This year, the company holiday party was being held in a five-star hotel on the San Francisco peninsula. It was a full-on formal affair. The only price for admittance was a can or package of food for the homeless. MaxLightCorp prided itself on its community sensitivity, and despite spending five figures on the party, they wanted employees’ hearts in the right place.
It was inevitable that the food contributions became a competition.
Greg held Miri’s elbow as she climbed out of the car. There was no graceful way to exit a sports car while wearing four-inch heels and a long dress. Greg held the holiday sack in one hand, leaning slightly from the weight of ten cans of tuna, another ten of soup, fifteen boxes of pasta, and containers of raisins, shelled peanuts, and a package of crackers.
They walked quickly to the elevator. A man slumped in the corner near the stairwell, wearing a coat and pants that blended with the concrete wall — even the skin of his face blended with the concrete — called out to them as they passed. They waited for the elevator to grind to the fourth floor.
Greg didn’t like leaving the car with a hotel valet, he believed they were tempted to try out hot cars while their owners partied. He didn’t mind paying for parking and foregoing the company-expensed valet. Miri pulled her coat tight. She was freezing and flush with adrenaline at the same time — anxious to get inside the hotel where she could check her coat and show off her dress that revealed the skin of her back from her neck to her hips.
They stepped out of the elevator and walked to the exit. Greg moved slowly, still holding her elbow. She hated leaning on him like this but the pavement was damp and dotted with puddles. It was better to be safe. She wouldn’t present a classy view if she ended up on her ass in a muddy smear of water.
They passed a bank with glowing ATM machines and then a deli, closed for the night. Between the deli and an office building was an alcove. Tucked inside was a sleeping bag, a pile of flatted cardboard boxes, and two stuffed black plastic bags.
A man stepped out from the shadows of the alcove. He wore three coats and a thick yellow hand-knitted scarf that was easily six feet long, since he had it wrapped several times around his neck and jaw and it still hung past his knees. “Spare some change?”
Greg stepped around and took Miri’s right elbow so he was between her and the man. He held up the bag of food. “Giving a donation here. Check in with the food bank.”
“I’m hungry now.”
Greg walked faster. Miri stumbled to keep up.
“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you. Don’t just walk by me like I’m a piece of trash that fell into the gutter.”
Greg and Miri increased their speed. It did no good, she heard his boots thudding on the sidewalk. Despite the layers of coats and the army style boots, he was following at a good clip. In a few moments, he’d overtake them.
“He won’t do anything, will he?”
“He’s harmless,” Greg said. “I think.”
“He’s demented. Drugs. Or something. That’s all.”
“I thought we bought a good supply of food, don’t you?”
The man’s voice bellowed out, right behind them, so close they could smell his body. “You don’t have a single buck?”
Miri slowed her pace.
“Don’t stop,” Greg said.
“I been calling and calling, and no one listens. You walk by like I’m a stinking can of garbage.”
“We’re giving food.” She turned to Greg. “Give him a can of soup.”
“Can’t open a can. I know you have money, lady. It’s all over you. Both of you.”
“Stop talking to him,” Greg said.
“I can hear you!” the man shouted.
Greg walked faster. She stumbled forward. “I can’t walk this fast.”
“You have to.”
They hurried up the block. A few hundred more feet and they’d be at the corner, turning onto a cleaner, brightly lit street. Her feet ached from walking so fast, and her ankles felt wobbly, unable to keep the shoes in place while taking such long strides.
Something soft hit the exposed back of her neck. “Ew.” She stopped.
“He threw something at me. Something disgusting.” She turned her back to Greg. “What is it?”
“We’ll look when we get inside. This is making me uncomfortable.”
“You’re the one that had to park in a crummy garage.”
“Okay, sorry. Bad call.”
She put her hand on the back of her neck. It felt like spoiled fruit. She took her hand away and smelled her fingers. Banana. “Now my hair’s going to stink. Gross!”
As they rounded the corner, they nearly tripped over a homeless man and woman sitting on the sidewalk with their arms around each other. The woman called after them, “What’s that smell?”
“Just keep walking. We’ll take care of it inside.” They reached the revolving door. Greg pushed forward and Miri stepped in behind him.
Inside, she felt the cold and fear slide off her like the shedding of dead skin. After she checked her coat and cleaned the back of her neck and spritzed perfume on her shoulders, she felt clean again.
Greg smiled when she emerged from the women’s lounge. They glided through the foyer, past two glittering twenty-foot trees.
At the entrance to the ballroom, Greg handed the sack to the woman collecting donations.
“Wow. Thank you,” she said.
“There’s a check in there too,” Miri said.
The woman reached into the bag and pulled out the envelope. She peeked inside. “How generous! Thank you so much. It’s MaxLight’s mission to improve the world with our presence. The holidays are meaningless if we don’t share with the less fortunate.”
“I totally agree,” Miri said.
Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order