Excerpted from the novel by Basil Papademos
In the opening scene of the following excerpt, Johnny - a small time drug dealer - has received another diary entry from his 'wife', Jane. After leaving him not too long ago, she now communicates only by dropping by every so often when he's not home to leave a couple pages torn from her diary. Afterwards, Johnny's assistant drug dealer, Leroi, comes by for the evening shift change. Johnny goes out to meet their most intriguing customer, a woman they refer to as 'The Sphinx.' Johnny then visits his old friend, Al Polo. They're going out to a bar called the Bifteck but Johnny runs into some strange goings-on at Al's place…
Jane's left behind another missive - this time under my pillow. Very funny, Janey. I ball up the three pages and hurl them into the garbage without reading a word.
Ten minutes later I dig them out, clean off the coffee grounds and cigarette ashes then carefully flatten each sheet of paper. I'm too craven to take the high road, still hanging onto a retarded scrap of hope that everything will work out in the end, we'll make up for earlier atrocities, sign a few form-letter treaties and bury about six thousand hatchets. Then we'll get back down to some revelation-quality screwing.
I still hadn't 'officially' separated from Neil. It was a summer of floods that turned Saint-Urbain into a cascade. Johnny stuffed newspapers and t-shirts under the front door to try and stop the water from running into the ground floor flat at the corner of Bagg - the apartment I 'sublet' him. At first we did what I can only describe as 'obligatory fornication.' It was tedious, speechless and sexless, a kind of drudgery one must endure before entering a more pleasurable phase. I left Johnny with a deep cut at his hip bone. He gave me terrible bruises inside my thighs - like the black veins in white marble. In the back of my mind, a nasty voice repeated: "From one man to another, you foolish old woman." I felt guilty. Not because of Neil but because of my promises to myself. I kept telling myself this was a holiday, nothing more. And yet, I ran over there like a stupid school girl to wake Johnny up in the afternoon and hold his hips as he stood before me, his hands stretched up to the bedroom archway, and take his penis into my mouth.
I became obsessed with bodily ownership and thought about all those debates with Neil's deeply educated and oft-published friends. This was not theoretical. Here was application, heavily underlined. I cultivated anger. It transformed my sweat into an offensive odor and I stank sometimes. People looked at me, surprised and disgusted. I didn't bathe and would leave on our layers of sex, his sperm a white crust at my throat, our pungent aroma rising from between my legs in the crowded Metro. I could have an orgasm thinking about how intensely he desired me in that condition. In the confined heat of the apartment, our smell was overwhelming, intoxicating and wonderfully sickening.
I was an alcoholic exhausted mess the Sunday night I ran home. Neil was flying in from the far northern hinterland. The sort of terrain Canada is world famous for. Endless vistas, rugged and hostile, where human habitation is almost impossible. Neil had spent time with the Inuit, showing them how to record their culture, their history and their activities via various media; video mostly but also through photography and illustration. They seem to already have music, dance and sculpture under control.
I'd gotten showered and into bed a few minutes before Neil came through the door. His skin was darker from the arctic sun. He'd brought me an Inuit carving, a fetish, he said, having decided on our future during the long flight home. His eyes crinkled with humor and love. Look at the calluses on my hands, Jane, he'd proudly shown me. I watched him undress. Neil had put on weight and some muscle and looked good. He pulled back the sheet to get into bed then stopped. That was a very long moment indeed. Neil's eyes ran over my neck and my breasts, my hips, my stomach and my thighs. Then back up to my shoulders and to my face. I'd expected oaths, curses and perhaps tears. I even thought he might hit me. But Neil's upper class Jewish background would never allow such a thing. He did none of what I'd imagined.
Instead, Neil laughed out loud and said: "You've thrown us away for some glorified hickies given to you by a third rate gangster. I had an idea something was going on but I didn't realize it was so juvenile. You stupid, spoiled woman. Either I leave or you do, which will it be?"
I managed to whisper I'd be gone by the morning. The sound of the door slamming made me nauseous. It happened in an instant, a sudden bang and "us" was gone. I was far too humiliated to even hint to Johnny about what had actually happened. When he asked, eager for news of Neil's demise, I lied and told him Neil had fallen apart then I told some truth - that we'd broken up for good. Johnny looked worried I might move into the Bagg Street flat with him. The next day it took me less than an hour to find the apartment on Coloniale.
There's a third page but I don't read it. I throw all three sheets of paper out the back window into the lane.
Around dusk Leroi shows up to hand off the pager. I'm getting ready for my pre-set appointment with our most enigmatic client, the woman we refer to as The Sphinx. I'm shaved, showered and primped when he arrives.
"Look at Johnny," Leroi grins. "If you're so hung up on this girl, why don't you ask her back here? You've got a great apartment."
"It's not that easy," I say while using pieces of tape to roll hair and lint off my suit jacket. "She'd think I was nuts. Besides, you know how it is - like a doctor screwing one of his patients. It's unethical."
Leroi lies on the couch and plays around with the pager, changes the battery.
"Yeah, and it could get expensive."
"That too. So what are you doing tonight?"
"The Man wants to go to a movie."
I stop knotting my tie. "Really? Just the two of you, like on a date?"
"Fuck off," he grouses. "Not like on a date. He wants to see that new Van Damme flick, Cyborg."
"Figures, a thyroid freak like him must blow his load over Jean-Claude, the Belgian butt-banger."
"I didn't know JC's Belgian."
"Sure, the whole country's full of pedophiles, pud-pounders and perverts. At least that's what Aunt Byron says."
"Don't let the Man hear you talk that way about Van Damme. He thinks that guy's the cat's ass."
"More like he wants to grease that cat's ass."
"Y'know, there is something slightly gay about the Man."
"Slightly? Any guy who spends that much time in the gym, creaming about himself in the mirror should just get it over with and come the fuck out of the cupboard. All muscled up like that, he already looks like a Bathhouse Betty."
"It's true. Like those biker dudes with all the leather and heavy attitude. You call them queer and they'll rip you to pieces but they all dress like S&M fags. Weird, huh?"
"Christ, Leroi, don't you know bikers are the biggest closet homos around? What guy works that hard to prove he's some kind of ball-stompin' macho camacho? It's major 'doth protest too much' type bullshit."
"Un-believable," he laughs then checks the time on the pager. "You'd better go. Don't want to keep her waiting."
I dash out and hurry to the Peanut Bar in a cab. I'm totally at a loss about the Sphinx. She never whines, wheedles, begs, cons, cajoles or coys, never threatens or panics. She never asks for credit and never complains about counts or quality. She never seems under the effects or sick. The Sphinx always has exact change. I've heard she sleeps without heat all winter long.
I have to wonder if she even uses the stuff. Perhaps this woman is the secret Saint Sphinx that roams the streets and squares to offer pity and solace to stupid useless fucks who've sold, stolen and borrowed everything they can, firebombed all their bridges and have now lain down somewhere to very publicly croak.
The Sphinx rolls over the prone body, loaded mercy at the ready, gently kisses the abscessed vein and slides in salvation. Withered near-death eyelids open to the face that once emerged from a frozen sea with those translucent, ice-colored eyes. Pick her up in trembling hands, a face so flawless, so terrible to hold. Run with her to the temple, fingers turned blue and frostbitten. Lay that sapphire countenance on the altar before a single candle where she will thaw over countless eons while entire civilizations rise and fall. Quickly withdraw into the shadows, inspired to go out and raise vast slave armies, burn and slaughter hordes of lice ridden peasants in her inviolable name.
When we'd met, I was convinced the Sphinx had to be from some exotic foreign land, perhaps Antarctican. Her porcelain features, aquiline nose and perfect cheekbones, the unnatural serenity of a Cathar priestess, expressions and reactions so fleeting as to have never been. But no, she's from a fishing village on the Gaspé, about fifteen hours away by bus. Still, I've got to believe some high-born Kahzar or aristocratic Scythian had slipped over the side of a three-master off the coast of Bathurst N.B. to leave behind his seed then swim away into the night. Or an Icelandic water sprite got hot with some Cape Breton sailors before drowning them then left the results on a remote dock.
Outside the Peanut Bar, I stop to pull myself together. The place is actually called Les Bobards. Its nickname comes from the big bowls of raw peanuts everywhere. Patrons are encouraged to crack open the shells and throw them on the floor after eating the contents.
The Sphinx waits patiently, dressed all in black, of course, something sleek. I pause and watch her index finger gracefully rise to hook a strand of richly dyed coppery red hair. She senses my approach, ambiguous little curls at the corners of her immaculately painted lips. Her inhuman beauty makes me feel like that Moujik idiot at the Balmoral. I climb onto a barstool and she leans toward me. While passing her cheek first to one side of my face and then the other, she slips money into my breast pocket.
"Nice to see you," she says quietly.
Our fingers brush and I leave four especially generous packs in her hand.
"Imagine the story of two lovers," I say.
"Which lovers?" she asks with a trace of suspicion.
"Two lovers who are so radically perverse they get unimaginable pleasure from briefly meeting once a day to barely touch hands then go their separate ways."
The Sphinx allows a soundless little laugh. Her lips part just enough to take a sip of tea. I've never seen her tongue.
"You're droll, Johnny."
I grin and blush like a yokel, try to think of small talk so she won't go. "So, uh, how do you like the medicine lately?"
"You always have something acceptable."
"Uh, well, sure," I misfire and curse my worthless yokel brain. "But I'm in the middle of all this. It's difficult to judge the finer points."
I've heard she has some guy at home. A brooder, no doubt. Grave as a dozen widows, refuses to exist beyond their gloomy apartment and sends her out in the world to live his life. The Sphinx leaves some money on the bar, gets into her coat and picks up a black patent leather purse. Before leaving, her gloved hand touches my arm.
"I think you're doing all right, Johnny."
"Yes, you are."
"Will you tell me when I'm not?"
"I will always be honest with you."
I watch her go out into the early evening traffic and swear to myself, zero clue about how I'd ever get anywhere with her. She impregnable as a medieval fortress. You'd have to commandeer an endless snaking mob of Roman Legions, Huns, Ostrogoths, drag out the siege engines and catapults and undermining timbers, get roasted alive with boiling oil poured from turrets, broadswords rending limbs and maces crushing skulls… Sheesh! All this hocus pocus lately. It starts out as fun and games but I'm soon wading through a swamp of chicken guts and shrunken heads. Tarot cards drift past on a beach littered with rune stones and soggy fortune cookies. I get lost in a labyrinthine market of clichéd hectoring Asiatic vendors. They push amulets, crystals, totems and pentacles. Black candles, snake eyes and bat balls. Tiger dicks, rhino horns, bear bladders and portentous inscriptions written on a lizard's sphincter and hung from a holy thong. Shifty-eyed Sidney Greenstreet fatman with a fake beard, baggy trousers and red yarmulke motions me over.
"Psst, my friend. Come, I have very special item, for you only."
"Ya think it'll keep all this bad juju off my back?"
"Of course, Effendi. Your antennae shall be reborn, Inshallah! And all merchandise fully guaranteed by Grand Guignol him-her-itself. Certified as same substance that ensured safety of escaping Piltdown Man from baying pack of media jackals."
"That's good enough for me. I'll take it."
"You are wise man, Effendi. But exchange only, no refund." He raises his right hand to his forehead. "As'Salamu 'Alaykum."
I give him a curt bow. "Wa 'Alaykum as-Salaam."
After seeing the Sphinx, I swing by Al's. We're supposed to meet Morgan at the Bifteck. I figure we can relax there for a couple hours while my lower Main clientele slide through the place. It's become a fast tradition of ours on early Saturday evenings. The narcs only show up past midnight, too stupid to realize the bar's drug trade is all over by 10 p.m.
After Al opens the door, he tells me to wait in the living room.
"At church, it's Saint Mentula's Day."
"Who's Saint Mentula?"
"Patron saint of Polesitters."
"I thought that was Saint Simeon."
"No, he was a dilettante and a derivative fool. Anyway, Johnny, sit here and amuse yourself. I'm almost done."
Al leaves without explanation, engrossed in a sheet of paper he quietly reads while going down the long hallway to his bedroom. After a few minutes, I hear him yell some lines - rehearsing, I guess. I sneak down there and listen at the door.
"Nicholas Flood Davin, you filthy bloodsucker! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! I want this classroom spotless, do you hear, absolutely spotless!"
What the fuck?... I peak into the bedroom. Al's leaned against the closet door, a finger pressed to one ear to achieve just the right tone. He reads from a script, hollering his guts out.
"One more slip-up and you'll be the first one we rent out to those burly Dauphin miners! Do you understand, you lily livered rodent!?"
I slap a hand to my mouth, stifling a snort of laughter. Al spins about and scowls at me. He points at the closet then puts a finger to his lips. I tip toe over and give him the twisting hand gesture like - what's up?
"I have a client in there," he whispers. "Go wait in Mama's room. I'll tell you about it once we're finished."
I retreat into Mama Polo's simple but fanatically clean quarters. The bed's made up tight as a snare drum and the room smells of mothballs. There's a big, ornate crucifix above the headboard. The Christ appears to be hung over. Virgin Mary statuary's on every flat surface, all with the condescending little cocked head. The Christ peers down at them with a miserable glower. You bitches think you got woes? Al continues his dramatic delivery but I can't make out specific words except for a few goddamns and bloodies.
It lasts another ten minutes or so then there's some metallic clanking. Eventually I hear low conversation in the hall. Al and his "client" talk their way toward the front of the house with a genial exchange. I come out after the door shuts and find Al in the back parlor, collapsed into his wingback.
"So what was all that about?"
Al lights a cigarillo and sips from a snifter of cognac. "He's a history lecturer at the university and enjoys the odd bout of verbal abuse - compensated, of course."
"No shit? That's a lucky break. How did you meet him?"
"I answered a personal ad in the back of The Mirror. Very nice fellow, actually."
"That's his name, Nicholson Blood Drubbing?"
"Nicholas Flood Davin - and no, that's not his name. Apparently, Davin was a Canadian government bureaucrat, influence peddler and alleged writer who lived in the mid-19th century."
"I guess that's suitably obscure. How come you never told me about this trick of yours, Al?"
"He insists on absolute anonymity, so I expect your discretion, Johnny."
"Yeah, sure, who would care? So what's he pay?"
"One hundred dollars per session. Once a week for twenty minutes of admonishing him from a prepared script. I don't know who writes them but they're not very good - rather repetitive."
"Still, not a bad little gig, Alphonse."
"I wouldn't take a dollar less. It's an exhausting performance."
"What, just freaking out on the guy?"
"You don't understand. He has an ear for dialogue and I can't read it like a robot - not that I would, professional ethics and all. However, he expects real gusto, projection - and that takes craft. Also, I have to help him in and out of a complicated leather and steel apparatus."
"What, like a B&D sort of thing?"
"Not exactly. More medieval, I'd say."
"You think he's one of the guys we saw up on the mountain at the fag orgy? A couple of them would definitely fit your man's MO."
"My man's MO!? There are armies of these people running around! And they're all in high ranking positions within the government, media, the judiciary, academia and so forth."
"C'mon. Now you're spouting Aunt Byron's hair-brained theories."
"They're not 'theories'."
"Okay, let's say every bureaucrat, cop, judge, lawyer, professor, media star and all the rest are a network of wild-eyed, baby-raping psychos. What exactly are you or Aunt Byron or anybody else gonna do about it?"
Al considers the problem for a few moments then issues a tired grunt.
"Service them, I suppose..."
Basil Papademos recently completed his second novel, Mount Royal, excerpted above, a book he calls "a love letter to a time and place called Montreal." It will be published in spring of 2012 by Tightrope Books. His first novel, The Hook of it is, was published by Trent University's Emergency Press. He is currently working on a third novel, Thracian Tales. Basil Papademos lives in Toronto.