Spring 2011, Volume 10

Fiction by Kathleen Coppula


It certainly was not his twelve-year-old daughter Isabella’s idea to visit her mother’s grave on Mother’s Day.  Paul had to coax (more like force) Izzy to accompany him.  His wife, dead only a month now in a final act of irresponsibility on Easter Sunday, had dashed right into the street after her high-camp Easter bonnet, both she and the hat mowed down just beyond the church steps by a Hummer, causing gossip to outdo gospel during the entire ten o’clock mass that followed. 

At the cemetery, Paul carried a plastic bag from the craft store crammed with over-sized scarlet silk flowers in his left hand and with his right, he kept reaching to hold Izzy’s hand.  She kept pulling away, zigzagging around the headstones toward her mother’s plot.  The grass there was still sparse, like a crew cut.  The new headstone was in place but there were no other ornaments until Paul started stabbing the artificial flower stems into the ground around it.
 “How’s that?” he asked. 

Izzy shook her head at him.  “Not exactly subtle.  You can probably see them from space.”

“But don’t you think she would have liked it?”

“I guess,” Izzy said, edging away and pulling the straggly strands of long brown hair from her mouth where the breeze kept depositing them.  “Can we go now?”

“No!  What the hell?  We just got here.”

“But, like, what are we supposed to do here anyway?”

“Think about her.”

Izzy snorted.  “And you can’t do that at home?”

Paul sighed.  “I want to be here a little while.”

“Maybe you should have cremated her, you know?  Then you could look at the remains in a jar 24/7.  Or you coulda dyed the ashes different colors and made one of those sand-art things.  Look at it all day long and not have to come here!”



He chose to ignore her, wondering once again how his wife could have run into traffic that way even though he knew the answer.  She not only thought that the world should come to a halt for her, she was certain that it would.  It embarrassed him and it was what he’d loved about her.

Izzy was studying him with his wife’s hazel eyes, the slant and hue of her eyes recalling all his desire.  All of it.  He shuddered.  “Don’t you even miss her?” he snapped at Izzy.

She shifted from one flip-flopped foot to the other, the glitter mostly worn away from both shoes.  “She wasn’t exactly a mother you could get close to.  Not like other kids’ mothers anyway.  You know that.”

She challenged him again with those adult eyes, a woman’s eyes he told himself, and he had to look away.  “Why don’t you wait in the car.  I’ll be there in a minute or two,” he told her, tossing her the keys.  He watched her saunter off, a bounce to her step, a sway to her step.


School didn’t start that year until after Labor Day, but Paul didn’t take Izzy back-to-school shopping until the final Saturday.  It seemed like plenty of time to him, but all week long Izzy whined that all the good stuff would be gone.  “But that’s silly,” he told her.  “There are so many stores.  Too many.”

“You’ll see,” she told him, shaking her head at his lack of comprehension.  They left the house at 9 a.m. for a pancake breakfast, Paul trying to organize a shopping list, Izzy saying, “I won’t know want I want until I see it!” 

“But what do you need for school?  Like supplies?”

“They’ll tell us that on the first day.  We need to shop for clothes and stuff.”

“Oh.  I see.”  He figured they could hit Sears, Penney’s maybe Macy’s but she rolled her eyes.  “I don’t know, Izzy, the way you dress. . .”

“Can we maybe leave the ‘Izzy’ behind this year?  It sounds like a cartoon character.  Izzy the Lizard.  Or. . .or. . . Dizzy Izzy.  It’s a stupid nickname.  Stoo—pid.”

Her lips slid into a pout aimed at him, her arms rose protectively across her tiny, new breasts and her eyes lost their adult lure.  He was surprised at the depth of his disappointment.  “Well,” he said, pausing to think.  “How about Bella then?  I can call you Bella and mean it.”  He laughed but she didn’t.

“Great.  The next thing you know it’ll morph into Belly!  I have a name and I want you and everyone else to use it.  Is-a-bel-la!  Got it?

“Might take me awhile to adapt.”

“Then you better get started,” she told him, smashing the last of her syrup-soaked pancakes with her fork.  “Can’t we get shopping already?”

He followed her through the mall, trying to stay at her side but she bolted ahead of him, making it look like he was her stalker.  She only wanted to look in the hot-spot stores, the ones he told her all parents bemoan for the overpricing and for their use of kids as walking billboards for their  products.  Isabella rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation.  He found he did not want to seem old to her or rigid in his ways.  He let her buy some  of the odd pieces she wanted: skirts too high, shirts too low.  It was what she wanted, he told himself, not he.

Each time she tried a garment, she had to show herself.  Each time she came out of the dressing room, he clucked and shook his head before granting approval.  It was after he made the purchases and after he carried the packages across the parking lot, and buried them in the trunk of the car that he pictured her wearing the clothes outside their home.  He felt a little sick.  Isabella was already buckled into the passenger seat when he slid into the driver’s side.  “I don’t know.  Those clothes, Izzy---yabella?”

“ ‘Yabella’?  What’s with that?”

“I almost forgot,” he said, laughing.  He started the engine.

“I’m warning you, Dad.  If that ever comes out as ‘Belly’, your name will be Mud.”

“You mean it isn’t Mud already?”

“Not yet.  Can we stop at Target?”

“What for?”

“Still gotta get new makeup.”

“You wear makeup?” he asked her.

“Well, I’m going to this year.  I’ll be in middle school, you know.”

“Would Mom---“

“Like she’d care one way or the other.”

“Oh.”  And yes, maybe he did want to see those eyes with a little makeup—a little, maybe.  “Target here we come.  But that’s it for the spending, okay?”

“Absolutely,” she said, grinning and flapping her hand impatiently in the direction of the exit.


Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Isabella sat across from Paul at the kitchen table, her math book open but her pencil tucked behind her ear out of service.  Paul limited himself to quick glances at her when he turned the pages of his newspaper until she suddenly yelled, “Hey!  Dad?”  It made him jump and rattle the newspaper in his own face.  He lowered it slowly and looked at her.  “Do we have, have, have to go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving?  You know, without Mom it might be—might—you know?”

“Well, hmm,” he said, because it was something he’d been successfully avoiding until now.  “But, then, what would we do?  It’s Thanksgiving.  It should be about family.”

“But aren’t we?”

“Aren’t we what?”

“Family.  You.  Me.  Aren’t we still a family?”

“Of course.  Of course we are.  But we are aren’t a family of cooks is the problem.  Can you make a turkey?”

“Un-uh.  Can’t you?”


“Can’t you learn?”

“Uh, you know the saying, new tricks, old dog. . .”

She was looking at him like he was nuts.  “So, like, you can’t learn?”

“I’m thinking going out might be okay.  How about you?”

“Out where?”

“To a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner.  Just you and me.  Cozy.  We’ll celebrate the smallness of our family, how about?”

Isabella took the pencil from behind her ear and used it like a drumstick on the pages of her math book considering the idea.  “You’re sure restaurants are even open ?”       


She nodded, looked him in the eye and told him, “Deal.”

He smiled at her, happy about the part about just the two of them.  So, so much better than going to Grandma’s.


Isabella held out the ends of her hair spread between two fingers and claimed that she hadn’t had her hair trimmed since, “like for-darn-ever!”  Before It.  Before Easter, she finally explained to him.

His response was the usual one when she informed of things.  “Oh,” he told her.

She stood there staring at him.  “So?  Can we make an appointment?”

“Sure.  We’ll go ASAP.”

Two days later, he found himself waiting for her in a salon that nearly choked him with the scents of the hair products, but it was where she wanted to come.  Isabella went off with the stylist while he flipped through magazines until the stylist returned, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Can you come back with me?  She’s a little. . . unhappy with the results.” 

Isabella was sitting bolt upright in the styling chair, arms locked across her chest,  jaw clamped tight enough to crack, tears streaming silently down her cheeks.  “Honey, what’s the matter?  What happened?”

“It’s so shorrr-orrt!” she wailed at him.  “She stole my hair!”

Paul leaned down, took her chin in his hand and turned her head one way then the other.  “I see what you mean,” he said.  Her hair now brushed her shoulders instead of hanging down her back.  “But Isabella, I have to be honest.  I like this better.  It looks thicker.  You look more, well, sophisticated now.”

“Sophisticated?” she asked, the tears stopping abruptly.  “I do?”

“Yeah.  Sophisticated.”

“Okay, then.  You won’t have to sue this place after all.”

He touched her hair lightly.  “I do like it.  You look. .  . beautiful.  Bella.”

She pointed a warning finger at him.  “Isa-bella,” she reminded him.

“Right.”  He took her hand as she hopped out of the chair and that was when he thought of the idea to buy her a sophisticated sort of dress to go with her new hair style for their Thanksgiving dinner.  He could surprise her with it now that he knew her size.  He asked three of his coworkers at the bank for suggestions.  One woman told him he was crazy if he didn’t check the consignment shops first.  “Kids grow so fast and those dresses can cost an arm and a leg,” she explained to him, “unless you want junk.”  Of course he didn’t want junk, so that’s where he went after work and he found what he wanted at the second shop: a black velvet dress, cut straight with long sleeves and a jewel neckline, perfectly plain.  He could give Isabella a piece of her mother’s jewelry to wear with it.  Maybe he could give her a piece each holiday.

He hid the dress in the trunk of his Civic until Isabella was asleep.  Then he spread the dress out on his bed, locked the door, and opened one of his wife’s jewelry drawers.  Kristen had always stored her good jewelry in the boxes.  She had some good pieces, mostly things he’d bought her in the years before Isabella was born, when it seemed like they had plenty of money to spare.  Kristen kept them in the boxes because she rarely wore them.  She preferred her bolder costume jewelry that drew the eye and clanked and jingled in an off-beat song when she moved.  She’d loved talking with her hands just to make her bracelets sing.
            He looked back at the dress he’d placed on Kristen’s side of the bed.  He still limited himself to one side of the mattress, even in his sleep, her territory perfectly neat in the morning.  His heart hurt him missing her, missing her vanity and her selfish ways.  He remembered the heart-shaped locket that he’d given her two years before they married, his first expensive gift to her.  It would be the perfect first piece to pass on to Isabella.  He opened box after box until he found it.  He’d forgotten that there were flowers etched into the gold.  It was even prettier than he remembered.  He was sure Isabella would be pleased and he wanted to please her.

Isabella looked puzzled when he presented the dress and locket to her the evening before Thanksgiving.  “What’s this for?”

“For dinner tomorrow.”

“I didn’t know we were supposed to give presents.  You never said.”

“Oh, honey, that’s not it.  I wanted to surprise you.  We’re going to an elegant restaurant. . .”

“Oh no!  Can we still get turkey?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Only in nice surroundings.  You’ll see.  You’ll like it.”

“You sure?”  She took the dress in her arms and rubbed her cheek against the velvet.  She ran her finger over the locket and asked, “So this was Mom’s?  I never saw her wear it.”

“I gave it to her a long time ago.  Before you were born.” 

“Now you’re giving it to me?”  She closed the cover of the empty locket.  “She should have given me this.  If she wasn’t going to wear it, she should have given it to me.  What about her other stuff?”

He shook his finger at her.  “In good time, young lady.”

When she came downstairs ready to go out for Thanksgiving, Isabella looked wonderful to him except for her shoes.  She wore shiny ballet flats that made her seem still too much a little girl.  “Honey, you look super, but don’t you have any dressy shoes?”

“These are patent leather ones.  They are dressy,” she insisted, looking a little hurt.

“I was thinking, you know, like high heels?”

“High heels?  High heels?  Are you joking?  I wouldn’t be caught dead in them.  Geez, dad!”

“How about some of your mom’s shoes?”

“She had big feet, you know.  What’s wrong with these?  Everybody wears these.”

He shrugged.  “Guess I’m not up on these things.”  But he was disappointed, the feeling not quite passing even after they were seated in dim candle light, her feet out of sight beneath the table. 

Isabella touched the gold rim of the china, lifted the water goblet, studied the room.  “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Jessup asked me out to someplace like this?”

“Who’s Jessup?” he snapped at her.

“Like I told you about him a whole bunch of times!  Did you forget?  The kid I sit next to in Science class?  Re-mem-ber?”

“Oh,” he said, but he didn’t remember.  “Good thing you’re too young to go on dates,” he told her, “unless it’s with me.”

She nearly choked on her ginger ale.  “Eewwww!  A date with your father?  That’s sick.  Why’d you say that?”

His cheeks burned.  “I meant go out to dinner.  Okay?”  But she wrinkled her brow and the candle light seemed to dance angrily across her forehead when someone walked by the table, disturbing the air between them.  “Let’s talk about something else, how about it?”

“Like what?”  She pulled at the locket, sliding it along the chain.

“I dunno.   How about dance class.  You never tell me much about dance.”

“It’s okay.  Nobody’s any good in there but it’s fun.  I like it.”

“Don’t you have a show or something?”

“It’s in June, Dad.  You sure do forget a lot.  Maybe you should be tested for that Alzheimer stuff.”


She warmed to the place and chattered through the salad and the turkey and all the way through the pumpkin pie.  “This was a good idea,” she told him when he retrieved their coats.  He wrapped an arm around her as they walked through light snow to the car.  “Let’s do it next year too.”

He pulled her closer, pressed his lips to the top of her head.  “Absolutely,” he whispered.  “Anything for you.”

She lifted her head, checking the environment like a small creature scenting danger.  She squirmed away from his grip and gave him a worried look.  “Let’s go home,” she said.  “I’m getting tired all of a sudden.  I want to go home.”


On Christmas Eve, Isabella made hot chocolate in the microwave while Paul mixed a gin and tonic for himself.  In the family room, he lit the gas fireplace while Isabella dimmed the lights and lit the Christmas tree with a dramatic curtsy, the tree having remained naked in the stand for the past two weeks until this afternoon.

She hopped onto the sofa and he sat next to her, sipped his drink and sighed.  He couldn’t think of a thing to say so he stared at the lights, feigning appreciation.

Isabella leaned forward, plunked her half-empty mug down on the coffee table then flopped herself back into the sofa cushions.  “Dad?  No offense, but I liked Christmas better when Mom was here.  You know?”


“She would have had that tree decorated and the rest of the house weeks ago.”


“She would have actually wrapped the gifts.”

“Yeah.”  Paul looked at their gifts displayed nicely under the tree and wondered what was wrong with that?  Why put paper on today and rip it off in the morning?  They’d shopped for the gifts together last night after work.  No need to hide things.  Izzy knew what was there.

She was staring at him again with those great big Kristen eyes, blinking lazily at him.  “Dad?  Are you even listening?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“If Mom were still here there would have been a lot more excitement.  A lot more.”

“Oh.”  He gulped the rest of his drink and turned the cup in his restless hands.  “Well, I liked it best when both your mother was here and you still believed in Santa Claus.”

“You couldn’t keep me stupid for-darn-ever you know!”

“Not stupid, honey.  Ignorant, maybe, but not stupid.”

“Okay, ignorant, then.  You couldn’t keep me ignorant forever.  Kids learn eventually, you know?  We can figure things out eventually!”

He took her hand between his and bounced it up and down like a rag doll’s.  “I will have to remember that.”  She yanked her hand away and his gesture ended with a faint clap.  “Finish your hot chocolate.”

“I don’t think it’s hot anymore.”  She started kicking her heels against the sofa.

“Would you stop that already!”

“Sorry.  Can we watch a movie or something?”

“Can’t you just sit here with me?  Enjoy the fire?  The quiet?”

“It’s too quiet.”

He could feel the jewelry box in his pocket pressing against his leg.  Inside it were bright topaz earrings in a simple gold setting.  He wanted to pull it from his pocket, entertain her by saying, “All right already.  Here you go!”  But, no.  He wanted her to earn it, to show him affection, to pay attention to him for a change.

She was looking at him, a frown on her face, her shoulders sinking as if to protect herself.  “What?” she asked him.  She wiggled to the end of the cushions as if ready to bolt.

“You look so beautiful.  My beautiful girl.”

“Stop that!” she told him, turning to face him and scooting closer to the edge of the sofa.  “Stop it!”

Her eyes widened and her mouth pinched tight.  It made him smile, made him want to laugh or sing, or maybe kiss her.  Yes.  He leaned toward her but her arm shot out straight, catching him in the chest with her palm, a slap to his heart.  But he was the stronger one so instead of moving him, the gesture sent her tumbling backward off the sofa.  She sat on the floor called out, “MOM!”  then slapped her hand over her mouth.   She scrambled away from him, jumped to her feet and ran upstairs.  He winced when her bedroom door slammed.  But he hadn’t done anything, so how could she know?  Yet she did.  She did.

He stood, removed the jewelry box from his pocket, opened  it and set it with Isabella’s other gifts under the tree.  It was so lonely in the family room, quiet enough for him to hear the ticking of the mantle clock, something he’d rarely  noticed until that moment.  He tried pressing his palms to his ears.  He tried closing his eyes.  The gestures were useless now that the sensations had entered his memory.  The ticking of a clock, the smell of pine, the color of topaz—all these will sicken him in the years to come, reminding him how close he’d come, reminding him that without a child’s knowing his heart, he might not have been saved.        



BIO:   Kathleen Coppula's writing experience includes a BA and MFA in writing (fiction) as well as teaching experience (Courses: General Writing, and Writing from Autobiographical Material) at the University of Pittsburgh. She was a contributor to the writing textbook, Writing: the Translation of Memory, edited by Eve Shelnutt. Her stories and articles have appeared in Four Quarters, Cream City Review, Mid-American Review, Crazyhorse, West Branch, The Maryland Review, and Terminal Fright (honorary mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). A story is also pending at REAL.