|Mary Ann Mackey has lived all over the East Coast of the US. In 2016 she moved from NYC to Galway, swapping her weekends spent scribbling down stories at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the MA in Writing program at NUIG. She misses her cat and is almost always trying very hard not to talk about politics.|
The Texas Steakhouse
By Mary Ann Mackey
It was one of those big, block-lettered, billboard-style signs, and it read ‘We Are Open Christmas Eve.’ It stood in the parking lot of a squat looking place called The Texas Steakhouse, though this wasn’t Texas. Sadie’d been somewhere in the mountains of western Virginia when the little red fuel light started glowing at her from the dashboard, forcing her towards the first exit off the highway. Now, at the gas station across the street, she leaned against her car and studied the dark windows and chipped paint of the restaurant to avoid watching the numbers on the gas pump whir ever higher until they clicked into place at the cost of a full tank. She tugged at her scarf and pulled her hat down to cover her ears. It was colder here than it had been when she got in her car in Charlotte that morning.
There wasn’t much else to look at. She watched through the mini mart window as a bored teenager sold a few lottery tickets to an older man in a ski jacket. A lazy string of Christmas lights blinked from the counter where he stood. A pizza joint and barber shop filled out the lot, each looking worn and sleepy and sporting neon ‘closed’ signs on their doors. She stomped her feet to warm her toes, listened to the crunch of gravel and salt beneath her shoes. They were expecting snow.
The man with the lottery tickets emerged. He smiled, nodded, and offered a ‘you have a merry Christmas, now’ as he walked by. But it was the sound of his truck engine revving to life and accelerating out of the parking lot that startled Sadie. It cut through the fog of exhaustion and quiet that was pressing on her brain after so many hours of driving alone while trying not to think. Suddenly she dreaded the five hours on the road still ahead of her and knew it could be even more if the traffic thickened up where it usually did near the Maryland border. A five hours that would feel longer regardless, the way her eyes stung and shoulders ached.
She swiped her credit card through and sent up a silent prayer to a god she wasn’t so sure she believed much in anymore that one way or another the bill would get paid.
A few minutes later Sadie found herself pulling open the door to The Texas Steakhouse. The interior- all the carpet, the booth backings, the heavy curtains- was done up in different dark shades of red and grey, giving the whole place a rather sickly appearance, a bit like a bruise or a newly infected wound. Low hanging lamps splashed puddles of yellow light over the tables. A wood paneled bar sat in the middle of the room, gleaming with an excessive shine that seemed to suggest a bored bartender had spent the day running a rag over it. A jazzy version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ filtered down from unseen speakers, but the dining room was otherwise quiet, empty.
Sadie took a few steps in and called out a ‘hello’ in greeting. No one answered, though she caught an echo of laughter from behind a swinging door she assumed led to the kitchen. She swung herself onto a stool at the bar to wait. The music cut to commercial, and a local news anchor with a slight drawl detailed the odds of a white Christmas as being as high as eighty five percent. Sadie couldn’t remember how many winters it had been since she’d seen real, stick-to-the-earth kind of snow. They didn’t get that in Charlotte. Last Christmas she’d worn a short sleeve dress when they’d gone to church with Brian’s parents. The sky had been a perfect bright blue, and she should probably have known even then that it wasn’t going to work out with Brian.
More laughter and the sound of jingle bells came from behind her, and she turned to see two people emerge from the kitchen doorway. A kindly faced woman and a taller, more severe looking man, each in black button down shirts and fuzzy red Santa hats. They quieted when they noticed Sadie. They looked surprised to see her.
‘Hi, I’m sorry. Your sign out front said you were open, and I wouldn’t have expected it, but there’s nothing else really around that I could see, so I hope it’s okay I just sat here?’ She waved a hand at the bar, and the two restuarant staff blinked. Then the woman smiled.
‘Oh, we’re open. The boss doesn’t believe in closing down for an hour more than he needs to, but heaven knows we weren’t really expecting to see anyone today,’ she said, fishing behind the bar before sliding a menu across the Sadie. The man set a water glass down in front of her.
‘So, what can we get you, sweetheart?’ the woman asked before Sadie’d had time to read beyond the first two specials.
‘Do you have anything vegetarian?’
‘This is a steakhouse,’ the man said, raising an amused eyebrow at her.
‘Kirk, don’t be mean.’ The woman elbowed him. ‘I’m sure we could come up with something for you.’ She made to pick up the menu, but Sadie stopped her with a hand.
‘Wait, no, what the hell, I’ll have whatever your cheapeast steak is,’ she said, before adding, almost as an afterthought, ‘I was only a vegetarian because he was anyway.’
‘Coming right up.’ The woman picked up the menu and disappeared back towards the kitchen, jingle bells ringing. The man, Kirk, didn’t follow but stayed behind the bar rearranging a stack of pint glasses on the counter. Sadie picked at her nails. Each pretended for a moment to be absorbed in the lyrics of ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.’
‘So, can I get you a drink?’
‘No, that’s alright. Driving.’
‘Right, yeah. Where you headed?’
‘Pennsylvania. My parents’ place.’
‘That’s a while to go yet. What time they expecting you?’
‘They’re not.’ He looked at her then, pausing in his work with the glasses. ‘I mean, they’re not expecting me because it’s a surprise. A very last minute surprise. But what about you?’ She gestured to the Santa hat he was still wearing. ‘Must be kind of a bummer having to work today.’
‘It’s not so bad. Carla- that was Carla,’ he cocked his head towards the doorway, ‘she brought in cake. And she’s been teaching us how to salsa in the kitchen.’ Sadie laughed and watched his cheeks go slightly pink as he grinned in response. ‘Her family’s from Ecuador, apparently it’s a Christmas tradition. I don’t know.’
‘Sounds like fun.’ He looked past her then, over her head towards the front door where Sadie could hear the sounds of someone else entering the restaurant. The man approached the bar, and Sadie was surprised to recognize him as the other customer from the gas station earlier, the one with the truck. She watched as he greeted Kirk the bartender warmly. The two clearly knew each other, and the newcomer sat down one stool over from Sadie.
‘You got it,’ he said and accepted the pint glass handed to him. He’d taken his hat off, and his hair was mostly grey. He had on heavy work boots and a plain sweater beneath the ski jacket, and Sadie again thought back to last Christmas and dinner with Brian’s parents. Their home in Myers Park with the one-hundred year old oak trees out front, the table set out with three forks per setting, and his mother in pearls. And Brian who never questioned any of it.
‘Did you win?’ she asked him, before she could stop herself. The man turned towards her.
‘I’m sorry, did I win what?’
‘I saw you, earlier, at the gas station.’ She pointed back in the direction of the mini market. ‘You were buying lottery tickets.’ The man looked briefly confused, but then he smiled at her.
‘No, I never do win. Keep buying them anyway though. Can’t help thinking that it’s just going to be one more, you know? That the next one will be the big win.’ Sadie laughed. ‘My saint of a wife always said it was my worst habit. And she was right, it’s a terrible waste. She’s gone three years now, but I still hear her voice in my head, cursing me out, every time I go up to the counter.’ He shrugged and took a sip of his beer. Sadie pondered that.
‘In a certain light that could be romantic.’
‘I’d like to think so.’
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
‘Well I appreciate that, but enough about me. What’s a young lady such as yourself doing all be herself in this fine establishment on Christmas Eve?’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘I’ve got the time.’ It was then that Kirk and Carla reappeared from the kitchen bearing a basket of bread rolls and a plate piled high with steak and mashed potatoes and green beans greasy with butter. Sadie hadn’t realized how hungry she was until the food was in front of her. She hadn’t gotten the chance to eat her breakfast that morning.
‘Thank you, it all looks great,’ she told them. Their tasks then completed, they pulled up seats along the bar next to their guests.
‘This young woman here was just about to tell me what she’s doing eating here with us on Christmas Eve,’ the man said as Sadie took her first bite of mashed potatoes.
‘Going to visit her parents, right?’ Kirk responded. ‘She already said.’ The older man looked at Sadie, made a face as if to say ‘is that all?’
‘You don’t have to tell these nosey nellies anything,’ Carla said to Sadie. And then to the men, ‘Let the girl eat her dinner, she’s hungry.’
‘It’s fine.’ Sadie put her fork down. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to share with strangers, but she also thought saying the words out loud for the first time might help make it real. If nothing else, a rehearsal for explaining her presence to her parents. ‘I hadn’t planned on driving this far or seeing my parents, we haven’t spent Christmas together in a long time,’ she said. ‘But, I broke up with my boyfriend. This morning. So here I am. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go.’ The other three at the bar took a moment to absorb her words. Carla had the first question.
‘You broke up with him on Christmas Eve?’
‘He proposed,’ Sadie said.
‘See, I knew there was a story here somewhere.’
‘Shut up, let her tell it.’ Carla was leaning in now, the roll she’d taken to snack on left forgotten on the bar in front of her.
‘He made breakfast. Waffles. And we’d talked about getting married, of course we had, but not really seriously, so I had no idea this was coming. He had this whole romantic speech. And a ring.’ She held up her left hand. ‘We met in college, together for going on four years, but I was just sitting there in our kitchen this morning listening to him say all these things that were supposed to be wonderful and something just snapped. I mean, the world’s coming apart at the seams, and all I could think was that if I’m going to die in whatever nuclear apocalypse is coming our way, then I don’t want to spend the time I have left with you.’ She paused. ‘He couldn’t even remember that I don’t like real maple syrup with my waffles. I like the corn-syrupy fake stuff. Which is dumb and a little thing, but there were so many things like that.’ There was more silence then, except for the carols still playing on the radio and the faint sounds of the kitchen staff still practicing their salsa dancing in between lines of stoves and sinks in the back. ‘I guess I needed a change of scenery before the end of the world.’ Carla reached out a hand to pat Sadie on the shoulder.
‘Good for you, girl. The way my luck is, the president gets some sort of nuclear war going while I’m working. Boom. I die right here, up to my eyeballs in gravy.’
‘But, you won’t have to see it coming, thanks to our fine interior decor.’ Kirk pointed to the nearest window to illustrate how completely the dark curtains blocked the view of the outside world, and the two of them fell into a fit of laughter. They went back and forth trading increasingly outlandish theories about their odds of survival (‘Maybe the North Koreans will spare us because they heard about our excellent two-for-one Tuesday deal!’) as Sadie finished most of what was on her plate.
The older man sat quietly until Sadie set down her fork and made to check for how much change was floating around in the bottom of her purse.
‘Let me pay for your dinner.’ She looked up, but he was still staring straight ahead.
‘Oh, thank you, but it’s okay, really. I’ve got enough, somewhere, and a credit card if I have to.’
‘Please, I’d like to buy it for you. It’s Christmas.’
‘Are you sure?’ she asked. He finished his own drink and set the glass down with a clink.
‘There was a time I thought the world was ending, too.’ He turned to face her. ‘About three years ago, in fact. But my son and my daughter-in-law are on their way down from Buffalo with my new grandbaby tonight. It’s the first Christmas since my wife got sick that I actually put up a tree.’ He pulled a twenty dollar bill from his wallet and set it on the bar. ‘And your parents will be thrilled to see you.’
‘Thank you.’ She thought briefly of trying to give him a hug, but before she could embarrass herself in the attempt, Carla interrupted.
‘Wait, before you leave, you have got to see Kirk dance. It will cheer you up,’ she said and darted into the back only to return holding her phone and trailed by three more people from the kitchen. She hit play on something and pulled a freshly blushing Kirk from his seat. Shortly thereafter one of the chefs was untying his apron and offering Sadie a hand, and she was up and dancing and laughing harder than she had in ages as Carla sang along in Spanish and shouted dance instructions.
It was twenty minutes and many ‘merry Christmases’ later that Sadie finally found herself back in the quiet of the parking lot, standing beside her car. Her stomach hurt, from laughter, or dancing after a big meal, or from eating her first steak since moving in with Brian she didn’t know, but she didn’t much care. It gave her a physical sort of pain to concentrate on. The snow had started coming down in nearly invisible flakes, and when she turned her face up towards the sky they stung her skin where they landed on her nose and cheeks. She closed her eyes and pictured the next morning, everything covered in a fresh coat of white.