It was a small gesture that created a huge swelling in his gut as he gave the cashier all of his cash. And despite his best, teen-aged efforts, the corners of his mouth tugged upward as he exited the mall, and for a moment, he walked backwards across the parking lot to witness the imprint of his Chuck’s being left in just-beginning snow. That it was Christmas Eve, that the smell of cigarette smoke on his pea coat collar reminded him of his grandfather and Christmases past, that school was in recess until the new year, and that he would be able to give him this gift, wordlessly, slyly, on his return up the aisle from communion at midnight Mass, made this day among the best he could recall.
He leaned against his Nova and smoked. Still in the pack was the lucky cigarette—the one turned upside-down, the one they would share later. A long, last drag and he dropped the butt and it fizzled in the wetness of the snow and he slid into the Nova and cranked the key three times, as always, before the engine coughed and then took hold. The snow was too little and too wet to challenge his embarrassingly bald tires. (His father was a mechanic, and he could relate to the plight of the shoemaker’s children.)
His mother’s kitchen smelled of cloves and cinnamon. She was already dressed for Mass, and she came close and sniffed at him and made a face. “Change your clothes,” she said. “In fact, take a shower.”
In his bedroom, he pulled the magazine from its hiding place and did his thing. In the shower, he daydreamed of their lives in New York: the cold water flat in Greenwich Village, overflowing ashtrays on a trash-picked dining table, the rattle of coffee percolating over a gas flame, and late night talks about what they had left behind and what that they had to look forward to, and fuck any-and-all who couldn’t take a joke, so there.
He hadn’t known him long, but he had imagined it: that finally, after years of the selfsame kids, selfsame teachers, selfsame neighbors in this selfsame small town, someone new would blow in to win his attention and admiration and friendship. And he had. That they shared a love of Van Morrison and Lou Reed and, also, Camel cigarettes, well…
He heard the leaded steps of his father pass the bathroom door. It changed his mood, and he thought again of a Christmas past, to when he was ten and his mother asked him to fetch the shears from the garage so she could trim a branch on the tree, and while looking for the shears, he found a Sucrets box and opened it and found his father’s stash of a dozen joints, all perfectly rolled. He was only half certain what they were, but fully certain they were a transgression, and so he broke each and every one of them in half, closed the box, and returned it to its hiding place. Now, as he looked in the mirror and noticed perhaps he should shave, he got a smile on his face imagining his father’s discovery, the anger that would have spilled over him, both from the act of vandalism, and from knowing there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do about it. It was the perfect crime.
His father was agnostic and wouldn’t be celebrating Mass with them, which ordinarily he envied, but not tonight.
He heard very little of the Mass, for he could spy the back of his head, several pews up, through the throngs of what his mother called “twice-a-year Catholics.”
“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
The gift was tucked under his sweater. After receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, he followed his fellow Unworthys up the far aisle under the Stations of the Cross, and as he passed, he readied the CD and then handed it to him with a smile but without eye contact. That this wasn’t just some random album he was giving, but the very album he knew his friend wanted but hadn’t had enough money to buy, made him feel just the tiniest of tingles up his arms.
Back at his seat, he dared to look up and saw him turned, smiling.
“This Mass if over. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God.”
The snow had stopped, but it was cold and his mother’s little legs carried her quickly across the parking lot. “Hurry up,” she called. Though he tried, he did not see him.
His age inoculated him to Santa’s seduction, and so he slept late on Christmas morning, only to be awakened by music and someone sitting on the end of his bed. He didn’t have his own CD player and was at first confused. But then he was handed the cassette case with the name of each song neatly written out and the word “Moondance” written on the spine. He reached down to the floor for his pants and pulled the pack of cigarettes from the pocket and opened the pack and handed him the lucky cigarette. Then he opened the window above his bed.
…And when that fog horn blows, you know I will be coming home…
And he held out the lighter and his friend came toward him and he lighted the lucky cigarette and his friend took a drag and then handed it over, and he took a drag and they both blew the smoke out the window into the cold, Christmas day air.
…It’s too late to stop now.