This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The main character, Dr. Zoltan Levy, is loosely based on author and lecturer Dr. Gabor Mate. It's a fantasy and not a sociological treatise: meaning, I don’t try to deal with “issues” so much as people who feel like they’ve been swept to the edge of the sidewalk and are socially invisible/terminally powerless. I’m running it in parts, in chronological order so it’s all there, breaking it up with a few pictures because personally, I hate big blocks of text.
Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside
Part Twelve (conclusion)
"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel
Bert Moffatt often thinks about taking an early retirement, he’s 57 years old now, and this driving business is a young man’s game, requiring a stamina he no longer thinks he has.
The things that happen on his shift are pretty disturbing. The other day two hookers got on along Hastings Street and got into a screaming battle about something, probably drugs, and actually started physically fighting on the bus, yanking hair and scratching faces, and had to be pulled apart. One of them was wearing only a bra, no blouse, and the other one, Bert didn’t know how anyone could be that thin and still be alive, she must be in the final stages of AIDS, it was heartbreaking to see.
He feels terrible about Aggie. It’s a shame when that happens, a woman just vanishing like that, he knew Aggie had some pretty serious problems, but he was fond of her, they had a real connection going for years, almost a friendship, and now she has just disappeared, wandered off somewhere in disorientation, or did something worse happen? Around these parts, you never knew.
The guy with the blanket over his head never comes around any more. Bert has no idea where he went. Nobody seems to know. But that young fellow, Porky or whatever his name is, he’s taking the bus nearly every day now, that’s a change, and he looks different, he has cut his hair for one thing, and it looks much neater, he’s dressing better too, but it isn’t just that, he’s standing up straighter or something, carrying himself differently, so that he almost seems like a different person.
Today on the bus, somebody tries to give him a hard time. But his reaction is so completely different, Bert is taken by surprise.
The old Porgy would have absorbed this, just taken it. Vester won’t take it.
His hand whips out, he grabs the young smart-ass by the collar and almost lifts him off his feet.
“Take that back.”
“Hey, don’t get excited, I was only kidding around.”
“Take. . . that. . .back.”
“Okay, okay, I take it back. Jeez!”
“You heard me. Apologize.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”
“Yes! Jesus, let me go!”
“You have to promise me one thing.”
“Okay, I will.”
“That you’ll never call anybody by that name, ever again.”
“All right, I promise.”
“Now mean it.”
“All right! Christ! Let go!” He finally releases him, and he slumps into a seat, pale and shaky-looking. Vester Graham knows he has scored a major victory.
But there is still something left for him to do.
The progress he has made with Dr. Levy has surprised both of them. The depression that weighed him down for most of his life seems to be lifting at last, and
he feels different, just different in a way that is hard for him to explain or even comprehend.
He has talked about the foster homes. Anguish at first, and the flashbacks nearly killed him, but with Dr. Levy as his guide, he has been able to slay one dragon after another.
Aggie’s disappearance has been brutal. After a few months, the search for her whereabouts becomes a search for her remains. The police have found nothing – Vester doesn’t think they looked very hard - though the psychic they consulted claimed that she had “gone home” and was in a happier place, her soul finally at peace.
“What is it, Vess?”
“Some guy called me a nigger on the bus today.”
Dr. Levy looks at him, his brows drawing together.
“I made him take it back.”
“I made him apologize. Oh man, I thought I’d never be able to do that.”
“That’s – Vess, that’s remarkable, I’m proud of you. You are doing so well.”
“Doc. That’s the thing. I’m not.”
Dr. Levy’s puzzled expression makes his insides squirm. But there’s no turning back now.
“There’s. . . there’s all sorts of shit I haven’t told you about.”
The pause that follows is loaded.
“Are you ready to tell me now?”
“No. Doc, I’m never going to be ready. If I say this shit, I know what’s going to happen to me.”
“And if you don’t?”
“If I don’t. . .if I don’t, then all this stuff that’s happened here, all these changes I’ve made, it just won’t mean a damn thing.”
“I think it’s time you told me, Vess.”
He rubs his eyes, takes a deep breath, and in a voice shaking with dread, he begins.
“When I was fifteen years old,” he says to Dr. Levy, “I started setting fires.”
Epilogue: Szabó’s Fire
The turning of the year is like every other year, with the usual milestones and markers, another spring with its torrential rains and surges of lush supernatural B. C. green, another summer of rides and cotton candy at the PNE, another fall with the kids piling on the bus to go back to school, then everyone dressing up for trick-or-treats, then the mad frenzy of preparation for yet another Christmas and New Year’s.
But like every other year, this one is unique. Powerful changes have swept through Zeddyville, some of them heartbreaking. Aggie is now an absence, another dotted-line void, just gone. She has disappeared without a trace, almost as if she never was.
Women disappear from the Downtown Eastside all the time, a bitter, unpalatable fact. Vess Graham can’t quite swallow it, and still holds out some sort of hope that they’ll find Aggie, or even some remains of her, something.
There are moments when he can almost convince himself that she found a way to put her hand through the veil. Then he dismisses the thought as just too fantastic. It’s impossible to get out of the time you were born into, you just have to deal with what’s around you, hard as it sometimes is. Dr. Levy taught him that.
Dr. Levy taught him a lot of things. One of the greatest lessons was about taking responsibility: after confessing the fires, which was the hardest thing he ever did in his life, he wondered if the doctor would turn him in, report him. But he didn’t.
He left that up to him.
It took him a while. For several weeks he didn’t eat or sleep. His guts twisted with anxiety and dread, and even though he knew what he needed to do, actually doing it was almost impossible. Wouldn’t he lose all the progress he had made over the past few months, all the changes, his newfound power, his freedom, his life?
Then one day it became too much for him to carry. Vess Graham called the police, and told them he had to come in and talk to them.
There were consequences, harsh ones. He knew there would be. Vess would have to serve time for his offenses, there was no way around it. But when he learned that the man who died had had a heart attack, that it wasn’t the fire that killed him, the relief he felt was almost worth the four years he had to spend in prison.
Though four years was bad, it sure beat ten. Dr. Levy saw to it that his sentence was
reduced. The full confession and the determined effort he had made to reclaim himself
had not gone unnoticed.
He made good use of his time. One of the counsellors suggested he train himself for a career in computer support: “You’re a techie, Vess, a natural for this industry. Think of it. You could be completely self-supporting then, and not have to rely on your father for handouts.”
“Really?” It sounded fantastic, too good to be true.
“You can start your education right here. Once you get out, we can arrange for you to take classes at BCIT. This is something you love to do, Vess, and you’re a smart young man, you could really make a go of it.”
This was kind of like finding out he had two heads and didn’t even know it, a complete and total shock, but – the more they talked about it, the more plausible and even possible it seemed.
Step by step, starting in prison, then carrying on when they let him out in only two years, Vess Graham began to build a life.
Mavis Potter did become famous, but not in the way she had anticipated. The story of how she broke into Zoltán Levy’s house and assaulted him made her into a minor celebrity, and for a time she was hounded by reporters. Excerpts of Eastside Story appeared in the Vancouver Sun, but finding a publisher proved to be impossible. The manuscript was over 1200 pages long, a rambling stream-of-consciousness prose poem too bizarre to be marketable.
Though he was deeply shaken, Zoltán Levy did not press charges. The woman was obviously sick, not a criminal. But he did insist she get some help. Mavis entered therapy with a Gestalt psychologist in North Vancouver, separated from Charles, and began to write a memoir about her experiences posing as a bag lady on the Downtown Eastside.
Dr. Levy’s year has been complicated. He made a good connection with Sandy Alexander, the young woman who had the baby in his office last winter. She would bring little Anton in to see him, he’d crawl all over the floor, and they’d talk.
One day, Sandy is playing peek-a-boo with the little boy, and he laughs out loud in delight.
Dr. Levy feels his heart turn over.
He has heard that laugh before.
He looks at the baby, sees the resemblance for the first time. He must have been blind before.
Missing pieces fly into place, slam together in shock, and the muddled picture in his brain jumps into sharp relief.
He looks at Sandy; she’s smiling a little. She knows, of course.
And she knows that he knows.
He feels a little faint.
“Welcome to the family. Or should I say – welcome back.”
Bert Moffatt did decide to retire, but not before finding out what happened to the guy with the blanket over his head. He should not have worried, for soon the name of Tamás Szabó will be all over the newspapers, not to mention the internet.
He remains secluded during the long and difficult process of the restoration of his face. But during that time, amazing things begin to happen in his new studio on East Hastings Street. Inspiration floods through and reanimates him: “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose,” Dr. Levy says to him, quoting Isaiah. In this great second blooming he conceives an exhibit of sculpture depicting the third-world streets of Vancouver, a collection entitled The Kingdom of Night.
When the media get wind of the facial reconstruction story, Szabó’s fortunes take a huge upswing. With a little urging from Dr. Levy, the Vancouver Art Gallery agrees to host his exhibition, a one-man display of virtuosity pulled out of complete darkness.
Zoltán Levy is excited, and eagerly anticipating opening night. Szabó hasn’t let him see the results of the facial surgery; no one has seen it but the doctors. Mystery creates interest, and Szabó knows that the time has not yet come for the great unveiling.
On the night, the gallery is unexpectedly mobbed. A crowd was anticipated, mostly from the arts community, but not this. Excitement crackles in the air, cameras flash, and media people jostle, sensing a good story. Zoltán Levy gets there an hour early, but still has to push his way through a dense and noisy crowd.
A white limousine pulls up in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 8:15 p.m. Tamás Szabó gets out of the back, and his new assistant, an attractive dark-haired woman named Zoë, takes his arm to guide him up the steps.
No more buses for Szabó. Now he rides in style.
The scene is beyond surreal, and would be almost comical were it not for Szabó’s palpable dignity. With his head draped in a cowl of heavy silk, he would not be out of place in a medieval monastery. The crowd parts as he enters, everyone stepping back in awe. There he is, that’s Szabó, that’s the man who had no face.
The sculptures are all thickly draped, cloaked in black. One by one, Tamás Szabó walks up to them, stands before them a moment, then pulls the covering away.
The crowd falls deathly silent.
A woman of the night, flesh pared down to bone, eyes staring ahead like inanimate glass. A panhandler with tattoos sculpted in relief on his body, his hands held up in a gesture of surrender. A gaudy gang mural with graffiti expressed in three dimensions.
One sculpture is modeled after the Cenotaph, the “Is it Nothing to You” motto carved into a giant tombstone. Another is of a great rearing horse.
The crowd is quietly buzzing, some of them commenting on technical merit, but a few sculptures make them stop talking altogether. The pieces appear to be breathing, subtly expressing a kind of movement, entwining familiarity and strangeness.
When the nine huge sculptures are all unveiled, Tamás Szabó ascends to the podium.
He stands there for a full two minutes. The tension is unbearable. No one knows what will happen next.
Zoltán Levy recalls that other unveiling, that day in his office when he let the blanket fall. But this time it’s different, this time he has hundreds of witnesses. He draws the heavy dark silk covering up over his head, lets it drop to the floor.
The audience can’t help it. They gasp.
He lets them look, lets them take it in. He knows they are having difficulty believing what they are seeing.
The face is smooth and unlined, and looks eerily young for a man of sixty-seven. There are no Frankensteinian seams to disclose the fact that this is a man-made, manufactured face, not the face he was born with.
Working from photographs, the surgeons restored the bone structure as accurately as possible, the missing half of his lower jaw, his chin, his teeth, his nose, and though they are new, these features are all Szabó, they are his. The brilliant blue glass eyes are unsettling, like the eyes of a wolf.
The word the reporters want to use is “lifelike”, though it is obviously a facsimile, a fairly convincing replica of a “real” face. The colour and texture closely resemble human skin, minus any bluish waxworks pallor, but the surgeons have not yet learned how to age and weather a manufactured face. It somewhat resembles the portrait of Dorian Grey, a reflection of a man, his traumatic past burned to ashes and blown away.
A long silence; then someone begins to applaud. Then a few more.
Then the room comes alive with applause, relieving the crowd’s apprehension that they would be looking at a freak, someone to be pitied and feared. Words are coming together in the journalists’ heads, things like “miracle of modern science,” “quantum leap in surgical sophistication,” but media clichés will never express this phenomenon, this restoration of destroyed flesh.
When the applause and cheers finally die down, something happens that dwarfs even this bizarre miracle. Tamás Szabó begins to speak.
“My friends. I welcome you all to this day of triumph. For today I share with you my vision, a vision that was taken from me by a cruel twist of fate, then miraculously returned to me.”
Once the initial shock of hearing him wears off, the audience realizes he is not speaking in the normal way. How could he? Speech would never be possible for a man so deeply damaged. Then comes the slow recognition that they are hearing a speech synthesizer, similar to the device used by the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking.
Some genius has programmed it to speak with a Hungarian accent.
“When I lost my eyes, I lost my heart also, and my will to live. I became a beggar on the street, living on the pity of others, a cruel parody of my great dreams of success. My art was gone, I lived in total darkness, and yet God would not let me die. My pride would not allow me to hold my hand out for help. And so I suffered a hell beyond your powers to imagine.”
“Then one day I could carry the burden of my life no longer. A man touched me on the street that day, a countryman, he spoke to me in my own language. Though I did not know it, it was the beginning of my second life. I came to see him one week later, and – this man, this Zoltán Levy, he healed me. He healed me inside, where the scars were worse than the mess I had made of my face. He gave me back my soul.”
Zoltán Levy stands in the crowd, swaying a little, giddy with a feeling he can’t identify. He wonders if a new emotion needs to be invented to accommodate the strangeness of this day.
“Though the surgeons restored my face, for which I am profoundly grateful, Dr. Levy restored something far more important: my reason to live, my dignity, and my art. There are no words to express my gratitude to this man. He is remarkable.”
Suddenly the crowd’s attention shifts to Zoltán Levy; cameras flash, and applause swells again, this time for him. He feels a twinge of unworthiness; Szabó did this, not him, he only showed him the way. But he accepts the recognition, knowing that worthiness is not the issue here.
If it were, he is certain he would have perished a long time ago.
The exhilaration of the evening lasts about a day. Zoltán Levy cannot bring himself to leap back into the arms of his abandoned family. It’s not that simple. God knows he has told his patients often enough that they have to stop replaying those old tapes, get on with things, live forwards. But how to live forwards when you are afraid to look over your shoulder at the lives you have damaged and destroyed?
What right does he have to ask forgiveness?
So for a long time, Zoltán Levy does nothing. Sandy still comes in once in a while with the baby, and, incredibly, Dr. Levy bounces him and talks to him and makes him smile, as if everything were normal and this was just another chubby, healthy, happy baby, not the son of his son.
His work grinds along. Some days are gratifying, some nearly intolerable. He has started listening to those sealed CDs in his living room, something he thought he would never do. He even considers returning the rest of them to the store, but is just too embarrassed.
He decides he doesn’t need six versions of Don Giovanni and donates four to the public library, then starts to distribute the rest of his ill-gotten treasures to community centres and nursing homes, hoping they like Rautavaara.
Incredibly, for the people at the Portland anyway, he goes out on a date. Some of his patients see him with this intellectual-looking brunette with glasses who spends the entire evening lecturing about forensic anthropology. When they return from seeing a documentary called Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, an experience which is about as enjoyable as having major dental work, one of his Portman patients sees them and calls out, “Hey, doc! Gettin’ any?”
He feels ridiculous when he walks her to her door, says good evening and wonders whether he is supposed to kiss her or not. Remembers how awkward he was before he met Annie, and realizes he has returned to that state and can’t seem to break out of it. He makes an excuse about a sore throat and leaves quickly.
Transformations come slowly, for some people. Not everyone can be a Szabó, but we can take small steps. Or so he tells himself.
Because of the hazardous nature of his work, Dr. Levy must be tested for HIV at regular intervals. This has become so routine that he no longer considers the danger. Rubber gloves get punctured, it happens all the time. He doesn’t give it much thought.
Then one day, the young nurse in his office receives the most recent test result. For some reason she doesn’t want to give it to him. They run the test over again, to be certain there has been no mistake.
For years now, he has been breaking this to people: the test results are back, and I’m afraid it’s not good news. But now we can deal with it. Aren’t you glad you came in?
His own reassurances bounce back in his face, useless. HIV is no longer a death sentence. But it IS a life sentence, and it has to be treated on a continuous basis. You’ll have to live with this until we find the cure. He has said it a million times, and now he must say it to himself.
Suddenly, everything he has known has been thrown up in the air.
He sits with Sandy and the baby in his office, looking telescopically distant.
“Oh, sorry, Sandy. My mind was wandering.”
“You know, you’re always telling me that every bad thing that happens has a hidden gift in it.”
“I said that?” He presses his fingertips into his eyeballs. “I must be a veritable fountainhead of wisdom.”
Sandy smiles. Anton, now a robust, unmistakably Hungarian-looking baby with dark eyes and curly black hair, babbles happily.
“Yeah, you are, except that you don’t know how to take your own advice.”
“Are you telling me what I should do?”
“No. I wouldn’t do that. But it looks to me like this test result might be a blessing in disguise.”
“I don’t see how it could be.”
“Zoltán.” It feels funny to call him that, but isn’t he her son’s grandfather?
“Anton likes to quote this line out of a Bob Dylan song: ‘When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.’ What have you got to lose in seeing him? What’s the worst that can happen? So, okay, maybe he’ll be furious with you and tell you to fuck off for abandoning him. But isn’t that better than nothing? Isn’t that better than dying without having the chance to see your son again?”
Zoltán Levy has always been amazed at the capacity of ordinary people to cut through all the bullshit and obfuscation and get at the truth.
But he doesn’t go to see his son. Anton does not appear to be interested, or still hates him. Why don’t their paths cross more often, when he seems to live in the vicinity of the Portman, his beat? Mysteriously, they live in two separate universes that overlap.
Then it happens again, the weird dodge-game that brought them face-to-face in the first place. They literally run into each other. It’s disconcerting to suddenly see yourself, to see a younger version/older version, mirrors reflecting mirrors.
But this time they both stop, glued down with shock.
Dr. Levy impulsively reaches out and clasps his son’s bare forearm. Just holds on to it. Two pairs of black eyes lock.
Zoltán lets go of his arm, then gestures with his head towards the clinic, his body a question mark.
Anton stares at the pavement for a few seconds. Looks up at his father, straight into his eyes.
He reaches out, grabs his father’s forearm, squeezes it once, then sprints away into the night.