I Went Home for Christmas ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
There’s a little man inside my head who sees with my eyes. I don’t know if he’s an angel or a devil or a combination of both. He told me I was dying and I told him I was too young. Not exactly young but too young to die.
It was December twenty-third and I was walking down a city street, right in the shopping district. You can imagine the press of people and the noise, the car exhaust and the oppressive feeling of being one of thousands in a herd. I crossed one street and just as I made it to the other side I felt a crushing pain; my vision began to fade and I crumpled to the sidewalk like a puppet with its strings cut.
When I woke up, I was lying in a high bed. Everything around me was white. An old woman, a nurse, I presume, stepped into my field of vision but didn’t look directly at me. I wanted to ask her what had happened to me, but the words wouldn’t come.
I drifted in and out, or, to put it another way, I was aware of what was going on around me and then I wasn’t. Doctors and nurses came and went; I was lifted, moved, probed and prodded. Finally, the little man inside my head told me to prepare myself for the unexpected. When I asked him what he was talking about, he wouldn’t tell me.
I don’t know how I came to be there, but I was in our old neighborhood on Vine Street. I was a child again and as I walked up the hill toward our old house, it was nearly dark. It was snowing a little and somehow I knew it was Christmas Eve.
The big sycamore trees, the yard, the house, everything looked just the same. I was sure I was dreaming because the house—the entire neighborhood, in fact—wasn’t even there anymore. I walked up the steps and entered the front door. I was so surprised at seeing my mother standing there, who had been dead for fifteen years, that I couldn’t speak.
“Feed the dogs before it gets dark,” she said, barely looking at me. “When you’re done with that, go up to your room and make your bed and straighten up. We’re having guests. You don’t want people to think you’re a pig, do you?”
What was it she told me to do? Didn’t she know that she was dead, that the house was gone and I was now older than she was?
“How old am I?” I asked, taking off my cap with the ear flaps.
“What? Did you say something?”
“I asked you how old I am.”
“You’re eight,” she said. “Did you forget?”
“Are you all right? You don’t have that stomach thing that’s going around, do you?”
She put her palm on my forehead. She smelled like cinnamon and cigarette smoke.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Well, you want to get your chores done before everybody gets here.”
When we were all sitting around the dining room table, I could hardly keep from staring. There was grandma with her shiny new false teeth and her beauty parlor hairdo; it was good to hear her laugh again. Next to her was grandpa with his scented pipe tobacco and his shiny bald head. I wanted to ask them where they had been all the time I thought they were dead, but I knew I couldn’t say that because they didn’t know what I knew. Is that what death is? Reverting back to some moment or other in your childhood? Why this moment in particular of all my childhood memories?
Father sat at one end of the table and mother at the other. Father couldn’t have been more than about forty when I was eight and I couldn’t remember him looking so young. He would only have about sixteen more years before he would die of the heart disease that plagued his family.
Next to mother was her unmarried, school-teacher sister, Doris. Mother used to get mad at us for making fun of Doris’s prissy ways. She fluttered her hands and sucked in her breath because she had emphysema. She wouldn’t live much past the age of fifty.
My sixteen-year-old brother, Jeff, sat to father’s left. People used to make me mad by calling us Mutt and Jeff. I was Mutt, of course. As usual, Jeff and I didn’t have much to say to each other. If he wasn’t making fun of me, he was stealing from me or punching me in the arms, so I had learned to avoid him as much as possible.
Father’s brother, my uncle Quinn, was there with his new wife, Shirley. She was Quinn’s third wife and she didn’t seem to have much to say to any of us other than “Lovely to see you again” or “Thank you for having us.” Quinn’s daughter from his first wife, my cousin Beryl, sat between Quinn and Shirley. Beryl was fourteen and looked miserable. She had pimples and awful hair. She avoided looking at any of us, I was sure she hated Shirley and I wasn’t sure Shirley didn’t hate her back.
At one point during the meal, grandma looked at me and said, “You’re awful quiet tonight, hon. You’re not sick, are you?”
“Sick in the head!” Jeff said, and guffawed.
“No, I’m not sick,” I said.
“He had a rough day at school,” father said.
“No, I didn’t!” I said defensively. Truthfully, I couldn’t remember a thing about the day before I saw the house from down the street.
“You need to get a good night’s sleep tonight,” grandma said. “You don’t want to be sick on Christmas.”
“I’m not sick,” I said.
“You never know what’s going on inside his head,” grandpa said, and everybody looked at me. Jeff was smirking at me and Beryl looked at me with curiosity.
“Nothing’s going on inside my head,” I said.
I felt guilty with the terrible knowledge I had of everybody at the table, but I tried to keep it from showing on my face. I smiled and nibbled at my ham and sweet potatoes.
After dinner Doris played the piano. She liked to play Bach and Mozart but nobody wanted to hear that. She usually ended up playing My Melancholy Baby or My Funny Valentine. Since it was Christmas, she played I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and Silent Night, singing along in her quavering soprano.
“Doris should have been a professional musician,” grandma said.
“She became a school teacher instead,” mother said.
