Outside the Box (a Christmas Story)

“Happiness is for pigs and wishes are for children,” Trevor announced to all and sundry. His deep baritone cut like a foghorn through the smoke and noise at Oliver’s Pub, which is located just across from Holly’s Beach and right around the corner from our bookstore. It’s a pleasant place to conclude a day’s work over a pint or two.

“That’s not true,” said the pretty young woman who was standing at the bar, beside where Trevor straddled his favourite barstool. “Happiness is there for everybody and wishes can come true,” she declared with conviction. “Isn’t that right, Jack?”

Jack, her boyfriend, seemed like a nice enough guy, except he wore the ugliest tie I’d ever seen. He was quick to answer. “Yeah, sure. I think so too.” He didn’t want any kind of confrontation or controversy but achieved exactly the opposite.

The imposing figure of Trevor Buck, who was also known as the Human Dinosaur, turned a few degrees south, in the direction of the young couple—an ancient warlord addressing the rookie foot soldiers from his horse.

Everybody who frequented Oliver’s knew better than to argue with Trevor, especially after he’d had a few. But the unsuspecting couple didn’t know that. They were just here for a drink and to make a bit of friendly conversation. After all, it was the merry time of year. Trevor’s cynical views of the universe were common intellectual fare to us patrons at Oliver’s, and he wasted no time in unleashing them onto the heads of Jack and his girlfriend.

From the opener, “Happiness is redundant because it’s always confused with pleasure,” he moved on to his two-dimensional perception of global misery, brought on, he said, by “greedy white trash,” then ranted about “our inconsequential way of life” and “mass neurotic social behaviour” and, last but not least, expounded on the evils of pre-packaged religion. After demanding a refill from Fast Eddy, the bartender, he thundered on about “the curse of the electronic mindless hole into which we stare for an average of seven hours daily.”

He covered it all, including fast food and cheap import cars. But as even Trevor condescendingly admitted, “The public gets what it wants. They want to elect a dill pickle for Prime Minister, they get it.” Trevor liked to compare popular people, particularly politicians, to food. Harper was a dill pickle, Trudeau a grilled cheese; Christy Clark a fortune cookie, and Obama burnt toast. Depending on Trevor’s mood or the politics of the day, the menu was apt to change.

Jack had his hands stuck in his brown suede jacket, which clashed with his purple tie like a fist on the eye, and was staring glumly into his stale beer. His girlfriend (whose name was Daisy), in her cowboy boots and her ponytail, turned to stone as if confronted by a gargoyle, which isn’t a bad description of Trevor. She looked up and said tartly, “You don’t have to be so bitter. It’s not our fault. I happen to like the world I live in, and we make the best of it. I don’t think we’re from the same planet.”

Trevor immediately offered to buy her a drink. He completely ignored Jack, who kept nudging her in the ribs. Daisy politely refused the drink and headed for the ladies’ room, while Jack strolled over to the other side of the pub, leaving Trevor grumbling into his empty beer.

Trevor’s life hadn’t exactly been a bed of roses, but then whose was? Over many a pint and a few years we were able to piece together his rise to prominence at Ollie’s.   Although his mom was Canadian, he grew up in Detroit due to his dad’s job at Chrysler. After having studied a couple of years of journalism at Wayne State he was sent to Vietnam as a junior war correspondent He referred to the war as ‘Hell on earth’. A shot in the hip on one of the last days of the war gave him a limp and a small disability pension. He figured he’d done enough for Uncle Sam, and with wife and son in tow moved to Vancouver, where they started a small local press. When the building where he published the East End Chronicleburned down, they got some insurance money, which he invested in an ‘alternative publishing venture’. He basically published street poets, himself amongst them. The money ran out a few years later as did his marriage. A lucky connection landed him a job as assistant editor at the second-largest newspaper in the city. He lasted a few years, which were mostly spent at loggerheads with his superiors. When his only son Bradley died of a heroin overdose, just 19 years young, Trevor’s tenuous world crumbled. He walked away from everything and everybody, including his job and his second wife.  Sometime in the 90ies he moved to the Sunshine Coast into a cabin on band land and for as long as anybody can remember he’d spent most of his evenings at Oliver’s. He did a bit of freelance writing and was a frequent visitor at the bookstore, but mostly he just hung out. He liked being around people but avoided direct contact unless it was by argument. Being alone in a drunken, noisy crowd was his idea of a swell time.

Trevor’s brain was lodged inside the head of a bird of prey, with a large beak of a nose and sunken black eyes permanently overshadowed by a protruding high forehead. His eyebrows were arched in a constant expression of incredulity, and a thin-lipped, lopsided mouth left him talking out of the side of his face. Picture this atop an awkward ape-like body, a six-foot-eight-inch frame with arms like propellers and feet like outriggers, all topped off with an unruly mop of grey hair. The arduous task of always trying to appear smaller than nature had resulted in a pronounced stoop. Watching Trevor limp along with his hands buried deep in the pockets of his undersized trench coat always reminded me of a wounded primate striding through the jungle. Surely not a beauty of a man, but with a presence that impressed, and was not easily forgotten.

He was a fool for women, and his acrid composure dissolved into a puddle at the slightest hint of a smile from any female. He could be a most charming and devastatingly funny man, even at his age. He would buy all the girls drinks, call them beauties and princesses but always end up by himself at the end of the night.

Like anybody else, he was his own worst enemy.

Being a beer-parlour philosopher of some stature, Trevor updated his opinions and views daily for the common benefit of anyone at Grandma’s who cared to listen. He did not read newspapers silently, like most people did, on the bus or in the privacy of their homes; he read his tabloids astride his barstool, with a running commentary like a sportscaster.

He read, “The birds are dropping dead out of the sky in Mexico City because of the pollution! Imagine 20 million people all farting at once … Listen to this: ‘A blind senior is mugged.’ Hell, blind the muggers! ‘Shoes and tuna fish for war-torn Mozambique.’ Hell, why not bow ties and Rubik’s cubes? Rain tomorrow, the next day and the weekend. Thank God, at least the weather is reliable. Fill ’er up, Eddy, will ya?”

He did not care who agreed or disagreed with his comments, nor did it make any difference whom the target of his gallow’s humour and cynicism was. It could be the Queen of England, the local hockey team, the most infamous murderer or rapist of the day, or for that matter, Fast Eddy, even if that was biting the hand that fed him. Fact was, Trevor Buck had nothing much good to say about anything or anybody alive (sometimes the dead were okay), and his rather jaded views got worse around Christmas time.

Neither God nor the Devil had his respect, and as far as human beings were concerned, he proclaimed them a miscarriage of nature not half as fascinating as the dinosaurs, which at least commanded great presence with little ambiguity. Anyway, there was no good cheer or merry-making in Trevor’s corner of the world.

* * *

It was the last week before Christmas and as usual around this time of year, the major complaints were the shortage of money, and/or the curse of the plastic cards, and the weather.

I sat down at the table with Bear and Judy. He was a “retired” journalist and foreign correspondent. He’d spent years in the Middle East and seen all the blood and misery one could handle. He now free-lanced out of his home and was a regular at Oliver’s around dinner time. Judy, his wife, eight months pregnant at the time, called him honey-poo, and the boys called him Bear or Grizz because that’s what he was, in temper and appearance. Nice and easy-going when in good humour, but watch out when pissed off.

I was nursing my beer, adding up for the fifth time how much I’d spent so far on presents, when Bear put his glass down, burped and leaned towards me across the table.          “Let’s do something special this year,” he said.

“Like what?” I yelled back over the general noise and Trevor’s voice.

“Dunno, just sumthin different.”

“What? Send somebody to Hawaii?”

“No, no that’s boring. It’s gotta be sumthin like make a dream come true.”

“Yeah, sure. Whose dream?”

“Dunno. Pick a winner, I guess. That’s it, kiddo! We’ll have a raffle and the winner gets his dream.”

Bear was all excited, his red cheeks and orange beard inches from my face, his hands balled into fists like he had a bull by the horns, and his formidable Molson muscle wedged firmly against the table.

I hate to be the realist all the time, but somebody has to remain on planet Earth when everybody seems to be in outer space. In my calmest voice, probably sounding patronizing, I said, “Come on, Grizz, it’ll never work. How do you make somebody’s dream come true? Most people’s dreams are way-out total fantasy stuff.”

“That’s not true,” countered Bear, genuinely affronted. “Most dreams are simple. Not everybody’s head is in the clouds like yours. We’ll have Santa draw the lot. It’ll work, you just wait and see.”

“Santa!” I said, incredulous. “Where do you get Santa at Ollie’s?”

“Easy. We’ll draw lots for that too.”

I shook my head, finished my beer and wished Bear the best of luck. I should have known that when Bear got an idea into his head, it stayed there.

