Christmas Shoes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a repost.)
On a crowded downtown sidewalk a week before Christmas, a youth pushed an old man down and ran off with the package he was carrying. The old man, whose name was Ivan Otley, hit his head, was dazed for the moment, and not able to get up right away. Nobody stopped to help him or to see how badly he was hurt but just walked around him with faces averted.
A girl named Linda Jean Pickles, standing near the bus stop, saw what happened and ran to the Mr. Otley’s aid. She helped him up and led him over against the building away from the flow of people. His head was bleeding and his trousers torn at the knee.
“Did you see what that son of a bitch did to me?” Mr. Otley gasped.
“Yes, I saw it,” Linda Jean said.
“What is the world coming to, when you’re not even safe on the street in the middle of the day?”
“Do you need a doctor?” she asked. She dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, but he pushed her hand away.
“No, I’m all right.”
“Can I help you to your car?”
“I was waiting for my driver. When he doesn’t see me in the usual spot, he won’t know what happened. Oh, but my head hurts!”
“I think you need a doctor.”
“Just help me to the bar.”
She led him to the bar of the Prince Edward Hotel across the street. When she had him seated at a table, she was going to leave but he wanted her to stay. He really didn’t want to be alone, he said, until he felt better.
“Did you see the way those stupid people ignored me?” he said. “I might have been mortally wounded and nobody gives a damn.”
“People are afraid to get involved, I guess,” she said.
He ordered a highball for himself and a Coke for her, believing, rightly, that she was too young to drink in a hotel bar. “I bet you’ll never guess what that punk stole from me,” he said. “A pair of old man’s shoes. I hope he wears them in good health. More likely he’ll sell them and use the money to buy drugs.”
“Do you want me to call your family for you?”
“I don’t have any family,” he said. “Only servants.”
“Won’t they wonder what happened to you?”
“If I don’t come home, they’ll celebrate. They’ll have a party.”
She looked at the clock. It was ten minutes after six.
“Is someone waiting for you at home?” he asked.
“Just you and your mother?”
“A sister and two brothers.”
“You were on your way home from work when you stopped to help me, weren’t you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’ve caused you to miss your bus.”
“There’ll be another one along in an hour or so.”
“I want you to have dinner with me,” he said.
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“Over there is a phone. You can call your mother and tell her.” He pulled a coin from his pocket and placed it on the table.
“She wouldn’t believe me,” she said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“Go ahead,” he said.
When she returned to the table two minutes later, she was smiling. “I was right,” she said. “She thought I was telling a lie.”
He took her to the finest restaurant she had ever seen before, one with a maitre d’, white linen tablecloths, floral arrangements on every table, and real silver. She wasn’t dressed appropriately but it didn’t seem to matter because they sat in a darkened alcove, she with her back to the wall. She might have been wearing a sequined gown for all anybody knew.
“I always ask for this table,” he said, “because it’s private. I can’t see anybody and they can’t see me.”
“When I left work to go home,” she said, “I never expected to end up in a place like this.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a cleaning lady. I clean offices.”
“Do you like it?”
“I don’t think much about whether I like it or not. The people I work with treat me decently, but the best thing about the job is that I don’t have to think. It’s all automatic now. I can escape in my mind and before I know it I’ve cleaned an entire office and it’s time to go home.”
“What do you escape to? In your mind, I mean.”
“Oh, movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read. Things I’ve read in the newspaper. Things I see on the street. One day I saw a man carrying a lady without any legs. He carried her as if she weighed almost nothing and they were both laughing.”
“So, you like to read books?”
“Sure, when I find the time.”
“What kind of books?”
“I like Charles Dickens. I’ve only read one of his books, Oliver Twist, but I’d like to read the others.”
“As wonderful as cleaning offices is,” he said, “wouldn’t you like more from life than that?”
“I don’t have much education. I wasn’t able to go to college. I got this job a couple of years ago and I just stay with it because, well, jobs are hard to find and I figure I’m better off to stick with what I have and not worry about getting something better.”
“If another job came along, would you take it?”
“Well, that depends. It would have to be something I liked doing. I know people who hate their jobs and I feel sorry for them. I don’t want to get caught in that kind of a trap, doing work I hate just to get by.”
“And your mother? What does she do?”
“She has a bad heart. She used to work in a factory, but she had to quit.”
“You said you have two brothers and a sister?”
“My older brother is in his last year of high school. He wants to go into the navy as soon as he graduates. My other brother is in the ninth grade. My sister is eight. She doesn’t go to school. She’s not right in the head.”
“How do you mean?”
“She isn’t able to learn anything. She was born retarded. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. We just take care of her.”
“Isn’t there some kind of special school you could send her to?”
“No money for that.”
“What about your father.”
“He left right after my sister was born. We haven’t seen him since.”
The dinner, when it came, was the best food Linda Jean had ever eaten, served with a fine wine. She couldn’t remember if she had ever tasted wine before, but if she had it was nothing like this.
When they were finished eating and the waiter was taking away the dishes, she said, “Is your head still hurting?”
“Not throbbing quite as much now,” he said. “I guess I’ll live.”
“You should see a doctor and make sure everything is okay.”
“I’ll call my physician in the morning.”
“I’ll bet you didn’t really need those shoes, did you?”
“They were a gift for my butler. Every year at Christmas I buy him a new pair of shoes. We call them his Christmas shoes. It gives us something to laugh about.”
“Can’t you go back to the store where you bought them and get another pair?”
“Of course I can, but it’s just the idea that I have to do it again because some little punk bastard wasn’t brought up to respect another person’s property. If I had been in a wheelchair, he probably would have knocked me to the ground and stolen the chair.”
“Maybe you should go to the police and tell them what happened. If they should happen to catch the person that did it, you might get your shoes back.”
“Yes, and I’ll prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. Not the theft—that’s just a misdemeanor—but the assault. It’s not a good idea to knock old people down in the street.”
“You’re not that old,” Linda Jean said.
“I’m old enough to be your grandfather and then some.”
“I’ll bet you have a pretty wife waiting for you at home.”
“I told you. No family. I’ve had two wives, if you can you believe it, but they’re both long gone.”
When they left the restaurant, she was going to catch the last bus home, but he insisted on seeing her safely home. Down the street, a half-block from the restaurant, his car and driver were waiting for him.
“How did he know where you were?” she asked.
“He’s paid to know these things.”
She gave the driver instructions on how to get to her house and, as Mr. Otley expected, it was a squalid little house in a bad neighborhood. As she got out of the car, she shook Mr. Otley’s hand.
“Thank you for a wonderful dinner,” she said.
“Thank you for picking me up off the sidewalk,” he said.
“Oh, it was nothing!”
She watched the car drive off into the December night and when she went into the house her brother Zeno, eighteen years old, was sitting on the couch watching TV.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“You just about killed him,” Linda Jean said. “You didn’t have to be so rough. He hit his head on the sidewalk. If you had killed him, you’d be in plenty of trouble!”
“Well, I didn’t. Did I?”
“No, he’s still alive. No thanks to you.”
“How much money did he give you for coming to his rescue?”
“None, and if he had, I wouldn’t have taken it.”
“You didn’t get anything out of it?”
“He took me to dinner to the kind of place you’ll never see the inside of.”
“He brought me home in his chauffeur-driven limousine.”
“Oh, man! You should have taken him for some money!”
“What did you do with the shoes you stole from him? He bought them as a gift for a friend.”
“I sold them to Hymie the Jew for five dollars.”
“Well, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“Why? What’s the matter with you?”
She went into her room and locked herself in and went to bed. She was awake for a long time with bad feelings about what she and Zeno had done to nice old Mr. Otley. Zeno would say he deserved it.
The next afternoon a large, heavy package arrived for Linda Jean by special messenger. She thought it had to be a mistake. Nobody would be sending her anything.
She ripped the paper off, a little breathlessly, and when she did she saw it was an expensive set of books, the complete works of Charles Dickens. An attached note read, in part: Just a little something to repay you for your kindness. If you’d like a job with me, I think we could find something for you to do that doesn’t involve cleaning. Come and see me after Christmas. I hope the books give you much pleasure. Signed, Ivan Otley.
After she read the note, she began to cry.
Zeno came up behind her and, looking over her shoulder, spotted the impressive-looking books. He picked one up and opened it.
“These ought to bring at least fifty dollars!” he said.
“Nothing doing!” Linda Jean said. “You keep your filthy hands off them!”
“Hey, why so touchy?” he said. “I didn’t do anything!”
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp