1st chapter of one of my 3 day novel contest entries

What we have here is the first bit of one of my four attempts at doing the 3 day novel contest, over the last 30 years or so, I've entered 4 times, "finished" and sent in a manuscript the second two times.

I've re-written bits over the years but mostly it's a hopeless derivative mess. there are bits like this opening that i really like. i hope a few others do too, as the odds of me ever finishing this or any of my "novels" is pretty slim, I think.


The Sleepyhead Gang

A Novel written in 3 days
Joe Boyce Burgess

* Author’s note: the cities and towns and even some of the characters in this are based on real historical people and\or places. However, I have not attempted to recreate anything in any sort of historically accurate manner. It is all a fevered fancy.

1. The Bay Street Liars Club

Myra, that kid, she had attitude and style, a mouth like Barbara Stanwyck and the almost Chinese eyes of Myrna Loy. Myra was cinematic. A pistol, as they used to say.

She and I were friends, right off. We first met in the walk-in humidor of the Bay Street Barristers Club. Neither of us had any sort of permission or good reason to be there picking out fine hand rolled Cuban cigars at 3am in the morning aside from our shared insomnia and penchant for breaking and entering into the nicest buildings we could find while wandering about the aimless streets of nighttime Toronto. At night the city lacked its daytime regimentation. No noisy traffic or endless queues, just the sleepless and shifty eyed night dwellers, selling themselves, looking for trouble, looking for boozecans, or simply sipping coffee in all night diners.  The depression wasn’t quite over and the second war had yet to start, remember? Nobody I knew had any money. I had a little cash stashed away from the good old Weimar days, but back to Toronto.

 So, right, we met in a humidor. Aside from the fact that the club had been closed for three hours; neither of us were lawyers and would’ve been shown the sunshine any other time of day. Myra of course, being a woman was kept out of this old boys club on principle. This was her main reason for being there. For me it was the chairs. I knew they had to have some great big overstuffed armchairs that I could plunk myself into and perhaps get some real sleep for a few hours. I thought it might be nice to have myself a stogie first though, so I searched for the humidor. There was Myra, sniffing a cigar, and taking a bite out of a roast beef sandwich, dripping mustard onto the floor. Her Carole Lombard hair falling onto her shoulders, she squinted at me. 
“You’re no Lawyer” she said.
“Neither are you, and you’ve got mustard on your stockings” I replied.
“Cheeky, looking at my gams right off, huh, oh you’re right though, damn I just got the hose, thanks eh” She daubed at the mustard with a finger, scooping it up and licking it off.
“So…," I stammered. “ What brings you to the Barrister’s Association?”
“Same as you I suppose: cigars, a little light legal research, oh and of course roast beef sandwiches. You should make yourself one eh, the kitchens is back there.” she gestured while taking another bite and coming out of the humidor.
“Oh, I’m Myra, by the way”
I shook her hand, her grip tighter than mine, she cocked an eyebrow and I squeezed tighter, ’til she smiled.
“By the way, there’s a last name you don’t hear often,” I joked, “I’m Wilmer, Wilmer Cooke, how do you do?”
“Can’t sleep a wink, otherwise I’m swell.” Myra finished her sandwich and pulled me into the humidor by my dangling empty right coat sleeve.
“Wilmer, you only have one arm, but I guess you knew that” she said offering me a stogie to sniff.
“Lost it in the war, never found it, searched Germany high and low, not a sign of the thing.” I said, as I always did when someone took notice of my asymmetrical limb composition.
Myra didn’t laugh, she cut the end of our cigars and lit them both hers and mine in her mouth, first mine and then her own. The pasty taste of her lipstick mingled strangely with the first few puffs I took as we wandered back into the main sitting room, in search of brandy and leather chairs. Myra plopped herself into a weathered old chair with a sigh and a barrage of smoke rings. I checked out the bar. The cabinet had a lock on it. I frowned, searching my pockets with my one hand. 
“You wouldn’t have a hairpin would you?” I asked Myra. 
She took a set of keys from her purse. “Try the one with the x scratched onto the head of it” she ordered, tossing the keys. 
They bounced off my chest as I tried to catch them with the back of my hand. It had been more than a fifteen years since I lost the arm, “Sorry, I’m still right-handed” I said bending down and grabbing the keys. I opened the cabinet with the key marked x and grabbed a bottle of French brandy.
“A snifter for the lady” I proffered and she accepted, immediately swirling the brown shiny liquid around a few times before taking a sip. I sat in an armchair to her left and echoed her drinking with my own. We drank, and smoked in silence for a few minutes, ignoring each other, being absorbed in the lovely decadence of drink and smoke that neither of us had earned.
“So where did you get the keys?” I asked, chugging smoke rings of my own.
“Oh they were on the bar when I first started coming here last month, so I had copies made and put the originals back.” She said matter of factly.
“Hmmm” I mused. “So Myra, what do you do when your not at the gentlemen’s club?”

“Work, you mean? Well, I temp at the library, I’ve taught school, but I hated it. I am a bit of an insomniac you see. I only seem to be able to sleep in the daytime, preferably in the bright sunshine, like a cat. What’s your story Wilmer? Are you a night owl, a sex maniac, a one armed bandit?” She smiled a cheshire grin, sinking deeper into her chair.
“Well, I’m on the disability from the war, which frankly doesn’t really pay very much, though the hours are good. I am an insomniac as well; I have a hard time sleeping at the best of times. Lifelong for me, as long as I can remember, I don’t think I’ve got more than 4 hours sleep at any one time. Sometimes I’m up for days…. Would you care for another drink, Myra?”
“Fill ‘er up old bean,” she said in a funny gruff supposedly old man voice.

We drank, and smoked for another hour or two, talking of the depression, and hockey, Myra being a big fan of the Maple Leafs. Me, I have always been indifferent to sports. I enjoy watching a hockey game, or a ballgame, but as I told Myra I just don’t really care in the end who wins. I have no allegiances. The twilight started to peek through the drapery, and Myra informed me that the cleaners would be coming soon, so we ought to skedaddle. Leaving our small mess for the cleaning ladies, we went out through a back door I hadn’t noticed when I climbed in the bathroom window earlier on. Myra asked me to walk her to the train station, and gave me her telephone number at the library where she would be working, stacking books from closing time at 5pm til 9pm. Her trolley came and as she got on she arched back: “It’s not a date, you understand? Friends?”
“Oh sure, Myra... Friends.” I said earnestly, as I tripped on the curb, almost falling, but not and crossing into the not yet busy Yonge St. in search of some bacon and eggs. 
I really hadn’t thought of Myra as a romantic possibility yet anyhow, there was something platonic about how we related. I had always trusted my gut when it came to women. Why make an exception this time?

After some greasy eggs and fatty bacon, I wandered back to my hotel, hoping to catch some shuteye time. I checked in. The concierge had long since given up asking me where I was all night. He just smiled a meek smile every morning that said ‘I know you’re a thief, or a pimp, so watch your step’. I could’ve been paranoid, but that’s what I read. Hoofing it up three flights of stairs, I fumbled my key into the lock, and turned on the lonely overhead bulb. It buzzed with excitement and being allowed to glow. I drew the curtains open, letting in the gray pall your typical Toronto morning.  I took off my jacket and my shirt. The stump of my right arm tingled in ways I have been assured it cannot. I bobbed it up and down at the window in a grotesque royal wave. I sat myself down in the old armchair opposite the bed, and nodded off for 4 straight hours. ‘Damn right’, I thought on waking, not knowing to what I was agreeing to.

As always I spent most of the day and most of my money at the track. Again I wasn’t really that interested in the sport of it; I just really loved watching the horses run. It was nice though’ to occasionally come out a few dollars ahead for a day. That day though I was down a good twenty bucks. Every horse I picked seemed to want to throw off their riders. As I recall one actually managed it, “Ballard’s Buoy” was the horse’s name, came in dead last with the jockey a good three lengths behind him.

It was raining after the afternoon races, so I popped into my favourite movie house and sat in the balcony watching a Laurel and Hardy picture, something about Africa. I seemed to be the only person in the theatre who didn’t find the pair completely hysterical. I was interested in the newsreels that would be showing before the next feature. I wanted to see what was going on in Europe since I left a few months earlier. A war was coming, everyone I’d known was bracing for it in Germany, and France. Almost overnight, a few years previous, my Berlin had gone from being beautifully mad to being paranoid and crazy, like an addict gone round the edge. So I came home. Toronto. Not my home anymore. For months I’d felt like I was waiting for something or someone.

The newsreels came on with a flourish of horns, waking me, I’d actually been dozing a little bit during the last pygmy sequence in the Laurel and hardy flick. The first bit was about the upcoming American election. Roosevelt seemed to be turning things around there with his public works programs. That was segued nicely into a story of the hugely successful turnaround that Hitler had brought to Germany. There was a brief mention and images of Nazi youth burning books, and so-called degenerate art. It chilled me to the bone. I really felt relieved that I left Berlin when I did, I wondered almost aloud if there were any of Caspar’s photos of me, his one armed Adonis, burning in the blaze on flickering on the screen.

The second feature was a dreary romance from MGM, beautifully shot, but vapid and silly. I left after 10 minutes and drifted down Queen St. in the early evening drizzle. Hand in my pocket, empty coat sleeve pinned up as was the style for the de-limbed at the time; I sat down at a bus stop and picked up a paper someone had left. I caught up on the hockey scores in case Myra wanted to talk about the game. The Leafs had lost last night 2 goals to nothing to their arch enemies, the Montreal Canadiens. The eternal struggle of French versus English, Montreal versus Toronto. Ah Canada. I sat peering over the sports section watching people file past me, getting on busses and trolleys, heading to their own neighbourhoods, merging back into their families, into their own ethnicity. Eventually, I got up and went across the street to the railcar diner. An old dining car from a CN train hauled off the track and converted into a greasy spoon. I ordered some beer, Shepard’s pie, a roll, a slice of apple pie ala mode and two Export A cigarettes for dessert.

At 8:30pm I used my last nickel on the payphone to call Myra, she answered the phone knowing it was me.
“Hello Wilmer, how’s your day?” she said huskily
“Fine so far, saw some terrible movies, lost my usual at the track. Are you up for some fun?” I asked
“Why yes I am Wilmer. I even have a few ideas, why don’t you come on by the library and I’ll fill you in. Toodles” She hung up before I could respond.
So I tramped my way over to the library a few blocks away. Myra was sitting on the rail outside having a smoke.
“They won’t let us smoke inside anymore, even after hours, and well it’s my only job, so I’m toeing the line.” Myra rasped between drags.
She butted out the cig under her very new looking black heel. She noticed me noticing. “You like, I just bought them this afternoon, not work shoes really, but I couldn’t resist. I have a thing about shoes.”
“They’re very stylish” I complimented, holding the door open for her.
“Fresh.” She joked, brushing past me into the library.
“I just have one more cart to finish, ten minutes and we are on our way, my lovely one armed friend.” She rolled her cart into some part of the Dewey decimal system or another.

I sat, coat on, waiting. I had never been in this branch of the library. It was an interesting building. It seemed to have been converted from some sort of meeting hall, stairs and a loft for periodicals went round three sides opposite the entrance with everything else organized in the centre of the big open room, with administration, checkout and so on along the walls under the loft. I spotted a Masonic sign next to the door. And an eye-capstoned pyramid much like the etching on American currency in the stained glass above the front door.
“I had no idea you were a Mason, Myra” I shouted over to her, but more as a joke to myself than anything.
“Pardon?” she replied, “A Mason, me? It’s funny though my last name is Dixon, you know like The Mason-Dixon Line in the states”. She laughed to herself - “That’s a good one.

