Fiction: Christmas Charm

Read More: A brief interview with Robert Pope

When I got home from school that day a decade ago, I went to the kitchen, tossed my backpack on the table, and hung on the refrigerator door. I found last night’s meatloaf, covered in tinfoil, cut a slice, and sat down to it, no fork needed. I broke off chunks, scarfing it down with a glass of milk. I put the plate and glass in the sink, grabbed my backpack and hurried up the stairs, two or three at a time. “Mom,” I called, because I hadn’t seen her.

I poked my head in my parents’ bedroom and saw her on her back, in jeans and a long-sleeved yellow pullover, mustard yellow, matching the carpet on which she lay. One foot twisted to the side, a slip-on shoe skewered on her big toe, the other on the floor, pointed at the wall. Her dark hair covered her eye and cheek, her mouth slightly open, a red line coming from the corner. I felt a rush of hot blood to my head and literally saw red.

I kneeled and repeated, “Mom?” I didn’t want to touch her. I held my hand near her face but felt no breath. I held three fingers to her throat, then on her wrist. Mom was a nurse, and she made sure I knew how to respond in an emergency. I could tell right away nothing would bring her back. I saw her cell phone on the floor, at the end of the bed, called 911, and told them what happened, gave the address, and stayed beside her. The police said I seemed self-possessed. They ascertained I had gotten home from school and found her lying there. I went over those moments several times for them, wrote it on a form they gave me. I told them Dad was probably working. He laid concrete driveways, sidewalks, porches, and could be anywhere. I gave them his cell, and when they attempted to call, no one answered because Dad was off murdering the man Mom was seeing, an accountant named Bert Hoskins. She had introduced him to me at a grocery store.

I did not know then what I know now, but I sensed they had history. He wore a light blue shirt, yellow tie, and tan pants, a slender man with gray at the temples and a wide smile. His pale blue eyes took me in longer than necessary. He said he heard good things about me. No man had ever looked at me that same way, especially not my Dad, who always wore gray or maybe camo pants with pockets on the thighs bulging with a tool or two, muddy brown work boots. He had a gray sweatshirt he wore if it was cold. Things like that didn’t bother him. He rarely worked in the dead of winter. He hung out with guys who worked for him, making plans, shooting the breeze, a coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon. He loved his football on weekends, with these guys over. Muscles stood out in his hefty arms.

I don’t imagine it took much strength to strangle Mom. She was what they call petite—thin little neck. Now that I think of it, she would have been better matched with the accountant. I worked with Dad in the summers, half a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter. He used to feel my arms, tell me he was putting muscle on them. He wanted me to take supplements to build weight, but I had to keep it down to 145 for wrestling. If I got heavier I’d have to wrestle the big boys.

Next time I saw Dad, he was in jail, and then in court. He explained what happened, and like so many, said he just snapped. He’d seen them out, put two and two together, and he lost it. Mom went down in less than a minute. He went looking for Hoskins with a five-shot pistol from the drawer of his nightstand.  He gave him two in the face because he hated the way Bert looked at him, three in the chest to finish him off.

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I’ve seen pictures. Mom was a good-looking woman, a case of beauty and the beast. She liked music, Dad tolerated it, with beer. Mom wanted to see the latest movies, Dad thought TV took care of that. She liked to dance, Dad had three left feet. Mom wanted me to go to college, Dad wanted me to work with him when school finished. When I saw her on the bedroom floor, it was like seeing myself dead.

He pleaded guilty and got twenty-five to life. His older sister, Mavis, who looked about like Dad, moved into our house to take care of me, a big laugh. I don’t want to go into that fiasco except to say she viewed me as a juvenile delinquent who deserved not much more than a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. It was me and her until I graduated and got away from that house. I avoid thinking of that time. I visit Dad as often as possible, and, to tell the truth, he has a good attitude about it. He seems glad to see me when I come, not in the least embarrassed.

When I went to see him in August, before school started senior year, he told me of some cash he’d hidden in a blue plastic bin at the bottom of a stack of maybe eight of them. If I needed clothes, books, lunch money, I could raid the bin, which I did as soon as I got home. I drove the old Pontiac with a loud muffler. It never went faster than it did that day. I sat on the cold cement counting out two thousand six hundred and forty-eight dollars. First thing I did, I went out for a burger, fries, and a milk shake and wolfed it down.

I drove to Irv’s and shot the bull with him a while before we went over to Chick Blank’s house, where we bought a baggie filled with red-tinted pot that sent us soaring. We talked about what we wanted from life: getting laid and getting money. I told him that Dad gave me a hundred bucks or so. I had a sense I should keep the whole amount secret. I had it with me, inside pocket of my jacket, but I counted off a hundred in his bathroom so I wouldn’t spend more the first day.

We went to a drive-through and picked up a six pack, no questions asked, and sat in the car at the school drinking. It got dark, no one else around, so we broke a window, sneaked in and wrote stuff on the girls’ bathroom walls and laughed our heads off. We went around the school. I had butterflies in my stomach, scared I suppose, but had a good time. Irv did to, but he got tired of it, so we left. I took him home and went home myself, where Mavis watched “Law & Order” and drank vodka in the living room. I didn’t even tell her good night.

I mentioned she looked like Dad, an exaggeration except for the features, round, thick, without the humor in his face. Just a large bump of some kind beside her nose, and thick glasses. She had his curly hair, longer, more unkept, and wore what I’d call sack dresses, a faded blue or something. She wore fuzzy slippers in the house, had the paunchy gut, and looked rumpled. She filled the house with cigarette smoke. Mom always made Dad go out back to smoke, but no one told her not to smoke in the house so I did too.

I also smoked dope in my room, opening the windows on even the coldest nights. I hated hanging around the house. About eleven or so, I headed out the back door. Mavis had television up loud because she was half deaf and usually fell asleep in the recliner. She burned holes in the arm and soaked the chair with vodka when she fell asleep with a glass in her hand. I’d hang out in the yard in my jacket and knit cap, on the lawn furniture, drinking beer. That got boring after a while. There was a tall wooden fence around the back yard. A girl from my school lived on the other side, with her younger sister and her parents. It got more interesting when I watched her get ready for bed or whatever, in the bathroom window. She turned on the light and went at her face, putting on some crap for acne. I could only see her from the shoulders up, usually with a bra, but it was nice watching her. Her skin glowed a little. The light shined on her blonde hair.

After a while lights in the house went out. I liked watching that happen, but it made me sad, not just because the show was over. It made me sad to see that house grow dark. I wondered what it would be like to go to bed in that house. One night I went over the fence and looked in all the windows to see what I could see. They left a kitchen window open so I crawled in, sat on the couch, ate something from the fridge. I left the way I’d come. I didn’t have nerve to go upstairs, but I hadn’t felt so excited about anything since Mavis came.

I didn’t go back right away, but I used to think about that experience when I sat in the backyard at night, watching her get ready for bed. When all the lights went off, I’d think of being inside in the dark. I noticed houses either side, started exploring, checking out other houses in the neighborhood. A couple of times, I hid from patrol cars, and that was a little exciting. Next house I tried, I didn’t see cars in the driveway. I cut the screen, got a window open and climbed in. This time I went upstairs, checked out bedrooms, searched through drawers. I had no feeling for this house because I didn’t know who lived there. When I looked at the photos, they might have been stock pictures stuck in to sell frames. A couple of young kids, their parents, plus an old man with white hair who wore a baseball cap, grandpa, I knew by the look of it.

I tried other houses, but I would scope them out in the daytime so I knew who lived there. I made notes about who lived where, addresses, what kind of dogs, cars, ways to get in. I avoided places with noisy dogs and night with full moons. I wore a sweatshirt now, jacket and cap, but I also wore surgical gloves, from a box of fifty I’d bought. I’d throw them in the trash when I got home. One night I stood in front of a dark Christmas tree, presents bulging beneath, stockings on the mantel, the works. I went through them and selected a small gift to take with me, shoved it in my pocket.

It occurred to me I could take off my clothes and no one would know. I wandered in the kitchen, located alcohol, poured a drink, added ice cubes, gulped it down. I fixed another to take with me upstairs. I didn’t make much noise on the stairs. I heard heavy breathing. When I looked in the master bedroom, I saw them on the bed, in the moonlight coming through a window. They didn’t know anything about me in the hall, so I leaned in the doorway and watched. I held the ice cubes down with my finger so they didn’t make noise. They were also trying not to make noise, because of kids maybe. I walked down the hall to check. Sure enough, one room with bunk beds and a couple of kids asleep, another with a girl a couple of years younger than me.

When I went back to the parent’s room, the woman lay with her back to me in moonlight, a nice sight until I heard the toilet flush, the husband in the bathroom. Time had come to get out. I started down the hall as fast as I could when he stepped out buck naked. I rammed into him. He bellowed and grabbed at me so I pushed him. Down he went, head over feet, it looked like, down the stairs. The woman called out, “Bill? Is that you, Bill? Are you all right?”

She stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at me, but it was darker in the hall than the bedroom. Her eyes didn’t adjust quickly, because the paper said she couldn’t see the intruder. I ran downstairs, jumping over the husband, running out in the dark. It had started snowing hard by now, huge flakes coming at me, blurring my vision. It had been snowing like this all day, but it really came at me when I ran. It took a long time to get home and sneak back inside. I still had the glass and the present, so I kept them in my bedroom, as a memento.

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Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.

Read More: A brief interview with Robert Pope