All is Merry and Bright ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Their first Christmas in the apartment. A tree stood in the corner of the front room, aglow with multi-colored lights and loaded down with tinsel and ornaments, stacks of presents beneath its branches. A sprig of holly hung in the doorway into the kitchen. On the front door was a wreath that would probably be stolen before Christmas morning ever arrived.
Happy that he didn’t have to go back to school until after New Year’s and that Christmas had finally, almost, arrived, Ricky jumped up and down and clapped his hands. The snow beginning to fall only added to his excitement.
“You’d better calm yourself down,” Earl Lee said from the corner of the couch where he was reading the funny paper. “Santa Claus doesn’t like little boys who aren’t calm.”
“What did you just say to him?” asked Miriam, who came in from the bedroom where she was fixing her hair and putting on makeup. She had expressly forbidden Earl Lee from telling Ricky there was no Santa Claus.
“I told him to calm down and quit making a fool of himself or Santa Claus was going to cross him off his list.”
“Well, it’s too bad you have forgotten what it’s like to be excited about Christmas,” she said. “You’re just far too sophisticated for your own good.”
“He’s too sophisticated!” screamed Ricky.
“Shut up,” Earl Lee said.
“When do we get to open the presents?” Ricky asked.
“For the eighty-seventh time, we will open the presents on Christmas morning after we’ve had a good breakfast.”
“Why do we have to wait so long?”
“Because I said so, that’s why.” She sat down on the other end of the sofa and patted her hair in back.
“I want to open one now!”
“I’m going to the movies tonight,” Earl Lee said. “It’s a horror double feature.”
“I don’t care what it is,” Miriam said. “You’re not going to the movies on Christmas Eve. You’re going to spend the evening with your family.”
“Is he going to be here?”
“He has a name, you know.”
“Is Harvey, your latest boyfriend, going to be here?”
“Yes, he’s going to be here in time to eat dinner with us and later we’re all going to church.”
“I don’t feel like going to church.”
“You feel like going to the movies but you don’t feel like going to church?”
“Church gives me a headache.”
“If I am, I get it from you. Insanity runs in your family.”
“I think Harvey is going to ask me to marry him.”
“What about Daddy?”
“He’s the one that left. He’s the one that wanted the divorce.”
“Don’t you think he’ll care if you marry somebody else?”
“No. He’s out of the picture.”
“Right now he is, but he can always come back.”
“Why don’t you call him and ask him if he wants to come back?” She picked up the receiver on the phone as if to hand it to Earl Lee and put it down again.
“If you marry Harvey, does that mean we’ll get to move out of this crummy apartment?”
“More than likely he’ll move in here with us for a while.”
“Can I move out?”
“Why don’t you like Harvey?”
“He belongs to a bowling league. He’s got hair in his ears. He wears cologne that smells like bug spray. He’s got a mole on his cheekbone as big as a grape. Shall I go on?”
“As you get older you’ll learn to overlook the small things about a person that you might not like and look at the whole person. He’s the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever met and he’s got a good job.”
“He sells washing machines in an appliance store.”
“He’s assistant manager. When he becomes manager, he’ll get a big increase in salary.”
“Does that mean we’re all going to be cooped up here in this little apartment while he waits to be made manager?”
“I know you’re upset because you didn’t hear from your father for Christmas, but you’re just going to have to get used to it. He doesn’t care about us anymore and I don’t think he ever did.”
“Christmas isn’t over yet.”
“I think I see Santa way up in the sky over there,” Ricky said, standing at the window.
“You’re hallucinating again,” Earl Lee said.
“It’s too early for Santa,” Miriam said. “He won’t come until we’re all asleep. He doesn’t like for people to look at him.”
“I can certainly see why,” Earl Lee said.
“I hope he remembers everything I wanted,” Ricky said.
Miriam went back into the bedroom and in a little while came back out in her red Christmas dress that showed the contours of her rear end. She wore a faux ruby necklace and earrings and had doused herself in perfume. When she saw Earl Lee lying on the couch staring at the ceiling, she decided he needed something to do that would make him feel happy.
“I want you to go down to the market and buy a carton of eggnog for tonight,” she said, digging in her purse for some money.
“I don’t like eggnog,” he said.
“Well, are you the only one here? Harvey says it’s not Christmas without eggnog.”
“Harvey says. Harvey says. What else does Harvey say?”
“Can I go to the store too?” Ricky asked excitedly.
“No,” she said, “I want you to stay here and help me wrap Harvey’s present.”
“Harvey, Harvey, Harvey,” Earl Lee said as he went out the door. “He’s certainly a big man around here, isn’t he?”
The snow was falling heavier now. Cars made hissing sounds on the pavement as they passed by. Last-minute shoppers were still keeping the stores busy. With the setting of the sun, Christmas Eve had officially arrived.
Earl Lee hunched his shoulders and moved blindly through the snow. He hadn’t bothered to put on his cap so his hair was soon wet. He passed a charity Santa ringing a bell behind a pot and ignored his greeting. He narrowed his eyes against the bright lights and closed himself off from the festive atmosphere as much as he could.
The market still had some eggnog left so he grabbed a carton and stood in a long line to pay. When the cashier smiled at him and wished him a merry Christmas, he scowled and said nothing. He was relieved when the ordeal of buying the eggnog was finally over and he was outside again.
He had walked two blocks when he heard a car horn, two little honks. He turned his head toward the sound and then looked away quickly. He was about to keep walking when the driver of the car rolled down the window and spoke his name. It was his father.
“Is that your car?” Earl Lee asked, approaching the window. He was more surprised to see his father driving a new-looking Cadillac than anything else. He stood back and looked the length of the car to admire it. The bright tail lights looked Christmassy in the falling snow.
“Do you like it?” his father asked.
“What are you doing here? Did you come to see mother?”
“No, I came to see you. Get in.”
When he opened the back door and slid onto the seat, he noticed the woman sitting beside his father. She turned around and smiled at him. She had Christmas-red lips and white-blonde hair. She wore glittery earrings that hung down almost to her shoulders.
“This is Shirley,” his father said. “Shirley, this is my son Earl Lee.”
“How do you do?” Shirley said over her shoulder with a big smile. She had a voice like a little girl.
“Hello,” Earl Lee said.
“We were just on our way to dinner,” his father said. “I wanted to come by and leave a little present for you and Ricky.”
He reached into his pocket and took something out and handed it across the seat back to Earl Lee; it appeared to be two coins. When Earl Lee looked at them, he didn’t know what they were.
“It’s two fifty-dollar gold pieces,” his father said. “One for you and one for Ricky.”
“Thanks,” Earl Lee said. He had never seen a fifty-dollar gold piece before and was genuinely surprised.
“The longer you keep them the more they’re worth,” Shirley said with another smile.
“Thanks,” Earl Lee said again, not knowing what else to say.
“You’ll be sure and give one to Ricky, won’t you?” his father said. “And tell him I said merry Christmas.”
“You’re not giving anything to mother for Christmas?”
“Tell her I said hello and I hope things are going well for her. And merry Christmas.”
“She has a new boyfriend. His name is Harvey.”
“Well, good. I’m glad to hear it. I wish her every happiness.”
“You don’t think you and mother will get back together again so we can all move back into the house?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” his father said, laughing. “It’s final. As final as anything can be. Somebody else bought the house and is living there now.”
“I know it’s been rough for you and Ricky. The family splitting up, I mean. Having to move to a different place.”
“We don’t have a yard anymore and I don’t even have a real room. It’s just a little alcove off the kitchen with a curtain instead of a door. I can hear the refrigerator humming all night long.”
“I’m sure it’s only temporary.”
“If mother marries Harvey, I was thinking maybe I could come and live with you.”
“Well, we’ll have to talk about that later. I’m not very settled right now. I don’t really have a place for you just yet.”
“But you will?”
“We’ll talk about it some other time.”
“When Christmas is over?”
“Hugh, my feet are like ice,” Shirley said.
“I know, baby. Keep your shirt on.”
“You’re not going to come up and see Ricky?” Earl Lee asked. “You can give him the coin yourself.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t time. We have a dinner reservation and we’re late now. We have to scoot.”
Earl Lee opened the door and got back out into the snow.
“It was wonderful meeting you,” Shirley said gaily, waving a gloved hand.
“We’ll see you soon,” his father said. He drove off then with a smile, leaving Earl Lee standing next to the big empty place where the Cadillac had been.
When Earl Lee got back to the apartment, Harvey had arrived with presents for everybody. He was wearing a red bowtie that lit up, which, before the night was over, he took off and gave to Ricky. For Miriam he had a diamond engagement ring. She immediately began wearing the ring, so Earl Lee knew she had accepted Harvey’s proposal of marriage.
Before they ate dinner, Miriam insisted they join hands at the table while Harvey said grace. Harvey’s right hand holding Earl Lee’s left hand felt clammy and unclean, but Earl Lee pretended he didn’t mind.
All during the meal, Earl Lee had been going to tell them he had seen and talked to his father, but the time never seemed right. He would eventually have to give Ricky the fifty-dollar gold piece, but for now he would keep them both. He had one in his right pocket and the other in his left. Knowing they were there, out of sight near his hipbones, warmed him and gave him hope somehow. He managed a smile, which the others took for happiness.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp