Authors: Richard Cumyn
Tags: #Fiction; novellas
Famous Last Meals
Copyright Â©2015 Richard Cumyn
Enfield & Wizenty
(an imprint of Great Plains Publications)
233 Garfield Street
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Great Plains Publications gratefully acknowledges the financial support provided
for its publishing program by the Government of Canada through the Canada
Book Fund; the Canada Council for the Arts; the Province of Manitoba through
the Book Publishing Tax Credit and the Book Publisher Marketing Assistance Program; and the Manitoba Arts Council.
Pages 215 to 223 of “Famous Last Meals” first appeared as “Perennial”
I Am Not Most Places
, copyright Richard Cumyn 1996. Published with
permission of Dundurn Press Limited
Design & Typography by Relish New Brand Experience
Printed in Canada by Friesens
Ebook conversion by Human Powered Design
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Cumyn, Richard, 1957-, author
Famous last meals / Richard Cumyn.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
PS8555.U4894F34 2015 C813
“He had always been an actor, the call had never come.”
“She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into
her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.”
“In a mad world it always seems simpler to obey.”
Our Man in Havana
he could think of only one
or hobby that might be applicable to the job as he imagined it. Thinking, rightly, that it sounded thin, he added, “I write pretty well.”
“Excellent. We need people who can write.” Nothing marred the blank steel purity of the woman's desk. “What kind of puzzles, then?”
“Is that a question?”
“Until I solve them, yes.”
“Try this: characteristic on the alternative tergiversator. Seven letters.”
He shook his head.
“Starts with T.”
“That's fine. Aside from English, what languages do you speak, read and write?”
“French.” He could fill the car with gasoline, order bacon and eggs in a restaurant and give passable directions to his house from most points in the city.
“We're looking for people who can speak Russian. Also Arabic and Urdu.”
“I could take lessons.”
“Couldn't we all.”
After the interview she escorted him to a room where a man took ink impressions of his fingerprints. Then the man took a photograph of his face and led him back downstairs to the front desk.
He had parked in a spot reserved for visitors, not far from the building's gatehouse, a squat concrete building that looked like a World War
pillbox. A high steel fence topped with razor wire enclosed the complex. When he got to the car the doors would not open. He pressed his forehead against the damp glass of the driver's window. The keys were hanging from the ignition. To compound his defeat, he had left his overcoat in the interviewer's office.
He smelled exhaust. At the end of the row, in a numbered parking spot reserved for employees, a car was idling its engine. A green plastic garden hose ran from a point behind and under the car, along the driver's side and in through a gap between the top of the window and the doorframe. The interior of the car was opaque with smoke. A darker mass seemed to fill the driver's seat. He stepped towards the car, stopped, turned and went back to the guardhouse, where only minutes earlier he had returned his temporary identification necklace.
“Yes sir, back again,” said the uniformed man on duty.
“Yes. It'sâokay, three things, actually.”
“Right. In no particular order: one, I think somebody's trying to commit suicide in the parking lot; B, I've locked myself out of my car; and lastly, I left my overcoat in the building. Come to think of it, that's descending order of importance, isn't it?”
“What building would that be?” The guard looked both blankly menacing and cheerfully clueless.
“Is there more than one? Where I had my interview.”
“Give me that name again.”
Reading upside down, he put his index finger on the line, the most recent filled, in the ledger where he had signed and printed his name. “You should really take a look at that car. It's full of exhaust.”
“Adam Leaner. And your reason for returning would be...?”
“My overcoat. And it's Lerner.”
“As in lifelong.”
“I can go back in?”
“Not without authorization.”
“That's a Need-to-Know. Who did you say was in your car?”
“Nobody. I'm locked out of it.”
“No person or persons is trying to kill him or her self in your car.”
“Correct. That's a different car.”
“Myself, I always duck-tape a spare key to the inside of my wheel well.”
He wondered how the man had ever got hired and how he got his hair to stand straight up like that. He wanted to place a book atop the level plain of the guard's perfect brush cut.
“Is it possible for you to phone the woman who interviewed me? I forget her name.”
“They say the devil's in the details.”
“I really need my coat.”
After the guard made a phone call he told Adam, as he had earlier that morning, to return to the fortress by its main entrance (he could see no other door) and report to the desk.
He did and waited for ten minutes. When his interviewer appeared she came down the central stairway, his trench coat draped over her arm. He couldn't tell if she was amused or annoyed.
“I guess this blows my chances,” he said, expecting her to contradict him. He said thank you, which she echoed, and they said a simultaneous goodbye, their voices creating a brief choral harmony.
When he returned to the guardhouse and began to ask about his car, the uniform waved him through. The doors were now unlocked, the keys still in the ignition, but the suicide car was gone. Had he imagined seeing a body inside the vehicle? Had it all been a dream?
He phoned his interviewer, whose name was Hannah Pachter, once a week for the next five. All she could say was that he was on a short list of eight.
“It was the coat, wasn't it?” he said, the last time he phoned to inquire about the job. Communications Security Officer. He could do that. He could be a Silent Sam. “It was because I forgot it in your office.”
“Yes,” said Hannah Pachter in a voice that could have been serious or wearily playful, he couldn't tell which.
“I thought so.”
“We'll let you know as soon as we've made a decision, Adam. In the meantime, keep your options open.”
“I figured out that word, by the way.”
“The word you were looking for the day of the interview. It's “traitor.” It took me a while, but I got it.”
“Really. You're probably right. I'm sorry, I don't remember.”
The Prime Minister's principal secretary was leaving his post, and Adam's father knew a man who had been the incoming
's roommate at university. A call was made, as calls are made on behalf of recent graduates who have few skills other than the ability to feed themselves without developing scurvy, clean their clothes, and write sensibly on the theme of fidelity in
. A dozen or so of the children of the Party faithful had been hired to fill summer research positions in the
and in some federal ministers' offices, and such a position was created for Adam.
When he reminded his father that he was on a short list for the communications security job, Lerner said that a man could not sit around on his duff waiting indefinitely. Things were happening. Adam wanted to wait, he wanted the spy job, but sensed that his chances were not good. He considered challenging his father's definition of acceptable string pulling, but let that pass, too. Paid or not, secret operative or not, the beneficiary of nepotism or not, he was going to be occupied for the summer. And, as his father was wont to point out, repeatedly until it numbed, it would be “quite the choice plum for the old
Adam found the address on Sparks and walked past the entrance at street level twice before deciding to go in, the first time because he was looking for something grander and the second because he saw no identifying sign or plaque either outside or on the wall inside as he peered through the glass door. He looked at the street number stencilled on the transom window again, checked it against the one he had written on the back of a used envelope, and saw that they were the same. The nondescript unidentified building stood between a formidable stone bank headquarters on one side and a newer glass-and-steel office tower on the other. Its entrance had room for one person at a time to step in before having to turn immediately right.
Entering, he was startled to see an aged commissionaire seated at a little desk just out of sight of the street. Reminded of the brush-cut guard at the Bureau of Secure Communication, he thought that in contrast it wouldn't take much to get past this little fellow. More puzzling about this obscure back way into the office of the country's most important elected official was the apparent absence of a door or hallway nearby, for he could not yet see what was around the corner to his left and kitty-corner to the guard: a small elevator and, near it, a fire door leading to a stairwell.
He showed the old man his driver's license and social insurance card and told him that he was meeting a Ms. Castelli, the summer-student co-ordinator. The commissionaire spoke Adam's name, seemed to listen a few seconds, and told him to get off on the fourth floor.
The elevator opened onto a room filled with wooden desks, steel filing cabinets piled with bulging manila folders, wooden swivel chairs with armrests, and three sturdy coat stands. A woman who looked not much older than those she was addressing stepped forward to welcome him. The meeting had just begun. She wheeled a desk chair over for him to sit on. He nodded to those who met his eye, and listened as Ms. Castelli introduced him.
“Adam comes to us with a background in journalism.” He had in fact a second-class-honours degree in English and geology and had published one article, about the men's varsity lacrosse team, in the university newspaper. “He's going to be our expert on water.” The congregation made appreciative noises that were echoed when she repeated the statement in French.
When the meeting ended she led him to the desk he would be using, one of two in a small office with windows overlooking the Sparks Street pedestrian mall. He shook hands with his office-mate, EugÃ¨ne Racicot, who sported an air and a mode of dress decades older than his age. A fan of Frank Sinatra, he told Adam that his favourite song was “New York, New York,” adding an extra syllable to “York” and making it seem as if he were evoking a replacement for Hamlet's poor, dead, ultra-spare jester.
“I am working since three summers for Robert LavallÃ©e in his office while I am the student. Do you know about Monsieur LavallÃ©e?”
Adam knew that the man was a Party warhorse, first elected twenty years earlier, and that he was a cabinet minister in the present administration, but could not say which portfolio LavallÃ©e carried.
EugÃ¨ne made it clear that Adam should bother him as little as possible, that he was in the capital of English Canada to learn as much as he could about the way the Anglo mind worked, so that he might return, after graduating with a degree in politics from
l'UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al
to work full-time on the Hill and bring a new ethic of Quebecois verve and savvy bilingualism to the moribund federal government. Robert LavallÃ©e was one day going to be
. Did Adam not realize that?
“Better you arrange your canards in a row according to the Ps and the Qs,” he said, index finger extended and pointing skyward for emphasis, “if you wish to stay yourself dry, that is.
Adam did not, but nodded his head all the same. After all, he thought, it was his first day on the job. For all he knew, this was a highly specialized from of political jargon. He made a note to learn more about Robert LavallÃ©e.
His first project was to gather information about water in and around the town of Feeney, Manitoba. Monica gave him a list of names and phone numbers to call. She warned him not to discuss his work with anyone outside the office and to keep his files locked in his desk. She did not tell him the reason why he was compiling an encyclopaedic array of facts about water, its sources, uses, purity, erosion caused by, rainfall amounts, groundwater flow, sewage, drainage and flooding. The scientists he talked to were usually happy to share what they knew about their subject. Sometimes they answered his questions with a tone of caution. What did the
want with their obscure studies of wetland depletion in the Red River watershed? Did this have anything to do with the time they had worked as a guide for that group of California businessmen who said they were up north on a fishing expedition, chartered plane and all, but who never changed out of their suits and ties? No, said Adam, it didn't.
He took the job seriously. Once he had mastered the art of sounding at once official, non-threatening and interested, he began to relax. Every day or so a package came by courier and he added its contentsâreports, maps, charts, schemataâto
And every day he walked to and from work along the same route, quietly exulting in his newfound sense of importance. At university he had bought a green blazer to wear on special occasions, and, with a white shirt, pale yellow tie and grey flannel trousers, it became his uniform while he worked at the
. The sleeves were a little short and it pooched across the shoulder blades, making it look as if he had won the Masters golf championship some years before and was loath to doff the symbolic jacket. It being the height of the tourist season in the capital, people took him to be a guide and began stopping him on the street to ask directions to the Library of Parliament and the Supreme Court and the spot where you caught the double-decker sightseeing bus.
One day, after Adam had returned from the Langevin Building, a young woman came in and sat on the edge of his desk. She kept one foot on the floor and darted her eyes between him and the pen she rolled back and forth across his blotter. She looked as if she could laugh at any minute. Her dark curly hair was a snaky halo. When she smiled, her eyes almost disappeared. He decided that it was the smile of someone just this side of mad. She was dressed in whimsical layers: a long full peasant skirt, sandals, a man's loose white dress shirt unbuttoned over a tight black T, an oatmeal-coloured granny shawl draped at an angle off one shoulder, and a fine blue floral scarf tied loosely at the neck like a western bandit's ready disguise. When she smiled her lips spread, melting into her face, and he wanted either to run his tongue lightly around their periphery or look away.
“Sorry to hear that.” He wished EugÃ¨ne, who was talking loudly on the phone, would leave. Still seated, Adam leaned across to shake her hand.