by Terry Shames
This is the secone of several Christmas short stories going up this month. This story was originally published in 2019 in Malice Domestic’s Mystery Most Edible.
Jenna slid her shapely legs out of the Mercedes, admiring how elegant they looked in the five-inch Jimmy Choos. Her newly sleek body followed in an effortless, graceful movement. She smoothed the creamy silk, size-six skirt, not because there was a wrinkle in it, but to remind herself how it felt to be slender again. Forty pounds, lost in the course of a year, to gain her darling little figure back. To remind herself of what her husband had once adored.
Eliot handed the parking valet his keys and hurried around the car to join Jenna. Driving to the Christmas party tonight, he had not once looked at Jenna. He had scowled during the whole trip. Now that they were arriving at the Clarion Club, a smile sprang to his lips. She knew the smile wasn’t meant for her, but just in case, she stood before him, striking a model’s pose, and waited for his reaction. No response.
She tried again, tossing her head so that her perfectly coifed hair swirled and then settled at the line of her chin. Manuelo had assured her it was the perfect length. She remained invisible to Eliot.
Manuelo, her hairdresser; Suzie, her personal trainer; Gretchen, her eating coach; and Elsbeth, her wardrobe consultant, had been her best friends, her cheering squad, her trusted companions for one whole year. Yesterday, she had assembled them at Cardoon’s, the most prestigious restaurant in San Francisco, for a celebration of their mutual victory. While they pigged out, she confined herself to an asparagus salad and a shrimp appetizer. She didn’t even flinch when they ordered dessert that was forbidden to her.
“I’ll bet your husband is so proud of you!” Suzie wriggled her body like a wholesome puppy. Had Suzie gained a little weight?
“He is so grateful to all of you for your help,” Jenna said, bestowing on each of them a beatific smile. Who knew what Eliot really thought? He had yet to mention the weight loss, the new hairdo, or all the money she had spent in the past year achieving her goals.
Now he gave her a cursory glance. “You look nice, darling,” he said automatically. She could have worn a nun’s habit and a potted plant on her head, and he would have said the same thing.
She had known it would be like that, and yet his comment was like a knife thrust into her. It was also the extra push she needed to remind herself why she had gone ahead with the final step of her plan.
He thought he was the smartest man in the room. But he was about to find out that he could be bested by the smartest woman in the room.
* * *
Their neighborhood had been holding the annual Christmas party at The Clarion Club in the leafy, upscale suburb of Moraga every year since long before Jenna and Eliot moved to the West Coast. The room was already half full, at least forty people chattering over the strains of Frank Sinatra singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The room had never looked more festive. It was a venerable Mission style clubhouse built of redwood with a massive fireplace, a beamed ceiling, and French doors that in warmer weather led out to a terrace. Tonight it was too cool for the doors to be open, and a fire blazed in the fireplace, lending a golden glow to the room. Each Christmas the members of the club spent hours decorating a massive Christmas tree that graced a corner of the room, and hanging wreaths of fresh greenery wound with loops of tinsel.
The only drawback to the club was the minuscule kitchen, so everyone brought food to share. A few of the men cooked, but the kitchen was mostly the women’s domain—and had become a competition. At first, it had been a relaxed, friendly affair, with the neighbors in playful rivalry. Over the years, though, the unacknowledged battle for who had brought the best dish had evolved from sporting to cutthroat. There were no prizes awarded, but there was always one dish that everyone knew in their heart of hearts was the winner.
Jenna was a great cook. Everyone said so, and she had reigned supreme for several years. But then, she had begun to lose her nerve. Each holiday season as the party neared, she grew more and more anxious, and gradually Marcia Overton’s dishes took precedence. It had taken Jenna a while to realize that Marcia had systematically undermined her confidence.
