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by Joe Greco
Joe is a Northern California lawyer and writer. His short stories have appeared in 34th Parallel, Emprise Review, Bartleby Snopes, Dog Oil Press, and FictionDaily.
Jack Duncan wanted the éclair. It lay, regally, on a bone white plate, perched on crushed ice. Shallow bowls of insipid red Jello squares surrounded it. Jack imagined sinking his teeth into the chocolate frosting, the creamy filling oozing onto his tongue.
“Jack,” his wife, Margaret, said impatiently. “He’s ready to ring us up.”
Jack’s head snapped toward her. She and her friend, Beth, had pushed their trays down the metal rails and were standing in front of the cash register.
“Coming,” Jack said. He quickly pushed his tray to join them.
The cashier rang up their lunches. Jack paid.
“Why don’t you put your tray at that table over there,” Margaret directed, pointing. “Then come back and get Beth’s.”
“Sure,” Jack said, maneuvering around Beth’s walker. As he headed for the table, he stole a glance at the éclair. His mouth watered.
He deposited his tray at the table, returned to the register, and picked up Beth’s tray. She began her slow, clumping trek to the table. Margaret two-stepped next to her. Jack circled around them. When he reached the table, he positioned the two trays so he’d have a clear view of the desserts. Margaret and Beth would sit to his right and his left, their backs to the food line. As Jack sat down, he squinted, making sure that the éclair was still there.
Beth finally arrived, winded. Margaret set her tray down on the table, took Beth’s walker, and helped her into her chair. Margaret and Beth began to talk. Jack looked around the cafeteria of the Sierra Acres Convalescent Home. There must’ve been other éclairs, he reasoned; they wouldn’t have put out just the one. He eyed the gray, hobbled diners at the surrounding tables, wondering if any had been so lucky to sink their teeth into the luscious pastry.
Jack looked down at the dry steamed fish, soggy green beans, and lumpy mashed potatoes heaped on his plate. The smell nauseated him. He and Margaret had been lunching with Beth at the cafeteria twice a week for the past year. The food always had been uniformly terrible. But today the éclair had caught Jack’s eye like a lone star in a pitch-black sky, and his heart had leapt with joy and desire. Jack looked up to check that the éclair was still available.
“Aren’t you hungry, Jack?” Beth asked, her speech slurred.
“Oh, sure,” Jack replied, stabbing his fork into the pale slab of fish.
“I think you caught him dreaming about a hamburger, Beth,” Margaret said, cackling. “Poor Jack doesn’t get those anymore.”
Jack chewed a forkful of the fish, feeling as if he were going to gag. Margaret wouldn’t let him eat anything he liked anymore. She’d badgered him for years about his diet. When Beth, her best friend, had suffered the stroke, Margaret really had cracked down on him. “You should be ashamed, Jack,” Margaret had said. “The way you’ve lived, the things you’ve eaten. You should be ashamed. Poor Beth took good care of herself her whole life, and look at her. She just got bad genes. You should thank God, Jack. You should get down on your knees and thank God for your health. Lord knows, you haven’t done anything to deserve it.” Then she’d made a list of all the foods Jack could no longer eat.
Jack stared at Margaret as he chewed, mechanically.
“Oh, don’t be so hard on him, Meg,” Beth said, straining to form the words. “You don’t want him sneaking out at night to get a McDonald’s super-size meal.” Beth laughed, and then began choking. Margaret helped her take a swallow of water.
Jack stabbed his fork into the gray-green beans. He began chewing hard as he watched a hunched, fat man waddle toward the éclair. Jack’s pulse quickened. The man paused to look, but then walked away. Jack exhaled and swallowed.
Jack began eating more quickly, choking down mouthfuls of the horrible food between large gulps of water. He monitored Margaret’s and Beth’s progress. When they appeared to be roughly half way through their meals, he said, “Gee, none of us thought to pick up a dessert.” He squinted toward the food line. “I think there still are some Jellos left. Would you like me to get us some?”
He looked first at Beth, hoping she’d nod a quick “yes.” That was all he’d need, even if Margaret declined. Then he’d walk, coolly and confidently, back to the food line. He’d place three bowls of Jello on his tray. Then he’d grab the éclair. He’d slide the tray along the rails, keeping his back toward Margaret and Beth. He’d ask the cashier to give him a bag for the éclair, and—this was the most dangerous part—he’d stuff the bagged éclair into the inner coat pocket of his sports coat and hand the plate to the cashier. Maybe the cashier would look funny at him, but so what? He’d walk back to the table, smiling. Distribute the Jello. Suck down the slimy red squares in his bowl. Then say he needed some air; excuse himself. Walk outside; find a corner in the courtyard. Pull out the éclair and sink his teeth into it. Chew. He already could feel the chocolate and cream bathing his tongue, sliding sensuously down his throat.
Jack’s heart leapt as Beth began nodding “yes.” “How about you, Meg?” he asked quickly, cheerfully.
Margaret peered at him. “Are you going to have some?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Sure,” Jack replied, smiling.
“OK, Jack,” Margaret said, measuring him. “I’ll have some.”
Jack nodded, rose, and headed toward the food line.
Margaret smiled at Beth, waiting until Jack was out of earshot. “He wants that goddamned éclair,” Margaret said. Beth started to laugh, then choke.
Jack strode to the food trays. He grabbed a tray and proceeded, as planned, to the desserts. He gazed at the éclair.
“Mmmm. Looks good,” she said. Her voice was melodious, to Jack’s right. Startled, Jack jerked his head toward her. She was in her early twenties, olive-skinned, dark hair, blue eyes, petite, pretty, smiling. She was dressed in white. Her name tag—“Yvette”—hit Jack’s eyes like a bolt of lightning. “Go ahead,” she said, gently nudging Jack with her shoulder. “I’m sure you deserve it.”
Jack tried to resist looking back over his shoulder, but he couldn’t. He turned and saw Margaret, turning around in her chair, staring straight at him.
Jack had planned to tell Margaret someday. Confess. After all, he’d only been twenty-two when it had happened. Margaret had been nineteen, and Catholic, and wanting to wait for marriage. He’d met a young divorcee who’d lived in an apartment above the bakery downtown. She’d had olive skin, dark hair, blue eyes. She’d been petite, pretty, named Yvette.
Jack had planned to confess to Margaret someday. But the time never had seemed right, as the months turned into years, and the years became decades. Now Jack stood, gripping his tray as Margaret watched him. The monumental coincidence of the name and appearance of the young woman in white standing next to him catapulted his mind back in time. He remembered the smells of the pastries, wafting into Yvette’s apartment, and the lemon in her hair and her easy laughter and the sweat of their bodies. He saw her lying naked on the bed, her dark skin and hair contrasted against the whiteness of the sheets. Six months they’d been together before Jack had decided he must end it, marry Margaret. He’d told Yvette when they’d been seated at a small table in the bakery. She’d stared out the window for a long time, her eyes misting. He remembered how nervous he’d been, taking gulps of hot coffee as he’d watched her. And then, he remembered that he’d been eating an éclair.
“I’m sorry. Excuse me,” he mumbled to the young woman without looking at her. She moved away from him and watched him, holding the empty tray, walk away.
“Well,” Margaret said sarcastically as Jack approached, “I wonder what made you forget the Jello?”
Jack swallowed. “There’s an éclair up there, and I want it,” he said nervously. “I don’t want the damned Jello.”
“You don’t have to ask me for permission, Jack,” Margaret shot back. “I only try to tell you what you should do. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead. But do pick up some Jello for Beth and me, like you said you would.”
Jack looked down, turned and walked back to the dessert line.
“Oh, Meg, don’t be so hard on him,” Beth said.
“Beth, do you know how much easier his life could’ve been all these years if only he’d confessed that he was screwing around on me before we got married? For Christ’s sake, I’d have forgiven him. Poor Jack. He always wants what he knows he shouldn’t have. And he just ends up suffering, doesn’t he?” Margaret laughed loudly. Beth joined in and then began choking. Jack looked back at them, wondering what they found so funny. He paid and returned to the table.
Jack sat down and gave Margaret and Beth their Jello. He picked up the éclair and bit into it.
“Was it worth it, Jack?” Margaret asked, gently sliding a red Jello square into her mouth.
Jack nodded as he chewed. But the éclair tasted like the dry fish stuffed with the lumpy mashed potatoes. Jack’s eyes searched the cafeteria until he located the young Yvette, pushing a tray of silverware. He imagined her lying naked on a bed, laughing, her dark skin and hair contrasted against the whiteness of the sheets. He was running his hands over her smooth, firm skin, beaded with sweat. Jack breathed deeply, smelling the lemons in her hair.
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