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 is a re-post.)
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 to 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 now with family—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 getting a divorce?”
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a new man in my life now. His name is Milt. He’s talked about marrying me, but I don’ think I want to get married again. I’ve been down that road too many times.”
“Any news of Weston?”
“Nothing, except that he’s living the bohemian life and wants nothing to do with his family.”
“When you see him, tell him I said hello.”
“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 always did, just because she always did it. She could make Christmas Eve into something special, even if she did have to spend it alone.
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 was 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. Nothing made it seem more like Christmas.
Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down 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 every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife. These details about him registered on her brain in the few seconds she looked at him and then she looked away.
She came to a brightly lighted drugstore and stopped and looked through the frosty window at the rows of displays and the people moving about as if they were underwater. After a moment of indecision, she went inside, passing a perfume display over which two fat women were talking loudly, and went to a rack of magazines in the back. She picked up a magazine, thumbed through it and put it back.
The wall behind the magazine rack was a mirror. As she reached out her hand to put a magazine back on the rack where she had found it, she saw the reflection of a man in the mirror. He was half-a-foot taller than she was and standing behind her, to her right, as though looking over her shoulder. Thinking herself in the way, she stepped aside to give the man more room and that’s when she realized it was the same young man with the scar on his face who had been standing over the fire in the barrel. She felt embarrassed at the thought that he might speak to her, so she left the drugstore and went back out into the freezing night.
She walked on from the drugstore for a block-and-a-half and when she had to stop at a corner with a clot of other people to wait for the light to turn, she took a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the young man had come out of the drugstore after her. She saw no one, so she knew it was just a coincidence that he had been in the drugstore at the same time she was. He wasn’t following her after all. Why would she have ever thought he was?
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 went inside.
The lights in the restaurant were very dim, giving the place a dreamlike quality after the snowy street. A smiling waiter seated her at a small table near the front and helped her remove her coat. He handed her a menu and when she seemed to be having trouble making up her mind, he suggested fried calamari and polpette di baccala. She didn’t know what it was but readily acceded to his suggestion anyway. Since it was Christmas, she was glad to be able to order something unusual and exotic that she could tell Marlene about.
When the waiter asked her if she wanted a bottle of wine, she said yes and as soon as he brought it she started drinking copious amounts of it and eating delicious garlicky breadsticks out of a little basket while she waited for her food.
The food was very much to her liking but what she liked most was the wine. She ended up drinking the entire bottle before, during and after the meal.
When all the food on her plate was gone, she felt happy and fortunate, happy to be alive and fortunate to have a good-paying job that would allow her to have an extravagant meal on a special occasion. She thanked the waiter effusively, gave him a more-than-generous tip, and wished him a merry Christmas. He helped her into her coat and opened the door for her as she left.
In the next block she slipped on an icy spot on the sidewalk and fell sideways into a pile of snow, unhurt, but attracting some unwelcome attention. As a small crowd of people gathered around to see if she was all right and to help her to stand up again, she saw coming toward her the man in the long coat with the scar on his face. Someone blocked her view for a few seconds and when the way was clear again he was gone. Was she seeing people who weren’t really there? It must have been a result of drinking all that wine.
It was not late at all for Christmas Eve and, in spite of the snow and cutting wind, she wasn’t ready to go home just yet. She would make a night of it. She would have lots to tell Marlene and her other friends at work how she spent Christmas Eve while they were all with their families. They wouldn’t exactly envy her but would admire her for having a good time on her own without having to depend on somebody else.
Four or five blocks farther on was the Odeon movie theatre. She was delighted to see that the show was just about to begin. She paid her admission and went inside and took a seat in the orchestra 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.
In the feature presentation, a woman named Mildred was released from a mental hospital at Christmastime. She had to become reacquainted 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 been released from the mental hospital at all. What was even worse, 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 it and stand up during mealtimes and scream there were Martians on the roof. These were the exact same things that Mildred had done that caused her to be sent to the mental hospital in the first place when Veronica was in grammar school.
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 the movie, although she had enjoyed it, made her feel like crying. It had been a lovely evening, though.
It was nearly eleven o’clock. The snow had stopped but it seemed colder now because the wind was blowing. When she thought of the long way she had to walk to get back home, she wished she was already there, relaxing in her pajamas, drinking hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music on the radio.
The streets that had been so crowded before were almost deserted now. Everybody had gone home to celebrate Christmas. A drunk stepped out of the shadows and asked her a dollar but she sidestepped him and kept going without looking back.
Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down 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 every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife.
As she walked past these two men, looking straight ahead, the younger man disengaged himself from the older and began following her. She didn’t hear a sound—his footsteps in the snow were silent—but she knew, she felt, that he was a few paces behind her.
She came to her building and climbed the stairs to the third floor, opened the door with her key, let herself in, and reclosed the door without locking it. Without turning on any lights, she went to the window overlooking the front of the building and looked down. Standing there in the snow, looking up at her, was the young man in the long overcoat with the crescent-shaped scar on his cheek.
She wrote on a piece of note paper from beside the phone these words: Come up, apartment 320. She wadded the paper into a little ball and opened the window just wide enough to insert the ball of paper and let it drop to the ground. She stood there in the dark and watched the man approach the paper, pick it up and read it. She took a couple of deep breaths and in a few seconds she heard his footsteps on the stairs, exactly in time to the beating of her own heart.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp