Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore invited me to take part in their Haunted Bookstore night on Wednesday. We were supposed to read a spooky story, and at first I thought I'd do something by Henry James, but he is just too wordy. So I turned to a story in my last collection, The Truth Is which had a satisfyingly weird ending. The more I worked to cut it down--we only had eight minutes--the weirder it got. So here it is in all its Halloween flavour:
Nothing But Good Times:
Sylvie was thinking about what she should wear that night when the old woman started waving the $20 bill in her face. "Give me another bill. It's one of them devil ones," she said. "The man gave me this one, and it's bad. It's got the sixes."
The sixes? Sylvie had heard somebody raving about the banknotes with all the sixes on them, the three little boxes like dominos, making three sixes, the sign of the Satan. This old crone with her shapeless body under her red and black dress and her white hair frizzing out from under her beret was the first to say anything about them here, though.
As far as Sylvie was concerned, a bill was a bill, and the old woman was just a nuisance, somebody who came in to buy cat food and Cheerios, to trade change for banknotes or to turn in soda cans. Sylvie had other things to worry about. She'd left a few clothes at Anthony's but it was Saturday afternoon and his mother would be there. To change at his place would open up all sorts of things that Sylvie didn't want to have to deal with.
"I want another bill," the woman said again. "One without the sixes."
Last weekend, Easter weekend they spent at the Hilton out by the airport. Nice place. Great time. Couldn't expect to do something like that this weekend but Anthony usually had good ideas...
He was such fun. He had a car, a red car. He dressed sharp. He liked to have a good time. A good time, that's what he'd promised her for tonight too....
The old woman leaned her belly against the counter and waved the bill so Sylvie couldn't miss it. "You trying to bedevil me too, girl."
The man next in line laughed "Oh, give her a new bill," he said. "She'll stand there all afternoon if you don't."
The woman spun around so she could stare at the man. She looked him up and down. "What makes you think so? They're all alike," she said. She smoothed the bill again in her hand. "All alike, wanting to do dirty to the rest of us.."
Sylvie decided she didn't need this five minutes before her break, five minutes before Anthony was supposed to meet her . She punched in the code that opened the cash drawer and very carefully chose two fresh $10 bills. She held them up to the light as if to check their honesty and then held them out to the old woman who grabbed them and then wadded the $20 up in a ball before throwing it at Sylvie.
"Oh, shit," Sylvie said to herself. But the old woman heard her.
"Watch your tongue, girl," the woman shouted "God gave us language. Language is a gift from God, and you shouldn't go messing with God."
Sylvie didn't say anything. She started to put the man's groceries in shopping bags.
The old woman looked at her but didn't move. ""You shouldn't go messing with God. There are things stronger than you." She turned so she could look at all the people standing in line. "Read your scripture," she shouted. "All of you: fear God and beware the sign of the Beast."
Anthony came through the door just then and waved to Sylvie. She shot him a big smile and the old woman whirled around again. "Beware," she shouted at Sylvie.
Spring was late that year. At the middle of April piles of snow still lay rutted in the lanes and packed under stairways, but they went for rides in Anthony's car with all the windows rolled down anyway. The air smelled sometimes damp and ,faintly of green, a whole lot better than the dog droppings slowly appearing from under the snow.
By then he thought they ought to move in together. They were made for each other, he'd say. Then he would put his arms around her, reaching inside her coat if they were outside, running his hands over her back and sides, wherever they were. She found that difficult to argue with. She decided that when she wasn't around him she was only half alive. Even the way he'd started borrowing money from her didn't bother her. After all, he'd paid for all their good times up until then; it was only fair, she told herself, that she start paying some too.
But he was late meeting her at the souvlaki place on the first Friday afternoon in May. The setting sun colored the sky above the buildings across the street. The days were getting longer. If they were going to find a place, they should start looking, because leases were coming due all over the town.
Then the crazy old woman came past, dragging a shopping cart behind her. She lingered at the corner, checking out the recycling bins.
One thing for sure, Sylvie didn't want to live in this neighborhood even with Anthony. It was spooky and full of crazies.
And where was Anthony?
There, coming across the street. He saw her through the window, and blew her a kiss as he passed. In three seconds he was standing beside her, But he didn't sit down.
"Listen, Angel," he said, kneeling beside the table so their faces were on the same level.. He looked in her eyes. His breath was warm on her face. She wanted to be alone with him as soon as possible. .
"Yes," she said expectantly.
"Listen, I got to run.."
She clutched at his hand. "Hey, no, you can't do that. ."
"It's all right, Angel, not to worry. All I've got to do is go around the corner and see this guy."
"Why?" His gaze went out the window as if he were seeking the answer there. Then obviously he decided he had to tell her something. "I got to see a guy about the car repairs. It's nothing to worry about," he said. "Look, I'll be back in l5 minutes. " And he was gone.
Fifteen minutes. She shook her head, He had secrets, that she knew. But then so did she. Secrets were normal. You couldn't let them get in the way. Life was too short, there wasn't enough fun in it to ruin what there was by worry. That's what he'd showed her. That's what he always said: good times, we're going to have nothing but good times.
Across the street the old woman was moving again. She grabbed hold of the handles of the shopping cart and started down the street, scanning the sidewalk for more recycling.
The street lights came on. The waitress came over with the beers Sylvie had ordered.. She took a few tentative sips as she watched the old woman open the little metal gate that enclosed a patch of front yard and then wrestle the cart around the outside stairs toward the placed where the recycling must be.
An outside light flooded the little yard casting long shadows toward the street and suddenly the woman was on the sidewalk again. She threw back her head and arms in a scream that Sylvie could almost hear.
A woman passing on a bicycle pulled to a stop and looked around. The old woman pointed toward the courtyard, so she went to look inside. But she came hurrying back too. She ran up the outside stairs and began pounding on the door to the apartment on the first floor.
Sylvie, of course, could not hear what was being said, but she could tell from the way the man at the door reacted that something grave had happened. Just around the corner, Anthony had said. Only 15 minutes.
Then she heard the sirens.
After the police and the ambulance arrived, the old woman headed toward the restaurant where Sylvie still sat. She rapped on the window with both
"Your man," she shouted loud enough to be heard through the glass. "The wages of sin are death. Your man has been paid in full."
Anthony. Sylvie stood up quickly, almost knocking over her chair and the beer. She grabbed for her coat and her purse. The waitress saw her and started toward her. "You haven't paid," she said.
Sylvie stopped and rummaged in the purse for a $20 bill. As she hurried out the door, she thrust it at the waitress. The sixes: she had no time to think about the sixes.
. It was Anthony all right, lying curled on his left side, his right arm up over his head as if protecting it. There was a line of blood running out of his mouth. His eyes were shut, his skin was pale under the stubble of his beard. His red scarf was still around his neck, pulled tight, but Sylvie also saw that the smooth curve of his forehead was broken. The skin appeared uncut but the bone underneath it was pushed in. He was breathing, she could see his chest moving beneath the blanket which covered him from his shoulders to his feet.
"Anthony," she said, softly.
One of the medics heard and turned around. "You know him?" he asked.
The medic stood up. "We'll do our best.'
She took a step closer. She was shivering so hard her teeth were chattering.. Car repairs he'd said. Being beaten up had nothing to do with car repairs. "He was mugged," she said. Anybody could be mugged. It happened all the time.
"Maybe, maybe not," the medic said. "You should talk to the police about that."
"The Force will have its way," came the old woman's voice from behind her. "He dared to mess with ungodly, and the ungodly smote him. Let that be a lesson to you, girl. Avoid evil. Cast the devils from you..."
Sylvie shut her eyes.
"Did he have any enemies?" one of the policemen asked , coming over with a clipboard. "Do you know if he was in any trouble?"
"Does he had any money on him?" she asked back. "He'd just gone to the bank, I think. He should have had quite a bit ..." The sixes, the sixes.
The policeman looked interested, but before he could ask her more, the door to the basement apartment opened. Sylvie held her breath as soon as she heard the hinges begin to move. The eyes that peeked through the narrow crack were dark and suspicious, and when the policeman ordered the door opened further, they blinked twice, as if considering.
A tiny groan came from Anthony, so tiny that Sylvie could barely hear it. She wanted to lean over, to listen more closely, but the sight of the eyes at the door made her blood freeze. This could not be happening. All she wanted was a good time, she hadn't asked for anything more than that.
The groan thickened into a sort of croak in the back of Anthony's throat. The medic who'd been monitoring his blood pressure looked up and called something to his colleague that Sylvie didn't catch. The policeman stepped forward and put his hand on the her arm. "Miss," he began.
But she knew she couldn't stay any longer even before the medics began to push her out of the way. She wanted out. She would leave and never come back. She didn't belong here, nobody belonged here.
"You can't leave," the old woman said. "The Lord will judge you, you have to wait..."
The red car, Anthony's red car, was parked half-way down the block. Sylvie brushed past the old woman's hand. If she got to the car, everything would be all right. Anthony would get well, the world would go on, there would be pleasure again.
But before she got there, she heard the old woman screaming: "She's going, she's going. We cannot let her get away."
And then she knew she was trapped, and that it would be a long time before the next good time.