Friday, December 21, 2012

The Greatcoat Man

The Greatcoat Man

If you walk down Vical street early in the morning you would think it sedate, well ordered, regal even. Tall brick houses (some four story) spread out across half acre lots, surrounded by old trees with canopies up to sixty feet, hedges, elaborate flower beds professionally tended,  immaculate lawns as crisp as a marine haircut, three car garages. Not the new burbs of course but there are those who think the new burbs vulgar - bald, with ugly squarish houses resembling industrial buildings, phoney Greek columns tacked on. But it's the new rich who occupy the new burbs, the ones with enough money to allow a host of 'new look' designers to set up a new fresh, exciting environment remarkably similar to the new fresh exciting environments a few blocks over. Vical street is old business class and professors, the ones who liked a little history and tradition to go with their bank accounts.

How Jeffrey ever ended up living in a garage on Vical Street was a mystery to many for homeless persons usually live in poor areas with ramshackle houses squeezed in among second hand car lots, train yards, scrap dealers. But if you were a person who talks to people the mystery was easily solvable by simply talking to Jeffrey himself, a most affable chatty man who could be found in many public places in the course of his daily rounds - the grocery store, the cafe, the riverbank (if the weather was warm) and, most especially at the free lunch given out by the Baptist church six blocks over. Or you could talk to the lady who owns the garage Jeffrey lives in and if you did she would tell you (if she trusted you for she was leery of social workers, policemen, city inspectors, etc.) that she went to school with Jeffrey some fifty years before and could not bear to see the man sleeping under the nearby bridge beside the library wrapped in a vast cocoon of ratty sleeping bags, newspapers and plastic sheeting. When she found him there for the first time  it took her fifteen times talking to him before he replied. The fifteen times were discrete, accomplished on fifteen separate days, the first fourteen eliciting no reply (although in no way a rejection either for Jeffrey had smiled and nodded all during her monologues as if he were listening to a radio show and he was not the sort of man who added his own comments, at least out loud). On the fifteenth day, Eloise, easily the most patient woman in the world, after handing him the coffee and donut she brought him after the first morning, asked him if he had a place for the winter (it was October 15th and that is late in such a cold winter city) and, after smiling broadly then breaking into a good humoured laugh as if Eloise had just told him a mildly amusing joke, he said, "No, goddamn, no, no no, of course not." somewhat impatiently for a woman like Eloise who talked so much should know better than that.

"Well then," said Eloise, "you can sleep in my garage." This was the perfect thing for Eloise to say. If she had invited him to sleep in her house, which she could have easily done for it had seven empty bedrooms, Jeffrey would have taken flight and never spoken to her again. Jeffrey had once lived in houses and had vowed never to do so again not so much that houses were terrible places as what went along with them was terrible - people asking you all sorts of questions and insisting you do things. Garages were different, especially Eloise's garage. Her's was an isolated garage at the end of a long driveway, some fifty feet from the riverbank. Eloise's big brick house hid it from the street and there was a path up from the riverbank leading to its side door. Eloise, although a bit dense at times from living a life of social isolation (no children, widowed and wealthy at thirty who other than her morning walks, seldom left the house), was divinely astute when it came to Jeffrey. Although she talked 'a blue streak' as they say, Eloise was one of those who could talk and see, observe, feel at the same time. Jeffrey agreed to take a look at the garage that very moment and off they went together if you could call Eloise marching along briskly, Jeffrey trailing along behind muttering to himself, together. When he saw the garage Jeffrey was ecstatic on the inside but on the outside maintained a fierce facade of neutrality. He poked around in the garages dusty interior, looked out through its two dirty windows, opened and closed the door of the iron stove, inspected the wooden ceiling for signs of leaks and so on for so long Eloise grew tired of standing watching him. 

"Well?" she asked.

"How much?" replied Jeffrey.

That she would charge rent never occurred to Eloise but she saw immediately that a business arrangement was necessary. "Twenty dollars a month," she replied without missing a beat.

"Fifty would be better," replied Jeffrey.

"Split the difference - Thirty-five," said Eloise.

"Thirty and I shovel the walk, cut the grass," said Jeffrey.

"That much work should make it twenty-five," replied Eloise.

"Twenty-five is good but since I'm supplying the wood then twenty-two fifty."

"Done," said Eloise and Jeffrey removed his right hand trappers mitt and they shook to seal the deal. Then he pulled a weathered wallet from an inside pocket (Jeffrey was so well layered he had, perhaps, ten or fifteen inside pockets) and counted out twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. Eloise deposited the bills and coin in her jacket pocket and went into the house.

The first sign of Jeffrey's occupancy was smoke curling up from the chimney. But this was not a sure sign for Eloise herself might have fired up the old stove although it hadn't been fired up for thirty years. She was supposed to be an artist of some sort so possibly she was now using the garage for a studio. The second sign was, when the snow came (early that year - November 6th), Jeffrey shovelling the walk. However there was not a necessary link between the walk shovelling and the smoke curling. Jeffrey could have been sent over from the local homeless shelter and paid so much a time. So a third sign was necessary and the third sign was Jeffrey walking up from the riverbank pulling behind him a sled loaded with wood and entering the garage's side door. Mr. Conkglin saw this while he was looking out his rear kitchen window. "An old bum wearing a greatcoat left over from the First World War," he told Mrs. Fingle, his neighbour on the other side. Indeed Jeffrey was wearing an old greatcoat but it was army surplus from the Fifties and not left over from the First World War. It was too big for him and thus allowed him to wear a mixture of wool sweaters and new fangled fleece vests underneath it and also to withdraw his mittened hands up into the warm and windless interior of its overly long sleeves.. 

This knowledge stopped with Mr. Conkglin and Mrs. Fingle for some time. Neither were scandalized by 'old bums' as Mr. Conkglin called Jeffrey and thought if he lived in the garage and shovelled the walk that was his business and a matter between him and Eloise. But Mrs. Fingle did mention it to the members of her bridge club which met every Tuesday evening, revolving the meeting location among the houses of the members. It so happened that that week they were meeting at Mrs. Fingle's house and one of the women, one Joan Memora, a doctor's wife who lived six houses down, kept looking out the window to see if she could catch a glimpse of the old bum. It was the night of the full moon in December and its light reflecting off the fresh snow gave her a good view of Jeffrey as he laboured up the path from the river bank pulling his sled loaded with scrap wood and entered the side door. A few minutes later dark smoke began drifting out the chimney.

All doctor's wives do not have a germ and bug phobia but Joan Memora did. When she saw Jeffrey, with his long straggly hair sticking out from under his trappers hat, wrapped in a greatcoat so soiled it looked as if it were used to clean a gutter, she could not help but think of bugs and germs and give out an involuntary shudder. Although, granted, he lived in a garage seven houses away for her own house, she was sure nature could easily devise a way for contamination to find its way across such a paltry distance. Joan had no children but there were many in the neighbourhood. She had heard many times, from good sources who also shared her bug and germ phobias, that such dirty old men frequently snatch children off the street and they are never heard from again. Either the children are sold through a network of confreres or they are used for unspeakable perversions, then murdered and their bodies dumped in the river. Later that night she spoke with her husband who pooh pahed the whole thing, telling her her fears existed only in her imagination "There are more pedophiles at a church meeting," he told her, "than among a gathering of street people." But she was not convinced. Her husband had a too cavalier attitude about the dangers of this world and was an untrustworthy guide. She spoke with some of her girlfriends who assured her that it was not a matter to be taken lightly. Men by their very nature, one of them told her, are predators and this makes for them a bond, unconscious in most cases thank God or all women would be lesbians, with even the most heinous of criminal perverts. "In such matters," her friend said, "asking men their opinions is useless for their sublimated tribal allegiance overrides everything."

Joan phoned her city Alderman. She asked him several questions about bylaws which he answered cautiously for he had had dealings with Joan in the past and had found that an attitude of gentle discouragement was the best policy. First she wanted to know about regulations having to do with 'living in garages' as she put it.

"Usually people live in houses," replied the Alderman.

"I know that," said Joan. "But I am not talking about people who live in houses. I am talking about filthy old men who live in garages. What are the regulations?"

"Well," said the Alderman, "I suppose it depends on what kind of garage and so on."

"What do you mean by 'what kind of garage'? A garage is a garage, isn't it?"

"Yes, but then what one person thinks a garage could be considered by another to be a guest house. Some people have guest houses where relatives stay when they come to visit."

"Well the garage I'm talking about is just a garage."

"Are you sure?" asked the Alderman. "Have you been in it?"

"Of course I haven't been in it." said Joan. "I am not in the habit of lurking about on other people's property and going into their garages."

"I'm glad to hear that, Mrs. Memora. But exactly what kind of building it is is crucial. If, for instance, it is a guest house, then someone could live there."

"So how do I find out whether it is a garage or a guest house?"

"Properties could tell you. But before you phone them let me tell you another thing. Even if the building in question is not a guest house but a garage, then, although it is against regulations, sometimes people do live in them."

"And what does that mean?"

"Exactly what I said. Economic turndowns create a lot of poor unemployed people. Sometimes they take to living in garages."

"But illegally."

"Yes, illegally. But sometimes the city turns a blind eye. We have so may resources and people have to live somewhere."

"But that is anarchy!"

"Call it what you will, Mrs. Memoir, but it happens. As I say we have so many resources. Getting up legal cases, calling in bailiffs and policemen, all these are expensive. If we pursued every Bylaw violation as if it were an absolute then taxes would have to go up astronomically and people would like that even less than the occasional unenforced Bylaw."

Joan's opinion of the Alderman, not very high to begin with, was not improved by this conversation. A do nothing. A big bum sitting in a padded seat. A brainless blob with a cheshire cat smile.

Properties, after much cajoling and waiting to be connected to someone who then connected you to someone else, finally told her Eloise Banning's garage was indeed a garage and not a guest house. The next day she phoned the Alderman again.

"In law, Mrs. Memora," said the Alderman, "there is a matter of proof, of evidence. For example, is the older gentleman you are referring to actually living in the garage? I know you saw him pulling a sled full of wood into the garage but that does not necessarily mean that he lives there. Possibly he may be simply using the garage for storage."

"But he burns wood in the stove," Joan replied. "You can see the smoke rising from the chimney."

"Well," said the Alderman, "Perhaps he does a bit of work in the garage and burns wood to keep himself warm."

"Well then," said Joan, "you will just have to investigate and find out."

"That would require a form 555713B," said the Alderman.

"What's that?"

"A Bylaw Violation Complaint Form. By filling out one your complaint will enter the process and eventually be considered for investigation."

"And how long does this process take?" 

"The clerks could tell you better than I," said the Alderman, smiling unconsciously at the pleasure of handing Mrs. Memora off to the bureaucrats. "Good luck," he added and hung up the phone.

555713B was a long form and it took Joan a half hour to complete it. Bylaw Violations was obviously low down in the city food chain. It was located in what seemed to Joan an abandoned warehouse, at the back. The yard, as you walked up to the door was filled with rusting heavy equipment parts. The entry door was multicoloured, not by design but because it was aged and peeling. A cardboard sign, stained and turned up at the edges, was tacked to the door by two roofing nails. Inside was only slightly warmer than the outside. The clerks wore heavy jackets and one even sported a pair of fingerless gloves. She filled out her form at a table laden with thermoses, bagged lunches and cracked coffee cups. The clerks were welcoming, so much so that she wondered if they received so little business they were desperate for company. When she passed the form over the counter the young clerk called out a person from a rear office. This person, a middle aged woman wrapped in four sweaters topped by an weather beaten wool coat, read the form very slowly and very carefully. When she was finished she said, "Thanks." She then carried the form through the door leading to the back offices. 

"How long will it take?" Joan asked the clerk, a very young male, little more than a boy, with a prominent adam's apple and bad teeth.

"How long will what take?" asked the clerk.

At first Joan thought he was being impertinent but a further searching of his pimply face informed her he was that sort of dense person to whom everything must be explained.

"I just passed in a Bylaw Violation Complaint form, 555713B. It's about an old bum sleeping in a garage in my neighbourhood. How long will it take for the matter to be investigated?"

"Depends," said the young man.

"On what?" Joan asked.

"Three of the four supervisors are on vacation and the one not is on course. Several months I would say before it is IPed, initially processed. After that it depends on where the initial processing channels it. The devil is in the details as they say."

"Several months before it is initially processed?"

"O yes," said the clerk, delighted as all bureaucrats are by the note of horror in his questioners voice. "At least that. Could be much more." With this he smiled the smile of a born clerk, one who is pleased to give to the uninitiated a glimpse of the arcane and labyrinthine, the beauty of which they, as lay persons so to speak, can only appreciate up to a point. Joan looked at his pleasant blue eyes which were as serious as those of a monk or a father confessor. Perhaps he had a sense of irony she thought but it was well hidden. At his request she bought a box of cookies, a fundraiser for one of his children's cub packs. Since he looked to be about fourteen she wondered where he had found the biological time to have a child in cubs. 

"They said that it would take some months before it was even initially processed," Joan said to the Alderman on the phone. 

"Ahhh!" replied the Alderman.

"Don't you think that a long time?"

"Yes, indeed," said the Alderman in a tone of voice which said the exact opposite.

"Perhaps you could do something to expedite the process," said Joan.

"Aldermen have to be very cautious about interfering in the bureaucratic process. Best to let it churn away on its own without meddling. Meddling often only makes it worse. You would be surprised at the depths of resentment meddling can stir up. Best to let sleeping dogs lie."

"Do I have to go to the Mayor?" Joan asked.

"No," said the Alderman.


"I'll see what I can do," said the Alderman. Which wasn't much. When she talked to him a week later he told her 'that things were moving along'." Joan doubted this very much so she sent a letter to the Mayor. The Mayor was on a junket in a far off country smiling and eating exotic foods and no reply should be expected for at least two months. 

One morning in January Joan rose early. This was unusual for she normally went to bed late and got up late. However, the previous night, some hours before her usual bedtime, she felt suddenly very weary and decided to go to bed. She woke very refreshed when it was still dark outside and decided to bundle up and go for a walk. 

She walked in a zigzag all through the neighbourhood remarking to herself how beautiful it was on a winter morning, the ground covered with several feet of snow and the air bitter cold. She decided to walk to the local coffee shop and have coffee and a doughnut, an offense against her latest diet but, considering the vigorous walk of, in total, one hour or so, a venial rather than a mortal sin. At the coffee shop she met Eloise. Joan was surprised. The scuttlebutt on Eloise was that she never left her house. Yet here she was standing in line at the counter dressed in an enormous parka which extended from the top of her head (the hood) to her ankles. Looking at her from the side so that she could see one eye which seemed to Joan filled with healthy vigour and even mild amusement, she thought Eloise failed to measure up to the reports she was distracted and perhaps mildly insane, just the sort of woman to install an old wino in her garage. Eloise felt Joan's eyes upon her, turned and recognized her, although they had never been formally introduced, and smiled. 

"There is a man living in your garage," Joan said to her, deciding to take the direct route for many said that Eloise's mind wandered and once it wandered it was hard to bring it back again.

 "Yes," said Eloise. "Isn't that wonderful? It's warm in there with the wood stove going and much better than sleeping under the bridge in these kind of temperatures."

"But it's against the law," said Joan.

"Many things are against the law," said Eloise, "yet people do them anyway."

"Aren't you afraid of germs? What about diseases like HIV?"

"Usually, dear, HIV is transmitted by anal sex. Since I don't practice anal sex or sex of any description for that matter,and have not for forty years, why worry?  Besides Jeffrey is a hypochondriac. He has been tested seventeen times for HIV. all results negative."

"Don't you think he might pose a danger to the neighbourhood children?"

"No more than you or I. Besides he doesn't go into the neighbourhood. I am on the edge and he comes along the riverbank. He doesn't like the neighbourhood. He says it is full of evil spirits and he avoids it like the plague."

"But surely a man who claims our neighbourhood filled with evil spirits is mad," said Joan.

"You don't think there are evil spirits in the neighbourhood?" asked Eloise.

"Well," said Joan, "a few perhaps but that would be metaphorically speaking." replied Joan.

"Jeffrey doesn't do metaphorical, dear. Everything for him is real."

By this time they were seated at a table each with a coffee and donut. Joan was surprised to find the place almost full. She thought only the rare person got up this early in the morning. Some were on their way to work, wolfing down coffee and a bun and bolting out the door. Others seemed as if they were coming from work, shift workers she supposed, with coats off, lounging in their chairs, if it is possible to lounge in coffee shop chairs, sipping double doubles and eating breakfast sandwiches with bright yellow egg sticking out the sides. Excepting for young children, they were of all ages and descriptions. There were even an old man she would classify as a member of Jeffry's tribe, drinking a small coffee through a jungle of scraggly beard. Eloise had a large coffee and a bun, Joan a hot chocolate and a sprinkled donut, the later being what she considered her secret vice. Joan told Eloise about her relationship with donuts.

"Well," said Eloise, "if that is your secret vice then you will go to heaven for sure. Maybe a few brief moments in Purgatory but then right on to the gloriously boring. Personally I plan to spend eternity in Purgatory or even on the outskirts, hopefully just the outskirts, of Hell. I think I would meet much more interesting people there. Kissing the arse of tyrants, even if they are theological tyrants, is likely to attract only the worst kind of time serving sycophant and who wants to spend eternity with a bunch like that?"

Joan didn't know what to say to this so said nothing. When they were leaving Eloise lined up at the counter to buy a coffee and two donuts for Jeffrey. The coffee she poured into a thermos she pulled from her pocket. The donuts she stuffed into the voluminous pocket on the right hand side of her parka. 

Outside in the cold air they walked down the street leading to Eloise's house. When they turned into the side street Eloise said, "You may as well come and meet Jeffry, dear. He's very cheerful in the morning, sitting by the hot stove smoking his pipe, waiting for his coffee. He likes company once in a while. Other than myself I mean. I'm afraid he finds me a little boring at times."

Joan, brought up in a strict code of almost professional courtesy, could find no way to refuse this offer. As they approached the garage she, stealthily she hoped, zipped up her parka as tight as it would go and stuffed her mitt tops into the sleeves, thus, she hoped, forcing any germs or bugs which might come her way to attach themselves to the outside of her clothing, where, on the walk home, they would die off in the cold.

Jeffrey, as Eloise had said he would be, was seated by the fire smoking his pipe, an enormous German pipe given him by a professor who in his old age decided to give up sucking noxious fumes into his lungs. He was seated in a old stuffed chair with comfortable rounded arms one of which Jeffrey had his legs hanging over in a picture of comfortable domestic bliss. The stove was well stuffed and the heat radiating from it was so strong even Jeffrey, who hated to be chilled, had removed most of his outer layers. He had on two pairs of long red underwear, three wool vests and a pair of bright yellow socks, or  rather socks which were once bright yellow, now somewhat less so. Joan was surprised that even in the heat no foul smells came from his direction. On the contrary he smelt of a mixture of mild male animal and old spice, his favourite deodorent. As well, there were no unsightly messes (overflowing excrement buckets for instance) in sight. In fact the place, although humble and well worn, was neat and clean. Not far from the stove was a table, above it a small white cupboard and atop the stove was a large pot of water. There was a bed in the far corner and series of pegs along one wall where hung a motley of clothes. Below them were a line of boots and shoes for every season of the year.

Jeffrey was not accomplished at the social graces. He ate his donuts with great gusto while Eloise found two folding chairs in a corner and brought them over for her and Joan. Conversation was limited. Joan and Eloise commented on the weather and Jeffrey nodded sagely as if he were an emperor and aides were bringing him news of great import to them, but all in a days work to him. When he was finished his donuts he washed them down with great slurps of coffee and then resumed his pipe puffing, sending clouds of whitish smoke, the particulates of which, Joan lamented in silence, settled on their coats and snowpants. After five minutes the women rose to leave and Jeffrey, spurred perhaps by the manners from a distant past, got up to see them out,  shouting after them as they negotiated the path to the house, "Watch out for the goddamn cold, now. Watch out for the goddamn cold and the slipping too. It's just as bad."

"To withdraw Form 555713B you have to file Form 555713C-X," the Alderman told Joan over the phone. "Since Form 555713B has not been initially processed it's fairly easy. No one objects to a withdrawal of something requesting that which has not yet begun. Once it begins, now that's another matter. Yes, yes, another matter indeed. Sometimes it is impossible and things must be allowed to roll on to their natural conclusion. A certain momentum has been created against which the wishes of individuals are powerless. Luckily in this case things have not proceeded so far along they cannot be brought to a halt."

For once Joan was glad for the slow march of city bureaucracy. Just as she was about to hang up the phone the Alderman asked her, "So this old gentleman, would his name be Jeffrey?"

"Why, yes it is," said Joan, a little surprised. "Do you know him?"

"Oh yes," said the Alderman. "I went to school with his younger brother and played on the same baseball team as he for a number of years. He was a pitcher and a good one too."

"I see," said Joan.

"I still see him around from time to time on the streets - a nice old bindle stiff, a jolly old lag still with his sense of humour."

When Joan mentioned the Alderman saying this in the coffee shop the next morning, Eloise laughed. "Jeffrey is his brother, dear, as much as he likes to pretend otherwise so high and mighty he has become. Birds don't shit in his path and angels from glory wipe the sweat from his brow, or so he would like to think from the vantage point of his lofty seat. Well, I suppose at least he has the honour to run a little interference for his brother once in a while which is more than you can say for many others. Not so bad, really."


Friday, December 7, 2012

M. Baudelaire

M. Baudelaire was walking a street in the old downtown. Three AM. He had slept between the hours of ten and two but then woke feeling as if he had slept the night through. Poetry no longer called him in the wee hours so he put on his overcoat and went out the door.

Winter. Snow which fell three days before had made its migration from purest white to tramped and coal dusted.  Good thing he had put on his rubber boots. Along the sidewalks, where it had been churned by the feet of passersby, lay slush, beneath it a layer of icy water. Confident in his rubber M. Baudelaire strode boldly through. No one was about but then the section where he lived was quiet even during the day for it was inhabited by people of regular habits, close to the river away from bars, cafes and theatres.

The old gas lamps had long been replaced by electric. He sometimes missed the old lamps which spread about them a yellowish haze perfect for half dreaming, half perceiving the darkened city. The electrics were whitish. In the middle of the night when respectable citizens were in their cozy beds, they turned down the intensity so that now, all along the street, were white umbrellas of light dropping their weakened beams upon the dirty snow. Like a sailor working the waters of an archipelago he made his way between these islands of light.

After some twenty minutes he came to the front of a long brick building. In the half light it gave the appearance of a bridge tier or a blank, anonymous railway building. It had one small entrance toward the very end of its street run and he slipped into it, out of the lighted street and into almost complete darkness. He took a match from his pocket, lit it against the rough brick of the wall and inserted a key into the door. The lock turned in a heavy but well oiled fashion and he entered a foyer leading to a long corridor immediately in front of him, lit at the end by a single bald electrical bulb. To his left was an iron stair. He began his climb.

On the sixth floor he was presented with another long corridor with another bald bulb at its end. When he reached the light he turned to the door on his right, raised his cane and, with the silver knob at its top, gave one sharp knock. At first there was no response but this was not unusual. Always, as soon as there was a knock on the door, Jeanne froze. She claimed a knock on the door was the same as someone walking over her grave. After a few moments of indecision, (M. Baudelaire pictured in his mind the expression on her face, the attitude of her body) there was the sound of slippered feet moving across the floor, stopping behind the door. Then three minutes of Jeanne sensing, with the mystic methods of her people M. Baudelaire no longer scoffed at as he did in his youth, who was behind the door. O these woman have their ways and if a man lives long enough he comes to understand them as perfectly intelligent and possibly even superior to his own.

Jeanne opened the door. M. Baudelaire, as was his custom, walked past her to the small kitchen at the back where he took off his coat and began warming himself at the iron stove. Jeanne followed and sat at the table where she had been sitting when he knocked. Before her on the porcelain surface was a layout of tarot cards. Beside them was a glass of wine.

"Charles," she said, "you wet my clean floor with your dirty boots."

M. Baudelaire took off the boots and set them beside the stove. He retrieved a damp mop from the corner (kept in readiness at all times by the very tidy Jeanne) and, retracing his steps, mopped the dirty wet spots from the floor. Done, he rinsed the mop in the kitchen sink and put it back atop the rusty bucket, its resting place.

"I received a letter from my cousin," said Jeanne.

"The one who is dying?" asked M. Baudelaire.

"No. The one who is dying is Francine. This is Marcella. She is the one with twelve children."

"I thought she had thirteen?"

"One died of whooping cough a year ago. She sent a photograph of herself and the children and sends her best wishes to you , her benefactor, as she calls you."

"You are the benefactor dear Jeanne. You squeeze me for the money and send it along to her."

"Excepting in your poems you have always been a man to lie about his feelings. You know very well I do not have to 'squeeze you' as you put it but, but on the contrary I have to insist on not sending too large an amount which will only spoil her."

M. Baudelaire did not reply to this. Instead he rubbed his hands above the iron stove top and smiled in appreciation for the pleasure its warmth gave his arthritic hands.

"Is she still in the city?"

"No. She has taken my advice and gone back to the country where she bought a small farm. She has goats, chickens, pigs and a big garden. And those ragamuffin boys of hers play in the fields instead of learning to steal and fight on the streets."

"There is stealing and fighting in the country as well."

"True but less and the neighbours know you and send reports to your mama. All the older ones are going to school. You will remember the bill."

"Ridiculously small I remember."

"It is a poor country and the schooling is cheap."

"Well, as long as they learn to read they can fill in the gaps for themselves."

"The oldest already has a clerk's job in the Ministry."

"O the poor bastard, what a fate!"

"I would remind you he is not a French intellectual with an inheritance but a African colonial with a family he must help support."

"Well, at least he is not responsible for the sins of the Bourgeoise who made the inheritance in the first place."

Jeanne did not reply to this. Instead she pointed to the sideboard and said, "She sent a photograph of herself and the children."

M. Baudelaire walked to the board and picked up the photograph. A large African woman sat on a chair in the centre of a string of children. ranging from toddlers on the right to tall gangly teenagers on the left. A very chubby baby sat on her knee. The woman was smiling broadly as if she had just received a prize for first place in something, child bearing no doubt thought M. Baudelaire. Yet he had to admit she was both an attractive and pleasing looking woman, the sort of woman one seldom saw on the streets of his own city, so miserable was the condition of the Parisian poor. The family grouping was beneath a tree. The sun was shining but then in Jeanne's home place the sun was always shining. Not like in Winter Paris where it hid all winter, a faded flower peeping between rags of dirty clouds.

How handsome were the children, how full of life! How their bright smiles were so accentuated by the dark brown of their flawless complexions. The mother wore a kind of robe/dress which covered everything but her head, even her feet. But the children wore a hodgepodge of odds and ends, the girls dresses, the boys shorts and unbuttoned shirts (o what a kind mother she must be not to demand they button their shirts). The children had bare feet, healthy robust looking bare feet. The girls all had bone combs in their hair and the boys had their hair slicked to one side in imitation, perhaps, of a European dandy.

"Poems are children, dear Charles."

"Poems are ephemeral, Jeanne, and die with the man who once wrote them."

"Well, children don't last forever either. They grow up to be adults and you seldom see them."

M. Baudelaire said nothing to this. Instead he sat at the table across from Jeanne and watched her lay out cards.

"For whom?" he asked.

"Marcella's oldest," Jeanne replied. "The clerk in the Ministry."

"That's easy then," said M. Baudelaire. "At the age of thirty-three, as a result of an acute attack of boredom, he hurls himself into the harbour and drowns."

"Not all bureaucrats die of boredom," replied Jeanne.

"Not all, this is true," said M. Baudelaire. "Some have been dead some years before they enter the Ministry. These are the successful ones for having been born into the world of the dead they know no other and do not mourn."

"Nobody is born into the world of the dead, sacrilegious man."

"I beg to differ," said M. Baudelaire. "I have known many who at least seemed to be born into the world of the dead.."

"Seem and is are two different things. Why don't you make coffee?"

M. Baudelaire rose and did as Jeanne suggested. While it was brewing he watched her move the cards about.

"Well?" he asked.

"He will marry early," said Jeanne. "A rich man's daughter from the next village."

"She will ruin his life with her ambition," said M. Baudelaire. "In the end he will wish he went to the bordello or used his hands."

"No. She is good woman who loves men and children, not money."

"And the ambition?"

"He will have his own and it will be his undoing. He will be accused of plotting against the government and will be sentenced to die along with many others."

"Ah well," said M. Baudelaire, "At least it will be a relief from endless file reviewing."

"He will be given a pardon," said Jeanne.

"Friends in high places!" said M. Baudelaire. This little witticism pleased him so much he broke out laughing. When he stopped he looked at Jeanne to see if she was sharing his pleasure but she was looking back at him with a calm, steady, stare. He suddenly realized what this stare might mean.

"Me, you mean," he asked.

"Why not," said Jeanne.

"I didn't think I would have to stay alive that long," said M. Baudelaire.

"Not so long," said Jeanne. "He is already a clerk three, a great accomplishment for a African twenty year old."

M. Baudelaire had written many poems about the scented lands of colonial Africa and he had even travelled there for a brief period in his youth. But he did not take away much for his home was the cafes of Paris not the out lands of the empire. Still there was Jeanne who, despite his reputation for being sexually permissive, so vigorously promoted by himself and all those who wished to be considered his friend, was the only woman who  became the resting place of his true affections. Granted, originally he had been attracted to the exotic element in loving an African woman, a creature who symbolized primitive, unrestrained desire and electrified his scorn for, his rebellion against, the moral guardians, but in the end he stayed long enough to see the sister where once only the beckoning wanton did appear.

Some months after the above scene M. Baudelaire and Jeanne could be seen standing on a pier on the Seine waiting patiently (at least Jeanne was waiting patiently, M. Baudelaire was a version of his usual impatient self, modified by age and the charm of watching the fog lifting off the dirty water) for the agents to remove the barrier across the gang plank of a rusty steamer. Beside them were six trunks upon which were piled a motley array of bags, suitcases and taped cardboard boxes. M. Baudelaire was dressed in the style of a provincial notary - black suit, white shirt with tie, leather shoes polished to a shine the envy of any bureaucrat who might lay eyes upon them, laid over his shoulders to keep off the early morning chill a grey overcoat of exquisite conservative cut,
the material, granted, far above the reach of the income of a provincial notary. Jeanne's matronly dark grey dress was covered by her own silver grey coat. Jeanne wore upon her lapel a broach given her by a rich man in her early youth and once the source of terrible quarrels between her and M. Baudelaire, but now, at least from M. Baudelaire's angle, the occasion of amused ironic glances. M. Baudelaire's only display of colour was a dark red handkerchief protruding from his suit coat pocket unseen beneath his overcoat and, fastened to his overcoat lapel by a simple gold pin, a single red rose.

M. Baudelaire would have preferred a berth on a more modern boat, one with the rust removed and great perfectly white sides reaching into the air commandingly above the water but Jeanne would not be denied what she called her 'cozy oil bucket steamer' whose bleeding plates slumped in the water like the sides of a bruised animal. Then there was the matter of money, for the school they were to establish on arrival required money, even the money to be saved from the more humble passage.

"I suppose," said M. Baudelaire as he placed his everyday scented handkerchief under his nose to escape the foul smell of goats being lifted off the pier in cages and dropped down into the ship's bowels, "the students will be the sons and daughters of dangerous criminals since you insist on establishing it near the slums where your cousins live. No doubt if one insists they write legibly and in their compositions exclude the tics of that monster Victor Hugo from their stylistic repertoire, the fathers and brothers will show up the next day and cut our throats. Oh well. We have lived far too long as it is and can hardly demand our exit be approved by aesthetic principles. Perhaps we can hire thugs to protect us. What do you think?"

"Since the tuition is free the parents will complain of nothing," replied Jeanne. "A more likely problem might be parents rushing up to you in the streets, throwing themselves on their knees and covering your hands with kisses."

"I could wear gloves I suppose."

"If you wear gloves in that heat you won't have to worry about having your throat cut for you will die of heat stroke on the first day."

 There are the scents of Africa dealt with in poetry but the scents they experienced in coming into the harbour of the provincial town were mostly from the sewage laden oil glazed water which clung to the piers like a great miasma of foul syrup. The goats, making their return journey from the ship's underbelly had been freshened in their powerful odours by a week at sea with cages untended. Added to this was a great mass of animals on the pier waiting to be loaded, for the boat was to continue on down the coast to another town. One contingent was a travelling circus for there were cages of lions, tigers, hyenas, crocodiles, wired containers alive with snakes and, standing off to one side in the blessed shade of a giant tree, two mournful elephants leaning against one another, the sadness of the ages in their wise and weary eyes. Around these, in a sea which seemed endless, perhaps only terminating at the far end of Africa itself, that great and turbulent incubator of both humans and animals, were masses of farm animals - chickens, goats, cattle, ducks, strange, multicoloured exotic birds, even ostriches with  long craning necks searching the crowd with irritable glares. M. Baudelaire wondered if it were possible for them to make their way through such an assembly or if the dark gods of the continent had demanded they all show up on that day to consume the few stringy Europeans which the boat was carrying into exile.

Jeanne alleviated his fears by grasping him firmly by the hand and leading him down the gangplank. He held in his right hand a briefcase filled with his latest writing while his left was being tugged from its socket by the vigorous method Jeanne used to split the crowd to create an opening. She lowered one shoulder and barged. The combination of her physical vigour and the trailing presence of M. Baudelaire, obviously a Frenchman of the educated classes, opened up just enough room to make it through. Behind them came the young men Jeanne had engaged (at twice the going rate to prevent stealing or at least minimize it) to carry their luggage, fifteen altogether, loud young men who shouted at the crowd that refusal of a passageway would force them to down the baggage and begin beating people to create one.When they finally broke through the crush they came upon a line of ancient wagons two of which Jeanne hired to take them to their new home. There M. Baudelaire immediately retired into the inner spaces of the adobe house (which were deliciously cool compared to the oven baked streets) and had a nap.

And what, you might ask, was M. Baudelaire, that great poet, critic, complainer, and aesthete, doing in a provincial town in Africa, the only thing to be said for it being it was the birthplace of his paramour, the incomparible Jeanne? Well, he had gone there with Jeanne of course, to teach children in a free school he was to bankroll out of the rag ends of his inheritance rescued from his early life of dissipation. His literary work was finished twenty years before he insisted to anyone who managed to break through the elaborate system of cut outs and covers he had assembled in the city of Paris to protect himself from mobs of celebrity seekers and lovers of art. He still wrote, or as he put it, scribbled, but he claimed this was the result of a lifelong nervous habit he was incapable of breaking. The school was in a old warehouse two blocks from the house, a building still smelling strongly of the spices once stored there.

M. Baudelaire taught in the mornings and wrote in the afternoons. He had a class of fifteen children whom he taught a variety of subjects ranging from French History to English composition. The children ranged from nine to thirteen years of age, most African but three white, the sons of poor colonial Frenchmen. The children arrived at eight in the morning and were fed milk and bread with jam by Jeanne and three of her cousins, one of them a Catholic nun. There were three classes, M. Baudelaire's, the nun's and one taught by tubercular idealist from the island of Corsica. Classes were finished at one when Jeanne and her helpers fed the children soup and buns and sent them off home.

The schedule, giving children the afternoon and evening off, was set up to attract students, for the poor needed older children to bring in a small income and could not have them attending school all day. That the children were fed breakfast and lunch also helped. The school, after it was operating for six months, had a complement of fifty- three children, the oldest thirteen, the youngest six. Jeanne hoped eventually, following the children as they aged, to raise the age of the oldest to sixteen or so. There were none in the school or the area for that matter, with the resources to attend university but some might manage a scholarship or entry into a free government technical school. Just the fact that they could read at the age of sixteen meant they could apply for a variety of jobs most  could not apply for because they were illiterate. Jeanne was sensitive to these issues of employment while M. Baudelaire was rather dismissive of anything other than intellectual distinction mainly of the literary kind. In his class there were three gifted in languages and he gave them extra attention. But he did not neglect the others. In fact the student who stole his heart was a small boy from further south on the continent, a child named Jules, eleven years of age. Jules did not neglect his languages but he was most at home drawing pictures and spent all the time he could scribbling happily away on paper M. Baudelaire manage to scrounge from a local printer. He was the only child of a single mother who worked all day in a hospital laundry. After lunch he went home with Jeanne and M. Baudelaire, where he spent the afternoon in the inner courtyard drawing pictures on a table M. Baudelaire placed there for him. Once a week the two of them walked to the library of a religious school five miles across the city and took out books of images. Sometimes Jules drew whatever he wanted to draw, whatever came into his head. Other times he copied from the books of images or just sat looking at the images for hours at a time.

Old poets grow tired of words and old painters weary of images. And it is not unusual, as in the case of Jules and M. Baudelaire, for the young to influence the old. M. Baudelaire, excepting for a brief foray into drawing and painting when a very young man, had stuck to words for many many years even though in the last ten years he found little joy in them. Now, influenced by the joy and concentration of this small boy working away in his courtyard, M. Baudelaire began to draw and then to experiment with colour. At first he worked in his own study on the other side of the house but after some time of this he brought an old table from storage and set it up not far from Jules, and the two of them, happy to have with them the warm presence of the other, yet fully concentrated on the work at hand, spent every afternoon from two until six filling paper and canvas and cut pieces of composition board with both copies from their books and their own work created in the inspiration of the moment. M. Baudelaire especially liked to draw and paint scenes from the nearby bazaar. Jules preferred the waterfront and on Saturdays he and M. Baudelaire drove the old school trap, pulled by its lethargic donkey, a moth eaten fellow with enormous ears, to the piers where they drew the ships and crowds and stevedores and made a thousand experiments attempting to capture the the delirious sense of movement and colour about them. Jules was greatly attracted by the water and made hundreds of colours studies trying to catch its queer and fleeting combination of filth and beauty. He found his secret ingredient to be tar. Begging a small amount from a sailor one day he found its pitch black, overlaid with other colours, created marvellous effects which made him dream at night of the harbour water. M. Baudelaire, fastidious himself about the tar, bowed to the boy's superior intuitions in these matters and bought a barrel of the stuff the workman wheeled into the courtyard on a dolly and stood up in a corner.

There were what most people call folk painters in the town. As far as M. Baudelaire could make out the difference between folk painters and other painters was illusory, having, on the whole, to do with class and culture. Good painters were the talented ones who somehow kept themselves creatively stirred whatever people called them. He and Jules went off twice a month to visit some of these, mostly men but there were a few women among them. The studios were in the poor area around them for rents were cheap and these painters, selling their wares in the bazaars for very little money, had no choice but to live cheap. Most spoke French but some spoke only Arabic and in these cases Jules did the talking and translating into French for M. Baudelaire. M. Baudelaire, standing at the junction of the two cultures, one foot in each, although the French foot enormous, the Arabic one dependent on a now twelve year old boy, had, for the first time in his life, a business idea which ended in the construction of a small gallery in the front part of the house. M. Baudelaire advertised in the tourist hotels. He reasoned that there was nothing a middle class tourist, more and more of whom visited the town every year, wanted to take back with them than an authentic piece of Africa and what was better than a painting, lightweight, cheap, easily transportable? M. Baudelaire, and Jules sold some of their own, (M. Baudelaire under an Arabic nom de plume) but also paintings and sculptures by their friends, the 'folk' artists. Jeanne ran the money side  and she and M. Baudelaire had a few heated arguments on how much could be syphoned off to support the school (Jeanne insisted on 20%, M. Baudelaire no more than 10). Jeanne won, of course, for she was the one who kept the accounts.
M. Baudelaire found the hottest days to be insufferable. He always managed to teach his classes but sometimes in the afternoon he lay on his bed naked, panting like an old dog for an hour before he could summon the energy to rise.

One day he had an appointment for mid afternoon two miles away from the house. It was useless to put the donkey in the drafts for the poor thing would bray piteously as if it were being roasted slowly over a fire like St. Lawrence and refuse to pull. Unlike many of the carters around M. Baudelaire did not have the heart to beat the creature and instead left him in the relative cool of his mud shed on the hottest of afternoons. Dressed in his black suit he feared he would collapse halfway to his destination yet felt, as a European, it was beneath his dignity to go out dressed in only a shirt and a pair of shorts. (the truth was he was more concerned about the skinniness of his arms and legs than his dignity) The gardener, a middle aged man about the same size as M. Baudelaire, suggested he wear his extra set of clothes, a shockingly white shift which dropped almost to the ankles, tied at the waist and covered by a burnoose, a hooded cloak.

"We have been living here for thousands of years," said the gardener, "and this is what we wear."

Particularly since he was going to visit the French Notary who looked after his financial affairs, a man of strict Huguenot  uprightness who would rather die than be caught wearing the slightest deviation from conventional French colonial fashion, he decided to give it a go. The Notary was indeed shocked when M. Baudelaire strode into his office in Arab dress and he treated him with a the combination of care and distance his kind use in dealing with madmen. This amused M. Baudelaire to no end and, combined with the fact that his new costume was amazingly cool, making him feel as if he were covered by an umbrella and a slight cooling breeze blew so sweetly around his middle and legs, he decided to wear it all the time in the very hot season. Eventually he grew to like it and its winter additions so much he dressed like an Arab all year long.

In the Spring of the fifth year of his arrival in Africa M. Baudelaire was sketching on the docks with Jules. It was mid afternoon on a coolish day, a series of cloud banks having blocked out the sun for most of the day. Jules was some distance away drawing sketch after sketch of a tramp steamer which had just tied up at the dock. M. Baudelaire was resting in the seat of the donkey trap drinking coffee purchased from a nearby stall when he saw a man he knew come down the steamer's gangplank.

This man was a Parisian critic by the name of H. Bunot. He was some ten years younger than M. Baudelaire and a savage critic of his poetry up until the point, some thirty years ago, when it became obvious that M. Baudelaire was, by far, the most significant poet of his day. H. Bunot had then trimmed his sails to gather in the wind of the 'New Poetry' as he and his fellow critics called it, and had praised his work ever since. Unfortunately the poor man was as ignorant in his praise as he had been in his criticism. M. Baudelaire had met him many times in Paris, sometimes at the few official events he allowed himself to attend, sometimes in cafes M. Baudelaire frequented. In these establishments H. Bunot would often accost him and bore him with endless silly questions which M. Baudelaire answered as best he could for he knew the man had a large family to feed and words fresh from the horse's mouth were precious spices for H. Bunot's columns in the local newspapers. Ten years ago he had brought out a combination biography and literary criticism on the work and life of M. Baudelaire, which, despite lengthy interviews with the subject, was riddled with inaccuracies and contained  an appreciation of his poetry so superficial and banal that an intelligent man would suspect it of being a satire. The life part bordered on hagiography even though M. Baudelaire had been quite frank with the man about the more unsavoury parts of his life and quite clear that he did not care one whit if he printed everything he told him. H. Bunot, of course, was writing for an audience who liked their poets to be on the saintly side and their defects explained away as the natural reaction to the sufferings attending a life devoted to art. The book mildly disgusted M. Baudelaire but he was in no way made angry or incensed by it for, when he thought about it, it was the only kind of book such a man could write, so why waste one's time expecting him to write another? When he finished reading the book (skimming it really, for the prose was so turgid, so cheapened by cliches that by the time one freed oneself from the clutches of one he was immediately jumped by three or four others, and actually reading the prose as if a man were speaking to him, as one does good work, would have caused M. Baudelaire to go stark raving mad or to have a heart attack or a stroke), he tossed it aside and never thought of it until this very moment when H. Bunot, raincoat over his left arm, walking stick in his right, two porters following behind, carrying his luggage, came walking down the gangplank. Well now, thought M. Baudelaire, as he watched H. Bunot climb into an open carriage and head off toward the hotel district.

Three days later a note arrived at the house by courier, addressed to M. Baudelaire, of course, in the long, stretched out, flourishing characters he recognized from the old days in Paris. The messenger had been told to wait for an answer, and he was doing so in the kitchen where the cook poured him a cup of coffee.

The message asked for an interview, the purpose being 'to bring the French public up to date on the current thinking and poetic practice of its greatest living poet.' M. Baudelaire, not wanting to give himself away by writing a reply in his own hand, surely recognizable even by the very obtuse H. Bunot, dictated an answer to Jules who wrote it down word for word. He then placed it in an envelope and handed it to the messenger to take back to his employer.

H. Bunot was so anxious to receive the answer he was waiting in the hotel lobby when the messenger returned.  He tore open the envelope, pulled out the single page of script it contained and read the following,

Dear sir,

Unfortunately the person to whom your message is addressed has been deceased for some time now. He, along with his paramour, a Jeanne Duvall, drowned when the boat they were travelling on in the interior was holed and sank with great loss of life. Neither the body of Jeanne Duval or that of M. Baudelaire was recovered but this is to be expected since it was the rainy season and the river, a seething torrent, carried all the bodies quickly out to sea. The house you sent your message to is owned by a M. Jules Jamalais, a merchant who never met M. Baudelaire and, other than the above and that the man's name was on the property deed before his, knows nothing at all about him.


Jules Jamalais

Further messages came back unopened. A private detective's report claimed there were no Europeans living in the house. H. Bunot's own spying expeditions revealed that the house seemed to be inhabited by servants only. Inquiries at the police station revealed nothing. There was no M. Baudelaire on their registry nor was there a Jeanne Duval. An advertisement in the newspaper produced not a single response. One and a half weeks after he had arrived, H Burnot sailed back to France aboard The Purposeful Hazard, the same old tub Jeanne and M. Baudelaire had sailed out of France on some five years before.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Painting Judge

Painting Judge

In his youth M. Van Gogh had a fiery complexion and  bright copper hair. When he was a child, his mother, in an unprecedented moment of levity, described him to her husband as a cross between a summer sunset and a fire engine. Paterfamilias Van Gogh, who feared that his son’s colouring was a sign of bad things to come, was not amused. However, by the time M. Van Gogh reached sixty the fire had gone out. His hair and beard were snow white, his skin a muddy brown, although in some lights there was an undertint of orange. Age did not affect his eyes. They were the same ice blue as they had been when he was a baby.

If M. Van Gogh had lived the average life span he would have died obscure and penniless. Outside of his intimate circle no one would have known his name and none but a few artists, poor and penniless themselves, would have seen and appreciated his paintings. But by some happenstance he was ‘discovered’ in his fifties and his paintings now sold for amounts which would once have financed he and all the many friends of his youth for a decade. When he reached eighty no one was more surprised than he. He thought for sure that his drinking (he stopped at the age of seventy-five), his mental illness (diagnosed by many psychiatrists as chronic and untreatable) and the years of grinding poverty which accompanied the making of his great paintings, would kill him before he was out of his fifties but they didn’t. He lived on and on until by the age of eighty-five he dwelt in a large house with servants and had so much money in the bank the manager came by three times a year to give him a personal briefing on his account.

At the back of the house was a large yard, much of it filled with flowerbeds. The day after he bought the house he engaged a contractor to build a lean to studio off a blank spot on the back wall. The contractor had visions of a fine palace of a studio but M. Van Gogh stopped him in his tracks. He wanted no fine palaces. He didn’t mind them if they belonged to someone else and he was on a brief visit, but he did not want to own or build one himself. He wanted only the most humble of materials. He wanted a potbellied stove burning both wood and coal. He wanted modest windows with storms for the winter, of course, but he wanted them smallish so that a man could walk up to them and look out with satisfaction yet not so commanding they demanded he look out. When the contractor gave him the price he was astonished. He made a joke about Louis XIV and the extravagance of his royal court but the contractor was not amused. When M. Van Gogh asked around about the price he was told it was reasonable and he had the man go ahead.

As soon as the studio was built (quickly for the building market was depressed and the contractor had his pick of workmen), he spent most of his waking hours there. Summers he spent much of the days outside on a small patio. He joked with his bank manager - a surprisingly humorous man for one following such a profession - usually they were as dour as his dear old father -  that the house was for the servants and except for sleeping and eating he never went into it. He allowed the oldest maid, a second cousin who came to live with him some years before, being destitute and homeless, to clean the studio once a month. That was on the day he climbed into the motorcar for his trip to the sea some ten miles away.

If it was summer he sat on the beach all day, had supper at the hotel and came home. During the winter he walked, one hand on the chauffeur’s elbow, the other on his cane. The chauffeur carried with him a load of blankets and when they reached a certain bench he wrapped his employer in a wool cocoon and M. Van Gogh sat for some hours looking out to sea. It always occurred to him on these occasions that he could have saved himself all the trials and tribulations of being an artist by having become a sailor. He thought of sailors as artists who destained the vulgar claptrap of paint and canvas for the much purer art of simply seeing. Although he knew this to be untrue, in fact to be the worst kind of sentimental nonsense, still, every time he sat on his bench the thought went through his head and for a brief moment he enjoyed it as a child would enjoy the intense taste of his favourite candy.

Sometimes Denise, the second cousin, was still in the studio when he came back. This annoyed M. Van Gogh, for it meant he had to sit patiently listening to his relative’s complaints. Her complaints were complex, involved and legion. So as to kill two birds with one stone he ordered tea brought out on a tray and sat munching cookies while Denise walked the winding road of her illnesses and petty disputes with the other servants. Her monologues were much the same every month and M. Van Gogh sometimes wondered if she were not becoming senile. Other than an occasional hmmm and nodding his head, he made no comment. He had learned years before that interruptions were considered rude and comments were not appreciated. If Denise was still full steam ahead after an hour he unobtrusively removed a pre-measured packet of laudanum from an inside pocket and spilt the contents into his tea. He had learned exactly when to do this so that just as Denise’s voice became like a dentist drill cutting its way through a nerve, the effects of the drug cut in and saved him from excruciating misery. Denise was a good twenty years younger than himself and capable of talking well into the night but after two hours at the most, he pleaded his age and rang for the man servant who helped him to his bedroom.

To be aged and famous, unless one is an egoist, is a burden. Curators and sycophants in the employ of the men who will profit from an increase in the value of your work, spread about them a misty fog of hagiography. Supposedly at the centre of this misty fog is an electrical Prometheus, fire crackling the air around a nimbus of his creative tensions, waiting patiently for the chosen few who will be given the benefit of his steely gaze or even the sacrament of his god like touch. In truth, of course, there is an old man bundled against the chills of old age, in a chair in the corner. At ninety M. Van Gogh succeeded in putting an end to this nonsense by hiring two gardeners who came running at the sounding of a buzzer in their shed and garden. These two men, polite church goers but inexorable in the defence of M. Van Gogh’s privacy, showed all visitors who brushed past the butler to the door and out into the street. Sometimes, in the case of the truly zealous and pressing, they threw them down the front steps and shouted unchurch-like phrases after, for they had found from experience that physical fear was the best guard against repeat performances. Six months of this and the word got round so that now only the occasional unwelcome visitor showed up at the door. Most were given the gardener treatment but on the rare odd day M. Van Gogh would allow them to be ushered into his presence as a kind of tribute to the bad old days. They were mostly art students, feverish and consumed with ecstatic visions. M. Van Gogh spoke with them briefly about the prices of canvas, tubes of paint, brushes, etcetera, gave them a crisp one hundred dollar bill and sent them on their way.

Fame and reputation also brought many invitations, some social which he refused and some professional, which he mostly refused. In his seventies and eighties he had been foolishly moved by the arguments of Highly Responsible persons that a great painter in his dotage had debts to pay to what they called the ‘Great Tradition’. He sat on committees. He went to high profile openings of public expositions. He attended the Royal Family’s Arts Night where he was given a place beside the Prince who during the meal told him many off colour jokes, some mildly amusing but most plain silly. He also acted as the painting judge for this annual event, the successful painting being unveiled after the dinner by the Prince who took advantage of the occasion to tell a few more of his smutty jokes and make a few asides (referred to by his friends as the Royal Person’s zingers) in the same spirit of scatological snickering. All this reminded M. Van Gogh of a relative of the Prince from two centuries before who was famous for caressing the bottoms of duchesses in public and who often, during a reception, suddenly plunged his face into the cleavage of a well endowed young woman. One of the disadvantages of being Royal is that everyone knows your business and the business of your ancestors for even their most banal habits are written up in history books. If you are common, two generations succeeds in wiping the slate clean and the dead can go to their final rest in the fields of oblivion.

At ninety, along with hiring his two gardeners, M. Van Gogh dropped all these ‘Great Tradition’ duties excepting one, the Royal’s Arts Night. The Highly Responsible Persons were in high dudgeon for some months but he paid them no attention. They were, after all, the type of people whose artistic activity consists of eating stale sandwiches, gossiping and discussing fashionable topics under the delusion that their opinions, which they received from the newspapers and sifted with insect –like delicacy until they found a happy mix of the bland and the popular, were of great import. He did not cast all these people from his door for he liked some of them a great deal and set three nights a year to have them for dinner where everyone, including himself, for he was one of them, at least part time, if he was honest with himself, could have a jolly gabfest. But he turned aside all their blandishments about his withdrawal as the talk of the devil. He had a few paintings to finish before he died and the younger ones would have to take his place on the committees.

The Royal Arts Night coming up was special. The Prince was celebrating his thirtieth year hosting the event and, as well, M. Van Gogh celebrated his one hundredth birthday two days before. The media was agog with delight over such a momentous occasion filled with celebrity and significance. M. Van Gogh heard about the media frenzy from friends, most particularly from the young woman student who he paid to give him a weekly summary of arts and political news. He had never read newspapers for he found them hard going. After an hour he felt like a child who had just eaten three cones of cotton candy – regretful and nauseous. M. Legrand, the young woman, however, gave him brief summaries which he could ask her to expand if he so chose. Her summations were masterful and done up with a sly irony unusual in such a young person. They were also enjoyable to listen to for M. Legrand was beautiful and her voice a combination of morning birds singing and grave delicate rhythms of the sea. Although congress with a woman was a matter of memory for him now, he still loved to listen to their melodious voices and even to some of the non melodious voices of the middle aged women who had once been his lovers.

This connection with M. Legrand and the coming Royal Arts Night had recently become somewhat of a delicate matter to him. M. Legrand was a student, an impoverished one, but as well as being a student in the studio of X, an old enemy of M. Van Gogh (from X’s side for M. Van Gogh had never been able to see the use of cultivating enemies), she was an accomplished painter with her own individual style which M. Van Gogh thought showed considerable promise. She had entered a painting in the Royal competition where the winning entry would be unveiled by the potty mouthed Prince on that special night. Her painting was superb, the kind of painting done by the highly talented early in their career which art critics discount because of the painter's youth but in truth are fully mature works granted by a combination of the muse and the energies of youth. M. Van Gogh was the judge of the competition, of course. But if he chose M. Legrand’s entry there would be many who would accuse him of furthering a protégé’s career at the cost of true judgment, or even a mistress’s career, for there were many who claimed the meetings between he and M. Legrand, an hour every week in the library, were, as well as being media summaries, sexual in nature. Of course they were but not in the way these people meant.

M. Legrand herself was the soul of discretion. She never mentioned her entry and indeed, in all of their meetings, some one hundred or so, she had never mentioned the fact that she was a painter. M. Van Gogh disliked talking of painting. He thought it better to look at paintings rather than talk about them. But he paid her so handsomely that it was obvious that, as well as paying her for her services, he was subsidizing her studies. Not that they spoke of this. Every week in the envelope given her by the butler as she left the house there was a generous amount above the agreed upon payment.

That year there were four hundred and fifty-five entries. The Prince’s agents placed them on easels and spread them around the grand hall for M. Van Gogh to look at. And look he did for he was the most conscientious of judges. He thought it his sacred duty to gaze at each one with the intense but kindly eye the painters themselves might turn upon it in an unguarded moment of self appreciation. This took him a month, visiting the grand hall every day, for at one hundred years of age M. Van Gogh, although surprisingly vigorous both physically and intellectually, no longer had the energy of early old age. He had two hours in the hall at his best, viewing and taking notes and then he went home. With four days left, after reviewing his notes, he chose twenty paintings which he then spent these last days looking at over and over again. M. Legrand’s was one of these paintings.

The day before the Gala, after listening to M. Legrand’s media summary without interrupting (he was tired and longed for his afternoon nap) he asked her,

“Are you going to the Art’s Night?”

“Well, I have received an invitation,” said M. Legrand, “but no.”

“And why not?”

“Clothes,” replied M. Legrand.

M. Van Gogh felt suddenly ashamed. How could he have missed such an obvious thing? He, a man who had spent forty years wearing rags and patches? He thought of apologizing but then thought better of it. Instead he rose, excused himself for a moment and left the room. He came back a few moments later and said,

“That will be all for today, M. Legrand. Thank you and I will see you tomorrow evening.”

M. Legrand left the room with her usual liquid grace and M. Van Gogh took the elevator upstairs to his bedroom to have his nap. When M. Legrand arrived at the room she rented near X’s studio she found the envelope contained far more than usual. She went out right away to a second hand shop and bought herself the necessities. The dress had to be altered but this for her was a pleasure – she loved working with needle and thread as much as she loved painting.

The Prince, of course, was delighted that the winner of that year’s prize was a beautiful young woman. Usually the winners were grizzled old veterans of the trenches of art, their eyes filled with a strange combination of obsequiousness and paranoid aggression. How much more pleasant to gaze upon this young woman in full bloom, her eyes filled with a smiling clarity, dressed in a stunning classical gown perhaps given her by an older lover, a man of wealth and influence not unlike the Prince himself. So impressed was he that he did not make his usual jokes, perhaps fearing that they would put him in a bad light before this young woman of refined sensibilities. His sycophants were disappointed that they were given no ‘zingers’ to pass around at the after event parties but they solved this problem by recycling some from years before.

A week later when M. Legrand finished her summary, M. Van Gogh asked,

“Has he sent you a message?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“I thought he would,” said M. Van Gogh. “He’s not a man to hesitate or delay. Have you decided?”

“No. I vacillate. I have a lover, a painter my own age. But he is as penniless as I.”

“I can look after this for you if you like. I don’t mean the Prince. You will deal with him as you like. I mean the money. Don’t answer in words. I know it is painful. If you are willing then simply nod.”

M. Legrand hesitated for a few seconds and then nodded.

“Fine, then,” said M. Van Gogh. “But there is one condition. The money will be deposited in your account. Leave the number with Jacob. The condition is that you are not to tell your lover you have capital. Tell him I give you a monthly income out of respect for your talent. Surely he will not look upon a hundred year old man as competition. I ask this because in a long life I have seen many women besotted by men who spent their money. You need it for something more long lasting than individual human beings – your painting. People change their feelings and they die but for as long as you can pick up a brush you have the painting. When I die you will be released from your promise, a release obviously not far in the future.”

M. Legrand looked at him for a long time but said nothing.

“You agree, then?” asked M. Van Gogh.

M.Legrand nodded. And so it was done.

