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An orphan's Christmas

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"Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see... said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see... said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see...."

"I think I see it Al. It's in the back field. Why don't you go out and have a look."

Al had been sitting in a semi-foetal position in the overstuffed chair by the potbelly stove intoning the same line from the same carol for long enough to finally get on my nerves. There were three annoying elements to his behaviour. First, he couldn't sing. What passed for Al's singing sounded remarkably like Tom Waits at his gravelliest worse played at a too-slow speed. Second, I hate that carol. Third, and maybe most important, Al was tripping on some psychedelic he'd found in a 35mm film can he'd uncovered in the back of his desk drawer and the line he was chanting like a mantra probably had more to do with what he was seeing, something I in my stone-sober state didn't have a chance of seeing since he'd chosen not to share his discovery.

He managed to pour himself out of the chair — no mean trick — and wander out the kitchen door in the general direction of the field. Being pissed at him, mostly for not sharing, but nonetheless fond of him, I set the timer for 15 minutes to remind myself to go check on him, figuring he probably wouldn't get past the long driveway.

It was half an hour to orphan's Christmas and to the extent everything could be under control, everything was under control. In a household where "control" consisted largely of making sure nothing other than the wood in the aforementioned stove was on fire, it wasn't much of an accomplishment. I took solace nonetheless.

I didn't know who or how many people were going to show up — it was that kind of invitation. I didn't know what they were going to bring. I just told everyone to bring a dish to share and something suitably festive to drink.

The biggest turkey I could find was in the oven, also seemingly under control and roasting to what I hoped would be brown, succulent perfection. It was stuffed with an untraditional melange of stale bread and leftovers I thought best to clear out of the fridge. I'd stopped three days before at the Goodwill and picked up two dozen mismatched plates and that many more glasses to add to the collection of already unrelated dinnerware in the house, having tried and failed once in my life to eat turkey dinner off paper plates.

A large, blue Coleman cooler sat on two stumps on the veranda — OK, the rotting, covered, screened-in porch — outside the kitchen door. Inside was my tribute to Bacchus, a sangria-like concoction designed to prime the evening's pump and ensure no hangover was overlooked. Being short on cash — the turkey had used up most of what was left of my first semester's student loan — I'd opted for quantity over quality, knowing whomever showed up would care, if at all, only during the first few sips.

Inside the cooler I'd emptied four, one-gallon jugs of papa Cribari's finest red table wine. That's what it was called and at $1.89 a gallon, who was I to argue. Half a bottle of leftover rum was added as were the dregs of an assortment of bottles that had been languishing in various cupboards from past parties, the rambling, semi-rural adobe being a frequent venue for planned and otherwise gatherings. Random citrus was sliced and added, as was half a jug of orange juice that had been in the fridge long enough to be suspect but not quite long enough to smell medicinal. For volume, I planned to encourage anyone who brought something other than beer to add it to the mix.

The old style kitchen timer chimed and reflexively I basted the turkey. Heat, moisture and the rich smell of nearly done, utility grade turkey filled the room. Then I remembered the timer was set to remind me to look after Al, not baste the bird.

I wandered out into the night. It was cold and dark, lit largely by the swath of Milky Way overhead. My breath formed transient cumulus clouds as I headed for the back pasture. As expected, Al hadn't made it more than a hundred yards from the house and was lying in the gravel at the end of the driveway.

"Do you see what I see... do you see what I see...."

"What happened to the night wind and the little lamb?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"Never mind. What do you see, Al?"

"The star of Bethlehem, the one that guided the wise guys to baby Jesus," he said, pointing upwards.

I got down beside him. "You mean that bright one over there?" I said, pointing.

"Yeah, that one. The brightest one."

"That's Sirius, dude."

"It's only serious to the true believers," he replied.

"No, it's Sirius, the dog star. Canis Major... one of Orion's hunting dogs... Earth to Al, you receiving?"

"'S'not the star of Bethlehem?"

"No."

"What about that one?" he said, pointing to another bright star.

"Arcturus... in Boötes."

"Boots?"

"Different constellation; not important."

"Well, which one is the little star of Bethlehem?

"You... ah... can't see it from here," I lied, not wanting to get into a theological debate on the astronomical validity of that particular Christmas story.

"Why don't we head back to the house. People'll be arriving any minute," I said.

It was a long stagger back and lights of an arriving car blinded us, half tempting me to tell Al that was the star of Bethlehem.

Within an hour, the house was crowded with Christmas orphans well on their way to feeling merry. The cooler was half full of who knows what, there were two lasagnes, four green salads, three variations of candied yams, enough mashed potatoes to feed an army, a large pot of simmering posole, four dozen tamales and a plenitude of familiar and bizarre Christmas cookies, at least some of which were laced with illicit substances.

Inevitably, as the evening wore on, someone started singing carols. Everyone who thought they remembered the words joined in, as did those of us just making words up. Al kept chanting, "Do you see what I see." Predictably, it sounded like a drunken, off-key chorus. It was marvellous.

It wasn't until well past midnight I remembered why this motley assortment of friends and strangers had come together for Christmas dinner. It was the first time in my life I was facing Christmas without any members of the family I'd spent every Christmas of my life with.

I couldn't imagine a better substitute.

Merry Christmas.

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