Finley K Foster

I miss the set up and the punchline, but all around the table people are laughing. I can’t force a laugh, not a believable one, so I throw on a face, one that says “gotta give it to you,” a smirk, sort of, eyebrow action, just to be safe. One of the guys repeats a phrase through his laughter, “two trucks,” I think he says, “TWO trucks,” and he elbows Captain Jonah who, I now notice, isn’t laughing either. At the nudge, he looks up from twiddling his pen and puts on a face almost identical to mine. CLAP go Benny’s hands and “ooookay then” he says and everyone’s all business again. I wonder how much I missed. I skim my notes document: interesting as an artifact, useless as a product. “Double the doubling” went one line and somewhere in there, a direct quote, it seems, “we mustn’t be afraid,” attributed to “tie clip donny.” The meeting ends, I miss that, too, but people shoot up vigorously, giving the table a slap or lean back into a chuckly chat and I sit there, saving the document, “ meeting with people,” furrowing my brow, to create the illusion I’m working, hard. Benny swivels to me, still laughing and saying goodbye to tie clip Donny. “So,” he says, tapping his pad on the table. “Debrief in ten?”

“Ten, you got it,” I tell him, folding up my laptop. “Might run and get a coffee.” A final tap of his pad, a moist clicking noise from his mouth and he’s off.

I use the café two blocks away as my cover to smoke my last cigarettes. They’re all, always, last cigarettes. It’s a delusion, a small one, I think, which I’ve had since I first quit, truly quit, a year or so ago. I got through a month without a cigarette and celebrated by having one last cigarette. It’s been a year and I’m having my last cigarettes almost daily, now, sometimes two, three times a day.

I get the coffee and stand around the corner from the shop with my last cigarette when I see Captain Jonah, who isn’t really a Captain, but a Vice President of something. I looked it up once, but the nouns didn’t mean anything to me. He got his nickname when he was leading an emergency company-wide Zoom meeting at the beginning of the pandemic. A junior executive whose name might have been Steve, I don’t remember, chatted to everyone: “i’d go down on captain jonah’s titanic.” Steve probably meant to DM it to a friend. Within a week he left the company, “voluntarily,” said the memo, but the nickname stuck, at least among the peons in the sales office where I used to work, because Jonah does resemble a captain: all-American in the descended-from-Scandinavians way, windswept hair, bracing inhales through the nose before proclaiming stuff. Everyone seems to assume the same set of broad biographic details: a wife with a career, a consultant, probably, or a marketing executive; some children, more than one and less than, I don’t know, six-ish; a rigorous exercise routine, but not the gym equipment kind, the recreational athletics kind, tennis, probably; and a sunny openness that suggests that he’s either Mormon or Minnesotan.

He looks lost now, though, his blue blazer half off, scratching at his neck, eyes squinting at signs. We’ve been in the same meetings and he’s the kind of guy who says hi to everyone in the room. He introduced himself to me the first meeting I was in, a few weeks ago now, but I was new and insignificant, a fill-in for an assistant. It’s hard to imagine that he would recognize me if he does happen to look my way. Still, I don’t exactly blend in, not in this neighborhood and definitely not in our office, so I look down. I flick my eyes up and there’s no sign of him. I scan across the street and the coast seems clear. I raise my head, stretch my neck, and get into the stretching, feel it, feel good, let it go down my back, out to my arms. I drop it for a deep drag.

“You got a square to spare?” The voice is on the left and I turn and go fucking figure, there he is. I give him a cigarette. “Some meeting, huh?” His jacket is off, gone. I look down the street and see it draped on the AC unit jutting out of a corner grocery.

“Yeah, interesting,” I say, lighting his cigarette.

“No one’s ever lit a cigarette for me before.” He might cry, I think.

I tell him I have to get back, I say it with urgency. “Debrief with Benny.”

“I’ll bet Benny wants to debrief,” and he spits. “What kind of stuff does he normally talk about in your debriefs?” I open my mouth, starting to shrug, and he shakes his head vigorously. “We shouldn’t talk about work. Forget it. I like your earrings.” I say thanks, it comes out quiet. “You always have great earrings. Benny can wait, right? I mean, Benny can fuck himself. No one’s dying.” He takes another drag, laughing to himself. I’m surprised by how aggressive he smokes: sharp pulls and hard ashing. “Were you in that meeting last week about shaving delivery times by an average of twelve seconds? Three hours we spent on it. I thought we were wrapping up at one point, but Susan leaned in and asked, ‘What about modality?’ You remember that? I almost screamed, ‘What ABOUT modality, Susan?’ I didn’t. Obviously. You were there, weren’t you? Instead of screaming I said, ‘Hmm.’ I don’t know how it happened.” I’m not sure what he means and think about asking. He doesn’t know how he ended up in this bullshit job or he doesn’t know when he started thinking this work was bullshit? He seems to think I understand what he’s talking about, though, and I don’t want to change that.

