It Was Christmas
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
I had an end room on the fifth floor of Richardson Hall. Having an end room meant I didn’t have to have a roommate because it was a small, odd-shaped room and there was only room for one person. I considered myself lucky to get one of the few single-occupancy rooms, especially considering who might have been my roommate.
I was in my third year at State University, so I was used to dormitory life. Richardson Hall was the oldest building on campus, built around 1895. I liked its creaking elevator, drafty windows, and high ceilings. There were people who wanted to tear it down and put a parking lot in its place, but I think it’s a shame to destroy a historic old building to make way for something new and ugly. It’s like destroying a work of art.
Well, Christmas was here again and I was one of the few staying on campus. I could have gone home, but I wanted to stay at school, even though it meant I would be alone. I didn’t mind being alone. I lived six hundred miles away and the trip by bus usually made me vomit. I could have flown, but I hated airplanes more than I hated buses.
When I told my mother I wasn’t coming home for Christmas, her feelings were hurt and she almost cried. She said she couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be with my family during the most joyous season of the year, but I told her I was run down and if I stayed at school I could catch up on my rest and read a book I was supposed to read without distractions. She accepted my explanation but wasn’t happy about it. She implied I wanted to stay at school because I was enamored of some girl there. I laughed and let her think whatever she wanted.
The cafeteria was closed for Christmas vacation, so it meant that during the twelve days of vacation I would have to eat at one of the restaurants in town or eat from my stock of non-perishable foods that I kept in the desk drawer in my room. My mother sent me five one-hundred dollar bills in a Christmas card. She wrote that she hoped I had a lovely Christmas. Go someplace nice and have a good dinner on Christmas Day, she wrote. I failed to tell her everybody else went home and I practically had the whole dormitory to myself, not to mention the entire campus.
Besides me all the way up on the fifth floor, there were only four other people in the whole building who didn’t go home for Christmas. In five floors, there were five people. I liked those odds. I liked the feeling of being by myself in this old relic of a building. If there were any ghosts—and I’m sure there were—I was sure to see them.
The toilets and showers were down the hall from my room. I always undressed in my room and wore my bathrobe down the hall to the shower. Now that I was alone, I could walk down the hall naked the way everybody else did. The first time I did it, I walked all over the floor naked, even sitting for a while on the ratty, vinyl-covered couch in the TV room. I loved the feeling of freedom, the feeling of being the last person left alive. I felt like Robinson Crusoe and, like him, I had everything I needed.
On my first night alone on the fifth floor, I covered up in bed and read by my little bedside lamp. It had turned much colder outside and the wind was kicking up. The wind rattled the old windows in their frames and soon it started to rain. I lay for a while, listening to the wind and the rain and the quiet of the old building and soon I turned off the light and burrowed under the covers, experiencing a sense of well-being.
Sometime in the night the rain turned to snow and when I got up in the morning, there were at least a couple of inches on the ground. It was perfect. Nothing felt more like Christmas than snow. I didn’t have anything for breakfast, so I dressed and walked across campus to the student union to get a cinnamon roll and a cup of tea.
While I was sitting at a table my myself looking out the window, Dorian Dye came in and helped himself to the seat beside me. I knew him slightly and didn’t like him very much. He had a thin, rat-like face and discolored teeth. He was nosy and always asked questions that were none of his business. One time he asked me how much a jacket cost that I was wearing and another time he asked me my grade-point average.
“Hello, there, stranger!” he said.
“Hi, Dorian,” I said, wishing he might disappear.
“I heard you were one of the few staying behind in Richardson Hall.”
“Who told you that?”
“Oh, a little birdie told me!”
“There’s no reason to be coy, Dorian,” I said. “Just come right out and say it.”
“So, why did you stay behind?” he asked.
“My family doesn’t like me. They paid me to stay away.”
“Oh, hah-hah-hah! I don’t think I believe that!”
“You don’t think I’d tell you the real reason, do you?”
“Okay, so don’t tell me. I don’t care. Do you want to know why I stayed behind and didn’t go home?”
“Not especially,” I said.
“My mother is bipolar and an alcoholic and I can’t stand to be in the house with her.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Listen. I’m on the third floor of Richardson Hall and I’m the only one there, so if you get lonesome give me a holler.”
“I won’t get lonesome,” I said. “I like the solitude.”
“Yes, you’re the solitary type, aren’t you?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“When I’m in my room alone, I try not to think about the all the ghosts in the building.”
“There’s only one, isn’t there?”
“Yes, there’s the boy who hanged himself in his room, but in a building that old there’s bound to be others.”
“I don’t mind a ghost or two,” I said.
“Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve. What are you going to do?”
“Nothing special, I guess.”
“Give me a call and we’ll get together.”
“I don’t think so, Dorian. I’ll probably just do some reading and then go to bed.”
“Well, if you change your mind, let me know. My number is in the student directory.”
I knew Dorian was another loser like me; what he said about not going home confirmed it. I really did have plans for Christmas Eve, but I didn’t especially want to discuss them with Dorian.
In the afternoon it was snowing again in a Christmassy way, so I put on my boots and my coat and walked downtown. The stores were crowded, as one might expect two days before Christmas, but I braved the crowds and tried to ignore them. I spent an hour or so looking around in the bookstore and bought two books, one that I wanted to read and one that I had to read if I knew what was good for me. Then I braved the department store and walked all over the three floors, absorbing the Christmas atmosphere, listening to the Christmas music, and observing the strange cavalcade of human life. I bought myself a wool cap and a pair of gloves. Merry Christmas to me.
After I left the department store, I stopped at a diner that had festive lights in the window and sat at the counter and ate a large cod sandwich with fried potatoes they called chips and drank a chocolate milkshake. While I was in the diner, nobody spoke to me except the waitress who took my order. I might have been invisible. I might have been the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room.
On my way back to the dormitory I stopped at the corner grocery and bought a few oranges, some donuts, a large candy cane, a loaf of French bread, a bag of pretzels, and a small jar of peanut butter. I also bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of fizzy white wine. I wasn’t much of a drinker or a smoker, but I figured I needed to do something out of the ordinary to celebrate the holiday. While I was paying for my purchases, an old woman wearing rhinestone glasses who worked in the store put a sprig of mistletoe in my bag. Nobody could say I didn’t have what I needed to celebrate my first Christmas away from home.
That evening I was sleepy, so I got into bed and read for a while and then I turned off the light and lay there listening to Christmas music on the radio. It was still snowing outside and the wind was gusting against the windows. Most people don’t like the snow, but no matter how much it snowed it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was happy and comfortable—snug as a bug in a rug, as my grandma used to say when I was little.
After I was asleep, somebody knocked on my door, but I didn’t get out of bed to answer it. I preferred to let them think I wasn’t there. Maybe it was the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room, but I don’t think ghosts knock on doors. It was probably Dorian Dye, since he was one of the few people who knew I was there.
The next day was the day before Christmas. I got up and had an orange and a chunk of French bread and a donut for breakfast, and then I took a shower and shaved. The weather forecast on the radio said the snow would continue through the day and into the night, with the temperature in the teens. It was ideal Christmas weather.
In the afternoon I put on my new wool cap and gloves and walked downtown, welcoming the frigid wind in my face. I had an early dinner at an Italian restaurant and then I went to a movie.
There were three movie theatres in town to choose from. I went to the one that showed only old movies and saw a double feature of movies from the 1930s. It was a very old theatre, with appropriate décor and all the pungent odors, and I sat down close to the front, as I always do, and enjoyed the feeling of stepping into another time. There weren’t more than fifteen or twenty other people in the theatre—it was, after all, Christmas Eve—and nobody made a sound when the movies were playing, not even laughing when something funny happened.
When the show was over and I left the theatre, the snow had stopped but the wind was just as cold as before, if not colder. There were still lots of people everywhere, but not nearly as many as before. Most people had gone home, I supposed, to rest up for Santa.
When I got back to the dormitory, it was after eleven o’clock. I put on my pajamas and bathrobe and, since it was Christmas Eve, opened my bottle of wine. I drank about half the bottle sitting up in bed, listening to the radio, until I was partly drunk. I saw out the window that it was snowing again. When I was seven years old, I would have been watching in the sky for signs of Santa.
Thinking of Santa made me think of home and my parents. I wondered what they were doing on Christmas Eve. It was the first Christmas Eve of my life that I hadn’t been with them. They had probably eaten a silent dinner and when they were finished, my mother would start clearing the dishes off the table and my father would go into the living room and expire in front of the TV. I wondered if they were lonely and thinking of me, their only child.
That night I dreamed of the boy who hanged himself in his room in Richardson Hall. He came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. I sat up and introduced myself. He had dark circles around his eyes and his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets, but he tried to smile. He still had the noose around his neck that he hanged himself with. I asked him why he was so unhappy, but he didn’t answer. I also asked him if he would do it over again if he had the chance but he didn’t answer that, either.
A little while later I dreamed that I got out of the bed and looked at myself in the mirror over the sink without turning on the light, and I had become the boy who hanged himself in his room. The boy was me. I was the boy. We were the same person. I tried to remove the noose, but the knot was so tight I couldn’t get it loose.
Christmas morning I slept until ten o’clock. I got dressed and was just about to go over to the student union for a light breakfast, when there was a knock at my door. I thought it might be the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room, so I opened the door and when I did I was disappointed to see Dorian Dye. He was singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I wanted to smack him in the mouth to get him to shut up.
“Have you seen any ghosts?” he asked as he came into my room and draped himself on my bed.
“A few,” I said.
“Are you lonely yet and wishing you had gone home instead of staying in this dreary old place?”
“Not a bit, Dorian,” I said. “Would you please get your shoes off my bedspread?”
“Yes, sir!” he laughed. “Do you know Vernon Vogel?”
“No, I don’t know Vernon Vogel,” I said with a hint of impatience. “Is that a person?”
“Hah-hah-hah! Well, of course he’s a person! What else would he be?”
“I don’t know, Dorian. You tell me.”
“Well, Vernon has a car.”
“I’m so happy for him.”
“Well, since Vernon’s alone for Christmas, and since I’m alone for Christmas, and since Vernon has a car, we’re going to Pirandello’s for Christmas dinner. They have a special Christmas buffet. Have you ever been to Pirandello’s?”
“Once, I think.”
“I told Vernon about you, all alone here on the fifth floor, and he and I both decided it would be the neighborly thing to do to ask you to come along. We’ll make it a threesome.”
“I don’t think so, Dorian. Thanks for thinking of me, though.”
“Do you think you’re too good for Vernon and me?”
“Of course not, Dorian! I just don’t feel much like going. I have a sore throat and I’m kind of achy. I might be coming down with something.”
“What will you do for dinner?”
“I don’t know. Probably not much of anything.”
“We’ll have fun and the food will be great.”
“I don’t think…”
“What will you do if you don’t go? Just sit here all alone in your room?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking I might…”
“If you don’t have the money for Pirandello’s, I can pay for both of us.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Dorian! Of course, I have the money for Pirandello’s!”
“So you’ll go, then?”
“All right, I’ll go.”
“Excellent! Meet me downstairs at four o’clock and we’ll go to Vernon’s room.”
I wanted to go out for Christmas dinner with Dorian and Vernon Vogel about as much as I wanted to eat ground glass, but it was more fun than I thought it would be. Vernon, a pleasant enough fellow, was the proud owner of a sleek red sports car.
Pirandello’s was about fifteen miles outside of town. It was a swanky place and packed with people, as if nobody stayed at home for Christmas dinner anymore. As Dorian said, the food was terrific. I ate more than was healthy, including turkey, duck and beef, not to mention three desserts.
When we left Pirandello’s, Vernon had had a little too much champagne—I had only had two glasses—so I drove back to school. I was glad for the chance to drive a European sports car for once in my life.
Back at Richardson Hall, Dorian wanted me to walk downtown with him to take in the Christmas lights, but I told him I had a headache and just wanted to go to my room.
I got into bed and drank the second half of the bottle of wine from the day before, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. Christmas really was a special time of the year. There was nothing else like it. My mother would be happy to know I had Christmas dinner with friends (even if they weren’t exactly good friends) and wasn’t alone.
I slept all night without waking up. In the morning I woke up to the phone ringing down the hall. I looked at the clock and saw it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. Who gets up that early the day after Christmas? I groaned and rolled over and went back to sleep.
In a little while the phone rang again. Everything was so quiet and the phone so loud that it seemed it was in the room with me. It was probably a wrong number or somebody calling somebody who wasn’t there. Without bothering to put on my bathrobe, I opened my door and went down the chilly hallway and lifted up the receiver, ready to slam it down again.
It was my mother. As soon as I heard her say my name, I knew something was wrong.
My father had a heart attack in the early-morning hours of Christmas Day. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital and he died around noon. He was fifty-one years old.
When I hung up the phone from talking to my mother, I wasn’t sure if anything was real. It was Christmas, my father was dead without warning, and I was standing in the silent hallway on the fifth floor of Richardson Hall in my flannel pajamas. I was stunned. I had to wait an hour or so before I could think, or get dressed, or do anything.
I called the airport and reserved a seat on a flight for later that day. I packed my bag and when it was time to go, I called a taxi.
During the short flight, I sat staring out the window and didn’t exchange a word with a single person. My tearful mother picked me up in her Cadillac when my flight landed. From there it was on to the funeral home to pick out a casket and plan a dignified burial. I kept thinking that if I had gone home for Christmas in the first place, my father wouldn’t have had a heart attack and wouldn’t have died. I knew my mother was thinking the same thing. I was the villain of the day.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp