Monday, September 29, 2014

You Can't Change Who You Really Are.

Louis Shalako

You can’t change who you really are, right?

Especially if you have some challenges, especially if you’re always behind the eight-ball.

Especially if luck is against you, and especially if you’ve had a few bad breaks, right?

Well, I don’t know, ladies and gentlemen.

God created you this way, right?


Is that what you really think?


A person could certainly be excused for thinking that way—after all, if you’re like me, you might have dropped out of high school halfway through grade 10.

You might have suffered an accident, an injury. You might have been afflicted with any one of a thousand afflictions. You might have made your own bad luck, too, just as I did.

And it’s so easy to just accept it, isn’t it?

This is who I am.

It’s so easy to let it define you, isn’t it?

You can just settle for the way things are. You can get used to yourself, and settle in for the long haul.

Try to get through life without too much trouble.

This is my life, and it’s not going to get any better, so why try?


You can sit there in your geared-to-income housing. You can get your welfare or disability or mother’s allowance cheque, which, taken along with the cheque from your part-time job pumping coffees at Tim Horton’s, is almost enough if you’re careful and lucky…and you can just try to get by.

You can chain-smoke cheap native brands. You can get drunk as a skunk once a week, more if your friends drink. You can steal or con money off your folks, get a gram of crack or meth and you can get really high if you want to, and the truth is that nobody cares. Least of all you—deep down inside you know exactly what you are worth in the grand scheme of things.

It’s just the way things are, right?

You can’t change who you really are, right?

And some day, you might pick up a newspaper, or turn on the TV and see some guy who started off in life exactly where you did.

He’s holding up his new book like some proud grand-pappy and he’s looking you right in the eye off that screen or page and it makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable.

Because something’s not right here and you damned well know it.                 

You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there all right.

And yet he’s made it, somehow.

And it doesn’t seem fair, because obviously that man had something you didn’t. Let’s call it guts, or merely a dream. Call it what you want.

Maybe he’s just nuts, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe that guy caught a few breaks, right, like you never did…right?

See, like the big fucking fool that he was, that guy might have quit a pretty good job, as long ago as 1983. 

He might have gone back to school because he just wanted someone to teach him how to write.

That guy might have been hacking away at a stray dog story in Delhi, population 1,400; way back then. He might have had an electronic typewriter, the kind with a two-inch strip of readout, with the ability to go back and correct a few characters, living in the back bedroom of his old lady’s condo in Oakville, circa 1988. He might have been tapping away for a year or two in some crummy attic apartment in Hamilton in 1990, and he might have been madly smashing away at five-thirty in the morning on Savoy Street in Sarnia-fucking-Ontario, way back in 1999.

That man might have gone hungry, or homeless, and lived for years on welfare or some microscopic disability pension, sometimes going without a friend in the world. That man did things you couldn’t bring yourself to do.

Right? Why suffer when you don’t have to.


That’s the spirit.

He might have had six not-very-good novel manuscripts in hand when his mother—getting on a bit in years now, but still supportive, offered to pay for the frickin’ internet for three months, just so the guy could see if he liked it, and maybe try and learn a little bit about how all of that worked. He might be entirely self-taught. 

He might have been on welfare or disability or struggling along for ten bucks an hour, just like you. He might have fucked up every opportunity along the way, squandered every dollar and lost every friend he ever had. 

Let’s hope he learned something along the way, as he took every dead-end turn and every wrong trail…right?

And yeah, maybe that son of a bitch is driving a shitty old car, thirteen years old. Maybe he ain’t even got a TV, or a stereo system, and that most cardinal of modern sins, he doesn’t even have a cell phone. The poor guy doesn’t have fucking Kindle or a Nook, but then he don’t even have a winter coat, ladies and gentlemen.

Can you believe that?

And maybe, just maybe, that guy also wasted a lot of time along the way. It’s been thirty years, after all. 

Maybe he could have been a lot further on by now, but this is where he is now.

Now, ladies and gentlemen.


And maybe, just maybe, where others succumbed, or some others gave up, and others knuckled under, and said Uncle, and simply accepted themselves, that guy was still trying.

Hey, maybe the poor guy didn’t like himself or something. Right?

That could be it.


It’s not so much about changing the life either—that comes about almost by accident. And let’s be honest. 

When you have a dream, everyone hinders you.

They just want what’s best for you, right?

But it’s not up to them to decide.

And it ain’t over until he says it’s over.

That’s how crazy he is, ladies and gentlemen.


The boy I was thirty years ago was incapable of succeeding at anything, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s not like other folks didn’t try to change him, either—because they did. He might have even allowed himself to be swayed, and he might have even tried to do like they said. And maybe it wasn’t a good fit, or whatever.

Maybe he hated himself, because he couldn’t be the way they said he should be. And he always failed, ladies and gentlemen.

That could eat away at a person, couldn’t it?

And maybe he grew up one day and decided that he had the right, ladies and gentlemen, because he was willing to take a punch for it.

Did you ever think of that, ladies and gentlemen?

Well, fuck, take a second and have a go.

We’ll wait.

The one thing you regret, once you find your way, is just how much time you have wasted.

That crazy son of a bitch, holy fuck. He stood up for himself. He didn’t take no shit from anybody. He made every sacrifice, to retain his sense of who he was, and he knew, somehow, deep down inside that formidable iron gut of his, which is insensible to fear…(Louis. – ed.)…ah, okay, ed. He does get scared once in a while—I’ll grant you that, but holy—look at the goddamned competition.

Jesus H. Christ, look at the fucking competition.

Look at who—and what, I’m up against, eh?

Ah, well, eh.

Here at last, eh.

And it seems that changing your life takes a fuck of a lot of work.    

But just pursuing that mad, miserable goal, that fucking shibboleth, that chimera of a dream, well, it does something to you. The more you work on a dream, the more you change yourself.

It’s the opposite of a vicious circle.

It’s a circle of reinforcement.

It’s a kind of power.                                            

I’m a completely different person now. That’s not to say that there aren’t tougher people out there in the world, hell, there are better people in the world, but at least now I know it.

There are smarter people, and there are people with power, and money and all the shit I never had.

(Some of them have some real talent, don’t they? – ed.)

And that’s okay too.

Because I don’t answer to you.

Get used to it, or get over it, or whatever.

The thing to remember is, ladies and gentlemen, is that I at least knew what I wanted.

Somehow, deep, deep in the guts, I also knew that I was capable of doing this—if I was willing to put in the work.


It’s a place to start.

I guess we all have to start somewhere.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Excerpt: Architect of His Own Destruction. Chapter One. Louis Shalako.

Louis Shalako

Maintenon was thinking that a vacation was a rare and precious thing. It was also a lucky thing, coming just when it did. Paris had gone mad for the Olympics.

Why then, did he dread it so? The worst moment came when he locked the front door at street level and picked up their suitcases, as the taxi-man bustled about, putting things in the boot. He was grinding his jaws already, but the mood somehow lightened. Just the act of getting in the car and finally moving made things better. He didn’t want to make it any worse for Ann. That was part of it. Just getting away was the big psychological hurdle. It was a little like going over the top, thought Gilles. He must be artificially cheerful, a feeling he had known from before, and dreaded.

Fix bayonets. Off you go, lads.

It’s one thing to go—it’s quite another to send the wife.

And then would come the pistol shot, and everything turned into a daze of mud and blood and fire and hell.

Ann’s face was always in the periphery of his vision. All he had to do was to look over and feel the guilt.

Her illness was no respecter of persons. It didn’t care who you were, or where you came from.

You were fucking dead, sooner rather than later, and that was it for you.

It didn’t care if you had been good, or bad, or indifferent.

It was completely arbitrary, and mean, and it could take anybody.

Anyone at all, and in that sense it was an allegory for all of life—and all of death. It was a metaphor for all of human existence, past, present and future.

The other thing was his stomach, something he had been paying more attention to lately. A good cup of railroad coffee—anything but a contradiction in terms, for it was one of the few things they did well, and a heavy slab of dense, sweet chocolate cake had been a big help.

The train ride was almost interesting. It was the most time they had had together in years. All of those hours with nothing to do but stare out the window. Difficult under the present circumstances to appreciate, France was a lovely place, with a rich landscape and a varied history going back through the millennia. Ann seemed to enjoy it and that was the main thing, with Gilles holding her close and trying very hard not to see it through her eyes.

Any words exchanged were a bonus and a torment. He knew they would not be her last, or their last, and yet each one was precious, never to be repeated. Such intensity. He didn’t know how he could stand it. And of course, there was that patient look on her face, and the times when he wondered what kind of a look might be on his face.


Waking up in a strange bed was refreshing, in that it was new and unfamiliar. Luckily, the water in the bathroom was quite hot. That, at least, was different. For many years, Maman had heated water on the top of a massive old range, and given the kids a tub-bath once a week on Saturday nights. What awful fights they’d had, when the time rolled around for the boys to get a hair-cut.

The memories were there, almost a relief from the present. All he needed was a gentle prodding to get the thoughts flowing.

It was their first full day in what had once been his village. They hadn’t even left the house yet. On some level, Gilles was looking forward to showing Ann around, perhaps meeting some old friend. They would be reliving a bit of history, boyhood memories, in that bittersweet manner that sensible folks had once they hit old age. It would be a kind of pleasure, he supposed.

Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as he was making out. Or, it could be worse…there were plenty of things that could be worse than what they had right now.

“Gilles. Gilles.” His sister Henrietta appeared in the archway of her small salon.

The smell of food, and dogs and cats and Pierre’s pipe tobacco never left the room. He remembered it from last time, and some things never would change. The smells from the kitchen were already making their presence felt, with bread baking in the oven.

She had her sleeves rolled up and there were traces of flour on her apron. He was struck by the redness of her hands. No one in this family had ever been afraid of a little work. They always said he had the brains in the family, mostly because he had escaped. The break from established routine was the worst, unwelcome and yet probably very necessary—once in a while.

He looked up, being immersed in a game of backgammon with his fourteen year-old nephew, Raymond. It was unique in his experience, and therefore valuable.

He and Ann were staying with Henrietta and Pierre’s family for a week, and then they were going on to the seaside and a week with Louise, another sister; and her family. On the way back to Paris, they would have a chance to visit with Ann’s folks. He was almost looking forward to that, but then he didn’t know them quite so well and they were much less demanding in terms of entertaining their guests. It was also only for one day. 

There was only so much of an itinerary that they could squeeze in. Her folks had always treated him very well. Perhaps they had seen something that he himself had missed. It was only later, as a mature man, when he had wondered why. Here was some brave young man, and he was interested in their daughter…let’s give the fellow plenty of rope.  Perhaps he will hang himself.

He blinked at Henrietta, struck by how old she had gotten.

The baby of the family, Gilles was always welcome in the homes of his siblings. When the inevitable vacation rolled around, he and the wife were at a loose end moneywise and unable to refuse the offers of hospitality that poured in. With Ann’s condition, there were only so many options. Staying home didn’t seem right, somehow.


“It’s the telephone.”

Gilles bit back a smile at her tone of wonder. Quite isolated, Bagneres de Luchon, the village of his birth, was near the border with Spain in the high Pyrenees. Change came slowly this far from the real world, but come it inevitably must.

They weren’t all that well off, although his brother in-law made a good living as the local postmaster. They would never be rich, and they would never be poor. Perhaps that would suffice.

“The telephone?” Raymond looked up from the board.

His bug-like antennae began quivering, instincts aroused. Gilles was his favourite, and Raymond saved any newspaper clippings about his uncle that he could get his hands on, although the local papers only reported the most sensational national cases.

Gilles put his hands on the arms of the chair and heaved himself up.

He hadn’t been in town in years and he wondered who in the hell would be calling him here? His wife Ann, thin, pale and consumptive, looked up. She was just as beautiful as ever, perhaps more so now that he had seen her courage, her resolve. She smiled reassuringly. She had been looking through a picture book with nine year-old Denise, dark and a little too pugnacious, in Gilles’s estimation, but the kid couldn’t help herself. 

Ha! It was the family tree. Those roots went very deep. Ann’s knitting bag was on the couch beside her, a habitual pass-time and an escape from boredom and ennui. At least she had something, thought Gilles. I have nothing when it comes to hobbies. Did he really love his work that much?

Not exactly. He saw it as a necessary evil. That really says something about me, he thought.

“Very well, then.” Like many an old-fashioned home, the phone was on the back wall of the kitchen, being not quite fit for polite society.

The house was just as he remembered it. It was quite spooky how Henrietta had redecorated, and everything was all new, except her taste was so very strongly influenced by their dear departed Maman. All pink, floral and stripes and swirls. Why couldn’t women leave well enough alone.

Had no one ever heard of painting a wall white and then just leaving it?



“Yes?” His mind raced.

The voice was the wrong age for anyone he knew around here. Four years ago, or at the time of his last real vacation, it had been Jacqueline Roux. That one had been a little hard to explain to Ann.

You probably don’t remember me, but…

The voice, male, was too strong, too definite. This was not some tentative inquiry from thirty years in the past.

It didn’t ring any bells. Reality snapped back with a bang.

“Gilles. We need you back here.”

“What? Who?”

Who in the hell are you?

“I’m sorry, Gilles. We need you back here. On the double. We have a case.”

“What? A case?” Damn this bad line.

The crackle on there was something else, and Gilles had the impression from a quick intake of breath, that there were others on the line. Ah, yes. The old party line.

“A case?”

“Yes, Gilles. A case.”

His mind hit on that voice.

“Inspector Mathieu…?” Nicholas Mathieu, his immediate superior.


“Yes, who the hell did you think it was?” Matheiu had his orders and getting through to the man had been a bit of a chore with the antique phone system in that part of the world.

Think quick.

“I’m sorry, sir. Bad line. I can hardly hear you.”

There was a quick pause.

“Ah…if you don’t mind my asking, sir. I am on vacation.”

“Yes, and we’re dreadfully sorry about all that.”

“Ah…” There was no saying no.

Gilles bit back his rising irritation.

Ann was ill. She hadn’t been out of Paris in years. She hadn’t seen her parents in a year and a half. She had tuberculosis. His wife was dying, and dying very slowly…they both knew it and so should the damned department.


“Look Gilles, you’re being asked-for in all the right places.”

A detective sergeant in the Surete, Gilles had written his exam. It took time to assess the results from all of those candidates. No one would know the results for quite some time, and they didn’t always accept all of the qualified people. There were only so many Inspector jobs going around.

“Okay, ah. What’s this all about, Inspector Mathieu?”

The line was very clear all of a sudden, or had it just gone completely? But Gilles, staring out the back door into a bright sunny day, with that incomparable mountainside a hundred and fifty metres away and the dark boughs of conifers hanging low between here and there, caught a long sigh from the other end.

The Inspector said a bad word.

Maintenon’s eyebrows rose, and he waited.

“Go on.”

“It’s complicated, Gilles! You might even say you are going to hate it. It’s a cold case, Gilles—and a man’s life is at stake. Maybe even a very important man. I don’t really know myself. This one’s out of my hands. They’re not telling me anything very much. It’s hard to say.”

“Um, yes. Sir. So. What exactly do you want me to do about it?” It came out in a rush, perhaps not the best sort of diplomacy with a senior officer. “Ann is ill. She deserves better than this.”

He ground his jaws, eyes going narrow, and his breath very tight in his throat. The big lump in there might have something to do with it. He swallowed, hard, panting through the nostrils like a bull in the arena after a couple of good pricks with the bandarillas.

My sympathies always lie with the bull…

“I’m sorry, Gilles. But we can certainly make it up to you, ah, later.” Mathieu was apologetic, knowing full well what he was asking.

Gilles could turn him down, and probably should. Mathieu understood the career implications, and everything there was to know about pressure tactics, but otherwise he was pulling for Gilles’ promotion.

“Very well.” Gilles’s jaw moved back and forth and he fought any urge to express resentment or reluctance. 


It had better be bloody well important.

“Have you ever heard of the novelist Aldrich Tobias?”

Oh, merde.

“Ah, yes, sir. I have.”

Aldritch Tobias had won numerous awards, but never the big one, le Concordat de Literaire, according to press accounts. He was also awaiting the guillotine. His date of execution, as Gilles remembered, couldn’t be all that far off. He’d killed a bunch of women and girls, and had been duly caught, convicted in a court of law, vilified on the front pages of the newspapers, and ultimately sentenced to death. A real crazy one, with lots of ritual aspects to the case. Not directly involved, he’d followed it as best he could with his usual interest in all things homicide.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” That one was like a punch in the guts.

“I’m sorry, Gilles. But we really do need you to look into this. Just so we can sign off on the man with a clear conscience, n’est pas?”

“Oh, God. But why, ah…Nicolas?”

“Ours is not to reason why, Gilles. Ours is but to do.”

Or die.

Sullen stubbornness came over Gilles. He was looking at the sublime blaze of hot sun on that incomparable mountainside, after all.

I was looking forward to this…or so he told himself.

This was my home, once upon a time…

“At least let me have one damned day with my family. Sir.”

His raised voice could be heard in the salon, and Henrietta was right there in the kitchen door, wringing her hands and trying to interpret what was happening from his side of the conversation.

“Very well, Gilles. The odds are there’s not much in it, and he’s a guilty man. The trouble is that the President himself is interested in his case. Who knows, Gilles. Maybe we can find some extenuating circumstances. Maybe he really was mad, you know? Maybe you can help the man out, Gilles. He gets life on Devil’s Island, or locked up in the crazy-house somewhere. The president’s conscience is satisfied. His fans have cause to mourn, and agitate, and demonstrate, riot in the streets, and he can write more books. Right? Or whatever. But it sure would be a big favour if you could do it.”

Detective Sergeant Maintenon.

Inspector Maintenon.

The choice is all mine, and it really ought to be harder than this.

“Very well, sir.” Gilles’ heart sank as soon as the words came out of his mouth. “Ah, yes. Of course.”

“Thank you, Gilles.”


He had to break the news to Ann, and his sister…Pierre was off at work. Raymond and the girls would be bitterly disappointed, or was he merely kidding himself?


The Inspector was still talking.

Somebody had been doing their research. The Inspector had it all mapped out.

Inspector Mathieu told him exactly when they could expect him home. If he and Ann hustled, they might be back by tomorrow, at midnight.

Maintenon really didn’t think they could do it, but the morning after that was barely possible.

Hanging up, he glanced at his watch.

Damn them.

God damn them all to hell.


End of Excerpt.