The Teddy Bear Phase ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Phillip stood behind the door in his pajamas, clutching Elfie to his chest. He was listening to his parents arguing in the kitchen.
“You should have consulted me first,” father said.
“I didn’t think I needed to ask your permission,” mother said.
“If you had, I wouldn’t have given it.”
“He’s all that’s left of my family. I think we can tolerate him for a couple of days.”
“Yes, but why did you have to invite him at Christmas?”
“Christmas is a time for families to reunite. I can see my mother smiling down at me from heaven for inviting her only brother into my home.”
“What makes you think she’s in heaven? And it’s our home. Not my home.”
“Should I put him in the guest room or do you think he’d be more comfortable in the spare bedroom?”
“How about in the shed outback where we keep the gardening tools?”
“Once you get to know him, you’ll like him.”
“I don’t want an alcoholic around Phillip and Chickie.”
“He’s a recovered alcoholic.”
“How about if I just take them to a hotel and you can have the house to yourself with your wonderful uncle?”
“We’ll welcome him as a family. That’s what he needs.”
So it was decided that mother’s long-lost Uncle Benny would come for a Christmas visit. Father said that if he didn’t leave by the day after Christmas at the latest, he was going to grab him by the throat and throw him into the street. There was to be no extended visit.
When Uncle Benny arrived by taxicab on the day before Christmas, he had a box of candy for mother (she was dieting), a box of Havana cigars for father (he had no intention of smoking them), and Groucho glasses and a flashlight for Phillip and Chickie. Chickie was only five and was enchanted by the flashlight. She shone it all around the room, in her own mouth, in the dog’s face.
Phillip was a little frightened of Uncle Benny from the first time he met him. He was tall, slightly stooped, and had a wrinkled face; he wore a black wig that looked like it belonged on somebody else’s head. His dentures were too big and looked as if they might fly out of his mouth with a life of their own.
“Who is this little chappy?” Uncle Benny asked.
“This is Phillip,” mother said, standing behind him and putting her hands on his shoulders. “He’s our oldest.”
“And how old is Phillip, may I ask?”
“And what is that thing he’s holding in his arms?”
“That’s Elfie, his teddy bear,” mother said. “It’s his favorite toy. He takes it with him everywhere he goes. He can’t go to sleep without it.”
“I see,” Uncle Benny said. “Don’t you think he’s a little old for a teddy bear?”
Mother laughed. “We indulge him in his teddy bear phase,” she said. “I expect it’ll pass after a while.”
“I think we need to take that thing away from him and throw it in the river,” Uncle Benny said, twisting Elfie’s furry ear.
Phillip felt Elfie stiffen in his arms. When he went into the bathroom to wash his hands for dinner, he locked the door and set Elfie beside the sink.
“I don’t like him,” Elfie said. “He’s a jerk and he smells funny.”
“I don’t like him, either,” Phillip said, “but he’ll only be here until day after tomorrow. He’s family so we have to be nice to him.”
“Bah!” Elfie said.
After dinner it was snowing, so mother opened the curtains and turned off all the lights in the living room except the ones on the Christmas tree. Father read in the newspaper that it was going to get down below zero, a record low for Christmas Eve, so he built a big fire in the fireplace.
“It feels exactly the way Christmas should,” mother said.
Chickie wanted to open her presents but mother told her she had to wait until after Santa had had a chance to drop by. She fell asleep on the couch while she was watching the snow out the window, so mother put her to bed.
Mother served eggnog to father and Uncle Benny, adding a little harmless (she thought) whiskey for “body.” Uncle Benny took a drink and said it was too weak; he asked mother to bring the bottle of whiskey in from the kitchen so he could flavor the eggnog to his own liking. She and father exchanged a significant look, but she went and got the bottle anyway and set it on the table next to Uncle Benny.
Father had one glass of eggnog, but Uncle Benny kept drinking. Each time mother refilled his glass, he added a generous amount of whiskey from the bottle. Mother and father could see him getting drunk, but they said nothing. To anybody else she would have said, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough,” but she couldn’t bring herself to say that to Uncle Benny. He was family and she didn’t want to offend him.
Phillip was bored with Uncle Benny; he knew that he was spoiling the fun that he and Chickie would be having on Christmas Eve. He wanted to turn on the TV, but mother said it was rude to have it on when company was present. She made him a cup of cocoa and a bowl of popcorn and told him he could sit by the fire for a while longer with the grownups but he would have to go to bed soon because tomorrow was a big day.
Uncle Benny was telling mother and father about all the places he had been. He had worked as purser on a passenger ship and had been all over the world.
“I had to get out of the country,” he said. “My ex-wife was after me for back alimony payments. They couldn’t touch me as long as I was at sea.”
“Didn’t they get you when you came back?” father asked.
“No, because by that time the old girl had found some other sucker to marry and had dropped the suit against me. She was my third wife and I learned from that experience never to get married again, although I had plenty of chances, believe me. Haw-haw-haw!”
“Whatever happened to your daughter?” mother asked.
“The last I heard, she was living in Texas, but that was years ago. She wants nothing to do with me.”
“If I knew her address, I’d write to her. After all, she’s the only first cousin I have.”
“You’d be wasting your time, I’m afraid,” Uncle Benny said.
Further conversation revealed that he had been living in a cheap rooming house but was going to have to move because the landlady had rented to his room to another man.
“Where will you go?” mother asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ve always got irons in the fire. I always land on my feet.”
When grownups were talking endlessly, or “visiting” as they called it, Phillip had a knack of blocking out the words so the voices began to sound like dogs barking off in the distance or the drone of a machine. After he finished his cocoa and ate all the popcorn, he fell asleep on the settee, holding Elfie in his arms.
He awoke with a start. Uncle Benny was bending over him, smiling at him with those big teeth. Mother and father were out of the room.
“I’m going to do you a big favor, now” Uncle Benny said, slurring the words.
He wrenched Elfie out of Phillip’s arms and, taking three quick steps to the fireplace, threw him in the fire. Phillip jumped up off the settee and screamed as if he himself had been thrown into the fire. As mother came running in from the kitchen, Phillip fainted and fell to the floor unconscious.
When he came to, he was in his bed in his room but he didn’t remember how he got there. All the lights were off but the room was very bright from the drapes never having been drawn and the snow outside. He remembered what happened to Elfie and began crying.
The door to his room opened silently—he could see the bar of light from the hallway—and then closed again. He was surprised—and rapturously happy—to see Elfie climb up on the bed and sit down beside him just inches from his face.
“You’re all right!” he said, reaching out and touching Elfie on the head to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“Mother took the andiron and pulled me out before I caught on fire,” Elfie said. “Happy to say, I’m made from nonflammable material.”
“The house is quiet now,” Philip said. “I don’t hear a thing.”
“Mother and father have gone to bed. Uncle Benny is outside smoking a cigarette in his pajamas and bathrobe. He’s as drunk as a coot and it’s killing cold outside. If he couldn’t get back inside for some reason, he’d freeze to death and they wouldn’t find him until morning. I can see him walking down the street in his bedroom slippers trying to get help and falling and busting his hip. There’s nobody around on Christmas Eve. Too bad.”
Phillip threw back the covers and stood up. “I’ll be back in just a minute,” he said. “I think father forgot to lock the door.”
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp