I drop in late nights and sink into a place that settles round me in a hush and the sight of bent backs lined up at the counter soothes me some. The waitresses own a toughness that remind me of shoe leather and sweep past at a swift clip with plates piled in the crook of arms.
I sit in a booth looking out on a town where street lamps throw a foggy glow and passersby exchange a pocketful of words. In the wide expanse of glass my hair hangs limp and a ghostly face stares back. I’m no stranger to myself in glass, where I exist neither here nor there. Snowflakes float down and melt like salty kisses and the red neon DINER sign blinks on and off.
The waitress lands a platter of omelet special with rye toast, home fries and a thin slab of meat before me and overflows my coffee into a white chipped mug. At this late hour the diner is a gaggle of stragglers, loners, off-beats, vets and other night birds who settle into themselves more easily here than elsewhere, sliding their pared down lives into vinyl seats under the observant eyes of some. I spot Gorilla at the end of the counter dunking his donut. Each week he uses the $2.50 we get for showing up at St. Paul’s “DELIVER YOUR SOUL” AA
meeting to buy a donut and milk. He loves dunking donuts better than God. I sip off some coffee and slip in some whiskey.
I flip up my coat collar and exit with a warm belly and slim satisfaction. The town is proud of its Christmas trees and shop windows where elves hammer and children sleigh down powdered slopes and families gather round flicking flames where stuffed stockings hang. I pass the stone church on Main Street with its blood red doors and Wise Men kneeling before baby Jesus. Last night in the silver silence of dawn a man peed on a Wise Man and steam rose up from the Wise Man’s head.
Christmas trees stand thick and strong and congregate on the corner like Russian grandfathers exhaling cold white air. A salesman in a red Santa hat yells out CHEAP TREES CHEAP TREES and his four-fingered right hand leaps out at me palm up.
Shop lights no longer twinkle but here and there tinseled trees sparkle in windows. I turn off Main Street and up a few blocks and open the building’s side door and enter a low-lit hallway where resident cat Sammy slips past like an errant soul. Below the ceiling a small latched window pulls in a slip of streetlight and dust particles float. Snow is falling thick now till all I see is white, as if that’s all there is. I interlock my fingers and form shadow figures on the wall that move like a procession of camels through the night. I walk up the creaky stairs to the third floor landing where a bare bulb hangs off a wire and see the wreath on Bags Lonigan’s door. He puts it up the day before Christmas and takes it down the day after. His wife Maggie died in that room. She was the original to put up the wreath the day before Christmas and take it down the day after. It’s bad luck to keep it up longer, she told me, cause I ain’t no churchgoer, and quickly crossed herself. Maggie confided up close that she could never enter the Lord’s house, and parted her bruised arms to indicate her entire self as proof. I think about knocking on ol’ Lonigan’s door. Instead I put my ear to it and hear Bags talking to Maggie like she’s in there. I remove the whiskey from inside my coat, unscrew the cap and take a long tug. I hold the bottle up and stare at it. I put my ear back to the door and raise my fist to knock, but place it alongside my ear. I move off the door and shove the bottle back under my coat and shuffle down the stairs and into the white night.
I slink down into my coat and drive my hands deep into my pockets. The traffic light blinks a steady yellow. A car with fast flapping wipers
drives by extra slow, then vanishes. I stop at the church on Main Street but can no longer see baby Jesus. I squint against the blowing snow and look for something, anything. The wind raps at my back.
by Penelope Mermall
Copyright © 2012, by Penelope Mermall. All Rights Reserved.
Penelope Mermall received a master’s degree in social work from New York University. She worked in child psychiatry for many years and more recently was the director of an NYU School of Social Work program that provided therapeutic services to mentally ill women living in a city shelter. She currently works in a small public high school in Hell’s Kitchen mentoring students with high absenteeism. Her stories have appeared in Offcourse Literary Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Sex and Murder, and she was one of the winning entries in Glimmer Train’s Best Start competition in 2009. Penelope lives in NYC.