Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fiction #58: Kim Murray

The Sandwich

The day the pickles began to disappear, John fetched his lunch from the communal refrigerator at exactly noon. He ate the same sandwich every day: rye bread, tuna mixed with celery and mayonnaise, topped by thinly sliced dill pickles. Right away, John noticed that the distinctive, tangy taste that brought his tuna to life was missing. He folded back the bread. No pickles. He looked inside the brown paper bag on the off chance his condiment had made a run for it, but no. He looked to Charlie Morris, who sat in the cubicle beside him, but Charlie was engrossed in a container of yogurt.

That night, John scoured his kitchen for the pickles. They hadn’t been inadvertently left on the counter or in the sink. It wasn’t like him to forget, but work had been crazy and it was possible that he’d left them in the jar. The next morning he was careful, pushing the pickles tightly into the tuna. He wrapped the bread in two layers of Saran wrap and secured the paper bag with masking tape. He wrote his name in bold black letters across the front of the bag. But at lunchtime, despite a lack of obvious tampering, when he pulled back the corner of the bread the pickles were missing.

“Charlie, did someone touch my sandwich?”

“What?” Charlie looked up from his computer screen with his usual blank expression.

“My sandwich,” he said slowly. “Did you see anyone touch my sandwich?”

“What are you talking about, John? Who would mess with your sandwich?”

John went back to contemplating his bread. He took a savage bite, fighting against the unfamiliar taste.

“That’ll give you cellulite.” He looked up into the squinty-eyed face of Marjorie. She was the firm’s secretary, but preferred the title “office administrator”. She’d been with the company for almost twenty-five years and there were rumours she and the owner, Jerry, had at one time been more than just owner and administrator. It would, John thought, explain her abysmal typing skills.

“Diet Coke,” she said, gesturing to the can in front of him. “It’ll give you cellulite. You should see my ass when I drink too much of that stuff.”

John tried unsuccessfully to push the image of her ass from his mind. “Marjorie, have you heard of any funny business lately?”

“Funny business?” She leaned forward, pushing her perfumed bosom further into his cubicle. “What kind of funny business?”

“Well, any kind of funny business really, pranks, thievery, that kind of thing?”

“Thievery?” Marjorie screeched, before lowering her voice. “You mean, someone has been stealing?”

“No! No, of course not. Forget I said anything.”

Marjorie pulled back, putting her hands on her ample hips. “Now you listen to me, John Marsh, if there’s any funny business going on around here, I need to know.”

“No, everything is fine.” He flapped his arms in an effort to get her to leave. “I promise nobody is stealing.”

“Alright,” she said. “But I’m watching you.”

Before John could return to his sandwich, Devin popped his head around the corner. “Hey, John,” he said. “I see you’re still eating those tuna fish sandwiches.” Devin said this every time he came by. He had once occupied Charlie’s cubicle for a few months and had been privy to John’s daily habits.

“Yes, that’s right.” John briefly considered telling him about the pickles. But Devin had only recently been promoted to manager, and John wasn’t yet comfortable with the idea that he reported to him.

“Well, you’ve got to keep your strength up. We’ve got that big meeting with Caldwell next Friday.”

Was this Devin’s attempt at motivation? Since becoming a manager, Devin had started cutting his hair shorter and wore a tie to the office. He’d taken to calling people “big fella” and had the annoying habit of walking around telling everyone how busy he was. John refrained from replying that he had already been working long hours preparing for the presentation.

“Listen, big fella, do you think I could see a demo before three on Thursday? I want to make sure everything is in line.”

The idea of Devin checking his work was laughable. When he’d sat in Charlie’s seat, Devin had been notorious for his lazy work and sloppy code. Many times John had pointed out his mistakes. “I don’t see why that’s necessary,” he said stiffly. “When I spoke to Jerry last week –”

“When I spoke to Jerry, five minutes ago, he asked me to make sure everything was running properly for the meeting. So I’ll expect to see that demo. Enjoy your lunch.”

John choked down the rest of his sandwich, still smarting over the conversation. Devin’s promotion six months earlier had been a shock. Devin had only been with the company for two years and didn’t have the same product knowledge as John. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t felt a small stab of betrayal, the prick of his own thwarted ambition. But the idea of sales and client meetings, of budgets and performance reviews, had never appealed to him. And besides, he was far too valuable where he was.

