Arthur, Hero — 7

grey cables

Meet­ing Mar­vin goes as arranged. He’s stand­ing by his open dri­ver­side door. Talk­ing on cell phone. Smok­ing cig­a­rette. Latino com­plex­ion, around 5–10, goodly mus­cled. Con­spic­u­ously styl­ish. Short black hair, expertly tou­sled. Thin metic­u­lous goa­tee. Snug white short­sleeve button-up, mir­ror sun­glasses hang­ing from breast pocket. Black jeans, brown dress shoes. His only vis­i­ble embell­ish­ment a sim­ple band tat­too about an inch wide above left wrist.

I walk toward him. Stop a few feet away. Take off my back­pack. Place it between my legs. Mar­vin shows me his eyes, raises a hand to say he’ll be right with.

The morn­ing is bright and warm. A clutch of new arrivals emerge from the bus depot. Dis­pers­ing every which way, suit­cases in tow.

Mar­vin peaces out. He drops his cig­a­rette and steps on it. Back pock­ets his phone. Extends his hand.

We shake, exchange pleas­antries, get in truck. Very clean, almost no clut­ter. A wooden cru­ci­fix on a beaded cord hangs from the rearview. Col­or­ful minia­ture Mex­i­can tur­tles with wob­bly heads on the pol­ished dash. The stick­shift sur­mounted by an inverted 8-ball (cue ball with white 8 in black cir­cle). Top of the line CD player. House music turned low.

Marvin’s talk­a­tive, end­lessly smil­ing, instantly like­able. Between phone calls, which he keeps short, he touches on an array of light top­ics. The good weather and what it does to make women even more beau­ti­ful than they already are. Sports, music, the com­ing week­end. He’s quick-tongued but easy-going, relaxed yet buoy­ant, bristling with con­tin­u­ous excite­ment. Can­did with­out being self-indulgent.

Skirt­ing the shorter older build­ings of down­town our gen­eral bear­ing is south-east. Lane clo­sures and manic traf­fic have no dis­cernible effect on Marvin’s mood. He’s utterly relaxed behind the wheel. Win­dow down. Rel­ish­ing the moment.

We drive through Chi­na­town, an indus­trial sec­tor, hit a main artery ser­vic­ing what looks to be a lower mid­dle class res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood ris­ing the ranks.

Food mar­kets, restau­rants, din­ers, cafes, bars, cor­ner con­ve­nience stores, laun­dro­mats, dime stores, bak­eries, butch­ers, pawn shops, florists, sec­ond­hand stores. Old school mer­chants. Some appear­ing to have been around for­ever, some with a touch of mod­ern flair. A cin­ema, a hard­ware store, a fire­hall, a gallery or two, a bowl­ing alley, a pool­hall. The strip is short of noth­ing, save chain­stores and car dealerships.

We park out front of a dry clean­ers. Mar­vin turns off the engine. Checks his phone.

Ten twenty-three,’ he says. ‘A bit early yet. Give me a moment.’

He makes a call.

It’s Mar­vin.… Out front.… Yes.… Will do.’

Mar­vin turns off the phone.

We’re just gonna hang a few minutes.’

The phone rings. He checks who’s calling.

Gotta take this one. The girl­friend. You okay in here for a bit?’

I say I’m fine.

Sher-ee!’ he answers, gets out, closes door, walks around back of truck and onto the sidewalk.

In side mir­ror I see him toe the curb. I turn my atten­tion to the tur­tle heads, now still, the big eyes painted on top seem­ing to stare at me.

After a cou­ple min­utes Marvin’s beside my window.

You ready?’

I open the door. Roll up the win­dow. Grab my backpack.

You won’t need that.’

I stow the back­pack on the floor.

On the side­walk Mar­vin tells me he’s got some busi­ness to tend to. With a guy named Reg.

Here’s how we’re gonna play this. I’ll hold the door for you. You walk in. Stand in front of the counter and let me pass. Reg will be at the back table. I’ll sit across from him. You sit beside me. And just so you know, I won’t intro­duce you. Reg is a bit old-fashioned. Straight-laced, if you know what I mean. Not much for strange faces. Sound good?’

I nod. Mar­vin pats me on the shoul­der and adds to his smile.

Here we are.’

Al’s Deli. He holds the door. I head in. The ser­vice counter takes up the major­ity of the space and runs the length of the pub­lic part of the shop. Along the right wall four tables, each with four chairs. A large man in butcher whites sits at the first table with his back to the win­dow. He’s scan­ning a news­pa­per, pays me no mind.

Big Al,’ Mar­vin exclaims upon entering.

The large man looks up. An approx­i­mate smile dis­torts the fleshy con­tours of his big face.

Mar-vin.’ Said like he hasn’t seen Mar­vin in a long time. ‘Good to see you, my friend.’

They clutch hands and Mar­vin bends down for a half embrace.

You look good,’ Mar­vin says.

Big Al waves him off, ‘You’re a ter­ri­ble liar.’

Mar­vin taps a fin­ger against his nose.

Big Al leans heav­ily in his chair, gaze peer­ing over the counter, barks a name I can’t quite make out. From the depths comes a greying-haired woman, wip­ing hands on a white apron.

