For many families, listening to the warm, wistful stories of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe Christmas has become a holiday tradition. But what if Dave and Morley’s family was a little more like our own?
None of them had seen Uncle Earl since Christmas dinner, 2004. He’d arrived unexpectedly, just as Morley was serving the apple pie. “Don’t make a fuss,” he’d said, then tucked a napkin into the collar of his T-shirt. Morley dutifully made up a plate for Earl, the serving spoon hitting hard against the china. Earl spent the rest of the evening flirting ferociously with Aunt Janice and rubbing her thigh. Few would have thought this impolite had Janice not been married to Uncle Walt, who was sitting right there.
Six years it had been since anyone had seen Earl. But when the doorbell rang, Morley froze. She knew in an instant. They all knew. Earl. A doorbell has never been touched so deep into the Christmas dinner hour by anyone other than a black sheep.
Rubbing her hands on her apron, Morley made a noise she’d later insist was merely a sigh, though no one in the family could recall one of her sighs sounding so much like the F-word. “Hey numbnuts!” Earl said by way of seasonal greeting as Dave opened the door. “Merry frigging Christmas.”
There was room at the table. Stephanie had already been and gone. Five months pregnant by her boyfriend, a drummer in a Creed cover band, she wasn’t feeling that well. Still, Dave thought she looked radiant—even with the piercings.
Grandma, too hard of hearing to have noticed Earl’s arrival, looked up from her banana liqueur and declared abruptly: “Politicians—they’re all a bunch of liars.” There were murmurs of agreement.
“That’s Rhonda,” Earl said, motioning behind. Dave looked out to the porch, where a small woman was vomiting onto his Christmas wreath. “Oh,” Dave said. Dave couldn’t quite place Earl’s scent. Was it the cologne you buy for a dollar in truck stop restrooms? Was it mace? Earl always did have a way with the ladies.
The conversation turned to global affairs. Earl had thoughts about a nuclear Iran and a unique way of inserting a new and ever more creative profanity into the name “Ahmadinejad” every time he said it. He gestured as he spoke, spilling his whisky on the tablecloth and, later, the dog. Unsteady on her feet, Rhonda brushed against the Christmas tree, but managed to collect herself, turn to the tree and declare: “Pleased to meet you.”
Later, over Baileys and sweets, Dave gently put forth a reasoned argument for further stimulus to ignite the economy. Cousin Rick called that “pansy talk.” Only the market can solve the problems created by the market, he said. And Rick ought to know: he’d been working at Edward Jones now for five months. Grandma reminded everyone she ate lard during the Depression, and everyone pretended they hadn’t heard that before. Earl belched the first seven notes of Away in a Manger.
Suddenly Grandma wanted to go home. She’d taken off her slippers and was putting on her boots. But Dolores wasn’t ready to leave yet, and Aunt Sandra wasn’t going to take her because, goddammit, she’d picked Grandma up! The argument went on until someone noticed that Grandma was gone. She’d just walked out the door.
“Go find her!” Morley hollered at Dave. “She could be anywhere by now!” Dave shouted at Morley. Earl sprang to his feet, and it seemed for a moment that a volunteer had been found—until he loudly announced that he needed to “make some room for dessert,” and headed tipsily for the bathroom. In the chaos, Rhonda whispered to young Sam that she’d show him her boobs for $5.
Dave found Grandma having a cigarette in the garage. He hadn’t seen her smoke in 20 years. She seemed embarrassed to be caught, but she didn’t put it out. “Good seeing Earl,” Dave said to fill the silence on the drive home. But Grandma just stared down at the Tupperware on her lap. Crossing the porch on the way back to the house, Dave noticed a few carrots in his Christmas wreath—the remnants of Rhonda’s first impression. He thought they actually looked pretty festive.
Two hours later, when the last of the stragglers had been gently pushed out the door, Morley collapsed on the couch. The dishes could wait ’til morning. Dave flopped down beside her. They looked at each other with an expression that said, “Next Christmas, we’re going to Cuba instead.”
“Merry Christmas, Dave.” She touched his hair.
“Merry Christmas, Morley.”
For the first time in hours, the house fell quiet. They could hear the hum of the lights on the tree. The wind whipping up against the window. And to their surprise, gentle snoring coming from the bathroom.