Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page, page 1
ALSO BY STUART MCLEAN
Stories from the Vinyl Cafe
Home from the Vinyl Cafe
Vinyl Cafe Unplugged
Vinyl Cafe Diaries
Dave Cooks the Turkey
Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe
Extreme Vinyl Cafe
Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe
The Morningside World of Stuart McLean
Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada
Vinyl Cafe Notebooks
Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange
Edited by Stuart McLean
When We Were Young:
An Anthology of Canadian Stories
Art can move and alter people in subtle ways because, like love, it speaks through and to the heart.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
in a letter to Sammy Davis Jr.
December 20, 1960
Riding the Lightning
Jim and Molly
Spring at University
Foggy Bottom Bay
The One and Only Murphy Kruger
Helen Moves In
Tank of Tranquility
In the Weeds
Jim’s Summer Trip
Sam’s First Kiss
Morley’s birthday is several weeks past, but she’s still smitten by the gift her son, Sam, made her. It’s on the kitchen counter, by the toaster, and she’s reminded of it every time she passes: a small green binder with the word Recipes on the cover, written in Sam’s hand. All the pages in the binder are blank, except for the first. On it Sam wrote, “We will fill every page.” It’s the best thing anyone has ever given her. Her favourite present in years.
The binder was the culmination of a series of dubious events that began on a Saturday in early spring—a grey and windy day with bits of snow speckling the sky. The kind of day to stay put, to hunker down, to revel in laziness. Nothing was going to drag Morley from the comforts of central heating and cozy slippers that Saturday.
To be precise, it was two-thirty in the afternoon. Morley was still in her pyjamas, savouring this delicious and unusual turn of events, when it dawned on her that Sam was in his pyjamas too.
“Why are you still in your pyjamas?” she asked.
“Because I can’t get dressed,” said Sam.
He said this with a dramatic, faux anguish—which Morley was about to point out, until he added, “I have no underwear.”
Instead of calling out his delivery, she rolled her eyes and, with less patience than might have been required, said, “You have a whole drawer stuffed full of underwear.”
Sam rolled his eyes, picked up his comic, and said, “They’re all too small.”
Morley put down her coffee.
She stared at her son.
It was one of those moments when her parental ship—a ship that had been sailing along pleasantly enough, the decks clean and ordered, the sails full and trim, the sea a deep and pleasing blue—was suddenly, because of its inattentive and likely incompetent captain, bearing down on the rocks.
“All of it?” she said incredulously, sitting up. “All your underwear is too small?”
“Except the grey ones,” said Sam. “And they’re in the wash.”
It took a moment for this to sink in.
Where had the rocks come from? She’d thought they were miles from shore.
She tried to remember if she’d seen any of his underwear go through the laundry lately. Had she folded any in the last few weeks? Had she carried any upstairs? Had she put any away? She was trying to remember—she was drawing a blank, and it was worrying her.
She said, “How have you been managing with one pair?”
Sam didn’t look up.
“Improvising,” he said.
And so ended the peace of that afternoon. Morley got up, brushed her hair, and got dressed. In her imagination, a concerned childcare worker was peering at her poor pyjama-clad son. “Exactly how many months did you go with only one pair of underwear, dear?”
Just as she was stepping out the door, Dave stepped in.
“Hey,” he said. “Where you going?”
Morley looked at his boots—at the cold, damp, dripping snow. She didn’t feel like going anywhere.
“Underwear shopping,” she said morosely.
“Excellent,” said Dave. “Could you buy me some too? But not the kind you got last time, the other ones.”
She had no idea what he was talking about. She had no idea what kind of underwear she’d bought him last time.
She didn’t ask.
She left, closing the door behind her a little hard, she thought.
She went to a department store—to the boys’ department first.
She loaded up on underwear for Sam.
Then she headed for men’s wear. She chose several packages—some cotton, some knit, and then, more out of spite than love, a pair made of clingy, synthetic fabric that looked more like bike shorts than underwear.
She wondered if she should visit the women’s department to get something for her daughter, and then it occurred to her that that was probably the last thing Stephanie would want. It had been years since Stephanie had asked Morley to buy her anything. She was happy for Morley to pay for things, but not to pick them out. And that’s when it struck her that Sam would soon stop needing her to shop for him, too. Soon, instead of asking for things, he would ask her to stop picking things out, and soon after that he would stop wanting her to do anything for him.
If all went well, he would need her less and less, he would slip further and further from her orbit and into one that was wholly his own, a trajectory she would glimpse, when she was permitted, from a distance.
Motherhood, she thought, as she stood there between the display racks of men’s underwear, was a poorly planned journey. It wasn’t a sailing trip. It was more like a race. And it started with a sprint. One moment you were standing still and the next you were running as fast as you could, the cries of your baby ringing in your ears like the bang of a starter’s pistol. You were racing to the crib and with the stroller. You were darting from high chair to grocery store, from laundry to bath time. Then you were tearing off to kindergarten class, and swimming class, and music class. You were packing lunches and cooking dinners and taking temperatures and kissing scraped knees. You were baking birthday cakes and helping with homework and hosting play dates. You were running, running, running. Always with too little time and not enough sleep. Somewhere it had changed from a sprint to a marathon. And you realized that you were, surprisingly enough, in pretty good shape. And just as you were catching your breath, just as you were hitting your stride, just as you were getting in the zone, someone said, “Hey. What are you doing? I don’t want a sandwich.”
And you stop, a limp peanut butter and banana sandwich in your hand, and you stare at the someone in amazement, not sure who they are, and why they would be saying this to you, until you realize, to your dismay, that it’s your child you’re talking to, and that you’ve been benched. You’re still a mother, but you are not in the race anymore. You’re watching from the stands. You’re a spectator.
This is what Morley was thinking as she stood in the underwear department staring at the Spandex briefs that a moment ago she thought were mildly, if a bit aggressively, funny.
Which is why, a few moments later, Katy Singh, seventeen years old an
This was not something they had covered on training day.
Katy found her supervisor and told him about the weeping woman.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” he said, putting down a handful of invoices. “Not again!”
A week passed. Another Saturday arrived. Morley was getting ready to head out again—to return the Spandex underwear. She hadn’t even given them to Dave. Her little joke had not seemed so funny once she got home. It had occurred to her that Dave might like them. That he might wear them.
As she gathered her house keys and purse, she looked at her son, who was once again on the couch, once again reading a comic. She’d been trying all week to think of something fun that they could do together.
As she stood by the door with the keys in her hand, it occurred to her that she’d been thinking too hard. All she wanted was to spend some time with him.
“Sam,” she said. “Why don’t you come shopping with me? We’ll get you some new jeans.”
Sam said, “I dunno.” It was dismissive. But was it displeasure? Or just disinterest?
“It’ll be fun,” said Morley. “We’ll get lunch after. Hot chocolate.”
And so he struggled up and the two of them headed downtown. They returned the underwear. Then they headed to the boys’ department. Fifteen minutes later Morley was having second thoughts about shopping with her son. She had tried to find jeans he’d like, but each pair she held up was greeted with a shrug.
When she suggested he try some on, he threw his head back with such force that she thought he might have hurt himself.
What had she been thinking? She’d been married for over twenty years—and had been a mother for almost as long. How could she have imagined that a shopping trip with a boy would be anything other than a voyage of the doomed to the island of misery? Sam marched past the racks of suits and shirts toward the change rooms with the enthusiasm of a prisoner in a labour camp.
They passed an anxious-looking young man flipping hesitantly through a rack of dress pants. He looked as if he’d be happier having a root canal. The men’s wear department was clearly not the place to look for a good time on a Saturday afternoon.
Katy Singh was at her post at the change-room doors. It was her third shift at her new job.
When she saw the weeping lady from the previous week, Katy blanched.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said nervously to Morley. “These are the men’s change rooms. You can’t go in.”
Katy pointed at Sam. “He has to go in alone.”
A few minutes later, Sam emerged from the change room in a pair of starchy new jeans. There was a pained expression on his face.
“These jeans,” he said, “do nothing for me.”
The next time, he came out, turned on his heel, and headed back before Morley could say a word.
“Not my style,” he said over his shoulder.
Five minutes passed. And then two more. Morley poked her head down the change-room corridor.
“Sam,” she called, “are you coming out?”
“No,” called Sam sadly, “I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
There were still several pairs to try. He said he’d come out if he liked any of them. Morley, who figured she might be waiting awhile, sighed and sat down on a chair outside the change-room doors.
As she did, the strap of her purse caught on the arm of the chair and its contents flew across the floor in front of her. She watched her favourite lipstick roll under a rack of housecoats.
“Figures,” she muttered.
In the change room Sam was staring at the pile of jeans he had yet to try on. The pairs he’d already tried were ugly. What were the odds that any of these others would be better? Maybe he was more of a sweatpants guy. Or shorts. Maybe he should wait until summer, and move straight into shorts. That way he could avoid the jeans dilemma until fall.
Morley was on her hands and knees crabbing across the men’s wear floor, gathering her hairbrush, her wallet, her car keys, her sunglasses. She’d just begun to squeeze herself under the rack, reaching about, patting the floor in the dark, looking for her lipstick, when Sam came out of the change room.
Sam paused near the chairs where he had expected to find her. She was nowhere in sight.
She’d always told him that if he got lost in a department store, he was to go to the nearest checkout and wait there.
He headed to the cashier. When he got to the counter, it was deserted. He sat down on the floor with his back against the counter to wait.
Morley’s fingers curled around the familiar silver tube. She crawled out from under the rack and sat back down in the chair, her purse securely on her lap.
Five minutes passed.
Sam should have come out by now.
Another five minutes.
What was he doing? Was he reading in there? Had he fallen asleep?
Morley decided she had waited long enough.
She stood up.
And she stood at the precise moment that Williams Van Kirk began his little meltdown. Williams was standing in the far change-room stall. He was staring disconsolately at a pair of grey gabardine trousers that lay crumpled on the floor. Williams was looking for an outfit to wear that night. He was taking his girlfriend to dinner. He was planning to propose between the main course and dessert. He wanted to look his best. But now he was wondering what he’d been thinking, shopping by himself. He’d rarely shopped for clothes on his own. He’d always had help from the women in his life—his mother, his sister, and more recently, his girlfriend.
Amanda was into clothes. Or more particularly, fashion. She had a way of making the selection of an outfit sound like a job fraught with danger. There were, apparently, rules. Not just ideas, or theories, but hard and fast rules about what he could and could not wear. Williams found this terrifying. According to Amanda, there were things he could “get away with.” When he was trying to decide on a tie before they went out, he’d often hold one up and she would step back and cock her head and say, “Yeah, I think you can get away with that.” This made him nervous, especially if there was doubt in her voice. What would happen if she was wrong? What would happen if he couldn’t “get away” with it?
One day, when he was in grade five, Williams wore to school a purple-striped T-shirt his aunt had given him. He’d been in the playground only five minutes when someone, he couldn’t remember who, but someone bigger—he remembered that much—had made some “purple-pants” crack and then walloped him with his lunch bag. Williams had gone home with an eye that matched his shirt. So he understood that fashion mistakes could be painful. At some level he was worried that if he went out in a pair of gabardine trousers he couldn’t get away with, a large man in an impeccably tailored suit would appear out of nowhere and wallop him with his briefcase. Or worse, Amanda wouldn’t marry him.
“How could I marry someone who would wear those pants,” she would say before she hit him with her purse and abandoned him in the restaurant.
Williams was standing there in his underwear, staring at himself in the mirror, thinking how ridiculous he looked with his shirt hanging limply over his hips, his socks bunched around his ankles—how unlike the men whose pictures he saw in fashion magazines. Williams, paralyzed with indecision, battered by doubt, and overcome with apprehension and anxiety, heard a noise outside his change-room door.
It sounded to him like someone with a briefcase.
It was, of course, Morley—with Katy Singh trotting close behind.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” Katy was saying, “you can’t go back there, ma’am.”
But Morley wasn’t listening. She was lurching past one door after another, calling her son at each one. “Sam? Sam?”
There was no response.
She came to the last in the row—the only closed door in there. She stopped in front of it. She didn’t even hesitate.
Sam heard the commotion and headed over. So did the department supervisor. He looked at the man on the floor and the frenzied woman scrambling down the corridor.
“For heaven’s sake,” he sighed. “Not again.”
Ten minutes later, Morley and Sam were in the car, driving home.
Sam had cheered up considerably.
“Hey,” said Sam. “We never got lunch.”
Morley had forgotten all about eating.
Mortifying embarrassment tends to have that effect.
“Right,” said Morley. She peered down the road, looking for some beacon of kid-friendly dining. “What do you feel like?” she asked. “Hamburgers? Pizza? …”
“I was thinking sushi might be nice,” said Sam.
Morley glanced over at her son.
He seemed to be—serious.
“Sushi?” said Morley. “I didn’t know you liked sushi.”
“Yeah,” Sam said.
“Yeah?” said Morley.
“Well, I’m developing a taste for it,” said Sam.
“Really?” said Morley.
“Well, I’m hoping to develop a taste for it,” said Sam, almost wistfully. He was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, “Mr. Harmon said I would like it.”
Morley looked over at her son. “Mr. Who?” she said, trying to quash the alarm in her voice.
“Mr. Harmon,” said Sam. “Harmon’s Fine Foods.”
That Mr. Harmon. Morley had always found Mr. Harmon and his little specialty store intimidating.
“When were you talking to Mr. Harmon?” asked Morley.
“Last week,” said Sam. “After school.”
“You go into Harmon’s?” said Morley. “After school?”
“Not always,” said Sam. “Last week he had oysters from Malpeque.”
She was parking. Looking over her shoulder. It was hard to concentrate on both things.
“He let me try one,” said Sam. “One of the oysters.”
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