By: Richard Kemick
Once the butler has opened the door, the first thing I notice is all of the cats. They occupy the mansion like vagrants, crawling atop the frames of paintings, sliding down the spiral banister, leaping between the ebony chairs. One dangles above me in the chandelier, the crystal prisms clinking.
As the butler takes my winter coat, President Campbell rounds the corner, wearing a “Kiss the Chef” apron overtop a tuxedo. In my father’s hand-me-down white collared shirt and plain black tie, I feel woefully underdressed.
“Richard, thank you so much for coming,” Dr. Campbell says. Taking my jacket from the butler, he says, “Allow me, Charles,” and fits a wooden coat hanger into it.
“Thank you for having me, Dr. Campbell,” I reply.
“Please, call me Eddy.”
Eddy opens up the closet and I stare at the wall of full-length fur coats. It looks like a 19th century Hudson’s Bay trading post. Eddy, catching my jaw drop open, rubs my jacket between his thumb and forefinger. “This is quite nice,” he says, trying to make me feel comfortable. “Is this real polyester?”
“I brought this,” I say, holding out a one and a half litre bottle of white wine. I asked the guy at NB Liquor for something that seemed expensive but wasn’t and he pointed me towards this brand. Its label is faded and burnt around the edges like it’s old and exotic.
Eddy thanks me and inspects the label. “I had no idea Belarus made wine. I love new things. But how did you know I had cats?”
I follow him towards the dining room, stepping around and over his multitude of felines. There is a 12-foot table, solid white, that stretches the length of the room.
“Is that made from bone?” I ask.
Eddy winks at me and touches his nose. “I-vor-really can’t say.”
I surprise myself by letting out a laugh. When I received his postcard in the mail, I thought it was a joke. When his secretary emailed me to ask if I’d received the invitation, I still thought it was a joke. It wasn’t until Tony Secco came to my Canadian Gothic Literature class, stared daggers at Dr. Jen Andrews, and asked me what my deal was that I realized Eddy was genuine.
I sit at one end of the table thinking that Eddy will sit at the other, but he sits immediately to my left. Suddenly this big table seems much more intimate.
A cat hops onto his lap. “Richard, this is Genghis Claws. Say ‘hello’ to Richard, Genghis.” Eddy takes one of the cat’s paws and makes it wave at me. In a high-pitched voice, lisping his R’s, he says, “Hewwo Wichad. Hewwo.”
“Dinner smells great,” I say, catching a whiff of spice wafting from the kitchen. “What are we having?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You didn’t cook?”
He chortles. “Good God no. I burn water.”
“But you’re wearing a ‘Kiss the Chef’ apron.”
“Ha!” he replies, looking at his chest. “All this time I thought this said ‘Kiss the Chief.’”
I have no idea if he’s joking or not.
“No, I just use this as a bib. Don’t want a barbecue sauce bow-tie, if you know what I mean.”
I have no idea how I could not know what he means.
A cat scurries across the table and, from his apron’s pocket, Eddy pulls out a water bottle and lets a couple squirts fly. “Off the table, Mouse-olini! Off the table!” The cat hisses and disappears behind the stereo speakers.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Eddy says and pulls out a CD with the plastic wrap still on. “I bought something I thought you might like to listen to this evening.” He holds the CD at arm’s length, inspecting its cover like he did the wine bottle. “The Insane Clown Pussy — I mean, Posse. Oops. The Insane Clown Posse’s The Mighty Death Pop.”
“Sorry, what’s its title?” I ask.
“The Mighty Death Pop.”
I heard him the first time but I’d just wanted him to say those words again.
“Do you enjoy them, Richard?”
“Truthfully, I don’t really like that type of stuff. I listen to a lot of classical.”
Eddy claps his hands together. “I knew you and I would hit it off!” He turns to the hallway. “Charles! Please come. And bring your cello!”
Charles enters, carrying a cello as large as he is.
“Any requests, sir?”
Eddy looks at me expectantly. “Does he know any Bach?” I ask, unsure of whether or not I can address Charles directly or if that sort of thing is frowned upon.
Eddy scoffs, “Does he know any Bach? Charles, begin.” Charles immediately enters into a flawless rendition of the Prelude.
Dinner consists of steak and pork chops with a side of chicken wings. We wash it down with a 25-year-old red.
We indulge ourselves in meat and pleasant conversation. I ask him what his hopes for the university are. He asks me what my favourite colour is. I ask him what he thinks of the Syrian civil war. He asks me what’s the longest I can hold my breath; I’m unsure so we decide to have a competition but keep falling into fits of giggles every time we see the other puff out his cheeks and swell red in the face.
Charles’s impeccable vibrato and leaping arpeggios fill the room. Eddy cuts off a strip of marbled fat and dangles it beneath the table. Instantly, a cat bolts from the corner and to his hand. “Here you go, Kitty Amin. Just don’t tell Cat Jung Il.”
After a desert of chocolate-covered bacon, Eddy invites me onto the porch to watch the sunset. “Come see what the annual salaries of five-and-a-half immigrants can purchase. Of course,” he adds, “we know now that you’re longer allowed to cut them in half.”
As he helps me put on my jacket, he says, “Aren’t I a silly sock––I forgot to feed the cats.” He grabs my bottle of white wine off the hallway table and empties it into a large metal basin. A pride of cats descend. “Easy now, Slobodan Meowšević. Make room for Paw Pot. Where is Saddam Pussein?”
The bottle empty, Eddy extends his hand to the door. “I’ll meet you out there.”
I sit alone on one of the two rocking chairs and watch the sun sink across the river, shimmering the water in brilliant reds and oranges. Everything is so magical here, in this pure-white mansion built on the bluffs of the St. John, overlooking the noticeably poorer northside. But here, their inequality is not ours. Because in this house, there is only equality; there is always enough for everyone who lives here, there is always more wine to drink and more meat to eat.
Eddy joins me, carrying two crystal glasses of whiskey.
I graciously accept the one he graciously offers. “Isn’t that north?” I ask, pointing at the sunset. “I thought the sun set in the west.”
Eddy laughs softly to himself. “Everything has its price, Richard. Everything,” he pauses, swirling his tumbler, “has its price.”
Finally, I ask the question I have been thinking of since the evening began. “Do you think I’ve been unfair to you, Eddy? Over the past year, I would be the first to admit that I’ve been a bit dickish at times.”
“In my weekly opinion column.”
“You write for The Gleaner?”
“No. The Brunswickan. The student paper.”
“We have a student paper? Wonderful! I’ll have to ask Charles to check that out some time.”
“Well, sir, if you haven’t read my columns then why did you invite me over here?”
Eddy leans in, rests his hand on my forearm. “I’m just trying to get to know my students, Richard. The students whom I care for and love with all my heart.”
He takes a healthy sip. “Richard, I don’t want you to think of me as the old bumbling president who holds your academic future hostage in order to gain leverage for my own fiscal fantasies. I want you to think of me as your cool and hip older brother.”
I nod, feeling the happy war of whiskey surge through my body. The sunset casts the water in glittering fire. A breeze kicks up and sways my rocking chair. The wind is cool and refreshing against my face.
Two years it has taken me to learn what kind of soul was hidden behind those $800 glasses. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two whiskey-scented tears trickle down the sides of my nose. But it’s alright, everything is alright, the struggle is finished. I had won the victory over myself. I loved my new Big Brother.