Twenty-five years. That is a long time. And somehow Big figured I would find her there. After 25 years. And I did. Ends up Big never married. Neither did I.
She went to the University of Toronto for business, got a full scholarship to Stanford where she received her MBA, and the year she graduated she inherited her father’s fortune after he committed suicide. And it felt so terrible that I didn’t know Big’s real name because I had heard of Ronald Marsh’s death by suicide. He was CEO of the Royal Bank. And I never made the connection.
“What the heck is your real first name? I swear I never knew it.” I was staring right through Big’s eyes into the back of her head. Pamela was squeezing my hand so hard it hurt.
“Margot. Margot Marsh. Margot Ginny Marsh. Now Margot Bird. I changed my last name after my dad died. Everyone wanted something, money for investments, all kinds of crazies came out of the woodwork. I went into hiding for a while. And when I surfaced I decided to change my name. To yours my little bird. To yours. Margot Bird. For real.”
“You do realize that my last name is not Bird right? Just to be sure.”
“For now it isn’t," said Big. But if we want to live a new life. I mean a real new life. One without a history. One where we can do and be whoever we want, this might be the time to change your name,” said Big.
“Me too,” added Pamela. “I’m changing my last name too. Pamela, Jay and Margot Bird. The Birds. And the metaphors! Flown the coop. Leave the nest. Fly south. Early bird gets the worm. A bird in the hand is worth three in a bush. Birds of a feather. Bird’s eye view. I could go on if you like.”
Big smiled. “Look at this. I loved this so much I had it tattooed up my arm. A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
“Do I now have two women to live out my life with? It kind of feels like it at this moment.”
“Yes,” said Big and Pamela in unison. Then laughter. Lots of laughter.
“Ends up my little bird that I have significantly more money than what you are carrying in that backpack. Significantly more. In fact I may have enough money to last many more lifetimes. So we are set. I have another surprise for you too. The manager of this hotel. You know her. She saw the beacon as well and showed up one day, left her husband and wanted to work here. I can guarantee she will not make it four Birds but she will be happy to see you. She knew you’d come eventually too. That is why she is here.”
“You don’t mean…”
“Yes. Her. Her works here. For me. Not today. But tomorrow 6 am sharp. She runs the place. And she doesn’t take shit from anyone. For she still is Her Royal Majesty after all. Now she simply reigns over Beef. My exit strategy. And now it appears it is my time to exit. Our time.”
“Now the matter of the money and the coat. We have a job to do. To set it up for the next guy. Let’s do that tomorrow. And you can see Her tomorrow.” Big was all smiles.
“Well well well JayBird, I was wondering when you’d get here. When we opened I thought, this place will be a beacon for him. He’ll find his way back. And I was right. Oh I was a few years off on when you’d show up, but I was right.” Big was beaming as she stepped off a milk crate and walked around the front counter to greet us. “You’re crying, my little bird. I have that way with people.”
In a flash so many memories ran through my mind like a strobe. Bang bang bang. How we could find each other in a big city or a crowd. How I could walk out of my apartment with the idea that I would see Big, with no way to communicate. And we would. In a coffee shop, a bar, a park, and once at a police station but that is another story for another time.
“I am crying Big. I am so happy to see you. Are you the rich artist that paid for this hotel? Or was that Charles Pachter?” We were hugging and her head rested just under my chin.
“Charles Pachter? Are you for real. That guy is a fraud. I am the artist. You’ll note I didn’t say what kind of artist funded this hotel on our website—just a Toronto artist. I am an artist of fashion.”
Big, Pamela and I went into our Pablo Escobar room, and Big had drinks sent up. Lots of drinks.
“OK, spill it. What is going on? People stay here when they have money and are on the run. Some just want the experience, sure. But many…trouble. That is your case. I can feel it.” Big sat on a broken kitchen chair, once owned by Pablo where he used to sit and stare out his window longingly, talk on the phone to his wife who was in protective custody (I love you Tata!) and plan assassinations and bombings.
We told Big the story over many drinks, probably too many drinks, and next thing I know I am waking up at midnight with a sea monster on one side and Pamela on the other, both snoring, fully clothed and lying on my arms.
The sea monster opened her eyes and stared at me, and said in a whisper, “and then there were three…” Moments later she was asleep again.
