Christmas Shoes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On a crowded downtown sidewalk a week before Christmas, a thug pushed an old man down and ran off with the package he was carrying. The old man hit his head and was not able to get up right away. Nobody stopped to help him or to see how badly he might be hurt but just walked around him with faces averted.
A girl named Flora Kizzle, standing near the bus stop, saw what happened and ran to the old man’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 punk did to me?” he gasped.
“Yes, I saw it,” she 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 thought to leave him but he wanted her to stay. He was afraid to be alone, he said, until he felt better.
“Did you see the way those stupid people ignored me?” he said. “You were the only one to step forward.”
“Well, you know,” she said. “The city. People are afraid to get involved.”
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?”
“No 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. She was already delayed forty minutes.
“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, even though I know they’re there, 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 is your work?” he asked.
“Do you like it?”
“Oh, it’s okay, I guess. The people I work with are nice and I don’t have to think. I’ve been doing it so long 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, doesn’t everybody?”
“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 went through high school and that’s all. 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 nowadays 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.”
“On a lot of things, I guess. 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 that way. She didn’t get enough oxygen to the brain.”
“What about some kind of a special school?”
“We would never be able to afford anything like that.”
“You didn’t mention 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 she 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 poor bastard wasn’t brought up to respect other people’s property. If I had been in a wheelchair, he probably would have pulled me out of it and stolen that!”
“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 probably just a misdemeanor—but the assault. I hope he goes to prison for at least five years for that!”
“’Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you don’t have to worry about it. It will be taken care of.”
When they left the restaurant, she said if she hurried she could catch the last bus, but he insisted on seeing her safely home. Down the street, one 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,” he said.
She gave the driver instructions on how to get to her house and, as he expected, it was a squalid little house in a bad neighborhood. As she got out of the car, she wanted to shake his hand.
“Thank you for a lovely dinner,” she said. “I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time.”
“Thank you for picking me up off the sidewalk.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” she said. “If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.”
She told her mother about the old man with his servants and his car and driver, about the fancy restaurant where he took her for dinner, and about his bringing her home. Some people have everything, she said, while we have nothing. By the next day, though, she had mostly put it out of her mind. It was just something that happens now and then, but maybe only once in a lifetime.
A few days later, on the day before Christmas, a man delivered a large package to her door. When she saw it was addressed to her, she looked at it for a while, wondering what it could be, and then she ripped off the paper.
“Who would be sending you anything?” her mother asked.
It was an expensive set of the works of Dickens, with a note attached that 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 work something out. Come and see me after Christmas. I hope the books give you much pleasure.
After she read the note, she began to cry.
“What’s the matter?” her mother asked.
“Oh, I’m a terrible person!”
“Of course you are, dear, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
The thug who stole the old man’s shoes and knocked him down was her brother, Frank. She and Frank planned the whole thing. After the deed was done, she would go to the aid of the well-to-do victim (preferably a woman, but a man would do) and collect a handsome reward. It was an almost foolproof way to earn a little extra money for Christmas, but it didn’t always turn out quite as expected.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp