Age: 32. Occupation: Unemployed. Relationship Status: Married. Last book read: “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. Currently listening to: A lot of fucking NPR. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack stood in the buffet line and stared at the circles of icy shrimp and the tottering blocks of sliced cheeses, the fake smiles and small talk of his wife’s co-workers as they shuffled along loading their red and green plates. His stomach grumbled, a reminder that he hadn’t had money to pay for lunch. Brittany put her chin to his back shoulder and whispered, “Stop moping.”
He had been unemployed for more than a year, so his wife’s holiday work party was a double stab to the heart. Jack loaded down his plate with 15 shrimp and a red contrail of cocktail sauce, trudged back to their table and the flash smiles of Brittany’s co-workers. He waited with pursed lips for someone to introduce themselves, but no one did, so he charged into the breach.
“Who the fuck has a Christmas party in the middle of a goddamn recession?” he asked.
The couple sitting beside him shared a glance. She was an attractive brunette with a plunging neckline and tan, attentive breasts. She avoided Jack’s eyes and smiled at her salad. People pleaser.
“Seriously, isn’t this a bit unseemly?” he went on.
No one answered. A thin man with a red bow tie shoved back from the table and sprang from his seat and pirouetted into a busboy. The bow tie stumbled a bit and gaped at the busboy, who brushed past him and scooped up three finished salad plates and stacked them up his arm before grabbing a fourth and bolting around the nearest corner and into the kitchen, the intro from Smoke on the Water seeping past the swinging door.
Rajiv, Brittany’s best friend at work, coughed and a white glob somersaulted out of his mouth and stuck the landing on his sleeve.
“Nice shot, Rajiv,” Brittany said. She sat down and smiled at Jack and he pointed his nose toward the bottom of his scotch.
“What’d I miss?” she asked.
The eyes at the table all turned to Jack.
“Your husband was asking why anyone would have a party during times like these.” The brunette draped an arm across the back of her companion’s chair and her breasts strained against the thin black dress. “Brittany says you’re a newspaperman,” she said.
Jack flexed his back and leaned forward and reached for the last bun, but Rajiv grabbed it and said, “Too slow.” Jack flipped him off and everyone laughed. He filled the brunette’s water and then his own.
“Yeah, in a past life. Planning and zoning mostly,” he said.
Brittany added, “And he wrote columns too. Slice of life.”
“A lot of NIMBY stuff I imagine,” and Rajiv covered his mouth with his hand and swallowed to clear his bread. “I had to deal with that, see them about my neighbor’s garage. They wanted to turn the upstairs into two apartments and rent it out, and that meant more cars, kids, parties, bullshit. They passed it anyway and now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Jack often wondered about these people — the people who don’t make good neighbors — who assume the worst about everyone and do little to counteract their first impressions. “Sounds like you probably overreacted. Two apartments? Not like they’re building condos in your backyard.”
The brunette chuckled and slumped her shoulders, and her husband massaged her back and leaned in to whisper. They rose and headed toward the bar and Jack dropped his napkin on his plate and followed. Brittany said to him, “Get me a Stoli raspberry?”
Jagging through a succession of tables, a study in demeanors, the expressions from glum to glee, the occasional yawn. Women in black, red or green, irrespective of body type. The plump ones always opted for festive outfits. After all, do beautiful people ever wear Kelly green? Jack had consciously opted for “obnoxious casual:” navy blue blazer, white dress shirt, yellow tie, Kelly green pants, cherry socks and penny loafers. The brunette stared at his pants and smiled.
“Sir, can I freshen you up?” the bartender said.
“Scotch, please. Top shelf. Whatever you’re hiding below for the CEO,” Jack said.
“I happen to agree with you. Rather bacchanalian, no?” the brunette said.
Jack followed her black-limned eyes as they swung toward the rafters: white girders festooned with angels, stars and swirls of green and red bunting.
“We crashed Steve’s Christmas party two nights ago. Talk about useless. Cash bar on a Wednesday night,” she said.
Steve added, “Back when I worked there, spouses weren’t even allowed.”
Crashing the Christmas party of your former employer? Top notch.
“How’s work these days?” Steve asked. He sipped his drink and stared at Jack.
Small talk will bridge the fissures in evenings like this, the agreeable outs if you’d only take them. Jack ignored Steve’s question and answered with his own: “So, Steve, whatcha do for a living?”
His wife sucked on her red straw and swirled it in the glass.
“Right now I’m not doing much of anything.”
“Yeah, you two probably have a lot in common,” and his wife chuckled. “By the way, Brittany told me how you guys met. And how you left the job.” She tugged on her husband’s sleeve. “He told his boss to go fuck himself on behalf of his father, a decorated war veteran,” and she leaned her head back and laughed.
The three of them were sipping their drinks beside the Open Ocean exhibit when a waiter sidled up with deviled eggs. Jack handed off his scotch to Steve, nudged two eggs onto a napkin and reclaimed his drink. The wife (he still didn’t know her name) had been drinking from all sides of the wine glass, the red of her lipstick dusting the circumference of the rim. She said they’d honeymooned last summer on a cruise ship in the Hawaiian Islands, and Jack put in that he’d been to Maui himself but never Oahu. Steve touted the Maui downhill, a bike trip from the top of some mountain, switchbacks all the way down, no need to peddle, and Jack mentioned his mountain bike, the one he hadn’t asked for, explaining that Brittany had bought it for him the previous summer in hopes that some exercise would “get of rid of this,” and he patted his belly.
The dinner tables adjoined the dance floor, and Jack wondered if Brittany would drink enough to summon her courage and drag him aboard. She waved and walked toward them, stopping to speak to a woman in a Kelly green dress.
“Brittany’s the best,” the brunette said.
Jack nodded and replied, “I’m sorry, I forgot your name. It’s Steve and…”
He worked that over for a few seconds.
“Steve and Bobbi’s. Sounds like a gay bar in Key West.”
Steve’s smile slid up the side up of his face. “Are you drunk, Jack?”
“Drunkenness is a journey, Steve, not a destination.”
Steve placed his drink on the nearest table, turned back around toward Jack and clapped his hands. Is he gonna punch me? “Did you just throw an Aerosmith lyric at me, Jack?”
Brittany found them down at the seal exhibit, where Jack and Steve were laughing as Bobbi imitated the sounds of a large bull.
“Thanks for the Stoli, Jack.”
“Come with me?”
Brittany led him past the hammerhead sharks, past a young couple kissing beneath an exit sign, and stopped him at the crest of the next landing.
“Yeah, Steve is a funny bastard.”
“Bobbi just joined treasury, came over from mortgages a few months ago.”
Jack didn’t know what to say to this.
“Like her?” Brittany said.
He smiled. “I imagine she’s quite a distraction around the office.”
Brittany narrowed her eyes.
“I mean she never shuts up.”
Brittany patted his head like the proud owner of a well-trained dog.
Guests were funneling past the hull of an old steamer ship and back to their seats, and a large-hipped woman in a red dress had ascended to the middle of the staircase and was rapping her water glass with a spoon. “I guess that’s our cue,” and Jack palmed Brittany’s fleshy love handles and leaned in for a kiss. “Hey, come on,” and she wriggled free. “That’s Carole, my boss. Come on, let’s go,” and she walked ahead and paddled for him to catch up.
Jack and Moonie, one of his oldest buddies, drove to Cooperstown for Carlton Fisk’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2000. They left Fairfield at dawn and were oiled on blackberry brandy by the time Pudge took the podium in the early afternoon, his speech so long and tedious they felt sober by the time he finished. Listening to Brittany’s boss drone on about the recession, mortgages, Bernie Madoff and other death-inducing topics, Jack thought of Carlton Fisk and Leroux blackberry brandy. Steve and Bobbi swallowed yawns, and Rajiv surreptitiously checked his watch. Jack muttered to Brittany, “The natives are restless,” and she patted his knee.
“The infusion of overseas money was not something we could predict or control, people. Like others, we diversified to protect our interests, so we were able to weather the storm better than most, but the storm is not over and we’ll need new ideas and new approaches to sustain the long-term growth and dependability our clients and partners have come to trust.” She paused expectantly and Jack whispered to Brittany, “Does she expect us to clap?” and Brittany pinched his knee and stared at him with wide, imploring eyes.
“People, our business shrank 7.8 percent in the third quarter, but signs point to a rebound in the fourth. We’ll know more after the New Year, but — ”
Jack muttered, “I gosh darn expect we’ll be back and better than ever…people.”
“People, we’ll back and better than ever — ”
Steve, Bobbi and Rajiv all snickered, but Brittany whispered, “Baby, come on.”
“And we can and will do better, so let’s — ”
Jack began clapping beneath the table.
“Jack, stop,” Brittany muttered. But he kept going and the gesture became contagious and spread to the adjoining tables, the clapping growing louder and louder as grateful guests soon rose to their feet and Carole was drowned out with applause. She feigned a smile and yelled, “Okay, okay, thanks,” and she descended the stairs and pressed the microphone into the chest of a startled waiter.
Chocolate fountains adorned each end of the long oak table and guests dipped bananas, strawberries and chocolate chip cookies into the brown cascades. They brought them to their mouths, some apprehensive about drips and stains, others in a dash to push more sweets into their wine-red faces. Jack slouched in his seat and watched his wife stack some strawberries in the middle of her plate.
“Don’t mind her, bro, I thought it was hilarious,” and Rajiv forked a shard of chocolate cake off his plate, inspecting it momentarily before pushing it past his yellow teeth. Bobbi was chewing and nodding in agreement, and Steve said, “Yeah, we’d have been here till freaking New Year’s, don’t sweat it.”
Jack sipped from his scotch. He was drunk and wishing he were sober, a confrontation undoubtedly in the offing.
Rajiv tapped his fork on the tablecloth. “Don’t worry, man. Carole didn’t… hell, she probably thought it was me and she hates me anyway. She hates all Indians.” He gulped from his wine glass. “Dots, not feathers.”
The chocolate syrup splashed across Brittany’s pile of strawberries and she brought the plate closer to the fountain. Her boss strode up and reached out and took hold of Brittany’s arm and started speaking to her earnestly. Jack stood up next to his chair and turned in place, gulped from his water glass and reclaimed his seat as Bob Seger’s Little Drummer Boy played over the loudspeaker.
Brittany snapped her napkin across her lap and hopped her chair forward, knocking her elbows on the table. She nodded and said to the table, “Thanks for that, Jack. Carole would like to meet the wiseass at this table who started the clapping.”
The man in the bow tie returned to the table and huffed as he sat down. Was he Rajiv’s plus one?
Rajiv chuckled. “Don’t worry, Brit, we won’t give up your man.”
The strawberries slid around her plate, locomoting through the watery chocolate. She speared two strawberries and a dash of syrup smeared across the tablecloth. She pushed the strawberries past her teeth and gnawed them free of the fork. Jack realized she was quite drunk. “Are you volunteering, Rajiv?” and she dropped the fork on the edge of her coffee dish, and the man in the bowtie snapped to and said, “Cut her off!” and cackled. He waved away the table and stumbled in the direction of the bar.
“She was serious, she demanded I introduce her to the guilty party,” Brittany said. She bowed her head and massaged her temples.
A small trawler crept down the river and it was adorned bow to stern with brilliant white lights and glistening wreaths, with Santa Claus alone next to the railing, waving to Jack.
“They pay that guy to go back and forth all night,” Steve said. “Having a smoke?”
Jack nodded yes.
“Care for a toke of this,” and Steve opened his palm to reveal a needle-thin joint.
Jack scanned the windows to find Brittany. “I wish, but I think we’re leaving,” and he dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his shoe. Steve laid a match against the tip of the joint, blew lightly, drew deeply and the cherry crept down the paper. He held the smoke in his mouth and offered the joint to Jack, who shrugged and said, “Fuck it, why not.” He drew deeply and was about to exhale when the fire door burst open and Brittany stood in the doorway.
Steve looked at Jack. “Maybe we ought to head in?”
Brittany abandoned her spot in the doorway and walked toward them, holding the hem of her skirt against her legs. The wind pushed the door and it closed behind her.
“I think she just locked us out,” Jack said.
“I think she did.”
“You just locked us out,” Jack said. “My matches were holding the door.”
“What are you doing? Pot? Oh, nice. I appreciate your clapping, by the way. Are you gonna cop to it?”
“It was a rousing speech. And no I’m not. Why, are you going to narc on me?”
Steve whistled. He wet his fingertips and extinguished the joint and slid it into his cigarette pack. “I’ll leave you two.” Steve walked around toward the front of the building and had just gained the corner of the building when Brittany said, “Jack, I get that you’re depressed and I know it’s tough, not working. But this is my job and you’re jeopardizing it. Clapping in the middle of my boss’s speech? Are you insane?”
He sighed and stared at her, crestfallen. “I’ll go in and tell her it was me, apologize.”
She walked up to him and hugged him. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
He was stoned and now wishing he wasn’t. He nodded yes.
“Let’s just stand out here for a few minutes and catch our breath, OK?” and she kissed him on the cheek. The cold was tolerable in their winter coats and they stood in silence for several minutes.
“Steve and Bobbi, they crashed his Christmas party last week,” Jack said. “My kind of people.”
“Mmm hmm,” she said. “Crashed?”
“Yeah, he doesn’t even work there anymore.”
They stood together and hugged each other against the wind breezing off the river. Jack pictured himself walking up to Brittany’s boss and apologizing. He didn’t want to do it, but what choice did he have? A deafening alarm burst behind them and they turned and people were herding out the door, Bobbi in the vanguard, one of the few people wearing her coat. She had a mischievous smile on her face and wide eyes.
“What did you do?” Brittany whispered to her.
Bobbi spoke behind her fist. “Oh my god, Steve said to meet him in the parking garage in five. So I’m guessing.”
The fire alarm blared and people huddled in the cold, many saying they wanted to go back inside for their jackets. Brittany’s boss stood in front of the door and refused to allow re-entry, saying, “I’m responsible for you, so no. Just be calm.”
They heard a retching and turned to see the guy in the bowtie bent over and throwing up in a bush.
Brittany’s boss shook her head. “I think we’ve found the night’s comedian. Who is he with?”
Brittany and Bobbi looked at each other and shrugged.
“I’ve never seen him before,” Brittany said.
“Me either,” Bobbi said.
Rajiv sidled up to their group. “I met him in the food line. Party crasher.”
Jack squeezed Brittany’s love handles. She scratched his chest hair and sniffed for the fragrance and giggled. He said, “I put on two coats of love juice tonight, special occasion.”
“I’m still mad at you,” she said, leaned back and smiled.
Other fiction by Cam Martin (about Jack Mayes): Connect to a Network