by Team Sylwester
Alan worked in a tall but boring office building near the Pioneer Place mall in downtown Portland. His company granted him a 30-minute lunch, the minimum required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was just enough time for him to go to the mall food court for a Subway sandwich. Sometimes he thought about bringing lunch from home to save money, but he hadn’t resolved the issue of how to thwart mayonnaise spoilage on the long MAX ride to work from his condo in the suburbs.
He got the same Subway sandwich every weekday: six-inch Cold Cut Combo on wheat with cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and mustard. This sandwich was at the intersection of maximizing flavor and minimizing mess; with more ingredients, things would fall out of the sandwich.
But, today, the sandwich artist was overwhelmed with a long line of customers and became careless with Alan’s sandwich. As delicately as Alan tried to consume the dripping mess, he still wound up with a giant splotch of yellow mustard on his blue tie, glaring like the lettering on an IKEA warehouse.
Alan sighed; this was an inconvenience. He would now have to make room in his meticulously calculated schedule for a quick jaunt to the mall’s restroom. So, after folding up and disposing of his sandwich wrapper in the trash bin, he checked his watch and did some quick math. He’d already used 17 of his 30 minutes eating. A quick restroom trip should take no more than five minutes, and that would leave Alan with eight minutes to get back to the office, and get a jumpstart on some more work. Satisfied with his plan, he started on his way.
Having located the restroom, he gingerly opened the door and peeked inside, carefully assessing the cleanliness of the establishment. It was, most unfortunately, not the well-manicured office restroom he was accustomed to. The fluorescent lights flickered a bit, there was a vaguely unpleasant odor, and one of the stalls was missing its door. But it would have to do. Alan stepped inside and went to the sink, determined to resolve the situation and return to his usual routine as quickly as possible.
Alan reached for a paper towel but was vexed to discover that there were none. He pumped the lever on the towel dispenser in vain, hoping perhaps that it was merely jammed. Alan sighed again. Another inconvenience. Alan scanned the bathroom looking for something to improvise with and was dismayed to discover that toilet paper was his only viable option. He gathered a handful from the stall and set about cleaning his tie.
Alan was so engrossed in dabbing the offending stain that he scarcely looked up when another man entered the restroom. The lack of paper towels had held him up for a moment, and he now calculated that he was at least one minute behind his originally intended schedule. He dabbed the tie with greater intention.
“Sound the alarm!” a voice bellowed. Alan was so startled he dropped his wet toilet tissue in the sink. He looked over, and the man sitting in the doorless stall with his pants around his ankles stared back at him. “I feel like I got Thor’s hammer coming out my ass!”
No shame in the Rose City, Alan observed. He was mortified on the stranger’s behalf. Had there been an alarm, he certainly would have pulled it — anything to escape the awkwardness of the situation. He started toward the door, but the man carried on.
“Looks like you made a real mess of your tie. What’s it you do that you have to dress up so much?”
“I work in an office nearby,” Alan replied, making a point to avoid looking in the man’s direction, “and I really have to be getting back. My lunch break is nearly up.” He made another move for the door, but the man persisted.
“Now me,” the man continued, “I like to build model airplanes. The remote control ones that you can fly like real planes — have you ever seen one of those? I have a friend who builds them too, and we go out and fly them together to see whose is better. We’re going to a model airplane convention in Seattle tomorrow, and I have to get some stuff for one of my planes at the toy store here.”
Alan thought strategically. Perhaps if he appeased this strange man and engaged in conversation, they would more quickly run out of things to talk about, since they obviously had less than nothing in common.
“That’s nice,” Alan finally responded, “I enjoy preparing tax forms and going over financial reports.” While this was true, Alan knew from experience that his interests were not common. He never had been much of a hit at parties, and as he nervously checked his wristwatch for what felt like the umpteenth time, Alan desperately hoped that he would be just as popular with this man as he was with the ladies.
“A hobby is something you do to relax — it’s something you do in your free time, for you, to ease those hard feelings you get from working too hard for someone else. What do you do for yourself?”
“Well, I…” Alan started, sure that he would be able to finish. What did he do for himself? He quickly reviewed: each weekday, he woke up at 6:30 in the morning, took a 10-minute shower, heated up a bowl of pre-packaged Safeway brand oatmeal, drank a glass of tap water, and was at work by 8:00 a.m. From then until his 1:30 p.m. lunch break, he worked, and after those 30 minutes, which he had always precisely timed, Alan worked some more until it was time to go home at 4:30 p.m. He then took the MAX home and heated up a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner. Then he watched TV for a couple hours before going to bed early.
Alan would have plummeted deeper into the cavern of his own thoughts had the strange and socially inappropriate man not jolted him back to his anxious reality: “Thinkin’ time is over, kid. I can’t sit here forever, you know — gotta pinch it off eventually. Do you do anything else or what?”
The accountant glanced down at his dampened tie. He took great pride in his work and felt a deep sense of satisfaction every time he completed a balance sheet and all of the numbers added up in perfect logical order. Who was this stranger to make him feel ashamed of that, to tell him that he was somehow lesser for not striving for more but seemingly less significant things?
“I cook,” Alan blurted out. He didn’t yet, but that would serve Subway right for ruining his tie and ruining his day and getting him stuck listening to this individual. He was going to learn to cook something that didn’t involve mayonnaise and would keep well on the MAX so he would never have to set foot inside that horrid mall and be interrogated by raving lunatics about his interest in accounting ever again. Maybe he could make soup and bring it to work in a thermos.
Becoming absorbed in his own thoughts again, Alan jumped as the toilet behind him flushed.
“Well, good luck with that, man,” the stranger said as he raised and zipped his drawers, “I’ve gotta get some planes and get outta here — I’ve got a hot date later.” The man rearranged the crotch of his jeans, and winked at Alan, “Sorry I can’t talk more.”
Alan was not sorry, but he did feel a bit odd, standing there in his damp shirt, listening to the sound of the man exiting the restroom. What was he doing still standing there? He only had three minutes left to get back to work! He dashed out of the restroom and back to the office.
After a frustratingly unproductive and moist afternoon at work, Alan rode the MAX home. He’d spent the past few hours thinking of what type of soup he would make first: chicken noodle, split pea — or perhaps something more exotic? Once home, Alan scrolled through pages of recipes online looking for something that struck his fancy. There were long lists of intriguing and foreign-sounding ingredients like shallots and fennel that were completely new to him, accompanied by pristine photos of artfully garnished bowls, that pulled him deeper into his culinary fantasy until at last he found the soup that would be Chef Alan’s first.
Bisque. Now here was a soup fit for a man of Alan’s class and intellect. The French-sounding name implied a certain level of refinement and culture, and cooking French food implied a certain level of skill that Alan was keen to prove he had. The ingredients seemed simple enough: tomatoes, milk, and butter, all things he was comfortable with.
Alan made a detailed list of what he would need for his masterpiece and proceeded to the nearby Safeway. With minor assistance from a stock boy looking for something to do, he found it all pretty quickly. He eagerly hurried home to start on his project.
In the kitchen, he set out the ingredients carefully on the counter next to the recipe he had printed off the Internet. He got out a couple of rarely touched pots his mother had given him for college graduation almost a decade ago now.
Alan didn’t have an apron, though, and he had already dealt with enough stained clothing for the day. He figured he’d be able to eat tomato bisque without making a huge mess, but he wasn’t sure about making the soup. An errant hot tomato could do a lot of damage.
He threw his tie in the garbage, a total loss. Then he removed the rest of his clothes except for his white briefs. He folded the shirt and pants before taking them to the laundry hamper in his bedroom. It wouldn’t matter if he got tomato on his underpants, but the rest of his clothes were valuable to him.
He then began to cook. It seemed to be going decently at first. Lacking a food mill, Alan carefully peeled the tomatoes by hand, and then sliced them up to remove the seeds. There really wasn’t much to this recipe; not much could go wrong. He stirred the tomatoes, beef, sugar, basil, bay leaf, salt, and pepper together in his medium-sized saucepan, and then set the stovetop to the proper heat setting. While that was heating up, Alan began melting some butter in the smaller saucepan. He was following all of the directions to the T — whisking in the flour, and then the milk, a little at a time. He was so focused on precisely following the directions that he scarcely noticed the wispy curls of smoke just beginning their journeys up and out of the medium sized saucepan. Regrettably, Alan had never learned to multi-task; he completed one thing at a time, and he always completed it well, albeit rather slowly. When faced with the challenge of cooking two pieces of a dish at once, Alan did not succeed.
