Vinyl Atrocity: Stuart McLean on Literary Landscape

Dave Currie’s run on CKCU’s Literary Landscape is known among the scarce, hardy folk who know Literary Landscape intimately for its occasional outlandish concept episodes. This past May, Dave and I sat down to write an episode featuring the Vinyl Cafe’s Stuart McLean. “McLean” in this case was code for my braying, Jimmy Stewart-cum-Brunswicker impression. The story is our spin on McLean’s classic Dave & Morley stories, but it goes a little sideways somewhere in the middle. The bit is a little long, but we had a lot of fun putting it together, and the one piece of complaint mail we received accusing us of “usury” made it well worth the time. As of December 2014, the show is still available to listen to on demand here:

But if you’d like to read and reminisce, here is the full story from the show.

[Vinyl Cafe Intro]


Dave woke up on a beautiful Tuesday morning, with a hopeful spring in his step. It was five thirty in the morning. He opened the front door and walked down his uneven driveway to fish the morning paper out of the birdbath where the Stevens’ boy had carelessly tossed it, as he did each morning. As Dave slapped the bagged paper on his thigh to dry it, he became aware of something out of the ordinary. A turd. More specifically, a turd on his driveway, with a footprint in it. It was early, so things weren’t coming to Dave as quickly as they might’ve done at another time. He looked around, wondering, who had been walking on his property so early? The Stevens boy rode a bicycle, a fixed-gear with his little sister’s streamers streaming from its handles. They may not always have been streaming, but Dave had only ever known the bike as a blur, a shout of, “Sorry Mr. D!” trailing after it. Dave shrugged and turned back toward his house, eyes half-closed, already dreaming of the microwaved cup of last night’s strong dark brew Morley had made, as she always did before bed, waking up in the morning complaining, as always, of not having slept well. Dave had long ago stopped suggesting she cut out her late night cup of Joe, though he always thought it, and suspected that she could hear him thinking it.

As he walked toward his house, he noticed that his springy steps were not so springy as they had been only minutes before. In fact, they were downright spongy. Dave knew then, without need for further inspection, what had transpired. He glanced over at the neighbour’s yard. Mrs. O’Toole’s chocolate lab sat panting happily on her porch, still wearing its orange service dog vest. She looked at him with what Dave knew, admittedly irrationally, to be a profound canine pleasure. Dave grit his teeth, but decided that he would let it go. Ms. O’Toole had been blind since the big eclipse of ’84, when Darryl Murdoch had offered her 12 jujubes to stare into the corona of the obscured sun, even though she had been warned by numerous sagacious individuals, including her parents, teachers and even her crossing guard (a Ms. Hilde Thompson) that her vision could be seriously affected. It was clear that she had enough on her plate.

Since being moved to the neighbourhood, Ms. O’Toole had been the very model of civic pleasantness, always having misshapen cookies to sell at the community bake sales and plenty of wide, toothy smiles for everyone, although, Dave could never be sure if her smiling was for him or not, as she was understandably general with her orientation.

Behind the wheel of his Ford Prius, a Virtucar he shared with the faint nicotine smells and collective butt-imprints of untold dozens of ghostly fellow econo-sojourners, Dave reflected on the whirlwind that had consumed his and his family’s comfortable life these past few months. Dave had been the proprietor of a record store for as long as he could remember, a problem he thought he should address later. As he had been attempting to balance his accounts one night in April, he’d found himself obsessing over the echocardiogram of slight upticks and less-slight downticks in the yearly revenues. While these might have been mere distortions, the unpredictable waves and eddies of a small canoe in the heaving seas of capital, something about the hour of night and the restless anxiety that comes of long years of middling comfort in the midst of an uncertain economy had Dave convincing himself the fault was due to gentrification, the hipsterization of his beloved vinyl niche. Just down the road, two new record shops at opened, one called Hell Pees and the other something neither my mother nor CKCU would be comfortable with me saying on air, and Dave feared he could not compete with their astutely curated selections of younger-skewing genres like the hip-hop music, the urban music, and the rap music.

As he chewed at the nib of his pen, rubbing away the “Mc” from McClure Dental, he found himself wondering how he could make his record store stand out from all the other record stores. He glanced around his office, his second home, at his cherished mementos. A gold LP, given to him by the great Canadian rock band April Wine, for helping them out of a dust-up in Peterborough. One of fine Canadian songstress Rita McNeil’s spangled blouses, worn on many a CBC Christmas Special, still bearing her signature scent of lilacs and horse sweat. An original 8-track by the Canadian powerhouse Trooper – now wait a minute. As Dave stared at the faded, rectangular art it seemed almost to shimmer, the colours growing more vivid, the smell of old incense wafting toward him. He could make his record store different by not selling records! By selling a format more obscure. More, desirable if you will. More, dare I say it, hip. The lost art of the 8-track… cassette?

