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Amber from Marketing, Free Gravy

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Author’s Note

Amber was a minor character from another story that I had started and then tossed in the bin. The tale was a mess, but Amber was too precious to not have her story told.

Enjoy!

Wax Philosophic

*

Free Gravy

I dragged my body into work Monday morning with the only thought on my mind being how much I needed a vacation. This project I was up to my eyeballs in was running behind schedule, and the hours we put in to make up the difference were nearly unbearable. On top of that, I had signed up for a photography class at the community college—I don’t know what I was thinking—and I had a final project due in just two weeks. I need a vacation, I repeated in my mind, or at least some comp time.

But when I walked into the lobby, I got Amber, the bubbly blonde from marketing instead.

Amber, with her perfect hair, dressed in the cutest business casual, was standing behind a table that looked like it had been strategically placed to be tripped over as soon as anyone walked through the main entrance. On the left side, somebody had created an adorable miniature Giza pyramid of Little Friskies cat food cans. On the right it was the Mayans with Alpo. Behind the table was modern architecture, with bagged dry food on a wooden pallet.

In the middle of the table, next to where Amber stood, were a dozen or so photos of the saddest looking animals I had ever seen. At first glance, these pitiful creatures looked like they were straight out of the ASPCA’s holiday fund raiser ads. On closer inspection, I amended that thought . These weren’t the ASPCA’s sad critters, they were their poorer country cousins. Jeez, they looked depressing.

But not Amber. Amber was perky as all get out—obnoxiously so—particularly for a Monday morning. “Hiii, I’m Amber, from marketing,” she said. “I’m helping with the pet food drive for the county animal shelter. Would you like to make a donation to save the kitties?”

I rolled my eyes just a little. I don’t think she noticed. “Sorry, I don’t have any pet food on me at the moment.”

Amber was not deterred, not in the slightest. She spun around and produced a small blue pail that rattled with coins when she shook it. “That’s okay, Dani,” she said. “We take cash too.”

“Um.” How did she know my name? I didn’t even have my ID badge on yet. I made a show of patting my jeans pockets. “Sorry, sister, I forgot my wallet at home.”

I turned and walked down the hall toward cubicle land. I hadn’t left my wallet at home. I’m just a bad person, that’s all. I turned down my row and shuffled over to my desk.

*

The next day I was smart. I came in through the building’s side entrance. It was a longer trek in from the parking lot, but it was worth it. Good exercise, I told myself. And, no Amber from marketing to be seen.

“Hi Daniii.”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was Amber. By the time I met her gaze, she had pulled out her combination cell phone case, credit card holder and started digging for something. Amber produced a business card with County Animal Shelter written in bold letters, along with a phone number and address.

“Here you go,” she said, thrusting the card in my direction. “They take PayPal too.”

I stared at the card and blinked.

“Think of the kitties,” she whispered like a wraith. And then she was gone. As mysteriously as she had appeared, Amber from marketing vanished. I turned my gaze back to the business card in my hand, the only shred of evidence that she was actually here and not some hallucination brought on by overwork and sleep deprivation. Sure enough, there was a PayPal logo in the lower right corner, next to the Visa and MasterCard symbols.

*

Somehow I survived the week. I talked my way out of coming in on Saturday by saying I would work from home. I still hadn’t unpacked my laptop. Instead, I was sitting at the table staring at my camera gear. For my photography final, I needed to create an electronic portfolio with one of each type of photographic technique we learned.

I snapped a shot of my cereal bowl with the vague notion of calling it still life, but then deleted it. This wasn’t a college credit class, it was just for fun, but I had taken it to improve my technique, so it seemed wrong to slack off.

I should go down to the park and photograph some flowers. That would be nice. Maybe, I could even get a shot of a bee landing on one of them. I could give it a catchy title, like “smooth pollinator” or something like that. But first, I needed food.

The corn flakes in my bowl were about the last thing I had that constituted food, and the milk was just on the edge of going sour. Unless I wanted to resign myself to carry-out meals, which I didn’t, I was going to need to darken the doorway of my local super market. Other people would probably shop online and pick up, but not me, I was old school. I like to hunt and gather, rather than having my food come to me.

I canlı bahis şirketleri had just found a cart that rolled straight, and was digging my grocery list out of my pocket, when who should I spy, but Amber. Or rather she spied me. Because, as she wrapped up her conversation with one of the store’s employees, she came bounding over.

“Hi, Daniii.”

“Hi, Amber. I didn’t know you shopped here.”

“Oh, I don’t,” she explained. “I just came here to pick up a donation for the local food pantry. They give us all their canned goods that are getting close to the ‘best by’ date. Did you know that the food is actually still good a year after that, as long as there are no dents or anything else to compromise the integrity of the seal.”

She actually said ‘compromise the integrity’. I didn’t know marketing people knew fancy engineering terms like that. But then again, she didn’t stop smiling the entire time she delivery her spiel, so marketing girl was still in there, lurking.

I thought about my milk at home. It was best by dated today. After tomorrow, it would be yogurt—definitely compromised integrity—I was sure of it.

“A year, huh?”

“Probably longer, but that’s being on the safe side.”

I shrugged. “Who knew?”

Amber the bubbly blonde from marketing knew, that’s who.

“Did you know that one in five children in the United States is food insecure, Dani? One in five. That means that twenty percent of kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Can you imagine living like that?”

I tried. I was having a hard time doing the math, because Amber kept talking.

“Summertime is the worst, Dani. For a lot of kids, the hot lunch they get at school is their best meal of the day. And when school’s out, that option is off the table. Literally, off the table.”

I nodded as I formulated my escape plan.

Fortunately, I was rescued by the store manager on duty, pushing a cart full of canned goods, stacked neatly onto individual twenty-four can cardboard flats. There were a lot of them. All with uncompromised integrity of the seals. You could bet on that.

“If you show me where you’re parked,” he said, “I’ll help you load these up.” The store manager smiled. Amber smiled. I excused myself to go about my shopping. Too much smiling.

“Bye, Daniii.”

There’s only two syllables in my name toots. Why you gotta stretch it out? But I didn’t say that. I waved instead. “Bye, Amber.”

*

I’ll be damned if my little encounter with Amber at the supermarket didn’t leave me flustered enough that I completely forgot to buy milk. I hadn’t put it on my shopping list. I don’t know why, I guess I thought I would just remember somehow after all my visions of it turning to yogurt. It must have been Amber’s uncompromised seal integrity that threw me off. All I knew is that I was out of moo juice.

I decided to have toaster waffles for breakfast and grab a gallon of milk at the discount store on the way home. They kept it near the front, and if I used self-checkout, I’d be in and out in no time flat. That was my plan, anyway. Except, guess who was there.

“Daniii,” Amber said. “Hi. I don’t expect to see you again so soon.”

Neither did I, I thought to myself. Except maybe at work. You do still work, don’t you?

She was dressed in old jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes. Definitely not business casual.

“Hi,” I said instead.

“School supplies,” she said, totally unprompted, while simultaneously pushing back a strand of her perfect blonde locks and tucking it behind her cute little ear. “I’m picking up school supplies for the Stuff the Bus drive. How ’bout you?”

“Milk,” I said.

“Sorry, I meant ‘how about you’ as in would you like to donate some school supplies?”

“Um…”

“Did you know that something like eighty percent of teachers buy school supplies with money from their own pockets for students in need?”

“Um…” What about the other twenty percent? Slackers. But I kept that to myself. I reached for my wallet instead.

“There was this girl in my class, Dani. She was always asking to borrow notebook paper from the other kids, because her mom never bought any of the things on her school supply list. Not that she didn’t want to, she just didn’t have anything extra after the bills were paid.”

I thumbed through the bills in my wallet, skipping over the ones and the fives. I got to a nice crisp twenty and pulled it out.

“Here you go, Amber. Buy those kids some paper.”

Oh boy, you’d think I just made her day. “Thanks, Daniii.” Her face lit up more than usual. “You’re the best.”

Mm-hmm, I bet you say that to all the donors. But again, I kept that to myself. Instead, I turned to catch her attention.

“Hey, Amber. I have this photography class I’m taking.” I paused to scratch the back of my neck, silently wondering what I was about to get myself into. “I don’t suppose you could hook me up with somebody at the canlı kaçak iddaa animal shelter who would let me take some pictures of the kitties up for adoption?”

“Oh, Dani, that’s a great idea.” Amber came bounding over and rested her hand on my arm. “Do you know that—”

I almost tuned her out as she launched into one of her statistic spewing speeches again, but for whatever reason—maybe it was her hand on my arm, I don’t know—I actually focused on what she was saying.

“—the shelters that have professional portraits taken of their animals have a twenty-five percent higher adoption rate? I’m assuming your pictures are pretty good if your taking classes and all.”

“It’s just one class so far, but yeah, I guess you could say I’m a decent amateur photog. I’m interested in it anyway, and I try to keep learning.”

“Dani, that’s wonderful.” Amber was hugging me now. Damn touchy feely marketing people. But in truth, I didn’t mind so much. Amber was soft and she smelled nice.

And then, like that, the brief squeeze was over. I was actually a little disappointed.

“Friday after work?” she said.

“Huh?”

“The animal shelter. I’m going Friday after work. Do you want to go there with me? To take pictures?”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, Amber.”

She smiled. Of course she did.

*

Friday afternoon came around faster than expected. Mostly, I think it was due to me still putting in overtime on this damn project. But at least no one was being pressured to put in hours on the weekend this time around. That meant I had my Friday evening free and clear to spend with Amber and the shelter kitties. Since when had that become so important?

“Hi, Amber.”

She had changed and was now dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt. She had her hair pulled back in a scrunchy. She looked adorable.

“Hi, Dani. Ready to see the kitties?”

I patted my backpack full of camera gear. “Yep.”

We drove separately, but ended up arriving together. Amber introduced me to the three people who were working Friday’s second shift. They all loved Amber—couldn’t stop gushing over her. I mostly just smiled and nodded.

Eventually we got to the part where I actually took pictures, and after a while, it was kind of fun. Some of the animals were a little grumpy about getting their mugshots, but most were very photogenic. Toward the end I took some shots of the staff posing with their favorites and even got one of Amber and the cutest little kitten I’ve ever seen.

I was kind of sad when it was over, and I almost asked Amber if she wanted to grab a burger or something, but I felt self-conscious around the shelter volunteers. She saved me though—Amber the bubbly blonde from marketing, who always knows just what to say.

“Dani, does that camera take video too?”

“Yep. But, I mostly do still shots. I’ve never really used the video feature.”

“But for something simple, like for the internet?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure I could make it would work. You’re not thinking of doing cute cat videos with these little guys, are you? ‘Cause I think the internet is pretty well saturated.”

“No. More of a cooking show idea I had.” She shook her head and turned her gaze to her feet. “It’s no big deal, really.”

Amber, what’s going on? Everything is a big deal with you. Kitties, canned goods, school supplies. All of it.

I turned to her and looked her in the eye. “I’d love to hear your idea.”

She peered up. “I want to do a cooking show. For the internet.”

“Okay. I’m in.”

“Really?” Bubbly Amber was back.

I nodded.

She pulled out her cell phone. “Can you come over to my apartment? I have all the stuff there.”

“Sure.” We exchanged numbers, and she punched in her address for me.

*

Saturday afternoon came around and I knocked on Amber’s door at the agreed upon time. It was casual Amber who answered. She was dressed in bluejeans, and a white button-down that looked like it was two sizes too big for her. It wasn’t tucked in, and the sleeves were rolled to take up the extra slack. She was barefoot, and of course her toes were all neatly topped with red polish.

“Come on in,” she said. “I’ll show you what I’m thinking of.”

I followed Amber to her kitchen. The entire place is what a Realtor would joyfully proclaim as an open floor plan, and the only thing separating the kitchen from the rest was an island. This is where the cook top was.

“Will this work?”

“Absolutely.” I began unpacking my gear. I extended the legs on my tripod and got my camera mounted. I pulled out a lighting stand and a white-light LED panel that I probably paid way too much for at a local camera shop. I played it casual, like this was part of the gear I had on hand, but in truth I had picked it up on my way home last night, after learning that Amber needed a videographer.

“So what’s your specialty in the kitchen?”

Amber pulled out a big, heavy cast iron canlı kaçak bahis skillet and set it on the stovetop. “Tonight, it’s gravy.”

I must have given her the impression that I didn’t follow, which was very close to the truth, because Amber continued on.

“Most of the stuff I have here is what you’d find at the local food pantry. The meat I got on sale. My plan is to do a cooking show, but without all the fancy ingredients. Just simple stuff you can find at the food pantry. Pretty weird, huh?”

I shook my head. “I never would have thought of that.”

“Well, if you’re still willing, let’s give it a try.”

“Absolutely.”

For the next hour, I got to hear Amber extol the benefits of cast iron skillets—how they last forever and you can find them cheap at thrift shops because most people don’t know how to cook with them properly.

She then went on, in her bubbly girl from marketing way, and showed how to cut a tough, cheap cut of meat on the bias so it would come out tender. She showed how a little salt and pepper went a long way as a basic seasoning, and not to worry about some bits getting stuck to the pan, because we were going to be deglazing it and using these stuck bits to make the gravy. She did all this while tending a boiling pot of egg noodles.

By the time Amber opened up the can of mushrooms, I already had a title for the video. I was going to call it ‘Free Gravy’. Because after watching Amber toss a tablespoon of flour on her creation and follow it up with a cup of water to make the most beautiful brown gravy I have ever seen or smelled, I couldn’t think of anything better.

My stomach began growling as Amber explained the differences between using fresh or canned mushrooms, and said that she was using sour cream this time to make stroganoff, but it would be just fine as beef and mushrooms in gravy. I watched her drain the noodles and plate up a serving. Embarrassingly, my stomach let out another growl.

Amber plated up a second helping and then came around by me. “You can turn the camera off now, Dani,” she said. “Unless you want the whole internet watching you eat.”

I shook my head and stopped the recording.

“Amber, it smells delicious. Where did you learn to cook like this?”

“I kind of had to,” she said. “Remember those one in five kids I was telling you about?”

I nodded.

“I was one of them. I learned early on how to make something out of nothing. Or at least try to make something edible out of something cheap.”

I swallowed hard. A minute ago I was ready to start pigging out. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I chose to put my hand on Amber’s shoulder instead.

“And the kid in my class that never had any notebook paper…”

I wrapped my arm around Amber and gave her my best attempt at a reassuring squeeze.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and wiped her eye. “I shouldn’t unload on you like this. It was very nice of you to help me with my video project. I hope the stroganoff makes it worth your while.”

Amber broke away for a moment to fetch a tub of salad mix from the refrigerator. “Greens?” she said.

“You don’t have to keep it in. If you want to talk about it…” That actually sounded better in my head.

“It’s cool,” she said. “I won’t apologize for who I was.”

“I didn’t mean it—”

“No, sorry. I’m not saying you…” Amber sighed and poked at the plate in front of her with her fork. “Can we just eat and have a proper date?”

I sat up straight in my chair upon hearing that.

“I didn’t mean…” Amber began fidgeting in her seat. “I wasn’t trying to suggest that—”

“I’m happy to call it a date if you want.”

“You – You would?”

“Sure. Though really, I must be a little off, because I never suspected for a moment—”

“No, most people don’t. I’m a total girly girl,” she said. “But I do know whenever I think about tall dark and handsome, it’s always a woman’s face.”

I must have blushed just a little bit. My cheeks got warm anyway. That’s how my ex used to describe me in her kinder moments—tall, dark and handsome.

“Dani, I want to ask you something, but if your not interested, just stop me now before I make a total fool of myself.”

I smiled. I thought about all the places Amber and I just happened to casually bump into each other. I thought about how she already knew my name that first time we met at her pet food fundraising table. Gathering up my courage, I planned to answer Amber’s unspoken question with my hand placed gently behind her neck and my lips aimed right at hers. I leaned in.

Amber turned her head and I landed an awkward peck on her cheek. She turned about three different shades of red.

I fidgeted in my chair, the formerly comfortable seat now feeling hard and unyielding. “I’m sorry, I thought…”

“No, my fault,” she said.

I stared at my plate. “You weren’t, uh, going to ask me to be your girlfriend, were you?”

Amber tilted her head and peeked in at me. “I was going to ask you to help me organize decorations for the high school’s first annual Pride Prom. I sort of volunteered to be on the planning committee and serve as a chaperone. My bedroom is stuffed to the ceiling with crepe paper and balloons.”

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