The Canadian Grotesque

Summer, 2013 / No. 30
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Another commercial came on and Pam writhed in her seat, desperate for the man in the ravine. She had seen too much of him recently and likely was testing the limits of Alan’s credulousness, but he showed no sign of having caught on. Besides, she had already set a date to break it off with the man, a fact that only intensified her yearning for him as the woman on TV lathered her already clean hair. Pam was pleased with her self-discipline in imposing her own deadline and felt she had earned the delicious fervor of these final visits. After next week, she would forget all about the man in the ravine and return her attention to making a baby with Alan.

With all the logistical and emotional intricacies of the liaison, Pam couldn’t have anticipated, as it drew to a close, that one of the hardest things to give up would be the lying.

She could easily have passed off her new-found passion for evening walks as a developing interest in her health, but Alan would have insisted on joining her, because he cared. Instead, she decided to employ a device she never had previously thought had any use at all: John Spade.

Spade was a halfwit toady whose position at the firm where she worked was locked in by his cocaine fraternity with the C.E.O. back in the eighties, a decade in which Spade still resided. John Spade still smoked. He wore shiny suits and a crust of hair gel in the bristles crowning the head that had never completed a thought. Nothing in life seemed to have touched him. Pam pictured his insides as smooth and empty as an eggshell. She was convinced he could neither read nor write and that all he did at work was sit at his desk, paralyzed by the certainty he would one day be exposed as an illiterate fraud. Working with him so enraged Pam that whenever she was forced to, she would come home at night to Alan and treat him to a spitting, snarling tirade that increased in pitch and vehemence until she eventually retreated in exhaustion. There was no chance of Alan’s accompanying her so long as she was supposed to be working with John Spade.

And so, Pam had created a fiction about a stressful new project she’d been assigned at work with Spade that sent her home every night in a dead-on imitation of her blindest rage, a dissemblance in which she had discovered an unexpected joy. She was developing a sense of narrative nuance and realism, and found she was able to improvise endless new John Spade stories based on the copious material she possessed. It felt like art.

The man in the ravine quietly had been teaching Pam about her interior topography, the legend to her map. When she was with him all her cargo made sense. She could access her inner detritus, pick it up and roll it between her fingers, rub it on her face and kiss it. More importantly, she could show it to another person. She wished she could share it with Alan too, considering how much of it was wrapped up with him. She wished she could tell him how much he was part of her, how he would always complete her, but never could quite tell him why.

The first time she laid eyes on Alan, playing darts at the pub, Pam was overwhelmed with need. Tall, hirsute, disproportionately long and barrel-chested, with short legs, flat feet, and hands that were a little too small and tapered for his size, he filled one of her essential romantic requirements. When he finally became hers, as they walked among the luminaries dotting a path up the courtyard of an inn on Vancouver Island, she gripped his arm and whispered “Mine, mine, mine…” into his lapel.

Pam was not without a conscience, and it did give her the occasional tug. But when she felt the creep of remorse, she would dig around inside and pick out this: One time, Alan’s childhood friend Cherie, and her husband, were visiting from Peace River, and Pam and Alan invited them over for a barbecue. At one point, they were standing on the lawn discussing the recent sex scandal of a professional golfer who had been prodigiously cheating on his wife for years without her having the remotest clue, when Alan joked: “Guy’s got balls.” It didn’t count as a joke, really, and Alan may or may not have intended it as one, but nonetheless, Cherie threw back her head and laughed. Pam watched in amazement until Cherie recovered and punctuated the outburst with a warm, lingering smile in Alan’s direction. Pam hung on to this one.

She had never betrayed Alan before, nor desired anything outside their marriage. She coveted him. As part of a game they would play, he would loom hairily over her as he approached the bed and croon, at her insistence, “Here it comes…the Canadian Grotesque…you can’t get enough.” And she couldn’t. Alan was like a beast right out of a story. A story about Alberta. Pam hadn’t known she could want anything more until the day she stumbled upon the man in the ravine.

She had taken the afternoon off work after a root canal; no sense in going back to the office woozy. As the effect of the local anesthetic waned, the throbbing pain in her face was hitting her like seasickness. From the bus stop, it was a fifteen-minute walk home and Pam wasn’t sure she could make it without throwing up. The ravine cut a path straight through her route, cutting the walk in two. It was just after noon and the bad kids would still be at school. Normal people, good people, didn’t take the shortcut through the ravine. Pam didn’t know their reasons, but she knew her own, and it was those kids. They hung around down there doing God knows what. Drugs, she supposed. Whatever it was, they frightened her, even though they were really just kids, not even teenagers. They couldn’t have been older than eight. It was only after she was halfway down the staircase of roots leading into the ravine that she heard their voices (which she instinctively knew to be the voices of bad kids) and realized that, of course they were already down here; bad kids didn’t go to school. She considered climbing straight back up and taking the long way round, but was seized by a wave of nausea and realized how exposed she now was to the kids, who hadn’t yet noticed her because they were huddled around something they were setting on fire. It would be safer to skirt along the shelf running under the lip of grass and dirt and emerge unseen on the other side. But this meant she would have to pass the paprika-coloured house. Generally assumed to be either abandoned or haunted, it would have been an eyesore and a threat to property value had it been visible from the street, or had anyone been willing to admit it was even there. But no one talked about it. At all. Not a word. It was deep in the ravine, down on that shelf, covered from sight by the roots of the trees from the street above. Still, it was creepy and you’d think people would have something to say about it, given how much they had to say about everyone else’s house. It was as though acknowledging the paprika-coloured house meant admitting to something…personal. Instead, it just created a warm mist of embarrassment wafting from beneath the town.

Pam took quick, shallow breaths as she approached from the trees, looking for a safe place to be sick. But as the shadow of the house’s battered eaves fell over her shoulders, her equilibrium returned.

The foundation of the house was sliding right down the cliff. In fact, the bottom step of the front porch jutted out just beyond the shelf. It looked as though it could come careening down the incline at any minute. Pam climbed gingerly over the side of the banister and was navigating the holes and weak boards of the porch when she looked up and saw him in the front window. Sudden, close, and large, he stood staring softly at her, his big hands hanging limply at his sides. The bad kids ceased to exist as she fell deeper into his face and a set of eyes that told her they understood; they understood her and loved every shred; they told her there was a place here, with him, in this house, for the thing that made her eat crushed grapes off the produce department floor.

Pam looked over at Alan on his end of the sectional, his double chin adorably foreshortened. He’d wanted babies from her since the day they met. They had put it off for years because of money, but she also was secretly worried she lacked Alan’s noble zeal to patiently love something that would demand her attention at all times. The man in the ravine had changed that too. Now that she knew what lurked inside her, she knew what would emerge. And she couldn’t wait.

But for this instant, the John Spade part of her boiled up with a frothy delight. As it did, her eyes rolled, her fingers tingled. She took one massive inhale.

“Tss,” she hissed as the woman in the commercial shook out her hair like a silky auburn sheet.

Alan stiffened.

She grabbed her own hair at the temples, pulling and growling.

“God, I’m sorry. Just…working with him…”

Alan dropped his head.

“Jesus, you know what he did today? God, he’s ….So, I have to pass all the reports on this project up through him for approval—as if he can even read them. So he’s looking at the Management Exceptions report, and because he’s a moron, and because it makes him feel important and appear functionally literate, he feels he has to make some changes before he approves—even if it’s all fine, which it always is. And because he’s a simpleton and can’t read, the only thing that rings a bell for him on the whole report is the company name, which he can only identify because it has the logo next to it. So this is what he decides he wants changed. He wants it moved to the middle of the page. The middle of the page. Who publishes a report with the logo centered? And why? Why? It’s a template. It’s the template we’ve been using for, like, ten years. Why even have a template if nimrods like him can come along and capriciously change it? A template is a template. But he wouldn’t know. If you asked him, he wouldn’t be able to define a template for you. He’d have to work it out phonetically, and I can guarantee he’d tell you it had something to do with dishes. It’s just a meaningless word like the rest of them. And Burnside will O.K. his change, because of all the blow they used to do together at the disco, and because Burnside doesn’t understand templates either, or he’s just too rich to care.”

From the corner of her eye she watched Alan’s fingers splay rigidly across the corduroy sofa pillow.

“But then also, the name. We’re ‘Strategy Cascade, Inc.’ It’s our legal name. It’s on all our letterhead and documentation. It’s on the side of the building. He suggests—because he thinks it sounds slicker—that we take out the ‘Inc.’ in the name. Our company name. Because what? We’re selling beer? It’s a report. It’s not selling anything. It doesn’t need to be slick. He is the stupidest…”

Pam reached out and gripped Alan’s hand where it lay, and he jumped.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m gonna, I’m gonna…I’m sorry…,” she muttered, shaking her head and palpating her brow all the way to the front door.

Blood rushed between her ears as she laced up her running shoes. This one had been exceptional. It was loosely based on an idiotic change Spade had in fact asked her to make to an inter-office memo about a year ago, so it had a satisfying verisimilitude. She could practically smell the smoke and hair gel.

Pam pictured Alan and Cherie, their deck chairs a little too close, talking as though they’d known each other forever (which, in fact, they had).

She pushed the image from her mind and allowed a shudder of pleasure to run through her body as she imagined the moment when, free from all she was endlessly encouraged to want, the man in the ravine would reach for her hand across his soot-smeared table, pull it slowly toward his mouth, select a finger, and with a rasp, insert it between his desiccated lips.

Michelle Winters is a writer, painter, and translator from Saint John, New Brunswick, living in Toronto. Her debut novel, I Am a Truck, was shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Currently, she is working on her second novel, Hair for Men. Last updated summer, 2021.