This story was published in Reflections Literary Journal in 2004.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
The bare trees outside the restaurant sprouted from heavy stone pots that lay polished by the ocean wind, their branches strewn with white lights that hovered like fireflies in the darkness.
Peter often lingered outside the restaurant before he went in for dinner. He watched the shifting lights and heard the surf crashing on the point. It was during those times that he felt most at peace.
It was two days before Christmas. He did not have enough money to get back east to see his family, so Peter decided to work and to write and to spend the holiday as best he could, alone.
He worked as a lifeguard on the beach during the day and wrote short stories at night in an apartment across an alley from a giant mural of Jim Morrison. He did not have a girlfriend but had been with two local women that past summer in awkward affairs that ended far before they began.
The fog was settling on the beach like a heavy quilt and swirling around the alleys and benches along the boardwalk. It was quite cold. Peter could see a few people moving through the front window of the restaurant. He decided to go inside.
Peter moved through the dim foyer into the main room. Faded black and white photographs lined the walls in antique frames. The heat inside the restaurant found its way through his down vest and his curly black hair, still wet from the sea. It warmed his bones, protected him.
Peter nodded at the girl who lingered at a podium at the front of the restaurant. She worked every night except Saturday and her hair was tied back neatly in two blond braids. He had always been too shy to talk to her or even ask her name, but Henry, the owner of the restaurant, had told the girl a bit about Peter and his life.
“Hey stranger,” the girl said, and smiled at him. She wore a necklace with a smooth green stone. “I figured you’d be back in Michigan by now.”
“I’m staying here for Christmas,” Peter said. He felt a bit uncomfortable admitting it out loud. Part of him felt like he was betraying his family by not flying home to be with them for the holidays, but he knew the reason was more complicated than that.
“You poor thing,” she said, and squeezed his shoulder. The stone that hung from her necklace caught the light from the podium lamp. Its dark green glow made Peter think of the clover fields behind his home in Michigan.
“I’ll be okay,” he said. Peter walked past her before she could say anything more. He sat down at his regular booth in the corner and stretched out his legs, feeling the pull of his muscles and the cold burn in his lungs from the long swim he had taken before his shift that morning. Instead of dwelling on the girl and her green necklace and his family back home without him, Peter tried to think more positive thoughts. He remembered the jagged sunrise that morning, and the surfers in the cove. He thought of the sandpipers darting in and out of the tide as the sun came up.
Henry poked his head out of the kitchen and smiled at Peter. He wore a clean white apron and a striped tie that was twisted in a thick knot at the top. His gray hair was cut close and his face was flushed with heat.
Peter grinned back at him. Peter had never been a regular at much of anything, but he had discovered the restaurant on his first night in town, almost by accident, and now couldn’t imagine spending his nights anywhere else. The white lights in the trees and the torn upholstery and the hearty aromas from the kitchen had become home for him. And Henry, who had welcomed Peter with open arms and who listened when he needed it, had been the best part of all.
Peter let the waitress bring him a cup of coffee, which he drank in two long gulps. A few minutes later, Henry came out of the kitchen with a plate of grilled trout with spiced potatoes, Peter’s favorite. Henry set the food in front of Peter and slid into the seat across from him.
“Pete,” Henry said, folding his slim fingers on the wooden table and smiling broadly. “Eat up.”
Peter dug into the food. The trout reminded him of long ago rides to the mill lake with his father, of staying until dusk under the willows.
Peter looked up at Henry and smiled. The older man took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed the heat from his forehead. “Don’t waste time talking,” he said. “Just eat.”
Peter felt guilty about everything that Henry did for him. He often gave Peter free meals, refusing his money when he tried to pay. He even let Peter have the green couch from his den, and gave him ferns and cacti in earthenware pots. Peter wished that he could give something back in return, but he had no idea what Henry wanted or what he was missing.
Peter continued to eat. The waitress came by with more coffee, and poured Henry a cup, too. The two men sat in silence for a few minutes.
Finally, Henry took off his bifocals and stared at Peter. “Have you ever saved somebody’s life?” he asked.
Peter looked up at him. It was unusual for Henry to ask personal questions.
“I was just curious,” Henry said, and took another sip of coffee. His bright blue eyes were bloodshot and framed by soft wrinkles. “I mean, it’s a real serious job you do out there. I was just wondering.”
Peter swallowed his bite of food and wiped his mouth with the napkin from his lap. “Last August,” he said. “This little kid swam out too far. He got caught in the undertow. I had to swim out past the dropoff and get him.”
Henry held Peter’s gaze for a moment, then looked out the window, into the fog. “What happened after that?”
“I brought him up on the beach. Started CPR until the paramedics got there,” Peter said. “When they were taking him away, the kid’s mom just grabbed me. She didn’t say anything, she just hugged me so tight, I could barely breathe. She smelled like suntan lotion.”
“Did he make it?”
“I saw him at the beach a couple weeks later,” Peter said. “He had this red plastic bucket and was looking for shells in the sand. I waved at him, but it was like he didn’t recognize me.”
Henry drained the rest of his coffee and sat there for a moment, as if considering what Peter had said.
“I better get back to the kitchen.” Henry put on his bifocals and slid his long legs out from under the table. “Can I interest you in some blueberry cobbler for dessert? Maybe some more coffee?”
“Wait a second,” Peter said. “Henry--” He wanted to ask a question, but didn’t know how to begin.
Henry turned back to look at him. His voice was low and soft, like the tide moving out, and for a moment, Peter wasn’t sure if he had spoken at all. “I lost my wife to that ocean,” Henry said. “I lost her on our honeymoon, forty-nine years ago.”
Peter watched a holiday special on TV that night. The story was about a penguin who was born without any wings. The bird journeyed to the North Pole by submarine with six wacky pirates. They fought the Ice Serpent and rescued a little girl named Penny from an orphanage. The penguin saved Christmas and became Santa’s most trusted advisor, realizing of course that wings weren’t really that important after all.
The program made Peter feel terrible. He turned off the TV after the sports report on the late news, and lay in bed, which was a slightly lumpy mattress that he had bought at a discount from the store up the street. He did have his favorite comforter, though, and his pillows were soft, so things weren’t all bad. Peter had strung white lights around the bedroom window, and he watched them for a while in the darkness.
Peter lay in bed for quite a while but did not fall asleep. He heard the revving of a motorcycle engine on the street outside, and a bottle smashing against the pavement. Then he heard someone flushing the toilet in the apartment above him. The water rushed down the pipes in the wall.
Peter got up and turned on the overhead light. He sat down at his desk and turned on his laptop computer. The damp midnight cold seeped through the cracks in the window and chilled him. He found his extra large Michigan State sweatshirt and a black wool hat in the front closet and put them on. Then he took some masking tape from the kitchen drawer and taped over the spaces where the window would not close entirely.
Peter sat at his desk and stared at the monitor screen until his eyes grew sore and began to water. He closed them, and it was then that he saw the face of the little boy that he had pulled from the ocean that August. He saw the boy’s thin shoulders and sunburned nose. He heard the water in the boy’s lungs as he struggled to catch a breath, and for a moment, he thought he was back on the beach, and that he was living that moment again.
Peter opened his eyes. He felt quite scared and realized that he did not want to be alone in the apartment. He found some cargo pants and his scuffed Adidas and his keys and although it was almost one o’clock in the morning, he decided to go for a walk.
The street outside his apartment was deserted. Peter walked down the alley, past the tattoo shop and the bookstore café, toward the boardwalk. The wind had come up strong from the west and was blowing the fog inland. A full moon lit the way for him as he passed trash cans piled high with old newspapers bound with white string.
A gray beagle poked its way through the trash that was scattered on the blacktop behind a hamburger stand on the corner. The dog stopped to stare at Peter as he approached.
Peter bent down and held out his hand. “Hey boy,” he said. “Hey there, old guy.”
The beagle looked at him. It blinked once and wagged its tail gently.
“That’s it,” Peter said, and took a step toward him. The dog took off running down the alley, the metal tags on its collar clinking together as it disappeared around the corner.
Peter sighed. He kept walking toward the beach, cutting across the boardwalk and down the wide stone steps to the sand.
The wind was blowing harder now, sending black waves crashing upon the shore with flashes of white foam. Peter took off his sneakers and felt the cold sand between his toes. He stood there a moment, smelling the sea. Gulls cried to each other from beyond the surf. He wondered if miles away, on the other side of the world, someone was doing the same thing as he was. Watching him.
It was then that he saw Henry. The old man was sitting just off the point in his pajamas and an overcoat, watching the waves crash against the rocks.
Henry was talking. He was talking to the waves, or to the wind — Peter wasn’t sure. He was talking and gesturing as the spray flew up around him. It looked to Peter like he was crying.
Peter stood there a moment, watching him. He wanted to comfort Henry, but he didn’t know what he would say. Peter had never lost anyone in his family, or had even been in love, really in love, with a woman. He wasn’t quite sure what Henry was feeling, or if he could help.
Peter found the gray beagle sitting on the sidewalk near his apartment building. Peter approached him carefully, remembering how quickly the dog had dashed away in the alley earlier that night.
“Back again?” Peter asked. “How are you, boy?”
The beagle wagged its tail and whined softly.
Peter sat down on the cold sidewalk. He smiled at the beagle and tried to look friendly.
The dog came over to him immediately. It let Peter scratch it behind the ears. He petted it gently, feeling its smooth gray coat and the ribs underneath. He looked at the metal tags on the beagle’s brown collar. There was a name and phone number on one of them.
The wind blew harder then, sending sand and palm fronds down the sidewalk toward them. Peter decided to take the dog inside and call the owners in the morning.
He carried the beagle up the narrow stairs, past the flickering light bulb on the landing, to his apartment on the second floor. The dog’s toenails clicked on the faded linoleum as Peter put it down and led it into the kitchen. It looked up at him, wagging its tail expectantly.
Peter found a mixing bowl in the cupboard. Instead of giving the dog water from the tap, he filled the bowl with bottled water from the jug in the refrigerator. He had no dog food, but did have some cold cuts, which he tore into little pieces and set out on his best blue plate.
Peter sat down on his bed and watched the dog eat. It made him feel a bit better to have a guest in the apartment. He turned on the Christmas lights again. The beagle finished the plate of bologna and ham and drank a good deal of the water. Then it walked across the room and sat down on top of a pile of clean underwear and t-shirts that Peter had not yet put away after his trip to the laundromat. The beagle watched the Christmas lights for a while, and then closed its eyes and went to sleep.
Peter woke up early the next morning, well before the dog. He fixed himself an egg in the fancy white saucepan that his mother had given him before he left Michigan. He brewed an extra cup of coffee for himself and walked down to the deli on the corner to get a newspaper. Peter liked to read the box scores for the Pistons games, and sometimes the editorials. The rest of the news was too depressing.
When he got back to his apartment, the beagle was up and waiting for him. Peter fed him part of a bagel and some more bologna. He copied down the phone number from the tag on the beagle’s collar. He thought it was important that the dog were back with its real owners. It seemed to Peter like the right thing to do.
Peter sat down at his kitchen table and dialed the number from the tag. A woman’s voice answered.
“Yeah,” she said.
Peter took a deep breath. “Hello,” he said. “Sorry to call you so early, but I found your dog.”
“We don’t have no dog,” the woman said. “How did you get this number?”
“It was on the tag,” Peter said. “It was on the dog’s tag.”
“That ain’t our dog,” she said, her voice as rough as gravel. “It’s eight o’clock in the morning. Don’t bother us again,” the woman said, and hung up.
Peter sat there a moment, listening to the silence on the other end of the line. He double-checked the phone number that he had copied down. It was the same as the number on the dog’s tag.
Peter turned on the television and sat down next to the dog. He stroked it behind the ears, and the dog rested its chin on his leg. Peter wondered how old the beagle was. He had never seen so much gray hair on an animal before.
The TV was tuned to a morning talk show. Parents were being united with their long-lost children for Christmas. A middle-aged woman with dyed blond hair told the audience that she had to give her son up for adoption because of her drug habit. That was twenty years ago, she said. Now I’m ready to have him back.
Peter looked at the woman. He stared right past her. All he could think of was Henry, sitting by the rocks in his pajamas, yelling at the wind.
Peter arrived at the restaurant a little before five. He figured that they would be closing early on account of it being Christmas Eve. He wanted to make sure that Henry was there.
He had found a leash for the beagle at a pet store near the center of town. The beagle followed a few steps behind him, wagging its tail a bit, stopping to sniff at signposts or the weeds that grew from cracks in the concrete.
Peter walked past the front door of the restaurant. He took the beagle through the alley to the rear entrance.
He knocked on the back door. A tall Mexican kid with a goatee answered. “Yeah?” he said.
“Is Henry here?” Peter asked.
The Mexican kid looked down at the dog. “Yeah,” he said, and opened the door for Peter. “He’s in his office.”
Peter moved past the kid and walked through the kitchen, which was full of steam and smelled like the ocean. The beagle followed Peter down a dim corridor to Henry’s office.
The door was open. Henry sat at his desk, looking over some papers. He wore a polka-dot tie and had his sleeves rolled up. Christmas choral music played from a tiny radio on the desk.
Henry looked up. “Pete,” he said. “What’re you doing back here?” He got up from his desk, and came over to where Peter and the dog were standing. “Who’s your friend?” Henry bent down carefully and scratched the beagle’s neck. The dog wagged its tail.
“He’s kind of a Christmas gift,” Peter said. The beagle looked at Henry with soft brown eyes. “From me to you,” he added.
Henry looked up at Peter in surprise. “Come on now,” he said. “What am I gonna do with an old dog?”
Peter remembered the way the dog fell asleep, watching the Christmas lights; how it had waited patiently for him to return from the deli. Peter realized then that if he put his mind to it, he could find a companion to take the beagle’s place; maybe a woman like the friendly girl at the restaurant, the one with the green necklace that reminded him of home. A woman who could help fill the lonely nights that he spent alone in his apartment, thinking about all the things he’d done wrong.
“He’s a real good dog,” Peter said. He knew that, for a fact. “You deserve him, Henry.”
Henry stroked the beagle’s head. He stared at the dog for a long time, then finally looked up at Peter with the same grateful smile of the woman on the beach; the mother of the little boy that Peter pulled from the ocean the summer before. “Thanks, Pete,” Henry said. “Thanks a whole lot.”