CHRIST­MAS AT THE VINYL CAFE

Christ­mas just doesn’t feel com­plete with­out a Dave and Mor­ley clas­sic from the late, great Stu­art Mclean. This Cana­dian icon may be gone, but his sto­ries live on. In the mid­dle of Novem­ber, when Jim Scoffield was clean­ing out his at­tic, he came across a

Canadian Living - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS EM­I­LIE SIMP­SON

A clas­sic hu­mor­ous hol­i­day tale by the late, great Stu­art Mclean

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, the books had made it as far as his front hall, which is where Jim hap­pened to be stand­ing when he spot­ted Rashida Chudary push­ing her daugh­ter, Fa­tima, up the street in her stroller. Rashida and her hus­band, Amir, had moved into the neigh­bour­hood in Jan­uary, and ev­ery­one had taken great de­light in help­ing the Chudarys through their first win­ter. When it snowed, peo­ple woke up all over the neigh­bour­hood wish­ing they could be at the Chudarys’ to see their re­ac­tion.

Jim grabbed some wrap­ping pa­per from where he keeps it, un­der the sofa, and quickly gift-wrapped the books. Then he ran out­side. “An early Christ­mas present,” he said, hand­ing the chil­dren’s books to Rashida and point­ing at her daugh­ter.

Jim said the thing about the books be­ing a Christ­mas present so she wouldn’t think he was odd, run­ning out like that. He gave her the books and then he went in­side to fix din­ner and for­got about them com­pletely.

Rashida didn’t, how­ever. Rashida went home and went into a tail­spin.

Rashida and Amir are from Pak­istan. This was go­ing to be their first Christ­mas in Canada.

“Jim clearly said it was an early Christ­mas present,” she told Amir that night when her hus­band ar­rived home. “Do you know what that means?” Amir shook his head dis­con­so­lately. Rashida was pac­ing. “It surely means this whole neigh­bour­hood gives each other presents,” she said.

It was not two days since the start of Ra­madan. Amir hadn’t eaten since sun-up. His head was throb­bing. He couldn’t think about neigh­bour­hood gift-giv­ing. All Amir could think about was the car­rot muf­fin he had seen in the dough­nut store at lunchtime. He had only gone to the dough­nut store to look at the muffins.

“I don’t un­der­stand why we don’t have muffins in Pak­istan,” he had said when he’d first tried one. “They are truly won­der­ful things.”

Rashida could see that Amir was think­ing about food— he had a cer­tain muf­fin-hun­gry look about him. She wasn’t about to be dis­tracted.

“He was wait­ing for us…on his porch,” she said. She was hold­ing out the books Jim had given Fa­tima. “They were beau­ti­fully gift-wrapped. If Jim did this,” she said, “imag­ine what Gerta Low­beer will do. And what about Betty the Baker?”

When they’d first ar­rived in the neigh­bour­hood, Betty Schel­len­berger had brought them home bak­ing count­less times.

“Maybe if you walked by her house to­mor­row,” said Amir, “Betty the Baker would give you de­li­cious car­rot muffins for Christ­mas.”

Rashida snorted. “Amir,” she said, “this is not a jok­ing thing. Re­mem­ber what hap­pened in Oc­to­ber.”

What hap­pened in Oc­to­ber was Hal­loween, and Hal­loween was a dis­as­ter at the Chudarys’. No one had warned them about trick-or-treat­ing. When the door­bell had rung un­ex­pect­edly dur­ing sup­per, Rashida had opened it to find a mob of chant­ing chil­dren. She had thought they were teas­ing her. Rashida shooed the chil­dren away and shut the door as quickly as she could, hop­ing Amir wouldn’t no­tice. Chil­dren kept com­ing to the door all night, of course. When they fi­nally fig­ured out what was go­ing on, they were hor­ri­bly em­bar­rassed. Rashida didn’t want to re­peat the dis­as­ter. “Amir,” she said, “we have to get to work.” Amir and Rashida spent Novem­ber in a frenzy of prepa­ra­tion. They as­sem­bled elab­o­rate gift bas­kets for ev­ery­one in the neigh­bour­hood. Each bas­ket had lit­tle pack­ages of aro­matic rice and tamarind and home­made chut­neys. They stayed up late sewing lit­tle cloth bags for the spices.

Things at Dave and Mor­ley’s house were more com­fort­able in the run-up to Christ­mas. Mor­ley has been par­ing back her Christ­mas re­spon­si­bil­i­ties over the years. She has pruned her shop­ping list. She doesn’t do as much bak­ing as she used to. And Dave al­ways does the turkey now. So as Christ­mas ap­proached, Mor­ley felt uncommonly san­guine about the sea­son. She felt as if she were float­ing above it, as if she were a seabird float­ing ef­fort­lessly over the waves. She felt such a sense of con­trol that she even sat Dave down one night and they sent Christ­mas cards to his Cape Bre­ton rel­a­tives.

On an im­pulse, Mor­ley sent a card to Amir and Rashida. By co­in­ci­dence, it ar­rived the morn­ing Rashida and Amir fin­ished mak­ing their neigh­bour­hood Christ­mas pack­ages.

“Oh my golly,” said Amir. “Not cards too.”

Un­like Mor­ley, Dave had been pre­oc­cu­pied with Christ­mas since the end of Oc­to­ber. The neigh­bour­hood arena holds an an­nual skat­ing party ev­ery De­cem­ber—a fundraiser to raise money for a new Zam­boni.

Dave went to an or­ga­niz­ing meet­ing. When he set off, he knew he wouldn’t be leav­ing with­out some­thing to do.

Be­fore the meet­ing be­gan, Dave over­heard Mary Turling­ton talk­ing to Polly An­der­son.

“He flips a few steaks on the bar­be­cue and he thinks he has cooked a meal,” she said dis­parag­ingly. She was talk­ing about her hus­band, Bert. “Bak­ing,” said Polly An­der­son. “That’s the fi­nal fron­tier. Show me a man who can bake a cup­cake and I’m all his.”

They both cracked up.

At the end of the meet­ing, the chair­man passed a typed list of jobs around the ta­ble. Dave looked down the list and with­out a sec­ond thought said, “I’ll bake the Christ­mas cake.”

He said it for Bert Turling­ton. He said it for Ted An­der­son. He said it for all the men in the neigh­bour­hood. He said it for men every­where. He saw Mary Turling­ton shoot Polly An­der­son a raised eye­brow.

And that’s how, on a Satur­day in the mid­dle of Novem­ber, Dave came to be in his kitchen, sur­rounded by brown pa­per bags of sul­tanas and cur­rants and le­mons and figs and dates and prunes and nuts and glazed cher­ries and var­i­ous sug­ars. And a gi­ant jug of bour­bon. He was wear­ing a Santa Claus hat.

Mor­ley had taken one look at him and said, “I think I’ll take Sam to a movie.”

Dave had imag­ined his fam­ily at home while he baked—sam lick­ing the beat­ers, Mor­ley with her arms around him.

But Dave and Mor­ley have been mar­ried for over twenty years now. Mor­ley knows how these things go.

“So we won’t be in your way,” she’d said, strug­gling into her coat. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Au­tumn dimmed and the rains of Novem­ber ar­rived and the street lights went on ear­lier each night. The wind came up and the leaves blew off the pear tree in the back­yard, and it was good to be in­side. And in­side at Dave’s house, life was sub­lime.

Dave had his cakes wrapped in cheese­cloth and ag­ing on a shelf in the base­ment.

Two or three evenings a week he would head down­stairs and sprin­kle them with a soak­ing mix­ture he’d made with the bour­bon.

“It is very Euro­pean,” he said one night. “It’s like hav­ing a goat down there.”

Some­times on the week­ends Kenny Wong came over, and they would go into the base­ment and sprin­kle the cakes to­gether.

On Grey Cup week­end, Dave and Kenny watched the en­tire game with­out touch­ing one beer. They sucked on half a fruit­cake each.

By the mid­dle of De­cem­ber, Dave was ready for the arena. Big time. His cakes were moist and ma­ture and, truth be told, de­li­cious. Dave had eaten two of them. He had nib­bled them both to death. He had the re­main­ing dozen lined up like gold bars in a vault.

Amir and Rashida had their gift bas­kets ready to go too— wrapped in Cel­lo­phane, tagged and wait­ing in the front hall.

But a sense of anx­i­ety had de­scended upon the Chudarys. Amir and Rashida didn’t know when the neigh­bour­hood gift-giv­ing would be­gin. Know­ing noth­ing about Christ­mas tra­di­tions, they didn’t want to jump the gun.

“It wouldn’t be right, Amir,” said Rashida. “We must wait.”

And then there was a party at Fa­tima’s day­care, and all the chil­dren were given presents.

That night Rashida said, “I am think­ing, Amir, that the gift­ing has ob­vi­ously be­gun. We have not been in­cluded be­cause they do not want to make us un­com­fort­able. If we are go­ing to be part of this neigh­bour­hood, Amir, it is up to us to make the first move.”

Amir thought oth­er­wise, and they had a steamy ar­gu­ment about what to do. In the end, Rashida said, “I am go­ing tonight and that is all. If you are com­ing with me, Amir, you must come tonight.”

And so they set off after sup­per, pulling their wagon full of twenty-eight gift bas­kets.

When Rashida handed Mor­ley her Christ­mas bas­ket, Mor­ley ex­pe­ri­enced a stab of guilt. She was ashamed of her­self. She had been work­ing so hard to min­i­mize the has­sle of Christ­mas, and these new neigh­bours, these new Cana­di­ans, had so clearly em­braced the spirit of the sea­son.

She in­vited them in and she put their bas­ket un­der the tree. Then she said, “I have your present up­stairs.”

She flew up­stairs and, in a panic, grabbed a glass bowl she had picked up at a craft show. It was al­ready wrapped. She had been plan­ning to give it to her mother.

“See,” said Rashida to Amir fif­teen min­utes later as they pulled their wagon along the side­walk. “They were wait­ing on us, Amir.”

It took Amir and Rashida three hours, but when they’d fin­ished, they had left bas­kets all over the neigh­bour­hood.

The next morn­ing, Mor­ley no­ticed a tiny rash in the crook of her el­bow—a spot that of­ten flared when she was feel­ing pres­sured. While she was dry­ing her hair she told Dave what was bug­ging her.

“I gave the Chudarys that pretty glass bowl. We have lived right next to Maria and Eu­gene for eigh­teen years and we have never given them any­thing. And Gerta, too. If I give some­thing to the Chudarys, surely I should give some­thing to Gerta.”

She could feel the mus­cles in the back of her neck tight­en­ing. As she headed down­stairs for break­fast she was try­ing to fig­ure out when she would have time to shop.

Mor­ley went to a flower store at lunch and bought two bunches of holly. She was plan­ning on tak­ing one to Eu­gene and Maria next door and one to Gerta. She was plan­ning to do it after sup­per. But be­fore she could do that, the door­bell rang and there was Gerta—stand­ing on the stoop be­side a wagon full of presents. Christ­mas cook­ies. “I baked for ev­ery­body in the neigh­bour­hood,” she said de­fen­sively.

There was a small mus­cle twitch­ing un­der her left eye.

On the week­end Mor­ley dug through her emer­gency stash of presents look­ing for some­thing to give Mary Turling­ton.

“I wouldn’t want Mary to find out I gave some­thing to Gerta and not to her,” she told Dave.

She found a pair of hand-dipped can­dles. They were warped. Per­haps, she thought, if she warmed them up, she could straighten them. She took them down­stairs and put them in the mi­crowave.

After she had scraped out the mi­crowave, Mor­ley dashed to a neigh­bour­hood store. She ar­rived just be­fore clos­ing and bought a gift bas­ket of herbal teas for Mary.

On her way home she bumped into Dianne Gold­berg. Dianne was pulling a wagon up the street to­ward her house. The wagon was full of presents.

Mor­ley couldn’t be­lieve it. Ev­ery­one knew the Gold­bergs didn’t cel­e­brate Christ­mas.