Mar­vin appears delighted.

Sophie,’ he says as he scut­tles over to the counter. ‘Beau­ti­ful as ever.’

They hug over the counter. Kiss cheeks.

I look at the tables. At the back one sits a man fac­ing the door. Reg, I take it.

Mar­vin taps my arm, scoots by. I follow.

Reg is eat­ing a cookie. He’s bald­ing and thin. Wear­ing old suit and poorly exe­cuted tie. Big frame glasses. There’s a dark fedora on table.

Mar­vin stops at the table.

Reg,’ he says, offer­ing his hand.

The small man stays seated. Shakes Marvin’s hand. Doesn’t say any­thing and doesn’t took at me.

Mar­vin sits oppo­site Reg, against the wall. I take seat beside Marvin.

Reg fin­ishes cookie. Nap­kins his mouth. Pushes plate aside. Reaches to his feet. Puts leather valise on table. Unbuck­les, pulls out ledger book, opens fully onto table, lifts glasses onto fore­head, leans for­ward, licks fin­ger, flips pages with snap, fas­tid­i­ously runs fin­ger down entries, find what he’s after, dou­ble taps entry.

Here we are.’

Sits back, glasses back down on his nose.

They talk deliv­er­ies and pick ups. I look at the walls. Faux brick pan­elling to about four feet. Above that a muted yel­low to the exposed ceil­ing. Loom­ing over Reg a blank flatscreen tv. Not on. Cen­tred above our table a small grey and white pic­ture in a dusty glass frame. Of tele­phone pole, cables, trees. Can’t tell if it’s a photo or a paint­ing. Tag tacked to wall beside reads $50.

To Reg’s right a wash­room door.

I hear clas­si­cal music. The sound of Big Al flip­ping pages of his news­pa­per. I do my best not to look directly at Reg. He’s got hair com­ing out of his ears. Below the cor­ner of his jaw­bone, a piece of toi­let paper with a tiny blot of blood. His neck sinewy, the skin sag­ging. Dan­druff on the upper reaches of his suit jacket.

His voice is droll. Marvin’s is toned down—I can hear that he isn’t smiling.

I look at the $50 pic­ture. See it’s a street scene. Cars parked on the road. A street­lamp. Scat­tered cloud caught in a burst of sunshine.

Even­tu­ally I hear Mar­vin perk up.

O-kay,’ he says.

Reg closes ledger. Mar­vin stands. They shake hands.

As I get up, notice Reg glance toward front of shop. He takes off his glasses. Puts on fedora. Busies with valise.

I fol­low Mar­vin. He calls out a farewell to Sophie, who’s not in sight. As we near the door, Big Al lifts him­self up. He embraces Mar­vin, who’s about the same height but much thin­ner, and then looks at me, nods, holds out his right hand.

Arthur, Hero — 6

backpack

Freshly arrived I step from the easy light of the bus depot into a busy bright after­noon. Before me a wide green plaza. Over the trees big build­ings loom. Down­town feels near. There is much to see and hear and smell. I am alert to dis­trac­tion. But more than any­thing hungry.

In the plaza I get a hot­dog and sit on the low wall of a dry foun­tain, back­pack between my legs. All man­ner of peo­ple snake and bus­tle and hun­ker about. I watch them pas­sively. Sense their accli­mated indif­fer­ence to the daily clamor. The traf­fic and con­ges­tion, the grit­ti­ness, the con­struc­tion, the noise of every­thing under the sun.

My mind is rac­ing in too many direc­tions. I open my back­pack. Retrieve note­book. Mark­ing the cur­rent page a beer coaster. On which is writ­ten the name Mar­vin, a phone num­ber, and a note to say MT sent you.

This is why I’m here. Con­tact Marvin.

I scope the sur­rounds. Look­ing for a pay phone. See a hos­tel sign up the block a bit. I’ll be need­ing a place to stay. Likely be a phone there.

With­out fur­ther I’m at the hos­tel. I reserve a sin­gle room for a cou­ple nights. There’s a phone by the entrance. I call the num­ber. One ring and I’m through.

Yell-o.’

The voice is upbeat, loudly spo­ken. Dancy music and lots of chat­ter on his end. Like he’s in a bar.

Is that Marvin?’

That it is. Who’s this?’

This is Arthur. MT sent me.’

Ah. Straight to busi­ness. Good, good. Give me a sec.’

I hear him say he’s just gotta take this. A few sec­onds pass. Music and chat­ter fade.

All right-y, Arthur. You still with me?’

Still here.’

Great. Let me ask ya, Arthur, how old are you?’

Twenty-five.’

Got ID?’

Yes.’

Phys­i­cally fit?’

Yes.’

Any issues I should know about?’

None that I’m aware of.’

That’s say­ing some­thing. Where you call­ing from Arthur?’

Hos­tel by the bus station.’

Right in the thick of it. Good stuff. Can you call me from the same phone between six and six-thirty?’

Shouldn’t be a problem.’

Well, Arthur, I’ll see what I can do.’

I hang up the phone and stand there a moment. A lit­tle uncer­tain what to do with myself. It’s just gone three. I can’t get my room til four. Fig­ure I may as well get a bet­ter idea of where I am. I peruse a rack of tourist brochures. Find one with a sim­ple map. See that I’m in a part of the city called Old Town, cen­tral to four adja­cent areas: Down­town, South­lands, West­side, and River­front. I put the brochure back in its slot and set out.

Along­side the hos­tel a bar, a cof­fee shop, and a con­ve­nience store. Across the street a num­ber of take-out joints and a bank. This noted I take a cross street, head­ing for the river.

The walk does me instant good. I don’t know for how long I was on the bus but my legs rel­ish the move­ment. The rest of me, stranger in a for­eign place, defaults to wit­ness. I try not to look com­pletely out of my ele­ment. Or let my gaze linger too long on others.

I pass a young woman seated against a tree bawl­ing her eyes out. A gaunt man pilots two shop­ping carts laden with bulging garbage bags jan­gling a rhap­sody of bot­tles and cans. Sport­ing a well-worn safety vest and a cow­boy hat, another man col­lects with a garbage picker cig­a­rette butts, deposit­ing them in a gal­lon paint can he car­ries by its han­dle, a sil­ver watch loose about his wrist. A man and a woman hud­dled by a garbage bin putting nee­dles into each other’s arms as a short old-timer shuf­fles them by smil­ing, hands clasped behind back. The man and woman pay no notice and the old-timer, per­fectly zen, doesn’t break stride or even look for cars as he crosses the street from alley to alley.

Peo­ple being peo­ple in the ambit of Old Town.

I wan­der along. Mes­mer­ized by the dark beauty of these worn and neglected streets. The brick build­ings that have seen bet­ter days, the colour­ful lay­ers of graf­fiti, the boarded up shops, the strewn garbage, the near-constant stench of urine, the con­trast­ing tex­tures of hard sur­faces left to crack and fill with weeds, the deter­mi­na­tion of the luck­less souls roam­ing these parts carry on regardless.

Before I know it more than an hour has passed. I’m itch­ing for a shower and a beer. The river will have to wait.

At 615, three beers to the good I call Marvin.

That Arthur?’

He’s got good news. Says he’ll pick me up tomor­row morn­ing at 10. In front of the bus depot. He’ll be dri­ving a white Ford Ranger.

Arthur, Hero — 5

sunset

There are times when sense is a thing gone miss­ing. When the right­ness of the world runs foul, counter to any con­ven­tional set of val­ues. The inher­ent mean­ing of good­ness shifts. Leav­ing those in its wake scram­bling. Awake to a new order they fear beck­ons an unfor­giv­ing end. Time and again the fear passes. The end doesn’t mate­ri­al­ize. And being awake becomes more and more like being set adrift in a bad dream.

My writer used these lines to set the tone for what would even­tu­ally be devel­oped into the whole Lane affair. In that con­text the pas­sage goes on to describe a city trem­bling in the grips of dis­cord and char­ac­ter­izes the mood of the cit­i­zenry as swelling into a dark­en­ing state of per­pet­ual sunsets.

Fore­bod­ing stuff, to be sure—and suit­able for the sub­ject matter.

Thing is, is that the lines tran­scribed above are mine. As in I wrote them. Word for word. Shortly after The Tab went down in flames.

How about that for a mindfuck.

I men­tion this not to claim own­er­ship. Rather I wish to high­light an exam­ple of the extent to which my writer has gone bonkers with his plot­ting. He’s con­stantly dig­ging holes with­out hav­ing a plan for what to put in them. Or what to do with the piles he’s cre­at­ing. It’s nuts.

Patently schizoid.

Let me be clear. I have no prob­lem with him mak­ing use of my words—reworking their import, gun­ning for impact etc. Far from it. I’m only too happy to offer my ser­vices. It’s part of the role I play. Per­son­ally I like the fact that writ­ing is an aspect of my char­ac­ter. It keeps me engaged, alert. A nat­ural exten­sion of hav­ing been gifted the mod­est pow­ers of observation.

As a place to gen­er­ate a col­lec­tion of sto­ries, for instance, The Tap wouldn’t have lasted a week if I wasn’t there to encour­age and listen.

Like­wise with Annabelle Ruthers. I’m the one who assem­bled and orga­nized what she told me into a rea­son­ably coher­ent nar­ra­tive. From which I was begin­ning to deduce that some­thing was amiss. Only to have the rug pulled out from under me at what could’ve been a piv­otal moment.

The prover­bial rug.

This is what I take issue with. Being propped up, made to dance, and then left floun­der­ing, flail­ing in the wind, gasp­ing for breath.…

And you know, none of this would have mat­tered if my writer had just let me be. I hon­estly thought we were finally done. That I could be my own man. Unfet­tered by the end­less shenani­gans of a hope­less tin­kerer. Retired from the game of point­less adventure.

Things were coast­ing along nice and smooth there too. I was back behind a bar. Mak­ing do and stick­ing to an easy rou­tine of home and work and get­ting myself from one to the other. Once or twice a week I’d hang with my work­mates. Have a few brew. Maybe head out for din­ner. Take in a show etc.

But no. My writer had to go and send me a pair of name­less agents. Fucked thing is even this would’ve been fine if there’d been any fol­lowthrough. But, to reit­er­ate, no. It’s a month now since and nothing.

Here’s me. On the edge of my seat. Half-expecting another knock at the door. Or to be caught unawares on the street and bun­dled into the back of a van with­out win­dows, no one hear­ing my screams, no one notic­ing my absence, the day itself an igno­rant bystander.

Fuck it.

If my writer wants to dig, great. Let him dig. But I’m done try­ing to make sense of his digging.

Per­haps I over­step my bounds. What­ever. I’m tired of being toyed with.

There are times when sense is a thing gone missing.

Now is one of those times. But I’m not gonna wait around for an unfor­giv­ing end. I’m tak­ing the helm of this adven­tur­ing ship. Set­ting course for a place I should already be.

Near as I can tell, nav­i­gat­ing scraps, I have enough to go on. This will at last be my story.…

Arthur, Hero — 4

background

I’ve been a play­wright, a lock­smith, and a legal aide. In none of these roles have I had to per­form acts befit­ting the trade. I would merely be in a the­atre, a work­shop, or a cour­t­house. To what ends I couldn’t say. Per­haps to admire how well the spaces were defined. I’ll give my writer props, he can write a good pic­ture. And once in a while sticks with it long enough to cre­ate scenes and, more rarely, some­thing of a story—though I’d say sketches bet­ter describes his mod­est assem­blages of scenes.

One such sketch had me in Carmel-by-the-Sea. I stayed in a motel on the high­way. ‘On the doorstep of the great Big Sur.’ Wait­ing for a deliv­ery of some kind. A deliv­ery that didn’t arrive. Not while I was there at least. In the mean­time, for 5 or 6 days, I wan­dered to the sea­side dur­ing the day and sat in a dingy bar at night. The main things that hap­pened were that I became mes­mer­ized by the ‘windswept majesty’ of Mon­terey cypress trees and that I hooked up with Candy. Who I bought drinks for and threw darts with and let share my bed. Where I learned of her pro­longed res­i­dence at a drug-crazed artist colony, from which she had recently dis­patched her­self, and of her long­ing to travel South Amer­ica. I also dis­cov­ered that she was tat­tooed from the waist down in faintly ren­dered fish scales. My mer­maid. A bit daz­zled by life and the throes of addic­tion recov­ery, but we got on just fine and had us some fun along the way.

Put this wise it sounds as though Candy was the item to be deliv­ered. I don’t know from nar­ra­tive devices, but in ret­ro­spect it does seem I was in Carmel to enable Candy, if that makes any sense.

Let me ven­ture an aside here. My writer uses me to a) be the eyes in the spaces he con­structs, and b) engage with and draw out rel­e­vant details from the other char­ac­ters he deems fit to send in my direction.

In a sense, then, my chief func­tion has been to col­lect stories.

Cer­tainly an accu­rate descrip­tion of my main call­ing. By default I tend bar. Pre­vi­ous to the whole Annabelle Ruthers deal I even ran my own shop. A nar­row hole in the wall called The Tap. I had noth­ing to do with its name but I think it fair to say I made it the cozy estab­lish­ment it was. Serv­ing host to a hand­ful of odd­balls who, over time, became a closeknit crew of ram­bunc­tious reg­u­lars. Most nights The Tap was venue for all man­ner of top­i­cal debates: why we do what we do, how things are for­ever in tran­si­tion, what the next con­tro­versy might be, how the stars fea­ture in our daily inter­ac­tions, etc. I had staff: gen­er­ally tran­sient souls, com­ing and going, and of course the indomitable and irre­place­able Bee­Bee (who’s spir­ited opti­mism and down-home moth­er­li­ness over­shad­owed the trail­er­park hair and the gritty vocals of a life­long smoker). On week­ends a philo­soph­i­cal piano player, Eddy, tin­kled the keys between gar­bled mono­logues of con­tem­po­rary profanity.

All-in-all a pretty decent room to call my own.

Til it burned to the ground.

I was there the night it hap­pened. Smelled the smoke and saw the back wall of the main room ignite into a ver­ti­cal sheet of flame. I kept my wits. Ush­ered every­one out and with a clus­ter of reg­u­lars watched from across the street as the fire took hold. Fiercely glow­ing against the dark night sky.

Then noth­ing. Another hia­tus. For months. Til outta the blue getta call from Lorelei.

What can I say. My writer has his head in the clouds.

He clearly has designs on writ­ing mysteries—me being prime among them. Only prob­lem is he doesn’t seem all that inter­ested in solv­ing them.

And, you know, the thing of it is, I mean, if I’m hon­est, is that, well, I never had much faith in there being a future. For me, I mean.

Maybe that’s what this is about. Me writing.

Get­ting things down. Tak­ing the reins. Hav­ing my say.

Won­der if Candy’s still out there somewhere.

Had I my way I’d make mine a story of find­ing her again.

Just say­ing.

And I’m think­ing to myself, why not? Go look­ing for Candy? Sounds a solid thing to aim for.

But I sup­pose my first pri­or­ity should be stitch together my own loose thread.

Instead of Norm — cover preview

ION cover 1

Work­ing at mak­ing nov­els avail­able in epub for­mat. Here’s a pre­view of pos­si­ble cover for Instead of Norm. (Apolo­gies for crappy resolution—image is JPEG con­verted from PDF.)

Hop­ing to have epubs ready for April, which hap­pens to coin­cide with 5-year anniver­sary of exper­i­ment pages!

Arthur, Hero — 3

day one

My writer cre­ated me a num­ber of years ago and has been toy­ing around with the idea of me ever since. He puts me into scenes. Has me say and do ridicu­lous things. Gets me going then uncer­e­mo­ni­ously aban­dons me, repeat­edly leav­ing me in the lurch. It’s maddening.

To be fair, I expect that I drive him nuts too.

Char­ac­ters: can’t live with em, can’t go on with­out em.

I should be grate­ful. At least I have a name. Even if only one. A given. Con­ferred upon me at the end of my first appear­ance. Which I still have by the way. Secreted away in a drawer. Like the orig­i­nal copy of an impor­tant doc­u­ment. A birth cer­tifi­cate, say.

Here it is. In full—don’t worry, it’s short. Entered as evi­dence of how I came to be.

It suits him that his birth­day is on Rob­bie Burns Day. There’s always a party going on and he does’t nec­es­sar­ily have to attend to participate.

“And some great lies were never penn’d.”

Per­haps he’s chuffed that he shares some­thing in com­mon with the likes of Anto­nio Car­los Jobim, Vir­ginia Woolf, Etta James, Euse­bio. Should he think of such things.

We are, after all, what we make of ourselves.

Or maybe he iden­ti­fies more with mor­bid details. That, for instance, mob­ster Capone died on the 25th day of the first month in the year 1947. Noth­ing like a ten­u­ous link to noto­ri­ety to give the oth­er­wise ordi­nary a boost.

Not that he wishes to make (or take advan­tage of) holes in the sys­tem. Yet that he should be so inclined allows for more inter­est­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties than, say, being a col­lec­tor of inspi­ra­tional one-liners.

Hard to imag­ine him hav­ing much of a response to such phrases as ‘you are the pur­veyor of your deep­est self’ or ‘only you make now happen’.

Ordi­nary though?

Well well. Didn’t another Rob­bie Burns Day alum­nus pen that only a mediocre per­son is always at his best?

Set­ting that aside, it’s fair to say he’s not polit­i­cally moti­vated. (He cares. Just not enough to turn his life into a cause.) Nor does he like to be at the cen­tre of things. (Do away with any inten­tions of explor­ing a mega­lo­ma­niac in the mak­ing). And it’s doubt­ful he’s bur­dened with urges that the larger frame­work of soci­ety frowns upon (i.e., the stuff that makes for decent crime drama).

So, for the time being, we’re left with a mid­dling sort of dude who’s as like to get drunk with his bud­dies as he’s capa­ble of spend­ing his birth­day drink­ing alone, in his apart­ment, with the lights down, get­ting his white­boy funk out to a dig­i­tal groove channel.

Putting him some­where between 20 and 45.

As yet uncer­tain of his stature etc. Would do, how­ever, to grant him a name. Let’s dub him Arthur.

Not much, I admit. But it’s mine. And maybe sheds a lit­tle light on what I’ve had to put up with. Since day one.

Arthur, Hero — 2

pebbles

The agents. Tall and taller. Big boys with bad buz­z­cuts and col­or­less faces made of stone. They looked angu­lar in their blue suits, uncom­fort­able wear­ing ties and hav­ing the top but­ton done up. Their irri­ta­ble eyes sug­gested long hours before com­puter screens in dark rooms. Beyond that I’m not sure as there’s much to say about them except that I didn’t notice if either car­ried a firearm.

I led them into the kitchen. They sat on stools. I stood against the stove. The tall one blitzed me with ques­tions. I gave brief answers. The taller one showed me pho­tographs. I con­firmed iden­ti­ties. The pace was tor­rid. Their man­ner, cold and effi­cient, kept me off bal­ance. I hardly remem­ber breathing.

Regard­ing Annabelle they got out of me that I’d worked for her a lit­tle over a year ago, or there­abouts. As a kind of com­pan­ion. Some­one to lis­ten to her talk and tell sto­ries and occa­sion­ally go for shorts walks. Mon­day Wednes­day Fri­day morn­ings. For 2 or 3 months.

Other details of rel­e­vance. Annabelle was in her early 70s and lived in an upscale seniors facil­ity cater­ing to secured inde­pen­dence, what­ever that means. The main thing to know about Annabelle: she’d recently gone blind. Aside from advanced arthri­tis, which reduced the func­tion­al­ity of her hands to cum­ber­some claws, she seemed oth­er­wise in good shape.

The ques­tion­ing turned to how I got the job. From what I could recall, I had been con­tacted by Annabelle’s niece. Lorelei. She was look­ing for some­one to aid her aunt in adjust­ing to life with­out sight. We had a short dis­cus­sion about Annabelle’s sit­u­a­tion then arranged to meet in per­son. Which we did a few days later. In the lobby of Annabelle’s building.

After a short inter­view we went up to Annabelle’s apart­ment for intro­duc­tions. About all I remem­ber of that first meet­ing was that there didn’t appear to be any books in the apart­ment. Lorelei escorted me back down to the lobby.

This would be the only time I saw her. Any com­mu­ni­ca­tion we had was by phone. I didn’t know any­thing more about her. To my rec­ol­lec­tion, Annabelle almost never spoke of Lorelei.

The tall agent asked for a descrip­tion of Lorelei. I put her in her 40’s and maybe 5’7”. Cau­casian. A touch on the heavy side. Shoulder-length brown hair. Fair com­plex­ion. Wore glasses—small rec­tan­gu­lar job­bies that looked a lit­tle odd on her face because her cheeks were plump. More than that would have been pure speculation.

Still, I was pressed to give my impres­sion. All I could offer was that she seemed a busy woman.

The inter­ro­ga­tion wound down after that. A ques­tion or two about how she inter­acted with Annabelle (they appeared famil­iar), how I was paid (weekly, in cash or per­sonal cheque signed by Annabelle), why I stopped work­ing with Annabelle (my ser­vices were no longer required).

That was it. A whirl­wind. Took all of 15 min­utes. Tops. Next I knew I was show­ing them out.

I stood at the door a while. Star­ing blankly at the street. Admir­ing the calm of the early evening. Rel­ish­ing the mild late win­ter air. Enjoy­ing the gen­tle reprieve before the onslaught of thoughts gath­ered steam.

What in hell just took place. It hap­pened so quickly I didn’t get a chance to find out why the agents had come. What Annabelle had to do with any­thing or why it was that the greater por­tion of ques­tions per­tained to Lorelei.

I looked at the street. There were plenty of places to park. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the agents get into a car.

The street lights came on.

Which was about when it dawned on me that the agents were after a con­nec­tion to the Lanes. It all seemed so clear. They were a ruse. An attempt to get back into the story. My writer must have truly been at wit’s end to pull me, an oft-abandoned char­ac­ter, into the mix.

Fucker. He hadn’t even both­ered to give the agents names.

Arthur, Hero — 1

setting up

When news broke on the vil­lain­ous doings of Carol and Dono­van Lane I didn’t get caught up in it like so many oth­ers. I don’t know why. Some­times extra­or­di­nary things have such a gloss about them it’s dif­fi­cult to see past the glare they create.

Still and all the Lane sib­lings stirred up quite a spec­tac­u­lar fuss. You couldn’t go any­where with­out see­ing or hear­ing about them. The list of crimes they were accused of orches­trat­ing was noth­ing short of prodigious—identity fraud, wil­ful mis­con­duct, crim­i­nal mis­chief, asset mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion, manslaugh­ter, mur­der. Shock­ing bad shit. But the thing that really out­raged peo­ple was that the Lanes had the audac­ity to tar­get the old and infirm. That the Lanes had man­aged to elude the author­i­ties seemed less impor­tant than the fact that they were both in their thir­ties. At least in the early days of the story. For some rea­son their ages made the nature of their alleged deeds worse.

Of course the call was out for any infor­ma­tion related to the Lanes. Their pho­tographs were every­where. Usu­ally the same pic­ture. An older shot of them smil­ing on a ski trip. Both wear­ing toques and sun­glasses. High-collared ski-jackets. Him hold­ing a snow­board on his shoul­der. Her with a hand clutch­ing a pair of skis stand­ing in snow. Their faces so poorly defined they could’ve been anyone.

Cov­er­age of the story accel­er­ated. Known and sus­pected aliases were pub­lished. The wheres and whens of their alleged activ­i­ties pre­sented in full page pic­tographs. Details on a few of the vic­tims were disclosed—friends and rel­a­tives stepped for­ward to have their say on the wrongly done to and the dearly departed, rel­ish­ing their chance to declare what an atroc­ity the whole affair was, how dev­as­tat­ing. Nat­u­rally, the Lanes were cas­ti­gated as mon­sters. They had to be. No way around it. To plot such a scheme.

Though infor­ma­tion on the Lanes’ adult lives (beyond their spree of immoral­ity) had yet to sur­face, reports did man­age to reveal some­thing of their upbringing—a bro­ken home, trou­bled rela­tions with fos­ter par­ents, board­ing schools, etc.

To put it mildly, the fifth estate was hav­ing a field day. And the gen­eral pub­lic couldn’t get enough.

Con­sen­sus had it that if the Lanes were on the run, or hid­ing, they couldn’t be inno­cent. No doubt­ing what every­one thought. The col­lec­tive mind had made its ver­dict. And God for­bid what should hap­pen to the Lanes were any­one to find them alive.

Head­lines announced rewards. Large gath­er­ings assem­bled. Sit-ins were staged. Bull­horns cried for jus­tice. Peo­ple wanted to know why the Lanes weren’t behind bars. Unau­tho­rized man­hunts were orga­nized. Police tried to calm the thirst for vengeance. A court order against vig­i­lanteism was pro­posed, which had the pre­dictable effect of arous­ing greater antag­o­nism among the more vocal, who called on their fel­low cit­i­zens to rally together in this time of need.

Things became so heated that for a cou­ple weeks there it seemed as though riots might erupt at any moment. They didn’t, thank­fully. But where the Lanes were con­cerned, peo­ple seemed to take leave of their senses. They wanted blood. I don’t know what say to about that. What it says about us. Our cul­ture. The kind of world we live in.

One thing I will say is that as much as I avoided the hype sur­round­ing the Lanes, I was intrigued by how their story, or the col­lec­tion of sto­ries that were built up around them, cap­ti­vated such a large and ani­mate and, for the most part, united audi­ence. How, for the two months or so that the Lanes had top billing, peo­ple allowed them­selves to become part of an obses­sion that sped on into a brief civil­ian con­fu­sion and a kind of mass hysteria.

I don’t know what hap­pened to pre­vent the chaos that threat­ened. But as quickly as the story of the Lanes gained momen­tum it fiz­zled out. Addi­tional details were rel­e­gated to back pages and ceased to claim air­time on tele­vi­sion or radio. For what­ever rea­son the pub­lic was no longer interested.

In a man­ner of speak­ing, the Lanes, still at large, had weath­ered the storm.

And then, maybe two weeks later, I received a visit from a pair of fed­eral agents. At my door they flashed their badges and asked if I was who I am.

I said that I was and asked to what I owed the plea­sure. They said they wanted to ask me some ques­tions about my involve­ment with Annabelle Ruthers.

cicatrix

window

All morn­ing, in between tak­ing calls and greet­ing clients, Kat des­per­ately wanted a cig­a­rette. Meet­ing up with Dev for lunch had her decid­edly on edge. Ages since when­ever the last time. She didn’t get much sleep from think­ing about it. Or him, rather—one sce­nario after another. There wasn’t a whole lot of talk­ing. He mostly just gave her long­ing looks. And smiled. Loads of smil­ing. Like he always did. She kept hop­ing maybe he’d sur­prise her. With some­thing other than smiles. But she was too close to being awake for any­thing crazy to hap­pen. And now she didn’t know what to think other than maybe she should’ve had some­thing a lit­tle more sub­stan­tial for break­fast. But­ter­flies and cof­fee weren’t so compatible.

It was almost noon. Dev would be here soon. She hadn’t taken her morn­ing break yet. Thought a hot cup of lemon water might be a good idea to set­tle her nerves some. She went to the staffroom. Sun­light streamed in the win­dows. Looked a gor­geous day out there. It had been so gloomy of late. Dirty roads, wretched skies, and no snow to speak of. If it weren’t for the inces­sancy of the radio it would be pretty hard to know Christ­mas was less than a week away.

Kat set the ket­tle and stepped over to the near­est win­dow. She saw the old man down there in his small back yard sit­ting in his lawn­chair with arms firmly crossed and that weath­ered wis­dom only deep wrin­kles can project. He was dressed for winter—mittens, scarf, puffy bomber. But noth­ing extra on his head. See­ing that flown away head of hair cheered her up like a chance run-in with a long ago friend. All this weird weather, she’d almost for­got­ten about him. John­son. She smiled. Stan Johnson.

She remem­bered the day John­son brought the lawn­chairs from the garage. The fold­ing kind. Both hor­i­zon­tally striped. One blue and white, one green and white. Each under an arm he shuf­fled up the walk and unfolded them by the back door. He took some pains to posi­tion them so that while they faced the gar­den, they were also slightly angled toward one another. Then he went into the house. Noth­ing much. But it grounded her some that day, gave her some­thing to think about—other than how out of place she felt.

It was the week she started. As a temp. Back in the sum­mer. Before the shit with fuck­nuts went down. Among all the pro­ce­dures and inter-office rela­tions she had yet to get a han­dle on, John­son was a cinch. He was some­thing of a third floor curios­ity, a nov­elty, for the other girls in the office. Old Man this, Old Man that. The gig­gles never seemed to cease. Kat didn’t see what all the fuss was about. He just looked a lonely old man sweep­ing his days away. That’s about all he ever seemed to do: sweep sweep sweep. Stop­ping every now and again to look up at the sky. And mut­ter. Always muttering—the girls would stand at the win­dows and won­der what. Broom in hand he appeared to be curs­ing, mak­ing accu­sa­tions against the infer­nal sky.

The lawn­chairs added a new dimen­sion to the game of watch­ing the cranky old man. For the first few days he avoided the chairs. Then one day the next week Kat saw him stand­ing before them, hands cupped over the han­dle end of his upright broom, face against hands like a col­lapsed prayer. Even­tu­ally, he broke his pose and sat. In the green chair. Clutch­ing the broom with both hands, hold­ing it across his knees. He looked tense. As if uncer­tain it would take his weight. She watched him get back up, look up at the sky, and try the blue chair. Ten­ta­tively, he eased him­self back into it. Over the next minute or so she watched as he slowly allowed him­self to relax enough to let the broom drop from his hands.

