Chapter 28

This is the second last chapter of Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World. I took a chance sharing it: no major plot points are revealed, but if you haven't read the book, some of this may not make perfect sense and the big emotional moments might only Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet E CameronCinnamon Toast pb cover low res raise shrugs. The excerpt here is also from the manuscript, and is a bit different from the version that was published and printed. But what the hell. It's Christmas! Back when I had chapter titles, this was called 'Angels Bending Near the Earth', hence the silly angel pictures for illustrations.

It's winter 1987, and Stephen is home from his first semester of college and attempting to survive a family Christmas - and it's not even his family.


Chapter 28snowscape Valley

December. Short days, long sunsets, quiet dark nights. It was three in the morning, and I was at Lana's place looking at the mirror over the bureau in her room. Our guitars were on the floor; we'd tried to have a band reunion of The Wretched Noise, but couldn't remember the words to any of the old songs.

I drew a line through the dust on the mirror glass. Photos were wedged in peeling shingles around the frame. There was a picture of Lana, a bright jolly three-year-old poised over a birthday cake. Another of her grandparents. Florence the dog as a puppy. The two of us at the prom. And one I'd never seen before.

Me and Mark. On the steps of my house in the summer. We were dressed practically the same, loose plaid shirts and jeans. I had my Walkman headphones around my neck and it looked like I was just coming out of a laugh. We were sixteen.

I sat on Lana's purple bedspread holding this picture in a little pool of light from a reading lamp. She was beside me, her arm curled around my waist. Lana eased the picture out of my hand and slid it into the pocket of my shirt.

'I don't know what you ever saw in that boy,' she said.

Eventually we made our way downstairs to the TV room, where Florence the dog lay sprawled like a rug across the floor, lightly rumbling in her sleep. Through the glass sliding doors we could see the cold white yard and black sky, a birdbath holding up an awkward wedding cake of snow. Lana was falling asleep. We lay back and were swallowed by the Kovalenkos' enormous couch with its smears of Florence hair. I shielded Lana from the glare of the TV. A Charlie Brown Christmas was on.

'Still in love with somebody too,' she mumbled, her eyes closed. 'Sometimes.'

'Ouch. Don't know what you see in him either.' I stretched out. 'Lana.' Traced the edges of her face. 'Too bad. Too bad we can't stay together. You and me, huh? Live somewhere nice. With our kids. And. Our...' Drifting off.

'Boyfriends,' she said. It made me smile. I was nearly asleep, the scene assembling itself in my head. Lana and me in a white kitchen with lots of windows, long wooden tables, children setting places for each other. And boyfriends. One in charge of each kid. I supposed we'd feed them all cinnamon toast. Somewhere near our feet I could hear Florence giving off a steady current of twitches and growls – sounded like a really good dream. I opened my eyes and found somebody had thrown a blanket over us. There was light in the sky and it was a new day.

angel weirdA few nights later I headed out for Taggart's Cross, population 893, a few towns down the highway from Riverside. Off to spend the holidays. I'd always been comfortable more or less ignoring Christmas, a tradition Mom and I had kept up from the time Stanley was still around. But this year was going to be different. My mother had a boyfriend now, and he had a family, and we were invited to stay until January.

Fred Dowd was the new man in Mom's life. He was a little older than my mother, balding and round-shouldered, with glasses and a grey cardigan that seemed permanently Velcroed to his body. If he touched my mother's elbow to guide her somewhere, it was like he was handling fine china. Did she like him? I hoped so. Things must have been serious if we were there for Christmas.

And so were, crammed with the whole Dowd family into an old blue and white farmhouse just off the highway. A woodstove in the kitchen devoured logs and blasted heat. The thermostats were cranked up. Dowd bodies wrapped in wool expelled warmth and breath and sounds. Windows were never allowed to open. Several times a day I got my coat and escaped on my own to smoke. Nothing but pastures and woodland from the house to the horizon.

At dinner we ploughed through piles of meat and potatoes, canned fruit salad under glops of Cool Whip for dessert. We made lame small talk with our mouths full. We listened to the Dowd men holding forth on immigration and free trade and Mulroney and the rest of it. There was a dusty cuckoo clock on the dining room wall, permanently stuck at a quarter past one, though its pendulum kept up a steady creaking rhythm. Below the clock was a picture of Christ with liquid brown eyes and folded hands, gazing up. If I was in a silly mood, I'd imagine the cuckoo bird suddenly appearing, and Jesus catching it on a long sticky tongue that unrolled like a frog's. Then I'd have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. I'd decided to help my mother by acting as normal as possible – even went back to the Riverside guys' uniform. As far as anyone knew, I was just a regular boring kid who read a lot.

Not that I was making too many friends here. Nobody could seem to remember my name. The adults would prod me with the same questions over and over, forgetting that they'd already asked and I'd already answered. I'd step into the TV room and the Dowd children would turn and silently stare at me until I left. If I talked too much in front of Granny Dowd she'd stare too, her mouth moving like she was chewing on gristle.

Granny Dowd wasn't a real granny. I think she was the actual grandmother's aunt. Dusty crypt old. And nuts. She'd go skulking around the place in crocheted slippers with pom-poms on the toes, always tied up in some piece of behind-the-scenes family resentment, hissing at one of the Dowd daughters in the upstairs hallway. I overheard her once, as I was plodding off to my little guest room to grab some time alone. She was going on about an old buried conflict, somebody's kid she didn't approve of, or possibly she was talking about a dog.

'I suppose she's proud of herself,' Granny was whispering. 'Raising that. I'd hang my head in shame. I certainly wouldn't sit it at the dinner table. With children. With married couples!'

Embarrassing overhearing these family conflicts, even if I had no idea who they were talking about. It was like the Dowds were parading around in front of me in their RL-2562 2Lunderwear.

Which they did, eventually. Or their pyjamas, which seemed about the same thing.

Christmas morning. My mother and I exchanged gifts in the hallway at the head of the stairs before anyone else was awake. We were fully dressed. Not into this communal pyjamas thing. I gave her a nice scarf and a gift certificate for the bookstore where Christopher worked. She got me a subscription to some kind of gay magazine. I thanked her.

'Well,' she said, blushing deeply, 'I actually thought you might prefer something a bit more...uh...raunchy.  But...'

'Jeez, Mom!' I put my hand over her mouth. 'That's okay. That's fine. I don't want you looking at gay porn.'

We were whispering, glancing down the hallway. My mother started getting the giggles.

'I really hate Christmas,' I mumbled into her ear.

People emerged from their rooms, and then it was time to file downstairs with our adopted family. The gift giving was a bit unnerving – tearing off the paper and displaying your winnings to the rest of the tribe. Fred Dowd got my mother an expensive necklace and his sisters all glanced at each other. He gave me a thesaurus, which I thought was sweet.

A few hours later we all sat down and started passing hot dishes of meat and mush around the table. Our glasses were full of wine or grape juice. We raised them and clinked hollowly. My mother got brave after a glass of wine and starting telling the story of the Riverside elves.

'I'll get home from work and somebody's mowed the lawn. Or the leaves are swept in piles. Even the snow cleared out of the driveway. No note, no bill, no nothing.' She shrugged, smiling. 'Elves!'

'She's not kidding,' said Fred, although no one had contested my mother's story. 'I went over there once with a leaf-blower to help her clear the yard. Course that was really just an excuse to get some time alone with Maryna...' He blushed and covered her hand with his, and she giggled at him like a teenager. The rest of the table ignored this. Fred recovered. 'Anyway, I get there and – poof!  It's all done.'

The Dowds nodded blandly and several people said that it was a strange thing alright. Then the brother-in-law with the beard changed the subject so he could go off on one of his rants. This time it was AIDS.

'If you ask me, anybody who's got it deserves it.' He was leaning forward with his mouth full of winter squash. 'Kind of lifestyle that pretty well encourages disease. Thousands of, you know, partners. Sexual partners,' he said, dropping his voice and glancing guiltily at the children at the far end of the table. 'And now it's getting so that good, decent people can't...' I switched him off. Heard a lot worse than that.

Thousands of partners. I started smiling into my mashed potatoes. Could you fill an auditorium with them? A convention centre? Jeez, mine could all hang out with the coats in the hall closet and they'd still be comfortable. Of course, if I included all the people I'd only thought about sleeping with. Now that would be a party. The underwear guys from the Sears catalogue trooping into this banquet hall, filling up tables. It was Christmas, so I put them all in Santa hats.

Then beside me I heard my mother whisper the man's name, fiercely. 'Joe!' His wife nudged him. Her eyes darted to my side of the table. Joe glanced at me, startled, caught. So did the guy next to him. And his wife. And Granny Dowd. And...oh, no.

The whole table was looking in my direction. The whole room. I felt cold, suddenly aware of the food in my mouth, this pulpy mass.

Joe cleared his throat. 'Although I probably don't have...all the facts and...uh...' He changed the subject, started talking about Oliver North, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it.

angel porcelainI moved the mush on my plate around. Didn't dare look up.

They knew. They all knew. Mom must have told them before we'd even come here, probably to stop Mr World Policy from mouthing off like this. And of course somebody had shared the news with Granny. Sneering at me when I talked, getting freaked out if I brushed past her. 'If I'd raised that...' ThatIt. All made sense now.

Flat scraps of turkey seething in brown gravy, red gore of cranberry sauce still bearing the imprint of the can it had slid from. We were staying past New Year's. Another week to go.

Then something occurred to me. Like a message from an angel, clarity descending from a cold perfect place.

'You don't have to do this.'

That's right. Walk away. This is a crazy old lady who hasn't actually met that many people in her life. This is a family under strain, suddenly coping with two potential grown-up members. Nothing to do with you. Leave now.

'Mom,' I said. It was quiet at the table. I still hadn't taken my eyes off my plate. 'I think I forgot some stuff back at the house. I'm gonna borrow your car and go, okay?' I stood up. 'I'm gonna go now.'

There was a flurry of protests behind me. I didn't listen, went upstairs for my suitcase and coat. Got to the front door before I realised I didn't have the keys to the car. Shit. My clear sense of purpose was getting muddy. I stared through the gloom at the dining room doorway, lit up with its long table full of Dowds, its cuckoo clock and Jesus.

Then someone was bustling towards me in the dark.

'Just let me get my coat.'

'Mom!' She had her purse clamped under her arm, a ring of keys in her fist.

'Well, I'm not staying if you're leaving.'

'Don't...' I couldn't take my eyes off those keys. 'I want to be by myself. And what about Fred? He really likes you.'victorianchristmas-clipart-graphicsfairy010

'Oh, honey. He doesn't know me. Not really.'

'Well, maybe but...' I felt so sorry for Fred. 'Give him a chance. You got a good thing going with this guy.' I reached down and took my mother's hand. The hand with the ring of keys. 'Mom, can I...?' I shifted the car keys off the little chrome circle and closed my fingers around them. She looked wounded. I gave her hand a squeeze. Turned to go.

'No.' My mother grabbed my arm. 'I'm sorry,' she said, helplessly. 'I know I'm being clingy. I know it...'

Hadn't we done this before? Weren't we always doing this? Back and forth. Round and round. Please go. Don't leave. Please. Don't.

'We never see each other anymore.' She took hold of my wrist.

'Course we do. You're up to visit all the time.' I tried to break away. She was still holding me. 'And nobody else I know calls their mother practically every day. Look, I'm not complaining.  But...oh fuck.'

'No need to swear.'

'Please let me go.'

'I'm not stopping you.' My wrist was still in her grip. Attached to the hand with the car keys.

We stood not moving, eyes locked on each other.

'Mom, please. I'm not even gonna stay in Halifax forever. There's so many other places I want to see. I might end up in Toronto, or Montreal. Or the States. Maybe even London. Paris. Who knows?' I shut my eyes, but kept talking. 'Now I just want to drive to Riverside.'

I heard the closet doors behind us sliding open and the hangers jangling. Then Fred Dowd was beside my mother, stuffed into his winter coat.

'Listen, Stephen, you're obviously not comfortable here. Why don't we all go somewhere together? Your house in Riverside? Or is there another place...?'

I grinned at him. 'Jeez, Fred, you're so nice!'

He put a hand on his glasses. 'Oh, well...'

snowscape'You are,' my mother said, and she reached over and traced the edge of Fred's ear. I looked away. He was smiling at her shyly, like a boy.

'Guys,' I said. 'I'm gonna go now. By myself. Okay? Just want to be alone. No big deal.'

Fred stood with his arm around my mother. 'Now, I'm sure we can all...'

But she was nodding bravely. 'Okay, sweetheart. Okay.' She threw her arms around me. 'Oh, God, I...'

'I know. I love you too, Maryna.' I kissed her, just under her eye.

'So much,' she said.

I kissed the other side of her face. Then I unwound myself, stumbled out the door past piles of Dowd boots drooling old snow on a mat. I hugged my mother again, shook hands with Fred, told them I'd be back soon. I wouldn't.

The cold hit me as soon as I opened the door. A few white flakes were starting to fall, twisting and looping in the wind. Behind me my mother and Fred stood framed in the doorway, a plastic wreath behind their heads, all the windows of the house lit up with orange electric candles. Mom and Fred waved as I drove away and I watched their figures get smaller and then disappear.

The roads were quiet. Houses were glowing with colour on the still white fields. Soft blue and green, crazy whorehouse red, flashing lights, twinkling lights, lights blinking from under a cover of snow.

Our own house was dark, and very cold. We'd left the heat on just high enough so the pipes wouldn't freeze. I liked it that way. I read until I fell asleep in my own bed. My dreams were so vivid there were times I was sure I was awake.

A funny mix-up of the daydream about the banquet with all the people you'd slept with, or wanted to, and that vision I'd had of Lana and me feeding a room full of people. It was the same kitchen with wooden tables. Lana was there, and a man who loved her. Mom was at a table with Fred and Sheila and my two sisters, Becky and Sarah. They were college age in this dream, beautiful women. Stanley was there too. And the underwear guys. The girls from the rec room at Tracey's party sharing a table with Janine and Christopher and Adam. Everybody talking, passing plates. The people kept coming and the tables kept multiplying, but nobody was crowded and there was enough for everyone.

Where was I in this dream? Standing at the stove. I was old, maybe thirty. A little girl was perched on a high stool beside me. I was shadowing her hands with mine because I didn't want her to burn herself, but she didn't need me. She wasn't going to make the same mistakes I did.

'I can do it myself, Daddy,' she said.

When I woke up I was almost laughing and it wasn't Christmas anymore.