Day 3 ... Tuesday, November 3 ... 3:29 a.m.
Chapter 5 The Women Come on their Own ...
For years I wished I could remember my dreams. Everyone dreams most nights, but I remember scraps of about two a year. Now my night visitors seem to come regularly, and not only do I remember the dreams, but they wake me up and my days now start at 2 or 3 a.m.
On Monday night a procession of women started to arrive. Not in a parade, not together ... but in sequence. They were my grandfather's discarded bimbos ... and they were as anxious to set me straight as he was to set me on a quest to avenge his murder.
The first to arrive was Mitzi, a woman about fifty but remarkably well preserved.. She wore an outfit Hedy Lamarr would have loved. Leopard skin body suit with a long swirling hooded cape of creamy wolf fur. Her hair was a bouffant pouff of toasted meringue that matched perfectly. I was impressed.
"Where did you find it," I asked in amazement.
"In Montreal, of course. People think you have to go to New York or Paris, but everything's there in Montreal. You just have to know where to look."
"I'm going on Thursday," I said. "Maybe I could find something for a wedding I'm going to."
"Better go on Saturday when the whole Chabanal is open to the public," Mitzi said. "But you won't have time for shopping anyway. You have a job to do.
"They're changing St. Laurence Main so fast these days you probably won't even be able to find the Cleopatra, and you really need to try to get in there before they clean up the whole red light district."
"Why?" I asked. "Why is that important?"
"It's the oldest strip joint in Sin City, and the girls there are all ages, some nearly as old as you. Someone will be able to help you."
"Help me what?"
"Find the truth."
"I was going to visit the big art gallery on Sherbrooke. He liked art."
Mitzi laughed. "Paul liked flesh and blood women way more than he liked pictures of them, Doll. And I hear you ain't allowed to touch those pictures ... and besides, the nudes in those frames don't kiss back."
She started to fade, and I pulled her back with a question. "What happened to you after he died?"
Mitzi gave me a wink. "I married one of my rich Johns. I was one of the lucky ones whose dream came true ... saved by Prince Charming."
Before I could ask whether her afterlife was one big shopping spree, she had disappeared.
As I dozed off I could see a decrepit wraith emerging from a tunnel. I was instantly awake. "Who the hell are you," I asked trembling. She was filthy. No sugar daddy in her lifetime and no fashion district in her hereafter.
"Helen," she said. "I was one of your grandpa's piano girls."
"What happened to you? Your hair ..." I began. I looked at the greasy straggle of grey that clung to her scalp.
"I lived on the street ... no need to keep up appearances there."
"Which street?" I asked. I know, stupid question. What did it matter which street. No street in Montreal in the thirties would have provided her with a chance to bathe.
"I haven't got a lot of time for chit chat. They ration time out, you know."
A hint of exasperation raised one eyebrow and she emitted a hissing click as her tongue flitted behind blackened front teeth. "Just listen," she sighed. "You have to go to Stanley Street, just below Ste. Catherine. The Chez Paree."
"Isn't that where they used to have a burlesque show?"
"Yeah. It's a high class strip joint now. No touching allowed."
"What will I find out there?"
"Talk to the girls. There's over sixty of them there and they've still got all their marbles."
"How could they know anything? They'll be young."
"There's at least one who's carrying on the family trade. Most strippers hide what they do from their kids. But there's the odd one who was lucky herself and figures the fastest way to the top is by being good on the bottom." She leered grotesquely.
"How did you end up so badly, Helen?" I asked.
"Me? I trusted the wrong guy. By the time he finished with me I'd lost most of my teeth, and couldn't hear outta one ear ... and I had the clap. Couldn't work. No one wants a broken down whore."
"It wasn't my grandfather, was it?" I had to know.
"No. Paul was a bastard in his own way, but he was good to all his girls for a couple of months. His problem was he had no staying power. Always needed a new fix, a new girl."
"Today he'd be a coke addict," I guessed.
"Not sure. He played with hashish and other drugs back then, but his addictions were women and horses, and I'm not even too sure about the gambling."
"Who do you think killed him?" I asked her.
"I know who killed him, honey."
And then she vanished leaving behind a whiff of something vile, like a terrible disease ... decades of filth and degradation ... the disease of poverty.
I opened the window to let in the frigid night air. Kenya stirred, raised her head, and then flopped back down with a deep sigh.
I checked my email, discovered the one I'd been looking for, and relaxed myself. Time to pee and go back to sleep for what was left of the night. It was 5 a.m. and I had a class at 10:30 in Ottawa.
It was almost 8 when Kenya nudged me awake. I rolled out of bed straight into the shower. I fed Kenya and let her out by herself and then spent the the rest of my time looking for my keys. Nowhere. Damn, I hate getting old. Those keys evade me on a daily basis and I always manage to avoid the one pocket in which they are lurking. Yes, yes, I know, if I'd just hang them up on the hook by the front door, get into the habit, I'd stop losing them and I wouldn't have to deal with the damned hot flash that suffuses my entire body every time I panic. At nine, I gave up the search, took the extra car key out of its secret place, gulped down half a cup of tepid tea and headed off to my class.
Five minutes from home I was stopped by a traffic collision. A white car was in the ditch on the other side of the road, its nose down and its rear end pointing straight up. Metal bits and pieces were scattered all over the road on my side, and there were six vehicles with flashing lights parked higgledy piggledy all over the highway. After about three minutes of listening to Anna Maria Tremonti interviewing Armed Forces recruitment officers who skirted her questions with that infuriating obtuseness all bureaucrats manage. You know, where they avoid the question and keep repeating whatever party line has been agreed upon, the traffic started to move. A cop motioned our line forward, and I saw the truck for the first time. It was lying on its side in the field on the same side of the road as the car. It looked as if someone had to have been injured, if not killed, but all the emergency vehicles were from the fire and police departments. I guess the ambulance had come and gone already. The rest of the drive passed quickly. The Current featured an interview with the man who just published his secret conversations with Bill Clinton, and then I saw the first sign of Christmas in Ottawa. Some men in a truck were beginning to string lights on the trees near the Canal. I love Ottawa at Christmas.
The sketchbooking class was fun. We received gifts, watched a slide show, looked at a collection of journals and resources Michelle had brought, and did our very first drawing in our pristine sketchbooks. I tried out one of the ideas I'd seen in the most beautiful sketchbook on display. Mine fell somewhat short of its goal, but it was a definite improvement on any attempts I'd made before this class. I sat beside an old friend I hadn't seen for a long time. Had no idea she was taking the course. We arranged to go for lunch next week.
You know you are in a Learning in Retirement class when several people arrive pushing walkers or brandishing canes, the man in the row ahead of you farts loudly and no one laughs, and the vast majority of students are cheery women with white hair.
I had met Michelle before the course and she had photographed some pages from my journal to use in her slide show. I was glad she showed my amateurish first attempts before showing the truly accomplished sketchbooks of artists and landscapers. They were works of art. She also showed slides of some of the chairs I have in Art de la Paix. Several women had seen my funky furniture, and a few asked me how they could paint the chairs languishing in their basements.
On my way home I stopped to make arrangements to pick up my language student the next morning, passed a hazardous waste truck which was cleaning up after this morning's accident, and then I was home. Both Kenya and Peter, the carpenter working on my house, were as delighted to see me as I was to see them. It was a good day, and one in which I hadn't thought about Grandpa at all. I like days when I have a manageable schedule. As I age I find myself wanting to limit the number of things on my to do list each day, and a trip to town with only one or two stops suits me just fine.
I began a calm search for the missing keys, and found them in my yellow rain slicker. Then I gathered up the recycling, took it up the hill and opened the car trunk where I knew I had a couple of large items from my last overwhelming shopping trip. When I picked up the laundry detergent and the green garbage bags I discovered the now mouldy raspberries I'd forgotten four days before. I hate getting old.
And of course Grandpa has no concept of old. He was under forty when he bought it. He thinks it will be easy for me to discover all the details about his death. But I'm no Nancy Drew, and the family history, like our family, is very sparse, and all the leads are as cold as corpses.
I don't have a clue when he died. I can make an educated guess that it was somewhere between 1929 and 1932, but it was pure luck that I figured out that it happened in Montreal. Or was it? I wonder if they have some kind of rule book wherever he and the bimbos are now? Not allowed to tell anyone here on earth anything directly or something. Or what?
And he has no concept of tight money either. A day trip to Montreal by train is going to set me back over a hundred bucks. I won't be making many of those trips, especially at this time of year when I have to take my twelve year old car to the station, the car that can't make it all the way up my road once snow falls.
I think I should be getting more sleep. And, anyway, that's when the visitors seem to arrive with clues.