MORNING SERIAL: PRAIRIE’S END, MANITOBA 2

Overture: I wake up most mornings with a half a dozen characters, a plotline or two, and a bunch of run-on sentences doing the polka in my head with their work boots on. After the requisite morning constitutions are ratified, I oftentimes just let these night-grown inspirations fade away.

Well, no more! I am resolved to give my readers something to read! How about a good old-fashioned serial? Compelling, bent-widget characters with a rollicking plot fraught with lotsa knots, cliff-hangers and roundabouts that meet in the middle.

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, it will be voluminous, spontaneous, and free-flowing. You don’t know where the story and the characters are going, so why should I? I won’t promise 50,000 words, but you never know what my morning coffee will deliver!

We continue…

Episode Two: The Stampede is Ont (1,100 words, about a nine-minute read)

The trucking company was called, “Reimer Reindeers” and the company logo had been created by the owner’s diffident step-son, Benjamin, or “Little Ben” as he was known in Prairie’s End.

The garish logo showed a herd of galloping reindeer, antler-to-antler in a frenzied dash across the map from Eastern Manitoba to Toronto. Spinning, smoking wheels replaced legs and hooves. A bold, swooping font declared,

“THE STAMPEDE IS ONT!”

It had started out in Ben’s mind as, “The Reimer Stampede is on!” This was just at the time when the federal government decreed that all provinces would go from three or four-letter acronyms to computer-friendly, consistent two-letter identifiers. Thus, Manitoba went from Man. to MB, Alberta from Alta. to AB and so on.

Little Ben thought that since the Reimer company only trucked between its terminals in Kenora and Toronto, all within the province of Ontario, or ON, that a clever, meaningful slogan could be made. “The Reimer Stampedis ON!” set on a map graphic would tell people that Reimer was an Ontario carrier. Besides, he liked the herd of charging reindeer. “Tres Canadien,” he thought.

Unfortunately, Big Ben, or Old Man Reimer as he was known in Prairie’s End, thought that the two-letter names were a temporary inconvenience. “That will never LAST!” Based on this viewpoint, and in the dubious interests of saving decal material, he ordered the graphics company to create a shorter, less clever slogan, “The Stampede is ONT!”

* * *

Wade walked up to the three-step wooden porch hung on the side of the construction trailer. REIMER REINDEERS – OPERATIONS was stencilled onto the corrugated sidewall and a busy cluster of alien-looking antennae poked up into the pale blue Manitoba sky from the flat roof. A radio tower was bolted to the end of the trailer and it stood erect, a lone 40-foot weed in a field of alfalfa.

That’s quite an impressive erection, he thought.

Checking his briefcase just before he entered, Wade ensured that he had all of his paperwork, the contract documents, the bank draft and the Non-disclosure agreement. He paused on the porch, striking an improbable Superman pose before he entered, to steel his nerve.

Inside, as always, sat Mr. Reimer at a desk made from sawhorses and a sheet of cabinet plywood. A (crude) oil rendering of a stampeding herd of reindeer was screwed to the buckled panelling behind his desk. CB radios sat in a clustered congregation behind him, little green bands pulsing brightly, indicating that the drivers were accessible, should he need to speak to them. A tangle of microphone cords spilled onto the ground – a brimming cornucopia of coils.

“Nice of you to drop in on us this afternoon, Wade,” Reimer said without looking up.

The clock read 7:53. “Yes, sir. My pleasure.”

Reimer looked up quickly, his normally stern, heavy-jowled countenance now made even grimmer by a pouting grimace. “Eh?” he grunted, glancing sideways at a young man a few feet away at a small wooden desk. “Accounts Receivable” was written in felt pen on a scrap of two-by-four standing edgewise on the desktop.

The fellow seated there—he was maybe twenty or so—glanced up at Wade, then over at Reimer. The boy shrugged, tossed the blonde hair out of his eyes and tapped his watch. “Tap-tap-tap,” said the Timex.

Schinda, Wade thought to himself, taking care to register no emotion or concern.

“It’s my day off, sir. Remember? Besides, I start at eight, so…” Wade replied.

“So, why are you here den?”

“Well, Mr. Reimer, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Wade said, peering down and fishing around in the briefcase. He pulled up a clutch of papers like he was retrieving a stringer of perch.

“You’re gonna hafta wait a minute. Wade a minute, eh?” He grinned a wide, toothy smile towards the skinny boy behind the Accounts Receivable two-by-four. The boy smiled back and then spat a full mouthful of sunflower seeds into a white foam cup on his desk. He transferred the contents from the cup to a round, grey metal wastepaper container at his feet. The metal pail was half full of wet, spent seeds.

