Food For Thought

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“Hey, Brian.”
The boss leaned on the cubicle wall with caution. It seemed unclear if he worried more about accidentally breaking the wobbly divider or marring his impeccable, relentlessly expensive suit. “How’s the progress on the Specter file?” he asked after taking a sip from his coffee mug.

“It’s going very well, Mister Park,” replied Brian, trying to sound confident. His voice trembled ever so slightly, giving away his insecurities.

Food For Thought - office-viewPark seemingly enjoyed the fact that he could instill a healthy amount of fear into his subordinate. “I had no doubt!” he said reassuringly. “We can always count on employees like you.”

“By the way,” he continued after a short pause. “Have you heard the news about Michael? You know that he was let go yesterday, right?”

“Yeah,” said Brian, his body language showing as much loyalty as possible in such a delicate situation.

Michael used to lead the Specter project. Rumors about tensions between him and Park surfaced about a month ago. Many predicted Michael’s imminent departure, the only question being when exactly he would disappear.

“I’m very pleased to inform you, Brian,” said Park with one of his signature smiles, “we decided that you will assume the lead on the project. Are you ready for more responsibility?” he asked, lifting his mug for another sip.

“It’ll be an honor, sir,” mumbled Brian, knowing he had only one choice. When Park asked you to do the job, you had better taken it.

“Super!” Park’s face turned luscious. “Looking forward to your presentation on Friday.” He saluted with his mug and walked away.

Brian frowned. The Specter file was huge, five binders full of financial results, audit reports, marketing analysis, board meetings’ transcripts, and a slew of other documents. Specter Corporation put down roots in multiple markets. It engaged in diverse business activities. No wonder they tapped Michael to dig through their mess, Michael the accounting prodigy and the golden boy of due diligence.

Brian relied on Michael more than he should. He never bothered to learn any of the intricacies. The remaining team members were even more inept, making him the distant second best, and now he had to tackle a task he feared even to think about. Brian walked up to the shelf and stared at the evil books, wishing he could light up a match and wipe the existence of Specter Corporation from the face of the Earth. The fear crept into his stomach. This is it, he thought, I’m finished. Should’ve read the damn files six months ago! Brian felt nauseous. He rushed to the washroom where he hoped to hide for a while and contemplate his escape strategy.

The quiet of the lavatory helped him to relax and think rationally. He obviously couldn’t prepare a sensible presentation on such short notice. He could probably bullshit his way through it, but even if he succeeded, the truth will out eventually. His career wouldn’t be worth a squat just the same. I gotta talk to Michael, he thought, desperately seeking a straw to grasp at. Gotta pay him. Maybe even beg. Just do whatever it takes. He always seemed like an approachable guy. Hope sprouted in Brian’s heart as he typed a message on his phone.

***

“Toll Americano, please.”

Brian paid for a coffee and stepped aside to wait, his mind racing back to the Specter conundrum. Only yesterday! Only yesterday my life was worry-free! Why the heck did they have to let Michael go before the project was done? Couldn’t they wait? The barista brought the cup, and Brian waddled towards the exit, careful not to spill the beverage.

Outside the coffee shop, a gentle breeze caressed his skin. Blooming flowers spread their peaceful aroma. It was a pity to run into trouble on a day like this. His phone went off, alerting him to an incoming message. Holding it in one hand and coffee in another, he squeezed sideways into the lobby and headed to the elevators.

“Let’s meet at The Clamp five-thirty,” the message read. It came from Michael. Brian checked his watch, barely able to hold off his smile. Only a couple of hours to waste!

***

He showed up at the bar twenty minutes too early. Michael was already there, having a bowl of French onion soup that he ate with his typical boorish tenacity.

“Specter shit, huh?” said Michael with his mouth full. “Thieves and hypocrites! Fucking bastards!”

He picked off a lump of melted cheese from the edge of the bowl, swallowed it, and licked his fingers. “Ahh. That was good,” he drawled, relaxing in his chair, and pushed the bowl away. He patted his protruding stomach. “What a bunch of losers! Now tell me what’s happened.”

Brian strived to convey the depth of his desperation with at least illusory dignity. “Man, I have to be honest with you. I thought this was going to be the usual. I mean, you’ve always been great at this stuff. I never bothered to read the reports. I knew you’d always make a great presentation. All I had to do was nod. I…”

“No sweat dude, you did okay,” Michael interrupted him. “Park’s a prick! He chickened out. Rightfully so by the way. I almost squeezed him out, but the fucker outsmarted me! He talked to the right people at the right time!”

“Can you please give me some clues, Michael? Anything would help!” begged Brian. He wasn’t interested in discussing Park’s qualities. He had to fight for his job.

“You’re asking for clues?” replied Michael laughing. His second chin wobbled. “You don’t need no fucking clues! I’ll give you everything. You deserve recognition for not getting in my way when it counted.”

Brian could only smile in response. He was pleasantly surprised yet still wary, as he knew Michael’s eccentricity could take bizarre turns.

“Listen,” said Michael, leaning forward. He lowered his booming voice to a whisper. “You think I’m a genius, don’t you? You think I can remember unholy amounts of numbers and shit? And you damn sure that whatever shit they throw at me, I never slip schedule. Am I right?”

Brian nodded in agreement; he didn’t mind Michael bragging.

“I have a secret to tell you,” Michael continued. “Despite my reputation, I’m not that good. The truth is, I’m as dumb as the next guy. Well, maybe dumb is too strong a word. Let’s just say I’m quite average.” He paused, slurping water from his glass. “Boy, how I struggled to find my first job! Lazy, slow, stupid as fuck – no serious company wanted to take a risk with me. Finally, I managed to squeeze into Brass International. Slipped through the cracks or something.

“The Brass at the time was a big fucking mess. Hundreds of people running around, wasting everybody’s time. There would be more value if they used their energy to pump water instead. I joined in. I too ran around. I too did useless shit. And in the end, I blended in just right. I’ve become indistinguishable. Nobody knew I was even working there.

“One day, I stood by the cooler. It was late. Almost everyone left home. Two managers passed on their way to the cafeteria. I always liked to eavesdrop, so I followed them. One manager mentioned a secret restaurant on Front Street West, and I just thought to myself, who the fuck keeps a restaurant a secret? There must be a reason! So I stood outside by the wall and listened to their conversation. Soon it became clear why. Apparently, a bunch of scientists runs a special restaurant. Those Einsteins figured out how to fry knowledge into a burger! Literally! At first, I thought the whole thing was insane, but then I figured I had little to lose if I followed them there and saw for myself.”

Brian’s heart dropped. He always suspected, Michael was a tad crazy, but now it became clear he needed to be institutionalized. Just stand up and leave, he thought. No explanations and no excuses. The guy is mental! He quickly ditched the plan, however. No, no, no. This would be too dumb. The world is too small. What if we’ll work together again?

“Don’t believe me?” Michael asked with a smirk.

“I have to admit. Your story does sound a tad crazy. No offense.”

“None taken. I appreciate your skepticism. It’s a healthy reaction. You see. The human brain is vast! It’s as if it were an ocean with only a tiny little habitable island. Now some crazy guys found a way to harness the nature itself.”

Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a small candy bar. He put it in front of Brian. “Give it a try.”

“What is it?”

“Yesterday’s results from a minor basketball league. It’s just a sample. Can’t do anything useful with this information.”

Brian stared at the candy. He needed some time to process.

Meanwhile, Michael threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “The address is on the wrapper,” he said, standing up. “The passphrase too.”

Brian watched Michael walk out of the pub. He was left with a candy bar and a heavy load of gloomy thoughts. Michael wasn’t helpful after all. Crazy talk didn’t count.

He weighed the candy in his hand. Nothing outstanding, a brown plastic wrapper, vacuum-sealed, no name, no slogan, only a couple of lines printed on the edge. He headed out, absentmindedly unwrapping the candy on his way. Chewy nougat, soft caramel, and peanuts. It tasted like an ordinary Sneakers bar. Caramel stuck to his teeth. He tossed the empty wrapper into the garbage before boarding the bus.

***

Just as he was getting off at his stop, weird thoughts popped up in his head. It felt as if a news reporter read out bits of information that went right into his ear at the fastest speed humanly possible. Albany sixty-nine. Birmingham seventy-two. Like a news ticker on TV, only every blurb went straight into Brian’s memory from where he could easily retrieve it. King City eighty-one. Indiana fifty-nine. Like a filing cabinet! He rushed to his house, his messenger bag flapping on his thick thigh.

“Honey, I’m home!” he shouted into the dark hall as he opened the door. Still panting from the run, he grabbed onto the staircase handle and bent over catching his breath. His wife didn’t answer.

Brian climbed the stairs and dashed into the office room. The information stream in his head had stopped by the time he landed in his chair, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. He typed in the website name that came to him naturally as if he visited the resource daily. A minor basketball league? I’ll be damned. That’s exactly what Michael said when he gave me the candy bar! Brian hastily wrote the game scores the way he remembered them on a piece of paper and clicked the link to pull yesterday’s results. The scores matched. Even the order in which he wrote them down was identical, and he got the home and away teams right.

He rushed downstairs posthaste, stumbled on the last step and fell, busting his knee and elbow. He crawled onto the porch, his eyes shut from the sharp pain, and bolted out, leaving a wide open door. The bus was about to depart when he jumped in front of it, wildly gesticulating. The driver reluctantly opened the doors, giving him a dirty look.

“Don’t ever do this again, sir,” he said with disdain, handing Brian his ticket.

“I’m sorry,” replied Brian, panting. “It’s a matter of life and death. God bless your soul.”

He dumped his overweight body into the closets seat.

The ride took longer than usual. Passengers requested stops at every corner. Cars constantly cut in front of the bus. Everything seemed to conspire against Brian this evening as if God himself decided to punish him for doubting Michael.

When the bus finally arrived, Brian jumped out and ran across the street to the bus stop where he threw the wrapper into the garbage. He dived into the bin headlong and began digging through the waste, searching for the coveted brown square. Banana peels, apple cores, and chewing gum got in his way, but he didn’t care.

“Young man,” said an old lady who watched him from the bench. Her head shook slightly with indignation. “Are you hungry?”

She extended her hand with an apple. Brian couldn’t hear or see her. He was consumed by the search. With his head deep in garbage, he reached for the bottom of the bin. An ice cream wrapper stuck to his face. He pulled out of the bin and wiped the sticky mess with a sleeve. The old woman stared at him, still holding the apple out.

What a shame thought Brian. He suddenly became aware of how disgusting his behavior might have appeared.

“I’m sorry. I got carried away,” he said with a sigh. “I was just looking for something I threw into this bin an hour ago.”

“Something important, son?” The woman opened her bag. “Here. Your face is dirty.” She handed him a soft tissue.

Brian sat down next to her, wiping his hands and face. He hung his head.

“You didn’t find it, did you?”

“No.” He glanced once more in the direction of the garbage bin. “Wait a second!” he exclaimed, springing off the bench. He picked up a crumpled a brown crumpled square off the ground and smoothed it out. “I found it! I found the wrapper! God bless your soul!”

The old lady gave him a worried look. He didn’t care. The precious wrapper was back in his hands, the address of the restaurant and the passphrase.

***

“You forgot to close the door, Brian!” yelled his wife, vigorously mashing potatoes. “It was open the whole day! Do I have to remind you what neighborhood we live in? You’re not a little boy, and I’m not your mother to look after you. Grow up already!”

Brian minced to the fridge, trying to avoid Martha’s eyes.

“It’s late. Where have you been? I called you at your office, and you didn’t answer.”

Brian hesitated, thinking up a quick lie.

Martha sniffed the air. “Why do you smell like garbage?!” she asked, cringing. “What’s wrong with you, Brian? Are you sick?”

“I had an accident. A garbage truck drove by and dropped a sack on me.”

