LOOSE MOVEMENT Part 1 Steve Wheeler Copyright Steve Wheeler 2012 Published at smashwords This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Cover Image by Lisa Tancsis wikimedia LOOSE MOVEMENT Part 1
1 ME ‘N YOU AND A DOG NAMED BOO The dog’s name was Rocky. He was a Malemute pup who spent his first few months on earth travelling through the States with us, in the back of an old pickup. We left Vancouver early one morning and drove to Doug’s parents’ farm in the mountains of Washington. They said goodbye over the weekend before we headed south through the mists and seascapes of Oregon. I didn’t know it when we left, but Doug had stolen some plates in Vancouver and had a credit card in someone else’s name with a fifty five gallon drum for fuel in the back of our pickup.
When we needed gas, Doug stopped up the road, we changed plates, sometimes filled the fifty five gallon drum, refuelled, stocked up on snacks and beer. He had the guy’s signature down pat. We were good at shoplifting, spent some satisfying nights by the campfire, frying stolen steaks, purchased mushrooms. We slept in our sleeping bags, camping beside the pickup, drinking black coffee, rolling our own Bugler’s. Siphoning fuel from the drum to the gas tank became a fine art after a few mouthfuls of gas. As a kid, Doug had earned money guiding elk hunters in the mountains. He simply changed the sites of his camps to urban or highway settings. I learned the tricks of living on the road along with Rocky while our tape deck blared Mountain and the Stones. We met some people as we travelled south who invited us to a party in LA where some of the company were offended at our looks and attitude. One guy called us “common criminals” We were attracted to the women, but when the crowd headed for the swimming pool to get naked, we couldn’t do it. There was something in us which stopped us. Were we really so free when we couldn’t be free like these people? It was a negative thought, not worth worrying about. We knew these people couldn’t live as we were. We landed in Imperial Beach; road weary, dirty, ready for a good rest.
Imperial Beach, the furthest beach south, next to the Mexican border. In those days there was just a chain link fence topped with barbed wire over which Mexicans and Americans lofted packets of marijuana to someone else or to themselves, to be picked up later. We had come to see Danny and Jan. They were from Doug’s small town in Washington. Doug and Danny were celebrities, each in his own way. Doug because he did time in Walla Walla State Penitentiary for blowing up his principal’s house when he was a teenager. They said it was really only a cherry bomb thrown at the front door, but the cops wanted to stop Doug’s wild behaviour. Danny was famous in their town because he had successfully convinced the US military that he was a conscientious objector, unfit for duty in Viet Nam. Few fought the authorities through interviews and writing, to gain ‘conscientious objector’ classification. Jan was a tall, slim, blonde nurse. Danny was a balding in the front, long hair in the back, ex male nurse who played a mean guitar along with his version of Greenback Dollar. They had a comfortable, little apartment on the ocean. Danny had his weekly ounce of good weed delivered on a certain day. That day he’d heat up sake to drink while he sorted the weed in a shoebox. When he tilted the box, the seeds rolled to the bottom. The sake changed flavours as it changed temperatures. The only thing I remember from the trip to Tijuana with Doug and Danny, the three of us stuffed into cab of the pickup, is standing at a bar trying to match them with shots of tequila. Between each shot they would pluck a whole hot pepper from a glass of water in front of us, chew it with gusto. They’d see who could eat the hottest, stand the most pain.
I couldn’t even compete. Doug won but had mucho trouble later because of his haemorrhoids. Years later I visited Danny and Jan in Washington. They had moved to an isolated farm with their three kids. Jan had gained a lot of weight and lost her feminine attractiveness. Danny, who had grown a long beard, wore only overalls, boots and a battered, old hat, had gotten even more radical and disgusted with the system. There were a lot of ‘Government Agents Not Welcome, Keep Out’ signs posted on properties in the mountains of that area. Lots of weapons. The people I was with, already disgusted by the dirty appearance of the farm, the kids, Jan and Danny, were horrified when Danny walked us to the car. As we stood saying our goodbyes, admiring the horses in the field behind the house, our host confided that the meal we had just eaten was made, primarily, of past horses which he slaughtered and canned himself. When I read Joseph Wambaugh’s book years later, I realized that we had worked in the very onion fields which the book is named after. We ended up there on our way east from Danny and Jan’s. In the Imperial Valley, the vegetable producer extraordinaire of central California, they were hiring labourers by the day. After spending what we had on fuel, eating meals left on neighbouring tables in freeway Macdonald’s, we picked onions there, gladly, for days.
The gangs of Chavez pickers, who were doing most of the work, laboured in fields beside us. They were just smudges of colour in the shimmering heat. We were left alone in a gigantic field of shallots. We were so hungry by the end of the first day that we wiped off the dirt and ate the onions as we picked. At the eastern border of California, on the Arizona side, we discovered a reconstructed English village in Lake Havasu City. As we partied through the days and nights of Cinquo de Maio there, only a few were killed waterskiing on Lake Havasu and the Colorado River which divides the states. We were told that there were usually larger numbers of deaths of drunken boaters and skiers on this annual celebration. The Grand Canyon provided a Colorado Rocky Mountain high as we chugged up highways in the thin air and bright sunshine. The pair of girls who quit their jobs at the tourist restaurant overlooking the canyon to hitch a ride with us, left us to go home to Utah as we moved east. The kindly stranger who gave us peyote buttons in Arizona was fondly remembered that night at our desert campfire. It was probably a blessing that we couldnâ€™t afford to try for the five pounds of steak and fixings which was offered for free if you could eat it all, at a truck stop, in the Texas panhandle. Who knew how our stomachs would react to that much food after the way weâ€™d been living? Our long hair and old pickup drew unfriendly stares as we filled up. The period between leaving Texas and arriving in New Orleans is hazy.
Doug ran out of the medication he took for epilepsy. Combined with our drugs and alcohol consumption, the heat, living in the truck and surviving on highway junk food, the pace proved too much for him. He completely freaked driving down the road, sheared off at least ten maiboxes, screamed insults at anyone we passed, black or white, until I forced him to stop, take a break, trade places, let me drive. We stayed with a friend of a friend in New Orleans. He happened to be confined to a wheel chair, paralysed in a car accident a few years before. The moss on the magnificent bowing trees. The music everywhere in the French Quarter. The smell of chicory, fish and perfume in the air. We refused to cut our beards and hair or we would have got a bit part in a Terrence Stamp western which was being filmed there. The bars were filled with beautiful dancing girls who turned out to be men. A bad experience, actually, a dumb, rube mistake with a transsexual and discovering Rocky at home, one drunken night, with our hostâ€™s full colostomy bags torn up all over the kitchen, got us on the road north. By this time we needed to stop for rest and work. Since we were on the East coast anyway, we headed for Ottawa, my home. Tuscaloosa, Alabama was where the old pickup gave up the ghost. When Doug stopped to fill her up beneath the canopy of a service station, some pieces of metal fell out of the transmission right there on the asphalt.
There was no possibility of affording repairs so we sold everything we couldnâ€™t carry to a kid at the station. We hitched north, consulting a worn map, singing Beatles songs, throwing stones on the side of the road. The image which is implanted in my mind is that of Doug, his cowboy boots, jeans and long hair dusty, pulling Rocky on a leash behind him, up another on ramp as I followed with my sleeping bag slung over one shoulder, the sounds of rock â€˜n roll coming from our boombox slung over the other. In Georgia, a man picked us up in a new, air conditioned Cadillac. He said he had done some travelling in his youth, showed us the Bowie knife he kept beside him in the front seat. He pulled over, led us back to the trunk which contained a cooler of beer and the handgun he always carried. The message was clear as we sipped the cold drinks. He took us home where his wife washed our clothes, cooked us steaks and fussed over Rocky. We resumed our journey north with renewed faith in humanity and rednecks. In Tennessee we soon found out that hitchhiking is illegal. We were dropped off, had no way to proceed north without hitching. Doug found the credit card which we had used with the truck, in his pocket. He buried it and some other papers by the side of the road, just as a state trooper pulled up. He listened to our story, thought for a moment, looked at Rocky, gave us a lift to the border.
His gesture seemed to lead us to the party with the marines in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. We attended a party in a barracks full of stubble headed Marine recruits where Doug found fanatic Leslie West fans and the best weed we had encountered since the West coast. The last stretch seemed to take forever. An endless series of highways, freeways, taking turns talking to the driver while the others slept. A desperate scramble for the finish. When we had installed ourselves at my mother’s house in Ottawa, we discovered that Rocky, Doug and I had ticks. They’re like crabs, under the skin. Probably from sleeping in ditches on nights when we had given up hope of getting a lift. We had to undergo a rigorous treatment supervised by my disgusted mother, observed by my laughing sister. Doug and I had, understandably, gotten sick of each other’s company. He had a grand mal seizure at my mother’s breakfast table, broke his jaw. I said goodbye to Rocky, escaped, hitched solo back to Vancouver when I realized that Doug and my sister had fallen in love. prosetoad.com
THE LION’S GATE
If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason. Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day. I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation. We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek. Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue. Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job. When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond.
The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter. Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day. Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that. They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting. In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack. The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk. At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below. My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you
needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed. The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats. The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer. When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt. Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable. The constant swoosh of traffic hummed below, ships sailed the Burrard Inlet, sun shone, ocean breeze blew. Snowcapped mountains stood in the distance. When you looked West, you stared straight out to sea. As the weeks went by, I repressed the unspoken fear of danger. I gained courage. I became used to the casual disregard for safety, took the others’ confident actions on the job for granted. They were sure they wouldn’t fail. They could do anything they had to on the job:
there was no possibility of them falling to their deaths. Anyone who doubted them was a fool and this was no place for fools. I didnâ€™t work at the top of the tower because it was done in the past summer but, some days, I climbed the ladder inside the tower to eat lunch with the painters. The towers at both ends are attached to each other by a steel walkway in an x configuration which spans the roadway. There are two walkways, the painters ate in the top one. I donâ€™t know who saw me, Fred or Jimmy. I got a warning from Ron himself. My friend, Les, who told me about the job, was angry. It just seemed logical at the time. One day, near the end of summer, we had worked our way into an area in the middle of the bridge which was too far from the towers to go back to them for anything. We took everything with us. After needle gunning, scraping and wire brushing all of the rusty areas out in the middle, it was time to paint them with the red primer. After this they would be painted by the painters from bosunâ€™s chairs. I carried my can of primer and the brush with me, doing what I had been doing all summer, crawling, climbing, struggling along the side of the bridge. The bulk of my work had been where there were a lot of girders to hold onto. I watched Les walk along the top of the bridge barrier, brush in one hand, paint can in the other. He moved along at a steady, relaxed pace, arrived quickly at the place where we were working. It would take me a long time to cover the same distance, my way. I decided to do it his way, climbed up onto the bridge barrier. There, standing up, with nothing on either side to hang onto, I started walking along the external barrier. The water below sparkled, the wind whispered, the sun shone warm on my
back. The ledge was a foot and a half wide, a crisscrossed pattern of flat, steel pieces fastened to the big girders on either side by rivets. I saw the blur of vehicles on the road to my right, twenty feet below me, the waves of the inlet, more than two hundred feet below me, on the left. I walked on, carrying my paint can, scraper and wire brush in the pockets of my coveralls, careful to avoid the rivets. A big cruise ship passed under the bridge at that moment. It emerged beneath me, on my left. I stopped to watch it. I was mesmerized by the slow motion. The breeze carried Lesâ€™s voice to me. He told me to move. I did. I made it all the way to the work area, but that hesitation got me into trouble. It created a moment of worry, a sliver of unease in someone. They told the boss. He gave me a lecture about not doing a circus act, just doing the work. It must have looked worse than it felt. It was either Fred or Jimmy who told him. Fred was an older guy who showed me how to hold a brush properly for that kind of painting. I found out later that he used to be a boss like Ron. He was demoted when he and the crew were caught playing poker and drinking on government time too many days in a row. Fred probably told the boss in a sincere effort to save my life. Jimmy was a big, tough biker who painted from a spider. He used to come to work hungover with his knuckles skinned from fighting in his favourite Surrey bars. He had a picture of his father doing a handstand on the flagpole on top of the Surrey city hall. Jimmy always had a smile and a laugh, even with a hangover. He probably told the boss because he thought I might fall off the bridge and embarrass the crew or cost them money.
I left at the end of the summer, got hired onto a highway crew which replaced railroad ties on the bridges to Squamish. I saw Les later that month. He said that they’d had one more job after I left. Ron had taken a couple of the guys, climbed up to the very top of one tower, changed the light. When you look at the Lion’s Gate Bridge and see that red light at the top, that’s the one they changed. When they came down, after doing it, Ron told them they had done a good job, bought them a beer. There were a few men lost over the years. One conversation I heard was about the death of a man they worked with. Some said he shouldn’t have gone up that day, there was too much moisture. Others said he jumped into the Burrard Inlet because of problems at home and “bad nerves”. His body was never found so there was even a suspicion that he had taken the opportunity to disappear from his current life for mysterious reasons. The Vancouver rain started again that Autumn, winter approached. I tried to get a job on a freighter. I heard that there were regular shipments of lumber from BC to Australia. UNPUBLISHED
1 BANGKOK I awake to the hum of the air conditioner vibrating a fast, funk beat, green curtains opened a foot in the middle. There are white clouds on a powder blue sky, sunshine on the palms and slanted roofs. I slumber for twenty more minutes. Groping and squinting, I light the first cigarette of the day, lay back to smoke it. White sheets outline the pleasant hump of Joyce’s hips in the bed across the room. Henry Miller’s Plexus lays open at my feet. I try to recall the last bit I read, but several incidents jumble together, it’s not clear. The small speaker in the wall begins to crackle. An old rock tune wheezes through. The Malaysia Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand. We have the steaming chaos of Bangkok to travel through, to the photo shops of the Siam Centre, then the Indonesian Consulate, for visas. We need passports, return tickets, whatever other paper we have to pay for. Old Siam? The mysterious East? Bangkok is another Tokyo or Hong Kong, another filthy, polluted, high speed, hot city. Bangkok is downright depressing. I rise, run to the shower. The tepid water on my skin diverts me. We smoke a joint of Buddha weed, I eat the yogurt Joyce has gone out for earlier, we gather up all the necessary papers. Our packs sit on the floor beside the dresser.
In this room there are two single beds, a hand shower attached to the bathtub. I got a four inch cockroach in the bathroom with the flick of a towel rolled up. The room is air conditioned by a central unit that services the whole building, at times. It all costs two dollars American per night. Long before there were guide books on the subject, before Rolling Stone magazine ever suspected, restless western souls explored the vast continent of Asia. The first wanderers grew to gigantic hordes of travellers. Political policies and wars set down the route: from Europe to India, from India to Bangkok, from Bangkok to Australia or America. All of the modern roads of discovery converged on Bangkok. In every city, in every country, there are hostels, hotels, guest houses, with cheap rates, basic accommodations, services for travellers. By word of mouth, later through travel guides, the locations of these places are revealed. The Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok is a venerable institution on the trail around the world. Perhaps, she’s the grandmother of them all. The Malaysia is a haven of sleazy, relaxed decadence for westerners. She’s a modern hotel, by sixties standards. She rises six stories with a grimy little swimming pool, a cafeteria and bar. The loud juke box is full of rock. There is one blues song. The lobby contains a travel agent and a second hand book shop where you can trade two of your pocket books for one of theirs. On the notice board, by the front door, we read, ‘The Dutch girls I met in Burma, I am in room 202, would like to see you again, Rob’ and ‘Don’t pick up Thai chick outside of the Pussycat Cabaret - she’s a rip off. My friend and I lost $2,000 and got badly beaten up by the guys she works with. She offers massage and takes you
to Oriental Hotel on Rama 5. The police won’t do a thing - beware!’ under which is written, in another hand, ‘Too bad, you ole smoothy’. There is an abundance of drugs, prostitutes and opportunities to encounter Bangkok’s thriving underworld at the Malaysia. We were told of the Malaysia in Seoul, getting drunk on Soju and eating bulgogi beef with an American couple. A veterinarian and his wife who were heading home after doing the circuit from Europe to Asia, told us, “Everybody stays at the Malaysia” We make our way across the street to the Blue Fox. I begin to sweat. My body is adapting to the tropics. It’s affecting my mind. I think evil, violent thoughts in Bangkok. I wake up from dreams of being attacked in the street by Thais. Lots of travellers go through it. I think of the marine I talked to, who was raised in Connecticut, posted to the Philippines. He went through a painful sickness which acclimatized him to the heat. When he returned to the States, he couldn’t stand the cold. The physical effort of a Canadian or a northern dweller confronting the heat must be more strenuous than that of a person from the south. Coldness is a way of life in Canada. Heat is a vacation. All I thought about for the past three winters, working in the cold, was escaping to a hot climate. Now I was suffering because of the heat. It is cool and dark in the Blue Fox Bar, where we find an empty booth, order breakfast.
The owner is a pleasant looking Thai who works behind the bar in blue jeans. He smiles, says hello. His two pretty daughters are serving beer to a few die hard Australians at the bar. We smoke cigarettes, drink strong coffee while the loud juke box kicks out an endless stream of Beatles, Stones and Bad Company. The daughters only understand a few words on the menu, but mouth each word of the rock songs. The regular westerners are there every morning at quiet tables, with cigarettes and coffee. Some are guests of the Malaysia, some from the surrounding hotels. The same westerners spend most of their time in the Blue Fox. As the day progresses they switch from coffee to beer or liquor. Most can be found there around closing time. One guy looks like a French gangster. He is dressed in a tight, black T - shirt with tattoos on his skinny, big veined arms. He wears dark shades, has slicked back, greasy hair with a small, black moustache. Joyce checks out his jewellery, watches him deal. A pretty, young Thai girl hangs by his side. She disappears, returns with strangers with whom he converses. Sometimes he slips outside with them, to do his deal. He is sitting with two large Americans who look like they just got out of the service. All three stare at the cartoons on the colour tv at the end of the bar. When breakfast is finished, we canâ€™t put it off any longer and we plunge into the streets of Bangkok. Itâ€™s hard to deal with the unrelenting discomfort of a place like Bangkok. The streets are jammed with traffic which raises an unbearable decibel level of sound. There are the noises of broken mufflers on buses, motorbikes, trishaws, shouts over them. The sound hits you like a wall. We cringe at the loudness on the sidewalks.
On the main streets the air is blue from exhaust fumes. Tension stalks the faces on busy, steaming corners in the heat. The smell, noise and visual spectacle contrast with Buddhist monks who walk around silently, in saffron robes, with empty begging bowls. The population is expected to fill them with food. Everything and everyone is bathed in wet, glaring light. We walk a short distance to Rama 4, one of the main arteries in Bangkok. There’s Rama 1 to Rama 5 all aiming, like spokes in a wheel, for the centre of town. Rama 4 is a wide six lane boulevard, lined by hotels, stores, wots and parks. It gets worse as it gets closer to the centre where it becomes another high speed, raucous, dirty street. We walk the two long blocks of Rama 4, turn left for more long blocks, decide to take a trishaw. The sweat, noise and pollution is overwhelming. The trishaws are the worst polluters but cheap. The buses and trucks are bad, but the trishaws are driven till they drop. Mufflers don’t matter. The smoke from their exhausts ranges from black to sky blue. We flag down a trishaw driven by a tough looking, unshaven Thai, his picture in his i.d. taped to the ceiling. There is a mandatory bargaining - pleading session required before we get in. He starts high, we start low. He lets us stand, sweating in the heat, drinking in his fumes. He is surviving on the streets of Bangkok. We are haggling over small amounts of money. His trishaw almost doesn’t reach the Siam Centre. He revs the motor all the way. The machine coughs a lot, but makes it. The Siam Centre is a big, air conditioned complex of businesses like American Express, banks and expensive grocery stores. We make for the coolness as fast as we can stagger. We drag ourselves up the stairs, breathe the cool air. We don’t need to come here, but it’s well air
conditioned, so we walk around the grocery store, buy some soft drinks. We have to go across the street to one of the small photo shops, to get a dozen pictures each, for the visas. We drip dry in the cool air, cross the boulevard to the warren of little streets filled with restaurants and shops for tourists. There is a good six story book store there. A spiral staircase winds up the middle through all six. The sidewalks are steps down the hill, between stores and cars. There are turds and gray sludge floating by, in open sewers. The kids swim in the filthy canals. There are thousands of monks in saffron robes, bald men and women who walk around, all day, with begging bowls. It used to be compulsory for young men to become a monk for a year. Now you have a choice between becoming a monk or a soldier. The army is winning. The soldiers look like the best dressed people in Bangkok. The soldiers look clean, healthy, purposeful. The monks live in wots and beg for food. They go out early in the morning, the public fills their bowls. The crowds consist of thousands of people, oriental with western dress, many very poor people, businessmen, big, rich cars with chauffeurs, ordinary people shopping, groups of guys hanging around, hiding from the glare of the sun. They arenâ€™t a friendly crowd. The boys in Viet Nam did their r&r in Bangkok, so the Thais know the hustle and con. They arenâ€™t impressed by foreigners. Their national sport is kick boxing. We watched it, like hockey at home, in the Blue Fox, all day Saturdays. At the Indonesian consulate we buy visas for twenty dollars each. They insist that you buy return tickets from Malaysia to Indonesia. We hit the street again, walk all the way back to the Malaysia, to save money. I buy cold drinks in the lobby of the hotel before we collapse in the room.
The pool scene at the Malaysia is weird. English and Australian guys make fun of Thai girls who withstand everything. The guys drink, put on spectacular diving displays from the railing of the balconies above. The girls stare into space, in silence. We are stoned on Buddha weed, the whole thing is in slow motion. Bangkok is everything thatâ€™s wrong with Asia. While we are in Thailand the police have a feud with the army, three district police chiefs are shot. There are three different guerilla groups in the south, more in the north, mixed with communists, drug lords and the Golden Triangle. Bangkok is the capital of it all, the centre. It tears along at its own breakneck speed. People there are on the edge of hysteria. We leave on a train which is guarded, near the border of Malaysia, by soldiers with sub machine guns and radios. dogmatika.com
1 NOT THINK
We escaped the desperate hordes of Bangkok to the small island of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Its main industry was the export of copra from the millions of coconut trees on plantations. The labourers earned a dollar and a half American per day. There was a little tourism, a little fishing, a lot of houses with self contained environments. Each house had pigs, chickens, water buffaloes and a garden. There were free coconuts: pineapples and bananas cost pennies. We headed across the island to a village called Tongkien where you could sleep for free under a bamboo canopy in front of a restaurant. You ate whatever the fishermen came up with that day. A few kilometres away was Lamlamai, the beach. It had pure, white sand, warm, light blue, translucent water. In the sun it was almost too bright to look at. There were sand dunes between the sea and the coconut trees. The Thai sun baked everything in vibrating shimmers, the sea breeze blew. The only people who didnâ€™t seem to be affected by the blazing sun were the fishermen who stalked invisible prey with their coolers, Chinese hats and wet sarongs. They stood still, waded in the shallows with their nets, looked like outgrowths of the shore. The Thais appeared out of nowhere, two of them, sat beside us in the sand. The sun, breeze and salt water dehydration drove us up into the trees to sit in the shade and drink coconut milk
Sante, “peace” in Thai, and Anothai, hacked some coconuts open, we all drank. Joyce liked the mature yellow coconuts, I preferred the yellowish brown ones, older. Some people liked the young, green coconuts, no one ate the old, brown ones. Anothai, tall, well developed above the waist, skinny below, challenged me as we sat. He was dark skinned, full of energy, knew English because he worked for the Americans who were stationed there. I was forced to respond to his pushing me, using me for a Thai boxing punching bag. The kids in Thailand knew Thai boxing like Canadian kids knew hockey. It was their national sport, on tv all the time. He flopped out some lazy jabs, then surprised me with combinations of whirling knee kicks and high kicks. Most of them landed on my shoulders and upper arms. My rudimentary karate training bluffed Anothai into giving up after a long sparring session. Sante and Joyce watched with forced smiles until we mutually backed off. I made sure our hatchet was in plain view in our pack when Anothai flourished his curved coconut knife. Sante said that he was educated in Bangkok, taught school on Ko Samui, but decided to give it all up and grow coconuts instead. We sat in the sand facing the beach, comfortable in the shade and the breeze. Sante and I talked of education, work, money, our respective countries, considered religion and meditation. Sante exclaimed “Ah, not think!”
He demonstrated by sitting up straight, looking ahead with eyes closed, pointing with his index finger from the middle of his forehead to the horizon. He wore an intense expression of concentration and made no sound until he was finished. He said that meditation was taken for granted in Asia, everyone knew how to meditate. It was simply the emptying of the mind, the absence of thought. We slept under the canopy of the restaurant that night, returned to the ferry dock in the morning. Anothai was after our money, Sante tried to cadge whiskey. We bought coconut palm bongs from them, went back to the ferry dock. A man on a neighbouring island grew powerful ganja, the Ko Samui crop was rough, less powerful, plentiful, cheap. Two brothers, trying to escape the heroin addictions which they had picked up in Bangkok, stayed at the same hotel. They were from New York City, wired to China White and oriental women. Both swore they would take an oriental woman over a westerner any time. They apologized to Joyce, told me of the wonders of living with a Thai girl. They knew that they had to get out as soon as possible. They knew that they would inevitably be statistics on the list of heroin casualties if they didnâ€™t. They smoked a lot of local weed to help them get through their withdrawals. We rested, let the tension of Bangkok drain away. We walked down long, white beaches radiated by the sun. The salt water and wind sucked the moisture from us beneath the blazing sun. We drank soft drinks constantly.
Heavy punching bags tied to trees in back yards and farm yards were used for punching and kicking practice. The whole country was filled with Buddhist monks who survived on what the population gave them every day. zygoteinmycoffee.com
We left Bombay on one of those trains you see on tv. Guys hanging off the sides, people sitting on the roof. We were travelling third class, the cheapest form of rail transit in India. Everyone in our class was packed into passenger cars with wooden bench seats which were quickly occupied by mothers with their children and a young Sikh military officer, off duty, to whom a crowd of young men passed a strong looking metal trunk through the open window. He had been smart, boarded the train, ruthlessly knocking old women out of his way, without his luggage, secured a window seat. The rest of us defended what little space there was near us and stood our ground through the swaying departure. Joyce found a piece of floor near our backpacks where she could sit. There was no point in talking. We were in for twenty straight hours, travelling third class from Bombay to Goa. I stood leaning against a window, bending over to watch the endless slums roll by as we left the city. A pair of Australian women began complaining as we entered the countryside. The difference stood out between the pampered Aussies and the stoic Indian mothers who sat on the floor for hours without uttering a bad tempered peep.
The whining grated on my nerves. Chai wallahs appeared at the windows on the platforms of every stop along the way. You passed the money out, they passed the chai or sweets or Fantas, in. The Aussies loved the distraction, but their greed showed. They bought more of everything than they needed, shared it only with each other. They could not sit still and nothing was good enough. We somehow slumbered a little that night. I found myself standing at the window again as the morning appeared. Water buffalo looked up from wet paddies as the train sped by. “Hello, how are you? Where you from? I am a salesman from Bombay” I looked up to see a chubby, sweating Indian in a wrinkled suit and tie. He was smiling at me. When I told him I was from Canada, he laughed loudly. Leaning close, he waggled his forefinger in front of my nose. “Never trust an Indian”He winked, proceeded to outline the steps the Indian government had taken to obtain a nuclear reactor from Canada, all the while swearing it was for peaceful reasons, then produced a nuclear weapon from it. It was vague to me, I had heard of it, it had happened, but it was vague. I didn’t think it as hilarious as my Indian friend did. I felt embarrassed when he called Indians untrustworthy and thought, to myself, that I had about as much to do with the government of Canada as he did with the government of India.
He talked with his hands, demonstrating telling signs of the naivete of Canadians and Westerners in general. He used comical facial expressions to emphasize slyness and brilliance. We chatted till he got bored and moved on. The vegetation grew lusher as we travelled toward the equator. The Aussies had been reduced to tears, then exhaustion. I was just glad they shut up. Joyce imitated the longsuffering Indian women. We didnâ€™t find out till we were installed in a farm house, with a family, near the beach, that Goa was a European vacation spot. Famous celebrities from the West, rock stars, film stars, those in the know in Europe, with the means to travel to India for a one or two week stay, populated the seaside town during the European winter. I soon became addicted to the bean baji they made at the little restaurant in the main square where the buses stopped. The square was a leisurely stroll down the beach and dirt road from the farm. The Aussie couple who arrived in one of the local buses had â€œgone nativeâ€?. They introduced themselves to us in the restaurant. She was the chai wallah and he was the chapati wallah. They explained that they had left home two years before and as far as they could tell, from the letters they kept receiving, their families were on the verge of hysteria.
They were supposed to like India and travelling, but enough was enough. They weren’t expected to like it this much. They wondered if a family member would come over from Australia to try to find them in the teeming masses of India and take them back. At the moment, they were perfectly happy in India. They dressed like Indians and spoke to Indians in their own language. They liked the pace of life, the people, the country, the craziness. The guy pronounced “Boom shanka” in an experienced manner when someone shared a pipe of Manali hash. Goa had been a Portuguese colony until the 60s so they didn’t approve of dope smoking. There were less beggars there than in the rest of India and the locals still retained some Christian traditions like church and drinking scotch. Goan cops didn’t allow nude sunbathing. They took their time, walked slowly down the beach, looked carefully before telling German and Scandinavian girls to put their clothes back on. The “Boom shanka” was part of a religion which included sharing pipes of hash. We had seen, in the train station in Bombay, an Indian all dressed in red, red robe, red in his long hair, red paint on his face, sharing a pipe with a blond Westerner with thick dreadlocks down to his waist. They went through the boom shanka chants and held the smoking pipe up in front of them, as if offering it, before they smoked. The barefoot Indian looked fearsome, wild eyes, many necklaces of nuts and baubles, carrying a red trident. They said he was a worshipper of Kali, the goddess of destruction.
The family matriarch, the grandmother of the family, questioned us one day. She gave Joyce a pitiful glance when she found out that we had no children. I had to admit that no, neither my grandmother nor my mother owned her own sambas. The grandmother was proud of her palm sambas. We lived among them. They were large plots of land like farmers’ fields full of tall palms bordering the beach. They produced enough wealth to keep the family independent. Women bent double in adjacent rice sambas for twelve hours, two dollars per day. Other women, those working for the grandmother, carried huge piles of palm branches to the walled in yard at the farmhouse. The branches were trimmed for firewood. The women, barefoot, casually killed the large rats which scurried from beneath the branches where they had their nests.. They were in a concrete trap and every one was killed. Those that weren’t crushed by the ends of branches wielded by the laughing women, were slapped sharply on the ground by the tail. When bullfrogs are hunted for frog’s legs, the same killing slap is used on the water. We wandered over mud paths atop the dikes which bordered the sambas by the white beach of the Arabian Sea. The wind rattled the palms and bent each stalk of rice. Spots of bright colour in the distance pinpointed women’s blouses. Luminescent blue and green birds darted through the dappled sunlight. For people used to traditional North American fare at Christmas, the shark steak dinner at the seaside restaurant was different.
The cruel realities of the sea were displayed along the beach where we walked every day. Piles of sunfish lay rotting in the sun beside dead sea serpents, many poisonous. One of the indelicate but necessary realities of travelling in Asia is checking your shit. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but a tendency toward diarrhea, called “loose movement” by the grandmother, is a good indicator of illness. Travelling with a woman was much better than travelling with another guy or alone. The advantages were innumerable. Women related to women in the kitchen, food preparation was a common part of their lives. There were a lot of things which an Asian woman could never say to a Western man but which she could share with a Western woman. Joyce was learning to bake something from the women of the house just as we were leaving. It tasted good when we ate it for supper, but they left it out all night and I got the runs from eating more of it in the morning. We had to be very careful about cooking utensils in Goa because, as the women demonstrated, anything left out in the kitchen is an object to be examined and crawled over by the same giant cockroaches which hung around the toilet. The toilet was even scarier than the kitchen. When you crouched to defecate into the darkness below the little room beside the kitchen, the giant barnyard sow in the back yard could be heard grunting and trying to climb the concrete chute below you, to meet your turds halfway.
When I started squirting brown juice, I couldnâ€™t stand the sounds emanating from the depths of the toilet. I visualized a fat septic tank with teats waiting for my diarrhea. I found a place in the bush where I squatted, wishing for the cool Himalayas. The monsoon season was approaching, it was time to head north before the world was submerged. dogmatika.com
1JOURNEY TO THE EAST: KATHMANDU
I am walking across Ratna Park in the middle of Kathmandu on this early, sunny morning, the smell of beadies in the air, the sounds of broken mufflered vehicles in the distance. I step around a pile of shit, not dog shit, human shit. This city is just an adjustment for the people of the mountains. Some of them shit here as they would in the meadows and hills. “God made man, man made money, money didn’t make man, don’t think about money” chants the fortune teller. He is a student of the occult from India. Dusty, dirty, selling glimpses of his truth to lazy, stoned Western travellers in sunny Ratna Park. We sit down on the grass, cross legged, facing each other. He presses a glass bead into my palm. “It is from Kashmir. Never let any but your loved one see this and it will bring you luck” My loved one. We stay outside of the city in the Chobar Valley in the second story of a house owned by a family who lives on the first floor. Last night, like most nights, we smoked a chillum with the father, man of the house and his smiling wife.
By candlelight they giggled in disbelief when we told them that it was against the law to smoke hash in the West, that they put you in jail for it, went to great lengths to stop people from doing it. The husband and wife talked Nepalese to each other, gave us looks of sad commiseration when they concluded that we were telling the truth. On the road, in front of the house, we can catch the bus a few times a day. It takes about a half hour to take us to the centre of Kathmandu. The fortune teller continues his singsong spiel for ten rupees, his eyes unclouded by freeways, supermarkets and luxury. “Your heart is open and sometimes goes up and down. You will live to be eighty four, no sickness, no disease, no hospital, eating and sleeping, good health until you die” His stare holds my eyes. “Now, pick a number below five, sit properly, do not lie down” He presses a piece of paper into my hand. Led Zep music comes floating across the park from Freak Street. “Four” I pick. “Another, please” “Three” “There, I will write them down” He takes the paper from me, writes on it, gives it back to me. “Now, blow on the paper. If it is the same number, you will pay my fee?” “I already paid ten rupes, ten rupes is your fee, that’s it”
It’s not hard to be firm and suspicious when you’ve been in Asia for six months and had almost everything stolen. The fortune teller is exasperated by my attitude. He decides to give me a break. “If the number is the same, you give me what you like. Don’t think of money. Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think of money” He takes back the paper, unfolds it. It reads thirty-one. “There, you see, the same. It means long life, happiness, a large family” “But they’re not the same, I picked forty three” He points to some other pencil marks on the piece of paper. “See, forty-three, the same. Give me what you will” He holds out his hand, waits. Some men near us, sit cross legged facing the barbers who shave them with long, straight razors. Kids wander over to us. A small crowd begins to watch. I give the fortune teller five more rupees. In better days, somewhere in the South, in the huge, teeming world of India (who knows how he got here?), he didn’t feel the humiliation of poverty and begging. He didn’t think of selling his truth to sceptical Westerners worried about rupees. I rise, make the namaste sign to him, walk toward the street. There is rice and milk to buy and the bread’s only available in the mornings. We’re meeting at the Tibetan restaurant where they make good lassi.
Once we saw the smile on the Tibetan woman there, an unforgettable, beaming smile, we made that restaurant our regular rendezvous. Tomorrow we would begin our trek to Annapurna. Joyce has become friends with a Canadian girl, one of two sisters, who stay in a youth hostel on Freak Street. Shirley confides to Joyce that she is having an affair with Jay, the Nepali who runs the place. I hear later that the Nepalis do everything else in a crouch, on their haunches, so why not sex? The half sitting, half crouching position becomes comfortable after a while. It is not normal for North American knees, but becomes natural with practice. The feet splayed, tip of the rear grazing the ground, the convenient knees to lean on, quite natural after a few times. Seems a bit strenuous for sex to me, but to each their own. There are two main treks in Nepal, the one to Everest and the one we were taking, to Annapurna. The birthplace of Buddha is just a few miles away. The small, walking path winds upward through rhododendron forests, past spectacular waterfalls and impossible terraced paddies. Our eyes bulge at the sight of the huge burdens carried by the Sherpas. We look away from their thick, muscular legs as they pass us when we stop to wonder at the little building beside the path.
It is a Nepali version of a Legion for Ghurkas. The silent, fearless killers, so admired by the Brits, deserve a Legion. Just didn’t think I’d see one here. Some travellers hire the Sherpas to carry everything so their hands are free to take pictures. They can’t survive without toilet paper and corn flakes with milk in the morning. The Sherpas are stolid beasts of burden. At the far end of the trek, as far as you can go, unless you intend to climb Annapurna, there is a windswept airstrip on a plateau. The same travellers who hired Sherpas to carry everything, take a plane back. They have other destinations to photograph, no use wasting film walking back. We stop at Pokhara as we descend. Many Western travellers just go there and stay there. The shore of the lake beside Pokhara sports restaurants with ‘Western Chinese Food’ and stereo speakers mounted in the outdoor dining rooms. The rock n roll never ends. Hostels are full beside the beginnings of a hotel there. The attraction, though, is the silent beauty of calmness, peace, as one floats in dugouts rented by the locals, by the hour. On sunny days, in the middle and all around the lake, float silent dugouts, some with two occupants, some with one. Snow capped Himalayas rise on all sides of the lake, descend from grey to brown to green. Valleys which end in the lake are carved by tributary streams descending from the hills. Giant white clouds float above terraced paddies built with patient hands and mud.
Like some times and places in the Rockies, moments there are perfect. Back on Freak Street, in Kathmandu, we meet Billy Bob from Kansas City. Every year he manages to get his holidays and enough money to spend two weeks in Nepal. It is always coordinated with the arrival in town of the famous Manali hash from Northern India. This straight looking, short haired American was the stonedest of the stoned. He shared chillums with all who approached his gregarious presence on Freak Street as he spent his two weeks enjoying the stories of the travellers, the news of old, Nepali friends who he saw every year. He didn’t hesitate to demonstrate, with his passport, that Billy Bob was his real name. We had never met one before, must’ve blurted out our curiosity in a Led Zep soaked burst of coughing laughter as the chillum passed. Where the Bagmati River has flowed for ages in its journey to join the Ganges, a valley has been produced. The valley is below our house. When we sit on the balcony attached to our room, we can watch every day activities on the road in the distance, see the green, yellow, brown after harvest colours in the fields below, watch the cow and goat blink at the hawk circling above them. I was reading Henry Miller’s, Night of the Assassins, then. A combination of what he wrote and what I was thinking at the time, convinced me that constantly pursuing experiences so that you weren’t only thinking and talking about the world is, in the end, useless. As useless as the attitudes of people who think and talk about the world, but never experience it.
Sitting on our rough balcony, getting ready for our imminent departure to Goa in the far South, I realized that I had come all this way for nothing. I was convinced that all the travelling, the learning, the questioning, was a waste of time. As addictive as it was, there was no more value in it than in staying safe and secure at home, watching it on television. Krishnamurti had something to say about that, too. It was a little surprising and humbling, but it made sense there, at that time. We stop in the Tibetan restaurant on our way to the train station. The smiling woman gives us lassi. We walk down Freak Street, saying goodbye to old and new acquaintances, cross Ratna Park. As we leave the park, I see the fortune teller again. His words rise above the Led Zep and muffler sounds, “Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think about money” dogmatika.com
PENANG BLUES We sit watching a young Chinese guy getting drunk in the restaurant on Penang Road where they serve fried eggs and chips. I feel weak and sick. The past few weeks of high speed travel and junk food combined with the humid heat and heroin is causing my stomach to flare into violent nausea. Every quick movement, each meal, causes it. Iâ€™ve lost so much weight after four months in Asia, I spear another greasy chip, rub it in the yolk and force it down. The Chinese guy drinks his beer with a flourish and makes a show of smoking his Pall Mall. He plays western rock on the juke box. He sits with his elbows on the table, stares at the bottle cap twisting between his fingers and casts pugnacious glances at the surging noon hour crowd around him. Like thousands of other young Asians weâ€™ve seen from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, he wears a neat white shirt, stylish dark pants, leather shoes, well groomed long hair and shades. We rise to pay for our breakfast and make our way back to the hotel. The Chinese guy orders another beer. When we reach Chulia Street, the clamour of trishaws, blaring cars and trucks which assaults us from every direction on Penang Road, changes. It becomes a less frenzied throng of Indian and Chinese pushcart vendors, labourers carrying huge loads and children playing in the street. Food wagons strung along half the length of Chulia Street display bowls of rice and noodle soup, deep fried snacks and roti. They waft food smells over us mixed with the ever
present tang of boiling coconut oil. My stomach begins to erupt when we pass by the small crowds seated at rough tables surrounding the more prosperous wagons. We hurry to the far end of the street, our refuge in sight. The old Chinese custodians glance up from their newspapers in the lobby of the Yeng Keng Hotel to watch us make our way into the courtyard and on to our ground floor room. The grey day bursts into a violent downpour. I lay gingerly on the bed waiting for the nausea to pass while Joyce goes to get some cold soft drinks. The old Chinese manager appears at the door with a quiet knock and a handful of Sumatran weed, tied in sticks. We haggle. I pay for them, and lay down again to sip a Fanta and watch Joyce roll a joint. We smoke the joint watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. The lizards dart after flies on the walls. The marijuana helps. It started a few nights ago when we stepped out of the Yeng Keng and walked up to the first trishaw driver we saw. He hadn’t even begun his spiel, the spiel every trishaw driver in Penang sings softly from the side of his mouth, on every street corner, near every hotel which lodges Western tourists, “You want to smoke opium? You got any problem? You need something? You want smoke? Buddha? Number one! You want smack? You want to smoke opium?” As he opened his mouth to begin his pitch, we stepped into the trishaw. “We want to smoke opium”
He hesitated, surprised and broke into a wide grin as he hopped onto his bicycle seat. He pedalled in slow circles around some busy, bright streets as we negotiated the price. It was a little higher than what we expected, but still cheap. We stopped in a dirty back alley. It was lined with small, crowded hovels built of boards, signs, sheet metal and tarpaper. The driver jumped down, greeted by a throng of young children and dogs. He looked over the crowd, chose a little ten year old girl, charged us a small fee for the ride and left us with the child. She led us, by the hands, to one of the ramshackle buildings where we were greeted at the door by a teenaged Chinese boy. He informed us of the prices in a bored, professional manner and showed us into a fifteen by twenty foot room. We sat on a wooden bed without a mattress. This opium den was made of tin and tarpaper. It was lit by flickering kerosene lamps and contained a tidy arrangement of meagre furnishings. There was a small wood stove, some dishes on a bench and the bed we were sitting on. In the darkness, at the rear of the room, two ancient Chinese men reclined on a large, wooden bunkbed. They were withered up, old, opium addicts with shocks of white hair and emaciated faces. They indicated, by their manner, that they were the bosses. When the boy spoke to them, they produced a wooden box from the darkness and put our money into it. They spoke to him quickly and lapsed into silence, not uttering another word while we were present. Occasionally one would light a large, old pipe for the other, but neither moved from the bed.
