Vintage, Part Twenty


Here we go.  Part 20, published on the 20th.  Longish, but be sure you read to the end.

The great city of Calerre, draping its hilled contours in a caress about the horseshoe Baie des Lanciers, had been revered since its founding as a giver of good luck.  Seeking shelter from a continental plague of ice storms, the first settlers, discovering Calerre’s calm, pristine shores, ended their wandering with gushing thanks to their gods.  In those days the warm waters had teemed with a bounty of poisson and phoque and baleine, and the surface stirred constantly with the merry splashing of fins.  The settlers gorged themselves.  There were times when the entire bay bloomed a horrific, pungent red as the spears and nets flew.  Makeshift tents of dried whaleskin gave way to straw huts and eventually a smattering of permanent wooden houses, and if constructing them meant stripping the ancient forests to the dirt, well, the good spirits watching over Calerre were ever able to provide more, with new saplings bursting to life the succeeding spring.  As the land thawed and opened itself to travel, fables spread of an oasis by the sea where no one went hungry.  More people came to this hallowed place.

The waters of the depleted bay grew still, so the people moved outwards, venturing inland to seek timber and ores, and to the ocean to pursue the fleeing fish.  Out on the open they came across an expedition of strange vessels carrying men whose tongue they did not speak, yet who were eager to share a portion of their cargo in exchange for temporary anchorage and resupply for their long voyage.  These were the first foreign traders, and it became plain to the little village in the bay that they were situated – again, seemingly by good fortune alone – at the nexus of an emerging and fascinating world of commerce.  They pulled down more of the ancient forests to build quays and docks, and bigger ships inspired by those that now made regular voyages into their bay, so that they might share in the riches beckoning to them beyond a horizon that they had never dared cross.  And as those riches flowed back home, and the village grew into a thriving town with new and taller buildings of brick and mortar, it was not long before some of those other seafaring peoples decided they wanted more than merely their fair share of the fortune Calerre was willing to offer.  A hundred ships loaded with war-starved soldiers bore down upon the Baie des Lanciers, the tantalizing fruit on its shore seemingly ripe to be plucked.  But once again luck turned in Calerre’s favor.  The ancient ice storms roared back after two hundred years of slumber to smash the fleet to shards of wood and shredded sail only a few miles from landfall, and to freeze the men who fell from those ships into a merciless churning sea.

It could not be denied that something unusual was at work in this place, ensuring its prosperity and protecting it from harm.  Once the threats subsided and regular trade resumed it continued to grow, sprouting new and expanding enterprises in the novel field of business, and gradually becoming the first city, extending its influence west across the scattering of lesser villages and towns.  The promise of wealth was a powerful rallying cry as everyone desired a taste of Calerre’s luck, and it became a simple matter for this strongest and largest of the nascent alliance of scattered communities to bend the others to its dictates.  Economic success also brought with it the availability of leisure, with those no longer needing to toil from sunup past sundown in farm fields hungry for diversion in their increasingly spare hours, and an ensuing explosion in arts and culture, and naturally, gambling.  Theaters, opera houses, coffee houses and brothels and casinos – despite ineffective protests from those who fancied themselves guardians of morality – now loomed over the streets where centuries ago the first fishermen had hauled their boats from the water and set their catches out on racks made of branches wound with crude twine.  Calerre was the world’s jewel, the rich, sparkling capital of its nation and the seat of a mighty kingdom with influence reaching beyond every horizon one could cast one’s gaze towards.

In the thousand or so years separating the arrival of those nomads to the day just beginning to push rose fingertips into the waning black, the people who walked Calerre’s reaches never gave significant thought to where its good luck originated.  They accepted it unquestioned as divine favor, or perhaps, in rare moments of further speculation, chalked it up ultimately to happenstance.  An impartial, well-researched historian would draw obvious connections between improbable events like the continuing fertility of the land and the collapsed invasion to the enduring presence of magic, ranging from the early wise women and healers to the latter day witches who made Calerre their home, carefully concealed from the trenchant and omnipresent eyes of the Bureau Centrale.  But man is ever notorious for refusing to allow facts to impact what he chooses to believe.  Let them believe then that Calerre was simply lucky.  And let the single squadron of twenty soldiers who set out before the break of this dawn on a five-mile march to the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale to relieve their share of the night shift keep faith in Calerre’s luck, even as they found themselves ambushed in the darkness by another group of men, clad inexplicably in the uniforms of the very same division of the Armée Royale.  Let the hapless gapes of those soldiers suffer dizzying blows, and let dumbfounded brains collapse into unconsciousness thinking that everything befalling them was only, like so many things in Calerre, a matter of chance.

Chance or not, Etienne was impressed with how efficiently Le Taureau’s men, even with limited training over the last few days, had managed to surprise and dispose of the relief squad without permitting the escape of so much as a stray shout.  Etienne had selected the ideal location based on his knowledge of the troop movements:  a bottleneck passage through the Bois Jongleurs, an overgrown old parkland in the south quarter avoided for its reputation as a gathering place for vagabonds and cutthroats.  None of those undesirables would dare interfere with the army, and the army would not worry itself overmuch about the laughable possibility of an assault among the trees.  They would traipse through in bored ranks, sluggish minds scant minutes out of barracks beds paying little heed to shifting shadows at the corners of collective eyes.  Le Taureau’s men had brought down ten of them before the remaining half sensed anything amiss.  The confusion wrought by the incongruity of being attacked seemingly by their own assisted in conquering the balance of the squad, who were now being dragged off into the woods to be bound and stripped of their gear.  Etienne reminded himself to offer compliments to the weavers of St. Iliane for creating such effective imitations of Armée Royale uniforms from all the cloth Le Taureau had stolen.  Perhaps, when this escapade had concluded, he might request of them a few new suits.

“Vite, vite, you bâtards sales,” Le Taureau barked at his men as they swarmed like ravenous locusts over the prone bodies of the soldiers.  “Take weapons, not souvenirs.”  He made an exception for himself, tearing a small bronze medallion on a red and white striped ribbon from the lapel of the squad’s unconscious commander and pinning it to his craggy tor of a chest.

Seated atop one of only three horses they had brought this far, Etienne supervised the pillaging of the defeated squadron.  Corporal Valnier was mounted to his left, and a hooded, sullen Nightingale, chained at the hands and neck by the bonds she had sworn never to don, sat the horse to his right.  She was very much the picture of a humbled prisoner, exactly as the Bureau Centrale and the Directeurs would expect.  Despite his profuse apologies, she had still choked on tears as he had manacled her.

She had not spoken since they left St. Iliane.

Etienne rubbed a nervous thumb against the edge of the engraved gold timepiece that had managed to survive the bizarre course of events since that mission to Montagnes-les-grands a century or so ago.  Girard Noeme had given it to him the day he graduated Bureau training and received his rank, and it had kept perfect time ever since.  He flicked open the faceplate and confirmed the hour.  Amazingly, they were ahead of schedule.  Calerre’s priceless luck remained theirs, at least for the moment.  Etienne caught Le Taureau’s attention and waved him over.  “Two more minutes,” he said, “then you need to muster up and move out.”

They would separate here.  Le Taureau’s men, including the last survivors of Etienne’s original detachment, would infiltrate the Bureau building in the guise of replacement guard personnel and proceed to the archives, while Etienne, with Valnier at his side as always, would formally escort Nightingale before the three waiting Directeurs.  Etienne yawned, but nerves let him shrug off the claws of sleep trying to claim his spent mind.  He believed his plan sound, if terribly precarious:  a crucial chain of actions and events linked to one another by the flimsiest of hairs.  So much could go wrong, and even success might not mean successful escape, but they were all committed now, and the scrupulous schedule could brook not a minute’s unnecessary delay.

“I know the plan,” Le Taureau said.  He nodded over his shoulder.  “You should have let me kill a few of these squealing cochons.  If they should wake and warn the others–”

“Never dull your blade on unworthy necks,” Etienne said.  “Save the edge for the skin that matters.  And congratulations, by the way.”  He pointed at the medallion Le Taureau was sporting.

Le Taureau grinned.  “You like it?”

“It brings out the color in your cheeks.  Do you know what it is?  It’s the Prix royal de bravoure, honoring those who have distinguished themselves in service to the realm and the people.  Funny.”

“What’s that?”

Etienne extended his hand.  “I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”

For the first time, Le Taureau had no suitable curse to belittle him with.  He raised his arm and clasped Etienne’s forearm with the iron vises he called fingers.  Etienne tried not to wince.

Le Taureau’s eyes slid to Nightingale.  The big man was ruing, perhaps, the affections for her that would remain unrequited, a lingering love for his late wife drawn to another who reminded him so much of how she had once been.  Etienne thought he saw the welling of tears, and if Le Taureau had any last thing to say to the witch, he kept it to himself.  “If she comes to any harm…” he muttered, biting down on an uncharacteristic swell of vulnerability.

Etienne nodded.  “We’ll see you at the rendezvous,” he offered, in hope and promise.

Le Taureau looked up at Nightingale with a youth and vitality lifting his battle-hardened face.  “Au revoir, ma belle déesse,” he whispered.  Then he tore himself away and wheeled on the men who were gathering in ragged lines on the road.  It was obvious even to a layperson that they lacked the polish of military discipline – a glaring giveaway to anyone who might scrutinize them.  “All right, you miserable fouteurs de moutons, you are soldiers of the Armée Royale, and if you don’t act like it then so help me I’ll tear off every veuve et deux orphelines in this rotten unit, crush them into paste and make you eat it off moldy baguettes.  This is the single most important thing you’ll ever do in your pathetic, wasted existence.  Thousands of other, more valuable lives, are waiting on us.  But more than that, if you screw this up in any way, I’m going to get very, very mad.”  Le Taureau let the threat sink in before issuing his first formal command in his guise as sergeant.  “Compagnie, atten… tion!”

The men snapped alert with astonishing precision.

They held still as Le Taureau reviewed their ranks, clasping his hands behind his back and strutting in polished black leather boots like one of the appointed bureaucratic jackanapes he held in such blinding contempt.  Grinning satisfaction with their performance, he looked to Etienne.

Etienne smiled and raised his hand to his brow in salute.

“Compagnie,” Le Taureau bellowed, “by the left, march!”  And in orderly unison, off they went, the rhythmic, clamping sound of heels pounding packed earth fading from earshot as the climbing sun littered the first hints into the air of what would undoubtedly be another day of merciless heat.  Taking the reins of Nightingale’s horse, Etienne turned both their mounts in the opposite direction and spurred them to a steady trot.  Valnier fell in behind them.  From here, it was only about twenty minutes to the Chemin des Fougères and the Bureau headquarters.

Enough time to change my mind and run, Etienne thought, and dismissed the notion as quickly as it had come to him.  There would never be another or better time, and so deep cut his fury at the Bureau for stealing his life and twisting him into an enemy of his own blood, that the very idea of flight induced the acid in his stomach to leap up and gnaw at his throat.  Impossible task had become inescapable obligation.  And though he had told Nightingale, on the beach, that he wanted to do this for her alone, he could not deny the part of him that craved vengeance for himself, craved the vision of the Bureau building razed to cinders.  Hatred simmered where there had once been unquestioned devotion, and relentless determination borrowed the grit of old ramrod ideological adherence.  He would turn the inimitable zeal that had marked his time as Commissionaire toward the goal of ensuring that there would never be another like him.  Not in this country, anyway.

The trio exited the Bois Jongleurs onto the bordering Rue Loup Noir, which arced north for three miles and eventually crossed Chemin des Fougères.  Simmering heat was already beginning to burn off the thin layer of early morning fog.  Etienne was surprised at the quiet of the great city as it clambered up from the night’s slumber and the people of Calerre rose to be about their daily affairs.  The boulangerie owners would have been awake since midnight baking their inventory, the fishermen would have converged on the docks before the dawn tides, and the constabulary and the sweeps never left the streets completely unattended, so there was no lack of activity along their cobbled route, but the lively hum of conversation that made these neighborhoods vibrate with color and character was missing.  Some great cosmic trowel had scraped it away, leaving behind silence and a city that felt more alien than home.  Etienne could draw no dialogue from his two companions to fill the wanting space.  Valnier simply never talked, and Nightingale was in no mood for light badinage.  For that, he could not fault her, even if it meant that each second of the journey ticked by in a lugubrious dirge, counted off by the ticking hands of his precious pocket watch.

They turned east onto Chemin des Fougères as the sun broke above the trees and flooded the empty street with a wash of warm gold.  Etienne tightened his rein to stop his horse.  He closed his eyes, listened to his breath and let the light melt into his skin, as though he was trying to absorb as much of it as he could before venturing inside a place where there was no light.  It loomed directly ahead, that hideous, corpse-gray monolith stretching up into the sky, intimidating the sun into hiding behind it.  The ruthless sentinel crushing the people beneath hundreds of tons of concrete in the guise of guarding them, devouring life in exchange for a madman’s mockery of liberty.  This was where it had begun for him twelve years ago, and today it was where it would end.  All of it.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

Nightingale noticed he had lagged behind, and she offered him an expectant stare that had a not insignificant trace of worry laced within it.  Etienne shook the reins and caught up to them.  He tried to camouflage his own anxiety by smiling at her, but they both understood what was at stake, and they were both too intelligent to be reassured by empty platitudes.  Instead they let their shared history speak what could not be forced into words, and as the distance between them and the Bureau headquarters building shrank, so too did the space between their horses.  Etienne glanced at her hands, the wrists chained in gleaming silver, her long fingers curled inward to stop them trembling.  He longed to reach for them with his own, but he dared not, for the Bureau’s range of vision certainly did not begin and end at its official walls.  From here onward, the performers had to become their roles, and his was that of a triumphant hero in proud return, no matter how far he might feel from that.

The welcome awaiting this supposed conqueror in the courtyard of the Bureau Centrale consisted of more soldiers than Etienne had ever seen.  Like a parade of black-uniformed termites they infested the edges of the eighteen daunting plain gray steps and the enormous front doors.  Clearly the Directeurs considered this a momentous day – the capture and delivery, at last, of their most notorious enemy.  Seeing the arrival of Etienne’s little group, a handful of the guards broke formation to descend to street level to greet them, though it was not to be with back slaps and hearty handshakes.  All moisture vanished from Etienne’s mouth.  He dismounted quickly and nodded to Valnier to help Nightingale from her saddle.  The soldiers darted in behind them to take charge of the horses.  Etienne drew a deep breath and affected a confident stride.  This was supposed to be his victory, after all.  Clutching their prisoner firmly by the arm, Valnier followed.  The line of sentries watched them with faces as lacking in expression as statues sculpted by an amateur.

Etienne found himself thinking of the notorious aria in La Sirena Ridere.  It was a haunting, terribly beautiful piece of music, and when it was performed successfully, only the hard-hearted did not burst with pent-up emotion as its final, lingering note spun into the rafters.  The inaccessibility of its language was no barrier to the impact of its poetry.  A curious Etienne had once sourced a crude translation, and though it could not replicate the idioms or embedded cultural references from the original, the verses were still poignant.  He and Valnier brought Nightingale up the steps and through the main doors, and as he watched her and thought about what was to come, the words drifted across his mind, scored by bittersweet minor chords.

“From beneath the edge of the world I cried to you,

From under the waters I sang my song.

I looked for you before I knew you were there.

My heart dreamed you into being to fill its hollow.

Let my blood rush now with passions unchained,

Let me take you into my soul.

Let us laugh and let us weep, let us devour the day,

Let our nights be filled with limitless fire.

If you are only a dream, I wish that I might never wake.

If you are real, and you cannot hear my song,

Then I will wish that I will never know you.

I will dream that my heart might remain empty,

Because filling it with you will make it break.”

“Honorable Commissionaire De Navarre,” announced an oily, obsequious functionary with cheer as false as his hairpiece once they had stepped into the sterile air of the lobby.  It still smelled of paper and ink, though now there was a perplexing, palpable sweetness hiding in the staleness, the faintest scent of autumn fruit.  “It is a pleasure to welcome you home.  You had a safe journey, I trust?”  Etienne had never seen this oafish character before; surely he was one of those interminable ranks of officials with impressive-sounding but meaningless titles like Superviseur exécutif adjoint de l’administration.  The Bureau was full of them, and this particular martinet had been designated the official reception.

“Safe enough,” Etienne said, borrowing the two-word routine from his corporal.

“You are expected in salle 1401,” the superviseur – if that was his actual job, though one supposed it did not really matter – went on.  “In the meantime we would be happy to accept formal custody of your subject.”  He gestured to the pair of guards flanking him, who converged on Nightingale.  Her entire body tightened at their brusque approach.

Etienne frowned and raised a cautionary hand.  “She stays with me.  I want to present her myself.”  Valnier firmed his grip on Nightingale’s arm and shot the guards a glare promising a severe maiming should they draw one inch closer.

The superviseur eyed the bonds on Nightingale’s wrists and neck.  Thus shackled, she was harmless.  “As you wish.  May I escort you, then?  The Directeurs are anxious to greet you.”

“In 1401?” asked Etienne.  “We have had a long journey.  I don’t particularly feel like traipsing up fourteen flights.”

The man cleared his throat, more as a gesture of condescension than any particular discomfort he needed to dislodge.  “Not quite, monsieur.  This way, s’il vous plait.”

Syncopated heels clapped on granite as the superviseur led them through the austere, cavernous lobby, which was framed at each corner by a gigantic fluted stone column stretching up and through the high vaulted ceiling.  The “pillars of heaven,” some Bureau folk were inclined to joke, out of earshot of their superiors of course.  The walls in between were empty, as artwork was considered anathema to the purpose of the organization.  They appeared to indeed be headed for the grand staircase at the far end, but as they neared the bottom step, the superviseur wheeled left and guided them to the backside of the pillar at the southeast corner.  There was a small rectangular section at shoulder height, about the size of a hand, that was slightly discolored from the rest of the stone and would have been unnoticeable otherwise.  The superviseur pushed on it.  A vertical line appeared in the pillar from the floor to just over their heads, and a concealed panel cracked open and slid back, revealing a round, hidden chamber within – large enough to hold at least a dozen men.  “Monsieur,” the superviseur said, bidding Etienne and company enter.

Etienne craned his neck forward to peer inside.  The chamber, which appeared to have no other exit, was paneled in lacquered mahogany and lined with polished brass.  The floor was beige and black marble and was etched in its center with the Bureau insignia.  “What is this?” he asked.

“As you are no doubt aware, monsieur, one of the Directeurs is quite elderly.  This was constructed to assist in his travel between floors.”

“Interesting,” Etienne said.  Troubling was what he really meant.  His so-called encyclopedic knowledge of the facility did not include this feature, but then, he hadn’t known the Bureau was making magical weapons on a hidden sixth sub-level either.  He felt for his watch in his breast pocket again.  Le Taureau and the others should have arrived and relieved the nighttime guard shift by now, but should have was not definitive enough for his liking.  He didn’t enjoy having to trust that part of the plan to someone else.  Unfortunately there was no way to confirm it.

Etienne motioned to Valnier to bring Nightingale into the chamber.  The official escort followed, along with a pair of guards, since this was the Bureau Centrale and there was no trust without verification.  To the right of the door were a series of five levers, and the superviseur pulled on them in a specific sequence that Etienne made sure to commit to memory.  The door slid closed, the chamber shook, and a heavy feeling in his neck and shoulders confirmed that they were beginning to rise at some speed, up through the pillar of heaven, though the destination was quite the opposite.

Feigning nonchalance, Etienne edged closer to Nightingale as the chamber continued to shake, helping to hide the trembling in their respective limbs.  He wished there was a way to let her know that he was as frightened as she.  He had always believed that his ability to connect with his own emotions and those of others made him a better Commissionaire, yet he had always envied Valnier’s complete inability to be affected by any emotion whatsoever.  Even now, the corporal looked bored and indifferent.  Etienne supposed it was a fair trade.  Suppressing one’s feelings made it easier to cope with life, but without them, what was the point to life?  He could have refused to be swayed by Nightingale’s magic, and even by what he had realized was his genuine love for her, but would that have been worth sacrificing the experience and the memory of what they had shared, and what he still felt for her?  The undiscovered taste of a thousand wines he would never get to try, for the taste of her kisses instead.  The unsampled delights of a thousand anonymous beautiful women, for the fleeting affections of a goddess.  Like the city, he was lucky.  Lucky to have been able to make the choice, and know that it remained the right one, whatever came of it once the doors to this elevating chamber opened again.

An uncomfortably familiar sight, 1401 waited behind a sealed portal of carved mahogany, this time without the sharp scent of roasted café wafting out from within.  The superviseur and his pair of drones handed them off to the sentries standing on either side and remained behind in the hallway.  Old wood wheezed as the latch was withdrawn and the entrance flung open.  Etienne gestured to Valnier to let go of Nightingale’s arm so he could take it himself.  He heard Nightingale draw a sharp breath.  His own breath was long and deep.  And inside they walked, together.

Allons-y, encore.

“Well, well,” announced the sanctimonious accent of Directeur Michel Ste-Selin.  “Some of us doubted you possessed the resolve and the resource to accomplish this challenging mission, Monsieur De Navarre.  Yet here you are.”

Here they were indeed.  As Etienne had hoped, somewhat against hope if he was being honest, the three Directeurs sat together at their presiding table of varnished oak, finally unable to let their zeal at witnessing the capture of the infamous witch be tempered by something as inconsequential as the Bureau’s constitution.  Ste-Selin was in the middle, with Kadier Duforteste on the right shaking his head in surprise, and on the left ancient Theniard Preulx, looking a few days short of a thousand, his fading flesh energized by the gleaming sight of the elusive prize.  The podium in the center of the sunken floor before them had been removed, but the carrels around the sides of the room were fully staffed by the requisite clerks and secretaries.  Clearly this was a triumph to be recorded.  But four plainly armed guards flanked the Directeurs’ table, so at the same time it was not a triumph to be savored lightly.

“I am happy to disappoint you, Monsieur le Directeur,” Etienne said.

“Welcome to the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, Mademoiselle Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.  “Bureau Centrale, if you will.  We have been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”

Nightingale said nothing.

“If my colleagues will grant me leave, I would like to examine the subject,” said Theniard Preulx.  At the nods of the others, he rose weakly from his chair, clutched at a pearl-handled white ash cane from where it had been leaning concealed behind the table, and lurched down a small flight of steps to the sunken floor.  There was no sound but for the tapping of the pointed ash stick on the tile and the incessant rapid scribbling of the clerks, apparently needing to describe each trivial action in exacting detail.  His withered spine unable to straighten, Preulx hobbled before Nightingale and eyed her from boots to brow, his sagging, wrinkled face twisted by a lascivious leer.  A gnarled, yellowed finger stabbed at her cheek, and Nightingale recoiled.  “Yes, yes,” the old man wheezed, “she is quite a ravishing beauty, isn’t she.”  His voice descended an octave, deep into the grave, and he spat his undying scorn at her with each syllable.  “You belong to the Bureau now, my dear sorceress.  All your mighty powers are for nothing.  I am looking forward to seeing you re-educated, personally.”  The tooth-spare mouth split into a horrifying grin, and he cackled to himself as he turned to resume his seat.  Nightingale looked as though she was choking back vomit.  Etienne knew that the feeble carnal musings of a filthy old man were the very least of the Bureau’s threats.

He stepped forward.  “I’ve done what you asked,” he said.  “I’ve delivered her to you.  Now, about what I was promised…”

The Directeurs leaned in to confer quietly with one another.  The clerks kept writing.  Etienne swallowed hard.  He could not pinpoint precisely what, but suddenly, something felt very, very wrong.

“Yes, of course,” said Ste-Selin.  “We do have an appropriate recompense arranged.”  He nodded to someone behind Etienne.

But there was no one behind Etienne.



Corporal Valnier smashed him in the back of the head with the butt of his sword hilt.

Etienne heard Nightingale shriek as he crumpled to the ground.  The world spun, and he gasped at breath and rubbed where the blow had landed, his fingers coming away wet and sticky with blood.  He felt something cold and sharp under his chin.  Valnier’s blade.  Etienne sat back, slowly, and through a dizzy blur looked up into the face of the man who had accompanied him on every mission, followed every order, and remained unquestioningly loyal for five long years.  “Why…” was all he could force out.

For the first time since he’d known him, Valnier had more than two words for the moment, delivered with as much raw bile as anything from the mouth of a Directeur.  “You’re a traitor, monsieur.”

Funny thing about luck… even in Calerre, it always eventually ran out.


Someone’s Gotta Win, Someone’s Gotta Lose

Ace and Bearemy

This is the indisputable truth whenever two teams step onto the field.  Hardly anyone ever just roots for a good clean game; you’re always hoping your guys make mincemeat of the others.  Before the first pitch flies, when the score is at zero, both squads have the exact same chance to walk off nine innings later with fists pumping the air.  And sometimes you have to swallow that sickening churn in your gut as you watch the other guys do it.  It’s regrettable that the effort and the drama of a 162-game season has to come down to a single pitch, a single swing of the bat, but that is the magic of baseball.  That was how it was in 1993 when Joe Carter won the World Series with his three-run blast to left field.  That’s how it was, with a far more bitter taste, in the heartbreaking ALCS Game 6.

So the incredible saga of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays ends with Josh Donaldson grounding out to the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas, with Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar stranded at third and second, the Royals victors by a single run achieved by what was admittedly a terrific piece of baserunning by Lorenzo Cain in the bottom of the eighth.  While it would have been wonderful to watch our guys pull ahead and force a Game 7, it wasn’t to be.  The Royals will now take on the New York Mets for the World Series crown.  And you can’t begrudge the Royals for it, either; the ALCS came down to two formidable, equally-matched teams, and while from a statistical perspective you could make a legitimate argument that the Blue Jays were a better team, the Royals simply outplayed them.  They pushed harder, made better use of their scoring opportunities, silenced the Jays’ bats with their world-class bullpen.  The Jays went 0 and 12 with runners in scoring position in Game 6, so you can’t suggest they didn’t have plenty of opportunities to break out a big lead; they just weren’t able to come through.  And that’s not their fault either – sometimes, stats and history can be on your side and yet, plain dumb luck isn’t.  There were a few questionable calls in the game that Jays fans will be wringing their hands over all winter; the waaaay outside second strike called on Ben Revere in the ninth that had him smashing a trash can in the dugout after he whiffed on the next pitch, and a certain bearded young Royals enthusiast who picked what could have been only a double off the outfield wall with his glove and gave the aforementioned Moustakas a dubious home run in the second (I wouldn’t suggest that fan try visiting north of the border any time soon).  Chalk it up to those fickle gods of baseball again; just as often a bad call can break in your favor.  But it is what it is.

As always following a season-ending loss, the temptation to point fingers will be strong.  But just as a man should be remembered for the sum of his life’s achievements and not just how things go on his last day, so too should fans set aside bruised feelings and remember the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays by the sum of the amazing moments they gifted us with throughout a remarkable season, and the goodwill and unity they brought to a city and a country that needed it badly.  For me, there are a few distinct images that will stand out for years to come:

  • The 11-game winning streak following the July trade deadline, when it seemed like the Jays were invincible.
  • The surprise of the mid-summer acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price.
  • Tulo’s first game as a Blue Jay, including his first home run.
  • Every catch made by Kevin Pillar.
  • Sweeping the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
  • The sage, unflappable cool of old pros R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.
  • The mighty Edwing.
  • Ryan Goins’ come-from-behind two-run walk-off home run.
  • Justin Smoak’s first career grand slam.
  • Roberto Osuna’s silent moments of prayer before shutting down opposition bats.
  • The unhittable Brett Cecil.
  • Play-by-play man Buck Martinez calling out “Get up, ball!”
  • Russell Martin’s cannon of an arm throwing out base stealers at second.
  • Munenori Kawasaki’s delightfully weird postgame interviews.
  • The inspiring return of the fiery Marcus Stroman from a potentially season-ruining injury, and his motto that “height doesn’t measure heart.”
  • LaTroy Hawkins’ last pitch to clinch the AL East.
  • The unfurling of the “2015 AL East Champions” banner at the Rogers Centre.
  • Marco Estrada’s flawless pitching in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 5 of the ALCS.
  • Tulowitzki’s season-saving 3-run home run.
  • Accidental pitcher Cliff Pennington’s fastball strike in the horrendous ALCS Game 4.
  • Chants of “MVP” whenever Josh Donaldson stepped to the plate.
  • And of course, no list of such things could be complete without Jose Bautista’s bat flip to end all bat flips.

We’ll remember the disappointment, too, the swings and misses and the lost promise of a World Series crown that will have to wait until October of next year.  But if nothing else, 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Blue Jays shut the door on 22 years of mediocrity and transformed into genuine, fearsome contenders, unable to be dismissed any longer as that average Canadian team that used to be great.  Specific feats cannot be denied:  they won the brutal American League East division and came back from the brink against a tough Texas team to claim the ALDS.  But we saw it too in the way those 25 roster members embraced each other, young and old, newcomers and veterans, and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of a singular goal, collected egos set aside.  R.A. Dickey said that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  For a team with only three native-born sons, the attitude was somehow uniquely Canadian of them.

And Canadians responded.  As their oft-trending hashtag urged, we came together.  The Blue Jays became Canada’s team.  We unleashed a pent-up emotion that was searching all these years for a floodgate through which it could burst.  We finally forgave the hurt that festered from the 1994 strike, we forgot about hockey and filled the stands again to share in the glory and the occasional agony.  There will be kids in tiny Toronto jerseys who will grow up remembering the 2015 Blue Jays as “their” team, and comparing every year that follows to this – just like those of us who came of age with 1992 and 1993.  While the roster will change next year as new faces arrive and old favorites move on, there will always be something particularly special about this iteration of the team, and we’ll look back at them with a reverence that they truly deserve.  In the end the World Series or lack thereof doesn’t really matter.  The Blue Jays have already won victories that can never be taken away.  This was the team that made me a fan again, that made many people across this country fans, either again or for the first time, and as far as I’m concerned, things can only get better from here.  The boys in blue are back.

Thank you so much, 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.  See you in the spring.

Boy, That Escalated Quickly

Sometimes, Ron Burgundy says it best.

Blue Jays fans will not be looking back on Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS with any kind regard.  The Royals annihilated them, opening the wounds with a 4-run first inning and chasing starter R.A. Dickey in the 2nd, leaving Toronto to try and stop the bleeding with a compromised, exhausted bullpen.  With the unhittable Brett Cecil out of the lineup due to a bad-luck calf injury suffered in the ALDS, and Aaron Loup out of the country attending to a family matter, the Jays were left with precious few options as Kansas City turned Dickey’s usually ferocious knuckleball into knuckle sandwiches aimed squarely in Toronto’s collective face.  Aussie Liam Hendriks pitched arguably the best game of his life, giving the Jays over four innings of scoreless relief, but he’s not a long man and with presumably fingers tightly crossed, manager John Gibbons had to turn to the erratic LaTroy Hawkins and the overwhelmed Ryan Tepera, who together let KC’s 5-2 lead transform into a 12-2 blowout.  It got so bad that Gibbons had to use Mark Lowe, who he’d hoped to give the day off, and finally, in a record-setting act of desperation, infielder Cliff Pennington, who watched two more runs come in before the humiliation came to an end.  It was, put simply, the most agonizing game the Blue Jays have played all season long, and as Royal after Royal crossed the plate one wondered if it would not have been better for the Jays to simply throw up their hands and forfeit.  In either case, the Blue Jays are now down to the wire, behind 3 games to 1, and today’s game will either mark the start of a tremendous, unheard-of turnaround, or bluntly, the ignominious end of an otherwise remarkable season.

Should today prove to be the finale of the Blue Jays’ 2015 postseason hopes, it comes as a valuable guidepost for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to assemble his 2016 squad.  The problem, as has so frequently been the case for the Blue Jays, is their pitching staff.  You saw this in the first half of the season, before the acquisition of David Price, as the Jays tried out new arm after new arm in the starting rotation only to see their up-and-comers get destroyed by opposition bats.  The irony is, and despite their struggles, from a statistical perspective the 4-man postseason starting rotation is as good as you could hope:  Price, Stroman, Estrada, and Dickey.  I’d even argue that the Jays starters are on balance better than the Royals’.  However, it’s been made clear that the Royals bullpen phenomenally outmatches the Jays.  Toronto hasn’t been able to score on them, whereas the Royals have been all over the Jays relievers, even dinging the otherwise reliable closer Roberto Osuna for a 2-run shot in the final moments of Game 3.  Though the Blue Jays bats have been relatively quiet during the ALCS, they were unmatched throughout the 2015 season, and will likely grow even stronger as Troy Tulowitzki recovers from his shoulder injury (we’ve seen signs of his potential with his two post-season 3-run homers).  They need to shore up their pitching, pure and simple.

There’s been a lot of talk as to whether the Blue Jays will be able to keep free agent David Price, when every wealthy baseball payroll will be coming after him aggressively.  For what it’s worth, he seems to truly enjoy playing in Toronto, and he’s certainly become a fan favorite in his two-plus months with them.  Let’s be optimistic and say the Jays are able to re-sign him, and let’s be even more optimistic and say they are able to keep Estrada as well.  The offense really doesn’t need to be improved.  That leaves the bullpen, and hoo boy, does it need help.  Game 4 made the holes in it very plain.  Since LaTroy Hawkins is planning to retire and there’s every chance that Mark Buehrle will as well, that frees up some space there.  The Jays can turn former starter Drew Hutchison into a long reliever, in the mold of Bill Caudill or Mark Eichhorn from their 80’s iteration – make him into a guy who can come into a game in an emergency in the second and pitch you into the seventh, or they can sign a starter from another team specifically for that role.  Ryan Tepera, for whom one felt nothing but sympathy yesterday, clearly needs more fine-tuning and should head back to the minors.  And while whatever is happening with Aaron Loup’s family is obviously very serious and not his fault, the truth is he’s never been a solid performer and the Jays need to fill his spot on the roster with a much more reliable, hard-throwing lefty – someone like the Texas Rangers’ Jake Diekman, who can blast batters with 97, 98 mph fastballs for one or two innings (and was something of a nemesis for the Jays’ bats in the ALDS).  And finally, Brett Cecil needs to watch his damn legs.  The Blue Jays need an even balance of hard-throwing lefty and righty arms, so that they never find themselves again in a situation like now, where they are undermined by injuries and random chance.

While the playoffs have been going on, the Jays quietly signed switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, who should prove interesting to watch assuming he makes the team next season.  The long and the short of it is that a bullpen with the caliber approaching that shown by Kansas City will make the difference between the team the Jays are right now and a team that can utterly dominate the league next year.  (Of course, this is all me doing my Monday-morning quarterbacking routine – pardon the mixed sports metaphor – and one would assume that Anthopoulos and incoming President Mark Shapiro are well aware of where their team’s weaknesses lie.  Hopefully Rogers gives them the money they need to make the moves they have to.)

What’s left for us fans then, as our boys in blue once again look down the barrel of elimination?  Pennington provided a lonely moment of joy for the dejected Jays in the dugout and the fans who bothered to stick around to the end by nailing his first fastball for a 91-mph called strike.  Estrada, who goes back to the mound today against Edinson Volquez (the notorious Donaldson-beaner who blanked the Blue Jays in Game 1), was uneven in his first outing but has the capacity to be dominant when he’s on – witness his salvation of the Blue Jays in ALDS Game 3.  He’ll need to be.  And Jose Bautista needs to Hulk out and start blasting some balls into the stratosphere.  The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the Royals might be tempted to lay off a bit today and let the Jays force a Game 6 so they can win the series at Kauffman Stadium in front of their own fans.  But as anyone who follows the sport can tell you, the baseball gods are often fickle, and as good as Kansas City has been thus far, there is every possibility that they might just go completely off the rails now (recall that the Houston Astros almost eliminated them just a week or so ago), and give the Blue Jays the chance – with Price and Stroman slated for Games 6 and 7, if they happen – to come back from the brink, just as the Royals themselves did in 1985 against this very same team.  It’s baseball; anything can happen.

If this is it, well, the Toronto Blue Jays have nothing to be ashamed of.  Eventually every wave comes up against rocks upon which it breaks, and the Blue Jays in 2015 went from a middling, undervalued team playing to barely 20,000 fans a game to undisputed, stadium-packing champions of the toughest division in baseball for the first time in 22 years, with every indication that they will continue to be contenders for years to come.  Even if they fall short this time.  Remember too that the Jays lost the ALCS in 1991 before roaring back to win their twin World Series titles in the following two years.  There is every reason to hope that they can and will do it again.  I’m not giving up on them yet.  You?

Triumph of a Heavyweight

As a malaprop-prone former U.S. President might have put it, they misunderestimated him.

It’s a dark Tuesday morning, the blue jays (birds, not baseball team) are swiping peanuts from the feeder outside and I’m sipping on my homemade caramel latte, watching CBC Newsworld recap the incredible achievement of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election.  The voters of Canada, who at the outset of the unprecedentedly-lengthy campaign had seemed content to muddle on with the same old crew of Conservatives for another few years, turfed them with a resounding choice for positive change.  The Liberals won 184 seats – 14 more than was needed for a majority – in a 338-seat House of Commons, whose recent redistricting was supposed to have favoured the Conservative incumbents.  That’s seven more seats than Jean Chretien managed in his best performance in 1993, and in each of his victories he had been running against a divided right.  Crushed in the red tide was Tom Mulcair and the New Democrats, who will be trundling back to their old, familiar berth of third place after flirting with the possibility of power in early polls back in August.  Departing the political stage entirely will be Stephen Harper, and while the temptation to bid him good riddance and thanks for nothing is strong, to do so would run contrary to the sentiment provided in Trudeau’s inspiring acceptance speech, that “Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours.”  Fair enough.  Best to focus then on the man of the hour, and the man who will guide Canada for at least the next four years.

For years, Conservative supporters, both from prominent mainstream media perches and flailing at the keyboard in dank basements, have tried to dismiss all criticism of their party’s policies as “Harper Derangement Syndrome.”  Basically, that any legitimate argument one might make against the Conservatives is automatically rendered moot because it must originate from a place of deep, embittered loathing of the popular kid, because he’s just so awesome.  Even before he won the leadership of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau endured a far more acute case of “Trudeau Derangement Syndrome” from those on both the near and extreme right.  All style and no substance was the theme of the more complimentary of the relentless slams against him – some of which are far too ugly to reference here.  The pattern of the intent was to utterly belittle and destroy the public image of a man whom those in power recognized, quite rightly as it turns out, presented a formidable challenge to the rightward tilt they were trying to shove a largely progressive country.  You saw this in the early days of the rumblings of Trudeau’s candidacy for the Liberal leadership in 2012 after interim chief Bob Rae withdrew himself from consideration.  Innumerable op-eds and website comments penned by sympathetic-sounding Conservatives suggested that Justin Trudeau at its head meant the end of the Liberal Party as a viable force in Canadian politics, and the Liberals should really pick someone else if they want to get back to relevance, maybe in two elections or so.  There is a term for this, as you know:  concern troll.

