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The Christmas Guests

The Christmas Guests 2

The Christmas Guests ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The party crowd was attentive as tiny Chickpea Knuckles, standing beside the Christmas tree on her little platform, sang in her crystalline soprano voice. When she came to the end of her set of songs, the guests applauded long and enthusiastically. Chickpea bowed graciously a couple of times, threw a kiss or two and then receded into the background.

Sylvia Peat, her enormous breasts trussed up inside her green silk dress, took hold of Mrs. Pinkwater’s wrist in both her hands like a vulture. “Lovely Christmas party, my dear!” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Where did you find that adorable midget singer?”

“You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Do you think she’d sing at my New Year’s soiree?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “You could ask her. She doesn’t sing for free, though.”

“Where did you find a family of midgets?” Enid Goode asked.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “The father is in jail.”

“What did he do?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. Here’s the singer’s mother, though, if you’d like to meet her.

She snagged hold of Carlotta Knuckles, who was just walking past, and pulled her into the circle of ladies.

Carlotta was wearing a slinky, gold-colored evening gown that Mrs. Pinkwater had had made for her. She carried a long cigarette holder, taking occasional puffs on a cigarette that had gone out a long time ago.

“How do you do?” Carlotta said, looking up shyly at the ladies—all in various stages of drunkenness—that surrounded her like a forest of redwood trees.

“Isn’t she sweet?” Betty Rowley said.

“What’s it like being a midget?” Shirley Faraday asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “It’s more respectful.”

“What’s wrong with calling them midgets?” Madge Settle asked. “That’s what they are, isn’t it? How many of them are there?”

“There’s mother, daughter and son.”

“Where’s the son?” Enid Goode asked. “I’d like to see him.”

“He’s not safe with her,” Betty Rowley said. “She’s looking for a new husband, you know!”

All the ladies laughed.

“Go to hell!” Enid Goode said.

“Well, he isn’t old enough for that,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “He’s still just a boy.”

Just then Bixley Knuckles walked past, bearing a tray of drinks over his head. Mrs. Pinkwater tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and looked at her.

“You don’t have to serve drinks,” she said. “You’re a guest.”

“I like doing it,” he said. “It gives me a chance to hobnob.”

Shirley Faraday ruffled his hair. “He’s so cute I could just eat up him!” she said.

“Hey!” Bixley said. “Hands off!”

“The ladies like you,” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re at liberty to touch me!”

Mrs. Pinkwater leaned over and whispered in Bixley’s ear. “She’s a little drunk,” she said. “Don’t mind her.”

“Okay,” he said and was gone.

“I’d like to wrap him up and take him home,” Shirley Faraday said.

“And what would you do with him when you got him there?” Betty Rowley said.

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’d think of something.”

The crowd of ladies dispersed to freshen their drinks or to use the ladies’ room.

“How are you holding up, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Carlotta.

“All right, dear.”

A waiter came by with a tray of canapés, bent over and thrust them toward Carlotta.

“Try one,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re delicious.”

Carlotta took one each hand and began munching on them. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I hate to say it.”

“What is it?

“Quincy has escaped from jail.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure? How did it happen?”

“He’s three feet tall. When the guards opened the doors, they were preoccupied and didn’t look down. He escaped right under their noses.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But that’s not the worst of it. When I was in the kitchen a while ago, there was a knock on the back door. I thought it was going to be another liquor delivery, but when I opened the door who do you think was standing there?”

“Let me guess.”

“Here is where it gets bad. I took him upstairs and hid him when nobody was looking.”

“You know you could get me in trouble for aiding and abetting an escapee, don’t you?”

“He’s cross-dressing.”

“He’s what?”

“He’s disguised as a woman. That was his specialty when he was in the circus, but now, of course, he’s playing a real woman instead of a witch or a harridan.”

“How is that going to help?”

“The police are looking for a male midget.”

“Keep him hidden and we’ll decide what to do with him when the party is over.”

“He wants to come down and join the party. He’s been in prison since Thanksgiving. He’s lonely.”

“All right, but keep him in the background. If any of my guests begin to suspect he’s more than he seems to be, he’ll have to leave. I won’t have my party ruined.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Carlotta said.

Carlotta introduced her “sister,” Corabelle, from New Orleans, to all the guests. They were charmed as she spoke to them in a soft Southern accent. When one of the male guests, Clifford Clifford (himself not much taller than a midget), asked Corabelle to dance, she graciously accepted without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

“Where did she learn to dance like that?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to Carlotta as they stood off to the side and watched as Corabelle and Clifford Clifford moved around the floor.

“He’s always been a good dancer,” Carlotta said.

“She moves effortlessly as if she dances every day of her life.”

“What a lovely compliment!” Carlotta said. “I’ll be sure and tell him what you said. He doesn’t very often have a chance to feel good about himself.”

And where did she get the dress and wig?”

“It’s a long story. He bought them for a lodge function that he attended as a woman. And not one of his lodge brothers recognized him, either!”

“If I didn’t already know he was a man,” Mrs. Pinkwater said, “I’d never suspect.”

“It makes me so proud!” Carlotta said.

When Corabelle finished dancing with Clifford Clifford, others wanted to dance with her but she declined.

“I’m all fagged out for the moment, gentlemen,” she said. “I have to get myself a refresher.”

“Remember I have the next dance!” Finch Baggett called to her.

“You got it, mister!” she said.

“And I have the one after that!” Trent Trill announced.

“Oh, you kid!”

“I never expected her to be so popular with the men,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “And they’re all married. Their wives are looking on with dissatisfaction, if they’re not too drunk to notice.”

“It’s the novelty of the thing,” Carlotta said.

“And wouldn’t they be surprised to know that the thing is not what they think it is?”

“Oh, you kid!” said Carlotta.

At the buffet table, Bixley spotted Corabelle and they began sparring playfully. When Corabelle got Bixley in a headlock, Mrs. Pinkwater and Carlotta broke them up before they gave away Corabelle’s secret.

“Let’s show them our tumbling moves,” Bixley said. “They’d love it.”

“Can’t,” Corabelle said. “I’m wearing a dress, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So?” Bixley said.

“Go get me a glass of that champagne, sonny boy,” she said as she sat down to eat the plate of food the maid prepared for her.

The party didn’t begin to break up until after midnight.

“The best party ever!” one guest after the other said as they thanked Mrs. Pinkwater and went out the door.

“We fooled ‘em,” Quincy said, removing the wig and kicking off the pumps. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Get me another glass of that champagne.”

“Not so carefree, mister!” Carlotta said. “You’re a wanted midget, you know.”

“I can be a woman for as long as I have to be.”

“And what happens when they pull off the wig and lift up the dress and discover you’re really a man?”

“I guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

“My husband will be home from his business trip in two days,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I suggest the entire midget family stay here until then. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, we couldn’t impose!” Carlotta said. “Christmas is in three days!”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I hate being alone at night.”

“Your husband wouldn’t want to find us here when he comes home.”

“He won’t mind. He enjoys having company.”

“Well, it’s awfully kind of you, but I don’t know.”

“Quincy can remain your sister Corabelle for as long as you’re here. If the police come snooping around looking for Quincy, just tell them she’s your sister visiting from New Orleans. If he can fool all my party guests, he can fool the police.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Quincy said. “I don’t relish the idea of being thrown back in the can and spending Christmas in jail.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you for all your kindness to us,” Carlotta said, on the point of tears.

“Can I sleep in that little bedroom in the attic overlooking the back yard?” Bixley asked. “It makes me feel like the captain of a ship.”

“How do you know about that room?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked.

“I did a little exploring while everybody was busy,” Bixley said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I can sleep anywhere,” Chickpea said, “as long as there are no snakes.”

Mr. Pinkwater, when he returned from his business trip on the day before Christmas, was not surprised to find the midgets installed in his home, but he was surprised to discover Quincy Knuckles as a woman.

“This is Miss Corabelle Hamilton, from New Orleans, Louisiana, come to spend Christmas in our home,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Quincy Knuckles is no more.”

Corabelle stood up and offered her hand to Mr. Pinkwater. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

“I don’t think that’s the same person at all,” Mr. Pinkwater said to Mrs. Pinkwater when they were alone. “I think they’re playing a trick on us.”

“We’re going to have such a lovely Christmas!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re like the odd children we never had.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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

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

“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.

The Thanksgiving Guests

Happy Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving Guests ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

She placed an ad in the newspaper: My husband and I have no family and are alone. We are looking for a poor family to spend a bountiful Thanksgiving with us. Please contact Mrs. Griselda Pinkwater at the phone number below. We look forward to hearing from you.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, she expected a flood of calls but received only one, from a woman named Carlotta Knuckles. She said she saw the ad in the newspaper and showed it to her husband. After they talked it over, they decided they would like to apply.

“There’s no applying,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “If you and your family want to come, you are welcome.”

“Oh, thank you!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “I’m sure we qualify as poor, but just how poor, I really couldn’t say. We have more than the air to breathe and the clothes on our backs, but still we’re poor.”

“Well, poor is poor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I’m sure you’re poor enough. And how many of you will there be besides you and your husband?”

“We have two half-grown children, Bixley and Chickpea.”

“Shall we say about one o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, then?”

“Oh, yes!”

Mrs. Pinkwater gave Mrs. Knuckles the address. Mrs. Knuckles wrote it down and the conversation ended.

“What do you think?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to her husband, Mr. Gunter Pinkwater. “We have some takers!”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“I’ve located a poor family to come and share Thanksgiving dinner with us. Their name is Knuckles.”

“That’s kind of a funny name, isn’t it?” he said.

“All names sound funny when you first hear them.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get them here just so you can rob them?”

“Why would I want to rob them? They’re poor.”

“Poor in spirit or just poor?”

“I think we can rely on a literal interpretation in this instance,” she said.

“What if they plan on coming here and robbing us when it becomes apparent to them that we are not poor?”

“Oh, Gunter!” she said. “I’m too kind and too pure to ever think of anything like that.”

“Well, it’s your funeral,” he said.

“It will be my little social experiment. I’ll write a tract about it for the ladies’ club and it’s sure to get me elected president, or at least vice-president.”

“So that’s your motive,” he said.

On Thanksgiving morning, Mrs. Pinkwater felt her nerves on edge and began drinking large quantities of wine to soothe them. Had she made a mistake in inviting a family of strangers into her home? What if she had nothing in common with them and nothing to say? What if they were dirty and smelled bad? If she felt the need to get rid of them, she would just lock herself in her bedroom and let her husband eject them in his own way. He could always say that she had just come down with a horribly contagious disease and the house was under quarantine. God willing, it wouldn’t be necessary.

At a few minutes before the hour of one o’clock, the doorbell rang and Mrs. Pinkwater went to the door herself, rather than allowing the maid to do it. When she opened the door, she had the surprise of her life. The Knuckleses were not what she expected. They were a family of four tiny midgets.

“Oh, my!” she said.

“Mrs. Pinkwater?” the woman, who would, of course, be Mrs. Carlotta Knuckles, said in her squeaky little voice.

“Why, yes, my dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Please come in!”

She held the door while the Knuckleses came into the house in a single file. The maid stepped forward to take their coats.

“Mrs. Pinkwater,” Carlotta Knuckles said, “I’d like you to meet my husband, Mr. Quincy Knuckles.”

Mr. Knuckles stepped forward after slithering out of his coat and took Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand in his own and kissed it. “Charmed, I’m sure,” he said.

“And these are my children,” Carlotta said, “Bixley and Chickpea.”

Bixley shook Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand. “I’m Bixley,” he said. “I’m the smart one in the family.”

Chickpea put the tip of her index finger to the bottom of her chin and curtseyed. “I’m Chickpea,” she said.

