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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tim Gets a Brownie

Category: Short Story

Tim wanted a brownie in order to distract himself from the sinister conversational rumble, overwhelming colors, and stiff company of the Christmas party to which his wife had dragged him. He also wanted to avoid Jack Hendrickson, whom he hated more than any other person he had ever met, including one man who had broken into his house and stolen his television.

Tim and Jack had been working in adjacent cubicles in the Mason & Burnes customer service department for six years, ten months, and four days, which Tim knew because he had begun to etch a mark into the underside of his desk every morning during their second week as co-workers. It had been during that week that Tim had started to notice all the bothersome little qualities of Jack that combined seamlessly to form one big intolerable person. It was the voice, first of all; Tim had never met anyone who spoke so much like a duck. To make matters worse, on top of this duck tone sat a sort of flatness—a flatness Jack used to let the rest of the world know that he thought, in a detached, sophisticated way, that everything he said was overwhelmingly clever; a flatness that had caused Tim to snap pencil after pencil in frustration; a flatness that had forced him to take up breathing exercises for the sake of his blood pressure. The flatness hung over Tim’s head every single day from nine until five, snapping his pencils and raising his blood pressure.

Jack loved a good catch-phrase, and had four or five of them ready at any given moment. His catch-phrases were the safety net of his act in that whenever he was lacking an original wisecrack (which was often), he could simply quip “whatever helps you sleep at night,” and as a result help himself sleep at night. Tim hated catch-phrases; they were his job. He sat at his desk and delivered sympathetic catch-phrases to disgruntled customers until they either settled for a refund or slammed their phones down in disgust after promising to tell all their friends that if Mason & Burnes were the last manufacturer of fine dinnerware on the face of the Earth, then they would eat with their hands. He could not understand how any person could even stand, let alone love, to use catch-phrases in his spare time.

Jack’s favorite things, however, were words—sophisticated words. He held himself far above the simple world of “cars,” “moms,” and “dogs”; only “automobiles,” “mothers,” and “canines” existed in Jack’s world, and he thought that such words reflected his shining wit. The inevitable result of this delusion was that Jack would often express mundanely simple ideas in bewilderingly complicated terms. He would, for example, pilot his automobile to his place of employment, where he would prepare his preferred variety of ante meridian bean-based liquid solution, and then proceed to consume said solution while attempting to pacify displeased consumers via land-based telecommunications device. Tim would snap his pencils, and sometimes throw them, too.

                        *

It was a pretty large room, large enough to fit perhaps fifteen African elephants if they were squeezed right next to each other, Tim had estimated shortly after the last of his friends had left. He stood in front of the large picture-window and looked absently out on the street, which was filling with snow. A terrifying vision of an all night snowed-in Christmas party flashed through his head and gave him a frightened start. He turned around, steadied himself, and surveyed the room. Lining the walls were an arrangement of sofas, chairs, and end tables, which had been shoved there in order to make room for party guests, and gave the impression of a waiting room. Filling the fifteen-elephant void were about two-dozen of the people with whom Tim had become loosely acquainted over the course of the many holiday and dinner parties to which Helen had subjected him during their otherwise satisfying marriage. Most of the guests stood in small groups discussing their favorite winter vacationing spots, the effects of the bear market on domestic industry, and where they had gotten their seasonally appropriate sweaters. Tim looked down at his own sweater, which was adorned with a pair of reindeer; Helen had made it for him for Christmas the year he had asked for a new television. Glancing back up, he caught sight of Jack, who was standing right next to the dessert table. Tim narrowed his eyes slightly in determination, glared at nobody in particular, and then began to step carefully across the room.

“Tim, old boy—how are you? I haven’t seen you in absolutely ages!”

Tim had been stopped in his tracks by a decidedly suburban man whose name he thought was probably Henry.

“Oh, nothing much—I mean, ha ha, not bad. Hanging in there,” he said, flashing an enthusiastic Christmas smile and pumping his fist spiritedly. “You know how things can get this time of year.” Tim looked around at probably Henry and the group of women with whom he had been standing; they all nodded sympathetically.

“You’re not kidding about that,” one of the women began. “Just yesterday, it was, I spent four hours looking around for a new set of stoneware for my sister—she just loves stoneware for baking, says she’ll never go back—and I couldn’t find one anywhere!” More sighs and nods. Tim noticed that all these people had brownies, and saw his chance.

“Well, speaking of baking, I’m just dying to try one of those brownies, so maybe I’ll catch up with you all a little later.”

Tim left the circle, sweating a little. He was an expert at feigning a pleasant demeanor thanks to his work, but the party was beginning to get to him. He stalked toward the table; Jack had turned his back in order to quack some clever flat remarks about somebody who had tripped. Tim began to pick up speed, zeroing in on his target; it was now or never.

“Tim, always the kidder—what on Earth are you walking like that for?” guffawed Jeremy Penderson. Tim realized he had been crouching slightly as if to prepare for a pounce.

“It’s the old back again,” he lied quickly, “doesn’t ever seem to feel right anymore.”

“You’re telling me!” Jeremy responded. “Boy, if there’s one thing I miss about college—and you might not believe this—it’s the construction work I did in the summers.” Tim did not believe for a moment that Jeremy, who had a scarf festively draped over his shoulders, had ever so much as picked up a shovel to work in his own garden, but allowed him to continue anyway. “Every single morning I’d wake up, and no matter how much I’d abused my body the day before on the site, I felt fresh as a new spring. Ah, to be young again…”

Tim mustered up another surge of enthusiastic energy. He wasn’t young anymore.

“I’d love to reminisce with you more, Jeremy, but for now I think I’ll spring off to the table and get one of those fresh brownies.” More guffaws.

“Haha, don’t you hurt yourself, old man.”

Tim had now managed to get himself close enough to the table that he could see that the brownies were filled with chocolate chips. Maybe two would be better, he thought eagerly. He reached to pick up a snowflake-printed paper plate off the stack, accidentally grabbing four instead.

“Whoa, there, Tim—save some for the fishes.” It was Jack Hendrickson, who had returned to his original position by the table.

There are no fish here, Jack. Do you see any fish here who would like a plate? I don’t. I have never seen a fish anywhere who wanted a plate. Why don’t you go somewhere else and find one, and I’ll stay here and eat all the brownies. “Ha ha, I hope you’ll accept my apology on behalf of the fishes, Jack. You know how those darned plates stick.”

“Actually, I was merely jesting. Fishes wouldn’t desire to consume brownies—unless they were prepared with fish meal. Now that would be a genuine fish meal.”

“Ho ho, good one, Jack.”

“Speaking of nourishment, I recently discovered an eatery of exceptionally elevated quality in the metropolitan area to the southwest.”

“Hm. Pittsburgh, eh?” Where the heck did Helen go? No brownie is worth this; I need to get out of here right now.

“Affirmative. Its title is “Harold’s.” Ever attended?”

“Can’t say I have.” Title?

“Hey Tim—”

“What?” His enthusiastic Christmas smile had faded, but he had not yet begun to clip his words.

“Knock knock.”

If this is the interrupting cow joke…

“Who’s there?” He forced himself to sing-song.

“Interrupting cow.”

As he heard the dreaded phrase, something snapped inside of Tim. It was the same something that allowed him to do his job every day; the same something that had allowed him to cross the room with such social grace; the same something that had allowed him—to this point—to tolerate, if only barely, Jack’s words and catch-phrase. Now that the something was gone, Tim locked eyes with Jack and scowled at him.

“Cows can’t talk, you imbecile,” he growled viciously as he grabbed a brownie for each of his stuck-together plates and dashed to the kitchen, where he sensed that Helen must be.

Finding her there, he whispered, “Come on, we’ve got to leave right now—right now!”

She had been having a wonderful time discussing with the hostess the challenges of cooking for a crowd, but, sensing the urgency in his voice, followed him from the room.

“Walk with purpose…not too fast…don’t look over there…we’ve got to get out of here unnoticed,” he fed instructions into her ear as they snaked their way through the crowd toward
the door.

“Hey, where are you two running off to already? It’s only just ten-fifteen!”

It was Rita Arlen, one of Helen’s closest dinner and holiday party friends. The room fell silent at the dire prospect of an early exit from such a high-profile couple. Tim, who was simply not going to be stopped at this point, jumped to answer.

“I’ve just remembered a present I’ve got to get for someone, and there’s only one place in town that has it, and they’re about to close. It’s now or never!” he announced with the genuine excitement of one who realizes he is actually going to get away with this.

“What is it?!” came an anxious cry from somewhere in the back.

“Can’t tell: it’s for someone in this very room.”

A collective buzz of curiosity began to grow as the guests turned to each other to speculate, and Tim opened the front door and led Helen through it.

“Alright, you got me out. Now: what the hell was that all about?” asked Helen, shutting the door behind them.

“Cows can’t talk,” he muttered as they made their way into the snow.