Bad Ideas: A Novel

Bad Ideas: A Novel

by Missy Marston


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Wildly funny and wonderfully moving, Bad Ideas is about just that — a string of bad ideas — and the absurdity of love

Trudy works nights in a linen factory, avoiding romance and sharing the care of her four-year-old niece with Trudy’s mother, Claire. Claire still pines for Trudy’s father, a St. Lawrence Seaway construction worker who left her twenty years ago. Claire believes in true love. Trudy does not. She’s keeping herself to herself. But when Jules Tremblay, aspiring daredevil, walks into the Jubilee restaurant, Trudy’s a goner.

Loosely inspired by Ken “the Crazy Canuck” Carter’s attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River in a rocket car, and set in a 1970s hollowed-out town in eastern Ontario, Bad Ideas paints an indelible portrait of people on the forgotten fringes of life. Witty and wise, this is a novel that will stay with you a long time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770414617
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.61(d)
Lexile: 680L (what's this?)

About the Author

Missy Marston’s first novel, The Love Monster, was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa Book Award, a finalist for the CBC Bookie Awards and the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt


Because it had been years

When those strangers walked into the Jubilee restaurant, Trudy Johnson was twenty-two years old and she had not had sex in five years. Her horniness was closing in on her every thought. It was making her edgy, irritable. But she had made herself a promise. She had decided to forgo the physical for a while. She was in recovery.

Trudy had the kind of body that caused no end of trouble. Her mother had the same one. Her sister Tammy had it. And her little niece, Mercy, would likely have it one day, too, God help her. The kind of body that grew up too soon, that alienated you from your later-blooming classmates. That attracted the attention of the wrong men. Or maybe it made men act wrong. It made them call you a goddess but treat you like trash. Impregnate you and evaporate. The Johnson family had, at this point, three generations of females living in their house and zero generations of men.

She had the kind of body that, if you lived in it long enough, confused you about love. It could lead you to believe that any man who really cared for you would not want to have sex with you. Because he would be able to see that sex was not your only purpose. That you had other things to offer. So far, she had not met such a man.

Except once, in a way.

Once she had met a man who was not the least bit interested in having sex with her. Maybe because he saw people naked every day, all bodies — even hers — had lost their magic. Dr. Noel Cameron had saved her life once. No questions asked. Every time she saw him in town, he nodded at her, then looked away. The sun always seemed to be behind him, shining all around his big head.

That was it: one shining exception to the rule. One good man. The rest, Trudy was pretty sure, were complete bastards.

Because the air became water

That first spring evening seemed like a long time ago now. A lot can happen in seven months. A lot can fall apart. Trudy would say that it was like a scene in a movie, except no movie she had ever seen was set anywhere that looked anything like Preston Mills, Ontario. Scrubby shit-town clinging to the bank of the cold grey St. Lawrence River.

Eight hundred inhabitants, one grocery store, one gas station, one corner store called Smitty's where you could fill tiny paper bags with stale penny candy. Swedish berries, toffee nuggets, black balls, licorice nibs.

One pool hall that no female would dare enter and that hollering, fighting men tumbled out of at hourly intervals each evening.

Six churches, one of them Catholic, one evangelical — complete with snake-handlers and speakers of tongues — and four barely distinguishable flavours of Protestantism: Presbyterian, United, Lutheran, Anglican.

A mile east of town, one massive set of locks that huge tankers eased into and then were slowly lowered and released to continue along the river to the ocean.

And there was a mill, WestMark Linen Mill, that employed Trudy and her mother, Claire, as well as most of the other working adults in the town.

There must have been other mills at some point, at least one other, to justify the town's name. Maybe a long time ago, when it was Preston Mills, the first. Because this was Preston Mills, the second. Preston Mills, the ugly.

In the 1950s, the town had been taken apart and reassembled between the river and the railroad tracks when the Seaway went through. Highway H2O, they called it. The way of the future. Higgledy-piggledy little Preston Mills — with its winding streets and courtyards, its barns and chicken coops and crooked lanes, its docks and boathouses and pebble beaches — was taken apart and put together again in straight lines. Houses jacked up, wrenched from their foundations, lifted onto trailers behind trucks, dragged back from the water, and deposited on dirt lots along a grid of new streets. Schools and churches were taken down brick by brick and built again. The scar of the old town was still there, at the bottom of the river: the streets, the sidewalks, the rectangular concrete foundations, the fence posts. A map-like outline of the whole town imprinted on the riverbed. And every day giant ships passed overhead, casting shadows over the sunken town like long black clouds.

Graveyards were moved, too. Coffins dug up and tombstones moved to flat treeless fields. People worried that the workers had lost track, that the bodies no longer matched the names on the stones. But how would they ever know? They wouldn't. The empty graves were flooded along with everything else. Slowly erased by silt and stones and shells and waving fields of seaweed.

(There were still bodies under there, though. Everyone knew it. For some of the dead, living relatives could not be found, and in the absence of a decision-maker, the bodies were left where they were. And some people were too squeamish or too superstitious to have their loved ones disturbed. Slabs of stone were placed over the graves to ensure the coffins didn't float up to the surface after the flood. A sad fleet of haunted little boats bobbing around here and there on the surface. Nobody wanted that.)

A new arrow-straight highway bordered Preston Mills to the north. The old highway was underwater about a hundred feet from the shore. In a couple of places, it rose out of the water and dipped back in, like the humps of the Loch Ness monster. Enough grass had broken through the asphalt and grown weedy-high that the hills looked like small islands. But if you swam out to one, you could see it was a road. There was a faded yellow line down the centre, and you could walk along until the road sloped back down underwater. In some places you could walk for half a mile before you lost your footing and started to float above the road.

That was how Trudy had felt when she first saw him: like the ground was suddenly dropping away beneath her feet, like the air had become water and she was floating up toward the bright blue sky.

Because they had no right

It was April 1978. Mercy was only four years old and it seemed like the whole town had turned grey. The grey river washed against the grey shore. The grey trees stood against the grey sky, biding their time, refusing to bloom. Trudy and Mercy were sitting in a booth at the back of the Jubilee, and Mercy was peeling the cheese off her slice of pizza and cramming it into her mouth, her little hands covered in sauce. Trudy was smoking, staring past Mercy out the front window of the restaurant, when the door opened and the bells jingled. Two men came in, laughing so hard that they staggered and bumped against each other as they made their way past the front counter.

Both tall. Both lean.

Both dressed like they were from somewhere else. Lower, tighter jeans. Tshirts with dumb slogans.

I'm with Stupid. Keep on Truckin'.

One of the men was pale and freckled with curly dark hair and giant sideburns. The other man had broad shoulders and a broad smile. His skin was a deep, rich brown. This was a show-stopper. Every single one of the eight hundred inhabitants of Preston Mills was as white as paste — of English, Irish, Dutch, or German extraction — and not one of them had ever seen a black man except on TV.

"What?" said Mercy, seeing Trudy's eyebrows lift. "What are you looking at?"

Trudy scowled at her and shook her head, reached across and touched her finger to the little girl's lips. Quiet.

Mercy wrapped her hand around her aunt's finger and pulled it aside. She whispered, "Trudy, what?" Not waiting for an answer, she rose to her knees to look over the back of the booth.

"Sit down, Mercy." Trudy ground her cigarette out in the ashtray and took a sly look around at the other patrons. Nine or ten others, mostly men. Frozen. Staring. That giant fool, Jimmy Munro, pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and lifted his chin at the strangers. He was always looking for a fight. Trudy could see him sizing up the newcomers, assessing his chances. Mercy brushed a fly off her forehead and looked from Jimmy to the strangers and back again. Jimmy said, "Can we help you with something?"

The freckled one pushed his hands deep into his front pockets, rocked back on the heels of his boots, and smiled. Trudy could see a good three inches of tanned skin between his belt and the bottom of his shirt. She could see the shadowy trail of dark hair down the middle. Like an oasis in the desert. Unable, or unwilling, to take her eyes off this welcome sight, she reached blindly across the table and tugged at the back of Mercy's shirt so that the little girl dropped back onto her seat.

"You know what?" said the stranger. "That's nice of you, but we're just here to see our friends." He caught Trudy's eye and nodded. Then he and his companion walked right over to their table and sat down.

As if it were true. As if they had any right.

"Thanks for letting us join you, ladies. Such a friendly little town."

Trudy knew she was being observed. Her feelings about this stranger were equal parts rage and attraction. And she was painfully tired. Her eyes were burning from cigarette smoke. She had a full night shift at the factory ahead of her and she had been chasing Mercy all day. And now she found herself in the middle of this ridiculous standoff.

"Listen," she said.

"Jules," he interrupted.


"Jules Tremblay. That's my name. And this is James." James nodded. Trudy thought she would die of irritation.

"Listen, Jewels. And James. Nobody in this restaurant believes that you are my friends."

"Why not?"

Trudy sighed. "Because they all know me, and they know I don't have any friends."

"I'm your friend," said Mercy.

"Right," said Trudy. "I have one friend." She looked over at Jimmy and his table of galoots. Flipped her middle finger at them. They looked away. "Time to go, Mercy. Say goodbye."

"Bye, friends," said Mercy, quietly.

"You guys should probably go, too. Nothing good is going to happen here."

Trudy grabbed her jacket. The men stood to let them out of the booth. Mercy looked back at them and waved as Trudy dragged her to the front of the restaurant to pay.

And she knew it already. Trudy knew that even though it was indefensible, even though he had done nothing to distinguish himself, even though she knew nothing about him at all, she would think of him.

She would think of him and little else until she saw him again.

Because everything stopped making sense

Before he had shown up, bringing with him the tight green buds of springtime, things had been alright for Trudy. Boring, maybe. But alright. Mercy was hard work, especially when she was smaller. Pulling on Trudy's pant leg. Tearing the house apart like a little animal. Trailing chewed-up food and snot wherever she went. Still — it had been just the three of them, and things were simple. Trudy's mother, Claire, worked the early shift at the linen mill. Trudy worked the late one. They looked after Mercy in opposite shifts: Trudy on days, Claire on nights. At least, that's what they had done since Trudy's sister, Tammy, had fucked off into the ether and left her progeny behind.

Trudy spent hazy days on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep, TV on, one ear on alert for Mercy. Sometimes, out of nowhere, the little girl would bounce onto her, knocking the wind from her lungs, and then settle her warm little body behind Trudy's knees or in the curved hollow of her belly.

The nights passed in a blurry clockwork dream. Seated at her machine, fluorescent lights humming above, she sewed pillowcase after pillowcase. A straight seam up the left side, crank the wheel, sink the needle into the fabric, lift the foot, rotate ninety degrees. Lower the foot onto the fabric — pink or blue or green or some pastel paisley print — and sew a straight seam across the top. Needle in fabric, rotate ninety degrees, straight seam down the right side. Lift foot. Cut thread. Slide the pillowcase across the table into the bin.


One foot in front of the other, day after day, night after night. A carton of cigarettes, purchased each payday. A stack of packs, each cellophane wrapper unwound and discarded. Silver foil removed from one side then the other. Ashtrays filled and then emptied. Until he came along.

Then everything got complicated.

Because never is a long time

In a town like Preston Mills, people would say that a girl had "a reputation." There was only one kind. Trudy had known what this meant for as long as she could remember. Her mother had a reputation. And Trudy didn't want one. She had developed a defense. When adults asked if she had a boyfriend, she told them that she didn't like boys. They were disgusting. She almost believed it. By the time she was thirteen, adults stopped asking her about boys, and kids started calling her gay or a lez — Preston Mills–speak for lesbian. She let them believe it. Any boy permitted to touch her was usually from out of town (sports tournaments and visiting cousins provided the occasional make-out partner), sworn to secrecy, and threatened with death.

And she never, never went all the way.

This strategy had worked through most of her teens. Until Jimmy Munro finally wore her down.

Jimmy Munro's face looked like it had been hit with the back of a shovel: dented brow, crushed nose, chipped teeth. His dark eyes glittered with bad intent and he wore his hair Elvis Presley style: slick with Brylcreem and combed back over his ears. Trudy had known Jimmy since kindergarten. (She had known everyone since kindergarten.) In their first year of high school, he started hounding her. Sitting next to her in every class, goading her relentlessly.

"Hey, Trudy. You gay?"

"Shut up, Jimmy."

"What a waste. With that ass? Oh my God."

Trudy would stare straight ahead, trying to focus on the teacher.

"You don't know what you're missing, Trudy. I could show you something. You wanna see something?"

"Gross. Not interested."

He persisted.

Every class, every day, an endless stream of increasingly obscene banter. Until the words became meaningless. Until they stopped making her angry. Until there was something comforting about the tirelessness of his pursuit. It made her like him a little bit. Plus, he made her laugh. And hanging out with Jimmy — who was gigantic — deflected the advances of other boys.

Even when he was only fourteen or fifteen, Jimmy had been built like a bull. Thick broad shoulders and tiny ass. He was so top-heavy it seemed like you could tip him over with just a little nudge. But you couldn't. Trudy knew it. Sometimes when they were goofing around, she would throw herself at him in a wild tackle, to no avail. She would just rebound off him. He was as immovable as a mountain.

Then one day, walking home from school, she caught him off guard. She saw him walking down the path behind the Catholic church, about fifty feet ahead. She took a running leap at him at a slight angle and knocked him to the ground. Whump! She rolled on top of him, laughing. "Victory is mine!"

"Jesus, Trudy! You scared the shit out of me."

She leapt up, fist in the air. "The winner! Thank you. Thank you." She swept low, taking a deep bow.

He stood up and lunged after her, grabbed her from behind. He pressed his shovel face into her neck and whispered in her ear. "Trudy Johnson, will you never fuck me? Really? How can that be?"

"Never." Famous last words. "Now get off me."

Because sometimes you can see things coming from a long way away

Trudy had quit school when she was sixteen to work at the mill. By the time Tammy was pregnant with Mercy, Trudy had already been working there for a year. One year that felt like forty. Every night that summer, she left early for work so she could go swimming. She would throw her bag over her arm and set out walking.

Ten at night and everything would be dead quiet. The sky was always black, the silver stars sparkling, the streets deserted. Almost all of the houses dark. The soft summer breeze smelled like the river.

She would walk right down the middle of the street, slowly, daring a car to come, daring the universe to break her perfect record: in the whole time she had been working at the factory, she had never once seen a car or a person on the street at this time of night. Straight ahead, up the hill, past the park, she could see the lights of the mill. But instead of going straight, she would turn left, cut through the school parking lot, across the baseball diamond, and down the gravel road to the beach. Each night of the summer, she would walk to the far end of the beach by the pier and the boathouses, place her folded towel on top of her bag, take off all her clothes, and walk into the water until it reached her neck. She would stand there, shivering a little in the black water, watching the moon's reflection on the surface until her heart slowed down.

A moment of cool peace between the heat and noise of home and the drone and glare of work.

She could see the lights of the factories across the river on the American side, and she could see the towering shadow of the hydro dam to the west.

One night, she stood there, about twenty feet from shore, her toes pressed into the silky clay of the riverbed, when she felt the rumble of a ship engine coming up through the ground. A green light flashed at the top of a buoy straight ahead. She heard the ship's horn and turned to the east to see the glimmer of it in the distance. She stood rooted as the ship took form, the vibration growing stronger, rattling her body. She was thinking about how long you can see things coming sometimes — sometimes for your whole life — when she turned and saw him standing on the shore.


