Over the last few years, Bill Richardson, sometimes-CBC host, author of Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast, among other books, has written slightly sad and always amusing Christmas stories set in Vancouver’s West End. Here is one of this year’s.
West End Christmas Story One
There are dire possibilities you can safeguard against, grim eventualities you can take into account. You can fortify your house against burglary and bad weather. You can launder your hands against colds and flus. You can know your escape routes, pre-determine a mustering point, stay inside until the shaking stops.
A little anticipation, a modicum of planning, and a boy scout dash of preparedness will go a long way to smooth the road. Inevitably there will be potholes, but there’s no need to obsess about them, no need to fret about all the terrible tricks fate has up its sleeve. The rogue meteorite inscribed with your name. The truck that jumps the curb. The skunk that has no business being abroad on Christmas Eve, but nonetheless is; the skunk that should be hibernating, but happens to be out and about and lying in wait under the 1988 Honda Civic which has been parked on the street for the better part of a month now; the Honda Civic doubling as a rust museum that is registered to some careless miscreant who’s gone away for the holidays, taken off for Hawaii or Mexico, never giving a thought to how that car would afford the aforementioned skunk a place of concealment from which to ambush Minnie, the basset hound, when she did what any dog would do; when she tested the limits of her leash, when she went snuffling after the scent of something aberrant near the oil-pan.
“Oh, dear,” is not quite the oath Conrad lets slip when Minnie backs out from under the Honda, as quickly as ever her three legs allow. How Minnie became a tripod is anyone’s guess. She was missing the limb when Conrad found her in the shelter. Squat and sturdy, she reminded him of a damaged coffee table he’d acquired once at a yard sale; Minnie and the wonky coffee table were among the few possessions over which he and Minnie had not quarreled when they separated. Conrad’s decision to (a) acquire a damaged pound dog without home consultation and (b) to try to mitigate the offense by naming the creature after his spouse explains, at least partially, why Minnie, the woman, is now his ex-wife.
Tomato juice is the remedy that comes to Conrad’s mind as the skunk ambles into the night and Minnie yelps and whines and whacks at her face with the one front paw that’s still in her keeping. Tomato juice. Isn’t that what they always recommend? Tomato juice, and plenty of it. But where, on Christmas Eve, can he quickly and reliably find such a commodity? The one nearby convenience store is, inconveniently, closed until Boxing Day.
“Mercy save us,” is not quite what Conrad says when Minnie rears up on her full complement of hind legs and does her best to embrace him round the knees. What to do? It must be the poisonous wafts that subvert propriety: scents trumping sense. He reaches into his overcoat pocket, finds his phone, dials the number he ceded in the divorce.
The reeking dog whines.
“Thanks. Same to you. What’s up?”
“Oh. Not much. Sorry for the intrusion.”
“It’s no intrusion,” she says, but of course it is.
“What are you up to?”
“I’m just here with Conrad.”
Minnie had moved on very quickly. That Conrad’s successor was also named Conrad had been much remarked by their various friends and family members, as well as by Conrad, and also by Conrad.
“Give him my beast,” says Conrad.
“Best. Give him my best,” he says, smiling in spite of himself at the Freudian transparency of the slip.
“Merry, Merry, Conrad,” Conrad carols from somewhere in the background, well into his cups.
Conrad looks down at Minnie and imagines Minnie and Conrad, half way across town, in the house where Conrad had once lived with Minnie and also, for a short time, with Minnie. He imagines the tree and all its familiar decorations, and the table that his well-organized ex would already have set for the next day’s feast: the china and the flatware that had once been theirs, the patterns he had had a hand in choosing, all laid out in regimental array. He blinks hard. He puts the past from his mind. He gulps acrid air, comes to the point.
“Listen, Minnie, I’m just wondering if you happen to have any tomato juice on hand.”
Minnie is a bulk buyer and for Christmases past she had always acquired case loads of the stuff, enough to bathe a whole pack of skunked bassets.
“Tomato juice?” says Minnie.
Conrad had forgotten that he says “to-may-to” and she says “to-mah-to;” no wonder they’d call the whole thing off.
“No,” she says, “no, I don’t. I mean, I did, oceans of the stuff. But I took it to the food bank. Conrad is allergic.”
“Why are you asking?”
“You know. Just wondering.”
“Funny thing to just wonder about.”
“Funny time of year.”
“Fine. Merry Christmas, Minnie.”
“And to you, Conrad. Happy new year.”
Click. She’s gone.
On the door of his former fridge, held in place by a lady bug magnet, is the yellowed paper fragment Minnie pulled from a fortune cookie, in the early, happy days of their marriage. “Expect the unexpected,” it says. For Minnie, who lived in fear of an eventual earthquake—hence, the bulk buying—this is a guiding mantra; for Conrad, it’s an absurdity. Yes, there might be a bomb on the bus; yes, bees might fly up both your nostrils; yes, there might be a skunk under a Honda on Christmas Eve: but if you took it all into account, you’d do nothing but sit in the kitchen, in the dark, watching the digital minutes advance on the microwave, fearful the whole time that it might erupt into flames.
Mindless of the possibility of piles, Conrad sits down on the cold curb. Minnie plops down next to him, sighs, leans in. A pair of late-shift garbage pickers comes down the sidewalk, their two carts rattling. They are heading west, towards the park, where probably they camp. They say “Pee-you!” simultaneously and give the man and the dog a wide berth.
“Now what?” says Conrad, but Minnie is without idea or resource.
He can’t go back to his condo tower, where the dog’s legality has been the subject of an ongoing dispute with the council; the arrival of a three-legged stink bomb when all anyone was expecting was Santa would pretty much seal their fate. There is a church across the street. Perhaps they would offer sanctuary. Congregants will soon start arriving for the midnight service. Perhaps Minnie could earn her keep by taking part in the pageant, could take on the cameo role of dog in the manger. Conrad wonders if the word “skunk” ever comes up in the Bible, if they were welcomed on the ark by Noah.
Minnie would know, or could find out. She is a librarian, and has an amazing arsenal of information at her disposal. Had Conrad told her the reason for his call she could have told him that tomato juice is useless for the removal of skunk stink. She could have told him that that was just an old wives tale. Who better to hear that from than your old wife? Well. Former wife, more accurately.
But Conrad didn’t let on, and so it’s tomato juice in which he mistakenly invests his hope; it’s tomato juice in which he believes on a night when it’s good to have faith and somewhere to pin it, however thin and wonky that place or that faith might be.
“Come on, Minnie,” says Conrad, and they start to walk, with a purpose in mind, though with no specific plan or destination. At a discreet distance, and on the other side of the street, they follow in the noisy wake of the park-bound garbage pickers, who have paused a block away to look up at the stars. Soon enough, Minnie and Conrad will catch them up, and then they will be three men walking, walking on Christmas Eve, walking and walking on parallel paths, with no real where in mind, and no real certainty about what they’ll find when they get there. Wherever there might be. They’ll know it when they find it. It will be nothing like what they expect.