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The Octagon Club

      


   “I’m hungry!” Sergei said again, not having received a response from the man in the next office over. 


   “Oh you’re hungry!” Petros said, leaning back so his face just cleared the partition. 


   “Did you eat?” he asked.


   “Not today.”


   “Come with me for lunch then,” Petros offered.


   “It’s not my break yet.”


   “Take it early, come get lunch.”


   “Okay.”


   They left the small office building and went to the street. From the street they could see just a few buildings on either side before their vision was obscured by morning fog. 


   “It’s too early for lunch,” Sergei complained. 


   “You’re hungry, this is breakfast.”


   “Too late for breakfast.”


   “Call it brunch then.”


   Sergei hadn’t eaten breakfast in many months and he wondered why he even put up the charade of eating it anymore. Ah, yes, he remembered. If he was forced to skip lunch he had to pretend he had eaten breakfast. “Big breakfast this morning!” he would grunt while patting his gut and stretching while the hunger in his flesh gnawed at his hand through his skin. It was as if a wolf’s head was snarling beneath the fibers of his abdomen and may bite its way out and consume the nearest man, woman, or child. Well… man anyway, he hadn’t been near a woman in a long time. 


   “This man makes a good corn on a stick,” Petros said, motioning to a man in a black hat, black apron, and thin shoes. 


   “What makes it good?” Sergei said, peeking into the boiling pot.


   “He salts it.”


   “Okay.”


   They sat on the stoop of the financial building in which they worked and ate their corn on a stick in silence. That was, silence except for the slurping noises associated with eating boiled corn.


   Sergei finished his corn, having gnawed all the way down to the husk, and even nibbled on the stick a little. He threw it in the bush, but it got caught on the leaves and bounced into the street. He didn’t pick it up.


   “You’re still hungry aren’t you?” Petros asked. 


   “Yes.”


   “Why don’t you eat more?”


   Sergei liked Petros but he wasn’t sure if he was trustworthy. If he told Petros that he was having financial trouble he might find himself the talk of the office. They all got paid the same for their work. The government enshrined that in their constitution. All financial creditors needed workers in the role of temporary banking underwriters. That is what Sergei and Petros and the rest of their floor did. They received statements and checked balances and wrote recommendations and tallied dots and dashes and transactions and foreign exchange rates. They knew all about money, but some knew more than others. Sergei felt like he knew very little about money.


   He looked at Petros. He was wearing dark, freshly shined shoes and a tightly woven gray coat. His dark hair was slicked back with oil and he had an unlit cigar in his mouth. Sergei knew the brand. It cost as much as four boiled corns. Four lunches worth of tobacco were melting away in Petros’ saliva covered lips. 


   Sergei looked down at himself. His brown shoes had pale spots and were scuffed at the heels where he clicked them together anxiously while he worked. His hair was wild and dry. His coat was threadbare and turning brown due to a lack of washing. He couldn’t remember anymore, but he was pretty sure it was green when he bought it. 


   “I won’t lie to you Petros.”


   “That is good. Don’t lie at all. You’d be a bad advisor and a worse friend.”


   “I won’t lie, but I can’t be fully truthful either.”


   “Say how.”


   “If I give the full truth you’ll spit it out like tobacco and everyone will know.”


   “Cross my heart,” Petros said. He took the cigar out and waved it in a cross in front of his chest. If it was burning it would have looked like he was purifying himself with incense. 


   “I am having trouble making ends meet,” Sergei admitted. 


   “What ends are those?”


   “Eating and living and having a home. All the ends. I have to pick one every day. Do I eat or shine my shoes? Do I fix the broken window in my kitchen or do I fill the pantry?” 


   Petros huffed and made as if to smoke, but remembered the cigar wasn’t lit. He rubbed his chin and smiled at Sergei.


   “You are hungry, yes?”


   “Yes.”


   “Let me show you something.”


   Petros pulled out a necklace that was hidden under his shirt. On it was a beige octagonal pendant three or four millimeters thick and about the size of his palm. It was made of plastic and had no markings other than a small, incidental scratch or two.


   “What is that?”


   “It’s nothing really. Just a badge, but it represents something. Meet me after work and I will show you,” Petros said. 
   
   The mystery excited Sergei. He rushed through his work the rest of the day, and he had to resist the urge to peek across the partition to Petros’ desk. What was his wealthy coworker up to? He didn’t know but he needed to know. It burned him. 


   Finally, the clocks read five and the floor emptied of workers. Petros and Sergei gathered their things silently and met outside. 


   “Come,” Petros said.


   He began walking without waiting, and Sergei had to jog a little to catch up to him.


   “Where are we going? What is this?”


   “You’ll see.”


    Petros didn’t stop or look back. He just marched. 


   The city twisted and turned around them as they crossed from block to block and street to street. Soon, they were in a square that Sergei had never seen before. It was tucked in behind a synagogue parking lot and hidden by a low line of service buildings. It seemed laundromats were the camouflage of the urban landscape. 


   In the square, Sergei caught a couple glimpses of other beige octagons. Some people wore them plainly on their sleeves, others had them hidden poorly in their shirts. One woman had it woven into a knitted scarf, another had it peeking ominously out from under her blouse.


    Then he saw the place from which they were all coming and going. At the end of the square there was a grocers. At least, it looked like a grocers, but it was blank on the exterior except for some tan siding and a couple of shopping carts. People walked in with nothing in their hands and left with half empty baskets. Sergei peeked into a few of the baskets and was surprised to see that some people left the store with nothing at all. On the stoop of the store, there was a man sitting with a basket next to him. His hand was held just in front of his face and he was opening and closing his mouth as if to take a bite of something. His mouth moved like he was chewing. Then Sergei watched the man swallow, and he saw his Adam's apple rise and fall with the passing of mastication. 


    Then the man took another bite of nothing and began chewing again. 


    “How strange, is he alright?” Sergei asked Petros. 


    Petros finally stopped and turned around. 


    “Before we go in you must understand that this is an exclusive club. You must not offend the other members. If you see something you don’t understand, please do not bother them.”


    Sergei nodded, then followed him in. 


    The grocers was filled with rows and rows of nearly empty shelves. Some of them had rice or beans on them. There was a produce section with a few sparse potatoes and corn. It looked like someone had come in and looted every luxury. Yet, this did not seem to bother the other club members. They walked along the aisles, looking at the empty shelves as if pondering their contents. They read the labels and did math on their fingers to find the best deals. Then, as if in a pantomime, they picked up nothing from the shelf and placed it carefully into their basket. 


    Sergei followed Petros as he did his shopping. 


    Petros stopped in a blank section of shelving and stared intently at nothing. He picked up something invisible, then hefted it in his hand, and put it back and grabbed another one. This one passed inspection and he placed it into his cart.


    “You can tell that some of them are heavier than others,” he explained. 


    Sergei checked the label. 


    “Columbian Coffee Beans”, it read.


    Sergei checked the price and was astonished, it was so cheap! Easily half the price of any other retailer. Even he could afford it. He looked back up to reach for a package, but then remembered there was nothing there. He sulked and followed behind Petros, who was already moving on. 


    In the produce section, Sergei found something that was actually visible. Stacks of bundled carrots under a light misting machine. They glistened with water droplets and were a bright, healthy orange. 


    “Look at the price!” Sergei stammered to Petros. 


    “Yes, good isn’t it?”


     Sergei reached for a bundle, but Petros shook his head. 


    “Club members only,” he explained. 


    In the checkout line, Sergei bounced anxiously. He wanted to join, that much was certain, but also he needed to understand. Why could he only see some of the food? Why were people checking out with empty baskets? 


    Petros placed his basket on the edge of the counter and he began unloading his groceries onto the belt. The cashier took each item, visible or not, and scanned it. Sergei watched in awe as the invisible items set off the scanner. It beeped and each item showed up on the display. He watched as the price of the purchase went higher and higher, until it was well beyond what Sergei could afford. Then Petros swiped his octagonal pendant and the scanner beeped once more. Discount after discount cascaded on the screen, and a final total glowed in ruby red on the crystal display. 


     “That’s less than I pay for a sack of potatoes anywhere else!” Sergei whispered to Petros.

 
    Petros took his basket, which was still mostly empty, and left through the front door. Once outside, Sergei let his flood of questions flow, but Petros held up his hand. 


    “I will explain first, then you may speak.”


    He picked something up out of his basket and took a bite out of it. Sergei could tell from how Petros was moving his hands that it was a banana. 


    “The Octagon Club is a premier club grocers. They sell only the finest products, as you saw from the quality of the goods you could see. However, they only sell you what you most need. You can’t see or touch the goods that you can’t afford. That way you’re not tempted to overspend.”


    “But it was all so cheap! I could afford fruit or coffee if it was at those prices!”


    “But you can’t,” Petros said harshly, “you don’t need coffee or pastries, not really. Like you said, you are choosing between ends. I am not. I have my house in order. You do not. The Octagon Club shows me everything that I can afford and nothing more. That’s how I can afford the best cigars, the nicest shoe shines, and a coat without bare patches,” Petros said, yanking on Sergei’s miserable brown coat. 


    “You’re saying that if I shop at the Octagon Club, it will eventually show me the finer things, but only after I meet my other ends?”


    “Precisely, but for the meantime, you can go and buy your carrots and potatoes and corn…”


    “And grapes!” Sergei said.


    “You saw grapes?”


    “Yes, green ones.”


    “Ah, then you may not be so bad off after all! You are too hard on yourself Sergei. Join the Octagon Club, and in a month you will have your ends met and your belly full!”

At first, Sergei was skeptical. He played with the plastic beige pendant on his neck, spinning it between his fingers. While proud to be part of the club, and at no cost thanks to Petros’ recommendation, he could hardly believe such a fantastic place existed. His first trip went quickly. He could only see eight or nine products in the whole store. The rest were invisible and intangible. His mouth watered at the thought of cantaloupe or cheese danishes, but he could neither see nor taste them, so he let them rest on the shelf. He looked on with envy as other club members picked them up and placed them in their baskets, or sat on the stoop outside the shop and bit aggressively into an invisible slice of watermelon, wiping the drool and juice off their chin and spitting invisible seeds into the drain. 


    Still, Sergei could not argue with the price, and he had to wonder how such a business turned a profit. Unless they were selling products at cost, there was no way they were making overhead. Yet it must be working or they would have closed down! One could not argue with success. Sergei still had much to learn about money. 


    Things at home improved. He could afford to fix the window, and he even shined his shoes and bought a new coat. Soon, he was even buying cigarettes, and not the cheapest ones either. He bought them filtered, with minty flavors and thick, white smoke. Petros was impressed at how quickly he was adapting to his new savings. 


    “You know much about money! Don’t be so hard on yourself!” he’d say when they met for street corn. 


    But the initial excitement of something new wore off after several weeks, and Sergei began to doubt again. Could such a thing really be true? What technology or magic was employed to hide the products from him? Once, he left his octagon in his pocket at checkout and tried to pay without swiping it, but the cashier insisted he get the full savings. He didn’t know why he tried to pay more for his food, but he was restless, and doing things without thinking. 


    The coffee remained obstinately invisible. The desserts refused to materialize. Even when Sergei had saved up a considerable sum of money, nothing new appeared to him. Was he doing something wrong? Why did the Octagon Club not deem him worthy of purchasing anything beyond the most basic of goods?


    He made up his mind to ask Petros about it on a Friday after work. 


    “I have been making ends meet,” he said as they left the building. 


    “I can see that! You have been splurging on nicer things. I saw you got a new coat.”


    “Yes…”


    “And did you try the honeydew they had last week? It was so wet I was worried I would need to put on my swim trunks!”


    Sergei was about to correct Petros, but the words stopped short of being said. He was not hungry, but he hadn’t tasted the honeydew either. He was making ends meet, but the Octagon Club didn’t seem to reward him. Was that really his fault? What harm could come from letting Petros think he was better off than he was?


    “Yes, the honeydew was delicious,” he agreed.


    “I would join you for a trip today, but my gut is acting up. I may have twisted something and I need to rest. I will see you next week,” Petros nodded, put his cap on, and called a cab.


    Sergei went to the Octagon Club alone. 


    Once again, there were the necessities, the potatoes, the corn… but no dessert, no coffee, no cream, no spices from foreign lands. He was relegated to the staples. 


    Frustrated, he pulled on his coat, straightened his shoulders, and marched up to an empty shelf. 


    “Custard Pastries,” it said. 


    Sergei stared and squinted, and moved his head from side to side as if to catch a rainbow in mist. It was no use, the food did not appear.


   “Excuse me.”


    He jumped, surprised. He was focused and hadn’t heard a young woman sneak up behind him. 


    “Are you buying those?” she asked. 


    “Uhm the… pastries,” he said, looking back at the shelf.


    “Yes,” she said.


    “I’m not sure,” he admitted.


    “Well, there’s two boxes left. Why not you take one and I take one?” she offered. 


    He looked her in the eyes, trying to find some sense of her motive. Was she testing him? No. Her eyes were an honest blue, true as the tides. 


    “Okay,” he said, and motioned for her to grab them.


    “They’re a bit high,” she admitted, and she tried to reach for the shelf, but couldn’t quite make it.


    Sergei reached up to the shelf and got one for her, grabbing hold of nothing, holding it in his hand, and placing it in her cart. 


    “Thank you!” she said, and walked off.


   Without thinking of how insane he felt and probably looked, he reached up and grabbed the last one, placing it in his cart. 


   Was that all there was to it? He couldn’t believe it. His cart looked empty, but somehow he felt the weight of it. He even realized the box of pastries wasn’t settled quite right so he shifted it in the cart so it sat flat. He imagined that he could see the yellow filling and golden flakes of bread in the plastic container. No… he didn’t imagine it. He was seeing it without seeing it. He believed it, like he believed in gravity, or magnets. They were invisible forces. One didn’t need to feel them to know they were there. One did not test gravity before stepping out of bed, they just got up and stood on the floor. He knew the pastries were there and he knew he could eat them… as soon as he bought them that is. 


   Elated, he darted to the counter and began unloading his things. 


   Delicately, he picked up each item and placed them on the belt. Carrots, then potatoes… It rolled forward and stopped with each new item. Then, the invisible box of pastries was all that was left. The cashier picked up the invisible goods and swiped them. The register let out a pleasant beep and… there they were! The prices showed up on the screen! Yes, this was his most expensive trip yet, but he hadn’t had a good pastry in so long. He thanked her and left the shop.


   Out on the stoop, he stopped and reached into the basket. He moved the carrots and potatoes to the side and reached straight for the invisible box of pastries, opened the lid, and pulled one out. How many were there? Four? No, six! Yes, six. 


   The pastry was impossibly light in his hand, but it wasn’t about the weight of it, it was about the taste.


   And taste it he did. He put the whole thing in his mouth and chomped down.

 
   The sugar! The cream! It excited him beyond measure. Finally! This is what he had joined for. He had made ends meet and now was experiencing the finer things in life. 

    The next three weeks were the best in Sergei’s life. Every trip to the Octagon Club was a culinary revelation. For his first few splurges he bought some well marbled New York strip, then a sirloin. He bought a tub of ice cream and rushed home to freeze it before the summer heat melted it. When he took it out the next day he found that it had even more chocolate chips in it than he expected, and he ate half the quart in one sitting. His stomach hurt from eating too much dairy, but that didn’t bother him. On his last two trips, he bought no corn, no potatoes, no staples of any kind. He was eating nothing but luxury.


   He wished he could share in this excitement with someone, but his friends were few. Petros had called out of work several times in the past few weeks. On the days that he did show, he was distant and weary. 


   “I’m sorry, Sergei, I can’t meet you for lunch. I had a big breakfast,” he said. 


   “Nonsense! Come to the Octagon Club, we will take a long lunch and I’ll buy you a roast beef sandwich with cheese and mustard.”


   “No really. I have eaten too much for breakfast, I am full,” he said, pushing out his stomach. 


   “Just street corn then?” 


    “I suppose I can have corn.”


    They sat on the step outside and ate. It was Sergei’s treat this time. Petros made no effort to pay, or even talk. He just ate, gnawing the corn down to the husk. 


    “What is wrong, Petros?” Sergei said, not looking at him. He had bought a new watch and was busy admiring it in the sunlight. 


    “Nothing.”


    “Are you making ends meet?”


    Petros threw his husk into the grass and shouted at Sergei.


    “What do you mean? Why would you ask that! Do you want me to be humiliated or be branded a liar?”


    “Neither, my friend! I’m just wondering why you haven’t been to the club recently. You’re missed.”


    “I’ve fallen ill, it’s nothing. I told you my gut was twisted.”


    “I’m sorry. You should take the week off! Use some vacation time and go to the park. The sun will do you well.”

    Sergei did not see Petros after that. He did not know if his friend had heeded his advice and taken vacation time, but he did not come to work. His desk was empty and a new employee had taken his place. For how long? He didn’t ask. 


    This saddened him, but he could now afford to bribe his sadness into leaving for a time. His trips to the club were becoming a bigger part of his budget. Just like he had at one time cut expenses to his food in order to take care of his home, he now began cutting costs at home to make room for more food. 


    “No more cigarettes!” he said, and the cut back was good for his health. Once he stopped smoking he found himself feeling lighter and thinner. He had to buckle his belt as tight as it would go just to keep his trousers up, and his coat was hanging loose on his shoulders. No problem! New coat, new trousers, nicer than before! He had the money. He bought new shoes, a second new watch, and even a ring. He was the nicest dressed man in the office, and people noticed.


    Every trip to the Octagon Club brought him more and more pleasure. Other people reached for invisible food and put them in empty baskets, but he could tell when they were checking the prices and weighing a budget. He had no such qualms. He looked down on those who bought the staples like potatoes and carrots. They could not see the luxuries. They did not have their house in order. They did not meet their ends. 


    Sergei piled the luxuries in his cart. 


    He watched the price go up and up as invisible goods slid across the belt and the cashier marked each one in the register. His stomach groaned and growled as he swiped the octagon pendant across the scanner and watched the price tumble like a waterfall. 


    “New record!” he joked at one particularly expensive receipt. The cashier didn’t laugh. 

    Sergei arrived at work one morning to a dour young clerk standing near his desk. 


    “What is this?” he asked. He was irritable and couldn’t figure out why. He sipped an empty cup of coffee. It was a vanilla cappuccino with real vanilla bean shavings. Extremely indulgent, but he got it at a great price.


    “Nothing, sir.”


    “Nothing? You mean to say that you’re standing over my office with no cause?”


    “Well I was doing errands. Making sure everyone had enough paper, getting them coffee… that sort of thing,” he said, avoiding Sergei’s eyes. 


    “So not nothing then, are you lying or just a coward?”   


    “Neither, sir. I’m sorry. Would you like some coffee?”


    Sergei shoved his mug under the clerk’s nose.


    “I have coffee! Not that you can see it!” he shrieked.


    The clerk rushed out of the office, leaving a stack of papers behind. Sergei followed him out with his gaze, then sat down. 


    He huffed and puffed his way through work, took a break to snack on some blackberries he had bought from the club, then returned to his desk more irritable than before.


    Could he have caught whatever ailment was plaguing Petros? He was sweating and his mouth was dry. 

    He felt his throat grow tight. There was a sound– a sound like an invisible heart pulsing. 


    “Quiet down!” he shouted, but no one was saying anything. 


    “What is wrong, Sergei?” someone asked. 


    “I said be quiet!” 


    He put his hand to his head and heard the heartbeat by his ear. It was his watch. It was clicking so loudly that he could hardly bear it. He tore the watch off and threw it on the ground. Its crystal face shattered on the tile. 


    “Sergei, you're so thin.”


    “Are you okay?”


    “Your skin is so pale.”


    “Have you eaten?” 


    The questions came from all sides, but he couldn’t answer them. He waved them off as he fell to the ground. 


    “I’m fine,” he said, trying to push them away. He clawed at his chest and pulled the pendant out of his shirt. 


    “I am a member of the Octagon Club! I have met my ends!”


    His stomach turned over, he felt a horrid pang, and then nothing. 


   Sergei collapsed, clutching the beige octagonal pendant and laughing.


   “What is wrong, Sergei? What is wrong?”


   “Nothing is wrong!” he shouted, kissing the octagon and rubbing it to his face.


   And he meant it. Sergei was a dying, friendless, yellow skeleton on the floor of his employer’s office building, but he really meant it. Nothing was wrong, for he was no longer hungry. 

Image by Raunaq Patel

Sergei was hungry.


   It was his right to think so since he had not eaten yet today. If he had eaten, of course, then it would not be his right to say it. He may feel hungry, but if he had eaten and then said, “I feel hungry” then others would no doubt ask, “have you eaten yet today?” and he’d be forced to say “yes”. He’d have to say yes. How could he not? Should he be found out to be a liar he’d be shamed and humiliated, but more importantly no one would believe he was hungry. 


   “I’m hungry,” Sergei said just loud enough for the man in the office next to his to hear. It was not really an office, but a partition of speckled glass and pale wood that had become dry and brittle with age and over-cleaning. There were four such partitions in this section of the room, and four more on the opposite wall. Between the partitions were desks that were set back about a half meter. At each desk there was room for some papers, a keyboard, and a grainy computer monitor. Sergei’s desk was as wide as a fat man’s shoulders, or so he thought. He had never seen a fat man except in pictures. There was a picture of a fat man on some of his money, but the picture was small, so Sergei didn’t know if the fat man was also a big man or just fat in the face like a child. 

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