Short sto­ries push bound­aries

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life -

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.

— Right.






Julien St-Pierre

Au­thor Greg Bech­tel blurs the lines be­tween be­tween spec­u­la­tive and lit­er­ary fic­tion.

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