Originally written for Writer’s Weekly’s 24-hour Short Story Contest, Summer 2019.
The prompt was a rather long paragraph of text that had to be incorporated somehow in the story (either verbatim or in spirit). I won’t even bother to post it because I hacked it to bits. Many of those bits got flushed in post-submission polishing but a few are still in there (glare on the water, red fingernails and a white dress, a wife craning her neck, etc.) Anyway, it was a fun little piece to write! Approx. 950 words.
It’s the hottest day of the year, but of course everyone insists on sitting outside. The deck is slammed. When I close my eyes, the sun’s glare on the water is seared into my eyeballs.
Blinking, I watch a figure march across the deck. Her arms are crossed and her red fingernails stand out against her white sundress. She stops at table twelve.
Here we go again.
Table twelve is our best table, tucked into the angled corner of the deck where only a two-top can fit. Million-dollar view. From table twelve you can pretend you’re dining on the bow of your own private yacht. People are always fighting over it.
This one couple has been camped out there for over an hour since they settled their tab, their glasses sweating with the dregs of melted ice. I’ve long since stopped coming around with the sweet-tea pitcher. I’ve asked umpteen times whether there is anything else I can get them. They’re barnacles, as we call them.
The girl in the white dress with the red fingernails puts her hands on her hips.
Good luck, chica.
When she speaks the couple’s heads pop up in unison, like a pair of meerkats who’ve spotted a hawk. Then the husband stands, wadding his napkin and tossing it onto the table on his way up. The wife cranes her neck, watching.
“Can we help you with something?” he says. Or I assume that’s what he says. I can’t hear them from here. I don’t need to. I’ve seen it before.
Somewhere over the water, a gull wails. I concur, sir. I tuck my notepad into the pocket of my apron and steel myself for the unpleasant task of moderating this stupid dispute.
“Birthday, anniversary, or first date?” Tanya comes up behind me and pokes my shoulder playfully with her pen. “The little princess with the trashy red manicure. We’re taking bets inside.”
“Inside, huh?” I return her poke. “I hope that A/C is good.”
“I can only imagine. I’ll think of you next time the sweat starts dripping down my balls so bad I start to wonder if I’ve pissed myself.”
“Please do,” Tanya giggles.
As a rule, we rotate deck duty. Usually it’s a prized shift but July is nasty. For one thing, it’s hot as hell. Case in point: today. And for another thing, people don’t have shit to do. They come for lunch and then think they’re entitled to spend the entire afternoon treating our restaurant like their own personal poop deck. Case in point: table twelve.
I glance over. White-sundress and couple-hubby are gesturing, talking. But they seem civil, so I decide to stay out of it for now.
“Obviously,” I say, “it’s none of the above.”
Tanya pivots on her white sneaker.
“That girl over there?” I cup a hand around my mouth, mock whispering: “She’s expecting a proposal.”
Tanya’s eyes widen. “Oh my God. Do you think?”
“Absolutely.” I nod gravely. Of course, I have no idea. And in fact, it’s pretty fucking unlikely. No one gets engaged at Smitty’s Fish Shack. But I’m enjoying Tanya’s fretting, the way she nibbles on her pretty, pouty lower lip.
I follow Tanya’s gaze back to the coveted corner. Shit. White-sundress is now visibly upset. Couple-hubby heaves himself back into his chair and takes a swig of warm ice-melt for good measure. He’s digging in. His wife’s mouth is set in a frown, although maybe it always was. It seems to fit her.
“Chase!” she jabs my arm. “Do something! That poor girl, her engagement! Kick those barnacles out!”
“All right.” I follow her back to the door, watching the twitch of her ass in her khaki shorts. “I’ll make sure our princess gets her fairy tale table.”
She leans toward me. She smells like limes, probably from cutting them at the bar before shift. “Do it.”
“I will.” The door puffs out a blissful blast of icy air as it closes.
As it happens, there’s nothing to be done. By the time I get there the barnacles have detached, nowhere to be seen. I don’t even need to look at the credit card slip anchored under the pen. I’m sure the tip is shitty.
Meanwhile, the girl in the white dress leans on the railing, sniffling. She’s wearing giant sunglasses but I can still see her eyebrows, furrowed in misery.
God, what a dick I am. I should have kicked those barnacles out sooner, should have told that stodge of a husband and his frowny wife to shove off. Birthday? First date? Who knows. But this girl’s afternoon is wrecked and it’s my fault.
“Hello, miss.” I put my waiter voice on. “May I help you find a table? We’re on a first-come first-serve basis out here.”
“No thank you.” She takes off her sunglasses and rubs a smear of black makeup under her eye.
“Look,” I gesture at the couple’s lunch debris. “This is our best table. I’ll get it cleaned right up for you. Are you waiting on another guest?”
“No. Not anymore.”
Screw it. I ditch the waiter voice. “Can I ask what happened?”
She smiles bitterly. “He never showed up. We were supposed to meet here. Today was the day. It was supposed to be a surprise, but I knew.”
I nod. Oh, shit. Could it really be that? No way. Like I said, no one gets proposed to at Smitty’s Fish Shack. Our utensils are plastic, for chrissake.
“I wanted to sit there.” She jerks her head at that troublemaker, table twelve.
“Everyone wants to sit there.”
“Yeah, so I learned.” She laughs. It’s genuine, if self-deprecating.
“So he just ghosted?”
She nods and gazes out at the sound. Her eyes are Carolina blue, like the sky.
“Whoever he is, he’s an asshole,” I say. “I’m sorry.” And I am.
“I’m not,” she says quietly, looking up at me with a weak smile. “If he’d shown up, I would’ve ended up marrying the turd.”