I am sitting at a circle table set for six and looking out the window through the sprinkled flakes coming out from under the sky above the Great Lakes and thinking that tonight would be a good night to be an arsonist, to rummage through the stone-dead buildings of inner Rochester and set the night on fire. It is Christmas Eve. My cousin suggests, with the melted cheese of some soft potatoes leaking out the side of his mouth, that we set the gingerbread house we built earlier that day on fire in the backyard, and we do. We carry it outside into the snow and take candy canes and smash the windows in and then drip lighter fluid all over the inside of those stale cookie walls and throw a match inside and watch it burn.
“Merry Christmas,” he says.
“This could become a tradition,” I reply.
I bounce my right boot off my left and shift from side to side with my hands in my pockets. The cookie walls crackle and sparks shoot up from sugarcoated gelatin. Flames lick the walls and trace menacingly along the white icing and leave it a burnt black. It is a strange campfire, I think, and the patch of light casts quick shadows that dance around the walls of all the neighbor’s houses. I watch these shadows perform for a while while my cousin bends towards the burning house and lights a cigarette from the sparkling flames. Then we stand, and it is quiet. The snow, I think, makes things quieter than before.
This is one of those times where I think the person I am standing next to is having as sincere a moment of self-reflection as I am. I expect my cousin to break into conversation, to say something like: “Do you remember when you were six and your pops threw you into a snowdrift from the second floor after it snowed three feet in two days?” Or possibly to ask me when coming here for Christmas became a tradition that I dreaded rather than savored, in the sense that my family appeared a much sharper thing from distant softened focus, and that as I came closer I felt the overwhelming trappings of a sadness that was saying: this, this is what you are growing up to be. I expect him to ask me something like this, to bring up some distant almost faded memory, and for us to move closer toward the kind of friendship we are supposed to have.
But my cousin is only standing and swaying slightly to his right side and taking long drags of a burning cigarette. I jam my fists into the pockets of my jeans and tilt my head upward towards the night sky and blow out a puff of steam and remember the winters when him and I would stuff dollar bills in our pockets and buy candy cigarettes and walk back towards our grandmother’s small house on the shore of this small great lake, taking fake drags and pretending to be serious, our bowl-cut-hair waving in the wind off the coast. The gingerbread house is still burning and crackling in the quiet, and I think of how a friend once told me that Doritos make good kindling. It is a strange night. The buildings of Rochester in the distance create no light, and for a second I imagine our burning gingerbread house as some voodoo house, causing a real fire in some other home far away, and the thought both sickens and gladdens me. I reach down and pluck a burnt marshmallow off the cooking roof below and place it between my lips, and a massive cloud of steam cascades out from my mouth as I chew.
“How’s your mom,” I say.
“She’s alright,” he says.
“She’s got a lot on her plate, taking care of everyone like she does.”
I pause and watch him take a drag.
“She makes a damn good meal, too,” I say.
My cousin smiles. I can see it barely in the light from the burning house below, and then the shadow chases the light away and I can’t see a thing on his face except for the burnt orange end of his glowing cigarette.
“Can I have a drag,” I ask.
He offers me his dwindling cigarette, and I suck in a drag as I turn towards the window of the house from which we came. There are one or two people still sitting at the table, and my cousin’s mother, my aunt, is washing dishes. I know she is barefoot. I imagine her scabbed feet pushing up and down in the plush yellow rug under the sink. I try to think of simple things and simple pleasures. That is a hard task, and instead I think of what I am even doing here, at this moment.
I am waiting for a girl I think I love to call me soon. A month ago she said things did not feel right, and that she’d call sometime around Christmas to say hello, maybe talk. It was vague, and in that span of time since then everything had seemed vague, as well, including this moment and all this waiting. I think of last Christmas, when I had first told her I loved her, in that childish sense that occurs when you say things long before you mean them, and when I sat on the shore of the small great lake and took photos of gulls circling in ever growing ellipses and called her and told her things like: wish you were here. And now, standing in front of this lit gingerbread house burning slow but violent, I am thinking of how strange it would be to take a picture and call her and say: wish you were here.
“Do you want a beer,” my cousin says. I am grateful for his asking.
“Yeah, sure.” He stubs out the lit nub of his cigarette and turns to go inside. “You might need to grab a whole six pack,” I say, “this house is burning pretty slow.”
When he opens the door, my grandmother’s cat darts out from the crack and then immediately regrets its decision to run headlong into the cold. She tentatively toes towards the spitting flames of the gingerbread house and closes her eyes and leans her white face into the fire. I pick her up and scratch her between the ears.
“You’re stupid,” I say.
She purrs and then lets out a rumble from deep inside her gut.
“We’re all stupid,” I say.
My cousin returns with six beers. He takes one and tosses me one and packs the other four into the snow at our feet. I pull two lawn chairs from the garage, and we sit, then, and drink, and smoke, and we watch the house burn down. The roof is almost gone, and it is now just barely a frame, with flames caressing the cooked sugar and bouncing from peppermints to gumballs. A lone flame flickers from the hand of some gingerbread man holding a gumdrop, and he looks like the arsonist, then, the one who threw a Molotov cocktail into the house and stood to watch it burn. The cat is in my lap, purring.
“Do you like Christmas,” I say to my cousin. He takes a long sip from his beer and then a drag and seems to settle a little into his chair.
“It’s alright,” he says. “I think I liked it more when I was younger.”
“I don’t know. Once you start thinking more about others, I think you get a little more tired. Sometimes I miss only giving a shit about myself.”
I nod and hesitate to ask another question because I’m taken aback by such profundity coming from the mouth of a cousin a few years my older who drives a beat up 1996 Geo sedan through Corning and sometimes goes to the almost-famous Museum of Glass while high, hoping for some sort of permanent but fragile insight.
Instead, I finger my phone in my pocket while finishing my first beer and hope vaguely for the hint of a call from a girl miles away. And I reach for another beer from the snow between my cousin and I and then scratch the cat in that place between its ears where its small brain must reside, not thinking why it is here in this very place at this very time, as I am thinking while looking off at the golden lit windows of the squatted homes surrounding me, sometimes catching the faint beating impression of a figure, standing by a window, looking off, or smiling maybe. I am thinking why am I here, and not there? And then, as if trying to think my own thoughts into the head of that distant girl, I am thinking why am I here, and not with you?
I know my cousin and I might not say another word to each other for the rest of the night, and somehow I am content with that fact. I know we will slush our way through the rest of these beers and feel the faint touch of each other’s warmth and watch the remnants of this house burn down, as it is now just a glowing foundation sparking small flames into the quiet. There are only a few more minutes left of fire, and the ruins of the house are littered with a few cigarette butts and bottle caps. I think of a moment months ago, when this girl and I took a train along some ever-widening river, and when we stopped, we sat alongside the river as the leaves of the valley turned to gold, and she put her hand on my knee as I smoked a cigarette. I remember she stood up, too, wearing an oversized men’s shirt that she had laced a belt around and called a dress, and I took photos of her leaning over the river’s railing. I remember I did not have to say I wish you were here. I remember being glad she was there at all.
After some time, the house is near gone, and it is just the smoldering embers of burnt cookie walls and cookie people. There is a dusting of snow on top of my coat and I can see crystals of ice hanging from my eyelashes. I stick a finger into the rubble and come out with a blackened mush of icing and sugar, and I lick it and try to taste the sweetness under the ash. It is hard to find. I proffer the remnant left on my finger to the cat’s lips and she licks it quickly and then either purrs or moans. I can’t tell. My cousin gets up to go inside.
“That was some tradition,” he says.
“You being serious?”
“Yeah,” he says, smiling. I see his lips curled in the glow of light from inside. “It wasn’t bad.”
He leaves, then, and it is just me and this cat and this faint orange glowing thing at my feet. There is snow falling still, and that kind of aurora-like glow that resonates from the sky, all these millions of tiny flakes sucking up light and reflecting it back outward. There is no other word for it but pretty, and to combat this growing, intimate awareness of my smallness and loneliness, I suck in some air and steam it out and say: “I wish you were here.” I think my phone will ring, then, at that moment, but it does not, and it is ten o’clock on Christmas Eve. My aunt is still washing dishes. I see her through the window. I see my cousin come up to her from behind and place a gentle hand on her back as he puts the empty bottles on the counter.
I turn back to the smoldered house and reach for my phone and dial her number and call her. She picks up.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hey,” she says. A pause.
“Gingerbread houses make good kindling,” I say.
“Yeah? How do you know?”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
There is no reply, just the steadied sound of her breathing on the other end of the line. I try to think of some specific time when I felt her breath hot on my ear, or neck, but I can’t narrow it to one moment. I think of growing old with her and wonder if that is premature, to think like that, if that is immature. I breathe. She breathes. It is quiet. It must be the snow.
“I love you,” I say.
And again there is no reply, and in that seemingly eternal space of quiet, I stand with my feet in the snow and this cold phone pressed against my ear, looking out, looking up, wondering why I am here and not there, wondering what circumstance has put me in this place and not that place, and for one instant I feel everything rushing through me, this immense sadness, or joy, or some kind of heaviness of emotion, just coursing through my body. And then it is gone. And there are people in the surrounding homes, and they are laughing or sitting or talking. And I wonder what she is doing, if she has had to excuse herself from some tradition to take this call, if she smells balsam or Frasier fir from some other room, if there are people talking where she is, or snow falling.
“Are you there,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, by way of Fordham University. He has read as part of New York City’s Lamprophonic Emerging Writers Series, as well as the Brooklyn-based reading series, Having a Whiskey Coke With You. His poetry is forthcoming in the Steel Toe Review. He teaches creative writing to 7th graders in Queens, and is currently working on his first novel.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.