The Widow’s Mite ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Theodora Gaffle lived alone in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in an old brick building in the least fashionable part of town. She had made her three tiny rooms comfortable and home-like—cheerful curtains on the windows, throw rugs on the floor and pictures of animals and Parisian vistas cut out of magazines to cover up the ugly places on the walls. Her life was simple and uncomplicated; she was mostly contented and hardly ever lonely. She loved the solitude, the absence of conflict, that comes from being alone. She didn’t even mind the stairs so much; she figured they strengthened her heart and increased her stamina.
The seasons had made their slow turning and it was once again Christmas Eve. The market was more crowded than usual but she didn’t mind. She smiled kindly at anybody who met her gaze. She bought items she wouldn’t ordinarily buy, such as a roasting chicken, a box of peppermint candy canes, a bag of mixed nuts in the shell and a dozen oranges. She patiently waited her turn in line to pay and, as she was leaving, she wished the cashier a merry Christmas and patted the boy who bagged her groceries on the cheek. She wanted to kiss him but she was afraid he would take it the wrong way.
By the time she got home, snow had begun to fall. So appropriate, she thought, for Christmas Eve. She let herself into her apartment and, when she happened to look at her reflection in the little mirror hanging on the wall by her front door, she saw she was still wearing the same smile she had worn in the market. She took off her coat and hat, turned on the lights, plugged in her little Christmas tree and carried her groceries into the kitchen.
While she was preparing her dinner, she turned on the radio and hummed along to the Christmas songs that were playing. There was nothing like music to put one in the yuletide spirit. She set the table and lit some candles for atmosphere. When the food was ready, she poured herself a glass of wine and sat down at the table. She said a silent prayer of thanks and, as she ate, watched the snow outside the window. On Christmas Eve the snow had a way of making even the sordid alley appear magical.
Feeling sentimental, she went and got her husband’s picture out of the bedroom and set it in its frame on the table facing her. She looked at his long face—into his sad, dark eyes—and believed for a moment, almost, that he was in the room with her, instead of in his grave for the past twenty-one years.
“Merry Christmas, dear one,” she said, raising her glass to him and drinking.
The memory of him was better than the reality of him had ever been. Through the long years since his death, she had been able to set aside the unpleasant memories of him and focus only on the good ones. She had forgiven him all his faults and indiscretions, as she was sure he had forgiven hers.
“We’re none of us perfect,” she said a little drunkenly, “but all is forgiven.”
She filled a glass for him and set it in front of his picture and emptied the bottle into her own glass.
“I want to propose a toast,” she said. “To another year behind us and another year before us. To health and happiness. Sound of mind, sound of body, sound of spirit.”
At the word “spirit,” her eyes filled with tears. “I hope you’re happy where you are,” she said. “I hope it’s all you hoped it would be.”
She imagined a minute change in his face, a slight squinching of the eyes. He was telling her he was fine, waiting for her to join him.
“Give Michael and Bethany a kiss and a hug for me and tell them we’ll all be together one day, maybe sooner than anybody expects.
She kissed the tip of her finger and touched it to his forehead. “And thank you most of all for the one thing that keeps me from being dependent on people I don’t know and don’t care about and who don’t care about me. I’m speaking of my security—your legacy to me for which I will always be grateful.”
The end of the day had come and she began to think about going to bed. She knew she would sleep well. She went into the bedroom and prepared herself. Before retiring, though, she went to the closet door and, opening it, went down on her knees.
In the closet floor were some loose floor boards that fit together like puzzle pieces. When she had removed them and set them aside, she reached into the recess underneath the floor and took out a battered strongbox; she carried the box to the bed and opened it with a tiny key from her jewelry case on the dresser.
The sight of the bills in the strongbox never failed to make her catch her breath with delight. There were bills of all denominations, but mostly large bills. All together, there were over three hundred and seventeen thousand dollars in bills in the strongbox. She took an inch-thick packet of hundred-dollar bills out of the box and fanned them in her face. She held them to her nose and inhaled their aroma—better than any fifty-dollar-an-ounce perfume.
The money in the strongbox was her one secret in the world. It was what set her apart from other castoff old women who lived in falling-down apartment buildings in ugly, squalid cities. If it’s true that money can’t buy happiness, it can at least buy large quantities of otherness.
Her husband had never trusted banks and neither did she. A bank is an impersonal thing that doesn’t care about your or your money; it will lose everything you have in the blink of an eye and never think twice about it. Forget about compound interest—she didn’t trust it any more than she would trust the man in the moon.
She wished the money a pleasant good night and a happy Christmas and, after she had put it back where it belonged, turned off the lights and got into bed. It was so quiet she imagined she could hear the sound of the falling snow. She went to sleep with the image of the stacks of bills before her in the dark, her husband’s face superimposed over them.
She awoke to a beautiful Christmas morning. The snow had stopped during the night and the sky was a brilliant blue. She dressed warmly—including four-buckle overshoes—and walked the eight blocks to church. It was a source of pride to her that, at her age, she could go where she wanted and not let a little thing like five or six inches of snow keep her at home.
The Christmas service, with its emphasis on music rather than words, was most inspiring. She was gratified to see the church more than half full. When the service was over, she greeted some of her acquaintances from the old neighborhood, promising to visit them soon.
On her way home she stopped at a little bakery and bought some less-than-perfect Christmas cookies at half price and some warm rolls to go with dinner. She admired a chocolate cake with a Christmas tree on top but decided not to buy it because it was too expensive.
By the time she got to her building and walked up the five flights of stairs, she was a little tired, but pleasantly so. She would lie down and take a little nap before she ate or did anything else.
It was not until she opened the door to her apartment that she realized somebody was standing right behind her. Before she could see who it was, she was pushed through the door. She dropped the bag she was carrying and nearly fell forward. When she regained her balance and turned around, she saw a man she had never seen before coming into her apartment behind her. He closed the door very fast and turned to her.
“May I help you?” she asked. “Are you looking for someone?”
“No!” he said.
“Were you looking for the landlady’s apartment?”
“Just keep still.” He made a move toward her as if to silence her and she stepped back.
“I don’t have anything you want,” she said. “If you don’t get out, I’m going to call the police.”
He put his forefinger to his lips. Looking around and seeing the phone, he pulled a knife from his coat and went to it and cut the wire. “You’re not calling anybody,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “What was it you wanted?”
“I want to make sure you’re not going to do anything stupid because I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
“You must have the wrong apartment. If you leave now, I won’t say anything to anybody as long as you leave me alone.”
“How about if you just shut the hell up?”
He went to the refrigerator and opened the door, still holding the knife. “You got anything to drink?” he asked. “Any beer?”
“No. I want you to go.”
He took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and opened it and drank until it was nearly empty. He replaced it and slammed the door. When he realized she was still standing in the middle of the room in her coat and hat, he gestured for her to take them off.
“Just do what you always do,” he said with a grin. “Don’t mind me.”
“Look,” she said. “I have about fifty dollars in my purse. I’ll give it to you if you’ll just take it and go away.”
He laughed. “Sit down,” he said, “and stay a while.”
She sat on the couch and folded her hands in her lap. “What is this all about?” she asked. “I think you have the wrong person. I’ve never seen you before.”
“Well, I’ve seen you. Many times. In fact, I’ve been watching you.”
“Why?” She considered running for the door but she was afraid to try it; she could see herself being stabbed to death. Not a good way to die, and on Christmas.
“We’ll get to that,” he said. He sat down in the chair facing her. “You got anything to eat?”
“No, I don’t have anything.”
“Fix me something to eat.”
“No, I can’t do that.”
He laughed again and held the knife up in his hand, the tip pointed toward the ceiling, the blade glinting in the light. “Let’s try again,” he said. “Fix me something to eat.”
She stood up and went into the kitchen. He came and stood in the doorway and watched her. She opened a can of soup and emptied it into a saucepan and set it on the stove to heat. He picked up the bag of rolls that she had dropped on the floor, took one out and began eating it.
“Will you eat the soup and leave?” she asked.
“I didn’t come here for a can of soup,” he said, laughing. He seemed to be having a good time.
“You have me confused with somebody else,” she said. “I don’t know what any of this is about. I don’t know what you want.”
He sat down at the table, still eating the roll. He placed the knife to his right on the table, in easy reach. “Well, it’s like this,” he said. “You do have something I want.”
“No, I don’t. I have nothing.”
“We both know that’s not true,” he said.
Suddenly she thought of her money underneath the floor in the closet. There wasn’t any way he, or anybody else, could know about it.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “While I’m eating your soup and your nice rolls, we’ll have a little chat.”
“Well, let’s see,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “We’ll think of something.”
“I could scream,” she said. “There are people in the next apartment. They’ll come running if they hear me scream.”
“You could die trying,” he said, picking up the knife to remind her of its existence.
“I don’t believe you would really hurt me,” she said. “You don’t even know me.”
“Most people who are killed are killed by complete strangers. If I were to kill you, nobody would ever know who did it. I’d be long gone by the time they found you.”
“Take whatever it is you want,” she said. “Just don’t hurt me.”
“It’s all up to you,” he said, shaking his head. “It always has been.”
She poured the soup from the saucepan into a bowl and set it on the table in front of him with a spoon. He picked up the spoon and began eating.
“Don’t you have anything stronger than milk?” he asked.
“I don’t keep spirits in the house.”
“Sit down,” he said, pointing to the chair on the other side of the table.
She did as he said, looking him directly in the eye. Her fear of him was subsiding. She believed she could call his bluff. “Now that you have your soup,” she said, “would you mind telling me what this is about?”
“You get right to the point,” he said. “I like that.”
“I want this to end so you’ll leave.”
“That’s not very cordial.”
“I don’t have to be cordial to a man who breaks into my house.”
“Do you have family?” he asked.
“That’s none of your business.”
“You’re a widow, I can see. All alone in the world.”
“What of it?”
“If I were to kill you, nobody would care very much.”
“I’ll give you one thousand dollars if you leave right now and don’t come back. I won’t even call the police.”
He laughed, eating the last of the soup. “Why would I settle for that when I can get three hundred times that amount?”
She felt her heart constrict in her breast. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“You have money in this apartment,” he said. “Quite a lot of money.”
“You’ve been misinformed.”
“I can see it on your face, in your eyes. You’re thinking about it now. You’re thinking about the way it looks, all that lovely green; how beautiful it is, the way it smells.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re going to tell me where that money is and I’m going to leave with it as quiet as a Christmas mouse. Nobody will ever know I was here. When you go to the police and tell them somebody stole over three hundred thousand dollars from your apartment, they won’t believe you ever had that much money, living in a dump like this. They’ll know you’re the crazy one.”
“I’ll give you five thousand dollars!” she said.
“I’m not fooling around!” he said. He stood up from the chair, knocking it over, and ran around the table. Before she knew what was happening, he was behind her with his forearm around her neck. “I’ve killed before and I don’t mind killing again,” he breathed into her ear. “I could crush your windpipe and I wouldn’t care any more than if I was killing a stray dog.”
She put her hands on the arm he was using to hold her, but it was no use. He was ten times stronger than she was. He put the blade of the knife to her cheekbone and made a tiny cut there. A drop of blood formed and dripped down to her neck.
“Now are you going to behave yourself, or do I have to get really unpleasant?” he asked.
She nodded her head and he let her go.
“You would take all my money and leave me with nothing?” she asked in a strangled voice.
“That’s what thieves do.”
“Why don’t you go out and earn it instead of taking what belongs to somebody else?”
“So you admit you have money?”
“I admit nothing.”
He cuffed her on the side of the head, knocking her off the chair. When she stood up and looked at him, holding her head, he said, “That’s just a small sample of what’s in store for you unless you tell me where that money is. If you refuse, I’ll kill you and find it myself. Do you know what it’s like to bleed to death, unable to get help?”
“It’s Christmas,” she said. “I’ll let you take some of it but not all. Please don’t leave me with nothing. It’s for my old age.”
“I can make sure you don’t have any old age,” he said.
“Why are you doing this?”
“If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.”
“Leave me with half and I promise not to tell the police.”
“No, because then I’d be tempted to come back next year and take the other half.”
“I wouldn’t still be here.”
“Come on now,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you any more than I already have. Tell me where you have the money hidden, in exchange for which I’ll let you live.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll tell you. I want you to go. I don’t want to have to look at you anymore.”
“Now you’re talking sense.”
She took him into the bedroom and gestured toward the closet. “Underneath the floor,” she said.
He opened the closet door and got down on his knees and loosened one board and then the others. With the boards set aside, he reached under the floor and brought out the strongbox that was so familiar to her. He put it on the bed and opened it, standing back to admire its contents.
“I knew it was here,” he said excitedly. He picked up a pack of bills and fanned them the way she had done the night before. “No matter what anybody says,” he said, “there’s no more soothing shade of green.
“Just tell me one thing,” she said. “Something I have to know.”
He beamed at her as if they were old friends. “What is it, dear?”
“How did you know there was money here? Nobody would live in this part of town, in this building, unless they were poor.”
He laughed as if she had discovered him in an embarrassing little secret. Before he could answer her, though, she pointed the small gun she had been holding out of sight against her leg and shot him in the middle of the forehead. She had taken it out of the dresser drawer when he had his back to her. It was something else her husband had given her in case she ever needed to defend the money. It seemed her husband had the gift of foresight, among other gifts.
She made sure the intruder was dead and then pushed him into the closet and closed the door so he was out of sight. She felt nothing as she was doing it.
When it was just starting to get dark out again, she felt the unfamiliar sensation of not wanting to be alone. It was, after all, still Christmas. She wanted to be where there were other people. She put on her coat, hat and overshoes again and left her building.
She began walking in the direction of downtown. The air was very cold and bracing; more snow was expected. There were people everywhere, cars backed up at every stoplight. It seemed that nobody stayed home for Christmas night anymore. So much had changed.
She stopped at a movie theatre and took in a show, during which she ate popcorn and candy. It was a musical with dancing and singing. She liked it so much she stayed and saw it twice. When she was outside again, on her way home, she stopped at an all-night diner and had a chocolate milkshake. It was, she was certain, her finest Christmas in a long time.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp