by Alex Reece Abbott
One fine fall morning, after submitting seven online applications, Chuck Trickett showered and shaved, then pulled on a clean, navy polo short and a pair of fresh-pressed khaki chinos. He sucked in his gut and dabbed his ruby cheeks with the last of his Christmas aftershave from Sherry.
They’d married right after high school. For twenty-five years since, he’d worked in the maintenance crew at the mall on the edge of town; any romantic weekday rendezvous was off the menu. Today wasn’t their anniversary, but he wanted to thank Sherry for her support during what they started calling his Job Situation. He had plenty of time these days.
Vaughan, his employment counsellor, said it was important to maintain his self-respect. This meant Making An Effort, and Not Letting Things Slide. Especially with stakeholders. There were silver linings to any cloud, if only you paid attention.
Chuck was trying. He’d lost five pounds. And, he did like to find a good silver lining. When he wasn’t job-hunting, he was tackling his Things I Always Wanted To Do list.
Right after Sherry pecked him on the cheek and left for work that morning, he’d whipped up a batch of the peanut-butter fudge brownies that she loved.
When he opened the oven, the tray was plump with crispy, gooey, brown sirens.
Stay Here With Us, Stay, they called.
He ate one brownie, then made two sandwiches – pastrami on rye with a sliver of gruyere and extra pickle, the way she liked. He polished a couple of Pink Ladies, her favourite apples, and brewed a flask of turbo black coffee. He packed the willow hamper that he’d dug out of the basement and cleaned it up – a wedding gift from someone long-gone on Sherry’s side. He added paper napkins, then slipped in four brownies, snug in foil.
Stay, called the sweet, sticky temptresses.
He gobbled another, straight off the baking tray, then brushed the crumbs from his smooth jowls. After stacking the rest of the brownies in the clown cookie jar that lived on the kitchen counter, he checked his list. The picnic wasn’t fancy, but making an effort, that counted.
Sherry was a secretary at a legal firm downtown. She loved her work, even though her new boss, Ted, was demanding. He clicked his seat-belt. And, all her overtime was coming in handy now he was jobless. I am not redundant; my post was made redundant. I am. Job-hunting. I am. Between positions. I am. Time-rich. I am not letting things slide.
Ten minutes before her lunch-break, he parked near her office, the way he’d planned. He stopped himself from texting ahead – why spoil her surprise?
He hefted the picnic gear from the trunk and lugged it to her office. Ted was a real stickler for punctuality, but there was a park a block away where the maples put on a show. He’d have her fed, watered and back at her desk within her lunch-hour.
The automatic doors hissed open. As he crossed the marble foyer, a security guard near the elevator murmured into his headset. Chuck smiled at him. Then the penny dropped; he and his antique hamper were being classed as suspicious objects. His stomach gave a dodgy drain growl.
The tangelo receptionist behind her sweeping desk bared a mouthful of gleaming, whitened teeth. ‘Good morning, welcome to Orpen, Overy, Garrison, Flamm and Slaughter,’ she sang. ‘How may we help you today?’
‘Just here for lunch.’ He flexed his aching arm, sure it had stretched. ‘To pick her up.’
The receptionist smiled. Her plastic nametag said Zelda. ‘And, she would be…’
Ted shrugged. ‘Uhhh, surprised. I hope.’
Zelda’s lips twitched. ‘Her name?’
The guard was ogling the hamper like it was an instrument of terror. Chuck wished he’d left it in the car.
He scoured his memory for the name of her department. ‘Ohhh, sorry. She’s a Trickett. Sherry. Two R’s like the trifle. Tell her Chuck’s here.’
Zelda trailed a gleaming, ebony talon down her clipboard with a long sigh. The guard was rocking on the balls of his big, black-booted feet, giving him the side-eye.
Ted glanced at him. If he rested the hamper on the cold, gleaming floor for a moment…would that constitute an increased security risk?
The guard stared through him, as if he didn’t exist.
Zelda’s nails clicked on her keyboard. ‘Ok-aaay. Sherry Trickett, Fraud and Litigation.’ Her eyes locked on the screen.
Zelda’s accomplice leaned over. ‘Sherry off the third? She was a hoot!’
Chuck nodded. His arm was throbbing. No wonder they hadn’t used the hamper since their honeymoon. Damn thing weighed a ton. If he was bringing in a pay-packet, they could have grabbed a sandwich at the deli across the street.
‘Sir?’ Zelda was looking at him, one eye-brow arched.
‘Can you call her?’
Zelda blinked. ‘I’m sorry sir, Sherry hasn’t worked with us since Independence Day.’
‘She’s setting up a new practice.’ The other woman licked her lips. ‘You know. With her husband, Ted.’
The hamper fell to the floor.
Told You So, shrieked the brownies.
Zelda stared at her screen. ‘Sorry we couldn’t help you. Have a nice day now.’
Chuck hauled the hamper back to the car and drove home on auto-pilot.
As he pulled into the neatly trimmed drive, his phone buzzed. He switched off the engine and sat in the car, reading the text from Sherry. Working late tonight, then a couple of overnights for a conference next week.
‘Fuck you, Vaughan,’ he hissed, ramming the picnic hamper in the neighbour’s dumpster. ‘Fuck you, and fuck all your stakeholders. And, fuck your stupid silver linings.’
He slammed into the kitchen, and guzzled a glass of water.
Slide, Chuck. Let Things Slide, the treacherous brownies cried from the cookie jar.
He wolfed them all, raining chocolate crumb tears on the clean linoleum.
An Irish Novel Fair winner, and finalist in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, Alex is widely published and anthologised. Her stories have won the Arvon, Crediton and Northern Crime prizes and feature in the Word Factory’s Citizen season. Among others, her work has shortlisted for the Bridport, Tillie Olsen, Lorian Hemingway, HG Wells, and Sunday Business Post Penguin short story prizes.
See www.alexreeceabbott.info and Twitter @AlexReeceAbbott.