No wonder his hair’s so yellow, Wade thought to himself. He’s turning into a sunflower.

“Is it possible we could have a private conversation, sir?” Wade asked. He shuffled sideways, scraping his feet to indicate that the ribbon-headed AR clerk could sidle by him and out the door of the crowded trailer. Reimer’s wooden chair creaked.

“About what?” Reimer said, leaning back. The schinda clerk did not move. He watched Reimer like a cat staring through window glass at a bird feeder. If he had a tail, it would have twitched.

“A business matter, ” Wade said, then cleared his voice and restated his case, “a very important business matter. Urgent, as a matter of fact.”

“It can’t Wade?” the sunflower/cat/boy said, one clinging black seed giving him a Jack-O-lantern grin. Bobby Clarke, 1969.

Reimer snorted out a guffaw, and then said, almost in one word, “Randy, get outta here for a while.”

Randy shut his ledger, grabbed a handful of seeds from a near-full dish and went out a door behind him, grabbing his jacket as he left.

“Welllll,” Reimer said, dragging a chair to the side of his desk for Wade to sit. “When yer accountant says he has urgent business, then I guess you gotta take a minute and listen.” He reached to the other side of the desk and plugged in a kettle. A jar of instant coffee sat open on his desk. “Prips?” he asked, motioning at the coffee.

“No, thanks,” Wade said. He sorted the papers in his hands like he was alphabetizing them, stalling for time. Sitting upright on the hard plastic seat, his chair was almost tipping forward. Is the offer enough? It’s three times the value of the rolling stock, parts, and the buildings. His receivables run at only 50K, so that’s easily covered. What if he counters? Of course, he’s gonna counter, Brainiac—just go already. It’s a shitload of money and he’s gotta retire soon! He can pay off his house, get that big fishing boat he always talks about.

“Mr. Reimer, I’ve come here this morning to make what I consider to be a very…”

Before he could finish, there was a crash and a tall, muscular body filled the open doorway. Square shoulders blocked the sun – an impenetrable silhouette, an amorphous Rockem-Sockem black shape.

And there too, hopping and bobbing from behind the imposing hulk, trying to see inside, Wade spotted Little Ben’s balding, cue-ball-white head.

In a twinkling of bedazzled-nails, the shadowy figure held up a gold badge and in a dark brown voice, she said, “DANIELLE OARLESS! U.S. BORDER PATROL. YOU’RE UNDER ARREST!”

Next: “Everything must come to an end. Except for farmer sausage, that has two ends.” (Airs Nov 13, 5:55 am)

 

 

 

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A Day in the Life

What activities fill a writer’s days at Jessica Lake? Usually, it’s routine: up an’ attem, walk, yoga and then eat. Or, brecky first and then get right to work on projects. Projects like building a shed, fixing the dock, or making a couple of rock and cement steps on a gravelly path that can sometimes be slippery.

If I am working on a short story, a re-write, an edit, a submission, or my novel – then that writerly craft supercedes the physical kind. Sometimes I blog and act the fool on social media. The bonus of being a class clown on twitter is that there’s no teacher to send you out in the hall like the pipsqueak that taught me in 1968 by negative example not to have a supercilious speech affectation, lest people believe I am a pretentious and secretly self-loathing boob in a too-tight tracksuit.

Whatever… I get up in the morning and make some shit – whether it’s words or waves or something made of brick and mortar.  But not sticks and stones – I don’t argue on twitter.

Partly, I try to avoid arguing online because I lose — how do you win, really? — and partly because I feel like that twitter-wars are more of a forum for the same light livered guys who used to phone in and yell at our receptionists and then became sweet-as-Rogers Corn Syrup when I got on the phone. Weasels and bit players. Sorry for the digression – that kind of loudmouth schnookery gets me whipped up.

I’m a damn lib and I mock the USA’s Le Petite Orange and all those in Canada who would have us go that yelling-at-the-receptionist direction. I try to be supportive of thoughtful people in an offbeat and often cryptic way, even if we disagree. It’s kinda fun.

Back to activities: If there are kids and/or grandkids around – they trump all and any other. It’s the law. When conditions beckon, there’s windsurfing and cross-country skiing here at Jessica the Awesome.  (BTW, I’m writing this in my wetsuit, waiting for the wind to pipe up, so if you smell neoprene, that’s why.)

Yesterday, I finished off a small project of the outdoor-splinters-in-the-fingers variety and then made a final edit for a story that launches today in riverbabble 33. My literary friends in Berkeley have shone the light of publication down on me once again and I’m feeling pretty plucky about it if I do say so myself. I sometimes think my luck in the Golden State is owing to the ghost of Randy Joe P, a RIP Fresno State alum and long-ago potentate of Steinbach’s third street. He was a fine fellow who might have some supernatural sway down there in the Bay area. I remember him a grade ahead of me. I recall him not taking any guff from the aforementioned boob in the tracksuit and so, Randy was a fav of mine and if anyone can control the roulette wheel from the twilight zone, it would be him.

Anyway, I was cleaning up my tools when I spotted something strange out in the middle of the lake. My binocs confirmed that it was a capsized canoe with the two paddlers hanging on. The short version is I zipped out in our boat and pulled them out of the water, dragging the canoe in behind us. They were, like the unfortunate Canada Goose gosling earlier that day that was taken by surprise by a hungry seagull, inexperienced. Luckily, good things exceeded bad — youth, warm water, and most of all, life jackets — and the voyageurs’ soaking experience ended well.

I was thinking today as I edited my novel — my editor, btw, is a godsend, or at least, “highly recommended by 7 out of 10 deities” — that I am fortunate to live in the woods, hard by a clean lake, and experience daily the wondrous shock and awe of nature. True, I miss society and mostly just grunt expressively when I am in a civilized social setting, but that’s a small price to pay.

To conclude, a few whitecaps are showing and I just might be able to get out there and sneak some sailing in before my calcified and scarred OWG joints seize up and demand beer, so I’ll end here with the admonishment to avoid arguing on twitter and furthermore, never turn your back on a seagull.

“The Margin of the River” riverbabble31   http://iceflow.com/riverbabble/issue31/issue31.html

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” riverbabble32
http://www.iceflow.com/riverbabble/issue32/issue32.html

“Nothing to Lose” riverbabble33
http://www.iceflow.com/riverbabble/Welcome.html

bofotw best of fiction

My story, “Nothing to Lose” first appeared in “Fiction on the Web” and has appeared elsewhere on the web since. The story is also in print in “The Best of Fiction on the Web” an anthology and you can BUY that door-stopper of a beauty for less than the price of a tracksuit!

CA – https://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0992693918/ref=nosim/fantasticfi0e-20

UK https://www.amazon.com/Best-Fiction-Web-1996-2017/dp/0992693918

USA –– https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0992693918/ref=nosim/speculativefic05

 

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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Fiction on the Web Presents “City Lights”

My short story, “City Lights” is up on Fiction on the Web. FotW, based in Londonis one of the first literary magazines to appear online. It was founded by writer-editor-screenwriter Charlie Fish and has been running continuously since 1996.

An earlier version of “City Lights” first ran on LingoBites as “The Light Pool” and is available on that site in English and Espanol, in both text and audio. It’s a dark story of class conflict, bias and selfishness.

Another story of mine, “Nothing to Lose”, was chosen for inclusion in “Best of Fiction on the Web”, an anthology that launched in January of 2018 and contains 54 stories from FotW’s 23 years of publication. This outstanding collection is available for £16.99 | USD$19.95 and all proceeds go to the Guy’s and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust.

You can buy the book from Amazon (UK linkUS link).

 

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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“The Doeling” in Cabinet of Heed

May 6, 2018: One of my short stories has been accepted in Cabinet of Heed. CofH is a newer literary publication run by Simon Webster and it contains top writing, including many award winners, past and future.

My 2,800-word scamper, “The Doeling”, is in Editor Simon’s eighth issue. I hope you like it.

May 7, 2018: Also, be sure to read some of the other poems, flash fiction and stories you find in the Cabinet – it’s top drawer!

And if you are a lover of planets with a red sun, the twilight zone, red pill-blue pill dilemmas and other such alternative circumstances, I’ve linked a copy of “The Doeling” with a completely different ending. Is you is or is you ain’t?

The Doeling_Toews, Mitchell, Alternative Ending

 

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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Best of Fiction on the Web

Write. Edit. Research. Submit. Wait.

Repeat.

For short story writers, this is the air we breathe – the ink we drink. The, “Thank you for submitting,” e-mail we dare not open. It can be a grind because even the best get rejected. Even the best are shunned.

But occasionally the stars align, the would-be fatal bullet hits you right in the pocket flask (or Bible; it’s either Gibsons or Gideons) and you survive. A story appears. People read it and a few of them comment. One or two like it. The story makes its way around and the editor might think, well, that was a pretty good pick!

Then, riding that rare rogue wave – you get picked again. You are, dear boy, a ‘Best of’ author. (Cue: Whistling Bridge Over the River Kwai music or maybe Chariots of Fire – bare feet slapping through the surf.)

Anyway, this is a long way round to tell you that my story, “Nothing to Lose” is one of those fortunate few to be picked for Charlie Fish’s first ever anthology of Fiction on the Web (1996-2017).

Mine is a story about a Canadian man and some of the choices he had to make on the prairies in the early 1960’s. Do we ever fully release ourselves from the grasp of regret? At what cost?

All I know for sure is it’s nice to be picked.

I remember the ribboned woodgrain of that pale yellow door. I remember the diesel exhaust residue from the Zamboni and the other smells – ice, sweaty leather, and the stick of Juicy Fruit the caretaker gave me. He’s beside me at the back of the pack, me trying to see. It’s the Bantam team try-out results.

.

I had no real chance. I started skating late and despite a love for it, the goalie spot was unlikely for me. “A foregone conclusion,” as my dad, a famous defenceman in his day — try-out with the Red Wings — used to say.

.

“Think you made it?” Mr. Thiessen said, looking down at me.

.

“Nah. Pete, and then Bobby, as back-up,” I said, flipping wet hair off my forehead.

.

“Can you see?” I said to him. The list was taped to the door of the dressing room. It was on the coach’s Royal Bank of Canada stationery. Typed names. Double-spaced.

.

“Gotta do the ice,” he said, chewing hard on his gum. “Huskies play tonight.” He nudged me as he walked off. “Let me know,” he said, turning half around, his boots loud on the skate-scarred wood planks.

.

goalie

The Best of Fiction on the Web press release


allfornow friends,

Mitch
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Where I am Less-lesser-known

A friend and colleague signed his writerly email, “in the struggle”. I liked that in a whole bunch of ways. My new occupation is revenue-negative and offers many noble struggles. I’m in it, for sure.

I have always been the “man of action” type. If I have a problem, I set about fixing it without delay, despite not knowing what the hell I’m doing.

“What are you looking for?” Janice often asks, in a reasonable effort to help as I buzz by, like an angry wasp looking for something to sting.

“I’ll know when I find it,” says I.

So too, it goes with writing. I received some professional prep along the way in my days at Dun & Bradstreet, but those reports were so clipped and “factoidinal” that even the current U.S. President would find them too brief. (If he spoke English, which Las Vegas stakes at 4:1 that he does not.)

My long wasteland sojourn as a propagandist for various window and door makers also gave me some writing chops, but not, I fear, of the MFA/bright new voice variety. For example, I once penned this slogan for a wood window and door manufacturer: “Dedicated to Wood”. I did, it’s true, not see eye-to-eye with my boss — nice fellow though he was/is — and I let that obvious, smirk-inducing double-entendre go to bat for us, so to speak, partly out of my mean spirit. (He approved it, so – I guess it’s on him.)

So, unprepared as I was, the last three years of writing and submitting stories to literary magazines and contests has been educational! I’ve relied on my lifelong survivalist instinct and “Imma quick learner, eh,” attributes to see me through. Now I have a truly gifted freelance editor on ‘my team’ and my learning curve is a-spikin’.

The thing that continues to puzzle and inspire is the audiences that I have found – or that have found me.

The twitter graph above tells the tale. My stories tend to do well in the U.S. and also in the U.K. & Ireland. Canada is on the podium, but you’d think — at least I did — that the True North would be my base. I supposed my hometown crowd would be the one that GOT all my arcane references and cheered every goal and razzed the penalties.  (“REJECTIONS SUCK…REJECTIONS SUCK!”) Instead, my Canadian twitter followers are third ranked.

Granted, my >4K sample of twitter stats is an imprecise demographic, but at least it gives me some kind of a read on who out there is, uhh, reading me and where they’re from. (57% female, mostly professional and making more money than I ever did flogging fenestration.)

I suppose part of it is because my stories of Canada and its small towns, quirky Mennonites, zillion-tree forests, and sparkling waters are a fresh take for U.S. and U.K./IE readers living in crowded cities filled with unminded gaps and too-handy handguns.

I went with this apparent vibe and have hooked my word wagon to the star of a London-based editor. Mr. McKnight also gives me insight as to why Brits and other non-Canucks might appreciate my oblong characters from a square world.

As I write my novel, I have felt the subtle nudge from Albion and have included some characters from further afield:

1200px-EnglandCornwall.svg

Billy Penrose: a Cornishman transplanted to the prairies; a lover of the Boreal biome and at home in his adoptive Canadian version of the 50th parallel – far from his salt-soaked origins. He is my MC’s Grandfa.

 

 

Patel: An Indo-Canadian youth, born in Canada and a friend to the MC. He is subject to the racism and ignorance that was (and is) part of the Canadian patchwork quilt society. This character is both a tip of the metz to my 2% follower-reader cohort from India, and also a reflection of my own life experience on the University of Victoria campus in the mid-seventies.

* * *

us flag reader

Sooo, seeing as 53% of you reading this are statistically-likely to be American, and I have already twisted your tail by teasing your Pres (“Ol’puddin-head”) I should acknowledge you – a loyal and mighty clan.

Several U.S. literary sites have done me the honour of accepting my work. I do have quite a few U.S. points of reference in my stories because, well – we’re neighbours. Also, I’ve worked for and with Americans and much of my travelling has been in the States.

baseball
My most recent publication will sit on a rocking chair on the front porch of a Berkeley, CA publication: riverbabble. This site has been in operation since 2002 and I feel a special thrill to be included.

My story here is based in part in Tacoma, WA and also spends some dreamy time in a ballpark somewhere along the Canadian/U.S. border. In the era the story is set, there were cross-border leagues in operation featuring teams from neighbouring states and provinces. It was “country baseball”, all bruised knuckles and peeling paint, but it embodied the kind of earthy, poetic beauty that I find in almost all sports.

Anyway, you can find many wonderful poems, flash fictions, short stories and essays here: riverbabble 32 Winter Solstice 2018, including my fiction, “In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence”.

riverbabble 32 cover

Tray Bong! 

allfornow friends,
Mitch
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Babbling in Berkeley

Like many people, I check my phone too often. Like all writers with work outstanding, “Pending Response”, as Duotrope describes it in a much-muted fashion, I check my inbox WAY too often.

A few days ago, I received a note from Publication “X”, with whom I have a short story under consideration. Their note was not directly related to my submission, however; it was addressed to me as one of a group of “Contributors”. My writey-sense a-tingle, I double-checked and the answer came back from my beer-blunted memory, “No, you have not yet been accepted by this pub!”

I shrugged it off as a Mail Chimp accommodation – the message had come to me as a request for a donation to Pub X’s funding efforts for 2018. I had not contributed a story, but I had submitted and I supposed that they had amalgamated the lists — submitters and contributors — into one mega-list for their pitch mail-out.

Knowing the punch-in-the-throat feeling of believing, “Score!” only to have Lucy yank the pigskin away with a flourish, I was guarded with my feelings. Oh yes, the ponies were ready, all right:  the wild horse in the breaking surf joy. Galloping joy. Unbridled. Splashy, splashy. Joy.

But, I said, no. “Whoa, horsey,” I proclaimed aloud, sipping my Beausejour Co-Op dark roast, in-store special blend. I remained an inscrutable Mennonite, the horses quiet in my mental house-barn.

So, anyhow… I then received a note from riverbabble. Like Publication X, I did have a submission pending with these good Berkeleyites. The email contained a publication release form. My blood froze – just like my sewer line did a week ago. Here is a better way to put it:

 Cold oils slid along his vein chilling his blood…

JAMES JOYCE, Ulysses, Calypso, 2734-2743.

Oh bah yo! I heard a distant nickering. Then an urgent whiney. Hooves stomped on hay-strewn floorboards and equine snot made a splatting, sticking, allegorical dark spot on the half-dry concrete of the barn’s centre aisle.

The horses wanted out! “Let us the beach be running,” they cried to one another, eyes wide and nostrils flared. Horseflesh shivered like potluck Jello from the cheap guy at the office. Metaphors reared up on their hind legs.

And then it was true and I was astride one of them – a fierce blue-black beauty who led the thundering herd, salt water and sweat frothing his flanks. I gripped gritty fistfuls of wet mane hair and wept while I shouted and rode the hardpacked sand at full speed, reckless and jubilant.

Typing furiously, I spilled my cuppa Co-op coffee in a crescendo of communicative copulation… Oh. Too much. Sorry.

riverbabble 32 cover
So, it’s true. My short fiction, “In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” will be a part of riverbabble 32, Winter Solstice Issue, 2018. Having run out my delirium, I sit now at my writing desk, a barn blanket warming me as the sweat cools on my back. “In the Dim Light…” is a story that is as noir and clenched as this blog post is fractured and silly. Light and dark, they both have their place, it’s said.

Thanks to Editor Leila Rae and her clan. It’s my second admission to this group and I know now — I didn’t the first time — just what a fine thing it is to be a contributor to riverbabble!

And who knows, maybe Publication “X” will come through as well. If so, the beach will beckon again and I’ll be only too happy to pound along that broad strand, “with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea,” as they say in Hibbing, MN.

 

 

allfornow friends,
Mitch

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A final plane and polish, by Sue Tyley

 

Editing: “Nuts and Bolts and Oiling”

January 10, 2018. Here’s a thoughtful article from a skilled editor. Sue Tyley did the editing on the upcoming print anthology, “The Best of Fiction on the Web”, in which my short story, “Nothing to Lose”, appears. The book is in for typesetting now and Senior Editor Charlie Fish is working on a cover and other design and content decisions. A foreword by author Julia Bell and a felicitous contribution from actor-writer Richard E. Grant – of Game of Thrones fame, and more – are two items to be included.

A final plane and polish, by Sue Tyley

#

For more information on the “The Best of Fiction on the Web” anthology, follow the following fish:

icon_FOTW fish

And here’s the LATEST from Fiction on the Web, a cool place to hang out, NAWMEAN!? P.S. – My affected London accent has a flat, nasal, Plautdietsch ring to it. Keanu Reeves ain’t got a ‘fing on me.


allfornow friends,

Mitch
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The Rothmans Job

Dec 30, 2017 – It’s 30 below zero (Celcius) and our sewer line is frozen. Here’s a story to suit. This story appeared on CommuterLit January 30, 2017 and was reprinted on SickLit March 30, 2017.

The Rothmans Job
By Mitchell Toews

A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.

And the people, knowing about these storms, stayed home. In the downtown core, only buses, snow ploughs and police cruisers were out. These motorized vehicles, accustomed to roaring at will, crept along the blanketed streets in peevish silence, their motors and tires muted by the all-enveloping snow.

No humans, no dogs, no birds. It was up to the storefront mannequins – who must have longed to sit – to maintain a watch over the streets. Vigilant, they gazed unblinking through the plastered glass at the frozen lunar streetscape.

Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. The diminutive Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. A bearded Weeble, he waded roly-poly through the drifts ahead of his towering accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker; aka “Thunderella”.

Thunderella towed in her powdery wake a red and yellow child’s sled. It was a Union Flyer and a likeness of flighted Pegasus was screened in reflective paint on both side rails.

Waxman, Thunderella and Pegasus pressed on like arctic explorers. Their goal was the unlocked side door of the Rothmans Cigarette warehouse on Harbour. Waxman had promised fifty bucks to Abie Wiebe – the inside man.

“Hey, Waxman,” Thunderella called from the rear. The wind had died and her voice only had to overcome the snow that coated every surface and baffled the air itself. This snowfall was ultra-absorptive like paper towel brands promised to be.

“WAXY!” she repeated, straining to be heard above the zizza-zazza of his nylon pant legs. He was a heavy man with thick thighs.

“What?” he shouted straight ahead, unable to twist around because of his insulated entombment. He halted, breathing hard, his moustache and scarfed chin hoary with frost. Thunderella bumped into him as she slogged along, head down.

The collision, one of many rear-enders on that street that winter, was enough to push Waxman off-balance. He fell, landing in a puff of white. Cursing and then laughing, he walrused his weight over so that he lay on his rounded backside. He picked a package of Rothmans out of the top pocket of his quilted inner overalls.

“We gonna make it?” she asked, reaching for a smoke.

“No problemo, ‘Rella,” he replied, shooing her hand away. “Two blocks, then through the side door by Perkins Cleaners; then open up the cage. That’s where the expensive stuff is. Abie says that cage lock has been busted for a year.”

#

Roland Barislowski bent forward, touching the freezing cold steering wheel with the absolute least amount of finger skin required to maintain vehicular control.

He peeked through the tiny fan-shaped portal of clear windshield.

“Need a periscope, like Lindbergh,” Roland said aloud. His voice sounded muffled in the anechoic enclosure; six inches of stubborn snow capping the rooftop.

The call had come around two A.M. He had just fallen asleep after pounding Old Viennas with Art, his brother-in-law from Virden. Art was stranded in the city because the highway was shut-down.

“Warehouse alarm went off. Cops’re there,” said his boss, Pozzo.

“Where’re you?” Roland said into the phone, his voice phlegmy.

“Regina airport,” Pozzo said, placing an unenthusiastic Rollie in charge.

Roland’s bottom was warm on the quilt he had tossed into the front seat but the small of his back felt like it was packed in ice. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings at the windshield. The rings – twirling in languid slow motion – disintegrated when the blast from the defrost fan hit them.

His brother’s name was Paulos. Everyone called him Poland — Roland and Poland. Very funny, Roland thought. They weren’t even Polish. But nicknames were nothing new in the North End – everybody had one.

Just like Paulos, Roland worked at Rothmans. It was Paulos’ job to take calls like this – the wonky alarm was set off by rats every two weeks or so. But Paulos was out-of-town and so Rollie had been given the key on this cryogenic night.

“Man, there is no one out here!” he said in the coffin quiet of the car interior.

He drove west until he hit a major street that had been cleared. Heading north he came up on the warehouse. An empty police cruiser sat idling at the curb. The trunk was open a crack and a bungee cord, hooked to the underside of the bumper held it shut. He parked beside the police car and went in through the side door of the warehouse, which stood wide open.

“You Poland?” said the cop. There were two of them. This one and a little guy down near the cigar cage. Mutt and Jeff thought Rollie – what his dad, Otto, always said when there was a big guy with a little guy.

“No, I’m his brother, Rollie. I work here too. Paulos is outta town.”

“Eh? Who’s this Paulos guy?” the big cop said, bleary-eyed.

“Paulos is ‘Poland’,” Rollie said, employing the ever-useful air quotes. “His real name is Paulos and he’s my brother. He’s away and I work here too and I got the job of coming out on this mother of a night.”

“Who’s a  mother?” said the little cop. He had walked over from the cage and was holding a few crushed packages of cigars and cigarettes. He saw Rollie studying the packages and said, “Gotta take these. Evidence.”

‘Yeah, fine,” said Rollie. “So, I guess you want me to do an inventory – see what’s been taken?”

“Good idea, Poland,” said the big cop, yawning. He yanked his police hat down low over his face, closed his eyes and leaned back against the forklift. “You guys sure you wanna report this?” he said without opening his eyes. “Seems like a lot of bother, this close to Christmas, for a lousy coupla-hun worth of smokes.”

“We’ll see,” Rollie said, grabbing the clipboard from its spot on the cage door. He used the pencil that was attached by a string to check off the missing items.

“Hey, Officer! Flip the cage light on please – the switch is right behind you,” he yelled. “Close that side door too.”

The little cop stopped stuffing the cigar boxes into his overcoat and did what Rollie asked.

#

Rollie sat in his car, which was now uncomfortably warm. The plastic frost-guards on the windows were broken and while the rest of the window was clear, the section in middle was fogged. He keyed letters into his pager, holding his breath as he concentrated on tapping the tiny buttons. He entered Pozzo’s number and typed the message:

Many CASES RothM King missiong. Cops took stuff but don’t think they were in on it. Call me!! – R

It’s gonna be an insurance jackpot, Rollie thought. His boss was crafty. He’d shut up about the stuff that Officers Mutt and Jeff had swiped – including the loot crammed into the cruiser trunk – in exchange for their listing an inflated tally on the police report. Pozzo would use their complicity as “wiggle room” to alter the report as required. Pozzo would make money on the deal; his Caddy stuffed with pricey goods that were easy to sell to bar owners and smoke shops.

Rollie and Paulos would get a C-note or so to play along.

“Nice work if you can get it,” Roland said to himself. That nugget courtesy of his late father, Otto. Otto Barislowski had run a ramshackle sash and door shop – BARIS GLASS – for thirty years. Honest guy. Never made much but his family was fed and clothed. “You get a roof over your head and there’s coal in the chute,” the old man would say to Rollie and Paulos.

Rollie pointed the old Ford east and took side streets home. He coasted through the stop signs at each intersection, as stealthy as Santa’s sleigh. After a few blocks, he killed the lights and prowled along at idle speed from streetlight to streetlight. Cranking down the window, he could hear the snow compressing under the tires. The air smelled clean like the laundry he would bring in from the winter clothesline for his mother – his t-shirts like stiff slabs of flake cod.

“Otto-Matic Windows,” Rollie announced to the empty park that abutted the road. He wound his window up a few turns and thought of his father’s invention – a house window that cranked open and closed like a car window. A year after Barislowski’s gadget came out, a big window brand from Minnesota launched a similar version – but more refined – and that was that. Otto Barislowski always believed the US outfit had stolen the idea from him. Disillusioned, Otto sold the company a few years later.

#

“Jesus H. Christ!” said Waxman. He panted as he lay on his back in a snowdrift, the heavy case of Rothmans Kings beside him. “It is frickin’ hard work being a criminal mastermind!”

Thunderella watched him. The Pegasus sled rested behind her loaded with its own case of cigarettes and also a 24-pack of Super-Fluft Toilet Paper Rolls. Three-ply.

“What the hell are you doing with that?” Waxman had growled at her when they were in the warehouse.

“They were in the bathroom! We are almost out at home – so, I figured, ‘Why not?’” she had explained, in reply.

“I guess we can get $3, maybe $4 per carton for the smokes,” Waxman said from the snow bank, bringing her back into the now. He held a mittened hand up so the big flakes would not land in his face. “So, we got 96 cartons – that’s three hundred bucks! Kids are gonna get some great presents this year.”

“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine for you and me. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.

“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”

“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out.

“As if,” Thunderella added, suddenly serious. She pointed a gauntlet at the elfin figure below her, “you know the only two reasons I’m in on this stupid caper, right Einstein?”

“Yeah, and they’re both home sleeping, Ellen,” Waxman said, holding a hand up to her.

“It’s a bent-ass world,” she replied. It was her stock comment to the many philosophers who populated the dingy Nox Beverage Room where she worked slinging draught beer. It seemed to fit the moment.

Thunderella helped Waxman up. “Ready to go?” she asked.

#

Rollie saw them about the same time they saw him.

“No sense in running, ‘Rella,” Waxman said without breaking stride.

“It ain’t a cop anyway,” his wife replied. “Maybe we can get a ride? I’m pooped.”

Waxman stopped. He dropped the case of cigarettes down off his shoulder and held it against his belly, arching his back. “Hell, yeah. My back is killin’ me, eh.”

“Fuckin’ A,” she said, tugging at the sled. “Let me go first.”

“Yeah, show a little cleavage,” he said.

Thunderella stuck her tongue out at him and strode; pushing through the fallen snow with purpose towards the approaching car.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Rollie said to himself. He rolled the window all the way down. It’s them! He recognized the “Rothmans” name and logo on the side of the boxes. He calculated: one case on the sled, one case being carried. “That makes two plus one that the cops had and the two in my trunk,” he said out loud. “Five cases of RM Kings altogether.” This was perfect, seeing as he had told the cops to mark down ten cases as stolen.

“Hi, honey!” Thunderella said to him as she neared the car. He shifted into park. She was a tall woman. It looked like she was about six-months pregnant, but it was hard for Rollie to tell because of the puffy parka she wore.

“Mother of a night, or what?” said the man behind her. Roland was surprised by Waxman’s appearance – short and almost round. He walked like a wind-up toy.

“Listen,” Thunderella said, fanning her face with a mitten. “We live maybe ten blocks that way, at Schultz Street,” she said, pointing east. “Any chance a girl could get a lift?”

“What’s that?” Roland said, feigning ignorance and pointing his chin at the cigarette cases.

“Well,” Waxman said, leaning sideways to speak around Thunderella. “We was shoppin; and then this buddy of mine, he got a deal on smokes. So we went down to his place and scored these smokes and then we had a few pops – well I did, anyway, she’s up-the-stump, eh.” Waxman spat the story out and while he did, Thunderella swivelled around so Rollie couldn’t see her face and gave her husband a cross-eyed look.

“Got a helluva deal on the ass-wipe – I mean toilet tissue,” Waxman said – a bit distracted – in conclusion.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Rollie said.

Rollie rubbed a glove against the inside of his foggy windshield, thinking about what to do. The cops had left the warehouse by now. These two lived right on his way home. He peered ahead in the headlights – there were no signs of movement in any direction. Not a creature was stirring. He considered himself, Paulos, Pozzo and also Mutt and Jeff. He considered the little beaver of a man and the beautiful, imposing pregnant woman standing beside the road in the frigid, forsaken night with stolen cigarettes and toilet paper.

A minute later the old Ford crept down Flora Avenue, the snow-crusted roof bearing three cardboard boxes and a flying horse. The red taillights vanished in a flurry of blowing snow.

#

Pozzo walked into his office, tucking in his shirt and adjusting his tie. He sat down at his desk and then dialed the phone, pushing the little buttons with extra vigour. He was in a fuming swivet about something.

“Poland!” he said in a loud voice. “What the hell is wrong with that shit-for-brains brother of yours?” Pozzo listened intently to Paulos’ reply.

“What do mean, ‘What do you mean?’” he said in a sing-song voice. “First I get stranded in the bloody Regina airport then I find out we got ripped off. And then,” he re-gripped the phone and moved it close to his mouth. “And then I go to the can just now for my morning constitutional and guess what?”

“No frickin’ TOILET PAPER, that’s what!”