Photo © by Michael Marshall Smith, 2016
short story by Eygló
Three years had gone by without an incident. Now I was there again.
The man by the counter was wearing his red, checkered shorts. The shorts looked like they were at least a size too small. It made him look strange, but otherwise he looked like you’d expect from someone who worked in that kind of establishment. He had long dark hair, wore a black t-shirt with some odd logo on it I didn’t recognize, and he had a tattoo of an anchor on his right upper arm.
I stopped in the doorway, not quite sure what to do with myself. There was a familiar looking woman sitting by the window, staring out over the sea. She looked a bit lost, but I’d been there often enough not to be surprised by that.
I walked up to the counter, ordered deep-fried shrimps with the special sauce and a beer. The guy nodded his head, threw a dishcloth over his shoulder and exited through a door behind him.
When he came out, just a few seconds later, he pointed towards the beer tab. I nodded and he picked a glass from a shelf beside him, filled it and placed it on a coaster in front of me.
I handed him a bill and he quickly pushed the sum of my order in the old fashioned cash register.
“It’ll be just a moment,” he said placing my exchange on the table beside my glass. I took a large sip of the beer and turned around in my chair. There was a man standing out on the patio in front of the place. He was watching the sea.
People watch the sea for different reasons, but most do it because they need to have a word with the universe and somehow it doesn’t seem to count properly if the ocean isn’t there to hear you out. You need not say a word for it to listen, of course, and afterwards you magically feel a little better.
That patio seemed ideal for that purpose, though I had always been a bit too preoccupied when I came here to notice. This time, however, I was calmer than before and was able to pay more attention to the details.
It didn’t take long before the shrimps appeared in front of me. I thought about moving seats, so that I could have a view of the ocean, but I wasn’t ready for that conversation yet.
Instead I sat there alone, munching on my food, one shrimp at a time, dipping in every bite. When I was finished I pushed my plate away and ordered another beer. The clerk tabbed me another and took my old glass.
“I’ve seen you here before,” he said simply.
“Twice,” I said. “You gave me a free drink the first time around. I was thankful for that.”
“Twice, huh? Do you want to talk?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and turned in my chair again. Then I turned back and nodded my head towards her. “What’s her story?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “She hasn’t said much”.
“First timer?” I asked.
“It’s complicated,” the man said.
I took my beer and moved to the counter by the window. I sat two chairs away from the woman, who was still staring at the sea and didn’t seem to notice me. There was some sort of cocktail in front of her.
It looked untouched.
I watched her for a while. She had an off-white dress that looked like it was from the sixties. Her shoes matched perfectly and her hair was big in the back and she wore a ribbon, in the same material as her dress, to hold it up. For an instant the thought occurred to me that she had been sitting there since that look was in style. That she was waiting for someone who never showed up and her dress had been innocently white, once upon a time.
Now there was a big, brown stain on the hem of the skirt.
I shook my head to rid me off the macabre thoughts and I turned my attention to the sea. It was calm, a seagull was hovering over the patio, just above the man who was still standing out there. The man was wearing a striped suit, it was a lean fit.
I found myself staring at the woman who paid me no heed. I wanted to talk to her, but she seemed caught up in her own thoughts and I didn’t want to disturb her. So I started focusing on the sea and what was out there.
It was she who initiated it. She leaned over and touched my arm and I instinctively withdrew hastily not expecting to be touched. “Excuse me,” she said, “you don’t happen to have the time?” she asked politely in a low voice. When she noticed she’d startled me she looked afraid for a moment. She touched her glass, but she didn’t drink from it. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.
I gave her the time, having to fish my phone out of my pocket to find out for myself. I showed it to her and she looked puzzled for a while. Then she nodded her head and stirred her drink.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked, knowing perfectly well that this wasn’t the place for that.
She looked at me and for a second I thought I saw a glimmer of joy in her eyes.
“I am, and I’m not,” she said. “I made a deal with someone, he was supposed to be here today. I guess things never turn out the way we want them to, huh?”
“Is this your first time here?” I asked.
She nodded her head and sipped her drink carefully. Her hands were shaking. Then she added: “I think so, though it looks a bit familiar, doesn’t it? But some places just give you the deja-vous, you know?”
“Have you been here before?” she asked.
“Twice,” I said.
She looked at me, nodded and for a moment I thought she was going to say something more but she just stared out at the ocean. When I’d finished my beer I reluctantly stood up, put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed a bit.
She threw her hand up to touch mine, in a small thank you gesture, and that was that.
I went to the counter again. The man was stacking clean glasses on the shelf. I took a matchbox out of a small basket on the counter and put some coins on the table.
“You said it was complicated?” I asked.
“She appears here every year around the same time,” he said and gestured towards her with the glass in his hand. “The man on the porch is always here too, though he never comes inside,” he sighed, “and then they vanish, each to their own I guess.”
I turned around swiftly, a bit startled. “Every year?”
“Every year, spooks, lonesomes, it’s what this place is,” he said.
I turned again and looked at him. He pointed again towards the window, towards the woman. I saw her old fashioned clothes. I saw her sitting there, looking at the sea, stirring her glass calmly.
“Some people have a way of punishing themselves, you know?” he said. I felt a surge of something come over me. It was a familiar feeling, but I pushed the fear back.
“They watch the same ocean every year,” he added, “and that has to mean something. Maybe one day she will manage to go out there, and notice him, maybe even talk to him?”
“I thought this was a one time deal,” I said, looking him in the eyes. They were steel grey and hard.
“Usually, not always, sometimes guilt is a factor,” he said.
I suddenly had the compulsion to look at my hands. Palms up, these were the hands of an old man, not the hands of a thirty year old soldier.
“Three times,” I echoed to myself.
“Every year,” the man standing behind the counter said.
I sighed and shook my head. I placed the matchbox in my pocket and walked out without further ado. I walked to the rail and I watched the ocean. The sun was setting, coloring the sky red and the sea teal and orange.
A small girl came skipping over the patio, impatiently she said: “Dad, lets go, we can’t wait anymore! Lets go!”.
And the man who had been staring over the rail all this time, watching the sun hover over the horizon turned around, smiled and nodded his head.
“I guess so,” he said, he took the girl by the hand and they walked away slowly, as if they had all the time in the world.
I looked inside the restaurant. She was still sitting inside, but for a moment I thought I saw her contours dissolve, as if she was vanishing into thin air. I looked away. Ignoring my thumping heart and the ache in my joints. I looked at the sign one last time, SEA FOOD AND COCKTAILS in such bright happy colors. It was such a magical place.
I thought I would never have to visit again.