A Christmas story
My father fucked off the morning I turned five. It was about as neat and as quick and as unexpected a severing as ever you're likely to hear of, this side of Vic Morrow. Decamped without notice. Sunk without trace. Say there, Mr. Houdini, aren't you just the cat's ass? Yes, oh yes, my man. Yes, you surely are.
"How can I tell you what he was wearing?" said my mother. This was to the officer who answered the missing-person call. She had a piece of holly pinned to her cap–the cop, I mean–and a serious overbite that lent her a look of preternatural, if slightly Paleolithic, concern. "How can I tell you what he was wearing when I was fast asleep when he left? He could be naked as a jailbird for all I know. His coat's still in the hall closet."
"As a jaybird, ma'am."
"What?" said my mother, and then, with a glance in my direction and mindful of setting a good example even in a time of crisis, corrected herself. "I mean, pardon?"
"The phrase is naked as a jaybird. I'm quite sure that's right. I think that if you check it out, you'll find that it's so: as a jaybird. Comma. Naked as."
About this the policewoman seemed more insistent and doctrinaire than was strictly necessary, considering the circumstances and all. I mean, if ever there was a time when slack needed cutting, this would be it. Perhaps she thought it was her responsibility to defend the penal system against any possible slur, such as the pernicious rumour of enforced nakedness in the prisons. She sat with her pen poised over her notebook looking at my mother, who stared in turn at the tree, as though she were expecting from it something mitigating, or at least distracting. That it would lift up its skirts of tinsel and dance the hootchy-kootchy. That it would spontaneously combust. Then she said, "How do you mean 'Check it out'?"
"Check out what, ma'am?" said the officer, whose thoughts seemed to have drifted, possibly in the direction of orthopedic intervention, from which she would have benefited.
"Naked as a jailbird. How do you mean 'Check it out'?"
"Jaybird. I mean, look it up. Call the library maybe," she said, brightly, as though pleased to offer up the possibility of a civic service we might find more satisfactory in the moment than the one she was equipped to provide.
"It's Christmas," said my mother. "The library will be closed."
"Ah," said the officer.
"Anyway, they have feathers."
That was my contribution. Until then, I'd been mute. Both women's heads pivoted in my direction.
"So they're not really naked, then," I said, shielding my eyes against the force of their combined high beams. "Jaybirds, I mean."
I was not exactly sure what a jaybird was; nor am I now, come to that.
"Ha," said my mother, pleased to see that she still had an ally in the world, that there was someone nearby to run for water and to freshen up the ordnance. The officer was gathering breath and considering her retort–and it might have gone on for a long time, this volley of absurdities, had a sea gull not just then, in a fit of something like pathetic magic realism, smashed itself against the window of our apartment. The force of the impact and the effect of whatever suction comes into play between glass and plumage kept it in place long enough for us all to study the spread of its wings, the stunned look on its little face, the veined webbing between its toes.
"Jesus," said the officer–not profanely, I don't think, but because of the decidedly cruciform aspect of the apparition; it was an image such as one might have found on the cutting-room floor of Edgar Allan Poe. If EAP had had a cutting-room floor. For all I know, he did.
"Jesus," she said, and when she said "Jesus" the gull released its hold, or was released by it, and fell 17 storeys to the sidewalk below.
(This all happened decades ago, probably before you were born. Another place, another time. I am remembering it in another city, in another century; remembering it in a restaurant loud with holiday revellers. I write holiday, but it requires the checking of a reflex; Christmas still comes more readily to mind, which is another indicator of my burgeoning antiquity. As if one were needed. "Quart of milk," I said the other night in a convenience store, and the clerk looked at me as though I'd just given my weight in stones. The din, sadly, is insufficient to wholly obliterate the music. Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. I consider the serrations of my steak knife, bounce its knobby edge playfully over my wrist. The gesture does not go unseen. There is one other solitary diner. We are seated opposite each other, across a crowded room. She has a wee cahier, nothing like the policewoman's drugstore spiral-bind. Hers is a small black Moleskine, which I happen to know was Bruce Chatwin's preferred conveyance for note-taking. I suspect she knows so too. She has been considering me, I'm aware, in a sidelong way. She sees me test the knife on my flesh, and she jots it down. She is a writer, I suppose. How flattering to be observed.)
My father fucked off the morning I turned five, which also happened to be Christmas Day. Even before he left, this coincidence of events was inconvenient, a disappointment. I think most Christmasborns, given the chance–a chance best not afforded them, truth be told–will sing the same short-shrift song. Such festive occasions are not enhanced by simultaneity, for every self-evident reason. The celebratory impulse in humans is a pegged currency: it can only be stretched so far. Neither one occasion nor the other receives what the principal imagines to be its due. What was a strangely disappointing day before my father vanished was afterward marked by a malodorous taint. By tacit, mutual consent–the best kind, in my experience–my mother and I decided that we would sidestep the situation, defuse it, by simply never mentioning my birthday, Christmas, or my father again. Not to one another, anyway. Mindful nonetheless of the deeply human need to do something to mark the Earth's subtle sunward tilt, we took up Boxing Day with a profligate vengeance. "Let's go to town," my mother would say, and she meant it in more ways than one. On December 25 itself, we would visit the poor, those whom my mother liked to call "the less fortunate than we". We took along hampers of nonperishables–corned beef, tuna, Kraft Dinner, and the like–and a few gift items, some slightly used, mostly incautious purchases from the previous year's Boxing Day: salad spinners, toy-soldier nutcrackers, hoop-skirt tea cozies, and the like.
Quite how my mother sniffed out the poor–found out who and where they were–I was never sure and never thought to ask; there is no safeguard against knowledge as sure as self-absorption. Now, I expect, the less fortunate than we are all over Facebook or have their own category on Craigslist, but the minor history I recount here evolved, as noted, long, long before the days of such virtual aids and tracking devices. Mother–Lana, as she preferred to be called post-desertion, when the use of maternal honorifics became too tart a reminder of the insult of the rupture–must have acquired her intelligence from a church or social-service agency. Whatever the source, the point is that every year we would make five or six stops, and every year they were different–the poor either moved a lot or didn't stay poor for long; different they always were save for one, and that was Winona Rempel, who lived in a rustic double-wide in Port Kells.
For Mrs. Rempel–as we both called her–for whatever reason, Lana had a special fondness. This surprised me. Grime was Lana's sworn enemy, and filth was the adhesive that held Mrs. Rempel together. Her hair was long, lank, and greasy; her skin was pale only in the bits where it showed through the residue of oil and dust; her nails were a forensic scientist's wet dream; and she possessed the most feral set of eyebrows that ever sprouted on the face of woman. She was large, though Lord knows how she maintained her bulk; she lived, to judge from the visible supplies in her kitchen, on rusks and black tea and the occasional boiled egg. She always wore the same voluminous nightgown, its once-cheerful floral pattern long obliterated by the Agent Orange combo of sweat and neglect. Mrs. Rempel's home, once smelled, was never forgotten. Her own uric wafts were wound in a reeking airborne braid with the unsettling odours of the small animals with which she shared her quarters. It was known far and wide that Mrs. Rempel had the touch, that if you found an injured squirrel, or a fledgling crow fallen too early from the nest, or a muskrat that had gnawed off its own leg to escape a trap, you could take it to Mrs. Rempel and she would nurse it back to health. There was no release program in effect, but nor were the salvaged creatures restrained. They simply chose, or so it seemed, to remain once their healing was done. Mrs. Rempel's trailer was a harmonious Assisi of cheeping and whirring and underfoot scuttling.
"Oh, you brought the boy," she'd say every year when we arrived with our bounty. "Will you sing for me, sonny?"
"Go on," Lana would say. "Sing."
Steeling myself against the unpleasantness of sucking in the heavy atmosphere of Mrs. Rempel's lair, I'd gulp air and, releasing it again, let the carols flow.
(Either she is a writer, the Mole?skine lady, or she is a private investigator. But engaged by whom? One of the insurance agencies with which I have claims pending? No. She doesn't look the type. Maybe she's in the employ of the MacArthur Foundation, and I am being assessed as a candidate for one of those half-million-dollar windfall grants, the better to allow me to deepen my connection to my art. Whatever it might be. Or perhaps she was engaged by my father, from whom nothing has been heard for more than 40 years. Did he make his way south or north to the oil fields? Did he strike it rich? Has he finally decided to make amends for his intemperate flit by funnelling funds in my direction? Will they arrive within the hour? That would be convenient. I have no other way of paying for this meal, which has been a monument to extravagance. "More champagne?" "Well, garí§on, why ever the hell not? And thanks for asking.")
My father fucked off when I turned five and was summarily stricken from the roster of the considered, along with all his family, so I've never known if it was through him, or via his line, that I acquired my gift of song. Certainly it didn't come from Lana, whose talents were for sanitation and bitterness, and whose DNA was innocent of anything that might have transmitted a musical impulse. Perhaps my tuneful inclinations had no basis in genetics and were randomly bestowed. Whatever the case, it was a fact that I possessed a freakishly beautiful soprano voice. I'd always sung, for as long as I could remember, but no one had ever remarked on the quality of the sound, nor did I have other voices to which I could compare my own, until I entered school. "Oh my goodness," said my first-grade teacher when my diamantine tones sliced through the pale glass of "The More We Get Together" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".
It wasn't long before word got out and I began to learn something about the responsibilities and privileges accorded those on whom the angels smile. Early on, I was press-ganged into choral service, and I soon discovered that I could parlay my thrush-like tones –and my willingness to employ them in the service of the school's greater good–into the winning of such concessions as frequent exemptions from the torture called physical education. All throughout my elementary education and all throughout junior high school, as we called it then, the choir was my refuge and harem: there was rarely a year when I wasn't the only boy in the ensemble and never a year when I wasn't the shining star. The choir was my harem, but I might as well have been its eunuch, for the voice–which remained gorgeous and grew the more burnished with use–showed no sign of changing. Twelve, 13, 14 all came along, and the hormonal tides that wash away every boy treble's career never kicked into flow.
It was on December 23, a Saturday when I was two days shy of my 15th birthday, that our choir leader phoned me at home. She was calling on behalf of her sister, a nurse in the psychiatric ward of one of the city hospitals. A crisis was brewing in Loonyland. Whatever entertainer had been booked for the ward's Christmas Eve concert–a tradition, evidently, of long standing–had fallen through. Would I, might I, go along with her and sing a few carols on the following night? I would. I might. I did.
I was surprised, as you can imagine, to look out into the audience and see, bright and alert among the mostly vacant faces, the beaming, moonlike visage of Mrs. Rempel. We had last met, as was our custom, a year ago at her fetid home in Port Kells. Evidently, in the meantime, she had come unseamed. This would be news to my mother, who had spent the better part of the day rounding up the ingredients for the hamper. There was no time for inquiry or even for considering how Mrs. Rempel might have come to this pass; I had a job to do and I launched in, with Miss Slate, our choir leader, chording away on the untuned piano. "Angels We Have Heard on High", "Away in a Manger", "The Little Drummer Boy"–one carol followed another, and I sang, as I always did, with confidence and with real joy. I was doing what I was meant to do as a child on the Earth.
"Silent Night" was the last offering, a gentle climax, and I spun out my most lilting pianissimo. "All is calm, all is bright," I sang, directing my attention to Mrs. Rempel, who spilled over the moulded plastic confines of the stacking chair. She smiled back, seemingly heedless of being displaced –taking comfort, perhaps, in the music and the familiar caress of that selfsame malodorous nightgown. "Round yon Virgin," I sang, "Mother and child," and it was then that I noted a strange kineticism in the vicinity of Mrs. Rempel's chest. The nightgown was stirring and heaving, as though she had acquired a stripper's gift of isolating movement in her breasts. "Holy infant," I sang, and the unsettling motion that enlivened her armature became the more pronounced. "Tender and mild," I sang, my voice catching slightly, and my look, I suppose, communicating to Mrs. Rempel a kind of concern and wonder both. "Sleep in heavenly," I began, ramping up for the high note that was the crowning glory of the carol, and it was exactly then that Mrs. Rempel, with an astonishing speedy deftness, satisfied my curiosity by hoisting up her nightgown and revealing the two young raccoons who were suckling her pendulous dugs. And it was at that moment–which was quite literally a moment, for she lowered the garment as quickly as she had raised it–that the dam that had been holding back the inevitable floodwaters of adolescence gave way. It broke, and it took my voice with it. "Peace," I sang, in a harsh baritone rasp. Miss Slate's fingers fumbled the chords. She cried beside me on the bus, all the way home. Nothing, she knew, would ever be the same again. And I knew, in my own way, that I would have to find a new way of whoring. And soon enough, well before I was 16, I did just that.
(No. I was right the first time. She is a writer, no doubt, and a writer is a kind of whore, and among whores there is a kind of honour. She is here alone, as I am here alone, in this loud and crowded and outrageously priced restaurant, because she is needy, just as I am needy. What gift can I give her, poor boy that I am? Wait. I know. As covertly as possible, when I'm sure she is watching, I lift my hand, extend it across the table, reach–so one would believe–for the champagne flute. Instead, as though in a moment of distraction, I pick up the candle in its glass globe, the flame almost guttering in its deep bath of paraffin. I raise it up and then, with the subtlest of nods in Moleskine's direction–skoal, baby–I put it to my lips and drink it back. It has been a long time since I've let fly with so soprano a cry, a long time since anything that escaped from my lips has made me the object of such a collective regard. A flurry of cellphones. A scurry of servers. A siren in the distance. No one who saw it will soon forget it. Why? is the question they'll ask, whenever it comes to mind. There is a reason, of course, but someone else will have to write it down. Me, I could tell you. But my lips are sealed.)