Each year, as soon as the food was served, Marcia would scurry over to taste Jenna’s offering, smiling at Jenna with fake anticipation. She would sample the dish, and then pause with a little frown and come out with a tiny criticism. “This mousse is fantastic. If it had a touch less kirsch, it would be perfect.” Or, “It’s always so hard to get a custard to set properly without it being a little too firm, isn’t it?” Little digs that got under Jenna’s skin and made her feel less competent each time they happened.
Last year had been the ultimate straw. “Oh, Jenna! The pork tenderloin tidbits were divine. The sauce? Almost perfect. But…” A dramatic, excruciating pause. “You could have cooked the onions two minutes less.”
What infuriated Jenna was that Marcia was right. Jenna had answered the telephone at a critical time, and let the onions sauté the tiniest bit longer than necessary. At first, Jenna didn’t understand why she let it get to her, but then she got it: Eliot’s eyes always seemed to be on Marcia, the charming divorcee, who had maintained her cute figure. A perky little blonde, Marcia dressed like a cheerleader in little short skirts and sweater sets. She had a twinkly laugh and enormous violet eyes that she trained on any man in her vicinity, but on Eliot in particular.
* * *
Tonight Marcia was at the front door to greet everyone because, as always, she had organized the food displays and knew exactly where she wanted each person to put their dish. She looked straight at Jenna and blinked. Then her mouth fell open. “Jenna? How…?”
Jenna had carefully planned for her appearance to be a shock. For the past six months, she had been making herself scarce while steadily losing weight. When she had to go out in public, she deliberately wore her baggiest clothes to conceal her emerging figure. In the past two months, when she realized there was really no way to get away with the ruse any longer, she had declined all invitations, pleading a sinus infection or another engagement.
“Hello, Marcia, you look very nice,” Jenna said. “What a sweet sweater. Did you knit it yourself?”
A tiny squeak of distress escaped Marcia. “What? No. I don’t know how to—”
“Oh, you have a loose thread. Let me tuck it in for you.” Jenna ran her fingers under the hem of the sweater and patted it. “There, that’s better.”
Before Marcia could recover, Jenna fluttered her fingers at her and said, “See you later.”
“Jenna, wait!” Marcia’s voice was a screech. “Where’s your potluck dish?”
“I’m having it brought!” Jenna sang out and plunged into the group of people hovering near the door, giggling as she imagined Marcia’s astonishment at this transgression. Everyone was required to carry their creations to the buffet table themselves—so everyone could see what they brought. Not that these rules were written down anywhere; they had simply evolved into iron law by custom. Marcia must have wondered what it could possibly mean that Jenna was having someone else bring her dish.
At the last moment Jenna couldn’t keep herself from turning and looking back. Sure enough, Marcia and Eliot had locked eyes, and were holding that pose. Not only had Marcia stolen Jenna’s confidence, but she’d taken her husband as well.
Jenna didn’t know how long their flirtation had been going, but she did know it had gone way beyond the “just looking” stage.
It wasn’t losing Eliot that galled her; she could live with that. It was the humiliation of the two of them making goo-goo eyes at each other in plain sight. And there was no one she could confide in or commiserate with because everyone claimed to love Marcia. “She’s just the sweetest, kindest, most selfless person.” If Jenna heard that one more time, she’d scream. Marcia was a snake.
* * *
Eliot joined Jenna and put his hand at her back to steer her to the drinks table. “I’ll have a white wine spritzer,” Jenna said.
Ken Tarkenton got into line behind them and began to speak to Eliot. When his gaze fell on Jenna, his mouth stayed open in an unseemly way. “Jenna. Wow. I hardly recognized you. I mean, you’ve…”
“Thank you, Ken,” Jenna said. “You look nice, too.”
Eliot stared at Jenna, puzzled. His ice-blue eyes widened and then darted past her for a moment as if he were wondering what had become of his wife. His dumpy wife.
“Everything okay?” Jenna said to Eliot.
He frowned. “Yeah, it’s just…you look different.”
“Vive la differénce,” Ken said, with a horrible French accent. “So, how’s business?” He was speaking to Eliot, but his eyes were still on Jenna.
While the two men talked, Jenna turned her attention to the food table where she could hear murmurs of appreciation as people surveyed the marvelous creations. Someone had gone all out on cooking a goose that lay bronzed and shiny on a silver platter, surrounded by tiny apples. There was a tumble of autumn vegetables from which wafted the scent of sage and rosemary. Jane Lucke had brought her usual gorgeous apple pie, and Mike Stronheim, who owned a bakery, had brought a lavish cake decorated with swirls of white and black buttercream. The partygoers could begin sampling at eight o’clock sharp, in ten minutes. Too bad most of it would be off-limits to Jenna. Her eating coach, Gretchen, would be so proud of her for holding firm.
She noticed Ken’s wife, Loni, heading toward them. Ken saw her, too. “Lucky you,” Ken said, nudging Eliot’s shoulder and winking at Jenna.
Loni grabbed Ken’s arm and pulled him away, singing out, “Sorry, I need him for a minute.”
“Did you say you wanted white wine?” Eliot spoke to Jenna as if he had run across an alien and needed to enunciate clearly and distinctly. His face had the dazed appearance of someone who was just emerging from a coma.
There was something unsettling about the way he was looking at her—as if he disapproved of the change she had wrought. He liked to be in control, and he was probably mad that she had accomplished the makeover of her own volition, without him getting to tell her how she should do it.
“White wine spritzer,” Jenna said. “I’ll be at the food table.” She walked away.
* * *
Standing next to the buffet, she glanced at her watch. She had insisted that the timing be perfect.
Sure enough three minutes later, Alain Perrault, a hunk her hairdresser, Manuelo, had introduced her to, prowled into the room. Dark-haired, wide-shouldered, with a smile that could melt an iceberg, Alain had eyes only for Jenna, as the plan called for.
“Chère Jenna, ma petite, I’ve brought your lovely fraises.” Balanced on his hand was a silver tray with Jenna’s buffet contribution: luscious, plump strawberries (out of season, flown in from Turkey), surrounding a dish of pink cream. Alain looked from the strawberries to her and his look said it all. I don’t know whether I’d rather taste the strawberries, or you. He set the tray down.
A hush had fallen over the room. Like a hunting dog on point, Marcia charged over to the table. “Strawberries?” she squawked. “That’s it? You brought strawberries?”
Jenna savored the sense that Marcia was losing control of her cool. “Yes, Marcia, I’ve decided that too much emphasis has been placed on rich dishes that aren’t really good for us. Don’t you agree?”
Alain turned his liquid gaze to Marcia and smiled with the hint of a sneer. “Les fraises à la crème. Parfait,” he said, his voice smoky and inviting. He turned to Jenna, plucked a perfect red strawberry from the top of the heap, dipped it ever so lightly into the pink froth, and brought it to Jenna’s lips. His eyes never left her mouth as she delicately nibbled it. He placed another strawberry onto his own tongue. Marcia whimpered and a couple of people sighed. “Vraiment merveilleux.”
“Truly,” Jenna said.
Alain kissed her hand and said, “Au revoir, ma chère,” and strolled out.
Marcia stared after him.
“Oh, Marcia,” Jenna cooed, “come and show me what wonderful dish you brought tonight.”
She knew perfectly well that Marcia had prepared an artful display of salmon mousse containing three pounds of Scottish salmon at twenty-nine dollars a pound, organic cream churned by hand with organic herbs, hand snipped and measured out to perfection. She’d seen it in Marcia’s refrigerator.
* * *
Before Marcia could say anything, Eliot suddenly appeared. “Darling,” he said to Jenna, his smile tight, “may I have this dance?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” Jenna couldn’t resist a smile of triumph in Marcia’s direction before she let Eliot guide her across the room toward the band. She reveled in the looks of keen interest that accompanied them, the handsome rich stockbroker and his slender wife. It was wonderful to have an audience.
Eliot pulled her close. “You look every inch yourself,” he said, nuzzling her hair.
“Really?” She was trembling. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“Yes, really…you bitch.”
She gasped and tried to pull away, but he clutched her tighter. “I’ve watched every move you’ve made to try and destroy poor Marcia. Every year she attempts to be kind and tell you how you should improve your cooking. And every year you get nastier.”
“Tell me how to improve! I’m a great cook. I don’t need her advice.”
“She doesn’t deserve to be treated so badly. You hurt her feelings.”
“Oh, poor her. Have you started screwing her yet?”
“Don’t be crude. Of course not. We’re just friends. A harmless flirtation.”
“You’re lying. You been sleeping with her for weeks.” He was holding her so tightly that she was having trouble breathing.
“Don’t squirm. It isn’t sexy. You’re going nowhere. You thought you were soooo clever, hiring all those high-priced makeover artists. Not to mention your phony French friend, Alain.” Sweat had sprung out on his brow, and he pulled back and blinked at her as if he was having trouble focusing.
“Oh dear, and I thought you’d be so pleased at my new look.” She batted her eyes at Eliot.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care. I’m not putting up with you anymore. We’re done.”
“Oh, Eliot, no. Please. We can begin again. I promise I’ll do better.” She kept the smile plastered on her face so that people nearby would think they were having a pleasant conversation. I hope you won’t leave me penniless. Are you feeling okay, Eliot?”
“I’m fine. It’s hot in here.”
“The temperature seems perfectly comfortable. I wonder if you’re okay. Could you have had trouble with something you ate? Something you had at someone else’s house?”
“What do you mean?” He staggered slightly.
“Where were you this afternoon? Never mind, I know the answer. You were with her.”
“How do you know?”
“That isn’t important. But think about this afternoon. Remember the mushroom tarts? The ones that little tart Marcia served you afterwards?”
“What about them?” His face had grown white.
“Tasty, were they? I’m sure Marcia knows as well as I do that you’re a sucker for mushroom tarts. How sweet of her to go to such trouble, especially since she doesn’t care for them. And how strange that she didn’t notice the mushrooms were not quite like the ones she bought.”
Eliot groaned and leaned heavily on her. “Jenna, what did you do?”
“Poor Eliot. Who would have thought Marcia would be so careless to use bad mushrooms? What a shame. Oh, Eliot!”
He slipped to the floor, writhing. Several people swarmed over to help. “What’s happened?” Ken Tarkenton asked.
Marcia shoved past Jenna and hurled herself onto Eliot. “Oh, El, honey. What’s wrong?”
“Get away from him, Marcia,” Jenna said. “He said he was terrified of you.”
“What?” Marcia’s face was stricken. “He would never say that.”
Falling to her knees, Jenna moved herself between her husband and Marcia. Eliot was lying still. In her most distressed voice, Jenna wailed, “That’s what he said, that he was afraid of you. I don’t know what you’ve done, Marcia, but you’d better hope he’s okay.” She cradled Eliot’s head in her lap. “Please, someone call 9-1-1.”
* * *
Two weeks later, Jenna, dressed in elegant black mourning slacks and a sweater met her eating coach, Gretchen, at Green’s in Ft. Mason. Over a delicious, healthy meal, they discussed how Jenna would stay true to her diet on her European trip.
“I fully intend to be disciplined,” Jenna said. “You’ve been such an inspiration to me.”
Gretchen, a trim fifty-year-old, smiled. “I know how disciplined you can be.”
The two women smiled at each other.
Jenna paid the bill. They rose and walked out of the restaurant. Jenna brought a fat envelope from her purse and handed it to Gretchen. “Have you decided which island you’re going to settle on?”
“I’m thinking St. Lucia. So lush and green. It really inspires my art. It will be wonderful to get to pursue my creative spirit full-time.”
Jenna hugged her and stepped back. “Can I ask you one thing? How did you learn so much about mushrooms, anyway?”
“Research,” Gretchen said. “Remind me sometime to tell you about my husband. May he rest in peace.”
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Oh, I love revenge stories. What fun, Terrie, to read. Keep writing!