‘Brown Paper Bag’ by Blake Patrick Swan

brown paper bag

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The collective standing of forty civil servants in unison either signals lunch or end of day. Right now, it’s lunch. Today Jared is not among those rising. For him, lunch is no longer a moment of euphoria the way it is for his coworkers. 

Jared didn’t always dread lunch. A short while ago, he had stood with the rest of them, and had walked with swinging arms and a gum-revealing smile on his way to eat a lunch he had been thinking about for hours. Lunch had offered Jared the opportunity to step away from the penetrating blue light of his computer screen, to quiet his stomach, and to enjoy half an hour of oral stimulation. Nowadays, lunch only offers Jared a short break from the tedium of his cubicle. Nothing more. 

The problem began with a grocery store run-in with an old acquaintance, and the fair amount of shaming that followed due to the ground beef and chicken breasts that sat in the upper deck of his cart. The interaction only came to an end when Jared agreed to watch a Netflix documentary on the meat industry. And from the moment he got home and pressed play, things spiralled out of control. That night, all of the newly purchased meat in his fridge—save for the fried chicken he ate during the documentary—met the black plastic of a garbage bag. It didn’t stop there. Each night, he watched a new documentary. Each night, he emptied his cupboards a little more.

In a matter of weeks, Jared had watched every food-related, environment-related, or toxin-related documentary on Netflix. By the end of it, Jared hardly recognized his own life. 

Jared’s lunch served as a microcosm of the changes he had made. His lunches now contained very little. Partly because it’s tough to find organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, non-waste producing, sugar-less food, and partly because Jared’s new method of bringing his lunch to work drastically limited the amount of food he could bring. You see, in an effort to avoid any single-use packaging, as well as the toxins in reusable plastic, Jared had begun carrying his lunch to work in his bare hands. This made soup a difficult dish for him to bring, and he was forced to stop riding his bike in the mornings, not having mastered the no-hands turn. 

When Jared arrives at work in the morning, he empties his hands on his desk. And that is where his food sits in two little piles until lunch. Today those piles consist of carrot sticks—grown in his own garden—and a lump of pumpkin seeds, unsalted and unroasted. Scooping his lunch up into his hands, he joins his colleagues in the lunchroom. The lunchroom has begun to look the same each day he enters it. Everyone overcrowds the round tables, and people are pressed together uncomfortably, knee to knee, and their garbage takes up each square inch of table surface. But every day, the same table, appropriately sized for four, remains empty, with only one chair left beside it. 

Jared isn’t naïve or oblivious. He knows that the daily empty table is no coincidence. He knows that the others have become tired of his judgmental and didactic conversations. That they’ve grown sick of his glaring eye watching their chicken wings and Styrofoam takeout containers and salivating mouths. He knows that they all just want to enjoy their lunch in peace. 

But today is different. Today the lunchroom dynamics are altered just slightly because of a new hire. And coming into the lunchroom late, she sees the table occupied by a single person as the obvious choice. She takes an empty chair away from a neighbouring table and slides it beside Jared’s. 

“May I sit?” she asks.

Jared is caught off guard, and after he acknowledges that someone is, in fact, willing to sit with him, he responds: “of course!”

She places her brown paper bag down on the table, and she eyes Jared’s dry carrots and wet seeds. “Looks like you’re almost done here anyway,” she says with a smile.

Jared cracks into a carrot stick, and close-mouth smiles back. 

Jared’s guest unfolds her brown paper bag and relieves it of its contents. He watches closely with a curious eye. First comes a granola bar wrapped in shiny, metallic plastic. A Wonder Bread sandwich inside a plastic sandwich bag comes next. And lastly, she takes out a yogurt cup. 

Jared stares with contempt at the dairy product packaged in a single-use plastic cup. So much wrong in such a tiny cup, he thinks. Misremembered stats run rampant through his mind. 

Jared continues his watch as she pulls the sandwich slightly out of the bag, grips the plastic on either side, and bites eagerly into the bread. She chews and swallows, and Jared thinks he sees a smile while she does so. Then, as if she’s just remembered something, she blurts out: “I’m Carley, by the way.”

Jared manufactures a polite smile and responds: “I’m Jared.”

“Nice to meet you, Jared,” Carley says cheerfully before she bites into her sandwich again. 

Jared attempts to return his attention back to his own lunch, alternating between carrot sticks and pumpkin seeds. He still hasn’t gotten used to the pumpkin seeds, and he finds them tough to chew. Their presence in his mouth seems never-ending, like a stick of gum. Every few minutes he needs to get up to stick his mouth under the tap in the lunchroom sink to wash things down. Jared’s hunger grows as his piles of food shrink. 

It’s either his own hunger he can focus on, or the unethical food being consumed across from him. His mind chooses the latter. Watching and thinking about all that is wrong with what she is doing, the urge to inform Carley of her near-sighted decisions grows within Jared, like the fruit fly population around his compost pile. She needs to know. How can he not tell her? How can he stand by and let her be ignorant to so much? But if he does say something, he risks driving her off. He risks returning to an empty table the next day. 

Maybe he can fight off the urge. Maybe he can let her enjoy her food with a smile, and he can enjoy sitting next to that smile. 

Jared manages to stay quiet. He holds his thoughts in like he did his bowel movements during the first few weeks of his diet change. He watches her peel open the top of her yogurt. He bites his inner cheek, and he sees her look around the table with confusion. An audible, oh! followed by a hand back in the brown paper bag. What more does she have? he wonders. And that’s when it happens. She takes out a plastic spoon, and Jared can’t hold back any longer.

His thoughts flow from his mind like a surge after the breaking of a dam. They show up in his mouth as words, and he can’t swallow them. Out they come. 

“You know, there’s a great documentary about plastic use in everyday life that you should watch. It’s really quite informative,” Jared says with both a level of enthusiasm and a feeling of superiority that he cannot hide. 

Carley takes the spoon out of her mouth. “Oh, really? I’d totally watch that.”

“Great!” Jared quickly replies, surprised by her enthusiastic response. “I’ll write down the name of the film for you.”

“Perfect!”

Jared sits back in his chair. The internal struggle has passed. He no longer has to worry about informing her about the issues related to the plastic she’s using. But his body is still tense as he watches Carley finish her yogurt. His eyes are no longer on the spoon, but on what it holds. 

“You know, there’s also another really good one on dairy consumption.”

“Oh, yeah? Maybe I’ll have to watch that one as well.”

“Definitely!”

Carley finishes the last of her meal and starts to pack up. Jared can’t help himself. “Oh, and one about non-organic oats.”

Carley takes a little longer to respond this time, but as she stands up from the table, and places her chair back where she found it, she says: “Ok, I’ll have to get the titles from you some time. Nice meeting you.”

“I’ll send you an email,” Jared calls out as she’s walking away.

Jared doesn’t hear a response, but he doesn’t need one. Getting up from the table he washes his hands at the sink, takes a quick sip from the running water, and dries his dripping hands on the front of his dress shirt. Scurrying to his cubicle with zeal, he opens his email and starts a new draft. He ignores the email address for now, fills in the subject field, MUST WATCH, and jumps to the body of the email. He sits there with a wet shirt stuck to his chest and a growling stomach, and he types out the list with vigour. 

The list goes well past three. 

 


BLAKE PATRICK SWAN is a writer from Sudbury, Ontario. He holds degrees in literature from St. Francis Xavier University and Lakehead University. Having recently graduated, he now occupies a sessional professor position at Cambrian College. He is currently  working on a collection of short stories that examine hypermasculinity in rural Canadian areas. 

Copyright © 2018 by Blake Patrick Swan. All rights reserved.