A Novel – Excerpt
The sunset blue flame nearly singed John’s cheek when he spotted a man lying face-down in the middle of the slippery cobblestone road. He was driving seventy in a thirty zone when he nearly flattened the man wearing paint-splattered coveralls. He dropped the lighter as he swerved violently to the left, then to the right before hitting a patch of black ice and nearly slamming into a shop front.
“Blasted piece of!” John hissed through his clenched jaw as he desperately pumped the brakes, the unlit cigarette clinging to the side of his mouth. “Come on! Come on! Come on!” he pleaded, finally coming to a screeching halt an inch away from Gassy Jack’s tarnished shoes.
“Damn useless truck!” John cursed. He slammed his fist against the steering wheel, running his tongue along his wind-chapped lips where he tasted the salty-metallic blood clinging to his cigarette-stained teeth. Remembering that he dropped the lighter, he scrambled to reach between the debris at his feet – grazing his fingers against the take out containers from that bao joint off Keefer he hated, faded receipts to things he didn’t need, and an old paper map. He spotted metal surface of the lighter catching the glimmer of sunlight peeking through the cement-coloured sky. He snatched for it and relished in the moment of calmness he felt each time he touched its icy-cold surface.
As he looked up, grey-brown smoke rose from the truck’s hood, clouding his view of Gassy Jack’s permanently tarnished face still bearing the bright red spray paint anti-racism activists marked him with in ’22. That was nearly twenty-five years ago, yet somehow the City kept the statue as a reminder that such efforts were futile. The statue survived the ridicule, watched on as the extremists transformed the landscape, and made a laughingstock of racial diversity. The dishevelled looking man stood before John schooling him for stealing the piece of junk truck from the one-eyed man who called the vehicle his home.
“You’re one to talk, child molester!” John cursed Gassy Jack for having married a twelve-year-old Indigenous woman when he was forty. “What can a dead gwai-lo teach a mongrel scumbag like me? This crapshoot only needs to do one stupid thing!” John shouted behind the wheel, but Gassy Jack only expressed his permanent aloof look of indifference.
John slowly took his foot off the brake, switched the truck into reverse, and checked his side mirror when he saw the man he nearly flattened waving his grotesquely large arms at him. John placed the truck in park and turned the engine off. Was this the man the General sent to trade weapons for bodies? Another mixed-race moron, John thought, some half gwai-lo trash like him. But who else would the General associate with? The man’s brown hair was wet and matted to his pasty-cratered face, the front of his midnight-blue coveralls was damp from lying on the icy road.
“You like to kill me, ya?” the man pounded his fat knuckle on the driver-side window. That wasn’t exactly on the cards. You just happened to be kissing the asphalt, John thought as he listened to the pounding echo from the cavern of the truck – click-click-click-thud-thud-thud – as the smell of stale cigarette smoke, salty dried soy sauce, and the chemical punch of a busted engine infested his nose. He pulled his Canucks cap lower and ran his tattered sleeve across his nose before he grabbed for the door handle. John squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath in – “one, two, three, four…seven, eight, nine, ten” – then breathed out. He did this a second time before he finally swung the door open.
“You got stuff?” the man said the second John’s feet landed on the icy cobblestones.
John tipped the lid of his cap forward as he shoved his hands into his pocket and felt for the lighter. His sister branded the lighter with a Batman sticker – its silhouette of black bat wings had long faded before he even attempted to scratch it off with the edge of a knife. He once adored the sticker, just like how he adored his sister.
She promised to write, which was a lie. But he lied too, joking that they should use carrier pigeons since the War damaged all communication channels while Immigration blocked all messages from being shared across the Border. John even teased about naming a pigeon Cat Woman – after her, and she said she’ll name one Batman – after him. “I’ll even dress him up in a black cape,” were her last words before she cracked that perpetually sad smile of hers and said goodbye like it wasn’t the last time they’ll ever see each other.
“Show me, you idiot,” the man with the coveralls demanded as he smacked his heavy hand against John’s shoulder. He had largely forgotten about his shoulder until the man touched him, and the simple gesture was enough for the pinching pain to resurface.
John tugged against his torn sweatshirt sleeve as he slowly unzipped the large duffle bag he threw into the trunk an hour prior. He didn’t want this man to see the new ink on his wrist – a fake, a good fake, not like the ones done by the woman on Heatley who scripted the numbers and added thick dashes to the zeros like she was a calligrapher. His tattoo was good enough, seeing that his entire life was one big lie.
Like John, the man was a half-breed – light brown hair, acne-scarred skin that oozed of marsh-yellow pus, and sharp ice-blue eyes that were as clear as a Siberian hound. John’s eyes were much darker – ocean blue, maybe indigo blue, or royal blue even. As was his hair, once chocolate-brown with natural gold highlights but now it was as black as a raven’s mane and his Scottish-chin – masculine and square. His gwai-lo characteristics were out of place with the rest of his cursed Asian-features.
The man didn’t share his name, and neither did John. He once preferred it this way – being nameless – because names signify existence and they both knew they do not exist. Or rather, should not exist. But those were the General’s instructions. And he only recruited nameless men like him to do his dirty work. Men without homes, without families, without anyone who will miss them. But he longed for those days to be over. He wanted a name, something more than John, something with meaning, with purpose. Not a generic name for a nobody like a John. Did his sister also feel the same with her generic nobody name?
The man peered at John with quizzical wolf-like eyes that made him question if he knew more. Does he know about the working girls on Pender who John pays to feel like a man? Does he know about the recent murder? Wasn’t she the one who once ran her delicate fingers along the pencil shaped scar on John’s face and called him love? She was a fair-skinned half-South Asian woman with excitable hazel-green eyes that turned hollow after years of entertaining the wants and desires of ungrateful men. She went missing the week before, last seen on Gore, her slender face and pregnant belly a silhouetted balloon seeping through the shadows. She was found two nights later with her eyes burned out, her abdomen sliced open, and the fetus nowhere to be found.
Baby snatchers, the headlines claimed. The General’s retaliation against those who betray him.
John watched the news footage as he ordered his toast and coffee at the Keefer Diner. Toast and diluted coffee were his preferred meal, that and a good serving of whiskey. He couldn’t stomach anything else. The waitress turned the volume on the television up so that the reporter’s whiny voice echoed through the tiny restaurant. City News never cared about refos, never cared if they lived or died, but somehow the reporter with the pink lipstick and the golden-blond hair shed a tear while announcing that the “refo was eight months along with a child that’s three-quarters white.”
“Got a light, bro?” the man asked as a murder of crows flocked east. John hesitated to pull his lighter out of his pocket.
The man wasn’t from the Jungle, John could tell by his accent. But neither was John. Not originally, even though he was technically born there, it was the Jungle that wasn’t original. The Jungle just appeared one day, a new name on a plot of land – ceded or unceded, claimed or unclaimed, colonized or uncolonized – as if it was always there for the taking. No apologies or explanation necessary. John can tell that the man was from elsewhere by how he misplaced the ‘l’ with ‘r’, so that light sounded like right, and bro sounded like blow. Got a right blow, was what John heard over the flock of seagulls swooping low against the steely-grey horizon. Perhaps the man was from another camp, somewhere to the east where the refugees still stood a chance.
But upon second thought, John wondered if the man was more fresh-off-the-boat than his mongrel looks gave away, lucky enough to have been born in a foreign country where coloured people were treated with decency and seagulls still enjoyed their annual migratory holiday to warmer territories. Now that’s a novelty, John smirked, as gulls were largely banished from the Pacific Northwest and it was only a matter of time before the Authorities spot the three stowaways hanging out in the horizon.
From what John understood, the Jungle was a fabrication, land stolen from the down-and-out that the Governor transformed into a camp for the coloured after his Anti-Colour policies were passed. Wasn’t it once called the Downtown Eastside or DTES or Skid Row? Didn’t dozens of women who frequented its streets go missing in the nineteen-nineties only to be found murdered on a suburban farm or left to die during the opioid crisis as cheap drugs coarsed through their veins? Weren’t many of these women Indigenous or coloured or were runaways from broken families? John tried to recall what he read, but he could never tell if his mind was playing tricks on him.
The man cocked his chin to draw attention to the unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. Right, a light, John remembered as he nervously patted his pockets before pulling out his lighter. His sister had stolen the lighter off a gwai-lo, then hid it behind a loose wall panel in her bedroom, before presenting it to him a year later on their seventeenth birthday. She wrapped it in an old t-shirt, then made them a birthday cake from strawberry sugar wafers and fresh blueberries she pilfered from someone’s donation bin. She was always more thoughtful than John and the lighter was evidence of that.
John held the fragile flame out for the man, its orange-blue hue flickered weakly against the winter breeze sweeping off the Burrard Inlet. The man hovered his cigarette-bearing mouth above the flame and breathed in a moment of euphoria. John caught sight of the tattoo on his right wrist, 0873, etched in faded blue ink. John’s was 0781, but his was a DIY job thanks to some tricks he picked up as a prisoner out East. Besides, 781 wasn’t his real identity, it belonged to a stocky man with a missing ear and a sour attitude that John suffocated to death two months prior.