She emerged from the stacks, cart empty. “Hand me my coat would you, Wilmer” she said pointing to an iron coat rack near the checkout desk. It was unexpectedly heavy, and I dropped it, two books of poetry, a metal liquor flask and a small revolver all spilled from one pocket.
“You should put these things in your purse Myra, especially the gat.” I informed.
She nodded, “Gat? Who are you: George Raft? That’s a good idea though, I found the gun in the shelves earlier on. The books are on loan”
“Are you sure you want to take the gun, it might’ve been hidden there for a good reason; used in a holdup, or a murder.” I said, flatly.
“I thought of that. I don’t think it will be a big deal, considering where we are going” She informed.
“I thought maybe we were going for some brandy again, or something like that.” I replied, wide eyed, as she took a swig from her flask.

Myra handed me the flask, I took a casual nip, and promptly spit it back out all over the checkout desk.
“Christ Myra, what is that, bathtub gin? It’s horrible.” I wiped the counter with the hem of my coat.
“Moonshine. A friend of mine has a still at his cabin up north. He gave me some. You get used to the taste after awhile. Anyhow, let’s get out of here, this is my last shift and I’ve already said goodbye to the books.”
“Really, you quit, did you get another job?” I asked.
“No, not at all, I am, that is we are moving west, my friend that is unless you have something keeping you here in Hogtown?” Myra informed.
Astonished. “We just met, Myra. Where are we going? Hell, how are we getting anywhere, I was going to borrow money from you for the trolley. I don’t get a cheque for two more days, Myra.”
“Well, I guess we can wait. I just want someone, a man, to help me get to the west coast, I want to go to the ocean, Wilmer. I’ve already stolen a car Wilmer, we can go right now.”
“You stole a car, Jesus, you’re nuts, Myra.”
“It’s ok Wilmer, it’s my father’s car. He doesn’t know I have it but he’ll figure it out. He always does.”

I headed for the door. Myra followed me. I walked quickly down the street, Myra clacking after me in her new shoes, for two blocks.
“Wilmer”, she hollered after me, “Wilmer please stop, wait up” I stopped and turned towards her.
“The car is right there in the alley, hop in my friend, I’ll drive you wherever you want to go, and I’ll be on my way out west. I’m sorry Wilmer, I thought you would want to do it. You seemed the adventurous type last night.” She was being nice and teasing at the same time. I hate that.
“Give me the keys.” I said with no small bit of gravity in my voice.
She handed me the keys and went around to the passenger side of a new black Chevy coupe. I stood at the driver’s door a moment wondering what the hell I was doing. She looked up at me like a puppy, pleading. She patted the driver’s seat motioning me to get in. I did. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and ever so lightly our lips brushed together. Then she sat up straight, hands folded like a schoolgirl, looking straight ahead, with a big shit eating grin on her face. I reached across with my left hand and put the key in the ignition. Starting up the coupe, the motor roared as I slipped into gear and pulled out onto the street, heading north.

We had gone about ten blocks when Myra noticed that I had my left hand on the stick switching gears.
“Wilmer you aren’t steering.” She questioned. It was the first time I ever heard any real fear in her voice.
“It’s all in the knees, dollface, all in the knees.” I reassured her, pointing down to my knees, with my chin, as I kept the car steady, holding the wheel between 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock with my bony knees. When I had to turn I deftly brought my left hand back up and turned the wheel accordingly, never once missing a gear change.

Myra was drifting in and out of sleep as we headed up the highway out of the city, through Barry and up into that lone stretch of road to Northern Ontario surrounded by trees endlessly deep, and frightening.


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