One year later, at the Royal Arts Night, M. Van Gogh was approached by the Prince after  dinner. They stood in a small alcove off from the main hall, the Prince’s escort of dear ole pals attending at a distance, in respect, perhaps, for such an historic and august meeting between the embodied traditions of art and power.

“That young woman who won the prize last year,” said the Prince, “I forget her name…”

“M. Legrand, your Excellency,” said M. Van Gogh.

“Yes, M. Legrand. She seems quite a queer bird. I sent her a note and she didn’t reply.”

“Ahh,” said M. Van Gogh.

“I thought perhaps the first note had gone astray so I sent another. Three others in fact but still no reply.”

“Perhaps, your Excellency, you will allow my vast age to excuse my boldness, but what was in the notes you sent her?”

“Well….,” replied the Prince, “I asked her for a private meeting, a dinner tete a tete.”

“She’s very religious your Excellency and has a fiancé. So you can see why it would be impossible for her to reply. If you really want to see her I would suggest you invite her to a social occasion along with her fiancé. If you did that I’m sure you would get a reply.”

“Religious, eh? Well, we could all use a little more of that couldn’t we? Tempest Fugit and all.”

“No doubt your Excellency.”

But the Prince didn’t send another note. Other than the gala he never invited artists to social occasions. They were like glaciers, exuding chilly disapproval and looking down their noses at those not kissed by the holy god of art. Too bad that such a beauty was lost to him but there are plenty of others who were not, weren't there? Lots of other fish in the sea and all that.


Sunday, November 11, 2012



No one thought Barry Erkin would ever become a policeman. He lacked the manichaean point of view, and, even as a child, had no interest in projecting his ideas on others. He was a ‘laissez faire’ sort of person, one who left others alone and in turn wanted to be left alone himself. “Barry will be a accountant,” everyone said, “or a fireman.” But when he reached the age of eighteen he applied for the Police Academy and was admitted.

Erkin papa was a plumber but he and his wife had so many children, after plumbing all day, he worked evenings at the pig works slaughtering pigs. As a result he smelt like a dead, slightly rotting pig and no amount of scrubbing in the big tub could made him smell otherwise. Even dousing himself with cheap deodorants merely made him smell like a dead pig sprinkled with perfume. As one can imagine from his work schedule, which in those days included Saturday, he hardly knew his children. When he rose in the morning they were asleep and when he came home at night they were asleep. When he came down into the kitchen on Sunday mornings and found it filled with children, all of whom became suddenly silent when their father walked into the room, he was surprised. For the last six days he had forgotten they existed. The children saw their father as an unpredictable and violent man, which was true. The kitchen emptied out and he sat down in glorious solitude at the table while his wife served him a huge, working man breakfast.

Barry was the second last of the boys. All told there were six boys and seven girls, the boys rough and ready with great, meaty paws like their father and the girls delicate faced but with strong, sturdy bodies able to defend themselves so fiercely even the bigger boys left them alone. Five of the girls became famous neighbourhood beauties. Two, scorning such a prize, dressed in a deliberately dowdy way all through childhood and early womanhood. One became a doctor and the other a political activist.

During his school years Barry was known as ‘the quiet Erkin’, which is understandable given that the rest were so noisy and boisterous. He liked sports but preferred games like swimming and track where individual skills were the center point and there was a minimum of group togetherness. Paradoxically, of all the Erkin boys, he grew to be the largest and most powerful and yet the one least interested in scrapping and bickering. He would defend himself, however. When he was in grade school he was expelled for a month for breaking a bully's nose. This made those who thrived on tormenting shy, seemingly incapable boys, leave him alone.

Erkin papa thought nothing of giving his boys a backhand slap when they were almost grown and when they were small he punished them by beating them with his belt, a monstrous thing three inches wide. But he treated Barry differently. There was something about the way the boy looked at him that made him hesitate. Since Barry was an obedient boy the question of correction seldom arose but once, when Barry was nine, his father gave him the strap treatment. During his beating the boy never uttered the slightest sound which so infuriated his father that he beat him all the more, so much so that his wife tackled her own husband in the boy’s defence. When his father unhanded him to fend off his wife, Barry ran out of the house and did not come back for three days. When he did come back Mrs. Erkin was beside herself with joy but while she was weeping and fondling and kissing him, Barry was staring at his father with undisguised hatred. After that, for the occasional punishment required, the old man gave Barry extra chores or made him stay in the yard for a day.

The Police Academy teachers thought highly of Barry. He was intelligent, quick, physically capable, polite and deferential. He graduated at the top of his class. As was usual he spent three years as a regular constable stationed in the city, learning the ropes. In his fourth year he was sent back to the Academy to do the Detective course and when this was finished appointed an assistant Detective under an older man, soon to retire. This was a great honour  because the older Detective was a legend and the scuttlebutt was that Barry had been hand picked to succeed him.

Barry and the old man, Frederich Delany, got along fine. Neither liked small talk. Neither drank. Neither went to church. Both loved to go on long walks and sit quietly in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee. Both liked to play chess and read complicated scientific books. One might be tempted to say they were like father and son but this would be inaccurate for Frederick, right from the beginning, accepted Barry as an equal. If he had anything to teach the younger man he did it in a bluff, factual way which seemed to assume it was a mere oversight of the cosmic order that Barry did not already know it. He put on no airs. His main method of teaching was giving Barry old dossiers to read and then discussing them with him while they went through the old section of the city for a long walk. In other words he walked him through past experience, the only way to teach anyone anything.

Detective work, unlike the way it is depicted in most fiction, is often boring. Writing endless reports and long interviews going nowhere compose the bulk of a Detective’s day. But it has its perks. Free meals at restaurants where the credentials of the kitchen staff are best left unexamined is one. During lull periods, wandering about the city enjoying oneself while claiming to be working is another.

 A typical Detective murder case goes like this. A call comes to the station. The Detective and partner are sent to an address. The technicians are already there, gathering their harvest of evidence, so the partners sit on the step outside until they are finished. Then, in they go to look at the body, inert of course, and very dead. Dead bodies don’t bother them for they have already seen many dozens. They do not burden themselves with modern notions that they are somehow responsible, ‘if only they had’ or ‘if only society was somehow differently structured’ and all that. That’s for the hand wringers and they are not hand wringers. After looking about for a bit they instruct the uniforms to find the husband, the lover, the cuckold, the drinking partner or whatever. Often they don’t have to do this for they are already present, weeping and confessing. Sometimes the uniforms find them at the nearest bar or on a train leaving town or holed up in a hotel three blocks away. They may offer a little resistance but mostly, once they are in the interview room, they spill the beans. Just as they could not resist the impulse to kill, they cannot resist the impulse to unburden themselves. It’s all very sad and sometimes the Detectives empathize but mostly they remain very cool and simply observe. After this has been repeated many times they no longer judge. They may even begin to wonder if all this is not somehow preordained, if some vast chemical process over which individual human beings have no control, has not delivered them here, cop on one side of the desk writing, the murderer on the other side, emotionally distraught, confessing, pleading for understanding, for self justification.

In the first five years of being a Detective, Barry, accompanying Frederick, went to many of these cases. They comprised perhaps eighty or ninety percent of the murder roster. But there was another kind of murder comprising maybe five to ten percent. In these cases the partners would arrive at a taped off alley where a corpse, covered with a white sheet, lay on the bare ground. When the techs were finished they pulled back the sheet and saw the sign – one shot through the head. The victims were sometimes from the underworld, sometimes not. They were sometimes well dressed, with money in their pocket, sometimes not. But they were all shot through the head, usually from the back, by a small caliber pistol, most often a twenty-two. Most were male but there was the occasional female.

The usual procedures were followed. People who lived and worked round about, and intimates of the victim, were questioned but nothing came of these enquiries. Sometimes a person living nearby would say he heard a car backfire at a certain time the previous night. But, even if connected to the shooting, this information was useless. It merely confirmed that someone pulled the trigger and they already knew that. The timing supplied by the witness was usually vague. It could have been ten o’clock; it could have been twelve thirty. Very, very occasionally a witness heard something and then saw a figure walk off down the street. But the description of this figure could have fit perhaps one half of the city’s population, so it too was useless. He was wearing a baggy coat or perhaps it was a sailor’s jacket. He was young but then again he may have been middle aged. He was bulky and strong but perhaps it was the coat made him look that way. As useless as they were, all of these things were written down by uniforms and entered into the dossier.

Ballistic were done on the bullet but they all knew the pistol was now in the river. Tech evidence involving shoe prints, etc, was examined carefully but they all knew the shoes and clothing were also in the river or ashes in a wood stove somewhere outside of town. Of the several hundreds of these kind of murders Frederick had investigating in his career, only two were ‘solved’, each by the higher ups ordering it be pinned on a certain individual who, in reality, had nothing whatsoever to do with it, which means, of course, that none of them were solved.

“Who does them then?” Barry asked one day when they were waiting at a counter for a plate of Chinese food.

“Gangsters settling scores. The odd private citizen hiring a professional killer and somebody else. I suspect that more than half are done by the somebody else.”

“And who is that,” asked Barry.

Frederick looked at him for a long time and then smiled. He didn’t speak. Instead he nodded his head in a northeast direction, one quick nod with the eyes following it intensely. Three blocks away to the northeast was the headquarters of the Secret Police.  

Because of the nod and Frederick’s intensity, Barry asked no more questions. Everyone knew it was unwise to speak of ‘them’ anywhere in public. The restaurant was crowded with workers on their lunch hour. They ate their chop suey in silence and then left to go back to the station.

Three days later they were walking along the banks of the river headed for an interview with the wife of a  merchant. The merchant had disappeared and since he was very prominent, the Chief had sent Frederick out to interview his wife.

“So you think it’s the Secret Police who shoots all those people?” Barry asked.

“I don’t think,” said Frederick. “I know.”

“But I thought they took them to the station and shot them,” said Barry.

“Some,” said Frederich. “The ones they want people to know they shot. The ones they don’t they do it like the gangsters do so everyone thinks it’s the gangsters.”

After Barry had been with him six years Frederich was getting ready to retire. He had already served thirty years, five more than was required for full pension. Recently he and his wife bought a few acres just outside of town. They planned on keeping pigs and chickens and growing a big garden. Barry went out to see it with him one slow afternoon. Flat prairie land with a house just off the dirt road and a rough poplar fence around it. The house needed work and Frederich was going to auctions, looking for a tractor. It was late spring and they sat for an hour in the backyard drinking tea while Frederich told him his plans for the place – a chicken house, a pig barn, but first a screened gazebo because the summer bugs were outrageous.

Three weeks before he was to retire Frederich suddenly disappeared on a day Barry was at a course at the Academy. No one got in touch with him so he didn’t hear about it until he came in the next morning. Taking a younger detective with him he went off on a long walk through the old town asking everyone who knew Frederich - the shopkeepers, the waitresses, etc -  if they had seen him. No one had. The last anyone at the station saw him was the previous morning at ten o’clock. He said he was going for a walk to talk to someone and he left through the front door. When they searched his desk for an appointment note, a phone number, they came up with nothing. Frederick wasn’t good about writing things down. He kept a lot of things in his head.

They found him the next day on the riverbank shot through the head with a twenty-two. No sign of struggle, so the shooter was probably walking with him and suddenly pulled out the pistol and fired. It was a deserted part of the bank where people seldom walked. He was lying a little off the main path, face down. It was late in a very hot, rainless summer and the earth was as hard as concrete, so the Techs got nothing from the ground and nothing from Frederich’s clothing or body. Probably the shooter met him on the path and they went walking. The man never touched him.

“Who?” Barry asked his Chief Inspector.

The Chief Inspector shrugged his shoulders. “Frederich was a secretive man. Who knows what he had going on. You would know better than anyone. You spent the last six years with him.”

Barry was made the Investigating officer. There is a classic set up for such an operation and he set it up but he had little faith it would find anything. Once things were organized he let the cherub cheeked younger detective run it and report to him.  If he were to find an answer it would come from unorthodox methods.

First the gangsters. He made a few phone calls and met with a middle ranked man in a coffee shop where he often had lunch with Frederich. The man told him the organization had no problems with Frederich. He had never been on the payroll but at the same time he had stayed away from certain sensitive cases and the organization had no reason to kill him. “If he was a problem,” said the man, “we would have killed him long ago. Why wait until he was almost retired?” Barry felt the man was telling the truth. The uniforms, who went through Frederich’s papers both at the station and his apartment, found absolutely zilch connecting him to gangsters. This was like Frederich thought Barry. He would be circumspect and cautious but keep himself clean.

So who was he meeting on the riverbank by himself? A snitch? But why would a snitch kill him? There was no benefit to a snitch killing his connection. Did someone kill him for personal reasons? Unlikely Barry thought. Frederick was a smooth operator who genuinely got along with just about everyone. That someone would kill him out of personal pique was very, very unlikely.

So it came around to ‘them’, didn’t it? But that didn’t make sense either. Why would they want to kill Frederich, especially when he would soon retire? Approaching ‘them’, well that was a tricky matter. You didn’t phone them up and ask if they had killed your partner and if so why? The Secret Police were like a hard shelled turtle except the shell extended all the way round. They would talk to you all day, if you let them, squirreling for incidental details about cases and operations but they gave nothing in return. They were like a brick wall, a stainless steel door. They were like priests sworn to secrecy.

But Barry knew a few things. He had been taking computer night courses at the Academy for four years. Frederich called him a computer geek and he had to admit it was true. Last year an older man from the Secret Service had been in one of his courses. He was typical Secret Service type, hard and cautious, tight lipped, but Barry talked to him a few times in the break between sessions. The Service had gone big on computers. They took in the best graduates from the tech schools. The older man wasn’t looking to become a technical expert. There were lots of bright young recruits for that. What he wanted was a general knowledge detailed enough so that he could supervise intelligently. The man, like everyone else in the class, carried a laptop with him. One day while passing his desk Barry noticed the man was on a strange looking site, one tingeing the screen a faint blue colour. Barry memorized the ULR and the user name, George Simil, the name of his classmate. He thought it strange that the man used his real name, or at least the name he gave out in the class as his. He thought a Secret Service Officer would use a codename.

An old neighbourhood pal knew how to find passwords but Barry wouldn’t let him do it on their own computers. Far too dangerous. Like hiding on the riverbank beside a roaring fire. He bought a laptop on the black market. The user name and password belonged to an old man who died a month before in a pensioner’s home.

Barry wouldn’t let his friend try the site. Instead he had him walk him through the steps to find the password. Then he took the laptop to a café with wi fi. It took him two hours of trying but he finally got the password. Then he left the café because he was afraid being on the site might be tracked and there might be a finder truck.

The next night he went to another café. Blue screen. Enter password. Service Interface Files. Frederick P. Delany. The file popped up but to enter you needed Special Sections clearance.

He explained to his friend who told him, “No problem.”

But Barry thought there was. “Do you think finding the password left a track?” he asked his friend.

“Yes, but whether there is anyone looking for tracks is the real question,” answered his friend.

“But if there was then they would find a computer owned by a dead man, sold on the black market so no one knows where it is, right?

“Depends. Central could track its physical location when it’s online but someone would have to go there and catch whoever had it in their possession.”

“What’s the best way to do it then?” asked Barry.

“Get a black market stick and use it outside town. That makes it much much more difficult to track and if you do, to get there,” said his friend.

So that’s what they did. It took Barry’s friend only ten minutes to get Special Sections Clearance. “These guys are still in kindergarten,” he said.

But Barry wouldn’t let him go into the file. He did that himself three days later in a police car late in the afternoon twenty miles outside town, parked on the riverbank. Blue screen. Frederich P. Delany. Files of Operations Officer. Latest. August 12th, Tuesday, the day of Frederich’s death. The page came up slowly revealing a blank rectangle of blue excepting in the center of the page where there was a capital E, a bracket, the numbers 4930, unbracket. Barry stared at this for a full minute. If this meant what he thought it meant he found it hard to believe they would put it in a file but then again why not? They were basically untouchable and if, as Frederich had said, this was a normal every day thing for them, why not? Not wanting to stay on any longer, he exited and went back to the station and home.

He asked his friend the next morning, “When would be the best time to go on and stay on for a while?”

”In the morning,” said his friend with no hesitation.

“Why?” asked Barry.

“Because it’s so busy. The busier it is the less noticeable an aberration. Although I wonder if it would come up as an aberration on their system. It didn’t seem to have any pick ups for this sort of thing when I was on there.”

Barry arranged his schedule so he had a car in the mornings and drove out of town on a different road each day. He spent two hours reading files and then went back to town.

Frederich was an informant. The files were filled with his reports on anything from office politics to the drinking habits of his supervisors. There was even a report on Barry, his political opinions (none), affiliations (none), personality, daily habits. There were pages and pages of this kind of stuff, penny ante, mundane and boring. That Frederich was spying for the Secret Service shocked him but the fact that Frederich had spent many hours, thousands perhaps, writing up these inane, banal reports shocked him even more. The files went back thirty years so he was a snitch right from the beginning. Why? Barry wondered. Maybe he was blackmailed. Or maybe in those days it was expected as a normal, every day part of the job. Maybe everyone did it.

On the fourth day of reading Barry opened a file having to do with the arrest of a prostitute. The older files were handwritten, a paper original scanned into the file but the newer were typewritten. This one was typed. Barry recognized the name of the prostitute. She was the Great Leader’s present mistress and had been so for three years, the longest reign for any of his women. The date on the file was four years ago, so one year before she became the big boss’s mistress. Frederich had arrested her for assaulting a man in a bar. The woman, who must have had considerable strength, had hit the man over the head with a heavy barstool and fractured his skull. He died on the spot. She was jailed and brought to trial. Frederich was the officer supplying evidence and he did an excellent job, as usual. The woman was given ten years hard labor, remitted a short time later to six months minimum security detention. The file was essentially the police report on the incident with comments by Frederick. The comments were scathing. He called the woman a dangerous psychotic, a sociopath. It was his opinion that the state should lock her up and throw away the key.

“So,” Barry said aloud to the empty car, “So.”

“If you let me go up on the file I can probably find you the shooter.” Barry’s friend said when he explained what he found.

They were walking through the old district towards a café to have lunch. Barry was paying which was usual practice. Today he owed his friend a debt but on many other days his friend was simply broke. He spent all his money on computers and programs.

“Why?” asked Barry. “The actual person who pulled the trigger was a professional. ‘Kill this person on Tuesday,’ they said and he did it. He was the means but the real killer was much higher up, right? The real killer was HIM at the instigation of his mistress. What surprises me is that the file is still there on the site. When I checked in police files it was gone. In that year’s arrest lists, nothing, no such name. No Prosecutor’s files under that name. No witness reports. No Supervising Officer reports, nothing, as if, as far as the police are concerned, the woman did not exist; there was no crime, no killing. The whole thing has evaporated. Even the autopsy report on the victim has disappeared.”

“I suppose they don’t have to worry too much,” his friend said. “I mean, who in their right mind would try hacking their site and even if they did what would they do with the information? What use is it to anyone?”

“Well, to me it answered a question which would have bothered me all my life. Not that the answer is a satisfying one, mind you, but at least it’s an answer. As for anyone else, you are right. What would one do, shout it from a street corner until they came to blow your brains out? Write it on bathroom walls until they catch you and beat you to death? Although it is the truth, it is a truth totally useless to anyone, excepting to the big boss and his mistress who gain something from its eradication. To them its value is in its negation.”

The route to the café led over a bridge across the river. When they were in the center of the bridge Barry lifted the laptop strap from  his shoulder and, without checking his stride in the least, tossed it over the rail. A few seconds later they heard the splash. His friend said nothing. It was the natural conclusion to the whole affair, wasn’t it? A dead man’s laptop, a dead cop, a dead man in a bar. It was like putting a period at the end of a very long sentence. You do it and then it’s over and time to start another.