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Three's a Crowd

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“What’s your plan now, Benny?” Fred asks.

“Look, I didn’t mean to overbook, but what’s wrong with a double date, hmmm?”

George touches his elbow, and Jack turns towards him. Men in black ties and women in furs eye them curiously as they blocked he way to the front desk. Fred, George, and Jack move into the longue area where other patrons sat, talking quietly while they waited for a table. The three of them garner the attention of nearly everyone in a matter of moments.

“Well, what’s the plan now that we’ve got people talking about us?” George asks.

“We give them something to talk about,” Fred says.

He casually wraps his arm around Jack’s waist. Jack’s breath catches, but he hides it well. George watches him slip into character right before his very eyes.

“Now cut that out!”

The arm retreats, but Fred’s smile does not. Jack scowls until he makes eye contact with George again. The way George is looking at him makes Jack’s stomach swoop. There’s a clear message in his eyes: I’m watching you. This was exactly why he never wanted to go out with the both of them in the first place.

“Mr. Benny?” a voice says, momentarily breaking the building tension.

It’s the maître de. Fred and George quickly slip into their on-screen personalities as well.

“Yes, that’s me! Is my table ready?”

“It is. And we’ve added an extra chair as it appears your party has grown.”

Jack knows that’s restaurant talk for “that’s gonna cost extra.”

“Fine, fine,” he says, ignoring Fred’s muttered skinflint. “Please, show us the way, my good man.”

The host’s brass buttons gleam in the low light of the crowded establishment as the three of them weave between tables, patrons, and waiters loaded down with heavy trays. There’s a band playing, but Jack can’t see them behind the strategic potted palms and hanging flowers.

“Here you are, sirs. And here are your menus. I’ll be back shortly to take your orders,” the man says before disappearing into the crowd.

They sit. And when they do, Jack can’t help but notice how they both move their chairs towards his, leaving most of the circle noticeably unoccupied.

“This is a nice place, Jack,” George says. He reaches for his water glass, and he brushes hands with Jack before picking it up and taking a sip. “Do you usually take Mr. Allen out to establishments like these?”

“Now, George—”

“Alright, Jack,” Fred interrupts. “Now let’s get this thing settled before this charade goes any further. You were obviously planning to go to a lot of trouble to wine and dine one of us, and before this evening gets too far along, I’d like to know which one of us you’re planning on taking home.”

George cocks his head and looks at Jack.

“Is he always this charming?”

“There’s no reason to be jealous, George. It’s sort of how we became interested in each other in the first place.”

“Interested? That’s putting it mildly,” Fred says. “I don’t think ‘interested’ quite covers that little act you performed at the Hilton last weekend, and I’m not talking about your violin.”

He smiles like he won the war; George was just getting warmed up. George feigns disinterest and opens his menu.

“I can guess what you mean,” George says, eyes scanning the meals and the prices. “Why, the first night I met Jack, he—”

“I’m right here, you know!” Jack shouts.

A few people sitting near them turn and look. Jack smiles sheepishly and waves apologetically.

“Don’t look now, Jack, but you’re blushing.”

George doesn’t even need to look up from his menu to know. Jack kicks his shin under their candlelit table.

“Look, I said I was sorry, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I got us into this mess. I’ll be sorry until the day I die! There. Now can we please enjoy the rest of the evening in peace?”

Fred cracks open his menu.

“Don’t worry, Jack. I’m sure you’ll think of some way to make up for your embarrassing social blunder.”

The way he’s leering into his makes Jack’s pulse race.

“Ha ha, very funny. Has anyone ever told you what a gentleman you are? Because I doubt it.”

George and Fred share a look.

“Alright, now just what exactly was that?”

George closes his menu and rests his elbows on the table. Jack finds himself leaning in in kind before stopping himself short.

“I think Fred’s got a point, Jack. Which one of us were you planning on courting this evening? I’m guessing you invited me along first since I’ve known you longer.”

“I don’t remember who I asked first. If I did, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion!”

“I don’t know what you boys are ordering for dinner, but I know what I’m having for dessert,” Fred deadpans.

George lets out a raspy laugh, head thrown back. Jack’s mouth twists at the sight. No one should be making George laugh like that except him or Gracie.

“I don’t see what’s so funny. I don’t know why this can’t still be a nice dinner between friends.”

Jack hopes he comes across braver than he feels.

“I think it would be to the benefit of all of us if we stopped pretending this was merely going to be a wholesome night out on the town,” Fred says.

George smirks, but their waiter comes back before Jack can reply. Fred gets the duck. George gets the steak. Jack gets the lasagna. They all order martinis while they waited for their meals. The waiter leaves behind the wine list.

“I’m surprised you’re drinking, Jack,” George says.