“Thanks, bro,” the man cocked his albino-eyebrows, a pleased look stretched across his weathered face as his icy eyes caught sight of the lighter. “Beautiful. Give here.” He extended his meaty open palm for the lighter, but John enclosed it in his hand hoping the man would take the hint. It wouldn’t have been the first time someone tried to steal it from him, because if it wasn’t for the sticky residue, and the large gash on the side, the lighter was sleek enough to pass as a rich man’s lighter. People like John don’t normally own items like this, but neither do people like the man studying the lighter as if he was an antique collector. The man grabbed John’s arm and the unexpected move forced him to release his grasp and drop the lighter on the damp sidewalk. John clumsily dove for it, but the man dove in like hawk and snatched the lighter in his fat hands. John watched the man rub his paint-spotted thumb over the lighter’s surface and he felt the sudden urge to slam his fist into the man’s face.
“You stole this,” the man said. Store this. “Ya?”
“Mind your own business,” John snapped.
“You selling?” he questioned as he examined the lighter a bit closer, running his thick forefinger along the edge as if he was testing the sharpness of a knife. “I got seller. He take as is. You don’t take care, he no care. You need money? Ya? Piece like this worth something.”
John snatched at the man’s hand, grabbing at a fistful of air, but the man pulled back like a tease.
“My ma say money make world go round. But we dirt poor, ya. Like garbage. Ah, ya, look here. You know this?” The man held the lighter up to the sky to admire it from a different angle before reaching into his coveralls. John stepped back fearing that the man was going to pull a knife on him, instead his hand emerged with a small green pick no bigger than the tip of his pinky finger. “Dental pick. I found in old dentist surgery. Ten years, I have. Still work. Why throw, ya?” He dug the green dental pick into the slot to clear the debris. “Got memory chip. Here. Ya. You see?”
John snatched the lighter from the man’s hand just as a tiny white and gold chip popped out from the side of the lighter. The man went on the defensive, raising his hands to ten and two as if this was a hostage situation. The man snickered with his cigarette dangling from the corner of his blackened lips.
“Easy, gwai-lo,” the man said. Who you calling gwai-lo, mongrel trash! John thought. John rubbed his finger across the lighter and pressed the chip back into its metal centre where it belonged.
The forecast predicted snow, especially as the temperature dips below zero in the early evening. That’ll be something, John thought as the weight of the lighter in his hand infused a sense of calmness in him. When was the last time it snowed? Maybe in ’43 or ’46. But that was nearly four years ago, maybe even six or seven. He was never good at keeping track of time, always running late, always leaving the ladies hanging, always forgetting where he needed to be and when. Yet he remembered to come to this place, at this time, and why? Just because the General told him to?
They had driven across the bridge to the warehouse where he pulled out the duffle bag hidden in the back of the truck. The man moved in closer and took a long drag of his cigarette and let out a “why, why, what here?” John counted seven grenades – three of them homemade with electrical tape and rusty nails he found at an old construction site. The remaining four grenades were professional military-grade that the Portland traffickers smuggled in. The supplies also included two axes and three machetes. The axes were blunt, one with a large chip on its blade, but he knew the machetes will do – he sharpened them himself.
“Only worth quarter life,” the man said. “No, one-eight.”
“Papa will hand over the rest later,” John said not knowing why he said Papa. He hasn’t said Papa in over a decade ever since he was cornered by four white men in a dark alley and woke up strapped to a wooden school desk. “The General. Later.” He corrected as he tried to shake the memory of the men’s soiled hands shoving his head into a bucket, grabbing naked legs, the rats scurrying across the floor, the laminated posters of the alphabet above the dusty chalkboard. Papa was the one who found him the night four white men ruined him.
One more, John cursed as he squeezed his hands into a fist. One more trade for that bastard and I can be free. But John thought that this could easily be his trade.. He thought about that each time the damp winter crept into his bones, as the endless days of rain and steel-grey skies crushed him like wet cement. He dreamed of the sun, of the beach, of the sea, of cabanas and tequila cocktails by the pool. He could retire on a hammock on that beach he once saw on a glossy magazine cover. It was some resort with palm trees and crystal-clear water in Southeast Asia or the Caribbean. But who knows if it still existed. The magazine was from before the pandemic, before the race riots, before the War on Colour, before the Wall was built to segregate the coloured from the whites.
“Cheap product,” the man said as he examined the axes, testing their sharpness against the tip of his calloused forefinger. He grunted, something guttural from his abdomen, and shot John an icy glare from the corner of his right eye. He obliged with a simple, “okay, then.”
In another life, John may have bought this man a beer for the exchange, maybe even at that underground dive bar with the magenta shag carpet wall, the one where the yellow-haired bargirl worked. John liked the bargirl, he liked watching her pink tourmaline nose piercing reflect the light bouncing off the dance floor and how her hair reminded him of sunny days and sugary lemonade. But there was no point in company because he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. They would have sat awkwardly in silence, because he’s good at it, silence. He missed talking, the ease of it, the relief that came with it. He missed talking to Jane, and why wouldn’t he miss his twin, his other half?
With everyone else, he needed a few drinks in his system before he could open up. And when he did, he talked at length about the War, about how the General had no balls, about how much he despised his sister. And when he got into the hard stuff – the whiskey, the vodka, the rum – he inevitably opened up about how people like him will never fit in a world reserved for the black or white. Because he was some shameful-shade of grey, neither black nor white, neither red nor yellow. Neither here nor there. He was nowhere.
Maybe in another life, my friend. John wanted to say to the man, but didn’t.
John pulled his baseball cap over his royal-blue eyes making sure he didn’t smudge the layer of chalky make-up. He had darkened his hair and darkened his face using the expired foundation he found on a dresser in a house on Union he raided three weeks prior. The house was occupied by a woman, likely middle-aged, frumpy judging by her collection of oversized polyester blouses in gaudy floral patterns. He took food – leftover lasagna, a few soda crackers and a bottle of vodka before he spotted the cosmetics – a black eyeliner, foundation, and a bottle of hair colouring in #10 Darkest Black.
Before he coloured his hair, John hardly showed his face in public without a hat. There was another wave of persecutions in the Jungle, and the coloured didn’t like people like him – half-white, half-coloured. Mongrels like John embodied whiteness even though they weren’t fully white, but white enough. So his light hair, blue-eyes, fair skin dusted with cinnamon-shade freckles – freckles Jane also has – were a liability.
Over the past year, residents of the Jungle tortured and executed half-breeds like John. In the Jungle, it was the coloured who were responsible for torturing and killing, not like the whites in the City. On a given day, the bodies of half-breeds dangled from frayed electric cables in front of the old brick building off Hastings that once served as the provincial courthouse. Often the previous groups’ remains were barely dry before a new batch were splayed on the courthouse’s exterior. The day before, John walked by the old courthouse, the lip of his cap lowered to his nose, and caught the rotten, metallic smell before he saw the three bodies hanging from meat hooks. Two men, one woman slumped over like sacks of potatoes.
It was a ritual, his only one. He wanted to see Jane, his sister, among the executed. Of course, it never was, because she was one of the lucky ones. But on most days, he wished she was hanging. That way, he could be free.
The man disappeared around the side of the truck just as sirens raced by on the other side of the Wall, John shielded his ears from the piercing wail. The wailing was followed by gunshots that echoed off the concrete buildings forcing a flock of crows to roost in the bare birch tree. The sound of the heavy passenger-side door opening and closing interspersed the cry of sirens. John considered bailing. This wasn’t worth it, he thought. It’s never been worth it.
He scratched his wrist, felt his jagged fingernail irritate his reddened skin and reached into his pocket to check if the lighter was still there. He wished he had some ointment or some aloe from that overgrown plant that Amah kept near the kitchen window. He missed how the warm afternoon light illuminated the kitchen of their creaky house on the edge of Chinatown as Jane scribbled in her colouring books and Seb raced toy cars under the table while John listened for the General’s car to roll into the driveway. The mood in the house always changed with the General’s arrival – a motherly embrace from Amah as she took the donations to the kitchen, a raised-palm salute from Seb who was always half a foot taller than John, and a screech of excitement from Jane as she bombarded the man with her colourful drawings. But there was no time for that anymore. Not because both Amah and Seb were dead, but because he’s learned there’s no room in this world for sentimentality.
John moved to the driver side of the truck and felt the cold door handle in his hand. He thought of signalling to the man to unlatch the door from inside, to save him from further straining his right shoulder, but he yanked the stiff door open anyway – sending a jolt of pain through his shoulder and down his spine. He climbed in, feeling the weight of the lighter in his pocket, and shut the door behind him. He reached for the seatbelt, but it wasn’t there.
“No point, bro,” the man said. No point, blow.
“Got right?” the man said casting sideways glance at the pocket containing his lighter. John tugged against his sleeve making sure the man wouldn’t notice the redness of his skin as he dug into his pocket. But as he touched the lighter, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the windshield, except it was not his face with the graphite scar, or his cleft chin and high cheekbones. Rather he was staring at his sister.
“Take the lighter,” John said with trembling lips, trying to peel his gaze away from the reflection of someone who was not him. “I don’t want it.”
“No want?” the man said as his eyes lit up with joy. “Ya?”
“Take it.” Even as he said this, John felt a stab of jealousy that this man, not him, will take all he had left of his sister to his grave.
John studied the man admiring the lighter, his wolf-like eyes reminded John of how humans were such simple creatures full of shameless greed.