Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: SMEAR (03/10/16)
TITLE: An Instant of Sublime Clarity
By Jan Ackerson
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She takes a job in a restaurant in one of the city’s colorful neighborhoods. Someday, she hopes, she’ll have her own restaurant, but for now, she chops onions, scales fish, garnishes plates with purees of sweet potato. She likes the other cooks, the waiters, even the overly-fussy head chef, who is inclined to examine her plates with a squint and complain that the daub of puree is too close to the edge.
After work, she walks to a little apartment, where she lives alone, for now. When I find someone to love me, she thinks, we’ll save up for that restaurant. We’ll get a kitten. We’ll take walks in the park and put coins in the buskers’ hats.
One day Lola is hanging her jacket on a hook in the small employees’ room off the kitchen—it’s little more than a closet, really—when she sees a half sheet of paper tacked to the bulletin board.
Lola is a—
She closes her eyes, but of course she has seen the word. It’s the same word that caused her to flee her little town, a word that is etched into her spirit as vividly as if she’d scratched it into her skin.
The paper is crumpled and smudged; the writer has probably fished it from the garbage. There’s a dark stain next to Lola’s name.
Lola untacks the paper and crumples it into the trash, then walks into the kitchen to start her day. Darcy is the only other cook there; Lola nods and says good morning. Darcy makes a noise that might be hey and starts prepping the artichokes.
Every day that week, a note appears. Some of the other cooks see the notes and rally around Lola. Sorry, they say. That’s horrible… I don’t know who would do that … Lola, I promise it’s not me … One of the waitresses tells the head chef about the smear campaign, and he reddens and pounds a fist on the butcher block. If I find out who it is… he says, they’ll never work a kitchen in this town again.
So Lola is comforted by the kindness of her new friends, but in her apartment at night, the word tramples through her restless dreams.
Only Darcy has never reached out to Lola, and on this Tuesday night, it is Darcy and Lola who are closing the restaurant. The lights of the dining room are off, and Lola is shelving some produce in cold storage when she hears a tremendous noise from the kitchen. A wall bracket has come loose, and the wire shelf that holds the glasses has crashed. Darcy’s leg is bleeding; one of the shards must have bounced up and cut her. There’s a streak of blood on the floor, and Darcy is wide-eyed, shocked.
Lola hesitates for a moment. She sees before her, in an instant of sublime clarity, two paths, each leading far beyond this kitchen, this evening. Her work is done; she could walk out the back door and leave Darcy to the mess. Or … she breathes, then steps forward and starts to sweep up the broken pieces.
You’re bleeding. Lola nods toward Darcy’s leg. You should maybe get a bandaid for that.
Darcy doesn’t move. Frozen in place, surrounded by shattered glass, she watches as Lola fetches the dustpan and a black trash bag.
Why’re you doing this?
Well, I don’t want Chef to step on it, for one thing.
But it’s my fault.
Help me out, then. You know where the brooms are. You’re still bleeding.
Darcy looks at her leg, at Lola. I’m fine. Lola, I…
No, it’s not about the stupid glasses. I wanted to say…
Never mind. It’s okay.
Darcy steps gingerly around the broken glass and takes a second broom. Together, the two women sweep and sweep and sweep, until not even a sliver of broken glass remains. They find a new bracket in the storeroom and fix the wire shelf. A few glasses managed somehow not to break; they wash these glasses and set them in place. Then Lola turns off the kitchen lights, and Darcy locks the door.
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