By the time he broke his studious trance and noticed the smoke, the whole room had turned hazy. Alan’s first instinct was to panic, but he knew it would be better to stay calm. Acting more swiftly now, he turned the stovetop off and moved the saucepans away from the heat. As he moved closer to the source of the smoke, he choked on a patch of particularly dense air and remembered that the windows were closed.
Feeling alone and private in his one-bedroom condo, it did not occur to Alan to don some trousers before raising the blinds of his kitchen window, opening it up widely, and trying to push the smoke out with his hands.
Across from Alan’s window, Caroline stared out her own window at the strange undressed man flailing his arms madly. There was not enough smoke that she could see it from across the parking lot, but his distress was clear. Caroline thought she should call someone to come and assist him, but who? The 9-1-1 operators would want to know the nature of the emergency, and she wasn’t sure a strange man in only his underwear qualified.
This condo complex was too dull to have an eccentric person, though. A real problem was possible. Caroline felt conflicted, but she finally resolved that she should go over and make sure the man was all right.
She crossed the parking lot and walked to his door, hesitating a moment before knocking.
“Hello?” she called, “Is everything all right?” There was no response. She hesitated again, thinking of what to do next. Maybe the man was just fine and didn’t want to be bothered. Or maybe he was unable to reply because he’d succumbed to whatever horror was happening just on the other side of the door. Caroline bit her lip nervously and knocked again, louder this time.
“I saw you from my window,” she yelled. “It looked like something was wrong! Do you need help? Should I phone the police?”
Upon hearing the woman at the door, Alan began to panic and flailed his arms with renewed vigor. What was he going to do? He couldn’t let her call the police! Desperate, he grabbed a kitchen towel and tried to stretch it around his waist. He raced to the door and opened it up a crack.
“No, don’t call the police! Everything is fine, thank you,” Alan finally managed to stammer. He started to shut the door, but the woman spoke again.
“What’s wrong? Are you sure you don’t need any help? What I saw was, um,” she hesitated, searching for an appropriate word, “concerning.”
Alan’s cheeks flushed. She’d seen him in his underpants. Luckily Alan went to great pains to make sure his clothes were neat and clean, so at least his white briefs were very white — unlike, he suspected, those of the man at the mall.
As Alan fidgeted with his towel, the door fell slightly more open and Caroline caught a glimpse of his red-splattered towel.
“You’re bleeding!” she cried, forcing the screen door open. “Lie down! I’ll get more towels!”
“No, no,” he tried to protest, startled at her sudden urgency. “It’s only bisque.” But Caroline was already inside his condo, leading him to the couch.
“Where is it bleeding? How did you hurt yourself?” asked Caroline.
“Honestly, it’s just bisque,” Alan said, even more embarrassed that she had seen his underwear and the disastrous state of his kitchen. “It’s soup, just tomatoes and soup! I’m fine, really.”
Caroline looked into his kitchen. She saw the large, boiled-over pot that was most likely the source of his distress and the red soup that had spilled everywhere in his clumsy attempts to stop the burner from smoking.
“Oh,” she muttered, looking away and feeling embarrassed that she had invaded this poor unclothed man’s home over a minor cooking accident.
Touched by her concern and not wanting to offend, Alan invited her to sit on the couch while he made himself decent. She quickly found his living room dull, so, while he washed up, she went to the kitchen to check out the soup. It did smell good. There was still a good amount of soup left in the pot, bubbling harmlessly on a now non-smoking burner. She picked up a spoon, cautiously dipped it into the bright red concoction, and raised it to her lips. It tasted good enough that she went back for another spoonful.
Alan emerged in a polo shirt and khakis, his attempt at casual dress, to see Caroline in his kitchen. His impulse was to worry, but she looked disarmingly cheerful.
“Tastes good,” she told him, smiling. She dipped the spoon back in the pot and offered it to him. “Have a bite.”
© 2011 Eva Sylwester, Liesel Sylwester, Story Sylwester