George pushes his finger slowly through the puddle of water on the table and thinks how there are loose ends everywhere in the world. “Angela, Sweetheart,” he says softly, “I don’t want to offend, but I couldn’t help noticing you putting the poison in my soup.”
The words hang over the table for a few seconds like a bad odor.
Angela lifts her long lashes and looks sorrowfully at George. “What?”
“I saw you put the poison in the soup.”
“When?” she says.
“Just now. Actually, a moment ago. I mean I saw you putting the stuff in — the powder, it looked like — when you thought I was looking at the blonde over there at the next table. Actually I was looking at the blonde over at the next table, but not the way you think. I mean, she’s not as good looking as you are, and her salients are not as pronounced as yours.”
“Why would I poison you for looking at a shapeless blonde?”
“Well, I didn’t say what your motive was, Angela, only that I saw you doing it.”
Angela gives him a gentle smile of approval.
“Put a bit of passion into it, George.”
“Why don’t you call the waiter over. Ask him how many women murder their lovers for looking at shapeless blondes? He should know things like that, in his line of work. Besides, have you tasted it? Do you actually know that it’s poisoned? Seems to me you’re being a bit careless. And what’s your definition of poison, anyway?”
“It had poison written all over it. I’m not in the mood for this.”
“Pity,” says Angela. “And listen, George, if I do want to murder you, why shouldn’t I try, if there’s a good chance I can get away with it? It’s your word against mine.”
“What kind of statement is that?”
“Call the waiter over and ask him if I can’t put poison in your soup if I want to.”
“Just call him over?”
“Call him, George.”
George raises his hand but is unable to get the waiter’s attention.
“Now that’s what I call a good-looking man,” Angela says, with exaggerated interest. “Wonder what kind of salary he makes, tips and all that. Could be he’s a medical student.”
“More likely he’s unemployable, essentially.”
“Oh, look who’s jealous!”
“I’m not in the mood, really, Angela.”
“You said that. What are you in the mood for, George? Eat up. It’ll get the fuzzies out after a day at the office.”
“I’m not eating anything until I get that beanpole waiter over here.”
“His name is Gabe, George. Remember? He told us,” she says with a laugh, ‘My name is Gabe and I’ll be your server.’”
After a lengthy delay, the waiter comes. Angela lays her slender fingers on his cuff and says, “You look like an intelligent person, Gabe. Is it wrong for me to poison George’s pasta fazool? That’s George sitting there.”
The waiter pretends to consider the question.
Angela says, “So what is your answer?”
“I suppose if you think you have a good reason and the reasonable expectation that you will get away with it, then go for it. Of course, your friend is unlikely to agree. But then, we can’t all agree about anything. It’s a proven fact.”
Then Gabe is gone again, and George says, “I notice you didn’t ask him to taste my soup.”
“He’s not unemployable, George. Did you hear how he talks? And a good looker, too. His thinking runs like ours. Are you uncomfortable, George? You should take off your jacket, loosen your tie.”
George says, “I’m fine,” trying not to feel scolded. He regards Angela closely, the frilly beige blouse hinting at transparency, the thin gold chain adorning her breast and coursing beneath her dark hair, the reddened lips. Only the latter seem to mark her out as a poisoner.
Angela now is watching Gabe. He is here, then he is there, visiting one table, then another, as if longing for society. He is tall, over six feet. He bends forward slightly to listen. He has the features of a child, George thinks.
“When he returns, we’ll pretend we don’t know him,” Angela whispers suddenly.
“Why should we do that?”
“Because if we don’t it’ll be the same old thing.”
“But it’ll still be the same old thing.”
“George, get with the program.”
But the waiter comes again before they can rehearse. He lays their platters. He says, without prompting, “Interesting you should question me that way. I may be a waiter, but —”
“He’s a Ph.D. in philosophy,” says George.
“Actually, I am.”
“But he aspires to be an actor.”
“That, too. But so does everyone here.”
“You certainly have the looks for it,” says Angela.
“Will you taste my soup?” says George.
“He thinks I poisoned his soup.”
“Oh, I know. But this isn’t really a question for me, it’s more a matter of ordinary experience, which counts for little.”
“Not when you’re poisoned,” says George.
“Oh, give me the soup, then. My life’s such a burden, anyway, so imperfect, so incomplete, so pointless. And suppose I do get famous, even rich one day — then end up confined to a home.” He covers his forehead with his arm and sighs demonstratively. “I’ve been thinking. You do end up dead, don’t you?”
He pretends to take a spoonful of soup, swoons and falls to the floor, gracefully, almost noiselessly. George notices that the brief pantomime and exquisitely executed act of falling go unnoticed by the other diners, and is pleased.
The waiter picks himself up and continues. “It was David Hume that did me in. The English Empiricists. Or was it the German Idealists? The French Existentialists? The Positivists? The Ironists? Who did I forget? What does it matter? My life is so . . . deconstructed! I’m so less than I was. Oh . . . !” He looks round the dining room and gestures broadly. “Not one of these cares. What if I was dying or something? I feel so . . . so, oh, I don’t know, objectified! I need some cause,” he continues. “Some banner above my head. Something to croak for. Or maybe a pet. Anyway, my landlord doesn’t allow pets.”
“You still have time to accomplish something,” Angela says sympathetically. “I really appreciate that.”
“I’ve lost the sense of this conversation,” says George.
Then Gabe rises smoothly to his full stature. “Management has instructed me to say that whatever I may think personally, we can’t have murders in here. Too complicating. Legal matters, insurance — all that. So I am to ask you to leave and do the murder outside. I’m sure you will understand. Dinner’s on the house.”
“Well, George,” says Angela when the waiter has gone. “I hope you will accompany me home. This world is increasingly a dangerous place.”
The cab deposits them outside Angela’s apartment building. They alight nimbly, topcoats aswirl. Angela pays the fare and steps back from the curb.
The short ride has been uneventful, except for George brooding and rummaging in his coat pockets and the compartments of his messenger bag.
They are alone now, though around them the city pulses. Their breath is visible in the cold light from the lamps. They pull at their scarves.
Angela says, “You’re angry with me, George, aren’t you, for trying to kill you?”
“I suppose it was the thing to do, given the terrible state we’re in.”
“Of course, Darling! It’s astute of you to notice, and to say so frankly! I mean, so many people don’t see their beliefs through to the end.”
“George draws a stylus from his topcoat and raises it to her face, then presses it against her forehead.
“George, what are you doing? It’s all ended.”
“I’m stabbing you, Angela, with this stylus — or I soon will be.”
“That pointy thing in your hand?” she says, gauging him.
“Yes, this. What do you think I mean?”
He thrusts the stylus closer.
“But you shouldn’t, George. Not now.”
“Shouldn’t I? What’s ‘shouldn’t’ to anybody anyway?”
“Oh George,” Angela sighs.
“You won’t have the opportunity, of course, but it’s too bad you can’t ask Gabe for his opinion.”
“George,” says Angela, stepping backward. “Have you wigged on me? I mean do you understand what you’re doing?”
“Yes, in the immediate sense, I think I do. And I’m planning to get away with it. I didn’t understand much of what tall, dark Gabe said, but I understood that part.”
“George, George, George, what am I to do with you? You don’t always grasp the nuances, George.”
A cloud of doubt spreads slowly across George’s face.
“What did I do, then, that wasn’t nuanced?”
“It’s how it’s played, George. The bit with Gabe, for example. The whole dance with death. He has a career ahead of him. He’ll be a fine philosopher, and we’ll be able to say we knew him when he was a menial. And then when we look back, this evening will have assumed its shape.”
“Its shape?” says George, pulling back a step under the spell of Angela’s resourcefulness.
“Look,” she says, pointing, and pushing George’s arm gently away. “Don’t stab me with that thing, Darling.” She laughs cautiously. “It’ll mar my complexion, which I work so hard to achieve … to please you.”
“Anyway,” says George, lowering his arm to his side, “you get my point.”
“Oh I do, George. That’s what I meant about the shape. We’re both operating from the same premiss. You put the perfect end to my beginning. So there’s a shape to our evening, George. I feel it points to something. There must be a point to our evening. A story, George, don’t you think? Otherwise it’s so boring, so like the others.”
George says, “Is there a point to our evening?”
“I feel there’s a story here, George, yes; together we made a story, a point, whatever that may turn out to be.”
“And I put the end to it?”
“To this part, yes. And it’s just like you, isn’t it, George, to do that? Just the thing you would do.”
George puts the stylus back into a pocket of his topcoat.
“It’s not as if we haven’t done this sort of thing before,” Angela goes on. “Perhaps we could put more passion into it, but . . .” and then, risking all: “We’re not ready yet for the violence thing.”
“All this talk is hurting my head,” George says, letting his shoulders droop while he gazes at the hypnotic movements of Angela’s lips. “I want you to know that.”
“It’s been a tiring day.”
George hears the unuttered words “little man” at the end of her sentence but makes nothing of it.
He says, “I think I’ll go now,” but he does not go. He stands and looks helplessly at Angela.
She smiles, taking a step closer.
“Let’s go in, then,” the flavor of her breath invading George’s weary senses. “What do you say?”
“And what’s in it for me?”
“Don’t you know?” looking at him intently, drawing closer again. Her long lashes brush his cheek.
“No soup,” she says.
John Symons, a Pennington resident, has contributed to the Summer Fiction issue since it