Short stories push boundaries
In his confident debut, Greg Bechtel offers ten charged stories about the impossible-turnedpossible — secrets, paranoia, sex, conspiracies, and magic — as he effortlessly shatters the boundaries between speculative and literary fiction.
Boundary Problems vibrates on the edge of meaning, as carjackers, accidental gunrunners, and smalltown cabbies struggle to wring meaning from the strange events that overtake them. Bechtel’s worlds of mystery and magic constantly challenge his characters’ pursuit of logical explanations. These compelling tales blur lines and push boundaries — into the surreal, into the playful, into the irresistible energy of uncertainty. The following is excerpted from the short story The Mysterious East in Boundary Problems, by Greg Bechtel.
— Seventy-one, parked at the Regent Mall. — Right Seventy-one. In this city, at every moment of every hour of every day, a woman (or a man) sits in a dimly lit room and plays a variant on solitaire with slips of coloured paper for cards, Post-its scrawled with handwritten notes. This person takes a slip from the main stack and places it onto one of several smaller piles scattered across the wooden desk, then presses a button, speaks into a microphone, waits for a response, and nods.
Right, she says, and retrieves the next slip of paper from the main stack, answers the phone if it’s ringing. The stacks grow and shrink and occasionally vanish entirely, but the deck is never exhausted. Sometimes, in a brief lull when the phone stops ringing and the radio falls silent, she rolls cigarettes and smokes, the still, dead air growing opaque with thickening clouds.
The players change every eight hours, but the game never does, slips of paper endlessly shuffled around a broad desk. These cards conjure cars to all corners of the city — from darkness, fog, rain, clear daylight — weaving invis- ible patterns, strands crossing and recrossing the city like nets. Cards for cars, cast across time and space to dip into evanescent schools of passengers, catching them up and taking them wherever it is they think they need to go.
His second day started slow, and Andrew was tired, so he drank coffee to stay awake: three extra-large triple-triples in the first two hours. Later, when a sudden flurry of calls arrived with no chance for a break, he came close to pissing himself right there in the front seat. And though the sage pointed out that the great Tao flows everywhere, exhorting his followers to be the stream of the universe, Andrew was pretty sure this wasn’t what he had meant. Eventually, he pulled over in an apartment parking lot on his way to a call and went against the side of the building, the volume on his radio turned up to maximum in case he got yet another call while he was out. Not until he was zipped up and climbing back into the cab did Andrew notice the open basement apartment window, right next to the foaming urine stream rapidly soaking into parched gravel. But by the end of the day, no one had complained, and he hadn’t missed any calls. Andrew considered himself lucky and learned from the experience.
That day, he made sixty-two dollars and fifteen cents.
— Seventy-one, one to Cendant. — Seven-fifty, Seventy-one. — Right. At first when Andrew’s fares asked about his background, he tried to be as honest as possible. Within limits. He told them he’d left his job as a personal service representative at a Waterloo insurance company to move out east where the pace of life was slower, the cost of living less. Kind of a post-9/11 thing, like that lawyer who quit his corporate job to become a Starbucks barista. He’d considered moving west, but though he liked pot as much as the next guy, it had just seemed so clichéd. Everyone and his dog moved out west at some point or another, and even those who didn’t come back in a year or two with their tails between their legs said rent in Vancouver was a bitch.
But some of his regulars wanted more, with follow-up questions that were simultaneously tedious and invasive. Why here instead of Halifax? Any family back in Ontario? What about girlfriends? So Andrew started inventing different backstories for the more inquisitive ones. He might be a physics graduate student, a former corporate lawyer, a struggling artist, an ex-con. The challenge was to keep track of which fare had heard which story so he could continue it seamlessly the next time he picked them up. To keep the story going and make it real. To mimic sincerity so well that sometimes he almost believed it himself.
Andrew learned a lot about cabbie culture by listening to the other drivers. Not from the anecdotes themselves but from incidental details. Patterns of recurrent phrases and repetitions, hints of unspoken, implicit knowledge. From Twenty-three, he learned that your best bet at closing time (especially in a van) was to hang around the bars and stuff that van to the gills for a series of short runs with multiple drop-offs. Ten, fifteen minutes tops for the run, then you could head back and do it all over again, milking that golden hour from two to three for all it was worth. But every now and then, a full load could make a Base run worth your while. Two doubles and a triple — three full fares plus a dollar apiece for the extras — would make you sixty-one bucks plus tip on a fifty-minute round trip. Even better if you caught a return fare, but you couldn’t count on that.
From Fifty-seven, Andrew learned about local politicians’ back-room deals, as well as a more speculative network of conspiracies spiralling out from the central figure of President George Dubyah. “You want to know what’s really going on, ask a cabbie,” he’d say with a wink and a tap alongside his nose. “We see things.” From Forty-two, Andrew learned the fine art of chiselling, the practice of ripping off the owners by strategically misreporting fares. You had to be careful, but every so often you could take an extra fare or two and pocket the cash rather than settling for the usual forty-percent commission. The trick was not to wander too far from your last reported location so as to avoid getting caught off guard by an unexpected call. As Forty-two put it, “You’re not a real cabbie if you don’t chisel enough for food and smokes.”
By this measure, Andrew has never been a real cabbie. Not because he was afraid of the consequences of being caught. So far as he could tell, chiselling was pretty much an open secret, and the worst that ever happened was a few missed shifts and being forced to pay back the cash. Slap on the wrist, really. But the mere idea of getting caught made his stomach churn — not with fear, but with anger. The sheer indignity of it, getting caught scamming for an extra couple of bucks as if it would make that much dif- ference. Which it would. — Seventy-one, you parked yet? — Nope, not yet. Taxi-stands are all full.
— Just park up ahead on your right, Seventy-one. Next empty spot. — Right. A good dispatcher could make all the difference. A solid run with a pick-up near every drop off, keep you going all afternoon and net you more money in five hours than you might otherwise make in a full twelve-hour shift. Long as you didn’t piss off your dispatcher, you were sitting pretty. But sometimes a dispatcher could be so good it was downright creepy, knowing Andrew’s location better than he did himself, fares conjuring themselves from thin air at just the right spot, the right time. Like that one afternoon driving down the hill.
— Seventy-one, turn left. Second driveway on your left, right now.
The Hanwell was bumper to bumper all the way down, but at that precise moment a perfect gap in traffic appeared in front of the empty driveway. Andrew didn’t think about it, just took the opportunity and turned. Almost before he’d stopped moving, the fare was climbing in and giving him an address. Then he caught another perfect gap to head back up, and off he went. Not until hours later, looking over his jotted list of fares, did Andrew realize he had never received a starting address for that call.
— Seventy-one, parked at Reid’s newsstand.
— Right Seventy-one. You see that dog tied to the fire hydrant?
— Wiener dog out front of Coffee Revolution?
— That’s the one. Get out, pet that dog, and let me know when you’re back.
Author Greg Bechtel blurs the lines between between speculative and literary fiction.