With the adults all sitting around drinking coffee and wine and Jeff talking to his latest girlfriend on the phone, I put on my coat and boots and went outside. I was surprised to see Beryl standing in the front yard smoking a cigarette. She tried to hide it, but I saw the smoke coming out her mouth.
“You won’t tell my dad I was smoking, will you?” she said.
“I don’t care,” I said. I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t be smoking at her age, but I knew it was none of my business.
“Where are you going?” she asked as I walked past her.
“Just for a little walk,” I said.
I was afraid she was going to ask if she could come with me, so I broke out into a little run.
In all those decades, more than forty years, everything in the neighborhood looked the same. I remembered every detail, every tree, every house, bush and street light. I had to remind myself that none of it was real and it existed only in my mind. If I was having a dream, it was one of the most life-like dreams I ever had. I was an eight-year-old boy carrying around the thoughts and memories of a man over six times eight. If I wasn’t dead, it had to be the result of a fever.
I took a couple turns around the neighborhood and by the time I got back home it was snowing heavily. Perfect for Christmas Eve, as perfect as it could be.
Father, grandpa and Quinn were in the dining room talking about football and politics. The women were all in the kitchen, laughing and smoking cigarettes, I knew. Beryl sat in the living room alone. She smiled at me and flipped her hair back from her forehead.
“I think your brother is cute,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “He’s a jerk.”
“Do you think he likes me?”
“I don’t think he likes anybody very much.”
I took off my coat and went into the kitchen and had a peanut butter cookie and a piece of fudge. Mother was sitting at the table writing out a recipe for grandma.
“Where have you been?” she asked me.
“I just went for a little walk,” I said.
“You might have at least told me you were going.”
Grandma started in on a story about a couple of girls who were abducted and murdered and I went upstairs to my room.
My flannel pajamas were right where I had left them, in the middle drawer of the dresser. I slipped out of my clothes and into the pajamas and got into the old bed, which, I have to tell you, was the most comfortable bed I ever slept in. I was cold so I pulled the covers up over my head. It was so quiet I could hear the snowflakes falling outside my window. Soon I went to sleep.
I was only eight, so my mother and I still practiced the conceit that Santa was real and I believed in him wholeheartedly. He left for me by the tree downstairs, on Christmas morning, a red bike, a sled, some books, a new coat and lots of other things. In my stocking were nuts in the shell, an orange, hard candy and a carton of Christmas candy cigarettes. I got candy cigarettes every year in my stocking and, in past years, had made everybody laugh by pretending I was lighting up and smoking. The more I hammed it up, the more they laughed.
After we had opened all the presents, we all got dressed up and went over to grandma and grandpa’s. Grandma always cooked Christmas dinner. Besides turkey and dressing, we had roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry salad, macaroni and cheese baked in the oven that was the best I ever tasted and, for dessert, orange peel cake, apricot bars, cherry pie and pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. I didn’t mind sitting at the kids’ table with Beryl and my cousins Naomi, Tibby, Gloria and Bennett. Beryl was disappointed that Jeff was old enough to sit at the main table. He didn’t look at her the whole time.
After dinner the kids played in the snow and the adults sat around in the house smoking and drinking cocktails. Grandpa went upstairs to take a nap. Doris played the piano again for a while and when she was finished playing grandma played some Christmas records.
There were people at grandma and grandpa’s that Christmas Day that I didn’t even know, uncles and cousins and people from out of town. They would look at me and ask me how old I was, what grade I was in at school and if I had been a good boy during the year. I could have amazed them with what I knew if I had wanted to.
Mother helped grandma put away the leftovers and clean up in the kitchen and, after we all had another piece of fruit cake or pumpkin pie, we packed up and went home. I was tired and I went to my room early. Mother was still convinced I was sick, so she didn’t give me any chores to do. Everything could wait until the next day.
I put on the flannel pajamas and got into bed and turned off the light. It had stopped snowing, the moon and stars were shining and the light coming in at the window was blue-tinged and restful. I was about to drift off to sleep when the little man in my head spoke to me again.
“Have you had a good time?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” I said, “but I don’t understand what I’m doing here. Is this what happens when you die?”
“You think you’re dead?”
“I don’t know. Am I?”
“There are no simple answers to these questions. Or, to put it another way, it’s not for us to know.”
“I don’t want to be eight years old again forever and I don’t want to live the same stupid life over again. Going through the ninth grade again the same as it was before? No, thank you!”
“Hah-hah-hah!” he said. “You’re such a complainer. Always were!”
When I awoke again, I was in the same high bed. I blinked my eyes a few times and looked toward the window where I could see blue sky and white clouds.
“What day is it?” I asked a woman in white who was standing there.
“It’s December the twenty-seventh,” she said.
“I went home for Christmas,” I said.
She smiled uneasily and nodded her head.
“It was the best Christmas ever. They were all there. All the dead ones. I didn’t know it could be that way. Einstein was right, wasn’t he?”
The woman in white shrugged her shoulders and looked away. I had to look at her again to make sure she wasn’t an angel.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp