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What is Christmas Without a Tree?

What is Christmas Without a Tree 2

What is Christmas Without a Tree? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Oh, mother!” Doris said. “It’s Christmas Eve and you don’t even have a tree!”

“Who needs it?”

“Isn’t Otha still here?”

“She’s in the kitchen fixing supper. And she has her hands full without worrying herself over a tree.”

As Doris walked into the house, she looked like a movie star in her mink jacket, matching hat, and stiletto heels. And—perhaps more surprising than the way she looked—she wasn’t alone. A man came through the door behind her. A smiling man in a broad-brimmed hat and wool overcoat, carrying with him the scent of the outdoors.

“Mother, I want you to meet someone,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a friend of mine. He’s going to spend Christmas with us.”

Damon took off his glove and took the old lady’s hand in his own. “I’m so happy to meet you, Mrs. Davis,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Who are you?” she asked, looking from him to Doris and back again.

“I just told you, mother,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a good friend. That’s all you need to know.”

“What’s his last name?”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t remember for five seconds.”

“And he’s going to be staying here? In my house? A complete stranger?”

Doris laughed. “I can vouch for him, mother,” she said. “The silver is safe.”

The old lady managed a tight little smile. “Well, why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming? We might have managed something a little more fitting for supper.”

“I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“You know I hate surprises.”

“I’ll bring the stuff in from the car,” Damon said.

“And you don’t need to worry about food,” Doris said. “We brought a turkey, a ham, a cake, a pie, oranges, nuts, candy and lots of other things, Tomorrow I’m going to cook Christmas dinner for you and Otha.”

“You think we don’t have enough to eat?”

“No, it isn’t that. It’s just that I want you to have something special for Christmas dinner.”

“What makes you think we need it?”

“Do you want me to give it away to the neighbors? I’m sure they’d be glad to have it.”

“Don’t get smart with me. You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What way did you mean it, then?”

Damon came in with a load of bags and boxes from the car. Doris directed him to the kitchen.

“He’s your latest love interest, I take it,” the old woman said.

Otha came in from the kitchen dressed in men’s old clothes that came from the rag bag. Her hair was tied up in a dishtowel.

“Otha, dear!” Doris said. “You’re looking ravishing tonight, as always.”

“What am I supposed to do with all this stuff they bringin’ in?” Otha asked. “We ain’t got room for it.”

“I’m sure you’ll find room if you try hard enough,” Doris said. “Put as much as you can in the refrigerator. Anything that won’t fit put on the back porch.”

“I suppose you’re going to want dinner,” Otha said.

“No, we’ve already had dinner,” Doris said. “But thank you, though, for the lovely invitation. And I’m cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow. You won’t have to do a thing.”

“We weren’t having anything special. I was going to fix some chicken and dumplings.”

“Well, you won’t have to fix anything now.”

“Who is that man in the kitchen?”

“His name is Damon something-or-other,” the old woman said.

“Well, tell him to get out of there,” Otha said. “He gets on my nerves. And make sure he understands that my bedroom is strictly off-limits.”

“Here he is now,” Doris said. “You can tell him yourself.”

“Well, here we all are,” Damon said, taking off his coat. “What a happy, happy Christmas we’re going to have! I think we’re going to need a Christmas tree, though. What is Christmas without a tree?”

“Does that mean you’ll go back out in the cold and find a place that’s still open and buy us one?” Doris asked.

“Only if you ask me in a very nice way.”

“Isn’t he just the dearest thing?” Doris said.

“I don’t know if I would exactly call him ‘dear’,” Otha said.

“I’ll see what I can get,” he said. “Don’t expect much, though. There won’t be anything left at this time of night on Christmas Eve.”

“Do your best, dear,” Doris said, kissing him on the lips. “That’s all anybody can do. And get some lights and ornaments and things.”

“You know how I devote my life in service to others,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?”

“I haven’t seen my mother in two years. I think I’d rather stay here and visit with her.”

“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’ll be missing.”

He put his coat on again and was gone.

Doris looked at the old woman and the old woman looked at the wall. “You don’t seem happy to see me,” Doris said.

“I’m too old for unexpected guests.”

“I thought you’d be pleased to see me on Christmas Eve.”

“I am. It’s just that we’re not prepared for company.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it. You have three empty bedrooms upstairs that are always as neat as a pin. And I’m not company. I’m family.”

“What about him?”

“You can consider him family, too.”

“He might as well be a cardboard cutout for all I know about him.”

“You’ll have a chance to get to know him better if things work out the way I want them to.”

“Are you planning on bringing him to my house often? Because, if you are, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk about that now, do we? On Christmas Eve?”

“How long have you known him?”

“About a year.”

“Where’d you meet him? Or maybe I’m better off not knowing.”

“A mutual friend introduced us.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a salesman.”

“What does he sell? Vacuum cleaners?”

“Medical equipment to hospitals.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job to me.”

“It’s a swell job and he makes plenty of dough.”

“How old is he?”

“A few years older than me, but it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t care if he was fifty years older than me. I love him and we’re going to be married.”

“How many times have you been married before? Is it two or three?

“You know how many times.”

“Does he know?”

“Yes.”

“And it doesn’t bother him?”

“No.”

“You say you love him but does he love you?”

“Not as much as I love him.”

“You’d better marry him quick, then, before some other woman comes along and grabs him up.”

“You really don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know that’s never stopped you before.”

“Well, when is the wedding?”

“I don’t know yet. He isn’t entirely free at the moment.”

“Meaning what?”

 “He has to wait for his divorce decree.”

“He’s a married man?”

“Only technically. He and his wife have been separated for a long time. They’re only just now getting around to getting a divorce.”

“I don’t understand you,” the old woman said. “Are you telling me you’re cavorting with a married man?”

“I don’t think ‘cavorting’ is exactly the word I’d use.”

“You’re not going to be happy until you kill me, are you? You bring a married man into my home and expect me to think it’s all right?”

“Maybe we’d better drop the whole thing.”

“Are you planning on spending the night with him here?”

“We’ll stay in separate rooms. If that doesn’t satisfy you, we’ll go to a hotel.”

“I don’t want any carrying on in my house between my daughter and a married man!”

“You make it sound like I’m in seventh grade. I’m an adult and so is he. We’re used to making decisions on our own.”

“You talk like a damn fool!”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. You’ll find a way to object. I can see that coming here was a mistake. As soon as Damon gets back, we’ll leave.”

The old woman waved her hand like a queen bringing an audience to an end. She stood up, took two steps, and pitched forward onto the floor.

“Mother, if you’re pretending to be ill to try to hurt me on Christmas Eve,” Doris said, “I’ll never forgive you.”

She called Otha in from the kitchen and the two of them got the old woman on the couch.

“She’s having one of her spells,” Otha said.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

“I think it’ll pass in a few minutes. What did you say to her?”

“Nothing that would cause her to have a spell.”

“Its her heart.”

“She didn’t tell me she had anything wrong with her heart.”

“She didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“I’m course I’m interested!”

“Your actions indicate otherwise.”

“What are you saying, Otha? Who are you to judge me? You’re just a servant. You don’t know anything about me.”

“That’s right! Go ahead and verbally abuse me all you want. I’m used to it.”

“As soon as Damon comes back, we’re leaving.”

“I think that’s probably for the best.”

The old woman groaned and opened her eyes. Doris took her hand and patted it.

“Are you all right now, mother?” she asked.

“Of course I’m all right. I fall flat on my face every chance I get because I think it’s so much fun.”

“I’m going to have an ambulance come and take you to the hospital.”

“You’ll do no such thing!”

“She hasn’t eaten all day,” Otha said. “And very little yesterday.”

“Why are you not eating, mother?” Doris asked.

“None of your business!”

“As soon as Damon comes back from getting the Christmas tree, we’ll leave. And I’m sorry we disturbed you. I know you want to be left alone in your misery, even on Christmas Eve.”

“What nonsense you talk! I want to go to sleep.”

“Do you want Otha to put you to bed?”

“No, I want to stay here for now. When I feel stronger, I’ll go to bed on my own. Maybe I’ll feel better in the morning.”

“See how stubborn she is?” Otha said. “No matter what you say, she’ll insist on doing the opposite.”

“All right, mother, we’ll leave you to rest. We’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

When Damon returned with a small, scraggly fur tree and some lights and decorations, along with a bottle of champagne and some puff pastries, he took one look at the old woman stretched out on the couch and his smile faded.

“What happened while I was gone?” he asked.

“We need to leave right now,” Doris said.

“What? The snow is coming down in buckets. It’s not safe to be out tonight.”

“We’ll go to a hotel, then, and drive back in the morning.”

“Did something happen between you and your mother?”

“I made the mistake of being born.”

“I’m cold,” he said. “Let’s at least have some hot coffee and food before we go back out again.”

Doris turned off the lights and she and Damon and Otha went into the kitchen.

The old woman slept for a while and when she awoke she smelled coffee brewing and heard laughter coming from the kitchen: Doris’s voice and then the deeper voice of Damon and then laughter again. The clink of silver on china, the pop of a cork from a bottle, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. And above all the other sounds was Otha’s voice and her wheezing snort that passed for laughter. What did that old fool have to laugh about?

She stood up in the dark and took a few steps toward the kitchen. She was feeling a little hungry and could use something to eat, but, no, she couldn’t bring herself to go in there with them. It would be conceding too much, telling Doris that she approved of her and her boyfriend, of her many marriages and her simply appearing out of nowhere whenever she felt like it. No, what she needed to do was to teach Doris and Otha a lesson they would never forget.

She went to the front door and opened it. The Christmas Eve night was luminous with the snow. Not a soul around and no cars. Not a dog or a cat. How beautiful it was and how peaceful!

One step into the snow and then another, wearing only a sweater over her dress and her old-lady shoes that she never wore outside. The bite of the cold was friendly somehow, reassuring in a way that nothing else is. She went to the front gate and out to the street.

The snow was already half-a-foot deep and still coming down furiously. It made the neighborhood that she knew so well an other-worldly place that she no longer recognized. There was a house and there a tree or a clump of bushes that she should know, but she was sure she had never seen anything like them before.

After three or four blocks she didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t remember how far she had come or from what direction. The snow blinded her. The cold robbed her of her senses.

She came to a fence and grabbed onto it and, feeling what little strength she had leave her, slid down it gently onto the sidewalk. No one around. No one to call to for help, but it didn’t matter. She had never felt more at peace. It was Christmas Eve and her only daughter had come to see her.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Exodus, Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

There aren’t many movie spectacles anymore like Exodus: Gods and Kings. It is a retelling of the familiar story of Moses (played by Christian Bale) and how he led the Hebrew people to freedom after four hundred years of slavery by the Egyptians. (And how did Egypt use all those slaves? To build its monuments and tombs, some of which still stand today.) John Turturro (an odd choice) plays the pharaoh Seti (with a strange British accent). When Seti dies, his son, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), becomes pharaoh. Ramses may be a god to his people, but he has the full range of human frailties (self-doubt, fear, etc.) He’s no strutting, arrogant jerk here, as we have seen him portrayed before.

The foundling Moses is, of course, raised by the Egyptian royal family as their own. He and Ramses are like brothers, although they are nothing alike. When Moses, as a man, kills a slavemaster, it becomes apparent that he and Ramses are on opposing sides. Moses is exiled, or chooses exile on his own, and flees across the Red Sea. When he is rescued, near death, from a terrible storm by a tribe of Bedouins, he marries a woman of their tribe and they have a son. In the meantime, God is speaking to Moses through the “Burning Bush.” God’s messenger to Moses is a small boy who appears to be about twelve years old with a grownup’s command of the language. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people from slavery. Why was Moses chosen out of all the others to carry out this task?

Egypt needs its slaves to build its tombs and monuments and has no intention of giving them up without a fight. (As Ramses explains, the monuments, which are so necessary, represent power.) God unleashes the Ten Plagues on Egypt, not only as punishment, but also to contrast His own power with the power of the Egyptian deities. After the tenth plague (death of the firstborn), which costs Ramses his infant son, he capitulates, bringing about the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.

I can’t attest to the historical or biblical accuracy of Exodus: God and Kings, but, for my money it’s solid entertainment on a spectacular scale, far superior to most of the mainstream crap that’s out there. (Horrible Bosses 2? Oh, please! And do we really need another Dumb and Dumber?) There’s something about seeing the grandeur of ancient Egypt in a big-budget Hollywood movie that makes it worth the time and effort. Just enjoy the ride and don’t pay any attention to those people whose job it is to tear everything down.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Birdman

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

An aging, has-been movie star named Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), whose greatest glory was playing a “Birdman” character on the screen, tries to show the world twenty years later that he is still “relevant” and an actor of substance by writing, directing, and starring in an unlikely stage adaptation on Broadway of a play based on the works of writer Raymond Carver. That’s the premise of the movie with the unwieldy title Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). 

Right away, Riggan Thomson is beset with problems, as you might expect. His lead actor is injured when a light falls on his head, so he brings in a replacement named Mike (Edward Norton), a prima donna to whom nothing is real except acting. (When he has to remove his clothes for a wardrobe fitting, he isn’t wearing any underwear.) Riggan has a pothead daughter named Sam (Emma Stone) who resents him because he was never around when she was growing up. Sam, who works as a sort of stage assistant, is drawn to the unappealing Mike for some reason, even though she is about half his age. Mike, we learn, suffers from sexual dysfunction, as attested to by his girlfriend, Lesley (the ubiquitous Naomi Watts), who is a cast member in the play.

Riggan has invested all his money in the play, so if it fails he is financially ruined, not to mention what it will do to his prestige. He desperately needs to make it work, and we feel his desperation. Compounding his problems are an ex-wife who shows up every now and then, a might-be-pregnant girlfriend, a nagging lawyer trying to keep him on track, and a vengeful (and apparently powerful) female critic who tells Riggan she will “ruin” his play with a terrible review (even before seeing it) because she hates him and all he represents. (Riggan’s confrontation with the critic in a bar is a high point.) 

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is unusual in its execution and subject matter. (For one thing, it’s set almost entirely in a New York theatre. For another thing, Riggan levitates in his underpants and can make things move at will—I’m not sure what that is all about.) It’s the kind of movie that critics love because it pushes the boundaries of “art.” (The music score, except for some well-known excepts from classical pieces, is almost entirely composed of rifts on drums.) For regular moviegoers who are not critics, it’s either going to be a boring, pretentious gabfest or the best movie of the year. Maybe somewhere in between. Watch as it wins tons of awards for acting and writing.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Adele Winterbottom had the best custom-made draperies for the living room that money could buy. When her husband, Alonzo Winterbottom, received the bill for them, he was not happy.

“Ten thousand dollars for curtains!” he shrieked. “Have you lost your mind?”

“They went a little over the original estimate,” Adele said.

“How much over?”

“Four thousand dollars.”

“What are they made of? Spun gold?”

“No, just regular brocade.”

“You have to send them back and ask for a refund,” Alonzo said.

“I can’t do that. They’re special made. Nobody else would want them. Just look at them. Don’t you think they’re smart?”

He ran into the living room and started pulling at the curtains. When Adele saw that he was tearing them to pieces with his bare hands, she began tugging at his arm to try to get him stop, but he pushed her and knocked her down. She screamed and threw a statue of the Buddha at him but missed.

She had seen him angry before but never to such an extent. She was going to call the police to get them to come and calm him down (or arrest him for domestic disturbance), but she had a better solution closer to hand. She went into the kitchen and picked up her old cast iron skillet that had belonged to her mother and, coming up behind, hit him on the side of the head with it just above the right ear.

He staggered and fell. Afraid she had hit him a little harder than she meant to, she ran to him and placed a pillow under his head. His eyes were opened but unfocused.

“Are you all right?” she asked, slapping his cheek.

“What did? What did you?”

“Do you want me to get the doctor?” she said.

“Uh.”

“I’ll get the doctor for you on one condition. And that is that you don’t tell him I hit you with the skillet. If you tell him the truth, I might be in trouble.

“What yuh?”

“Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?”

“Yuh, yuh, nah.”

“Are we agreed, then?”

He closed his eyes then and seemed to go to sleep. She figured he just needed to lie still for a while, so she went into another part of the house and put him out of her mind for the time being.

After a couple of hours he was still lying in the same position. She touched him on the arm and he opened his eyes.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Head hurts.”

“You know you had it coming, don’t you?”

“Wha?”

“I couldn’t just stand by and let you tear up our lovely new drapes. I had to stop you.”

“Hit me,” he said.

“Yes, I hit you in the head with my mother’s cast iron skillet.”

“B-b-bitch,” he said.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s what I am, but still it’s not a nice name to call a lady. That kind of behavior is what has brought you to this pass.”

“B-b-bed,” he said.

“You want me to help you to the bed?”

“Yuh.”

She got him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him to his bedroom. She got him undressed and into bed, where he immediately began to snore.

“You’ll be all right in the morning,” she said. “I’ll fix you a nice breakfast.”

The next morning he was dead.

She called the police and told them her husband had taken a spill on the stairs and hit his head. She tried to get him to see a doctor but he refused, saying he would be all right in the morning. She helped him to bed, after which she retired to her own room. When she went to get him up in the morning, she found that he had expired sometime in the night.

Her tears, while she was telling the story, were real. The police never suspected there was anything other than the truth in what she was saying. The death was ruled accidental. Case closed.

She was sorry in a way to have killed Alonzo but happy also to be free of him. He had never been what she would call a good husband. She thought back to when they first met and the first years of their marriage. Had she ever cared for him at all? Really, she wasn’t able to remember.

So, she would carry her guilty little secret around with her for the rest of her life. She was sure there were plenty of other wives who had killed their husbands and husbands their wives, with nobody any the wiser. Life isn’t like detective dramas on TV where no murder ever goes undetected and unpunished.

With the life insurance money, along with Alonzo’s stocks and bonds, she was comfortably set for the rest of her life. She traded her three-year-old car in on a more expensive, sportier model; had her hair styled in one of the trendier, more youthful cuts (telling the hairdresser to cover up the streaks of gray any way he could); bought a whole new wardrobe of flashy, colorful garments that made her look like a college girl.

After a suitable period of grief (three months), she threw out all of Alonzo’s clothes and personal belongings, keeping nothing for sentimental value. Then she had his bedroom painted and papered and took the room as her own since it was the largest and most commodious in the house. She bought all new furniture and had custom draperies made for the rest of the windows, laughing at the cost. She made little jokes to her friends about hearing Alonzo turning over in his grave.

With her amazing transformation, only one thing was missing: she was lonely and desired the companionship of a good man. She began socializing more and more and, at a bridge party, met a man named Wallace Lexcaster to whom she was instantly drawn. He was handsome—she didn’t mind that he wore a wig and a girdle and had false teeth—and he had the added attraction of being something of a celebrity because he was a TV weather forecaster.

She and Wallace Lexcaster began seeing a lot of each other. They found they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company. He took her to the smartest clubs and restaurants, lavished her with expensive gifts. He told her stories about his former wives (a growing club); she hung on his every word and proffered just the right amount of sympathy. She told him the fiction of how her husband fell and hit his head and how he refused to see a doctor. How she put him to bed, thinking he would be all right in the morning and how he died sometime in the night.

“It’s good to die in your own bed,” Wallace Lexcaster said. “That’s the way I want to go when my time comes.”

Unable to speak, she put her hand over his as her eyes filled with tears.

She was having a good time with Wallace Lexcaster, but the important thing was that she was happy, maybe for the first time in her life. She began to think she would marry him if he asked her and, no, she wouldn’t be just one more wife in a continuing string of wives. She would be the last wife he would ever have or want to have.

On a Friday afternoon when she was driving home after a three-martini lunch with Wallace, she somehow became distracted on the highway and ran the car off the road. She righted herself in a few seconds, though, and was back on the highway, happy that nobody was there to witness her carelessness.

When she got home, her head hurt and she didn’t know why. She thought she must have hit it somehow without knowing. She took some aspirin and got into bed and slept the whole night through.

In the morning the phone woke her. She felt a rush of pleasure, thinking it was Wallace Lexcaster calling to wish her a good morning.

“Guess who this is?” a male voice (not Wallace Lexcaster) said.

“Um, I think you have the wrong number,” she said.

“No, I’ve got the right number.”

“Who were you calling?”

“I was calling you.”

She hung up the phone and lit a cigarette, her hands trembling. She was thinking she needed to cut down on her consumption of martinis when the phone rang again.

“Don’t hang up on me again, you bitch!”

“Who is this?”

“You know who it is.”

“Wallace? Is that you? Is this some kind of a joke?”

“No more Wallace,” he said. “You can forget Wallace.”

“Who is this?”

“I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “You recently bashed in my head with an old frying pan. I wasn’t the first person you murdered, either; only the most recent. When you were fifteen, you pushed your cousin down the stairs because you were jealous of her. She died later that day of massive internal bleeding.”

“If you don’t stop bothering me,” she said, “I’m going to call the police!”

“Hah-hah-hah! And a lot of good that would do!”

“If this is somebody’s idea of a joke, I don’t think it’s the least bit funny!”

“Now, darling, calm down. I’m trying to break it to you gently. That’s why I’m calling first before I come to you. That little dust-up you had on the highway was a lot worse than you thought. Sadly, you’re just a statistic now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You bashed in your skull but you just don’t know it yet. Isn’t it ironic? Doesn’t it seem like some kind of crazy symmetry?”

“You’re not fooling me,” she said. “This is some kind of a practical joke, isn’t it? Well, if it is, I think it’s gone too far.”

“I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he said. “And don’t even think about trying to keep me out. I have my key.”

“Don’t come here!” she shrieked.

“Don’t be that way, baby,” he said. “You and I are bound together for all eternity. You can bash in my head every day and I’ll still be there the next day.”

“And don’t think I won’t, either!” she said.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Third Day of Winter

Christmas 24

The Third Day of Winter ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story was published in KY Story’s Offbeat Christmas Story Anthology and has appeared on my website before.)

They had a little party at work, complete with cake and champagne (Here’s to another successful year!), and then everybody was allowed to leave for the day. It was the day before Christmas and nobody had to be back to work for three days. What a festive mood the downtrodden workers were in! There was dancing on tabletops, furtive kissing in corners, drunken laughter.

As Vesper left the office, it was just beginning to snow so she decided she would walk home instead of taking the bus. She had always liked snow, especially at Christmastime, and had seen too little of it in recent years. She stopped on the way home at a little market and bought a dozen oranges and a small box of chocolate-covered cherries. As she was paying for her purchases, the old man behind the counter gave her a sprig of mistletoe.

When she reached her building, she felt agreeably fatigued and slightly frostbitten. As she climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment, she couldn’t help noticing how quiet the building was. The usual loud voices, TVs, crying babies and yapping dogs were absent. She seemed to be the only tenant who hadn’t gone out of town for the holiday.

She unlocked the door, kicked off her wet shoes and hung up her coat. It was just beginning to get dark outside so she turned on all the lights. She tied a ribbon around her mistletoe and hung it in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room; plugged in the lights on her little artificial Christmas tree that was made to look real but wasn’t fooling anybody with its brown-and-green plasticity. She stood back and admired the comfort, the appeal, of her little home. It was the first home she had ever had that was hers and hers alone without belonging to somebody else.

“I’m really very lucky,” she said to herself as she stood in the middle of the room.

Already she was missing her friend Marlene at work, even though she had just left her a short time earlier. She wanted to call her and tell her about walking home in the snow and about the mistletoe. She knew that Marlene would enjoy hearing those things and would laugh at them in her usual way.

She went to the phone, not to call Marlene—she would be busy with family, now—but to call somebody else.

“Hello?” she said when she heard her mother’s voice, sounding very faint and far away.

“Who’s that?” her mother said.

“It’s Vesper.”

“Is anything wrong?”

“No. I just got home from work and I wanted to call you and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“You know I don’t go in for that stuff very much.”

“I know. Did you get the silver pin I sent you?”

“Yes, I got it.”

“I thought it would look good on your black coat.”

“Oh, I don’t have that coat anymore. It was a little too funereal for me.”

“It was a beautiful coat.”

“If I had known you liked it so much, I would have given it to you.”

“It doesn’t matter. How’s Stan?”

“We’ve separated. I haven’t seen him such summer.”

“Are you going to get a divorce?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m seeing someone else now. He’s talked about marriage but I don’t think I want to get married again.”

“Any news of Weston?”

“No, except that he’s living the bohemian life and wants nothing to do with his family.”

“When you see him, tell him ‘hello’ for me.”

“I will, dear. I really have to run now. I’m meeting some people for dinner. I have a terrible headache and don’t really feel like going out, but I said I’d go and I don’t want to break my word.”

“All right, mother. Goodbye.”

As Vesper hung up the phone she was aware of the hurtful omissions in the conversation. Her mother hadn’t bothered to ask her how she was or what plans she had for Christmas, if she had someone to spend it with or if she was going to be alone. Those things wouldn’t occur to her—she simply didn’t bother herself too much with her grown children. She had delivered them safely to adulthood and that’s all that anybody could reasonably expect.

Vesper went into the kitchen to see what she might dig up for dinner, but the prospect of having the usual everyday fare on Christmas Eve and then dozing on the couch in front of the TV until time to go to bed was suddenly dismaying to her. She didn’t have to do what she was doing but was doing it only out of habit. She could do something else if only she would. She could make the evening special somehow even if she did have to spend it by herself.

She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes quickly before she gave herself the chance to change her mind. She made herself ready to go out again (boots, scarf, gloves, coat) and turned off all the lights except for one small lamp beside the door.

She began walking, not knowing for certain where she going. The snow had accumulated to three or four inches and was still coming down, the wind blowing it along the sidewalk and causing it to drift along the building fronts.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men were looking into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street everyday. The younger man was thin and bareheaded (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint), wearing an overcoat that seemed too big for him with the collar turned up to his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, a long time ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife. These details about him registered in her brain as she looked away and pretended not to notice.

She came to a brightly lighted drugstore and stopped and looked through the window at the rows of displays and the people moving among them like the inhabitants of a dream. She went inside, passing a perfume display over which two women were arguing, and went to a rack of magazines against the far wall. She picked up a magazine, thumbed through it, put it back and picked up another one. After she had done this several times she happened to look up and saw in a mirror placed above the magazine rack to discourage shoplifting the reflection of someone standing behind her. It was the tall young man in the overcoat with the scar on his cheek. He was not moving but seemed to just be looking at the back of her head. She put the magazine back that she was holding and left the store.

At the corner she stopped beside a clot of people waiting for the light to turn to cross the street. She looked quickly over her shoulder; she could see all the way back to the entrance of the drugstore. She did not see the man in the overcoat. It was just a coincidence that he was in the drugstore at the same time she was, she told herself, and he was not following her.

A little restaurant with the smell of garlic and twinkling lights in the window attracted her attention. It was a place that ordinarily would have been too expensive for her, but she was tired of walking and hungry so she went inside.

The place was candlelit. About half the tables were occupied. She took off her coat and scarf and sat down at a table for two facing the front. She was the only one alone, but she didn’t mind. She liked the comfortable anonymity of the place.

The waiter recommended fried calamari and polpette di baccala. She had never had that before and wasn’t sure what it was. She didn’t want him to think she was an ignorant fool so she smiled at him and nodded her head. He also recommended a light wine to go with her meal, bringing a whole bottle to her table and setting it down for her to help herself. While she waited for her food she drank a lot of the wine and ate several of the delicious garlic-flavored breadsticks that the waiter said had just come out of the oven.

The food was very much to her liking but what she liked the most was the wine. She ended up drinking nearly the whole bottle before, during and after the meal.

When she was finished eating she felt better than she had felt all day; better, in fact, than she had felt in longer than she could remember. She felt equal to anything and was glad she had ventured out of her apartment on Christmas Eve. She gave the waiter a generous tip, more than she could afford, and ventured back out to the street, feeling lightheaded and a little wobbly on her feet.

In the next block she slipped on an icy spot on the sidewalk and fell sideways into a pile of snow, attracting some unwelcome attention. As a man and a woman were helping her to stand up again, asking her if she was all right, she saw on the fringe of her vision—or thought she saw—the young man in the overcoat. She looked away for a moment to brush the snow off her coat and when she looked again in his direction he was gone.

It was still early evening and, in spite of the snow and the cutting wind, she wasn’t ready to go home yet. She would make a night of it. When she saw Marlene and the others at work, she would have something to tell them about how she spent Christmas Eve. They wouldn’t exactly envy her, but they would admire her for having a good time on her own without having to depend on somebody else.

Four or five blocks farther on she came to a movie theatre. The show was just about to begin so she paid her admission and went inside and took a seat in the balcony among a handful of other people. She dozed during the previews of coming attractions and a featurette about a Christmas tree farm, but when the feature began she was fully awake.

A woman named Mildred was released from a mental hospital at Christmastime. She had to start over with her children because she had been away so long they almost forgot she existed. She tried to resume her role in life as wife, mother and society hostess, but she had terrible nightmares and hallucinations that showed she should never have left the mental hospital in the first place. What was even worse for her, though, was that her fifteen-year-old daughter, Veronica, was showing signs that she had inherited Mildred’s mental illness. She would put her dress on backwards without even knowing about it and stand up during mealtimes and scream that there were Martians on the roof. These were the exact things that Mildred had done that caused her to end up in the mental hospital.

When the picture was over, Vesper sighed heavily, put on her coat and went back out into the cold. She was feeling tired now and a little sad. It had been a lovely evening, though.

The way home seemed much longer. The snow had stopped but the cold was bracing, made worse by the wind. Some of the streets that were thronging with people earlier were now nearly deserted. A drunk approached her and babbled something in her face, apparently asking for money. She sidestepped him and ran for half a block to get away.

Two blocks from her building she came to the barrel that she had passed earlier in the evening—on her left before but now on her right. Two men—an older and a younger—were standing over a small fire burning in the barrel, warming their hands. They looked up at her as she approached. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street everyday. The younger man was thin and bareheaded, wearing an overcoat that seemed too big for him with the collar turned up to his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar.

As she passed the two men, she knew without knowing that the younger man disengaged himself from the barrel and soundlessly began following her. She didn’t speed up her walk or turn around to look at him.

She came to her building and climbed the stairs to the third floor. She let herself in to her apartment and silently closed the door. Without turning on any lights, she went to the window overlooking the front of the building and looked down. Standing there, in stark relief against the snow, was the young man in the overcoat with the crescent-shaped scar on his cheek. He was looking up at her.

She scribbled on a piece of paper her apartment number and the words come up. She wadded the paper into a ball, opened the window and dropped it out. As she heard his footsteps on the stairs in the silent building, her breath quickened and the blood roared in her ears.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Theory of Everything ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Probably everybody on earth has heard the name Stephen Hawking. He is the English physicist who became famous for his theories of the universe and for the books that he wrote, among them A Brief History of Time that has sold ten million copies.

Stephen Hawking is also famous for something else. When he was still a college student, he was found to have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a disease of progressive muscular degeneration. He was told he had two years to live, being made to understand that, as his body deteriorated, his mind would be unaffected.

The Theory of Everything is Stephen Hawking’s story, based on a book by his wife, Jane Hawking. Eddie Redmayne, who was memorable in My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables, plays Stephen, and Felicity Jones plays his (nearly saintly) wife, who, even in middle age, appears to be about twelve years old. (A minor quibble.)

When Stephen first discovers that he has ALS, he tries to send Jane away, believing he has no future and nothing to offer her, but she persists. (She takes the idea of romantic love literally.) She will stick by Stephen for as long as he has. (Stephen’s father tells Jane that Stephen’s disease won’t be a fight but will instead be a crushing defeat for all of them.) Stephen and Jane are married and soon have a child.

Living with Stephen and taking care of him is not easy for Jane, but she soldiers on through the years as Stephen becomes world-famous and continues to defy the probability that he will die soon. Jane and Stephen end up having three children. A turning point comes when Jane’s mother suggests that Jane join the choir at church. (“That may be the most English thing that anybody has ever said,” Jane says.) She takes her mother’s suggestion and meets the handsome and charming choir director, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (played by Charlie Cox, who played a likeable character on Boardwalk Empire who met a bad end). Jonathan becomes a friend and helper to both Jane and Stephen. Jane soon admits that she has “feelings” for Jonathan and Jonathan feels the same way about Jane. Stephen, meanwhile, is drawn to a pretty therapist named Elaine.

You don’t have to understand Stephen Hawking’s science (black holes, the theory of relativity, boundaries of the universe, etc.) to be drawn in to The Theory of Everything. It’s a very good movie that, like other very good movies, will probably not appear at the local multiplex that only does mainstream. You might have to go a little farther and expend a little more effort to see it, but it’s worth it. If it’s not one of the best movies of the year, it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote

Truman Capote 2

A Christmas Memory ~ A Classic American Short Story
B
y Truman Capote

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. “

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone exceptstrangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor.Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”

“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”

“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “1 could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”). Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy”—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—”I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences. Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.

Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But shesays her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”

“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’11 wager it never happens. I’11 wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones….”). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.” But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! “

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

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