I resisted like hell, but to no avail. In the end I did participate in the draw, although reluctantly, and my uneasy intuition proved me right. I was in our bookshop with Bear and Judy, who controlled a fit of the giggles while I got dressed in red pants (probably Olga’s, judging by the size of them), black rubber boots and a red sweatshirt with Oliver’s classic logo on it: “Drink thy Beer with Joy!” Judy plastered a grey beard to my face and, after some fuss, I agreed to a red top hat that completed the goofy Santa outfit.

It was the 23rd of December and one of the busiest days at the store. I was late to Olivers’s, and the place was packed. They all came out: Big Olga and her skinny, watery-eyed hubby, who was silently plastered as usual; Boris and the Swede, toasting each other with vodka; the “Count” (whose true lineage went back to the Habsburg Empire, though he lived here on the Sunshine Coast, on welfare), wearing his best getup; and Freddy, once a prominent sportswriter in Edmonton, now fallen by the wayside and a steady customer at Ollie’s, like so many of us. Mr. Milford, proud owner of the Coast’s oldest tackle shop and locally famed hobby astronomer, was sitting in the corner, looking every bit a lost space explorer. Even Jack and Daisy were sitting at the bar, but a long way away from Trevor, who was perched on his stool staring fiercely into his pint.

The jukebox was playing “Jingle Bells” by Springsteen, and Fast Eddy was whipping up the drinks quick and precise as only he could. The one question in my mind was, “Whose dream are we all going to learn tonight, and how on earth are we going to fulfill it?”

When I confronted Grizz about this slight dilemma, he looked at me like I was talking in a strange language. “Don’t you worry, kiddo, it’s gonna be okay. Everybody knows we’re not magicians. They’ll ask for something we can do or afford. Nobody’s a fool in here.” That was really reassuring.

The rule was that everybody wrote their dream in ten words or less on a slip of paper, signed it with their name and put it in my top hat. My dream was a bottle of cognac. I hoped everybody else was being equally sensible. After I made the rounds, toasted everybody and said plenty of ho-ho-hos, I set the hat atop the bar and Eddy was elected by acclamation to draw the winning dream.

For once Oliver’s was silent. There was actually a certain amount of suspense in the smoky air. “Drum roll!” somebody yelled, and there went Boris and the Swede, making their glasses jump off the table.

“Here she goes,” said Eddy, sticking his hand in the hat and pulling out the winner.

All hell broke loose, everybody yelling, “Read it! Let’s have it!” Boris and the Swede were doing standing drum rolls now.

With a simple sweeping gesture, Fast Eddy silenced the unruly mob. Solemnly, he read: “If I had any dreams, it would be to have my son back. Trevor.”

The stunned silence that ensued was filled with all the sorrow and pain, all the longing and loneliness, all the heartaches and misery humans have endured through the ages. Time stood still at Oliver’s and everybody was paralyzed. I felt like such a fool, and I’m sure the feeling was general.

Trevor sat on his stool with his back to the crowd, unmoving, slumped over his beer.

It was Judy who broke the spell. She walked over to the bar, climbed awkwardly on the stool beside him and put her arm over his shoulders. “Trevor,” she said, “we can’t bring your son back, but I want you to be the godfather of this child in here.” She took his large hand and put it on her swollen tummy for all to see.

For an eternal moment, Trevor didn’t move. Then he reached up with his free hand and rang the bell above the counter, announcing in his booming voice, “A round for the house and Merry Christmas to you all!”

The pandemonium that broke out the instant the bell rang is hard to describe. Everybody jumped up and embraced whoever was next to them, and a party ensued that I’m sure will have no equal as long as I live. Boris and the Swede were drinking each other under the table, Olga and her hubby were dancing to “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and Bear and Judy were sitting on either side of Trevor, who with vitriolic humourproclaimed Christmas a racist holiday, insensitive to all other religions. The Count was drinking beer out of a champagne glass, Freddy the sportswriter was happily collapsed over his table, old Mr. Wilbur was dancing a jig, and Fast Eddy forgot who ordered the last round. Just for the hell of it, Grizz good-humouredly sprayed everybody with a bottle of champagne, courtesy of the house. I myself got so plastered I forgot to change back into my own clothes and ended up walking home in the wee small hours in my silly Santa outfit.

One month later, Judy gave birth to a nine-pound baby boy. The unofficial christening took place at Oliver’s, with Fast Eddy as master of ceremonies.

The baby almost disappeared in Trevor’s large arms while Eddy proclaimed the boy’s name: Bradley Trevor.

Everybody cheered and toasted the baby’s future, while Trevor, totally out of character, cooed and beamed like he was the proud sire himself.

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