Gnomes with Knives

Summer, 2017 / No. 39
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Dear Mayor,

Recently I had cause to remember a short essay I published that garnered no small amount of praise, about how in the city of Vancouver there used to be more slugs. On my solitary walks through the lumpy Tea Swamp of Mount Pleasant as a teen in the nineteen-eighties, taking Polaroid pictures of the tilting homes and lopsided streets built up over the ancient beaver bog, I would count upward of a hundred slugs an hour, and kept a journal with daily tally. A Simon Fraser University research report estimates more than a million slugs and snails thrived in Stanley Park until the great decline of the nineteen-nineties. In heavy rains you’d see them stretched out on wet sidewalks like blissed-out hippies. The last of the turn-on tune-in drop-outs. Sticky, tongue-shaped banana slugs the colour of olive-stained dirty pennies, going so slowly somewhere, wriggling limbless on their bellies. You’d have to step over them. If you stepped on one they’d split open under your shoe, green and grey meat and the electric tingle of life’s impulse ebbing. They lived among us. The slugs of Vancouver ate the crumbs off our city floor, ate all kinds of dead matter. I try not to think about their diet. They ate decay! And I can’t get over how we took them for granted. The slug’s existence is so simple, base, and essential, yet never celebrated. The slugs were here before any of us, before the saurischian dinosaurs, before Gondwana, yet we find them ick. When they were in our gardens and on our sidewalks, I admired them more than most but still not enough. I never should have ignored the absence of slugs I noticed early on in my daily tallies and said nothing about. Now it’s too late. How foolish of me, of all of us, not to get to know them better. Why did our city’s slugs die off? If there is any connection to be drawn between their disappearance and some unknown agent, I would recommend our leading local conchologists investigate.

Isaac Mirror

Dear Mayor,

Today I write to you not about slugs but with regards to my friend Kieron Hermies. You must remember Kieron because you called the police to his residence at Bad Manors and had him blocked on Twitter after he threatened you in a series of late-night tweets. Of course whatever Kieron tweeted was all provocation and lie, but who could blame your reaction? And maybe what I write to say is, maybe, who, too, would prosecute Kieron Hermies? For many years I lived in the peaked-roof attic next door to Kieron, in a matching hundred-year-old Victorian-style pioneer home facing the baseball diamond in MacLean Park. Our landlord was someone I never met, named Chris Ortiz.

In 2006, Kieron’s parents died very suddenly in a multi-car accident near Anarchist Mountain, on the Crowsnest Highway, and it prompted him to quit his job after two and a half seasons of what I thought was terrific work assistant-editing the relaunched Battlestar Galactica and go on a self-directed sabbatical with the money he’d saved. For the most part this involved lying in his bed reading translations of decadent French fin de siècle books by Huysmans, Wilde, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and those they inspired: Lovecraft, Crowley, Céline, and Lawrence, for a start. Kieron was already a kind of Huysmans’ protagonist. Like Durtal in Là-Bas, he was one whose “sad experience led him to believe that every literary man belonged to one of two classes, the thoroughly commercial or the utterly impossible.” Battlestar Galactica was thoroughly commercial. Kieron, Mayor, was utterly impossible. And Strathcona was a neighbourhood for the utterly impossible.

I’m inclined to say Strathcona is not like other neighbourhoods, and much more of a small town hemmed in by city. Getting in and out of Strathcona can be something of a trek. Strathcona must be self-sufficient because of the odd isolation forced on it by commuter roads and Hastings Street. When I first moved there it was still ignored and forgotten in a city that, for the most part, was still ignored and forgotten by Canada. Right in the middle of Vancouver: moss-covered crack houses, ivy-choked whorehouses, smack houses, squatter houses, gang houses, grow ops, an occasional nuclear family home, mafia houses next to mafia houses with supposedly secretly connecting basements, student rental houses falling apart, art houses, abandoned houses, social housing, immigrants with no English, punks with no family, single mothers of vulnerable teens, the slumming sons and daughters of the wealthy, the dark-wood booths and long countertop at the seventy-year-old Ovaltine Cafe, the blanket sales on the sidewalk of stolen DVDs, cellphones, and a hair curler, the Emily Carr graduate’s booming ceramic studio on the corner lot across from the projects, a money laundering Laundromat next to an anarchist bookstore, hotel pubs with pints for a dollar, after-hours basement clubs, chain-link fences, barbed wire, burglar bars over windows, rats, fleas, bedbugs, hundred-year-old brick public schools, pedestrian bridges over train tracks, underpasses sprayed with tags, impenetrable walls of blackberry bushes, a warren of rabbits. The sound of a skateboard on pavement cut through the night, the endless howl of sirens, how crackheads picked for hours at imperfections on the sidewalk as if a tiny little hit was lost there. Johns cruised Stamps Place and MacLean Park social housing twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Public health services operated on every block of Hastings Street. Hastings Street, where the few exploit the many so flagrantly. Hastings Street, a fearsome open market for drugs, sex, and stolen goods. Slumlords like Chris Ortiz owned half the properties; the single-room occupancy apartments with two toilets to share among ten alcoholics on every floor; corner stores with expired cereal. At dusk, the bats fly like “bits of umbrella” as they feed on insects—but also like a small town in the heart of the city, everyone knows everyone. You know neighbours by name, you socialize in the same places on the weekend. Stories of notorious house parties, gang fights, dramatic fires, and other events get retold hundreds of times from all different witnesses. Every home had a story, and as I walked past these stories, dodging slugs on the wet sidewalk, I thought, “This is some kind of paradise.” One block east from where I lived, on East Georgia Street, was the art house called the Fishbowl. It used to be a corner store so the big windows looked directly into a front living room the long-term tenants converted into a party area (now demolished and converted to condos). And one block west was the adjoining single-room occupancy apartments known as Bad Manors and Good Manors, home to so many of the city’s artists, dancers, musicians, writers, junkies, and working poor over the decades (also demolished: condos). You could rent a room with a shared bathroom in Good or Bad Manors for two hundred and ten dollars a month. As mayor, I imagine you might have heard of our homes as well, the Bitter Suites. The big difference there was we paid two hundred and fifteen dollars more every month for our own bathrooms.

Kieron’s neighbours downstairs on the main floor were the heavy metal band Gnomes with Knives, who used to sell out Pat’s Pub, then the Starfish Room, then the Commodore, then broke up after their sophomore album, Psychopsalm for Pneumonia. Vocalist Jake Rowe overdosed at least a couple of times while I lived next door. Medics wanted his autograph. Once, it was Kieron who heard Rowe’s seizure slaps on the kitchen floor, so he ran downstairs, kept the singer of such college radio hits as “218 Flavours,” “Cannie Annie,” and “Brave Bull” from choking on his tongue while they waited an hour for an ambulance.

“If I die, keep my skull,” Rowe said, and made Kieron promise. He didn’t die. According to Kieron it was Gnomes with Knives who named our homes the Bitter Suites, but years later I met the drummer, Ed Hopeless, at a Halloween party at the Rickshaw Theatre and he said no, the place was already called the Bitter Suites back when he was going there after high school to score heroin from a tattoo artist named Paula with attachments to the Hells Angels, so who knows. Gnomes with Knives were loud neighbours. Four hyperviolent Lord of the Flies types under no supervision, with giant stereo and liquor cabinet: “the world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.” They didn’t even rehearse there. Just a loud lifestyle. Confrontational extroverts, bullies with lots of friends, devout libertarians with a war fetish and lethal addictions, and obviously violently bestial rockers. They would fist fight each other, orgy with fans, damage their own property and Chris Ortiz’s house, then go down to the Union Market all bloodied to get coffee, sausage rolls, and chocolate cake for lunch. One fateful night in 2006, the picture window in the front room of their house shattered and fell to the ground amid loud screams and the sound of a leaf blower. I woke up, opened my window, poked my head out into the starry sky, and saw Kieron doing the same. We watched as Hopeless, the drummer, ran into the park, naked and smeared with blood, howling at the top of his lungs. Atra, the bassist, followed after him in a tour T-shirt and nothing else, a bottle of gin in one hand and a cavalry saber in the other, also howling, but hers was a beautiful howling, truly operatic.

“I’ll call the police,” I said.

“Why do that?” Kieron said. “Noise lived here first. It’s not metal to call the cops. And this is the city’s best metal band. No, best band period, since Skinny Puppy.” So we let Atra chase her drummer around MacLean Park for a few more hours that night in an attempt to “cut him to pieces” (her words). How could I move to Bitter Suites and not expect noise? Mount Pleasant might be quieter, but that’s why Gnomes with Knives moved to Strathcona, to be the loudest people in the city. Did I move here to complain? No one else complained. The cops never came. So I fell back asleep. As you may have already guessed, Mayor, the next day Gnomes with Knives disbanded. Probably for the best. Atra, the bassist, went on to study opera at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and is now a principal singer at the Met, in New York, perhaps the rare exception that proves Huysmans’ rule that “money attracted money, accumulating always in the same places, going by preference to the scoundrelly and the mediocre.”

The band left behind one chipped plaster gnome with a knife on the front lawn of the Bitter Suites, a stage show relic that gathered moss over the next couple of months. That gnome was a reminder of how quiet life became at the Bitter Suites without the band members.

On the first of October, a couple of newlyweds in their twenties moved in to the vacated space. They were well dressed, with undergraduate degrees, a lot of framed posters, dimples in their cheeks, and a flat-screen TV. From my open window next door came the smell of vinegar and bleach as they sanitized all weekend. They paid no attention to the overgrown lawn or its plaster garden gnome with the conspicuous knife. The interior was enough work to cleanse. The husband—I honestly don’t remember either of their names—introduced himself to Kieron and said, “Would you like to come down for our housewarming party? A couple college buddies, old friends of mine, I think a local artist I know is coming, too, and my Photoshop mentor. I’m cooking a traditional roast I sourced from a cattle farm in the Cowichan Valley. Great with white or red.” Kieron told him he’d been a vegetarian and sober his whole life, but could bring down a soy burger to fry and some tea. “No, thanks, that’s O.K.,” said the husband. “Maybe we’ll have you over another time then.” So instead Kieron was left to listen to the party and smell the roast. The husband taught Photoshop four days a week at a private post-secondary arts institute downtown, next to Victory Square, and the wife worked full-time at a branch of the provincial department of health and safety.

Now that they were his neighbours, whenever Kieron put on his stereo after dark, either the wife or the husband would climb the stairs, knock on his attic door, and ask him to turn it down. One night while we sat at his kitchen table and talked about Huysmans’ peculiar genius, lasting influence, and call to recognize in art “only such works as had been sifted and distilled by subtle and tormented minds,” we heard the husband knock at Kieron’s door. In a stolen Hilton hotel terry-towel bathrobe, he asked us to be a little quieter: “Guys, it’s past midnight and my wife gets up in five hours,” he whispered.

Kieron didn’t complain about the smell of the husband’s cooking trapped in his attic— the amateur chef tried Welsh lamb sausage, Scottish beef pie, Tibetan lamb curry, Indonesian grilled pork and fried duck, Russian smoked fish, Hungarian beef goulash—food smells Kieron stank of so bad it wouldn’t shower off his skin. Sometimes I could smell yesterday’s pungent meals wafting off his clothes just sitting next to him in MacLean Park in the evening while I counted the bat colony overhead. And he never complained when forced to hear them laugh and laugh every night over Friends reruns and Friday’s episode of Sex and the City. They watched Battlestar Galactica in stereo and made butter chicken popcorn. He tried to read his way through the agony, but the sound of his own editing shook the floorboards and made the words jiggle on the page of Against Nature: “Once he had cut himself off from contemporary life, he had resolved to allow nothing to enter his hermitage which might breed repugnance or regret.” But the seal of Kieron’s hermitage was broken! His sabbatical was falling apart. Listening to Battlestar Galactica against his own will may have grown a bit too much hair on Kieron’s bananas, so to speak. He would never go back to editing Battlestar Galactica with its “fake cinema-vérité in outer space.” I was glad to be next door where I could torrent the show without insulting him. But now the popular revamp was right there in the house, underneath his feet, to remind him of the career he put on hold, his parents, and how they had died, infused with the unwelcome pong of cooked meat and spices.

Instead of asking them to turn down the volume or quit eating meat, though, Kieron started to clomp around on the hardwood floor above their heads in a pair of dress shoes. When they asked him to take off his shoes, he lied and said he couldn’t, for medical reasons, and blamed his arches. He even forged a doctor’s medical note to prove it. Kieron invited three friends over for his birthday, and the married couple downstairs as well. “I made a pot of black bean and sweet potato soup and tofu kangjung with brown rice,” he said. “Thanks, Kieron, that’s awesome of you to invite us,” the wife said, “we will definitely figure out if we can. Should we bring anything—chips, booze, or cake?” The night of his party, I drank a bottle of Canadian whisky and we listened to Gnomes with Knives. The married couple never joined us. They stayed downstairs the whole birthday party, then called the cops. The policewoman who came to the door said, “Your neighbours want some quiet, that’s all. It’s late now. Wind it down.”

“Hey, I reached out. I invited them. They just moved in and I’ve been here since the nineties. Today is my thirtieth birthday. Earlier this week they blasted Battlestar Galactica downstairs. Officer, I hate Battlestar Galactica but I didn’t waste your time or taxpayers’ money calling you here over that noise.” That’s what Kieron told her.

“You’re the first guy I ever met who doesn’t like Battlestar Galactica. Just keep the noise down, birthday boy.” That’s what the cop told him.

That night, while we slept, the gnome with a knife on the front lawn of the Bitter Suites went missing. The gnome wasn’t there when I got up the next morning and went out to fetch a coffee, shortly after 11 a.m. Vanished. I told Kieron and he went and asked the married couple if they happened to see who took it. “That’s a piece of local history, gone,” he said. “Heavy-metal memorabilia. They had those gnomes made for their first show at the Cobalt. I guess I’ll start asking around the neighbourhood.”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” said the wife. “It was me. I threw it away. I didn’t know the gnome was special. I was doing yard work this morning. I guess I thought the knife made him look hostile.”

Kieron wanted to know if it was in the trash; maybe he could retrieve it. But you know what she did, Mayor? She said she put the gnome with a knife in a plastic garbage bag and told her husband to smash it to pieces with a baseball bat. Then the wife took the bag full of smashed gnome with a knife, walked down Hawks Avenue to Hastings Street, and disposed of it in a bin behind the Astoria hotel. Why all the trouble? “I wanted to get the hostile thing off the property,” she said.

“I’m not sure this new couple is working out so great,” I said.

Kieron said, “We swapped Gnomes with Knives for gnat strainers. That’s the new Bitter Suites.”

He called them gnat strainers.

The next day there was a flood on the main floor of Kieron’s place when the kitchen sink backed up, overflowed, and turned the married couple’s kitchen and living room into a small lake. When Chris Ortiz wouldn’t return their calls, they hired a plumber off Craigslist who located the problem after a few hours on his hands and knees. He told the newlyweds, “What I see is not good. You got pipes filled with French fries. Poutine fries. I’m finding congealed gravy, lots of cheese curds, and a hamburger. I mean, cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger. And mushrooms. The works backing you up.”

Kieron denied any role in this. “I’m vegetarian,” he reminded them. But if not Kieron, then how did this pub food get clogged in the pipes? Then, not long after the kitchen flood was repaired, their bathroom flooded. The plumber returned and took apart their sink, shower, and bathtub, piece by piece, and found spaghetti and meatballs in the pipes. Blocking up the pipes behind their toilet was another cheeseburger, garlic bread slices, and more fries. This time, the newlyweds didn’t come upstairs to ask Kieron what was going on. But he didn’t let up either. He gave them a week to dry out and then used the knob-end of a broomstick to flush perogies down his toilet, and shove sushi down his sink.

The couple must have sent our landlord a bill for all the work, because within a couple weeks of this stunt Kieron found a letter slipped under his door. The gist: Our rental agreement is terminated. You have until the end of the month to vacate the premises. It was signed “Chris Ortiz.”

He moved one block west. For the next two months Kieron lived in a state of total dispossession in a four-hundred square foot room on the third floor of Bad Manors. That’s where he spent the last of his sabbatical money and wrote you those increasingly specific tweets. After the police incident, he left Bad Manors and Vancouver for Toronto. So you see, Mayor, home hasn’t been the same without Kieron. I’m not blaming you, but I am. Chris Ortiz hiked up the rent: the new guy across from me in Kieron’s old attic space pays fourteen-fifty a month and is an aspiring screenwriter with four generations of family in West Vancouver. He told me on first handshake that he texts Len Wiseman at least once a week. Rent has gone up for me at the legal rate increase over the years and so for the moment I remain here in my attic in the Bitter Suites (eight hundred and fifty per month).

Isaac Mirror

Dear Mayor,

You might recall my previous letters, regarding the plight of the slugs and the eviction of my friend and your enemy, Kieron Hermies. Although I have yet to hear back from you, today I write regarding a third concern that I hope you’ll share, that is Vancouver’s disappearing bats.

It was on a Saturday evening back in June of ninety-nine, a few days after I moved into the Bitter Suites, and I was in MacLean Park socializing with Kieron Hermies and twenty or thirty other Strathcona locals when I first saw the bats and, falling in love at first sight, began my habit of counting the local colony. In those days they numbered around fifty or sixty. For years I went out every afternoon to sit on the grass in MacLean Park and wait for them to turn up. If work or some other obligation took me away, Kieron or another friend would count for me. “Look up, and you see things flying / Between the day and the night,” wrote D. H. Lawrence of the precious last minutes of sunlight at dusk when the bats come out to feed. They danced across the sky over MacLean Park. Sometimes they swooped low and their winged fingertips brushed against my hair.

While my friends played soccer drunk, I counted bats. “How are the bats doing, Isaac?” That’s how most people greeted me if they saw me around Strathcona. To acquaintances and those new to the neighbourhood, I was Isaac, “the bat-counting guy.” But even close friends began to think of me that way. “How are the bats of Strathcona doing?” Kieron began to ask, as if he didn’t know.

“Not good,” I started to tell people. “The numbers are dropping.” The colony went as high as fifty-eight in September of 2000, but a month later was down to fifty-five. By the next summer, numbers were sliding from forty to thirty. I thought the colony was going to steady out again at around thirty, but then in 2008, the population started to drop again. People stopped asking how the bats were doing. I had become Isaac, “that doom-and-gloom guy.” Instead I had to tell them even when they didn’t ask: “There’s twenty-five bats.” “There’s twelve bats, max.” “There’s no more than seven bats.” Today, Mayor, there are five.

Surely the bats are a worthy cause for us to all rally around. The bat colonies are shrinking, make no mistake. An irrational fear of bats should not overcome a rational concern for their decline. Bats are as essential as any other creature in this city and the fact they eat insects makes their species our natural ally. Bats eat the midge, moth, and mosquito. In the absence of bats we get genuine scares like more disease-spreading bugs. The long, ultrathin webbed fingers of their wings can pivot the bat through hairpin turns—“wings like bits of umbrella,” Lawrence called them. No doubt any vampire would prefer a bat’s more agile form to anything human. They can speed sightless through dense forest canopies. The bat’s unprepossessing face, covered in mouse hair, with dish-like cat ears, a lurid, pink pig’s snout over a wolf’s muzzle and alligator teeth—we fear that alien face might still resemble too much our own. Like the jungle ape, shedding snake, or domesticated dog, the bat is close spiritual kin. Nocturnal, the bat socializes the same way it sees, by ear, and sleeps hanging upside-down in tight, grotesque bunches. Blind like Borges, bats see the world through echoes: this fact alone. But besides that, bats are, in their dark unwholesome beauty, a source of inspiration. For the poet Charles Baudelaire, hope is “like a bat.” The only mammal that can fly. We must try harder to protect them.

Isaac Mirror

Lee Henderson lives in Victoria. He is the author of the novels The Man Game and The Road Narrows as You Go, and the collection The Broken Record Technique. Last updated summer, 2017.