By now I’ve seen enough death that you’d think I’d be inoculated. The two grandparents who survived to see me born, waxy mannequins in open caskets. My brother Evan’s collie run over on our street. Our dad, from cirrhosis when I was fourteen. In my single semester of college, I read Mrs. Dalloway for a literature class. Somehow it was her disaster—her disgrace-- the only words I underlined in that or any class. One night that semester, I met a boy on Grindr. We went to a bar, took shots and then coke, drove back to my apartment, and had numb, drunken sex. On his way home he listed into the opposite lane and collided head-on with another car.
The boy died on impact; the other driver, a girl my age, was helicoptered to the nearest hospital, where she bled out internally. I hadn’t exchanged numbers with the boy. We had no mutual friends. I recognized his photo in the student paper a few days later, in an article about the accident. For a week afterward I glanced into the wastebasket in my bathroom, at the dead boy’s condom nested among crumpled Kleenex, before I told myself I was being morbid and unsanitary and took out the garbage. Since then I’ve lost my taste for alcohol. Another reason I’m not popular at work: on the rare night I am asked out for post-shift drinks, I fake exhaustion and head quickly for my car.
Stray glances snag me like cobwebs. I know I’m acting strangely—bumping into Levi and Bria more often than usual, garbling basic phrases like “this booth over here” and “have a nice day, stay dry”—but I can’t seem to get a grip on myself. Cindy sends me on break early. I order my staff meal—the same thing every day, gingerbread pancakes stuffed with banana, a side of bacon—and shove syrup-logged bites into my mouth while poring over Monday night’s sign-in sheet. The names are all crossed out, as if everyone died after eating here. When I spot the name, in my own handwriting, I feel a cold splash of recognition: “Sandra, party of three.”
Bria said Sandra like mandrake, while the beautiful woman who came in Monday night said her name Sandra like songbird. I saw immediately that she was too good for this place. She was tall, standing shoulders and chest above the lip of the host stand. Her eyes were green, but not the radioactive tint of Bria’s; the irises were washed with copper and rimmed in a darker green, like the rind of an avocado. I could see the individual raindrops working their way through the auburn mesh of her hair, a sheen of runoff on her shoulders, which were bare except for spaghetti straps and dusted with freckles. The lamp bolted to the host stand caught a shimmer of coral gloss across her lips. A jarring detail—I judged her to be about forty—but she gave the gloss a kind of gravity. For a moment I allowed myself to imagine other girlish affectations—a charm necklace slipped between her breasts, under her green sundress a pair of white panties printed with strawberries.
“They’re parking the car,” she said softly, to explain her solitude. I scrabbled for menus and silverware and led her to a booth, forgetting the café’s policy about seating incomplete parties. I must have been gaping at her like a love-struck fool. She flashed me a hesitant smile before looking down at her menu.
She seemed entirely unaware of her effect, and her oblivion produced an equal and opposite response in me. I was suddenly conscious of the glaze of sweat across my forehead, my hair teased to steel wool by the humidity, the smear of mustard congealing along the knuckles of my left hand. These things had never shamed me before, not even when I took the orders of handsome boys. As much as she excited me, I was relieved to duck my head and turn back to the host stand. Two men were waiting for me there. One was middle-aged and short, with a thin mustache and neatly cropped dark hair, cottony tufts of white at each temple. The other was younger, maybe thirty, black hair slicked behind his ears, his shirt the shade and texture of a red hibiscus, unbuttoned far enough to show a smooth swath of chest. “Sandra, party of three,” said the older one. Not his own name, not “I’m looking for my wife.” There was a deference in his voice I wasn’t used to hearing from men his age. I led them to Sandra. They sat down on opposite sides of her, leaving half the booth vacant. Whatever their relationship, physical proximity to her seemed more a luxury than a right.
“Can I get y’all something to drink?” I asked.
The men glanced at her. “I’ll follow Sandra’s lead,” said the older one. Sandra kept her eyes on the menu, though I could tell she was absorbing their glances, weighing them inside herself with invisible scales. I wondered if she was famous, though I was sure I hadn’t seen her in anything. At last she glanced up at me.
“I’ll have a tequila sunrise,” she said.
The older man nodded, as if her selection had passed a test. “Three tequila sunrises,” he said to me.
“Iced tea for me,” countered the younger man. “Someone’s gotta drive.”
Ordinarily her order would have annoyed me. Mixed drinks require fetching multiple vessels and measuring, slowing me down. But as I poured out Sandra’s bright yellow drink, I found myself admiring her selection. It seemed a hopeful act of sorcery. As if to conjure the sun itself out of all this rain and muck.
• • •
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CHARLES RAMSAY MCCRORY is an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has received the 2015 Mississippi Review Prize for fiction and is featured in Evergreen Review and The New Guard. McCrory is a former Editorial Fellow at American Short Fiction.