She abruptly stopped her mashing. “I have no energy for your bullshit,” she said with a sigh, leaving the kitchen. She went to the living room and turned on the TV. Brian had cold hamburger leftovers for supper.

***

The next day, he could barely sit in his cubicle, his mind painting exotic pictures of the secret restaurant. The place must look like a fairy tale! I wonder what food do they serve? Is it Mexican, Japanese, Moroccan? How about desserts? Alcoholic beverages? When work hours finally came to an end, the employees began to disappear from their desks. Brian grabbed his messenger bag and carefully surveyed the area, looking above the cubicle dividers to see if Park was around. Clutching it with both hands, he quickly shuffled out through the back door.

The address was easy to find, but the glass and marble looks of the building confused Brian. At first, he assumed the restaurant occupied the ground floor, but no matter how long he looked he couldn’t find any places to eat, not even a fast-food joint. Discouraged, he stood in the middle of the lobby, not knowing where to go. His only option was to ask the security guard who sat behind his desk, reading a book.

“Excuse me, sir. Are there any restaurants in this building?” asked Brian.

“Depends on what you call food,” replied the guard, putting aside the book.

“What do you mean?” Brian was puzzled by the guard’s response.

“All things are subject to interpretation,” continued the guard. “Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of a momentary state of mind.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I have little time for a smart talk. I would gladly have a longer conversation with you, but I’m in a hurry.”

The guard squinted at him. “You must be Brian?”

“How do you know my name?”

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by eating a meal.”

The guard wouldn’t stop spouting nonsense. As his last resort, Brian decided to try the passphrase. He took out the candy bar wrapper.

“There is more wisdom in your lunch than in your deepest philosophy,” he read out the sentence.

The guard nodded with a smile and replied, “Welcome to Food for Thought, my friend. Follow me.”

None of Brian’s fantasies he had during the day was as weird. He imagined the restaurant in an old basement or an attic with squeaky floors. Instead, he found himself following the security guard in the building that looked a lot like the one he worked in.

Elevator doors opened into an office space on the twenty-third floor. The guard lead Brian to the reception. Brian had a strange feeling in his stomach. For some reason he expected Park to jump out from around the corner.

“It’s Brian,” said the guard to the receptionist. “He’s a doer who came here to eat.”

“What a strange dude,” Brian whispered to the receptionist as the elevator doors closed behind the security guard.

“Hudson reads too much,” replied receptionist without taking her eyes away from her computer screen. “How may I help you?”

“A friend of mine recommended your restaurant.” Brian was amazed how surreal his words sounded giving the scenery.

The receptionist nodded. “Please follow me,” she said in a matter of fact voice.

She unlocked the entrance door with her magnetic badge and let Brian into a cubical maze. What a strange entourage for a restaurant, he thought gravely. God knows what can happen here to a patron. Fucking psychos!

The receptionist stopped at the door with a touch screen display on the wall next to it. She keyed in the passcode.

“Please sit down,” she said pointing at a chair in what looked like a small conference room. “Fred will be with you in a minute. You can read the menu while you wait.”

Brian picked up a trifold from the desk. The names of the dishes sounded quite odd, Fourier Theorem Burger, English Grammar Quesadillas, History of the World Combo I, and so on. The prices handily beat any restaurant Brian ever visited.

After about five minutes, a man wearing an unpretentious business suit entered. He took a seat across Brian and prepared to take notes.

“Welcome to Food for Thought. My name’s Fred,” he said in a warm, pleasant voice. “I’m your host for tonight. Have anything caught your eye so far?”

Brian swallowed, nervousness taking over him. “A friend of mine suggested your place,” he said. “He mentioned you prepare custom meals based on the desired knowledge.”

“Oh yeah! We do that,” replied Fred. He took out a phone. “Molly, would you be so kind to bring us a copy of forty-four ten?” he said into the receiver. “It’s on our special menu,” he explained, turning away from the speaker. “So, Brian, what is it you have to know? You do realize we are not psychics. Don’t you?”

“I have to read a huge amount of financial reports by tomorrow,” said Brian. “Not just read it, but also analyze it and have a presentation ready.” He put a flash memory stick on the table. “Here are the scans.”

Permed head of the receptionist pushed its way into the conference room after a quick knock.

“Forty-four ten.” She extended her hand, holding out a photocopy.

Fred jumped to the door and snatched the form.

“Thanks, Molly!”

“Do you need anything else?”

“We okay for now,” replied Fred. He placed the special menu on the table.

Wow, that’s steep, thought Brian when he saw prices, but if it works as well as the candy bar, it’s more than worth it. “How big is the Accounting Style Top Sirloin?” he asked.

“Twelve ounces. We order from only the top suppliers. You will not be disappointed.”

“I’ll take it.”

“What would you like on a side?”

“Is it included in the price?”

“Yes!” replied Fred with a smile. “Of course it is! Today we have market analysis baked potato, sports trivia coleslaw, or standup comedy collard greens bean salad. Which would that be?”

“A potato please.”

“All right then,” said Fred grabbing the menu off the table. “May I have your flash drive?”

Brian watched the device disappear in Fred’s pocket. Whoever insisted on using an office space for a restaurant must be crazy, he thought after Fred left. The conference room with its cookie-cutter office furniture looked dull. Nothing caught his eye.

After about twenty minutes, the door opened, and a different waiter showed up rolling a small cart in front of him.

“Accounting Style Top Sirloin?” he inquired.

Brian nodded.

The waiter lifted the stainless steel cover and carefully placed the plate and the utensils in front of Brian.

Brian plunged the fork into the steak and cut a piece. The meat, juicy and tender, was grilled to perfection. The potato, however, tasted as if it was cooked in a microwave. After finishing his meal, he reclined in his chair and waited for Fred while picking his teeth.

Soon, Fred popped into the room, carrying a credit card machine. He gave Brian a friendly smile.

“How was your steak?”

“Really, really good, thank you!” Brian pulled his wallet.

“Would you like coffee or dessert or both?”

“No thanks. I’ll have a bill please.”

Fred placed a computer printout in front of him. “It comes to two thousand seven hundred and twenty-eight dollars,” he said, circling the total sum with his pen. “One important thing to remember. Avoid eating anything for the next twenty-four hours.”

“Any particular reason?” asked Brian.

“Please,” insisted Fred without offering an explanation, “Avoid eating anything for the next twenty-four hours.”

***

An hour after he had left the mysterious tower, Brian arrived at home. A barrage of thoughts he experienced after eating candy paled in comparison with the powerful storm instigated by the steak. He was glad it happened on the bus where he could just sit back and absorb the experience. After the flood of information in his head subsided, he felt confident, empowered, and secure. On a whim, he could pull out any detail of the Specter file, no matter how insignificant. His memory held more than just data. Amazingly clear, concise, and thoughtful conclusions based on Specter financials were immediately available too. Just like that, for a meager twenty-eight hundred dollars he had become a guru.

Martha appeared grouchier than usual. Seemingly agitated, she muttered under her nose while slamming the cabinet doors in their kitchen as she cooked supper. Brian crept in and perched quietly on the edge of the dining chair.

“Martha, honey, I’m sorry. I completely forgot to call you. It was a team building event I absolutely had to attend.”

“I called you ten times! Was it so hard to answer?”

“You know Park’s an idiot! I had to turn the damn thing off! He demanded all phones to be in airplane mode!”

Martha shook her head unconvinced. “What was I thinking when I married you?” she said in a tired voice. “Mom was right. Mom’s always right!”

Brian looked back at his wife not knowing what to say. He yearned to tell her all about the restaurant and the miraculous food, but he knew she wouldn’t believe.

“Honey, I’m hungry. Those meatballs you just made smell like heaven. Can I have some?” Brian knew Martha was proud of her cooking skills. Eating her food or just mentioning how good it was always made her more complaisant.

“Do you want pasta too? I have some spaghetti,” she asked in a much softer tone.

Brian nodded.

“Don’t get a wrong idea. You’re not forgiven.” She put a plate in front of him. “I’m going upstairs. Don’t you dare to touch me.”

Brian rolled spaghetti on his fork and dipped it in marinara sauce. Martha knew her way around the kitchen. His teeth sank into the soft meatball, the juice sprinkling out. He wiped it off his chin and eagerly licked his finger. At that particular moment, he realized he completely forgot about Fred’s warning. His jaws closed down and a sharp pain spread through his finger that he foolishly left in his mouth.

In total panic, he ran to the fridge to grab some ice. He flipped the virtual pages in his memory. To his relief, every line was intact. The knowledge he had consumed two hours ago wasn’t affected by his wife’s cooking. It’s all in there, baby! I’m still the king of the hill! He thought, pressing an ice cube to his aching finger.

***

The commute on Friday morning was a breeze. Few people desired to spend a warm sunny day in their offices. A half-empty bus zipped through the Downtown core, basking in the warm sunlight like a luxurious yacht. Brian’s moment to shine was getting closer. He imagined the hoopla his sensational presentation would soon create. Pictures of his imminent triumph flashed in front of his eyes.

The presentation scheduled for ten thirty was supposed to take more than three hours including the lunch break. Two high-rank managers came down from the headquarters specifically to attend it. Brian paced the hall, anxiously waiting for the start when he felt an unpleasant heaviness in his stomach. He brushed the urge aside, but it came back with increasing persistence. He dashed to the washroom, quickly glancing at his watch. He had less than fifteen minutes.

When Brian was back in the conference room, Park was already there. The managers from the headquarters were present too. Park took the initiative to kick off the meeting.

“Hi everyone, I’m Quentin Park, head of M&A department here in Toronto branch. John Goldwin and Rajiv Patel are visiting from California. John is our Chief Controller and Rajiv is Vice President of Business Development.”

John and Rajiv nodded snobby, shifting in their chairs. “Brian Reed is our lead auditor,” Park waved his hand towards Brian. “He took over the Specter file after Michael Stevens left the company.”

Park finished introduced the rest of the attendees and asked Brian to take over. Brian stood to the left of the screen. He had no fear or hesitation. The knowledge he had acquired the night before gave him what he would call a supernatural confidence. Armed with a laser pointer, he began the presentation.

“As part of continuing efforts to expand in international markets BRI entered into definitive agreement to acquire Specter Corporation.”

He breezed through the introductory slides with ease. John and Rajiv nodded, seemingly impressed with the fluency of Brian’s delivery.

“And as the second quarter results point to a ” Brian was about to fetch a line from his memory, but to his shock, he couldn’t find it. An elegant sentence that he knew had to be somewhere within his reach, slept away. Soon, the mere notion of its existence became elusive. The intelligent arguments, the insightful analysis details, the brilliant conclusions were all becoming more distant with each passing moment.

“Points to a production gaps in,” Brian still hoped to find a thread, but a sudden chaotic torrent raged through his head like an avalanche. Brian stood frozen with a glassy look on his face, unable to connect to reality. The laser pointer fell to the floor. He saw Park’s face grimacing at him as if he acted a scene from a silent movie. Park’s words drowned in an excruciating noise that swirled in his head as hundreds or maybe thousands of thoughts escaped him all at once in a massive, overwhelming discharge. Then he collapsed.

***

“Brian!” he heard Park’s voice in the distance. “Brian! He opened his eyes. Park stared at him with a worried look. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry Mister Park,” replied Brian, coming back to his senses. “I don’t know what happened to me. I feel fine now.”

“Will you be able to finish your presentation?” asked Park.

Brian nodded. He stood up, dusting his knees and elbows. All eyes were on him. John and Rajiv somehow lost their snobbishness. They sat straight in their chairs like their assistants would when they had to take notes.

Brian opened his mouth, searching his memory for anything Specter related. Nothing. He had to improvise.

“As I was saying, the third quarter results point to continuous improvements in OPEX spending, bringing margins to the levels exceeding industry average,” he started slowly, one carefully chosen cliché following the other. Something that only those who spent long years embroiled in a corporate culture could master.

***

Brian received a promotion during the next review cycle.

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