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…
The dash began to ding, and she took it as a signal to say it.
“I’m going to marry him,” she said.
Her ex-husband did not look at her. It was getting dark, and the car had been running strangely. He reached back and put a hand on his sleeping daughter’s knee. Then he found his cap and put it on.
“Why did you put that on? ”
“To keep my head from exploding.”
That’s when the engine cut out, and with the last of their momentum they rolled to a flat place on the grade. They were just beyond the overpass. They could see the city, Signal Hill, and the outline of the harbour five miles away. It looked like something underwater, a glowing coral.
“So what’s going on? ” she said.
“The car is my broken heart,” he said. Then he peered at the gauges and slammed his hands against the wheel.
“We’re on empty.”
Cars passed them, and the wake lifted their car. Their little girl, woke up.
“Why are we stopped?” the daughter said.
“I’ll have to thumb a lift,” he said to his ex-wife.
“Use my cell. Call someone.”
“Who do you want to drag out here this time of night? ”
“That’s the trouble with you. You don’t let your friends help you.”
“I’ll go, get a can of gas. It’ll take me an hour,” he said. He got out of the car then leaned back in. “I’m going to start treating you like a dog,” he said. “I’ll use my dog voice.”
She watched him there, standing at the overpass, thumb out. About a hundred cars went by. The lights of the city began to flare out in the twilight. It was a generous city and someone would stop. She was beyond him now, thinking of the next step. Then an suv with two kids in it pulled over, and her ex-husband leaned into the front window, and they were a long time talking. Then the driver got out of the car, and he wasn’t young; he was their age or older. The driver looked at her. He was sizing her up. “If we had some hose,” the guy said.
“They’ll take me into town,” her husband said.
The suv bombed off down the arterial, and a sudden rain hit them. The driver turned on the heat and shut the window. That’s when he realized he’d taken the keys. She wouldn’t be able to pull up the windows or turn on the heat. He had the keys in his hand. Then they took a turn off toward the Goulds.
“Where we going?”
“I got a friend,” one of them said.
He saw a gas station, but they drove past it. Now the road was dark. He tried to be polite.
“Hey,” he said, “you can let me out here.”
The driver swerved down a dirt road. They passed a hunting party; the hunters had four quarters of moose dressed hanging from twine and hooks.
“Send me a bottle of that,” the driver said, “and I’ll cover it with gravy.”
The one in the back said, “Take him down Horsechops Road.”
She waited in the car. Rain was getting in, and the car rocked because it was too close to the road. “I’m cold,” her daughter said.
“Your father,” she said finally, “has the keys.”
“What about the one in the box? ” the little girl said. She walked around to the passenger side and bent under and found the magnet box. There was a key.
She hit the heat. Put on a CD, but it kept skipping. The lights of St. John’s ablaze like some fairground ride.
“When’s Dad getting back?”
The time on the dash said 1:12. Almost three hours now. She’d have to ration the heat and light or the battery might die. Finally a car signalled, slowed, and pulled off the road across from them. Ray. A door opened, and the dome light came on. It was not Ray; it was the driver of the suv again. He got out, ran across the divided highway, came up to her window, and knocked on it, hard. She clicked the door lock. His face and hands pressed up against the window. His hands were dirty. He had bog or something on his hands.
“Your husband said to come with us,” he said.
“Where is he?”
“Can you put down your window?”
“Where’s my husband?”
“It’s probably something worse than gas, so you best come with us.”
“Why didn’t he come back with you?”
“He’s busy with a mechanic; they’re rigging up something. Open up.”
“I can’t leave this car,” she said. “My daughter —”
She felt the cold air behind her as a door opened, and the dome light came on and left not a shadow of ambiguity.
Our next Canada noir: “The End of Pinky” by Heather O’Neill…
Michael Winter’s fourth novel, The Death of Donna Whalen, was published in 2010.