Callum kicked the snow and cursed under his breath, an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth, stuck to his chapped lower lip. He’d forgotten both his matches and his wallet upstairs.
It was cold, but he didn’t want to go back inside. Not yet. He craved the respite of smoke diffusing through his lungs, imagined it hitting him hard on an empty stomach. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought up the issue until after dinner.
He pulled up the collar of his woolen coat and crossed his arms. Fat white snowflakes floated rather than fell, making everything seem slow, suspended in time.
A man in a puffy red jacket and a black cap emerged from the corner store half a block away. Callum wondered if he should go there and ask the store clerk for some matches. It was worth a shot.
The man in the puffy jacket looked unsteady, swaying back and forth. As Callum approached, the man raised his eyes, and Callum instantly recognized him. A young boy, dressed in red, singing at the top of his lungs in the choir of the church Callum had attended with family as a child.
“Billy?” Callum placed a hand on the man’s back. “Are you OK?”
“Callum?” Billy’s eyes were bloodshot, but he smiled broadly and extended his hand. “How’s it going? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Yeah, I moved away. Years ago.” Callum shook Billy’s hand. “I’m just here to see Mom for the holidays. How’ve you been?”
“Not too bad, man, not too bad,” Billy said. “Just… Some days are not great, you know?”
Callum smelled alcohol on Billy’s breath.
“I remember you from the choir,” Callum said. “You were a star in those crimson robes.”
Billy winced. “The choir? Man, that was ages ago.”
“So, you still sing?”
“A little, sometimes. On the weekends, at a club downtown.”
“Not the church choir?”
Billy seemed puzzled. “No, not the church.”
Billy looked Callum in the eye, held the gaze for a long moment, a moment that felt like it would spill into words.
“You’ve been gone a really long time, man.” Billy looked away. “Guess you haven’t heard.”
“What? What happened?”
“Never mind.” Billy turned back toward Callum. “Now, do you have one of those for me?” He pointed at the cigarette still hanging off Callum’s lips.
“Oh!” Callum felt like he’d just snapped out of a trance. “Yeah, sure.” He grabbed the loose cigarette from his mouth, pulled a pack from his pocket with the other hand, and offered it to Billy. “But only if you’ve got a light, ‘cause I got nothing.”
“Sure I do.” Billy tapped the cigarette pack until one slid partly out and into his hand. He put it in his mouth, then returned the pack to Callum, pulled a lighter from his pocket, and carefully lit Callum’s cigarette first, then his own, protecting the flame from the wind with his hand.
“So, if you aren’t with the church,” asked Callum, drawing in a long, deep smoke, “what are you up to these days?”
Billy puffed out a small cloud. “I’m a janitor at our old high school. Union job. Good benefits, and I get all the school holidays off. I spend them with my kid while my ex works. She’s a nurse.”
“Wow, man, you’re a dad! Congrats!”
“Yeah,” Billy looked at his feet and smiled. “One thing I try not to mess up. Often still do. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Wife, kids, work?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a good job out of state. Government contracts. Statistical analysis.”
“Cool, cool,” Billy nodded. “What about the wife and kids?”
Callum hesitated. “No wife. No kids.”
“That’s OK, man, you still got time. Seeing anyone?”
“How come you didn’t bring your girl with you to see Mom for the holidays?”
Callum paused. “Because I didn’t think Mom would approve. And I was right.”
“Why wouldn’t she approve?”
Callum looked up at Billy. “Because it’s not a girl.”
Billy’s eyes widened. “Oh! Well…” He looked away briefly, then right back at Callum and smiled. “It’s all good, man. I am sure your mom will come around.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Callum puffed out a couple of smoke rings. “I hope so. But not today.” He took one last big drag, dropped the cigarette to the ground, and extinguished it with his toes. “I gotta go back.”
Billy smiled. “No worries, man. Good to see you! Thanks for letting me bum a cigarette off you.”
“Good to see you too, Billy.” Callum turned to leave, then glanced back. “Thanks for the light.”