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?”
“And it doesn’t bother him?”
“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.”
“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