In June 2012 I wrote a piece about it.  I suggested that these sentiments were appearing because the Conservatives were afraid that they couldn’t beat someone who had the capacity to inspire hope and a desire for positive change the way Barack Obama did.  The morning after I published it, I was dropping my wife off at the train station when my phone began to buzz and ding and buzz, over and over again.  I opened it and discovered this tweet:


Needless to say, I was as bowled over as it is possible for a neophyte, unknown writer to be.  I got almost 3,600 hits on my site that day (it had been averaging a mere 20), a whackload of new Twitter followers, and a plethora of comments agreeing with me and hoping that what I had written about would eventually come to pass.  Not too long afterwards, Trudeau declared for the leadership, won it convincingly, and set about rebuilding the battered Liberal Party and getting it into fighting shape to contest the coming election.  I’m not going to pretend I’m a soothsayer or that I had any influence whatsoever in what followed.  That credit goes entirely to Trudeau, his family and his incredible team of supporters and volunteers who battled with him for three long years, under the interminable assault of Conservative war chest-funded attack ads highlighting out-of-context quotes, and a compliant corporate media all to eager to jump on everything that might be interpreted as a gaffe given the proper spin – anything to reinforce the meme that had been established to keep Trudeau out of contention, to force his support down into the low teens so that the election would come down to a fight between the veteran, battle-hardened Conservatives and the untested NDP with its roll of accidental MP’s left over from the 2011 Jack Layton surge.

But it sure is nice to be proven right.

Not long after he won the Liberal leadership, Trudeau disappointed a few of the old diehard politicos by publicly declaring that he would not resort to negative attacks.  Surely, they argued, the game has changed, and if you’re not willing to punch hard then you risk being defined before you can define yourself.  When the Just Not Ready campaign fired into gear, it looked as though it was Dion/Ignatieff all over again.  Initial response suggested that the ads weren’t working and that there was even some backlash, but as they lingered and repeated ad nauseum ad absurdum, the effectiveness of the Big Lie began to seep in to the Canadian consciousness, abetted by media overreaction to off-the-cuff comments.  Maybe he wasn’t ready after all?  Eventually, Trudeau’s numbers started to sink.  When he supported the loathed Bill C-51 (which everyone forgets was going to pass even if the entire Liberal caucus spent the day of the vote in the Bahamas, and that Trudeau was able to get some of the more odious language removed through amendments because he offered public support, i.e. political cover, hence him making the best of a truly rotten situation) and the NDP surprised everyone by winning government in deep blue Alberta, the Liberals plummeted to third and progressive Canada turned its lonely eyes to Mulcair as its only possible salvation.  It was a rough time to be sure.  But faith untested is not true faith.  And as the Toronto Blue Jays have proven time and again this year, real fighters are never down for the count.

One of the most execrable yet pivotal moments of the campaign came when smug Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke (he who failed utterly to establish Fox News North) sneered that Trudeau could exceed expectations for the first leader’s debate simply by showing up wearing pants.  It crystallized what Trudeau was up against:  a party drunk on its own press releases, bulging with establishment bloat, so enamored of themselves and so contemptuous of anyone who dared question them that they were practically begging, like a political Biff Tannen, for a good old-fashioned solid left hook to the jaw.  Which Trudeau promptly delivered.  Not a knockout, but as Trudeau the boxer would certainly explain, a much more effective solid series of jabs, over and over again.  Debate after debate.  Event after event.  Rally after rally.  People listened.  People got on board.  Trudeau turned “Just Not Ready” to his own advantage.  I am ready, he declared, and set about proving it.  The other established media meme, that the Conservatives were brilliant campaigners, was wiped out, as true to form, they could not seem to answer what Trudeau was offering voters, their collected intellect unable to compute why Canadians wanted to hear more than just promises of tax cuts and overwrought head scarf hysteria.  But, they cried, we balanced the budget!  We sent you all free (not really) cheques!  But a country, Trudeau said, in words echoing the great statesmen of the past, is far, far more than how much money you have in your pocket at the end of the day.  A country is an idea, formed by the hopes of its people, greater than the sum of its parts,  and much stronger when unified in a bold vision than when stymied by exaggerated regional differences for the sake of a few swing votes.  Canadians want something positive to believe in together; exemplified best, perhaps, by the excitement of the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run.  We were thirsting for it so badly and didn’t even realize it.  And Justin Trudeau was giving it to us.

As numbers for the Liberals began to climb, the concern trolls bounded back into gear.  The polls are wrong, they bleated.  Look what happened in the UK.  Conservative support is always underestimated, the youth won’t come out to vote, seniors love the Conservatives, “shy Tories” will ultimately turn this election in favour of Harper.  It’s all going to collapse, and such a shame, we would’ve voted Liberal if only you’d picked the astronaut.  Okay, fine, whatever.  The Conservatives’ cash register stunt, hysterical warnings of legalized brothels and the dragging out of the Ford brothers in the final week showed the flailing desperation of a side that knows they’ve lost, and most telling of all were Harper’s visits to what had been thought of as safe Conservative ridings in the final days.  “Just Not Ready” kept running on TV, but Trudeau’s numbers kept rising, and the NDP fell away as the large progressive Canadian majority pledged its troth to the man who had defined himself in the long, long campaign that was supposed to have bankrupted his party.  A last ditch attempt by Postmedia ownership to swing support back to Harper by having all its newspapers endorse the Conservatives was fruitless, and probably did more to insult the intelligence of the Canadian voter than it did to move numbers to Team Blue.  Still, we were warned, the best Liberals can hope for is a decent minority.  Harper might even be able to cling to power if he gets a small plurality of seats.  We’ll be back at this in six months.

As Troy Tulowitzki smashed another three-run home run last night in what would become an 11-8 victory for Toronto over Kansas City and a cutting of KC’s lead in the ALCS in half, the returns started to come in, heralded by Atlantic Canada with its complete Liberal sweep.  Then came Quebec, shrugging off most of the 2011 NDP wave and giving the Liberals the highest total of seats they’d earned in the province since the first Trudeau won his final election in 1980.  Ontario shut the Conservatives out of The Six and most of the 905, and as polls closed in the west and Canadian political junkies flipped back and forth from Game 3 to Peter Mansbridge, the unexpected, the undreamed of, became reality.  You had to just stop and soak it in for a long moment.  1-8-4.  A freaking majority.


It is not possible, I think, to overstate the accomplishment of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in this election, coming back from the doldrums of a little over 30 seats to a solid mandate to establish a new and uniquely hopeful and very much Canadian tone of governance for the next four years.  Coming back from being written off only a few months ago as a lightweight with a famous name, unsuited to step into the ring with the big boys.  It’s difficult not to compare the tone of this moment to the election of Barack Obama.  In Trudeau’s victory speech, he invoked Abraham Lincoln (and The West Wing) in referring to the better angels of our nature, before reminding us again, as he had many times on the campaign trail, that in Canada, better is always possible.  Many of us knew this all along.  And now we have the right person with the right team for the right time to make better happen.  I won’t lie.  It feels amazing today.  Today has more promise than most of the yesterdays in the past ten years, and we can look to tomorrow with excitement and anticipation, as we just watch him.

I don’t write about politics very often anymore.  My focus has changed as I’ve grown older, become a father, diverted my interests and attentions.  But I think often about what I wrote about Justin Trudeau three years ago, how it connected with him that day, and how generous he was to share my thoughts with the people who supported him.  (And I’m just a little bit proud that he still follows me on Twitter.)  But I couldn’t let today pass without writing the words that I hoped I might be able to one day, when I first clicked “publish” on Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls and sent it out into the world:

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister.  And thank you.



The climax of the film Moneyball (spoilers!) hinges on a single moment in a single game.  The Oakland A’s are looking to win their 20th straight and have, against odds, blown an 11-0 lead in the late innings.  Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt), a slumping catcher-turned-first baseman upon whom general manager Billy Beane has been piling his hopes for proving his sabermetric approach to baseball – and who has been benched over and over by disbelieving manager Art Howe – steps to the plate.  As if suddenly cast into a remake of The Natural, the unassuming Hatteberg swings hard and blasts a triumphant walk-off home run.  Baseball is full of these cinematic moments, and we saw another one last night.

Texas fans had to have been feeling pretty confident as they strolled into the familiar confines of Arlington after taking two straight from the AL East-winning Blue Jays at Toronto’s Rogers Centre (I still want to call it SkyDome), games in which Toronto’s league-leading offense fizzled in opportunity after opportunity.  Likewise, Toronto fans were simmering a bit in their dejection after such an otherwise inspiring season.  To see it end after all that in three straight, barely out of the postseason starting gate, would have been an odious fate worthy of the perennially terrible Maple Leafs.  But as the game wound its way into the middle innings, we started to see reminders of why obituaries and thoughts of sweeps were terribly premature.

Marco Estrada, a pitcher who began the season in the bullpen and who had gone somewhat unheralded given the headline-grabbing flash of the duo of David Price and Marcus Stroman, threw a nearly flawless sextet of innings.  The Rangers simply could not hit him or take advantage of the few times they were able to get guys on base.  If Game 1 was undone by a weaker-than-usual Price outing, and Game 2 ultimately undermined by a late failure by an exhausted bullpen, Estrada’s crystalline throws had to have delivered some inspiration to the bats, letting them work the small ball for a pair of runs instead of needing those massive – and risky – wild swings that can pay off with moonshots but more often than not lead to inning-ending strikeouts.  Buoyed by Estrada, the Jays notched a cheap 2, then found themselves in the sixth with the bases loaded, nobody out, and Texas starter Martin Perez – who had done the Jays the immense courtesy of walking in a run – heading for the benches.  Reliever Chi Chi Gonzalez got Chris Colabello to ground into a head-desking double play, the fourth time the Jays had done that in the night, and it looked as though another golden opportunity was about to be blown.

Then Troy Tulowitzki stepped into the batter’s box.

You can argue about your favorite players, and scream “MVP” every time Josh Donaldson runs out onto the field, but Tulo is for me the embodiment the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays – talented, driven, and oftentimes as frustrating as not, but ever possessed of the innate capacity to deliver down to the last strike of the last out.  Arriving halfway through the season and cast immediately into the role of leadoff man, Tulowitzki impressed with a home run in his very first game as a Jay, and with the rockets tossed across the field to retire sprinting batters at first.  But his bat abruptly cooled off, and the camera shot of him shuffling back to the dugout after whiffing on a third strike had become a familiar sight.  Manager John Gibbons eventually dropped Tulo to the middle of the order, giving the speedy Ben Revere a chance to shine as the leadoff man, but the bat still wasn’t connecting.  And then came that horrible moment in early September where a collision with Kevin Pillar cracked Tulo’s shoulder blade and put him out of commission until the very last games of the season.  Was this to be a harbinger of the Jays’ fates?  As Toronto clinched the division and then sputtered out with a couple of embarrassing losses, the stench of heartbreak years like 1985, 1989 and 1991 came wafting back.  Toronto’s middling performances in Games 1 and 2 reminded us of the old hated “Blow Jays” epithet.  Tulo, likewise, though he had worked hard in rehab to make it back into the lineup and was playing through pain, was back to a thus-far unremarkable season as a Blue Jay.

With two on and two out, Tulowitzki worked the count, and as the insipid FS1 color commentators lauded the Texas defense and pitching strategy (Harold Reynolds annoyed an entire nation with his snide comment about how Canadians can’t catch), it seemed like the late Yogi Berra’s deja vu all over again.  A game earlier, Texas had walked Edwin Encarnacion on purpose because they figured Tulo would be an easier out – which then, he had been.  As the count rose to the pivotal 3-2, here came Gonzalez with a changeup.  Over the plate.

Tulo swung.

It wasn’t one of those hits where you know, right at the crack of the bat, that this one is going to end up in the parking lot.  But there it went.  Faster.  Further.  Rangers outfielders looked up.  Watched it go.  Higher.  Deeper.


All across Canada, living rooms exploded.  The Jays fans who had made the trek to Arlington did their best to fill a suddenly quiet stadium with roars.

And Troy Tulowitzki, the happiest man in the ballpark, rounded the bases, touched home plate, and high-fived his teammates, perhaps in his professional athlete’s mind not realizing the significance of that precise moment.  With that one clutch blast, he had saved the Blue Jays’ postseason.

Baseball never lets you dismiss the underestimated.

Texas managed to put up one run on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the 6th, but suddenly inspired relievers Aaron Loup, Mark Lowe, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna did their jobs with efficiency and aplomb and shut down the remainder of the Rangers’ lineup.  And with that, on a 5-1 triumph, the Jays were still in it.  Game 4 sees knuckleballer R.A. Dickey becoming the oldest player to make his postseason debut, looking to even up the series and bring it back to Toronto for what one hopes will be the comeback victory of the decade, and on to the ALCS, even greater things and even greater moments.

For today though, Troy Tulowitzki has proven why he’s worthy to wear that blue uniform and stand on the field with those other guys every single night.  He came through.  delivered when it mattered.  He gave the game its Hatteberg-in-Moneyball scene.

A nation still has its hopes today.

Let’s go Blue Jays.

Vintage, Part Nineteen… yes, nineteen


It’s been a while!  For those who are wondering where Part Eighteen is, you didn’t miss it, it’s just not here.  If you’ve been following the story up to this point, you’ve been following the evolution of the relationship between the two leads, and it came to a point where there was a certain inevitable destination.  That involved a bit of raciness that I think I handled rather maturely and tastefully, but at the same time I understand there are those who follow my site but don’t do it to be confronted with that sort of thing.  So Part Eighteen is only over at the Wattpad site.  (You can still leave comments on this post for it, if you like.)  In the meantime, here is the next chapter.

Warm night breezes and the lulling crash of surf nudged him awake.  The sky was without a moon, but it was more stars than dark, spilling a rich sheen of cobalt over the world, to whatever private corner of it she had whisked them away.  A cool satin sheet beneath them reflected the starlight and shielded bare bodies from the grit of the sand.  Etienne lifted his head and saw her pressed against him, one leg interlocked with his, propping her head on a bent elbow and tracing a gentle line down the center of his chest with her fingertips.  She was smiling, but her eyes were narrow, intense, full of purpose.

“You’re mine now,” Nightingale breathed, in a hue that was peculiarly sinister, belittling and foreboding.  “Completely… and utterly.”

A snap of cold split Etienne’s spine.  He shivered.  “W-what?”

She stopped and inched closer.  A flash of purple energy lined her irises.

Suddenly she corpsed and burst into a giddy, girlish laugh.  “Oh, goodness me, of course not.  You should see your face.”

“I don’t–”

Nightingale’s long hair danced in the delicate wind as she shook her head.  “Are you worried the evil temptress enslaved your immortal soul with her mystical sex powers?”

“Well, I–”

“Oh, please.  Aren’t Commissionaires supposed to be experts on witches?  Do you know who came up with ridiculous notions like that?  Very lonely men on very cold nights.”  She crawled in next to him and invited him to wrap his arm around her.  “Silly, silly boy.”

An embarrassed blush tinged his cheeks.  “It’s not cold here,” he said, absently.

“This is my favorite place,” Nightingale replied.  “Serene.  Worlds away from the world.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me.”

“You’re welcome.”  She closed her eyes.

Etienne held her and let thoughts wander with her gentle breathing and the waves lapping at the shore.  It was so strange.  He could remember little of what intimacy with Nightingale had felt like.  The precise recollections of kissing her and tasting her and having her, the sheer rapture that had been so fiery was blurred by the gray fog of old dreams from a thousand years ago, beyond his capacity for clear description as though he was a journeyman challenged to reproduce a masterpiece seen in a fleeting glimpse.  He felt smaller.  For an instant he had brushed against a fragment of greatness – something that perhaps was never truly meant for him – and now he was watching it drift up and away from his reach.  Even as he lay on her beach with her soft body warming his, even as he lost his eyes in the canopy of a million stars, he could sense this biting truth cementing itself in his mind.

The boy fleeing from his dying father’s bedside wanted to rant and rave and scream that it wasn’t fair.  The man on a distant island shore reflecting on what had transpired and what was to come understood it could not be anything else, that illusions of fairness were just that.

“Will you ever tell me your name?” he asked her quietly, afraid of disturbing her if she had fallen asleep.

The witch stirred.  “I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Nightingale,’” she said.  “There’s an old saying about making an enemy’s label into a statement of agency for yourself.”  Nightingale climbed on top of him and paraded her fingers along his skin.  “The nightingale is mysterious, soulful, romantic, a muse to the poets.  Why wouldn’t I embrace something so beautiful?”

“It does suit you.  To be honest, I can’t imagine calling you anything else.”  He slid his hands over the small of her back.  “Is it who you really are?”

“Who am I to you, Etienne?  Does anything else matter?”

He nodded.  “It does.”

“You want to hear that story.  The story of the little girl with the special gifts who was beaten by her mother and touched by her father, before she ran away to escape a nightmare of a life that seemed determined to crush her.  Who discovered that she could shatter the limits the small-minded had shackled her with and create a new person out of the bones of the broken child.  Who learned to take ownership of herself and of the magic that had scared everyone so, and in so doing became more powerful than she ever could have dreamed.  Who dedicated herself to preventing any other little girls from enduring what she did.”  She spoke of these things without any hesitation in her voice.  “You should know that who we really are is not something that can be captured in a name, a title, or in a word, particularly one applied by somebody else.  We define who we are in the choices we make.”  Nightingale scooped a handful of sand and let it sift grain by grain through her fingers onto his chest.  She infused it with wisps of magic so that each fragment glowed violet as it tumbled and collected in a tiny pile.  “We build ourselves from moment to moment, collecting our own truths, and for a time we exist as the sum of our experiences, growing a little more each day.”

“I have this idea of a future with you,” Etienne said.  “We are standing arm in arm, watching the Bureau Centrale collapsing in massive flames that singe the clouds.  Then a huge celebration erupts throughout Calerre.  Statues fall, voices sing and wine flows, and thousands of women emerge from the shadows they’ve hidden in their entire lives, because for the first time, they have the promise of tomorrow.  They are looking to someone to thank, and they look for us, but we’re gone.  No one sees us ever again.  We find a place like this one, lush and full of bounty, and we build a house, or rather, I watch as you spin it into existence with your spells, because I never learned how to use a hammer.  We breakfast with the sunrise and dine as the sky turns red, and in between we walk on the beach and climb trees and laugh and dance and make love.  It’s not all bliss, of course; sometimes we fight, sometimes I storm out and slam the door, sometimes you vanish in a flash of light, but we always forgive each other.  One day you tell me that you are expecting, and eventually we have three daughters.  Robin, Raven and Whooping Crane.”

She groaned and gave his cheek a mock slap.

He smiled and went on.  “They are beautiful, like their mother, and like their mother they have the most wondrous powers.  I watch you teach them how to use them with confidence and wisdom.  We scold them when the eldest turns the youngest into a toad, and we smile with pride when one heals the other’s scraped knee.  We watch them grow into formidable young women.  We say goodbye as they head out into the world, and we hold each other and weep after they’ve gone.  After a long while we realize that I’ve grown terribly old, and you are still as young as you are now, and one night I go to sleep in your arms, listening to the song of my nightingale for the last time.  That’s what I dream about.  And here with you now, closer than I’ll ever be, I still dream that it might be possible.  Because it isn’t.”

Nightingale’s smile waned, but she did not correct him.  “The sum of my experiences,” Etienne continued, “are memories and events I wish I could sweep away.  But there are too many.  Too many faces.”  He looked away from her and to the stars.  “Too many tiny lights snuffed out, because of me, because of the choices I made, of my own free will.  There are some sins that cleave too deeply into the heart.  Old wounds that will always ache and bleed.  Someone like me does not deserve the romantic ending that I would want to have.  Someone like me needs to be forgotten, his particular page in history torn clean from the book and crumpled like a draft full of amateur errors.”  Etienne turned his eyes to hers again.  “The cruel joke of it is that after all this time, I think I finally understand the truth of what it is to love someone.  To love in its purest, most incorruptible form, and to know you will carry that love to the last of your brief fragments of mortal time.  Even if she doesn’t and shouldn’t love you in return.”

Etienne reached up to caress her cheek, knowing that although she might care for him in some way, it was not and would never be the equal of what he felt for her.  “I do love you, Nightingale.  Not because you cast that spell on me.  I realized after you left that day that yes, you took away the magic, but it doesn’t matter what happens to the match after the fire begins to burn.  You saved me from a dark noose I couldn’t see closing in on my own throat.  You haunt me, infuriate me, captivate me.  You are the most fascinating, complicated, and genuine woman I have ever known, and there are things I have to do now, and I want them to be for you, only for you.  Once they are done…”  He pressed his lips together and blew, and her little pile of luminous purple sand scattered into the wind.

Nightingale leaned in and kissed him.  “Not forgotten,” she whispered, and invited him to sit up and look out with her.  The individual grains of sand she had enchanted had spread across the beach and lent their light to the others.  Now a blanket of warm and lush amethyst rose to meet the star-pierced sky.  Etienne smiled, recognizing what she was trying to show him.  It only affirmed what he had said to her, and what he felt for her.  However, laced into it was a note of melancholy, of accepting that despite his carefully crafted dream of their future, this would be their only night together.

“Come swim with me,” Nightingale said.

He grinned.  “Are you going to freeze the water on me like you did the first time?”

She bit her lip.  “Ice is the furthest thing from my mind.”

The witch rose and pulled Etienne to his feet.  Laughing, she led him to the water’s edge and flung herself in, vanishing beneath the bubbling crests of the waves turning one at a time onto the flat, cool sand of the shore.  Etienne followed and leaped into the soothing embrace of deep, cool water, and of the woman who waited for him there, watched over only by the stars.

His goddess.  His Nightingale.

The first and last woman he would ever love.

Harsh dawn came in an eon or two with an unheralded and unnoticed return to the very worldly confines of St. Iliane and an insistent banging against a flaking door.  Etienne scratched at the irritation from the straw bed, dragged on a basic decency’s worth of clothing and tucked the old wool blanket tighter against the witch sleeping next to him.  He brushed a long strand of hair away from her face and sat there in quiet contemplation until the door rattled again.

“Tête de cul!  Ouvrir cette putain de porte!”  No question as to who that was.  Etienne left Nightingale in the back room and meandered his way to the front of the hut.  Le Taureau nearly smashed the door in as Etienne began to turn the handle.  Corporal Valnier was behind him, and stepped inside with considerably more respect and patience in his stride.  “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, am I disturbing your maudit beauty rest?” barked the behemoth.

Etienne noted the peculiar configuration his hair had assumed courtesy of the misshapen pillow on which it had been lying.  “That wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to try sometime,” he replied.

“I’ve earned every scar on this face.  And the men who gave them to me look a lot less pretty than I do now.”

“What is it you want?”

“This arrived for you.  Just now.”  Le Taureau slammed a folded piece of paper against Etienne’s chest, and since the man did not do anything by half-measure, Etienne winced and tried not to gasp.  

He turned the paper over in his hand.  It bore the red seal of the Bureau Centrale, which in itself was not that remarkable, as such things could easily be faked with a candle and some patience.  But the series of digits scrawled across the back confirmed to him that the message was genuine, and that it originated with the Directeurs.  He fought an abrupt trembling in his fingers as he moved to open it.  The seal split and wax shards tumbled to the floor.  Etienne scanned the note quickly; it was brief, as expected.  He folded it again and nodded.  “Well?” Le Taureau demanded.

“How soon can you be ready to go?” Etienne asked.

“How soon?” barked the giant.  “This instant!  J’en ai ral le cul with all this lolling around!”

Etienne looked to his faithful corporal.  “Valnier?”  He received the sparsest of nods.  Sometimes even two words was too much for Valnier.

“One problem,” Le Taureau said.  “Have you forgotten the missing element of this scheme?”

“No, he hasn’t,” announced Nightingale’s voice.  The men spun about as one to see her emerge from the back hallway of the hut.  She was clad in the same sleeveless black gown in which she had greeted Etienne upon her sudden return, and her long hair fell neatly to one side.  Yet the flurry of cold that usually preceded her arrivals was absent.  Perhaps she no longer saw the need for the dramatic flourish.  It did not, in any way, Etienne thought, diminish the impact of her appearance in a room, though he could admit he was fairly biased.  Love tended to do that.

“Déesse!” cried Le Taureau.  That was not hyperbole; he really did look on the edge of tears, and happy enough to see her that he ignored the potentially troubling fact of her emergence from the same bedroom as that from which Etienne had presented himself just a few moments ago.  Valnier, for his part, eyed her with an unreadable cast to his face, a man as unperturbed by the presence of a beautiful woman as he would be by a particularly beautiful piece of furniture.  He and Etienne had undertaken so many missions to apprehend women just like her, and yet they were about to go into battle with this remarkable witch at their side.  If Valnier had doubts, he was not sharing them.  He was obeying orders as he always did.  Without question and without hesitation.  That was his code, and the only law that mattered to him.

Nightingale smiled at Le Taureau, and her acknowledgement of Corporal Valnier was emotionless.  “It’s time?” she asked Etienne.

“At moonrise tonight,” he replied.  “You’re ready?”

“For longer than you can have imagined,” she said.

“If I might say something,” interrupted Le Taureau, “before we embark on this misbegotten campaign of mass suicide?  I don’t know what peculiar turning of fate has brought together a bureaucrat, his mute servant and a true déesse together with the magnificence that is myself, but I would like to hope that it is not simply to break against the rocks.  And while I would not go so far as to call the lot of you honorable, I will allow that you have more courage than your pampered exteriors would suggest.  So if I have to die in service of a cause, then I am not completely horrified at the notion that it will be the same cause to which you have also pledged yourself.”

The other three were somewhat taken aback by Le Taureau’s sudden display of eloquence.  “That was almost poetic,” Etienne said for them.  “And you didn’t swear.”

“Casse-toi, branleur dégéneré,” Le Taureau snapped.  “Avale mes couilles.”

“That’s more like it.”

Nightingale smiled.

Le Taureau chuckled and departed, followed in short order by Valnier, who had remained silent throughout the entire conversation.  He had an almost theatrical sensibility in understanding entrance and exit cues, knowing instinctively when his master wanted moments alone.  Etienne promptly forgot about them both.  “I’ll have to give you the details of the plan,” he told Nightingale.

She shook her head.  “I know them.”  He did not need to ask how.  “May I see the note?”

He handed it over, carefully, as one might lend another flaming branch.  Nightingale drew a fingernail over the words as she read them, as if trying to scrape them away.  Etienne saw her swallow.  Despite the scope of her powers, she was still vulnerable to a very real fear.  “Moonrise?” she said.


“We should make the most of our time until then, don’t you think?”

Etienne grinned.

The note fell from her hands, and they left it behind, wedged between the dusty timbers of the floor.  Had anyone else stopped by and picked it up, they would have been perplexed by the message, unfamiliar as they would have been with the code established by the Bureau with Etienne before he had departed on his assignment.  But the mere four words were enough, to the informed reader, to set in motion the last act of this particular drama, though none of the performers could be certain as to where, in the end, the playwright was directing them.


* * *

All Aboard the Bandwagon


How long can you hold a grudge in major league baseball?  It turns out in my case, it’s about 21 years.  I can recall learning about the baseball strike from the news in August of 1994 and making a snap declaration that as a fan, I was finished.  The game had been as much a part of my formative education throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, my spiritual nourishment, if you will, as math textbooks and peanut butter sandwiches, and as I pored over the announcement, a glum pallor darkening my face, it felt as though something else was being ripped away.  I took it personally, as did many others of my generation, because it was all too personal indeed.

Over the preceding couple of years, the Toronto Blue Jays, after three false starts where they had won the American League East (in ’85, ’89 and ’91 respectively) but choked and collapsed in the first round of the playoffs, had established themselves as the best team in baseball, winning back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93.  I have a distinct recollection of being in a high school economics class the day after Toronto dropped the first game of the ’92 ALCS to Oakland and overhearing my teacher chatting with a couple of my classmates, muttering confidently that “I don’t think they’re going to win.”  (Somehow, I recall even more distinctively the boldface emphasis on the pessimistic ‘don’t’.)  I acknowledged the possibility then that we were going to see the heartbreak we had known threefold before happen again, but I think I had more faith than anyone else I knew back then.  I’d grown up watching those guys, soaking in a few dozen games a season in person at the damp and freezing Exhibition Stadium, and the rest on television or static-wracked AM radio drifting into my ears in a dark bedroom long into the night, past the threshold of sleep.  Some of my early heroes were long off the roster by ’92.  My old Dave Stieb jersey didn’t fit anymore.  But no matter the lineup, the Blue Jays were what they’d always been:  a team that you couldn’t help but root for.  There have been MLB squads that have inspired deep contempt, and even individual, arrogant players you were happy to see humiliated, but the Jays have never been that.  Since they debuted in April 1977 in a field full of snow, they have been the perennial underdogs scratching and scraping for victory, fueled not for the veneration of egos but entirely by the cheers of their fans.

So it was in 1992 and 1993, when the SkyDome bulged with capacity crowds each night and the Blue Jays responded with play that dazzled even the cynical.  When Joe Carter hit his famous three-run walk-off home run to win the ’93 Series and leaped about the bases, for Blue Jays fans this was as good as it got.  And it would have to be, for a long time.  Carter’s blast would be a memory drawn repeatedly from the vaults and polished raw to once again feel some of its light on our faces in the years that followed, as the triumphant Toronto squad of those rosy, invincible days, their armor chinked badly by the strike of 1994, fell to tattered pieces and languished in the cellar of the A.L. East, watching once easily-dispatched rivals soar to championship berths.  People stopped going to the games.  Record highs in attendance dwindled to record lows.  New players came and went, the management tried to spruce up the team’s appearance with would-be stylish black and silver uniforms, but the response was a collective indifference, as there now stood a permanent wedge between the Blue Jays and its fans.  Unlike the embarrassing Maple Leafs, who could fail for decades on end and still draw capacity crowds, the Jays’ penance, and their road to atonement, was to be long and brutal.

I went to a few games here and there during that dry spell, if someone happened to have an extra ticket they couldn’t use that day.  As I walked into the stadium, the air smelled listless, the crackle that infused it in the 90’s merely a musty remnant that had long seeped deep beyond reach beneath the concrete pillars.  The banners hanging from the rafters above center field, commemorating old victories under the classic, abandoned bird-in-profile logo, were like relics from a forgotten century, the belongings of a different team.  Baseball is perhaps unique among sports for its ability to hold within it a special sort of melancholy, as if the best part of the game has always been the nostalgia for glories of the past.  Before me then in those later years, an interchangeable cast of well-meaning but forgettable newcomers swung their bats and circled the bases to a largely indifferent, much reduced crowd.  When everyone rose to participate in the seventh-inning stretch to the Blue Jays’ old anthem, it was with resignation, not enthusiasm.  Undoubtedly there were those who never stopped believing, who continued to wander the desert with the team and latch onto every spark of life, no matter how fleeting, but I wasn’t one of them.  The promise made in 1994 held firm, and there was no sense that it would ever be reneged.

Until now.

The Toronto Blue Jays of 2015 started their season with what promised to be another year of aspiration without realization; win-loss record bouncing about the .500 mark, fan favorites like the homegrown Brett Lawrie traded away, the always troublesome pitching blowing surefire leads and leaving the undermatched offense to struggle at catch-up until the whole enterprise struggled to a close in late September, playoff berths remaining the stuff of dreams.  As late as the end of July it felt as though we would once again be fated to watch the wealthy and hated New York Yankees walk away with the AL East from the discomforting perspective of a perennial third or fourth-place berth, myself tuning in once in a while out of nothing more than an old, much-dwindled blue flame of curiosity.  But in the tradition of the dramatic turn on which the outcome of a baseball game can hinge, the Toronto Blue Jays made key trades at the July deadline and in the process discovered who they were again; they went from middling to great.

Losing the error-prone Jose Reyes and a handful of mediocre pitching prospects to secure the services of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price seems, in very short hindsight, to be the stuff of brilliance.  What cannot be acquired through trades, however, is the sort of spirit that the 2015 Blue Jays version 2.0 have built over the past month.  This is a team in every sense of the word; even from the benches and from the living room you can tell that this is a group of guys who genuinely like each other and love baseball even more.  Last Tuesday, when the unlikely Ryan Goins blasted a two-run home run to secure a walk-off victory in the tenth inning against the Cleveland Indians, his teammates mobbed him as he circled to home plate as though they had just won the division.  These guys are all in and all for one, and that drive has spread to the city of Toronto and indeed the entire country as the people have come pouring back, the remainder of the Jays’ home schedule abruptly sold out.  In the middle of the 11-game August winning streak that took them from seven games back to the top of the AL East, the Blue Jays held a ceremony inviting back the members of the 1985 squad, the heroes I had watched on those cold aluminum Exhibition Stadium chairs as they posted a franchise-record 99 wins, and the comparison to this year’s crew was obvious and deserved.  Those old Blue Jays played to win for the love of the game, and we loved them for it.  The same goes for the new Blue Jays.  They make us remember why we loved the game in the first place, and why we can continue to love it and cling to the edges of our collective seats, holding our breath and waiting as the pitch is loosed, for the signature crack of ball against bat and the absolute eruption of the masses as it finds the seats over the left-field wall.

There is a month to go and so much still can happen.  Perhaps we will look back in another 20 years having elevated Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Roberto Osuna, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and the others to the same echelon we’ve reserved for George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Willie Upshaw, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Joe Carter and their hallowed brethren.  Despite what happens now, the 2015 Blue Jays have accomplished one thing that may not matter in the record books or the history of the sport, but has made a great difference in the life of one specific person:  they’ve made me a fan again.  You might think of it as climbing aboard a suddenly animated bandwagon, but my relationship with the Blue Jays runs far deeper than that.  The funny thing about bandwagons is that they attract followers because the seats are comfortable.  In my case, I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that has been slumbering for over twenty years, and I can look back now and recall the fortunate time I once stood in the middle of center field and gazed into the enormity of the stadium and felt that this was somewhere I truly belonged.  It was never my destiny to be a player, so I’ll take the next best thing, and cheer for a team that has proven that it deserves to be counted among the best ever to play the game.  That’s a bandwagon I think anyone would be happy to ride in.

Vintage, Part Seventeen


Sorry about the hiatus, folks!  Here we are with a chapter that begins with a bit of a digression, and ends with echoes of last month’s discussion on fear.  Funny how that worked out…

“Derrière moi,” dit le pirate à la belle fille alors qu’il brandit son sabre dans le sens de la sorcière maléfique.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee, ma dame,” il vanté.  La sorcière se mit à rire, et a fait au sol, et tout à coup la terre baratté et cracher hors une légion de squelettes.  Leurs os claquaient comme ils grimpé hors de la boue.  La fille a crié.  “Ne vous inquiétez pas,” dit le pirate.  “Je dois plus de cran que tous ces autres réunis.”

Pernel laughed aloud and thumbed at the next page.  That part still drew a chuckle, even if he’d read it so often that the paper was curled and the ink upon it flaking.  But it wasn’t as though he had to worry about disturbing anyone.  No human souls lingered within a hundred miles of earshot, just his quartet of geldings pulling the great laden carriage on which he was perched, its large wooden wheels creaking over cracked earth.  These languid supply runs offered him plenty of opportunity to catch up on his books, and he could usually make it through two or three between departure and destination.  Le Pirate et la Sorcière was his favorite.  The horses knew this old road well, so he could let go of the reins and lean back and lose himself in the gripping tale of swashbuckling and magic, even if he did almost know it by rote now.  As much as he loved the story, it did sometimes make him a little sad to know that his own life would never see much adventure, at least, not battling witches and saving bosomy damsels.  He was just a man doing his job, and people like him didn’t even rate a mention in these sorts of books.  If they did, it would be merely to help push the plot by delivering an informative line of dialogue to the protagonist.  “They went that way, monsieur.”  He wouldn’t get a history, or any unique or memorable traits, or even a last name.  Pernel’s kind would be a splash of color for the background, granted only a few forgettable adjectives.  They’d never emerge as the heroes they might have the capacity to become.

Given the opportunity, Pernel was certain that he could be.  He had a sword.  It was dappled with rust and he’d only ever used it against a fairly unthreatening wooden post, but he thought he understood the basic principles enough to handle himself if a fight broke out.  He’d sometimes imagine being accosted by villains of all shapes and forms, and dream up witty lines with which to berate these spectral menaces, in an appropriately theatrical voice.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee!”  What he would not give for a pivotal moment like that.  What a tale it would make for his colleagues back at the depot who generally paid him as little attention as the peripheral characters in his beloved books.  A chance to be a hero, just once.  It wasn’t asking a lot.

Traces of dusklight began to filter past the setting sun, and Pernel figured he had about another hour before he should pull off the road to water the horses and make camp.  He was ahead of schedule as usual and there was no sense in pushing things.  Surely he could make it through a few more chapters.  After the battle with the skeletons came the escape on the pirate’s ship and the encounter with the hurricane conjured by the witch, then the wreck on the haunted island.  Pernel did not understand why more people didn’t like reading as he did.  They were missing out on so much.  One could also argue the opposing point, that those who spent all their time pressing their noses to paper were missing out on life, or at least on the essential details of life, such as noticing the nine masked men who burst from the lengthening shadows on the roadside and surrounded Pernel’s carriage before he had occasion to see the pirate escape the witch’s conjured skeletons once again.

“Arrêtez, monsieur!” announced the leader.  Pernel’s beloved book tumbled from his hands as he yanked on the reins.  The horses whickered their displeasure.  Romantic notions of heroism vanished from Pernel’s mind, chased away by more familiar fear.  His rusty sword, wrapped in fabric, was nowhere within reach, while the eight companions of the man who had spoken were in clear possession of their own blades and aiming them straight for Pernel’s heart.  He lifted his hands over his head.  Not the most courageous action, but likely the safest.

Pernel cursed rotten luck.  This day of all days, this run of all runs, when he had, in addition to the hefty cargo in the back, a strongbox containing 500 livres in gold coin buckled to the floor beneath his boots.  His supply runs rarely included money for this very reason.  But somebody owed someone else, and he’d been persuaded to accept the box to courier back to the depot.  Now it would never arrive, and Pernel – assuming he survived – would be held responsible for paying every sou of it back, no matter how long it took.  He would not be purchasing any new books anytime soon.

“Merci beaucoup,” said his chief accoster through a tied black scarf.  “We have no wish for unnecessary violence.  If you cooperate you will be on your way promptly.”

Pernel nudged the strongbox with his foot, trying to push it out of sight.  “Everything here is the p-property of Partenaires fusionnées mercantiles,” he declared in a voice warbled by nervous cracks, following as best he recalled the script he and others in his role had been given in the event of such an occurrence.  “I am r-required by law to advise that they have placed a generous bounty on the heads of anyone who interferes with their shipments.  I am also authorized to say that if you release me without incident no f-further action will be taken against you.”  Any trace of courage, any remnant of that long-nurtured wish to be a hero, was dying with each stammer.  This was Pernel’s moment, the opportunity he had dreamed of through all those books, and it was collapsing beneath the weight of his cowardice.  He was well-read enough to understand the dramatic device of irony, though he was understandably too frightened to recognize it in the present situation.

Beneath the mask he saw a smile crease the mouth of the lumbering hulk of a man who led the bandits.  “That’s all well and proper, tête de cul, but I am required to inform you that your partenaires may cheerfully sucer their own bites, and if you do not stop trying to conceal that box at your feet I will have my friends here cut your throat.”

Pernel froze.

“Now then,” said the large man, “if you would be so kind to unlock your rear doors, we will help ourselves to…”  He turned to a nearby associate.  “What was it he said?”  The other fellow whispered something in his ear.  “Ah, yes.”  He raised his eyes to Pernel again.  “Your cloth.  We want every bolt of cloth you have in your carriage.”

Pernel tripped over his tongue.  He had barrels of sugar, salt, spices, grains and teas, along with iron and copper ore, not to mention the 500 livres in gold, and yet… “You want what?”

Mutual disbelief choked off a response and held both men in a shared, silent stare.

Much later, long after dear hapless Pernel had been left to his remaining cargo, his precious books and whatever meager possibility the rest of his quiet life might afford him, Le Taureau strolled back into the meeting hall in St. Iliane where Etienne was working, and without ceremony dropped a heaping pile of assorted liberated fabrics on the table in front of him.  “As ordered,” he said.  “Between nine of us we couldn’t carry it all.  We had to leave most of it behind.”

Etienne rose from his chair and sifted through the many-hued collection of wools and cottons as he ran scenarios in his head.  “This is good,” he said.  “This will do.  Merci, Corben.”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped Le Taureau.

This scene had played out in a variety of iterations over the last few days, as Etienne had reconsidered and rewritten his scenario and accordingly required a fresh infusion of specific supplies and materiel, which Le Taureau had, obligingly, sent his men out to liberate from the sparsely guarded roads and villages nearby.  This had been their fourth successful expedition, and Etienne was permitting himself a modicum of optimism about the venture that lay ahead.

Whether they set out at all, though, depended on the answer he received back from the communique he had dispatched on that first day here in St. Iliane.  He had entrusted a sealed letter containing the appropriate coded message to a spry volunteer from the youngest in Le Taureau’s ranks, to be delivered with haste to a pre-arranged drop point at an otherwise innocuous tavern on the outskirts of Calerre, where a plainclothes Bureau operative would be waiting to receive it.  Following a seemingly random series of ciphers known only to Etienne and the Directeurs that would confirm to the designated reader that the message was genuine, it read simply:


Etienne admired the economy of the phraseology, drawn from another pre-arranged list of avian imagery in keeping with the codename of the subject.  If Nightingale had eluded him and he wished to give up the quest, he was to have written EMPTY SKY.  If she had killed or otherwise incapacitated the last of his men, it was to be EGGS SMASHED.  For the most morbid of outcomes – if he had killed her – he would have scrawled a foreboding SONG SILENCED.  But the code he had used instead of these indicated that she was in his custody and ready to be brought back, and it was the one most likely to pique the attention of the Directeurs.  He couldn’t come right out and request the presence of all three – that would be far too obvious – and it was something of a risk to assume that each would want to be present at the delivery of the Bureau’s most feared adversary, but Etienne’s familiarity with the sizes of their respective egos assured him.  Theniard Preulx would have to be there; the thirsting hatred that kept his withered heart beating would need to be slaked by the sight of a submissive Nightingale.  Michel Ste-Selin would trust only his eyes in proving that the bothersome Etienne de Navarre had actually managed to complete the assignment, and Kadier Duforteste would come if only to be relieved temporarily of the tedium of his undemanding duties in the south.  But for additional incentive – or insurance – Etienne had handed a second letter to his young volunteer prior to his departure, this one a little more detailed, and marked for a different address.  There was little else to do on that front right now but to wait, to continue to sweat away in the humid hovels of St. Iliane.

For their part, Corporal Valnier and the other men had to Etienne’s surprise and relief required precious little explanation to convince them to sign on to this undertaking.  To a man they did not care whose ribs got in the way of the ends of their swords, so long as purses were full at the end of the fight.  Etienne promised them each a hefty bounty, understanding that making good on those promises would mean bankrupting himself.  The way he saw it, failing to bring down the Bureau would relegate financial concerns to the very least of his worries, and though he could not define the precise shape of success, he suspected it would not find him back chatting up comely croupiers at the Splendide’s tables.  Valnier had been the toughest to convince, but eventually he too had acquiesced, more out of loyalty to Etienne than to the prospect of riches, and he was out now, ensconced in his wheelhouse, working on getting the ragtags of St. Iliane into a shape resembling fighting.  Etienne chose to believe that the lessening frequency of grunts and moans filtering in from the yard beyond the rotting wall boards meant progress.  At the least, he could content himself in seeing that they had stopped cutting themselves with the crudely carved wooden practice swords.

Initially, Le Taureau’s men had proven themselves keen to participate; the notion that they could hand a defeat to the most hated institution on the continent proved appealing, with would-be warriors falling over themselves (in some cases literally, so weak and famished were many of them) to pledge fealty to the cause.  They were less patient, however, with the concept of training, and more than a few strong words from Le Taureau to his younglings had been necessary to prevent desertions.  But with this latest bounty retrieved from the road, according to Etienne’s most recent draft of his plan, they had nearly everything they required.  There was only one significant, glaring absence.  It had been three days now, and it was growing more apparent by the hour that hers had not been a momentary outburst of second thoughts.

It did not seem that Nightingale was ever coming back.

Etienne had felt much different since that last conversation, when she had extracted, bluntly, the hitherto unknown spell she had cast upon him at their first meeting.  He still thought of her often, but the obsession over every enthralling nuance of her that had tormented him even in sleep was gone, crushed out like a flame beneath a boot.  He could recall having those feelings, but he was unable to explain how it had felt, or remember the delicious intoxication that went with slavish love.  It was a bit akin to trying to articulate the sentiment behind a passionate, masterful sonnet written in a language that you had suddenly forgotten how to speak.  When Etienne’s thoughts turned to Nightingale now, they were a copious accounting of every obvious flaw in appearance and manner he had overlooked while he had been enraptured by her magic, things that had appeared tantalizing but came off as pretentious and annoying when seen in cold, sober light.  More than anything he grew frustrated at her failure to return, and uncomprehending of why she would choose to remove herself from the game when she was within a few moves of achieving her coveted victory over the brutal enemy that had killed so many of her sisters.  Why she would drag him into her circle, tease him, entice him and turn him finally and irrevocably against his old comrades with a shattering revelation, and then bugger off to realms unknown – jeopardizing that very victory, perhaps even placing it out of reach.  Etienne did not enjoy being angry with Nightingale, but the frustration grew with each passing day.  It did not stop him, however, from chancing a sliver of hope every time his skin was touched with an abrupt cool breeze, the kind that once heralded her arrivals.

Each time, it was only a trick of the wind.

For now, it was left to him to keep Le Taureau mollified, and patience was as elusive to the large brigand as it was to the animal with whom he shared a name.  Le Taureau’s meaty fingers crushed a wad of dyed wool from the liberated shipment of cloth, and a dead-eyed frown reminded the much slighter Etienne that those fingers could very easily shatter most of his skeleton while the other hand occupied itself with knitting or other idle pursuits.

“If I give them the patterns,” Etienne said, “your men can follow them?”

Le Taureau nodded.  “Presuming you first tell me what use this is.  We need weapons to fight the Bureau, not a bunch of fancy dresses.”

“You can’t think of what we’re planning as war.  A straight fight against the Bureau will fail.  This is theater.  The performers require costumes.”

Le Taureau was not the greatest enthusiast of analogies, though he was more than adept in picking them up.  “That being the case, you should be aware that the performers do not understand their lines, they grow weary of rehearsing, they do not trust the librettist, and more to the point, we seem to have lost our leading lady.”  Etienne too lost his fervor for the analogy as he went up on his next line.  Le Taureau noticed.  “What, you have no answer for me?”

Etienne found a nervous laugh.  “I’m just amazed that a man with a predominantly scatological vocabulary knows what a librettist is.”

Va te faire enculer.  Where in the hell is the déesse?”

Etienne’s throat begged for a hard swallow.  He strained to resist it.  “She’s… she had something she had to attend to.  She’ll be back.”  He read the dissatisfaction with that response in the abrupt mutation of Le Taureau’s frown into a glower, dripping with threat.  It was much easier to read the man’s expressions now that the forest of a beard had been shorn, as per Etienne’s earlier instructions.  “You know her, she can come and go in the blink of an eye.”

“It’s been a lot of blinks.  Days of them.  No sign.  Not a word.”  Le Taureau inched – though with his size it was perhaps more accurate to say he yarded – over the table.  “I – we – only agreed to do this for her.  I’m not sending my men into certain death for the likes of you.”

“I understand that.  But no one needs to die if we do this properly.  That means my way.”  The noise from outside got louder all of a sudden.  Valnier probably had them running laps.

“Thus far, your way is waiting around and sending me and my men out on errands to gather scraps.  And you are terribly presumptuous to believe that I answer to you in any form, or that anything beyond my faith in the déesse stops me tearing your bowels out through your throat.”  Le Taureau cocked his head to one side and directed his glare toward Etienne’s gut.

Etienne was, for the moment, unconcerned about the fate of his colon, fixed as he was on reading Le Taureau’s mannerisms and posture, and detecting, to his surprise, a measurable insecurity hiding beneath the polished shell of aggrandized, larger-than-life bravado that the large man had layered about himself.  Etienne admonished himself for not seeing it sooner.  Surely in order to rise above and command a legion of the hardest, most unruly societal dregs, one required much more than forearms the size of ham hocks.  The most confident and imposing men Etienne had ever known all shared a common trait; they were, at heart, terrified little boys who could never truly sleep.

The sounds beyond the hut exploded into competing shouts and cries, and curses that would embarrass even Le Taureau’s salted tongue.  Both men acknowledged the immediate need to table their fruitless discussion and make hastily for the door.

They stepped out into the middle of a full-on melee.

Etienne had only scant seconds to assess what was going on, but even to a layperson it was clear that Le Taureau’s gang had decided as one to fall upon Valnier and the rest of Etienne’s men with fists.  The mercenaries were trying to hold off the assault, but tactic and finesse were worth little when the opponents could simply pile on with endless reinforcements.  Etienne threw himself into it, seizing and shoving aside bodies, struggling to bark commands over a din of wailing.  Le Taureau did the same, employing his mass to a greater degree of success.  Together they carved through the crush of people to locate the two combatants who could be most logically determined the instigators:  a wiry, emaciated Ilianer railing meek blows on a prone Corporal Valnier, who was absorbing them while wearing a perspiration-free expression best described as mild annoyance.  “Stop this,” Etienne yelled.  “Stop this.  Stop this now!”  He grabbed the Ilianer by the waist and hoisted him off his corporal, dodging the flailing limbs.  Etienne pushed him back into the arms of Le Taureau and extended a hand to his fallen underling.  Valnier took it, rose and said nothing.  Sanity reasserted its tenuous grasp on St. Iliane.  “What the hell are you people doing?” Etienne said.  “Are you trying to lose the battle before you even start it?”

“We’re not bétail!” screamed the little man, smearing blood from a split lip as he tried to wipe it from his face.  “We won’t be treated like this!”  A chorus of agreement echoed him.

Etienne bit off the reply it was his instinct to hurl back.  He could see in each face reflecting anger back at him, or looking in desperate plea to Le Taureau, a bone-rattling fear at the impossible enormity of what they were being asked to do.  To the last of them, they were scared.  Though they played at being brave, and enjoyed very much the idea of going to war against the Bureau, the reality of such a choice was not the romantic option it seemed when read about in books or shared in tales recounted by a roaring fire.  They wanted to do this, Etienne was certain, but they had focused on the celebration of the victory without taking into account the possibility that not all of them might live through the task to take part.  The process of training had emphasized the latter point to a degree beyond which most of them were comfortable, and now fear was cracking their shells one by one.

