Joan sees Henry’s wife, Eleanor, in the town’s supermarket, her shopping cart full, her hair straggly, wild looking like she’d been caught in a windstorm. Baggy black slacks. Black tee shirt. The usual: careless, sloppy academic wife bit.
Joan could easily have turned and ducked down an aisle and avoided Eleanor, but she doesn’t because she is a civil person. “Morning, Eleanor. How are you?”
“Ah, Joan. You really want to know?” Eleanor peers at her oddly and then pushes her loose dark glasses back up on her nose. “I’m dying. Cancer.”
Joan stands there in her Anne Klein crew neck dress and her sling-back pumps, absolutely helpless.
“It’s inoperable,“ Eleanor continues absently. She’s studying the jar of Valencia Orange Marmalade in her hands. “Henry adores this on toast, mornings,” she says absently. “Positively adores it! Have you tried it?”
Henry never stays for breakfast.
“It’s marvelous – but they’ve only this one jar left.”
Impulsively, Eleanor thrusts it at Joan.
“Do take it. It’s funny about the cancer,” she continues. “It’s been there for a long time. I just sit in my tub looking at my breast and saying over and over, ‘Go away you god-damned growth!’ But nothing happens. I’m reconciled. I’m forty-eight and our kids are grown.”
“Chemotherapy?” Joan asks. “Laetrile? There must be something?”
“Poor little Joan,” Eleanor says, pushing her straggly hair back. “You young people always think there must be something.”
Joan is appalled. Henry has never said a word about this. “I’m terribly sorry, Eleanor,” she mumbles.
Eleanor pats her hand perfunctorily. “Of course you are. I’ll tell the manager they’re out of this marmalade. You’ll be wanting other jars once you taste this, I’m sure.”
She steers her load of groceries towards the crowded check-out lane leaving Joan so mad she wants to smash the damn jar in her hands on the floor. But, she’s been well brought up, so she doesn’t.
After a moment’s reflection, she moves smoothly towards the express lane and easily opens her Gucci purse.