One day last week, I awoke to find Old Lady 2015 sitting in my living room.
She was sitting in my regular chair, practically swallowed by the cushions, and breathing deeply into an oxygen mask so large it could have been its own “Star Wars” villain. She was propping her slippered feet on the tank. Her trademark top hat was placed haphazardly on the edge of the coffee table; her sash was slung over the back of one of the adjacent dining room chairs. Its edges were fraying, and it was missing some of the plastic, stick-on gems that shaped the “2015” that ran down its length.
I didn’t even have time to register my surprise before she lit into me.
“It’s about time you got up,” she said, the high-pitched squeal of her voice made slightly more tolerable under the muffle of her oxygen mask. She spoke slowly, each word followed by a labored breath. Her body was skeletal — skin and bones, but mostly just bones. What little hair remained atop her hair was in the process of calling it quits, and she could barely keep her eyes open as she lectured me. Saying she looked like “death warmed over” would probably be underselling it; she looked like death warmed over, put back into the fridge for a week or two, pulled out, left on the counter for a while, put back into the fridge and then rediscovered behind the leftover mashed potatoes and three partially-emptied jars of spaghetti sauce several weeks later.
“Where the [bleep] have you been?” she asked, but instead of “bleep,” she said something else. Use your imagination.
This was a lot of process for someone who just stumbled out of bed. I answered the only way I could think of at that moment.
“I don’t know. Here.”
She gave me a look that could penetrate lead and took a big drag on her mask.
“You know what I mean,” she told me.
“I really don’t.”
“Oh for Pete’s … Yes, you do,” she said, aggressively certain of herself. “Don’t matter, though. I’ll tell you where you ain’t been: You ain’t been writing down any resolutions for my successor, here.”
With a hand that looked like tissue paper wrapped around a small bundle of twigs, she motioned to the other side of the room. Nesting in a chair normally occupied by a dozen or so cats was an infant, naked as … well, a newborn … save for a tiny top hat and sash. It read “2016” and was immaculate. Straight out of the sweat shop.
Instead of a bottle, the baby was sucking on a silver flask.
“Isn’t he a little young to be drinking?” I asked.
Old Lady 2015 scoffed and waved my concerns away as pure drivel.
“Kid’s gonna age like a slice of cantaloupe in the sun,” she said. “Let him have his fun. Besides, a year needs something to warm his system with no-good promise breakers like you around.”
I was taken aback by this.
“Wait, what do you mean?”
She turned her nose to the sky and grimaced in disgust.
“You know very well what I’m talkin’ about,” she said, her voice suddenly gaining a surge of strength. “Here I sit, wasting away in my final moments, each breath likely to be my last …”
“Pretty sure you’ve got at least a few more days …”
She ignored my interjection.
“… and you ain’t kept nary a one of your promises to me.”
“I don’t think …”
She began ticking off a list with her fingers.
“Finish another book,” she said, then shook her head. “Nawp. Read more. Don’t think so. Learn a new skill. I don’t think figuring out how to use the Twitter counts. Lose weight …” She jabbed her finger into my squishy gut. “Son, you done got fatter. Every [bleeping] thing you promised me back when I was just the prettiest, most promising baby you ever laid eyes on has been flushed down the john. You ain’t done a one of them yet, and unless you plan on putting them five slices of pizza you crammed down your gullet at ten o’clock last night back in the box, I reckon you ain’t gonna.”
Guilt, heavy as a boulder, landed in my stomach. As is my habit when faced with my failings, I tried to make excuses.
“It’s just been … What I mean is … I’ve been … Well, it’s been a busy year. What with the economy … and the newspaper business is stressful … and then there’s the …”
She scrunched her face and shook her head aggressively.
“I don’t care for your excuses,” she said. I noticed she didn’t seem to need the mask anymore. “It’s too late for me. I got one foot in the grave and the other foot in another grave just in case the first one don’t work out.
“But it ain’t too late for him,” she said, motioning toward the little naked boy squirming in the chair on the other side of the room. It paused its flask-suckling long enough to hiccup, then got back to business. “That’s the good thing about us years when we’re shiny and new. Each one of us is a fresh start, a chance to make good on all the stuff you done screwed up the year before. It’s your chance to make it right. I suggest you start now.
She jabbed a finger in the baby’s direction.
Head bowed and feeling a bit embarrassed, I stepped across the room. I knelt at the foot of the chair and stared into Baby New Year’s big blue eyes. Like every year’s, they were beautiful, shimmering with hope. From around the lip of the flask, he smiled at me, cooing gleefully. I smiled back.
“I’ll do right by you, 2016,” I said. “I promise.”
I think they both bought it.