Schadenfreude by Melanie Kokolios*


Melanie Kokolios grew up in Orange County, California. She is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she is studying English literature and creative writing. This is her first publication.

Free lesson plan for this story available in the Carve Classroom.


A story begins with a woman sitting at her kitchen table at 7 a.m., having just received a call from the police. Call her Irene, though just about any name will do. You are much more interested in the call from the police—has she been robbed, raped, accused of a crime? You find out that the call was confirming that they’ve found Ian’s body, and that they want her to come down to the morgue and identify it. She is not crying, and this is strange and distracts you from the fact that you don’t know who Ian is—friend, lover, brother, husband, criminal. Instead, she is holding a cup of cold coffee. In another story this might have been brandy or wine, but in this one it is coffee, and it is cold, and suggests that she thought she would need help staying up, but didn’t.

As Irene rolls the sour taste of cold coffee around on her tongue, you return to wondering impatiently who Ian is, and you are not disappointed; Irene is thinking about how strange it is that they need her to identify the body, when Ian’s face, bright with life, has been on the news all this time, encouraging the dwindling search parties. And the officer had assured her that the body was not too damaged from the fall, which they have determined was a suicide (you are more intrigued now, settled more firmly in your seat on the bus, wanting more details). But it seems fitting to her, somehow, that it should be his mother who stands there next to the white sheet and says “Yes, this is my son,” just as she lay in the hospital bed early one April morning twenty-five years ago with a small squirming thing in her arms, thinking the same thing to herself. In many ways it will be the same as the day of his birth: the florescent lights, the too-clean smell, the white sheet, the empty ache low in her stomach, the knowledge that he is no longer a part of her.

Maybe this will strike you as philosophic, or maybe you are still focused on how calm Irene is. Why doesn’t she cry or shout or curse God or search for her husband or call a friend? But she and the author are deaf to your pleas, and all she does is rise and go to the kitchen and pour out her coffee, and then lean on the sink, feeling short of breath, and from this you understand how the heaviness of this is pressing down on her. She likens this feeling to the moments after an earthquake, when everyone must remain still, and make sure the world is done changing, and prepare to assess the damage. You may begin to understand now that the author has chosen to write this story about coping with loss, about that perilous connection between mother and child, and as Irene reflects how her son’s death was as sudden as his father’s, though a heart attack was easier to understand in a fifty-five year old who’d never given up loving French fries, you may begin to think of your own children or your own father. When she thinks how only two weeks ago Ian had stood there, in that kitchen, lanky and shy, smiling that toothless smile that was little more than a quirk of the lips, you may wonder about the last time you saw your family, and when she mentions the ratty tennis shoes he left behind and how she wasn’t surprised because she knew he loved to drive barefoot, this may strike you as something to remember.

You make your way through the story, making meaning from word choice and sentence structure and the character’s gestures and thoughts. You make your way through meditations on the sudden being and non-being of a human life, on a mother’s inability to understand how her twenty-five year old son, who seemed just fine two weeks ago, maybe a little tired, had deliberately stepped off the edge of a cliff shaded by solemn live oaks, on her sudden fear that maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough to make sure he was okay after his father died. She begins to worry that this may even go further back, that maybe what she’d always thought was just a quiet nature was really a depressed or disconnected one, that maybe this fate was some thick clot passed from mother to son in the darkness of the womb long ago (perhaps this image will stick with you, make you aware of the motion of your own blood through your veins and the veins of others). If the author has done everything right, you will care about Irene, about her struggle to understand what Ian must have thought in those last moments when his toes gripped the edge of the cliff, and when she looks out the window into the backyard and sees the tennis shoes sitting on the patio, never to be filled again, your heart may break along with hers.

But when the story ends, it ends, at least for you. You walk off the bus and on with your life, pick up your groceries, head off to the movies or to work. If the story lingers at all, it is a color in your mood—a maroonish haze that is equal parts sadness at the tragedy of human life and the happiness that accompanies reading a well-executed story. The author has done what she set out to do, and has a paycheck in hand if she is lucky, and you are both filled with the sense of a job well done.

Maybe, if you believe in such things, when you are standing at the stove at the end of the day cooking pasta, or rice, or whatever your favorite dish is, it will occur to you that Irene remains on the last page of the story. She too is in her kitchen, standing there, staring at those tennis shoes, preparing to go to the morgue, and she will never move—not from that spot, not from the ache to understand why her son is dead. And the author has left her there, and you have enjoyed this ending, felt it taught you something about transience, or loss, or the ineffable, or however you’d like to describe it. You finish cooking and sit down to eat in front of the TV. You turn the TV on and turn yourself on, feeling grateful that you’re not her.