The Tallest Man in America, Part Two
“Your hands smell like diesel. Do you work in a gas station?”
“I work in a bookstore.”
“Oh? My father-in-law owns a bookshop, in Budapest. Do you like Stephen King?”
“Sure. He’s fucking great.”
“I’d like to be a writer. I write short stories. Mostly autobiographical. Ghost stories, and monsters in the dark. I use material from working at The Dollhouse, some of the customers I’ve talked with over the years. When I finish my collection of stories, do you think you could show it to Stephen King for me? Does he come into your store?”
“It doesn’t work like that. I’m pretty sure Stephen King doesn’t read unsolicited material. He probably gets ten envelopes a day passed to him, everybody from his dentist to his daughter’s babysitter has written a novel they’d like him to endorse. If you’d like to kill a conversation with Stephen King, ask him to read your manuscript, and watch his butt-cheeks clench.”
“That’s too bad. He really could have helped my writing.”
“What’s your name?”
“Crystal. Pleased to meet you,” she presented her hand so that I could kiss her knuckles.
She wore her wedding band between her breasts, on the silver chain around her neck.
“You have a funny accent. Very unique. Where are you from? Not Minnesota, yah?”
“I’m Hungarian. From Budapest. Do you know Eastern Europe?”
“How long have you been dancing at The Dollhouse?”
“A few months. I only work as a stripper during the summer to save money for school,” she finally sat on my lap, grinding her butt, after undulating in front of me for the last couple of minutes, “It beats working in a grocery store, or a fast-food restaurant. I start college on Monday. I’m going to be a nurse,” she smiled at me, obviously fishing for praise.
“…a Swedish nurse?”
“Not a sex nurse! A doctor’s nurse! I want to work with drug addicts.”
“Couldn’t you do the same thing, and make more money, staying at The Dollhouse?”
She was suddenly honest with me, as close to intimacy as I was going to get from her.
“It’s really hard to save up money, working here. You just live day-to-day.”
“Tell me about it. I’m trying to save up some cash for school also. I don’t know what I’m doing here tonight. My friends dragged me here, all the way to Duluth, even though we’ve got an important arrangement to negotiate with the Hells Angels tomorrow afternoon, for $5000.”
“Oh? A sting operation?”
“Something like that,” I kept my cards flat on the table, behind chrome sunglasses.
Maybe she actually thought I was a bent cop, to be talking about making a deal with the Hells Angels while sitting in a strip club owned by either the Turkish mafia, or a rival bike gang.
“Can you get a book for me, from your store?” she changed the subject, spooked.
“Sure,” I lied, “What’s it called?”
“The Cure for HIV and AIDS. I don’t know the author: it’s for a friend…”
“I don’t think that book has been published yet. It won’t be published for another three years,” I watched as she stood up, took off her bra, plucked an ice cube from my rum and Coke, and rubbed the ice cube on her nipples, getting them wet.
She wore pink-and-grey hot pants with the word “JUICY” stitched across her ass.
“Now, how about that dance? Don’t you want to watch me dance?”
“OK. Let’s do this,” I replied, figuring “Free Bird” was as good a song as any to have a lap dance for $20. I straightened myself up in my chair, getting ready for her to remove her gitch.
When she was done, she asked me, “Would you like another?”
“Nah. I’m sorry, but all I’ve got on me is a twenty.”
“Is that twenty?” she replied, “I think it’s more like 22, 23…my friend Diamond was on the main stage when I started; my friends Hazel and Olivia took a half-hour bubble bath together; now my friend Jade’s on the main stage: she usually begins her set with “Sweet Home Alabama” and ends with “Free Bird”. So that’s 22, maybe 23 songs.”
Twenty-two, twenty-three songs? ($460!)
“Look: all I’ve got is $20.”
“That was 22, 23 songs! We’ve been in the V.I.P. lounge for almost an hour!”
“We were just talking!”
“That was at least 22, 23 songs! You owe me $460 for the last 45 minutes of my time!”
“Well, you can FUCK RIGHT OFF!” I shouted at her.
As I got up to hastily depart the V.I.P. lounge, Maynard sat with Marilyn Melons on his lap holding a cigarette for him, in a wicker chair. It was painted white, very 1970s. Maynard was barefoot, wearing faded bellbottoms, and had taken off his shirt so that he could rub the bandage on his belly, scratching his hairy chest. That was also very 1970s of the guy. All Maynard needed was a fedora with an ostrich feather. He looked like an Australian rock star. The pre-historic cave man that had dragged home his groggy mate by the hair was holding court in the V.I.P. lounge at The Dollhouse, while I struggled to escape a scam artist shouting obscenities at me.
Maynard was fast-forwarding through a pornographic video, making jackhammer noises.
The abdominal bandage was from his parrot tattoo, but Maynard had convinced Marilyn Melons that a sniper in the parking lot had shot him in the gut, and only his superhuman fortitude was allowing Maynard to stay alive. Which made Marilyn Melons his devoted wife, comforting her gut-shot husband. Maynard even pulled me into the act, my having witnessed the shooting in the parking lot, and the subsequent brawl with fifteen police officers.
And then in the next breath, Maynard is a cop. Undercover, of course, but he still carries a badge, which he waves around to pay for all the booze he’s been sucking back since arriving at The Dollhouse. Except the badge is printed on cardboard, a cut-out from the die-pressed cover of one of the crime novels he stole earlier that day, rather than pay a nickel for it to charity. But the bouncers at The Dollhouse must have spent the last five years in Afghanistan, because they can’t distinguish the difference between a real police badge, and what is a piece of cardboard folded in half sticking out of Maynard’s underwear, so all is good, we are untouchable. Crystal decides to give up pestering me for her money, just take my last $20 and go back on the pole. The alcoholic in me is grateful, everybody’s getting laid that night, because the liquor is going to keep flowing, washing over the room like a rising tide that lifts all boats even if I end up drowning in it.
“Hey, Joe Buck! How’s it going in there?” I heard the kid sobbing in the toilet, but couldn’t help teasing him.
“FUCK OFF, EMMETT!” Dirty Norman shouted at me, donkey-punching the wall.
“You get your glasses clean yet?” Stifling a laugh, I rolled the question underneath the stall door as gently as I could, not wanting to antagonize the kid any further.
“No. There’s no running water in the sink. I have to dunk my glasses in the toilet to get them wet. And there’s no paper towel, either. I’ve been trying to use my shirt to polish the scum off my glasses. What kind of place is this? Why would Maynard bring us here for his birthday?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been wondering the same thing. Listen, we need to get out of here. Settle our tab at the bar, and go. Fuck Maynard. Break the truck out of impound, and get back to Canada tonight, before we’ve been out of the country for 24 hours.”
I had stepped into the men’s washroom to try getting the smell of diesel off my hands, but Dirty Norman was dealing with a knot of pubic hair tangled in the nose pad of his glasses.
There was broken glass on the floor, used condoms in the sink, used diapers clogging the toilets, and used needles sticking out of the garbage, but, as his glasses were smeared with grease from his fingers, the public health hazard was in Dirty Norman’s hands.
I wish I could say, that’s when Maynard kicked in the door of the men’s washroom at The Dollhouse like a Chinese waiter loaded up with hot soup from the kitchen, backing into the room to join us downstairs, but there are no doors on the men’s washroom of a strip club.
Around the corner, out in the hallway, an angry voice was bouncing off the walls.
“Get the fuck back here with my money, you loser! You creep! You cheapskate!”
Whistling Dixie, Maynard walked over, took a piss in the sink, lifted a leg, let out a fart.
“Oh, hey. What are you guys doing down here?” he noticed us in the mirror as he was combing his hair, “I was just looking for you guys upstairs. We need to get out of here. Marilyn Melons is out in the hallway, waiting for me. Man! I’m not going to give some old slapper $460! I don’t have enough Canadian Tire money to cover that! That wasn’t 22, 23 songs!”
“My girl told me she’s saving up cash for school. She’s going to be a nursing student.”
Maynard laughed harshly, at that, turning away from me and Dirty Norman to strip off his abdominal bandage and stick it to the washroom mirror, without any tape, covering his face.
“Emmett, I swear, sometimes you are so naive, it makes my teeth ache: she’s been going back to college for about ten years now. I believe she wants to be a writer, but she’s never going to be a nursing student. If you were a senior citizen, she’d tell you she’s saving up for retirement. If you were unemployed, she’d tell you she just lost her job. If you got cancer, she’d tell you she needs money to pay for a funeral. She just figures out what you want to talk about, then tells you what you want to hear. It doesn’t take one to know one: she’s a con artist, working a scam!”
Did Maynard know the broad? How long had he been coming down to The Dollhouse to celebrate his birthday each year? Just how old was he, anyway?
“We talked about books, and bookstores. The writing life, and Stephen King. How a girl from Budapest ends up working as an exotic dancer in northern Minnesota. Then she called me a loser, a creep, and a cheapskate. Basically, I’m a fucking jerk!”
“She was trying to rip you off! I got more respect for a panhandler out on the street. At least they don’t tell themself they’re in the entertainment industry! I mean, who’s kidding who?”
