St. Johns Reads Short Story Contest Winner
St. Johns County Public Library System
Murder/Mystery Short Story Contest
TUNA ON TOAST
Marcella Ann Beeching
I sat across the table from Roger as I had done many times before in the eight years I had known him. But this time was different. As I watched, his face softened slightly. His eyes drifted left with a faraway look in them. He began to speak of a long ago memory . . .
He had been transferred to his seventh foster home in less than four years. He was tall for ten and should have been in the fourth grade, but instead was relegated to the third because of his patchy periods of education. The charitable nuns at Holy Angels School had kept his actual age a secret. Third graders could be cruel, some without thought and some without care.
He sat at the edge of the playground, contemplating yet another retreat to delinquency, scanning the area for a likely escape. The Sisters were deployed at regular intervals around the lot and were quite attentive to the goings-on at playtime. His attention was centered on the far left corner when he heard a voice from his right.
“I saw you sitting here without lunch, so I came over.”
He looked up and saw a short, stout girl with freckles and pigtails. Her name was Marcie and she was by far the brightest child in class. Without invitation she sat down next to him and opened her red plaid lunch box. She took out a square parcel and carefully began to unfold the wax paper wrapping. She looked at him and smiled. “It’s Friday in Lent, so it’s probably tuna salad or peanut butter and honey.” She lifted the edge of the white bread toast and her face took on a sort of glow as she happily exclaimed, “It’s tuna. On toast.”
The sandwich and wrapping lay on her lap and she reached back into the box for a small flat bag of potato chips. “The chips sometimes get crushed because the cradle for my milk is wobbly and the thermos escapes and rolls over everything.”
She gently grabbed the front and back of the bag and tugged. A few errant chips flew out but the rest settled back into the bottom of their container. Marcie lifted the corner of one half of the sandwich, sprinkling the salty crumbs on top of a beige mass that smelled very fishy. She repeated the process with the other half. “The chips add a crunch to the sandwich, so I like them better between the bread.”
Picking up one half with her right hand and closing her left around the wax paper holding the other, she extended her arm to him. “Try it. It’s really good.”
He looked down at the tuna and white bread, flat from the milk bottle, with crushed up potato chips inside. He took it from her and wrapped the wax paper back around the sandwich. “Maybe later. I’m not too hungry right now.”
She munched her half in small ladylike bites, regaling him with chatter in between. He sat looking at her, saying nothing. Her offer to share her beverage was rebuffed with a curt head shake, but she remained undaunted. She washed down her final bit of bread with her last swallow of milk and repacked her red box. Finally, she got to her feet, extended a hand to him and said, “My name is Marcie. Thank you for sharing lunch with me.” She smiled and walked off, a jaunty lilt to her steps and a happy swing in her arms.
He sat staring after her. The bell rang and he was suddenly aware of the bizarre half sandwich he still held in his hand. He stood up and gently tucked it into the pocket of his jacket and zipped up the flap. Then he followed her steps across the playground, back toward the school.
Roger turned back to face me. I met his eyes and could only wait for the story’s end.
He hesitated a moment, blinking back tears for the kindness of a little girl for a broken stranger.
“After school, I walked down to the river and stared at that curious bundle for a long time. Then I ate it. It was a horrible combination, but nothing before or since has ever tasted that good to me.”
I reached over and touched his hand. Soon we heard measured steps coming our way and the jingle-jangle of keys. The prison guard stopped outside the bars and said flippantly, “Well, Mr. Death Watch, what will your last meal be?”
I turned, my voice shaking in cold fury. “His name is Mr. Beatty.”
The guard smirked. “Right, Ms. Lawyer.”
Then he looked again at Roger and repeated, “What’ll it be?”
With great dignity, Roger looked the uniformed man in the eyes and spoke calmly and quietly.
“Tuna fish on white bread toast with potato chips and milk.”
My own eyes filled, knowing he would give me half and that I would eat it tomorrow, alone, by the river.