From that day on Kat was an avid, if less vocal, mem­ber of the old man’s fan­club. His shuf­fling, cur­mud­geonly ways too much to resist. She took it upon her­self to find out his name. Walked straight up to his front door. Opened his mail­box. Pulled out envelopes. There it was. Mr. Stan John­son. She snapped a pic­ture to show the girls. Such a sim­ple exer­cise. Yet what a long way it went to estab­lish­ing her sta­tus within the futzy hier­ar­chy of the office.

The ket­tle popped. Kat stepped back to the counter, poured hot water over pre-cut lemon slices. Her arm itched. She pulled up the sleeve of her sweater, reveal­ing a good set of heal­ing cat scratches. From the other night. Her phone rang. She didn’t know the num­ber. Let it go to voice­mail. When she lis­tened to the mes­sage, heard Dev’s voice, so out of the blue, she screamed. Scrumps went bal­lis­tic. Took for­ever to coax her out from under the bed.

It was silly but she was so happy to hear his voice. She saved the mes­sage. Replayed it a few times. She could hear him now. Say­ing he was in town for a cou­ple days. Vis­it­ing friends before head­ing off to spend Christ­mas with his fam­ily. Would love to see her etc. He sounded in such good spir­its, ram­bling on as if the only thing that mat­tered was using up as much time as possible.

When she called him back he said some­thing along the lines of his day being lit up. Of course he’d had a few by then. He was at a bar. With mutual friends. He invited her out. She wanted to say yes but hedged her bets. It was after 10. She was prep­ping for bed. Besides, she still didn’t quite feel up to being socia­ble. Not with that crew. Good folk, just too many reminders of how things used to be.

As she had plans for the next night (last night) and he was leav­ing late the fol­low­ing day (today) they agreed on lunch. Not opti­mal. But it would have to do.

What was it going to be like see­ing him? She couldn’t remem­ber the last time they actu­ally saw one another. A year ago? Two? There was so much to talk about she wasn’t sure what to say. It had been such a try­ing fall. And she was really just begin­ning to get the hang of things again. Being her­self was hard to do. But get­ting eas­ier. Day to day.

She caught her­self chew­ing at her lip ring. Damn that nico­tine. She made a long face, took a deep breath, and absently checked out what she could dimly see of her­self on the glass of the microwave. Was her hair all right? Should she put on some eye shadow? Lip­stick? Was her skirt okay? What about the sweater? Too tight? Seemed such a facile con­cern. And what the hell was she so ner­vous about any­way? It’s not like it was a date or any­thing. Right? Her skin felt cold. Right? She would start nib­bling her nails if this kept up.

Back at the win­dow, cup in hands, she looked down at Stan John­son. Com­pletely at peace. Arms on the arm­rests, mit­tened hands dan­gling pas­sively off the ends. Legs fully stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Big unlaced win­ter boots. Head off to a side. Hair dan­gling. Eyes closed. Mouth open.

Kat sur­veyed the yard. Off the house a patio of con­crete and pavers ran about a third of the way back to where the garage and gar­den, divided by a nar­row path of pavers, split the rest of the yard.

The girls told her that prior to this sum­mer it had been an over­grown eye­sore since the com­pany moved their offices here, two or three years prior. They’d never seen John­son. Then, not long before Kat was brought on board, every­thing green was cut back and removed. The small yard opened up. And out came John­son. To sweep and look up at the sky and mutter—and, as the sum­mer wound on, sit in the blue lawnchair.

Kat recalled the women who took care of the gar­den. One older, as in grey-haired, the other much younger. They came by once or twice a week. Together to begin with. Then later only the younger one.

The older woman wore a wide-brimmed sun­hat and log­ging shirts. When­ever Kat saw her she always seemed to be bent to task. Prepar­ing the soil, arrang­ing and plant­ing the plants, plac­ing the wood path that marked a cross in the dark soil of the gar­den. The younger woman wore a ball­cap and had a long blonde pony­tail. She took care of the water­ing and the heav­ier jobs. And also, now that Kat was think­ing about it, left vases of cut flow­ers by the back door—even into the fall, well after the flow­ers in the gar­den had fin­ished blooming.

John­son rarely made an appear­ance while the gar­den­ing gals were around. But once they were gone he’d come out and go through his rou­tine. And if there were flow­ers by the back door it almost looked like he might just be smiling.

Week after week, Kat had watched on as the gar­den took shape. Like time­lapsed snap­shots. From noth­ing but bare soil to a gen­er­ous bounty of con­trolled green­ery. She imag­ined view­ing the transformation—of John­son and his garden—was some­how instru­men­tal in her abil­ity to weather the emo­tional tem­pest that had ran­sacked her own life. Com­ing to work forced her out of the world as she knew it col­laps­ing around her. And see­ing John­son, whether sweep­ing or sit­ting in his lawn­chair, was like wit­ness­ing what seemed to her to be the very spirit of hope.

Light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Kat heard her name being called. She turned. Tamara, the recep­tion­ist, pok­ing her head in the open door.

There’s a Devin here to see you?”