“It’s too bad. I know she’s married, but I felt a real connection with her; I thought we had something special, more than just mutual attraction. She’s a hell of a woman. I could have fallen madly in bed with her; I could have fallen madly in sex with her. Now, I feel like a fool.”
Dirty Norman chirped up: “Curtis, please, we need to get out of here. Break the truck out of impound, and get back to Canada tonight, before we’ve been out of the country for 24 hours. I think I’m gonna be sick; I can’t even focus my eyes. Don’t let me Bon Scott out, asphyxiating on my own vomit, if I fall asleep in a ditch tonight. Please: turn me on my side, keep me breathing.”
That kink of pubic hair between Dirty Norman’s eyebrows was going to be a problem.
It was a huge distraction. His mucky glasses made it hard for me to take the kid seriously.
Maynard looked at his wristwatch: it was 12:05 AM, Sunday morning, September 1st, 1990. “It’s not time to go home yet, we still have a few hours before dawn. Let’s go get a slice from Pizza At The Swamp. Best pizza in the city,” Maynard pulled a velvet top hat out of thin air and popped it on his skull: the top hat had a wilted rose strapped to it with a white lace G-string.
I yawned, unimpressed by Maynard’s sartorial flair.
“Before we leave for Pizza At The Swamp, let’s go beat up the DJ, drag his ass out into the parking lot in handcuffs, set up a world-class wrongful arrest lawsuit against the police. We need to give the guy arthritis in his knees as a going-away present for playing “Stars on 45” in a strip club. The fuckin’ jerk! He almost cost us both $500!”
“Sounds fair to me!” Maynard stuck out his hand, and we shook on the deal, brothers.
By the time we got back to our motel, it had burned to the ground. The entire pier was on fire. Two F-1888 fighter jets had collided over the motel, both the Minnesota National Guard and the Wisconsin National Guard had been on weekend training exercises over Saint Louis Bay, and crashed together in the courtyard. It was an unbelievable twist. The entire area was cordoned off, so the check-out desk at the motel was closed until further notice. We were off the hook.
Somebody, I dunno, either the FBI or FEMA, maybe the CIA, drove the three of us in an ambulance over to the city impound lot. We got my truck released, double-checked the beer was still strapped down tight in the payload, and began the long drive back to Canada.
Before we even got out of Duluth, Maynard wanted to stop at a pharmacy. I knew he was going to steal something but I didn’t attempt to stop him. I knew he was going to steal something from the pharmacy because he had asked me, do you want me to steal something for you, do you need anything from the pharmacy, and I didn’t say no. How could I? How often does a man offer to steal something for you, when you’re out shopping in a pharmacy?
Maynard was sitting at the bench for the blood pressure cuff when the pharmacist made him put out his cigarette. You shouldn‘t smoke when talking your blood pressure, you won’t get an accurate reading. Maynard flicked his butt across the room, waited to calm his heart rate, then restarted the machine. He scored 110 over 70, which is incredible. The pharmacist asked him if he was a professional athlete, because those were “astronaut numbers”. Maynard just laughed; asked the guy where the pharmacy kept the double extra-large condoms.
I went to the magazine stand, looking for a newspaper. Maynard headed for the chewing gum and chocolate bars. I could hear Maynard rustling the packages of candy. Examining prices, comparison shopping. I lost track of time as I became distracted by a stack of Richie Rich comic books on the spinner stand. I hadn’t seen those comic books reprinted by Harvey Comics since I was about twelve years old. Everything melted. I decided to search for Richie Rich, Casper, Hot Stuff, Spooky, and Wendy the Good Little Witch when I went to buy back Duke’s Spider-Man collection from Adele’s Comics in Thunder Bay.
By the time I noticed Maynard had left me alone in the drugstore, it was time to either pay for the comics, or quietly put them back on the spinner, and exit the pharmacy. Everything rushed back into focus. Richie Rich would have to wait until I got my share of the money from the Hells Angels, and went back to Adele’s Comics to reclaim my best friend’s childhood for the $800 I had needed to buy my truck at the start of the summer.
Outside, Maynard met me in the parking lot. He had stolen a disposable camera, and a package of batteries. The batteries were some off-brand name, probably not even juiced enough to power the remote controller for a TV, and the disposable camera didn’t use batteries: it was garbage, like something they would have sold in an amusement park five years earlier. The film had expired in February 1988, according to the best before. Maynard always knew how to select the valuable merchandise! To cover Maynard’s thieving, I had purchased two six-packs of Old Milwaukee, even though I had 120 cases of beer weighing down the payload of my Ford F-350. As I popped a tab and handed him a cold beer, Maynard pitched both the disposable camera and the batteries in the trash. Dirty Norman had disappeared to take a shit in the dumpster out back of a Burger King, or maybe it was McDonald’s, so I didn’t shake up a beer for his breakfast.
The thrill was gone. We were about to make some serious money, back home in Ontario.
At the border, crossing back from the United States into Canada, Maynard went first.
He pulled out two credit cards (Zellers “Club Z” Visa, and Zellers “Club Z” MasterCard); his beginner’s permit driver’s license (just the green slip, the “temporary license” the Ministry of Transportation issues you on the spot, with no photographs)…and a Zambian passport that listed his gender as male, his height as 9’2”, his eye colour as brown, his race as black, and his place of birth as Zambia City, Zambia, Africa, on August 31, 1947.
“Hiya, Officer Friendly. How are you doing, this fine morning? We’re just coming back from celebrating my 23rd birthday, down in Duluth. Have you ever brunched at The Dollhouse?”
“Son, this photograph looks nothing like you.”
“That’s just a typo. As you can see, sir, I’m 5’2”, not 9’2”, and born in 1967, not 1947. It’s an international disgrace, but the embassy workers at the Zambian consulate in Mexico don’t need to learn how to read or write, before they can begin issuing passports.”
“Seriously? You mean it?” even Maynard couldn’t believe his bullshit had worked.
“Welcome home, buddy,” the man at the counter stamped Maynard’s passport, despite the fact that it was obviously stolen, “Don’t forget to declare your beer with customs. It’ll cost you about $1 a case to bring the bottles into Canada, but you’ll eventually come out ahead, when you return the empties for the refund deposit they never bother to collect at Rynard’s.”
The border patrol agent turned his undivided attention to me and Dirty Norman.
“Now, what are your names?”
“Terry Toykalla,” I answered.
“Bernie Warner,” Dirty Norman coughed.
“You have passports?”
“Nope. We just put our names in the ledger. We honestly forgot we were planning to be out of the country for more than 24 hours.”
“Wait right here.”
On the other side of the concrete bunker, Maynard had his bare feet up on the guy’s desk, eating a box of ketchup-flavoured Old Dutch potato chips. I wasn’t aware they sold Old Dutch in northern Minnesota; somebody must have smuggled them across the border.
Twenty-five minutes later, Officer Friendly came back into the room with his supervisor.
“The problem is, we have Tommy Toykalla listed as leaving Canada yesterday morning, and now Terry Toykalla is coming back. Tommy Toykalla has a clean record, but Terry Toykalla lists multiple convictions for shoplifting. Eighteen prior convictions, altogether, with two charges outstanding in court. Terry Toykalla would have been flagged at the border, automatically denied entry to the United States. Which is why you gave your name as Tommy, didn’t you, Terry?”
“But I don’t think you’re either of those guys.”
“You shouldn’t have written your name on the back of your hand, son.”
“You might as well have used the names Bob and Doug McKenzie! Or Bongo Wujang! Now, who are you guys, really? You’re carrying cardboard police badges; your driver’s licenses have been altered; your names don’t match what you gave when entering the country. Let’s clear this up without getting nasty!” the supervisor punched Dirty Norman in the back of the head, and then slammed his face on the table, almost breaking Dirty Norman’s sticky glasses.
“My name is Emmett Grogan,” I glared at the border patrol agent, burning a hole in the back of his head, “Run that name, and you’ll find a blank record. There’s nothing.”
He gave me a funny look, like that was a name he hadn’t heard in quite some time.
“OK, Spartacus. We can do this the hard way. You still have fingerprints.”
“Why do you want to run my fingerprints? My name is Emmett Grogan. I’m clean.”
“Every con artist knows to use the name Emmett Grogan when they get arrested. Don’t think you can beat the system, just by calling yourself Emmett Grogan. That scam hasn’t worked since photo IDs went coast-to-coast in the 1970s. Emmett Grogan isn’t even an urban legend, not anymore. We’ll find out who really are, then bus you back to Canada in handcuffs.”
“No Frills is having me charged with Theft of Meat Over $5000. Apparently, that’s an actual charge,” Dirty Norman began his lament, “I never should have taken on Maynard as my apprentice at No Frills. The first day on the job, he stole half a cow. The next day, a full pig. He stuffed so much meat down his pants, it was ridiculous. But what could I do? I couldn’t end my friendship with Maynard, over barbecue scraps. Now my career is in the toilet.”
“He’s an asshole.”
