Happy Hour: A short story

A group of people sit in front of computers.
Wikimedia/Creative Commons

For a boutique furniture franchise operating out of Irvine, California, Will felt the company’s value on gossip was too high. He hadn’t known when he first applied to DECOR, but after his first month of slinging artisan ottomans to suburban newlyweds and recent law school graduates, he began to understand the currency of muckrake and canards. At first, the showroom floor murmurs about cashier Carl’s parole or Synthia from corporate’s roster spot on a local doomsday militia felt like a sexy way to spice up his time moving beds named after cities in France. But lately, it was beginning to feel shameful. It was almost gross enough to make Will find some other floater job to work until he applied to an MFA program. But here, the money was good and, specifically speaking, Will didn’t have to participate in the secrets trade.

But he hadn’t realized how sick it could get, at least not until he attended his first quarterly company happy hour. Everybody was there: the cashiers, the warehousers, customer service, his company of showroom sellers and Mr. Munches, their manager. And all were crammed into a bar with exposed wood, a brick bar counter and hanging bulbs faux-eclectic enough to come right out of a Pinterest post. Across the bar, some of Will’s co-workers were posing for a picture in front of a sign that read: “FIND YOUR BLISS.” He dug his hands deep into his pockets as if he could dig out a reasonable excuse to leave. Then a familiar hand touched his shoulder. A soft cheek hovered next to his ear and whispered:

“You’re weren’t going to run out on me, were you, William?”

Oh, thank god. “I didn’t realize accounting came to these things.”

Sarah slid her hand down to the small of his back. “Of course we did,” she said. “All of corporate is here.” Before Will could ask why, she gestured to a tall man leaning against the bar, speaking to someone Will recognized from retail. Behind the retailer, an impromptu line was starting to form.

“It’s Rick,” Will said. He felt ashamed at his immediate sense of awe.

“That’s right,” Sarah said. “CEO shows out to one a year, the whole office shows up. You’ll learn.”

Will had never really seen Rick in person before, besides the occasional corporate pep talk. All he knew about the man was that he insisted on the first-name casualness as part of some nouveau business tycoon synergy thing. But, here and now, the guy was maybe 80 feet away, less of a four-letter abstraction than he had ever been.

Will didn’t have to participate in the secrets trade.

Sarah locked eyes with Will. “I’m going to mingle, okay? You should too. Don’t leave without me.” She swiveled and scanned to check the attentiveness of nearby co-workers. It must’ve been safe, because she gave him a small peck on the cheek before making her way toward a group of her cubicle-bound co-workers. If they saw, they’d talk. The fog of Rick certainly had some advantages.

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Well, Will thought, if you’re going to stay, you’re going to drink. Will ordered something called a Hemingway, because of course this bar had literary-themed cocktails, and buddied up to Frank. Frank, who worked in HR. Frank, whose long forehead and balding appearance so resembled the sitcom caricature of an office HR rep that people assumed he was boring. Frank who was, as per usual, alone. Will, being one of the new employees, was also often alone and found it comforting to be alone with someone else. The two of them discussed banal company news: the possibility of DECOR changing its uniform policy (infinitesimal), which breakroom coffee machine didn’t brew coffee nuclear-hot (the one on the far left with the chipped lid), and just how exactly did Synthia manage a militia-sized automatic rifle while clocking in under 100 pounds (cardio, probably). Synthia’s hobbies were one of the few topics of office slander Will could stomach based on its absolute implausibility. At least, that’s what he told himself.

Somewhere in the middle, discussing which other co-workers could effectively wield assault weapons, Will went into autopilot. Between affirming nods and the occasional conversational “hmm,” he surveyed the room.

The line for Rick was still going strong, and the rest of the room had shifted into private islands of conversation. There was a steady murmur hanging over the bar. The only breaks in its monolithic voice came from a table at the back of the bar with employees who were taking the “happy” in “happy hour” deadly serious. His eyes found Sarah’s strawberry-blond hair and her practiced-to-perfection power stance. She radiated assuredness. She carried the muted confidence that Will thought only existed in heroes from samurai films or Westerns. His time with Sarah had shown him that this cool-under-pressure-mentality also persisted in accountants who used to play division 2 women’s soccer. Her athletic past was always a slight comfort to him whenever he fumbled over himself in their more intimate times together. His gaze must’ve really lingered because she turned to him and flashed bright brown warning eyes — a playful “fuck off, you’ll get us caught.” Will rotated to face the bar.

Will went into autopilot. Between affirming nods and the occasional conversational “hmm,” he surveyed the room.

His order, however, was interrupted by a loud, “Will, did you know that pirates invented cocktails because water on most ships in the 16th century was undrinkable?”

“No, Mr. Munches, I didn’t know that,” Will said.

Frank said he’d never heard of it either. While Mr. Munches began to explain the origins of the modern cocktail from the battle against scurvy, Will struggled to suppress a chuckle. Usually, Mr. Munches’ faux intellectual factoids were wildly inappropriate. Like the time Mr. Munches had discovered one of his employees had taken a bagel from the customers’ complimentary breakfast table, and had proceeded to explain the ancient Roman process of “decimation.” When a soldier was suspected of being a traitor in the Roman legions, one man out of every 10 would be randomly selected for execution. Will wondered if Mr. Munches thought of himself as the decimating type. He wasn’t sure that day and he still wasn’t sure now.

“Will,” Mr. Munches said.

Will snapped to attention. “Yes, Mr. Munches?”

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Mr. Munches grabbed Will by the arm and pulled him to the other end of the bar, right into Rick’s orbit.

The first thing Will noticed about Rick was clear signs of fitness, like all of his muscles had uniformly decided they weren’t over 50. Will thought “pro wrestler in slacks” was an odd aesthetic to curate for the owner of a furniture franchise.

“Rick, this is Will Tanner, he’s new to retail, he’s got a strong starting sales record, and he just graduated from William and Mary.”

Will gave a nod, a hello and a sheepish grin. He tried not to focus on the line of co-workers he’d cut. Rick said hello, offered a hand and asked how Will had liked his first month “on board.” Will tried not to giggle at yet another naval reference. As Rick continued to ask almost redundant questions about Will’s experience selling the products while he offered bullshitted answers in response (who was going to tell their CEO that the coffee table collection named after ancient Mesoamerican cultures was overpriced and tacky?), Will couldn’t stop focusing on the man’s eyes. They were soft and weary, betraying his hulking aesthetic with a hint of insecurity near the iris.

“Will,” Rick said, “I’m glad we’ve got a college grad on our retail team. I was a young man once.”

Of course you were. Will nodded affirmatively.

Rick continued, “If you ever wanna swap stories about life after school, let me know. I remember those days as being quite a time.”

Will thanked Rick and shuffled back toward his drink down at the bar. As he was leaving, he could overhear Mr. Munches explaining how lucky they were to have some found someone like Will. Will turned that over in his head a little bit. “Lucky.” Luck implies some random opportunity. What was random about a purposeful job application. He wanted to be close to home to save up while he applied for writer’s workshops. The money was better than bartending. And “found.” Mr. Munches had nothing to do with Will’s employment, since Frank had interviewed him. But Rick didn’t know that. Jesus, Mr. Munches was selling Will as some kind of wunderkind to Rick. Except who wanted to be the wunderkind of “Finnish pantries.” He shuddered over his drink.

Will couldn’t stop focusing on the man’s eyes. They were soft and weary, betraying his hulking aesthetic with a hint of insecurity near the iris.

“You were blushing, you know,” Sarah said. “It was cute.”

How’d she always manage to sneak up on him? Will protested that he hadn’t been blushing. The thought of pride over Mr. Munches’ praise made Will feel sick.

“You were,” Sarah said. “He asked to talk sometime, didn’t he?”

It hadn’t seemed as official as that. Rick hadn’t offered time or a place or anything. But as always, Sarah anticipated his concern.

“It’s not like an interview or anything,” Sarah said. “Rick loves gossip.”

“Oh” was all Will could muster. Sarah took the drink she’d been waiting on and waded back into the surf of gabbing employees. Will considered calling her back. Considered explaining to her that when she left to tell tall tales with the other employees that he felt like a seawife waiting for her sailor to come home. Then he felt embarrassed that he was considering using boatisms to explain his feelings to his girlfriend. Too much time with Mr. Munches.

He looked around the room, hoping for someone to talk to. He watched as his co-workers automatically let loose in conversation. He didn’t have to wonder what they were talking about. They were trading secrets and stories. Hushed updates about who was sleeping with who, who still had a habit that rhymes with “smoke” and just how boring poor Frank really was. Will could see the information being passed from one group to the next like some bizarre bucket brigade, except the bucket was filled with fictitious sludge and would end up being tossed onto a smoldering heap of toxic work environment. Frank approached him. Thank God for lonely people.

“Little one-on-one time with Rick,” Frank said. “Not bad.” Then he gave Will an out-of-HR- character punch on the arm. “You pass the big guy anything he wants to hear?”

Will shook his head no. He kept thinking about Mr. Munches. Had his manager tried to sell Will’s story as his own success? Was he over there right now behaving like Will’s Dickensian private benefactor? Will wanted to leave, maybe even quit.

He looked for Sarah to give the exit sign, but he couldn’t find her. Frank kept prattling on about some memo he had to read that no one cared about. It was harmless, but Will felt like he was being smothered by conversation. He felt his left breast pocket and came up empty.

“Frank? You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you?” Will said.

“Nope, but there’s a CVS across the street.”

Will left the bar and made for the drug store. The farther he got away from the happy hour, the louder the chatter from inside became. By the time he heard the familiar ting of automatic doors opening he could’ve sworn he heard someone talking about how the “new guy already got to meet Rick.” He bought a pack of Blue Spirits and stepped out on the curb. The cigarette wasn’t helping. All he could think about was the vicious genre of corporate fiction seeping out from the establishment across the street. Was Sarah talking about her time with the wunderkind? Did Mr. Munches know? Would Will be expected to sell Sarah out? Like Rick would love hearing about the climber from retail who found his way into corporate bedrooms. She wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. He was sucking harder. He had to light up another one already.

Then brakes screeched hard. Glass broke, and the crosswalk was screaming. Will looked up from his pack to see two red tail lights disappearing into the night. Then he saw the body on the crosswalk. Will dropped his Spirits while reaching for his phone. He’d dialed 911 as he ran over to the fallen pedestrian. By the time Will had sputtered out an address, the noises had stopped. The boy didn’t look much younger than Will, but it was hard to tell. Will had never seen a body before. He wanted to throw up, he should’ve looked away. But he didn’t. He lingered on the details. The messy hair, the color of blood losing its distinctness to the dark asphalt, the cruel physics which had managed to only remove one shoe.

“Will, Jesus Christ.” Sarah pulled him away. He turned into her hug. Through his tears, he could see the line of employees who had gathered on the sidewalk. Mr. Munches was trying to calm everyone down with an anecdote about the Vikings’ fire funerals. Rick walked over and made a big show of taking over the hugging duties for Sarah. Will could feel the expensive linens threaded over the ridiculous biceps wrapped around him. The only thing louder than Rick’s shirt screaming it didn’t fit were Will’s thoughts, turning toward the kid laying in the crosswalk. He tried focusing on anything else, like Rick’s obvious hair plug job, but it didn’t help. He kept coming back to the missing shoe. Will wished the discomforting image away.

All he could think about was the vicious genre of corporate fiction seeping out from the establishment across the street.

And then the familiar crept in.

Will could hear it starting up again on the sidewalk. The whispers. “Had he seen it?” “What was it like?” And Will did his best to tune in.

After the ambulance had left and the police finished taking their statement from Will, he felt Rick’s gorilla-sized hand on his shoulder.

“Son,” Rick said, “that must’ve been awful. If you ever feel like you have to share what happened with someone, talk to me.” He handed Will his business card.

Will had his reservations. They were good ones. He had arguments and cases for himself to never call. But what he remembered most from his first happy hour was the creeping comfort that came from punching Rick’s number into his phone.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.

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