Dispatches

Writing Life

Stephen Osborne

He said the only car you could drive in those days no matter how drunk you were was a Volkswagen Beetle with a broken heater, and he had never seen a Volkswagen with a heater that worked. He remembered driving a Volkswagen out of the city after a night of heavy drinking and exorcism at the home of a well-known poet whose girlfriend had been troubled at the Ouija board by a phantom stalker named Jack Bicky. At the end of the night he picked up the planchette in both hands and spelled out an invocation summoning Jack Bicky into the back seat of the Volkswagen he had parked in the street, and then he went out and got into the car and began the long, slow drive across the city and out past Boundary Road, drunk and accompanied only by the angry spirit of Jack Bicky, who was never heard from again. You couldn’t do that in any automobile today, he said. A friend of his with a reputation as a writer of short stories set out in December in a 1948 Peugeot with a 30 hp engine and a broken heater, intending to drive to his hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, 4,600 kilometres away, in the company of a little-known paraphrenic poet who paid for the gas and sandwiches and a case of Canadian Club whisky. The Peugeot made it through Quebec and New Brunswick in a blizzard that lasted three days, and then they parked in a snowdrift on Temperance Street in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and in the morning when they got back to Temperance Street the Peugeot had vanished. They dug around in the snow for most of the day, and found neither the car nor the last of the whisky, which was a real problem on a Sunday in Nova Scotia, when nearly all the bars and restaurants were closed and the liquor store was simply out of the question.

He said it was illegal in those days to stand up in a beer parlour with a drink in your hand.

He remembered the Peugeot some years later, he said, when a grey Volkswagen beetle with a hole in the floor given to him by a girlfriend who had gone home to Selkirk, Manitoba, disappeared in thick fog near the corner of 6th Street and 6th Avenue in New Westminster, when a publishing friend who had borrowed it to deliver a package returned to where he had parked it a few minutes earlier and it was gone. The friend called the police and the towing companies, and he went back the next day to search the neighbourhood, but the grey Volkswagen was never seen again. He said he told his friend to forget about it: the car must have dematerialized in the fog just like that Peugeot in the snow.

He said a draft beer cost a quarter in those days and a phone call was a dime. You could get from Halifax to Vancouver in the day coach for seventy-five bucks.

Fog in those days was not like fog today, he said. He used to borrow a red Volkswagen Beetle from an editor he knew and drive out at night to the delta with his friend the writer with the reputation for writing short stories to visit a Trotskyist poet who liked to drink whisky and talk into the night on his big front porch. They would drive home drunk on the secondary highways in the fog and, when they got lost, stop the car and get out the spare bottle and wait for the sun to come up. One night they parked in the fog and the writer friend got out and fell ten feet into a ditch at the edge of the road and lost his eyeglasses. They thrashed around in the dark on their hands and knees like a couple of kids trying pin the tail on the donkey and then climbed back into the car and finished the spare bottle. The strange thing about this story, he said, is that two days later when the fog cleared, they drove straight out to the same ditch without thinking about it and the eyeglasses were lying right there in the grass: it was as if the Volkswagen had a memory of its own. Another editor he knew who drove a green Volkswagen Beetle offered him a ride one night in heavy rain and when they got into the car she handed him a cord that ran out to the windshield wiper. You pull that end and I pull this end, she said, and we’ll get through this. He was drawn irresistibly toward her. They met up again ten years later in Winnipeg, when neither of them was driving a Volkswagen any more, and they’ve been shacked up ever since in a condo somewhere over on the east side.

She says there was free daycare in those days and there were phone booths everywhere. All you needed was the dime for the call and the patience to let it ring.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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