My dear on again off again girlfriend known as Big had the most extraordinary clothes. None you could buy in Toronto at the time. Call it avant-garde or pushing the words haute couture down a pretty style-free city, when she walked in the room everyone’s heads turned. I am serious. Everyone. Dyed jet black hair cut, bangs cut on an angle from the left eye brow to the bottom of her eye lash on the right side.
Jackets that looked like they were previously worn by Amadeus, sometimes a proper black top hat, mesh gold top that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Wedding-like dress with eye makeup that made her look like she was a drowned bride. She was beautiful. Poetry. Scary. Her clothes were from Century 21 Stores in New York City, the clearing house for the world’s greatest designers and their New York fashion show creations. She was rich after all, so she only had quality dramatic clothes.
You had to then contrast that with where she lived in Toronto. At the Hideout, an abandoned house that was occupied by Beef, a punk band that lived off donated food and a lot of illegal drugs. The Hideout had only one-way in. Over a six-foot fence at the edge of Queen Street. And Big, being all of five feet tall, would scale it like a cat climbing a tree.
I never ever stayed there with her. I liked electricity too much. And running water. And a stove and fridge. And personal hygiene.
Ends up one of the Beef band members eventually bought the house from the city, found a very successful Toronto artist to invest, and created an inspired and very popular hotel on the property, with furry walls, beds in the shape of skulls, and mock murder scene floors. Each room was named after a terrible person. Beef, the hotel, was born.
Pamela and I were on our way to see it first hand and to check in to the Pablo Escobar room. Pablo, so the website proclaims, killed over 300 people personally and masterminded the murders of 3,000 more. When he died he was one of the richest people on earth with an estimated personal wealth of over $30 billion. Killer and wealthy drug dealer, meet Pamela and I, our backpack full of drug money and a loaded handgun. Too perfect.
I was hoping one of the Beef band members would be there so I could ask about Big. But we didn’t have to ask. Big was working the front counter wearing a green sea monster style dress and a giant white silk fan on her head.
She recognized me immediately.
It was almost a dare. The passports. Complete except for a picture. I held them up to the light in the bathroom and saw all of the security foils and lines and compared them to my own passport. These we good. Very good. And I suspect pricey but then again I don’t think money was an issue.
And then it dawned on me. I am being tracked. Somehow. Listened to perhaps. My phone? The briefcase? Maybe the coat? Cameras in the hotel room? I took out a hotel notepad and wrote “we are leaving now and I am going to move all the money and gun to your backpack.”
I took my phone and dropped it into the empty briefcase and left it on the table. Did the same with Pamela’s phone. Left the coat in the closet. Turned on the TV. Then Pamela and I left quietly and walked down 20 flights of stairs to the tunnel under the Sheraton, walked to the subway station, and jumped on.
“Let’s open the envelope. See what they want.” Pamela ripped open the envelope like an animal.
“It’s the end of the road.” Perfect hand writing. Looked like a woman wrote it since most guys write like serial killers. “Not sure about you but I feel good about this message. Maybe they’ll leave us alone now. Well either that or kill us. But they’ll have to find us first.” Pamela held my hand and tightened her grip.
“Well that is an interesting note indeed. And Pamela, this note is personal. It’s the end of the road is what is written on my dad’s cemetery plot. Was a bit of a joke when he was dying. His plot was..well..at the end of the road. So it was doubly funny. The guy at the cemetery thought I was joking. But I was not.”
“How in the world do they know this stuff?” Pamela looked perplexed.
“Easy. My phone has a photo of the plot. They hacked my phone somehow. And my suspicion that they were tracking us has now been confirmed. And now we are on the run! They are not going to be happy campers. Oh and I didn’t tell you where we were going. It’ll be a surprise when we get there.”
Big fat nothing. That is what I left behind. Someone who didn’t want to be with me anymore. That is what I left behind. Cold weather and bad mosquitoes and lakes you can’t swim in. Left behind. Drivers who don’t use signal lights. Malls where you have to drive from store to store. Construction season that lasts all summer. Potholes. That is what I left behind.
My guitars. I miss those. They all have names. The Taylor is called Mother, even though I could have just called it Taylor. The Simon and Patrick 12 String, that already has two given names, is Brian, and my Fender Strat is Jose since it was MIM which translates to Made in Mexico.
I made a phone call. “Hello Jaine. Hey I mentioned I’d be back in mid-July. Yeah, about that. I’m not coming back. Wait… Stop for a second… No, I don’t want to fucken come back. No! It is not about a woman (which was a partial lie). And look, we have a full team there. You don’t need me. I am officially putting you in charge. Yes I know. I agree with you when you say you’ve been in fucken charge for a long time. But now it is official. Can you give my condo keys to Kat? I’ll ask him to figure out the details. No, I am fucken serious. I will miss how you use swear words. Always inspiring. Goodbye Jaine.” She was still dropping the F bomb like a sailor as I hung up.
“Who was that?” Pamela was walking out of the washroom with my new hairbrush.
“Oh nothing to worry about Pamela. I just gave my notice. I’m staying here. Not in this crappy hotel. But I’m staying.”
“Ah, I thought you were talking to someone at the door,” said Pamela. “Looks like someone stuck your bill under the door, there’s an envelope.” Pamela hands me the envelope.
“Well, I am paid up for a month. That is not a bill. I think our people are getting restless with us.”
Back in the day (like I’m some old man) I used to be romantic. Setting the scene. Buying flowers. Lighting candles. Great music. Thoughtful gifts. But somehow a lot of that romance lost its way over the years, so the prospect of a real date with Crazy Pam/Bernadette had me thinking about what to do. The date was in a restaurant so a lot of the set up was handled by the location.
But I did want to make a good impression. I did want to ensure that she had a lot to drink so I can later sit her down on my stained hotel couch and ask her about the hack. About the briefcase. And about her role.
I was not expecting what I saw waiting for me at Zep, the new restaurant in Toronto where no one has their own table and some kid chef told you what you were eating.
She was in a word, gorgeous. Another word. Stunning. And one more for kicks. Golly.
“This is amazing. We are meeting for dinner. We are not ourselves. I have a new name. And at this very moment I don’t know your name, real or imagined. So I will call you Peter. We could be Bernadette Peter, like Bernadette Peters without the S. See what I did just there?”
“Yes indeed. Hey, I was walking by Tiffany on Bloor Street West and something caught my eye. It spoke to me. It said, I belong to Bernadette. So I bought it.”
Bernadette opens the blue Tiffany box and voila, an Elsa Peretti Bean pendant necklace. Sterling silver. Boom. And then…tears.
“Oh dear what have I done? I’ve upset you.”
“Oh no Peter. That was the liquid that escaped from me heart and found its way to my eyes since you just broke my heart with this necklace. I’m sure glad that necklace said that to you. Gosh I love spies. Spies know how to impress a lady on a first-ish date. Not counting the Black Bull.”
There was something that seemed, well, real about this. She is either the best actor since Judy Dench (I love Judy Dench) or she is real, emotional, and present. The drinks. Start the drinks.
“Can I ask you something Peter? Are you married? Do you have a white picket fence, a beautiful wife, two kids in private school? A sailboat?” She looked serious.
“I’m afraid not. I live in Alberta. In a condo. By myself. Orphaned. And today I am here, in this restaurant with Bernadette. I am not making this up. This is not part of the act.”
“My husband leaving is true too.” She looked around the room.
“I was meeting with a friend for lunch today and she said, Pamela, why don’t you just take a break and be alone. Which would have been fine. Except I met you. I doubt you are a spy. Or a killer. But I want to spend time with you.” She lit the room with her smile.
“This gift you gave me. You have no idea what this means to me. Everything. You are one incredible man. And that is from hardly knowing you. Tonight we really get to know each other.”
Many drinks and a dozen tiny plates of food later we left the restaurant, popped into McDonalds for dinner (I was so hungry), and went back to my place at the Sheraton. We were both impaired. So I began the questions on the stained couch.
In on it? No. Hack? Don’t know what a hack it. I believed her. They were there. Someone was there. The waiter? The guy next to us who smelled like cigarettes? The woman with the eyebrow pierce? Someone was there. But it wasn’t Pamela. I let her in on my real name and what I really do. We showed each other ID. Her name was in fact Pamela.
I now had an accomplice, and an incredibly beautiful one at that. The alcohol was speaking so I showed her the briefcase, the money, the passports and the gun, and within moments we were both fast asleep. And when I woke in the morning I wasn’t dead which was a nice surprise. And all the money and gun were still there. And Crazy Pam was cranking up the shitty hotel coffee maker. She looked over.