Mor­ley said, “What a co­in­ci­dence. I just put some­thing un­der the tree for you.”

When they got home Mor­ley ducked into the liv­ing room ahead of Dianne and slipped the tea un­der the tree.

“Hey,” said Sam, when Dianne had left. “Eu­gene was here while you were out. He brought a present. It’s in the kitchen. Can we open it?”

Mor­ley rubbed her arm. The eczema on her el­bow was the size of a ten­nis ball.

By the Fri­day be­fore Christ­mas, Mor­ley had re­ceived ten gifts from neigh­bour­hood fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing two bas­kets of herbal tea iden­ti­cal to the one she had given Dianne Gold­berg. One of them looked as though it might have been the same bas­ket. Her rash had ex­tended down to her wrist. And then, with only three shop­ping days left, Mor­ley came home from work and found a small bot­tle of straw­berry-flavoured vir­gin olive oil from a fam­ily down the street she had never met be­fore.

She stood in the kitchen star­ing at the oil and scratch­ing her arm.

“Damn it,” she said.

Un­for­tu­nately, that was also the af­ter­noon Dave closed the Vinyl Cafe and came home early to ice his Christ­mas cakes. His plan was to fit them to­gether like a jig­saw puz­zle and seal them with a sugar-paste. The man in the bak­ery said the paste would harden up like marzi­pan. “Tougher than marzi­pan,” said the man. When the paste had boiled into a sticky syrup, Dave took it off the stove and be­gan to pour it on his cake. But in­stead of hard­en­ing up, the ic­ing flowed around like lava, pool­ing in the low spots. The cake soon looked like some­thing Sam might have made for a ge­og­ra­phy project—like a pa­pier-mâché model of the Rocky Moun­tains.

It hadn’t oc­curred to Dave that the cake sur­face had to be flat.

He went down­stairs and got his belt sander.

It took him longer than he’d thought, but Dave fin­ished ic­ing the cakes be­fore any­one got home. When he fin­ished, he re­al­ized his cake was now far too big to fit into the fridge, which is where the baker told him it be­longed. The only place Dave could think of that was both large enough and cold enough for his ic­ing to set was the garage.

Ever so care­fully he picked the cake up and strug­gled out, back­wards, us­ing his el­bow to push open the door. On the way into the garage he stum­bled against the door frame and knocked one end of the cake. A piece fell off. Dave headed back into the kitchen. He set the cake on the ta­ble. He went out­side to fetch the bro­ken bit, but the piece was not where it had fallen. Dave looked around the yard.

And there, head­ing to­ward the pear tree, back­wards, was a squir­rel—drag­ging the bro­ken bit of cake in its mouth.

Dave squeaked and leapt in the air. The squir­rel dropped the cake and dis­ap­peared up the tree.

Dave re­trieved the piece of cake. He brought it in­side and cut off the bit that he thought had been in the squir­rel’s mouth. He tried to set what was left of it back in place. The more he fid­dled with it, the more the piece re­fused to fit. It was rapidly los­ing its shape.

Even­tu­ally, us­ing a mix­ture of honey and ic­ing sugar, he made a sort of ce­ment and glued the hunk of cake back on. He used the last of the sugar-paste to cover the join. It was like ma­sonry.

Dave car­ried the cake care­fully out to the garage, the squir­rel nat­ter­ing at him as he walked un­der the tree. He set the cake on the roof of the car. And he made sure the garage door was tightly closed on his way back in­side.

It was an hour later that Mor­ley came home and found the straw­berry-flavoured olive oil.

“Ev­ery night,” she said with ex­as­per­a­tion. “Ev­ery night I come home and some­one else has left a present. What is wrong with these peo­ple?”

She was scratch­ing her arm vig­or­ously as she left the room.

Dave, who was sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble mak­ing lit­tle marzi­pan snow­men for his Christ­mas cake, didn’t risk an an­swer.

Mor­ley came back into the kitchen with her coat on. She looked at Dave and said, “I’m go­ing to Lawlor’s. Any­one else who shows up here is get­ting choco­late.”

As she stormed out the door she said, “Those look more like mice than snow­men. You can’t put marzi­pan mice on a Christ­mas cake.”

Dave waited un­til she left, then he flat­tened the ball of marzi­pan in his hand and threw it across the room for Arthur, the dog.

“Arthur,” he said, “I am hav­ing a hard time with these mice. I keep squish­ing their lit­tle paws.” Then he said, “Uh-oh.” And he jumped up and ran out the door. He got to the drive­way just in time to hear a squeal of tires, just in time to see the red lights of his car dis­ap­pear­ing down the street. With his Christ­mas cake on the roof.

He be­gan to run down the street wav­ing his hands wildly, call­ing to Mor­ley.

He was run­ning and wav­ing when she hit the speed bump and the cake flew off.

He was still run­ning and wav­ing when Mor­ley glanced in the rear-view mir­ror and spot­ted him. “Now what?” she mut­tered. She jammed on the brakes. The car skid­ded to a halt. She threw it into re­verse.

Dave stopped mov­ing. He watched in hor­ror as the car en­gine roared and the wheels changed di­rec­tion and the sta­tion wagon re­versed over his cake. He started run­ning again. But he wasn’t alone any­more. Pound­ing along the pave­ment be­side him like a race­horse stretch­ing for the fin­ish line, match­ing him step for step in a rush for the cake, was the squir­rel.

“Get out of here,” bel­lowed Dave. Mor­ley thought he was talk­ing to her.

She threw up her hands and then gunned the car— and drove over the cake for a sec­ond time.

Dave car­ried the cake home the way he would have car­ried a dog that had been hit by a milk truck. He set it down on the kitchen ta­ble. He picked a piece of gravel out of the squished part. He got a screw­driver from the base­ment and a flash­light. He held the flash­light in his mouth and leaned over the cake like a sur­geon. It took him twenty min­utes to flick out all the gravel he could see.

Then he tried to pat the cake back into shape with his hands. But the ic­ing was too hard and the squished part was too squished. He felt to­tally de­feated. What would Polly An­der­son say? What would he tell the arena com­mit­tee? Who would be­lieve that his Christ­mas cake had been flat­tened in a hit and run?

He went to the base­ment and poured him­self a glass of the soak­ing mix­ture. He came back half an hour later with a so­lu­tion. He would cut the cake into in­di­vid­ual serv­ings and wrap each serv­ing in Cel­lo­phane—like at a wed­ding. No one would have to know a thing.

He got out the cake knife. It bounced off the sugar-paste ic­ing. He tried again. The knife be­gan to bend but it didn’t break the sur­face. He got out his carv­ing knife. He leaned over it and, us­ing his body weight, man­aged to get the knife into the cake. But try as he might, he couldn’t get it out.

He headed into the base­ment to find his old elec­tric carv­ing knife. He hadn’t used it for years.

When he came up­stairs, there was Arthur the dog with his back legs on one of the kitchen chairs and his front legs on the kitchen ta­ble. There was Arthur slowly and me­thod­i­cally lick­ing the en­tire sur­face of the sugar-paste ic­ing.

When he spot­ted Dave, Arthur leaned for­ward and put his paws pro­tec­tively around the cake.

As Dave stepped to­ward him, Arthur started to growl.

Dave used a damp dish­cloth to smooth out the traces of the dog’s tongue on his ic­ing.

He plugged in the carv­ing knife. The first cut was pic­ture per­fect. On the sec­ond, how­ever, a piece of wal­nut came fly­ing out of the cake and ric­o­cheted off Dave’s fore­head.

On the third cut, the carv­ing knife started to shud­der. Then it be­gan to smoke, and then it seized up com­pletely.

When Mor­ley came home Dave had just fin­ished the job. He had used Bert Turling­ton’s jig saw. He pushed his safety glasses onto his fore­head. “Hi,” he said. Mor­ley was car­ry­ing a large card­board car­ton. At first, Dave thought she had gone gro­cery shop­ping. She hadn’t. She had bought ev­ery box of choco­late minia­tures left in the drug­store. And a bot­tle of cor­ti­sone cream.

The skat­ing party was the next night. Dave took his cake up to the arena an hour early and set it out on the re­fresh­ment ta­ble by the skate-sharp­en­ing ma­chine. He wanted to hang around and serve it to peo­ple. For­tu­nately, he had to go back to work and close his store.

When he re­turned an hour later there was a man stand­ing by the arena door. He didn’t look happy. He was hold­ing his jaw. “Are you okay?” asked Dave. The man shook his head. “Some id­iot baked a fruit­cake and left the pits in the dates. I broke a fill­ing,” he said. “You’re kid­ding,” said Dave. When he got to the ta­ble be­side the skate-sharp­en­ing ma­chine, his cake had hardly been touched.

Some­one had al­tered the sign that he had care­fully let­tered be­fore leav­ing home. MAY CON­TAIN NUTS, it read. Ex­cept some­one had scratched out the word “nuts” and writ­ten a new word in its place. His sign now read, MAY CON­TAIN GRAVEL. He was go­ing to go home. But he spot­ted Sam wav­ing at him from the ice and he thought, Who cares? He waved back and held his skates up and headed to­ward the chang­ing room.

Christ­mas Day is go­ing to be a lit­tle strained in Dave’s neigh­bour­hood this year. On Christ­mas morn­ing, Dave will get seven­teen boxes of choco­lates.

“Oh look,” he will say, when he opens the twelfth box. “Minia­ture choco­lates. My favourite.”

There will be lit­tle sur­prises like that all over the neigh­bour­hood. Gerta Low­beer raided her freezer of all her Christ­mas bak­ing to make the cookie plates she gave to ev­ery­one. Gerta’s rel­a­tives will be stunned when they ar­rive for their tra­di­tional Christ­mas Day visit to see plates of crumbly Peek Fre­ans in place of Gerta’s de­lec­ta­ble short­bread.

On Box­ing Day, old Eu­gene from next door will re­al­ize he has given away the last of the year’s home­made wine. To his hor­ror he will find him­self be­tween vin­tages and will head off to the liquor store for the first time in fif­teen years. Dave will bump into him star­ing mo­rosely at the la­bels in the Yu­goslavia sec­tion.

Mary Turling­ton, who prides her­self on her de­tailed Christ­mas record­keep­ing, will get so flus­tered with the neigh­bour­hood gift-giv­ing that she will com­pletely for­get to buy a present for her hus­band, Bert.

“I can’t be­lieve it,” Mary will say, scrolling through her com­puter on Christ­mas morn­ing. “I must have deleted you.”

The only house where Christ­mas will go with­out a hitch will be Jim Scoffield’s. When Jim’s mother ar­rives as usual a few days be­fore Christ­mas, she will be amazed at all the fes­tive flour­ishes. The hand-dipped can­dles, the home bak­ing, the Christ­mas CD.

“It’s all from peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hood,” Jim will tell her. “I’ve never seen a Christ­mas like it. Peo­ple kept com­ing to the door with wag­onloads of presents.”

On Christ­mas Day, Jim and his mother will go out for a walk and run into the Chudarys in the park. They will stop and talk for ten min­utes, and Jim’s mother will make a fuss over Fa­tima. As they say good­bye, Jim will look at Rashida. “What are you plan­ning for New Year’s?” he’ll ask. “New Year’s?” Amir will say as soon as they are alone. “New Year’s! Rashida, don’t these peo­ple ever stop?” “It will be all right, Amir,” Rashida will say. “In­shal­lah,” her hus­band will re­ply. “In­shal­lah.” If it is God’s wish.

Christ­mas at the Vinyl Cafe (Vik­ing Canada) by Stu­art Mclean, $32.Ex­cerpted from Christ­mas at the Vinyl Cafe. Copy­right © 2017 by The Es­tate of Stu­art Mclean. Pub­lished by Vik­ing Canada, an im­print of Pen­guin Canada, a di­vi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada Lim­ited. Re­pro­duced by ar­range­ment with the pub­lisher. All rights re­served.

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