I sat staring into the Styrofoam box, horror and suspicion sweeping over me. Beside me, innocently shoveling boneless, barbecue wings down her smooth, slender throat as if nothing was wrong, sat my wife in all her selfish glory. Her eyes were fixed on the television, one of three that we could see from our table, where the latest Packer game was being picked apart by sports aficionados past their prime. I narrowed my eyes at her. She hated football. She was only watching now because she knew I was going to find out the truth. Shoving my box of chicken away from me I turned to her in disgust.
“You broke up with the cashier, didn’t you?” My voice was just a bit too loud for a public restaurant, even a wing joint. The couple by the front window became suspiciously still, the husband turning to look while his wife stared down at their food. I didn’t bother to make eye contact. What would I do, smile and wave?
Popping the last bite of a wing into her guilty mouth she reached for another, barely turning her head to face me.
“What are you talking about?”
I pointed at the box of tenders then looked at her again with my eyebrows cranked all the way up my forehead, my expression as hugely exaggerated as her innocence.
“There’s only four tenders in there.” I crossed my arms and waited for an explanation.
“How many did you order?”
Looking at me as if I was mentally dysfunctional she reached out to pat my arm, her face a portrait of sympathy.
“That’s what four means, honey.”
“No! Four does not mean four and you know it!” I always got an extra tender no matter what amount I ordered. She knew it too. She couldn’t fool me. I knew she’d been cozying up to that cashier. I always got the extra tender as an effort to placate me while they made googly eyes at each other. I glowered and leaned in close so my breath could repel her like kryptonite. “Don’t play coy with me,” I hissed. “Did you two have a falling out?” I scrambled my brains to come up with something biting. “A saucy argument, perhaps?” I cringed just a bit at my own word choice there. Maybe I should have left it at a falling out.
“Jesus honey, what did you eat before we came here?” She fanned the air between us. “Roadkill?”
I spared a thought for the cold, two day old, Chinese takeout I had gulped down while she was getting ready; chicken and garlic, with garlic and extra MSG. Close enough, I thought, and gave her a nod.
“That doesn’t change your guilt.” I felt my point was obvious. “You need to make up with him.”
“Make up with who?”
She might be able to pull the wool over his eyes but, I was married to her. I knew the truth!
“You know own exactly what I’m talking about. You fix this and quick.” I pointed with my chin at the box of tenders congealing in front of me.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” She turned away and picked up another wing. “You have a seriously abnormal imagination, honey.”
“Don’t act like this is nothing,” I warned, dragging the box toward me again. “This is something.” I held up a single piece of chicken between my thumb and forefinger and shook it at her. “This is small, overcooked and completely lacking in effort.” My wife studied it for second, her green eyes sharpening to icy points. Her smile became feral.
“You’re right, honey. I’ll fix this.” She turned back to her wings. “Right after I give my phone number to the new cashier.”
I stared at her.
“What new cashier?”
“You didn’t see the guy who took our order?”
I shook my head like an idiot and tried to see past the soda machine, around the corner to the front counter.
“You gave him your number?” I was astounded.
“Not yet but we haven’t finished eating. There’s still time.” She smiled.
“What happened to the other guy?”
My wife shrugged and kept chewing. I watched the two little sticks she put into her hair to keep it rolled up and thought they looked a lot like chop sticks.
“Baby, be serious for a minute. What happened to him?”
She paused between bites and stared into my box of untouched, lemon pepper tenders.
“Eat up honey, before he gets cold.”
(The original Tender Tale is here)