“As soon as we get back to Thunder Bay, I’m going to get serious about becoming a male prostitute. No Frills fired me last night, when the end-of-month audit revealed how much product I had allowed Maynard to steal on his coffee breaks, just by turning a blind eye each time the guy stepped outside for a cigarette. We’re talking thousands of pounds of meat!”
“Who could eat that much meat?” I laughed, “But, you have a bigger problem.”
“What’s that?” Dirty Norman wondered.
“Did you know about this Emmett Grogan guy?”
“Uh…yeah. Maynard told me you were going to have a problem, getting back across the border, if you used your real name. Emmett Grogan is your real name, really? I assumed Emmett Grogan was your fake name, considering your line of work. Hell, Maynard told me his name was Emmett Grogan, the first time we met. Do you know how many times Maynard’s had shoplifting charges dropped, because the cops can’t prove he’s a real person? He’s a ghost!”
We were waiting in a holding cell for the border patrol to decide what happened next.
Just then, a jail guard in full riot gear appeared outside the cell, crooked a gloved finger at Dirty Norman, and said: “Room 101.”
A fog rolled in, and the smell of sulphur.
Maynard waddled out of the mist wearing that velvet top hat from The Dollhouse, and a black t-shirt with BEER printed on it in large white capital letters. He walked like a dwarf with bad hips. As I leapt to the bars of my cell, Maynard performed a pantomime for my edification: Nothing up this sleeve; nothing up that sleeve; nothing in the magician’s hat; are you watching closely? He bowed deeply, almost scraping the floor. Then he recited what I have come to think of as The Shoplifter’s Denial, Maynard’s last words to me:
“And now at last we come to the moment, when the man in the hat puts his hand in his pocket, to remove his wallet, from which he will remove the cash, to pay for the goods which he will enjoy, not in public, but in the comfort of his own home, far from the mid-morning crowd.”
I wanted to drop a tree on him, make him explode.
Maynard had dragged myself and Dirty Norman to Duluth, Minnesota not just to keep us in the United States for more than 24 hours (rolling over August into September, in the bargain); not just to have a reason to alter our driver’s licenses, making fake IDs for the strip club; and not just to get us arrested for using false names to enter the country (with my birth name getting me flagged at the return border, which I’m convinced Maynard was counting on: after all, I told him my God-given name that first time we shook hands, at No Frills); but because, he couldn’t resist using that stolen passport to bullshit his way back into Canada, with 120 cases of American beer, after visiting the United States for his 23rd birthday at The Dollhouse.
He was the Prince of Thieves, the King of Con Men, the Tallest Man in America, maybe not the devil himself, but the devil’s nephew: the devil’s nephew, wearing a Hells Angels Special Event vendor’s t-shirt, and laughing all the way to the bank, having filled my holding cell with a fart, the smell of sulphur in the air-conditioning. By what dark magic had he even gotten into the holding cells? You had to respect his artistry, pulling off a $5000 scam in one weekend, cheating not just his business partner (me, not Dirty Norman!) but also his best friend – only friend – and work colleague (Dirty Norman!) to boot. The fucking guy wasn’t as stupid as he looked.
I gave Maynard a golf clap, three flat smacks of my hands, from behind the cage bars.
Hitchhiking home to Thunder Bay on Tuesday, having spent all Labour Day weekend in jail, I’d had some time to consider the difference between stealing, and legalized theft. There was stealing, and then there was legalized theft, like when you sold something (under duress) for far less than it was actually worth, just because you needed the cash that someone else had available to them; or, better example, gambling (all gambling is basically legalized theft, especially if it’s run by the government, because “the house always wins” is not just a cliché.)
After losing his first three bets with the Bugger Brothers – pre-season NFL football – taking the Minnesota Vikings (by seven points) over New Orleans, Cleveland, and then Houston, Maynard had gone double-or-nothing (for the last time) against Miami, Friday, August 31st…and missed the point spread by four, even though Minnesota beat Miami, 20 to 17! Four thousand dollars in the hole, Maynard thought he could just keep riding his unlucky streak until he broke it, but the Bugger Brothers don’t operate that way (they aren’t a charity!), and decided to collect either their money, or else one of Maynard’s thumbs out behind the Husky gas station.
There were no thumbs tossed in the garbage of the Husky parking lot, but Maynard’s tent was gone, much like the Hells Angels had rolled out of town, after staging their bikers jamboree at Port Arthur Stadium, having paid Maynard his money not just for their beer, but also barbecue meat for the entire weekend. So maybe Dirty Norman got his $1000 back from Maynard after all, if Maynard only needed $4000 to pay off his patently absurd gambling debt with the Bugger Brothers.
Maybe Maynard double-crossed me only after (or because!) the Minnesota Vikings lost their final pre-season game. In The Dollhouse, most of the video monitors were screening porn, but Maynard had been glued to the single TV showing Friday night NFL pre-season football. It had seemed strange at the time, but at double-or-nothing, $4000 was a lot of money riding on a single football game, enough money to yank Maynard’s attention away from the complimentary buffet, the beautiful girls walking around shaking their titties on the main stage for free, and even the lure of popping into the champagne V.I.P. lounge for a shower stall bubble bath towel dance.
Then again, getting a job just to steal meat from No Frills for almost a month showed a level of planning and determination I wouldn’t have expected from Maynard. How much money extra the Hells Angels paid him for catering their feast, I couldn’t guess. Probably $15000, total.
The more I think about it, I’m convinced Curtis Maynard wasn’t even his real name.
It might have been Scott McCullough, or even Bongo Wujang, but since everything else about the guy was stolen, from his fake Zambian passport right down to his belt buckle, even his identity was likely ripped off. He was half-black, part Indian, with a pug nose, and yet Maynard had sandy blonde hair, and pale blue eyes, depending on who you talked to. I spent a week trying to find him after I got back from Minnesota, tracking him around Thunder Bay, but he was gone, baby, gone. He had run his confidence game on me, stole my truck, and disappeared with all the money I had earned that summer for school in the fall, but Curtis Maynard had left me motivated by his audacity, working on my own plan for the future. It was crimes of opportunity, short cons that kept tripping me up, holding me back; working a long con would be my path forward.
What happened after that is like a fantasy of success in life.
I found my truck parked outside the McDonald’s on Red River Road, spare keys tucked in the sun visor. Either Dirty Norman, or Maynard himself had left the truck for me to find when they split town, probably because they couldn’t pay for insurance and repairs. Either way, I got my truck back, and decided to visit Adele’s Comics, hoping I could simply trade the truck I had spent $800 to acquire, and at least $4000 to service (without installing winter tires!), for Duke’s comic book collection, the early Spider-Man issues that were worth so much.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered he had already sold off a quarter of the collection, at prices twenty-five times what he had paid me for the material just ten weeks earlier, at the start of the summer! Talk about legalized theft! He was even worse than the Bugger Brothers, and that is saying both a lot, and not nearly enough, about Adele’s questionable business practices.
So I kicked in the front door of the Victorian mansion where Adele sold his comics, and stole back what was left of my best friend’s Spider-Man collection. It was the least I could do for my best friend. James Duke was in hospital, after having been involved in a terrible car accident a year earlier, rear-ended by a panel van while driving to the airport in Thunder Bay, en route to Hollywood, California for a screen test with George Lucas. But that’s another story.
Watching Duker drift gently down the stream, dreaming his life away in a medically induced coma, I decided to quit Lakehead University, keep my tuition, and leave town myself, after dropping off the Duke’s comic book collection at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
In my travels throughout Thunder Bay, I had heard about a bent cop, Ontario Provincial Police out of Forest Lake detachment on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, who collected handguns and hunting knives, and who decorated his home with Native Canadian artwork. He owned a .44 Magnum he enjoyed showing off to little kids down at the sand pit where he practised his target shooting for the Olympic tryouts. The 12-year-old boys would go all wide-eyed when he shot up a refrigerator, or blew apart a television. Sometimes, he’d let teenagers handle the gun, but only if he knew they’d never tell their parents about hanging out with him while drinking with him in his police cruiser. He was always lecturing high-school students about staying pure, virgins until they were legally married, even while obviously drunk, and just barely holding his shit together.
So I went and kicked in his front door, to steal his Native Canadian artwork. Because he was a bent cop, and let’s face it, cops in Northwestern Ontario do a lot of social work, I figured he owned original canvasses from Norval Morrisseau, maybe several early examples of what had become known as ‘woodland’ or ‘medicine’ art. BINGO! The cop had over two dozen paintings, all signed and hand-dated by Morrisseau; all in perfect condition; all professionally mounted and expensively framed. It would be more than enough to open a gallery in Toronto, if you included the many other Native Canadian objects of art – wood carvings and rock sculptures – the cop had collected over the years, for his own amusement. It was a crime such a collection was in personal hands, not on display in a museum. One man, even a bent cop, didn’t deserve to own so much stolen artwork.
You could tell the cop lived by himself, because he also owned a foot-long pink dildo he kept lovingly wrapped in a tube sock, bottom of his back closet drawer. He even had hundreds of Polaroids of himself with the dildo jammed up his ass, dating back at least four years.
