Would you like a very short, vaguely Christmas-related story? Of course you would!
A tiny bit of background: I’ve been turning over ideas for a story that takes place in New York in the 70s, and also feeling sort of sad that I didn’t get around to writing a Christmas story this year. Then both of those trains collided, et voila! Here are 830 words on the theme of people who are down on their luck on Christmas Eve, something I apparently keep returning to. So, think of this as New York in the bad old days, Greenwich Village in the wake of Stonewall, a city in decay.
Christmas Eve, 1972
He had a dimple in his right cheek.
It was such an odd thing to see in a grown man. I couldn’t recall having seen a dimple since I’d had that crush on Jimmy Haskins in sixth grade. Poor Jimmy had been blessed with freckles and a dimple, but I thought he was adorable. I doubt he would have appreciated my admiration, however.
This guy, though. This guy was working behind the counter of a greasy spoon in the West Village and looked so much like the sort of refugee I was, a man who had washed up in New York City after being driven out of his safe, warm house in the suburbs. He didn’t belong and yet he did. He was too cute, his eyelashes were too long and pretty, his clothes were too nice, and yet he had a look in his eyes of someone whose innocence had been pried away from him with force.
I sat at the corner booth, picking at the varnish on the old wooden tables with my thumb, trying to figure out how to get the guy’s attention. Instead, a waitress with blond, feathered hair walked over and propped her hip on the edge of the table. “What can I get for ya, big guy?” she asked.
I wanted to say, “Dimple boy on a silver platter,” but I didn’t think that would go over well. At least not with the waitress. I thought my reading of the situation was accurate: he could have been a straight guy from the ‘burbs here in the city as some form of post-adolescent rebellion, but his eyes were too haunted for me to believe that. No, he’d wound up here because the Village was the one place in the world that felt safe for us, even if it was no longer a utopian Bohemia.
I had enough money in my pocket for soup and a cup of coffee, but that was really it. The soup of the day was the same soup they had every day: a thin, salty chicken noodle. Still, it was food, and I was out in the world instead of home alone in my one-room shithole of an apartment. I ordered the soup.
I’d come outside hoping for some kind of human connection, but found the neighborhood wanting. I’d been there about eight months, just long enough to learn that, in some ways, the city was harder than home. On the one hand, no one bothered me here, but on the other hand, no one bothered me.
I wanted the guy with the dimple to bother me.
When it came, the soup was just as salty and watery as it always was. There were maybe two tiny piece of chicken in the whole bowl, and the noodles were so overcooked they were practically paste. Still, I ate every drop.
I decided I’d had enough of the diner and looked around for the waitress. I saw her through the front window, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I could have waited for her break to be over, but instead took advantage of the opportunity and walked up to the counter.
The guy with the dimple grinned at me.
“I had the soup and a cup of coffee,” was the most profound thing I could think of to say.
“Okay,” said the guy. He told me how much money I owed. I knew all the money would go in the same register, but I felt better about handing it to this man than I did to the waitress.
Nights like this made me feel so world weary, but the truth was that inside, I was still kind of a scared teenager, afraid to make the first move lest I end up with a broken nose for my trouble. So I smiled and handed the guy with the dimple the money and then I left the diner.
The cold December wind was biting. I pulled up my collar and looked around. The waitress was still outside, so I pulled out my last cigarette and asked her for a light. After she pulled her lighter away, she wished me a good night and went back inside.
So I stood there smoking and gazing down the block toward Seventh Avenue and wondered what I could do to break out of the funk I’d gotten myself into that night. It was hardly the first Christmas Eve I’d spent alone. So why did this one hurt so much?
The door to the diner squeaked open and shut behind me. I turned to look and saw the guy with the dimple walk down the stoop.
“Hey,” he said. “I’ve got a fifteen minute break. Want to take a walk around the block with me?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d like that.”
Years later, when I asked him what had prompted him to even talk to me, he shrugged and said, “You looked like you needed a friend as much as I did.”
(c) 2012 by Kate McMurray