“Why, they’re just so cute!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Are they twins?”

“Bixley is the older of the two,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Yeah, by two years!” Bixley said.

“Well, they’re the same size so I figured they were the same age.”

“Yeah, and not only the kids are the same size, but the parents are the same size, too,” Bixley said. “I’ll let you in on a little secret about midgets. We’re as tall as we’re ever going to be. There aren’t any tall midgets. We’ll all the same size, no matter what age we are.”

“We don’t really like the word ‘midgets’,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We prefer ‘little people’.”

“I’m a midget,” Bixley said. “It’s good enough for me.”

Mrs. Pinkwater took the midgets into the living room. “Make yourselves at home,” she said.

Mr. Knuckles climbed into the wingback chair, turned around and sat down, his wingtip shoes straight out in front of him. (He looked like a tiny king on an oversized throne.) Mrs. Knuckles and Bixley and Chickpea struggled onto the couch, one leg up with the rest of the body following, as if they were climbing onto a life raft. Mrs. Pinkwater watched them, frowning, and decided it was best to not try to help them.

“I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding your way to our home,” she said in her best hostessy voice.

“Oh, no!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “No trouble at all.”

“How many rooms do you have in this house?” Chickpea asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Counting the two rooms in the attic, we have fifteen rooms.”

Mrs. Knuckles whistled. “I can’t imagine,” he said.

Mr. Pinkwater had been getting dressed upstairs and came into the room wearing his cashmere smoking jacket that he bought in London.

“Oh, there you are, dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Come and greet our guests!”

“How do you do,” Mr. Pinkwater said politely.

Mrs. Pinkwater watched him to see if he registered any surprise at a roomful of midgets, but there was none. “How about a drink before dinner?” he asked.

“Scotch and soda,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“I’ll have the same,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“How about a little white wine?” Chickpea asked.

“I’ll have a beer,” Bixley said.

“Do you allow them to have alcoholic beverages, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “They’re not children, you know.”

“What will you have, darling?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked his wife.

“I’ll have some more of that wine that I was having before our guests arrived,” she said.

Mr. Pinkwater went out of the room and in two minutes he returned bearing a tray with the drinks on it, always the perfect host.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Mrs. Pinkwater said as she sipped her wine. “I hope you brought along some great big appetites!”

“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Bixley said.

“It certainly smells wonderful,” Mrs. Knuckles said, draining her drink and holding up her glass so Mr. Pinkwater could get her another. “Could I help in the kitchen in any way? Peel the potatoes or anything?”

“Oh, no, honey!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Everything is under control. The cook and the maid have taken care of everything.”

“You have a cook and a maid?”

“Yes.”

“They have servants,” Mrs. Knuckles said to her husband.

“We could have had a house like this if we had stayed with the circus,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“You were with the circus?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“For twelve years. That’s where I met my wife.”

“After the children were born,” Mrs. Knuckles said, “I insisted that we leave the circus once and for all. I didn’t want the little darlings growing up in that kind of environment.”

“Now I’m working as a part-time janitor in an office building,” Mr. Knuckles said, “and people make fun of me, as if a midget could never have any human feelings. In the circus nobody made fun of me. Everybody respected me. I belonged there.”

“He blames me for the way his life turned out,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Who else am I going to blame?” he said.

“I’m going to be a professional wrestler,” Bixley said. “There’s big money in that for a good-looking young midget like me.”

“How many bathrooms do you have?” Chickpea asked.

The maid announced that dinner was ready. They all went into the dining room and Mrs. Pinkwater showed the midgets where she wanted them to sit.

“Do I need to get something for you to sit on?” she asked. “A phone book or a pillow?”

“Oh, no, dear, we’re fine,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We’re used to sitting in chairs for regular-sized people.”

The midgets took off their shoes and squatted on their haunches on the chairs so that the they were high enough to eat. Awfully uncomfortable, Mrs. Pinkwater thought, but she tried not to think about it.

“Now I’ll say grace,” she said, clearing her throat. “Thank you, Lord, for the food of which we are about to partake; for our heath, home, and country, and on this Thanksgiving Day, thank you especially for the company of friends. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

“Amen,” Mrs. Knuckles said, but she was the only one who bothered.

After dinner Chickpea sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy and The Lady is a Tramp in a surprisingly strong, clear voice, while her mother accompanied her on the piano. Then Mr. Knuckles and Bixley moved some of the furniture out of the way and gave a demonstration of tumbling to the delight of Mr. and Mrs. Pinkwater.

“I keep in shape,” Mr. Knuckles said, patting his belly, “for the day when I can return to the circus.”

Mr. Pinkwater was showing Mr. Knuckles his collection of antique firearms in the den when the police arrived and took Mr. Knuckles away in handcuffs.

“How the hell did you know I was here?” Mr. Knuckles said as he was being taken out the door.

“What did he do?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“Any number of things,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Do you mean he’s a criminal?”

“Not ordinarily. I mean, not by nature.”

Mrs. Pinkwater patted Mrs. Knuckles on the shoulder. She wanted to pick her up and hug her to express her sympathy but knew it wouldn’t look good in front of the police. Instead she said, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

“I suppose I need to get to the police station and see if he’s going to be eligible for bail or if they’re going to keep him permanently,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, no, dear! I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you in that way.”

At midnight, Mrs. Pinkwater was sitting in front of the mirror in her boudoir brushing her hair when Mr. Pinkwater came into the room.

“It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it?” she said.

“If you say so, dear,” he said.

“I think I’m going to invite them to our Christmas party.”

“Who?”

“The Knuckleses.”

“Quincy Knuckles might still be in jail then.”

“That’s all right. Carlotta can come with the children. We can ask Chickpea to sing some Christmas songs. She has a lovely voice. And, I ask you: who else has a midget singing at their party this season?”

“I’m going to be on a business trip then,” he said.

“I want all the ladies of the club to meet Carlotta Knuckles. They’ll adore her. If she doesn’t have an evening gown, we’ll get her one. Something sparkly.”

“Where do you buy a sparkly evening gown for a midget?” he asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’. It’s more respectful.”

“You’re in love, aren’t you?”

“Tired is what I am,” she said as she crushed out her cigarette and got into bed.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Mr. Doodles’ Thanksgiving

Mr. Doodles' Thanksgiving

Mr. Doodles’ Thanksgiving ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story has appeared on my website before.)

The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was upon us. Everybody had to leave school; nobody could stay, no matter how much they wanted to. The cafeteria would be closed and the heat shut off. It was time for the university to take a little snooze. Get out and don’t come back until Sunday night at the earliest.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I walked downtown to the bus station in a light rain to catch my bus. After a bumpy, smelly, two-hour ride, during which I tried unsuccessfully to take a nap, I arrived in my hometown. It was raining there, too.

I called my mother and asked her if she could come and pick me up because I had a sore throat and didn’t feel like walking home in the rain and didn’t have the money for cab fare. She sighed and banged the phone down in my ear. Ten minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of the bus station in her old beat-up Oldsmobile the color of an army tank.

“Thanks for making me come out in the rain,” she said by way of greeting.

“I didn’t make it rain,” I said.

“I thought you said you weren’t coming home for Thanksgiving.”

“Had to. No choice.”

“Well, I’m kind of glad you’re here because I need your help tomorrow.”

“Why do you need my help?”

“Everybody’s coming and I have to fix a lot of food. You can help entertain.”

“Who is ‘everybody’?”

“Grandma will be there with her friend Bunny. Lindley is coming and she’s going to bring her new beau. Your father said he’ll be there if he doesn’t get a better offer. I think he has somebody he wants us to meet.”

“How about if I just catch the next bus back to school?” I said. “I’ll spend the weekend in a homeless shelter.”

Mother and father were divorced. Mother still lived in the house I grew up in. Father lived not far away. They prided themselves on still being  “friends,” though no longer married. They had a peaceable arrangement whereby mother still called father over to the house to fix things that were broken, while she sent him an occasional cake or plate of food, or mended his clothes when needed. They were very adult about the whole thing.

While I sat at the table and ate my dinner of leftover stew and hot chocolate, mother sat across from me and blew cigarette smoke above my head.

“How is school?” she said.

“All right.”

“Are you making lots of nice friends?”

“Sure.”

“You were always so shy. I used to worry about you being such a loner.”

“I have thousands of friends.”

“Do you remember that boy in high school who had blond hair and spoke with a lisp?”

“No, I never knew anybody like that.”

“I can’t think of his name, but I heard he works as a cake decorator now. I guess he just wasn’t smart enough to go to college.”

“You don’t have to be especially smart to go to college.”

“One of Lindley’s friends from school was caught embezzling money from the bank where she worked. She’s in lots of trouble now. She’s probably going to jail. It was in the newspaper. I’ll have to be sure and tell Lindley about it when I see her tomorrow. Can you imagine how terrible her parents must feel?”

“Maybe they were lucky and died before their daughter became a criminal,” I said.

“Her first name was Paula or Patsy or something like that, but I can’t remember her last name.”

And so went our conversation, a mother and son who hadn’t seen each other for three months.

The next morning she was up before daylight banging around in the kitchen. She had been thawing the turkey in the refrigerator for two days and wanted to get it baked so she could have the oven free to bake the pies. She made me set the dining room table as soon as I finished with breakfast.

The first to arrive were grandma and her friend, Bunny. They had identical silvery hairdos, fresh from the beauty parlor. Grandma was carrying an orange peel cake and Bunny the little wicker basket that contained her tiny chihuahua dog, Mr. Doodles.

Grandma kissed me, leaving the imprint of her lips on my cheek. “How’s the big college man?” she asked. “Keeping all those pretty coeds in line?”

“Oh, you know it grandma!” I said.

Bunny shook my hand and let Mr. Doodles out of his basket. He ran into the living room and crawled under the couch.

Bunny was a seventy-five-year-old retired nurse. She still smoked Kool cigarettes and drank gin right out of the bottle. She and grandma were the best of friends. They had recently moved into grandma’s house together and had purchased side-by-side cemetery plots. They were in it together for the long haul.

Grandma and Bunny went into the kitchen to help mother with the dinner, while I tried to coax Mr. Doodles out from under the couch. When I set his basket down where he could see it, he ran to it and jumped in. He laid down and licked himself like a cat and went to sleep.

When my sister, Lindley, arrived, she had a man with her I had never seen before. He was no more than five feet tall with a pear-shaped body (Mr. Five-by-Five). His head was covered in blond corkscrew curls that hung down around his ears to his shoulders.

“This is my friend, Stubby Miller,” Lindley said.

“I’m so happy to make your acquaintance,” Stubby said, taking my hand in both of his and pumping it vigorously.

“Stubby has an interesting job,” Lindley said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“He’s a professional clown.”

“I prefer to think of myself as an entertainer,” he said.

“I know lots of non-professional clowns,” I said, “but I never met a professional one before.”

Of all of Lindley’s boyfriends, I had to admit that Stubby Miller was one of the better ones.

Lindley went into the kitchen and left me alone with Stubby Miller and Mr. Doodles. Stubby crossed his squat legs on the couch while Mr. Doodles raised his head and looked at us and went back to sleep.

“Is that your pup?” Stubby asked.

“No, it’s Bunny’s.”

“Who’s Bunny?”

“You’ll meet her later,” I said. “She’s my grandma’s friend.”

After an uncomfortable silence, Stubby said, “I hear you’re up at state university.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I never had a chance to go to college myself.”

“It’s vastly overrated,” I said.

“Don’t you like it?”

“Of course I like it,” I said. “It gives me time to decide how I want to ruin the rest of my life.”

I offered him a glass of wine, which he was glad to accept to keep from having to talk to me any further.

Father arrived with a bottle of champagne and a henna-haired woman on his arm, one Shugie Sherwood, dressed all in red. Red, in fact, seemed to be Shugie’s color. Besides her red dress, her lips were the color of a Valentine heart and her cheeks as rosy as mother’s were pale.

Father called us all into the living room. He opened his bottle of champagne and when he made sure everybody had a full glass, he held up his arms like a minister about to bless a crowd of sinners.

“To our little family gathered here today,” he said, “I have an important announcement to make.”

“Well, for heaven’s sake!” grandma said. “Why all the ceremony?”

Father was obviously relishing the moment. “Shugie and I are going to be married next week at the court house,” he said. “Since we’ve both been married before, we decided to dispense with all the formalities.”

On the collective intake of breath, he held his arms up again for silence.

“And that’s not all,” he said. “After we’re married we’re moving to Phoenix, Arizona. That’s where Shugie is from. She owns two apartment buildings there and I’m going to manage them for her!”

Shugie giggled and her face turned even redder.

“Well, congratulations!” Stubby Miller said, holding up his glass of champagne and drinking it all in one gulp. He seemed to be the only one truly moved by the news, and he didn’t even know father and Shugie.

Grandma moved forward and kissed Shugie on the cheek and Bunny shook her hand. Mother set her glass of champagne down and left the room.

Before we ate, I went into the kitchen to get some glasses. Mother was in there alone, putting the turkey on the platter.

“What did you think of father’s news?” I asked. I couldn’t resist.

“It’s his life,” she said, shrugging.

“What do you think of Shugie?”

“Whore.”

“Won’t you miss father, being so far away?”

She looked at me as if realizing for the first time how truly stupid I was. “If I hadn’t wanted him out of my life,” she said, “I never would have divorced him.”

When we were all seated at the table, including Mr. Doodles, mother made us sit with our hands in our laps while she said grace. She had never said grace before in her life, as far as I knew.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” she said with her head bowed, “the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When she was finished and gave us the cue to begin eating, Lindley laughed. “Are you trying to tell us you’ve joined Alcoholics Anonymous, mother?” she said.

“I thought it was lovely,” grandma said.

Bunny held Mr. Doodles in the crook of her arm and fed him small bites of turkey and potatoes from her plate. As he chewed, he looked at all of us sitting around the table with his enormous eyes like brown marbles. I wondered what he was thinking.

“He’s just the most precious little boy in the whole wide world!” Bunny cooed.

During the meal, Lindley and Stubby Miller sat very close. Sometimes he put his arm around her but he had to reach up because she was taller than he was. He said little things to her that only she could hear, causing her to blush. I began to think they were serious about each other. I could easily see my odd sister married to a fat little clown.

Father and Shugie talked excitedly about the things they were going to do when they got to Phoenix. The trips they were going to take. The sights they were going to see. At least once every minute he reached over and took her hand in his own and squeezed it. Her eye makeup ran in rivulets down her cheeks. It seemed she was melting before our eyes.

Mother ate quietly, speaking only when spoken to. I knew she wasn’t happy about father and Shugie but would never reveal what she really thought. It was our way to keep things bottled up inside until they burst out on their own.

After everybody left, I helped her stow the leftovers in the refrigerator and wash the dishes. When we were done, she went to bed without a word while I stayed up and watched TV until I could no longer stay awake.

The next day she wanted me to put up her enormous artificial Christmas tree, string it with lights and decorate it, which I did without complaint. It was a ritual with her to put it up on that day. She wouldn’t take it down until after New Year’s.

The rest of the weekend passed in a blur. I ate lots of leftovers and slept at ten-hour intervals. Mother wanted me to go to church with her on Sunday but I said I had a sore throat and cough and didn’t want to pass it on to anybody there. She accepted that excuse and went without me.

On Sunday evening she drove me to the bus station to catch the bus back to school. As I was getting out of the car, she asked, “Will we be seeing you at Christmas?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.

The bus was on time and the rain had stopped. I took these things as a good sign. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and tell my thousands of imaginary friends about my Thanksgiving weekend at home.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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