“What are we going to do today Brain?”
I was joy-struck by the reference.
My reply: “Same as we do every day Pinky. Try to take over the world.”
It was 8 am. Really a bit early for a phone call if you ask me. I was not allowed to call any of my friends until after 10 am. My parents said that was a respectful time to call. So I was in slumberland when my iPhone rang. I was going to ignore it until I looked at the phone and recognized the number. My office.
I answered without a word. “Are you alive? Or is this the police answering this call. If so where do we go to claim the body?” It was Jaine, my office manager and all around organized goddess. Her paper clips were organized by size and colour in little compartments. Her favourite day of the year is when she gets to pick the file folder colour. We were buying a lot of labeler cartridges. That’s because EVERYTHING was labeled. I typed out “labeler” and put it on my labeler. You know, just in case she was wondering what it was.
Jaine’s hair was cut like a boy, blunt and short, and for a month last fall she said she was “growing it out” which lasted a month. Then her new haircut was even shorter than normal. Take that hair!
“Oh hello Jaine. I am alive. But there may be people after me since I am in possession of perhaps drug money or I may be live streamed as some type of social experiment. Either way I have a lot of money and a gun. What’s new at the office?”
“While your drug money and gun story is interesting. Oh wait a minute... It isn’t interesting. So while your drug money and gun story is not interesting there is a pressing matter of a company back here in Alberta that I believe you may want an update on.”
“Is it going well?,” I asked.
“It is going well. Better truthfully without you. But some clients are wondering why you are not showing up to meetings and such things. Mid-life crisis?”
“Naaa. Truthfully I don’t know what I’m doing here but I am paid up at my hotel for a month. So I can be back in the saddle in mid-July if that works. I have a lot of money to spend between now and then. The drug money. Or social experiment.”
“There is one thing I should tell you about though. We were hacked. Our website. I had your friend Jules come in and look at the hack. Nothing really stolen. Nothing to really take. But we were hacked.
I guess hackers leave a calling card in the code. They left a note for you, called you by name in the code left some type of…well…secret message?”
“And I’m afraid to ask…”
“The message was your name and a woman’s name.”
“Let me guess. Ethel?”
I could swear in the olden days there was snow in Toronto. I keenly remember walking in snow to the subway. I remember our balcony covered in snow. I remember wearing winter clothes. But something like global warming has made this city into a brown and green city and has taken white out of the Hogtown colouring book.
I remember the squirrel (we called it Skippy) that would come to our apartment balcony eight floors up, hanging precariously in the railing that had a few inches of snow piled on it. One snowy day I opened the sliding door to get a better look at out squirrel and he (she?) decided to come inside for a look around. We spent the morning hanging out with our friend, feeding it left over pizza crust and Lays Ripple Chips. Then Skippy went to the door and said it’s time and we let it out.
It was on a snowy day, the first week of December, when a powerful feeling came across me as I sat on a streetcar heading home from work. Go west. Vamoose. So I got home, called my boss at the publishing company, said I was leaving. Then I walked down the street to a Travel Cuts and bought a one-way ticket to Calgary leaving in just three days. I told her this was it. She could have my place and she didn’t have to pay me key money. I gave away most of my stuff.
Her did not want to see me off. Her parting words were, “you can run but you can’t hide. Loser in Ontario equals loser in Alberta. Best part is we are getting rid of one of our losers. Now some poor stupid tit in Alberta will need to take over my job of reminding you daily of your incompetence. So long loser.”
She really knew how to turn me on, and it was a great way to end it on a high note. I was feeling incredibly great and utterly useless at the same time. My two favourite feelings mashed together like butter and bread. She went to the bathroom, locked the door without a word and I took the keys off my key ring and walked out the door. And I swear there was snow.
A few days pass by since the green line/houndstooth/secret pocket/help me/thank you/briefcase/handgun/white van day. I feel like exponential growth has occurred. Somewhere. Just not with me.
I do know I have the best small wardrobe in my custom navy blue suit—an easy choice since my dad always said navy goes with everything. Wear the jacket. Wear the pants. Or wear them together. Also some pretty great casual clothes and a bathing suit for the hotel pool that I have only thought about going to so far.
