Cheryl’s skipping Christmas this year, again. Because Brian dumped her, because she screwed things up. Again.
She shivers in the crisp night air, behind Bill’s Beer ‘n’ Beef, in the derelict lot. It’s a good bar to cut loose in, and forget. Her hands cradle her lighter, giving her cigarette a chance to live, and she bobs along subconsciously in tune with the driving bass inside. She lost Brian because she screwed up, and she doesn’t want anything to do with her parents and their endless criticism.
For a moment, the bass is joined by melody and the busy noise of bar chatter as the door opens, and then is cut off once again. Cheryl glances over her shoulder and sees a man. She shivers again, though not from the breeze. Surreptitiously, she checks her purse and wraps her hands around her pepper spray.
“Miss,” the man says. She looks at him again. He’s an older guy. No, an old guy. A head of wild white hair and a Santa beard. Eyebrows so bushy they merge into one. A scowl like he’s seen too much of the world. And she notices – and hates how much she notices – that he’s not white. Middle Eastern, maybe, with deeply tanned skin.
“You dropped your wallet,” he says, holding something out to her as he approaches. His boot scrapes echo on the hollow lot.
Cheryl’s eyes widen and she takes it from him. “Thanks.” A shock ripples through her veins at what she might have lost, but didn’t. She puts it securely back in her purse.
“No worries,” he says. Up close, she sees that he’s huge. Ripped. He wears a leather vest and a Motörhead tee, and his arms are massive and adorned with ink. There’s no single recognizable tattoo, just an abstract interwoven mosaic that almost moves on its own. He looks like what she imagines a Hells Angel looks like.
“Can I bum a smoke?” he asks.
“Uh,” she says. If he is from the Middle East, she’d never know by his perfect English. Then she wonders if that’s racist. She glances in her purse, sees the empty pack. Makes a show of checking even though she already knows. “Sorry, this is my last one.”
“I don’t mind,” he says. And before she realizes it, he plucks the cigarette from her fingers and takes a drag, then replaces it gracefully.
Then he exhales, slowly, and his scowl softens. “Oh, my,” he says, eyes half-lidded. She sees him deflate, as though the smoke carried all the tension away. “I needed that.”
She looks from the cigarette to him and back to the cigarette. She really wants a smoke, but she doesn’t know where he’s been, who he is. He might be a user, or homeless, or sick. But then the aroma of wildflowers hits her and she sees how pristine his teeth are, how immaculate his nails are. And his skin, though old and sun worn, is unblemished and healthy. So maybe he’s clean, maybe he’s a guy that cares about hygiene. In her experience that was rare outside of Brian, but then again she’s not met many seniors.
She takes a puff. “You seem stressed.”
“Yeah,” he says, looking off at the distant skyscrapers. “I hate this time of year.”
She arches an eyebrow. It’s the twenty-fourth of December. “Wait, what? You hate Christmas?”
He grimaces and his eyes climb the skyscraper to the clouds. “It’s my kid’s birthday tomorrow.”
She takes a step back, flinches. Takes a good look at this guy but it doesn’t seem like he’s pulling her leg. She stands in front of him so they’re face to face. “Well isn’t that a good thing? One day of presents and all that?”
He nods. “You’d think so. But he died a long time ago.”
She hides a gasp with her hand.
“It’s kind of a rough reminder, you know?”
He shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it. Death’s part of life, it turns out.”
She looks down at her stilettos for a moment, the night air teasing her bare legs, sending a shiver up her spine. She offers him the cigarette and he takes it, takes another drag. She continues looking at him when he hands it back.
“You want to know how he died,” he says. She starts shaking her head even though she does, but he continues, “It’s all right. I don’t mind. I like telling people about him. He…” But despite his words, the old man grimaces, the bitter taste of an unpleasant memory in his mouth. “He ran with the wrong crowd, I guess. Had problems with authority. In the end, it got him killed. They killed him, I mean.”
Cheryl’s eyes widen, the breeze smoking the cigarette in her hand.
“He was something of an idealist, and… well, surprise surprise, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man. I guess that’s normal. I wish he listened to me more, but I’ve had a long time to reflect on it and I wish I had listened more too. He was right about a lot of things, things I just didn’t want to see. That’s kind of the point of having kids, isn’t it? We make another version of our self, hopefully in a better time, to have a better life. And we don’t appreciate it when it actually happens.”
He takes another round with the cigarette, and when he replaces it in her hand, Cheryl marvels that it’s still going. It barely looks smoked at all. She muses that sometimes time plays tricks on you. She also takes another puff.
“So did they ever catch the guy?”
The old man nods, once. “You know, it took me a long time. A real long time. But in the end, I forgave him for it.”
“Oh, really?” she says. He nods again. “I don’t know if I could do that.”
“I didn’t either, but it’s what my son would have wanted. And besides, the guy that did it – he was just a dumb kid. He was as much a product of his environment as anything else. He didn’t know better, and I don’t think things could have gone differently.”
She takes a puff. “Well, what about personal responsibility? Lots of people are born in shitty circumstances, but not all of them turn out shitty people.” She chooses to ignore the parallels to her own life. “Aren’t we responsible for our own actions? Don’t we have free will and all that?”
He nods again. “That’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Free will. How much do humans have? How does it manifest? How much do external factors force their hand?” He takes a puff.
“And?” she asks.
He shrugs, smoke jetting out both his nostrils.
She rolls her eyes. “That’s not a very satisfying answer.”
“I’ll put it this way,” he says. “I’d rather spend time with my kid, than plumb the depths of creation.”
She can’t argue with that, and her thoughts go back to Brian. Her ex now, but once her this-is-the-one. This year was supposed to be special. This year, she was going to patch things up with her folks, and… well, and they’d share the news of the engagement. Until she Cheryled it all. Mom would have a field day with that. She realizes maybe the old guy is right, maybe Christmas is a crappy time of year after all.
They take another couple puffs in silence.
“You ever wish for anything?” he asks.
She looks at him but he raises his hand. “Rhetorical question,” he says. “Everyone wishes for things all the time. But that’s not enough, is it? You’ve got to work for your wishes, if you want to see them come true. And some wishes are so big, you’ve got to spend your whole life working towards them. And some are even bigger, and no amount of work will make them happen.”
“Sure,” she says, unsure. She takes another puff.
“You ever work for a wish, and then be disappointed when it comes true?”
Cheryl immediately thinks of Mark, charming Mark. Mark, for whom she pissed away her future with Brian. Mark, who then left her too.
But there were other wishes too. Sure, her career as a lawyer wasn’t as glamorous as she had dreamed, but it was a good job and she made a difference. And she was proud of her degree, of graduating top of her class. Of the friendships she forged along the way. The work made her a better person, even if her indiscretions made her a worse one.
“It’s the work getting there that’s the real reward, isn’t it?” he says. His timing startles her. She takes a puff.
“So the people who don’t work for their wishes miss out,” she says. He nods. “Like spoiled children.”
He takes a long drag, the cigarette casting them in an orange light.
“So what about people who pray?” she asks.
“What about them?”
“Aren’t they getting wishes without working for them?”
The old man snorts. “God doesn’t answer prayers anymore.”
She crosses her arms. “What makes you say that?”
“Look, there’s way too many people in the world, and they pray for the dumbest things. Help my team win football! Help me win the lotto! Make the traffic go away!” He shakes his head, disgusted. She takes a puff.
“Or here’s one,” he continues. “Help me kill the people I hate so that our army beats the other army! What’s God supposed to do about that? What if both sides are praying for victory?”
She shrugs, smoke jetting out both her nostrils.
He shakes his head. “That’s not a very satisfying answer.”
“I’ll put it this way,” she says. “I’d rather go dancing at a dive bar, than debate pointless metaphysics with no objective answer.”
He grunts, then grins. Then he takes one more deep drag and hands the cigarette back to her.
“Listen, Cheryl, it’s getting late for my old bones. I’m going to take off, but it was nice meeting you.” He doesn’t return to the bar but starts down the alley.
“Nice meeting you too,” she says, waving. “Have a Merry Christmas!”
“You too!” he calls out, and then he’s gone.
She stands in silence for a moment. Maybe Christmas is crappy, she thinks, but then again this guy lost his kid and was able to forgive the guy that killed him. And he turned out all right. So maybe there’s more to life than holding onto the small things, the petty grudges. Maybe Christmas doesn’t have to be crappy. Maybe one day… maybe one day Brian will even forgive her. And maybe today, she can forgive.
She digs her cellphone out of her purse. It’s nearing midnight, and she sees what she’s been ignoring for the past week. Nine missed calls from Mom. She decides to finally return the call. Mom might be asleep. She might be angry at the late call. She might be angry to learn Brian’s not coming any more. She might be furious her daughter’s as big a screw up as ever.
She might be lots of things. But they can deal with that tomorrow. Maybe this year, they’ll have a family dinner like old times, while there still is time.
As the phone rings, she takes a drag on her cigarette and startles to see it’s still almost entirely fresh. She wants to tell her mother about the strange old man, but realizes she never got his name.
And, she never gave him hers.
But then the phone connects and the thought fades from her mind.
“Hi Mom,” she says. “I’ve missed you.”