The noir novel has long been a staple of urban American fiction. But what about Canada? The Walrus asked Canadian novelists to sketch their cities as grittier, sexier, and darker than you might ever have imagined…
That spring I took boxing lessons at the Pan Am on McDermot from Trevor, a preacher’s son who had forearms like thick ropes. After an hour of sparring and skipping and all-out thuggery, we’d go over to the King’s Head for a beer and then back to my one-room apartment for sex. In a small planter on my windowsill, I was growing primroses, and Trevor liked to bend toward a flower and smell deeply. Sometimes, before we went out, he’d shave his legs, put on a red dress, a blond wig, and high heels, and then we’d crawl over to a club on Main. He had a stunning body, and it was difficult to keep my hands off his throat. Going home later, full of liquor and lust, I’d ask him to walk ahead of me.
During the heat wave in June, the city fell apart. A man was knifed in the parking lot next to the Bate, and in the morning there were the remains of a chalk outline and a pool of water where someone had washed away the blood. Cyclists were attacked by police. An arsonist burned down the central library; it went up in a huge ball of red, and the sky for miles was lit by pink smoke and fluttering half-burned pages. If it hadn’t been so sad, it would have been just the thing. I picked up a charred book from the gutter. It was by someone called Bolaño, and one sentence stuck with me: “Tomorrow we’ll leave, tomorrow we’ll go back to Mexico City, thinks B joyfully.” Unfortunately, the ending was missing.
One night Trevor was involved in a brawl with fourteen men. After, he made his way along the paths near Waterfront Drive, through the city’s smoky haze to my place. I bathed his bloody hands. I was tender with him that night, bandaging his cuts, washing gravel from his knee, working my way over his naked body. I told him the story of Gauguin, who left his family and ran off to Tahiti. The sunsets, the burnished skin, the ardour. I told him that I loved him and that I would be willing to pack up and go somewhere else. He sat there for a long time, holding a cigarette, looking out at the blue night. Sirens sounded. Someone cried out.
He began to avoid me. He stopped coming to the boxing club. I’d call him and he’d say that he was occupied, as if he were a toilet on an airplane. I saw him with a large girl, both of them swinging down Main. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, she had her big head on his shoulder, and he appeared to be very fond of her breasts. I followed them down Bannatyne to the river, and then they disappeared into a fog that never ever occurs in Winnipeg, but it did that night.
Time passed. I spent evenings at the boxing club, building my repertoire, and then ascended to the streets where I picked fights with lawyers, recovered alcoholics, and groups of brutish young men who were overwhelmed by my rage. I never lost. I was honing myself for some future battle.
One Saturday evening, wandering down Smith Street, I passed by the Meeting Place, a church frequented by those with big emotions. Trevor stepped out with a blond. She had cleavage and she had legs. She was tanned, too tanned, almost leathery. I said Trevor’s name and he turned, showing no surprise. I motioned at the girl.
“Say hi to Trish,” he said.
“My name’s not Trish,” she said.
“You friends with Jesus again?” I asked, reaching for Trevor’s arm, that great cord of muscle.
Trevor wasn’t interested. I could see his nostrils, two little dark holes like targets. I didn’t stand a chance and, knowing this, I wanted him. I had this grand notion that in humiliating me, he would also pity me.I stood eye to eye with him, aware of his long neck.
“Aww,” he said, and swung. I leaned back, and his fist blew past me in a rush of air.
Someone cried out, “Please. Please. Will you please stop this.”
Trevor showed me his beautiful teeth. I jabbed at them, missed, and caught his right ear. He looked surprised and in pain, as if he’d suddenly realized that I could hate him.
“In my room. I’d like to show you,” I said. “I’ve got this flower.”
Tomorrow we’ll leave, tomorrow we’ll go somewhere else, I thought joyfully.
And then the fight began.
Our next Canada noir: “Terminal City” by Charlotte Gill…
David Bergen will publish a new novel, Stranger, in September.