It came to me that if there was a grassy knoll moment in this briefcase adventure, a second shooter, it must have been someone at Ethel. So this morning, after a buffet breakfast I ventured back to Yonge Street to visit the store and ask a few questions.
My thought: it is a consignment store. Someone must have…um…consigned…the coat to the store to sell. I had a pocket full of bribery money to boot. Give me the name and contact info for the coat seller and I’ll pay your Ethel rent for six months.
But much to my chagrin the store was closed for a one-month vacation. It wasn’t a consignment store. It was a houndstooth coat store. Then someone bought it and they left on vacation to celebrate.
This added to the joy and terror I was feeling. And for a fleeting minute I thought I may want to double up my dose of antidepressants and go for a nap. But instead I headed to the Black Bull on Queen Street West, settled in for an afternoon of beer and nachos and the oddest people in the world to watch.
I had barely started in on my first drink when a woman sat beside me.
“Do you kill people for a living or have done time in say the last two years for any type of crime?” She stared right into my eyes.
“In the last two years?” I pondered [beat]. “No. I don’t think so. Is that bad?”
“I don’t do this stuff. Bars… I am a housewife, whose husband left her yesterday. Do you know the song By the time I get to Phoenix?
“I was the woman in the song,” she explained. “He was always saying he was leaving. You know, like in the song… But he didn’t. Until yesterday. I’m Pamela by the way. Be gentle. This bar thing is new to me. You are a regular yes?”
“Pamela. Has anyone ever mentioned that you are a very attractive woman?” I inquired.
“No but thank you.”
“Did your husband think you were, well, um nuts?”
“Oh yes, oh yes, he would call me Crazy Pam. Hey Crazy Pam, what’s for dinner? That kind of thing. Couples have cute nicknames. Mine was Crazy Pam. Never liked the name Pam. Always Pamela. But people. They go right to Pam. It’s Pamela. For 12 years I said to Stan, can you change that to Crazy Pamela. But he wouldn’t. Would---not. Said it didn’t sound right. But Crazy Pam was, in his words, ab-so-fucken-lutely perfect-oh. So I let it slide. Sometimes couples need to concede. I did that on Crazy Pam. But for today how about you call me Pamela. Or a name of your choosing. Sound good?”
“I got it. I will even drop the crazy part if you’d like. No problem. By the way I am not a regular here. Just watching one. But he’s not here today.”
“Are you a spy?” She asked.
“Yes, um Bernadette, I am a spy. Does that make you nervous?”
“Oh dear me,” she offered. “This is even better than a killer or someone who served time. I was hoping you were one of those. But you are a spy. Take me wherever you’d like. I’m just a puppy for spies.”
“Let’s take it slow [beat] I almost called you Bernie. But I’ll stick to Bernadette. You scare me Bernadette. I like that.”
I just read this: “Houndstooth originated in Scotland in the 1800s, it was originally worn as an outer garment of woven wool cloth by shepherds.”
I’ve always wanted to be a shepherd since I watched the dog and coyote Looney Tunes cartoons. Ralph was the coyote and Sam was the sheepdog/shepherd. I loved it when they came to work, punched their card to start their shift, greeted each other (good morning Ralph… Morning Sam…), and then Ralph would try to steal a sheep, Sam would beat him up. THAT is why I wanted to be a shepherd. You can beat the snot out of someone and still like and respect each other the next day. Just another day at the office.
Kind of like Mike Tyson in his unbeatable period. He’d come in like a mule, knock someone out with such hatred and force, then run up to the guy after he kicked the crap out of him and hug the guy, perhaps whispering “I’m so sorry I hurt you dude, can I fetch you a tissue?” into his ear, it’s hard to know.
But I wasn’t a shepherd. I can’t do that stuff. I avoid conflict. Day one as a shepherd the fields would be a blood bath, the coyotes would waddle out of the fields, picking wool from their teeth and I’d have my head down on the fence crying. Darn coyotes just ate me out of a job.
When the her saw the coat on day one she went to her strengths. “Well congratulations,” she smiled. “You’ve nailed it. You aspire to be a useless unemployable jerk-ass loser. And somehow with one addition to your ghastly wardrobe you’ve pulled all the elements together to complete your look: a six-foot-tall hunk of nothing. Like I said. Congratulations.”
God those were the good old days.