Two Nights Before Christmas

An excerpt.

Summer, 2002 / No. 8
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

The drive from Charlottetown is flat, with a large winter sky hanging low above them, Edie chatting animatedly to her brother, Matt, the whole way. Matt, a picture framer who lives in Rochester, has driven up from New York state in his silver sport-utility vehicle with his golden retriever, Bartholomew. He’s clearly in love with the dog because in the airport parking lot he says to his sister: “I hope you two don’t mind sitting in the back.” If Bart doesn’t sit in the front he gets carsick, apparently.

Matt calls his sister “fruit loop” and he greets Claire warmly.

“What about that woman you were dating last year? ” Edie asks him.

“Janice? ”

“Yeah, she was cute. She was a graphic artist or something, right? ”

“Didn’t work out,” he shrugs. “She was allergic to dogs. What could I do? ” he says, looking lovingly at Bart.

“Why can’t you ever meet someone with a dog? ” she asks him. “I mean, don’t all you dog people convene at the park and exchange recipes for dog biscuits and stuff? There must be plenty of opportunities.”

“I live in a condo, Edie. Bart runs around the roof garden with a bunch of poodles that also live in the building. And you know what they say about dogs and their owners.”

There’s nothing along this drive from Charlottetown apart from their friendly chatter and a succession of churches. All white clapboard and spires and strange angles. Matt points to their mother’s house, a huge, rambling building standing solitary against the horizon. They have to drive past the church and through the graveyard before they pull into the driveway.

Claire imagines waking up on Sunday mornings and looking at a funeral procession out the window over breakfast. Picking the R.I.P. banner off a wreath to adorn a door at Christmas. Playing hide and seek in between the gravestones and planting carrots between them in the spring. Must be fertile soil.

“Fred bought the place for forty-five thousand dollars,” Edie says. “Can you imagine? That would barely make a dent in a mortgage in Toronto.”

“Well, there’s a reason for that,” Claire says, somewhat sarcastically. “I mean, where the fuck is the nearest liquor store? Charlottetown? ”

Matt looks back at Edie and they both laugh and nod their heads.

“It would make me a little mental,” Edie agrees. “God, especially if it meant living with Fred. Or my mother, for that matter,” she says. “Speaking of which,” she gapes, pointing in mock horror.

Their mother is standing there in some outfit that belongs on a nineteen-fifties film star at cocktail hour on holiday in the Caribbean. She is alarmingly canary-yellow from top to bottom. Draped in a sleeveless yellow muumuu, she has plastic hoop earrings and slingbacks to match. The strangest thing is that it must be about minus twenty and she’s standing there on the porch in that sleeveless muumuu. She’s got a martini glass with a fluorescent stir stick spearing a grove of olives sticking out of it in one hand and an empty cigarette holder in the other.

“Is she for real? ” Claire whispers, tugging on Edie’s arm.

“Oh yeah,” Edie says with emphasis. “Mum, I’d like you to meet Claire,” she says, pulling her girlfriend forward.

Claire stretches out her hand and Edie’s mother grins widely from a pink puckered mouth. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you,” she slurs.

“You too, Mrs. Day,” Claire says, letting go of a damp and cloying hand.

“Gwendolyn,” she says slowly, emphasizing every syllable. “Call me Gwendolyn. Don’t make me feel like an ancient.”

“Sorry, Gwendolyn,” Claire shrugs.

“Come in, come in,” she gestures wildly, turning her back to them. Edie rolls her eyes at Matt. “I’ll send Fred out to get your bags,” Gwendolyn yells over her shoulder.

“It’s only four-thirty and she’s hammered already,” Edie says to Matt with some measure of disgust. Claire’s never seen disgust on Edie’s face before—it’s not unbecoming, it’s just different.

“Cocktail hour appears to begin earlier on this edge of the world,” Matt comments. “I don’t think there’s much else to do here in winter.”

“Dee-pressing,” Edie moans. “I wonder why she doesn’t take up painting again. She used to be quite good. Landscapes, portraits. They really weren’t bad.”

“Is that where you get it from? ” Claire asks her.

“No. I got it because I would have gone crazy if I hadn’t,” she says, laughing.

They pass through not one, but two kitchens. “The monks used to use this kitchen on Sundays, the other one the rest of the week,” Matt explains.

“Yes, how very, very grand it all is,” muses Edie. “Who gets the servants’ quarters this year anyway, Matt? ”

Gwendolyn is stretched out on a burgundy divan in front of a large and passionate fire. The room is otherwise ice-cold.

“Come in, come in,” she waves at them. “Fred, be a dear and get me another martini,” she says to the tiny bearded man hiding in the corner patting a stuffed bird. “Oh, and get their bags out of the car and take them up to the servants’ room, will you? ”

“His eye’s fallen out,” Fred says sullenly.

“The bird,” says Matt. “Fred’s hobby. Taxidermy.”

“Morbid, isn’t it? ” squawks Gwendolyn. “I can only stand to have the birds in the house, not the other…,” she hesitates, trying to find the right word, “things.”

Claire wonders what the “things” are. And where the “things” are. And whether they are wild “things.” Does Fred keep them in the garden shed or perhaps in the deep-freezer in the first kitchen? Will they be having one of those “things” for dinner? She’d have to ask Edie later.

“Hello, Edie,” beady-eyed little Fred says, looking like a bird himself as he pecks her on both cheeks.

“Hi there, Fred,” says Edie in return.

“And this must be your friend Claire.”

“Nice to meet you,” Claire says, stretching out her hand.

“Likewise,” he says, looking at the floor. “Be right back, dear,” he says officiously to Gwendolyn. He’s a man with a mission. Places to go, people to see, things to do.

“He’s an oddball,” Matt says.

“‘Freak’ is more like it,” says Edie.

“Kids, don’t go starting that again,” Gwendolyn says from the divan. “Matt, honey, you know how I like my martini. Come and fill Mummy’s glass, and get some for the girls, too,” she says, pointing toward the bar.

“Edie, honey, come sit down and let your mother have a look at you.”

Edie sits, as instructed, on the edge of the divan and Claire sits down in an adjacent chair.

“Have you lost weight, dear? ” she says, placing her palm on Edie’s forehead.

“I’m the same weight as always, Mum,” Edie says.

“It’s just that you look awfully scrawny,” she winces. “You’ve got no bum.”

“Mum,” Edie groans, “Do you have to embarrass me? ”

“Nothing wrong with a shapely bum, dear. You should be proud of your womanly bits.”

“Ugh,” moans Edie.

“That’s what men like in a woman, Edie.”

“Mum, do you happen to recall that I’m a lesbian? I don’t really give a shit whether men like my bum.”

“Well, you still want them to look and like don’t you? No sane woman wouldn’t want a man to appreciate her.”

“Actually, Mum, no. I honestly and truly don’t give a shit.”

“Hostile, hostile,” she chastises Edie.

“Well, what do you think of her bum, then? ” Gwendolyn says, turning to Claire. “I mean, from a lesbian perspective,” she drawls.

“Jesus, Mum. Like, she’s only just arrived and you have to ask her that? ”

Claire blushes.

“Well, you want to know you’re appreciated, don’t you, Edie? ” Gwendolyn says.

“I think Edie’s got a great bum, Gwendolyn,” Claire says plainly. She’s tempted to say, “Actually, Gwendolyn, she has a superior ass—real tight, especially when I stick my tongue up inside her,” but she doesn’t think Gwendolyn wants to know quite how much Claire appreciates Edie and her bum.

“I used to be a Rockette,” Gwendolyn boasts.

“So Edie tells me,” Claire nods. Edie rolls her eyes.

“Now, that does wonders for your bum.”

“Enough about bums, already,” Edie groans.

“High kicking and high living—that was my motto. Till I met that fucking farmer.”

“That would be my dad,” Edie says as a sarcastic aside.

“Raymond,” Gwendolyn drawls. “So convinced he was going to go places and wanted to take me with him. What a mistake. I could be living the high life in Manhattan now if it wasn’t for Raymond.”

“Too bad, Mum. Instead you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a devoted dog named Fred and three ungrateful children who only come and visit you once a year. You call that life? ”

“Oh, Edie,” she moans. “It’s not that bad, you know it. I’m a lucky woman. Three beautiful grown-up children. Even if one of them is a little scrawny. And a lesbian. And another one is sleeping with his dog.”

“And where’s your other daughter? ” Claire asks her.

“Paula’s arriving on Christmas Eve.”

“Paula’s what you would call,” Edie explains to Claire, “normal. With a capital ‘N.’”

“You mean, married with kids? ”

She nods.

“Now, don’t you go criticizing your sister, Edie,” Gwendolyn says. “She’s a good girl. A good mother.”

“She’s a born-again Christian,” Edie explains.

Oh, this should be a treat, thinks Claire. Picture it: a drunken Rockette, a diminutive taxidermist, two dykes, a bestial brother and his four-legged lover Bart, and a family of born-agains sitting down for Christmas dinner in a room full of dead birds. She’s looking forward to this.