I stepped off the bus just as the snow began to fall. It was the thick fluffy kind, exactly what people want on Christmas Eve. However, after a long shift facing a bottomless horde of last-minute shoppers and a forty-minute bus ride, I would have been happier if it had held off about twenty minutes. A three-block walk with cold, damp ankles was not going to fill me with Christmas cheer.
I had paused a moment, rendered briefly immobile by the prospect of snow in my shoes, and I realized suddenly that there was a small man beside me. I hadn’t noticed him standing to get off the bus nor had I heard him stepping down after me, but now as the bus howled off into the early evening darkness, his presence registered. Like me, he was looking up at the fat flakes as they sifted down. Unlike me, he seemed pleased to see them, and he held up an arm to watch some collect on the dark woollen sleeve of his jacket.
I stepped in front of him, beginning the trudge home. He turned, pivoting like a soldier, and fell in beside me. For a few steps, I adjusted my speed, trying to either fall back or pull away from him, but I didn’t seem to be able to leave his side.
“Beautiful night, huh?” he said as we reached the corner.
I am as wary of strangers as anyone else, as the perpetual news cycle trains us to be. But there was nothing in his tone to give concern. Almost the opposite, in fact, as his voice was earnest almost to the point of childishness.
I made a vague noise of agreement. We crunched along the sidewalk through the growing depth of snow, the movement of our feet louder than the endless surf-noise of city traffic and the susurrus of the falling flakes.
“Going home for Christmas,” he said. It was not a question, but he glanced over and up at me, eyes dark under white brows, apparently expecting a response. Again, his tone was gentle and I started to wonder if he might have some mild cognitive impairment that led him to converse with strangers. I shook off the idea. I had no basis for any kind of judgement like that. He could just be a garrulous sort, running on his own generation’s set of rules for public conduct.
“I am,” I said, trying to match his friendly tone while working to avoid the artificial interest my retail job forced me to use in most of my daily interactions. I was, at very least, distracted from the chilly ankles.
“Yeah,” he said, looking up again to broadcast his approval of the weather. “There’s nothing better than the feeling of heading home on Christmas Eve.”
I made another proto-verbal agreement. I envied the way he was dressed, even if he was out of fashion. His knee-length coat and trapper hat seemed to be keeping him very cozy. He walked upright and relaxed, while I adopted a tight cold-weather hunch. I was forming a thought that a completely sunny attitude was also keeping him warm, but his next words did away with that.
“I know I missed more than a couple of holidays with Judy and Bess,” he said. He was still looking at the invisible sky, but I doubted it was distance that gave his eyes a far-away look. “I didn’t know how much I’d feel it at the time, but now…”
He looked right at me and made a small self-deprecating eye roll. “Anyway,” he went on, “my advice is that you don’t let the season go by without letting your near and dear know how much you love them.”
“Absolutely,” I said, and some contrary element deep inside me threw up a brief image of my step-father from the last time I had seen him, seven Christmases past. He had tried to be a good father, I think, but somehow he just didn’t have the equipment for it. I walked away from him that Christmas, as Mom had four and a half years earlier, and I had hardly spared him a thought since.
He didn’t count as near or dear, though. He’d tolerated me when I was a kid, provided me with a useful counter-example in my teen years, and been intermittently civil thereafter, none of which really qualified him as a loved one. That list was short enough, and I’d be with the top two on it soon enough. Sukie was only a block and a half away, and Mom would be there too after a fashion, peering out of a tablet from her well-deserved tropical retirement.
I stumbled over a hidden unevenness in the pavement, breaking my reverie. My companion slowed, but made no move to catch me. I laughed to show all was well, then said, “Almost home, at least. It’ll be good to get some rest.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and repeated it, almost as a sigh: “Oh, yes.”
We crossed a narrow side-street, neither of us bothering to look for cross-traffic. One good thing about winter—you heard cars coming a long way off.
“That’s the big trick to life,” he said, still chasing his earlier thought, “letting people know you loved them.” A sniff. “I’m pretty sure Bess knew.”
“That’s your… daughter?”
“Yep. Bright girl. Went into accounting.” There was a little pause, as if he expected a comment, but I had none. “She sure did light up at Christmas time.”
As if the words had conjured it, the house we were passing became suddenly frantic with twinkling lights. The glowing cone of a well-decorated tree was visible through the curtains, too. I looked up the street and back, trying to get a sense of the seasonal spirit of my neighbours. Probably a false sense. Step-dad had loved the lights, but grumbled about absolutely every other element of Christmas. Sukie and I hardly put a light where it could be seen from outside, but revelled in the seasonal movies and gave over the living room to a tree that almost vanished under ornaments.
The next house along was certainly Christmas-y on the outside. The eaves, rails of the narrow porch, and the frames of the door and window were crammed with fat bulbs. I realized after a moment that they were all vintage incandescent jobs, some of the filaments shining out through cracks in the bulbs’ coloured glaze. It looked like houses I vaguely remembered from the earliest winters of my childhood, and it looked nothing at all like any of the other houses in the neighbourhood, even the ones of the same post-Depression style. The display was no better or worse than the festoons of modern LEDs that were otherwise ubiquitous up and down the street, but it definitely had a different flavour.
As we came even with the gap in the small picket fence which suggested a path to the front door, my companion stopped. “Home at last,” he said. He turned a little and held out his gloved hand. “A pleasure walking with you. I’m Walter.”
I took his hand and gave it a shake. There was no strength in his grip, and I was left with the odd feeling of having taken hold of an inflated glove rather than a hand. I was as gentle as possible in responding to what pressure he applied. “I’m Kris. It was good talking to you, Walter.”
He disengaged, squaring up to the house. For just a moment, he stood still, looking up at the gayly lit facade, then he nodded gently as if what he saw had met expectations. I began to walk away, my progress sidelong for a few steps as I kept my head toward him. “Merry Christmas, Walter.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Kris.” He had turned his head to speak. One side of his face was monochromatic in the diffuse pale orange of the streetlights while the other, bathed in a riot of tones from his own decorations, had the hectic false hues of a 1950s Technicolor film.
“Give my best to Judy and Bess,” I said, turning almost away from him now that the distance had increased so much.
He looked away from me. He did not turn his face toward the house. but looked down as if inspecting the space between his house and the adjoining apartment building. This somehow cast a shadow which interrupted the glow of Christmas bulbs, and it was a winter-dim Walter who said, “Of course. Yes.”
I finished my turn, not sure if it was to hide my own embarrassment or hide from his disappointment.
Only half a block from home, I stopped. I was haunted by the image of Walter as I had left him, a little old man about to trudge up to the door of a house that was festive-bright outside but, as I had noticed only as I turned away from him, utterly black within. I took out my phone, keeping my head over it to act as an awning against the snow as I dialed.
“Hey, sweetie! Almost home?” Sukie’s work was closed from the twenty-second until three days into the new year, and she sounded exactly like someone who had spent a whole day completely insulated from the desperation of last-minute shoppers.
“Getting close.” I tried to think of a clever way to ease into the topic, found nothing, and dove in. “I ran into a nice old guy on the bus, and I think he’s all alone. I want to invite him over for eggnog if that’s cool.”
She hesitated. Even Wenceslas needed a briefing before he shared his Christmas with the peasant, and he was a saint. “Sure,” she said at last, then with more enthusiasm, “yeah. Yes. You’re awesome.”
“So are you. See you soon.”
The possible ways this might go wrong began to crowd around me as soon as I started back for Walter’s place. Perhaps Judy was indeed home, just napping in the back, and now rested up to be suspicious of an unexpected stranger at her door. Or, worse, she would be delighted at the invitation and prove to be both outgoing and abrasive. Or… she was unable to rise from her bed, and would urge Walter to go on and have fun, don’t mind me, adding a small layer of discomfort to his quiet martyrdom.
I had gone so far as to posit Walter as a very clever serial killer, striking only at those who showed him seasonal pity, when I realized I had overshot my goal. I stopped in front of the place that had startled me with its sudden illumination, feeling foolish for having gotten so far inside my own head as to miss the little house completely.
I had missed it because I had, in an idle, almost unconscious way, expected to see the particular lights of the house, and they were not there. Instead, behind a tall chain-link fence, there was a small parking lot, obviously serving the apartment building just the other side of it. Four stalls were occupied by cars which had, to judge by the dark pavement beneath them, been there since before the snow had started.
I looked around, as if the place I was stopped in front of was not a sufficient landmark. I looked down to gaze at my footprints in the snow; the fresh set I had just made, the more obscure ones beneath which included a few broad scuffs from my sideways motion, and the increasingly fuzzy ones that ran from where I stood back toward the bus stop.
Only one set.
“Merry Christmas, Walter,” I said quietly to the chain fence. “I’m sorry you couldn’t come over for a visit.”
Sukie was nonplussed when I arrived alone. I began to tell her what had happened as I got out of my jacket and shoes. I had to start again when Mom called, and I saw looks of incredulity on the faces of my loved ones, present and distant, when I got to the point of being unable to deliver my invitation. I sipped the nog which Sukie had handed me, one of three glasses she had poured after my call, and I nodded at the unsatisfying rational explanations she and Mom suggested. We moved onto other topics once I had agreed to a couple of likely speculations.
Eventually, Mom rang off, leaving us to our own Christmas Eve antics of getting fat and drunk on eggnog while watching either Alastair Sim or Michael Caine being hounded into benevolence by the spirits of the season.
“I’ll pour the next round,” I told Sukie as I plucked the glass from her hand while getting off the couch. “You choose which movie.”
I set the glasses on the counter beside the unnecessary third Sukie had set out, then turned to the fridge. We had four bottles of eggnog, three of them repurposed liquor bottles left over from making the stuff and one which had previously contained orange juice. I chose the last, currently half-empty and unlikely to survive the night, turned back to the counter, and froze.
I had no idea which glass was Sukie’s and which was mine. My confusion arose because there was a line of three empty glasses sitting on the counter.
I filled them all.