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GOTH GIRLS OF BANFF
Wanna add some edge to your mountain experience? To sharpen the dull blade of things, and let darkness descend, like beautiful sleep but with your eyes wide open? Call the Goth Girls of Banff. Available for photo shoots, social events, hikes, campfires, singly or in groups. Fully outfitted in deepest and darkest Gothwear, we can be more or less Vampiric, more or less Victorian, more or less Silent Film Man-Eaters and Vamps, and more or less Necromantic and Living Dead, according to special requests. If you're tired of silly Tilley hats and Gore-Tex, cotton and khaki and crave a touch of leather and lace, we're the gory Goth girls dressed up just for you. We're all about Goth aesthetics, no funny business, no sticky situations, no touchy-feely or long longing gazes, and absolutely no fiddly long-term relations. Interactions start at $100 per hour. Prices negotiable for entire afternoons. Can talk evenings for a fee. Request times, locations and nature of encounters. Terms and conditions apply and must be set prior to engagements. Goth Girls of Banff. We'll wrap dark wings around your wilderness day.
So this is a reckoning - yea, sort of a dead reckoning of how and why our Goth life ended. At least, how Linda's Goth career came to end. Linda, my alpha and omega, omega in the ascendant now, but not entirely. After all, she was the one got us started as Goths in the first place, and she was always the one, the first and foremost, you'll see. But I didn't think things were so, excuse me, grave. We had some good and bad times and Gothic experiences that were naughty and nice. That's life all over, isn't it? Light and dark, sweet and mean: a dog's soft belly or a dog's bum and breakfast. That's how it goes and that's what I think. But Linda always said, pushing her little sister down, "Jessie, leave the thinking to me. Your brain isn't equipped for figuring things out in these dark matters."
When we were on a job, she didn't want me thinking or speaking at all. She didn't want our clients to talk either, to get up close and personal. "It's about mystique," she'd say, spraying me with the word. "Make no mistake. The image is what drives the business, just as the ghost drives the machine." She'd make a spooky-film noise, stick her face close. I wasn't sure what she meant, but grinned anyway.
The last few months had been strange for sure. The first bad experience in those last days, the one that pushed Linda over the edge and round the big bend, as she said, took the shadowy shape of our 7th client that summer (scary number 7, like the 7th seal unsealed in our little lives), a WW II vet named Elmer Spragge. He was sweet as his goofy name, bristly and old as a BC Douglas fir but cute as a pencil. And he looked like a chewed up pencil, forehead scarred below his eraser-hair, with a red thumbprint on the nape of his neck. I guess he'd done the dye job himself. He had the darkest, bruised-blue eyes I'd ever seen, and they matched his Canadian Legion jacket, lapels clotheslined with medals. The weight of them pulled him forward, as if some deathless demon had taken his beef-jerky arm and was hurrying the old soldier along.
He'd seen our ad in the mountain paper The Bergschrund. Elmer was intrigued, hired us for an afternoon. When we met him, Linda whispered in my bejeweled ear: "He looks like he'll croak in the middle of the job." I wanted to say, "What a way to go," but didn't. We spent the first fifteen minutes outside the Royal Canadian Legion hall on Banff Avenue, examining Elmer's medals (the only medals I'd ever seen were fake ones, gold wrapped chocolate discs in Sugar Mountain). He had ten or so on his scooped-out chest, hanging from a rainbow ribbon. The one he was really proud of was pinned high, separate - a white metal badge, maple-leaf shaped, inset with tiny rhinestones and a number 2 in the middle. He'd served in the Queen's Own Rifles. I tried to get interested, but when I got close, almost nibbling his lapel, he smelled bad, with a ripe, cemetery stink. Where did he live, in a grave, tomb or crypt, place unsealed so he could seek us out, hoping we were from the same smoking hole? I admit I kind of liked the idea.
We always drew a crowd. We made quite a scene, an irresistible tableau, like a daguerreotype portrait. Or maybe more like a 3-D image from one of those old stereograph viewers: an ancient soldier, frail but spry, and me and Linda flanking him in all our Goth glory - me in a lace corset with a thin minstrel top over it, flared sleeves and black fingerless gloves, she in a medieval gown with a laced-up V-neck front, high slits up the sides, and crosshatched with lace. Linda also wore a crown of thorns made from leather. Both of us with dungeon eyes and bee-sting lips. Regular folk halted on the sidewalk right in the pedestrian traffic flow and gawked, charmed or appalled or both - we were avenging angels come to fly the geezer either up above the bright mountains, or down into one of Satan's sulphur pits.
As he led us inside the Legion hall, Colonel Moore Branch #26, Linda leaned into me, bit my tender ear with, "Don't get the old coot talking. Got a bad feeling about this one. He'll blab about how many men he killed in the war. Just some pics and we're gone. You sit close to him." Hadn't occurred to me that Elmer might have killed men. Now I wanted to hear, and pictured Elmer cracking an eggshell corset, post-battle, looking for comfort and love. Sex and death, what else is there, anyway?
Quarantine Day One
Elliot reported himself to the authorities later that morning in a series of phone calls that escalated through a chain of increasingly flustered functionaries. Eventually he was connected to someone at the Department of Health, to whom he managed to portray himself as something more than the average hypochondriac. The woman on the phone wasn’t up-to-date on the latest media coverage, and the restaurant name he kept repeating meant nothing to her, but she believed that he thought he had been exposed.
“Okay, Elliot,” she said, after he told her his name and address. He could hear her typing in the background. “What you’re going to do is stay at home.”
“Twenty-one days,” she said. “Now, do you share a toilet with anyone? Are you married?”
“I’m divorced.” Why did he still find it so hard just to answer no? “What’s this about toilets?”
“You need to flush two or three times to reduce the risk of contamination for anyone else.”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to see anyone.”
“You’re not. I’m just telling you.” The rhythmic clack of typing stopped for a moment. “Most importantly, take your temperature twice a day. If it spikes or if it reaches one hundred and four, call Emergency and explain that you’re on the quarantine list.”
“Okay,” he said, already beginning to feel warm.
“Someone will call you back tomorrow,” she said. “In the meantime, make a list of everyone you’ve seen, everywhere you’ve gone since the exposure.”
“I was supposed to go out tomorrow.” Elliot swallowed against a mounting tightness in his throat. “See my sister and nephew.” If he died, what would happen to Sarah and Noah?
“I know it’s hard, but try not to worry too much.” Her voice was saturated with resignation. She sounded like someone who was not used to delivering good news. “If you already have it, there’s nothing you can do.”
Elliot asked then about the logistics of eating. “Is it better to order in or go grocery shopping? Or am I not allowed?” What was the exact calculation of risk relative to the need to eat?
She quizzed him about the closest places to buy food and how crowded they tended to be. “Okay, try to make do for now. We’ll put you on the delivery list.”
A few hours later the doorbell rang while he was taking a nap. He jumped out of bed, heart racing, confused and hopeful until he saw the text message on his phone: Your supplies are at the door.
“Here,” said the health care worker. She was masked and gloved and held out two plastic bags at arm’s length.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked as he took them from her. He watched as she recoiled and took a step backwards before adding, “Just a joke.”
There was a muffled laugh. “Good one.” She was gone before Elliot could thank her. He noticed that she had pasted a quarantine notice on his door. He wondered how long it would be before his neighbours complained to the landlord.
He called into work after lunch, and his supervisor’s brisk attitude was a comfort. “I’ll talk to Bryce, but let’s keep it quiet as long as you stay healthy. I’d rather not spread it around, so to speak.”
“Just tell the guys I’ve got something sexier, like mono.”
“Sexy, ha.” The sergeant barked a laugh. “No wonder you’re still single, Howe.”
“Hey, it’s the kissing disease, isn’t it?”
Elliot felt the strong urge to go for a drive, to speed as far away as possible from his present circumstances, but instead he spent the rest of the afternoon watching basketball, football, and even a world bowling championship while eating his way through two days’ worth of food, his tears flowing as freely as water from an open tap. When he stopped bothering to wipe his eyes, his cheeks dried with a salty film that made them feel papery and exposed.
He heated up a can of baked beans and called Sarah to cancel, bracing himself for her disappointment.
“We were really looking forward to seeing you. Noah especially. You’re always the main attraction around here.” There was a small, plaintive note in her voice that he always found moving. Growing up, his kid sister had been a whirlwind of a girl who shouted down bullies, raced Lasers at sailing camp, and liked to face any fear by tackling it head-on. But ever since Sarah had shown up on his and Dory’s doorstep, wan and fragile and fresh off a plane from Bolivia, she hadn’t coped well with last-minute changes or any implication that Elliot would fail to keep his promises. Eight years after her return, she remained solitary and tentative, leading a life confined by routine and running even minor decisions past him, like which movie to watch or whether she should get a haircut. A watercolour version of who she used to be. Things had been better, though, since she had Noah.
“Sorry,” Elliot said, “I’m sick.”
“You’re never sick,” she said, worried now. “Do you need anything?”
“No, it’s not that bad.” He couldn’t seem to form the words to tell her the truth. “Just a sore throat, but I figured better safe than sorry, these days.” His voice started to catch, but he turned it into a cough. “Have you heard about this virus?”
“It’s practically all I can think about,” said Sarah. In the background, Elliot could hear Noah tunelessly singing a song about brushing his teeth. “It reminds me of the stuff we used to talk about at Living Tree. You now, plagues, wars. End times.” Living Tree was what she had left behind in Bolivia, a communal farm run by a quasi-religious group of the same name. Though Living Tree purported to believe in harmony and radical equality, the reality turned out to be closer to an ascetic sort of doomsday cult, run by leaders who didn’t seem to have a problem with personal enrichment. Sarah had mostly looked after the children until she became disillusioned enough to return home. “Actually, I started a new rug last night.”
Making rag rugs was her particular outlet for anxiety. They used to make them on the farm—apparently to sell to tourists, though Elliot suspected it was really to keep the unhappy young people distracted with some kind of busywork.
“Perfect. I have a tiny strip of bare floor between the red one and the blue one.”
Sarah gave a little chuckle: a mere acknowledgement that laughter was called for. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I hope so,” he said. To let Sarah know about his exposure would be to commit it to the record, to confess his own mortality in a way he feared would destabilize them both. “Can I talk to Noah?”
“Yeah, here he is. Can you keep him going for a while? I need to drain this pasta.”
Elliot said hi to Noah and listened to his nephew’s meandering monologue about the things that mattered to him—the funny joke that a boy named Deshawn had told at daycare and an account of the goings-on of some cartoon fox on television. And even as he struggled to follow along, it occurred to Elliot that if he had to leave the world, there was nothing he would miss more than this: Noah’s lisped conversation, with Sarah’s loving annotations piping up in the background.
1. Dream Girl
Alligator Alley slices through the prehistoric Everglades, a straight cut from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic. I have my thumb out in the torrid heat. Destination: Fort Lauderdale.
A battered pickup truck pulls over, with rusted, mud-caked shovels in the back. I climb into the filthy cab. The driver is wearing a dirty T-shirt and faded jeans. He’s balding, with stringy black hair slick along the sides of his head. Crooked, yellow teeth, tobacco-stained fingers, nails chewed to the quick. He reeks of stale sweat and cigarettes. He looks at me with dull eyes. I ask him how far he’s going. He mutters “Fort Lauderdale.” It’s going to be a long drive.
Hot air blasts through the windows. The baked dashboard is cracked, the windshield peppered with rock chips. The guy doesn’t talk, he broods. The asphalt surface quivers in the visible heat.
A half-hour later, there’s a major furor on the road. What the hell’s going on? Brooder slows down. Crimson-headed vultures are furiously devouring a crushed alligator that has met a semi-truck.
“Look at that!” Weirdly excited, Brooder brakes and pulls up beside the frenzied feast. Cutting the engine, he leans out his window. The vultures jerk their heads up from the festering corpse. A dozen cold, beady eyes stare at him, then plunge back into the carcass. It’s dead quiet except for the sound of their beaks frantically tearing flesh, yanking out white strands of sinew. Horrible snapping sounds. Bits of blood and flesh spattered on their faces. Jesus, the stench.
“That’s a nine-foot ‘gator, probably four hundred pounds.” He’s murmuring to himself.
The guy watches too long.
The hot air is filled with the putrid odour of death. I start gagging. Brooder stares at me while slowly reaching for the ignition, a strange look in his eyes.
Who, or what is this guy?
We drive on in an eerie silence through seemingly endless swampland. Finally, a hint of civilization appears: a faded “Alligator Wrestling” sign, a rundown trailer park, an unpainted shack — “Curly’s Beer and Liquor.” A sideways Coca Cola sign hangs by a rusted chain. I begin to relax. Soon a suburb, then another, stretching out forever on this flattest of land. Buildings appear in the distance, their office lights twinkling in the dark blue of dusk.
He drops me at a gas station. With a strange, sardonic look in his eyes, he reaches out to shake my hand.
I get the key to the washroom and scrub my hands, thinking I’ll take the Greyhound back.
I show the gas attendant the address. “Not too far,” he says. “Straight down about four miles, then in three blocks.”
I hesitate to stick out my thumb, but this time my ride is a pleasant-faced woman with bleach-blond hair looking just so. The scent of hairspray. Her companion in the back seat is a nervous Chihuahua. “It’s okay, Princess, it’s okay,” she tells the dog. Princess has the shakes.
The nice lady drops me off with a happy wave.
I walk the last three blocks to a tidy white house with green shutters and black street numbers. I have arrived at the house of Mary. Trembling with anticipation, I ring the doorbell.
* * *
Mary Werbelow. Dream girl.
I watch her from a distance. Her luminous beauty, the sparkling, intelligent eyes, porcelain skin, and sunny smile. She glows with optimism, self-confidence, independence. Her mesmerizing face, her Bardot pout, the liquid motion of her ballet body, her swanlike neck. She is radiant. I am captivated by her, but she’s older and doesn’t know I exist.
Or … Did she just smile at me as she walked past me in the hall? Was she acknowledging me? Not likely. She has the world cupped in her perfect palm. I’m imagining things.
A few days later I see her in the school parking lot, standing by her Volkswagen, talking to some girls and guys. She’s engaged, yet somewhat aloof. She’s … different. She looks around and notices me watching her.
A week later, I hear an unfamiliar voice behind me. “Hello.” And my world changes in ways impossible to imagine.
A brief exchange, then her smile: “See you later.”
The next chat, a little longer. Later, a real conversation followed by, “Would you like to go for coffee?”
Hell, yes I would.
She picks me up in her Volkswagen and an easy friendship begins. She treats me like a younger brother. She likes me, seems to trust me and see something different in me.
“But why did you leave home?” she wants to know. “What are you doing here?”
“I saved enough money to buy a ticket from Toronto to Clearwater to spend Christmas with some family friends. They have a daughter my age, and I met all her friends over the holidays.”
Mary pays attention with her bewitching eyes.
“One of her friends said I could live in their guest cottage and go to Clearwater High with them. So I did, and here I am.” (My mother wasn’t thrilled, but told me it was my decision. A divorced single mom with four kids, she couldn’t afford to come and get me. And I knew it.)
“Don’t you miss your family?” Mary looks puzzled.
“I do miss my family and friends,” I say. “I mean, I love them very much.” But I wasn’t happy at my high school in Toronto where there had been zero tolerance for kids who were the least bit defiant, I told her.
“And you were defiant?”
Mary laughs and claps her hands. “So, now you live in a screened-in porch?”
The guest cottage hadn’t worked out. Luckily, I’d gone with a girl to a babysitting job and hit it off with the couple. The next time I met them I told them about my situation and they offered to let me stay in their Florida room. In exchange, I did some babysitting and paid a bit of room and board. “They’re great,” I tell Mary.
She looks at me quizzically. “How old are you?”
I am smitten. She has no idea how dazzled I am by her.
She graduates and will attend St. Petersburg Junior College in the fall. At the end of school in June I tell the school secretary that I’ll be back in September to begin grade twelve.
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