Hard Rain

August 3, 2009

They come at you fast and furious, at the special orders desk:

How To Snare a Millionaire. Before Valentine’s, alright?”

The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, please. Newest edition. My pal’s finally getting an entry.”

“Vachel Lindsay, my good man. The works!”

“I’ll need about ten books by Sark.”
–“Sartre?”
“Sark.”
–“Molten… seedless… hydroponic… housewives?”
“Right. Sark.”

The best way to punish these fuckers is to give them what they want.

Every so often, you get something in return.

+++

It began with a phone call, as these things often do.

My colleague grabbed the receiver and winced:

“I’m… I’m… sorry… I’m…sir… I can’t… no… I can’t… Hey! I-can’t-understand-what-you’re-saying.”

“No,” her voice rose quizzically, “I don’t need you to speak up… I need you to speak… differently…”

A very fair assessment—I had assumed she was wrangling with Donald the Duck.

“Ah… yes… I see,” she moved to the web-search computer. “Labrador Retrievers…”

We already had a man with a thing for Schnauzers. He called up every Sunday, looking for new publications on the breed. There usually weren’t any—and this caused him much pain. Pain that inevitably flowered into acrid harangues. It didn’t seem feasible to allow another monomaniac dog-fancier into our lives. I went to the bathroom and tried to forget the whole thing.

“Nice guy, actually,” my friend reported, when I returned to the desk. “I was afraid it might go Schnauzer, but he’s really not that kind.”

Pleasant tidings indeed.

“His voice is pretty strange though…”

I floated my Donald Duck comparison.

“More like Porky Pig, I’d say—a white water hiccup… I took a deep breath, pictured the Lachine Rapids, paid attention to the rocks and paddled on home.”

It was just as exciting—and much wetter—to converse with him in person. The floodgates burst wide two weeks later: a portly, red-faced man rushed through the doors and sloshed up to the cash.

“You’ve got some books—some books—some… books for me!” he gushed. “Labs A-<cough!> Labs A-<cough!> Labs Afield… and… another one… equally important!”

Yes. The New Complete Labrador Retriever. Both items were filed under the name “Palmer Hard.”

He reached for them like long lost friends. Puddles of enthusiasm welled up all around us, as he proclaimed the foundation of a dog-knowledge empire, in his mother’s small Verdun flat.

“I told you he was better than Schnauzer man,” my friend poked me, as we did some quick maintenance.

The guy panted after his bliss with the determination of a Soviet five-year planner—pumping orders night and day. Collies, corgies, basset hounds. Whippets, beagles, samoyeds. Twice a week, he came for them.

Until his savings ran out.

Palmer Hard did not—could not—work. He survived on some kind of a disability pittance. I got the sense that he had given up feeding himself in order to bankroll phase one of the project, but even that gesture had its limits.

He kept right on making orders.

The Hard file was getting out of hand.

The dogs were barking.

When the books engulfed an entire shelf, The Manager reached for the muzzle.

“That’s enough of this Hard shit,” he scratched at the hair on his chin. “Cut him off.”

Of course I was on duty the next time he rolled in—empty-handed, as usual; head in a caniform cloud.

Wonderful Weimaraners!” he grinned.

His tail went limp when I informed him of the ban.

“You-mean-you…? You-mean-you…? You…can’t…?”

He appealed to The Manager, but the tether held firm.

Two weeks later, Palmer Hard strolled in with a woman on his arm:

“The Bearded Guy told me… he told me that… if I purchased four books,” he flashed four fingers, “four books… I could order the Weimaraners.”

I was genuinely delighted to hear it.

Hard stroked the woman’s purse:

“This is Dolores.”

“I’m Dolores,” she handed me the cash.

I punched up the transaction—and processed the request.

Palmer laughed like a schoolboy.

Dolores kissed the spittle from his chin.

That night, he called up to tack on a very strange postscript:

“Hel…Hello,” the voice was low, confidential, verging on suave. “I’d like one more book please. It’s called… Nubile Ladies.”

My colleague blanched at the data on the screen:

“What the fuck? Palmer Hard?”

For the first time in his life. Probably.

When the couple returned, he was clearly in the doghouse. They got kind of rowdy in the Self-Help aisle.

“All—alright,” he winked at her, finally, “fine… You don’t have to buy… You don’t have to buy five.”

“You aren’t nice, Palmer,” Dolores sailed out the door.

He drifted back to the desk.

“I’m… I’m sor–… ‘m sorry…” he dribbled. “I can’t… I can’t make my… my purchases this week… Do you? … Think? I could ask for one more? Great Danes in the Mornin’?”

“I’ll handle this,” The Manager tapped my shoulder.

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Hard,” his fingers clacked ominously. “In fact, I’m deleting your account. Your books will be shelved in the pet section… and in… uh… Health & Sexuality… Your orders aren’t special anymore. Of course, you’re quite welcome to buy these items. But I think the rest of our clientèle deserves a crack at them.”

Palmer unleashed the juiciest raspberry on record.

“I don’t understand what happened,” my colleague wondered, as Hard stomped down the street, toward Indigo. “He was one of the good ones.”

“He was an asshole,” The Manager sighed.

“Which one of you wants to clean up this gob?”

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Red Planet Funnies

July 30, 2009

They say there’s microbial life on Mars, and that was certainly the case at the planet’s namesake store on Sainte–Catherine. The place fairly bristled with biodiversity—and catered to it as well. Bored with humanity, as it seems to be constituted? Mars always had a few unseemly specimens in stock. I’m no prize ham myself, but the dude at the cash (Ozzy Osbourne in a toque) knew just how to cure me:

“Hey guy—you’re doin’ good, eh? I saw ya on TV!”

(He absolutely did not.)

That’s customer service, folks—with a dope sick smile.

I started shopping there years ago, when it lurked in orbit around Phillips Square, upstairs from an adult theatre. The Martian consortium ran both establishments, and they were quick to cross-market:

“Fuck that triple x shit,” Ozzy once told me, “We got four X down there! Guaranteed sex. You’ll see.”

I was twelve. But you don’t turn your back on a chance to build up your brand. Those guys planned ahead. They didn’t do much else. They certainly didn’t sweep, dust, alphabetize or pay their heating bills. All was chaos in the cold void of Mars—and you knew it had been this way from the start.

It was the purest browsing experience of my life. Paperbacks, comics, records, tapes. Posters, t-shirts, rags and games. They could have had anything—and your guess was much better than theirs as to where it might be. Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #13? Ozzy had other issues on his mind. He’d talk the wax clean outta your ears, if you got him on the right subject. It wasn’t all flesh-peddling either. More often than not, it was robots.

“I mean big, homicidal row-bits,” he would spray, in his nasally way. “Helpers of mankind? Not for long. You’ll wake up one morning with a steel boot up your ass—and no foot inside it. Guaranteed.”

The guaranteed sex sounded better.

Ozzy wasn’t alone with his fears at the helm of the ship. His partner—The Viking—was an even-keeled sort: a tall, ponytailed android who didn’t talk much—except about salvaging the business:

“That piece of shit theatre was dragging Mars down.”

So they moved down the street, into a basement near the corner of Sainte-Catherine and City Councillors. They brought every mite and mote with them. The moist conditions under the rock thickened the collection into plastic-pulp pudding. For a while, the store was more wonderfully alien than ever. You simply could not see the floor. But within a few years, they’d terraformed the place to the ground.

Just one law. That’s all it took. A creased yellow decree. Even the dismal calligraphy couldn’t save it. After years of announcements like “Welcome Grand Prix!” and “Ask About Our Deep Discounts on Anal,” they hit us with:

ALL PORNOGRAPHY MUST BE EXAMINED IN THE DESIGNATED AREA.

–The Management

Was it a joke? After all, “The Management” hadn’t bothered to separate the Heat from the Laugh Digests. It was a parody of Order, at best. But the “area” existed—and the peepers trooped dutifully into it. My own tastes run more toward Nero Wolfe novels and Alf Comics; but it had mattered so much that Mars made no distinctions.

I was working nearby at the time—and spending my lunch breaks at the store. Would some challenger arise to beat off the system? Would Mars let things slide if they did? I had to know.

Finally, one day, the man across the bin from me struck Hustler in a drift of Doctor Whos. A pomaded yobo in a dirty cream suit, he had no clue at all about the Rule. I made a bid for his attention, but a discman barred the way. His eyes were smeared onto the page.

The Viking rowed over.

“Excuse me sir.”

Cream Stain didn’t look up.

“Sir?” A shadow loomed over the offender. “Sir!”

What can I say? The guy was preoccupied.

“He can’t hear ya, man,” Ozzy yelled from the cash.

“Yeah,” his partner sighed, “no kidding.”

The tall man reached for the headphones and yanked the wire from its socket.

“Ah!?” Cream Stain yelped. “What’s going on?”

“You wanna know what’s going on?” The Viking’s voice rose. “You want me to explain it to you?”

“I…I’m just…browsing?”

The all-purpose retail defense.

Sir, you’re reading pornography in the middle of the comics section.”

“Sections?” the man’s lip quivered. “But, I…I found it here.”

He looked at me for corroboration. (It was me or Ozzy.)

“Don’t look at him,” The Viking threw up his hands. “And don’t make excuses. You’ve been drooling over pussy in full view of these Disney comics.”

What Disney comics?”

“I’m standing on them,” he pointed down. “I’ll stand on your head in a minute.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” The Viking nodded. “You’re pissing me off. Me and my friend over there.”

He pointed toward the cash.

“Personally,” Ozzy smiled, “I’m fine with it. But a rule’s a rule, right guy?”

He winked at me.

The Viking pushed the man toward the exit:

“Get your ass outta Mars.”

I kept right on pawing at an issue of Action (that’s Superman—not porn).

“Fuck!” The Viking slammed the door. “How’re we supposed to attract people with these assholes around?”

“I don’t know, man,” Ozzy shrugged. “But it’s no big deal. People are just about done.”

A little while later, the place was condemned.

Je ne sais pas quoi faire. Je suis prise entre les deux!”

The speaker?

Une vieille madame—Bourgeois by name—slagged into the crotch of a green plastic chaisse at the Régie du logement.

A far cry, I’m afraid, from the rubicund landlady who’d served champagne with the lease, last May.

Oh yeah baby—in medias res.

How’d she get so mal prise? Who’re her Scylla and Charybdis? What’d they deux to her, câlisse?

Yes, you can bet your sweet asses that backs will be flashed.

I spent five years on the corner of Moffat and Verdun, waiting for my luck to kick in, or the building to give out. When I fell through the balcony, my roommate made the call.

“We’re gonna look at this place,” she smudged through Le Messager. “Jesus Christ! It’s perfection.”

A seven-and-a-half for $750? Washer and dryer? All the bills included?

I could not disagree.

But when the appointment rolled around, my momentum had curdled. No more splinters in my side—and I hadn’t actually hit the pavement.

“Dave, you can see our bathtub through the laundromat ceiling.”

I shook the ants from my shoes.

A quick jaunt down the Avenue and we had found our new place. The owner’s son—Richard—did the honours that day:

“We’ve been here forty years,” he explained. “Original fixtures… chandeliers… three closed bedrooms…”

“Balconies?” my roommate whispered.

“One in the front. One in the back. Both in very good repair. There’s a deck out there too.”

In Balconville this was currency.

“We just had the plumbing redone,” he continued, “but now mom wants a condo. You know how that is. We’re also ditching the canicherie .”

“Aw—no more doggies downstairs? Dave’s a big fan.”

“Don’t you worry then, David. We’ve got a buyer in mind. An excellent groomer. It’s the least we could do. Pour notre clientèle,” he smiled, “et, je suppose, pour vous.”

When we got home, she was manic.

“Where’re my tap dancing shoes?!”

I enjoyed the performance—but I couldn’t help wondering, who would take that third room?

We had a week to decide it, while the references went through. We came up with Carla: a West Island transplant, like me (although not a functionally bilingual one). A decent person on the whole—but kinda volatile too. That didn’t seem very pertinent, when I thought of our refuge.

If I had any doubts at all, they were quashed at the signing. Those Bourgeois were so accommodating.

“Will it be alright if I park my car in back of the store?” Carla wanted to know.

Mais certainement, ma chère!” the radiantly fat lady exploded, as her son poured the bubbly. “This is your new home. We want you to be as comfortable here as we have been, all these years.”

For a moment, I thought I spotted something lewd in the corner of Richard’s eye. But this was quickly forgotten—especially after Carla and our host struck common ground in the vicinity of Atlantis.

Mais c’est incroyable!” She went up a decibel as she danced toward a bookshelf. “Est-ce que vous connaissez Edgar Cayce?”

“Ah yes,” Carla winked. “Some pretty heady questions in those tomes.”

“The world is so beautifully mysterious,” Madame Bourgeois sighed.

Yes, I thought to myself, and mysteries are so much more beautiful when the plumbing works.

***

Everything worked.

We took decadently long showers (that were, in fact, almost certainly shorter than the medieval fumblings that took place under the spittle discharged by the nozzle at the old Moffat place). We washed our sheets twice a week. We plugged in three-pronged things, just because we could. We forgot how to use a plunger.

We had a dinner party.

And people actually came.

Then we met the new owner.

That “excellent groomer”—Rikka Martin.

Reader, I hated her.

We all did—and some of us weren’t very good at managing our hate.

Some of us were Carla.

Back in high school, Carla had bitten a few people. She had also rammed a ladder into a guy’s nuts. It doesn’t get much more cruel or unusual than that.

All of that was in the past. Carla underwent some major renovations during her late-teens. Ten years later, she appeared safe as houses. But the possibility of a relapse could not be discounted.

As you might have guessed, the trouble started in the parking lot—which now, quite suddenly, became Rikka’s backyard (she took up residence somewhere inside the store). One day, Carla drove off to some rendezvous and returned to find a complete patio set and some frolicking poodles in the Holy of Holies. Naturally, she complained—and a compromise was grudgingly established. The next time Carla took a ride, Rikka threw up a fence. Who could’ve predicted that the outraged driver would exact summary revenge—bulldozer style? The groomer responded with some shit of her own, forever tarnishing her reputation as a person who can be trusted with large amounts of dog excrement.

If you think matters ended there—or led to anything sensible, like a murder—you didn’t read the beginning of this story very carefully. This fucker’s goin’ to court. Along the way, Carla will purchase a supersonic dog whistle, Rikka will cut the heat to our magnificent apartment, and all sanity will be lost in the crossfire. Also, almost as an afterthought, they will begin to play up the linguistic dimensions of the fight.

When we could stand to be home at all, my old roommate and I pooled our blankets beneath the cold chandelier. It wasn’t so different from the Moffat days, in terms of pure discomfort, but the revolution of rising expectations had stolen the piss from our sails. Carla abandoned herself to the case and the whistle, rocking quite weirdly to the unheard strains of delusional revenge.

We now had a firm date with the judge—and the last vestiges of courtesy were crumbling. The landlady called our number incessantly, reveling in her power over our bodies: “Je prédis une fin de semaine frigide, les amis!” Carla took note of these incidents with glee. “You see this?” she stroked a burst duotang. “This is the end of Rikka.”

Mother of mercy!

Then she reached for that whistle like a suce.

But now you’re asking yourself—what of Bourgeois? She’s well out of it, no? In her Atlantean condo? I’m sure that’s what she thought. But even the Lost Continent’s within reach of the long arm of The Law.

The thing is: we needed her. Or, anyway, Carla did. To validate her claim re: the parking. It all hinged on that. Establish a verbal agreement and we had a pat hand. Even demolition derby would make synthetic sense. But would Bourgeois remember—or choose to forget?

Carla asked me to call her, since I spoke the best French. I patched into the hotline to the Troisième Age of Aquarius.

Her “Bonjour” was the apex of fuzzed out benevolence.

But the voice declined sharply when she said:

Je m’excuse David, mais je préfère ne pas m’exprimer sur ce sujet.”

“Bitch does not have a choice!” Carla whispered in my ear.

These contracts have undead lives of their own.

They subpoenaed Bourgeois in due course.

At the Régie, two months later, our old friend wore the mask of her stillborn Inner Child. Constant agitation—from both sides of the divide—had severed the Gordian Knot of her bliss. The last champagne bubble popped with it. The judge yawned his way through the testimony and ruled: “This is just normal landlord/tenant friction. Go home.” But Madame Bourgeois had sold her home.

Le Fuckedbourg

July 28, 2009

Listen, if you think Le Faubourg’s lookin’ good, you can just skip this story, ‘cause you’re fucked.

It is fucked.

I’m an open-minded guy, but this is one subject I don’t care to discuss.

It’s the Green Monster of retail, alright?

And we both know it didn’t have to be this way.

Yeah. Sure. It had problems from the start. Pre-fab old world markets always do. At the height of its grandeur, the first European word it conjured was ersatz. But at least where there’s imitation, there’s something flattering going on. Ces jours-ci, Le Faubourg is an oppressive slab of nothing.

So who took out the contract on its sliver of life? Can’t The Man even be trusted to take the Eurotrash in? Someone stumbled onto a good thing there. Why’d they have to trip it up?

I can’t answer these questions. I’m not an intrepid reporter or a real estate pundit. I’ve just spent a lot of time in the food court, whenever the escalators are working. I’m sitting there now—next to the Bangkok—with a plate of Phad Thai and a sightline congestion headache.

I turn to my fellow consumers for relief. I counted five of them on my way to the restaurant. I can’t see them now, of course, but I’ve learned to store up these nutrients like a dromedary of the imagination. Every visit to Le Faubourg is a leap into the backwash of life, shod with concrete galoshes. Somewhere behind these Cask of Amontillado renovations, the good times are screaming. I’ve done enough searching for mine. These days, I’m more partial to the rest of the choir.

There’s a middle-aged lady near the tea shop that I see here a lot. She’s just the type to wax nostalgic over carpet stores past. There was a good one on that bizarre mezzanine, back in 1994. An old classmate of mine used to own it. Cedric. Twenty years old and rolling in fabric. Meeting him there had been quite a surprise. He’d spent most of his teen years in rehab. Then fate pulled those rugs out from under him. This was long before the work crews invaded. Businesses did fail even then. In the end, Cedric gave smack another shot. He’ll write a memoir someday, you’ll see—Needles and Threads. It’ll help a lot of folks to make sense of their lives. Upon finishing it, the tea lady will glance up at her Punjabi tapestry and smile.

There’s a studious-looking man diggin’ in, on the building’s western front. This guy—I know—has got serious problems: back when there were bins full of candy at the heart of the market, he threw himself at me in the kosher gummi aisle. I had been reaching for the worms—and there weren’t many left. He made a decision and snapped. There was room to run in those days, and I got trampled but good. That kind of thing could never happen now. The store’s been swept into a dusty corner of ground zero, and half the time there’s a tarp over its face. Who wants gummies under those conditions? Certainly not my friend, sitting there with his books and a few tins of Dollarama canned meat.

There’s a twelvish-looking girl doing things with her cell phone at the Nutri-Pasta counter. No way is she old enough to linger here long. My guess is: she’s already pushed on to some less pathetic destination, like a hospital cafeteria. She won’t be back—unless she sparks up a career documenting ennui, some day.

There’s a couple laughing together by that weird shafted elevator. It’s a Miramax romcom tableau. The kind they showed in the sous-sol, before Sharx took it over. A charmed detour—that little theatre—on the road between monarchist venues and cinemausoleums. Now it’s swimmin’ with the neons.