Lunch Beans


The noon whistle blows, and I put down my drafting equipment. Time for lunch, my favorite time of day. For the past two hours I've been daydreaming about digging into a super-sized bowl of lunch beans, and I have barely been able to concentrate on the blueprints in front of me. I turn off the lights and head for the cafeteria.

On the way I stop at an office down the hall to pick up my friend Barlow, who also loves lunch beans. "Hey, Barlow," I say, "you ready for lunch?" Barlow, a raging alcoholic who spends most of the day sipping cheap vodka from a thermos he keeps in a desk drawer, is happy to come along. "Oh boy, lunch beans," he says, as he takes a narrow flask from behind the desktop picture of his young daughter and puts it in his pocket.

Walking down the north staircase toward the basement cafeteria, Barlow and I discuss how excited we both feel about eating a huge bowl of hot, steaming lunch beans. It is my view that although I love lunch beans more than Barlow does, Barlow probably needs them more than I do, since his wife just recently died from a massive cardiac arrest.

When we arrive at the cafeteria, a long lunch line has already formed. We don't care. We'll wait our turn. I shove my hand into Barlow's pocket and pull out the flask. When I tip the container to my lips, the hot cinnamon schnapps inside burns the back of my throat and gives me a quick and pleasant buzz.

It takes about five minutes, but then we are in the front of the line. The server, as usual, is spewing random quotes from Kierkegaard like they are SCUD missiles during the first Gulf War.  "Dread is the dizziness of freedom," she barks. "Dread is a womanish debility in which freedom swoons!"

"Hey, Bella," I say. "What's happening?"

"The individual in dread of being regarded as guilty becomes guilty," she responds. "So, what can I get you two for lunch today?  The usual?"

"That's right," I say, holding out Barlow's flask for Bella to take a sip from. "Two large bowls of lunch beans, please."

Bella grabs the flask and takes a gulp. This woman is something else. It is widely understood among those who follow such matters that she took her degree in the sciences from a consortium of major universities back in the early fifties without ever taking an essay-based final examination but never sought to publish her honors thesis. Nonetheless, her travels in the Northern Baltic States are legendary in certain circles, and the fictional account of those adventures either did or did not win several Booker Prizes. Moreover, her groundbreaking anthropological work with numerous unnamed rhinoceros hunting communities in some place or other was the inspiration for at least three groundbreaking monographs written by minor disciples of Einstein in the mid-sixties.  In spite of all this, she took the job here in the cafeteria three years ago to, as she puts it, "be among the people," and also because somewhere in the interim she went totally fucking insane.

"All right boys, two bowls of lunch beans coming up," she says, taking another belt from the flask and returning it to me. Then Bella says something rather surprising.

"Looks like there's only enough lunch beans for one bowl today, fellas. In the possibility of dread freedom succumbs. Can I maybe get one of you an egg salad sandwich or something?"

"Only enough lunch beans for one, you say?" Barlow inquires, clearly startled by the news.

"I've got hedgehogs in my swimming trunks," Bella responds inexplicably.

Barlow turns to me in a near panic. "Jesus Christ, what the hell are we gonna do, Zweiffach?" he asks. The man is starting to freak out, you can tell. His ears are turning a bright shade of red, and his nose is running. "They only got one bowl. Only one bowl!"

"All right, all right, calm down, we can handle this," I say, trying to bring Barlow back to earth. I'm acting relaxed about what's happening, but inside I'm as frazzled as he is. Only enough for one bowl? What the hell are we gonna do?

"My wife is dead, man. She's dead," Barlow exclaims.

"I know, Barlow, I know. Dear lord, I know."

"She had a liver infection," he adds.

"Cardiac arrest," I correct him. "Massive one."


I hand the flask back to Barlow. "Now let me think about this for a minute,"  I say, scratching my head. As I see it, we have several options. Both of us could eat half a bowl. Both of us could skip the lunch beans and order an egg salad sandwich. Or maybe we could figure out some contest where the winner gets the whole bowl of lunch beans and the loser takes the egg salad. But what kind of a contest is suitable for determining which of two co-workers gets a bowl of lunch beans?  And who is qualified to judge such a contest?  I consider these questions at length. The rest of the line is getting restless. I can tell they're getting restless because people start screaming and yelling at us to hurry up. "Let's get a move on," demands a gray-suited bureaucrat. "Hurry the fuck up," screeches a pig-tailed librarian.

The issues are difficult, and I'm not sure what to do. It's true that Barlow needs these beans.  Looking at his tear-stained face and quivering hands now, I can tell that Barlow is really hurting inside. On the other hand, it's not like I haven't had my own share of disappointments. I mean, just last week I experienced some minor difficulty when wiring up the new flat-screen plasma high definition television that my wife, the Duchess, bought me to celebrate the sale of my first screenplay. And then there was the time last winter when my Jaguar XJ6 didn't start on the first try. No, Barlow owns no monopoly on worldly suffering. And the thought of a day without those juicy, steamy lunch beans is almost too much to bear.

When I see Griswold, our bespectacled supervisor, enter the cafeteria, I suddenly know exactly what to do. "Jesus Christ, Barlow," I say in a voice loud enough for everybody in the cafeteria to hear, "for the last time, I will not get drunk with you during working hours."

"What? Huh?" Barlow squeals. "What does this have to do with lunch beans?"

I raise my voice even higher. "Look, you irresponsible drunk, I won't countenance any more drinking on company time. Now put that flask away before I report you to Griswold!"

By now, Griswold is on his way over, and I can tell he's completely buying my act. Griswold hasn't been happy with Barlow's work recently, and he has been looking for any excuse to send Barlow packing. Plus, it was during vigorous sex with Griswold that Barlow's wife suffered her massive coronary, and ever since, the mere sight of Barlow, not to mention that picture of Griswold's kid on Barlow's desk, has been enough to make Griswold feel sick with shame.  Getting rid of Barlow would make Griswold's life at the office much less psychologically difficult.

"Is this true?" Griswold says, approaching us and grabbing Barlow by the lapel. "Have you been drinking on the job?"

"Well, yeah, I guess. But, I, uhh, well, umm, I want lunch beans?" Barlow says pathetically.

"All right, let's go," Griswold says, pulling Barlow out of the line and toward the cafeteria exit.  "We've got a lot of paperwork relating to your discharge to get through this afternoon, and I've got Knicks tickets for tonight so we can't dilly dally."

With Barlow gone from the line, nothing can stop me. "One bowl of lunch beans, please," I say.  Bella, who never much cared for Barlow anyway, cracks a giant smile. "You are one dreadful man, Zweiffach," she giggles. "One dreadful, lunch-bean-loving little man."  She scoops me out a heaping, steaming bowl, and I dig in before taking even one step toward the cashier.