An excerpt from Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

From the Giller-nominated collection of short stories
Lynn Coady


Jane salutes you from an age where to be an aficionado is to find yourself foolishly situated in the world. Where to care a great deal about something, no matter how implicitly interesting it may be, is to come across as a kind of freak. It’s interest — inordinate interest — in something seemingly arbitrary, having little to do with you or the context you inhabit. Beanie Babies, say, or Glenn Gould. Jane once met a person who insisted he was “crazy about Glenn Gould,” who owned all these rare and exotic recordings. Called himself a glennerd, happily, smugly. Did other Gould fanatics call themselves glennerds? Jane wanted to know. The glennerd shrugged, didn’t care. It wasn’t about other glennerds, Jane saw, it was only about this particular glennerd, him and his fascination. This person was not a musician. Didn’t listen to classical music, as a rule. It’s that people get fixated. People take a notion in their head. Jane, not her real name because all this embarrasses her somewhat, once had a thing for a cartoon called Robo-friendz. She was too old for Robo-friendz — sixteen, she was supposed have things for men with tawny chests, bulging crotches and leonine hair — but no, only the Robo-friendz, for about a year or so, sent her into a daily couch-catatonia. No one in her family was allowed to talk to her when Robo-friendz was on. She probably drooled as she watched, as slackly comforted — comfortably absented — as a baby nuzzling breasts. These are the obsessions that turn your brain somehow on and off at once. They come regularly, each more arbitrary than the next. Once it was mushrooms, especially the kind that look like tiny, mounted brains. Once it was an all-male medieval choir from Norway. Once it was a website with a dancing hamster who sang a different show tune every week. She checked it faithfully each Monday morning, like a prayer to greet the dawn. It is not like alcoholism, it is not like addiction. But it’s wrapped up with that — the pathetic psychology of it. The everlasting need to flee whatever there is to be fled from. Fortunately, one does not need to dwell on this knowledge, one is discouraged from beating oneself up in Jane’s circles. That’s good to know — you’re permitted to comprehend and yet ignore such things — that’s nice, that helps.

It started before the dream. A woman walks into a bar.

Starts like a joke, you see.

A woman walks into a bar. It’s Toronto, she’s there on business. Bidness, she likes to call it, she says to her friends. Makes it sound raunchy, which it is not. It’s meetings, mostly with other women of her own age or else men about twenty years older. Sumptuous lunches in blandly posh restaurants. There is only one thing duller than upscale Toronto dining, and that’s upscale Toronto dining with women of Jane’s own age, class and education. They and Jane wear black, don’t go in for a lot of jewellery, are elegant, serious. The men are more interesting. The men were once Young Turks of publishing. They remember the seventies, when magazines were run by young men exactly like themselves — — smokers, drinkers — and these men have never found one another remotely dull — not in the least. Some of them used to be in rock and roll bands. They wear their hair a little shaggy around the ears, now, a silvery homage. Some of them have even managed to remain drunks. This is something a lady discovers quickly over lunch: which of these silver foxes are recovered, and which are still sloshing around down there in the dregs. Wine with lunch, Jane? Oh well, perhaps I’ll join you. Half litre? Heck, why not a full one, how often do you get into town? Martini to round out dessert? Specialty coffee? At this point, both sets of eyes are liquid, glinting friendly light.

If it doesn’t happen at lunch, she’ll go to a bar, later in the day, after dinner. She has a sense of decorum. She can wait until after dinner, especially when she’s on Vancouver time, three hours earlier than this grey, weighty city.

So a woman walks into a bar. Meets a man — it’s a cliché.

The man is also a drunk, also an out-of-towner, also alone.

After the first round, they are delighted to discover they come from precisely opposite sides of the continent. Oh, ho ho ho. Delighted in that dumb, convivial way that drinking people have. It’s not like it can be considered a coincidence, being from opposite sides of the country. But, oh, ho ho ho, they find it an inexplicable delight. To be meeting up right here in the middle.

His accent was a giveaway from the start. His quaint, alien accent, the way he can’t pronounce th, it’s twee, she finds it cute. You’re not supposed to find Newfoundlanders cute, they bristle at that. Some people are the same way about Newfoundlanders as others are about Beanie Babies and Glenn Gould. But his name is Ned, he’s burly, has a beard and is a fiddler. I mean, come on.

In town to play some bars with his five-part folk/trad outfit. They specialize in filthy songs, he tells her, dirty ditties. Smutty traditional tunes from days gone by, baroque with double — and sometimes single — entendres. Most people don’t want to know that cute Newfoundlanders and their Irish antecedents went around singing things like: Come and tie my pecker round a tree, round a tree-o / come and tie my tool around a tree. But, says Ned, they did, and do. Ned bears himself up like a scholar as he tells her this. As the evening unspools, he sings snatches from his repertoire, and indeed most of it has to do with snatches in some way or another. The only one she is able to remember afterward is a song that kept ending with the refrain “bangin’ on the ol’ tin can.”

“I never heard it called that before.”

“We are a colourful people,” Ned had agreed.

Ned wanted to go home with her — to her hotel and not his, because he was sharing his room with the accordion player. But when that idea was vetoed by the unenticed Jane — he was too burly, too bearded for her sleek tastes — he recommended they at least keep in touch. So she took his phone and email.

“If you’re ever on the Rock,” he’d offered with bourboned sincerity.

From Hellgoing by Lynn Coady. Copyright © Lynn Coady, 2013.  Excerpt reproduced with the permission of House of Anansi Press.  All rights reserved.