The opium came on small squares of paper across which it had been painted like an ebony brush stroke. The boy indicated that we must lay down, one at a time, on the bed. He produced a wooden head rest which looked like a miniature pulpit. Joyce laid on her side first, head propped up on the slanted board. The boy scraped some of the gummy opium from the paper with a small stick. He held the stick over an ancient kerosene lamp until the opium began to bubble and move. A cloying sugar smell filled the room. The opium pipe, rubbed smooth by use, had a glass bowl stained yellowish brown and a long, dark, wooden stem. When the opium reached the proper temperature on the stick, itâ€™s constituency a delicate balance of solid and liquid, not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to work with, the youth placed the pipe stem in Joyceâ€™s mouth, the bowl upside down. As he rolled the stick around the inside of the bowl, all she had to do was lay still, steady the pipe with one hand and inhale. The opium peeled off of the stick onto the inside of the bowl. He lit the stick on the lamp flame, held it to the bowl and told Joyce to smoke. He got three pipes from each paper. Joyce smoked two pipes, I smoked two papers. It became easier to draw on the pipe the second time around. I elicited the only reaction from any of the Chinese that night as the two old men smiled with the teenager when I got a good enough hit to burn one whole pipe without pausing for breath. I waited for him to make the sixth pipe. The small lamp burned black and orange, feet from my eyes, the sugary smoke filled my lungs, a lethargy settled through me, a feeling of well being. A flickering tar paper shack in a remote Asian city. Coleridge came to mind.
It was at this moment that a young Malay woman appeared at the door and began talking to Joyce. She had beautiful, brown eyes and a radiant smile, despite large holes in her front teeth. She was the mother of the little girl who had led us there, asked if we would like to smoke some smack. I finished my pipe, Joyce inspected the vial of white powder and tasted it. The woman borrowed a cigarette, emptied the end, refilled it with a tiny amount of heroin and twisted it closed. We were already stoned on the opium but a few puffs of this legendary China White produced a weakness in the knees and a tingling in the groin. We decided to buy a small amount of powder from the lady and bid our inscrutable hosts farewell for the night. As we left with the young woman, she whispered to Joyce that we should return to her place next time. She said that she gave better prices for smoking and buying. Back at the Yeng Keng, we smoked a small amount of the white powder. Greed made us snort two little lines each. The euphoria of the opium and the venerable reputation of this particular kind of junk made us collide at the sink in our room at least four times. We were vomiting and spewing all over the place. I lost count of my own retches at an even dozen and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next few unsteady days were spent fasting, mailing home letters and presents and doing a bit of wobbly shopping. It was time to push on to Sumatra. We decided to pay one more visit to the smiling lady. By now we had realized that the circuitous route which the trishaw driver had taken on our first visit ended up a few blocks from the Yeng Keng. We walked slowly through the dusty
streets in the tropical night. A trishaw bearing a western couple passed on its way to the opium alleys. Another came from the alleys carrying a couple. We acknowledged their knowing smiles with a wave. A crowd of children descended on us when we reached the alley. They tried to take us by the hand as they imitated the sales pitch of the trishaw drivers in their musical, broken English. The little girl from our last visit dragged us to her door. We were greeted with open arms by the smiling lady. She hugged Joyce like a long lost sister. Her husband appeared in the doorway behind her to welcome us with a hearty handshake and a glowing smile. Their one room home was too small to accommodate more than two visitors. We got the chairs, the lady sat on a box, the man on the bed, an infant asleep beside him. We sat in semi darkness for a time, their kerosene lamps barely working, listening to stories of the many western friends they had entertained. They said they had done business with a lot of westerners and showed us a collection of snapshots and visa pictures with, ‘To my friends’, ‘Love’ and ‘Thank you for everything’ written on the backs. We couldn’t see much until one of the children who had been scampering in and out produced a bright kerosene lamp. They wanted us to smoke some opium, but my stomach was still in a shaky state. Joyce didn’t want to spend the money on opium so we bought a vial of white powder. The lady apologized for charging what she considered a high price, but explained that the dope came from the old Chinese men next door. They were her landlords and forced her to charge high prices to tourists on the threat that she and her family would be evicted. The prices were low by western standards.
We had to have a sociable smoke before we left so the man made a joint with one of Joyce’s cigarettes and her dope. He recounted stories of the trade. We found ourselves charmed by his sincerity and open smile. He spent long minutes telling us he liked foreigners, tourists, westerners, always did his best to help them out and tried to keep his dealing fair and square. They talked of the black American who lived with them for some months while he was stranded in Penang with no money. A short time after he arrived, he hit up the white powder against our friend’s advice and was unconscious for days. He slept in the chair on which I was sitting and was treated like one of the family. They had, just that day, sent him a shipment of junk back in the States. My system wasn’t ready for more dope so I declined the joint after one hit and sat watching the others smoke it. The lady had a great fondness for Joyce and rummaged around at the back of the dark room to find a bunch of clothes which she gave her. They were Chinese in style and didn’t fit Joyce so she never wore them. The idea of accepting gifts from these people while we sat in the smallest house we had ever been in, in the midst of the worst poverty we had seen, seemed logical at the time. When the joint was finished, the man announced that we were lucky because we’d arrived just at the time of day when he fixed up. He offered us a hit but added in the same breath that he didn’t want us to partake because he knew we wouldn’t be able to cope with it. We declined, grateful for his honesty and watched as he unrolled his outfit. He cooked some powder in an old, battered spoon, cleaned his eyedropper squeeze syringe with water and a cigarette filter and tied off his right arm.
The dark room filled with that electric silence which descends when a person ties a band around their arm and pumps their hand to swell the blood vessels. The meticulous, gentle care he takes in finding a vein and pushing the needle in, the blood drawn back into the tube of the syringe, the careful surveillance of the two liquids. The whack, bang, crank which follows. We watched the dark vein pierced, the concentration and perspiration on the dark brow. The smiling lady smiled with her arm around a small girl. The baby, the only son of the family, breathed softly on the bed beside his father. The tiny room was heavy with the smell of burnt heroin. He began to tell us again of the many foolish tourists he had seen shooting the drug, coming close to overdosing or dying, full of confidence before, switching to smoking or snorting after. Then, in the sad, soft light of the kerosene lamp, his eyes glazed over. He stopped in mid sentence to allow his moment of ecstasy to rush through him and forgot what he was saying. I thought frivolous western thoughts of Clapton and Neil Young. We sat in silence in the sweaty Penang night. We left their house amid fond farewells and walked back to the Yeng Keng. I was still too sick to do any heroin. I smoked a joint of Sumatran and laid on the bed. The little green lizard darts like an arrow and gobbles up a lazy fly with a lightning tongue. A peal of laughter rings from an upstairs room of partying Australians. The ceiling fan turns slowly. UNPUBLISHED
SUMATRA: BRAIN FEVER
I chalk it up to heat-induced temporary insanity. It could happen to any Canadian crossing the equator. I had a strong desire to make my way to Germany, dye my hair orange and drum for a punk band which specialized in industrial music. The desire passed as the bus followed the road through the lush jungle vegetation past rice paddies and wilted looking livestock. When I thought about summoning enough energy to listen, I was convinced I could hear the plants grow in the humidity. The whole island was a hothouse. The single minded bus driver seemed to be the only one expending energy as he missed pedestrians, livestock and other vehicles, leaned on the horn. We were used to the danger by now. A sort of fatalistic resignation takes over on breakneck bus rides through the countryside of Sumatra. It was too hot to care. We had left the craziness and heroin of Penang behind. The sweat dripped off of our noses. Everyone on the bus, even the natives, had a worn out, washed out look. We were travelling from Medan, where the ferry from Penang had taken us, down the spine of Sumatra to Lake Toba, thence to Padang, about halfway down the island, on the coast.
In Padang we spent hours at the consulate waiting to get our visas renewed because it was cheaper there than in Bali. Of a dozen uniformed clerks, two were reading, the rest inspected the Western girls or stared into space, a paper clip twisting in their fingers. When they did stir to attend the sweating crowd of travellers they wanted to first see proof that you had a return ticket. It’s the only legal way to enter Indonesia. It didn’t matter that we’d entered days before at Medan. The passports and applications lay in a pile on a desk. They didn’t have to worry about an overwhelming influx of immigrants heading south since the island of Java is the most thickly populated place on earth, but it was one way for the government to get money from travellers. A Japanese girl told Joyce that she had tonsilitis and that they didn’t have toilet paper even in hospitals in Padang. Seventy-five cents for dormitory beds at the local hostel. Officially marrying before getting to Asia saves a lot of problems. Single women are targets. At Lake Toba, we recovered from the bus ride during which it was too hot to sleep. The soaking heat deprived us of every traveller’s last resort, the final escape from the tedium and discomfort ... sleep, oblivion. There, time stood still, then went backward. We had landed in a timeless, primitive existence. Surrounded by the jungle and jungle sounds. Old men wailed their night songs in the dark. It sounded like a Tarzan movie. Wild boar lived in the jungle, endangered humans occasionally, provided meat and tusks more often. Snakes and mongooses and their spirits were part of the diet and the mythology.
Ancient Sumatran devils caused poor sleep, restless dreams. All the dwellings had horned roofs which intruded, then dominated. A reminder that no matter what it was like in the outside world, this was here and now. This primitive existence was the present. Reality. No luxuries, no concrete, no advanced plumbing or electricity. Rats made nests in the roof so when you woke up into the flickering darkness from a dream of ancient enemy skins hanging by the fire, you could hear them running along the rafters over your head. You could see their shadows on the thatched roof when the candle light caught them. Sleep again became a refuge along with a short prayer for the balance of rats. We finally boarded a freighter, in Padang, the cheapest way to travel from Sumatra to Java. The beginning of our sea voyage was normal. We watched the port, then the island of Sumatra fade into the distance behind us and with it, the confusion and brain fever. Deck space, a place to sleep beneath the canvas strung across the deck for protection from the sun and rain, was what we paid for. Two big, deeply tanned Aussies who were obviously used to the sea and travelling by sea, probably lived by the sea, told us they had accompanied fishermen from an island near Bali on an early morning trip. They witnessed, then tried, the eating of the raw hearts of the fish they caught. They found it to be a life giving experience with aphrodisiac powers.
Meals were cooked in the tiny galley below deck; a green vegetable which had obviously been boiled, over a bed of rice, on a tin plate. Tasteless but necessary to settle the queasy stomachs everyone felt The sea looked calm enough. But a rhythmic sway began to get to everyone. Coconut oil smoke made it worse. Even the regular crew and the Aussies were hit by sea sickness. They laughed and made wise cracks between spews. The rest of us werenâ€™t so lighthearted about it. Soon there were travellers and crew members staggering to the rail to vomit over the side. The unwary ones stood downwind from others puking over the side near the front, got splashed. One grain of rice, well soaked in the stomachâ€™s digestive juices, inadvertently snorted while vomiting, causes untold misery in the nasal passage and a long lasting, unpleasant reminder of how sick you really were. Finally, that particular movement of the ship passed and so did the seasickness. The travellers and crew wobbled about unsteadily for a while, then settled down. No one offered the travellers rice after that. Our diet became the fruit we had brought on board with us. We settled down on the deck, tried to sleep through the hot days and windy nights. Serge from France, tanned dark brown, curly hair down past his shoulders, wispy goatee, regained his happy smile as he recovered from the seasickness. He wore a sarong like a native, always carried a flute attached to his backpack.
Everyone commiserated with him when we found out he was on his way back to France to fulfill his military obligations. He had been drafted. These were his last few days of freedom. He had made his choice. He was tempted to keep travelling, but he knew that eventually he’d want to return to France. The army was one step above jail. He couldn’t go back on the run. He was a proud Frenchman, but that had nothing to do with the government’s army. His ideas and life were far from conformity, uniformity, the military. One night, in a Tull like performance, he started playing. Under the canvas, starry night above, the sea breeze blowing his hair in time with the tempo of his song, Serge captivated everyone. All the travellers stopped talking or sat up to look and listen, even some crew members, smoking by the dark rail, paid attention. He started in the familiar pose which we had all adopted... leaning, laying back against our packs and bedrolls, then he seemed to find something as he played the first few, hesitant notes. He stood up, still playing. His flute came alive. His song gained and lost volume and speed as he breathed life into it. It wasn’t recorded, probably forgotten even by Serge, a few days later. There was the soft soughing of the ship as it made its way through the water, the sea breeze in the wires, occasionally something would flap in the southern night wind.
The notes of Sergeâ€™s flute seemed to linger and then be snatched away by the other sounds. His eyes closed, Serge stood and played to the night, to his humble companions, listened to the sounds around him and echoed them. He didnâ€™t stand on one leg, but he carried us all away as he talked to the wind in its own language. Selamat Jalan...Good Journey. A fitting Indonesian goodbye to Sumatra. Then someone told us that we were passing Krakatau which erupted in 1883 killing thousands of people. It was just a lump on the horizon from the deck of the ship. A famous volcano which the world knew about because of the tragedy. Later that day, we landed in Djakarta. hackwriters.com
1 THE REVENGE OF ULUWATU We heard of Uluwatu from a Canadian, at the beach in Parengtretis, Java. Most of the good places we visited, we heard of from other travellers. The exhaustion and heat of Jogjakarta was replaced by the air conditioning of the bus which dropped us off at Parengtretis. Cooling at the beach helped temper our return to the heat. We were sitting on the dark sand, enjoying the sea breeze, when a man approached us with a hash joint. He was the Canadian who told us about Uluwatu. He first came to warn us about the rip tides in the ocean. He was concerned, good enough to ask when he saw us swimming. â€œKnow the rips?â€? He explained that seven different currents in the Java Sea converged at Parengtretis, nobody swam there. The rip tides were like undertow, travelled parallel to the shore before returning out to sea. The strategy, he said, if one did get caught, was to let the current take you out to sea, body surf back to shore. We felt only the cooling water when we waded around after that, too wary to swim. We were grateful to him. He recounted stories of people wandering into the ocean at Parengtretis, never to be seen again. Most were stoned on the mushroom soup and omelettes which were cooked at the crude restaurants behind us. Psilocybin mushrooms grew in buffalo dung around Parengtretis. The children sold them in the street in a conical palm leaf for pennies.
The restaurants were full of western travellers talking, listening to music. Some sat motionless, staring out to sea. The only western dishes the locals knew how to cook for the visitors were omelettes and soup. The Canadian from near Ottawa had hung out with some surfers in Australia, joined them for their trip to Uluwatu. They had spent the night there at full moon. He recommended it, but said he wouldn’t do it alone. We went on to Legian Beach, in Bali, where we found a comfortable losmen, settled in. The day of the full moon approached. I had spent too many cold, wet winter days in Canada to run around checking out every sight which the travel guides had recommended. I was content to read on the porch of the losmen or swing in the hammock beneath the green papaya trees. For meals we walked to the restaurants. Our furthest trips were to the beach where everyone went to watch the sunset. The beach at Cuta and Legian is miles long. It is wide, the jungle doesn’t impede sight by hanging over the water, the sand is fine. The dangerous surf rumbles in white, foaming lines. It is common knowledge that frequent drownings are kept quiet because it’s bad for the tourist trade. People regularly drown in the sea even near the part of the beach marked ‘safe’ in five different languages. The French had a direct flight from Paris to Denpasar which enabled them to leave France one day, arrive in Bali the next. Unfortunately they behaved like the other tourists. When the day of the full moon came I went to Uluwatu alone. I was the one caught up in this romantic adventure, Joyce wanted the relaxed comfort of the losmen.
Uluwatu is forty kilometres south of Denpasar on the easternmost edge of the round bulge at the bottom of Bali. The trip, by bus, bimo, motorbike and horse cart, took most of the day. The temple of Uluwatu stands on high cliffs overlooking the ocean. It is the ruin of an ancient stone structure, the holy site of several different religions. In the past, many people threw themselves into the sea from the five hundred foot cliffs during a religious rampage which swept down from Java. The temple looks down on a small strip of sand which is the beach used only by expert surfers. In high tides and treacherous currents they paddle over razor sharp coral reefs, homes of poisonous sea snakes, to the waves. From the centre of the old temple there is a three sided view of the coastline: pale blue, giant waves roll in sets, in slow motion. The cliffs are carved into jagged walls by the sea and the weather. When I left Legian Beach, that morning, Joyce had been smoking a joint of Afghan hash with Rosalyn and Sally, Australian women, who believed in the power of black magic. It was practised everywhere in Java. Rosalyn stayed with a Javanese family on vacation. She said the son, the guy she was with, could butt out a cigarette on his arm without leaving a burn. Sally told us of a tourist couple who had everything stolen from their losmen room while they slept. She said they were put under a spell by the thieves. I had equipped myself lightly after hearing this, carrying only a small pack with a hatchet, a canteen full of well water and a groundsheet. I was drawn to the ocean from the hot, dry ruins of the temple.
At the road beneath the temple an old man sat carving. Grey stone parapets surrounded him upon which were perched families of monkeys. An old one with a crushed left hand jumped onto a nearby wall, stared at me. I yelled at him but he just blinked. The old man smiled, handed me a fist sized rock from a pile beside him, made a throwing motion. I threatened the monkey. His face registered surprise as he retreated. The old man produced a book which was signed by visitors, a box for the admission price. He warned me about â€œthe monkey peopleâ€? when I told him that I had come to stay the night, asked him how to get to the beach. I reached an agreed price with a local boy, both of us sweating. I followed him through parched fields fenced by hedges of cacti and bamboo barricades. I clambered awkwardly over mounds of earth, trying to control my swinging pack, keeping my sarong free of branches. An open valley appeared before us, a jagged crevasse had penetrated the land. Women were descending into it, in a line, baskets on their heads. I paid the boy, sat in the shade, sipped water from my canteen, the cold Fantas I bought at the temple, long gone. I watched the women move gracefully up and down the trail. The vessels on their heads never wavered, all of the impact absorbed by their rolling hips. I followed them to the bottom of the crevasse where they turned off. I kept going straight ahead. The Java Sea was rolling in loud, spectacular breakers into the small beach where a group of western women and a photographer stood. They looked out to sea, turned to follow the photographer up the trail. Publicity pictures for the surfers. They greeted me on the way past, impressed to hear that I was staying at Uluwatu, alone, under the full moon. They warned me about the rock throwing monkeys.
The spectacle of the booming surf held me. I sipped from my canteen in the blazing, windy, stereophonic roar. The power of the sea put the world into perspective. I returned up the trail before sunset to watch it from the top of the cliffs and heard the last of the surfersâ€™ motor bikes leave. I thought I was alone. Below me, bobbing lights appeared and small fishing boats braved high tides near the cliffs. I laid with my head on my pack, staring at the stars and the moon. The moonlight looked impossible to capture in a painting or a photograph. I felt the first stab of pain in my abdomen at the same time that a rock landed beside me. The monkey people. I realized that I was surrounded and the rain of rocks began. One hit me at the same time that I vomited. An uncontrollable attack of diahorrea overcame me. The rocks came faster, liquid poured from both ends of me. I staggered toward the road holding my fouled sarong, cursing the rock throwing monkeys and the well water. The night heard my spasms and loud retches. Having been in Asia for more than six months, I felt acclimatised, adjusted, immune, cocky. I had drunk the well water without putting a chlorine tablet into it. The band of monkeys were fast moving shadows, small stones were hitting me. In desperation, I jettisoned the pack. The rocks stopped. When I looked back, the monkeys had fallen upon it, one was brandishing my hatchet, another drinking from my canteen. I staggered down the road, each step causing a squirt, a belch, a knee trembling retch.
At dawn, I endured the giggles of women and schoolchildren when I crouched by the side of the road, stinking, dehydrated, desperate. A young Balinese with a two fifty Honda drove me back to the losmen in Legian. Joyce paid the guy an outrageous price. I showered and collapsed in bed. the-beat.co.uk, leafgardenpress.blogspot.com
1 MURPHY’S WAKE It was the last time I would go to Finn, I swore to myself as I searched for him in the Elmdale Tavern. He was around one of the regular spots. I needed to see him fast. At the Carleton Tavern I found Finn with a quart and money coming out of every pocket. I sat down with him, ordered a pint. It was still early in the day. I hit Finn up for fifty bucks to pay Murphy. Finn charged a fee for even handing you the loan. It cost sixty to borrow fifty for a week, but it would be worth it. Finn copied phone numbers and odds as he readied himself for a busy day ahead. Sunday, of course, was his big day because of the NFL betting. This was Saturday when college football and pro baseball took most gamblers’ attention. I finished my pint, said goodbye to Finn, caught Murphy at the Prescott Tavern, gave him a lift to Mary’s. Murphy and Mary had been engaged for twenty years. He still visited her little flower shop every morning. We stopped so he could pick a bouquet of flowers for her in a city park. Murphy didn’t believe in paying for flowers. When they were in season, he helped himself. It was a bone of contention between them.
Murphy believed that flowers were given to man by the good Lord, shouldn’t be bought and sold. Mary believed that people gladly paid for the little ray of sunshine they purchased with a nice bouquet of flowers. Murphy had a friend named Calhoun in Montreal who could, for a price, buy a block of tickets in a provincial lottery which would produce winners. All I had to do was give fifty dollars to Murphy. I didn’t follow the whole scam back to the actual score, but I questioned Murphy enough to know that it felt like a winner. He assured me that fifty dollars would produce five thousand for me. Added to some others and passed through the right hands, it would yield twice as much, for him. This guy, Calhoun, had an in, was sharing the wealth. Murphy did it for me out of the kindness of his heart and good business sense. He didn’t have to include me, but he saw me as a good luck charm. I dropped Murphy off, went home to a weekend of sports on t.v. and too much beer. It didn’t cheer me up, to hear, on Monday morning, that Murphy had died on the weekend from a heart attack. I drove to Mary’s which was above her flower shop. It isn’t decent and polite to speak ill of the deceased, but getting lottery tickets was another matter. He always wore the same suit, his best, for giving and taking payments, more taking than giving, it always seemed with Murphy as he did his weekend rounds, careful not to exceed his booze limit. The lottery tickets had to be in his suit.
Mary was in her shop with a short, dark, Scottish lawyer named Jack Scullion. She introduced us without mentioning if the man even knew Murphy. I listened with polite sadness, shook my head regretfully. Mary described Murphy’s last moments. It seemed that he died in her arms. Just after they had named a date. They had been engaged now for twenty years, so they were celebrating the twentieth year by marriage. She was as good as his wife anyway, Mary said. I agreed and inquired about Murphy’s “effects” as diplomatically as possible. Perhaps it was a little too vaguely phrased. Mary didn’t respond. Jack Scullion walked around the shop like he was looking for something suspicious. He kept an ear cocked in our direction though. He was trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in. Margaret, Murphy’s sister, appeared with her husband, Ralph, a used car lot owner. It was safe to say that the vultures were circling. I managed to find out that Murphy would be dressed in his best suit tomorrow at Ralph’s showroom. They were having the wake there. Ralph told me, in confidence, that it was his idea. It seemed a bit greedy for Ralph to take advantage of the crowd of potential customers which would gather to send Murphy off, but I wasn’t one to judge. There didn’t seem to be much of a chance of getting at Murphy’s suit pockets until the next day so I drove home and waited. I joined the line of people entering Ralph’s showroom. The place had a western theme, the staff were dressed as cowboys and cowgirls. They wore black armbands while Ralph himself was resplendent in a black western suit with tie and
boots to match. He had probably considered wearing his black, ten gallon Stetson, but decided against it in case of misinterpretation by the mourners. There was a good mixture at Murphy’s wake. A crowd of children were the offspring of Murphy’s family. The older ones were Murphy’s cousins, uncles and aunts. When Murphy had mentioned his family at poker games or at the end of late night pub crawls, he gave the impression that he was the black sheep. His own opinion was that the family disliked him because they were jealous of his money and freedom. The people grew noisier as the booze flowed freely. Their presence was welcome. I needed as much attention diverted as possible while I sought the tickets. Most of the sniffling and crying came from Mary and Margaret. As I shuffled along toward them in the line, I could hear Margaret declaring that Murphy looked like himself. Mary’s voice rose over Margaret’s, in grief stricken tones, to tell someone that her brother had called to extend his condolences. He added that it was nice to think about old Murphy finally laying quiet with his big yap shut. People in the line who heard it at first looked puzzled, then made clucking noises. They agreed that it was a down to earth, honest assessment of the deceased, rest his soul. I eyed the coffin, snuck a peek at Murphy within. He did look like himself, I will say that. The dark, pinstriped suit, Murphy’s best, with the vest done up, decorated his body. His face was pinker than normal, but I only saw him in bars or restaurants so maybe this was what
he really looked like. He had his hands folded peacefully over his pot belly and, all in all, looked like he had just exhaled and forgotten to inhale. There was no doubt about it, the life had gone out of Murphy. I could smell the gin on Margaret when she hugged me and the rye on Mary’s breath as she looked at me with red rimmed eyes and running mascara I managed to nod sadly and escape her while giving Murphy another quick, visual once over. Jack Scullion hovered in the background, watching everyone, especially me. There was plenty of drink and some sandwiches which the ladies had made. I helped myself to the food, found the coffee. It would take a clear head, whatever I did. Ralph was giving a sales pitch to a couple beside a beat up old clunker which looked like it had recently been retired from delivering pizza. He made the mistake of leaning a little too hard on the front bumper when he pushed it to demonstrate the shocks. The bumper fell off, barely missing his cowboy boots. Ralph never lost a beat. He made a note to see the mechanic about “bodywork problems”, kicked the offending bumper under the car. The pile of sawdust beneath it was turning black, absorbing oil. Jack Scullion approached me with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. He had jet black hair, scars on his nose and around his eyes. He bore all the signs of a fighter feeling no pain. He stood spread legged in front of me and asked if I was in Murphy’s will. When I told him I didn’t think so, he seemed to relax. As much as a short, Glaswegian lawyer can relax. His shifty eyes wondered how I could benefit from Murphy’s death. He turned and stood by my side with
a wide stance. He gestured alternately with the beer and the smoke while he surveyed the room. “Ach, it’s a right shower here, just noo, Jimmy” I nodded, but I didn’t really know what he meant. He didn’t notice, went on with his monologue, sometimes addressing the room, sometimes confiding to me. “Aye, they’re aw here noo. The vultures’re here. Look at em circlin, look at yersels, ach. See em? They’re after his money. The poor old boy isn’t even cauld yet. See em? They’re a right shower a bastards” No doubt, like most of his race, the Scottish lawyer was a little crazy and extremely violent. Rather than point out that he, too, was in attendance for strictly financial reasons, I managed to escape back to Margaret and Mary. I was getting desperate. Mary and Margaret had been absorbing the alcohol at a rapid rate. They had run out of tears. Their mutual hostility emerged with each drink. I addressed them with an eye on the coffin. “Well, ladies, it must be tense waiting for the will to be read. To see who gets what of Murphy’s. I understand that Mary here was just about to tie the knot with poor Murphy” Margaret frowned and produced many heretofore unseen lines in her face. “Hah” She blurted out with a laugh. “Tie the knot. He’s been engaged to her for twenty years” Mary reacted with bug eyed indignation. Her truthfulness about Murphy’s last moments was being questioned.
“We were like man and wife. He didn’t spend time with his other family” she said before she found another glass of rye. Ralph had finished his pitch, but had no takers. He threw regretful glances at the bumper as he approached us, beer in hand. “Anyone got a few words to say?” he asked with a kindly smile. “Ha. Family’s family. It’s his blood in my veins” Margaret asserted. Jack Scullion had joined us. He had a fresh beer, stood spread legged with shoulders back. It was as though he was bracing himself on a heaving deck. “The will overrides everything” said Mary pugnaciously in Margaret’s direction. This hostility caught Jack’s attention, it was right up his alley. He looked around for an opponent, saw Ralph about to speak. I sidled toward the casket as Ralph began what he thought was sort of a eulogy for Murphy, but which he never finished. He never really got it started. Mary took offence at the look which Margaret gave her, hit the dead man’s sister with her purse. Jack saw his opportunity, gave Ralph a Glaswegian handshake which could be heard all over the showroom. There was evidence of Jack’s nutting ability the next day in the taverns; quite a few black eyes and bandaids sported by the mourners who clashed with him He made up for his lack of height by jumping straight at the other man’s face, applying the head, around the hairline, into whatever features were available. With Ralph sitting in a pool of the blood which was spouting from his nose, the women shrieking as they rolled around in front of him, I made it to the casket.
Jack was taking on all comers. He seemed to be enjoying himself. I searched Murphy’s vest and trouser pockets with one hand, the other still holding my coffee cup. I was about to try his jacket when the lights went out. It wasn’t dark, but it turned everything in the showroom shadowy. The struggling figures in the brawl were being joined by others, the children shooed to the office. Maybe it was one of them who was responsible for the half light. I checked one side of Murphy’s jacket pockets and found nothing. The noise of fighting and breaking glass became louder. I tried the other pocket, felt cardboard. I pulled the lottery tickets out of Murphy’s pocket, squinted at them. They were the right ones. I was saying a prayer of thanks to my dead chum and the good Lord when I dropped the tickets. They slid down on the other side of Murphy. I panicked for a moment. Placing my cup between Murphy’s folded hands, I used one of my hands to shift his weight, the other to feel for the tickets. I grasped them just as a bottle crashed against the casket and a sliding body took my feet out from under me. Ralph had provided a fold out table from the lunch room upon which to place Murphy’s casket. As my weight shifted, the casket slid off the table. Murphy sat up with my coffee cup in his hands. Crawling toward the door, tickets in my hand, I glanced back. Murphy’s sudden rise from the prone to the sitting position, had caused a pause in the fighting. I heard various opinions of this phenomenon.
“It’s a sign” The words “miracle” and “resurrection”were mentioned several times.. When I joined Finn, the next day, at the Carleton Tavern and paid him back, cheerfully, he gave me a curious look. He was totalling up the weekend’s action over a quart, asked me if I’d been to Murphy’s funeral after the donnybrook at his wake. I confirmed that I’d attended the burial. It was a sad and solemn affair for all involved including Murphy’s family and everyone’s legal representatives. We drank a memorial toast to Murphy that day before I bought everyone a round and placed a few bets. redfez.net
THE REUNION OF THE OLD, OLD FRIENDS When the Eastern forests of the North perform their dazzling dance of colour as Winter approaches and the Snowbird is up and away, human beings and animals acknowledge the occasion by observing traditional customs in accordance with Nature's Plan. An example of this occurred in the Ottawa area. It all began when The Honeyman approached the front door of the small downtown house of his old, old friend, The Real Article and his wife, The War Department. He shivered in the cold November wind and wished he'd never left his dirty little trailer by the river. His dog, Go'Way!, braced by the cool air but resentful about being dragged into the city and away from the beach and the yacht club where he scavenged a daily harvest of dog victuals, paused to deposit a grumpy intestinal objection in the middle of the walk which led to The Real Article's front door.
The Honeyman was concerned that their welcome might be worn out before they arrived and kicked the offending object off the walk. He reassured himself with a quick pocket check for the presence of tobacco, honeywhiskey, and honey, knocked on the door. Thus continuing a tradition of reunions which he and his old, old friend had established when they met pursuing Dutch girls while the rest of the world was chasing Germans across Holland. Reunions which continued through battles with frostbite and venereal disease in Korea and were observed with less frequency once the pair became separated on The Rubby Route in Western Canada. In the latter days it had taken The Real Article several reunions in single men's hostels, seedy bars and fleabag hotels to adjust. When he encountered The Honeyman he had to deal with Go'Way! too. The dog was just a pup then and suffered repeated nauseating attacks of dizziness caused by his performance of a series of stutter step starts and stops because The Real Article invariably greeted him by yelling, "Go'Way!, C'Mere!" or, worse, "C'Mere, Go'Way!".
The Real Article was dressed, as usual at four in the afternoon, in his lime green terry cloth dressing gown and rubber boots. The latter acquired
from a late night garbage can and
handy for keeping the feet dry in the soggy living room which suffered occasional floods in the wetter seasons. The old, old friends greeted each other with jocular salutations in the vein of, "Y'ole bugger, yuh never looked worse!" and "It's a wonder yer not dead or in the can!" while they punched arms, faked head butts and knees to the crotch. Go'Way! affected his usual show of emotion upon seeing The Real Article by tearing off a piece of terry cloth sleeve and further shredding the bottom of The Honeyman's coat. The separation had been long and this, combined with The Real Article's tendency to repeat things after his first sexual encounter with The War Department in the back seat of a Voyageur bus, let the occasion overwhelm him, causing him to yell, "Go'Way!, Go'Way!" at Go'Way!
Naturally, the dog responded with increased affection by demonstrating his famous Large Cat Attack impression. He jumped up and down three times, wrapped himself around The Real Article's neck, like a mink stole. The Honeyman calmly removed Go'Way! by yanking on his tail and commanding in firm tones, "C'Mere, C'Mere, Geddown, Go'Way!" while thrusting his other hand deep into one of his raincoat pockets. To which Go'Way! responded by descending in a leap. On the way down, he snatched a small fish from The Honeyman's hand. The old, old friends repaired to the living room to recline on orange crates in front of a large t.v. screen as Go'Way! discovered the remains of a half eaten anchovie and pineapple pizza among a flotilla of boxes and packages on a puddle. He reminisced about his riverside home by rolling in the pizza, ignoring the old, old friends as they toasted each other and the world in general with a bottle of The Honeyman's Special Spatial Honey Brew. Hoisting his used MacDonald's milkshake container, The Real Article smacked his lips, licked his moustaches and offered up a traditional toast,
"Up yers!@ to which The Honeyman replied, "Up yer Geester fer Easter!" to which The Real Article rejoined, "Up yer nose with a rubber hose!" And all these tried and true toasts were followed by noisy guzzling and other memorable salutes like, "Bottoms up!" "Up alla them!" and "Up, up and away!" Which they were, by the time they detected a loud roaring emanating from another room followed by the appearance through a door of a cascade of chocolate bar wrappers, apple cores and a Laura Secord box. Go'Way! barely acknowledged this commotion, finding himself in the midst of a floating canine smorgasbord featuring a selection of boxes and containers drifting in all directions.
He produced a tidal action by flopping his tail. This caused the remnants of Chinese, Italian, and Indian takeout meals to pass gently under his nose for sampling. But his moveable feast was disrupted when an empty sugar bowl propelled from the other room struck him on the snout just as he was about to test the flavour of a passing container of mouldy Moo Goo Guy Kew. The Real Article, realizing that the distant hubbub signified The War Department's uncanny ability to detect the supper hour and her suspicion of a lack of attentiveness on his part, signalled The Honeyman to follow him into his wife's presence. Which he did. Cautiously. In case of a continuation of the barrage. Straightening his tuft of red hair, extracting a bottle of Very Special Buckwheat Honey from his raincoat, smiling the irresistible, brown toothed smile which had earned him his name long before he entered the bee products business. The War Department had her gigantic bulk perched daintily upon a huge waterbed, parts of which were indistinguishable from her own corporate entity. Her purple hair grappled in agonizing clinches with lime green curlers. Her breath was bellicose, her bellow bull-like.
The Real Article performed formal, if hurried, introductions, dodging hard buns and several plastic knives sent in his direction by the spouse he called Petal in intimate moments. The Honeyman bowed and proffered his bottle of Special Buckwheat Honey before ducking behind a cardboard dresser to avoid a semi-fresh chocolate drink whipped with a wicked sidearm motion by The War Department who was in full cry, "Where's supper?...Who's this? Whatcha good for?What kinda name is Go'Way?" Triggering an enthusiastic response by Go'Way! which landed him on the waterbed and spilled the Special Buckwheat Honey all over the pile of Saltine crackers spread out on The War Department's lap. Causing her renewed roaring and lashing about which sent waves throughout the bed and catapulted Go'Way!, who now resembled a tar and feather victim of the good ole days, back into the living room, but allowed The Honeyman to edge into the open to continue his litany of smooth talk and compliments while he fished around for another bottle of Special Spatial Brew. And this stratagem seemed to do the trick.
For The War Department's bellowing subsided when they ploughed through the second bottle. The flow of foodstuffs aimed at them dwindled as she realized that her husband and his old, old friend were experiencing far too much ecstasy of the mind to do anything about getting her supper. A problem she solved immediately, after washing down the last of the honey soaked crackers with the dregs of the Special Spatial Brew, by announcing that they would all go out on the town. To The Lafayette Tavern. In the heart of the Byward Market. Through which she and the cracker covered Go'Way! marched ahead of the old, old friends, the dog biting tourists and shoppers protectively when they objected to his new found friend roaring at them and hitting them with hands full of the breadcrumbs which she carried in her large purse. While the old, old friends watched them affectionately, content to tag along behind, and, in the spirit of reunion, play one of their old Rubby Route jokes on the well heeled customers of a fancy tea room. Wherein The Real Article picked his nose and held up his finger to the light to
examine the results as The Honeyman produced a syncopated rhythm of loud belches with flatulent accents and a seductive wink for the ladies over whose table they were standing. And the pair were already out the door, strolling with a chuckle, toward the next trendy spot to repeat their little prank, by the time waiters and management were summoned to comfort their distressed customers. At the Lafayette Tavern, The War Department and Go'Way! were strategically positioned in a corner table with another couple, The Stunned Rock and his wife, The Wayward Incident, when the old, old friends arrived to join them and order quarts of beer and microwaved onion and cheese sandwiches. The first were consumed and being replaced by their waiter, The Nose, when two more old cronies of The Real Article arrived, just finished their appointed rounds of delivering beer in a Brewer's Retail truck, Old Bargie and The S Turn. Who were veterans of The Rubby Route of Eastern Canada and joined the table, soon consuming enough of their own product to be persuaded to perform the trick they were famous for all the way to Newfoundland, the eating of the mugs and bottles which had contained their beer.
This display had earned them a pretty penny in their younger, gambling days but was now reserved exclusively for entertainment at gatherings of old friends and family and religious holidays. Old Bargie learned the trick in a dream and The S Turn learned it from his father, The U Turn, who likewise learned it from his father, The Hairpin Turn, and so on, even unto the first generation. The War Department, in her cups and pleased to be conducting such an interesting tour of the attractions of the nation's capital, launched into a jolly harangue of the rest of the customers who remained polite until she began to punctuate her discourse by flinging fists full of breadcrumbs and uneaten quart bottles at them and prodding Go'Way until he attacked several of the more vociferous complainants. By the time The Nose arrived to protest what he termed "antisocial shenanigans" and demand payment for the missing bottles and glasses, The Honeyman had established a warm camaraderie with The Stunned Rock, The Wayward Incident, Old Bargie and The S Turn, treating them to a taste of Special Spatial Brew. The Real Article sat back contentedly, pondering the simple pleasures to be found in the gathering of small groups of friends and their pets.
But exception was taken to The Nose's interference and lack of service and a hell of a brawl commenced during which the group acquitted itself admirably, the majority hiding behind The War Department and Go'Way! who were on the front line. Fortunately, all but the drunkest of enraged customers and most determined of the staff were sufficiently wary of Go'Way!'s painful nips and the whirring purse and ear splitting battle cry of The War Department to keep a prudent distance. Except for one unfortunate waiter who later likened The War Department to a Sumo wrestler on speed and venturing too close in trying to hit her with an oar, was caught up in The Bear Hug of Infinite Sorrow. From which he escaped only when The War Department noticed an innocent and terrified third party knocking over her quart in an attempt to vacate the premises with Go'Way! attached to his Achilles tendon. The Real Article spied the manager heading for the phone, presumably to summon the local constabulary. The group fought its way to the front door, piled into the Brewer's Retail truck, made good their escape.
