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Sad Laughter

Copyright © 2014 by James Paddock. All rights reserved.

2,278 words
At the base of the cracked cement steps the woman pauses, breathless. She turns her face up to the apartment building and notes, not for the first time, the date cut into the tarnished bronze plate; the year she was born; the year the building was built. She would certainly die before it would. She eases her three grocery bags to the ground and while waiting for the pain to subside thinks about the little grocery cart she saw at the K-Mart, the one with big wheels. It would be so much easier, rolling her groceries down the street. She thinks, too, of the price. Maybe she could do without something for a few months. She certainly couldn’t deny anything for her babies.

She adjusts her coat and then the purse strap, together as much of a burden as her groceries, picks up the bags and struggles up the steps and through the weather-beaten doors. She stops to rest again before proceeding and then once more at the top of the flight of stairs before continuing to her second floor apartment. In the fuss to reach her keys, the handles on one bag break and the bag falls to the floor. Turning to retrieve the bag and several articles of canned and packaged food that spill out, she is startled by a little girl—red, wild hair, sad faced—sitting on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the third floor. Children were not normally found in her building where, she was sure, the average resident age exceeded 70 years, where most came to live until they died.

The little girl doesn’t say a word, only sits with chin in hands, soft green eyes watching. Stone faced, the old lady retrieves her torn bag and spilled items and quickly disappears behind the faded brown door marked 2B.

Inside, Demeter is the first to greet her. Demeter is the old lady’s favorite; always straight and proper, perfect posture, as though raised in a palace. She never takes guff off the others. She is the cleanest and most particular of them all, and the most loyal to her elderly human.

The old lady begins unloading her bags. The one with the broken handles she folds with care and places in the trashcan under her sink. The other two she folds with even more care and then, after urging Bustopher Jones to vacate the step-stool, places them neatly, with several hundred others, in one of two brown grocery bags on top of her refrigerator.

“Well, my little babies, I have a little treat for you today.” The old lady begins sorting through the various items scattered across the kitchen table. “Oh my stars!” she exclaims. “It seems that the people at the market forgot to put your special treats in the bag. Oh dear! Now what am I going to do?

“I am going to have to go back to the market,” she says brightly, not wanting her babies to hear the weariness in her voice. “But right now I’m a wee bit hungry and I’ll bet my babies are hungry too.”  Except for Demeter, they are all in the kitchen, each in their own way anticipating dinner. Demeter has yet to vacate the living room, eyeing the crack under the door.

“Well, Tumblebrutus, it is your turn to choose. Will it be beef or chicken or turkey?” Tumblebrutus scratches behind his ear and looks up at her. “I know you prefer fish but you just had fish yesterday and you shouldn’t have the same thing two days in a row. Pick something else.” He looks at the three cans she holds out, bumps his head against one and then rubs against her leg. “All right, you can have the fish. I just hope everybody else will be happy.”

It is at that moment that the old lady notices that Tumblebrutus’ attention has shifted, that he and all the cats have turned their gaze toward the living room. “Oh my, I wonder who that could be?” she says. She receives few visitors but when she does she generally does not hear them unless they knock very loud. In most cases, as is this one, the cats alert her. She goes into the living room. “Who is it, Demeter?” Demeter says nothing but continues to regard the door with suspicion. Rum Tum Tugger and Skimbleshanks, who escorted the old lady to the door, stand by as if prepared to pounce upon an intruder.

“Who is it?” she asks of the door, the can of sliced fish clutched tightly to her chest as though it is the prize the knocker is after. Either there is no response or she is unable to hear. She looks down at Demeter who could be a Siamese stone statue for all the movement she makes.

Knock... Knock... Knock.

This time the old lady hears the knocking. “Who is it?” she asks again but again there is no response. Rum Tum Tugger’s nose pokes at the bottom crack of the door. The old lady slowly, methodically unlocks each of the three brass locks and then gently opens the door. Rum Tum Tugger slips to the side next to Skimbleshanks to be able to see out. The door stops at the end of the security chain. Through the three-inch crack she finds the sad face of the little red headed girl she saw earlier on the stairs. Saying nothing, the girl presents a small bag of kitty treats. The old lady’s fingers snake through the opening and snatch the bag. She slams the door shut, quickly resets the three brass locks and retreats toward the kitchen. At the doorway she looks back and shakes her head. “Come my little babies. I have your treats.”

For a time the little girl thinks about the kitties she spotted through the crack in the door and then sighs and returns to her coloring book and crayons. After gathering them together she considers the door marked 2B for a few seconds and then climbs the stairs to the third floor and her own faded brown door. She barely glances at her mother and the half empty boxes scattered about the kitchen as she hurries to her bedroom down the hall. She exchanges the book and crayons for a sweater and starts back to the front door.

“What have you been doing, Laf?” her mother asks. The little redhead stops at the kitchen door and looks in. Her mother is sitting at the table, circling things in the newspaper.

“Nothing, Momma.”

“Are you being quiet like I told you?”


“That’s good. Remember, don’t talk to anyone.”

“I won’t, Momma.” She worries that her mother is going to tell her she can’t go outside, or tell her to help unpack the boxes. She thinks about asking about her daddy again but knows she will get the same, “It’s better this way,” answer.

“Do you want something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.” The little girl turns and starts walking toward the front door.

“Where are you going, Laf?”

“Nowhere. Just walking around.” Laf holds her breath and continues walking, one slow step at a time. She opens the door with great care and carefully closes it behind her. She hears a slam in some distant part of the building and then all is once again quiet.

Two flights of stairs finds her pushing through the heavy wooden doors onto the top step. She looks down at the sidewalk. An older boy passes by on a skateboard. Laf watches until he disappears from sight then sticks her hands in the pockets of her sweater, walks down the eight steps and turns left. It isn’t far, just to the end of the block. She doesn’t even have to cross a street. You’re only seven-years-old, her mother’s voice says in her head. Laf has no wish to cross the street by herself anyway. It’s far enough as it is to the alleyway between the last two buildings.

When Laf arrives between the buildings, she turns and looks down the dead-end alley into the eerie shadows. She shivers. A dark figure appears from an invisible door, drops something off the side of a landing and then turns to look at her. Her breath catching, she takes a step back and then scurries out of sight. She looks up the block to where she can see the steps leading to her apartment building and reconsiders her plan. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow morning, she thinks, when there is more light. She takes a deep breath and peeks around the corner once more. The dark figure is gone. She sucks in another calming breath and then draws her focus closer, to remnants of three packing boxes less than twenty feet away. She can see scattering of paper and straw, but not the animal from this morning when she and her mother walked to the pay phone in the next block.

She tiptoes forward, her eyes darting between the packing boxes and the area of the invisible door. At the closest packing box she squats and peers in. Huddled in the straw is the object of her plan, its huge eyes looking at her, unblinking. She kneels forward and reaches in expecting the animal to cower away or swipe at her with deadly claws. It does neither, nor does it stretch to sniff her fingers. As her eyes adjust she notices how skinny the little animal is. She wraps her fingers around the fur and bones and draws it out. She tucks it under her sweater, sprints to the sidewalk and then runs until she feels safe enough to slow to a walk.

In front of the old apartment building Laf sits on the top step and analyzes the kitten she knows she has saved from whatever evil lurks in the alley. His green and yellow eyes look back at her with a combination of fear and curiosity. His color is a hodgepodge, she decides, a word her mother used to describe their breakfast that morning. She runs her fingers over his coat of black, white, yellow, brown, and orange.

“If you was mine I’d name you Hodgepodge.” The kitten burrows under her sweater. Fearing it might be cold, Laf goes inside and climbs to the stair where she had been coloring when she first saw the old lady.

She sits for some time, petting the kitten. She wants to ask her mother if she can keep it but knows what the answer would be. This is not a good time to have a pet. She looks over at the door marked 2B and considers again her plan before screwing up her courage.

“Mistoffolees, you need to learn to chew your food. I think you would enjoy it a lot more. And you too Rum Tum Tugger.” The old lady gets up from her chair and maneuvers her way through the furry sea to put the bag of treats in the cupboard. “All right my babies. That’s all the treats you get today. I still need to feed you, don’t I?” Skimbleshanks responds with an affirmative. Bustopher Jones finds the old lady’s chair a warm place to relax.

“Okay, now, whose turn is it to choose? Tumblebrutus? Are you sure? Well then, will it be beef or chicken or turkey?” Tumblebrutus scratches behind his ear again and shakes his head. “What do you mean you already picked fish? You are all just getting spoiled.”

The old lady lines up four bowls, picks up the first can and then notices that all heads have again turned toward the living room. Demeter moves first and takes up position six feet from the door. Rum Tum Tugger and Skimbleshanks follow quickly. Then comes Tumblebrutus, Mistoffolees, Sillabub and finally the old lady. Bustopher Jones doesn’t even bother moving.

The old lady listens at the door for a moment. “Who is it?” Again she has the can of sliced fish clutched tightly to her chest.

Knock... Knock... Knock.

Hearing the knocking this time the old lady asks again, “Who is it?” and as before there is no response. Everyone but Bustopher Jones is at the door. Demeter watches from her statue stance. One by one the old lady unlocks the three brass locks. She sets her face and opens the door to the end of the security chain. Once again she sees through the crack the sad little face of the red headed girl. For some time they stare into each other’s eyes, each seemingly waiting for the other to say something. The old lady, not being patient with children and not understanding them, begins to close the door. The little girl places her hand on the door and shakes her head. Then she looks down and pulls the kitten from under her sweater.

The old lady’s eyes open wide. “Oh, my!” she exclaims, and is unable to say anything else before she finds the kitten being thrust through the crack. She drops the can of sliced fish and accepts the ball of fur. “Oh, you poor baby. You’re starving to death. Where did you find...” but the little girl is out of sight. The old lady can hear a voice calling down from the third floor.

“Laughter, where are you?”

“Oh, you are so pretty,” the old lady coos. What should I name you? And what beautiful eyes. I think I will name you...”

The little girl stands on the bottom step and watches the door close. "Hodgepodge," she whispers. She sighs, turns and calls up the hollow stairway, “Coming, Momma.”

Thank you for reading Sad Laughter. If you enjoyed this short story, or even if you didn't, please feel free to leave a comment on our guestbook.

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