Here is a story for the holidays, an old one adapted and updated – not that it needed to be, but because I have to amuse myself, don’t I? It’s a first draft, so forgive the flaws.
A KAROLE CHRISTMAS
By Paul William Roberts
Since 1962, Karole Toys had, in one way or another, celebrated A Karole Christmas, not just as a tribute to the season during which the company sold fifty percent of its toys and made fifty percent of its profits, but as a gesture of gratitude towards its loyal customers, people who, as marketing studies from the late seventies on began to show, returned as parents to buy the Karole toys they remembered fondly from childhood, and would return again when they were grandparents, eventually even when some were great-grandparents. The first celebration, organized by old man Karole, had been in the windows of Laban’s department store in downtown Montreal, not far from the company’s headquarters. It had been an extravaganza of fake snow, plastic icicles and glinting glitter, with mannequin parents seated around a fire of pulsing electric coals, while a mannequin Santa and doll elves beneath a giant Christmas tree doled out gifts to a pair of mannequin children, who had already opened several gaily-wrapped Karole toys. It was the perfect family enjoying their perfect Christmas in a perfectly lovely setting. The window display attracted much attention and even won an award (the Canadian Window Dressers Prize – a chrome-plated plastic mannequin). This prompted a repeat performance the following year, now involving animated mannequins and a train set whose puffing locomotive went round and around and around, through a mountainous landscape with silver lakes and bijoux little matchstick villages. Again the window dressers award was secured, but added to by the far more prestigious American Display Artiste of the Year prize (a medallion in silver), an accolade that not only boosted Karole’s US sales but also caught the eye of Gunter Shuldig, creator of Huskies, the beloved cartoon strip about a wild and wacky all-American family. Back then, of course, the cartoon was just starting out, not syndicated and only appearing in the Bangor Bugle, a Maine newspaper with a mysteriously large readership in Montreal. Shuldig, who then lived in lower Westmount, greatly admired the Laban windows, and he suggested to old man Karole that he, Shuldig, should design and construct the next Karole Christmas display using characters from his own Huskies strip. Old man Karole couldn’t see why not, so Shuldig went to work, moulding figures from fibre glass and balsa wood. The resulting window was spectacular, a living cartoon, this time garnering international media notice. Other department stores around North America and one in London all wanted similar displays for the next season. It is difficult to say if this was what helped both the Huskies and Karole Toys to become leading international brands, but it was certainly concomitant with it. From there, it was not such a great leap to the animated TV special, A Karole Christmas, which, owing to a typo in TV Guide, became known as A Christmas Karole, with music by Gil Davis, and the voices of Orlie Husting, Beng Doberman and Krik Leehodden (who, when they became the big stars we know now, would often joke about the three-dollar royalty cheque they still received from the network each year). The show proved so popular, and was so abidingly popular too, that it was broadcast again the following December, and has of course been a Christmas staple ever since. As agreed in the original contract – which the network’s legal team ought to have read more carefully – Karole Toys was allowed to purchase two minutes of advertising time during every broadcast of the show for one dollar – regardless of the fact that the special itself was a gigantic ad for the company. To be fair, no one could have predicted then that the show and the contractual subsection would run forever. All the same, and despite lawyerly attempts to remove the clause, Karole Toys took full advantage of this sneaky perquisite for the next fifty-odd Christmas Seasons — and counting. Until his death in 2010, Gunter Shuldig had been similarly unsuccessful with his legal attempt to have the show retitled something like A Huskies Christmas. Still based in Montreal, Karole Toys burgeoned, it bodied out, spawn everywhere, subdivisions all over North America, in Britain, across the European Union and even in Russia. It soon became the Karole Corporation International (dabbling in real estate and construction as well), but it remained privately owned, the majority shareholder and CEO always a member of the Karole family. For nearly a year now, this has been Karl Karole, 52-year-old grandson of Jeremiah Karole, the founder.
broadcast of A Christmas Karole always coincides with a steep uptick in profits, it has long been a tradition in Karole headquarters to hold the annual Christmas party on the same evening, with the show watched by drunken employees on a screen that got larger every year and is now a whole wall in the corporation’s conference hall on the 47th floor. Anyone who has worked at Karole for more than a few years knows the show’s dialogue by heart, and some people wll offer ribald variants on it in an allegedly hilarious fashion. One year someone in graphics produced a stop-motion fake ad showing the company’s famous Dirk and Debbie dolls copulating, cleverly managing to play this wheeze on the big screen during a commercial break. The lavish party is also when annual bonuses are handed out; and thanks to the profit-sharing scheme initiated by old man Karole’s son, Kleinholtz, these bonuses can be very large indeed. Door prizes at the party are similarly generous, with no one going home empty-handed, and not a few in possession of new Rolex watches or Tiffany diamond pins. The food is a sumptuous banquet catered by whoever the top people in town are this year; champagne literally flows from actual fountains; and the open bar is still serving cocktails at dawn, when a breakfast feast is wheeled in, its skirling fanfare played on bagpipes. There are thus many reasons to anticipate the Karole Christmas Party with a glee bordering on the febrile. But, alas, all this is about to change.
It is Christmas Eve, the day of this year’s party, the night of the beloved broadcast. Karl Karole, new CEO, majority shareholder, sits behind the mahogany acre of his desk staring fixedly at a two-inch-thick pile of paper that is the only thing resembling work on its expansive gleaming surface. There are picture windows on three sides of this vast office, with automatic electronic blinds inside the thermal panes activated by sunlight. Now they are all wide open, these blinds, as an indigo twilight descends on the world. To his right, far below, the slow broad St. Lawrence River begins to sparkle, as lights strung along the banks start to twinkle on. The year’s first snow is falling in fat white feathers, some of them sticking to the windows, where they slowly die, melting away into droplets that slide down out of sight to drip on dispirited pedestrians. Tomorrow I’ll be in Florida, Karl thinks, far from this boring building, out of this wretched climate and away from a stupid season infested by even stupider people. He picks up the pile of paper and fans its pages, throwing them down again, running his fingertips across the bold lettering on top: An Agreement Between the Karole Corporation International and Shanghai Galaxy of China Limited on the Sale of Karole Toys International. Pink Post-It notes protrude like tongues from the side facing him to mark those pages requiring his signature. He takes the fat black Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen from its bed on a gold tray, unscrews its cap, flips the contract open to its first pink fin and goes to scribble his signature on the line indicated by a pencilled X. Damn it all! The iridium-gold nib only makes ghostly indentations on the paper. Where the hell is ink when you need it? On an intercom he summons in Marie-Claire, an assistant, a new one hired the previous month, telling her to go buy ink.
‘For the printer?’ she says, glancing down nervously at the I-Phone in her hand.
Karl Karole’s lip curls. Furrows form below his greying hairline as his eyebrows strive to meet up with it. ‘I don’t have a printer, Mary,’ he says through gritted teeth white as pearls. ‘You think I sit in here printing out shit all day long, do you?’
‘No sir,’ says Marie-Claire, her knees trembling beneath the woollen kilt. ‘I mean, I don’t know, sir…’
‘No,’ says Karl, ‘you don’t, do you? Well, rest assured, I don’t do that. The ink, Mary, is for my fountain pen.’ He holds up the Montblanc and waves it like a wand. Marie-Claire knits her brows and squints, clearly trying to ascertain what exactly it is he holds. ‘What’s the matter, Mary?’ he says.
Her expression is pained. ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir,’ she says.
Karl rises, he traverses his enormous desk, he advances on the girl, pen in hand, snarl on face. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘be so kind as to tell me, Mary, which part of “Go buy ink for my pen” you don’t understand…’
‘I’ve never used that sort of pen, sir,’ she tells him, now enveloped in the stale, bitter odour emanating from Mr. Karole’s mouth. His flinty glare urges her to add, ‘So I’m not sure where you buy…’ But the new look on his ruddy face advises her to stop.
He pulls the gold watch on its chain from a pocket in his navy-blue cashmere pin-striped waistcoat, flipping open its cover to consult the face. Marie-Claire has never seen such a watch before. ‘It is nearly ten past four,’ Mary,’ he says, replacing the watch and looking up at her with a somewhat amazed expression. ‘Assuming they close at five, that gives you fifty minutes in which to buy a bottle of Montblanc ink and return here with it. Now,’ he goes on, waggling the pen between thumb and forefinger, ‘I am loathe to think there’s any part of that you’ve failed to grasp, but do say now if there is…’
Marie-Claire is uncertain of the response this requires, so she simply smiles sweetly and says, ‘I’m so looking forward to the party tonight, aren’t you, sir?’
‘Aren’t I what?’ he says, eyes narrowed.
‘Looking forward to the Christmas party…’
‘Mary,’ he snarls, ‘go and buy the goddam ink!’
She goes, and is obliged to consult some other assistants about the nature and purpose of her errand before she fully understands what it is she’s been told to do. She asks one woman, Bess, tentatively if Mr. Karole is always rather frightening to deal with. ‘No,’ says Bess, ‘he’s usually just very unpleasant…’ She provides a salutary example of this:
BESS: I’ve come about Selina’s sexual harassment complaint…
KK: Bah! She’s always complaining about something. What now?
BESS: It’s about her mail slot…
KK: God! She wants it gilded?
BESS: No sir. Riordan from Accounting made an inappropriate sexual innuendo regarding it – which made her ill and damaged the quality of her life…
KK: How the hell do you harass a mail slot?
BESS: It’s how you spell mail, sir…
KK: How the hell else can you spell it?
BESS: He said he’d like to put something else in her mail slot…
BESS: That’s harassment…
KK: Jesus Christ! What kind of drooling morons do I have out there? That’s not harassment – that’s just a puerile, sophomoric attempt at humour…
BESS: No sir. That’s sexual harassment…
KK: Have you ever been sexually harassed, Miss… whatever your name is?
BESS: No sir.
KK: Have you ever been kicked through a window on the 59th floor?
BESS: No sir.
KK: Then add 2 and 2 together – and get the hell out of my sight…
‘Oh,’ says Marie-Claire. ‘I see…’
Karl Karole has just resumed his throne-like chair behind the desk when the intercom tells him that Melvin Chior urgently wants to see him. Mel is one of the corporation’s six VPs, so Karl tells the machine to send him in. ‘Yes?’ he says, without looking up, when he’s heard his door open and close.
‘It’s about the party, sir,’ says Mel, whose grey pants are slightly too short and flap above his loafers.
‘What about it?’ Karl says snappily, still apparently studying the document in front of him.
‘Well, sir,’ ventures Mel, straightening his red Dacron tie unnecessarily, ‘I’m in charge of organizing it this year…’
‘So what?’ says Karl, still looking down. ‘Who cares who’s organizing it?’
Melvin Chior grows edgy, stammering a little. ‘It’s j-just that some p-problems have arisen…’
‘Then deal with them, Chior,’ snaps Karl, eyes down. ‘Don’t bother me with them. That’s what you’re paid for, isn’t it, dealing with things?’
‘It’s in fact pay that’s the problem, sir…’
‘Really?’ Now he looks up, something hard behind his black eyes. ‘If you’re seeking a raise, the answer’s no…’
‘Oh no, it’s not that, sir,’ Mel says hastily. ‘It’s the b-bonus cheques…’
‘What about them?’
‘I went to c-collect them f-from Accounting,’ Mel explains, ‘so I could g-give them out tonight…’
‘Yes?’ Impatience creaks in his voice.
‘So Mr. Garley s-said I should see y-you about the b-bonuses…’
‘Stop that goddam stammering!’ Karl slams a palm on the tooled leather desktop. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you’re seeing me. And?’ This last word booms out and bounces off the window panes.
‘Ab-bout the bonuses…sir?’
‘Bonuses?’ Karl repeats, as if unfamiliar with the term. ‘There are none this year, Chior. Anything else? I don’t have time to sit here yacking with you all day. And Karole employees do not wear loafers! The corporate code clearly states black lace-up wingtips…’
‘Sorry, sir.’ He bends his knees, trying in vain to hide the shoes beneath his pant legs. B-but,’ says Mel, unsure now what he ought to say, ‘we always get bonuses at the party, sir. People r-rely on them. And there’s… there’s the profit-sharing too, sir… the profit-sharing your father started…’
Karl Karole is now staring at him with an expression of blank astonishment. ‘I am in charge now, in case this has escaped your attention over the past year, Chior. Those days are over,’ he says, the words a whispered hiss. ‘Whatever my father did is over, just as he’s over. Kaput! Understand? If there’s nothing else, Chior, I’m busy.’ He returns his gaze to the desk.
‘God,’ says Mel, shocked.
‘Don’t bring him into it! And buy yourself some pants that fit…’
Mel blurts it out: ‘It’s just that I texted the caterer to confirm what time they’re arriving…’
‘Yes?’ Karl looks up again, outrage now printed on his face.
‘Well, sir,’ says Mel, ‘they t-told me the event had been cancelled three months ago…’
Lips in a taut and unamused smile. ‘Yes,’ Karl says, ‘I cancelled it – too expensive! Much too. Is that all?’
Mel is stunned, too stunned to remember propriety. ‘There’s g-going to be no food or refreshments at the p-party?’ he says, the rest of what he has to say, if anything, flapping around his mouth much as his pants do around his ankles.
Karl sneers. ‘Did I say that?’ he demands. ‘Mrs. Corbiere is arranging all the food and drink…’
‘Mrs. Corbiere?’ Mel repeats, flabbergasted (she’s the old woman who operates a sandwich-and-coffee trolley in the corporate tower, a service largely patronized by people who feel sorry for her – or anyone who actually likes spam and a soft tomato slice between two slabs of old Wonderbread, all washed down with stewed earwax).
‘Stop repeating what I say, Chior,’ growls Karl. ‘Yes, Mrs. Corbiere is doing it, and for a reasonable fee too. And if there’s nothing else, please get out…’
With the lips of a thoughtful trout, Mel backs out of the gleaming room, unable to say another word.
Karl Karole drums his fingers on the leather. From across the luxurious room a portrait of his father, Kleinholtz Karole, stares back at him indifferently, clad, as he always was, in a denim work-shirt, sleeves rolled above the elbow, open neck. Karl rummages in a desk drawer, taking out a small plastic box. Inside are three darts with feathered flights. In an ungainly fashion, he hurls them – one, two, three – at the portrait, missing every time, the missiles either sticking in panelling or falling with a dull thud on broadloom. He drums his fingers again. Snowflakes spin down. The city’s costume jewelry sparkles out there all around him. He swivels in his throne to prod the keyboard of a laptop. His corporate e-mail emerges, with several new messages. ‘Greedy bastards,’ he mutters, opening one after another, to find communications all similar in nature:
We have noted with regret that your company’s usual seasonal donation to our food drive/charitable organization/crusade/free clinic/research etc has not yet been received this year. We feel certain this is an oversight, and therefore beg to remind you that the need is especially pressing now, in the hope that you will correct the omission…
He hits Delete each time, but before he has finished another one pings its way in:
The Convicted Felons Aid Society would like to remind you…
Christ, he thinks, Dad just threw our money away, didn’t he? Convicted Felons Aid! What, it’s not enough I pay for their prisons, I’ve got to fork out for them while they resume thieving and peddling drugs as well? Not likely, buddy-boy! He deletes that one too, closing down the account and opening his private one. There is a single new message:
Like I tell you every year, you’re welcome to come for Xmas dinner at our apartment. It’s nothing fancy, but you can be sure the kids will be pleased to see you, even if no one else is. Love, Gertie.
He deletes this with savage deliberation. That Gertrude, he thinks, what a little bitch! Now another message chimes in, this one from “Sammie”. He knows no Sammie. He opens it:
I thought this would amuse you…
There’s a link. Forgetting the conventional wisdom about not clicking on strange links, he clicks on it:
A video opens up, the stream taking its time to load. Then some old footage plays, and to his amazement he sees himself, aged nineteen or twenty, dancing at a party of some sort. There are different angles, and he soon realizes the footage is from an event held when he was a sophomore at the University of Toronto, an event he’d organized himself in 1980-something – ’86 or ‘87 maybe – to raise money for a charity fighting AIDS in Africa, or somewhere like Africa, he can’t remember now. How slender he was then, the long dark hair in waves, the narrow hips bouncing to a reggae beat. Cut to a shot of him on the podium. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he says, ‘thank you all for turning out on this freezing night. It tells me you realize the urgency and importance of this cause…’ He goes on quite eloquently to describe the scope and disastrous nature of a growing problem. Ah, he remembers the event quite well now. He was dating… what was her name? Gloria – that was it. Gloria Shelby. God, she was gorgeous, a few years older than him, a sociology major. Her parents were professors, nice people too. He ate at their house a few times every week. Always a great atmosphere, interesting conversation and stimulating guests. Yes, and Abe Shelby knew his father, didn’t he? They were both on the board of a charity for the homeless, a charity to which Karole Toys donated large amounts of money. It had been Abe who drew his attention to the AIDS crisis then sweeping some Third World countries and about to sweep many more. It was at one of those dinners that the idea for a fund-raiser was first launched. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were playing in the background. The snow was falling like stars beyond French windows leading out to the glittering white garden. The room glowed, its reflection splintered in the stem of his wine glass. What a great idea, Gloria was saying. They’d kissed that night on the porch – was it for the first time? – a snowflake landing on her nose like a blessing. God, how they’d laughed… Now the shot changes to a sequence of him going from table to table soliciting donations. What a garrulous, cheerful fellow he was! Get those cheque-books out. Come on, Clive, you can afford more than that! Sophia, your Dad just boosted your trust-fund and this is all you give? And there was Gloria, so beautiful, so alluring in that little dress. What had happened to her? He can’t even remember. Who had shot video footage that night? This too eludes him. But now another thought strikes: who the hell is sending me this? He hits Reply and types in Who are you??? Send. But a message soon pings back: the address cannot be reached. Check to make sure it’s right. ‘Damn,’ he says. The video stream has ended; the screen is blank again; he’s left with nothing but questions. Why would an anonymous someone do this? And then: will there be more? And then: is this a blackmail thing? What other footage exists? You can hardly be blackmailed for being young, can you? What else could there be? Besides being drunk on a few occasions, he’d never really done anything blackmailable, had he? Well, there was that time when… Did I ever know a Sammie? He can’t recall one. He stares at the block of old e-mails. Nothing from Trevor, he thinks. Nothing from my son – wherever he is. He wonders about Trevor at times, but he doesn’t really care about him.
It is 4.50 and Marie-Claire has not yet returned with the ink. He complains about this to another VP, the ferrety Barry Thazar, an American with no work permit (easy to pay less), to whom he’s tempted to reveal the company’s very imminent sale to a Chinese conglomerate, which will probably fire everyone and move the HQ to Shanghai – he’s tempted, but temptation is something he’s forced himself always to resist. Nearly always. Pity, he thinks, because Thazar’s good at his job.
‘There is a story about Martin Luther,’ says Barry (or “Bal” as he’s known), through a pair of almost horizontal incisors. ‘He saw the Devil creeping around his study one day, and he threw an inkpot at him – drove the Devil out…’
‘Your point being?’ barks Karl Karole, eyeing with distaste the houndstooth checks of Thazar’s crumpled suit – and, again, the inch of garish nylon sock visible between his shoes and his pants. God!
‘You mentioned ink,’ says the VP, ‘so I thought…’
‘Well don’t,’ Karl tells him. ‘You’re not paid to think. That’s my job…’
‘No sir. I mean, yes sir…’ Bal doesn’t know what he means. He looks rather unhealthy too.
‘That idiot girl has a phone on her,’ Karl says. ‘Phone her and find out what the hell she’s up to…’
‘What’s her number, sir?’ He coughs.
‘Christ, I don’t know,’ Karl snaps. ‘You think I know the telephone number of nine hundred employees? Ask someone, Thazar. Use some gumption. And don’t cough your germs in here…’
Bal wonders if “gumption” involves thinking, but he says, ‘Sorry. Of course, sir…’
‘Was that all you wanted, Thazar?’ Karl says, wanting to see the VP’s face when he finds out he’s fired. God, he thinks, these people act as if their jobs are some kind of human right. Welcome to my world, Bozo!
‘No sir,’ says Bal. ‘I came to tell you that the sound system and dee-Jay for tonight’s party hasn’t shown up yet… and he doesn’t answer his phone. They’re always here by now, sir, because the setting up takes a few hours…’
Karl picks a thread from his lapel, near the pink carnation he always wears in the buttonhole. ‘This year we’re not having any overpriced clown getting paid a fortune doing what anyone with a phone can do,’ he says, almost casually. ‘That boy in Maintenance, the one with acne like a pizza – what’s his name? – well, he’s doing the music…’
‘Slobodan?’ Bal suggests. ‘Slobodan Draculic?’
‘Yes, that’s the one,’ says Karl, shaking his head so violently his jowls blabber. ‘Christ, what a name! Who would name a kid that?’
‘Serbs, sir,’ says Bal knowledgeably. ‘It’s a common Serbian name. I had a friend once who…’
But Karl interrupts this thought. ‘Shut up, Thazar,’ he says. ‘Your maundering ruminations irritate me. Is there anything else?’
‘Well,’ Bal replies, ‘Slobbo should be setting up too. Where is he?’
‘Setting up?’ Karl roars. ‘All he has to do is shove his phone into Debbie’s Bose speaker thing – how much set-up is that?’
‘Oh,’ Bal says, his face looking as if someone’s crumpled it into a ball and kicked it, ‘the music’s going to be on Slobbo’s phone?’
‘Is there a problem with that?’ Karl demands, glaring. ‘I assume it’s not going to be clog-dancing, polkas or whatever the hell they listen to over there…’
‘No, sir,’ says Bal. ‘Down in the boiler room they listen to hip-hop all day…’
‘Good. ‘Long as its hip. Anything else?’
‘What time do you want to deliver your speech, sir?’
‘My what?’ His eyes narrow.
‘The CEO’s annual speech, sir… the speech about how the company did this year…’
‘Ah,’ says Karl Karole, ‘that’s all finished. No speech. In fact I won’t be at the party – I leave town tomorrow…’
‘Won’t be…’ says Bal, hardly believing his ears. ‘But we all look forward to it, sir. We meed it. People need to be inspired for the coming year by knowing what goals to exceed…’
‘You must come, sir, and say a few words – you must. It’s a tradition…’
‘Not my tradition,’ Karl says. But then he feels he’s being a little harsh, particularly considering the nasty shock they’ll all get on January 2nd. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘maybe I’ll drop in on my way home. Now find out what that goddam girl’s done with my ink!’
When the VP has left, Karl looks over at his private e-mail again. No new messages. At 5.10 he buzzes his private secretary, Parvati, telling her he needs an hour’s worth of dictation typed out.
‘But I was just going home to change for the party, sir,’ she says.
‘Then you’d better come in early tomorrow,’ he tells her briskly, ‘because I need it in my hands before 10.30…’
‘But it’s Christmas Day tomorrow, sir,’ says Parvati.
‘So?’ he rasps. ‘What does that have to do with you?’
‘My husband’s Christian,’ she says.
‘Then let him go to church,’ he tells her. ‘I need that typed out. Parvati, no matter what it takes. And I need it before ten-thirty a.m. tomorrow. Do it after the party… or during it – I don’t care, but do it…’
‘But sir,’ she wails, knowing better than to protest further.
He pours himself a finger of Lagavulin from the cut-glass decanter and sips it while looking out over the darkened cityscape. Tomorrow I’ll be looking out over the sparkling turquoise Caribbean, he thinks, gulf or whatever that water is, reminding himself to call the housekeeper in Florida and check that his cook will be there to make dinner tomorrow, and that his “man” will be at the airfield to meet him with the Bentley. His pilot has already been informed of the trip, and, after pointing out he required triple-time to work on Christmas Day, he agreed to have the jet ready on Tremblant’s runway for an eleven a.am. departure. He’ll be spending the night at his lakeside log palace up in the Laurentian mountains, so it’s more convenient to fly from the little airfield there. Karl next phones Florida, grunting out his orders. By now it’s nearly 5.30, and still no damn ink. He leafs through the gigantic contract, pausing to take in the page ending with numbers:
US $ 14,000,864,736.00.
He breathes deeply and whistles through his teeth. Now that, he tells himself, is a lot of money. Then he thinks of the 24% he’ll have to give the other shareholders (Aunt Luella, Uncle Sheridan, and his nephew, Hartley). And then he thinks about the taxman. Those bastards aren’t going to see much of this, are they? No, he thinks, thanks to Glabe, Havelock & Delbe Associates (Panama) the taxman won’t be seeing much of this at all, for it will be secreted in anonymous accounts scattered around the globe on quiet little island states, discreet cantons and understanding principalities. No, ten billion dollars is far too much loot to dangle in the taxman’s face, isn’t it? And where the hell is my ink? The numbers look up at him reproachfully, craving his signature to make them real, to endow them with life, so they can scamper off the page and cavort about across all the world, spidery little cyphers with curved black limbs and money to burn.
At 5.48 Dr. Samuel Gates shows up with his black bag and even blacker stare. Gates is Karl Karole’s personal physician, come to perform the weekly check-up Karl insists upon to combat his chronic hypochondria. With a blistering scream of Velcro and a huff-puffing of the black bladder, Gates does the blood pressure first, squeezing creaking fabric around his elbow in a vice-like grip, a murderer’s hold. He tuts. ‘High,’ he says bleakly. He pulls down Karl’s eyelids with a spatulate forefinger. ‘You’re not getting enough sleep, Karl,’ he says.
‘I can’t,’ Karl tells his doctor. ‘My mind won’t stop…’
‘Don’t take your phone and laptop into the bedroom,’ says Gates. ‘They disturb sleep. Even if they’re off just having them there is disruptive – you anticipate messages, you apprehend the great world out there trying to contact you…’
‘But,’ Karl complains, ‘if I don’t do some work in bed I’d never get to sleep…’
‘Try a book,’ Gates tells him, now peering into his ears with an otoscope. ‘Wax build-up,’ he says. ‘Stop using Q-Tips – they ram the wax down harder – and put in a few drops of warm olive oil at night. Now let’s have a look at that tongue…’
When he’s finished his routine, Karl asks him to look at some symptoms he’s noticed over the course of this week: ‘A lump of some kind on my neck here… A pain in the right knee if I climb stairs… and it can spread to the hip… What’s this thing on my wrist? I get a sort of burning twitch here…’ And so on, right through the whole gamut of imaginary ailments trying unsuccessfully to kill you every day of your potentially brief life.
At the end, Dr. Gates reaches into his bag and extracts a brown plastic container full of green oval pills. He hands it to Karl. ‘I want you to try this,’ he says. ‘It’s new, but the New England Journal of Medicine published an encouraging study on it from Johns Hopkins…’
‘What is it?’ says Karl, eyeing the pills dubiously.
‘Galutzane,’ says Gates. ‘That’s the brand name – obviously there’s no generic yet…’
‘Obviously,’ Karl agrees. ‘What’s it for?’
‘Stress mainly,’ Gates tells him. ‘It’s ostensibly a neuro-inhibitor…’
‘Ostensibly? What else is it?’ Karl is very suspicious of pills he isn’t familiar with.
‘It acts as a stimulant for dopamine and serotonin receptors,’ Gates says, wrinkling his sizeable nose as he nods confirmation. ‘In a nutshell: you feel good and you’re relaxed, getting deep REM sleeps. Try it,’ he urges. ‘If you don’t like it or it don’t work, toss it away, flush it down…’
‘How much is it?’
‘Six hundred and change…’
‘Then I’ll give it back to you if I don’t like it…’
When the physician has left Karl Karole is on the Internet looking up Galutzane. Hmm. Chemical name: disodium metamorphine diethyl-amide sulphate. Possible side effects: dry mouth, hallucinations (visual and audible), tremors, headache, weight gain, blah-blah, the usual ass-saving catalogue of everything human flesh is heir to and around which law suits can revolve, culminating in psychosis and death (which is at least hard to sue over). Then there is neuroleptic malignant syndrome and tardive dyskinesia. He doesn’t like the sound of these. Not to be taken with alcohol or psychoactive substances – because, he thinks, with them it will work far better. That’s always a good sign in a drug, the booze warning. The two serious-sounding side effects turn out to be so rare you’re more likely to win the lottery twice a day for a month than contract them. Take one a day after meals. He dunks three into the hoop of his mouth, and then pours himself another Lagavulin. The peaty aroma and smoky flavour stream through his veins, along with the whiskey’s highland fire, its fife and drum distillate, making his body feel like a strong apparatus, a retort or boiler, refining and pumping out bioelectric life to invigorate and sustain his many distant subdivisions, conglomerating in the heart of his glowing brain. Ah, he sighs inwardly, the emperor of single malts (it’s a gift, a case of it from affiliates in England – he wouldn’t buy anything for ninety bucks a bottle). He hears the numbers in his contract scuttling around, crying out in spikey little voices for their own form of Lagavulin: his life-giving moniker, scrawled in black Montblanc ink. Christ! He hadn’t told Marie-Claire to buy the black ink, had he? She was bound to buy the blue – it’s the default ink, blue. But he doesn’t care for blue, or the brown one that looks as if you’ve swabbed up diarrhea with the page. The green is for fags, he thinks; and the red is for schoolteachers – although none of them these days even know how to write without a keyboard, and kids don’t have homework anymore because it’s too stressful. Christ, what a world! He consults his watch. Damn! It’s past 6.30. Where’s my goddamn ink? Ping! An e-mail. It’s from Sammie again:
Did you like the video? You sure were different back then, weren’t you? WTF happened to you? Check this one out…
Another link. Click. It’s footage of a plane crash, a private jet has gone down in Georgia, and there’s a news anchor narration: ‘Owned by billionaire real estate, construction and toy magnate, Karl Karole, the plane was heading for Palm Beach, Florida, when it encountered rough weather south of Atlanta. The last transmission from the jet’s cockpit told ATC Atlanta that they’d been hit by lightning. It is believed the only people on board were Mr. Karole and the pilot…’ Shit, he thinks, this isn’t very funny. The scene shifts from smouldering wreckage and rescue teams in dayglow orange vests to a head-and-shoulders shot of Sheridan Karole, with a super reading: Sheridan Karole, uncle of Karl and major shareholder in the Karole Corp. ‘What will Karl Karole’s death mean for the future of your corporation?’ Sheridan smiles wanly and says, ‘Mean? I imagine everyone’ll be happy. Karl wasn’t liked. He wasn’t a nice man, he wasn’t likeable. I never saw him – had no desire to see him. But we heard he was about to sell the company to some Chinese group – sell the family business that my brother and our father built up from scratch! It’s outrageous! At least that probably won’t happen now, and all those people won’t lose their jobs to outsourced peasants earning six bucks a week. We have over nine hundred people working here in Montreal, you know? Nine hundred! Karl may even have done the deal with China. No one knows. His only interest was money – and a lot of good all that money’s doing him now!’ Sheridan is asked who will inherit the business, and he says, ‘It’s anybody’s guess what his will says. I own just over ten percent of the shares. My son has four percent, and my sister, Luella, has the other ten percent. Karl owned 76 percent, y’see? We don’t know if we still own actual shares or just a share of the sale price…’ He’s asked who Karl would leave his share to. ‘That skinflint wouldn’t leave it to no one,’ Sheridan says, screwing up his face as if detecting a foul odour. ‘He’d want to take it with him.’ He laughs humourlessly. ‘Short of that, he’d probably build a memorial to himself – a university or small city – and have his body cryogenically frozen, so he could be thawed out when they’ve found a cure for death…’ The interviewer points out that there’s probably not much left to freeze now. ‘Ha,’ says Sheridan. ‘Knowing Karl, they’d be able to cultivate him in a Petri dish from DNA samples. The man was like a virus, a distemper…’ The interviewer hazards a guess that Sheridan didn’t like his nephew. ‘You think?’ he says. ‘I liked him when he was a lad; but something changed him. He used to be great company; but for the last twenty-odd years I’d rather sit in a vat full of vipers than be anywhere near him…’ With this the stream stops and the screen is blank again.
Well, Karl Karole tells himself, we know who to call about this, don’t we? He finds Sheridan’s number on his I-Phone and pokes at it. You have reached the residence of Sheridan and Bunny Karole. We can’t take your call right now… Etc. He leaves a message, a rather unseasonal, a most unfestive message: ‘You’ve got an awful lot of explaining to do, Sher. I’ve seen the video – and my lawyers have seen it too. We’ll all see you in court, pal, where you’ll be lucky to leave with a dime in your pocket. You made a very big mistake – very big. And very big mistakes come with a very big price tag. Do have a very merry Christmas, you and that dumpling of a wife and retard of a son…’ He prods the call dead (such a pity you can’t slam down mobile devices – that used to be so satisfying). It’s nearly seven now. He stamps over to his door. The antechamber to his office, with its desks and phones and twitching monitors, is achingly empty. He shouts for assistance, his voice thundering around the panelling and off down a mile of air or heating ducts, to echo resonantly inside the iron heart of furnaces and between the quivering aluminum gills of colossal A/C units deep down in the concrete core. ‘Bah!’ he says aloud. ‘Where’s my goddam ink? God, I hate this time of year…’ For a moment, he thinks he can hear the strains of some Christmas carol or other; but then it’s gone. God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay… What are they, so drunk they’ve forgotten the day? How idiotic, he thinks, how barmy do you have to be for that fantastically stupid little story about a baby, a manger and some oriental wizards to be dredged up every December as if it’s true? And then there’s the even more ridiculous idea of a fat man in a red suit riding about on a sleigh pulled by floating reindeer to clamber down chimneys, even where there are no chimneys to clamber down, and deliver gifts to every child on earth. Hard to say, he tells himself, retreating into his lambent office and slamming the door, hard to decide which story is more moronic: Jesus or Santa Claus. At least Santa Claus makes this business thrive. It’s also an anagram of Satan, isn’t it? What the hell does Jesus do? He bangs on about helping the poor, then says the poor will always be with us, and gets iced by the Romans for… for what exactly? It isn’t ever clear what the fight’s about, is it? Picturing Jesus in his loincloth nailed to the panelling, feet overlapped to save on nails, he calls up, ‘Get down off your cross, pal, we can use the wood…’ He giggles girlishly, opening the large box of Cohiba Esplendidos that had arrived in November as a gift from the government of Cuba, a gift for Kleinholtz Karole in recognition of… of what? Of yet more money he’d thrown away on some grubby wretches so they wouldn’t have to help themselves that year. God forbid the poor should ever have to learn to shift for themselves! No, don’t lift a finger, Akimbo – we’ll do it for you. Bah! He bites off half a centimetre of moist tobacco and lights the cigar, puffing avidly, then holding it out to scrutinize the fuming ordure. What are these? he thinks. Thirty-five bucks each? You’ve got to be printing your own moolah to be spending eight hundred smackers on a box of dead leaves. He puffs. Nice taste and smell though. Using a remote, he prods the TV on, a flatscreen angled above crackling into life. Channel, channel, channel. All news still, unless you want an imbecile’s circus of inanity, game shows, cooking for idlers or real estate for the impecunious. He decides on a Canadian news channel in English, settling back on a Georgian daybed, feet up, cigar releasing ghostly blue serpents to writhe around the air, another crystal tumbler of Lagavulin in his paw.
‘We doesn’t have no drinkin’ water here,’ some weather-beaten old Indian squaw is saying, kids screaming around her, looking as if they’ve been basted in mud and then cooked. ‘That’s why she left, Doris,’ the woman says. ‘An’ it were the last time I saw her, it were. She were such a lovely girl, always cheerful, always helpin’ others…’ She begins to weep.
Christ almighty, he thinks. Obviously she’s upset that her daughter’s dead, murdered and dumped in a swamp. Do we have to see and hear it every time? He jabs himself another news channel.
On this one a
man identified as the band chief of some tribe or other is waving his arm at a distant lake and river. ‘This is all our traditional land,’ he says, ‘but now they want to run their pipeline through it, harming our water and desecrating a sacred burial site. We are the custodians here. It’s not right. It’s not fair…’
‘Okay, Hiawatha,’ Karl shouts at the TV. ‘Let’s get it straight, eh? You aren’t really in Canada, are you? You don’t want to be. You don’t pay any taxes. Yet you still want your hand-out from Canada every month, though, don’t you? And now you think you have the right to block our progress because of your superstitious baloney? Wake up, buddy! God, these people!’ He finds another channel.
A youngish man, and not a very attractive youngish man either, is dressed as a woman, with a cheap bubbling blonde wig, tawdry earrings and crude make-up plastered over a heavy beard shadow. ‘…and when I showed up for work,’ he is saying, in what he imagines very erroneously to be a feminine voice, ‘they told me I’d have to use the men’s washroom. Can you believe it?’
‘Yes I can,’ yells Karl, puffing and sipping.
‘You don’t think the men would be alarmed to see me dressed like this at a sink?’ the man asks rhetorically.
‘I’ll give you that, sweetie,’ Karl hollers. He suddenly feels quite effervescent with joy. ‘But the women aren’t going to be too happy either, are they? What do you want, Bub?’ he demands. ‘A third washroom for freaks?’
‘Just because I don’t choose to take the final step – snip-snip,’ the man says, snipping at the air with scissor-fingers, ‘it don’t mean I ain’t still a woman…’
‘I beg to differ on that,’ adds Karl, giggling.
‘It’s outrageous that such prejudice exists in the 21st century,’ insists the man. ‘So of course I’m taking it to court…’
‘Yeah, of course you are,’ Karl says. ‘You haven’t had rights for all of history, and just because we’ve misguidedly given them to you now you think we’re going regard what’s always been unnatural as natural? Think again, sister! Those rights are going to vanish in the wind sooner or later. God…’ He turns to some kind of show.
A pretty young woman in denim is describing a date she had recently. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘he told me there was something he needed to get off his chest…’
‘And what was that?’ asks an unseen man.
‘So,’ says the woman in denim, evidently beginning the sentence half way through (a trait that infuriates Karl Karole), ‘he says that he was born a woman…’
‘And what did you say to that?’
‘Jesus!’ groans Karl. ‘What do you think she said? It’s what she says she thought that matters. And she was thinking about what kind of equipment he could possibly have…’
‘So I was wondering,’ says the woman, ‘you know, how complete was he?’
‘Complete?’ the voice asks.
‘You know what she means!’ Karl yells. ‘Don’t embarrass her…’
‘So I said I wanted a large family one day,’ the woman says, ‘and did he… you know…’
‘Did he what, Kate?’
‘God almighty!’ grunts Karl, killing the TV. ‘Who watches this tripe? What have we bred out there? Are they all gargling half-wits?’ He realises no one is going to answer him, and now thinks silently. Everyone out for a free ride, he tells himself. Every circus freak demanding acceptance and understanding – and free money of course. Queers wanting to adopt children. Children wanting to divorce their parents. Parents forbidden to punish their own kids. People being punished in prison complaining about the punishment and suing. Christ! Next the pedophiles are going to demand liberation! The world’s going to hell in a handbasket – whatever a handbasket is…
He catches himself musing and wonders if he’s been at it long. Time suddenly seems elusive – both long and short at the same time. What is the time? His watch doesn’t want to tell him. He stares at its face, at the thin pointing arms and the swirl of numbers, but they won’t divulge their secret – they’re not telling the time. They’ve been told not to tell, he decides. I’d better get moving, he tells himself. He has to drive up the Laurentian Autoroute to Tremblant. It’s an hour if the weather’s behaving. His caretaker, Cyril, will have set the fire, birch logs crackling away under the giant copper hood. The place now seems very inviting indeed. He can smell the wood-smoke and hear the branches snapping away. Still no ink, though – but it no longer seems so pressing, this need for ink. He throws some papers into his Gucci briefcase, not really sure what papers they are or why he wants them. I should fire that girl, he realizes. Then he realizes she’ll be fired anyway in January – why should he go to all that trouble? He digs out the keys to his red Willis Jeep, parked in a prime spot deep below the ground. Ah, he thinks, I have to look in on the party, don’t I? Yes, I do. Not a bad little drug, this Galutzane, he decides. Not bad at all.
The 47th floor is rather quiet for a party. Taped to the conference hall’s vast double doors is a notice in black marker: WELCOME TO THE ANNUAL KAROLE CHRISTMAS PARTY. Beneath it some wag has scrawled: PARTY DOESN’T NEED THE Y THIS YEAR, SUCKERS – YOU GET ONLY PART OF IT. A rather browned spruce branch is pinned to the lintel. He opens one door silently and peeks through the two-inch crack. A blaring wave of gnashing sound assaults him with the audio fidelity of Karole Toys’ Chatty Pattie doll:
Gonna make it on the street
Where my dogs an’ bitches meet
The flavour be sweet
Gotta shed the heat
That’s some feat
Got a two-oh-one greet…
Jesus Christ, he thinks, change the goddam rhyme. But the noise now sounds as if someone is crumpling it up, strangling it. There are groans. The door is yanked open and Melvin Chior stands before him. ‘Ah, there you are, sir,’ he says. ‘Come on in…’
‘Party going well, is it?’ Karl inquires, feeling oddly like dancing himself.
‘I wouldn’t say that, sir,’ says Mel. ‘But you can judge for yourself…’
Karl is ushered into the immense hall. Upon seeing him, people stop whatever they were doing and stare with eyes like stones. The music – if that’s what it was – throttles itself to death, leaving a resonant silence. Dressed in their finest finery, the expression on people’s faces seems at odds with the people themselves, whose gaze follows him like a death ray as he’s led across the immense polished space. Behind a trestle table, slathering margarine from a giant tub on slices of white bread with a knife like a trowel, stands old Mrs. Corbiere, clad in a floral housecoat, on her head a wreath of holly that more closely resembles what would happen to your green beret in a blender. She waves her shiny yellow trowel at him cheerily. Her stainless steel samovar steams away behind her; and to one side is a crate of Bud-Light in cans, a sign taped there reading: BIER (sic) $ 10.00 – cASH only. Mrs. Corbiere cuts into a tomato so large and soft it has collapsed in on itself, flinging the deliquescent slice onto a square of gleaming bread, adding what looks like a small terracotta roof tile, plucked from a plastic sack, slamming down another slice on top, and then tossing the sandwich onto a mound of similar creations piled up on a plate the size of a trashcan lid, its sign claiming: SANDWIDGE OF BREED. TOMTOE AN BAL LONELY – FREE!
Free, he thinks – and no one appreciates their good fortune. ‘Tell everyone to carry on enjoying themselves,’ Karl orders Mel. ‘Let’s have some music… and dancing…’ The very word makes him dance, a little at least, his small black feet shining down there, nimble as they point heel-toe, a noise like castanets on the parquet.
Mel does issue his orders, but people merely grumble, turning to one another for consolation, or perhaps for an idea of what their next move should be. Slobodan Draculic, even his acne looking particularly festive, almost like holly berries aglow on the wheaten field of his cheeks, now slams his android device into the red speaker’s slot. A sound not unlike fairground carousels is heard, the prancing horses visible behind his hazel eyes, going up and down as they go round and around. ‘Right,’ Slobbo calls out, ‘this is Holub, the Serbian Abba…’
‘Serbian wankers more like!’ someone yells. Another voice demands Spew-Krew-Too, presumably a favoured artiste. But Holub persists, their jaunty springing rhythm seemingly at war with lyrics you think you can understand, but you can’t understand them. Sometimes they sound like Quebecois French – and, thinks Karl, no one can understand that. People resentfully return to the dance floor, or else they mill around, a low grumbling murmur heard hovering over them in sound-clouds that jostle one another.
Karl Karole finds himself at a podium in front of a microphone on its silver stand. He taps the mike, hearing a pattering of little thuds. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I just wanted to wish you all a… a very merry Christmas… and…’
‘Grinch!’ someone yells. Someone else agrees and adds, ‘Asshole!’ A politer voice tries to silence this dissent.
‘We had a disappointing year,’ Karl goes on.
‘You can say that again!’ another voice throws in.
‘…and,’ continues Karl, ‘and I might have to take some drastic action to correct it next year…’
‘Yeah, fire yourself,’ it’s suggested.
‘I did not say “fire’,’ says Karl, ‘but since someone has said the F word, yes, it is a possibility…’ There are groans. ‘A possibility you should all bear in mind on January 2nd, when there will be a general meeting in this very hall at five p.m. to discuss the future of Karole Corp…’ He pauses, he waits, he says, ‘I shall see you all then. Have a lovely evening…’ With this, he is off the podium, out through the doors, and hissing down in an elevator ninety feet underground to the garage, where his red Jeep burns in its privileged spot, something scribbled in marker on the windshield: PIG. It is laughably easy to wipe off, and soon, feeling on top of the world, he is hurtling across a subdued city towards the autoroute, his satellite radio tuned to a classical station out of Phoenix. He passes a camper packed with rosy-faced kids, visions, he thinks, visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads… or whatever. The poor little fools.
The ride was easy up to St. Jerome, but some way past this dormitory city’s clogging sprawl of concrete horrors, trashy malls, sundry industrial-themed bunkers and peddling shacks, as the flat highway edges up into mountains and snakes north, he finds himself plunging into a sickly puce mist that soon becomes a choking sludge of jaundiced fog, a foul miasma in which he can’t see thirty feet ahead, even with his high-beams on. Weather is in an especially vengeful mood too – perhaps it doesn’t like Christmas either, he thinks – as snow begins to fall in a white rain, soon becoming a blizzard that looks like a galaxy dying, stars flashing past to burn up on the windshield or collect in fat wedges, galactic plates on his wing mirrors. The speedometer slows to a dispiriting fifteen klicks. Tremblant is not an hour away at this speed. It’s at least four hours away, four hours from St. Jerome too, not from Montreal.
On the radio is Max Richter’s Luminous, played by the Ensemble Pieta, and he has just enough time to remark to himself on the music’s extraordinary beauty, before the device crackles, spits and dies, no station at all coming in. A spark of life returns a minute later, and he hears the National Emergency Warning System begin to natter on about severe weather conditions for the Laurentians (they always overreact, those sissies), but the warning too splinters into a fuzz of static, and then even that dies. He still feels so buoyant, however, surfing on a sea of quiet joy, bourn aloft by feathery wings of inner contentment (but not too far aloft), that his mood is scarcely affected by this adversity of the heavens. He is looking on his phone to see if he has any messages and to check on the weather, when, far too late, he looks up to find a line of angry flashing red and orange lights coming at him like heat-seeking missiles shooting through the speckled blackness of night.
Karl Karole had once taken a defensive driving course, so he knows that, to stop on a slippery road, you slam on your brakes and turn the wheel as hard and as far as it will go to the right. Or was it to the left? The vehicle will spin in a circle on the spot, avoiding any collision by centrifugalism. Except it doesn’t do this. It zigzags over two lanes, lurches onto its two right wheels, slides sideways and crashes broadside into the rear of a minivan stalled on the shoulder, emergency lights blinking maniacally, a purple flare burning down in a spume of dense smoke on the macadam. Shit, he thinks, as he watches the van rear up at him, almost in slow motion – but a motion not slow enough to do anything useful about its inevitable and crunchy conclusion.
After reversing down the shoulder a few yards back from this minivan, he clambers out, as you do, ready to blame the other vehicle for it all. You have to be well-equipped in a car for Quebec winters, and Karl’s houseman, Cyril, has made sure he is, with blankets, chemical heating pads, flashlights, water and even sachets of astronaut food. He zips up the fur parka and pulls his Russian hat down over the ears, walking around to the passenger side to assess his damage. Shining a powerful flashlight over the glowing red paintwork from stem to stern, however, he can’t see even a scratch less still a dent. Bound to be chassis damage, he thinks, and this guy’s going to pay for it. Striding swiftly towards him from the minivan, head down, snow pounding at his face like bleached machinegun bullets, is a squat man in jeans and a windbreaker, baseball cap squeezing out a thin curtain of lank black hair. Great, Karl tells himself, one of our Indigenous brethren, no doubt looking for another hand-out. He’s about to launch into a volley of invective regarding parking on a highway, when, two or three yards off, the man calls out, ‘You gotta phone on you, my brother, eh?’ An umber face, broad as a soup plate and lined, but with a pleasing, open mien.
I’m not your brother, pal, he thinks, saying, ‘Of course I’ve got a phone…’ Who would drive out here with no phone, he wonders, thinking you would, you hopeless welfare scrounger.
‘It’s my wife,’ says the man urgently. ‘She’s gone into labour…’ He points back at the van. ‘The truck died – piston shaft went – and we got no phone, yeah? You the first car we seen in a half-hour. Please Mister…’ He looks up with pained hazel eyes. ‘… Please call 911, get an ambulance here…’
Karl has no idea what a piston shaft is. He thinks: they’re always having babies they can’t afford, aren’t they. ‘Sure,’ he says, pulling the I-Phone from his parka. It casts a ghastly anemic light on his chin, throwing up shadows like grey horns. The indian notices this and involuntarily touches the holy medal hanging around his neck on a greasy length of string. Consternation now floods over Karl’s visage. ‘There’s no damn signal here,’ he growls. ‘No bars at all…’ He shows his phone’s pallid face to the man.
‘Then can you drive us, Mister, eh?’ says the Indian. ‘Just to the next town where there’s a hospital, yeah?’ Appeal leaks from his wide face. ‘It’s kinda urgent, eh?’ he adds, reading the appalled refusal now on Karl’s face and feeling obliged to say further, ‘I’ll give you the gas money, man, eh?’
Thanks to the Galutzane – or thanks to something – Karl Karole is still feeling like the King of Abundance, the soul of magnanimity, and he says, ‘No problem. The hospital’s in St. Agathe – I know it…’ He pauses, he waits. ‘You want help in… in getting your wife?’
The man is smiling now, a full yellowy smile that lights up his saturnine features. He sticks out a somewhat blackened hand. ‘The name’s Joe,’ he says. Karl takes the hand, which feels like an old dried-out chamois cloth, pitted and grainy. ‘I can manage Maia, right?’ says Joe. ‘But we gonna have to lay her in the back, see? Your rear seats fold down, don’t they? Open the hatch and I’ll lay her in the back – if it ain’t filled up, eh?’
Karl has no idea whether his rear seats fold down or not. No one has ever sat in them. Beyond his flashlight beam all is impenetrably black: snow, night, fog. He illuminates Joe’s path back to the minivan, noting that this van doesn’t appear very damaged either. He hopes this isn’t going to be some kind of con – or worse. You hear about such things. He contemplates just driving off, but something lays a restraining hand on his arm, and he can see Joe helping his wife sit up. So he opens the Jeep’s rear door, and finds the seats do fold down. He spreads two blankets in the back – he’ll have to throw those out after, won’t he? Already this is costing him money. He is ironing out ruts in a blanket when Joe appears, cradling Maia in his stocky arms, snowflakes circling like satellites around her tiny head.
‘Thanks so much, sir,’ she says, the voice gentle, soft and low. ‘It was getting colder and colder, and I thought I might have to deliver him here…’
Karl is about to ask how she knows the baby’s sex, or to say something self-deprecating, anyway something dismissive, when he notices the Indian woman’s face. Oval in the headscarf, perfectly formed, it is the eyes that strike you. Large, a pulsing bluish-purple in the light of torches and flashers, they seem to have a radiance of their own, an inner illumination that pulls at something inside of you, that tugs at some strings on your inner instrument, eliciting a plangent chord, a deeper music. Karl blinks rapidly, with a brisk shake of the head. Well, he thinks, they did say hallucinations, didn’t they, the Galutzaners? A small price to pay for this feeling of… of what? How odd, he thinks, not to be able to name a feeling that throbs a radiant kind of warmth behind the breastbone. Odd too is the sense of familiarity attached to this feeling, the familiarity of two dear friends meeting again after years of separation – not that I have such a friend. I should write to the Galutzane people, Karl tells himself, a testimonial: thanks to Galutzane I was able to tolerate scrounging savages who wanted a lift. Why, I even offered one of them a sip of Lagavulin from my silver emergency flask – thank you, Galutzane.
After helping to install Maia in the back on blankets, Karl does just this. ‘Whiskey?’ he says, thrusting the flask at Joe, certain the Indian will go at it like a rat after cheese. But Joe holds up a useful greasy palm and says no thanks.
With the couple’s one battered suitcase fetched from the minivan, and Maia, sighing more than groaning, stretched out behind, Joe clambers into the passenger seat, and Karl, high-beams cutting luminous vortices of swath through the drifting murk and pelting snow, turns his Jeep back onto the autoroute, heading north at ten klicks an hour. Christ, ten!
Turning back every minute or so to ask his wife how she’s doing, Joe tells his driver how he and Maia came to be on the roadside. From a reservation up in the extreme north of Quebec, near the arctic circle, they are heading to stay for Christmas with relatives near Ottawa. There are no good medical facilities where they come from, so they wanted the baby to be born near a decent hospital, in case there are complications.
‘What do you mean near?’ says Karl Karole, head down, peering into the dense vapours and battering sheets of snow. ‘What do you mean complications?’ These people, he thinks, they want what we’ve got but they don’t want to give us anything, do they? But, he decides, they don’t have anything we want, do they?
‘We like our children to be born in the traditional manner, yeah?’ says Joe, now emanating, Karl notices, an aroma of engine oil, tobacco and wood-smoke – yet not an unpleasing odour, an innately manly fragrance. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘things can go wrong, right? You gotta be prepared if things go wrong, eh? You need a good doctor close by, yeah?’
God almighty, thinks Karl, how they abuse the language with their cheap rhetorical devices to manufacture our consent to whatever nonsense they spout. He waits, he says, ‘What’s the traditional manner then?’
Joe rubs his hands together with a bristling sandpaper sound. He says, ‘In my tribe it is important if possible for the baby to be born to sounds of music and celebration, to be welcomed into the world…’
Thumping drums and whooping yells, thinks Karl. ‘Why?’ he says.
‘Every child should feel the world is glad to see them,’ says Joe, his voice a muffled down-talk. ‘Life can be hard, eh? It’s good for people to feel they belong here, right? We believe the first impressions are the deepest, right? So we make the birth a celebration, yeah?’
Christ, why bother talking with them, thinks Karl? What’s the point? ‘You know,’ he says instead, ‘you people are always banging on about how the white man ruined your world. But I often wonder how you reconcile the Christianity you all seem to follow with the traditional culture you seem to cherish and which white man’s religion helped greatly to destroy…’ He glances over at Joe, who has turned to look at Maia. ‘I mean,’ adds Karl, ‘that seems to be a contradiction, doesn’t it?’
‘Our culture wasn’t destroyed,’ says Joe. ‘It’s strong, it lives. My people believe you should always take the best you find around you, right?’ he explains, still twisted in his seat. ‘So we found Christianity was good for us and melded with our own ideas, yeah? The message is the same, see?’
‘What is the message?’ Karl demands, steering with one hand and looking to see if his phone has a signal yet. ‘Still nothing,’ he mutters.
‘The message?’ says Joe, peering at Karl’s phone with curiosity. ‘It’s the same in all faiths, no? You honour all of life and share what you have with all, which shows your bond, your love, right?’
Except, Karl tells himself, you people have nothing to share and we do – so you scrounge and scrounge and scrounge. And you call that love. Ha! ‘Love?’ he says. ‘How can you love people who hate you?’ He’s thinking of, in his case, most of the world.
‘Our elders say that hate is only the absence of love,’ says Joe, and is interrupted before he can go on.
‘Yes,’ says Karl, ‘elders – vicars, shamans, witch-doctors – they do tend to say that, don’t they?’ He pauses, he smirks, he goes on, ‘It used to be called Sophism, answering difficult questions with clever-sounding word-play that amounts to nothing…’
‘I wouldn’t know about that, eh?’ says Joe. ‘It’s the same with light and dark, see? We believe darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it’s just the absence of light, okay? An absence can’t be a quality, yeah? So these things, darkness, hate, evil, they’re not real, eh? They’re just the absence of the positive thing, yeah?’
Really, he thinks, why do I bother? Yet he bothers because of this unidentifiable feeling in his chest, this nameless yet familiar sensation, this glow. ‘Abstractions,’ he says. ‘It’s all semantics. You can say evil is or isn’t an actual quality, but it doesn’t change the nature of evil, does it? The word, the label is not the thing itself – do you see what I mean?’
‘But,’ Joe replies, ‘why give negative things a power they don’t need to own and really can’t own, eh? Why say they are opposites when they’re merely absences?’
‘Shit,’ says Karl, braking hard, the Jeep slithering over packed snow. A gigantic flashing arrow has appeared across the road ahead. His headlights illuminate a sign advising an alternative route off to the right.
‘What does it say?’ asks Joe, glancing back anxiously at his wife .
‘Can’t you read it?’ says Karl impatiently, veering off onto a side road.
‘Not really,’ says Joe. ‘I was never learned, eh?’
Christ, thinks Karl, you were definitely never taught, were you? He says, ‘Oh, I see. We have to take the old highway, the 117 – runs parallel to the autoroute, down here a bit…’ He points his forehead to where a T-junction materializes within the vaporous ice jungle, with its streaming white vines and drifting crystal foliage.
‘That gonna take us far outta our way, is it?’ Joe asks, still looking back.
‘Nah,’ says Karl, turning north again on a four-lane strip that looks like a black tunnel filled with thick smoke, ‘in fact it’ll take us straight into St. Agathe and nearer the hospital, as I recall…’
‘Hear that, sweetie?’ Joe asks his wife, who breathes in silence, a very distant ocean ebbing and flowing somewhere behind them.
‘You haven’t seen much of the world, have you, Joe?’ says Karl.
‘Just the rez really,’ Joe tells him, ‘and the road to Ottawa now, eh? Not that we’re going there tonight, yeah?’
No, not tonight, he thinks. ‘Well I have seen it, Joe,’ he says, ‘the world, much of it. And I can guarantee you that evil is real and pervasive – you see it everywhere, all five continents, every island too, every speck and every dog-hole. You tell those people out there evil isn’t real, they’ll string you up and eat you…’
‘Then they are making the evil real,’ says Joe, ‘by harbouring such hate in their hearts, yeah? Like attracts like, right? You hold love in your heart you…’ But he’s cut off by a piercing scream.
Maia’s small clear voice calmly says, ‘It’s no good, Joe. He’s coming now. His time is here. I’m sorry, but the Great Spirit has his own timing, her own timing…’ A little laugh. ‘We have to stop…’
‘What?’ Karl gasps. ‘What does she mean stop?’
‘We’ll have to help her deliver the babe here, okay?’ Joe tells him.
‘We?’ says Karl. ‘Here? In my car?’ But no one is listening to him.
They’ve pulled over by a clump of black spruce that rise up into the wafting layers of night like steeples of an arboreal church. Joe is kneeling in the rear between Maia’s bent knees. The engine is running, heater full blast. Karl Karole stares accusingly at his phone’s blank blue face. Still no bars, no signal, no anything. How useless the device suddenly becomes without its lifeline, a ridiculous slab of luminous plastic with no point to it at all. He’s offered Joe the heat pads, the food and the whiskey again, but Joe merely shakes his baseball cap, head lowered, intent on the problem at hand. Karl had witnessed the birth of his own two children, or as much of it as he could bear, the strangled screams, the gasps, the epidurals, the pushing, pushing, pushing until strain bursts red and wet across the anguished face. He knows what to expect, and he can’t pace any corridors here: it’s minus 20 outside and falling, visibility next to nil. The Jeep tells him this; it tells him everything – except how to get out of here and lounge before his roaring fire by the lakeside. Maia sighs hard. It’s not a scream, nothing like one. ‘Dilating fast,’ she says, a little laugh in her voice. ‘He’s coming. Feel it, Joe? I shall push…’ She pushes, but the sound is just an ah. Then she says, quite clearly, ‘Mister? Does your radio work? Baby would like some music – if you don’t mind…’
‘No,’ says Karl, ‘I don’t mind.’ And he actually doesn’t mind. ‘Let’s see if anything’s coming in,’ he tells her. As if swelling from the dashboard itself, some Bach effloresces into the ticking car from down in Phoenix, where it’s warm and dry, a cantata bursting from the walls in sheer joy. ‘What kind of music do you want?’ he inquires, thinking I don’t get the thumping-whooping station, if there is one.
‘This is lovely,’ Maia assures him. ‘This will welcome him into the world…’ She sighs deeply. Joe coos reassurance.
For such a burly rough savage, he thinks, the man is remarkably tender. It’s moving — or it could be, to the moveable. How can anyone grow up in North America today, no matter how peripherally, and not learn how to read? No wonder they don’t work – what can you do if you can’t read? They hunt, that’s what they’re always claiming is their job, isn’t it? But that’s not a job. That’s a sport. Christ! He looks at his watch. Nearly ten-thirty. What a day! Then he remembers the plane crash video. He’s not superstitious, but he does now wonder if that was his flight tomorrow to Palm Beach – if that is his flight. And no one will miss me? Bah! Who cares if those worms don’t miss me? Do I need them? No. I don’t need anyone – they need me. A fizzing in his heart; a lightness, a bearable lightness of being. Thank you, Galutzane. He looks at his phone. Nothing. Just the annoyingly cheery blue and blotchy face that serves no purpose at all. A long and satisfied sigh from behind. His babies had come yelling furiously into the world, mewling, spluttering, howling, puking, looking like little old men fetched up from the black lagoon, bedraggled, wrinkled, spattered, slimy. This one, though, comes laughing into the world, a throaty chuckle, something serene, as Bach’s hundred heavenly voices cry their own ode to joy, to bliss, in layers, a garden of the mind whose banked blossoms all open at once to the fructifying light of an eternal day. The high trebles burst in his brain, a thousand eruptions in tiny varicoloured clouds, a rain of rainbows pouring down to the earth in his heart. ‘Everything okay?’ he calls out, hoping there’s no mess on the upholstery.
‘It’s marvellous, yeah?’ says Joe, his voice quavering with wonder. ‘You wanna see him?’
He turns. Still lying on her back, knees raised, Maia holds up the pink baby, whose rubbery legs sway as his tiny feet paddle over her chest and he gazes down at his mother. God almighty, thinks Karl, what’s your life going to be like? Enjoy it while you still can, pal, because it won’t get better than this. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘goodness. Congratulations, I suppose…’
Joe is cutting a blanket with an old penknife. He looks up, saying, ‘Sorry about this, eh? I’ll pay you for it, yeah?’ He tugs at the square he’s cut, ripping it away from a few stray threads. He looks up again. He pauses, a little embarrassed. ‘Think you can do us a favour here?’ he says. Here it comes, Karl tells himself: the scrounge, the “loan” that’s a gift, the pity-me importune. Resignedly he nods. But Joe merely says, ‘I need you to hold the baby while I finish cleaning Maia up, okay?’
The night is black and bitter cold, the snow and fog swirling. When Karl hauls himself into the rear backwards, to slide onto the carpeted ledge formed by folded seats, closing the door and the icy night behind him, the baby is neatly swaddled by a section of tartan blanket. Maia passes him back over her head as if about to dunk him cleverly in a hoop. ‘Sorry for all the trouble,’ she says. ‘We’re very sorry…’ Joe is at work between her splayed legs, using the penknife again, repositioning the big flashlight Karl had given him.
He must have cut the umbilical cord already, probably with that knife, Karl surmises, taking the baby in his manicured, liver-spotted hands. It’s a long time since he’s held a baby; and it’s the first time he’s ever encountered such a tranquil, uncomplaining baby. Or is the thing dead? He cradles the little bundle in the crook of his left arm, switching on the interior light above in order to get a better look. The light pulses to the rhythm of his Jeep’s idling engine, casting a pale lemony radiance. He maneuvers the swaddler so his tiny face is illuminated. Staring up at him with enormous golden eyes, the rosebud lips ever so slightly curled in a knowing Mona-Lisa-smile, he finds a visage of uncanny serenity and exquisite beauty, perfectly formed, flawlessly arranged, more sculpted than grown. But it is the eyes that rivet your attention. The stare is deliberate, wise, powerful, and you know someone is behind them – not just a person but someone. Karl Karole is captivated. The glow inside swells. Something rises up, and he realises that whatever this something is it will soon be leaking out in salt tears. That will never do, he tells himself. Hand you a baby and you blubber all over the Jeep and two strangers? Pull yourself together, man. Failing this, he pulls out his phone – still no goddam signal – and, using one hand, he pretends to be occupied with its numerous little diversions. Before he can react in any way, the baby’s arm shoots out from beneath the blanketing, seizes the phone in a tiny hand, the fingernails like droplets of crystal, and then flings it with a flick of the wrist over Karl’s head into the front, where it lands with a snap on the silver top of his whiskey flask, the screen cracking open, its light dying forever. Bach seems energized by the spectacle, his choir spinning up in a gyre towards some vast, ululating affirmation. Karl frowns at the baby, who’s smiling broadly now. Then his little lips move, and he says, in a low, honeyed voice, ‘Be present, Karl, not always wanting to be somewhere else. Now is all you have, all you own…’
He’s so startled he nearly drops the bundle, so startled he’s about to query the baby’s statement – until he realizes: Galutzane, he tells himself, hallucinations (both visual and aural). The baby looks up at him with interest, with an almost professional concern, assessing something, conveying something with those vast golden eyes. Conveying what? The glow within swells in response, but then the tide begins to ebb, and Karl feels the gradual loss of something, of something precious, something vital.
‘Shall I take him from you?’ says Maia, reaching up with her slender arms, her hands bruised, worn, a worker’s hands.
Karl instinctively pulls the baby nearer, away from those searching hands. He wants to say no, I’m keeping him – no one’s taking him away. But a morsel of wisdom prevails, and he passes his bundle back to the cooing mother, feeling all the same the stab of loss, the sharp wrench of bereavement.
‘You don’t have a shovel in here, do you?’ says Joe, folding something up in another blanket section.
‘A shovel?’ Karl repeats, the words taking a while to reveal their meaning.
‘Yeah,’ confirms Joe. ‘It’s our tradition to bury the afterbirth, right? It goes back to Mother Earth, yeah?’
‘Back to Mother Earth,’ says Karl, pulling himself together. ‘Under that flap you’re sitting on,’ he says, ‘there are some tools…’ He waits, then he adds, ‘I’ll have to come around and open the door for you…’
‘So sorry for all the trouble,’ Joe says. ‘My people say that when a stranger helps you out like this the Great Spirit looks upon him with favour, right?’
‘They say that, do they?’ I suppose, he tells himself, that’s one way of encouraging strangers to be helpful.
They find a folding shovel next to the spare tire, and Joe walks off into the churning black and white void with his sodden bundle, leaving Karl alone, back in the driver’s seat, putting the slivers of his phone into a trash caddy. Maia and her baby have fallen asleep. He wishes he were asleep in his big soft bed, as the engine purrs out its warmth, and Bach has been replaced by Handel’s Messiah: …unto us a son is given… Apt, he thinks, but hardly a surprising coincidence on Christmas Eve. As this thought wends its crooked way out of mission control, the Jeep shudders, coughs, heaves violently, and then dies into a resonant silence, an emptiness beneath the hurtling music. Shit! He turns the ignition, pumping gas. Convulsions but no life. Then he happens to glance at the gasometer: red light on, indicator way below empty. There had been plenty for a trip to Tremblant, where Cyril would gas up the next day. Plenty under normal conditions, though – not under these conditions. Damn! He thumps the steering wheel. The Jeep quivers. ‘What is it?’ asks Maia’s drowsy little voice. ‘Everything okay, Mister?’
‘No,’ he says, and he tells her. Then he adds that the Jeep needs to be switched off soon before the battery dies. There will be no heat or light. ‘And,’ he says, ‘the music’s going now…’ He pokes Handel to death. Silence, deep and long, the wind screaming outside like a soul in torment.
‘What are we going to do?’ Maia asks tremulously.
‘You tell me,’ he says, wondering the same thing himself, and fruitlessly too.
‘Pray?’ suggests Maia.
‘Be my guest,’ he says. ‘Personally, I’ve never found the importuning of supernatural beings to be very helpful in a crisis…’
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I have…’
‘Good,’ he tells her, ‘because your baby smashed my phone, which would have been our best hope here…’
The wind, the snow, the drifting vapors, the night. When he sees a pulse dimming down the headlights, he turns the key. A fan whispers into stillness, the heat wanes. The darkness is complete, utter, a pall dropped from the endless night above to shroud the mortal world in its mottled black skin. Christ, he thinks, this is serious. That baby’s going to die. It’s now minus 29 out there – with the inevitable wind chill it’ll be minus 40. We could all die. People do – you hear about it every year, some idiots out on a snowmobile that blows up, leaving frozen dinners for the bears or cougars. Or, he tells himself, some idiot out in a severe storm without enough gas to get where he’s going. I’m the only person here with a serviceable brain, he tells himself, so I had better think of a plan. Someone will come by soon, though, won’t they? And if they don’t? One of us will have to walk out into Stygia there, and keep on walking until he finds a dwelling of some kind, one with a working telephone to summon the cavalry. Not the Calvary, he thinks. And who will that one-of-us be? Not I said the fly. No matter how cold it gets in here, it will still be warmer than out there. Joe will have to go. But, he says aloud, ‘where the hell is Joe?’
‘He’s burying the placenta,’ says Maia, as the baby chuckles somewhere in the void.
‘And how long does that take?’ he asks, thinking God, superstition even trumps the survival instinct.
‘There’s a little ceremony for it,’ she tells him, ‘some prayers to be recited…’
‘Great,’ he says ruefully. ‘When he’s finished with the placenta he can come back for the rest of the kid – because we’ll all be dead in twenty minutes…’
‘No,’ she assures him, ‘the Great Spirit wouldn’t bring a child into this world only to die…’
‘Really,’ he scoffs. ‘Wouldn’t he? Christ, you people are so stupid! He does that every day, ma’am – and every minute of every day. Every second too…’ Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so harsh, in her condition? Bah! Call a spade a spade, he tells himself – or a shovel. No point in gilding the lily, is there? Truth has the inestimable advantage of being true – if it’s true, that is.
Through this contained and private night comes the baby’s sweet serene little voice: ‘Karl, Karl, Karl, soften your hard heart. You have this one great chance to undo the damage you’ve done to yourself…’
‘Eh?’ he says.
‘I didn’t say anything,’ says Maia.
‘Well, who did then?’
‘I heard nothing,’ she says. ‘It’s probably just the wind…’
That’s what it probably is, he thinks, the wild wind, groping in his Gucci case for the Galutzane, searching blindly for the whiskey flask, washing down four pills with a swig of Lagavulin, thinking better of this, and then washing down another four. Eat, drink and be merry, he thinks, for very early tomorrow we die. Just as you don’t want to be sitting in Economy to be thrifty when the plane crashes, he assures himself, you don’t want to be very sober when the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking, do you? ‘Like a shot of whiskey?’ he says. ‘It’ll keep out the cold…’
‘No. Thanks very much,’ she replies. ‘I’m warm enough as it is…’
For the best, he thinks. If Injun Joe came back to find me plying his wife with firewater… well, the tomahawk would out, wouldn’t it? ‘I’m going to hurry him up,’ he tells her, the liquor starting a more infernal kind of glow in his heart.
Jesus Christ it’s cold. He pulls the parka’s fur hood around his face, standing in what could well be the depths of empty space, edge of the universe – if there can be an edge to nothingness, he thinks, remembering the question he’d once asked in Grade 4: Please sir, what’s the universe actually in? Mr. Parker had no answer. He cups his gloved hands, he calls, ‘Joe! Joe! Come back! We have problems! Can you hear me, Joe?’ The wind speaks, it snarls around an exploding cosmos, a billion dying stars hurtling to their doom, all of the elements plucked from a primordial gulf of black nothingness to be dashed against its shivering basalt walls, the frontiers of emptiness. Christ almighty, but it’s cold! His big warm bed seems to be a million miles away, maybe in another world. Icy hands climb up his spine, driving in pitons, reaching for the summit, mountaineers of the soul. God, he thinks, let’s not talk about souls, let’s keep away from the supernatural, the preternatural – let’s stay with the subnatural, the human midden. ‘Joe!’ he yells, but it only makes the lack of a response more lacking. Or does it? He hears a sound much like human voices and seemingly drawing nearer. Much like, but not completely like. Oddly familiar though. Ah, he tells himself, I recognize it: the very transhuman sound of throat-singers. He’d heard them in Mongolia; but they were elsewhere too, as a Mongolian tour-guide had informed him. Hallucinations again, he concludes. But the sound keeps getting nearer, a few or even several voices now apparent, rumbling, burping, rolling out a primal rhythm, pre-human, recondite. It’s very close now, very; but he sees nothing – nothing is all he has to see. Then they emerge like phantoms from the oscillating vapours, their robes dotted with snowflakes that fade out slowly. He’s been to Nepal, Karl has, so he knows a Buddhist monk when he sees one – and here suddenly are seven of them, magenta drapes pulled tight around bare shoulders, their burbling chant fading down like the snow on their woollen robes, like the ice on these plains of night. ‘Jesus,’ he says, ‘aren’t you guys cold?’
‘Oh yes,’ says an elderly fellow, shaved head, glasses, smiling eyes. ‘When it is this cold, you expect not to be warm, though, is it not so?’
What, he thinks, did the Buddha know about cold over there in India, where they think 20 degrees is cold? ‘Glad you can take it philosophically,’ he says, ‘and logically positive too; because we were veering more towards the existential…’ He explains his plight and the plight of his passengers, or he starts to explain it.
‘No need to explain,’ a younger monk tells him. ‘We saw you were in trouble here…’
‘Please,’ the elderly one says, ‘let us escort you back up to our home…’
Karl Karole tells them he only needs some gas and he’ll be fine, on his way again. He can pay them for it. Excessively if absolutely necessary. But they tell him they have no gas, because they have no vehicle requiring it. A dozen questions boil up in his mind – how they buy supplies etc – but they’re dismissed credibly. The mother and child must be taken inside immediately, he’s told, or else the baby will be in danger. What about the husband? Did these monks come across him on their way? No, they saw no one. Karl is told to leave a note for Joe on the Jeep. Tell him you’re all up at the retreat – head east along the footpath. The cold is beginning to hurt now – God knows what it’s like for these fellows, arms goose-bumped, scrotums tight as golf balls – so he’s eager to get inside. He can call Cyril on their telephone, tell him to drive out here – wherever here is – and pick him up. The Indians are on their own. He’s done his good deed for the year. Enough’s enough – actually it’s too much already. Grabbing a few essentials – one essential in fact – and his briefcase containing nothing he needs, he follows the thin red line vanishing into fog and snow, as the monks help Maia along a narrow dirt path, one of them carrying her suitcase, all of them making clown faces and giggling, as Tibetans do, at the clucking little tartan bundle in her arms.
At length, a large wooden gateway looms out of the black miasma. A sign, the lettering contrived to have a Sanskrit or Pali feel: RETREAT OF THE LIGHTFORCE OF CREATION. They’ve been walking up a steep incline for ten minutes or more, and the fog is less dense now, the snow more manageable, flakes smaller, on a breeze rather than a gale. ‘This is your monastery, is it?’ he asks the nearest monk, nodding at the sign. ‘Bit of a mouthful – and not very Buddhist-sounding, is it?’
‘All religions are one,’ the monk replies, heading on in silence.
‘Try telling the Muslims that,’ he says, wondering why he expected any more than a gnomic answer from the man. Monks, sadhus, nuns, dervishes, magi, he thinks, the lot of them, they’re all the same, hiding behind platitude and tautology to obscure the truth that they’re full of shit and understand no more than Maia’s baby does about the meaning and purpose of existence – because there’s nothing to know. God, I hate all this phony humility, he thinks. Is there anything more arrogant and overweening than claiming to know the mind of God, maintaining you know what he wants? ‘Bah!’ he says. ‘So what do you do here all day? Sit around pondering and burbling, while the mortals slave away to keep you in idle comfort, eh?’ But no one seems to be listening to him.
They now approach a sizeable log structure, low but extensive, indeed stretching off into the swirling murk, and maybe far beyond it too. A mountain stream runs down one side, fast and fairly deep, or so it looks, parts already frozen over. Then he sees, protruding from a large hole hacked in the ice, a man, up to his naked chest in the water, just sitting there, eyes closed. It must be a mannequin or statue, he thinks. But no, the eyes open, the man presses palms together on the pate of his shaved head, saying something in a deep guttural voice, a greeting or salutation. The monks ahead return this gesture, a mass-burble floating across mist and dizzying squalls. ‘What the hell’s he doing?’ he says, unable to find any feasible reason himself for why anyone should do this.
‘Ah,’ says the old monk, ‘he is strengthening his resolve and will…’
Crushing his bollocks to death more like, he thinks, saying, ‘For what? He’ll be dead any minute…’
‘Look,’ says the monk, ‘can you see the steam coming off his body? He’s not cold – he’s hot in there…’
Yeah, he tells himself, and it’s midday in July out here. ‘How’s that possible?’ he says.
‘Oh,’ replies the elderly monk, ‘it is possible – all things are possible…’
Typical, he thinks, ask a straightforward question and get a twisted, crooked, infuriating answer. ‘Really?’ he calls back. ‘Everything? Try eating the Eiffel Tower as you walk across the Atlantic seabed with no oxygen. I rest my case…’ But again no one is listening.
A set of huge double doors in corrugated logs of pine is thrown open, and the monks usher Maia and he inside. A cloying musky incense fills the air. Along a darkened corridor they go, and then through more double doors into a spacious chamber, a temple or prayer hall of some kind, raised dais or altar at one end, cushions on the rough-hewn floor beams, guttering oil lamps the only source of light, warmth shed by glowing braziers, one in each corner. A futon is rolled out from the wall, and Maia made to understand it is for her and the baby. She squats, lies back on it, more absorbed with her child than this Buddhist jamboree. He is offered a cushion, embroidered, two-foot- square, hard. They’re both told that food and hot drinks are coming. The monks congregate near the altar, seated cross-legged, backs straight, a slight dovening motion. ‘What are you going to call him?’ he asks Maia, pointing his nose at the baby.
She says something he can’t understand, an alien word, all consonants, and then she adds, ‘It means “Stranger-in-the-snowstorm” in our language – in grateful memory of you…’
Good, he thinks, because it means shit in mine. ‘Don’t you want to give him a… well, a less cumbersome name too?’ he says. ‘You know, one he can write on government forms and the like?’ For his welfare cheques, he thinks, for his reparations – if he ever learns how to write, that is.
‘What is your name?’ she says.
‘Then he shall be “Karl”, as well as…’ It sounds like Kkkygghddat.
What is this honour going to cost me, he thinks? ‘Very kind,’ he says. ‘I’m flattered. But personally I don’t like my name very much. It sounds rather too German, a snarl or a growl…’
‘Then you should change it,’ she tells him. ‘Our elders say that if someone’s name doesn’t fit them they must seek another name. What name would you like?’
‘I’m not going to change it,’ he says. ‘Too late now…’ It’s a good question though, he thinks. What name would I prefer? ‘George Orwell said that every man at fifty has the face he deserves,’ he says. ‘I imagine we have the names we deserve too…’
‘No, no,’ she protests. ‘You must have a beautiful name…’
‘We shall call him “Noel”,’ says the baby, his voice a delicate music, ‘because he came to us at Christmas…’
‘What?’ he says, remembering that the Galutzane must kick in soon.
‘I haven’t thought of one yet,’ she says, now playing with Baby Karl, who lays naked on his back, pudgy legs and arms slicing languidly at the air. Her face is a mask of delight, delight paid for in the coin of contentment, which has no discontent on its flipside, like the coin we seek of a happiness not defined by the misery underneath – a life, he thinks, not defined by its own extinction.
Galutzanian thoughts abound now, thoughts he is unaccustomed to think, questions in them he is unacquainted with, a whole world here of unfamiliar issues, problems undreamt of, with solutions unequalled in any world. Joe had said some wise things in the Jeep, hadn’t he? But where was Joe now? A glowing worm wriggles in his bowels, it bodies out into the serpent of paradise, twisting mountaineer of the soul, a dogged climber who cannot, it seems, climb anymore, confined to a dark dungeon of the heart, the heart that has lost its wings. He is about to ask why this is, when he sees himself, the young man now, darting into the temple, kneeling by the monks to sit erect like them, pondering the mystery that is no mystery at all, the truth that does not exist. He wants to reach out and touch that boy, ask him where he went, why he vanished, but a tide of glue is beginning to set within him, hardening in his joints, his commissures, turning him to stone. The immobile man has only a twitching life, a spasm of it convulsing out there in the eternal night. Other monks have now entered, ignoring the stone man on his plinth, gathering over Maia and the baby. They place before him an assortment of bright new toys – a multicolored rattle, a ball, a small bear, glittering baubles – with, next to them, a few ratty old dull objects, as uninteresting as they are indescribable. ‘It is,’ one monk now says, ‘so far all as Rimpoche predicted: the date, the time – even the vehicle. I shall be content if this now also comes to be…’ All the monks, there are five of them, buzz and nod in solid agreement with this statement. He wants to ask what they’re talking about, but what used to be his voice has become a sealed-up cellar, dry as sand, littered with brittle yellowed papers, desiccated skin, parched parings from mummified ligaments and shreds of tissue turned to dust. An ill wind blows through this cell, rustling the detritus, sweeping away the fragments into cracks where the mortar has decomposed. He shudders; he strives to keep a climbing darkness down; he watches. Baby Karl rolls over to face the objects placed nearby, his huge luminous eyes not even seeing the toys, it seems, for he reaches out unhesitatingly with tiny curling fingers to seize what proves to be the scrap from a blackened old page in a palm-leaf book inscribed with a spider writing that reminds him of that fat contract sitting empty on his desk. The infant gurgles, waiving his prize as if it were a fistful of gems from the Orient. The monks roar with joy, embracing one another, offering salutations to Maia, who sits up, amazed, unsure of what has transpired here, only certain it’s not a bad thing. One senior monk picks up the chortling baby, raising him to eye level, where he laughs like a nightingale, seizing the monk’s nose in one hand, then stroking his face, making his beard whisper. For God’s sake, he’d like to say, tell her what’s going on, it’s her baby – tell me too. I’m stuck, you see? I’m statuary, stationary. But all he can say is in the creeping draught worrying torn pages stiff as dead moths’ wings caught in a discarded cobweb spun across forgotten tombs. He shivers. These thoughts spiral down endlessly, staircases leading from nowhere to nowhere, tumbling through the useless clutter of words. And then her voice in his head, distinctly Maia’s voice, unless it is his voice, the baby’s mellifluous babble: ‘You don’t know what it is to be looked down upon all your life, do you? You have no idea how it feels to be despised merely for who and what you are, things you can never change, things that leave you despised forever, no matter what you do. You have no idea, and you need to have an idea, a good idea of what this is like. We give you the gift, therefore, the Christmas present of something you could otherwise have never known, and, in not knowing it, lost the opportunity of allowing your life to bear fruit. Take it, in gratitude, take it…’
‘What?’ he says, and it now comes out. ‘What?’ But no one is listening, caught up in their inexplicable joy, their incident of moment.
‘Come, Karl Karole,’ rumbles a voice behind him.
‘What?’ He turns, the bones creaking, cartilage bending.
‘Come. Rimpoche will see you now.’ It is a very dignified old monk, darker, a glossy pate, more important-looking robes. He takes Karl by the arm, elevating him. ‘Come,’ he says. ‘Come.’
Stiffly, uneasily, Karl follows the monk’s billowing robes, leaving the hall to weave down gloomy corridors, past kitchen smells, past shelves of ancient books, past a stench of latrines. They turn into a larger passage, and the monk says, ‘Left at the end, then a right – it’s the third door on your right. Okay? Strive for the Light,’ he says, a salutation of advice maybe, or another direction? Then he spins on his heels and is gone back the way they came. Karl feels resonantly alone now, walking on as he’d been directed, trailing one palm on the wall, experiencing the varied textures of stone, wood and plaster. But the way is not straight, not direct at all. He finds himself zig-zagging, all but bouncing from wall to wall, as the beams beneath his feet buck and writhe, a beast caged beneath them in the superstructure, the interstices, the joints.
One particularly violent jolt throws him against a stout wooden door, which flies open, hurling him onto stone as it slams shut behind, plunging the room into darkness. He scrambles to his feet, groping, but he cannot find that door, not behind him, not to any side. There is no entrance or exit now. A luminescence builds several yards away, blue, brighter and brighter, until – pop!—an I-Phone ten feet tall appears, blinding at first, as he shades his eyes, and then he realizes this is his I-Phone, the one smashed in the Jeep, his arrangement of icons, his apps and crap, all of it. Christ, he thinks, they weren’t kidding about the side-effects, were they? No thank you, Galutzane. There’s a signal too, a strong one: ten bars. What am I supposed to do? Call a garage? But he has to do nothing. On the glaring azure face his e-mail is opened. One from himself? It’s the reply to his question: Who are you? And the answer is: Who do you think I am? A new message. A third one from Sammie is clicked, the letters ten inches high:
Somebody up there must like you, because we don’t. Take a look at this…
The ghostly hand opens up another video. A children’s summer camp, it seems. A musty office, log walls, files, shelves, a couch. He lays on it, maybe ten years old, terror in his eyes, barely him at all really, just the seed of him. That horribly familiar voice talks to him, its owner unseen: ‘Come on, Karly-boy, take ‘em off. Remember what I told you – I’ll tell your daddy what you did. He’ll believe me, not you. I’ve told him what a dreadful little liar you are…’
‘But I’m not,’ he says, a well of tears ready to slide from his wide eyes. ‘I’m not a liar…’
‘You are now, Karly – because Uncle Claud says you are. Now do what your uncle wants you to do and take them off…’
He lies there, pushing at the waistband of his shorts, as the image tears apart, a starburst of fragments spinning off the face, but to reveal: a picnic bench near the woods, camp life going on in the distance. He sits opposite his Dad, Kleinholtz Karole, and he says, ‘But Dad…’ The word is stretched to its limit. ‘But Dad, I swear it’s true, it’s what he does…’
‘Nonsense Karl,’ says his Dad. ‘Your Uncle Claud would never do anything bad. He’s told me what a big fibber you are, always making up stories… But you mustn’t make up bad things…’
‘I’m not making it up, Dad. I’m really not. I just want to come home…’
‘And you can come home — a week tomorrow, son. The time’ll fly by, you’ll see. And Claud’s told me what he’s planned for your last week – you’re going to love it…’
‘I won’t love it. I hate Uncle Claud – he’s a bad man, he does bad things, and he hurts me…’
Angry now. ‘Stop this, Karl! I’ll hear no more of these dreadful lies. You should be ashamed of yourself! You’re staying here, and that’s that, like it or not…’ He rises to leave the table.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself…’
Turns back with a hard stare. ‘What was that?’
‘Any more of that, sonny-boy, and you’ll be getting another thrashing from me…’ He walks away.
‘I don’t care,’ he yells. ‘I wish I was dead…’
But Kleinholtz continues walking back to the lodge. You can see the rage, pain and fury in Karl’s blurred eyes. Then the image disintegrates, revealing another one, a hospital room, girl in the bed hooked up to tubes. But it is no image. The room is really there, behind the phone, which has now melted into air.
He walks over to the bed. Christ! He knows who’s lying there, pallid, grey, her eyes closed, the long lashes now tangled, gummed up with the residues of vision. It’s Gloria Shelby. It all comes back to him now. The new car, the wet road, night, a sharp turn, construction work, and the tanker coming too fast, head on, impact: 120 mph. Now the coma, now the vigil, now the recriminations. As you do when your daughter crashes her car, you blame the boyfriend for letting her drive at night in bad weather. Abe Shelby had called his Dad too, ready to rumble, but Kleinholtz had agreed with him: Karl was at fault, and there ought to be repercussions. Nothing he could say changed anything. She’d insisted on driving that night – with her brand new license – and she was forceful, difficult to resist if her mind was made up. It was one of the many things he loved about her. He couldn’t have stopped her driving if he’d thrown in a sack and dumped it in the trunk. The fathers just assumed that he had to say this – it was about all he could say. No one seemed to see the grief leaking out from him. Abe Shelby’s grief came in the form of anger; and the only available object of that anger was Karl Karole. It boiled over in the corridor outside her room. Abe threw a punch to his jaw and kicked him in the balls as he reeled from the blow. Karl did not retaliate. Holding his swelling chin, he said he understood, said his heart went out to Abe. But Gloria’s dad was having none of it. He would have laced into him again if a hospital security guard hadn’t intervened. Even this guard thought Karl was at fault, frog-marching him from the ward. Abe then had him banned from the visitor’s list, so he wasn’t there when they pulled the plug and let her drift away towards what she had always called the marriage to eternity. It was a line from Rumi, from a poem of profound and hair-raising beauty, a poem describing death, describing it as if from experience. Gloria had been very spiritual. It was what inspired her humanitarian work, whereas his inspiration had been her. Because she inclined towards things of the spirit, he did too. When she was lying there in that astral transit lounge, uncertain what her ultimate destination ought to be, he felt he should intervene on her behalf with the Spirit, in case she was unable to argue her own case. To him, these spiritual things were obviously handled by the celestial bureaucracy operated by a Church, by religion rather than spirituality. There wasn’t a lot of choice in Quebec, so he went to the nearest Roman Catholic field office: St. Basil’s – congregation: three. He went there every day too, for midday mass, Saturday evensong, and Communion on Sunday morning. Father Glick knew him by name. He stayed after the service to pray long and hard in one of the side chapels, starting with the Blessed Virgin, and then, when she proved inefficacious, moving on to the eponymous St. Basil himself. He’d befriended a young doctor at the hospital, and it was from him alone that he received news of Gloria’s condition. After a week with Basil, he was told there had been some evidence of consciousness: her eyelid twitched twice. This encouraged him to egg Basil on, so he felt obliged to learn something about the saint in order to chat with him on a friendly basis. But Basil didn’t seem the kind of man you could have as a friend. All his time had been spent either in prayer, helping the poor or in hard manual labour. Karl felt he would approve of Gloria’s efforts on behalf of the poor, though, so he catalogued them and informed the saint of all she’d done – and all she would go on to do if he only returned her to this world intact. He felt the saint and he were on the same wavelength, and there were miraculous indications he was right about this. Rain held off one day until he’d cycled home; a black cat crossed his path twice in one minute; he won eight dollars on the lottery with numbers given him by Basil. Basil particularly recommended austerities, so Karl denied himself lunch every day. When he learned that the saint had probably died from austerity – suicide by anorexia – he apologised for resuming lunch to preserve his health. Father Glick took a keen interest in Karl’s plight, also praying for Gloria, and directly to Jesus no less. Karl offered barter arrangements to his saint: when Gloria recovered he’d fast every Wednesday and do charitable work one day a week. Then he upped this, vowing to donate twenty percent of his wages, when he had wages, to the causes dearest to Basil’s heart (although not fighting the Arian heresy, which battle had been won). When he heard that Gloria had gone, helped on her way by the wire in Abe Shelby’s hand, his grief also manifested as anger. He swore at Saint Basil, defaced his image with an indelible marker, and then yelled obscenities at the high altar, at the crucified one, and then at Father Glick. Karl had forced himself to realize that these supernatural beings had failed him, not because they chose to withhold their services but because they were fictional. The real butt of his fury ought to be the priest, that conman peddling lies and picking the faithful’s pockets. He cornered him in the confessional, and would have blacked his eye had a convoy of nuns not entered the church at that very moment – which in itself not long before would have comprised another Basilian miracle. He spat in the holy water on his way out, and could never hear someone mention God without tearing them off a strip and gaging them with it. Security guards had been stationed to prevent him attending Gloria’s funeral – and, he learned to his horror, his Dad not Abe Shelby had hired them. Karl took himself off to Corfu for a year just to calm down enough to avoid paying a hitman to break his father’s legs. The lengthy stay conjured up an amnesiac effect, erasing that which was unbearable to remember. Now it all came flooding back, as he stared at the wall and its bank of pinging, beeping monitors.
‘But you did not erase it, did you?’ she says. He turns to find Gloria sitting on the side of her bed, still wan and pale, but very much alive. ‘You harboured it, and it festered,’ she goes on. ‘I’m ashamed of what you’ve become. I couldn’t love you as you are now – and evidently no one else can either. Your own kids, your relatives, everyone who has to deal with you – they can’t stand you. It’s not them, Karl, it’s you. The way you treat them is what makes them loathe you. Anyone who loved you was treated like dirt until they ceased to love you. Your daughter is in bad need of money to help her little boy, but she’d rather clean toilets in an old folks home every night than ask you for a dime… Shall I show you something?’
He’s mute, shocked, he merely nods helplessly. The room falls away, dissolving in the air, as another room grows up out of nothing. It’s his daughter Gertrude’s small apartment in Ottawa. She seated at table with her husband, Bobby, and a couple of guests, as Bobby carves a pork loin. On Gertie’s knee sits little Charlie, her son. She says, ‘Sorry about the pork, me friends, but the bird looked a wee bit too pricey this year…’ There are polite grunts to indicate no one minds — they’re here for the company not the food. She then turns to Charlie and says, ‘Go on, Charlie-boy, show them what you learned this week…’ The child hesitantly recites some sort of seasonal poem, faltering at times, stammering twice, but getting through it. Everyone applauds, especially Mandy, the older sister. ‘The guy’s expensive,’ says Gertie, ‘but he’s so damn good it’s worth it. At this rate, he says, Charlie should be perfectly normal inside a year – in’t that right Charlie-Barley?’
‘Anything from your father?’ someone asks her.
‘Of course not,’ she replies. ‘I invited him as I always do – but nothing from him, not a peep. Pity really. God knows what he does for Christmas. Probably nothing – like he did when we were all young. But it just makes him even more miserable than he usually is. I know he’d enjoy it if he came…’
‘No one else would, though,’ says Bobby, serving slices of steaming pork. ‘He is a bit of a downer, you’ve got to admit…’
‘Yeah,’ says Gertie, ‘but he’s still me Dad, and I love him despite meself…’
‘Thicker than water,’ says one of the guests. ‘Hear anything from Trevor?’
‘Got a desperate phone call last summer,’ she says. ‘He needed cash to bail himself out of some town jail in Alabama. I couldn’t help. I told him I wanted to but that it was impossible. He was furious, didn’t believe me…’
‘Christ, call his father why doesn’t he? That’s crazy…’
‘Trev would rather slit his own throat than ask Dad for anything,’ Gertie explains. ‘You know what he’s like, Dad – it’s actually painful for him to spend money on anyone but himself. He’d have left Trev in jail…’
‘Where he was left anyway, so…’
‘Trevor blames the whole sorry disaster of his wretched life on Dad,’ she goes on. ‘It’s partly true, but he also needs to take some responsibility for it himself…’
‘He didn’t beat himself with a riding crop, did he?’ Bobby says, carving again. ‘He didn’t humiliate himself for not being able to become something Karl couldn’t manage to become himself, did he? Your Dad has to take most of the blame, Gert. Trevor’s a very damaged boy, and he didn’t damage himself – but he just can’t heal those wounds…’
‘What was it that Karl wanted to do but couldn’t manage?’
‘A journalist. You know, the great crusading kind, the talkers of truth to power…’
‘Really? I am surprised…’
‘Yeah. He never wanted to go into the family biz…’
‘Ah, it’s not that clear. He wrote some pieces here and there. But he didn’t have the drive to do it; or maybe he just didn’t have the talent. But he also fiddled about in real estate, and found he was quite good at that, so he let the writing slide. That was when we kids came along, and I suppose he decided Trev would do what he couldn’t do – you know, fulfill his dream for him…’
‘Yeah, but it’s complicated. Dad had a terrible relationship with Grandad. They never spoke, avoided one another like the plague. No one really knows why…’
‘So he recreated that same relationship with his own son, did he?’
‘Well, Dr. Freud, you tell us…’
‘No more,’ says Karl, closing his eyes. ‘Please, no more…’
‘Why should you be spared?’ says Gloria. ‘The things you’ve done — they ought to merit no mercy at all. You planted these seeds, so you must see what grows from them… Look!’
Even though his eyes are closed he sees this, he can’t avoid this, these images that scorch through the mind in rivulets of burning mercury.
A back alley in New Orleans; the night full of rain. Trevor Karole’s lifeless corpse is stretched out face up in the garbage, a needle still in the gravid crook of his arm. ‘Phentenol,’ says a man in grey. ‘We’re seeing it all over…’
‘Ah, Christ, no,’ cries a portly man, balding, chubby hand over his mouth. ‘He was pulling himself together. Man, he was try so hard. Good worker too…’
‘Who the hell are you?’ says the grey man.
‘Massimo. Of Massimo’s Ristorante. He work for me in the kitchen – very thorough, very reliable. I know he have hard life, but he try, man, he make a go of it…’
‘Now he made a went of it,’ says the man. ‘It’s what junkies do – they go… You be next of kin then?’
‘Si, si,’ says Massimo. ‘I know he have no one. I take care of everything. He was good boy – now this! Life is not a fair thing, is it? His papa was billionaire – yes, much money. Very much. But he do nothing for the boy – nothing!’
‘Now there ain’t nothing he can do, is there?’
‘Who was it say that the rich are different from us?’ asks Massimo.
‘Someone addicted to statements of the obvious, I guess,’ says the man, writing notes on his phone. ‘Different? Yeah, they’re different: they’ve got far more money…’
‘No, he doesn’t mean that…’
‘Christ,’ Karl says. ‘My little boy. I never wanted this…’
‘Yet this is what you made, what you created, the seed you planted,’ Gloria tells him, behind his closed eyes, behind the hands clapped over those eyes. ‘You set these causes in motion, and you must face their effects, Karl. There are laws in the universe – immutable laws… Look!’
A groan of despair, as the theatre in his head opens, light falling on the stage: Interior. Night. Barry Thazar’s apartment.
‘I didn’t want to tell you until after Christmas,’ Bal tells his wife, Val. ‘I didn’t think the clinic would leave a message on out machine – it’s so unprofessional…’ He claps a hand over his forehead, pulls the halves of a threadbare dressing gown together, and then he sighs.
‘Don’t worry about their professionalism, ‘Val tells him wearily. ‘Worry about how we’re going to get you treatment. Didn’t you all know that the coverage Karole got you this year was crap? What a scumbag that Karl is – not a chip off the old block…’
‘Who has time to read all that fine print?’ says Bal. ‘Even if you do you can’t understand half of it…’
‘Everything these days seems like a con of some sort,’ she says, pacing the worn rug. ‘Did they give you… I mean did they say… you know – how severe it…’
‘They said it’s virulent, it needs chemo now…’
‘No, not later,’ he says.
‘And that’s the oncologist’s fee plus eight hundred a week for the prescriptions?’
‘Shit, Bal – what are we going to do?’
‘I don’t know, lovey…’
‘I don’t want you to die, Bally,’ she wails. ‘I don’t want to lose you…’
‘I don’t want that either,’ he says. ‘It reminds me of that Tennessee Williams play about the…’
She stops his mouth with her finger. ‘No now, Bally,’ she says. ‘It’s no time for anecdotes…’
‘They’re about all I’ve got left now, lovey…’
She throws her arms around his neck and sobs, saying in great heaving bursts of sorrow, ‘I… hope… God…will…punish that Karl…Karole…’
‘Me, I hope there’s a god… any god,’ says Bal.
Stage curtains lurch closed, and then swiftly open again: Interior. The Funeral Chapel. Day. Two scruffy men in torn hazmat suits, Boz and Ron, open the coffin lid. He sees himself, poorly patched together, filler in the lacerations, lying in there, little more than a pile of scraps shoved inside one of his best suits. ‘Gor, what a mess,’ says Boz. ‘Terrible job – who did it?’
‘Rick,’ says Ron. ‘The new apprentice. They gotta learn some way, eh? Had to scoop up this dude from the wreckage…’
‘I hope they got all of him,’ says Boz. ‘But worra mess all the same…’
‘Who cares?’ says Ron. ‘No one came to the service…’
‘No one? I thought he was rollin’ in it?’
‘Yeah, billionaire,’ says Ron dispassionately. ‘But you know what they say: money don’t buy you love, does it?’
‘It bought me some back in the day,’ Boz says, almost sentimental. ‘Hey, let’s have a look in the pockets, yeah? No one’s gonna mind…’
They filch around in the pricey suit. ‘Here ya go,’ Boz says with delight, pulling Karl’s watch out on its dangling gold chain. ‘Worth a bit, I’d say – fifty-fifty, eh?’
‘Deal,’ says Ron, and they shake hands, the latex gloves squeaking. ‘You know what, Boz?’ muses Ron. ‘Let’s take the whole suit and those shoes too, eh? Dude won’t need ‘em where he’s going, will he? This is quality stuff too…’
They strip off the clothing, obliged to move what resemble chunks of beef to one side. ‘Here Ron,’ says Boz, his brow furrowed. ‘If you go to the other side in pieces like this one, do you have to spend eternity spread out in parts all over the place?’
‘Jeez, I dunno,’ says Ron. ‘That’s a puzzler, ain’t it? We’ll have to ask Father O’Brien when he comes around…’
‘Yeah, those Catholics know everything, don’t they?’ Boz surmises. Then he hoists the lid back on. ‘This going to the old cemetery, is it?’ he asks.
‘Nah,’ says Ron. ‘It’s a burner. No one cares what happens to him – or what’s left of him…’
‘It’s like they says,’ says Boz. ‘Be nice to the people ya meet on your way up, ‘cos you’ll meet ‘em again on your way down…’
‘Ain’t that the truth,’ Ron agrees, looking pensive. ‘Well,’ he goes on, ‘I’ve only teally met you, Boz…’
‘So be nice to me on your way down…’
‘Now help me stash this stuff somewhere or you won’t be goin’ up…’
Cut to black, an utter black. He calls out for Gloria, but no one is there. Nothing else seems to be there, either — not three, two or even one dimension. His heart leaps. Panic bubbles up, acidic filaments searing through soft innards. He runs wildly in circles, arms out, frantic hands searching, colliding with a wooden surface, which flies open, throwing him out into the silent passage. Christ, he thinks, they missed out a few side effects, didn’t they? Like Hell. And the Church got that wrong. You’re not sent there by some celestial Judge to be tormented by Satan and his legions. There’s a Satan in you, a nattering shadow, a dark architect who instructs you how to build your own personal Inferno under the impression it’s the Paradiso, a heavenly city populated by one. Oh, he thinks, I have taken too little care of this. But, God, the fear grips him, the final fear of a dreadful and perpetual exile, deeds for which nothing can compensate, deeds which nothing can undo, and what awaits you is terminally uncertain, substantially sickening, wholly vile, and it will last until the end of the end. It will last until the universe is rolled up like a carpet and tossed into the fires of a primal, terrifying flux. The drum of his heart rolls; it beats to arms, ordering all hands on deck. Then, through the embattled thunderheads, a ray of fulvous light shines down, and the luminescence within all things responds to this lover’s touch. The thought effloresces, bold and golden: But surely it’s still only Christmas Eve, he tells himself. Nothing has to be, does it? Is everything predetermined or is there free will? That’s a puzzler, isn’t it, a real brain-screwer?
Moving on through shadows. The wooden grain ribbing his fingers falls away as the great door opens and he falls to his knees in a small, stark room. He looks up, seeing, in dancing candlelight, a very old man, threads of snow-white hair wavering around his head, seated cross-legged on a cushion behind a low desk. Leaning on his hands, with the panting rhythm of slow deep breaths, he, Karl Karole, says, ‘You’re…’ But he loses himself in the radiant compassion flooding through this old man’s golden eyes.
‘Yes, Rimpoche,’ says the man, his voice a spring zephyr caressing tender new leaves. ‘And you are Geula, the Christmas Karole. Welcome, my child…’
‘Geula?’ he says, a peace like freedom now rising inside.
‘Your new name,’ says Rimpoche. ‘The old one was burning your tongue and all who tasted its bitterness…’
‘Do I get another chance?’ he says, this being the only question he has. ‘Is there another chance?’
‘Everybody every day has another chance,’ Rimpoche assures him. ‘In every minute and every second of life on earth another chance exists. Call it grace, call it mercy, call it a benison of the universe, or call it common sense – nonetheless it is there so that a life does not have to be squandered…’
‘As I am squandering mine?’
‘Only you can determine that, Geula – you are the Judge…’
‘Is there free will?’ says Geula, ‘or is everything predetermined?’
‘The puzzler, hmmm?’ says Rimpoche. ‘But not as great a puzzler as the answer…’
‘Free will or predetermination? One is in theory,’ says Rimpoche, ‘and one is in practice – but only you can decide which is which…’
‘Is anything true, Rimpoche? Is there a certainty anywhere?’
‘Yes, my child. One law governs the cosmos…’
‘What is it?’ he says.
‘That which is hateful to you, do not do it to others…’
‘I’ve heard that before…’
‘No, Geula, you listened to it before, but you didn’t hear it…’
‘I hear it now, Rimpoche, don’t I?’ he says, his eyes pleading.
‘All the ills of history and time stem from that one law being broken,’ Rimpoche tells him, a forefinger raised. ‘You have seen what evil flowers sprout from the seeds you’ve sown…’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But do I have a chance to root out those seeds?’
‘The future is always what we make it,’ says Rimpoche. I think you know what kind of future you now want to live in, yes?’
‘I do, I do,’ he says. ‘It’s like a blindfold has been removed…’
‘Be careful you don’t tie it on again, child. You say freedom requires eternal vigilance. I say liberation requires it too…’
Resolutely, he says, ‘I know what I must do…’
‘Yes, but you don’t know all of it…’
‘What?’ he says, the word tiring him.
‘For me, you will take that couple and their child to Ottawa,’ Rimpoche tells him.
‘That’s it? That’s all you want?’
‘I don’t even want that,’ says Rimpoche, a smile crinkling his fissured face. ‘But you need it…’
‘But,’ he says, ‘I thought the infant was important to you all here?’
‘Yes,’ says Rimpoche, ‘he would have taken my place one day. But the will of his parents must prevail. No matter, though, because wherever he is he will be a light to the world, leading men and women out of their darkness…’
‘She named him after me, though,’ he says, wincing.
‘Ah,’ says Rimpoche, ‘for him the name will be a balm not a fire…’
‘It’s not a good name for a messiah, though, you must admit…’
‘No, not a good name…’
When he returns to the prayer hall, a spring in his step, Joe is there eating noodles and drinking hot rice wine. The family is pleased to hear his news, and everyone prepares to leave. But Geula Karole has to make a phone call first. The elderly monk informs him that the retreat has no telephone. The air oppresses him, pushing down with a leaden force. How will he uproot those growing plants to prevent them flowering tomorrow if he cannot travel tonight? Frustrated and anxious, he says, ‘Rimpoche told me to do this now – and without gas I can’t…’
‘Gas?’ says the monk. ‘Your vehicle is full of that, I assure you…’
And so it is. As they step outside the mist has cleared and a star-strewn velvety night arches over them. Directly above is an exceptionally brilliant star, one he can’t recall seeing before. He points it out to Joe, who looks up, the radiance sparkling in his eyes, as if he sees two stars. ‘It’s what my people call the Stranger Star, yeah? He says.
‘It’s stranger than other stars?’ Geula says.
Joe laughs. ‘Not that kinda stranger,’ he says. ‘The kind that wanders into your village bringing wisdom and light, right?’
‘Right, Joe,’ he says. ‘You’re right about a lot of things, aren’t you?’
Joe merely smiles, hefting his suitcase and setting off down the mountain. Geula has left Karl’s Gicci briefcase back in the retreat, with the papers inside, as well as the Gelutzane, and he doesn’t miss any of it at all.
First they head to his lakeside house, where the fire blazes under its copper hood. He has to collect a spare phone; but before they head for Ottawa there’s a call he has to make here on the landline.
‘Thazar?’ he says, in his old gruff snarl.
Barry Thazar had been sound asleep, but he’s not about to complain of the hour’s lateness to his boss, is he? ‘Sir?’ he says.
‘I’ve been thinking about your work lately, Thazar, assessing your value to me…
Gulp. ‘You have, sir?’
‘Yes, Thazar, I have. And I’ve come to a difficult decision…’
‘You have?’ A deep breath.
‘Yes, I have. And I’ve decided that you no longer belong in your current position…’
Bal braces for the worst. ‘Where do I belong, s-sir?’
‘I think, Thazar, that you would be ideally suited to the post of president…’
‘President?’ He assumes he’s misheard.
‘Yes, Thazar. Of course the salary will be different – about ten times what you earn now, I believe. Plus stock options, an expense account, and a clothing allowance…’
‘A clothing allowance?’
‘Yes, Thazar. When you represent the Karole Corp, you have to be resplendent – which means, among other things, no checks, no ankle-danglers…’ He goes on to tell him he wants the corporate health coverage to be renegotiated. ‘You dictate the terms yourself, Thazar. I want our insurance to be the best in North America…’ Then he tells him to cancel the January 2nd meeting and organize a New Year’s Party instead. ‘The best caterer, Thazar; an extensive free bar; grand door prizes, the whole shebang, right?’ Next he orders his new president to work only two days a week, join a gym, go to the spa, get your health and body in perfect shape. ‘And Thazar, on my desk is a contract, a big one, a thick one. Can you have Marie-Claire shred it for me – and tell her I don’t need the ink after all…’
‘Who was that, Bally?’ says his wife, Val. ‘Not that beast?’
‘No, lovey. It was Santa Claus.
In Ottawa, he drives to the Chateau Laurier hotel, telling Joe he’s staying here. ‘Going to have them arrange a Christmas banquet, Joe. I want you and your whole family to come…’
‘Right,’ says Joe, a little confused. ‘Our relatives are a bit far away for us to take a cab from here, yeah?’
‘Why a cab, Joe, when you can drive there in your new Jeep Willis!’ he tosses Joe the keys. ‘Happy Christmas, friends – and I hope you’ll always be my friends…’ The baby opens his enormous golden eyes at this, and Geula sees two huge tears slide down from them like pearls you could thread on a string.
I think we all know what Geula Karole did next, don’t we? Perhaps we should imagine the same thing happening in different ways in our own lives, so that the real meaning of this season is never forgotten. A Christmas Karole is still broadcast every year, watched avidly and merrily by nine hundred men and women who have now come to think of themselves as the Karole Family. As Rimpoche said, that which is hateful to you, do not do it to others – then we will all have peace on earth and mercy mild forever, won’t we?