This story is by Claude Bornel and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cooking is an art. Diego was not an artist, neither he was eager to become one. Such trait was passed to him by his father, chef Anton, famous in the neighborhood for the hot temper and not the food. While washing piles of dishes, pots, and silverware in a forgotten corner of the kitchen’s restaurant, he watched the artist cooking the same recipe of scalding somebody else’s creation.
“Is this pork still wallowing in the mud, Bobby?”, chef Anton said. “It’s nasty. Even my wife cooks it better.”
Diego shook his head and followed the poor cook disappearing into the clangs, bangs, and sizzling of other two cooks redoing their dishes for table 6.
“Did you hear about the bank robbery?” One of the cooks said.
“Yeah, three blocks from here.”
“If I found that money, compadre…”
“Shut up and finish la ropa vieja”, chef Anton shouted.
Diego sighed, wiping a plate, sick and tired of testifying his father’s behavior at work and at home. He wanted to go places, but at age of 18 the only option his father offered him was going to work at the restaurant after school.
“Taking five,” he shouted.
In a few steps from the sink, Diego opened the door to the alleyway where beggars came to find food and garbage trucks picked up the waste. Against the wall, he scrolled up his Tik Tok. Videos of people showing off their trips fed his hunger to visit some of those places someday.
“Wanna go to the beach tomorrow, bro?” Brandon’s text message popped up on the screen.
While deciding what to respond, Diego stared at the green dumpster in front of him and noted two rats running behind it.
“Gotta ask Papa”, Diego replied.
He went back inside and closed the door behind him. He grabbed a glass and filled it in with pink lemonade out of the drinking machine.
“Enjoy your little refreshment”, chef Anton came from behind undetected.
“I-I was taking a quick break.”
“A break?” The 50-year-old wore a beat up yellowish chef’s whites with two missing bottoms over a pair of jeans and a toque blanche that didn’t match the rest of the man’s garment. “Do you think I had any break when I was your age? I came to this country and I was a bus boy. I worked my ass off to build this restaurant and you tell me about having a break?”
Diego looked at the ground stained by grease. Endless thoughts crossed his mind about taking his chance of leaving that place behind. A thousand words he wanted to say to his father tingled on his lips. But all he did was to dump the lemonade in the drain and carry the empty cup with him to be washed again with the rest of dishes.
“Piece of advice, mi hijo”, he said, in his own effort to be nice. “If life give you lemons, you make a lemonade, right? But what would you do if life doesn’t give you anything? Not even a rotten lemon?”
A few hours later, the restaurant closed for the night. It was Diego’s turn to take all the garbage out to the dumpsters. While hearing the cooks saying how bad the service was and how bad they wanted to find another gig, the 18-year-old kitchen porter still brooded over the earlier conversation with his father. What’s the point of asking him to go to the beach? He will say no anyway.
The big black trash bags were heavy, and Diego had to carry one by one. For him, worse than the weight itself was the rancid smell they left on him.
Glad to take the last trash bag out, Diego saw those rats again running around and noticed that they couldn’t go behind the green dumpster the way they did before. Intrigued, he took a quick peek and found a crackled leather bag. It wasn’t new, but it was left in the wrong spot to be disposed.
In the morning, Diego met Brandon and other school friends at the beach. He sat on the sand, close to the water and stared at the horizon. His thoughts swam far away from the shore.
“I’m surprised you came, bro”, Brandon said, waving his hand in front of his friend’s face, who didn’t respond. “Where are you now?
“If you had a chance to travel somewhere, anywhere you want”, Diego said with his eyes fixed in the ocean. “Where would you go?”
“Did you win the lottery or something?”
“It’s more like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow”, Diego explained how he found the money and that he was almost sure it was from the bank robbery reported in the news. “I’ve never seen so many 10s, 20s, 50 dollar bills together and I don’t think I will ever see again.”
“I would return it to the bank or give to the police, if I were you.”
“Yeah, maybe you are right,” Diego chortled and insisted with his question about travel destination.
“Hmm… I would go somewhere to party, bro. Maybe Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. People say there are lots of chicks this time of the year.”
When Diego showed up for work in the afternoon, he was late. He noticed his father stopped yelling at someone for a moment as he walked to his corner. The kitchen porter knew he was next in line to be scalded.
“What’s happening here, cabrón” the chef glared at his son. “You vanished in the morning and now come here like nothing happened. Did you forget today was cleaning day?”
Diego bent in his both hands’ fingers toward the palm and held them tightly while staring at that man screaming and shouting at his face.
“You know what? I quit”, he said, turning his back and walking away in silence from the kitchen, leaving his father standing there cussing in Spanish and English.
Being in the middle of the action on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras seemed to pay off the struggles Diego experienced in the past 24 hours. People sang, people danced, people played jazz everywhere. He barely remembered how bad he slept in the Palm Beach International Airport or the several phone calls and voicemails his father left on his cell phone. All the happiness he lacked he found here, which gave him that feeling as if he could anything in the world.
The music became louder and the trombones and trumpets more vivid as Diego walked down the street. For a second, he locked eyes with a blonde girl, who wore a red floral mini dress and pulled him to join the fun in the middle of the crowd with her friends. The music was too loud for a conversation, so he didn’t resist when the girl’s body got close to his and they engaged in a kiss.
Diego has never drank alcohol before but in the companion of the floral dress girl, he had no problem to try every little booze she offered. After taking so many different shots, his head became a hurricane and he couldn’t remember how he got back safe to the hotel.
The same song and dance kept repeating night after night with whatever friends Diego made along the way, until one time he made the wrong set of friends. In that morning after, he woke up bleeding and bruised by the Ask Art outdoor gallery on Jackson Square. He found his ID on the ground, but his wallet and the money and the debit card were gone.
Hanged on the fence, one painting captured Diego’s attention for its colors. He read the sentence written in white saying, life is art, but not everyone is an artist.
Back in the hotel, Diego breathed a sigh of relief when he found the money he had hidden in the room. A few 10s, 20s and a couple of 50 dollar bills were all he had left.
Diego grabbed his cell phone and saw his father had left new voicemails. Returning home was inevitable, so he listened to the most recent message to check his father’s tone.
“Come back, mi hijo. Your mamita and I miss you. Please, come back.”
Hearing such quivering voice coming from chef Anton made Diego realize he should have ran away a long time ago. He also never saw his father so vulnerable and that melted his heart.
“Papa?”, he said on the phone. “It’s your son, Diego.”
“Diego Martinez?” An unfamiliar deep male voice replied. “This is detective Lopez, I’m with Lake Worth Police Department.”
“Let me talk to my dad.”
“Where are you, Diego? When can you come to the station?”
“Where is my dad?”
Detective Lopez took a long breath in and sighed. “Unfortunately, Diego, your father was shot in the restaurant. He didn’t make it.”