Sam is late and I’m getting tired of waiting. The waiter keeps coming over to ask if I’d like to order but his alligator tail freaks me out. The busboy brings chips and salsa to the table and when he turns around, I see a big red eye in the back of his head. It winks at me. I’m hungry and grab a chip but the salsa bowl is crawling with maggots. I decide to stick to alcohol and when the waiter comes back again, I order a double tequila and lime.
Sam picked the place and it’s one of those cheesy Mexican cantinas with strolling mariachis. I hate that polka music in the best of circumstances, but the place is really starting to creep me out and the twangy bounce is totally getting on my nerves. I glare at the lead singer and the metal studs on his pants rearrange themselves to form the words, “Fuck off, puta”. I flip him the bird under the table.
I look at my watch again, the hands are moving backwards in Morse code. I try calling Sam, but it goes straight to voice mail. I text him, “Where the hell are you?” Did my phone just laugh at me? I get up to go the bathroom and open the door on a swamp pit full of alligators thrashing around and snapping their jaws. I slam it shut and head back to my table. “Cervasa por favor,” I tell the alligator-tailed waiter in passing and have to leap back to avoid the spikes on the end of his tail.
I try and focus on my beer and tequila, if only to avoid looking at the seething mass of maggots in the center of the table or the way cracks keep opening up in the floor. I’m afraid one will open up under my chair and I’ll fall into one those black abysses. Out of the corner of my eye I just saw an entire table of four get swallowed up. The waiters and busboys quickly set up another table, snapping open the red-checked tablecloth like nothing happened. Where the fuck is Sam? I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
Finally, Sam shows up, red-faced and out-of-breath. “Sorry I’m late. I ran into some trouble,” he says and takes a big swig of my beer. Jesus, Sam looks bad. His hair’s all wild, there’s a bleeding gash across his cheek and his flannel shirt is torn. Normally Mr. GQ, a tall blonde drink of water, Sam’s wearing what looks like a homeless man’s outfit and an old pair of work boots. “Sam, what the fuck is going on? What happened to you?” I ask him. “Shh, I’ll tell you later. Let’s just order,” he says. “No, let’s get out of here. This place is really creeping me out. Why the hell did you pick it?” I ask him. The mariachi band is blaring and the place smells like a mix of beer and deep fried swamp rot.
Right then the waiter comes over and gives me an evil smile as he nudges my chair with his tail. Sam orders two dinner specials, enchiladas, tamales and tacos, and a pitcher of beer. I desperately want another double tequila, but decide I’d better keep my wits about me, given how weird things are. Sam grabs a chip and dips it into the maggot salsa. He pops it into his mouth before I can stop him. I think I’m going to be sick and down the last of my tequila.
“Sam, come on, tell me what’s happening.”
“Act normal,” he whispers, “Smile and laugh like I just said something funny.”
I don’t think I can pull that off so I take another sip of beer instead. A little Indian-looking woman comes over, dressed in traditional Mexican peasant blouse, skirt and huaraches carrying a basket of abnormally large red roses. “Una rosa por la senora?” she asks holding one out to me. Sam’s about to buy me one but before he can hand her the money, I jerk back so fast I almost tip over in my chair. There’s a scorpion in the center and the thorns are actually claws dripping blood. Sam gives her the money anyway and waves her away. The scorpion snaps his pincers and rattles his tail and lets out a toxic fart of poisonous green gas that wafts through the air.
The mariachis come over. I shake my head “no” and try to ward them off, but they ignore me. Like the twinkles of demented Christmas lights, the studs up the sides of their pants alternately spell out “Chupa mi verga, puta” and, just to be sure I get it, the English translation “Suck my dick, whore.” The trumpet player stands right next to Sam’s head and I watch in horror as a snake tongue flicks out of the horn and into Sam’s ear. I jump up and shove some money in the horn and shoo them off.
Finally, we’re alone. “Now tell me what the fuck is going on,” I say. Sam looks at me and flicks a quarter on the table. I wait for him to say something. He looks back and forth between me and the quarter, and when I don’t catch on, tilts his head a little towards it. What’s this supposed mean? I have no idea. It feels like everyone in the restaurant is leaning in watching us, waiting for one of us to say something. I realize the whole restaurant has gone silent. It’s making my skin itch and crawl. I can feel adrenalin coursing through my body, my heart is racing and I can barely keep from leaping up and running out of there. It looks like an ordinary quarter, nothing unusual. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I say in a low voice without moving my lips. He glances back down at the quarter again. Now I notice something different. It’s kind of vibrating or glowing or something, but it’s not actually moving. Something about it terrifies my body. I feel a full-blown panic attack coming on. My arm jerks out and knocks the pitcher of beer over.
The waiter rushes over to clean it up and Sam snatches up the quarter just before the waiter palms it away. The waiter drops his disguise for a millisecond and I’m freaked out by the cold rage in his yellow reptilian eyes. “Let’s get out of here,” I plead, “Something is seriously wrong.”
“No, we have to wait. Someone is meeting us here.” Sam says. The food arrives and Sam digs in, but I can’t eat a bite. I keep an eye out for the cracks in the floor and sit on the edge of my chair, ready to grab Sam and run for it. I catch the waiter and busboy watching us from the end of the bar, plotting their next move. They split up and some secret signal seems to pass through the wait staff. The floor starts to slowly ripple and a wave rolls toward our table. “Sam, we’ve got to leave now!” Over in the corner by the busboy, a crack splits the floor open and rapidly spreads toward us. “Now, Sam,” I scream. I’m on my feet, the floor is pitching and rolling, our table falls into the abyss as I grab him by the arm and leap back. “Run!” We barely make it out alive.
My brain has shut down. I’m on automatic pilot now. All I can think about is getting us away from here as fast as possible. I’m peeling out of the parking lot into the lunch hour traffic when Sam asks, “Where are you going?”
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just driving. I can feel Sam watching me, but I don’t answer him and keep my eyes on the road. After a minute, Sam slumps over in the seat and closes his eyes.
I realize I’ve driven to the beach. I pull over, park and get out. We used to come to this beach all the time when we were in college. We used to be so close. Now we hardly ever see each other. We used to be so ambitious, with big dreams and the untested confidence of youth. I used to be in love with Sam but he never wanted to be more than friends. I sit on the sand and look out at the ocean. Where am I going? What am I doing with my life? Sam has moved on, on to graduate school, on to a big deal job as technology advisor to the mayor, tasked with turning our city into a bio-tech version of Silicon Valley. I don’t know what I’m doing any more. I’ve lost my way, lost heart, lost my confidence. I’m still at the temporary job I took five years ago to cover the bills until I could sell enough work to make it as an artist. I haven’t made a new piece in months.
I look back at the car to see what Sam is up to. My car is a metaphor for my life, once sleek and shiny, now it’s all banged up, riding rough, and cluttered with junk. Sam is out of the car talking on the phone, pacing back and forth. He looks up and down the street, checks his watch and texts something. Then he puts his phone in his pocket and walks over to where I’m sitting. Sam puts his arm around me and we watch the waves for a while in silence. His clothes kind of stink but I lean into him anyway. “I haven’t been to this beach since our college days,” he murmurs. But I don’t want to think about all that anymore. I want to know what the fuck is going on and what just happened back at the restaurant.
Mikhaila Stettler for Creatrix Arts