(An original Short Story)
The smell of French toast and coffee ricocheted off the aluminum signed walls as Betty Hutton’s voice escalated from the jukebox, “He says, murder, he says. Every time we kiss. He says, murder, he says, at a time like this.” I wipe the crust from my eyes as the sun shines through the window spanning the front of the Diner. “Windham Diner” was already lit up in bright neon blue letters, projecting to the world that it was time for a hot meal.
“C’mon sweetie, sit down and have some breakfast” my Grandfather who I called Pappoús’ voice boomed over the counter in his thick, native Greek accent as he placed an oversized plate of French toast sticks and a gallon of orange juice in front of me on the breakfast bar. In classic Greek fashion, he expected me to finish the plate, full enough for 3 people to devour.
“Let me do a morning check Pappoús, make sure everything is ready before our first table shows up,” I swiftly moved away from the food while I heard his bickering get silent every step farther away I got.
Growing up in a Greek family is living through every joke you can imagine, but the jokes are real. Vegetarians? What are those? Oh- and don’t get me started on how every word created comes from the Greek language. As stereotypical as it is in the movies however, it does have its benefits like getting to celebrate a special Greek Easter, the food always comes in troves, and we get to smash plates on the floor while yelling “OPPA!”
The diner wasn’t much, the seats were covered in old red vinyl and the tables had cracks and carves from decades of young teenage love being stabbed into them. I cleaned the floor every night, but the white and black checkered tile had become worn, yellowed, and disappointing. I made my way to the back of the diner and through the two classic red swinging doors.
My Grandmother who I called Yia-yia, was elbow deep in the stainless-steel sink, splashing away in the soap and suds. She glanced back at me with a warm smile before turning back to the sink and continued her scrubbing. I glanced down and noticed my apron had become stained and sticky with syrup while filling jars, so I took it off and tossed it into the office where we kept extra supplies.
“Sweetie, grab the ketchup from the cooler on your way out here” Pappoús yelled as I heard the front bell chime. I opened the cooler and was met with more than just the sudden shock of cool air rushing towards me. I stood frozen, not from the chill, but from the body that was curled in the back corner of the freezer. What passed through my head, whatwhatwhatwhat? I slammed the door behind me, a gust of frozen air followed from the push of the door and I was chilled to the bone.
I don’t remember ever grabbing the ketchup or serving table upon table of regulars. I don’t remember washing the dishes or dropping a stack of glasses that shattered all over the floor. I don’t remember slicing my hand on glass as I frantically tried to pick up the broken pieces or the 45-minute ride in an ambulance to the closest hospital to be stitched back up. Everything was a haze, a glazed over mask surrounding and suffocating me from the world that kept spinning and turning at a speed so fast I couldn’t catch my breath.
I found myself laying on my old, lumpy sofa, hands covered in bandages and a fog that illuminated over my eyes. Yia-yia was towering over me, her small stature reflecting a shadow across my body. She ruffled her pixie cut hair to one side as she saw me start to slowly push myself up from the sofa.
“Be careful, move slowly. You had quite the day today. Here- let me help…” she gently grabbed my shoulders and helped me sit up. In front of me on the stained coffee table was a plate of her home-made specialty; toasted bread covered with tomatoes and extra sharp cheddar cheese. The steam rose from the plate and filled my nostrils as I lunged for the food, devouring every bite. The sun had set- how long had it been?
“Yia-yia, there was…” I frantically tried to get the words out, there was a someone in the freezer, but my mind froze as I shivered from a draft that was not there. She gently laid a blanket over me as I stuttered and struggled to get out any words as my mind circled around the day’s events. “It’s okay, we know, everybody makes mistakes,” she whispered and winked, “you broke a few glasses, no harm done! Now you rest up, if you need anything I will be at the diner. Okay sweetie? I love you.” The strings controlling my head motioned it up and down as I watched her quietly leave the room.
I stared down at my blood soaked, bandaged hands, and stumbled up from the couch towards the door. The body, the body, the body. There was a body. I grabbed at the walls and the doorframe as I exited my apartment and made my way back to the diner. The ground was moving under my feet, but I couldn’t feel my legs moving. Lights passed by my eyes like firefly flashes on a warm summer night. I turned the corner to face Windham Diner but there were no lights on. There was no welcoming neon sign, and the windows were smashed in, bricks overgrown with moss from the passing of time. I stood there, in the cold night breeze staring at the empty soul of a once bustling business.
It was just this morning, I was just here, this must be a bad dream my mind wandered as my body followed, through the rubble and the rust until I found myself standing in the epicenter of the brick and mortar. The freezer was still here, the back office, the breakfast bar, they were all still here, but overgrown with dust and dirt. The only sound that echoed and bounced around was my bare feet cracking against the yellow stained flooring. Yia-yia said she would be at the diner, she said she would be here, but there’s no diner here, there’s nothing here.
I could feel water streaming down my face and my mind couldn’t distinguish if it was raining or I was crying. My hand reached for my phone and I called the one person I thought could answer my questions, but the line continued ringing and ringing before it disconnected. I tried the next number, Pappoús, but again the line was met with a disconnect. I went down my list of numbers, one after another were all met with a disconnect.
I worked my way back, over fallen and cracked tables and chairs to the freezer, the last memory I had. The broken glass was still sprawled out on the floor where I had dropped the glasses. I didn’t feel the piercing pain as I walked over my last memories. I got to the freezer and pried the rusted door open. I was met with the wretched smell of rotten food that was long expired. I remembered Yia-yia’s smiling face as she scrubbed her hands, and I made my way into the freezer. I sat down in the farthest back corner I could find, closing the door behind me. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were closed or it was just the pitch black of the frozen walls that blacked out my senses.
In a faint and distant hum, I could hear laughter, clinking of dishes and plates being rattled around. It started low, almost a whisper and every second that passed I could make out more sounds. A child laughing, Betty Hutton playing on the jukebox, and the booming voice of my Pappoús, “Order Up!” The longer I stayed in that desolated space, the more the sounds filled it with joy and hectic happiness.
I heard a slight creak and was met with a sharp light, burning my eyes. Someone had pried open the freezer door then shut it so fast I couldn’t get a breath in. I sat there, in the dark listening to those happy sounds and being filled with the warmth of my Yia-yia smile.
Betty Hutton. Lyrics to “Murder, He Says.” Genius, 2017, https://genius.com/Betty-hutton-murder-he-says-lyrics.
Written by Janna Dimopoulos 2/10/2020