King’s Family Restaurant, Nelson, B.C.
Cute as a doll. Sweet too, she leads me to my seat. Still, I’m feeling like a poor old tired horse bent out of shape, wracked by a million miserable little feelings. This isn’t the town of Nelson 2011. It’s the town of Nelson 1956. A plain, chaste, unornamented diner, yet not unsunny. I seat myself at the padded bench, and reflect that even if I parachuted in wearing a banana costume none of the other customers would pay attention.
A partly bald guy with a kid’s trouble maker’s grin stuck on a mature man’s head makes faces at the other mature gentleman in the place, besides me, I mean. They break out into a peal of laughter. This isn’t a restaurant. This is a one room schoolhouse in Breakneck, Labrador but with red leatherette benches and a fake marble counter the length of a football field.
No rice pudding?! Oh God, what am I going to eat? I’m gonna starve. I settle for something classy: a grilled cheese sandwich.
There’s three of us in a restaurant that normally seats 60. It’s Sunday, 5:17 p.m.. Calm down, I exhort myself. You’d think you’ve just sat down at a cemetery. And then 4 fidgety burly lugs show up, each with a 4 ft wide chest, And then a fight breaks out outside between two other guys, and then the lugs inside get up as noisy as you please, lunge into the street, settle the commotion, return from the dust-up, snorting with showy guffaws. Yep, more merriment.
Did I ever feel like a sourpuss, chewing sluggishly on a grilled cheese sandwich, without smiling, without laughing, complaining to that cute doll that the french fries were not cooked enough for my taste.
Munching aimlessly on a renewed pile of crisp french fries, I also walk my eyes lethargically over pages of my Albert Camus book, The Myth of Sisyphus. The guy facing me, four rows ahead, asks me what I’m reading. “The Myth of Sisyphus,” I shout. “The Myth of what?” By now I’m convincing myself I’m a displaced person, not squaring with anyone, anywhere. Beneath my breath, I mutter petty impatient imprecations.
The Chinese restaurateur and chief cook joins his wife chatting with a customer to savour the usual flippant gossip.
As for me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Reeses Pieces machine isn’t taking quarters. Albert Camus would say it’s fate. My fate.
It’s now black outside. Sunday evening early Fall and the streets are totally deserted. Only, this restaurant has inside lights as bright as Miami beach on a bright sunny day. I make a mental note for the light-famished winter ahead.
“How was the grilled cheese?” the doll asks me at the cash. “Good,” I say, “very good.” And it was.
I saw her stooped over a very white mug of coffee at the mountain village café. Martha’s face was wrinkles superimposed on a landscape of youth.
What’s wrong, I asked? I’ve been thinking of Pippi. Pippi was her adoring calico cat, given up by Martha when Martha went to live at the local shelter, and now the thought of her lost pet was streaming into her mind again.
Then she told me about the Nigerian doctor who’d examined her while chirping away a Yoruba song. When she complained about life to him, about missing Pippi., he opened the examination room door to another patient, to a great beauty of a woman without legs.
“You see,” said the doctor, “you still have your legs”.
Now in my company, Martha’s eyes turned wet. She got up, revealing a blood red skirt, long black woollen stockings on beautifully shaped legs, and began her approach to the short wall to pet hesitantly a strange cat who was slumbering recklessly on top.
Though afraid what this closeness to the feline might do to her, a smile broke out, seemingly bereft of choice, snail-paced, like the dim dawn tremulous sun.
“The Mob informer retrieved the address for the wrong Nicholas Guido; he turned over the address of an innocent man who was mildly retarded instead. The Mob killers found the wrong Mr. Guido outside his home on Christmas Day. They shot and killed him.
Do you understand that? They murdered a man who had nothing to do with it except that he owed me a pile of money and now I’ll never see the colour of it.”
She was a fetching woman in her early 30s, who’d been working alone in her own Vancouver escort agency for a few years, and I was a regular she could count on from the day she placed her first ad. She was a curious bird, a whore activist you could call her. She read anarchist tracts to her clients before servicing them, and if they didn’t like it, sent them packing. At least you didn’t have to listen to some false lover of humanity, babbling away about how the universe loves everyone, and how everyone ought to love the universe, while kicking her neighbours hard in the shins.
I’d arrived around 8 p.m., sat down in her study surrounded by shelves of anarchist literature, waiting for her to finish with her current client. When it came my turn, she pulled a tract from one of the shelves and invited me into the parlour. Then she started.
“How do you say in Ojibway, ‘ They’re poisoning your rivers.'” “How do you say in Ojibway, ‘The Canadian mining companies are poisoning your rivers and the fish are dying of poison.'” “How do you say in Ojibway, ‘First the residential schools, now the Alberta Tar Sands… first you poison their minds; then you poison their bodies.'” “How do you say in Ojibway. ‘Nothing has been learned and what a comedy.'”
It went on for a while and frankly some of it was overcharged and overstated and began to take on the aura of caricature. But as was her way, out of nowhere, she added a joke or a funny remark to soften things.
“Hey tell me, why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will come to clean them?”
Her name was Wanda De Jesus. I called her “Wan” for short. Before we continued, she ordered me to put my gun on the desk.
“You may have a license for that but in my parlour it doesn’t count for shit.” When we finished, she turned to me suddenly and said, “I need you to kill someone for me.” She pulled out a small drawer and in it were stacks of $500 bills.
“I’m a private detective not a killer,” I said.
Ignoring my protest, she then handed me a folder filled with documents. I sat down and gave them a quick look over. He lived (the man she wanted killed) in a small mountain town in British Columbia. He lived there among his tiny community, operating a camp ground. Astonishingly he was still working at 80. He had murdered 200 people in cold blood during the war. He had been a ferocious S.S. man, and he’d murdered her family.
Sometimes decisions are taken or never taken after weeks and weeks of tormented mind-wrenching exertion, and one can still smell the acrid sweat after everything’s done and finished with. And sometimes the decision is already made for you with one’s back against the wall and no exit. And other times as in this case one is determined not to accept from the word go. I was, though, curious about her plans.
I returned the folder. “If I decide to do this,” I said, staring at the stack of bills, “I guess I’ll have to take a plane out there… in the Interior.”
“No, she replied. He’ll be here in 15 minutes.”
She handed me my gun, pressing it in my hands, “Please,” she begged. “I’ll get rid of the body.” A thought jolted inside me for a moment. Handling a woman is a delicate thing, like dismantling an explosive device… you have to be so careful. She went on and on until I could feel myself turning against my first instinct. I could even help her get rid of the body. They’d never find it. I was beginning to see things in purely practical logistical terms, weighing them through her eyes. Gone was any moral feeling or professional code of good conduct. Strangely, his photo radiated not the slightest bit of menace… In fact, I could imagine him arriving with a big smile under that white mop of hair, still energetic and youthful-looking for an octogenarian, a sweet old grandpa with a mischievous look, wanting one more good time. It would make things more difficult.
After a while, I conveyed my agreement and sat waiting. And as I waited an emotion began to crawl all over me and that was when I began to shiver, quietly, unobserved. I’d never killed anyone before. He was a heinous target but I couldn’t amass sufficient hatred to overcome the rush of oncoming doubts. Somehow, somewhere in a shot, I had to lay my hands on enough thick skin and even better, anesthesia of the brain, and surely of the heart, to execute the dirty deed.
All of a sudden the phone rang.
The old man had cancelled his appointment.