Backstory: On the recommendation of my friend Laura, I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. Basically, you have 48 hours to write 1,000 words using a randomly assigned GENRE, SETTING and RANDOM OBJECT. You are judged on how well you adhere to those rules. So here’s my first story from last year — YOU be the judge:
GENRE: Romance (And I never in a million years would’ve ever considered writing a romance)
SETTING: Waiting Room
RANDOM OBJECT: Banana Split
Four chefs, three courses, only one chance to win: A game show for chefs with a $10,000 ticket out of the kitchen for Amanda Wolfe.
“It’s not like being in a kitchen at all.”
With its chrome wire shelves and aluminum platter cart, the waiting room played the part, but there were four of them here, sitting on metal stools, trying to make small talk in front of three cameras.
No one sat down in the kitchen during service. They rarely even stopped to pee.
“I know, right? There’s so much space. Having my own table is like… damn.” Nat owned a Creole bistro in Houston. He needed the money to cover a storm-damaged roof.
A butcher from a Phoenix steakhouse, Amanda was thrilled to get the table closest to the pantry. It should’ve given her an advantage during the basket-opening melee, but that didn’t stop ‘Best New Chef’ Jean-Claude from checking her into the anti-griddle so he could grab the meat grinder.
Fat lot of good it did him: Not adding bacon to the venison dried out his appetizer. His five-star attempt at sabotage made him the first to walk the long Hall of Shame.
In the entree round, poor Braedyn nearly vomited when his Whole Chicken in a Can evacuated its container with a flatulent splat. He cooked exclusively with organic, in-season ingredients at his upscale, upstate New York inn. The man-bunned man-child had never worked a four-hundred-cover Friday in his life.
“I’m so hungry right now, I’d eat the whole can.”
“Said the woman who makes hot dogs for a living.”
Nat shot a side-eye at him, but Amanda didn’t mind. She spent every shift dodging screaming-hot pots, sailor-mouthed insults and grabby-handed line cooks. This twerp wouldn’t be around for dessert, not after forgetting the greens on one plate.
Nat leaned on his elbows, eager to talk shop. His skin was the color of caramels. Working side-by-side with Amanda, they’d spun a graceful pas de deux across the rubber safety mats. Suck in, swivel around, shimmy to the stove. Hyperaware of their bodies in motion, they cut a cool contrast to Braedyn’s panicked tantrums over canned chicken, sardines, dandelion greens, and a banana split.
“Dude, your curry… using the ice cream to thicken it? Genius.”
“My grammaw’s recipe. I was a little worried about the spice level.”
He dragged a calloused hand across his bald head. His lion’s mane of dark lashes closed languidly over dark brown eyes.
“They loved yours.”
“I don’t know if a chicken salad sandwich is enough to call an entree.”
“Don’t make excuses for your food. The fried fish bones blew their minds.”
“It’s just Japanese bar food. I used to have it all the time in Kyoto,” said the petulant Millennial, before he, too, was dismissed.
Dessert Round: If it’d been Jean-Claude or Braedyn, Amanda would have embraced the trash talk, but she felt foolish, looking up at Nat’s wide smile.
The network didn’t do hair and makeup for the chefs. She rarely managed a swipe of mascara at home, but she cursed herself now for forgetting her lipstick, a subtle pink that brought a little color to her delicate cheekbones.
“This Sausage Party ends today.” She cringed hearing herself say it. Nat burst into giggles. Another three takes finally quieted their laughter.
“I’m taking dessert back to the desert!”
“Looking forward to the fight.”
Araucana eggs, feta cheese, shoo-fly pie, and kiwi fruit. With the dance floor rearranged, their careful quickstep clattered into one another, swooping, stopping, stooping, dipping. The judges called the play-by-play through the swirls of her bubbling caramel, the churn of her feta ice cream and the brown-sugar warmth of his oven-full of cupcakes.
Banished to their kitchen-themed prison, they slouched, weary and worn, onto their stools. Twelve hours’ worth of culinary fire drills had begun to take its toll.
“So what took you to Phoenix?”
“Followed a boy.”
“Oh.” Nat glanced at her hands, tattooed with old burns and past cuts.
“And then I realized I liked the desert more than him.” She twirled a dark, shoulder-length curl around her index finger. “And you? Anyone special waiting at home?”
“Two of them.” Her heart now wallowed in her empty belly.
“Boy or girl?”
“Pit bulls. If I win, I’m buying a new couch.”
“I thought you said you needed to fix your roof.”
“I do, but the dogs got bored and tried to tunnel out. I’d like to have a place for people to sit.”
“You say that like you have friends over all the time.”
Amanda’s last day off had been thirteen days ago: She never bothered to make her bed anymore. She didn’t remember the last time she’d made a friend who didn’t work in a kitchen.
“So what are you gonna do with the money?”
“Food truck. Take the Sausage Party on the road.”
That sly grin danced across his face.
“Maybe you can come to Houston.”
“Call me when you get a couch.”
The production assistant called them back to the kitchen. The cloche revealed his crumbling cupcakes.
Her hands to her mouth, her heart on the floor.
“Nothing to be sorry for. You killed it.” He folded her in his strong arms, their sweaty, exhausted bodies leaning into each other.
He disappeared down the hall, leaving her to a lonely hour of post-production paperwork and congratulatory interviews. Back home, at eight o’clock, she’d still have three hours before she could escape the greasy smog of fryers and steam tables and emerge beneath the faint stars and blue-black sky.
She had no plans for the night in the city that never sleeps. The streets buzzed with headlights and taxicabs. The evening chill shivered through her damp T-shirt.
“Wanna go celebrate?” Nat emerged from the shadows in his street clothes, enveloping her in his oversized jacket.
“God, yes. I could use a drink.”
“Let’s go. You’re buying.”