“I don’t want to remember this night tomorrow,” Jack grumbles. “You’re both being insufferable.”

He knocks his glass back and swallows hard.

“At least give me the opportunity to give you something worth remembering,” Fred says.

Jack sputters.

“That’s the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

George watches Fred’s hand slip from the top of the table to underneath it. He pulls out a cigar, lights it, and drapes his free hand over the back of Jack’s chair, effectively trapping Jack between them even further.

“Jack, how long have we known each other?”

“Twenty years, probably. Why?”

“Don’t you think by now that I know how to play you like a fiddle?”

George!” Jack hisses.

Fred’s hand on Jack’s thigh tightens, and Jack inhales. He looks at George as if to say, “Your move.”

“I gotta tell ya, gentlemen. I’m rapidly losing my appetite for steak when there’s another option on the table here.”

“Oh, is that how you got CBS to pick up your option?” Jack asks.

“That was a good one, Jack. Real cute,” George says. “You and your big mouth.”

George tilts his head to get a look at Fred over Jack and puffs on his cigar. George was not going to let this go without a fight. And hell, if they were sitting any closer to Jack, George is sure they would be banned from ever coming back. But if that was what it took…George moves his hand from the back of the chair to Jack’s shoulder.

Fred’s mouth twitches in what might have been a smile or might have been a smirk. George waits with interest for what the man’s next insult or insinuation was going to be. He looks George right in the eye while Jack imperceptibly shakes his head.

“You know, George—may I call you George? I think we’re at that point in our brief relationship now. Am I correct?”

“I think that’s safe to assume, yes,” George says.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Jack shouts.

“Now, now, Jack. The grownups are talking.”

“Now, now, Jack. The grownups are talking,” Jack mimics, unheeded.

Fred and George continue.

“George, all this time I assumed you wanted Benny because he’d turn over for you, but perhaps your eagerness for Benny is because of just the opposite.”

“Fellas, please can we just—”

“Dinner is served!” their waiter declares.

He immediately sets their food down in front of them, and Jack breathes a sigh of relief. If they were eating, then they wouldn’t be arguing, and their hands would be busy with cutlery instead of on his shoulder and thigh.

“And which wine shall I fetch for you this evening?”

“Anything,” Jack says. “Anything that goes good with what we ordered. Something strong.”

“Of course, sir. One moment, please.”

The man vanishes again, and it appears that the two of them are going to start up again. Jack clenches his fists, shuts his eyes, breathes deeply, and speaks.

“Now listen to me, and listen good. You both know I love you both dearly. Aside from all the dirty laundry you’ve been airing tonight, you’re good friends of mine. And I’d appreciate it if you two just let this one go so we can actually enjoy ourselves.”

When he is met with no resistance, Jack opens his eyes. They both look sufficiently chastened.

“You’re right, Jack. I’m sorry. I let my jealousy get the best of me, and I apologize for embarrassing you,” George says.

“Well, thank you, George. I understand, and I forgive you.”

He turns to Fred.

“Have you got anything to say?”

“Alright, Benny. I’m sorry. But don’t go running to the papers about it. It would injure my reputation as an unfeeling brute.”

Jack grins.

“There, you see? This isn’t so bad, is it, fellas?”

The waiter returns with a bottle of red. He produces three glasses.

“Now what is the name of this wine?” Jack asks. “In case I want to find it again.”

“Ah,” the waiter says and begins pouring. “This one is rather naughty. It is produced in a perfected process of three steps. And the vineyard has christened it Ménage à Trois.”

George doesn’t think he’s ever seen Jack drop to the floor laughing that quickly. Not even when he tricked Jack into walking over to his car to say hello only to drive away by the time he crossed the street.

The waiter looks baffled.

“Why don’t you just leave the bottle here,” George suggests.

“Yes,” Fred agrees. “I think you’ve given us a solution to our problems.”

“Oh good, yes,” the waiter says. He places the bottle on the table in front of them. “Let me know if there is anything else.”

The waiter books it, and Jack finally makes it back to his seat.

“Now, if you’re finished, Jack, I’d like to eat my dinner before it gets cold,” George says, smile peaking in at the corners of his mouth.

He cuts into his steak.

“Before we dig in, I believe a toast is in order here.”

Fred holds up his glass of wine, and Jack and George do the same.

“To Jack Benny, the only man in show business who would fake a scheduling error in order to have two people cover his expensive dinner bill.”

It earns a laugh from George who says, “Here, here!”

They both look at Jack waiting to see what his reaction will be.

“This is the silliest night I’ve ever been a part of.”

Jack shakes his head, trying to suppress a grin, and they clink glasses.

They do end up splitting the bill, three ways.