Parker eyeballs the overcooked ziti escaping the aluminum dish, as a fox does a dinner hare. Parker loathes baked ziti, but after spending eleven days without ingesting a morsel of food, the noodles drowning in jarred marinara sauce brings him to salivate. He’s starving, literally, because he wants to die –starvation being the most painless suicide option, at least at the plan’s inception, but the whole process is incredibly painful.

The food — every course from snacks to desert — is spread out buffet style on the conference room table like unused photos from a cookbook. The office holds a potluck lunch once a month. He’s sampled it all over the years, so he’s certain it all tastes like crap. This makes abstaining slightly easier but the assorted smells turn his hollow stomach.

“People just don’t get the intricacy of pot luck lunches,” Dan comments, fingering an olive out of payroll Lucy’s chopped salad and popping it into his agape mouth. The black slice rebounds off his front tooth and lands back into the salad, where it’s left for another employee. Dan peeks under each aluminum foil topped dish and shakes his head at the fare simmering beneath. “When the sign-up list goes around, and main dishes are obvious, why not bring a complementary side for the course? Does macaroni salad or taco dip really gel with a tray of baked ziti? No! Though I’ll give that person more credit than. . . is this fucking cranberry sauce?”

Parker processes only the word “cranberry.” He couldn’t stand to look, or even discuss, food —his mind soggy as the bread pudding..

The Hanover Industries of Princeton’s potluck lunch, though its intent is to build team spirit, excites turmoil. Coach, a derogatory title known only by a small circle of employees, appointed Parker the assistant coach for this pick-up game of a poorly thought out feast. Parker exhausts more work hours organizing the luncheon, settling spats about who was bringing what, and who should supply plates and utensils and who isn’t going to help clean up this time because last time they cleaned up the entire party alone and why should anyone bring in caffeine free soda when no one drinks caffeine free soda and it just sits in the office fridge for months. He wanted to just ask Coach for petty cash to order pizza and be done with the whole goddamned event, but he didn’t.

Coach earned his nickname due to a proclivity to inject sports into any conversation. He refers to potluck lunches as “team building” and a way to boost morale, because nothing gets the squad fired up like store-bought potpie. It’s how Patton got his boys ready for war. He loves the pot luck, considers it an opportunity to sequester himself, away from the distractions of the work day (i.e. work) and dazzle the club with stolen bits of TV stand-up or recaps of Jesus-approved sporting events involving his spawn and the Sodom and Gomorrahs birthed by the others in the congregation.

Vibrant green balloons and streamers crowd the airspace above the runway of food. A much different atmosphere than the last large gathering in the conference room — 25 laid off in one morning. Half the staff handed copier paper boxes to carry personal belongings. Coach called a 10 a.m. meeting after the 9 a.m. layoffs and broke the bad news to the remaining crew members. The rest of the crew, while feigning attention to Coach’s fourth quarter pep talk, those few who remained, stealthily scanned the room to make mental note of the faces both in attendance and missing in action.

That night, Parker cruised the highway with the rest of the quitting time traffic and replayed the day in his mind. In the moments after the meeting, Parker felt relief to be among those spared by the budget cuts. By lunchtime, his relief was replaced by nausea with the realization that he had been spared from losing a job he hated.

In the tenebrous single bedroom above the wafting fumes of Lucky Fortune Chinese Palace, Parker picked at his last supper — a disposable dish of leftover meatloaf, baked potato, and fountain Pepsi.

“Starvation starts tomorrow,” he voiced matter-of-factly to the bumper of the car in front at the traffic light. The words dripped out casually, the way a person announces a new diet starting on Monday. You’re more likely to stick to the plan, in this case suicide, should you say it aloud, Parker felt.

“Where do these go?” Tony asks, his head pointed toward the table littered with bottled drinks.

Tony, a data processor known to wear cataract surgery-style glasses around the office because of the glare off his computer screen, held up liter bottles of seltzer water. Seltzer water is a staple at every company luncheon. The two in his hand have made appearances at previous luncheons only to spend the rest of their time tumbling around in the sweltering trunk of Tony’s rusted gold Chevy Caprice. The soda goes unopened, gets thrown back into the trunk, and returns as a token of Tony bringing “something” to the lunch to justify his three mountain-high plates of food.

Parker asks Tony to round up the rest of the staff but realizes he’s already out the door and terrible at executing even the simplest task. He’ll have to do it himself.

“You’re hungry,” states a lone voice from inside the empty conference room. Parker turns back in the doorway to catch the aluminum cover to the buffalo dip closing after stating the obvious.

“Did you say something?” Parker quizzically mutters toward the dip.

He recalls the readings. The online sources diagramming the effects starvation will have on his body. How when the body’s sugar levels drop below homeostatic levels, it will use glycogen stored in the liver. When the glycogen supply disappears like sale price pints of Chubby Hubby in the ice cream freezer, the body breaks down fats stored in the adipose tissue. The body literally digests itself, and then shit really gets bad. Muscle tissue and then bone fuel the process, until the person is no longer a person but a walking ghost who’d make even old Jacob Marley shit his britches.

He doesn’t recall reading anything of hallucinations.

Parker jabs a colossal metal spoon deep into the heart of the ziti. His wrist spins clockwise to ladle a massive glob of undercooked pasta and burnt cheese from its resting place and violently drop it back down to its aluminum coffin. He points the spoon at the lips of the buffalo dip. It says nothing.

“Grub time!” Coach bellows to the staff from the threshold of the doorway, globs of spit collecting in his bike cop mustache. Piling massive amounts of ziti onto his plate, Coach spins his tale of the bottom of the ninth bunt that cost his beloved Bible ballers the victory. Workers chew quietly while Coach commands the floor. Parker settles in a chair closest to the door and tilts his head back as if listening raptly to a baseball announcer giving the game recap on the car radio.

The cause of death will be ruled accidental in the police report. The responding officer will make note that witnesses tried but were unsuccessful in dislodging an undercooked rigatoni from his windpipe.

An hour after the ambulance slowly pulls out of the parking lot, payroll Lucy take it upon herself to clean up the potluck lunch because no one else will. She stuffs ziti into a massive Tupperware container. She dumps buffalo dip into the small waste receptacle where it will stink up the kitchen for days. The desserts move to the kitchen so staff can snack all afternoon. The only evidence a festive gathering took place — a bunch of Mylar balloons — congregates in the corner.

Tony stores his bottles of seltzer an empty file drawer. He’s sure they’ll be perfect for the luncheon after the funeral.

Lawrenceville resident Chris Illuminati is a 35-year-old writer and editor.