The rest of the day passed in a familiar busy fog. But that night the idea that one of his office mates, the people whose respect and regard he’d come to take as a given, could be tampering with his sandwich left him staring at the ceiling. He wracked his brain to figure out who it could be. In eighteen years of working there, he had never had an issue with his lunch.

For the next few days it was the same. He carefully prepared his sandwich, wrapped it in Saran, and taped up his paper bag. He placed it as far back in the fridge as possible, but when he pulled out his sandwich, it was pickle-free. He thought about stationing himself on watch outside the kitchen, but was too busy to leave his desk for hours at a time. He decided to take a different approach. Perhaps all that was needed was a gentle reminder of the importance of honouring other people’s personal belongings. Just a small, friendly message designed to get his point across in the most polite way possible. The next morning he arrived early and carefully taped his note to the door.

To whom it may concern,
As you know, the refrigerator is a communal appliance. Use of the refrigerator is a privilege, not a right. I would ask that you please not touch any contents clearly marked as belonging to someone else. By respecting said contents, you are showing respect for your fellow co-workers.
Yours sincerely,
John Marsh


He went about the rest of his morning confident that the note would work. But when he went to grab his sandwich, both the note and his pickles were gone. John moved to Plan B, stopping by Canadian Tire on his way home to purchase a small cooler. If the refrigerator was no longer safe, then he would keep his sandwich with him at all times. He carried it throughout the morning, from meeting to meeting, suffering the strange looks of his co-workers. He even considered taking it into the washroom, but decided sanitary concerns trumped security. He kept his liquids to a minimum, and only stepped away from the cooler once. But when he reached for his sandwich, he could already tell it was too thin. In the place of the pickles was his note from the refrigerator. John sat in his cubicle, faced the blank wall and seethed. What had he done to deserve this? Wasn’t he always helpful? Why just that morning he’d corrected several mistakes for Charlie. Where would they be without him?

It was in this state that he entered a meeting Jerry had called in advance of the Caldwell presentation. Plump, and in his late forties, Jerry was now a dinosaur in the IT industry. But back in the mid-nineties, when he’d taken his family’s paper billing system online, he’d been a pioneer. He’d resisted buyout offers from some of the largest companies in the world in favour of running his own shop. If over the years their software had grown a bit old and hairy, the technology less and less cutting-edge, it was okay by him. And if the company had been pushed to the margins, forced to chase smaller and smaller clients, it was just the price of independence.

All of this suited John fine. There had been a time when he’d had to field daily calls from head hunters looking to tempt him to one of the larger organizations. It would have meant more money, more prestige, and a move into management, but on the whole, John was happy doing what he loved best – fiddling with the code and solving puzzles all day long. Over the years he had shepherded the software through its many iterations, watching it grow and expand while finding an immense amount of satisfaction in its myriad complexities and possibilities. But now, with pickles on the brain, it occurred to him how thoroughly he had thrown his lot in with Jerry and Select Technology Group. His phone had long stopped ringing with new job offers. And as the years had passed, he’d grown more complacent about upgrading his skills. Leaving Select now would almost certainly mean months, possibly years, of schooling and rigorous upgrading. And what chance would he have against the young and hungry hoard always looking to take his place?

As he contemplated his future, the heads of departments, including Devin, began to file in. Devin sat across the table and nodded briefly at him. John was the only member of his team, in fact the only non-manager, invited to these meetings. Although it had not been stated explicitly, he knew it was his role to correct Devin when he missed details. The last person to enter the room was Jerry, flustered and disheveled. As he walked to the head of the table, he tucked his shirt back into his pants.

“How’s everyone?” He dumped a pile of papers on the table and stopped to look at each person as they murmured their okays. “Devin, why don’t you start with your update?”

Devin put down the sandwich he’d brought to the meeting – a move designed, John was sure, to make it look like he was too busy to eat at any other time – and started talking through bites of food. “We’re very pleased with our progress. We’ve corrected the bug in the system around provincial sales taxes, and worked out the purchase order formatting.”

“And there’ll be no delay on order creations?” Jerry asked.

“No sir, no delay.”

“Actually, Jerry,” John leaned forward. “There will be a five-to-six second delay in purchase order creation.”

“Thank you, John,” Devin said quickly. “But I think we agreed that the delay would be almost imperceptible to the end user.”

John nodded, and sat back in his seat. Had it been his imagination, or had Devin seemed irritated? Over the years, Devin had sometimes displayed hints of arrogance that John found distasteful. He had overheard him on the phone, bragging to one girlfriend or another about accomplishments that weren’t his own. In group meetings, and in front of Jerry, Devin was careful to credit the team, but John wondered what went on behind closed doors.

“And the time/date stamps?” Jerry was asking. “The system will automatically switch the day and month for American customers?”

“Yes,” Devin said. “We’re confident that we’ll have that functionality in place.”

“Actually, Jerry,” John said, sitting forward in his seat again, “we’ve run into a glitch. I’m creating a work-around, but it’ll involve some overtime hours for the team.”

“Well that’s–” Devin began.

“Fine, fine,” Jerry waved a hand. “Whatever you need. Was there anything else, Devin?”

“No, thank you, Jerry.”

While Jerry moved on, John watched Devin. This time there was no mistaking the irritation. It wasn’t his fault, John thought. If Devin had bothered to read his daily reports, he would have known about the glitch. As the head of Marketing droned on about the technical manual they were updating for Caldwell, John’s thoughts drifted back to his sandwich. He studied the faces of his co-workers. Maybe it was a conspiracy – something company-wide and far more nefarious then he’d originally conceived. Perhaps others had also been victimized. As John ran down a list of potential suspects, Devin locked eyes with him. He casually pulled back the top of the sandwich he’d been eating and revealed a huge pile of pickles sitting on top of roast beef. John watched as, one by one, they went into Devin’s mouth.

The rest of the meeting passed in a blur. Devin refused to look at him again. By the time Jerry had dismissed everyone, John was shaking with rage. He waited until Devin had left the room before asking Jerry if he could speak with him.

“I’m sorry, John.” Jerry passed a hand over his face. “It will have to wait.”

“I’m afraid it can’t.”

“John, I really don’t have time right now. No,” he said, holding up a hand as John began to protest. “Maybe next week.”

John remained standing in the hall long after Jerry had disappeared, unable to believe the turn his day had taken. Devin was stealing his condiments and he’d just been given the brush off by a man who had once described him as “indispensable”.

“Pssssttt.”

He looked up to see Marjorie gesturing wildly from her desk. After one last look down the hall, he dragged himself over to her cubicle. The walls were plastered with posters of cats, and several used Kleenex’s lay scattered around her keyboard.

“You lose something?”

“Excuse me?”

“You were just standing there like you lost your best friend. You weren’t bothering him were you?” Marjorie folded her arms across her chest.

“No, of course I wasn’t bothering him.”

“He shouldn’t be bothered. He’s under a lot of stress, you know.”

“What does he have to be stressed about?” John asked. From behind her left shoulder, a cat hanging from a clothesline urged him to “Hang in there baby!”

“I’d be careful if I were you.”

“What do you mean, careful?”

But Marjorie only shook her head before turning back to her computer.

John took a long walk back to his desk. Around him, his co-workers moved through their day. To the casual observer, all was as it had always been. But John felt like a new lens had been added to the glasses he blinked behind. Did he know any of these people? Had he ever known them? For a moment he allowed himself to consider something different – a new job, a new company. He pictured himself walking unfamiliar halls featuring unfamiliar faces. They wouldn’t recognize him or know his work. All his years of toil, the software he’d built from the ground up would pass into the hands of strangers. It would all have been for nothing.

That evening, the walls of his apartment felt dark and close. He paced the floor in agitation, running lines of code in his mind, desperate to restore order to his thoughts. At close to midnight, he decided to confront Devin. Perhaps it had all been a misunderstanding. It was unthinkable, inconceivable that Devin could be sabotaging him. Hadn’t he always helped Devin? Stood in for him when he didn’t know the answers? He realized now that he had taken a small measure of pride in Devin’s promotion – seen it as a vindication of the training and support John had given him over the years. That Devin would betray him in this manner hurt more than he cared to admit. He needed, no he deserved, an explanation.