Excerpted from "Bad Ideas"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Victoria (Missy) Marston.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Why do they do it?,
Part 1 Trudy,
Because it had been years,
Because the air became water,
Because they had no right,
Because everything stopped making sense,
Because never is a long time,
Because sometimes you can see things coming from a long way away,
Because everyone makes mistakes,
Because it would kill her mother,
Because small towns are unbearable,
Because enough was enough,
Because some solutions can fix more than one kind of problem,
Because you can't help looking,
Because the black water wanted to swallow you whole,
Because the light at sunset can make anything look golden,
Because sometimes you have to set the world on fire,
Because not everything has to make sense,
Because not all unicorns have horns,
Because you can't just lay down and die,
Because it wasn't called "The Number Two" for nothing,
Because love at first sight is real,
Because there was no stopping it,
Because you can definitely make the same mistake twice,
Because memories are more important than remembering,
Because hate can be love,
Because the sadness can just start leaking out of you,
Because Mama needs love,
Because you never get a moment to yourself,
Because trouble will find you,
Because everything inside you has been rearranged,
Because you don't get to choose your dreams,
Because it's hard to tell the difference between flying and falling,
Because everything looks left behind,
Because in the country, birds make an unbelievable racket,
Because you can only do some things for so long,
Because so many sad stories are almost the same,
Because even monsters can be lovable,
Because you should be careful what you wish for,
Because you learn something new every day,
Because it doesn't take much,
Because that's life,
Because real love is always mixed with terror,
Because everybody remembers everything,
Because if you look hard enough it is probably there,
Tammy (and Fenton),
Because there is another skin beneath your skin,
Because you don't know what makes it happen,
Because you're nobody's baby,
Because it can never be far enough,
Because you feel the only feeling you can bear,
Because sometimes it all mixes together,
Because sometimes you don't know what's happening until it's over,
Because the impossible is not the possible,
Because nothing is ever quite the way you want it to be,
Because dreams can march right into the daylight,
Because there is always someone eager to deliver bad news,
Because you just keep making things up until they seem true,
Because a little progress would be nice for a change,
Because you never know what you might see in the moonlight,
Because nobody will ever love you enough,
Because there is no point in lying,
Because you think you're so fucking good,
Part 2 So Long at the Fair,
Because the end of summer means the beginning of something else,
Because what goes up must come down,
Because there are rude surprises in this life,
Because sometimes it's better to just turn around and walk away,
Because joy can fill you up and send you right up into the sky,
Because you don't always want to hear what other people think,
Because some rides are too rough,
Because sometimes you just want to go home,
Because the sun on the water looks like diamonds,
Because a tumour is the last thing you need,
Because Sunday is the Lord's Day (not yours),
Because the hospital is never fun for long,
Because the new day is pink,
The Circus,
Because you think you know what you're in for,
Because nobody invited you,
Because time travels in both directions,
Because family can get on your very last nerve,
Because crying when you are happy makes no sense to children,
Because sometimes you lose the thread,
Because sometimes you feel like a sheet on the clothesline,
Because you don't want to hear it,
Because it's always just the beginning,
Because the years come charging in,
Because love is weird,
Because sooner or later you have to make your move,
Because it will all end one way or another,
Because they're only numbers,
Because there are two kinds of surprises,
Because sometimes it seems like there is only one kind of luck,
Because some things just don't feel natural,
Because some people never learn,
Because it has always been serious,
The Stunt,
Because maybe they really are trying to kill you,
Because you don't have to see people go to know they are gone,
Because sometimes you can smell a rat,
Because you made it this way,
Because some people are harder to love than others,
Because it has already happened without you,
Because the wind makes your eyes water,
Because you wouldn't,
Because you don't even know who to be mad at for what,
Because it is just a body in the end,
Because there are no diamonds,
Acknowledgements and thanks,
About the Author,

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