Adult Fiction Submissions – First Place
Well, I know which came first of course. Black Bart…wait, was it? I think so. The time frame is helter-skelter concerning my initial acquaintance with the divine Ms. van Hellemonde though. Curse her.
Was it at the cafe outside the Gare du Nord on a crisply invigorating spring day, the crowds rushing past under an ambivalent pellucid sky potentially promising to deliver rain but at the moment lazy, corpulent and unhurried? Where she batted her dark-lidded eyes in languid reply to my poorly timed and rather insipid “An American in Paris, then?” Channeling Fitzgerald or Hemingway or even Gertrude Stein.
Or was it in the garish neon reflecting from the puddles outside the hidden door of the stumbled-on jazz club on Dunkirken Street, deep in the less-traveled sections of Glasgow’s red-light district sharing a sodden overhead newspaper and damp cigarettes as the drops conspired to put our heads together collectively gulping the fiendish nicotine?
The latter I think. My European trip was hastily conceived and poorly executed, a knee jerk reaction to a potent confluence of job-leaving, girlfriend relationship-ending, house-selling mania that overtook me like a tsunami; Hokusai’s woodcut unfolding in scary slow motion real-time.
I ended up like flotsam eddying in the carnage. Adrift in wreckage and regret. Traipsing through Europe like a sorry Don Quixote, sans Sancho Panza.
So if it’s all clouded and foggy I blame the miasma, the feeling of slogging through days of what I envision hell to be: scalding hot pools of sludge that slow me to the exertions of a drained-creek catfish, the orangey-reddish walls blistering my fair complexioned face while I beg for sunscreen. Former girlfriends, acquaintances, colleagues and extended family members throw barbed jibes, hurl slanderous innuendo and mouth half-real scurrilous untruths continuously as I trudge endlessly. Going nowhere so, so slowly.
But back to the killing of the Bart and the conniving, crafty courtesan van Hellemonde’s role in that sad soap opera, if you please.
Stewart L. MacTavish, that’s me. The L stands for Lachlan. The only more egregiously first-generation Scottish name I know is my older brother’s – Roderick Duncan, RD as he prefers – and he was flinging the choicest of curses in that hellish nightmare fugue I had conjured. Like me, probably pissed off at the folks for no good reason other than a name that reminded of the auld country.
There I was, unmarried, bank account flush from sale of house in the provincial pedestrian boroughs of our nation’s capital, childless and fleeing like a 45 year-old baby back towards Mommy. With a detour to the continent just for the hell of it, why not? Also, because I need to get away from whom I was fast becoming and didn’t like much at all.
But in actuality I’m in a quandary, delusional even, because there is no Mommy. Just her house remains. I’m good with that really – Mother and I were like an irreplaceable Persian rug and steaming dog turd, chalk and cheese, whatever parable you want – so her recently departed house was calling me with, not a siren’s call exactly, more like the mighty bellow of a bullhorn wielded by a longshoreman of Bunyanesque stature and brawn.
I wanted to be in that little mountain oasis, away from the hurly-burly city world I’d waved my chalky white ass at and then rudely fled with a first-class ticket from Toronto – Uber to the city, screw the expense! – direct to Glasgow (damn near impossible to manage on a whim, but do-able if you spend the money; I did)
So, Europe. The lusty and somewhat luscious Ms. van Hellemonde and I hit it off under that soggy copy of The Scotsman over the cigarettes. We went inside, shared drinks and got to know each other. No, not in the biblical sense, I was too messed up and mentally haggard to pick up on her “come hither” look. The manicured nails soothingly pressing my forearm with understanding compassion, her stiletto-ed foot brushing my ankle, all of it I was blissfully unresponsive to.
I was aware but unaware – too caught up in my own miserable self to enjoy a quickie and move on without regret or remorse. No, my nature wouldn’t permit such a simple solution. Drunken rhetoric of my future abode, the serenity, the quiet, the desire for the vixen to come visit when I was back to normal, this is what was dribbling forth as we canoodled and drank, toasted each other. A Christmas date was set.
And in fairness, once back in my late Mother’s mountain redoubt, we spoke sporadically. The occasional 3:00 am call, dripping with longing, loneliness and lust. Though I have to say when she first reminded me of our imminent rendezvous I was baffled. Who the hell is this person again?
But it came back to me somewhat, through a gauzy film of European women met in bars, cafes and railway stations. Not certain where we had connected, what she looked like, what I’d said to cement this visit. And it was fast approaching.
The skies were sodden and grey. Lashings of raining made the landscape abject and miserable. The huddled smokers outside the terminal were the same. I was one of them, wondering if the plane would even land given the low cloud cover.
It did though – miracle of miracles – and I recognized my erstwhile guest as the passengers ran across the tarmac, trying to minimize the soaking they were getting.
She strode like a colossus, umbrella unfurled (who travels with an umbrella?) and threatening to take out an eye or two of her fellow passengers. Rolled through the doors and enveloped me in a mighty embrace.
” Here I am!” she boomed. “It’s been too damn long! Just look at you!” I extricated myself as if from a coiled python, stood back to look at the female tornado in front of me. “I’ve got bags”, she said plaintively, whacking her sodden umbrella against my leg.
Bags she had indeed. Three monstrous suitcases, all matched in a garish pink-black swirl of paisley. I dutifully loaded them in a tottering heap onto a baggage cart, beckoning to the grey gloom outside where Black Bart waited.
“Apres-vous cherie.” I breathed, arm extended as I swept her out the airport door. It was going to be a long haul, I could tell. I felt like a Japanese kamikaze pilot on an aircraft carrier crashing through the South Pacific Ocean – the end was nigh.
The truck came in between the beginning and end of that fleeting finicky relationship. I was back in the mountains in the late fall, puttering around in a rented Chevy from Budget, adrift but trying to put down roots again. I’d visited the sloped green cemetery, stared at the headstone and said my thanks to my mother. The house was mine; now I needed to get things together, re-establish myself as a worthwhile citizen of the world.
I drove out and up the valley to look at a second-hand Mazda pickup advertised in the local paper for $3500. I was acutely aware of the rental time slipping, the winnowing money in my bank account.
The garage was decrepit, old wrecks littering the exterior, traffic thundering by heedlessly on the highway. I parked the rental and walked into the gloom of the shop, becoming aware of two grease-strewn sets of overalls hunkered over the engine of a vehicle as my eyes adjusted.
“You guys have a pickup for sale here?” I enquired of the bent backs. Both straightened, looks of distain on their pinched, smeared faces. One sported a mullet, skinny like a rake, working a dirty toothpick round his mouth. The other tugged his ball cap brim, stout and solid. He splayed his legs wide, cocked a dirty eyebrow and grunted. “Sure do, sport.”
I took in his rat-tail hanging through the back of the stained cap, his oil-stained hands and the tired distaste he wore openly. Sport? WTF? Was I not a few miles outside a small cosmopolitan city? This was like the Appalachia’s grimiest hollow, something akin to Deliverance.
“This one here,” pointing at a battered truck up on the hoist. One look convinced me it was all wrong – the vehicle cried for a trip to the wreckers but I felt obligated to walk around it, peering intently as if it dripped potential and promise.
“Guys, I don’t think it’s really what I wanted, but thanks for your time anyways.” I went to shake their hands but they both recoiled like I’d offered a grenade, pin pulled. Awkward.
“Well, I’ll be going then,” I said moseying into the yard with a hand flutter. I glanced to my left and there it was, nestling beside a pile of bald tires. A gleaming black Toyota pickup, the grill smiling at me enticingly. “What about this though?” They grinned at each other.
“That there’s just come in. She’s a beaut alright.” This from the mullet. “Oh, yeah,” chimed in rat-tail, “just got her yesterday but she won’t be here long.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say we couldn’t take less than six for that baby” the skinny one proffered. “Why don’t you chew on that awhile? We’s got to get back to work.”
They turned on their collective heels, but not before I caught a hillbilly mind meld between them, as if they’d found a rube literally tumbling off the turnip truck. Suspended dangling in midair.
Me though? I’m presumptuous and I wanted that truck. Over the protestations of my mechanic who said, in a spew of continuous profanity and garage ownership-directed derision, it was worth half that, I was back the next day cheque in hand. We signed the papers; they gave half-assed waves as I turned towards town driving, and owning, Black Bart. Christened as such home in the driveway, the late autumn golden yellows reflecting in the sheen of the paint, the polish of the glass. Life was improving.
The minx van Hellemonde was American. Full of bombast and brassiness, sophistication and backwardness, she chewed my ear off with disdainful commentary all the way home.
I humoured her as best as I could, and we settled in like two dogs newly acquainted, sniffing each other’s holes while our tails wagged half-assed, ready to be friends but hackles still raised.
In fairness to Katrina (Russian nobility way back, with a mix of commonplace Dutch tossed in, she enunciated over dinner that night) we had fun. We rollicked, we rolled, we fornicated, we drank, we ate, and we even exercised, once or twice. But here’s the thing that was eating me insidiously. We were isolated in the middle of freaking nowhere and we were together every waking moment. Every sleeping one too. The bad side of my personality was starting to show.
After a solid week of 24/7 togetherness I was showing signs of strain, to put it mildly. We went into town to re-supply on Day 8 and it all boiled over.
The rice, I swear it was the rice. The minx needed goat’s milk – unpasteurized and freshly bottled. Fine, we can do that. Katrina needs hand ground tea leaves from South Sri Lankan fair trade plantations, no problem. Ms. van Hellemonde insists on figs from a specific tree-type growing only on Mykonos – let’s hope we can get them for her. I am her gracious host forking over outrageous (in my frugal Scottish mind) amounts of money to make her happy.
When she scooped 200 grams of alfalfa-infused, llama grazed, Sumatran mud-harvested, handpicked wild mixed grain rice and plunked it on the counter to the tune of 28 dollars I lost it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me” I protested to the cashier. “That little sack of rice, which looks like a doggy doo-doo bag except much smaller, that thing is twenty-eight fucking dollars?” I was apoplectic.
“Oh Stewie, shut up and pay the gal. I’m amazed this nowhere town even has the rice I like.”
I peeled off the bills one at a time as the minx smirked and simpered with the cashier.
All of me was at war. The impulsive side was gone, my inherent frugality kicked to the curb. The unyielding, unforgiving side of me striding up the middle. I was counting the hours till we returned to the airport.
Well, I should have known. It snowed like a mother the last night – literally two feet in a few hours – and then it started to warm. Katrina’s flight was at 9, we had an hour drive to get there. Problem was, it was still bucketing down, and the temperature was climbing by the hour.
I knew in my heart that the flight didn’t have a chance in hell of getting out. Knew it in my bones, in my soul, in every fibre of my being but still I continued. Loaded those huge suitcases into the jump seats, hustled the protesting minx out early.
“Can’t miss that flight.”
The driveway was knee deep, the snow like wet cement. I was fucked but wouldn’t give up. My neighbours came out to assist, the three of us shoveling madly, frantically to clear the drive and get to the lane, at least. The minx smoked a cigarette, watching and providing inane chatter that said nothing except to cut the morning quiet when we rested exhausted from our labours, the words lingering like some sort of indictment.
With a shove from Hugh and Nora we managed the top of the drive. The lane was a mass of thick, deep snow, layered whipped cream with the consistency of quicksand. I needed to reach the plowed road 100 metres away. For my sanity, my well being, and to be done with the nefarious, smirking Ms. van Hellemonde.
I geared into 4-wheel, backed up as much as I could (none), hit the gas and charged, the snow making the undercarriage ride up as I accelerated maniacally.
Black Bart skittered wildly, plowing through the cement-like snow, the tach redlining and went about 10 feet. I backed up the ground we’d gained, took another run with pedal to the floor. The engine howled like a banshee, the tachometer solidly at the maximum and snow puking to either side as we rammed our way forward.
Another 10 feet and we were mired again. I pounded the wheel in frustration, backed up and bulled ahead as Katrina fixed her eyes on me and shook her head in disgust.
Black Bart wasn’t a snowplow and wasn’t meant for the torture he was enduring at my insistence. Seven more back-and-forth’s and we neared the main road. A massive wall of snow blocked us the last ten feet. That snowplow furrow did us in.
Screaming, thrashing, fishtailing we somehow surmounted that wall of packed ice/snow but as we did I felt and heard the linkage go. Rattling sounded underneath like a belly-stabbed beast slinking into the underbrush to die alone. We were done, Black Bart and I, truly screwed and still a distant hour’s drive from putting Ms. van Hellemonde on the plane I knew wasn’t going to coming in, regardless if we were whole or not. And we were definitely not, Bart especially.
Of course the flight didn’t leave. Not a hope in hell. I crippled Bart all the way there, the drive train kaput, useless, but still he ran, aching as if in silent agreement of my feelings, a martyr in unspoken sympathy with his short-lived owner. Halfway back home we slowly died, eventually shuddering to a final graceless halt at the junction of 6 and 3A.
We stood forlorn, unspeaking, waiting for the tow truck as the snow pillowed down and dusk slowly overtook the day. After about an hour of silence and smoking, each of us thinking murderous thoughts, the tow truck arrived, backed up and hoisted Black Bart’s crippled rear end.
The driver raised a gnarled eyebrow as I crammed the monstrous bags into the space behind the cab but the look on my face stopped him from saying a thing. The minx squashed me against the door to avoid any contact and we set off for an unpleasantly long quiet ride to my mechanic’s shop. Silently, I vowed I’d fix my mortally wounded companion hooked behind us, expense be damned.
The next day the storm had blown over and the minx flew out via a two hundred dollar cab ride. I paid in advance, pecked her cheek and she was gone down the now-plowed lane. Just like that.
I had a lot of time to think over the next few months as Black Bart languished outside my mechanic’s shop. I’d ride past on the bus, see him snow-covered there and ponder. The minx rarely entered my mind.
I’d think of my father, whose very being exuded compassion, humility and belief in the good we all harbour inside ourselves. Then I’d think of my grandfather, a pillar of the community who built and lived in the house across the yard from where I resided now.
Who, at about my age now, inexplicably stole money from the community cooperative, hightailed it to Spokane and drank and whored it up until, penniless and remorseful, he returned chagrined and ashamed. I wanted to be like my dad but realized I was more like his dad: impulsive, dispassionate and full of dark places no one really knew about.
I didn’t hear from Katrina after that. I can’t really blame her. It was a debacle at the end. The fault was not hers really, more mine. Hindsight is a gracious thing.
I did fix Black Bart though. Even if his second life was nearly as short as the first, I’m glad I did. But that’s another story for another time.