by Claire Rudy Foster
He wouldn’t have the beef today. He’d have the salad. This morning, upon waking, he’d felt his belly slide like a hand over his bones. He had kept his back to his lover as he dressed. No, today he would have the salad. With a little dressing, but not too much, on the side. And was there a wine list?
He waited for the garcon to put it down on the table, and only when the man had turned his back did Albert pick it up—a little dirty, with a coffee-colored ring encircling the list of entrees. Maybe he’d start with a little cafe au lait, and wait for his stomach to settle. And for the coffee, there would have to be a little sugar, and a little square of chocolate. Most cafes gave only one piece, but he had been a patron long enough to have two pieces if he wanted. Albert flicked uselessly at the menu’s dog-eared corner. He disliked the dingy feeling of the paper. It had been rubbed by hundreds of strangers, their greasy paws pointing out whatever seemed most appetizing.
A fly, as if sensing his revulsion, flew in a lazy circle over the long, wooden bar. Its orbit grew larger and larger. Its body, fat and black, bristled with shining hairs. The abdomen was heavy, barely supported by the pair of buzzing wings. As a boy, Albert might have plucked this fly to pieces, held up its segments to the light like stained glass, and with the edge of a soup spoon pressed the yellow pap from its thrashing corpse. His tastes had matured. Now he wished for a swatter, and he tapped the menu on the table in anticipation of the first swipe.
The garcon took this as a signal to bring a glass of water, which he placed by Albert’s silverware on a flimsy cardboard square. The water glass sweated coldly onto the coaster and immediately rendered it useless. Albert watched the icy globes slither down the glass and soak the table. The garcon—he must be new, none of the others would have bothered him this way—stood staring, gaping, waiting. Albert determined to train him. He pinched his lips shut and eyed his napkin, maroon, folded neatly as a sail.
He could see the waiter’s hand and a part of his sleeve at the corner of his vision. The man’s arm was covered in a thick coat of hair so pale that it was nearly white. He fiddled with the edge of his order pad, and the movement agitated Albert’s memory and caused it to produce white rabbits, wriggling pink noses and those uncanny pink eyes that glowed in the dark. Among the hairs there were a few freckles, nothing exciting. Not a scar, not a burn, not a single imperfection. The fur clothed the garcon quite completely. He was armored in it, impervious even to Albert’s cold shoulder.
“Anything, sir?” he finally asked. As Albert had imagined, the voice was high and fluting. A real white rabbit. If there was rabbit on the menu, he’d order it. Would the garcon be insulted? Did he, also, nibble lettuce on his lunch break?
“Coffee,” Albert blurted. “Two chocolates.”
“Yes, two,” the garcon said. He nodded—wasn’t that a little obsequious?—and went to the bar to make the coffee. He steamed the white cafe cup first, a quick blast from the espresso machine. The fly, perhaps believing that its train was leaving the platform, accelerated its circle. Undoubtedly he had important places to go, this fly. He might have been galvanized by the steam, that reminder of time passing—for who had time to waste on this day, this fine spring day in Paris? Even the pigeons were busy at their work, digesting gravel and making white streaks on the statues in the Jardin des Tuileries. The fly, like a man who has realized that all day his watch has been running slow, gathered speed and zipped out a window.
Albert was sad to see him go. He had once gloried in the hunting of flies—it was his favorite sport—but his lover shrieked at him for behaving “like a fishwife” when he whisked at his targets with a checkered dishcloth. The bodies, legs upcurled like a sleeper’s half-open hand, crowded the windowsills. She complained, and he moved on to other pleasures. Back to his desk, the pen leading the words like a trail of ants. He would have the beef, then. If it was well-marbled. He could order the boy to bring it to him uncooked, so that he could see and inspect for himself the thickness of the steak, and how much blood it lost under the pressure of a curious finger. He turned his attention back to the menu and regarded with disdain the filthy smear across the listing for escargots.
Some days they served crab puffs; the restaurant manager scribbled the price in the window with white paste. Albert knew, as a regular patron, that the crabmeat depended on whether or not the manager’s sister had reconciled with her inconstant husband down in Marseille. It was this husband, a crab fisherman with so much love in his heart that he would share himself with any woman who returned his oily glances, who was responsible for the tiny, fried puffs that so delighted Albert. The crab was light, it was fresh, wrapped in thin leftover dough and crimped shut to make a shape that could resist the hot oil. The dough expanded in layers so thin that Albert had to peer at them like a man with his eye to the crack of a door. The manager’s sister had discovered her husband many times in this way, and Albert felt a sympathy for her when he raised the moist, golden puffs to his face, examined them, and cracked each one mercilessly between his teeth.
There were no crab puffs today, and Albert received his coffee from the garcon with disappointment. There were no perfect meals, no perfect lunches and no perfect cafes. As a man, Albert accepted this. But the thought of the crab puffs made him melancholy, and he waved the garcon away so that he could compose himself. The garcon collected payment from a couple wearing matching tweed suits who sat at an adjacent table. Their empty plates were smeared with egg yolk, and the man had a trace of baguette in his mustache that the woman removed with a gentle swat.
How could Albert think of salad, reading the list of delicacies? Yes, the crab puff was reliable, but then there was also the poached quail to be considered, the paper-thin slices of Gruyere and mushrooms wrapped in a galette. He bypassed the escargots, disturbed by the greasy smear. He had the choice of a fish sandwich with tomatoes, quite unheard of. The cafe must have changed chefs again. The last one had embraced strange foods: cucumbers simmered in white wine, souffles studded with olives, and marinades spiked with ginger and clove. Albert had suffered under this chef’s regime for years, and was not sad when the man accidentally severed his thumb over a pot of soup and was forced into early retirement. Albert would not have been sorry if the new chef—this radical who paired white fish and tomatoes—suffered a similar fate.
Perhaps a busboy would dump a drum of hot oil on him. It was a satisfying possibility.
The coffee was better than expected; this waiter wasn’t as incompetent as he looked. Albert detached the first square of chocolate, which had glued itself to the hot ceramic cup, and dropped it into his coffee. He set the second square a safe distance away, so that he would pace himself. The little tube of granulated sugar, he decapitated and poured in, along with the milk. He no longer feared the glances of the other diners, nor was the garcon brave enough to sneer as he cleared the empty saucer. Albert stirred, licked the back of his spoon, and stirred again. The first square of chocolate diffused in thin, sticky strands in the bottom of the cup. These threads on his spoon, like the shreds of a jellyfish that has been through a boat’s propellor, filled Albert with a childish satisfaction. He laid the spoon aside, where it could dry on his folded napkin, and let the thick scent of the coffee curl around his unshaved chin.
The April sunshine, pale and watery, came through the cafe window and illuminated the struts of the chairs. Outside, a woman with a dog stopped to adjust one of her high heels, which was wearing a hole in her stocking. The dog, thinking that she bent to pat him, jumped to lick her face. A pigeon watched the pair from the gutter above, with the mild, stupid expression that all pigeons wear. This same pigeon, moments later, flew down into the street and was nearly hit by a car. Its expression did not change, which gave Albert the idea that it was a puppet of some kind, a windup toy, and not a real bird at all. He signaled to the garcon, who came towards him with a smile not unlike that of the feckless pigeon.
“The steak,” Albert said. He pointed imperiously, but was careful not to touch the sullied paper. “Is it fresh today?”
“Yes, very fresh.”
The garcon estimated with his finger and thumb the thickness of the steak.
“May I see?” Albert asked. He leaned the menu against the water glass. The garcon looked confused—they both knew this was not usual cafe protocol—and then bowed slightly, promising to ask the chef what was available.
“He’ll probably rub it with mace,” Albert muttered to himself as the garcon passed through the swinging door. Albert composed his face so that, should the chef try to see him through the porthole in the door, he would see a calm man—no, a great man, deserving of respectful service, and only traditional sauces. The kind of man who can choose his own lobster from the saline tank. A connoisseur.
A pink, steamy face appeared in the round window. The glass smeared its features, but in any case Albert refused to look too closely. He studied the thin blue line that circled his plate like a ripple that follows a falling stone. While he waited for the cook to appraise him, he thought of his lover, Jacqueline, who undoubtedly was still in bed and making up a list of things to annoy him with when he returned to the apartment. He had been intending to leave her for months now, but did not feel brave enough to face the acidic wave of insults, the screaming, the crying. She behaved like the worst kind of wife, truly. Albert never brought her to the cafe; the thought of her sitting across from him was horrifying. She would have protested the second square of chocolate, his concentration on the fly, his sloppiness with the coffee spoon, and his request to see the steak. She would have insisted on the salad, which is all they had at home—and she would not have agreed with him when he suggested that he may as well have stayed in the apartment if he wanted to eat salad. Jacqueline believed in doing the same thing no matter where she was. This meant that she not only ordered dishes she frequently prepared at home, but she also made scenes in the Louvre, chatted in movies, and complained to strangers about not having enough money. Sometimes it also meant that she would attempt to make love with Albert on a park bench, but these occasions were rare and, as a result, just as embarrassing as the rest of her behavior.
The door swung open again, and the garcon appeared bearing a white plate on which there oozed an enormous piece of beef. The size of it, its redness, and the fingernail of white fat that marbled the edge of the steak astounded Albert. It looked thick and soft as a mattress. The fascia lay in plump, even lines. A single purple vein had burst as the meat was cut. The vein leached onto the plate by the force of gravity; it was not driven by any beating heart. The garcon held the plate towards Albert, as though to place it under his nose.
“It is very fresh, sir. We received it only a few hours ago.”
“It smells—fresh,” Albert said. He fought the urge to put his napkin over his face. The meat reeked of wilting grass. He smelled the oblivious cow, lolling in a patch of clover, swollen with sweet feed. It crept into Albert’s nostrils and lay against the lining of his nasal passages, exuding the faintest hint of manure. “Please take it away.”
“Would you like it cooked for you? The chef is willing to broil it.”
“No, no. It is not to my taste.” He nearly had to hold his breath. “A salad, please. A salad.”
“As you say, sir.”
Mercifully, the plate was removed.
“And a white wine. The house white will do.”
“Yes, sir.” The garcon disappeared into the kitchen with the uncooked steak. The only other man in the cafe, who hunched by the bar over a morning glass of orange-colored port, rattled his newspaper. He did not turn to look at Albert, who breathed deep sighs of new air. There, now, the smell was out of his nose—what had come over him? He felt dizzy, disoriented. It had been so red. He picked up his water glass and put his nose into it, snuffling like a sommelier. That, finally, cleared his head, and he was able to unfold his napkin in his usual neat way. Doing this restored a feeling of order. The maroon fabric, stitched by a factory machine, put a gentle pressure on his leg.
The world was quiet again, absent of flies, of shrieking women, of the smells and colors that pushed too urgently on Albert’s brain. He picked up his fork, watching the light catch the tines. To crush all this, to erase one monumental sense at a time—that was satisfaction. Each pigeon could be mopped away as easily as a stain on a window. He might pluck and scatter each cathedral on the wind, shedding stone angels like a dandelion its parasols. He could mop himself into a corner. He could survey the order he’d left in his wake—the spare emptiness. He could fold down the world like a fresh sheet on a bed in which someone has recently died. The windows were open, and the air—unscented, but slightly damp—would snap through unimpeded.
The salad came. A perfect curl of parmesan cheese crowned the haystack of greens. He speared the first piece of frisee with his fork. It broke the lettuce’s watery spine. Albert allowed the cheese to roll down to the lip of the plate in the direction of his water glass. There was absolute silence; even the drunk at the bar had set aside his newspaper and was dreaming up at the clock. Albert, with the precision of a surgeon, picked up the parmesan with the pincher of his hand. He set it on his tongue delicately and pressed it to the roof of his mouth. His mouth pricked with bitterness, and he tasted a dusting of pepper. He ground his teeth and the flavor deafened him, as though he was covered in a swarming coat of honeybees. Oh, it was satisfying, the way the world hurt him! It made lace of his flesh, gnawed his singing nerves with its million needled jaws.
Claire Rudy Foster holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Her professional activities include acceptance of critically recognized short fiction by various respected journals, several small press award nominations, including the Pushcart Prize, and grudging participation at academic conferences.