In the direction of the trailer down by the river. The Honeyman and his bottomless pockets acting as navigator for The S Turn in the cab, the rest sprawled in the back, happily pillaging the province's liquid property. The plan was to stop by The Honeyman's home long enough to pick up a supply of Special Spatial Brew and honey and go touring. But it was forgotten when they arrived and soon deteriorated into a celebration of the departure of Autumn, the arrival of Winter, Remembrance Day, and an epiphany experienced by The Stunned Rock who swore he had been granted a visitation by The Powers while peeing outside the trailer and looking up into the star filled sky. The War Department shook the little trailer to its foundations as she roaringly took on all comers at leg wrestling. Old Bargie and The S Turn gobbled up the few glasses in the kitchen while The Wayward Incident served up large portions of beans and cabbage. Go'Way! scavenged happily on the dark beach. The old, old friends kept a sharp eye on The Stunned Rock in case, as often happened to susceptible Special Spatial Brew drinkers, he had a revelation. And they were not surprised to be rewarded.
After The War Department despatched him through the window at the end of the trailer with a triumphant hoot and a lightning leg hook. For by the time they found him, he had climbed onto the roof of the trailer and was declaring prophetically that they should depart to follow the Star of the East. Which they did after they adhered to the established routine of old, old friends' reunions and burned down the trailer, The Honeyman miffed at his shortsightedness in allowing the group to end up at his place, making him last host of the night and, according to ancient reunion rules, obligating him to provide his abode for the burnt sacrifice. So it was, that they loaded up the Brewer's Retail truck with supplies of honey whiskey, honey, fish for Go'Way!, a pile of beans and cabbage, made a side trip to store The Honeyman's beehives in the deserted yacht club, and set out for the East Coast. Following whatever star happened to appear above the road when they looked up. With the New Plan. To descend upon other old, old friends and continue the customary celebration all the way to The Atlantic. This was not an exception to the rule that the reunions of The Real Article and The Honeyman invariably concluded with rousing traditional choruses in accordance with Nature's Plan.
For many an Autumn dog walker and suburban leaf raker has since turned a puzzled head, in the Eastern Canadian evening, at the sound of an invisible choir roaring and barking the harmonies of "Up, Up and Away" when the only apparent activity in his quiet street was a lone Brewer's Retail truck trundling along in the direction of The Dawn. canauthorsniagara.org
1 A CANADIAN CHRISTMAS
”Keep your asses down!” We tumbled out of the LAV. Ambushed and the vehicle was burning. There was metal whizzing in the air above us, you could hear it. No way to tell where it was coming from because we couldn’t even lift our heads to look around. Moxon tried it and his helmet pinged loudly. Now he can’t hear. At least he’s alive and complaining of a headache between spews. Teach him to eat that shitty stuff they gave us for supper. Everyone flat on their bellies, radio man speaking quietly into the mike. Where was the fucking cavalry? Pinned down too, probably. “Sarge” the voice was an elevated whisper, barely audible above the sounds of the battle. “Yeah?” “I gotta piss” A long pause. “What?” Sergeant Dixon’s voice was loud and clear. He wasn’t trying to whisper his disbelief. “What should I do, Sarge? I’m serious, I gotta piss” Andrew’s voice. What a fuckup.
“You can’t piss here, you crazy fucker. Hold your water.” Sarge was huddled behind the burning LAV with the rest of us. Andrew’s bladder problems were the least of his worries. “Go in your pants” “What?” “You heard me, soldier. Now shut up. Anyone see the bastards?” There would be a lot of jokes about Andrew wetting himself when we got back to camp. Glad I passed on the last coffee. We had finally been able to take shelter after laying in the dusty road all evening. They couldn’t hit us when we lay flat in the road without exposing themselves. The darkness fell slowly, we listened to Moxon’s spews at first, waited for help to come. No one was foolish enough to get up and try to go somewhere. There was nowhere to go. They had set up a field of fire which was deadly for any living thing. Especially Canadian soldiers. Right now, back in Kandahar, they’re eating real turkey, drinking egg nog and singing Christmas carols. People are phoning home. Except for the occasional rocket attacks, everyone’s relaxing. We should be there. Conklin was going to be Santa. The rescue convoy should be on their way now. And close air support. God save us from the Yanks. Hope it’s the Brits. These bad guys were supposed to run to Pakistan before the mountain passes were frozen. Winter’s supposed to be quiet here. Somebody forgot to tell them.
Wonder if they know it’s Christmas? They probably don’t know they’re shooting at Santa. The medic gave Moxon some pills. He’s groggy and quiet now. Somebody’s keeping him awake. We had to check out the ditch at the side of the road. I ignored the only military advice my grandfather ever gave us kids; “never volunteer” I had to do something. We just couldn’t stay there. The grenades we threw in unison stopped the sporadic firing from the right, but they would soon replace it and we’d be sitting ducks again. The bad guys must have retreated to regroup. Maybe the grenades worked or we did get some of them in the initial burst of firing. Whatever happened, no one shot at me as I crawled to the side of the road, pausing every few seconds. Like training with a giant pucker factor thrown in. Quivering with adrenaline, I peered around me. The dancing shadows created by the flames revealed no enemies. Nothing in the ditch. No one had seen anything since the ambush. Even then we didn’t really see them. These guys were good. If they wanted to remain invisible, it seemed like they could. The boys crawled to me one by one, amazed by their own survival. A groan of relief and splashing sounds came from Andrew’s direction as he pissed from a crouch.
We spread out into the formation which had been drilled into us so many times in training. Nothing to do but wait. There were the sounds of planes in the air but so far none had come near us. Distant thunder of artillery and occasional flashes on the horizon hinted at how much fighting was going on. It must be Christmas day by now, midnight. Last Christmas, my parents drunk and fighting, wearing part of the turkey Mom had thrown at Dad, I escaped to Adrienne’s. Her family was off to visit relatives. We had a good time drinking her old man’s booze and fucking like minks in their rec room. Her parents thought we were watching the DVDs she got for Christmas with all the old movies. We watched It’s a Wonderful Life but not like they thought. Good old Christmas. “Make sure the infared patches are on your helmets” Sarge warned for at least the tenth time. Everyone was more scared of the allied close air support than they were of the enemy. It was gonna be a sad Christmas this year for some families. Just a few days before that “friendly fire incident” which the public heard of, we had been admiring the American Warthogs, their firepower.
They were ugly, but tremendous killing machines. Meant to be aimed at the enemy. “Think they’re around, Sarge?” It was Andrew again. Silence. “Sarge?” “I don’t fuckin know and I’m not gonna stand up to find out. We have to assume they’re here...somewhere” No one really thought Andrew was crazy. He was one of the guys who wanted to be here. He was just a pain in the ass. Did I want to be here? Not here, on this spot, right now. Afghanistan? Yeah, but it wasn’t anything like they said. We were getting paid to see the world, sort of. As usual, the only guys you could really trust were the vets. Guys who had seen it for themselves told the truth about what it was really like. The further up the chain you went, the more bullshit there was. The money wasn’t bad, for me. Beat a part time, minimum wage job where they used you and threw you away without even thinking about it and told you constantly that you should be grateful to be working. Unemployment meant boring daytime tv and not enough money to enjoy yourself at night. And the endless fighting of the parents and taking their insults and accusations. I wasn’t cut out for a nine to five job in some office.
I wonder if the same kids we saw today are prowling out there in the darkness wanting to blow us up? The young guys we talked to and shook hands with this morning, could be bad guys at night. “Merry Christmas, Devon” Andrew’s voice. “Merry Christmas, Andrew” Real turkey with lots of gravy and mashed potatoes. The cooks would make it good this one day and we’re here. There should be some left when we make it back. But it’s not the same as when it’s fresh. There has to be dressing and cranberry sauce. A crackling. Something breaking in the darkness. “Hear that?” Sarge’s whisper. Wilson, the gunner, was already moving into the dark in the direction of the noise. Seconds later, we flattened out as the explosion of gunfire erupted. Quiet. “Wilson, you ok?” Sarge’s voice. The little whistle that Wilson always gave when things were a-ok. He came crawling backward into the formation. “Two of them. They ran. They had an RPG, but it’s all gone and so are they” “What’s taking so long, Sparks?” “Radio must’ve got hit. It seemed to be ok at first, but now I don’t think it’s transmitting” “Fuck” “I think this is a set up” Sarge’s voice
“They’re waiting for the Quick Reaction Force” “They’ll come the same way we did” “Up the same road. There’s no other way” Silence. Stronger wind. Lower temperatures. “We better warn them” I looked around, as much as possible, to see the others laying prone, waiting. “Ok. Here’s what we do” Sarge’s voice. “Harris and Boucher, get as far up the road as you can. Warn them. Watch out for the bad guys. Give it the silent treatment. Really silent. We’ll try to get this fucking radio working. Use your flares if you have to. We’ll use ours when we see yours” Two figures, Harris and Boucher, disappeared , crawled into the darkness. If anyone could move silently, it was them. They spent all of their spare time in the bush hunting and fishing. The stars glistened across the huge sky. The night became freezing. Dew settled on the barrel of my weapon. Christmas carols. For kids, really. What was it? Peace on Earth and Good Will to men? Hmm. An explosion of light and sound flashed behind us as an RPG hit the burning LAV. “Hold your fire. Don’t let them see where we are” Night vision goggles were useless after the flash if you happened to be looking at it. They were trying to bait us into firing. That meant they weren’t sure exactly where we were.
Some of them get their first rifles when they’re ten. Their fathers and grandfathers were soldiers. Well, fighters, anyway. They’ve lived all of their lives in wars. How can they expect us to change them? Is what we’re doing this Christmas part of the plan? “Devon, look” Andrew. I followed his gaze skyward. A small light passed across the sky from right to left above us. Too small, too far away to be a plane. “Satellite” Andrew’s whisper. I watched the light till it disappeared among the rest of the lights. Thousand, millions of stars. Flares blow up our sight as we stare right at them. By the time we can see through the goggles again, Sarge yells loudly. “Light em up boys. They’re just over there” Everybody fired their flares. The white, phosphorescent light made the goggles useless and unnecessary. The road behind us lay like a silver ribbon running down the hill. On either side we could clearly see movement in the bushes. The movement was of men running, crawling, hobbling away from the road. Some were dragging or carrying weapons, some stumbling, helped by another. Boucher and Harris were in a firefight, that much was obvious. Explosions and the crackle of small arms fire came from their direction.
Beyond them we could see lights. It couldn’t be the cavalry, they wouldn’t advertise their presence, probably a plane. I’d be one of the men running away from the road too, if I was a bad guy. We fired at will toward the fleeing figures. Some fell. We couldn’t really see the damage we had done. The firefight up the road had gone quiet. Everyone thought of it at the same time. If we had no radio and we were beside the road, how did the guys in the plane know who we were? “They’ll know it’s us by the special reflectors on our helmets” Andrew spoke up confidently. We looked at each other and ran away from the road. Sarge made sure Moxon had two big guys to help him and ran with us. We fell into a ditch and crawled back to watch. The Warthog came in low enough over the burning LAV for us to see the cartoon Osama under the bomb on the side. Shrapnel whizzed over our ditch. Nobody got caught. We watched as the rounds tore the road to bits. I looked around, dark figures sat quiet, breathing heavily in the ditch. We looked up together and followed another satellite across the sky. Everyone was silent, thinking their own thoughts. “Merry Christmas, Devon” “Merry Christmas, Sarge”
I firs met Bubba an Stone one midnight when dey was gettin chased across de Interprovincial Bridge by Andre St. Pierre an is karate club. Dey flag me down an I elp em out, giv em a lif. I booted er to Ottawa, lef a buncha drunk black belts pantin an cursin at de moon. What dey did in de tavern to piss off de karate club, I dunno, but I seen St. Pierre an is boys get some guys, after a few beer one night, an it weren’t no pretty sight. So I give em a lif an we ad a few beer in de Market. I never see em again till las mont when dey come in de club on Elgin Street where I work behine de bar. “Frenchie!” Bubba roar an crush my an like a big, drunk bear. E’s even bigger now dan den. Stone, got a black eye but, as usual, e got a good lookin girl wit im an cement on is boots. I don tink Bubba an Stone learnt much in school excep ow to drink an fight an play football. Dey could play football cause dey were real tough an Bubba strong like a bull an mean when e put on de pads. Stone, e was jus mean alla time. After dey cripple some guys in university ball an fail all deir courses, dey end up in de construction business. Stone learn ow to build ouses from is fadder, got is own company. Bubba started out as a labourer for de city. Now dey give im is own truck. Dey’re bot pissed off at de wedder dis winter an, like mos people, dey’re about to crack aroun de end of Fevrier. Dey want to go to Florida an look up an ole football buddy. Dey invite me along dat night at de club. An I say yes.
Tabernac. Stone, e bin through a couple marriages an lotsa udder women an got some kids scattered aroun.
E says e can handle everyting excep women. Bubba got no kids an e’s fightin wit is girlfrien. De one Stone call “de douche” when Bubba can’t ear im. I shoulda known better when Stone tole me to bring an extra suitcase. One of is wives got all deir luggage an Bubba’s girlfren got de cops to keep im away from de apartment. My brudder, Guillaume, e’s smart, but e’s stupid. Smart wit money, stupid wit women. E always know ow to make a buck but insteada bein appy wit a nice little business in ull, e get tangle up wit a good lookin woman from Montreal. E moved down dere an got busted wit six keys o toot. I figured my brudder won’t be needin is suitcase for a while. I get it from my mudder’s an bring it along. It was a Monday mornin, not too early. We bin on a tour of de otels upriver in de Pontiac since we lef ull some time Saturday mornin. So our stomachs not de bes when we jump in Bubba’s new Corvette an ead for de border. Wit me an de suitcase in de back seat. Bubba, e’s big and tough, but e loves is Corvette. Is girlfren’s mad at im cause e spent money on de car e was spose to spen on er. He yell an take a slap at me an Stone if we spill somethin in de Corvette. Bubba can eat tree family size bags o chips, while e’s drivin, witout spillin a crumb. E takes a big paw fulla chips an stuff de whole ting in is mout while we ‘re bootin it outta town. De boys are ungry when we get to Kemptville an we all need a beer so we stop at de otel dere to join de farmers an rednecks in de tavern. Dey make de good meatball sandwich in de otel in Kemptville. Pretty soon, Stone gets inna game a pool wid some rednecks. De waitress, Katie, she’s stoppin longer to talk to me at de table, every time she bring de beer.
It ain’t so bad bein small an French wit de long eyelash. Women love de long eyelash an get real mudderly when dey’re bigger dan you an tryna speak French. So dey usually come onto me firs. Sometime, it work, sometime, it don. Dis one came onto me firs. Definitely. Me? I’m small, but I’m wiry. A lover, not a fighter. I never tot trouble would start in Kemptville. I get up to go for a leak an ear bullfrog noises. I look aroun to see Katie arguin wit some rednecks. By de time I see it’s me dey’re talkin about, a bottle’s comin my way an de fight’s on. A couple jump Bubba from behine, but dey’re flyin over de pool table in a urry. I kick one guy in de back, Stone breaks is cue on a guy’s ead an we make it to de door. Bubba spins dat Corvette tru de gravel a few extra times to spray dose farmer trucks an we boot it for de border. We stop at a gas station to clean out de car, ave a piss, get ready for de USA.
When we pull up to de border crossin, Stone sees some guys over to one side
watchin guards tear deir truck apart, an laughs. We answer all de questions from a young guy in a uniform an e says to wait a minute an goes to get an ole guy. Dis guy looks like a state trooper from Texas, almos big as Bubba, wit de gun an de badge an de sun glasses. E takes one look at Stone’s black eye, wants our i.d. I tink we woulda bin o.k. if Bubba din take off is sun glasses to look in de glove compartment. Dunno why e’s wearin em anyway, it’s almos dark. I’m watchin de ole guard examine de i.d., but I see e’s really lookin over top of dem at Bubba’s eyes, in de side mirror. I could see is eyes too. Dey were red, real red. In fac, dey look like dey avin internal emmorage. De ole guard put is big, fat ead in de window, smell a real deep breat an tell Bubba
to pull over beside de guys Stone laughed at. Bubba takes one look at de guys’ truck gettin torn apart an de back of is neck gets red as is eyeballs. We’re all pretty cool cause we know we’re clean. We go into de office wid de president’s picture on de wall beside all de wanted posters an answer more stupid questions. Bubba’s lookin out de window while some guards look unner de Corvette wit mirrors, open up de ood. De ole guard keeps smellin real ard while dey ask us who we gonna visit in Florida an if we ever take drugs. He stops sniffin so ard when Stone rips a real loud beer fart. Finally, jus when I tink we’re finish, de young guard march into de office wit Guillaume’s suitcase an a look like e jus won de lottery. E pull de plastic on a little panel in dere I din even know about. De ole guard reach in wit is big, fat fingers an pull out a baggie wit is udder han on is gun. E looks at us wit a big, ugly grin an opens de baggie. Ten seeds fall out on de counter. Couple udder guards, in de room behine us now, got deir hans on deir guns. Bubba turns red, Stone turns to me. Everybody looks at me. I try to give em a shrug like Trudeau, tell em it ain’t my suitcase. De guards smell blood now. Dey take me an Stone to one room, Bubba to an udder one. De young guard gives us some pamphlets an leaves us alone. Stone’s blamin me. I can ear Bubba roarin. Stone looks at is pamphlet, looks at me. “Uh oh” Dese pamphlets about some new law dey made in de States, ‘Zero Toleration’ I agree wit Stone when e say, “Uh oh”
Dis new law means dey can take Bubba’s new Corvette an keep er cause of ten ole pot seeds even my brudder forgot. Collis. I never knew my brudder could write. It never come up. I guess everybody can write deir name an address dese days. Dat’s what saved us. Guillaume wrote is name on de tags an inside de suitcase. Dey ask more questions an finally fine out dat my brudder’s in jail in Montreal. Dey bring us all togedder in a room to tell us what we gotta do to get Bubba’s Corvette back. Bubba’s real red an starin at us like e’s gonna explode so I stay behine Stone when we go in. I feel better when I see some guards wit deir hans on deir guns. Dey probably woulda let Stone and Bubba go back to Ottawa cause it was my brudder’s suitcase, but Bubba explode right dere. “You idiots” e yell an make a dive for us. E knock alf de guards down an roll aroun on de floor wit de fat one till one young guard it im on de ead wit a night stick. Stone jumps in an pretty soon dey’re cuffin dem an draggin dem away. Me? I jus stan dere. A young guard notices me an point is gun at me. “Resume dat position” e say. Stone uses is phone call to get a ten tousand dollar bond on de spot. I gotta go, according to Bubba’s call, back to lawyers in Ottawa to get affidavits signed dat we don know nuttin about drugs. Maybe it weren’t fair, in a way, but me, I was appy to catch de nex bus dat came tru de border to get away from Bubba till he cool down.
So de nex day is Tuesday. Instead o bein alfway to Florida, I’m gettin off de bus at de station in Ottawa an lookin for dis lawyer, Kenny Nelson, who use to play ball wit de boys. Turns out, is office is in a big, new building on Elgin Street wit igh speed elevators an lotsa plants. My brudder, Guillaume, e don like lawyers an e always say be careful wit dem, but dis setup looks o.k. to me. Dere’s lotsa good lookin women, all dressed to kill. I talk wit a sweet, blonde receptionist till Kenny Nelson shows up. E takes me to is office an I tell im de story. E asks me some questions. E’s laughin so hard, e’s almost cryin. E phones some udder lawyers oo played ball wit de boys. Dey all laugh an finally e tells me to come back tomorrow morning, de papers will be ready. Me? I’m tres fatigue by now an dis blonde got me tinkin bout some relaxation. I go for a breakfas special in de unnergroun fas food joints where Theresa works. Theresa, she’s big, wit lotsa poing. She love de long eyelash an take real good care o me from time to time. Theresa got a real good job in de government building on top o dese fas food joints. She comes down for a coffee wit me an gives me de key to er apartment. I got to know er about a year ago when she came into de club wit er government friens. So I go up to er place after I pick up a few grams from de stash. I ave a sauna an a swim in er pool, get some relaxation till she comes home an we hit de sack. She cooks a nice Italian supper an I feel guilty when we’re sittin in fron de fireplace wit de wine an smoke an listenin to er jazz records. Guilty about de boys, I mean.
Me an Theresa ave a good time an she ‘s tryna talk me into movin in wit er like she always does. I don tink she really wants me to move in, it’s jus sorta a game we play. We bot know it would spoil all de fun. In de mornin I see Kenny Nelson an e’s still laughin an phonin more guys oo played football wit de boys while I sign papers sayin I don know nuttin about seeds or dope. Finally, e gives me all de stuff we need an I get a bus back to de border. We musta got lucky cause one a de young guards was a Corvette freak like Bubba an dey spen lotsa time talkin bout em. Bubba’s mellowed out, but e’s still mad. E lets us in de Corvette when we get everyting straightened out. Pretty soon, we’re bootin er sout on 87, lookin for six packs. De boys jus don feel right widout a cold, American beer between deir legs when dey’re drivin in de States. De only words Bubba says to us, excep “Put on Van Halen”, was “You idiots!” Every so often, while e drink is first six pack, he looks across at Stone an in the mirror at me an shakes is big ead. After de firs couple o six packs, Bubba let Stone put on Dire Straits. I don pay much attention anymore. Since I met de bands at de bar, seem to me de guitar players are jus as crazy as ousepainters. Well, de trip goes pretty good after dat. By de time we get to de sout, we figure out dat we only got one day to stay in Florida if we’re gonna make it back to Ottawa on time. “No way!” Bubba says. “Red says toot’s thirty five a gram in Miami. We’re stayin for a vacation. We deserve it”
Red’s deir football buddy. E runs some kinda tourist resort where dey specialize in parties. We ad a real good time, stayed for two weeks, till we ran outta money. Guillaume always says dat de only people dat party like Quebecers, is Americans. I believe im now. We end up alfway to Cuba wit dancin girls an gangsters an almos get shot outta de water by de coast guard, but dat’s anudder story. My brudder, Guillaume, he’s comin into de club for a drink tonight. Is woman in Montreal got im a good lawyer an dey trew de whole ting outta court. E’s comin in to pick up is suitcase, too. Nex week, e’s goin on vacation. thievesjargon.com
1 THE FIX IT MAN
Up at the crack of dawn, down to the hotel pool, few quick laps, room service coffee and paper, baseball scores, one more day. Check numbers... cops, cleaners, locker. Breakfast at the place downstairs, waitress with a nice ass, poached eggs on brown, slice of some kind of melon, more coffee. Shoe shine stall off the lobby, barber somewhere around. Taxi, watch out for those pedestrians, poor bastards, feels nice around the ears, nice barber smell. Chinatown, could’ve got the dope here just as easy. Better from a white man, even an ex biker. Neither would remember anything. Here. This is the number. Asshole taxi driver didn’t like the tip. Fuck him if he can’t take a joke. Chinese man, middle aged, used to gun em down in Nam. Not Chinese but close. Door opening, no one around, too early for the public. Trucks leaving with crews and piles of clean laundry. Chink wants more money for the coveralls now. What the fuck? Theirs, not mine.
Brand new cleaner’s coveralls under the arm, car rental place, something utilitarian that won’t be noticed, something cheap and plain. Nothing memorable. Rental agent, somebody’s daughter with big tits, perfect teeth. Credit card. Alias. Cheap little economy number, one with reclining seats. Car rental girl, long legs, short skirt, know what would look good on you, baby? Freeway Macdonald’s parking lot, more coffee. Map. Silver Spur, ring road, freeway, industrial park. This is the way to go. Morning radio sports talk. Pitching wins championships. More pitching is needed at home. It’s obvious. Industrial park, business park, easier when they’re among a lot of other buildings. Silver Spur. Just opening. Dark, smell of vomit and urine and sex. Big pictures of strippers everywhere. Subdued rock music in the shadows. Waitresses setting chairs at tables. The noontime rush’ll be crazy. Owner in back office. Large, hairy, ex biker, accompanied by two heavies. Wants more for the packet. What the fuck? Theirs, not mine. Ex biker, men, snigger at the suit and tie. In the old days a little blood and a few broken teeth. Shock. Reevaluation. Factory next door, a few long blocks down. Parking lot, back, coveralls on, the southern entrance. Security guards with wands and tasers, cameras everywhere.
Wink from the man checking ID. Through. Find a cart, push it around the giant floor. Hundreds of drones in blue smocks. Jesus Christ, how long is this assembly line? Chinese cleaners with the same coveralls nod, continue cleaning, talking to each other in Chinese. Locker room, change room. Empty. Locker number fifteen. Combination 43 -14 - 12. Open the door, stick the packet under papers on the top shelf, beneath the photo, wife and kids. This can be a lesson for the kids. Locker door locked, push the cart to an exit. Out. Remove the cleaner’s coveralls at the car. Drive to the nearest bin. A payphone. “Narcotics. Detective Randall speaking” “Detective Randall, I want to report drugs. Illegal drugs” “Yes, and what’s your name sir?” “That’s not important. I saw heroin. In a locker at work” “Heroin. That’s a serious allegation, sir” “You want the locker number?” “Who does this locker belong to, sir?” “James Thayer. Giant Computer. Boundary Road. The factory. Locker fifteen. Bye” Hang up, park the car a little closer to the fence, to the entrance the cops’ll use. Recline the seat. Few hours of shut eye.
Sun found its way past the visor. Hot on the legs. Get out, stretch. Back in the car in time for the show. Grey ghost car. Parking out front. Two plainclothes cops waving badges at the security guards, hurrying into building. Emerging with James Thayer cuffed, confused, mid thirties, still in his blue smock. Pushed carefully into the car, whisked away. Satisfaction. Rent a car flying down the freeway to Chinatown. Dumped. Taxi back to the hotel. “Hello. It’s done” “Any trouble with security?” “No. The man was smooth as silk. Cops grabbed Mr Thayer within two hours” “Good. That should be the end of that union” “You think so? In my experience, they’re pretty resilient. Another one’ll spring up in a few years” “Not with a leader like Thayer, though. And we’ll be ready next time. Congressmen are working on it as we speak. They better be. Fuckin Commies. Anyway, I’ve got your number if I need you again” “Yes. Just leave a message at that number” “Well, thanks. The cheque is in the mail to that box number you gave me” “Ok. See you” Discard the suit and tie. Quick shower. Mini fridge. Ice cubes. TV. Sports update. “Hello?”
“Hi babe, how are you?” “Oh, its so good to hear from you. You wouldn’t believe what happened” “Yes I would. Ryan’s dentist appointment?” “How did you know, dear? He needs braces. It’s gonna be thousands” “Jesus Christ, Emily.” “I know, honey. But we can do it.” “Fuck” “I know, dear, but it’s his future. We don’t want him going through life with crooked teeth” “What about Patsy?” “Well, you know she had that recital last night” “Hmm” “She did fine. She’s so buzzed about it. She wants to be a professional violinist now” “Yeah. Right. Till the next fad. Billy ok?” “He wants you home for the weekend, dear. They’re in the playoffs. He’s pitching the first game on Saturday. You can’t miss that” “Tell him I’ll be there. I’m finished here. I’ll be catching the first flight home tomorrow. There’s no need to pick me up. I’ll grab a cab. Just as cheap” “So your consulting must have been successful, dear” Swallow the cold, smooth rye. “Mmhm...very successful” “Ok dear, see you tomorrow. You’ve got a lot of messages on your line. See you then”
“Ok Bye” thievesjargon.com
1 TWO DOGS
He’d been alone a lot. Not lonesome in the sad sense of the word... he was used to it. There was that woman, once. She stayed for a while but, eventually, she drifted away. There were the two dogs, of course, so he wasn’t really alone. Just no people around regularly. He wasn’t sure if he owned the dogs or they owned him. He didn’t think about it like that, anyway. Ownership, laws, rules. Like the soldiers and media types in the boat who came by. They were so sure that it was necessary, mandatory, even, that he leave. They tried to convince him to join the rest of the evacuation. They could shout and roar and threaten but they’d never catch him. They wore gloves and masks and worried when they got a bit of water on them. And here he was, paddling, belly down, his inner tube and plastic container, to the grocery store. The water stank and there were turds floating by, but he’d seen the kids of Bangkok swimming in the filthy canals when he was there on R&R from Nam. They survived. In fact, the Thais were some of the strongest. Some of the toughest. He paddled with his right hand to turn left. Up to the park where the tops of the swings were still visible and across the submerged boulevard to the mall.
All but the hardiest and most determined had given up shopping here. It wasn’t really shopping, you didn’t pay for anything, most of the valuable stuff was gone, looted. What were they going to do with the electronic appliances and games, anyway? There was no power. He drifted in the door of the grocery store. There were a few pet owners still making regular trips to the store but he doubted that many, if any, had tried the dog food. He found that it didn’t taste so bad. The cans were safe and the dried stuff, though it was hard to get down from the top shelf without wetting it, was tolerable. Full of vitamins and raw protein. Not processed to taste good for humans like everything else. The dry stuff made up for the lack of vegetables in his diet. He arranged the bags of dry dog food on top of the cans in the container. He pushed it up the aisle in front of his inner tube. The Saint Bernard breeder was struggling with a large bag, trying to squash it into the bow of her canoe. He stopped to help the woman. They exchanged nods without words. There had been nothing to talk about after the first few days. The latest gossip and rumours had become meaningless. Especially when they realized that they were stuck with the bodies. Some neighbours didn’t get along with each other, but to see them like that. Talk became trivial, unnecessary. He nodded goodbye to the Saint Bernard breeder, paddled up the aisle, out the door. The sun was hot as he headed for home. The dogs’d be waiting.
It was kind of ironic, he mused, as he paddled along. There was Eric Clapton explaining his long fascination with Robert Johnson. That had been the DVD on in the living room when the water started rising. The hurricane caused more damage than usual. The generator heâ€™d hooked up conscientiously after the last hurricane, was doing fine, until the flood. An earnest guy from England, an ex junkie, probably one of the best white blues players ever, sitting in a deserted building in Dallas, fifty or sixty years after Robert Johnson recorded there. Max wagged his tail in time with the drumbeats. Brutus perked up his ears, howled along with the song when the guy accompanying Clapton launched into the electric slide solos. Then the generator quit because of the rising water. Darkness enclosed them until he found some candles and lit them. The dogs knew right away. They appeared more anxious every time he looked at them. From the moonlight reconnoitre, the water first approaching his knees, then rising to his hips, things started looking very bad. There were the sounds of shots and shouting that night, but nothing out of the ordinary for that neighbourhood. The storm surge had lifted his van onto the roof of his stilted house. They found it a dry place, high enough to escape the water. He knew that the accumulation of a twice divorced, twice-estranged father disappeared that night, below him, saw the evidence of it the next morning. Clapton and the DVD player were under water with the tv.
At least they had some bottled water and provisions. Once they had settled in the van, the dogs were their usual happy go lucky selves though they didn’t like it when he made them accompany him to an empty neighbour’s house to do their business. They smiled as they shook all over him upon their return. It was the only cheerful note on a depressing first day of the flood. More bodies appeared, floated by. The destruction reminded him of Nam. The memory rekindled the spirit of those days. They were “can do” days. Days when he and his buddies did whatever had to be done. No arthritic complaints at the size of the job. They did it then and now he felt that spirit return. They needed food and water for the future. The idea of taking the inner tube and the plastic storage container to the grocery store came to him when an old man’s body floated by and turned toward the park. No use sitting, feeling sorry for himself. They needed supplies. Thirty years ago he would’ve just got them. Now, he would do the same. They see a pathetic old man paddling an inner tube through the shit. They see long grey hair sticking out of a battered old hat and a grin with some teeth missing as he looks up at them in their boat. Some had life jackets on, some, with weapons, wore kevlar vests. Who was going to attack them? Some of the young ones with their bulging muscles and square chinned aggression were probably glad that he refused their help.
They couldn’t understand his smiling replies, his rapt attention as he listened patiently to their many reasons why he should join the evacuation. Maybe he was judging them too harshly. But they didn’t look like they wanted him near them when they heard his refusal. No way they would take the dogs. He realised that he was smiling at his own joke: it was an evacuation all right. Like everyone in New Orleans had a dump, relieved their bladders and puked at the same time. Then left. Or maybe it was God. Or Mother Nature. He preferred to think that the earth was taking back its own. Like weeds that grow up through neglected concrete and asphalt. The older guys in the boats frowned disapprovingly when he refused. They warned him that they’d be returning with a body bag tailor made for him. They couldn’t help it. Saving people in emergencies was their job. They did it every day, all year round. They had to believe in it. Mr. Johnson’s tv, at the corner, way up in the attic, gave him a glimpse of the situation as it was portrayed by the media. It ran off a car battery for a while. Mr. Johnson had gone with the rescue workers in the boats. He was a stubborn, old pain in the ass most of the time. He complained all the time he was being rescued. He put his faith in the system and its compassion for veterans and seniors. The dogs greeted him with a tail wagging, slobbering frenzy until he yelled at them. They all enjoyed the dog food as the night fell. He had been living under the radar, out of sight of the system, for so many years now, that it wasn’t a great strain on him. He would have paddled around the city to see how old
friends were doing, but from the dying images on Mr. Johnson’s tv, it was obvious that there were too many nosy media types, soldiers, national guards and cops. Too many guards guarding untouched neighbourhoods. Those who believed in the system were now stuck at the Superdome and Convention Centre. Viet Nam cured him of “my country right or wrong” patriotism. He learned, by experience, that smooth assurances from the powerful weren’t to be trusted. His doubts were confirmed many times over the years. People with power often deceived in the name of freedom. He contemplated the devastation of New Orleans. Only fools believed them. He surveyed the interior of the van, lit a joint. Billy would have been making his run just when the flood hit. He wondered if the shipment got through. refez.net
1 THE SNACK I swallowed a piece of gristle, cut into the lamb, smiled at Mrs. Ready. She was old, with a glitter of intelligence in her eye. I worked my way through the big meal gratefully, homemade food was good. I watched Mrs. Ready fussing with the potatoes. Surely, when we’d eaten our way through the lamb, potatoes and vegetables, had our dessert, chocolate cake, and coffee, surely, then, she’d get around to it. I was investigating the disappearance of the cop who came here to investigate the disappearance of her nephew Cecil. We usually don’t eat and drink with the people involved in an investigation, but she’d insisted. Cecil was a small time hustler, sold anything he could get his hands on. It wasn’t just to support one habit, Cecil was into everything. He drank, drugged, gambled and whored like a sailor on shore leave in a wide open port. There were a hundred Cecils, but this one happened to have a beer one night with Louis, a money launderer from Gatineau, across the Ottawa river. They were boyhood friends, met at a strip joint once. The brass insisted that Cecil was worth watching. When he went missing, they wanted detectives on the case. My partner, Dave Speller and I were fresh out of uniform. It was because we had recently been in uniform, dealing with scumbags on the street, that we were familiar with Cecil. We cruised around Cecil’s usual hangouts, the taverns and strip joints, nobody had seen him. We forgot about it. There were murders, blackmail and more cases of white collar crime
than ever before. Then one day a message landed on Dave’s desk. I was on the way to court. He was reading the note, and I said, see ya, so did he. He shouted to me, “Hey, Cecil went to visit his aunt” I ran to catch the elevator, those were the last words I heard Dave say. Nobody thought much of it when Dave didn’t show up for work the next morning. His wife Jackie called at noon. Dave was missing. At first, we kept it quiet. His car was parked a few blocks from Mrs. Ready’s house, in a shopping centre. Forensics went over it with a fine tooth comb, but couldn’t find anything significant to point us in a direction. The house to house questioning, with Dave’s picture and that of his car, produced nothing. Nobody had seen the car stop at the shopping centre. Nobody had seen who was in it, who got out of it. We traced all the cases he was involved with, braced whoever could possibly have had the remotest grudge against Dave. It wasn’t hard to do, he’d only been a detective for a year. All of the suspects had an alibi or were in jail. Mrs. Ready’s was one of the first places we checked. She was a perfect, little old lady, white hair in a bun, pink pant suit and sneakers. Yes, she was Cecil’s aunt, but hadn’t seen him for years, until the one visit. Yes, Detective Speller had come to ask some questions. He was such a nice boy, even had some cookies and a cup of tea with her. She was distressed to hear that Dave was missing. It was all over the newspapers, tv and radio. Jackie phoned me twice a day, at least. I was in shock, but not as badly as Jackie. A dark foreboding hung in the background when I went through Dave’s effects again. His desk held no clues. My own piled up with ignored work. Even Cal Davis pulled out all the stops, called in all
the favours, made the men return to their snitches, once again. It didn’t matter how hard we pushed, we still turned up nothing. I sat in my apartment, on a Friday night, with some rented videos and a bottle of rye. I was stumbling by the time I went to bed. In my drunken reasoning, I had resolved to return to the scene of the last sighting of Dave, Mrs. Ready’s. The instances of someone attacking or kidnapping a city detective were rare, in Ottawa. There were lots of threats made in courts and jails but no one ever followed through. Until Dave. I had the feeling, it grew every day, that Dave was dead. Mrs. Ready mentioned supper when I called her. I had a bunch of paperwork to tackle, the never ending court appearances. I stopped off on my way home from a long, frustrating day. Seeing her gingerbread house brought back painful flashes of Dave. She lived in a quiet neighbourhood in the west end of Ottawa with manicured lawns and overhanging trees. The house itself was well maintained, painted, roses grew over the trellis at the side. Mrs. Ready’s sensible Toyota sat in the lane way. I left my tie and jacket in the car, knocked on the door. It opened immediately. “Detective Sloan, come in, come in” Mrs. Ready was small, about five foot three. She held the door open for me. “Hi, Mrs. Ready. Thanks” As I followed her into the living room, my eyes fell on the chair which had been last used by Dave. Before that, Cecil, himself, had used the chair, when he came to beg. In the dining room was a table set for two. I would have disappointed her, if I had not sat down. I had no intention of eating a big supper there. She insisted that we have a snack at
least. She served me slices of lamb with home made peppermint sauce and a glass of wine. She ate everything on her plate, which was as big as mine. The mashed potatoes were creamy, smooth, the cauliflower and carrots, steamed just right. Mrs. Ready looked like a little, white haired sparrow, but she ate like a vulture. We downed the glasses of wine, ate the food with gusto. She asked me all about Jackie. I asked her if there was anything about Dave’s visit that was strange. She replied, as she had, no doubt, a hundred times before, that there was nothing. I ate the chocolate cake and ice cream which she served for dessert and we sat with our coffees. I couldn’t get past the fact that Dave had been here last. Mrs. Ready looked interested and concerned but she said that he’d left after a few, brief questions about Cecil. She let me walk around the living room. I sat in the easy chair, looked at the spotless, hardwood floors, the doilies on the tables beneath the antique lamps. I hadn’t seen doilies since the family went to my grandmother’s house, years ago. I attempted to think like Dave. Where would I go next? Mrs. Ready wrapped up some slices of lamb for sandwiches, gave them to me on my way out. I drove home depressed. Reporters called, occasionally, inquiring about Dave. There was no point in trying to hide it, we were honest with them. We told them that we were as mystified as everyone else. I finally got a little hope when I went back over the reports made by the team who questioned people, in nearby houses, on Mrs Ready’s street. It was a real longshot. The people across the street from Mrs. Ready were noted, by the canvassing officer, to be ‘out of town’. When I called their number, in desperation, I got a
teenager named Brent who told me that he was in the house the day of Dave’s disappearance. His parents were out of town, he wasn’t. He seemed, like most teenagers, unaware of anything around him which didn’t directly involve loud music, drugs and girls. The loud music in the background signalled to me that he was home alone, again. He remembered because he and some friends were “getting ready” for a concert that night, at the Corel Centre, sitting in the living room. He had seen Mrs. Ready drive Dave’s car away. Brent called her “old lady Ready” I was stunned. I had called Brent from my cell phone, on the way home. I decided on a short detour to Mrs. Ready’s house. Mrs. Ready was pleasant when she answered the door, asked me in. I couldn’t stick to my plan of trying to trick her into talking, I just blurted it out. I asked her, why she had driven Dave’s car, where was Dave? What had happened? Mrs. Ready insisted on a little wine, when we sat down at her kitchen table. I didn’t see any harm in it. I had a glass with her, waited for an explanation. I wasn’t sure that Brent’s tip was true, it sounded outrageous. When she finally got around to it, she laughed at Brent’s accusations. She said that he and his friends were so stoned, they couldn’t be relied on. Even Brent’s parents left their house from time to time, to get away from him. Brent didn’t like her because she called the city when his dog did its business on her lawn. She kept talking, I began to feel dizzy. I remember trying to get to the sink, Mrs. Ready pushing a chair in front of me. The perfect kitchen moved. I remember hearing her giggle. I fell to the floor. Something was wrong, then there was blackness.
Everything was swirling when I woke up. My hands were behind my back, fastened with my own handcuffs. My feet were tied together, my mouth taped shut. I was as surprised as I was groggy. Light leaked into the room, produced visibility. I was at the bottom of some stairs, I could feel the scrapes Iâ€™d gotten on my face. She must have pushed me down them. It was a cellar. I could make out a furnace, the outlines of a washing machine and a dryer. I was laying on a concrete floor near a drain which didnâ€™t smell good. There had been something powerful in the glass of wine. I heard a phone ring. The conversation above was muffled by motors running behind the furnace. I squirmed and wiggled my way to see that the motors belonged to two old fridges at the far end of the room. The door opened at the top of the stairs and the light went on. I could see only her feet, at first. Then I turned my head and Mrs. Ready appeared. She was dressed like a surgeon, even wore a mask. She floated around the cellar talking to herself, humming, gathering implements: meat cleavers and saws which she placed on a rough counter. I tried to signal her by bugging out my eyes, wiggling like a fish, but Mrs. Ready ignored me. She got two card tables from the darkness, set them up. Then she opened a case to inspect the scalpels and knives within. I watched her plug in a skill saw, start it up. That was the only time she looked at me. Our eyes met when she depressed the trigger of the saw and the sharp teeth revolved at high speed. She giggled beneath the mask then looked me over, as if gauging the height and weight of a piece of meat. Mrs. Ready picked a deadly looking knife from her case, set it on the table. She looked into the drain in the floor, tested the hose attached to the laundry sink then took a sip of wine
from the glass she carried. She approached me and made a sound which I’ve heard people use to calm upset children, but it wasn’t working with me. I wasn’t soothed when she tried to stab me in the heart. I turned away at the last second and felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. She raised the bloody knife again. I was backed up against the wall, nowhere to go. I forced myself to look at her. I could hear her starting to giggle. The wet knife came closer. Suddenly there was a cry from behind her. A tall, bulky form pushed her against the wall. She crumpled easily, dropping the knife on top of me. It was Cecil. Broke again, he’d crawled out of whatever hidden cave he’d found to ask for more money. Even this jaded lowlife was shocked by the scene. Eventually he found the keys to my cuffs. I called the department. I sat in my car in front of Dave and Jackie’s apartment building. Forensics had verified that Dave and some other unidentified males, had been in Mrs. Ready’s cellar. Parts of them were found in her fridges and the drain. Maybe she saw Dave as a convenient victim to feed her habit. The investigation was continuing. I went up to Jackie’s to break the news. She was relieved that, at least, Dave’s remains had been found. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the DNA results also confirmed that I had eaten part of Dave. It was probably the big muscle in the thigh which Mrs. Ready served as lamb. There were still some slices in my fridge. whistlingshade.com
1 ME I was of a young age when I was born. Lack of experience and physical inabilities forced me to spend most of the first few years on my back with a few moments on my front. Various big people coo cooed, picked me up, put me down, held me, changed me, fed me and kissed me goodnight. I was the centre of attention for a while. When winter ended I explored the world around me. My mother wondered at my insight. I crawled, poked and investigated the various rooms of our cardboard box. I deduced that summer was near when a flower bloomed outside of our cardboard door and an extremely hot thing above us in the sky burnt the bejesus out of our box. I was drawn to the sound of traffic as soon as I could stand. There was no turning back when it came to me and traffic. I rushed straight for it as fast as my little legs could carry me. I was saved from certain disaster many times by strangers. Several rainy springs, my mother gathered all twelve of us children together to collect cardboard for a new box. Waterproof cardboard was hard to come by. For a long time, I thought the furry fellow who kept licking me and wagging his tail was my father. It was Rex the dog. Big people kept him happy with food and water like me. The only apparent difference seemed to be that they made Rex defecate outside before they disposed of it, whereas I could go right in my pants.
I went to school by following the herd of my brothers and sisters when I was of an age to do so. The teachers taught and the students, of which there were many thousands, learned. What we learned is another matter. Children followed marriage. They seemed to pop up regularly in various rooms of my home. I was, by this time, the proud owner of a wooden packing case. The appearance of new children always coincided with my wife gaining then losing a great amount of weight around the belly area. Often, when the family gathered in the packing case, we had a karaoke night. None of us could carry a note. Neighbours sent complaints our way but in the main our karaoke nights were successful. We all knew ‘Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog’, by heart and each member of the family sang it lustily. Perhaps the neighbours wouldn’t have complained so much if we sang some other songs as well. Now that I am old, I grow young again. The others grow old and young again at their own pace. The passage of years winnows things down to bare essentials. It’s normal to return to childhood as you grow old because as the years go by, more and more, you don’t care as a child doesn’t care. If all goes well, I’ll be of an old age when I die. twaddle.com
1 THE NEIGHBOUR I first noticed her while I was waiting for Yvonne. It was a throwback to the Hitchcock movie. Me and the rear window. Mine was the only house which looked over her back yard. When the tree by my kitchen window was full of leaves, I could only get glimpses until I cut the right branches. It was risky, but I had developed strong arms and the tree was close to the window. I started to use escort services when I arrived back from Iraq and couldn’t use my legs. I didn’t want a commitment of any kind. A whole year of hospitalization, only to find that they couldn’t cure the paralysis in my legs. There was a long period of rehabilitation after that. I was treated as a hero at first, felt like an object of pity, later. The reality was that I went to Iraq to boost my income and career. Some of my photographs won prizes. My impetuous nature, my thirst for adventure, my selfishness, they were all part of it. But when I returned, the benefits soon wore thin. I didn’t feel that I’d accomplished anything. The people around me had never seen war. They only knew the old me. My wife and young kids treated me like I was sick, friends hid their smugness and pity behind their concern. When it became unbearable, I made plans. Something had happened to me while I was an embedded photographer in Iraq, which I would never wish on anyone, but which didn’t make me feel the least bit suicidal. A descent into the bottomless pool of self pity wasn’t an option. The misunderstanding of my well meaning friends and family caused me to make the escape. I had been changed. I didn’t care
anymore. I had been through too many operations, too many hours of physio punctuated by hours of doing nothing. I couldn’t deal with all the ties of my old life. It wasn’t worth trying to explain and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. If there is a god, may he or she forgive me. I played the role while I was recovering then I ran. Who’s going to suspect a man in a wheelchair of acquiring a new identity? It was easy. Only one person in the world knew my new name and where I was. She was a lesbian mother of two who lived in Vancouver. We met in university, kept in touch over the years. She was no threat. She knew as little about my former life as I knew about hers. Money was no object for me because of the insurance. The network had me well covered. I disappeared to an east coast city one day. Every so often, another story appeared in the media about my depressed state at the time of my disappearance. My wife moved in with a former mayor. She and the kids looked happy in media pictures. The first man I saw with the neighbour turned out to be her husband. When they sat out on their backyard deck around supper time, they seemed to have that intimacy. She touched him when she gave him a glass. Sometimes they argued, other times they’d sit reading while their barbeque smoked in the background. They seemed comfortable with each other for most of that early spring. I watched from my kitchen window the night of the party in her backyard. I drank tequila while I watched the couples till they departed. The guy must have been a close friend of them both. She kissed him goodnight before her husband, disappeared into the house. The guys talked, then the husband produced a hand held video camera, left it with his friend, disappeared into the house.
By this time, I had my powerful binoculars focussed on the small screen in the camera which the buddy was watching on the deck. He sat with his back to me, as fixed on the images as I was.
We witnessed the marital coupling from several angles. The husband made
surreptitious smiles into the screen. When it was over, the bedroom lights went out. The buddy took the camera with him into the house. Lights in another part of the house went on and off. All was dark. I started drinking in a local bar but the other drinkers there were even more patronising and depressing than my real family so I joined some wheelchair racing enthusiasts. The athletics became too hard for me in a short time. I wanted to be comfortable, not driven. I didn’t really have anything to prove. I just wanted to take it easy, pay attention to the things I liked. I became content staying at home, playing my guitar and reading. I used the tv and computer, but usually when Yvonne wasn’t coming over, I read or played my music. The next time I saw the neighbour, she was sitting on her deck, sipping a coffee. She had discarded her robe, exposed her body in a skimpy bikini. I studied her closely with the binoculars. I noticed a mound in her backyard, just below the deck. She had planted a peony bush on it. The edges of the mound were visible, at first, but she kept it watered. Soon it blended in with the rest of the lawn. Her husband was never seen again. Cops interviewed her, the story of her husband’s disappearance was in all the media, for a short time. It was the man I’d first seen her with. His name was Norman.
She shed tears for the press, played the role of the grieving widow-distraught spouse, in public. I knew, from watching her, that she smiled a lot, to herself, when she was alone, watering the peony. She was slim with short blonde hair, long legs and a pretty face. I came to appreciate her figure when I saw her from my kitchen window, on summer mornings. I had hours to inspect her body, through my binoculars. She stretched, drank coffee on her deck. She often wore a robe which she discarded when she sat down. I was blessed when the hand held rocket hit the truck in the middle of Baghdad. Blessed because when the shrapnel hit my spine, it didn’t affect my genitals. I could still function sexually. In fact, I was hornier than ever. Yvonne had no inhibitions with me. I paid her good money to dress up and take off her different costumes. It was a kind of visual foreplay. After I saw the neighbour, I insisted that Yvonne and I do it in the kitchen. She didn’t notice the neighbour, didn’t notice me looking out the window, while she was busy. The buddy showed up some months later. He had been around at first, offering the grieving widow the obligatory shoulder to cry on. She wasn’t a widow officially, but there was no sign of her husband. The buddy must have run into her somewhere a few months later. I watched Yvonne dance around the kitchen, strip to the music. The neighbour and the buddy sat together, on her deck, drinking something out of tall glasses. Yvonne left after supper. I watched them kiss on the deck, disappear into the house. Lights went on and off in her bedroom. All was dark.
My neighbour sat on her deck again in late summer with two mounds in the back yard below her. On the second mound, which was barely visible, she had planted a rose bush. Often on summer mornings she sat on the chaise lounge, read, drank coffee, smiled to herself. On hot days I could see rivulets of sweat through my binoculars. They trickled from her neck down between her full, bikini’d breasts. Yvonne began talking about retiring near the end of the summer. Usually we didn’t talk. I didn’t get turned on by it and I was paying. Yvonne didn’t take offence. Instead, she told me about customers who liked to talk and liked to hear her talk while she satisfied their sexual desires. I would be sad to see her go. The neighbour cleaned up her deck for the winter with three mounds in the backyard. There were blowing leaves gathering on them. The third one sported a hydrangea bush which looked like it had always been there. I wasn’t surprised that the detective who talked to her, on the deck, with a notebook in one hand, a badge in the other, had disappeared. He showed up at later that night, had a few drinks with her, stayed out on the deck for a smoke. Her bedroom lights went on, he finished his cigarette, disappeared into the house. Her lights went out. All was dark. By this time, I assumed that my neighbour was having sex with, killing and burying the men in her life. I thought about calling the cops, but I didn’t want any publicity. It would be a big story. The black widow. The seductress-murderer. There was always the anonymous tipline. But every time I went to make the call, I was battered by questions: Was she doing anything that was more shocking than what I had seen in
a war? Was it any of my business? Was it a connection, even so tenuous, to my former life? Did my neighbour’s men get what they deserved? Did she? Did I? Did the Iraqis and the Americans? The questions stopped me, then became unimportant when Yvonne retired to start her own agency. They remained in the back of my mind but they were impossible for me to answer. My finger was poised above the phone several times, but the questions stopped me. I had contributed to Yvonne’s nest egg. I didn’t regret it. She introduced me to Rita, brought her around one day. I got specials for free: Rita and I got along well. It was even easier for me than with Yvonne because Rita already knew what I liked. I figured my neighbour would probably get caught on her own. There was nothing to watch in her backyard during the winter. Boredom started me back into photography again. Slowly but surely, I got ready for the spring. I wasn’t sure what for, but I would be ready in the spring. But in the spring, she was gone. A new family had moved in. I watched the mother teach her children about the three bushes in their back yard as they came to life in the warm sunshine. They watered them carefully, fussed over them, pruned them. In the spring, the peonies bloomed, the rose blossomed all summer and the hydrangea put on an impressive show in the fall. The framed picture of the yard, deck, three bushes, hangs on my kitchen wall. longstoryshort.us
1 THE GOOD PROVIDER I clean the cream from my whiskers with my paw. I sit watching the delicious little birds hop from seed to seed on the dying thistles in the garden outside the window. This window seat is made for these lazy autumn afternoons. Red’ll be home soon. I love to watch his change of expression when he approaches the house to greet his latest wife. She’s Lola this year. It was Linda back in those days, Bennie’s sister. It’s getting harder to remember that I used to live with Bennie. The boys came up with the idea, in a poker game, at Bennie’s. There was Mutt, Jeff, Bennie and Slocum. I watched from the back of the couch, cleaning my paws with my tongue. There were clouds of smoke and interesting smells emanating from the table that night. The boys were flying high. Bennie figured his ship had finally come in. The next morning, as we drove to work, Bennie talked about the score. He talked to me, but he was really talking to himself. He was a good provider though, so I went along with it. Bennie was my owner, a cat worshipper, who also owned Brutus, a watchdog. Bennie took me to work with him most days. I was an excuse for Bennie to talk to himself, a warm body to have around. Bennie was the only employee left in Red Smith’s auto parts warehouse. Red didn’t make much wholesaling used auto parts, but he had a famous safe which made him a tidy profit. He held payrolls for a lot of companies which didn’t have the facilities to handle large
amounts of cash. They couldn’t fit into bank schedules. The safe also held such items as receipts, estates and some money from questionable sources which Red labelled, ‘Other’. On the way to work the next morning, Bennnie dreamed along with the sports show on the radio. “With my cut, I could buy an island, like Brando. Down in Tahiti. So what if he’s fat? Women still love him. I’d have a party for the boys, but not for a couple of years. This is Slocum’s chance too. He can escape from his old lady, finally. The guy’s not well. She’s a bad influence. Don’t you think he’s shrunk and turned grey since he’s been with her?” I sat in the back seat watching some dogs on the sidewalk. Gross. Brutus ran out when Bennie opened the front door of the warehouse. There are dogs and there are dirty dogs. Brutus was dirty and aggressive with everyone except Bennie and me. Bennie had trained him, I had shown him my claws when we first met. He almost lost an eye that time, always respected me since. I wouldn’t turn my back on him, though. Brutus is big. He’s a big, dirty watchdog who would tear anything apart just for fun. Unless someone killed Brutus or otherwise incapacitated him, they’d never be able to steal from this warehouse. Unless they had an in and knew how the safe worked, that is. Bennie was counting on this as part of his plan. He could control Brutus and retirement was approaching. If he ripped the place off, he could sit tight for a few years and let things cool down. If everyone kept their mouths shut and they paid a lawyer Mutt knew, they would all end up rich. Even Red had some kind of insurance for a robbery, Bennie figured, but it wasn’t an urgent consideration. Red could afford it, no doubt.
There would be questions. There would be all kinds of cops. They would insist on a lie detector test, but he didn’t have to take it, they couldn’t use it in court. Brando never backed down from a role. This was one for which Bennie had been preparing all of his life. That was the way Bennie saw it, anyway. I always thought he was a little crazy, but who could have known? The safe only opened once a day. If robbers did get past Brutus and the other alarms, unless they came at exactly the right time, they would have to blow the door off of it. It would take a big explosion to blow the door, neighbouring alarms would go off all over the place. There wasn’t much paper around, but there might be a fire. The other thing, which only Red knew about the safe, but no one else knew, was that it expelled all of the oxygen, slowly, after the door closed. Red got it from an art museum when the government closed it down. One of the perks of having a foolproof safe was that big companies were advised, by word of mouth, to use Red’s, in emergencies. Red made a pretty penny helping out big companies. When the boys thought up the plan at the poker game, it was after Bennie had told them all about the “special job” Red was doing that weekend. A big company was moving millions of dollars from city to city. They were leaving it in Red’s safe overnight on the weekend. Bennie and the boys planned to rip it off. I stretched and tasted the fresh cat food Bennie had left in my dish by the office door. I settled in the comfortable window, watched Bennie strike poses in front of the mirror. Every time I cleaned the outside of my ears, I remembered the ticks. Getting rid of them was a painful process.
Bennie thought he looked like Brando when he practised a sneer. I thought he looked like an overweight Elvis impersonator. There was an inventory to keep, some paperwork to do, but Bennie mostly listened to a redneck on the radio and talked to me during his work day. When we were at the warehouse, Bennie kept Brutus in his run outside in the back. Red dropped in on Friday afternoon for a few minutes. He ruffled my fur, scratched my ears. Red was just getting to like me in those days. He went over the delivery of the money on Saturday morning, told Bennie that he had Sunday off, that he, Red, would be there to make sure of the pick up on Sunday morning. Red sat in Bennieâ€™s chair, feet up, smoking a cigar, called Linda. He put Bennie on with his sister, enjoyed their fraternal banter. Red glowed with love for Linda. His face changed when he talked to her on the phone. When he spoke about her with Bennie, the latter thought he was kidding. Bennie looked at Red, quizzically, behind his back, after these conversations about his older sister. The boys planned to pull into the warehouse as soon as the delivery was made on Saturday morning. They would load the money and take it away. They would leave Bennie in the safe to be released by Red the next day. The story would be that the robbers showed up right after the security company delivered the cash, pushed Bennie into the safe, left with the loot and the security film. The key to getting away with it was for everyone to behave normally. These guys thought they could pull it off. It sounded good, that night, when the boys met for poker at our place. Mutt had all the papers and powers of attorney for them to sign. It would give their lawyer, who wasnâ€™t above a bit of graft himself, the right to move their money around. No one could quit their jobs or do
anything out of the ordinary for at least two years. They were all thinking about retirement. The boys were closer to old than young. The delivery Saturday morning went smoothly, the security company guards moved the cash into the safe. They had just pulled out of the parking lot when Mutt, Jeff and Slocum pulled up, at the front door, in Slocum’s black van. Bennie had already taken the film out of all the security cameras when they walked into the office. They wore gloves, but no masks or disguises. Bennie showed them the millions of dollars they were stealing by opening a package. They got lost in a delirious minute of congratulations while they admired the bills. After a short debate, they figured that I should keep Bennie company in the safe. There was nothing soft and warm inside the safe. I never did like it. They threw me in with Bennie after they put my dish and some water inside the door. I circled the safe quickly, ran out, just as they slammed the door shut. They left him some chocolate bars and water, but they couldn’t do anything about the light. There was no light, but Bennie planned to sleep and rehearse his shock and anger until Red arrived. They didn’t even notice me until it was too late. No one had time to worry about me, so they left. The three of them giggled as they got into Slocum’s van. In a few years, they would be on easy street. Margaritas all around at Bennie’s place in Tahiti, one island over from Brando’s. All they had to do now was to drop off the money at the lawyer’s.
At the time, I didn’t know, nobody did, except Red, about the slow leak of oxygen from the safe. Bennie must have realized that something was wrong because he made a lot of noise in the safe around the same time that Red arrived, the next morning. Red’s Cadillac pulled up beside Bennie’s Celebrity in the empty parking lot. I watched from the front window as Red got out of his car and walked toward the building. He looked back once at Bennie’s car. He was about half way between his parking space and the warehouse when his cell phone went off. He dug it out of his jacket pocket and answered it. I could tell that he was talking to a woman he loved by the change of expression on his face. It lit up. He stopped, looked at the sky as he talked. He had a big smile on his face when he turned back to the car. He listened to the phone, smiled at his shoes. Red got back into his Caddy, talking on the phone, his eyes on Bennie’s Celebrity. He was talking to Lola that day. He thought Bennie had his days off mixed up, so that he was taking care of the pick up. He was partially right, Bennie was there, but he was in the safe. The noises from the safe got fewer and further between, quieter, then stopped all together. Brutus started howling and whining from the back of the warehouse. Brando’s death scene in The Godfather always was one of Bennie’s favourites, but I think he would rather have played it in a tomato patch. When the security guys from the pick up company arrived, there was no one around. They called Red and told him that they could see the cat in the office window and that Bennie’s car was there, but no Bennie. By this time I was hungry, the litter box was filling up. I knew, from Brutus’s mournful howl, that Bennie had somehow died in the safe.
Red drove over from Lola’s the next morning. He took a long time calling long distance, pushing digital codes to open the safe before its special time. Red’s reputation was on the line. The reputation of his service to the big companies. The security company had to have the money. Red breathed through his nose a lot, walked around the office with a serious expression followed by the security guards talking into their cell phones. If they had arrived earlier, if Red hadn’t taken so long to open the safe, they could have seen Bennie gasping for his last breath. The police were called as soon as Red opened the door and found Bennie dead in the safe, the money gone. Red seemed surprised and a little hurt by the discovery of Bennie’s body. When he saw the cat dishes of water and food inside the safe door he adopted me on the spot. He took me home to his very comfortable estate. It was as if he was protecting me. He switched from Linda to Lola just after Bennie’s funeral. Linda accused him of holding out on her, but Red paid her off. It wasn’t the payment she wanted but she had to settle for it. The police questioned all of Bennie’s friends. Nobody talked and no one was caught for the theft. Lola’s a real cat lover so I’m pampered and lazy here. There are no poker games with smoke and interesting smells, but the food is great. Yesterday she got some cat treats and served them to me on a pillow. It gets harder and harder to remember life at Bennie’s. Red suffered his loss manfully, in public. Bennie’s death was so shocking that Red’s compensation from the insurance company went unnoticed.
Red doesn’t know Mutt or Jeff or Slocum. They don’t move in the same circles. They were all there at Bennie’s funeral which was also attended by a large number of undercover cops. I watched from the passenger seat of Red’s Caddy. When it was over they filed past the Cadillac on their way to the cars. Red argued with Linda over Bennie’s grave. Slocum looked me right in the eye and winked as he passed the windshield. He knew that I had seen it all and that Red was a good provider. tontopress.com
1 INARTICULATE SPEECH OF THE HEART CONSIDERED
If you overlook the financial calculations involved in recording, selling and buying, it becomes difficult to assess the worth of a piece of music to anyone. Music, no matter what kind, is valuable in itself. It can transcend time, language and cultures. Van Morrison’s album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, is a collection of original songs which celebrates the spiritual side of people. It isn’t a bunch of songs dedicated to the description of a relationship between two people, but a demonstration of the creative spark, a recognition of the muse and a long range point of view of the human race. Not a love song to be found. Few will go to the trouble of locating, buying and listening to the cd, alone, through to the end, perhaps in their favourite writing space, but if they did. If they did, they would find background music, muted, to create by, or upbeat songs to which to dance a jig or with which to hum along. To each their own, choosing the music to background their writing, some preferring music with no lyrics, some no sound at all. But for those who like a little music in the background, this album has everything. The instrumentals are similar to some of Mark Knopfler’s creations.
It would be a waste of time for me to try to describe each song in detail. That’s why Van Morrison wrote and recorded them. In fact, the album has a release date of 1983. It’s over 20 years old and it’s the first time I’ve looked closely at it. Except for the cover which is clever and beautiful. The songs can lighten up a room and pull one’s self out of self centred thoughts or draw one into deep contemplation. They can raise one’s spiritual eyes for a moment. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it will take two or three plays of this disc for others to appreciate it. I don’t know and delving analytically into it isn’t what I usually do. I just know that it’s nice to have it on in the background when I’m rereading what I’ve written the day before or when I’m checking out websites. These songs which I know by heart often start me off writing before I switch to lyricless jazz. It also helps with broken hearts, hangovers and situations of loneliness. laurahird.com
1 SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA CONSIDERED
Like the bears in the zoo which plod the same circle day after day, I dutifully checked the Pynchon section of the public library. The past years of habitual checking had produced nothing but it was part of my routine. Then, one day, there was a new book in the Pynchon section. I took it home with great expectations. Intellectual memories were blurred by time but the feeling of excitement was the same. I had read Gravity’s Rainbow and V so many years before that I had forgotten what they were about. But I had a strong feeling, took it for granted, that Thomas Pynchon was an important writer to me. Life intervened and I never got to finish the book of seven hundred pages. It was called, MASON AND DIXON. Years later when a Mark Knopfler cd came out, I bought it and listened with relish to SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA, the song. He does it as a duet with James Taylor. Returning from three years in Europe, I spent $40 of the $60 with which I landed in Ottawa, on a concert featuring Dire Straits and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Mark Knopfler’s the only concert I’ve gone to see in the past thirteen years, since we moved to the country.
In other words, I am a Mark Knopfler fan. I even liked his instrumental duets with Chet Atkins. James Taylor’s songs and voice and his connections to Apple Records and Jimmy Buffet and Carly Simon sent thoughts in another direction. Then, suddenly, I heard the words to the song. I realized what the characters, each of whom had a voice, one of Mark Knopfler and one of James Taylor, were saying. They were sailing to Philadelphia to draw the Mason - Dixon line. I assumed, at first, that it was a coincidence. Then, in an interview, Mark Knopfler said that he had respectfully distilled the 700 page book into a two minute song. He was exploring the phenomenon that is America and this was a part of it which he articulated in his own way. Now that Pynchon ‘s 1000 page novel is about to be published, Ian Rankin discloses, in a Guardian interview on the dogmatika.com website, that he is a real Pynchon nut. He was going to do a PHD on the writer. Ian Rankin reminds me that Pynchon dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Richard Farina. I think he was married to Mimi and they played folk music. For sure he wrote a book called BEEN DOWN SO LONG, LOOKS LIKE UP TO ME which was popular. I can’t remember anything about that book but I know that it was the source of many weird names considered for rock bands of the day. laurahird.com
PLANET WAVES CONSIDERED
“In this age of fibreglass I’m searching for a gem”
Planet Waves B. Dylan
I don’t know who started it or how it started but it became a tradition and a ritual. We (Dave, Robin, Frank, Norm, Paul, Al and Mike to name some of the main participants) lived in a house on the corner of 4TH Ave and Balaclava in the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver. They say it has become very exclusive and expensive there now. Then we had a single mother with an almost teenage daughter living next door to us. She was convinced that the RCMP (she called them “The Horsemen”) had killed her husband who had been a heroin dealer. The tradition was turning a Saturday (if we were working or any afternoon if we weren’t) into a Tequila Sunrise or Bloody Caesar or Harvey Wallbanger day. We all supplied the ingredients if we could plus whatever beer and smoke were available, threw open the doors and windows and cranked up the stereo.
It is incumbent upon residents of Vancouver to take advantage of every sunny day there. Even the British climate doesn’t seem as depressing as the long, grey, cold, wet stretches of days and weeks which occur in Vancouver winters. Maybe it’s not so bad for natives but we weren’t natives and knew very few. Everyone was from somewhere else. I remember Meddle and Band on the Run and Peaceful Easy Feeling blaring out across the postage stamp lawn as we played frisbee or catch with a football. The one which was played the most on those days was Planet Waves. It was the last time Dylan recorded in a studio with The Band. They had already toured with him as The Hawks and they toured again in support of Planet Waves. Not a bad backup band. They honed their chops in Toronto backing up Rompin Ronnie Hawkins, The Hawk. In The Last Waltz (1978) Robbie Robertson describes Ronnie Hawkin’s pitch upon hiring the talented teenagers as something like, “the money ain’t great, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatry”. The Hawk was from the southern US and had plenty of experience in small bars there where the band onstage was separated from the audience by chicken wire to protect them from missiles like beer bottles thrown their way. He says he was a hard taskmaster. He didn’t want a backup band which learned songs on stage or made a lot of mistakes. He made them practice and practice hard. The Hawk was recently interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulis on Canadian tv about his miraculous recovery from pancreatic cancer. A young healer (an underground healer, one
not recognized by the established system) heard of his plight and helped him recover. Now he’s still laughing about the miracle and, as he tours, sharing his joy. The best known song on Planet Waves is Forever Young. It’s obvious when you listen to the lyrics why Rod Stewart covered it. I don’t know whether he added some words of his own, but every parent, rock star or not, can understand the sentiment behind the lyrics of the song. On side 2 of Planet Waves The Band whipped up one fast version with their electric jug band style, but the slow version on side 1 with Robbie Robertson’s tasty licks is one of the best rock songs ever written in my opinion. I know some people can’t stand Dylan’s music and his voice even though it’s in key and timed properly, but anyone who admires the power of the English language has to, at least, respect him as a writer. “Twilight on the frozen lake, North wind about to break...” are ten words which open Never say Goodbye and an instant image is conjured up in the listener’s mind. Planet Waves also contains Going, Going, Gone which is another song created with great lyrics and the collaboration of musicians which doesn’t overpower the lyric content. It is a good example for all bands who have realised that the most beautiful music is created by individuals contributing to the song, not trying to stand out from everyone else. There were a lot of women around that house but, unfortunately, one look at the state of the kitchen and bathroom discouraged most from living there. I have to admit that someone only making it to the kitchen sink before they threw up on a Tequila Sunrise Day was a little much. Naturally, none of us had washed any dishes for a long time and that made it worse.
The sunny days got fewer when Fall hit and gradually petered out. The occupants reached a low point in January when we watched the Superbowl on acid with no food and the sound turned up to drown out the sound of the wind and rain lashing the street outside. Then someone got out of jail and landed there, bringing quick visits from cops when he ran outside and threw beer bottles at motorists passing by on 4th Ave. The carefree, sunny days of Planet Waves were gone. â€œMy dreams are made of iron and steel, with a big bouquet of roses hanging down, from the heavens to the groundâ€? Planet Waves B. Dylan laurahird.com
1HAPPINESS OF FISH
The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of fish. Chuang Tzu.
Many years ago for some reason St Patâ€™s became a part of Carleton U and there were shuttle buses running between campuses. I could catch one a few blocks from the funky old house we lived in on Lewis Street. The three of us ended up there for unremembered reasons and survived quite well. Ronnie Knowles was an original member of the group who created The Rainbow on Murray Street and is now doing an important job at the annual Bluesfest. The other guy was Fred Armstrong. He and I loved Kerouac and Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. We spent more than a few nights drinking red wine and reading our stuff to one another. It was terrible writing but exciting at the time. When everyone else headed West, Fred and a girl who later became his first wife, took a Greyhound bus as far east as they could go in Canada. I remember getting postcards from him in St Johnâ€™s exclaiming that there were many boddhisatvas to be discovered there. Life took us in different directions and about a year ago I got an email asking if I was the same guy who lived on Lewis Street thirty five years ago. I had found Fred again. Or he found me through the internet. The good news was that after all this time, he was getting a book published.
Happiness of Fish was published in November, 2007 by Jesperson Publishing, St John’s, NL. Broke, as usual, I waited till Christmas and sure enough received the present of a gift certificate issued by a large chain book store. I would rather have purchased it through an independent book store but I couldn’t afford to. The big store located it on amazon.com, ordered the book for me and called when it arrived. Now that I’ve read it, I feel obligated to comment on it. Not obligated to Fred, but to everyone else. Every detail of a man’s life is impossible to describe in two hundred and fifty pages but a different point of view, an outline of his time and place and some of his feelings can be communicated well if it is done with precision and care. If it is a fictional character who is the narrator, names can be changed to protect the innocent and the weapons of a sharp witted writer’s arsenal can be used to greater effect. Thirty five years as a print, radio and television reporter in St John’s (a mention of his defence of Wind in the Willows as a book written for adults is on the CBC radio website now) honed Fred’s writing skills so that his readers enjoy themselves. Happiness of Fish is deceptively simple at first. As one reads further it becomes apparent that the minute details of the protagonist’s (Gerry Adamson) journey through life are as important as the big ideas and questions which confront him. And they become important to the reader On the first page he describes a telephone caller’s attitude who has somehow reached him at the radio station office instead of the talk show she is attempting to phone as
“somewhere between a nanny-ish desire for precision and ethnic cleansing” when she concludes that he is not a native Newfoundlander. Rather than explain that he’s probably lived in St John’s longer than she’s been alive, he passes her call onto the studio. When you think of it, there are few Canadian stories wherein the protagonist goes East. There are stories of Easterners, Quebecers and Ontario natives travelling West, and some about people who have returned East from their western jobs and adventures, but few in which the protagonist intentionally moves East. Gerry’s motivation for the move to St John’s is never clearly defined but seems perfectly natural in the book. It is based on his assumption that moving East in this country is not just acceptable but taken for granted as a smart thing to do. Gerry writes off one marriage and quits drinking during his first years in Newfoundland, navigates bachelorhood and eventually meets Vivian, his second wife, who comes complete with two grown children, Duane and Melanie, and her youngest daughter, Tanya. Duane, his wife Gretchen and their kids end up living in Ottawa and become Christian fundamentalists. The conflict with the underlying Bhuddism of Gerry’s philosophy makes for great humour when they visit St John’s. Vivian’s middle daughter, Melanie, is married to Darren who tries to make a go of it with a donair and pizza restaurant but fails and moves to Alberta. Gerry and Vivian are left with the debt they incurred to start the business. Tanya, the child who Gerry knows best, finds counting elk in the Rockies of Alberta much more interesting than the business classes at the university. When he looks at what is going on around him, Gerry wonders if maybe she’s leading a saner life.
There is no international intrigue or breathless action or gloomy suicidal despair in Happiness of Fish. Living in Newfoundland with the background of Mt Cashel and the cod fishery and offshore oil is enough. Gerry’s pleasure is his sailboat and his ambition is to write it all down somehow. He does several character sketches as he forces himself to write in the basement beside the furnace, in a concrete block office rented especially for writing and in the snow covered sailboat which is buttoned up for the winter. The writer’s group he joins has trouble with his inconsistency and aimlessness. It’s a book about a guy writing a book, but it’s a lot more. Gerry travels to Ottawa twice, once to visit his old mother in a nursing home and once to witness her death at the Civic Hospital and bury her. On that occasion he shows his wife the tunnels of Carleton U. Shopping for furniture is how he thinks of picking out his mother’s coffin. Cocktail party and politically correct funeral behaviour are natural targets for his interior monologue. The most enjoyable thing about Happiness of Fish is the underlying compassion of the book. In all of the family and personal problems which Gerry has to face, there is an irrepressible sense of the absurd in the background. There are a lot of sacred cows to be well and truly skewered but their suggestion is enough. After all, wasn’t Buddha a compassionate fellow? He keeps reminding himself to act like a grown up but can’t help noticing how ridiculous things are.
A Newfoundlander coming to settle in Ottawa sees the city with completely different eyes than a native. The same is true of a transplanted Ottawan in St John’s. Fred calls Happiness of Fish his “coming of age book at 60". In that description is contained all the Kerouacian, zen, mischievous, Pythonesque suggestions of absurdity that back up this book. The action in Happiness of Fish takes place from 2003 till 2006 so it is a contemporary novel. The flashbacks to earlier times in Ottawa and St John’s give the reader a good sense of place. It is satisfying to read a friend’s book and be proud. writersfestival.org
1 THE LAST WALTZ CONSIDERED
The Last Waltz was a revolutionary documentary. It was the first concert movie shot in 35 mm, the record of a celebration of the Band’s last concert on the site of their first show as The Band. It is the visual evidence that more than thirty years ago Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel had the good sense to go out on top. There are many examples of actors, politicians, athletes and rock stars who didn’t. The movie itself, I hour, 37 minutes, was directed by Martin Scorsese. No matter what you think of Hollywood, his credentials as a director are undisputed. His list of credits, accomplishments and awards means that Scorsese is a serious director, not one to waste energy. At the time, 1976, a time when the underground half of the 60's generation was realizing that the other half was following in the footsteps of their parents, embracing the values that their governments, their elders and betters, praised and promoted, Scorsese was in the middle of directing NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a huge, expensive Hollywood project. Unbeknownst to the New York, New York producer who would have had a heart attack if he’d known, Marty (as he is referred to by almost everyone in the movie) took a weekend off, filmed the concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, put together the rest of it in a week and filmed three more songs on a Hollywood sound stage a few months later. It was edited and released in 1978. The sets, lighting, photography, sound and all the myriad details that go into
movie creation were taken care of by hook or by crook, often improvised by world renowned experts in their fields. The project took on a life of its own. It was not made for profit and grew into an important cultural event. Before Scorsese made The Last Waltz, there was WOODSTOCK (where he worked as an assistant director and editor and learned what not to do), GIMME SHELTER, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and an Elvis film, but no other single concert had been as carefully choreographed, as meticulously set and photographed as this. There were seven cameras shooting at times, each run by a professional and, in many cases, a world famous cinematographer. Bill Graham’s lawyers forced Scorsese’s assistant to negotiate each camera movement because he controlled the stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience. It is best to mention here that the DVD of The Last Waltz is available cheap at your local DVD purveyor. This one only cost ten Canadian dollars to buy, a great bargain for musicians, writers and anyone else interested in rock ‘n roll and the making of movies. The “Special Features” additions on the DVD contain a lot of comical and serious comments by the movie makers, Mac Rebenak, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples and the band members which can be listened to as the movie plays. As each band member, song and guest performer appears, someone talks about them. The story of The Band’s creation and growth through sixteen years of living on the road unfolds through a series of interviews with band members interspersed among the songs, mostly answers to questions posed by Scorsese himself, questions provided by a professional screenwriter. Many of the answers are funny, some ironic, some poignant, but one feeling
permeates the whole movie, a sort of good natured humour, an amused observation of the world at large and a sincere appreciation of the music. The Band were aware that the odds of survival for such a long time in such a high risk lifestyle, were against them. Robbie Robertson says, at the end of the movie, “The road has taken some of the great ones” and “You can push your luck”. Three of the Band’s songs were filmed on an MGM sound stage where Scorsese could control everything and was free to use a crane and a camera as in normal movies. The Weight, in which Pop and Mavis Staples sing verses and all four harmonize on the choruses with members of the band, Evangeline, which is filmed in stunning colour with Emmy Lou Harris doing an achingly sweet call and response with Levon, and The Last Waltz theme song which is a waltz written by Robertson who is playing a double necked acoustic guitar as he performs it with the Band, were all filmed on sets designed by Boris Leven, a friend of Scorcese and the production designer on The Sound of Music and New York, New York. It was Leven who was responsible for renting the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata and setting it up in the beat up, spruced up, old Winterland Ballroom for the concert. His original idea was to fill the place with chandeliers but they couldn’t afford more than three. It’s fitting that while the rest of their generation was trying to deal with the post Vietnam world, the plan for The Last Waltz was hatching and growing between Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese in a couple of months of creativity and hard work. At first, there was no budget, just an idea. It was cobbled together by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought. The Last Waltz began, in a way, underground, and became the standard by which all concert movies are measured.
When the concert was over, Scorsese and Robertson agreed that through all the craziness and frenetic activity, through the power of the music and the personalities, maybe, just maybe, they might have produced a gem. The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Martin Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and breaking the balls on a pool table. Then, in a way which makes sense only when you’ve watched the whole thing and listened to the commentary, The Band returns to the stage for an unplanned encore after the concert’s over. They play Don’t Do It and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a car travelling through a beat up neighbourhood of San Francisco to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lined up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out. A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of The Last Waltz logo as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood. In the first interview Marty asks Robbie if they’re really “just friends” who showed up. Robbie tells him that no, the musical guests aren’t just friends, they’re probably the biggest influences in music to a whole generation. Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight where he recites a short piece of Canterbury Tales in olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at
the end of the show, just before Dylan, with a quick, cool poem. They are the connection to the Beats, their presence welcomed. Kerouac’s spirit. As Robbie says, it isn’t about the audience so they don’t appear except for a few reverse shots which Scorsese loved. The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek, interwoven with guests who play only one song each. Dr John displays that New Orleans piano style, slow drawl and dazzling smile on What a Night. Joni Mitchell’s strumming and phrasing make the room feel like everything’s in motion as she stands golden haired and innocent singing the naughty lyrics of Coyote. The floor shakes to the beat of everyone stomping to Muddy’s Mannish Boy. In the Special Features section there is a hilarious commentary on Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with his tour de force performance of Caravan and almost cracks a smile. He had lived in Woodstock when The Band lived there and was an old friend. Scorsese manages to get Joni’s profile in shadow when she sings an ethereal harmony to Neil Young’s Helpless. Garth Hudson’s head is suddenly illuminated as he stands to play a sax, trading solos with Robbie’s guitar in It Makes No Difference. Clapton trades licks with Robertson on Further On Up The Road after his guitar strap comes undone and Robbie picks up the solo without missing a beat. Neil Diamond, a companion from their Tin Pan Alley days, sings a song looking like he’s ready for Vegas.
Paul Butterfield pulls off an amazing physical feat when he plays along with Muddy. Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy and Van the Man all exit the stage the same way, deliberately, with a flourish. In the commentaries Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which later became Dylan’s backup band, then The Band. He says he hired Robbie Robertson, the kid, to be a roadie as a favour to the boy’s mother. Robbie was hanging out with some guys who might end up in the penitentiary. Richard Manuel, quiet and gentle, always reminding me of The Furry Freak Brother comics in the interviews, roars the lyrics to The Shape I’m In with a strong singing voice made for the blues and slow dancing, rough and smooth at the same time. Levon Helm’s performance vocally and on the drums is hypnotizing . The physical energy required to play and sing that long and that hard is clear in the movie. Rick Danko’s voice is “mournful and strange with off the wall harmonies” as Mac Rebenak put it. It is sweet and harsh with power and feeling. Dylan (another funny commentary in the Special Features section) sings Forever Young and leads his former band into Baby, Let Me Follow You Down. The finale, with everyone onstage, is Dylan’s, I Shall Be Released. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is unique. He can play like a lot of people but no one ever plays like him, no one’s got his style , it’s really unique. Ringo and Ronnie Wood appear playing in an out take of a jam until, after 6 hours of filming, the cameras and people take a break.
There may be better bands at some things but only these musicians could have pulled this off. A concert which requires a backup band for a variety of performers can be accomplished technically, but the life which The Band injected into the songs, the huge variety of styles they had to adapt to, could only have been done by them. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show. The sex is in the music. Understated and hinted at, never openly mentioned, the sex is in the music. In the interviews Scorsese asks about women on the road. The answers are, for the most part, as vague and euphemistic as the references to â€œfunâ€? and other bad habits. Garth Hudson states with certainty that the greatest priests on 52 nd street in New York were the musicians. Songwriters were the low men and women on the totem pole but the street musicians were the greatest healers. Thirty years after the movie was made, Martin Scorsese has done another concert film with The Rolling Stones called Shine a Light. Waiting to borrow my copy of The Last Waltz are a twenty year old drummer and a seventeen year old bass player. It means that Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson and everyone involved in the movie did produce a gem. And it means that all is not lost. emptymirrorbooks.com
THE END OF PART 1