Shrimp Night

It’s Wednesday and, as he has every Wednesday for the past twenty years, the Zodiac Killer, age 81, is catching the early-bird special down at Western Corral. On Wednesdays, the buffet features shrimp three ways, and the Zodiac loves shrimp. The Zodiac always tries to be the earliest of the early birds, but he’s having a hard time getting going today. Now the place is too crowded, and the air is too thick, a smothering combination of body heat and steam from the buffet that settles on him like an unbreathable smog. He sees the same faces in here every time, but he doesn’t know any of their names. They’re all shriveled and gray, separated from ghosthood by only the thinnest sliver of corporeality. Even so, they have a quality about them. They smile dentured smiles at each other, pat each other on slumped backs, and take hold of each other’s bony arms as they lower themselves into their seats. They talk in voices either tissue-thin or scorched by decades of smoke, but they always seem to have plenty to say. Soon, there is laughter. He has never sat with any of them. He suspects they can tell he lacks this quality they possess, and they avoid him for it. The Zodiac is not good with people. He sits by himself.

            Halfway through a plate of garlic parmesan shrimp, the Zodiac finds his mouth uncomfortably dry, but his water glass is empty. His waitress, a pretty blonde named Karla, seems not to have noticed. In another life, he would have made Karla pay for her inattention with her own blood, but that life ended long ago. It’s hard to believe it ever existed, really. Looking at that period of his life down the backward telescope lens of years, it feels more and more like one of those good ideas that make sense only to the young:

            “I used to drag race.”

            “I used to run with a gang.”

            “I used to kill people.”

            He can only shake his head. Acceptance of the past is the beginning of healing. It is what it is.

            But, dang it, he really could use some water. The Zodiac’s salivary glands don’t work so well ever since the chemo a couple years back. Where the heck is Karla already? He raises his glass, hoping to catch somebody’s attention, and swivels in his chair. Something pops, and he momentarily feels disconnected from his hand—

            (the inside-out feeling that time is missing)

            (not much surely)

            (still light outside the window)

            The Zodiac blinks and the world snaps back into focus. He shakes his head. What in the world? His hand is still in the air, but the empty water glass has fallen to the floor. No one appears to have noticed. Maybe because the Corral has emptied out considerably, and mercifully so. The atmosphere is no longer uncomfortably thick. He bends painlessly at the waist to pick up his glass, and when he straightens, he is jolted to discover he recognizes the man at the vegetable station.    

            No. Surely not. Not after all this time.

            But yes, he knows this man. He recognizes the heavy jaw and wide mouth. More importantly, though, he recognizes the thick, shiny scar on the side of the man’s neck.

            The Zodiac gave him that scar on the shore of a lake in 1969.     

            The Zodiac lives in Florida these days. The last time he saw this man, it had been on the opposite side of the country. How could he possibly be here, in this restaurant, in this town, on this particular day? 

            But here he is nonetheless, ladling mashed potatoes onto his plate beside a pile of lima beans.

            The Zodiac can’t stop staring. He is seized by an almost physical urge to talk to the man.  After all, they have a history together. They go back. But what to say?  Hey, friend, recognize me?  No, I guess you wouldn’t.  The last time we hung out, I was wearing an executioner’s hood and stabbing you and that good-looking gal of yours. No, that probably wouldn’t do. Still, though, the need for some sort of connection feels as necessary as eating food. One thing the Zodiac learned in AA is that God doesn’t make mistakes. There are no coincidences. This man is here for a reason.

            He picks up his tray and heads toward the steam tables, trying to glide nonchalantly through the dining room, even though his heart is slamming against his chest, sending small tremors through his body. His extremities feel like cushions for thousands of hot pins, and he’s worried he’ll drop his tray. But the Zodiac is no stranger to feeling overexcited and still pushing through. He concentrates on his breath, just like he was taught in yoga, and immediately starts to feel better.

            The man is the only other person in line, and the Zodiac stares at him from behind. He’s dressed in a pink knit shirt that strains against his broad shoulders and large frame. He’s put on some weight since the Zodiac first met him, but he wears it well. He looks healthy, and the Zodiac is glad to see it. He’s hit by a wild compulsion to bend in closer and inhale the man’s scent. But just as the Zodiac extends his neck, the man abruptly turns as though he’s forgotten to add something to his plate. And just like that, they are face-to-face, separated by only inches.

            “Can I help you?” the man asks. The Zodiac can see the man evaluating him, and his mind feels scoured and dry, as though he’s been caught in a sandstorm. His lips part, but only a hot, arid whistle emerges.

            “Hey there, seriously, are you okay?” The man’s eyes are wide and blue, full of genuine concern. From some reason, the Zodiac is glad to see the man cares.

            He forces his brain to start working, however creakily. Seeing the man up close like this is a little overwhelming. He wants to ask, How are you? How has your life been? Where did it take you after the lake? How did you heal? And most urgently: Have you forgiven me?

            “What shrimp…do you like?” It is the best he can manage.

The man tilts his head and scrunches up the skin between his eyebrows, but the corners of his mouth twitch upward. “Can’t do shrimp. Allergic to shellfish.”

            The Zodiac is mildly disappointed to hear this. But there are other options.

            “How are—” he scans the man’s plate “—the beans?”

            “Beans are great. For me, anyway. Lot of people say lima beans are one of those acquired tastes, but at my age, I think I’ve pretty much acquired them all.” His lips sweep upward into a full grin. The Zodiac attempts a grin, too, though humor is not really his thing. He doesn’t want this to be the extent of their contact, but he doesn’t know how to say what he needs to say, either, so they smile awkwardly at each other for a few seconds before the man says, “Well, enjoy your dinner, my friend.”

            My friend.

            As the man begins to turn away, the Zodiac calls after him, “Say, just curious—you live around here?”

The man looks over his shoulder toward the Zodiac, whose skin feels prickly all over again. “San Diego,” he says, giving his head a slight shake. “Just visiting family down here.” He motions his tray toward a long table made of several smaller tables pushed together. People of all ages crowd around it. The group takes up an entire section of the restaurant.

            It was a long shot, sure, but the Zodiac is deflated all the same. Just visiting. So, there will be no weekly early-bird specials for the two of them. No morning B.S. sessions over coffee and newspapers at McDonald’s. No poker nights.

            “Family is nice,” says the Zodiac, who has never had a family of his own.

            “Truer words, my friend. Truer words”

            He knows the man wants to get back. One more thing.

            “Could I ask…How did you get—” the Zodiac taps his own neck “—that?”

            The man runs a finger along his scar, smiles. “Accident,” he says. “Long time ago.”

            The man dips his head and walks back to the long table, where a trim, gray-haired woman squeezes his hand as he sits. 

            After a moment of stillness, the Zodiac grabs a fresh plate and piles it with lima beans until they begin to run over the sides. He returns to his table, pushes the plate of shrimp aside, and digs his fork into the mountain of thick, gelatinous green. Outside his window, the last of the sunlight has turned plum, and his empty section is darkening. Again, and again, one after another, he brings heaping forkfuls to his mouth. The beans are disgusting, and the Zodiac eats every last one. 

Phillip Sherrod is an emerging writer whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a handful of journals. He graduated from the University of Arkansas Little Rock and lives in the South.