The store made its triumphant sea change in July to moderate fanfare.

By September, he found himself back on the job market for the first time in he didn’t know how long, again a problem he would have to address later. Specifically, when he sat down at his Smith-Corona to peck out a new resume. He’d asked Morley, but she’d just scowled and pulled on her tight, Creamsicle-shade uniform. Dave losing his job meant Morley was forced to become the sole provider for the family. Unlike Dave, she still retained some of her old skill at securing employment. Within a week she was serving up cool drinks and piping lukewarm burgers and fries at that venerable neighborhood eatery, Hooters.

Morley’s figure was perhaps not quite as it once was, but middle management seem to suit her, and she maintained a strong appeal with a niche clientele, in her orange hotpants stretched over brown nylon stockings (the stockings an optional piece of company apparel but, Morley felt all the years considered, the less exposed skin the better), a niche composed primarily of men she went to high school with. Dave, in his heart of hearts, resented these men, though he would never have breathed a word of it to Morley. Worst of these was Jack “Flash” McGoohan, who had always been able to unduly (in Dave’s opinion) impress Morley by striking matches off his rabbit-like front teeth. He still did this trick, all these years later, though the friction of so many strikes had left his teeth grey and grooved as Dave’s driveway in the February slush. Dave was a quiet support of women’s liberation, but he felt strongly that he needed to get Morley back in the house as soon as possible, or at least, down to one job.

Dave’s daughter Stephanie offered to help her father set up an account on Finally, all those summers of Computer camp were providing the sort of return the 8-track shop had failed to do. Feeling anxious, Dave’d decided to take a walk. He’d walked and he’d walked and he’d walked and when he finally stopped, he stopped with a start. Right in front of the record store he had been driving to for all those years. It was then that he saw it. There on the lamp post only ten steps from his failed business was his salvation. A help wanted poster, requesting a maternity leave replacement at a local animal shelter. Dave knew this was a sign, just like that turkey from all those years ago.

Dave had always liked animals, from the guinea pig, to his recently deceased dog that again Dave could not remember the name of, to his sister’s cat, the sister who was the pianist and was supposed to be a play piano for the queen once but didn’t. So he drove, in his communally-owned Prius, and he parked it at the animal shelter, which was called Pawsome Gently Used Pets, which was a portmanteau of “Paw” and “Awesome,” and he asked for a job, and they gave it to him. His confidence was at an all-time high. He was less confident when Gina, the office receptionist who appeared to be the sole employee, handed him a ballpeen hammer and pushed him through a robin’s egg blue door covered in construction paper cutouts of cat paws, into a room of lazy eyed, mange ridden or otherwise slightly defective kittens.

When he arrived home at the end of his work day, much later than he had ever arrived from the record store, Morley knew there was something different about Dave. His eyes were a little deader, his appetite a little smaller. And despite the celebratory mess of green beans coated in pure Canadian maple syrup, leg of lamb and New Brunswick’s own potatoes she’d managed to whip up in spite of her own exhaustion from fending off the Flash McGoohans of the world, Dave didn’t manage to eat more than half his potatoes, a quarter of his green beans. Of the lamb, he ate none at all. Morley collected up the still-crowded dishes, a little glumly, and looked around for the dog to leave the leftovers, whose name she remembered was Stanley, but who, she had just then forgotten, was no longer with them.

When Morley tried her special night ritual, Dave reacted as he had to the lamb. He instead crawled out of their warm bed, and went downstairs to wind down a little in front of the television. The Toronto Maple Leafs were out of the hockey playoffs, hadn’t even got in in fact, and the Toronto Argonauts were not yet playing Canadian football. Dave had never really got basketball. He flipped through the channels, adrift, until he came upon a pristine view into the wilderness, a glowing porthole to the Serengeti meant only for him. The Discovery Channel. Dave had never noticed how beautifully, appropriately named that DCI-subsidiary truly was. And as he sat there, he finally stopped wondering how he could bear another day shuffling animals off their furry mortal coils, let alone a career (or at least, a job until Shelly’s twins were reared enough for their mother to resume a less bloody occupation), and he just watched, watched for hours, his tired eyes not tired now, now wide open, even glistening. He watched the noble elephants drawing water up their long, wrinkly grey trunks till it seemed the rivers would become dry as the gulch behind his family’s home in Cape Breton, watched their stamping, their snorting, their mating. He watched the cheetahs, blurred like the Stevens’ boy’s bike, lazing in the sun, mating. The flamingos, Bazooka Joe pink, wading in the water, launching into arching, surprising, graceful flight, mating in the sun like amorous skydivers. Dave had always wondered how animals in their multitudes, in their constant mating, could become extinct, but now it seemed as though they were smooth rocks at the end of a private curling sheet all for him, and Dave for once in his life, held the hammer. Dave sighed, surprised to find himself contented, and creaked out of his chair, slipped on his slippers, and slid between the teetering towers of boxed 8-tracks that had consumed his den, padded past Stephanie and Sam’s rooms so as not to wake them, and woke Morley up with his own special night ritual.

Arriving at work the next day, Dave was told to murder some squirrels, squirrels that had become inconvenient to the local elementary school. No tools were provided for him, his hands were enough for these critters. As he windmilled the last of them by its tail over and over against the monkey bars, he caught sight of his son, Sam, staring at him from his classroom window. Dave waved cheerily, but Sam just turned away quickly, pretending not to notice. “Too cool for dad, I guess!” Dave said to himself with a wry shrug. The day after that it was old dogs, adoptable sure, but Gina said she didn’t want the paperwork. He was handed a rifle and told to go to town. Dave had heard stories of sled dogs being put down by shooting after the Vancouver Olympics, of businesses being shut down. But Gina was Dave’s superior and he was too new to make waves. He shot those dogs dead. All seventy-eight of them. That night in bed with Morley he howled.

He strangled ferrets after lunch, he stepped on rabbits and broke rat necks with a bottleopener. Every time Dave killed a small animal he thought of Morley, he thought of his children, he thought of how proud they would be that he was making money, how he was providing for them. Every time Dave killed a larger animal, he thought of himself and his pride grew three sizes, at least. He planned to ask Gina if he might take home a few mementos, nothing obvious or gauche, just small reminders of the work being done that fulfilled him in ways pushing LPs of the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions on impressionable college girls never had. It was all going well, that is, until the day the police raided the Animal Shelter, which in truth was no shelter at all for animals, a shelter only for Dave.

Dave was eating a sandwich, ham and Swiss. That very day, he had been so proud to be standing in line at the deli, at the deli with the other breadwinners in his furry smock, no longer reduced to eating Hooters leftovers brought home by Morley. Truth be told, Morley wasn’t having much to do with Dave these days, his manner too estranged from the boy she had met all those years ago, too long ago for Dave to remember (but he’d worry about that later), at that rock and roll concert in Providence, Rhode Island, he thought, probably. At least that Jack McGoohan wasn’t having much to do with Morley either.

The raid came swiftly, a real testament to the efficiency of the men and women in the City of Toronto’s crack Animal Cruelty task force. Gina, who was playing online poker at the time and was, it must be said, black, was immediately clapped in hand cuffs though she wasn’t struggling, in fact looked rather bored. Dave, in sharp contrast, was immediately introduced to a trauma councillor, who along with the very, very convincing testimony by Morley as to Dave’s change in personality and history of seizures, was helped to secure a large settlement from the Shelter.

Dave used the money to buy back his record store. He threw out all the 8-track cassettes and even put in a small compact disc bin, his concession to the bright, digital future of physical media.

Months later, Dave woke up on a beautiful Tuesday morning, with a hopeful spring in his step. It was five thirty in the morning. He opened the front door and walked down his uneven driveway to fish the morning paper out of the birdbath where the Stevens’ boy had carelessly tossed it, as he did each morning. As Dave slapped the bagged paper on his thigh to dry it, he became aware of something out of the ordinary. Blind Ms. O’Toole was standing in her doorway, pawing at something swinging in her doorway. As she felt at the still sunwarmed fur, comprehension beginning to dawn, a low sound beginning in her throat, the Stevens’ boy on his way home from his paper route in record time, looked over and cried out at the sight of the chocolate lab he had been forbidden to pet hanging from its twisted orange service vest over the spinster O’Toole’s porch. He caught his bicycle on the lip of the curb and flipped head over heels onto the lawn, streamers finally not streaming. Dave smiled bemusedly and scratched at his sleep-bedraggled hair and turned back toward his house as the cries rose from next door. Dave hadn’t been so happy since he couldn’t remember, he’d worry about it later. Maybe he’d ask Morley.

The End.


That was really long.”

JM’s JaM:

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