War, All the Time
Piercing blue eyes stared back from the bathroom mirror as Brock Huntsman ran a comb through his brush-cut hair. Even though he was in his early thirties, his sideburns were shot with gray, giving him an air of wisdom beyond his years. He’d added a few pounds over the years, but even when wearing a golf shirt, his massive biceps drew the viewer’s eyes away from the few extra millimeters on his waist. He didn’t need aftershave. Whenever he entered a room, the air was so thick with testosterone that you couldn’t cut it with a diamond scalpel. He made a resolution to hit the gym after work as he ran his hand over the razor burn on his square jaw.
He strapped himself into his Toyota Camry, three thousand pounds of Japanese steel. He turned the key, and the massive 3.5L V6 engine rumbled to life. Behind the wheel of this missile, capable of going from zero to sixty in just 5.8 seconds, Huntsman’s senses sharpened to a preternatural level. He motored out of the driveway, prepared for anything from a gun-wielding carjacker to children in need of rescue from a burning school bus, but first, he needed coffee.
“Help you?” Shania Toothbrush couldn’t take her eyes off the man dressed in business casual. As an actress going undercover to research a role as a barista turned philosopher, she compared him to the leading men she knew, but neither Jason Statham nor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could rival his manliness. Heat rose from her belly. Even though it was against company policy, she undid the top button of her blouse and fanned perspiration from her skin.
“Large coffee,” Huntsman said.
“Cream and sugar with that?” Shania could hardly get the words out because the sexual tension was too thick to cut with a titanium-bladed chainsaw.
“I like my coffee like my ex-wives: bitter.”
“You know what Sartre said, baby.” Shania stroked Huntsman’s hand as she returned his change. “Hell is other people.”
“Huntsman!” Chet Grafton ushered Huntsman into his office and closed the door behind him. Even though he was in his mid-fifties, Grafton had the body of a twenty-year-old due to his almost religious devotion to free weights. His erect but relaxed posture served him well throughout the years as his subordinates picked up on his air of command.
“What’s up, chief?” Huntsman set his coffee on Grafton’s desk and sat.
“Sorry to do this to you, Brock, but the paper pushers at corporate won’t take no for an answer.” Grafton retrieved a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon from his desk drawer, poured himself a healthy glass, and offered the bottle to Huntsman. “I need those budget projections by COB. Can you do it?”
Never one to pass up a challenge, Huntsman poured a healthy slug of Pappy Van Winkle into his coffee. As for the budget projections, they were a whole other story. It had been just three months since the department’s reorganization, too soon to collect enough financial data to extrapolate future expenditures. His skin grew clammy at the thought of the poor P-values and F-statistics that an attempted ANOVA would produce. Huntsman flashed back a decade to Fort Benning, Georgia, when, as a newly-minted Air Force lieutenant fresh out of Quantico, he’d misplaced a decimal point on a congressional report about the F-35. His error had nearly cost the nation a fifth-generation fighter and himself a career. Knuckles white on his coffee cup, he drained it in one healthy gulp. Huntsman clawed his way back from the abyss. If he were to come through for all the people who believed in him, he’d have to conquer not only a dozen interlinked spreadsheets but his inner demons as well. Grafton’s voice roused him from his reverie.
“Brock! Brock! Can you hear me?”
“Don’t worry, chief. Spaced out, thinking of the way forward. I got this!”
“Oh, my God!” La Fleur looked up from Huntsman’s monitor. “Windows Update has been disabled for three years. You’re still on Service Pack 3!”
“From Windows XP.”
“What can I say? I like the classics.”
“That just won’t do at all.” La Fleur began typing on Huntsman’s keyboard. “I’ll have to update you to Windows 10 and Office 2019 immediately. When was the last time you ran a virus scan?”
“Listen, La Fleur! I don’t have time for your petty games. I have a job to do. Unlike you, I don’t live in some IT ivory tower with your Python, R, Structured Query Language, firewalls, and routers. I’m on the front lines every day doing least-squares fits, calculating prediction intervals, and coming up with Cost-Estimating Relationships!”
La Fleur curled his thin bloodless lips into a snarl and glared at the monitor. The tension was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with a thirteenth-century Masamune sword. The antivirus software sounded a klaxon and flashed a skull-and-crossbones on Huntsman’s monitor.
“Oh, my God! You’ve infected the entire network!”
Huntsman smiled. So, maybe downloading that accounting app from the Nigerian prince had been a bad idea, but now he had La Fleur exactly where he wanted him.
“Brock, I…” Ms. Lauren Featherboa-Axehandle let out an involuntary gasp when the last person she ever expected to see in human resources swaggered into her office. Her glance at his massive biceps and square jaw scrambled the language circuits in her brain. She fantasized about a real man, far superior to her Ned, who did his fair share of the housework and always asked for her affirmative consent in bed. She wanted to smash the door to her safe room, shake her hair out of its bun, and run like a wild she-wolf licking caribou’s blood from her fangs. “Please, sit down.”
“I want to file a harassment complaint.” Huntsman opened the employee handbook to the section forbidding discrimination against those with communicable diseases on page 59 and set it on Lauren’s desk.
“I’m all ears.” Lauren leaned forward, exposing cleavage deeper than the Olduvai Gorge.
As she listened to Huntsman’s theory that a computer virus was just another type of communicable disease, she began to feel warm and gooey inside, just like one of the home-baked brownies she wanted to smear all over Huntsman’s massive biceps. The sexual tension was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with an obsidian blade found in the Lascaux Caves.
