At some point in the conversation, Jena could no longer understand what her boss was saying. Sorry. Her former boss. Once she heard the word “downsizing,” her ears clogged up, as if there were chunks of bread stuffed inside the canals. Everything muffled and unbelievable and yeasty.
His mustache bounced around on his sweaty top lip like a bushy buoy in a lake. It would have been comical, Jena supposed, if her anxiety wasn’t spiraling out of control. What the fuck was she going to do now? She had a blue Hyundai with a half-paid car note. She had over 40 grand in student loans left to pay. She had a shitty but expensive condo, for Christ’s sake.
Jena pinched the soft skin of her upper arm, hoping the sting would bring everything back into focus. “Security will escort you to your office to collect your things and then out into the lobby,” her boss was saying. “I hope you understand you have been a valued and trustworthy employee, and this is just a formality.”
She wanted to take the metal name plate off his desk and feed it to him. With a name like W. W. Koppenhagen, the plate was long and would do considerable damage to the man’s esophagus, but Jena nodded in compliance instead.
After eight years, there were a lot of things to shove into the medium-sized file box security had given her. The chintzy wooden bobblehead her work best friend Eileen brought back with her from Cabo. The framed photo of her 10-person team when they’d won highest regional sales back-to-back, everyone smiling large and ignorant of the future. The stainless steel Yeti travel mug with the company logo, given as an employee appreciation gift that March, that held Jena’s still-hot coffee from before she was called into Koppenhagen’s office. In the end, she took nothing.
Eileen, with her antiquated feathered hair, shuffled shamefully out of her own office and stood watching with sad eyes, as Jena was escorted out of the building.
The time was just shy of noon, so Jena did what she did every day for lunch: she walked to the local park to feed the ducks. Typically, she would give them a few handfuls of oats from a bag she kept in the bottom drawer of her desk. But those oats, like so much, she would never see again. Instead, she stepped inside the local 7-Eleven and picked up a loaf of multigrain bread. And since Jena knew bread was basically junk food for ducks, in solidarity, she bought a PayDay for herself.
Her usual bench—the one by the small man-made pond—was unoccupied. She looked at the six-inch bronze plate on the seat that denoted a generous donor by the name of Schwartz, and as always, wondered who Schwartz was. A banker? A lawyer? A doctor? She doubted Schwartz ever got laid off in the middle of a bathroom renovation, the skeletons of a toilet and sink doomed to sit in a condo foyer for eternity. Or until the foreclosure process was completed.
Jena pulled the plastic tab from the end of the multigrain loaf and spun the twisted mouth until it gaped, loose bread falling toward the opening. A duck scurried over with a hungry quack. Jena ripped off a corner of one of the slices and tossed it over. The duck’s orange beak made short work of the piece and quacked again. Jena launched a second chunk, which landed at the duck’s webbed feet. She gobbled that up as well, her mottled brown feather ruffling in pleasure.
The next chunk summoned a second female mallard. And a third. And then Jena saw the bright green neck of the male saunter from the pond to the bench, in search of food.
Soon, the geese came.
Once the bag was empty, Jena moved her attention from the birds to her candy bar. Suddenly, the combination of sweet caramel and salty peanuts no longer tugged at her taste buds. She could think only that the last time she’d eaten a PayDay she had been employed. So, she threw the candy to the birds, wrapper and all.
When the swan appeared, Jena looked at the majestic animal and could not bear her empty-handedness. She pinched her upper arm once again, which had warmed in the afternoon sun and away from the ice cold air conditioner of corporate offices. When she pulled her hand away, some of her skin crumbled into her palm. She lobbed the crumbs into the eclectic team of fowl and watched as the swan, more aggressive than the others, gobbled them up.
She next dug her fingers into her leg and carved out a handful of doughy thigh. She tossed this to the fuzzy ducklings that had followed their mama into the hungry throng but were too meek to eat. Two passing pigeons, plump in their scavenging, snacked on a chunk she pulled from her forearm. A cardinal with the reddest breast Jena ever saw nibbled the buttery slab of stomach she dropped to the ground. A few yards away, a golden retriever pulled at her leash, struggling to join the feast. Her owner, a man in Under Armour and a sheen of sweat, curled his lip at Jena’s body, which now looked much like a porous slice of ciabatta, and yanked the dog back to continue their jog.
This is the last worst day of my life, Jena thought, as her nails scored the dough of her smiling cheeks.
Lannie Stabile (she/her), a queer Detroiter, is the winner of OutWrite’s 2020 Chapbook Competition in Poetry; the winning chapbook, Strange Furniture, is out with Neon Hemlock Press. She is a back-to-back finalist for the Glass Chapbook Series and back-to-back semifinalist for the Button Poetry Chapbook Contest. Lannie currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Barren Magazine and is a member of the MMPR Collective. She was named a 2020 Best of the Net finalist. Her debut full-length, Good Morning to Everyone Except Men Who Name Their Dogs Zeus, is out now with Cephalopress. Find her on Twitter @LannieStabile.