Friday, April 18, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-Two

Mrs. Shimoda sat at the dining room table performing her monthly Saturday morning ritual of going through her purse, purging it of loose change, bills of sale, old tissues, slips of paper with appointment reminders, crumpled grocery lists like shadows of every list made and every one to come, pink post-it notes with numbers for fashion patterns desired and notions required, individually wrapped candies from restaurant visits with her son, ATM bank receipts as thin and smooth as India paper, and the inevitable dross of dusty lint in the seams of interior pockets. Hesitating, she withdrew a small strip of cloth in a pale shade of purple, one she had brought to the fabric store to seek out the right buttons for the blouse she'd been making; she rubbed it between her right thumb and forefinger, and recalled the Sunday afternoon she wore it to her grandson's birthday party, an afternoon overflowing with moments of gratitude and pleasure, moments of lucid smiles and gentle laughter no camera could possibly capture. She placed it on the table beside the loose change, and in doing so, shuffled a few coins off the edge with her sleeve. She heard them fall and noticed one rolling in a long arc towards the corner cabinet like a rogue car wheel after an accident. With a sigh, she made her way over and bent down on her knees to look underneath, and as she reached in to sweep the ten cent coin out, she saw the rough side of a jigsaw puzzle piece nestled behind one of the front legs. Picking it up, she recognized the shape. She turned it over to the shiny side glazed like a porcelain bathroom fixture, and there was the hand of the geisha holding the parasol, the missing symmetrical jigsaw piece reaching out to embrace and complete the image with the other 999 interlocking fragments she no longer had. Her son had returned the puzzle to the shop seeking a refund. She could hear his laconic explanation, 'defective' he would have said, 'missing a piece'. She looked down at this now redundant fragment in the palm of her hand thinking of a compass, a delicate hand holding the shaft of the bamboo oil-paper parasol, the thumb pointing North.

She couldn't conceive how it found its way under the corner cabinet.

Back at her seat, she began to return items into her purse: wallet, keys, pens, a vintage compact with an image of pale flowers which reminded her of an Aubusson carpet, lip gloss, a notebook, a package of tissues, a comb, a folded blue nylon tote bag in its pouch which mimicked her dark blue and white embroidered omamori (a gift from her daughter-in-law as a charm for her travel safety, one she hoped would bring green lights, never red), a tape measure, miniature scissors for coupon cutting, spare reading glasses, a nail file, and a few adhesive bandages for small cuts. Picking up the jigsaw piece, she thought, for the briefest of moments, of placing it in the bottom of her purse, but quickly dismissed it as an idea induced by a mischievous spirit. She would dig a hole in the earth at the base of her small bamboo shrub in her back garden, and bury it deep enough to avoid the reach of squirrels. Best place for it she thought. She looked out the dining room window and was reassured that such a task was still possible. The snowfall had been minimal over the last week. The ground was still pliable. Tomorrow, she thought. She would bury it tomorrow. Her morning shopping lay ahead.

Halfway down the hill on her way towards the Atwater Market in search of a nice piece of fish for her dinner that evening, she recognized a car coming up the hill, the driver looking tired and expressionless, her hands grabbing the steering wheel at the eleven and one position as if it at a ship's wheel and lost at sea. Mrs. Shimoda smiled and nodded her head, but Amelia didn't see her. Poor girl, she thought, preoccupied with Duncan's business closure. Amelia had told her all about it and had jokingly been reassured that they wouldn't be bringing the weight of a bookshop home. She had been reassured, though the thought of lying on her bed beneath a dangerous weight of books on the floor above had given her a singular nightmare one evening. She'd dreamt of waking up in her room with books pouring from the ceiling like sand into the bottom of an hour-glass, an unstoppable influx of print, and there she was clambering up the growing pyramid of books only to slip down to the bottom perimeter where the door of her room had been wedged shut. She had awoken, the sheets in disarray, the ceiling intact, mumbling the word hashigo, hashigo, hashigo.

The sidewalks were more slippery than she'd expected, the patches of ice and city-spread sand were distributed along the concrete path like frozen ponds and hazards of a golf course. Carefully she made her way down the hill. She decided she would take a taxi back from the market, and she wondered with anticipation if she'd be fortunate to come across Olivier. Such a pleasant smile and so polite. So helpful opening doors and helping her with packages. She was usually disinclined to participate in small talk, but with Olivier it was different. He asked how she was, talked about the weather, asked after her family, discussed his, all with his Haitian-accented English which charmed her into amiable and relaxed responses as she breathed in the sandalwood aroma of his car, making her feel as if she was sitting on a sofa in his living room. She had to admit, she accentuated her elderly qualities when around him, stooping slightly, walking a little slower, sighing with a touch of dramatic nuance. It was all give and take, authentic and studied, like life itself she thought.

*


Isabelle Cloutier closed her eyes and listened to the coffee machine. The inhalation and exhalation of water and air sounded like a Jacques Cousteau underwater adventure, the clicks, the bubbling, the drips and splashes of the dark tinted liquid leading to the heightened finale as the machine coughed and burbled, an expiration akin to the scuba diver taking the mouth piece from between their lips and releasing the oxygen into the water.

Breathing in the aroma of the fresh-brewed coffee, she felt as weightless as her imaginary diver rising to the surface of morning.

Pouring herself a cup, she walked over to her bistro table by the window where a sun-catcher in the shape of a snowy owl cast an opaque reflection upon her. She turned her tablet on and clicked on her Twitter account with its made up name and Twitter handle, AtheneNoctua. Her profile image, a small owl, looked back at her as she entered her password. Each Tweeter's distinctive profile picture acted as immediate sign posts to content, a diverse news feed for her interests. Her eyes quickly scanned the tweets, skimming the surfaces, reading the first words of tweets and passing on:

A question of . . .
Scientists find . .
Do you have . . .
Watch this . . .
A look at . . .
Is the . . .
When asked to . . .
How crime will . . .
Who was responsible . . .
Your voice will . . .
Around in circles . . .
So excited . . .
Looking for a . . .
I can't be the only . . .
Nothing's more . . .
What does it say . . .
RIP . . .
Good morning . . .
Excited about all . . .
In a cab with . . .
Scientists have made . . .
Sad news . . .
Oh joy . . .
If the weather continues . . .
Still buzzing from . . .
I've decided i don't . . .
The top 20% of . . .
On this day . . .
Are Saturn's rings . . .

Between her hangover and her work week exhaustion, her concentration was as passive as a cat lying in the sun. She logged out of Twitter and checked her personal email. Messages and updates from a science magazine, online shoe sale, Clearly Contacts, travel opportunities, and one from Sotheby's with a catalogue of an upcoming sale of nineteenth century art. She knew her energy was low as she logged out of her account without looking at the catalogue, usually such a pleasurable weekend pastime as she searched for possible depictions of owls in paintings or sculpture she might conceivably afford.

Looking down into the back yard, she noticed her empty garbage can on its side, possibly knocked over by the wind, its dark opening like a tunnel entrance. This triggered the memory of a dream. She'd been walking into a tunnel, about twenty feet in circumference, and after a long trek in, the tunnel had begun to narrow, gradually at first, and then dramatically so, until thirty feet ahead of her, her flash light had revealed a convergence of the circle into a point like the inside of a steeple. Turning around, all had been dark. She couldn't see the light of the entrance, and she thought the tunnel must have curved. It was then she'd awoken wrapped and tangled in her sheets feeling frantic and trapped. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and wondered if it was symbolic of her evening spent with her girlfriend Carol at the book launch she'd dragged her to. 'You might meet someone new,' she'd said, 'someone literary, artsy.' She sipped her coffee recalling the evening spent drinking cheap red wine while a University of Montreal professor read from his latest book of poetry surrounded by hipsters with facial hair, plaid shirts, small fedoras, tattoos, dark rimmed glasses, and sloppy jeans and running shoes. The young women had worn outfits with shear panels, visible zippers, tall leather boots, and looked like they lived off cigarettes and carrot juice. And everyone had been so bloody young, and seemingly more concerned with the activity around smart phones and selfies than the obscure meanings of the poet's offeringss. What had Carol been thinking? But they'd had fun afterwards at the trendy Baldwin Barmacie on Laurier, where they talked, releasing all the stress and demands of their respective jobs while confirming each other's woes in soft voices and undertones. She smiled thinking of Carol's wordplay concerning the young men and women at the reading: Between the sad men and the Mad Men, you have the plaid men. Between the tattoos and the Jimmy Choos, you have the whose who's.

In the living room, sitting in her comfortable high back corner chair, she curled her legs up and wrapped a crochet throw around her shoulders and stared at the painting entitled Phantom of the North, a Great Grey Owl in flight, its piercing yellow eyes and hooked yellow beak facing her as if she was the prey, the enormous head and its heart-shaped face with semi-circular feather arrangements in curving lines of super-symmetry and its extraordinary outstretched wings showing off its banded feathers ready to wrap her in an embrace before the talons found their mark.

After a long, seemingly dreamless period of moody darkness—imageless dreams sightless people are said to experience—she thought of the abundance of evocative dreams she'd had this past week. A dream with owls was not uncommon with her but this one had been unusual. She'd awoken on Thursday morning to recall one of finding an owl in a barn-like modern house; she'd looked up to see it in the peak of the rafters, and she'd opened a door and called to it as if to a cat. As it swooped towards her, she'd prostrated herself on the floor facing a glass-fronted China cabinet which reflected the owl's flight over her, a baby owl she could see. Then fear had entered as she'd sensed a large mother owl swoop down and join the owlet. Realizing the owls were still inside the building, she had opened a further door and followed the same procedure only to find herself in a large screened in porch and she had to reenact the process once more. Finally, the owls had been released and she was standing in the sun, a sense of great contentment and freedom overcoming her. If it signified a revelation in her life, she had yet to see how.

A small stack of envelopes and flyers, Friday's mail, lay on the table by the door. She got up and brought them back to her chair and sorted through them. An envelope with Edward Seymour's distinctive script caught her eye. No stamp. Hand-delivered. She opened it and found a card with an image of a Dutch interior. Her eyes first lighted upon the dog in the foreground beside the leaning broom, then the grey-striped cat with its arched tail in the middle distance, then the parrot in the opened cage above, then the white piece of paper, an envelope, on the bottom stair to the right, and only then did her eyes wander down the black and white tile floor to the the depths of the painting and notice a framed picture in a room to the right, but quickly concluded it was a mirror and the reflection of a black-hatted man with his back to her facing a young woman in blue to his right. It was such a richly detailed interior, it pulled her in, instilling a desire to be there, petting the dog, cuddling the cat, calling up to the parrot, and reaching down for the letter and opening it to read its contents. Isabelle turned the card over and read that the painting was called, View of a Corridor by Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1662, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Dryham Park, National Trust. Within, she read Edward's short note.

Dear Isabelle,

I was rummaging about in desk drawers and found some old cards I bought when on vacation in England in the mid-eighties, my foray into the Cotswolds and environs, all Chipping this and Chipping that. Such lovely stone buildings in that area of the world. Such golden warmth. I remember visiting Stanway House and from there, making my way south west exploring Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bristol, Bath and all interesting sights along and around the way, including Dryham Park which has, I seem to remember, an astonishing collection of Dutch art. You must make a trip my dear. Well worth the time. The cage door is ajar. The cage door is ajar.

I just wanted to let you know that our Thérèse Laflamme visited me unannounced this week, and her memory of the David Ashemore case had returned to her. Something about reading a friend's work of fiction in progress had triggered her recall. I just wanted to warn you in case I had possibly mentioned your name to my niece who is now friends with Thérèse, and who could possibly mention your name and your enquiry on my behalf. My old brain. I can't be sure if I mentioned it to her or not. In any case, I told Thérèse to get on with her life. If there were wrong doings involved in Ashemore's death, time will work it out. It is out of our hands now.

I can't guarantee anything. A strong willed young woman like Thérèse is a force of nature.

Anyway, my dear, we must get together over the coming holidays. If you're alone for Christmas dinner, consider yourself invited. Please let me know.

All my love,
Edward


She held the card wondering if she was indeed called upon, would she take up the cause? Or would she take that vacation?

© ralph patrick mackay

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy-One

The small coin rose up high above them flickering with a crescent of reflected light—whether merely wavering back and forth or fully rotating they couldn't tell in the dismal street lamp's glow—before reaching its acme of freedom in the cold December air, a moment that would likely decide its future before its descent. Heads they would go to Hurleys, tails, to Brutopia, and if they flubbed the catch, and it dropped to the slush and snow at their feet, they would go to the Madhatter, the five cent coin a donation to the distant spring thaw when some keen-eyed waif would perceive it as a coin of incremental value and pocket it carefully with its kind. Whether it was the dimness of their surroundings, the chill in their fingers, or the rowdy Concordia University students who passed them making a joke about referees and the Montreal Alouettes, they missed the catch. Madhatter it was. Crossing the street, they settled their thoughts upon the warmth of a corner seat, a pitcher of beer, a mound of crispy hot onion rings, a dish of steaming chicken wings, and the pretty face of a server who could probably take out an unruly customer with a flick of her serving tray.

“My stomach's been growling all afternoon,” Tom Culacino said, bringing a rough-edged onion ring to his lips. “I don't think I had lunch.”

“Tabernak, that's what you always say.” Yves poured beer into their glasses. “Growling all the time your stomach. It's like a little animal down there. Feed me, feed me.” They laughed. “Remember that song by Dunc's brother, that punk anthem with da growling stomach?”

“Hmm, how can I forget. I think it etched a little place in my brain forever.” Tom looked to the scuffed wood floor, and began to tap his foot while recalling the lyrics. “I don't know, but I have a hunch, day to day's no poetry. As they say, there's no free lunch, our stomach's are growling with poverty. It was the repeat of those last five words over and over that ground itself into the consciousness of the crowd, their heads bobbing like those plastic novelty drinking birds.” He selected a chicken wing and held it over the plate as if contemplating a chess move. “I used to wonder if Gavan's break away band, The Spliced Off, would have gone anywhere if he hadn't died.”

Yves concentrated on the appetizers, hoping to avoid one of Tom's digressions on the nature of names and their statistical anomalies.

“There are some lovely multi-syllable names on the roster of the CBC these days.”

Yves was dipping and crunching, munching and sipping. He gave Tom a “hmm.”

“Pia Chatapati, Ian Hanomansing, Paolo Pietropaolo, Ann-Marie Mediwake, Martina Fitzgerald, and Anna Maria Tremonti which just gallops along. Such lovely names.”

“Thomas Culacino works too,” Yves said, in the hope this would lasso Tom's run away thoughts.

“Yes, that does seem familiar.”

“I wonder where Dunc is?” Yves said checking his watch. He then took out his smart phone and dialled the bookshop. Placing a finger in his other ear to overcome the loud music from the sound system, he began to shake his head. “Just got the answering machine. Maybe he forgot.”

“Yeah, it's possible. He could be at home with a glass of wine in one hand, an open book in the other, Amelia nearby likewise, Hugh at their feet, and a piano sonata tinkling in the background.” Licking his fingers, Tom looked towards the door. “Though if he's on his way he'll find us. I tried to convince him to get a cell phone, but no, he says he doesn't need one. Too expensive.”

“I bet he went to Hurleys. He likes that triangular corner table in the front.”

“Yes, he likes that corner. Snug as a bug in a rug.”

They looked up as they heard three young women enter. The three graces stood for a moment, hesitating in their expensive coats, boots and handbags as if they'd expected an Alice and Wonderland interior instead of the rather seedy no frills pub before them. Tom and Yves exchanged looks expecting the women to turn around and deprive their sad eyes of a welcome sight, but the trio found a table and ordered pale ales.

With a voice slightly louder than before, Yves began, “There I was last night, watching les Canadiens on the tv, and Céline was looking at a magazine on fashion eh, 'Look at this,' she said, shoving this magazine in my face, 'a handbag that costs $9,000 dollars.' Tabernak, a handbag for $9,000! I told Céline that would cover the cost of that new roof we need. Handbag! Roof! Crazy.”

“Yes, but it's all relative. That kind of money to the movie star is like 90 bucks to us. Milly bought a new bag recently for about $70 and I thought that was a lot. Her money though. I told her it was lovely.”

“But $9,000 dollars? What did the designer do? Hire a private jet to fly to the Amazon to kill the animal for the leather? Then travel to the Himalaya to find the rare bird for the rare colour to dye the leather? Then get someone to weave the gold thread to stitch the bag together? A roof is tar paper, wood, nails, shingles, man hours, blah, blah, blah, profit added in. Understandable. But a handbag? C'est incroyable.”

“You forgot the generator and the portable radio blasting 80's hits to keep the roofers happy.”

They laughed and glanced over at the young women who were talking into each others ears seemingly oblivious to their loud conversation about handbags and roofers. They were working their smart phones, their safety lines to the wider world, and Tom wondered if they were tweeting about their exploratory excursions into the grottoes and warrens of Montreal's pub life. They began to take selfies, having fun, smiling, laughing. Youth he thought, so much more connected and sharing. As a computer geek, albeit an old one, he felt it was progress. He gnawed on a chicken wing thinking of his twenty year old self in 1978, a time that had offered the novelty of Walkmans and chaos theory, Fortran punch cards and fractals, pocket Instamatic cameras and Apple IIs, digital watches and DRS-80s. The slide rule, ruled, but the future hadn't come quick enough.

“Tristan's into shredding now,” Yves said, changing the subject.

Tom dragged himself back from the past. “Shredding?”

Yves mimicked the style of guitar playing by running his left hand fingers quickly up and down an imaginary fret board. “Like you know, metal guitar, what Randy Rhoads was doing in the seventies, but faster. Tristan wakes up, eats his Shreddies and those little Oateo's or whatever for breakfast, and then he practises the shredding. Sounds like scales to me. Céline bought him the headphones so he could hear himself, and we don't have to.”

“I thought he was into computing?”

“Yeah, yeah, he still wants to be a geek billionaire, but one who is cool, you know, one who can shred like his heroes, those oddballs, weird guys with names like Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and zillions of others. Mon dieu, there's like eight year olds on the Youtube shredding away like masters.” He shook his head in astonishment.

“Yeah, crazy fast times we live in.”

While they continued to diminish their plates of appetizers, Tom was thinking of the books he liked to read, postmodern, speculative works, pages thick with rapid, metaphorical riffs, ones that reminded him of the guitar virtuosity of a Joe Satriani whose riffs not only impressed, but moved, not only shook, but stirred. It was all in the emotion funnelled into the slide in and slide out, the pull off and hammer on, the melodic overlay on the rhythmic underlay. “I'm sure Tristan will go from scales to adding some emotion. The rough edges of youth are mellowed with age and experience aren't they? Look at us?”

“Hmm, yeah, mellow, like when I shovel the snow in front of my shop, and I'm fine, but an hour later, I bend over to pick up a pencil, and bam, there goes my lower back, eh, tabernak.”

Tom laughed. “Yup, I know that feeling. Surprizing what reaching for a thumbdrive can do to you.” He looked at his watch. “Maybe we should phone Dunc at home. He's already a half hour late.”

“He's got a lot of books to pack, but, he as said, he has to do that himself.” Yves withdrew his phone and began to dial. “One thing you can say about Dunc, he knows how to pack a box of books.”

“Yes, but he'll welcome us when the heavy lifting comes round.”


*

A sacred geometry of soap bubbles floated above the sink, an emblem of some distant harmony beyond everyday life. Melisande gently blew the bubbles towards Pavor who waited with a fresh drying cloth before the wood dish rack, and he too added his breath to their trajectory and together they watched their fairy-like progress as they rose and fell towards the floor between them, attracting the attention of Clio sitting on her haunches in the act of licking a forearm to wash her face.

“I was thinking of a having a labyrinth walk on the Sunday after the Saturday wedding. I could make one of my seven circuit birdseed classical labyrinths. Depends on the weather of course.”

“We've walked labyrinths together in the rain before.”

Melisande ran a soapy sponge around the edge of a plate. “Yes, but I've never created a birdseed one in the rain. I'd be wet right through. Anyway, perhaps I could create one at Pavor's friend's art gallery if it has a room big enough. Easy to sweep up birdseed after.”

“True. Nice fit with an art gallery too.”

“Walking the labyrinth would help everyone shed their habitual thinking, reawaken their centre balance, overcome their self-consciousness and open themselves to each other more fully. A new beginning for everyone.”

“It would be wonderful.,” he said, giving her a little kiss on the top of her head. He dried a plate with solemn clockwise motions. “I really am glad you asked Pavor to join us on the day. Hopefully Thérèse will agree.”

“I hope she's all right.”

“Yes, I feel responsible for triggering her involuntary memory. I shouldn't have used the fictional name Evan Dashmore. Jerome told me it was too close to David Ashemore, but I couldn't resist the evocative symmetry.”

“Maybe it's for the best. Jerome said she was more like herself. Maybe it was just what she needed.” Handing a bowl to Pavor, she imagined herself watching them all walk a labyrinth together, but then the field of vision shifted up and she rose like a soap bubble and looked down on them walking and could see they were really all walking in closed circles around each other, circles within circles, no access to each other, like the rings around some planet. “I had the oddest dream last night,” she said.

“Tea with the Queen?”

She laughed. “No. I was on a plane and in front of me was the actor Colin Firth, and beside him was a woman with a child. I figured they were his family. Then I fell asleep on the plane and dreamt I was in an absolutely enormous old house, rooms upon rooms, and a vast open gallery and entrance as well. I sensed my sister was there but I didn't see her.” Melisande stopped washing, and taking a towel, dried her hands and rested, leaning on the counter.

“You were dreaming within a dream?”

“Yes, I've never dreamt I was in a dream and then falling into a dream before. Anyway, we sensed someone was coming home, and Colin Firth showed up and was in a bad mood. He went straight to the smallest room in the house, a book-lined study and locked himself in. I went up to the door and there was a peep hole which allowed me to look in, and he was sitting at a desk, surrounded by books.” She looked down at Clio who was now in a yoga position licking her right foot.

“Then what happened?”

She looked up at him with moist eyes. “I was back in an enormous open gallery, full of sunlight, and I was twirling around and around and around.”

“Wow, that's quite a dream. Colin Firth eh?”

Dipping another bowl into the soapy water, she smiled. “The poor actor must be in many women's dreams. Mr. Darcy and all that.”

“Ah, right. That reminds me of my own dream last night. I was in the old public library you used to work for before McGill. I had two pencils and was trying to sharpen them on that old-fashioned wall mounted pencil sharpener, but they kept snapping, grinding improperly. I ended having pencils with squared ends instead of points, and so I returned to the large high marble topped circulation desk and began to make a list. I think it was groceries of all things.” Pavor tilted his head sideways trying to recall the details, details as elusive as a handful of fog. “All of a sudden the library was full of people, and the man at the desk, who seemed to be my double, began to sing opera. No one reacted. I went to the front door, the aria following me. Next I was in the metro, but had just missed the train, and, remembering a bus could get me where I wanted to go, I made my way up and caught the bus, but it was soon apparent it's route had been changed. I got off and began walking, thinking of the street I was supposed to be on, a street I dream about often, have dreamt about for years, one with the same shops, ones that sell antiques, books, flowers. I've often dreamt of entering the bookshop and browsing the shelves, picking up and handling volumes, their colour and titles palpable with felt existence, but it's a street that doesn't exist in reality, only in dream, only in my dream memory.”

Melisande washed the cutlery and then rinsed the small handful before giving them to Pavor. Their dreams seemed divergent, desperate, the beginnings of two constellations swirling towards each other. “I sometimes dream of that old library,” she said. “Dreams of finding people wandering at night when it's supposed to be closed. Anxiety dreams of having forgotten to lock the front door. I go up to them and tell them the library is closed, but no one hears me, they sit there looking through me, they walk around like ghosts. I haven't worked there for years. Places stay with you. We carry them inside.”

Pavor put down his towel and pulled her towards him hugging her tightly and rocking her back and forth as the familiar echoes of their dreams dissipated in the reality around them.


© ralph patrick mackay

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Seventy

As Melisande Bramente came to the corner across the street from Café Hermeticum, she noticed Jerome talking to a roughly clad young man with a knapsack and a dog, an image which oddly reminded her of a pastoral scene of a squire talking to a hunter and his hound. Not wanting to interrupt their conversation, she turned and approached a store window display of trendy winter-clad mannequins, their weightless legs in knee length leather boots, their heels lightly positioned in a bed of plastic snowflakes, their long leather coats with fur collars up and colourful paisley silk scarves stylishly zhushed, and their sightless eyes gazing over her head, and she remembered how unnerving she had once felt when she waited in front of such a display window on a Sunday morning, 6 a.m., not a soul about, the figures had appeared sad, eerie, and with their stilted animated gestures, ultimately absurd, prisoners behind glass like tired commuters with frozen expressions, their large eyes looking beyond the glass as if having spotted an imagined future in a multidimensional mannequin world. Seeing her reflection in the glass, she adjusted her scarf and watched the reflection of Jerome parting company with the young man and make his way into the Café.

Although she thought the placement of mirrors added a depth and a positive Feng shui, she could tell there was a lack of absorbent materials in the decor, all wood chairs, tables, stone walls and black and white tiled floor. She entered and was enveloped by the clatter of dishes and the hums, hisses and whines from the espresso machines, and though the high pitched squeal of the steaming of milk made her teeth hurt, the babble of voices and the background jazz music enlivened her with a fresh sense of otherness. Such a change from her quiet desk at the Religious library where students padded about in their socks, her co-workers whispered, and a sneeze was a welcome sign of life.

The heart-shaped surfaces of their soy lattes jiggled as they carefully approached a table near the window, a process which reminded Melisande of the egg-and-spoon races of childhood picnics, stirring up fleeting images of those other church rituals, three legged race, limbo, horseshoes.

“It's good to see you,” Jerome said, placing his jacket on the back of his chair. “It's been a while.”

Melisande nodded. “Yes, we've all been busy with our own things.” She sipped her latte and looked out the window. “It's only Friday December 7th and we're already nesting for the winter. Thanks for meeting me.”

“So, how are you and P. K. doing these days?”

“He's fine. We're fine. He sends his apologies for being so busy with his novel.” She dipped her spoon in the frothy surface and scooped up a portion to taste. “Over dinner last night he told me he thinks his characters live more than he does. They're out and about experiencing life, and he's stuck in his apartment, at his desk, in front of his computer screen. 'Shadows against the wall' he said.”

“At least he had a taste of Trieste.”

“Yes, Trieste,” she said somewhat wistfully. “Oh, we just heard that Tullio, the young man who'd crashed his motorbike and fell into a coma, is now awake and recuperating in the house Pavor was staying in. The owner of the house is his close friend from the same university, and Tullio's grandmother lives a few houses away, and she'll be bringing him homemade soups, pastas, and such.” She lifted her shoulders. “So it all worked out for the best.”

“That's good to hear,” he said, thinking that Tullio would now be looking at that garden gnome Pavor had described to him, the gnome he'd written about in the postcard limerick.

“The reason I wanted to talk to you was that I had a visit from Thérèse this week. She was having a blood test at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and she popped by the library to see me as she was passing.”

“Did she tell you?”

“Tell me . . . what?”

“I proposed. She's accepted.”

Melisande smiled and touched his hand. “That's wonderful news Jerome. I'm really happy to hear that. When did you ask her?”

“Two days ago.”

“Ah . . . that's wonderful. That's so wonderful.” Smiling, she continued to rest her hand on his.

“So . . . what did you want to tell me?”

His marriage proposal had been unexpected. It complicated her own revelation, and she couldn't think fast enough to find a substitute. “Ahh . . . well,” she said sitting back, “as I said, she just dropped by to see me since she was passing. I was busy, so I asked her to sit at my desk while I helped a student, and . . . well, she happened to see a page of Pavor's latest manuscript which I'd been rereading in my spare time, and when I returned, she was staring ahead with a frozen expression on her face, her body stiff as if she'd been turned into a tree. 'David Ashemore,' she said. 'I remember now.' And then she got up to leave. She said she was fine. Just a memory had come back to her. Nothing to worry about. She had to meet her Mother downtown and it was nice to see me. She gave me a hug and smiled and was out the door.”

Jerome, his mouth agape, looked across at her hands cupping her latte for warmth, a whisper of steam rising from edge of the foam. “What day was that?”

“Tuesday morning. Yes, Tuesday morning.” She could tell his eyes were looking inwards, searching the permutations of time to see whether Thérèse's recollection of David Ashemore might have influenced her decision to accept his hand in marriage. They sat quietly while the complex rhythms of Charlie Parker's tenor saxophone overlapped and weaved the silence between them.

“I was just concerned, you know, that . . .Thérèse might have remembered something traumatic. I wanted to know she was all right.”

“No, she's . . . she's good, fine. Actually, she's been more like herself these past few days.” He sipped his latte and looked out the window. The young man with the dog had emerged from around the corner and had sat down with his back to the wall.

“Would you consider,” she began, hoping to shift the conversation away from the past, “making it a double marriage with us on May 18th at the McGill Chapel? There will be so few people attending. No one from Pavor's side of the family, too far for his Mother, and only a few from mine. It would be lovely to have you join us in the ceremony.”

Shifting his head to one side, he looked at her as if he was judging the beauty of a vase or a statue. “I'll ask Thérèse what she thinks, but I feel she'll go for it. Sounds good to me. We won't be having many family guests either. Though I was thinking of a small reception at my friend Pascal's art gallery, Gallerie d'Art Crépescule. What do you think? Would that be ok?”

“Sounds like it would fit our budget. Wine, cheese, nibblies, nothing too formal. Yes, that sounds just right. Talk to Thérèse and then we'll get together for dinner sometime. I hope she thinks it's a good idea. It would be lovely for us all to share the day.”

Jerome nodded, then looking past her, raised his chin and lipped a silent hi to an acquaintance behind her. “She's been staying with her Mother in Varennes, and writing a few articles for a small local paper. Her Mother's actually happy we're getting married. Even to a painter like me.” He smiled broadly. “She'd like to see Thérèse settle down.”

“Mrs. Laflamme should feel lucky to have a future son-in-law like yourself,” she said. staring at his hands stained with remnant pigments deep in the creases and whorls of his fingerprints. “How's your painting these days?”

He checked his watch. “In a few hours the portrait I've been working on will be picked up and delivered, so I'm feeling good. Ready for some of my own work for a change. Something original I hope. Oh, I almost forgot, Pavor left this CD booklet at my place.” He pulled it from his coat pocket and placed it beside her cup. “A local band I dragged him to see on his first night back from Italy.”

Rough Draft. How appropriate. Two bachelors on a night out eh?” She laughed. “Would they be good for the reception?”

Jerome shook his head. “No, I don't think so, too loud. The art gallery can pipe in light background music unless you have something in mind, a jazz combo or a classical trio.”

“I guess we can figure that out over dinner.”

“Right, good.”

“Hmm.”

Reduced to monosyllables and silence, they each sipped their coffees and looked out the window at the street view outlined in the welcome light of the diminishing day.

She wondered, as she looked at the lengthening shadows across the street, if marrying Pavor would soften his protective shell, loosen the stiffness at the corner of his eyes, deepen his vulnerability and open him to writing about the death of his wife and child. She could see them walking a labyrinth together, his tall figure before her taking each step slowly as if learning to walk, step after step, occasionally loosing balance, feeling dizzy, feeling lost. Pausing, she too would pause, and then follow him on to the centre.

He could see the dog resting his chin on the young man's knee, and a hand held out as a woman passed. It was going to be a cold winter he thought. Why didn't Thérèse tell him about her recollection? Now he would have to wait. He couldn't ask. Not now. If she wanted to let him know, she would. He would hold her tighter when she stayed with him on the weekend. Kiss her more passionately. Listen to her more attentively. He'd paint her portrait. A cozy setting, sitting by the window reading a book. Late afternoon shadow and light. Domestic scene, Saturday, December 8th, 2012.


*


“Jacques Futrelle,” he said quietly to himself, leaning back against the bookshelves in the Sir Gawain section of the book stacks. He opened the book in the middle and gently snapped it shut sending a fine spray of dust into the air which hovered briefly before descending like a whale's exhalation to the taped and labeled boxes near his feet. He'd finished boxing the F's, all the Farjeons, Farnols, Farrells, Faulkners, Feinsteins, Feurbachs, Ffordes, Fieldings, Fitzgeralds, Flauberts, Flemings, Fords, Forresters, Forsters, Forsyths, Foucaults, Fowles, Freuds, Froudes, Fryes and Fuentes and others in between, but a remnant of Futrelles remained. A dilemma: start a new box, or add them to the beginning of the G's? Perhaps it was a sign. He'd always wanted to read the work of this author. The Chase of the Golden Plate by Jacques Futrelle. Might as well start here he thought. He flipped a few pages and read the dedication: To three woman I love: Fama, and Mazie, and Berta. He turned to the first chapter and read the first sentence:

Cardinal Richelieu and the Mikado stepped out on a narrow balcony overlooking the entrance to Seven Oaks, lighted their cigarettes and stood idly watching the throng as it poured up the wide marble steps.

Perfect escape reading he thought. He left the Futrelles on the shelf and looked towards the G's, his eyes skipping from Gaddis to Garcia Marquez, Garnett to Gaskell, Gass to Grass, Gernsback to Gibson, and then he slowly scanned the Gissings, Goddens, Godwins, Gogols, Goldings and Greenes. An empty box awaited, but he felt lightheaded, short of breath. Taking off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes. Dust, he thought, he just needed some fresh air. He selected a handful of books and bending down to place them in the box, he noticed the works of Robert Graves, specifically The White Goddess in a pale green Faber & Faber paperback edition. Slipping it out from between the author's Watch the North Wind Rise and New Collected Poems, he fanned the pages and breathed in the special scent of the paper and ink thinking of his first reading of the book when younger, the years when he was deep in the works of comparative mythology, enlivened by the books and lectures of Joseph Campbell, and seeking out authors in the Bollingen series, Bachofen, Eliade, Jung, Kerényi, Newman. Feeling a tightness in his chest, and overcome by a sense of claustrophobia, he sought out the narrow red floral runner rug in the central aisle between the stacks, a carpet that used to be attached to the stairs in his parent's home, a well-worn carpet upon which he used to sit, listening, thinking, following the patterns with his eyes and his fingers. Unsteady on his feet he looked towards the blind porcelain angel holding the open book in her out stretched arms, and thought he saw the great scholar of comparative mythology standing there as if guiding him on a museum tour, one hand in his tweed jacket pocket, the other gesturing towards the angel, his throaty voice discussing the lost powers of the pagan Goddesses. Nausea overcame him. He collapsed on the carpet, the bookshelves spinning around him with their gilt bindings a colourful blur. Was he suffering from an aneurysm like his Mother? A ringing in his ears and a darkness pressed down upon him.

He opened his eyes and he was on the beach once again, the beach where as a child he'd stubbed his toe on the sandstone rock with its perfect hole. He looked down and the book he'd held in his hand was now the lost amulet. Bringing it up to his eye, rough stone against his smooth skin, he scanned the horizon. A lyric from his earliest adolescent attempts at songwriting passed through his mind, Let your summers' breeze take me by the hand . . . a full moon seemed to hover over the horizon, blindingly bright through the weathered orifice, bright as the beginning of light at the birth of the u . n . . i

The phone rang. After the seventh ring, the old-fashioned answering machine's message played in the silence of the bookshop: “You've reached Lafcadio & Co. Bookshop. If I can't find it, Lafcadio can. Please leave your message after the beep and we'll get back to you. Thank you. Vous avez bien fait le numero pour Librarie Lafcadio & Co., s'il vous plaìt, laissez votre message après la tonnalité. Merci.”

“Hello, Mr. Strand. My name is Jonathan Landgrave of Landgrave & Landgrave, Notaries. I represent a client who is currently involved in the condominium development. My client was unaware of your bookshop on the premises, thinking it was occupied solely by the cordage business. It's also been drawn to his attention, that you were of service to him many years ago in preparing a special catalogue of a book collection in his possession. With this in mind, he would like to extend his hand in in a gesture of assistance. If you are interested in selling all or a portion of the stock of both businesses, he would be pleased to acquire them at the going rate. If you could arrange for a catalogue overview of your stock in both businesses, their estimated retail values, and what you would consider a reasonable purchase price, we could meet at my office to discuss the proposition in detail. We look forward to hearing from you. You can reach me at this num . . . .”


*


Melisande sat at her desk rummaging in her purse for her lemon lavender lip balm. Applying it, she noticed Pavor's CD booklet Jerome had given to her. Out of curiosity, she looked Rough Draft up on Google, and finding numerous bands with the name, narrowed her search by adding 'Montreal.' Finding the webpage, she clicked on the link and up popped a black and white site designed with letters in different fonts and scripts with the band's name across the top in bold with a treble clef in place of the letter G. Headers beneath listed News, Tour, Store, Music, Photos, Lyrics, Connect, and along one side, all the social media buttons. She clicked on photos and looked at pictures of the band performing at Le Bar Prufrock last month. The musicians seemed very young. She didn't see Pavor or Jerome amongst the attendees, but she did recognize Tom Culacino, Duncan's friend who worked down the street in the science building. Clicking on Music she read the list of songs from their eponymous album:

Thread of Love
S&M.
Hold Me
Mary Mad Maud
Phone Me Persephone
Symbiotic Syntax
Merry Mary Marry Me
Daphne's Laurel
Azure Eyelash
Muse in a Man's World.

She was about to click on the last song when Manon, her co-worker approached. She closed the window and returned to her database.

“Did I catch you looking at wedding dresses?” Manon asked, with a wink.

“Ah, coupable.”


*


Jerome was surprised to see both Bartholomew and Thaddeus at his door. He noticed the latter was holding a neatly folded Hudson Bay blanket as if it was an offering. For a brief moment, the thought crossed his mind the blanket was really for him, something to wrap his dead body in as payment for the unexpected tryst with Lucrezia, their employer's wife.

“Come in, come in. Good to see you guys again. How are you doing?”

They ignored the question, their eyes levelled at the fine white cardboard box with the dimensions of a painting. “Is this it?” Bartholomew asked pointing to the box.

“It is. I've packed it well so there shouldn't be a problem with transport. It's surrounded in a protective veil of fabric cushioned with styrofoam edges and housed in this special cardboard box I made for it. I have a large plastic bag you can put it in it you like. Will it be going to a framer first?”

“No, they have an antique frame waiting. Mr. Landgrave asked me to give you this envelope. The final payment. And our employers would like to thank you for your excellent work.”

“Thank you. Just doing my job. I hope they like it.” Jerome sensed they were both more abrupt and business-like in their manner towards him, making him wonder if Thaddeus had disclosed to his brother the details of his having dropped Lucrezia off here a few weeks back. He held the door open. “Oh, Bartholomew, I just wanted to let you know I'm getting married in the spring.”

Thaddeus had already descended the outer staircase and was opening the trunk of the car, and his twin brother, holding the painting in one hand, turned around on the outdoor landing, smiled, and said, “Congratulations. When's the big day?”

“Oh, it's not for awhile. May 18th at the McGill University Chapel. We'll be having a small reception at my friend's art gallery after. We'd be pleased if you would all join us.”

Bartholomew nodded his head. “Gotcha. I'll pass it on. Take care of yourself Jerome.” And with that, he made his way down the stairs and carefully placed the box in the trunk on top of the soft blanket. Jerome waited on the stoop. Bartholomew raised his arm in a farewell gesture before closing the passenger door, and they drove off. He wondered if he'd ever see any of them again.

© ralph patrick mackay

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixty-Nine

Rex Under Glass – Part Seven

Sitting on the black leather banquette framed in bronze upholstery tacks, Evan Dashmore, his legs urbanely crossed, looked up from the dark marble table with its fingers of phantom white, one swirling galaxy of many, and rested his eyes on the high row of windows facing the street, the glass reflecting the interior of the Café with its cascading chandeliers, white walls accented with gold, milk chocolate coloured wooden panels, vertical light sconces, mirrors, tables, customers, and themselves, shapes of abstract darkness within the glow of the golden warmth. He let his eyes dis-focus to capture the widest angles and he began to feel as if he was part of some fantastic confectionery in the imagination of Alphonse Mucha. An unusually early snow had begun to fall, large flakes slowly descending to the sound of Cars and Girls by Prefab Sprout issuing quietly from the hidden speakers around them. There was a transparency to the evening, as if the snow was falling within. He remained silent, feeling that any words would fail. Beside him, Rex was in the final stages of diminishing his slice of chocolate cheese cake, a methodical process, having worked his way from the point of the isosceles triangle slice towards the crust-less edge as if preoccupied with some Pythagorean conundrum. He felt he was with a younger, less sophisticated brother. In a way, he was, but one whom he could imagine excusing himself to go to he men's room where he would find a package left by an accomplice, a revolver, or a syringe with a deadly substance.

“I forgot to ask how your hotel room was,” Evan managed.

“Fine,” Rex replied, tapping his foot, wiping his lips with the soft napkin. “Very nice.”

“I tend to rate hotels by their soaps. There are the cheap dives that provide one piece of soap the size and shape of a tea biscuit, and just as absorbent. The first suds-less sweep up the arm and it breaks in two. Zero star. Hotels with a spa treatment equivalent would be the five stars.”

“Yeah, I've been to some of those too, the zero stars. Depressing as hell. Driving back from Las Vegas once, I remember a place that had a diner attached with a menu offering items like, Big Foot Club Sandwich, and Fettuccine Sasquatch.” He turned sideways to look at Evan. “You don't want to know.”

“I guess Alfredo met his match.” Evan smiled and then sipped his coffee and looked at the pretty waitress pass by. “I imagine many of those small motels have vanished, the big chains having filled their place with generic and consistent drabness. Quirkiness and eccentricity outmoded with safety and sameness.” He smiled at the waitress as she retraced her steps, her hands laden with spent offerings. “Though I bet you could still come across a few on forgotten roads, at the edges of forgotten towns, on the fringes of forgotten dreams: Avalon Inn . . . Shambhala Motel . . . Seventh Heaven Cottages. Might make a good road trip. And a book too. In Search of Lost Motels, or Remembrance of Motels Past by . . . Sybille Roust.”

Rex began to preoccupy himself with his smart phone oblivious to the references.

“Are you on that intravenous drip known as Twitter?” Evan asked looking over his shoulder at Rex.

Raising his chin briefly as if from the distraction of a fly, Rex shook his head. “No, though my girlfriend is. I'm just checking her messages. She's booked a Caribbean cruise, a special one devoted to dance party music. The best Dj's doing their thing. Looks like we'll soon be trancing and dancing to the edge of the horizon.”

How horrible Evan thought. He imagined himself as an albatross flying silently towards the cruise ship, the bright lights and reverberations echoing out across the water, the beat of the music in sync with the rhythm of the engines, human forms moving in unison, jumping, gyrating, multicoloured light sticks wavering in the air above them, the wake of the ship like a wound slowly healing. It seemed as alien as a space ship. He flew off thinking of the medieval ship of fools colliding with this literal ship of fools at the horizon's edge, an image which brought back to him his childhood pastime of making small wooden boats with his friend Fergus, boats they would construct at his friend's basement work table, all coping saws and cotter pins, balsa woods and heavy twines, bench vices and miter boxes, pin size nails and glutunous glues, hand drills and ball-peen hammers, button headed slot screws and flat headed Philips screws, (the ones that made them think of cartoon eyes punched out by Popeye the sailor man) and the sublime odours and feel of sawdust. They used to secretly scale the stairs to the second floor bathroom, careful not to disturb Fergus's father in his cork-lined study where mysterious academic studies were being pursued, and fill the tub halfway and float their sail boats on their pretend ocean, colliding them with their own God-like swells, where the circumference of the bath had been their porcelain horizon, one that shrank as the water ever so imperceptibly diminished, the rubber stopper relenting to the pressure.

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” Evan quoted absentmindedly, almost to himself.

Rex pocketed his smart phone and looked at Evan wondering what he was talking about. “It'll be fun. Meet new people, make new connections. Drink, dance, eat, forget the world. No shuffleboard and badminton like in your day.”

Evan laughed. “Yes, I was lucky they ran out of tickets for the Titanic.” He finished his coffee imagining himself seated in the grand saloon of the unsinkable vessel, ready to have a final cigarette outside with John J. Astor.

“I'm just going to find the men's room,” Rex said.

Evan nodded. One for the lifeboats he thought as he watched Rex walk away. Badminton? On the Titanic? Possible, but unlikely. Badminton. Battledore and Shuttlecock of yore. Was it Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? He always confused them somehow. Yes, he remembered now, it was Hunt, he'd been imprisoned for libel and one of his many visitors had been Jeremy Bentham who'd found him playing battledore and shuttlecock. He visualized the poet and the philosopher batting the birdie back and forth between interrogative and declarative sentences, the intuitive imaginative poet and essayist, and the empirical philosopher. Hunt used to walk around his prison confines with his young son in hand, pretending they were in the countryside or on the busy streets of London. Excursions in imagination. Like coming across a lighthouse in the desert. There was another case like that he thought. In Kierkegaard's works. His pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus, had a father unwilling to accompany his son out of doors, but would take his hand and lead him around the room, describing the wonders to be found, market stalls, conversations with passers by, sounds, smells, sights. Divine imagination. The centrifugal imaginings of an introvert. So different from the empirical, centripetal demands of the extrovert. He thought of Napoleon in the latter position, the arranger of geography, the mapmaker of homelands. Evan looked up to the plaster details on the ceiling thinking how ironic it was that Napoleon had died in his bed like a scoundrel, poisoned by the wallpaper at the age of forty-five, while Kierkegaard had passed away peacefully at forty-two, in the hospital, joking about acquiring wings and, like an angel, singing from the clouds.

“Nice bathrooms,” Rex said as he slid back in his seat.

Evan thought he should finally discuss Vernon Smythe and his modest proposal. “Don't you find it unusual that Vernon would send you all this way just to retrieve a thumb drive, this dongle hanging from my waistcoat?”

Rex looked surprised. “I tried not to think about the job itself. Money talked. I listened.”

“Yes, but now you know the details concerning my past dealings with Vernon, and the tragedy of the young man who had an affair with his wife and paid the price.”

“What's your point?”

“It's likely Vernon is taking out two birds with one stone. If something were to happen to one of us here in Prague, the other would be seen as responsible. Two birds, one stone.”

“You're suggesting this is a setup?”

“He could have hired a third man to take you out at the hotel. Evidence would link you with me, and presto, Evan Dashmore, alias Harris, suspected of murder. Vice versa as well.”

Rex's complexion seemed to acquire a yellowish pallor. “What do you suggest?”

“Well, I'm sure my wife wouldn't mind a house guest for one night. We could set you up in the spare room. You're not allergic to cats I hope.”

“You're married?”

“Yes, she's a professor of economics at the university. I'm also an occasional lecturer there with a course on philosophy and history. There can be life after Vernon. Have hope. Although, be warned, it's a world just as rife with injustice. The wrong people hire the wrong people, the best are overlooked, office politics pepper the private and public sectors and everyone sneezes. Hard work and loyalty doesn't always pay off. The academic world seems especially riven with such dysfunction. Anyway, I suggest you rearrange your flight home. Fly to Amsterdam, spend a few days, and then catch a flight to Toronto.”

“But I left my car at the airport in Montreal.”

“Ah, that's a complication. Hmm. Well, fly to Montreal then, but give your car the once over. Tomorrow we'll mail this thumb drive to Vernon with a note in your hand. If he looks at the files on the drive, it will activate code to monitor his computer from here. Worth a try.”

“How can I trust you? Maybe your wife's the third man.”

Evan's laughter aroused glances of reproach from a few of the other customers. “Well, she certainly has the mind of three men. Relax. I've moved on as I've told you. Intrigue and secrets are like a cancer. They'll destroy your life. You're still young. Make a new start.”

As Rex played with the unusually shaped sugar packet, shifting it round and round between finger and thumb like worry beads, Evan was thinking of scenes from Carol Reed's film The Third Man. He closed his eyes and rested his head and watched the black and white images flit by. The chase scenes in the sewers from the end of the movie always came first, flashing lights, distorted shadows, echoes of the pursuit, the feet running on wet brick, the shouting voices resounding off the claustrophobic convexity of their surroundings. Then the increasing series of Dutch angle shots and large shadows cast like an Egyptian shadow play of the dead. Grandiose apartment interiors, grand spiral staircases, characters with poker faces, crumbling exteriors, and poor, innocent hayseed author, Holly Martins gradually loosing his energy and vigour, rendered off kilter, out of place, alienated and ultimately disillusioned with the revelations of the miserable nature of man. Still images passed through his mind: the cat, as innocent and naive as Martins, discovering Harry Lime, its owner, in the shadows; Dr. Winkel (Vinkel!)  in his apartment; Baron Kurtz with a dog so small, the rats in the sewers beneath their feet would make of it a meal; Calloway and Paine and their stiff upper lips; Crabbin, his propaganda front and his alluring and mysterious assistant; Lime on the Ferris wheel, all dots and cuckoo clocks, and the beautiful Anna Schmidt in the final long shot, walking towards, and past Martins, leaves falling from ruined trees, the zither playing her out.

“What about my things at the hotel?”

Aroused from his interior film, Evan pursed his lips and then asked him what he'd left there.

“Well, not much. An overnight bag really. Spare set of clothes, shoes, shaving kit.”

“I'll drive you over in the morning before checkout and cover your back.”

“Thanks,” Rex said. “So, you have cats?”

Evan had risen and was adjusting his scarf. “Annika and Zina. They're very friendly. Though they might scratch at your door at six in the morning.”

“Do you live far?”

“It's the Vinohrady neighbourhood south east of here. Don't worry, I'll pay for the ride.”

As they stood on the corner smoking their cigarettes waiting for their taxi, Evan wondered if Rex was ready for a new life. “You know that Vernon will throw his weight around. The character assassination techniques you've taught will come back to haunt you. Slander, traducement, fabrication, acoustic weapons. If you try for regular employment he'll be there with a word in the ear or a favour offered, and it'll be, I'm sorry Mr. Packard, we chose someone else for the job. That's what happened to the poor bugger who slept with his wife. Ruined.” He coughed and drew his collar up around his neck. “It's a fact of life that if you don't have an iron in the fire, people will hit you with theirs. Change your name. Try to get on with life.” His advice seemed as weak as a two day old tea bag.

Whisked away from the bright lights of the Kavarna Obecni dum, and a few words in Czech between Evan and the driver about the snow flakes, and they settled back in their seats and relaxed, fatigue beginning to overcome them. Mozart's Laudate Dominum from his Vespers issued softly from the car speakers easing their nerves with its soothing melismatic voicings, making Evan think of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, the words Aber abseits wer ist's? rising to the surface of his thoughts.

After the short Mozart piece had finished, Evan opened his eyes and looked out at the narrow streets thinking how malleable life could be, how many springs one could drink from, how many reflections one could see on the surface of the waters. He cleared his throat and looked over at Rex who was staring listlessly out of the window. “There's historical precedent for people changing their names,” Evan began, the eyes of the driver scanning him in the rear view mirror. “You've heard of Lawrence of Arabia?” Rex said he'd seen the movie. “T. E. Lawrence was his birth name. Thomas Edward Lawrence. But his father's true surname was Chapman, and he was from a titled Anglo-Irish family. He had a wife and three daughters, and then he began a liaison with a young Scottish maid and a child was born.” The driver nodded his head slowly as if he'd heard the story of his life. “Well, his wife discovered the affair. But what did Chapman do? Did he follow upper class protocol and send the maid off to Scotland with a stipend? No, a lover and his lass, he left behind his wealth, his good name, his title, and scuttled around the fringes of English society trying to avoid the stigma of recognition. He adopted the name of Lawrence and his new wife gave birth to five boys in all.”

Rex wondered how this story could shed light on his future.

“Somehow, T. E. Lawrence discovered this family secret when he was young and he ended up creating fake names himself. After his glory and failure in the Middle East, he tried to enlist as a private in the army under a different name. He also translated and had published Homer's Odyssey using the name of Shaw. He was riddled with personas. His life was a veritable shattered mirror.”

Rex closed his eyes. His real name, Roger Parker, seemed more of an alias to him now than Rex Packard. Was he already a shattered mirror?

“Then there was the elder brother of Napoleon. The one who'd been made the King of Spain,” Evan continued, a song loop spinning briefly round his memory. “When Bonaparte's empire crumbled, his elder brother and family escaped to Switzerland with the crown jewels. Literally. Not feeling at ease in Europe, worried he'd be assassinated, he buried half his treasure on the land of the Swiss estate, and with his trusty secretary, Louis, made his way to America under an assumed name. And once there, began a new life under another assumed name and used the treasure to live the grand life in Bordertown, New Jersey. A Corsican in New Jersey. Sounds like a movie.”

“New Jersey? You kidding me?”

“No, not at all. His daughters followed him to America but his wife remained in Switzerland. I believe he had an American mistress who gave birth to a child. America at the time was full of radical thinkers and scoundrels. Bonaparte tried to escape to America before being sent to Elba. Imagine Napoleon Bonaparte in New Jersey or New York. The danger of political unrest, the foment of a rebellion in Lower Canada with their sensitive French/English problems at the time. His ultimate home on St. Helena, remote and inhospitable, was necessary, for all considered. Millions of lives ruined, currencies devalued, economies in collapse, such were some of the effects of the man and his dreams.”

The taxi driver banged the steering wheel lightly, and looking over his shoulder towards Evan, said “Stalin and Hitler too, eh, bastards all of them.”

Rex and Evan, surprised, nodded in agreement, “Yes, yes, bastards all of them.” They exchanged looks and nods between the driver in the rear view mirror and themselves, a triangulation of shared sentiment in a small space. It felt good. Cathartic.

*


Melisande finished her apple and put Pavor's work in progress back into the manila envelope. She wasn't sure where he was going with his Rex and Evan characters. She felt his style had changed. Less hard-boiled than he used to be. Less Scandinavian noir. The character of Evan Dashmore had shifted the narrative. She generally read his work and helped him rewrite an awkward phrase, catch spelling mistakes which he was prone to, suggest a name, and bemoan the fact he'd killed off a sympathetic character she wanted to hear more from, but she was unsure of what to say about these preliminary chapters of Rex Under Glass. Very good she would say. I want to hear more. She liked the word melismatic, so close to Melisande. Almost a secret reference. She'd be positive, supportive. She wasn't sure what his editor would think though. She wasn't sure.

© ralph patrick mackay

Friday, March 07, 2014

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Sixty-Eight

Awaking to find her arm asleep, she turned her body sideways feeling the full weight of the limb roll onto the bedspread. Slowly the arm regained blood flow, the painless cramp eased, and the tingling nerve endings resonated and faded like a glissando of harp strings. She quietly moaned not so much for the feeling returning to her fingers, as to the recollection of her nightmare, an occasional recurrence, a variation on a theme. She was once more back at her parent's third floor flat in Lachine.  She was in a developing state of panic realizing she had a final test that evening for her last university course, a course to complete her business degree, and she hadn't prepared. In her efforts to locate her books and papers, she was thwarted by her parents who happened to be sitting on them, or inadvertently hiding them by their position. She sighed. At forty-eight years of age, and twenty-five years since she'd finished her degree, still this nightmare of anxiety arose from time to time, and so real that in that semi-awake state she was actually convinced she still had a course to finish, a degree to complete. She rolled onto her back and stared at the high plaster ceiling thinking of her parents and the working class poverty she'd escaped. Her father, his teeth in the glass beside the bed—the poor man's aquarium—sleeping off a night of beer drinking and hockey viewing with his “associates” down at the brasserie, spending his factory paychecks on beer, cigarettes and betting on les Canadiens and the occasional flutter on the sulkies at Blue Bonnets during the summers. Her mother ensconced on the flowered couch before her beloved glossy veneered television cabinet with the pot of dusty dried flowers on top, fully immersed in the lives of her family, those characters on her favourite soap operas, all those forevers and tomorrows of dramatic fantasy. Which ones did she watch? The names came back to her like the memories of undesirable relatives: As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, All My Children, Another World, Search For Tomorrow.

She looked over to the sleek dark digital clock and saw it was 6:45 a. m., the usual time of Declan's rising. But he was in New York with Harry, at the proverbial round of meetings. She was alone in their Old Montreal condominium and glad of it.

In the kitchen she prepared her morning health shake and stretched her back and neck between sips. Her hips were sore. Did they need to replace the expensive mattress already? The autumn issue of Vogue, thick as a patio stone, lay on the smooth granite eating area; it was the magazine issue she looked forward to each year, an issue she'd advance through 150 pages of air-brushed fantasy advertisements before reaching the hidden table of contents, the models staring back at her as if she were looking at herself in the mirror, eye contact making for a unification of the abstract, yes, this is you in the Valentino, Dior, Versace, Christian LaCroix, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Chanel. She'd found it useless to bookmark pages by turning the top corners down, so she just tore the pages out and slipped them in at the end of the magazine for future reference. Once finished, she left a sticky note on it for Louise, their in-town housekeeper, to take. How it ended up making its way to Louise's daughter and into scrap books and collages, she didn't know, but such was the trajectory of the magazine's life, ending, no doubt, in the recycling bin. So much money and creative effort spent, and yet, so ephemeral. But the influences remained, money had been spent, faces had been seen, names had been recognized, writers had been read, charmed lives had been revealed, styles had been spun, shaken, and stirred. The ripples of influence would diminish with time while the inherent energies of the physical object would be recycled. Much like human existence she thought.

She made her way down the hallway to the large-windowed front rooms, looking at the dark framed photographs on the wall as she passed, photographs taken by Thaddeus of Declan and Harry with accomplished achievers: Guy Laliberté, Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Dennis Tito. What was it with self-made men and women, she wondered? She sensed they shared a certain continuity like veins of gold running through bedrock—if gold ran through bedrock. They also reminded her of bespoke suits, everything made to measure, unique. She stopped and looked at Mr. Tito's large smooth head and his sharp blue eyes and felt he exuded enormous foresight and boundless energy. Declan had a touch of that too, but not as much. Declan had said to her that if he'd had Dennis Tito's analytical genius, he too would be a billionaire space tourist planning on sending a male and a female to Mars, but as it was, he was sending people home to their condominiums and their deluxe vacation homes in exotic locales. Such was life. Declan had described to her how Dennis Tito had used quantitative analytics to estimate the trajectories of space probes for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, and had later applied similar techniques to investment markets to become the billionaire he was today, “from orbits to markets,” Declan had said, “a genius at applying mathematics and computers to estimate risk and outcome.” Random variables, probability distributions, algorithmic trading, statistical arbitrage, the terms spun around her mind like space debris. She liked to keep up with the latest in high finance and every so often regretted not pursuing a Masters degree, but, having met Declan at an Alumni party, her orbit had been drawn towards his. Analytics seemed so fastidious, precise, conclusive. What about instinct she wondered? What about human nature? She looked at Harry and remembered how Declan had told her that when Harry, a young black kid growing up with him amongst tough white kids in Point St. Charles, had encountered racism, he calmly told his offenders that racism was a hereditary disease, and they had better see a doctor. Smart and tough.

Embraced by a compliment of patterned cushions on the cream coloured sofa, she rested her outstretched calves on the ottoman/cocktail table and looked down at the magazines displayed like a winning poker hand, The Economist, Bloomberg Markets, AAII Journal, Fortune, Architectural Digest. Looking towards the living room windows, a trinity of nineteenth century high arched design, she could see dawn had begun to etch the details of the elaborate stone facade of the building across the street. It was at moments like these, moments of quiet stillness, that she thought she must have been here a hundred years ago, and all the people in her life had been involved in that distant life as well, in different roles, names, professions. She stretched her arms above her head and yawned deliciously with involuntary gasps of her body's voice. Or was it really just due to the romantic suspense novels she liked to read when she was younger, and still resorted to on occasions when the arid and prosaic realities of life lowered the temperature of her emotions? The conflicting thoughts seemed intertwined like a strand of DNA. Strand. Duncan Strand. She would have to wait until Friday to discuss the Duncan Strand situation with Declan. Perhaps he could buy the stock of both businesses outright and set up a library in the future condominium, and the rope, well, sell it off to one of his connections in the Caribbean. That could help the bookseller reset his life.

What would she do with such a chance? Go back to school? Begin her own real estate company? She curled and stretched her toes, the fine delicate bones cracked in the dry air like the sound of wood burning in a fireplace, and her toenails, shimmering like nacreous pearls, reminded her of Alicia, their beach loving daughter in California, their Venus rising from the scallop shell. She hoped she wasn't being foolish like her mother. A fling with a painter? She shook her head. Had she dramatized a scene from one of those romantic suspense novels, or reenacted an episode of a past life? She would phone Alicia later to check on her and wish her luck in her coming exams. Pre-med had been one of her own teenage dreams, a life as a doctor, stethoscope around her neck, crisp blue blouse beneath the white jacket, but the business degree had been the economical and obtainable option. Wasn't California rife with temptation. the bastion of the drug and sex trade? She looked at the clock on the sideboard to see it was now 7:20 a. m., much too early to phone the west coast. Alicia might have been up late studying, much like her own late nights when a student at college and university. She shivered as she recalled the days when a few of her friends had finished high school and had begun working at low paying secretarial and sales jobs and they would try to get her to come out with them on the weekends to the discotheques downtown and the seedy bars attached to the cheap motels on St. Jacques Street, places where dancing, drugs and abusive males were like so many facets of the disco ball blinding them to reality, bars that she'd called compounds of dangerous elements, the arsenic, lead, plutonium and mercury that would ruin their lives. Thank God she hadn't fallen into that darkness of early pregnancy, abandonment, drug use, poverty. There, but for the grace of . . . something goes Kathleen O'Connor. God? Common sense? Self-belief? Self-respect? Her real name seemed so foreign to her now. Kathleen O'Connor. She'd left it behind like a theatre progamme on a threadbare plush crimson chair. No Facebook for her. Her father was deceased; her mother, suffering with Alzheimer's, was in an old age facility; and a brother who left home at sixteen, whereabouts unknown—she often wondered what became of him: a roughneck on an Alberta oil rig? A longhaul trucker down through the Midwest? A Casino sweeper? A grease monkey in a gas station that still had one of those rubber tube ringers cars drive over when they pull up to the gas pumps? A grifter moving across the continent? Drug addict? Convict? Dead? She liked to think he was living in suburbia with a wife, two kids and a dog, a new pick-up truck and car in the driveway beneath one of those adjustable basketball hoops, and maybe a trampoline in the backyard. He was the wildcard that might be flung across the table at her one day, but for now, Alicia was the future. Everything behind her, stepping stones out of the shadows.

They'd decided to bring Alicia up without organized religion, offering her a broader spirituality, a more holistic view of life, like the airing of a fusty old room. She herself, however, still had a weakness for the Virgin Mary, with the Ave Maria, the Angelic Salutation at the ready, in a whisper, under breath. She could see the blessed Virgin full of grace looking down on her, the Goddess subsumed. Better than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost she thought. A woman to confide in, to understand. I have sinned, forgive me. A moment of passion, of weakness.

Roused by her sense of guilt over Jerome, she thought that she should ask Declan to increase the amount of the scholarship they had set up, one that helped promising students without financial means. Friday would be a day of requests she thought. She would prepare a special fish dinner. One of Declan's favourite.


*


“Duncan, Duncan, wake up,” Amelia said, shaking his right shoulder.

“Agghh, what, what?” Duncan muttered. He breathed in deeply and turned onto his back, the tension in his body eased as he fully awoke from a dreamscape. “Sorry . . . oh my god, bad dream." He licked his dry lips and felt like he'd just come up for air and was now floating on a water surface. "How bizarre. I was in my parent's home, everyone was there, you were there too. There was a big commotion over the plans to run a railway track between our neighbour's house and ours, which is absurd for it must be all of fifteen feet between them. Crazy. And they were going to build some kind of shack in our backyard for an employee to work in, to monitor traffic or something.” He shook his head and rubbed his eyes.

“Hmm, you're under a lot of stress.”

“I was devising a plan to sell the house quickly before anyone knew of the railway, before the value of the property would fall. I was going around trying to figure out how to move everything quickly.”

Amelia snuggled up against him and kissed him on his warm, somewhat clammy cheek. “Well, we know where that dream came from. Don't worry. We can move a lot of the books to Uncle Edward's basement, and into the carriage house basement as well. I'm sure Yves and Tom would help. Maybe even Pavor and Jerome.” She squeezed him and rested her head on his chest. “Or we can hire a moving company. Probably worth the money.”

Duncan wrapped his right arm around Amelia and squeezed her tight and kissed the top of her head, her hair tickling his chin. Books, books, books he thought, they'll be the death of him. Why hadn't he been fascinated with stamps, or butterflies? So much easier to handle, and so much lighter. As his body relaxed in that ease of early morning calm, he envisaged a domino effect of books. Book over book, spreading out in lines and convolutions that resembled, in his mind, the pathways of the black plague that had made its way across the plains of Central Asia with the Golden Horde in the thirteenth century, erupting during their invasion of what is now Crimea, then carried with the fleeing Italian merchants to Constantinople, the outbreak there and their withdrawal to Italy and the inevitable outbreaks and dissemination across Europe and arrival in England. . . . books falling like bodies in the street, falling, falling, ad infinitum.


© ralph patrick mackay