Finally, free to continue working on his Windows XP operating system, Huntsman made quick progress on extrapolating accounting and HR costs by scaling by the latest numbers of full-time employees. Managers could be difficult as some of them earned as much as entire departments, and he still had to tackle engineering. His stomach began to rumble like a magnitude-7.9 earthquake, so he rushed outside to the food truck parked by the entrance. He didn’t need to look at the menu posted on its stainless-steel walls. He knew what he wanted.
“I’ll have a grilled cheese with… Swenson! What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Brock. Long time no see. When was the last time? Oh yes, it was at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.” Lars Swenson listed grievance after petty grievance. His bullshit was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with Occam’s razor.
“Look, just give me the grilled cheese sandwich. All right?”
“What if I say no?”
“I have the money right here.” Huntsman waved a ten-dollar bill under Swenson’s nose.
“I don’t want your money. I want your respect!”
“Where I come from, respect isn’t given. It’s earned.”
“Then let’s have a little contest. Huh? If you win, you get your sandwich. If I win, I get your respect.”
The tension was so thick that you couldn’t cut it with a Ginsu knife when hundreds of employees flooded the parking lot to watch two shirtless men compete, their massive biceps glistening under the hot kitchen lights. Each held an omelet pan in his free hand while the other hand was tied to his rival’s.
“Let the competition begin!” Chet Grafton fired his .44 magnum into the air to signal the rival chefs and brought an unfortunate Canada goose’s trip to visit his relatives in Goose Bay, Labrador, to an untimely end.
Huntsman melted butter in his pan, whipped eggs into a froth, and added them. Then, while making nervous glances at Swenson, he alternated between stirring the eggs and shaking the pan. The sizzle of butter and smell of egg whites brought him back to the mid-1990s when, at the age of twelve, he was the youngest chef to take part in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition. His skin went clammy, and he breathed in shallow gasps as he remembered that fateful day when he carried a sugar sculpture of the Back to the Future DeLorean toward the judges’ table. Just centimeters from triumph, his Vans slipped on a discarded escargot, the garlic butter slicker than Teflon. Huntsman watched his dreams shatter on the hardwood floor. Clearly, to win a grilled-cheese sandwich, he would not only have to cook an omelet but conquer his inner demons as well. Huntsman clawed his way back from the darkness. When he upended the pan over a plate, half the egg mixture remained stuck. Swenson’s was perfect.
“Ready to admit defeat, connard?”
“How about two out of three? If you win, I’ll turn over my Toyota.”
“You mean the Taupe Tornado? Très bien!”
“Then, for round two, I challenge you to Swedish meatballs.”
“Bastard! You know my grand-mère fed me that disgusting viande every day for over a decade!”
Swenson was clearly rattled. Yet he fought back against what the judges determined was a tie. The contest then rested on the final challenge—pâté de foie gras.
“So, mon ami, here we are again. Just like old times.” Swenson added goose liver to a heated pan.
“You’ll never be a Michelin-star chef, Swenson. You don’t have the guts!” The contents of Huntsman’s pan sputtered, splattering hot olive oil on his massive biceps and causing the females (and some of the males) in the audience to lean in to get a better look.
“What do you mean, Huntsman? I’m the better cook, and Solange should have chosen me instead of you!”
“Maybe so, Swenson, but your foie gras is burning.”
“Curse you, Brock Huntsman!”
Huntsman dined on processed-cheese food melted over stale, white bread. It was the best meal he’d ever eaten. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glanced at his watch. Oh, no! The cooking contest had used up most of the afternoon, leaving him just forty-five minutes to finish the budget projections!
His pulse raced like the click of abacus beads as he flashed back to Fort Benning, Georgia. The fragrance of freshly-baked peach pie carried the tang of humiliation. Accountants leered from behind their slide rules and adding machines as Ms. Fletcher carried the document with the misplaced decimal point toward Admiral Blumtrapster’s office.
“Noooo!” Huntsman struggled to reach her, but he might as well have been moving through peach Jell-O.
“My grand-mère fed me that disgusting viande every day. My grand-mère fed me that disgusting viande every day.” Swenson’s words echoed in Huntsman’s head.
That was it! Swenson’s weakness was that he couldn’t accept where he came from! Huntsman pictured himself sitting in a high chair with a bunch of IRS 1040 forms spread across the kitchen table. His mother held a spoon of baby food in one hand while resting the other on an adding machine.
“Here comes the choo choo into the cave.” She maneuvered the spoon into Huntsman’s mouth. “When you grow up, always remember to cross-check your calculations, Brock.”
Cross-check! That was it! He’d used the Newton project to cross-check last year’s projections. He spent a pulse-pounding thirty minutes updating spreadsheets before delivering the projections to Grafton’s office with just 007 seconds to spare.
“Thank God. You did it, Brock. You just saved the company. I’m putting you in for a twenty-thousand-dollar raise. Did I say twenty-thousand dollars? I meant forty thousand.”
Huntsman found a stunning woman draped across the hood of his Toyota when he exited to the parking lot. With her nose ring and dreadlocks pressed against the sun-warmed metal, the sexual tension was so thick you couldn’t cut it with a 6-kilowatt neodymium laser.
“Thought I’d take you up on your offer of dinner.”
“How about the French Laundry? I love their coq au vin.”
“Oh, hell no! I hate that stuff.”
“In that case, how about coming over to my place for some Swedish meatballs?”
“Great! I can work on my epistemology homework while it cooks.”
About the Author
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com