Chapter Nine: Pandora’s Box

John stood on the sidewalk and watched the guitar man play in front of the liquor store. His memory stirred and gave forth an image of himself at a much younger age, walking with his father on the main street of downtown Vancouver, staring for the first time at the various street musicians. Most of all, he had liked the guitar players, playing with an open case for loose change, and with a nearby dirty packback. His guitar was in the closet back home now, spending most of its time there after John finally admitted he had no talent for pitch. He couldn’t even tune the six-stringed instrument. It made him admire the guitar players all the more. His album collection consisted exclusively of Hendrix, Pete Townsend, Bruce Coburn , and Stevie Ray Vaugh.

The guitar man in front of liquor store had stopped strumming and singing and started to pick with his fingers at the strings. It was a classical tune, requiring above-average technical ability, but the guitar man handled it flawlessly. John stood transfixed. The crescendo came not two minutes later and ended as suddenly as it began.
“That’s gotta be the first time I have ever seen a street player who knew how to thumb-pick.” John told him.
“That just shows you ain’t been around,” the player said. He had a salt-and-pepper beard, and looked to be in his mid-forties.
“Back in New York, in Greenwich Village, they got guitar-men in the street who could out-pick Saint Peter on a bad day.”
“Who taught how to play like that?”
“Played a little bit with Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists. Ever hear of them?”
“It figures. Today’s kids only know Boy George, Micheal Jackson, and maybe a few other fairies.”
John grinned and dropped a few coins into the open guitar case. “That’s for your playing, and for good luck.”
And then he walked into the liquor store. Not three minutes later he walked out again and the guitar player looked at him and laughed.
“Son, if I had good luck to give out, would I be standing here on a street corner for a few pennies, or would I be in a music studio in L.A.?”
John replied sullenly. “Never had a problem before. I think it musta been a new guy. Now they’ll never let me buy booze there again. They’ve got me marked.”

“Well now son, I do believe this here is a chance for me to do a good deed for the day. Take a hold of this guitar, and slip me a ten-spot. Good. You realize, I’m only doing this because you showed respect towards your elders. Damnfool regulations they got here anyways. Kids gonna booze on beer or mouthwash, whatever they can get their hands on. You can play a little? I hope so. Don’t scare away all my customers, and keep your hands out of the guitar case. A guitar-man knows these things.”

John took a spot behind the guitar case and started strumming. “I drink Bacardi rum.”
“Rum? Did you say rum? What are you, some sort of Limey? I ain’t getting you no rum. Don’t worry, I’ll fix you up real nice.”
The guitar-man disappeared into the liquor store. John stood outside and strummed the chords to “Hotel California.” It was an easy tune to play, very hard to master. His clumsy fingers caused the strings to buzz only once in a while. He loved it, the romance of street playing, with no responsibities in the world. He felt the urge to quit his existence of John Poleshaw, high school student and sometime football player. He wanted to wander the continent, maybe mosey on down to New Orleans and explore the roots of music…

The guitar-man walked out of the store and slipped a hip flask of something into John’s inside jean jacket pocket, as neat as you would have it.
“There ya go. Gees, didn’t bring too much in, did ya? Oh well, it takes years to learn how to hustle properly, boy. Now you run along and have a good time at the party tonight, okay?” “Thanks, thanks a lot,” John said. The guitar-man had already taken his instrument from John. He looked each passer-by boldly in the eye, and loudly plucked each string so that the notes carried into the street. Not forty-five minutes later John stood in front of Tim’s house on the Westside and took a sip from the flask. The Southern Comfort liqueur burned John’s throat before the sweetness made itself known on his tongue. John had bought some Coke as a mixer but the stuff tasted good enough for him to be drunk straight. From that day forward, John never drank anything else. And he always yearned to go to New Orleans.

Tim’s parents owned a split-level rancher in the very upscale neighbourhood of Point Grey, not far from the Yacht Club and the Spanish Banks beach. Tim’s father was a ranking executive for Canadian Pacific with a generous salary in a position that offered good connections and a enormous amount of discretionary power. For example, he was on a nodding acquaintance with the federal minister of finance, as well as the odd captain of industry. The house mirrored the owner, blending into the landscape while dominating the foreground. Trees and lush vegetation covered the front and side lawns of the property, and looking at it reminded John of the dream he had had before the game. The silence of the neighbourhood also nudged his memory of that Sunday morning, when he had passed into high-school mythology with that impossible catch. John stood still for a minute, letting the motion-picture camera run in his head. Every nerve in his body jangled, not for the first time that week. He felt himself to be poised on the threshold of something very… momentous. He could not describe what his instinct was forboding. Only a few times in every person’s life does he or she arrive at a moment of great decision or change. John felt himself on the cusp of such a decision, and did not know for sure what to do. Perhaps tonight, he thought, the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

He walked up to the house and opened the door without knocking. Music emanated from downstairs but John headed to the kitchen first, the nerve center of any party. Besides, he had to chill the Southern Comfort in the icebox. Tim was there, sitting on a kitchen stool with Susan’s arms wrapped around his shoulders. They both looked tipsy.
“Arrgh, the mighty warrior has arrived,” Tim said, and he lifted up a glass of wine in greetings to John. Susan giggled and clutched Tim even harder. They looked good together. John poured himself a stiff shot of booze and shoved his mickey way to the back of the icebox. He sat down beside Tim.
“I, too, remember when I had my first glass of wine,” John said, and he winked at Susan.
Tim nearly choked on his wineglass and chuckled at the pinprick.
“Didn’t you know Johnsie, that alcohol is technically a poison? That if, you should drink too much of it, the respiratory system shuts down and cardiac arrest follows?”
“Why no, Tim, I didn’t know that.”
“Did you know then,” and Tim’s voice dropped to a whisper, “that I’m legally dead?”
Tim laughed and Susan goosed him in a playful sort of way. John was reminded of her brother but thought it impolite to inquire about the state of his health.
“So who is all here?” John asked instead.
Tim and Sue exchanged glances.
“A few people you know, a few you don’t. Gees, what do I look like, the recreational director?” Tim said.
“Okay, better question, who’s downstairs smoking the dope I got for you? And second question, are they enjoying it?”
Sue giggled again. “OOOOhhh, so it was yooouuu. Tim didn’t tell me. Hey, two whiffs of that stuff and you’re gone. You must tell us which places to shop to find such exquisite marijua-na.” Sue’s giggles continued into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. John drained his drink and poured himself another.
“Well, with all the straight answers I’m getting, I might as well go see for myself,” he said.

He took a detour through the parlour room that was empty of people. He walked through the ankle-deep plush carpeting to study a picture on the far wall. It was a portrait of a Highlander with his bagpipes in his arms and two of his dogs at his feet. John studied the brushstokes that created a picture almost as accurate as a picture created by photons hitting a frame of film. He wondered if such technical ability had been lost to the ancient painters dead long before the advent of television. One time, on a school field trip, his class had gone to a museum to view some modern art. Apparently some dork down in the states had made a fortune out of painting a portrait of a soup can.

As John headed towards the stairwell a waft of easy laughter serenaded his ears and he froze. He understood now the cause of Rob’s evasions; it had not just been the booze. Of course it had been a possibility that she would come but by no means a certainty. But did Tim and Sue’s tactful manner mean that she had brought a boyfriend with her? John’s logical side told him that he should have written her off a long time ago. He descended the stairs nervous and self-conscious anyways.

Jennifer hoped her boredom did not show too much. She had learned a long time ago that a pretty girl showing disdain would too easily be accused of snobbery. Unfortunately the three boys that had been following around her all night were fast running out of witty things to say, not that they had had an ample stock to begin with. Now it seemed that that they only stood close by waiting for her to get drunk enough for her to choose one of them. They could only wish. There are times, she thought, when the persona of ice queen is damn useful to have around, and another fifteen minutes of tedium might cause her to make an appearance. She was aware of someone standing in the doorway and she turned around ever so casually.

Don’t look like a dork and rush up to her like a drooling puppy, John thought to himself, and he walked over to say hello to a few people smoking a joint that he knew only faintly.
“Hey people, is that a communal joint?” he asked, and was rewarded with the roach in a clip. He took a deep drag, thinking that god yes he could do this now that football was over. He handed it back to a girl who smiled at him in a languid sort of way and John recognized that this group at least was working on a heavy stone.
“The Thai stuff was better,” someone said from the corner of the room. “Too good to last, too bad you missed it.”
“Well maybe that’s a good thing because I’m such an easy stone,” John replied. “Wouldn’t want to go crazy.”
“Don’t get crazy on pot, just lazy and hazy,” the voice answered back.

John felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and Jennifer was there, not twelve inches from his face. Not four feet behind were three guys about John’s age looking vaguely uncomfortable and resentful.
“You know, I thought that was an extremely good-looking chick in the corner, but I wasn’t gonna make any moves until I had cased out the whole room,” John said.
Jennifer laughed and returned his steady gaze. She noticed for the first time how wide his shoulders were and how his lopsided grin made her slightly dizzy. Or maybe that was just the pot kicking in. Oh God, I don’t want to hurt him, she thought, but I can’t keep away from him anymore.
“So I haven’t seen you at church the last couple of weeks,” she said.
“Football,” John said, “my team just finished the play-offs. The Laurentian Tigers became city champions as of last Sunday.”
“Yeah, I know,” said one of the three boys that had backed away from Jennifer, “my team lost in the finals.”
“Hey, it was a fantastic game,” John said.
“Yeah, I know,” the boy said, “but we woulda beat you except for that little s.o.b that caught that long bomb at the end.”
John laughed and said nothing.

Over the course of the next few hours the three boys disappeared unwillingly into the woodwork. Jennifer just ignored them, drawing closer and closer to John until around midnight she stood slightly aside to him with her arm brushing against one of his ribs. John finally asked her if she would like to go for a walk. Before they went outside John detoured into the kitchen to refill his drink. Tim and Susan took a break from necking long enough to watch him rummage around in the icebox as he looked for his mickey.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Tim asked. Susan gave a lazy smile and snuggled into the nape of Tim’s neck. John filled up his glass and said good-bye. He found Jennifer in the doorway and they walked out into the street to the Spanish Banks, a stretch of beachland under the stewardship of the University of British Columbia.

They held hands in silence as they drew closer to the sand and the Strait of Georgia. Tall pines cut off the glare of the streetlights, and the city fell away from them as they walked not ten feet away from the surf, heading towards the westernmost point of the North American continent, excluding Alaska. John could feel himself slipping into thrall. It was as if the two had stepped off the face of civilization and into a world of magic. Darkness made the earth appear without form and void. An immense presence moved upon the face of the waters, unseeable. John looked up at the lights in the firnament of heaven and told Jennifer that among those stars were black holes with gravity so strong that nothing escaped; no matter or even light. And at the middle of every black there was a singularity, where the Newtonian laws of the universe ceased to exist. His physics teacher had told him all about it.

“That would be the perfect way to die, of course. To be on spaceship heading into the centre of the black hole. As you got closer to the point of singularity, time in the rest of the universe speeds up all around you. It would be sorta like traveling at the speed of light. You would live long enough to see the death of the galaxy, maybe the death of the universe. You would be like a god.”
Jennifer shivered and held him tight around the waist as they walked towards the forest. Their feet trod upon earth bringing forth grass, the trees dropping their pine cones full of seed. Safe from prying eyes they embraced and kissed. Jennifer told him that she didn’t want to hurt him. John laughed and told her not to worry so she didn’t. John leaned against a tree and Jennifer leaned against John. She started to tell him about Montreal, the cradle of Canadian history.

“It’s like the Plains of Abraham happened yesterday for some of those people. There is a few people there that hate the anglophones and everything that’s English. Some of them think World War II was a plot by English Canada to get them all drafted and killed. The worst part is the paranoia is increasing. More English people leave, taking their money with them, so Montreal gets poorer and the separatists get more and more pissed-off. So more of us leave, chased out of our homeland. Dad wants to go back, he doesn’t like it here.”
“Why not? This is paradise,” John said.
“His roots are back in Montreal; it’s hard to explain,” she said, “Have you ever been outside of Vancouver?”
“This place has no history, it’s like everybody comes here to start over, washed clean of what came before.”
“I want to see you again. And again.” John said.
The booze and the dope and the atmosphere of the evening took away Jennifer’s hesitation and made forget about Andre, poor Andre with his crushed spirit, so she told him she wanted to see him again as well. It had not rained all that week but a mist rose up and watered the whole face of the ground. The smell of the forest breathed into John’s nostrils and he felt his living soul cry out as he embraced Jennifer. She pushed him away ever so slightly and picked up her purse from the ground where it had fallen. She took out a small vial and dipped her ring finger into it. She held her finger to John’s nose and whispered into his ear. He sniffed. He dipped his finger into the vial and returned the favour.
“It’s so much better than pot because it doesn’t wreck the lungs,” she said. John agreed, and put his hand under blouse, a different sort of hunger making itself known. Jennifer responded in kind.

* * *

Scott waited until his mother was asleep before he snuck out of bed to conduct a midnight raid upon the refridgerator. He couldn’t sleep, what a surprise. He poured himself a glass of milk. There was one third of an apple pie left but that was supposed to be for dessert tomorrow. Scott weighed the punishment against the pleasure, then made himself a sandwich and sighed.

He had to go to church this morning. Mom let him off during the football season but now it was back into the fold. He had been praying a lot lately. Woody was back on the coke again and Rob was looking to nail Scott’s ass to the nearest locker to show to the rest of the school that nobody could cross Robby and get away with it. So now it looked like Scott had to dig that goddamn suitcase of cocaine out of the ground and maybe do something with it that might save Scott’s ass. He wondered how many people had died in order that a certain number of cocoa plants could be processed into a recreational substance and then transported to a metropolitan area so it could be enjoyed by certain number of affluent consumers. He wondered if he simply was not signing his own death warrant by digging up the suitcase. Here lies Scott Shartrande, victim of his own stupidity, died 1986. Scott remembered one Christmas where he had prayed so hard for a remote control model car. He had complained to Mother that his prayers had not been answered.
“He did answer your prayers,” she had said, “and sometimes the answer is no.”

So many hard lessons for a young boy to learn. Somehow it had seemed so very important to get that remote-controlled car. Almost as important to find his old man and have him return to the household, to make the family whole again. Another hard lesson learned, sometimes the answer is no. The Lord helps those who helps themselves, Scott thought to himself, and the Devil quoteth scripture. Tonight is the night I take the first step to saving’s Woody’s ass. Scott’s buddy was like a planet in a decaying orbit around a ravenous sun.

Scott waited until well after midnight before retrieving the shovel from the basement. He walked over to the railway lands and found the bushes that served as the marker. He switched off the flashlight after he was certain of the location of where to dig. Him and John had only dug a shallow grave of maybe two-and-a-half feet. A hour of solid digging produced no sign of the suitcase, and Scott’s stomach started to do little flip-flops. It only took another half-hour of fruitless scratching before his mind froze with shock, a single thought repeating itself over and over again, with the only conclusion that made sense. John had beaten him to it. John had taken the cocaine already, and now Scott didn’t have the slightest idea what to do at all.

Copyright 2008 by DJ Dunkerley. All Rights Reserved

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