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…
She came down from her office to the shop floor, where her shelves were racked up with fine things. Antarctic salt. Slabs of bittersweet chocolate. Dusty wine goblets. Stacks of tapas dishes wrapped in torn paper. She hadn’t seen a customer in days.
She stepped outside. The afternoon was so grey and wet, the streets looked like they were slicked with grease. “Hello, Amar,” she said.”
You never called me, “he grumbled.
“Was I supposed to?” Mist settled on the shoulders of his suit — ill-fitting or just cheap, she couldn’t decide. His handshake was hot and fleshy. His face reminded her of an oily coffee bean.
“What the fuck? ” He gestured to a portion of her sidewalk where a filthy man lay sleeping with his hands between his knees, a stretch of cardboard for a bed.
“I call the cops,” she told Amar. “All the time.”
“Time to get yourself a boyfriend, sweetheart.” His hand skimmed her back. He steered her upwind under the awning like he owned the street. He wasn’t a tall man, but at his side she felt protected.
He reached into his jacket for cigarettes. She shook her head. She’d quit a long time ago. “Just take one,” he commanded. “Pretend they’re organic.” He seemed unperturbed by the rain. A cool shiver passed through her bones. She pulled a cigarette from his waiting hand.
Hollywood was back in the neighbourhood, filming futuristic sagas at the old Terminal City, a giant Dickensian metal shop lit with bare bulbs, spackled outside with pigeon guano. Mobile dressing rooms lined the curb, trucks parked nose to tail all the way down to the used car dealership, where pennants flapped above a half-vacant lot of shiny, overpriced lemons.
His Zippo made a rich ping. She inhaled. Smoke, silky and fragrant, reached down into the bottom of her lungs.
“I’m looking for some cognac,” he told her.
“You always come looking for things I don’t have.” (He came in once a week but never bought anything.)
A drop of rain landed under her eye. He touched it. She watched him rub the drop between his thumb and forefinger. “Then how about you let me take you out for dinner?”
His eyes were so glossy and black she couldn’t see into them.
She shook her head and laughed. She took a long last drag and tossed the butt into the gutter.
Amar put his hands in his pockets and jingled his pennies and dimes. He moved down the sidewalk and hovered over the sleeping body, who appeared less like a human than a tangle of clothes. Soiled denim and a hoodie, soles of blown-out sneakers naked to the street. Amar nudged the man with his shoe. The body stirred, then crumpled into itself for warmth.
Amar turned to her. “Ain’t nobody going to drop in for caviar,” he said, “if they got to step over shit just to get through the door.” She sighed in agreement. Every day she watched people sticking hypodermics in their necks. Barefoot girls squatting to pee. There was no way to pass through the air without those molecules filling her sinuses, corrupting her hopes, a little more each day.
Across the street, crows attacked garbage bags. “Get up,” Amar shouted down at the concrete. “Go kill yourself in private.” His body tensed with each word, his muscles fuelled by some pressurized force, which had always been there, it seemed to her now, waiting to be useful. When Amar kicked the man, she could almost feel the contact between shoe and gut, soft and visceral, like cotton gauze shoved up into a tooth socket.
The man buried his head in his arms. She could tell from the look of his hands and brown fingernails that he wasn’t a man at all, but still tender. Amar smoothed his tie back down inside his jacket. The kid pushed his knuckles into the sidewalk and wobbled to his knees. Amar hoisted him by the hood. She glimpsed acne and peach fuzz. On his feet the kid looked so brittle, as if he could fall and crash, dissolve into particles and drift away in the wind. They disappeared around the side of the building into the alley, and she was glad.
She didn’t follow. She was a gentle creature, undone by adrenalin. She retreated into the store and turned the lock. She slipped past artful displays of pomegranate molasses and truffle oil into the storeroom at the back. She closed the door, sat down on a plastic tub of olives, and flipped the light switch. A headache pulsed behind her eyes. In the dark, amid the groaning shelves, she breathed in vanilla, saffron, jasmine rice. All the clean, gorgeous scents she’d brought here so foolishly from the ends of the earth.
Our next Canada noir: “Red Carpet Caper” by Donna Morrissey…