As an agent of the Bureau, Etienne had mastered the art of cultivating fear.  He could identify within seconds of meeting someone what kept them awake and shivering, and he could manipulate and magnify it to the point where most enemies – or victims, to put it more accurately – would wither to a meek surrender.  How, then, could the same man put courage, and hope, into afflicted hearts?

Etienne could not simply point to Nightingale and tell them to keep faith in her, and by extension himself.  And he could not simply act the part this time.  This was not a mere case of selling a mildly reluctant buyer.  He had to know what he was saying was true.  He had to believe it.  So there was no option for him but brutal honesty.

This was his moment.

“You’re afraid,” he said.  “You’re all afraid.  You volunteered because you know the cause is a just one, but you don’t think you have it in you to see this through.  And do you know what – you are absolutely right.  You don’t.  None of you do.”  Ripples of confusion and anger spread throughout the mob; it was clearly not what they were expecting him to say.  Even Le Taureau hurled a frown his way.  “And if you are expecting reassurance from me,” Etienne went on, “some promise that it’s not as bad as it seems, that everything will be all right, well, I can’t give it to you.  You need to be clear about one very important thing.  This is the most dangerous, most terrifying, and most hopeless enterprise you will ever face in your lives, and I have no poetry to stir your hearts, nor do I know any blustering refrains to comfort your thoughts for when you’re inevitably being cut down by Bureau blades.  If I did, I’d be lying.  A charlatan takes power by convincing the fearful that they don’t have to be afraid, so long as they follow him.  The Bureau Centrale controls this country the exact same way.”

“You’re a Bureau étron,” hollered someone near him, to a round of approving shouts.

Etienne could sense the air thinning with the bodies pressing in on him, the hands poised to reach for his throat, but he smiled.  “Yes, I was.  I spent my whole life being afraid, and the Bureau told me I could come with them and not be controlled by my fear anymore.  What they didn’t tell me was that they would be controlling me instead, and I let them, for twelve long, shameful years.  I did it willingly.  I swallowed their poison and spat it back with glee at anyone who crossed me.  I didn’t realize that I was helping to perpetuate the very fear that had made me lose my way for so long, and working for the very monsters who had destroyed my family.  But I did it because not having to be afraid is comforting, and seductive.  Doing what is comfortable, avoiding the fear inside, is far, far easier than doing what is right, and what is necessary.”

That appeared to garner him some additional attention.  “Why do we revere great men for great deeds?” Etienne asked.  “Because they are rare, and the reason why they are rare is that most people are much too afraid to even try.  But here’s the truth.  With every hero you’ve ever read about, in imagined tales or in history, there was not a single moment when they weren’t frightened as much as you are right now, or even more.  The mythical warrior who put his hands on his hips and laughed at the approach of the immortal army did it with pisse pouring down his leg.”

A handful of snickers replied, but the majority were quiet and continuing to listen.  “This heroic ideal of unbreakable confidence is an illusion, a veneer slathered onto the truth to make it sound exciting, to make you want to pass the story on,” Etienne said.  “Every brave man is a coward inside.  Fear pushes them forward, not courage, not some misguided notion that they are indestructible and that they’re going to win no matter what happens.  I know I am a coward, and yet I know what I have to do regardless.  So be afraid, but be afraid of the right things.  Be afraid of what staying here and doing nothing means.  Be afraid for the next young girl or old woman who is dragged screaming from her bed in the middle of the night.  Be afraid for an entire generation of innocent women vanishing from the world, for a way of life being crushed out by ignorance and paranoia.  Be afraid that you are standing idle witness to a genocide that you have this singular, perhaps insignificant chance to stop.  Be afraid that you will be forgotten as cowards, instead of remembered as the ones who stood against a great evil despite their fear, despite what they knew it would cost them.  There is a word for those sorts of people in the stories:  legends.”

Complete silence surrounded him now.  Even the crickets and cicadas were reverently still.

What next?  Was it enough?

“You heard him,” said Le Taureau.  “And if you’re not afraid enough, be afraid that the next man who tries to stir up trouble will have his crâne introduced formally to my poings.”  He graced Etienne with the merest of nods.  Etienne dared to wonder if that was the beginning of earning the big man’s respect.  In any event, it seemed to give the rest of them the blessing to accept Etienne’s words and carry on, not with renewed hope, perhaps, but at least with a sense of the importance of not letting themselves be undone by the selfish desire to retreat behind familiar, if confining lines.

The mob ebbed into a crowd, the crowd strained into orderly, regimented ranks, and Etienne tried not to betray his obvious nerves to them as he squelched the desire to sprint back to the solitude of a closed door.  He waited for the reassuring click of the latch, took a step forward, reached out for the table and felt his weight slump against it as he grabbed on.  His arms were shaking, and he could not still them.  Etienne squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth so hard his jaw began to ache.  Elegant words aside, he knew he was more afraid than Le Taureau, or any of the other men.  It wasn’t the idea of dying that scared him, but rather, failing, and letting the Bureau take both the mother and the son.

Etienne opened his eyes, looked up, and let out a long breath.

It turned to mist in front of him.

* * *

First time reading?  You can catch up on the entire story so far either by plumbing the archives here or checking out my Wattpad page.  Part Eighteen will not be so long in the hopper, I promise!

Fear and Self-Loathing in Las Vegas… by Graham Milne #TalkFear #MentalHealthAwareness

Graham Milne:

Breaking my radio silence of the last two months with a contribution to the wonderful Louise Gornall’s #TalkFear series. Please do peruse her site and read the other posts; they are by turns brave, scorchingly honest and heartbreaking. A big round of hugs and congratulations to everyone who’s had the stones to step forward and talk about what few others do, and thank you very much to Louise for putting this all together. (P.S. She has a book coming out next year which I look forward to learning more about and sharing with you over the next little while!)

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Fire and Rain and all that jazz

I heard through social media a little while ago that a friend from high school days had passed away.  Her name was Kim.  While we had never been the textbook definition of close, we would chat from time to time through Facebook about family, parenting, and the course of our respective lives.  She wasn’t someone I went out of my way to keep in contact with, and yet, when we spoke online, I was amazed at how her innate brightness would gleam through the flying bubbles of text, and how genuinely interested she was in what was happening with me, despite her really having no obligation to be.  You meet way too many sorts who vibrate visibly with the itch to dispense with the perfunctory required questions about how the job’s going and how the kids are doing so they can start prattling on about the heaps of awesomeness that have fallen into their own precious laps; Kim was most definitely the opposite, remaining private about her own problems while always offering up receptive, sympathetic ears.  That we were friends at all spoke to the depth of her character, in many ways a complete contradiction of what you’d expect.  Someone like her could easily have been Regina from Mean Girls, blessed as she was with talent, popularity and beauty, but instead she saw people for who they were and not where in the social order it was their fate to be pecked.  She cared, with an honesty that could not be faked.  And she’s gone now, a too short 40 years of age, and I wish I’d made a point to talk with her more often, because a special light has gone out.

I met Kim when we were both involved in the production of our 1993 high school musical, a staging of Chicago.  I was the backup drummer in the orchestra pit, hidden at the back of the stage behind a black scrim, while Kim, a year older, was bold and brassy belting out “All That Jazz” as the lead, Velma Kelly.  (Ten years later, sitting in the theater watching Catherine Zeta-Jones have a go at the same part, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking that Kim had done a better job.)  Our school had a reputation for the quality of its productions; we dared to mount elaborate, challenging, Broadway-level material whose raciness gave our more conservative principal his fair share of headaches.  They were great social levelers too:  you could come in to work on them whether you were jock, nerd, princess or bespectacled wallflower, and find yourself among fast friends.  The denizens of the elevated echelons that you wouldn’t dare approach in the halls were throwing their arms around you at the frequent cast parties.  Somehow the social hierarchy that mattered so much in the day-to-day got tossed in pursuit of the grand goal of creating a singular night on the stage.  Kim was a big part of ensuring that happened, and some of my strongest memories of that experience are chatting and sharing jokes (and flirting a little, clumsy as I was at it back then) with her.  One might logically expect the show’s diva to be dismissive of the little people in the back, but Kim didn’t go in for that sort of nonsense.  Instead she made everyone want to up their collective game.  You wanted to work harder and play better because that was a friend up there on the stage counting on you to have her back.

When I first joined Facebook there were quite a few people from the old high school that I made a point of looking up.  I don’t recall Kim being one of them, but as degrees of separation would have it she popped into my news feed after commenting on someone else’s post, and at some point I must have sent her a friend request – or maybe she did for me.  I didn’t put much stock into it other than “I kind of remember you and you’re a decent sort, let’s be Facebook friends, ignore each other’s updates and send half-hearted birthday messages every year when it reminds us to.”  I was content to leave it at that until Kim started messaging me periodically to say hello and see how I was doing.  She was the only one of my 131 connections to do so.  I wondered why.  This may come across as false modesty, but I honestly did not believe I deserved the attention, given that I hadn’t exactly made keeping in touch with her a significant or even a minor priority.  It wasn’t as though we had a rich personal history to look back upon either, just a few shared experiences when we were teenagers, a few chance encounters on the street in the years that followed.  But I was moved by her warmth and the sincerity of her outreach.  After my wife and I adopted our son Kim would check in every few months to ask how things were going.  I’d tell her a little about his history and how he came to be with us, and in her words back to me I could see and feel the opening of a tremendous heart.  I would ask her how she was, and though she was guarded about the details, I could sense that that heart had been wounded many times and was battling on regardless, through illness that had landed her in hospital far more often than she deserved.

Then, after a while, the conversations stopped.  She didn’t reply to the last message I sent, though I did get a note that it had been seen, months later.  Kim tumbled from my consciousness.  Caught up in the ins and outs of my own day-to-day as weeks slouched into months it did not occur to me to check in with her.  It wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just happened, through indolence and preoccupation rather than intent.  When another friend broke the news to me by the cold means of Twitter direct message, I felt my entire body sink as though someone had just doubled the gravity in the room.  It was a twofold reaction:  shock, obviously, coupled with a tremendous gnaw of guilt.  I knew she had been sick, and as I scrolled back through our history of Facebook messages, trees of text bubbles preserved there as though set in digital amber, I could detect hints that things had been far more serious than she had let on, hints that I had let go out of respect for her privacy.  Kim would pivot when I would ask about her illness, assuring me that she was strong and that she was an adult.  She would rather talk about me, this blog, and how I was finding life as a father.  I didn’t push.  I suppose it would have made little difference if I had.

In his classic ballad “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor makes what for me is the quintessential statement about our relationships with our friends and how little time we truly have to celebrate the fortune of their presence in our lives.  In writing this post and thinking about Kim, I echo his sentiment.  I didn’t continue the conversations with Kim because there was always more time.  I always thought that I’d see her again.  That late one night, barred from sleep by lingering traces of the day’s caffeine intake I’d be scrolling through Facebook, smirking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s kids being silly and re-posted rants about the government, and the notification tab would pop and I’d see her name and “Hey Graham, how are you?”  I’d been conditioned to expect that and I never believed it would stop.  Now it has.  There will be no more messages from Kim.  “All That Jazz” will forevermore have a hint of melancholy when I reflect on one very irreplaceable Velma.

By no means do I claim a monopoly on grieving her loss.  I know that I wasn’t her best friend, or a member of her family, or someone with any deep, lasting connection with her but this:  Kim meant a great deal to me for the simple reason that in a world with more than its share of awful people, she was one of the good ones.  I’m glad I got the chance to tell her as much during one of our late night chats.  I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it more, and that I won’t get the chance to get to know her better.  That she won’t get the chance to meet my son whom she enjoyed hearing about.  And I’m sorry that she won’t have the long and happy life that should have been her due.  It has brought into sharp focus the notion of mortality and that we cannot count on any of us being around for as long as we once thought we would be.  The invulnerability with which we greeted the days back then is a fleeting wisp lost on the wind.  And while we may feel as though we are more connected with our friends because of social networks like Facebook, we can’t let those algorithms diminish the value and the reality of the people on the other side of that coldly curated news feed.  We need to talk more.  Really talk, about our hopes and our dreams and our fears and the world we want to leave in the glow of our tail lights.  We need to seek out the good ones that are already in our lives and latch onto them and laugh with them until our sides ache, and weep until we’re all utterly spent of tears.

We always think we’ll see each other again.  Sometimes we won’t.  So let’s see each other as much as we can, while we can, while every precious moment of this life remains available to us.  I’m going to close now by offering a suggestion.  Today, think of someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time and send them a message.  Doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.  Just say hello and let them know you’re thinking about them.  See what happens next.  I think you’ll find the very tiny expenditure of your time bearing positive emotional returns the extent of which you can’t even imagine yet.

Goodbye, Kim.  You were one of the good ones.  And all that jazz.

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.


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