He went into the office early, but Devin’s door remained closed throughout the morning. When it finally swung open at 11:45, John was waiting.

“Ah, John,” Devin said, gesturing magnanimously to the chair in front of his desk. “Come in, I was just about to eat lunch.”

“Devin, I think we need to talk about the pickles.” Once seated, John began his carefully scripted speech. “From time to time in a work place, conflicts may arise and–” 

“What pickles?” Devin stared at him.

“My pickles, the pickles from my sandwich,” John stammered.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Devin lounged back in his chair.

“Devin, I saw you eating my pickles in the meeting yesterday.” He was now off-script and horrified to hear a quiver in his voice.

“The world is full of pickles, John. Why would you assume I was eating yours?”

“Devin, if I’ve done something to upset you–”

“Upset me?” Devin laughed. “Trust me, John, you do not upset me.”

“What then? Why are you doing this?” John gripped the arms of his chair in an attempt to stop the shaking in his hands.

Devin watched him for a moment before leaning forward. “Alright, John, let’s say for argument’s sake, I did steal your pickles. Let’s say I got so sick of you, and your stupid fucking tuna fish sandwiches, and your shirts buttoned up to your fucking neck, and your always having to be right all the goddamn time, that I stole your pickles. What then?”

“I….I’ll tell Jerry.”

“You’ll tell on me? Really?”

“Jerry will believe me.”

“Are you sure about that?”

John wasn’t sure. There had been a time when he could have knocked on Jerry’s door day or night, and Jerry would always have had time for the person he called his “favourite programmer”. But if he was honest with himself, yesterday hadn’t been the first time Jerry had walked away from him. And he hadn’t been called anyone’s favourite programmer in years. “I don’t know why you’re doing this. I’ve only ever tried to help you. Giving you the right answers, fixing your mistakes–”

“Right, because you’re perfect. The great John Marsh, who never makes mistakes. If it were up to me, you’d have been fired a long time ago.”

“Fired?” John sputtered. “What are you talking about?”

“Jerry’s finally seen the light. We need to upgrade, get with the times. Once I win this client for us, he’s given me permission to hire three new programmers.”

“I don’t have time to train three new programmers!”

“They’re not coming to be trained by you,” Devin said patiently. “They’re coming to replace you.”

“That’s ridiculous. They’ll never understand the software the way I do.” He tried to sound confident, but his quivering voice betrayed him.

“That’s the point, John. We need new ideas, a new approach. You’ve allowed yourself to become complacent. When was the last time you upgraded your skills? Took a course? Hell, when was the last time you changed a goddamn thing?”

John stared at him, unable to respond. A hot sweat broke out and ran into his eyes, his crotch, his socks. His software, his baby, eighteen years of his life, and they were going to take it all away from him.

Devin watched him closely before nodding. “Don’t worry, John. I might be able to find something for you to do. We always need code monkeys. But you don’t need to attend those weekly meetings anymore. And I don’t want to hear anything more about pickles. Are we clear?”

John nodded. He saw the gleaming, gloating victory in Devin’s eyes, but all he could feel was grateful. Completely, pathetically grateful. He slunk out of the office, ignoring Marjorie’s wild gesturing from down the hall. John kept his head down, tried to avoid the eyes of his co-workers. It was lunchtime, and it seemed like they were all laughing and talking, eating unspoiled sandwiches and drinking Diet Cokes. He stepped into the stairwell, took great gulps of air and willed his body to unclench. He took the long route to the Korean grocery, allowing the fresh air to steady his breathing, and bought a small bottle of Bick’s. Finally, he felt strong enough to return to his desk. Across the aisle, Charlie was staring at an unpeeled banana. John wondered how long it would be before he was reporting to him. 

“John? You okay?”

John nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He sat and stared at his computer screen, at the blips and symbols that constituted his world. His chair was perfectly adjusted, the instruments on his desk neatly lined up at right angles. John grabbed a post-it note and wrote his name in tiny letters. He stuck it to the side of the pickle jar, set it aside, and went back to work.

*

Originally from London, Ontario, Kim Murray now lives in Toronto. She works as a writer, editor and communicator and writes short stories in her spare time. Her work has appeared in The Nashwaak Review.

Photo credit: Paul Peterson.

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