by Robert Boucheron

On an overcast day in July, a married couple is eating lunch at an outdoor café. He is in his sixties, plump and pale, the sort of man who sunburns easily and runs short of breath. She looks older, has yellow-dyed hair in a careful wave, and is elegantly thin. She has kept her figure over the years, but wrinkles are a fact.

They are retired, on vacation, on a car trip through Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. A guidebook and a road map crowd the table, which is made of metal mesh and painted black, exactly like the table in their back yard at home, which is Pennsylvania, but this one wobbles. The woman hates an unstable table. She tried to refuse it, but nothing else was free at the height of tourist season. The waitress apologized, but what could she do? They had to stand in line to wait to be seated, and the woman hates that even more.

The weather does not please her, either. It should be sunny and fresh, instead of cloudy and warm, as if someone were breathing down your neck. And it might rain. No doubt about it, this day is headed for disaster.

The man’s plate is piled with French fries, a vegetable smothered in sauce, and a slab of meat. With knife and fork, he works steadily, chews and swallows. A lifelong member of the clean plate club, he will stow every bit of that food in his belly. He eases it down the throat with a slug of beer for lubricant.

The woman has picked at her salad. Her plate is a mess. She sips from a glass of iced tea and puffs on a cigarette.

‘You’re digging your grave with that fork,’ she says in a noncommittal tone.

The man does not hear, or he ignores this comment.

The outdoor café is in the middle of Main Street, the pedestrian zone called the Mall, paved with red brick and planted with willow oaks. A small fountain splashes nearby. Squirrels and sparrows dart here and there, even under tables in search of scraps. They are bold and impudent, too quick to catch, like street urchins who snatch things and laugh at you. The woman does not care for urban wildlife.

The willow oaks were planted forty years ago. Their trunks rise thick and tall. Their canopy covers the width of the street. They look like a grove in a canyon. The hard surfaces of the building fronts and the brick pavement amplify sounds. Acorns drop from the willow oaks and make a racket like pistol shots.

Next to the couple, a bearded man in a white shirt reads a newspaper page by page. A Panama hat with a black ribbon occupies the other chair at his table. A waitress refills the man’s mug of coffee without a word. No cream, no sugar. He sips and nods approval. Middle-aged, well built, he wears glasses and a serious expression. Life is a full-time job. Summer vacation? Not for him. Is he a local character, a well-known attorney, a professor at the university?

The woman is curious, but she would never buttonhole a stranger. She can’t ask her husband, because the stranger would hear. Her husband is oblivious, stuffing his face. The university is a World Heritage Site, highly recommended by the guidebook. They will see it after lunch, if the rain holds off.

Acorns shower on the couple’s table, like bombs that make a direct hit, loud and destructive. Startled, the woman looks up to see if a squirrel is responsible. Then she looks at her husband to complain. Panic has seized his face. His mouth is open, but nothing comes out.

‘Bud!’ she shouts. ‘What is it? Are you choking?’

Bud can’t answer this question, of course.

‘Help! Anybody!’

Conversation ceases, and the outdoor café erupts. People leap to their feet, knock over chairs, spill drinks, and flutter napkins. They moan in a chorus of woe. The waitress rushes toward the stricken man. All this happens in an instant.

The bearded man in the white shirt stands behind Bud. He grabs him under the armpits and lifts him out of the chair—no easy feat—then locks his hands over Bud’s stomach and jerks inward. Everyone watches, horrified. Bud is silent, turning red.

The woman flies to Bud’s side. The man remains standing behind, and the waitress hovers at the edge. The four figures make a tableau, a historical scene. The man performs the Heimlich manoeuvre again, and again.

Finally, Bud coughs out a wad that contains a bit of gristle. It lands on the table and adds to the debris. He collapses in the chair and gasps. The woman kneels on the brick pavement.

The two accessories withdraw. The crowd murmurs approval, and there is light applause.

‘Pat,’ Bud says in a weak voice.

‘Don’t ever leave me,’ Pat says. She gazes up to her husband’s face and reaches one hand to touch his cheek. He is still stunned, not sure what happened.

‘Patty,’ he says.

‘Yes. I’m here, Bud.’

‘We had a close call?’

‘Close enough.’

‘I dodged the bullet this time, though.’

‘Thanks to him.’ She looks around.

The man in the white shirt and his Panama hat are gone. He left the newspaper loosely folded.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story (UK) and other magazines.