful, confident and industrious, executing perfect daffodils, rosebuds and butterflies in the froth of every cappuccino, latte and café mocha. It made her damp patrons smile, and I held her in such high regard that I fell into a glorious state of euphoria, knowing that I was about to make her my own.

There were five people ahead of me when I got into line, holding Fiona’s poem in my moist hand. Things were moving nicely until a plump junior executive in a bad suit ordered hot breakfast bagels and pour-overs for four. The chunky bastard had slowed down the line. People were looking at their watches, and tapping their toes. That’s when self-doubt set in. Until that moment, I’d believed that simply handing the poem over would be easy. The longer I waited, however, the more I wanted to run.

After several long moments, I finally made it to the counter to face Fiona, and caught myself staring once more at the valentine tattoo on her cheek.

“It’s you!” she said, when she saw me. “The little geek from next door.”

Fellow employees snuck peeks over their shoulders.

“Yes,” I said, and looked at the folded sheet of paper in my hand. Then looking up, I said, “I came to say I love you.” — What!?! It just slipped out of my mouth. I was obviously possessed. Fiona’s eyes got hard and squinty. I knew I had to backtrack, and rescue us both.

“I mean I want a double Americano,” I said.

“You get that order, Wendy?” she said. Our eyes had locked. “Double Americano.”

“Yup,” Wendy snickered, and started the drink.

Fiona was oozing a blunt and unexpected hostility.

“Are you stalking me?” she said.

“No,” I replied — a stab at incredulity. “This is the first time I’ve ever even been here. What makes you say that?”

“For some guys, just showing up amounts to stalking. Are you one of them?”

“Pffft, of course not.” I shoved the poem into my pocket. “I’m a writer, a poet. I belong in a coffeehouse.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But not in mine. Get it?”

Wendy placed the Americano in front of her, and Fiona pushed it across the counter to me.

“Five bucks,” she said.

This, I hadn’t foreseen. I patted my pockets. I had $2.37.

“Is there a problem here?” said a beefy man, coming up from behind the counter. His nametag read, Manager Bob.

“There was a problem,” Fiona said. “But he’s leaving. After he pays.”

“I seem to be short,” I said.

“Then good-bye,” said Fiona, taking the coffee back. “And don’t let me see you in the hall, when I get home.”

“Yeah, uh okay. I guess I’ll go to Starbucks.”

I turned and walked away, defeat sticking to me like a gummy coating of mouldy caramel macchiato.

Outside, I ducked under an awning, and took a quick inventory of my fatal failings. I was an obnoxious, puffed-up, self-absorbed wanker who people preferred avoiding. I was soft and unattractive, flabby even, from sitting all day, trying to write prose and poetry of importance, and failing. In spite of this, I was fool enough to believe I could entice a woman like Fiona into my little, meaningless life.

I pulled the poem out of my pocket, tore it in two and let it fall into a puddle. There it could drown, for all I cared.

Then as I began to walk away, a truck sped by, through a large puddle the size of a carp pond, and a huge wave of oily water rose up and fell over me. It was the final humiliation. There was a blunt razor in the bathroom cabinet at home. Too blunt to shave with, but still sharp enough for my purposes. Wasn’t it expected of every writer that he eventually commit suicide? My time had come.

Trying to shake off the water, I carried on, then felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. There waiting for me stood a small rain-soaked old man in a tattered raincoat, with the two torn halves of my poem in his hand.

“This yours, fella?” he said.

“No, I….”

“Didn’t you just drop it? I think you’re a litter bug.”

“No,” I said. “I’m very environmentally conscious.”

“Then take it,” the old man said. “Take it and put it where it belongs, in the garbage.”

In the garbage? My poem belonged in the garbage? A new light had been shed. I snatched the two pieces of paper out of his hand.

“Off with you, old man,” I said, at last finding the indignation necessary to re-enter the coffeehouse. “Go pull some posters off a lamppost, you mothball-stinking Precambrian geezer.”

“Hey!” I heard him say as I walked away. “I was a Rotarian, once.”

It was muggy, crowded and close in the coffeehouse when I returned. I climbed up and stood on the only empty stool I could find, unfolded the two halves of the poem, and held them together. Then I shouted over the noisy crowd —

“This is a love poem for Fiona.”

No one stopped talking, so I yelled even louder —

“A love poem, I say! For Fiona.”

In a moment the room went quiet, except for some soft coughing. The last words spoken came from a petite older woman who said, “What the hell…?”

Then I began.

“It’s called my zydeco valentine.”

(some more subdued coughing, then silence)

“Shit.” I heard Fiona say, from behind the counter.

Fiona, Fiona
All valentine faced, as you are
How you haunt my love-empty rooms

I ask thee to be with me
On my journ-ey
To our destin-y

Let me squeeze your accordi-on
We’ll walk into the sun
Together together
Ignoring the weather
Both light as a feather

I love you Fiona

Silence. All eyes were on me. In the distance, a coffee cup was heard breaking on the floor.

“Is that it?” someone hollered from the back of the room. “I never know for sure when a poem ends.”

“Yes,” I said, and bowed.

“Who’s Fiona?” someone else shouted. “I knew a Fiona, once. She was a prison guard. Retired to Florida. Has nine cats. Is that who you mean?”

“No, ma’am. I mean….”

“Don’t you say it!” Fiona screeched. “Someone call the police.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manager Bob stepped in and tackled me to the floor. It was a long fall from such a great height, and I landed on top of him. Then he applied a hammerlock, and repeated Fiona’s call out for the police.

I struggled madly, but literary genius and physical strength rarely strive hand-in-hand.

Fiona came up and gave me a kick, as I lay there with Bob’s hairy arm round my neck.

“You’re sick,” she sneered. “And that’s the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written.”

“She’s right,” I heard someone in the crowd say.

“Don’t quit yer day job,” laughed another.

Almost immediately, I heard a hiss at the counter as milk began to be steamed once more.

*   *   *   *   *

Fiona moved out at the end of the following month, which made complying with my restraining order much easier. Soon after, I began to write my novella about my relationship with her, our joys, our aspirations and our heartbreaks. They say novellas sell best nowadays, now that no one has time for entire novels.

I call it my zydeco princess.

A literary agent named Maxine said she might be interested, whenever it’s finished. Maxine always wears pantsuits, and drives an old mint condition Mercedes convertible. She has the sad blue eyes of a person full of unresolved hurt.

Maxine walks her Schnauzer, Fritz, every morning at 7:30. In the evening, she likes to go to foreign movies, and eat at good restaurants. I think the men she dates are sort of creepy, though. Sycophantic morons who compensate with expensive suits and shoes.

Sometimes, I put coins in her parking meters, when they run out of time. I try really hard to be there when it happens. I even polish her hubcaps, occasionally, when she’s in watching a movie. She doesn’t know that I do it. She doesn’t need to. Just call me Mr Invisible.

I’m writing her a poem.

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there is a forest here

There is only one way to satisfy those who want you sober, and that is by walking away from the comfort of alcohol, and into a room of uncushioned, dark-hearted truths, an act that defies all layers of logical self-defense.

Virginia Quipp had just entered that room, leaving behind the vodka, and the splendid but unwholesome hush of 4 a.m. It was her second day in that room. Her hands didn’t shake and her nausea was only slight, but at eight in the evening, she sat at her desk facing another night of hateful abstinence. What was it about sobriety that zealots found so alluring?

She looked once again at her thumbnail image on the computer screen, the one gracing her page on the Federation of Canadian Poets website. Above the photograph was her name and a year, 1961. It was the year of her birth, and it was followed by a dash and a blank space, 1961 –    . It was a ravenous space, hungry to be filled, but also very patient. Beneath the photograph was a brief bio referencing, among others, her Governor General’s Award, a ponderous stone. And the words, near the bottom: Her next collection is due out in 2016.

1961 –     . She placed her hand on the mousepad where a drink should have been, but was not. Perhaps there was a book of poetry in this: the hell of anonymity or closet bottles.

Various worldly collisions. Gravities too savage to escape.

Was there tea? Yes, some tea might do in the absence of vodka. Had she brewed some, earlier? Tea, into which she had once poured smoky Tennessee whiskey. It was nostalgia, tea and whiskey. The drink she had enjoyed in her youth, sitting at camp fires or in roadhouses during her lone hitchhiking journeys through Canada, India and the United States, back before she felt the need to apologise for her choices. It was the drink that had helped her earn her graduate degree, so long ago. Her favourite cocktail, until she discovered the fast-acting convenience of Smirnoff, neat.

She brought up MS Word and looked at her stanza, the one that harassed her by its presence, and its refusal to be followed by another:

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Her editor had asked for more nature references. Vancouver was surrounded by rainforest, after all. Weren’t its citizens masters of the wilderness?

“No,” she said to the stanza.

It was the junk logic of book-marketing campaigns.

How was a poem written by a sober poet, anyway — when the words lose their mobility, as a result? When there is no river of them, no tsunami, no latent current to pull her under, gloriously? This would be a collection without grace or poise, solely inspired by a previously signed contractual agreement — Her next collection is due out in 2016. Perhaps panic would move her. Perhaps a laps back into vodkaesque suicidality.

Virginia Quipp knew that a tranquillising world of liquor existed just outside of her door — That’s right, 007, it’s an abundant, colourless, almost flavourless poison. Administered orally, it renders the victim temporarily paralysed, in a state of euphoria.

Her finger began tapping the mousepad, hitting the centre of the circle left behind by her last glass as she stared at the stanza, and suddenly thought of Susan. Why, for goodness sake? It had been months. Susan, a woman who was now so gone from her life. The one who’d tried to impose herself upon a lonely drunk poet, but in the end was repulsed by Virginia’s infatuations.

They’d met by accident on a Saturday night, an innocent occurrence, in a rough and tumble east side bar, frequented by longshoremen and failed young Bukowskis. Virginia was there trying to relive some of the rawness of her long departed youth, when Susan arrived at the bar.

“You’re Virginia Quipp,” said the graceful brunette.

“Yes,” said Virginia, uncertain for a moment.

“May I buy you a drink?”

“Of course, but do I know you?”

Susan didn’t ask what Virginia was drinking. Virginia’s choice of poison was well known. Susan ordered a flute of Prosecco for herself, an unusual drink to have in an establishment with worn felt pool tables and crooked cues. She sipped it so painfully slow.

“Do you have an agent, right now?” Susan had asked.

“Yes, of course,” said Virginia. “What an odd question.” She began to dismiss the idea that this was a chance encounter.

“It’s that Rachel Victor woman, right?”

“Yes,” said Virginia, almost bleakly. Rachel, the woman pressuring her to quit drinking — too many missed meetings, too many forgotten deadlines, too many frightening blackouts.

“I’ve noticed that ol’ Rachel has landed you a very comfortable deal with Harper Collins,” Susan said. “Your last two collections, isn’t it? HC’s rather a stodgy house for a once radical eco-feminist like you, no? I’m an agent myself, just so you understand.”

“I’m not sure I do understand,” Virginia said.

“Well I am, and I’m taking on new clients. Some friends are trying to start a new publishing house, as well, a little like Black Sparrow, we hope. We’d love to have you on our list.”

“Say what you like about Rachel,” said Virginia, sipping. “But most Canadian poets are starving and can’t pay the rent. I, on the other hand, have a nice little house near the Drive, and I’m well fed. Rachel helped me make a name. Besides, I’m writing a novel at the moment, and I’m well positioned for that with HC.” It was corporate babble, and Virginia was ashamed at once. What had happened to her?

Susan placed her card on the bar. “Look me up on the web. I’m not an amateur. I’ve had some successes.” Then she began to walk away, but looking over her shoulder as she did, she said, “Dinner sometime, yes? Call me.”

Was she suggesting a date, or another recruitment opportunity? Virginia slipped the card into her bag, and waited an agonising week before she called to find out.

They dined at Bishop’s on a Friday evening, chatting over salads and the Duck Breast and Wild Spring Salmon. Virginia enjoyed the U’luvka, but really didn’t taste the difference between it and the much cheaper brands she normally drank.

They talked about everything but publishing, and after several drinks, when Susan rested her hand on the table, Virginia gambled and placed her own upon it. Susan pulled away immediately, and the expression on her face made it clear that a boundary had been sorely crossed.

“That’s not what this is about,” she said.

“Yes, I….” Virginia was mortified. “No, I….”

“This is a business dinner,” Susan said. “It’s about business. Whatever made you think it was anything else?”

“But we haven’t discussed business!” said Virginia. “You haven’t mentioned publishing or representing me, even once.” She felt flush, perspiring from every pour.

“Then you’re like all writers, aren’t you. You understand nothing. Business doesn’t have to dominate a conversation, in order to be done. There’s no need for it to be explicit. Not over the course of what was meant to be a relaxed dinner. Besides, I’m not a lesbian and I resent you thinking that I am.”

Susan was right; Virginia understood nothing about business. There had always been someone else to handle it. Rachel Victor had been her agent for twenty-five years, while Virginia skulked in the corner. Rachel did the talking, while Virginia held the business-suited fools round the table in contempt. And how could she have made such a bad assumption about Susan?

Susan signalled the waiter for the bill.

“I’m so sorry,” Virginia said.

Her mind searched for words, and there were none. This had never happened before, but she had always believed that life experience would inform her how to gracefully escape any bad situation. She and her friends had often laughed over the potential for such a gaffe. Now her eloquence had deserted her. She was on a hostile shore, and her enemy was battle-ready, with the advantage of anger and business acumen.

There were so many ways to apologise. But hers turned out to be a drunken one. She became speechless, and looked away.

The waiter was slow. “Damn him,” Susan said.

“Let me pay,” said Virginia. She reached for her bag.

“No,” Susan said, taking a gold card from her pocketbook. “It’s deductible.” Then she dropped the card onto the floor, and it disappeared under her chair. “Fuck. Shit!”

Finally, she stood and walked to the waiter’s station, to settle up. Then she went to the coat check, and walked out the door.

Three days later, Virginia was in the park reading when Susan called.

“I’m sorry,” said Susan. “I over reacted.”

“And I was drunk,” Virginia said.

“We still want you onboard, my friends and I. It would be marvellous. A name like yours is just what a new publishing house needs, and we’ve landed some new investors with deep pockets. You’ll be well compensated, based on royalties of course. When is your current contract up with Rachel?”

“I think I’ll stick with her, Susan. She’s familiar. My life is in need of familiar, right now.”

“Well have her call me, then,” said Susan. “I insist. Maybe she and I can work together.”

“Maybe,” Virginia said.

There was a moment of silence, then Susan said good-bye.

Now at her desk, nearly two days without a drink, her greatest fear was the night ahead. The wages of sobriety were dreadful memories. There was an endless supply of them, by her reckoning, each queuing up for its chance at her.

Defeated, she went to the closet and pulled a bottle out from under a stack of folded blankets. Having never been opened, it was as fresh and full of promise as a morning in June. She took a glass from the kitchen and sat at her computer again, to look at her stanza once more —

there is a forest here
against the will of these steep slopes
trees drawing thought
up from rock and
forming philosophies

Then she typed —

I believed by standing here
that this forest was mine and that
for a lifetime, it would remain solid above me
but a lifetime is a poetic thing
that snaps like a stick

heartbreak garage sale

The crows flew in that morning from the wrecking yards, a black mass low over the estuary, blocking the sun, landing inky on the rooftops and perching like judges in the trees. It wasn’t until later that I realised just how wrong it was, the cocking of a thousand eyes to see what shined.

The man in the seersucker suit and pencil mustache arrived in the back lane in a black chauffeur driven Continental shortly after I opened the garage doors, at 8:00 a.m. He wore thick-framed horn rimmed glasses with dark lenses, and smoked cigarettes with gold foil filters. My neighbour, the ageing Mrs Faulkner, had arrived a moment before him, and was rummaging through crates of old first editions.

“I’ll take that box,” he said to me, pointing to an old Miller Beer crate behind him. He had an English accent and a hazy charm. His chauffeur stepped forward to fetch and carry the dusty old box away.

“But you don’t even know what’s in it,” I said.

“How much?” he asked.

“$10.”

He handed me a fifty, and told me to keep it.

The box disappear into the trunk of the car, as the man began to browse. He smiled fondly as he picked up pieces to view them, occasionally holding one at arm’s length and grinning warmly, then replacing it reverently on a table. As he browsed further, and approached the place where I had set a stool for myself and a small cashbox underneath. On the table, there was a locked display case containing jewellery.

He stopped there, and asked, “May I?”

“Yes, certainly.” I rummaged in my pocket for the key.

When opened, the man reached into the case and took out a ring in a ring box with yellowing satin. He seemed to stand straighter with it in his hand, holding it up for the sun to glint off of the green stone in its setting. There was some momentary memory of contentment in his expression, and something else. He removed the ring from its box, and placed it on his left ring finger, then held his hand out again.

“There you are,” he said. “I’ve finally found you.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I said. The words had slipped out before I could contain them.

“No,” he said, turning round to look at me. “I’m originally from Bristol, England, but now I live in Los Angeles. Does it show?”

“No. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “Isn’t that what a garage sale is for, besides the redistribution of wealth, I mean. Aren’t they for breaking the ice, getting know one another?”

I noticed a longish pink scar on his right cheek. He touched it with his finger and turned away.

“It’s a very long way to come for a garage sale,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But there was some word of it in my little circle. The last chance at some very nice old pieces from a more splendid past.”

“But this is Vancouver,” I said. “How could there be word of it in Los Angeles?”

Without answering, he placed a hand on one of two wooden chairs. “You know these are Chippendale, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, sheepishly.

“Rather a low price for such precious items.” He fingered a card attached with masking tape. $20, written in black felt pen. “Fire sale prices, I’d say.”

I shrugged.

“It’s how he wanted it, isn’t it,” said the man, sitting down on the chair. “Malcolm was a grand old eccentric.” He pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket.

“Have a nip?” he said, offering it to me first.

“No. Look, who are you?”

“Oh, just a shameless Hollywood hanger-on.”

“But it’s obvious that you knew my Uncle Malcolm, somehow.”

He suppressed a laugh, and took a belt from the flask.

“Forgive me,” he said, holding up a hand. “But to hear him referred to as Uncle Malcolm….” He shook his head, and took off his dark glasses.

His eyes were a pale blue. Now I noticed his age, his carefully disguised frailty.

“You knew him well enough to care about what’s left, to come all the way here to look?”

“Much of this we shared, my boy. At least for a time. I haven’t seen these pieces in decades, but it’s like yesterday.”

“I don’t understand?”

Malcolm Pierce had died three months before, at ninety-five years of age. In his will, he’d asked that many of his material possessions, the ones not inherited by friends and family, be disposed of in this way, out of my garage. He’d specified it be …an informal event, without hoopla. And that it be held out of my nondescript home, where the unknowing neighbours could shop the oddities and buy them for cheap, before any of the Hollywood death-savvy eBay types could get their meat hooks into them.

Everything was sent up UPS from California, with an inventory and his absurdly low set prices. Sending it must have cost a fortune, but he’d been a moneyed man.

“They were together,” said Mrs Faulkner, who had come over to listen in. “He and Malcolm. At least that’s what the gossip magazines hinted at, back then.” She was beaming. “This is Timothy Colt,” she said, then held out her hand. Timothy Colt took it gently for a moment.

“A pleasure, my Lady,” he smiled.

In Mrs Faulkner’s other hand was a book, entitled Brussels, which had come from the boxes of first editions. She opened it, and on the back flap of the dust jacket was a picture of a much younger version of the man now sitting in the Chippendale chair.

He looked up at me, his face, for the moment, hard and grim.

“Yes,” he said, “That’s what they hinted at. And even the godawful gossip magazines got it right sometimes. Of course, it never occurred to me that I’d finally and absolutely be outed by a darling old lady at a garage sale.” He grinned.

“Oh dear!” said Mrs Faulkner. “I’m sorry. We, I mean everyone, always assumed it was true, and that you’d already been outed.”

“Yes and no,” he said, “as things go. Nothing was ever confirmed; why should it have been? I’m a writer, which made me suspect. Gossip and hints were all we had back then, all anyone needed. They were enough to inform the sympathetic and the cruel. There was much ambivalence in between, of course.”

“Would you?” said Mrs Faulkner, holding Brussels forth. She produced a pen and offered the novel to Timothy Colt.

“With pleasure, ma’am. What is your name?”

“Beatrix,” she said. Like him, she seemed to be holding back tears.

Timothy turned to the title page, and began. “To Beatrix, with my greatest regard,” he said as he wrote. Then with a flourish of the pen, he said, “Timothy Colt.” Then handed back the book.

“Oh, thank you.” She held it to her bosom. “I read it in 1955,” Beatrix Faulkner said. “When it first came onto the shelves. It’s so beautifully written, so tragic. I read it three times, the first time in two nights. Naturally, I did it secretly. It was scandalous, even dangerous. And I was just a girl working in an office.”

“Scandalous?” I said. “Why scandalous?”

“It was a romance novel, my boy,” Timothy said. “But with a twist.” He gave me a wink, his grim look now gone. “How it ever got published in 1955 remains a mystery. And the screen adaptation…! That remains the greatest mystery of all.”

“I think I know the answer,” I said. “But tell me all the same. What was the twist?”

“Two lovers,” he said. “Or, perhaps not lovers at all. I left that to the reader to decide. Although in retrospect, I think I may have made it impossible for the reader to come to any other conclusion. It takes place in postwar Belgium, hence the title. The protagonists, are both men. The critics were torn. Unwritten reviews praised it. The written ones did not. Literary critics know upon which plate their dinner is served. I blame no one.”

“They treated it like smut,” Beatrix said.

“Yes, they did,” said Timothy. “And of course I was immediately labelled a communist, and blacklisted. But I had a very enduring ally.”

“Uncle Malcolm,” I said.

“Indeed. He was one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, at the time. And I was young, and talented, if I do say so myself. Also rather handsome, some said. Malcolm took me under his wing for more than purely literary reasons, and I acquiesced without much thought. I was lonely in Hollywood, and predisposed. He arranged for us to meet for lunch one day, and the rest is rowdy history.”

“So he wrote the screen adaptation of your scandalous novel?”

“We did it together, partially in an MGM bungalow on the studio lot, but mostly in his house just outside of San Diego. We began in the autumn of 1955. By spring of ’56, we had Otto Preminger interested in directing and producing, and there were whispers that United Artists might distribute. The film would never receive the Hollywood Production Code seal of approval nor MPAA certification, we knew that much. But I was convinced, in a childish way, that its being made in Hollywood was incidental, that its meaning was far greater than that of the studio Machine.”

He paused, sighed and brushed something invisible off of his knee.

“We even had Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift,” he said, sadly. “All hush hush, obviously. Poor Monty. Poor Roy. The moments when their characters would have touched were never to appear in the script. That’s how adaptations are, and it was my duty as author of the novel to protest. But my protests were only token ones. I smelled success. Maybe I should have said more.”

“And you and Malcolm were in love,” Beatrix said, a statement that might have been a question. She was in love with the idea, for her own reasons.

Timothy twisted the ring on his finger. “Perhaps I was,” he said. “I wasn’t a boy, but I was an innocent. How could I know what I felt? He was much older. Which was more grease for the gossip wheels.

“We got the script as far as the read-through room, where everyone sits round the table and simply reads their parts aloud, without acting. Rock and Monty were there, and Preminger, and some of the money people, along with a very stern looking man and woman who sat at the back of the room. When Otto saw them walk in late, as a hired actor read the opening narrative, he sighed deeply and looked over at Malcolm.

“The man and woman listened chastely to the read-through, and took notes. At the end, they stood and left without a word.”

“Who were they?” Beatrix said.

“The censors, of course. Censors were everywhere, back then. There were more censors in Hollywood than aspiring actors. Otto told us to take heart. That he’d pull strings. So we waited a week, and then the whole production was shut down.

“Your Uncle Malcolm went into a rage when he found out. We were living together by then, in his house in San Diego. It was a lovely, very romantic time, before the censors banned the script.

“When we got the news, he drank and raved for a week. I had no idea he was capable of such behaviour. He’d considered the Brussels screenplay to be a masterpiece, and it was banned by petty bureaucrats, he said. He became violent with the servants. One day when I tried to console him, he beat the hell out of me! Can you imagine? And in my naivety, I went back to try to comfort him.”

“And he beat you again,” I said.

“And a little more.” He put his hand to his scarred cheek.

“I know that this all must be very difficult for you to hear,” he said.

I had no opinion. I’d only met my uncle once, at Christmas in my parents’ home. I was seven years old. He seemed very grand to me, a king in a throne, even though it was just my father’s L-Z-Boy. The family talk was that he was a great but troubled man, prone to outbursts and melancholy. I recalled that he smelled like cologne and Canadian Club. After dinner, when he’d had too much to drink, he gave me an American $5 bill, and sent me on my way. I never saw him again, except in the papers, and then in his obituary. It was a 1960s stock studio photo of an unsmiling man, from the waste up, sitting in a chair, wearing jacket and tie, holding a pipe in his hand. The photo told me nothing about him.

“The scripts had been held securely in an MGM safe,” Timothy said, “before the read-through. They were studio property, after all. Somehow, Malcolm managed to rescue them from the incinerator, afterwards. He knew people: a receptionist, who knew a secretary, who knew the sister of an associate to the assistant producer, who knew a studio page, who knew the custodian who had wheeled them away toward destruction.

“Once secured, he brought them home, and put them in an old beer crate labelled Miller. Then after his breakdown, he forgot about them.”

Timothy Colt stopped there, looking round him. Then he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I moved away,” he said, looking again at the gem on his finger. “Not wanting to live through a similar heartbreak. In a last effort to hold on, he gave me this ring at a special dinner at the Dal Rae.

“Eighteen karat gold,” he said, holding out his hand. “And an emerald of exquisite clarity. A gem of finest water they would have once said. Not too big, not too garish. But I know it cost him a small fortune. It’s just right, isn’t it?”

“It’s a very fine thing,” Beatrix said.

“I didn’t accept it, naturally. It would have meant going back.”

“Yes, I imagine it would have.”

“How much for it now?” Timothy said to me. “And don’t say you’ll give it to me for free, under the circumstances.”

“He priced it at $25.”

Timothy thought a moment, sighed, and then said, “I guess that is its true worth. Like any abusive lover, he had always maintained that I abandoned him. Maybe I did. It all depends on how one measures such things.” He placed some bills in my hand.

“I used the money I earned from book sales to return to Berkley,” said Timothy, “to get my master’s degree. I’ve taught there and written novels ever since—but that’s common knowledge, quite boring.”

“Ten beautiful novels,” Beatrix said. “One of each is in the boxes on the tables. Each one well read, judging by their condition. He must not have given up on you, completely.”

“You’re a love,” he said, and gently squeezed her arthritic hand.

“So, in a way,” I said, “this entire inventory is yours.”

“No no. I have what I came for, the scripts in the trunk of the car, and this lovely ring. Who could have known that two such small purchases would have resolved so much. I have a wonderful home to return to. And at the end of the day, a few small memories are more comfortable than many grand ones.”

He gave me back the box the ring came in.

“Dispose of that, will you? I won’t be needing it.”

binary

know that this first appeared in ink
before its conversion into ones and zeros
the two lonesome numbers that
rule the planet

it’s easier this way
they all said
children in Lithuania will read it
slave labourers in China
maybe even astronauts
wearing Ray-Bans and driving
fiercely American automobiles
to rocket launches and cocktail bars

but what would have Wallace Stevens said
beckoning his roller of big cigars
his inky fingers calling forth emperors
and judging them on their ice-cream

the opening line

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story.

Ringing at the other end of the line. Clicks and long distance ghosts. A faint far away voice, perhaps in time, saying the name Agnes three times. Then the hollow plastic sound of hanging up. Vera answered on the forth ring.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Vera. It’s Nathaniel.”

“Nathaniel. Where are you? What’s 604? We’re all so worried.”

“It’s Vancouver, 604. I’m in Vancouver at a motel.”

“Washington? Why?”

“No. Canada. Vancouver Canada.”

“Canada? My God that’s so far away.”

“Only a few miles from Washington. “

“Why there? When are you coming home?”

“It was the first flight out, so I took it. It’s nice here. Kind of like Disneyland. The streets are clean. I’m on a street called Kingsway. It’s raining.”

“Get to the airport. They have one don’t they? Get to the airport, and get a ticket home. Call me when you get it, and tell me your arrival time. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“No, Vera. I like it here, for the moment. People say thank you like they mean it. The air doesn’t smell like anything. It’s just air. There’re mountains with trees. I’m looking at them. I mean I can’t really see them right now because of the clouds and rain, but the girl at the desk assured me that they’re there. Maybe I’ll be able to write something here.”

“Do you have your medication? You have to have your medication. You know what happens when….”

“I have to go.”

“No. That’s not fair. These things you do to us….”

“You’re speaking in sentence fragments, Vera. That means it’s time to hang up.”

“No, please.”

Nathaniel hung up.

When he came into the suite, a little stucco cabin really, he was drawn to the picture window. It provided a view of a wet off season parking lot. True inspiration.

“So, I’m Roger, Mr Reed,” the porter had said putting the suit cases down. “I’m a big fan. When’s the next one coming out? They just keep getting better and better. You’re about due, aren’t you? I belong to a discussion group online. We’re rereading your old titles now, but it sure would be great if you wrote another. Anything you need to make your time with us more enjoyable, just track me down on the phone. I’ll get it for you. Have a nice stay.”

Nathaniel placed the shoulder bag containing his laptop on the table near the window. The laptop with five half written stories occupying a fragment of its drive. Five half developed ideas. Products of his medicated mind. Sedate characters living uninteresting lives completely devoid of incongruity.

“What’s this shit,” Angela, his publisher, had said when he presented her with three of the five as teasers. “Where’re the crack pipe swallowers and paranoids howling at the moon? Where’s the kink? You write about whack jobs, psychos and abhorrent sexual desire, Nathaniel. That’s what your readers want.”

“I can’t anymore. I’ve done it for ten years. I deserve to move on. I’m on some decent meds for the first time in my life. The voices have stopped. I’m clean, and I haven’t had a drink in more than a year. I think I’m feeling normal. I want to try to write something normal.”

“Fuck normal, Nate. This is a money making gig here, and we publish pulp. The freak shows you write that we pass off as novels make dough. For all of us including you. Your readers pay to live like junkies, raging schizoids and hermaphrodite nymphomaniacs three hundred pages at a time. It’s how they convince themselves they’ve got street cred as they drive their beamers to Amway meetings.”

“I read Atonement while I was in rehab,” Nathaniel said.

“Oh boy, here it comes.”

“I want to write my Atonement.”

“We all want to write Atonement, Nate. Some of us want to write Lolita. But if we all could do it, McEwan and Nabokov would be fry cooks. You owe us two books, sport. You’re a year late because of this rehab stunt you pulled. So be a player and stick to addicts biting off their own toes and obeying their command hallucinations.”

That had been the last word, in a 24 hour submarine sandwich shop at midnight. And he knew she was right. He hadn’t written anything worth a damn since he’d started the medication and the idiotic 12 steps.

For this trip, he’d left the meds at home. The pink ones and the tiny white ones. Their small orange bottles stood impressively labelled in the cabinet over his sink. He’d resisted pouring them down the toilet. They weren’t worthy of such ceremony. They were just prescriptions. Did they really make him feel normal? What were the terms of reference? Was Vera normal with her nail biting and nervous life long insomnia? Was Angela, chain smoking on coke and absinthe and running out of body parts to pierce and tattoo?

He unzipped his shoulder bag, pulled out his laptop and placed it back on the table. An expensive bit of plastic housing some circuitry. And five unfinished, unwanted stories. He closed his eyes tight and tried to feel the absence of the psych meds. It had only been two days since he took the last dose. The ones that stabilised his mood; the ones that quieted the voices. He knew they were still present in his body, stabilising and quieting. It might take weeks or months to flush them out. He was detoxing all over again.

He’d been trying and failing to fight off an opening line to a story. It kept coming back like a ball thrown against a wall, like the urge to use and drink again. It wasn’t the opening line to a normal story. It wasn’t the sort of opening line seen in a Michael Crichton novel. It was pure pulp. But an opening line to a perfectly marketable story in an age that had resurrected burlesque and the roller derby.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

That was it. From it a novel could grow.

Definitely not Michael Crichton. But then, Michael Crichton didn’t really write novels anyway. Just exhausting overwritten outlines for soon-to-be exhausting overwritten Hollywood scripts. A script adaptation would be nice right now. It would take some of the heat off money wise. But Angela was right. Stories of reconstituted dinosaurs and courageous missionary position medical practitioners weren’t in him.

But what of McEwan. Full of irony and passion. Passion for the little things as much as for the large. Atonement, what was the opening line? He’d memorized it while in his room at the recovery house, repeating it in his head while others said the serenity prayer.

The play – for Which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

He paused to compare his recurring opening line, the one that was haunting him, to McEwan’s.

She was a screamer on a bed of squeaky springs.

Perhaps it wasn’t a fair comparison.

He lifted one of his suitcases onto the bed, opened it and retrieved a faded tee shirt and a pair of gym shorts. As he changed, he noticed the mini-bar. It was oddly placed next to the king sized bed like a nightstand. It hummed a cool invitation. As a writer, recovering drunk and generally curious individual, he was fascinated by the phenomena of the mini-bar. Nothing in the hotel/motel world was so closely monitored and inventoried. You could get away with stealing towels, the soap, the little bottles of shampoo. But you could never get away with pinching mini-bar items. Not even the shitty little bags of peanuts.

He crouched and opened the small refrigerator door, and saw the neat rows of little bottles and snack items. It reminded him of Hunter S Thompson’s drug inventory from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.

Here was five vodka, five gin, five rye, five scotch, five rum, five tequila, three Jack Daniel’s,  six beer and four half sized bottles of wine, along with mixer. Ice was outside and round the corner.

He poured five tiny bottles of vodka into a glass and gulped it back. More than a year since his last. But why was he drinking from a glass, not directly from the bottle? What had he become? There was a long way to go to get back. To return to that magical, moneyed and celebrated place. It was those crappy little bottles. Man had evolved to become obsessed with portion control.  Could he get crack in this sterile city?

He returned to the laptop, plugged it in and turned it on. As it booted, he made a call and tracked Roger down. The vodka was gone, and he was now drinking scotch.

“Roger?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“I need Smirnoff. Red label. A couple of monster bottles. You got those in this country?”

“Yes, Mr Reed?”

“And, umm, Roger?”

“Yes, Mister Reed?”

“I’m not sure how to ask.”

After an appropriate pause, Roger said, “I’m the motel porter and handyman, Mr Reed. What could you possibly ask for that those before you haven’t?”

There was a soiled logic to that. Nathaniel hesitated and then spit it out, “Rock, pipe, brillo.” He said it like rock, paper, scissors. What was the hand gesture for brillo, he wondered.

“Not instantly available, and a bit pricy under the circumstances.”

“Whatever.”

“And a word of caution, Mr Reed.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“You’re in a non-smoking suite. If consuming the latter requested item indoors, I’d turn on the bathroom fan.”

“Yes. Sound advice. I’m running out of mini-bar choices, Roger. Please hurry.”

He panicked at first, after he’d hung up and sat at the computer, facing the blinking cursor on the blank screen. Then he looked out the window and knew he must give in. To remove the demon from the mind, it must be written down.