The .44 Magnum was in his nightstand, but he kept the Polaroids in a locked metal box.
I was tempted to keep the dildo, and use it as a sap in case I ever saw Dirty Norman again (“Bitch, you just got cold-cocked!”) but, realistically, the smart move was to leave the dildo, take the Polaroids...and dump the handgun in Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, knowing the cop would never report the break-in if he thought I still had the Polaroids from his empty strongbox.
Nine days earlier, while in prison together, Dirty Norman had asked me if I thought that stripper I had ripped off at The Dollhouse would end up writing a short story about me, but I had told him no, I don’t think I even registered with her, I may as well have been a dog, a painting, or a piece of furniture in the background. I would have to write my own short story, if I ever wanted to get my life down on paper. You can’t count on anybody else, in this world.
I was tired of being a fucking scumbag. I reinvented myself as a contemporary art dealer in downtown Toronto, specializing in Native Canadian ‘woodland’ art, opening a gallery on the waterfront; then, on West-West Queen Street West; at Bloor and Spadina; in Forest Hill; moving ever upward in the city, and gradually getting quite comfortable over the years: the long con.
With a heart full of ambition, and a head bursting wild schemes for the future, I would lie, cheat, and steal my way to the top of the Canadian art market, do whatever it took to make cash in downtown Toronto. It wasn’t a scam if you were selling people something they wanted, at a price they believed was a good bargain. You just had to convince folks they were building wealth for their future, by taking their money and putting it into a tangible asset today.
Never mind that it was a tangible asset I could create out of thin air, slapping $10 worth of paint on a $40 canvas, and charging tens of thousands of dollars for an “original” piece of art. And I didn’t even do the painting myself: I had a network of artists I farmed the canvasses out to, honest men who made a very good living, every time I had a big fat fish on the hook.
I added great value to the Canadian contemporary art scene, one commission at a time.
Basically, if you sent your children to a private school as a finishing touch before their guaranteed acceptance to the Ivy League, I sold you a painting in the 1990s. It was my goal in life to fuck over anybody who had enough cash that they could afford to invest in contemporary art on “speculation”. Unlike the artists I hired to actually produce the work – guys like Cha-Cha and Angus Odawwa – the old-money WASPs of Toronto (in-bred dingbats, each and every one, more cash than brains), as well as all those slobs who live in the new-money suburbs of Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton, Richmond Hill, and Markham, wanted that mojo only I could sell them. I may not have been the devil, but I had apprenticed with his nephew, and he taught me his trade, dark magic from before the dawn of civilization, when it was still every man for himself, none of this bowing to the established social order just because government and laws protected men from their natural state, the constant, nasty, brutish struggle to improve their basic lot in life.
After Minnesota, I never saw Curtis Maynard or Dirty Norman again.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still out there, writing their own stories.
The first two printings of Twelve Stories included a story called “Death by Maynard”, my homage to Margaret Atwood’s classic “Death by Landscape”. This has since been replaced by the story “The Golden Hour”. But for anyone curious about whatever happened to Curtis Maynard, twenty-five years after the events of “The Tallest Man in America”, here are the last three pages of “Death by Maynard” from the original release of Twelve Stories, in October 2018.
It was a pleasure to burn books.
Maynard never really understood the opening line of Fahrenheit 451, until he worked in a second-hand bookshop. He was working at what was then the World’s Biggest Bookstore when those stupid Twilight books were popular; now, Curtis Maynard throws away at least one or two full sets of the Twilight books on a daily basis, after tearing them in half, to keep the book scouts from picking them out of his garbage, and dropping them back on the buying desk at XYZ like a fishing net full of Bubba Gump shrimp, the week after Hurricane Carmen.
XYZ Books is a hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookshop, half a block south of Bloor, just off Front Street, in downtown Toronto. Maynard has worked there since getting laid-off from the World’s Biggest Bookstore in 2014, as the World’s Biggest Bookstore closed permanently.
But those goddamn Twilight books! Nothing was more satisfying than ripping a copy of Twilight in half like a phone book, and then tossing the paper in recycling.
When Maynard lost his job at the World’s Biggest Bookstore, he picked fruit, handed out coupons, delivered newspapers, bussed tables at Mr. Greenjeans. No, that’s a lie: Maynard didn’t do any of that: he simply walked across the street and got a job shrink-wrapping the pornography at XYZ Books: XYZ Books, the last independently owned bookshop in Toronto.
When he was a boy, he dreamed of going down to the basement of the public library and finding stacks of adult magazines, endless piles of filth to look at, and enjoy without supervision. Now, as an adult, Maynard spends 40 hours each week up to his elbows in pornography: some nights, lying in the dark, when Maynard closes his eyes, all he sees is mouths with cocks hanging out of them: he never knew so much about gay porn, until XYZ Books.
Despite being a bookseller, he struggles creatively with working in the scum business.
He cuts pictures out of magazines, making art for his work station, singing to entertain himself: If you like penis collages, and getting caught in the rain… while gluing circles of dicks to Bristol board, then hanging his handiwork for display in the basement at XYZ Books.
There’s a sign posted in the washroom at XYZ Books: UNTIL TOILET IS FIXED, USE THE SINK. Nobody remembers who taped the sign to the mirror over the sink, in the washroom.
They call him the Garbage Man, because he takes all the garbage shifts at XYZ Books, work that nobody else wants: holidays, weekends, late nights followed by early mornings.
After less than a month at XYZ, Maynard started wearing a dashiki, growing his hair out, and smoking dope each morning. Maynard rolls his own cigarettes while sitting in the back alley, watching crackheads steal ten-speeds from the bicycle racks outside the YMCA. Sometimes he’ll buy a bicycle off one of the local junkies, go peddling along Bloor Street to Lansdowne, but even a good bike ride across the middle of Toronto doesn’t satisfy him the way it used to.
Here’s a guy who would tell you that, in the days of his youth, he invented grand scams like the travelling eaves trough repairman (may I borrow your ladder, madam?), or the travelling fire extinguisher inspector (going from one restaurant to the next, swapping old fire extinguishers between establishments for $125), but in the twelve months since the World’s Biggest Bookstore closed permanently, now he’s 58 years old, working for minimum wage, living by himself on the outskirts of Toronto. No wife, no children, not even a dog, every day is filled with the dread that he’ll have to pack up his art supplies, abandon his apartment, and move back home to the reserve on the far western edge of Manitoulin Island, if he doesn’t die in a horrible accident first.
Because what is waiting for him on Manitoulin Island, but a town he fled as a teenager? He grew up in a village where you got your hair cut at the local gas station, and bought your food and clothing in the same shop as hardware. And now he’s reduced to cheating the subway system out of a dollar twice a day, just for the thrill of being alive, dropping five nickels and two loonies into the collection box, instead of the required $3.25, when the fare collector isn’t looking.
Stealing quarters is small potatoes, but Manitoulin Island is small-time, small-town.
It’s not scamming a free meal, like arranging ‘stone soup’ at the community food bank, but at least running ‘the nickels’ means Maynard is still in the game, ripping off the system.
Ever since he brought Isabel back to his apartment, Maynard has felt like he’s in a trap, a trap of his making, but a trap nonetheless. He can’t quite put his finger on it, but he has this sense that the world is collapsing around him, and it’s not just your standard midlife crisis: Maynard is a trickster, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain, sometimes both roles in the same story, but he has never seen himself as a victim, because nobody respects a victim. He’s prone to self-sabotage but he doesn’t blame anyone else when one of his schemes goes sideways. The fact of the matter is, Maynard loves causing trouble as much as he enjoys using his wits to avoid the consequences: sometimes he digs a hole just to find out how deep he can go, and still climb back out.
Maynard respects survivors, but not victims. If you tell somebody long enough that they are a victim, they become a victim; and in Maynard’s world, if you act like a victim long enough, you’re never going to be a success: Maynard has no time for the culture of victimhood.
Back at his apartment, first day of May, 2015, it’s unseasonably cold, so Maynard turns on his stove to warm the kitchen. As he waits for the burner to heat up, Maynard goes and takes a shit, dumping a nice crackling log in the water, breaking the skim of ice covering the bowl.
Sure, he’s never been locked in a sauna heated to 232o Celsius, but he’s escaped worse traps: there was the time he woke up barricaded in a room with eight cats: Maynard was deathly allergic to cat hair, and his girlfriend had been trying to murder him. Then there was the time he shared a prison cell with the Ku Klux Klan. He escaped Manitoulin Island by moving to Thunder Bay; he escaped Thunder Bay by going to prison; he escaped prison by getting a work placement at the World’s Biggest Bookstore: so, how can he escape the basement at XYZ Books? Maynard is running out of options: his unemployment benefits will be cut off in less than two weeks.
It was just after his stove exploded that Maynard figured out where Isabel had hidden his cans of spray paint: as the apartment went up in flames, Maynard realized he’d fucked himself for the last time, taking on Dizzy Wadow as a lover, against his better judgment. Death by Maynard: his last great trick; his best trick, saved for his grand finale.