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"Three Lunch Rooms" by V. Zenari

Refectory, Priory of St. Pancras Lewes

We cross the parquet floor to the two long rows of tables The hems of our robes hush the floor We sit humbled and muted We bow our heads and bare our tonsures to each other A wind outside the refectory sets the timbers above us to creaking In front of each monk lies a plate of white pottery one spoon one knife and one ale cup Our Lord Jesus Christ once ate in a room such as this with His disciples We are hungry but we must accept what our Lord grants us We await our darkrobed brethren to bring platters of trout from the ponds bread baked with flour ground roughly in the mill carrots and turnips boiled in iron pots above pink flames During that blessed meal of destiny in Jerusalem women had been present to wash hot desert feet On the way to the refectory we passed the woman who works in the damp garden near the alehouse Otherwise no women for us Amen Above us in the balcony Brother Stephen reads aloud from the Holy Book Climbing the narrow stairs must have pained his ancient knees Men come from the kitchen with food and serve Halleluia Brother Stephen delivers the word of God to our ears with great skill Most of us know Latin tolerably well and some few of us know French and Brother Francis claims it is his first language In truth many of us lack kinship with the written word We know best the oral texts of the English countryside the glossaries of food drink and work barnyard teasing with our sisters how we miss them and servants in those years before our parents consecrated us to the Lord While our brother above recites the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians we read the Sussex vegetables that are spooned on our plates the fish baked in sorrel we touch with our tongues The echo of the voice of Brother Stephen enfolds us nonetheless In the tavern of our Lord we eat in good company He feeds us as He feeds the little birds clothes us as He clothes the little birds Soon we will amble in procession through the church and chant hymns and we will disperse throughout the grounds for our work We wonder if Brother Anthony will have more ink for us God grant Brother Anthony grace After Vespers one or two of us will speak a little to Brother Joseph about the needles May God have allowed Brother Joseph to remember to purchase sewing needles from the peddler who visits Wednesdays Brother Joseph has forgotten the needles for two weeks May the Holy Spirit reward us with patience for the enfeebled memory of Brother Joseph It may be that Brother Joseph has a small number of days left to him Death has taken so many Our absent brothers glory in the kingdom of Christ God willing yet oftentimes I imagine them in this room sharing bread with us I think of Brother Raphael teasing the kitchen cat with a string and feeding her fishheads from his plate Her rough pink tongue licked the grease from his fingertips his nails bitten to the halfmoon of his cuticles The shards of his remaining nails rasped my arm when he touched me I sweated in my cot at the touch In his memory I will slip the fishhead on my plate to the kitchen cat I will stroke her head in the places Raphael stroked her He walked in love and in purity I strive to emulate him though it is difficult Alone in my cell at night I think often of him Our meal ends now with the words of Our Father who is in Heaven hallowed is His name

Second floor lunch room, Texas School Book Depository

The day before he killed John F. Kennedy, Lee saw that no one sat in the second-floor lunchroom, and he slipped in to glance at the newspaper on one of the tables. No. He’d already read that one.

He brushed his index finger against the drink selection panels of the Coca-Cola vending machine. Each panel clicked at his touch. Below the drink selection panels, the selector dial, with its ridges, felt rough, as the mechanism of power should feel. The amount and direction of the dial's movements depended on Lee’s will.

He could apply a bit of force as though he intended to turn the dial, yet he could hold himself back and make that force evaporate without consequence. Once he was ready to choose, once he really wanted to, all he had to do was apply a little more pressure, then a little more, a little more, turn, do it.

Lee slid his dime into the coin slot of the vending machine and heard the clink of metal as the dime tumbled into the machine's innards and disappeared inside forever. The machine made a sharp thip!, a clunk, and the interior of the machine began its mysteriums, a rolling of gears, gliding of hatches, growling of chains, and all because of a trivial expenditure of his potential energy. From that minuscule effort, the momentum swung in his favour.

A bottle of soda thudded into the hollow aperture at the bottom of the vending machine. Lee reveled in the smoothness of the action. He folded the cold glass bottle into his palm. He pulled out a chair from the square table across from the vending machine. He sat on the chair's vinyl seat and held the bottle of Coke between his palms. He would drink sodas constantly if he could afford it. Four or five a day was his ideal. The amount he consumed in his fantasies depended on how much money he was making. Since he had a good job now, he didn't feel as guilty about indulgence.

Was his habit decadent? Maybe. But today he would allow himself the luxury. He had seen real decadence in New Orleans. Decadence rolled off the balconies and onto the streets, out of the streetcars and of the wallets owned by fat men in white suits, reflected from the police's shiny badges and polished buttons, breathed from the city hall's flower gardens and the stink of restaurant shrimp and the jangling pianos of the Negro jazz clubs. A pamphlet handed out here and there on a street corner to warn the ignorant of America's Cuban folly. One or two bottles of a soft drink were nothing by comparison.

The clock above the Coke machine ticked. Time always fled from him. Even this moment of contemplation was at time's mercy. He had to get back to work. Everything lay lodged beneath the boulders of time. Rock piled on rock, and the weight deepened. Sometimes it felt like his head would explode! The clock’s ticks were fists thrown at him by schoolyard bullies, by the Marine sergeants, the clerks at the Cuban embassy, the airport security on the way to Helsinki, the bored KGB agent in Moscow, Lee’s dimwitted supervisor at the factory in Minsk, his mother. His wife Marina. Always complaining. Hurry hurry go get a job, hurry hurry come home to look after the baby so I can visit with Mrs. Paine's neighbours. Hurry hurry be a man!

He was hungry, but he couldn’t do anything about it until later. Not much later, though.

He stood from the table. He downed the soda, winced, dropped the bottle in the box of empties by the vending machine. Lee didn't much like Coke. Tomorrow he would make sure to drink Dr. Pepper. Be a man while a clock ticked in a cold musty lunch room in a dry brown warehouse full of dull boxes stuffed with dark books full of lies. Be a man! Tick, tick, tick.

Employee cafeteria, Google, Zurich office

The two vice-presidents, seemingly reassured, depart Vanessa’s office at half-past eleven. The air smells of hot breath and hair gel

Normally she gulps down her lunch in her office, but Vanessa wants to leave. She wants to eat in the lunchroom on the main floor. She needs to see new faces

From the elevator she walks several paces forward to the first-level lounge. For the first time, Vanessa stands in front of the curvy silver slide that connects the lounge to the lunch room below. Up the corporate ladder, down the noonbreak snake

She sits, pushes, falls. Her descent through the air is controlled by the serpentine tube. The slide twists, the ground of the first floor becomes the ceiling of the main floor, and she falls in a different direction

Beyond the toes of her black pumps, the slide turns into a furrow

Beneath the creamy glow of the skylight above, sleek mercury guides her earthward to the curved lip of the slide's terminus. Her skirt rides up almost past her ass. She smells gravy

When she hits the ground at the bottom of the slide, the heels of her pumps will strike the carpet of thick rubber squares arranged around the slide's bottom. The heels will impale themselves in the carpet and immobilize the pumps

“Oh,” she will say, and she will pitch forward. Her feet will cling to the inside of her shoes just long enough for Vanessa to throw out her hands to stop her plunge. It's an instinctive reflex, one with which babies are born

Her feet will slip out of the shoes and follow her outstretched arms and body above the carpet. If only I had worn sneakers, she will think. I should have succumbed to the casual atmosphere of the company

She will be surprised that she can fly so far from a fall. Notwithstanding the generous dimensions of the carpet, her head will extend beyond the far edge of the carpet

Dorothea, she will think, has started nursing her baby in the Water Lounge

Vanessa will strike the hard floor, first with her hands, then with her fingers, which will bend upon contact. One finger will snap and Vanessa will cry out

Marc’s left hand trembled through the whole meeting, she will think. He’s getting old

Her empty belly will touch the carpet. Her left knee and then her right knee will glance off the carpet and become airborne before both knees hit the ground with more permanence

But who isn’t? she will think. Would it help if I wore more makeup?

Her belly will land again, followed by her naked feet (she refuses to wear nylons, they're sexist) and her elbows, which will scrape the rough carpet and stop

I have sacrificed everything for this company, she will think. Without me, this place would collapse, and Jean and Marc have been promoted above their competence

She will manage to keep her chin off the ground for the entire fall. Once she becomes certain that her body will not rebound from the floor again, she will rest her head on one outstretched arm, the one that does not vibrate with agony

My fault, she will think. I shouldn't have worn high heels on the slide

She will consider going to the first aid office. The smells of hot meat and bread will distract her

I wonder what today's special is, she will think before she weeps

She is hungry

The End

V. Zenari is a Canadian writer. In 2018, Zenari was awarded an Edmonton Arts Council grant to work on Biome. “Royal Visit” was published in The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, and won the Silver Award for Fiction at the 2015 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Showcase Awards. The novel Beth and Ralph’s Children is forthcoming from Inanna Publications in spring 2022.

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