I wrote this short story for a challenge that Liam at This Page Intentionally Left Blank hosted. You should check out his blog!
Last New Year’s Eve
What was there to say? I mean, when there’s 300 dishes stacked high beside one rusted, leaky sink and the sound of rain driving its icy fingers into a tin roof, there are few words that make any difference. Besides, no one was there that day to hear any words that I could have said. All alone in that diner a year ago today, I was as utterly alone as I could get. New Year’s Eve is a miserable time to be closing out Peggy’s Diner – I feel bad for the soul who is there right now doing what I was doing then.
I remember stifling a sigh before twisting the faucet handle on and plunging my hands into the seemingly endless pile of dishes. All my fantasies of a starry New Year’s night watching that crystal ball drop and sneaking a midnight kiss with my prince charming had fallen utterly flat. The year had started out so perfect. I had had such high hopes of having a lovely year then. But, try as I might, nothing had seemed to go the way I had planned. There was the day that my then-boss had spoken those ugly words that ended my hopeful career as a retail clerk. There was also that time that my mother – exasperated by my lack of usefulness around the house – told me it was time to “find my own place.” If by “my own place” she meant a drafty, grey 20 square foot room that my landlord flippantly called an apartment, then I guess I did. But moving out doesn’t mean moving up at all. All I ever seemed to do that year was go down, down, down.
As plate after chipped plate slid beneath the soap bubbles and clinked together in chorus with the rain that night I recounted all of my hardships. I thought of all my old friends who had moved on from me. Surely they had some place exciting – even spectacular – to be on New Year’s Eve. They had husbands and houses and careers to talk about at their parties. As I added each item up in my mind, I almost missed a new sound that joined into the cacophony of pounding rain and clanking dishes. I might not have heard it at all if the old wiring in the building didn’t cause the lights to flicker just then, stopping my thoughts and my dishes as I paused to make sure a ghost wasn’t creeping up on me.
Although there was no ghost in the room, I did hear a noise just outside of it. It sounded like banging coming from the back. Tentatively, I peeked out the window that looked over the dumpster behind Peggy’s Diner. It took a moment for me to see anything through the dingy film on the window and past the sheets of rain falling on the other side. Finally, a shape moving below caught my eye. It was a dog – tall and scrawny with its fur matted with mud that even the heavy rain wouldn’t wash away – scrounging through the garbage. My grip eased off the metal handle of the butterknife that I held in my hand. At least it wasn’t an intruder trying to bother me. I looked down at the flimsy knife as I set it down on the counter and laughed to myself. Little use it would do me in an actual emergency.
I was about to turn back to the dishes that still loomed above the sink when the wind gusted and I saw the dumpster lid slam shut. My eyebrows furrowed. The poor dog was trapped inside. I looked at my dishes and I looked out the window several times before guilt got the best of me. The next thing I knew I was pulling on my raincoat and stepping out into the beating rain. Three steps from the door to the dumpster was enough to drench me through. I shoved open the dumpster lid and moved to head back inside. It didn’t take the dog more than a second to leap out of the dumpster and run after me. Sending puddles flying onto my legs, the dog spun around me and stopped just before the door. His sad eyes and flopping tail were begging me to let him inside.
“Absolutely not,” I said, even though dogs don’t speak English and there was no oone around to hear me. “There is no way I can let you into that diner. You are disgusting.” I looked down at him, but couldn’t help noticing how muddy and wet I had become as well. The dog whimpered. The rain pelted. My resolve weakened.
“You’re a strange dog. What could I even do with you? Ms. Miller is going to kill me if I let you in her diner,” I muttered, mostly to myself. I tried scooting past him, but he wouldn’t budge. Just then, as I was chiding myself for even trying to help, the bells in St. John’s Chapel began to ring. One, two, three. . .I can’t let that dog in. . .four, five, six. . .what a miserable New Year’s. . .seven, eight, nine. . .You’ve got to be kidding me. . .
As the door shut behind us both, the twelfth bell tolled and the new year had come. The resounding crescendo of the rain was muffled now as I pulled my hood off of my head and surveyed the mess in front of me. The dog, even dirtier and mangier than I had first noticed, sat dripping on the linoleum. Between the two of us we had a huge, muddy puddle that was running down the sloping floor. In the background my sink of cold water and dishes completed the picture of perfect misery. I shook my head. I wasn’t going to be leaving that place any time soon.
After drying off both myself and the dog I went back to the dishes. Although I wasn’t so sure then, eventually they would get finished, with the dog curled up at my feet and the rain softly changing over to snow outside. When I finally pulled the plug and watched the soapy water swirl down the drain it was well after one o’clock. As I put on my raincoat the dog got up from the floor and followed after me. Shrugging, I decided he might as well come home with me. Nobody – not even a dog – deserved to live in a dumpster on New Year’s Day.
It was strange riding home that morning with two listening ears in the seat beside me. All those thoughts that clambered to be heard in my head tumbled out as we made our way home. Dogs are very understanding, sitting and listening well, since they can’t talk back. I’ve always liked them for that, I think. They’re better than people that way.
So now, if you happen to climb up all 30 metal steps up to “my place” this New Year’s Eve, you’ll see that though my surroundings haven’t changed too much, I’m much happier this year than before. Right now Cosmo, as I’ve named him, is sleeping on the couch. I haven’t the heart to make him move off the furniture, although he knows better. Somehow he’s always wheedling his way up onto the couch, just as he somehow made it into that diner last year. Someday we’ll move out of this place and, yes, even move up in the world. For now, though, we’re happy sitting on the couch and watching the ball drop at “our place.”