Mason, a struggling writer, comes in from the cold after five years of drifting. His childhood friend, Chaz, a small-time gangster, loans him an apartment and finds him a job selling hotdogs. But instead of getting his act together, Mason drinks too much, does too many drugs and loses too much money at poker, digging himself even more deeply in debt to Chaz, who also happens to be his drug dealer. Talk about a vicious circle.
Then Mason has a bright idea. He'll find the cash to pay Chaz back by becoming a ghostwriter of suicide notes, a fitting use of his talents. The trouble is that Mason is hard-wired to rescue people, and no one needs rescuing more than the suicidal. Except maybe the woman he is falling in love with — Willy, a wheelchair-bound, heroin-smoking beauty.
What happens when someone already wrestling with his own demons immerses himself in the tragedies of other people's lives? In this case, a lot: a hotdog cart is totalled, a convict sprung, a funeral faked, a head scalped, a horse stolen. Terrible secrets are brought to the light and suicide morphs into murder. Then, just when it looks like Mason is finally going down, he faces the biggest test of all. He'll either become the death-defying hero of his own dreams or lose everything and everybody he's ever loved.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Mason Dubisee dodged a booze-propelled bullet on the day he was born.
His father came in to the hospital room smiling—a bottle of champagne cradled in his arms. He looked at his wife and newborn son, tore off the foil and cranked the wire. Angling the bottle heavenward, he pushed with his thumbs.
The cork shot out with incredible force. It ricocheted off the ceiling, a wall, then rocketed into the pillow an inch from Mason’s infant cranium.
His father told the story for years to come. Grinning with pride, he’d pass around the infamous cork: “I swear to God, he dodged the fucking thing.”
It was a feat that would prove more difficult as Mason’s life went on.
On his thirtieth birthday, Mason opened his eyes—and saw water pipes. They were painted white, against a white ceiling. It took him a moment to realize he was somewhere comfortable and quiet. There was nobody kicking him, or trying to grab his stuff or banging on the door. He wasn’t too cold and he was barely hung over. There was a pillow beneath his head and when he rolled onto his side, it smelled like a new stuffed animal.
He looked at the far wall: exposed brick, power-washed clean. There were silver and bronze specks in the bricks and in the grouting, and they sparkled beneath a skylight. Against the wall was an ancient curlicued radiator, painted deep chestnut. The floor beneath it was hardwood, also dark, giving way to ceramic tiles—midnight blue and mottled—demarcating the kitchen area.
It was a thousand square-foot loft. According to Chaz it used to be a belly dance studio. If he kept turning around in bed like this he could see every corner of it.
After a while Mason was ready to get up. Or rather, down. The bed was fairly high—not so much that you’d injure yourself if you fell out, but enough that it would hurt to land. There was a three-step ladder, with storage space beneath. A captain’s bed, it was called. Mason kind of liked that. He kind of liked everything right now. It was his thirtieth birthday and here he was: waking up in a captain’s bed. He had an open concept, a skylight and hardwood floors darkened by the sweat of amateur belly dancers. The day was full of possibility.
He climbed down and pulled on a pair of boxers. They were green, with penguins on them. He stood in the middle of the room, light spilling in from all directions. There were two large windows at the front, looking down onto Spadina Avenue—and one at the back that opened onto a flat tarmac roof. He surveyed the apartment, flecks of gold dust in the air.
By one of the front windows stood a simple oak desk, by the other a seating area with a burgundy couch, two easy chairs and a TV, then a shelving unit, a cabinet and a dresser, all empty. Mason’s to fill.
Other than the duffle bag by the door, the only proof of habitation was on the table in the centre of the room. Mason pulled up a chair and studied it: Johnnie Walker Black—almost empty—two glasses, a rolled-up twenty, an ashtray surrounded by ashes, white residue, playing cards, poker chips . . .
How much did you lose?
He wasn’t sure, but he knew he hadn’t won—Chaz was better at poker than he used to be.
Mason picked up one of the glasses and walked into the kitchen area. The icy ceramic felt good on the soles of his feet. There was a coffee maker on the counter. He looked at it for a while, but there were too many buttons. He opened the fridge: beer and an open box of baking soda. He poured himself a glass of water, dug into his duffle bag for paper and a pen, then crossed the room and sat down on the sunlit couch. He wrote:
He wouldn’t usually have known the day of the week, but today was a day for cognizance, for new beginnings. He underlined To-Do List. Then Monday. Then he looked out the window.
He was sitting on the couch in his underwear staring out the window when Chaz came in. “What’s the headline, pigeon?”
“So what? You don’t knock?”
“Not till you start paying rent.” He walked over to the table in the centre of the room, slung his jacket over a chair, then started gathering up the cards. Chaz was sort of a neat freak.
“How much did I lose last night?”
“Two and a half.”
Mason’s heart rate doubled, his skin got cold. “Thousand?”
“Don’t worry,” said Chaz, stacking up the chips. “I know where you live.” He went into the kitchen area to get a dishcloth.
Until yesterday it had been five years since they’d seen each other, but Chaz looked much the same. He was wiry and there was a slickness to him, like shiny leather. Mason was well-worn suede—barrel-chested, beaten in, rough around the edges.
They’d been friends since they were kids. And now, as adults, they came on like men who’d gotten away with something, tough guys who liked to dance. Both were handsome in certain lights—dim ones mostly—which fit their lives just fine.
Chaz was wiping up the ashes. “You got some rhino coming, right?”
Other than being better at poker, this was another way he’d changed. It used to be Chaz only talked like a whacked-out gangster when he was drunk, but now he was like Jimmy Cagney on Ritalin. “I’m in a good mood,” he’d said the day before, by way of explanation. But Chaz’s mood was often good. He was the least haunted smart guy Mason had ever met.
“Rhino?” said Mason.
“You might have called it something else.” Chaz threw the dishcloth into the sink. “But if it’s a problem . . .”
“No. No. You’re right, I’ve got magazine money owing, from like three different stories. I just got to give them an address.”
“Well, you got one now.” Chaz spread his arms, indicating opulence as he walked across the floor. Then he sat down in one of the easy chairs.
“Yeah. Thanks for this.”
“I was just going to say, if it’s ever a problem—I mean, I don’t know what it’s like in this town, as far as the writing biz goes and all . . . but if you’re short, I can set you up.”
“No thanks, Chaz.”
Chaz shot him a sharp glance, then rubbed his hands together and looked around at the apartment, surveying the reno job that he himself had done. “I wasn’t talking about dealing—not a bindle-stiff like you.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“Hotdogs,” he said, as if he’d burned himself happily—the emphasis on hot.
“Uncle Fishy, he’s got this Dogfather thing.”
“Do me a favour.” Mason stood up. “A moratorium on the Chazspeak. I’ve got no clue what you’re trying to say.” He went to find a shirt.
Chaz called after him. “It’s just what I said: my Uncle Fishy has a Dogfather thing.”
“What’s a dogfather thing?” Mason dug into his duffle bag. “And since when do you have an uncle named Fishy?”
“That’s what they call him. He’s a bit simple, but he’s family. Got all sorts of family I never met out here. . .”
Mason tossed clothes in all directions.
“Anyway—Fishy’s got these ideas: one of them’s the Dogfather Hotdog Company. It’s a theme thing, right? And the cart would reflect that—the ‘Dogmobile.’ It’s like a state-of-the-art, pseudomafioso hotdog-stand kind of thing.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“Well, either way, I gave him money for a prototype.”
“You’re kidding me.” Mason pulled on a T-shirt.
“What can I say? It’s his dream. All he needs now is a Dogfather.”
“You mean a hotdog salesman.”
“Think of it as research on the human condition.”
“There’s no way I’m selling hotdogs, Chaz.”
“Then I hope your game gets better.”
Chaz held up his hands in surrender. Mason sat back down.
“What about that book you were writing?”
“Almost finished,” said Mason.
“Hasn’t it been like six years now?”
Chaz looked at him. “So what do you plan to do?
Mason reached for his to-do list. He turned it so Chaz could see. “Any ideas?”
“Number one: shave.”
Mason scraped his fingers down his bearded cheek. Chaz walked to the chair where he’d slung his jacket and took an envelope from the pocket. “Here,” he said, tossing it to Mason.
It was full of twenties. “What’s this for?” For a moment he thought Chaz had remembered his birthday.
“Basics, buddy: food, stuff for the apartment, razors . . . I’m strapping on jets to Montana. See a guy about a can-opener.”
“You’re cracking safes now?”
Chaz just grinned. “I’ll be back on Wednesday. And by the way, the liquor store is . . . ,” but Mason wasn’t really listening. He knew where the liquor store was. Chaz was under the impression he’d just arrived in Toronto. After all, why would your best friend come to your town then wait a month to look you up?
“Oh, here.” Chaz reached into the other pocket, pulled out a cellphone and tossed it to Mason. “I’ll get you a landline when I’m back.”
“Thanks,” said Mason. He suddenly felt embarrassed. “I’ll have the rent together soon.”
“Good to see you, kid,” said Chaz.
Mason just nodded. That’s what Tenner used to say—he'd called them both “kid.”
This side of Spadina was Chinatown, but on the other side of the road was Kensington Market—six square blocks of mom-and-pop shops from every culture you could think of (Portuguese butchers, Korean grocers, Jamaican candlestick-makers)—the smell of barbecued sardines, mangos and pig’s blood mixing in the air.
He picked up a dozen disposable razors, ten oranges, five T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, a coffee, an empañada, and when he got back to the apartment he still had almost $480 left over. He disrobed and took the razors into the bathroom. As the steam rose he looked in the mirror. When Chaz had opened the door, what would he have seen? A world traveller? A drifter? A vagrant with a thrice-broken nose?
One more and it’ll be back in place.
He plugged the sink, made a lather with the soap, and turned off the taps. “Out of the cold just in time,” he said. But a voice inside him muttered something else.
He soaked his beard then realized he had no scissors. With this kind of scruff, a dozen razors and you still couldn’t find your face. He went to get his knife.
An hour later he was sitting on the couch eating an orange and watching Judge Judy, the first item on his to-do list done, cheeks still stinging.
He hadn’t watched TV for a while and nothing made sense. Judy was cool but everyone else in the courtroom made him sad or angry. At a quarter to three he turned off the TV. The world was quiet. He was thirty now.
He began to shuffle cards, looking at the wall. It had all been mirrors, Chaz had said, floor to ceiling for the belly dancers. He’d agonized for days, then stripped it down to the brick. Mason could picture them—all those Toronto girls in sweatpants and sports bras, undulating towards him. He shuffled the deck for a long, long time. Eventually he got up, intending to eat another orange, but instead he left the apartment.
It was after five when he got back, and he’d acquired a few more of the basics: mid-range champagne, a ghetto blaster and a stack of used CDs, a steel sword—somewhere between a cutlass and a sabre—with a dog-faced dragon on the blade, a sharpening stone and scissors, toilet paper, a cheeseburger combo from the Harvey’s right there on the corner, a pack of Camel Lights. There was $280 left in his pocket.
He took a beer from the fridge, plugged the ghetto blaster in, put on The Best of the Animals and finished his fries. He opened one of the windows. The bottom pane slid up high enough that he could sit on the ledge drinking his beer, looking at Spadina.
His was the top of a three-storey red-brick. The apartment on the second floor was still being renovated. On the street level was an electronics store and a porno shop, then a narrow alley, Harvey’s and the Lucky Save Convenience on the corner.
The neighbourhood used to be Jewish, Chaz had told him, but they sold most of it to the Chinese—and soon thereafter the city decided to turn Spadina into an expressway, which only made it halfway down its planned route from the superhighway at the top of the city before it stopped, killed in its tracks by an enlightened group of urban activists, political academics, artists, hippies, Chinese businessmen and Jewish gangsters.
Across the street from his window were bars and Cantonese restaurants and then, on the corner, the new MHAD building: the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Centre. It no doubt added a little something—not that the neighbourhood needed much. The original saviours of Spadina were still out there, showing their stuff: marching down the street with placards protesting shark fin soup—“Sharks are great! But not on your plate! Sharks are great! But not on your plate!”—past blankets on the sidewalk covered with DVDs, restaurant managers throwing fortune cookies, deals going down in the doorways.
On the median, conceptual art loomed: Corinthian columns rising from the concrete. Atop each column was a figure: a chicken made out of chicken wire, a steel horse, a plastic dog, and so on. Beneath the plastic dog stood a flesh-and-blood man—eyes focused on the sky, hands circling in the air, tugging—flying a kite that wasn’t there. A woman weaved out of the Palm Tree Tavern into the line of shark supporters. There was yelling and laughing. A cop car pulled onto the sidewalk. His siren gave a squawk—anyone’s guess as to who was in trouble.
Mason got another beer from the fridge. Through the back window he could see the green roof of the library. He poured himself a glass of Scotch. Sure, it was new-leaf-turning time and all that, but it was also his birthday. Just because Chaz wasn’t here didn’t mean he couldn’t celebrate. He’d never remembered Chaz’s birthday either. He walked from the back windows to the front ones. The Best of the Animals was over. He put on Billy Idol. The sun was going down. He lit a cigarette.
Soon everything glowed—the ember and the smoke, the violet exhaust rising from the street, twilight refracting off windowpanes. Through the music and the traffic he could hear his heartbeat. He picked up the cellphone and looked at it. He knew quite a few people in this city by now, but only one number.
It’s your birthday, bub. Go on—dial.
From the Hardcover edition.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall's first book was an account of the year he spent in deep cover, living with the homeless in Toronto's infamous Tent City. Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown was nominated for the 2005 Pearson Writers' Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, the Trillium Award and the City of Toronto Book Award. The following year, he was awarded the Knowlton Nash Journalism Fellowship at Massey College and also played the role of Jason - a bad-mannered, well-dressed journalist - on CBC-TV's The Newsroom. He currently teaches writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. Ghosted is his first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
"This master of immersion journalism . . . turns his attention to fiction with this novel about a young man who makes a living writing suicide notes. Yes please."
“Lean and mean and with a surprising amount of heart. Make no mistake, Ghosted is for real.”
— Ray Robertson, author of David
“Ghosted is not for the faint of heart—in places it’s an unflinching exploration of depravity. But it is, above all, an often funny, always optimistic parable of victory over demons of despair, the ghosts of our failed selves.”
— Linden MacIntyre, Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of The Bishop’s Man
“Bukowski craggy and Hornby sweet, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted is a smart book about smart guys who can’t stop from acting dumb. The real pleasure, though, is in the lines: funny sad, funny strange, and funny zing! A hell of a first novel.”
— Andrew Pyper, author of The Killing Circle
“A harrowing and spellbinding tour through the world of addiction that combines elements of Infinite Jest with Silence of the Lambs.”
— Don Gillmor, author of Kanata
“The unique voice heard throughout Ghosted is so heartbreakingly authentic. . . . A terrifying but moving and life-affirming paean to love, friendship, devotion, determination and all those other characteristics that make human beings such wonderfully fascinating creatures in real life and in richly imagined novels like Ghosted.”
— Ottawa Citizen
“A savage, heartfelt, exhilarating first novel . . . Ghosted is, in a nutshell, a book about a guy who becomes a ghostwriter of suicide notes. What makes this high-concept premise work is the book’s a) heart, and b) voice. Which may, in the final analysis, be one and the same thing.”
“Absolutely exhilarating. . . . Bishop-Stall is a major talent. . . . Bishop-Stall has an unarguably unique voice, urgent and impossible to ignore.”
— NOW (Toronto)
“Inventive first novel. . . . Ghosted crackles. . . . Impressive, ambitious and exhausting, Ghosted is a novel for those who don’t scare easily.”
— Kevin Chong, The Globe and Mail
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel