I think my mother is warming to me. She’s paid scant attention over the years, but lately she’s noticed a few things about me. The other day she commented — in a surprised sort of way — that all my friends were rather good people. She also likes Byron and hopes he’ll visit. Then, of course, there was what happened with Charlie.
Charlie is a dog. My mother has three, and they all look roughly the same to me. Maltese-poodle sorts of things. They’re funny animals, though. She has one called Phoebe who is rather gentle and patient with children, but has taken to growling at my brother. She mostly likes him for a set period of time, but the man can talk nonstop for hours, and eventually the little dog gets fed up and growls at him, as if to say, will you please just shut up?
I like how dogs can have sophisticated personalities. My mother has a new dog, actually — or rather, an older dog who used to belong to my elder sister and … well, what happened is, my elder sister got herself a new puppy whose fairly cute, I hear. But there were complications. I’ve heard the story told a few times, and there’s a lot of pernicious detail which I’ll leave out here. But suffice to say, my sister’s new puppy is cute and furthermore, my sister would like her older dog to live with my mother from now on. I’ll not editorialize; I will merely pass on without comment.
So now my mother has an extra dog around the house. This dog, Charlie – and I’m sure it has nothing to do with living in the vicinity of my elder sister for so many years – is somewhat depressed and suffers from a diminished appetite. I might also mention this is the second of my sister’s dogs to have somehow ended up living with my mother. But again, I shall not comment, because if I’ve learned anything from my relatives, it is that commenting on this sort of thing is generally considered the worst offense possible.
Anyway, Charlie is a bit of a fretful beast. Has a melancholy air. I didn’t pay a great deal of attention at first. Then I noticed he didn’t seem to approve of my father, and I wondered if I’d underestimated him. But then he bit my brother-in-law — Charlie, I mean, not my father — after which I became annoyed. My brother-in-law — that is, my younger sister’s husband — is a good man. Why couldn’t Charlie simply have bitten my father?
As I sit here reflecting, it strikes me as both relevant and noteworthy that a few years ago, my brother-in-law was also bitten by a zebra. No, I’m not making any of that up — when I make up stories, they tend to be more plausible. But what happened was, my brother-in-law visited a zoo, and there found himself confronted by an unusually irritable zebra, who then bit him. These tales annoy me because I approve of my brother-in-law and he simply does not deserve such savagery — neither from a zebra, nor Charlie, nor anybody else. He’s also been married to my younger-sister for more than a decade and frankly, I think he’s suffered enough.
But let’s recap. My elder sister’s former dog, who is now the property of my mother, has bitten my younger sister’s husband. And I, being profoundly irked by these developments, decided to involve myself. To be clear, I avoid my relatives — for no particular reason, obviously; it’s merely an established habit. Though I will admit that if Charlie had bitten any other adult among my family tree, I might have taken him out for ice cream.
So, I trotted off to my mother’s house wearing my best somber expression. One look at me and Charlie knew I meant business. He sat down beside me, and we had a bit of a heart-to-heart.
“Listen Charlie,” I said to the dog, “I know you’ve spent your life surrounded by lunatics, but that’s no reason to be indiscriminate. You can’t go around acting like a zebra, is what I’m saying.”
The little dog tilted his head, as if to say, “I do not follow”.
I exhaled philosophically, and nodded at my father, who was sleeping in front of the television as usual.
“You see that old man over there? When I was a little kid, whenever I was at the dinner table and my mum went into the kitchen, he would steal food from my plate. I’m talking sausages, I’m talking lamb chops. I spoke up about it once or twice. He’d just smack me in the side of the head and tell my mother I was making things up.
“Nobody remembers nowadays. To everyone else, he’s just a lovely old man who wouldn’t hurt a soul. It’s like he underwent a massive redemption arc, but skirted the normal, requisite character development and simply grew a white beard. For me, it’s like they put Eichman on trial and everyone decided—well, he’s lost his hair, the poor old duffer. Maybe he’s not such a bad bloke after all?
“The fact is, Charlie, you and I are the only people here who see life as it is, because let’s face facts, they’re all out of their minds. But the brother-in-law isn’t, and that’s my point today. And frankly, I’m only sorry it fell to me to say it.”
I glanced at the dog. “Charlie,” I said, “you seem confused; let me be more succinct. I understand if you get in bad moods—and believe me, I understand why better than anybody. But what I’m trying to say is, if you ever feel the need to bite anybody,“ I gestured at my sleeping father, “then bite him!”
Charlie blinked a little, like a dog whose been caught purchasing chew toys with somebody else’s credit card, then padded off to a different room to review matters in solitude. An hour later, I was sitting with my mother — I believe she was telling how good my elder sister is with dogs — when Charlie trotted back into the room, leaped onto my lap and curled up, looking sad and vulnerable.
My mother nearly fell out of her chair because, she explained with some vehemence, Charlie doesn’t like people.
“Eh, one might argue,” I began. Then I paused, scratched my nose, and lapsed into a well-practiced silence.
Then again, if I was Charlie, I might not like people either. In fact, once upon a time, I was Charlie. If I hadn’t left Australia, traveled the world, met my various friends, met my wife and just—I don’t know—lived the life I’d led – then more than likely I’d be lurking behind doors and biting people as well.
Anyway, since our little talk, Charlie hasn’t bitten anybody. He and I are friends, now. He sits on my lap, and my mother finds his fondness for me remarkable. I am the black sheep of the family, I suppose (or perhaps I’m the white sheep) and perhaps Charlie empathizes. All the same, if he really wants to get me a Christmas present this year, he knows what to do.
As most of you know, I’m a bit of a Yule Enthusiast. Honestly, the holiday never made much sense to me when I was a kid, but then I moved to North America and it all fell into place. We used to drive out to a farm in rural Massachusetts and pick out a tree. I liked the cedars; they smell wonderful. And some years, we used to stop on the way home and pick up cider and donuts. There’s so much atmosphere to the experience. I feel an inexpressible nostalgia for it all now. I can’t tell you how much I wish I was spending Christmas in Massachusetts.
But here I am in the hot subtropics. No cedar tree. No snow, nor cider. It’ll just be me and Charlie, trying to get through the holiday season without biting anybody. Which is obviously why I hope your holiday will be so much better. You know what? If it’s cold, go for a bit of a brisk walk around the block, and offer some silent thanks for that chilly air.
I’ll be here, dodging phone calls from relatives concerning this newsletter. I’ll take my little girls for a walk in the heat, and listen to the cicadas, and talk to them of sledding and snow men in years past.
And if I haven’t said so recently, thank you to all of you for subscribing to my newsletter. I love doing this, and I love you all being part of my Yuletime experience. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know where you are, how you’ll be spending the holidays. Yours with chaste affection,
Kris St. Gabriel