Sean Gallagher received a BA in English from Hope College in 2004. He has self-published two books on Amazon, and has had works published by Furtive Dalliance Literary Review and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He lives in Mesa, Arizona.
Clay walked upstairs to the office with an extra measure of caution, taking in the clashing, complex aromas as they led him to the break room. The majority of the contents sat on five worn-out tables, a thin orange layer of sheet paper spread over each one. The sheets were barely visible from the plethora of food. Clay had only begun to examine the contest he’d been hearing about for weeks when he saw corporate emerge from the elevator. Dressed in suits no one else in the building could afford, permanent smiles painted on their faces, Clay was reminded of the cast on Mad Men as they marched by him. They approached Rob, who stood tapping his left foot in the main hall, but instantly deleted his nerves upon their arrival. Clay hadn’t known Rob long, but had detected an extra effort to toe the line in the last few days. He’d heard Rob’s retirement was less than a year away. Clay rolled his chair back to his desk, and out of nowhere, one of the visitors appeared, complete with a full grey suit and a furrowed brow. “Excuse me, son?” he asked. “I’m Stephen, director of the northwest region.” He gestured to his visitor pass near his heart. “Can you tell me what it is you do here?” “Yeah, I…” Clay began, sitting in his chair. Right then Jake popped up from behind the cubicle wall like a puppet at a kids show. “He’s actually pretty new, sir, but I can answer any questions you may have,” Jake said, and Stephen switched spots to Jake’s cubicle. Clay resumed his daily routine of number crunching on Excel. *** Only an hour later, Stephen and the other visitors left for their two-hour lunch. Clay returned to the main floor to satisfy his curiosity at what this was all about. There were five tables in all, which had been aligned and arranged by Grace from accounting. Table one contained meats and main entrees. Clay spied a suspicious dish full of ground beef, noodles, and tomato chunks that smelled like golash. He avoided it. Table two contained fruits and vegetables, the most colorful spread, table three the side dishes—croissants, hard rolls, and (Clay found this excessive) three containers of butter. Table four contained the deserts, which Clay contributed to with his last-minute store-bought cookies. He snuck them on the edge of the table behind the more impressive displays. Table five was the fullest one of them all—the drinks. All of the bottles of soda and red cups seemed to bow in humility next to the giant punch bowl. Clay could only guess at what the punch might contain. “Someone made punch too?” he asked. Jake nodded. “Yeah, it’s really good. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it hits the spot.” “Oh, there you are, fellas,” Rob said, walking by. “So as you can see, each table has multiple entrees, and each and every one is labeled with a letter.” A woman Clay hadn’t met yet was finishing up writing large capital letters with her black marker. “Grace is our MVP of putting this together. It was a genius idea!” Rob said. “Anyways, everyone takes a vote during the potlucky hours, which run 11:00 to 2:00. At that time, everyone needs to land on a single entrée or dish from every table. It’s a good exercise in decision making as well as creativity. What dish best represents me?” Clay raised an eyebrow. “Each group of votes will be thrown in the bowl, one bowl for each table. Each of the five winners—there’s always one for each table—is invited to an eat-off.” “Wait, the prize is eating more food?” Clay said, confused. Jake twitched a sideways smile and nodded in silence. “That’s right! They have to scarf down a giant helping of all four of the other finalist’s dishes—whoever finishes first is the potlucky winner!” Rob said. “And the prize is for that is…” Clay began, but he had an idea of where this was going. As if on cue, Rob pointed to the small table adjacent to table 5. He couldn’t tell what the cake was made of. It looked like the base was a marble dough, used to replicate the brick structures and the siding. The red between the marble bricks appeared to be… Graham Crackers made up the sidewalk outside. Green coconut stood in as the lawn, with a little powdered sugar for a little snow. Clay was looking at an edible diorama of the potlucky. “Fred from IT? His brother’s taking courses as a Sous-Chef and has a knack for cakes. Looks like he whipped up quite a number this time,” Jake said. “Wowsa, this seems a bit much,” Clay said, observing it. He pulled out his phone and took a picture. “Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous, but that’s the prize,” Rob said, smiling. “How does one person even eat all of this?” Clay asked, incredulous. “Well, we all usually get a slice or two just as a measure of good morale, the winner takes it home, and it lasts weeks or months!” Jake replied. “Well, let’s get this shindig started. What do you say?” Rob said, clapping Clay on the shoulder. He almost knocked Clay into the cake. *** An hour later, and Clay still hadn’t joined in with the rest. He kept his focus on work, as he felt the presence of corporate just out of eyesight. “Getting some grub, Clay?” Rob asked, appearing out of nowhere. “Do you mind if I starve you for a few more moments? I need you in my office.” Clay nodded and followed Rob to his office. “Take a seat, Clay,” Rob said. Clay didn’t recognize his surroundings upon entering; Rob’s office had never been cleaner. His dusty trophy case had been polished to a high shine, and the usual odor of leftover pizza was absent, though in its place was his own potlucky plate, half-eaten and colorful. Clay sat in one of Rob’s miniscule guest chairs facing his desk. “Well, I do have good news. It sounds like the merger is going to happen after all, and there will be a huge expansion for us. Stephen knows how to build up stocks pretty well.” Rob wasn’t smiling as he said this. “Thing is, before those expansions can begin, there will likely be a bloodletting pretty soon. Your name isn’t on the list—it’ll save us more moolah to keep ya. Stephen will be making an announcement…well, maybe by the end of the day. It sucks, but it’s got to be done.” Clay nodded. He wanted to be back at his desk. “Anyways, since you could have a bright future here, I thought you should be first to know—but let’s keep this between us.” Rob grabbed his plate and resumed his upbeat composure. “Seriously, you’re really going to want to try the mac and cheese. I mean, it’ll probably take a few months off your life, but damn it is good.” He unearthed his fork from a pile up of various foods Clay couldn’t identify and pointed out to the door. “You seriously haven’t started yet? You better hurry, Clay, or people are going to wonder!” Rob said, flashing another painted smile. Clay headed over to eat at last. *** Four out of the five tables looked like they had been demolished by a professional wrecking crew, nary a trace of food in many of the remaining packages. Clay had to wedge himself between people from the other end of the office floor, who appeared to be loading up on seconds; their plates strained to handle the rising mounds. He found one of the last empty plates hidden behind some of the wreckage. “ABC food,” he said to himself, then dovetailed out of the way of those behind him and loaded his plate fast. The chicken was cold, the grease congealing. The mashed potatoes were lumpy. The rolls were hockey pucks. The punch was flat and watery. Despite that, Clay enjoyed it all. Jake approached his cubicle with a satisfied smile on his face. “Not bad, eh?” he asked, and Clay nodded as he went up for seconds, loading up his plate with the rolls, green beans, and mashed potatoes his stomach craved, and nearly was knocked over grabbing a napkin from the top of the pile. “You know, Clay, I think you’ll fit in well here,” Jake said, smearing butter on a large croissant. “Why do you say that?” Clay asked. “Because you go after what you want. That whole driven-to-succeed BS that Rob’s always spewing.” Clay returned to his desk and continued to eat, eyeing the corporate crew’s meeting over his cubicle wall. As the afternoon dragged by, his gut sank to the carpet. *** Hours that felt like days had gone by when Jake knocked on Clay’s table. “It’s time for the winners, man!” Jake said. “Hurry, we’re late!” Clay was shocked at how difficult it was to move. He followed Jake back toward the tables, which had been abandoned, and to conference room A, the big one. Clay had only been in this room once when he was hired. It had the best view of downtown, with a few skyscrapers stretching in the sky beyond the windows. Two giant plates and a set of fancy silverware sat on the table behind a metal box, which Rob stood next to like a game show host. “Thanks for joining us, gentlemen,” Rob said as Jake and Clay took their seats. Too much food for you to handle, Clay?” Clay raised an eyebrow and shook his head and the room exploded in laughter. The smiling faces unnerved him. “No, not at all,” Clay said. “I’ve still got room.” His eyes narrowed a little toward Rob, whose smile froze. “Seems Clay needs to know how we do things around here a little better. I mean, Jake too—both of you here last,” Rob said, smiling. “Anyways, before we were interrupted, I believe that there are some awards that need to be dealt with! Some prizes to hand out!” “Holy crap, Rob, just get on with it already!” Louis, a middle-aged accountant said. “Sorry, Lou. Okay, enough with the pomp and circumstance. The first table winner—is you, Louis! Best chicken I think we’ve had yet!” A low murmur and a spattering of polite applause washed over the room. Clay joined in, but kept his enthusiasm tepid; he didn’t think the chicken was anything too special. “Okay, table two—that’s you, Grace! Well done! Those fresh cucumbers and beans were outstanding! Not even close!” Rob yelled, and the response to this was polite and mannered. This was followed by a long pause as Rob tried to draw out some suspense. “Okay! Table three! That goes to Gloria! What a concoction you came up with! Not even going to ask!” Rob said. Gloria showered over the attention taking her time to sit back down. “Table four,” Rob said. The applause died down until complete silence. “Damn you for drawing this out…” someone that Clay didn’t recognize said. He only knew a few faces by heart after his first few months. “It’s Clay! It’s the kid!” Rob said. Hearty clapping resumed, though the faces connected to those hands appeared baffled, the same as Clay. For bringing cookies? Clay thought. He stood up and moved past Rob. “You sure? I just bought the cookies, man. It was only a few bucks at Walmart.” Rob shook his head. “Nonsense! You actually participated. You should know you’re the first newbie we’ve had in years that joined us for potlucky! I realize it’s a little strange, but we’re glad to have you on this team!” Clay looked toward Rob, confused. “Wait, you guys have a winner for drinks, too?” he asked. Rob nodded, laughing, and sat himself down next to Clay. “Didn’t Jake tell you everyone gets to be here? I made the punch, remember?” Rob said. Clay thought about this for a moment. “Wait a sec. He’s got a point there, Rob,” Lou said. “We’ve never had a winner for the drinks person before.” Everyone nodded in silence in agreement. “But I made the punch…” Rob began, but quieted in an instant. Stephen had arrived with the rest of corporate behind him like an entourage. “What is all this?” he asked. Rob’s eyes grew twice as wide as he spoke. A small part of Clay wanted to laugh, but he didn’t dare. He could tell Jake was holding it in as well. “Oh, Stephen, this is what I had mentioned earlier, this giant potluck contest we have. It’s…” Rob said. “I thought that was a joke!” Stephen said. He grabbed the last plate himself and hovered over to what was left of the potlucky tables, surveying the damage. He found a single plastic spoon and dabbled in a little bit of everything--the goulash, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and gravy, a few cold chicken wings, runny tuna casserole, a few cocktail weenies, baby carrots, and a heaving helping of the mac and cheese. At this point, the mac and cheese now consisted of nothing more than strained puddles of congealed butter base and something resembling liquid cheese. Clay’s stomach felt heavier at the sight of it. Stephen took a few large bites of the mush in quick succession and washed it down with the mystery punch, the winner. It took him a moment to clear his throat and break the silence. “This is good stuff! We have a number of future chefs here!” he said. Everyone nodded and some attempted to force a smile. Clay couldn’t bear to watch. All of the foods together on the plate were forming one giant concoction that looked unnatural. “Rob was saying about expansion…” Stephen said, then paused for a moment and placed his hand on his chest. “Oof! Heavy meal! That’s how you know it’s good, sinks like a stone!” The gurgle that emanated from his gut filled the room, but no one dared laugh. “So for this expansion…well…” Stephen began. Clay looked around and saw everyone frozen, not bothering to breathe. “Excuse me!” Stephen yelled. He dropped his plate on the floor and ran faster than Clay would have expected toward the bathroom. *** An hour later, a flushed and red-faced Stephen emerged from the bathroom and made a beeline for the elevator, though everyone had returned to their cubicles and watched his retreat. The rest of the corporate team, who had stood in silence, followed fast behind him. “Is he going to be okay?” Clay asked Rob, who stopped by his cubicle again. “Yeah, he should be, but I don’t think there will be any more merger drama this week,” he replied. Jake, standing to stretch out, shook his head in disbelief. “Wait, does that mean there won’t be anymore…” Clay began. “It means next week is another week. They might not even visit for next month or…I mean, who knows,” Rob said. The three of them exhaled, walking back to potlucky. Everyone else on the floor readied to leave for the weekend. “Here, try this out,” Rob said, and scooped a large piece of the diorama cake onto Clay’s meager paper plate, nearly breaking it. Clay had no appetite whatsoever, but somehow didn’t hesitate to take a bite. It tasted delicious.