“Is it alright? Me telling you all this?” I nodded, quickly, said of course. “Now I’m heading up consumer research with Donny. And Benny wants it STAT. Doesn’t it kill you when he says that? ‘We’re gonna need that STAT, Jonah.’ Like he’s a fucking doctor asking for a scalpel, fuck him. Twelve seconds.” He looks over at me, sheepish and grinning. “I’m talking about work. I can’t escape it.” The grin is gone.

I agree, no idea, now, how I’m going to get back to Benny in time.

“You ever been to that butcher?” He points a couple storefronts down. I shake my head and he says great, stubbing out his cigarette in the tree and dropping it. He grabs my arm, striding forward, and I keep up with him but let him do most of the work, and I don’t, really, mind it too much, feeling, a little, like a dame. I take a good look at him, his chin pointed out and cheeks pink, and realize I’ll have to be careful not to call him Captain Jonah to his face. He pulls me through the doorway, and I catch a glimpse of all the hanging flesh and purple-brown legged shapes splayed out, and I look down at the white tiles. I know I can’t stomach it.

“We’d like a quart of pig blood.” My head snaps up but I shut my eyes and lower it again.

“Excuse me?” More than suspicious, the butcher sounds weary.

“We’d like to take a quart of pig’s blood. To go.”

“We don’t sell that,” the butcher says with finality, I picture him turning his back, taking up whatever we interrupted. I hear the folding of big, crisp sheets of paper, picture the sad, fatty lumps at the center of that paper, grease stains seeping out.

“Why not? You must go through gallons of the stuff, daily. I’ll pay good money for it.”

A moment passes, and I think, holy shit, he might actually get it, and the butcher asks what we want it for, and I really think we’re going to walk out of this shop with pig’s blood.

“A person walks in here and asks for flank steak. You ask what they want it for?”

I hear the butcher grunt, imagine his head shaking, running his fingers through a rag. “You want something off this list? Let me know. Otherwise, I can’t help you.”

I hear Captain Jonah huff. He’s leaving, but not dragging me along anymore. Looking only at the floor I follow him out. On the street, he huffs again: “I heard you could do that.”

“Why did you want it?” He looks at me sharp, I feel stupid.

He does an underhanded gimme motion which I guess means he wants another cigarette. I go to light it again. He holds up his hand to shield against the wind and I steady myself against him by holding onto his arm, just above the elbow, not gripping around the arm, but up the arm. He looks into my eyes as I light it which, I guess, means I’m looking into his eyes, too. He inhales, looks away to blow out the smoke, looks right back at me. “It presents its own opportunities. Pig’s blood. You carry it around with you and you know you have it. Life is different, or you experience it different, which is the same thing. What would you do right now? If you had pig’s blood?”

I tell him I’ve been a vegetarian for over ten years, so I’d probably vomit or something. He grimaces, and I feel like pushing him, not hard or anything, maybe even just leaning my shoulder into his shoulder and gently forcing my elbow into the side of his stomach, enough to get him to lose balance, for a second, to teeter on one leg, laughing with surprise and reaching out for my arm, to stabilize himself, but I know, if he did, we’d both end up on the ground. I ask what he would do with pig’s blood. He smiles. It’s the same secret, boyish smile—eyes down, blond eyelashes batting, catching light, one corner of the mouth up, against his will—that appears before he makes, or decides not to make, a lame, punny joke in meetings. “I don’t know,” he says.

“Bullshit,” I say, and he laughs.

“You don’t need to go back,” he tells me.

I agree. “If need is the threshold . . . ” and I trail off, thinking I sound not like someone who is smart, but like someone who wants other people to think they’re smart.

“The lake’s this way,” he says, grabbing my arm, and we’re off. I wonder how often he’d gone marching through crowded streets, carrying someone along by the crook of their arm. He’s good at it. “It’s refreshing to have you in meetings. Everyone in that office is” and he stops walking, and he looks around for language, inhales, bracingly, through his nose, “flat,” and he spits it out. He pulls me across the street. I tell him I’m just filling in as Benny’s lackey for another couple weeks and he says, “Oh.”

“Yeah, Melissa’s supposed to be back from her medical leave beginning of October.”

“Melissa, Melissa, Melissa,” he says, and “we’re further from the lake than I thought.”

“West loop,” I say, shrugging.

“What were you doing before?”

“I worked in the sales office.” He’s quiet, he’s expecting me to say more, I think. “I moved here a few years ago and needed a job, you know,” which he doesn’t, of course, so I have to say more. “I had a friend who worked here, she got me the interview. But then she got laid off at the beginning of the pandemic.”

He asks me if I’ll go back to the sales office and I say yes. He asks if I liked working there and I say, “It’s a job.” He loosens his grip on my arm. “It sucks, but it could be worse,” I say, and he stops walking.

“Sorry,” he says, and he squeezes my arm, not looking at me, staring off, squinting into the sunlight over my head. “Maybe you should get back to Benny.” He lets go of me.

“I don’t like the job.”

“So? Get a different one. One that you like.”

“That’s the plan.”

“What’s the plan?”

“Oh, uh,” I say.

“There isn’t a plan.”

“I’m working on it,” which, maybe, is another delusion of mine.

He stops and stares down at me. “Here’s what I would do if I had pig’s blood. I’d flick little bits in your face, oinking, like this,” and he oinks, flicking his fingers at me, “little splatters of blood all up and down, see? I’d do it until you vomited, to get something honest to come up from your gut and out of your mouth,” and he storms away. I run to keep up with him, no idea what to say now, knowing I won’t go back to Benny. The only thing I can think to do is stick my finger down my throat, like that really will please him. I know I won’t actually do it, but my brain’s stuck there, I can’t think of anything else.

We get to the lake, silent the rest of the way, and I resent myself for how much I feel like a dog, bobbing after him.

He looks back at me, shaking his head, and I think it’s an apology. He looks pained. I tell him it’s okay.

“You ever swim in the lake?” he asks. I tell him I haven’t and he says he hasn’t, either. He starts unbuttoning his shirt.

“Benny’s new initiative is called Double Play.” He kicks off his shoes, lining them neatly, and places his shirt, folded, on top of them.

“I remember something about doubling.”

“I’m supposed to give a presentation tomorrow to him and the rest of the C-Suite on the project I’ve been working on, that’s supposed to launch in time for winter.” He yanks off his socks. “It’s called Triple Threat.” He unbuttons his pants. “Can you imagine how stupid that would be? Double and Triple.” He slides one pant leg down, over the foot, picks up his other foot and whips his pants off, shaking them, and lays them on top of his shirt and shoes. He looks even taller than normal, standing in his boxer briefs. “I’m so fucked,” he says, sliding off his wedding ring. He crouches down to slip it in the pocket of his folded pants. “I’m going for a quick dip,” and he waits for a couple cyclists and a jogger to pass, then runs into the water.

After five minutes, I wonder how long I’ll wait there. I decide to wait for one last cigarette and end up having six last cigarettes, right down to the last one of the pack. All that smoking on an empty stomach is more than I’m used to and I feel sick. I nurture the feeling, coax the gags until the sick comes up out of me. I aim for the pile of Jonah’s clothes and it comes up, burning my throat and splattering across his shirt, socks and shoes. I use a pant leg to wipe my mouth and head home.

The next morning I explain to Benny that I got waylaid by a cyclist and my phone broke, even showing him an old broken phone I had lying around that I brought in as a prop. “Those cyclists,” he says, full of righteous anger. “Just send me your notes from that meeting yesterday and we can connect if I have any questions.” I send him a blank document trusting that he won’t read it.

I go to Captain Jonah’s office, carrying my mug as a cover, in case I need one; the coffee maker is nearby. The door is open, but the lights are off. I poke my head inside long enough to see pictures of his tan and toothy wife and count up to what seem like three distinct children.

“Morning!” I spin around and go fucking figure. He and his windswept hair are smiling, holding a briefcase and a to-go cup with loose papers and a newspaper tucked under his armpit. “Is Benny looking for me?”

I say yes, I don’t have any other choice. “He was just wondering if you had any updates, before the meeting.”

“He should have something in his inbox.” He slips past me into his office, setting down the coffee, the papers, pulling a laptop out of his briefcase, switching on lamps.

“I’ll help him find it,” I say as he comes to a rest, leaning back against his desk.

“See you in there,” he says, still smiling. My head hurts and I look down as I say bye. I see his shoes, the same red-brown shoes from yesterday, with a faint residue and clearer outline from what must be my vomit. I look up, into his eyes, but they’re hidden, somewhere, behind his smile.

I go back to Benny, ask him if he needs anything before the big meeting. He stops his clicking, takes his clicking hand away from the mouse and moves it several inches along the desk, towards me. “I need you to be sharp. That’s all I need.”

I nod, appreciatively, opening my mouth, planning to tell him that I’m going to get a coffee, but catch myself. I don’t have cigarettes on me, I realize. “I’ll be at my desk,” I say, and I go there, and wait.

Finley FosterFinley K Foster (they/them) is a writer, activist, and menial administrative task completer from Ohio. Their plays Revolutionary Spirit and Frank Forgot his Wallet: A Credit Card Statement in 29 Scenes were workshopped with Fresh Ink Theatre. They have had one-act plays performed in the Pittsburgh Pride Theatre Festival and at the Basement Playhouse (Ashland, KY). They live in the Boston area with their spouse and two children (one human, one feline).

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