The Third Day of Winter ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a repost. Published in Offbeat Christmas Story, an Anthology.)
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.
“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 © 2017 by Allen Kopp