The Light From Within Grows Dim
Falconhead | Michael Ilkiw
She wore the starched, ungainly uniform unabashedly, unconsciously — as though she had worn it the whole of her life. She wore the pale maroon uniform and became a part in the monochromatic décor of the place itself. Traversing from table to table, she wiped at the seemingly ineradicable grime with a dampened rag, collecting the refuse left behind by the morning’s rotation of gluttonous and faceless patrons, then drifted toward the trash receptacle to let fall from her hands the debris she took little notice of.
From beneath a web-like hair net, rogue strands of rusted gold fell aside her long unchanging face, a face that felt the kiss of too few liquor-scented lovers and the bruise of too many angered fists.
But through eyes weary from the lack of sleep and reddened by the smoke of cigarettes she noticed a single stranger sitting at a table against the farthermost wall. The stranger had been there a long while and, having finished his meal, she surmised, would gather his things and go, leaving her to wipe down that farthermost table as she had done so many times before. He had dark but inquisitive eyes, the stranger, black hair and skin like the table he sat, she mused, his eyes stealing a glance at her now and again as he sat writing on the wrinkled, gristle-stained wrapping his lunch had been served in. Only before he could scarcely get a sentence out, she noticed, the ink of his pen seemed to fail him, and he was left to shake the pen against the table before making another attempt.
She continued tending to the other side of the room, picking up a refuse-covered tray with her left hand, then wiping the surface of the table clean with her right, never wondering what the stranger was writing on his soiled wrapping, only that she would probably have to dispose of it herself once he took his leave.
After going back to the large square trash receptacle, and letting the cups of melting ice and empty food cartons thick with softened grit slide from the tray into the mouth of the flapping trash door, she set the tray upon a stack of others, then turned to see that the stranger had gone.
Within a moment’s time, she crossed between tables of loud, sloppy teens to where the stranger had sat, and stood over the disorder of crumpled napkins and bleeding condiment packets to tuck the moistened rag into her apron pocket, pick up the wrapping upon which the stranger had been writing and read:
She wore her stiff and ungainly uniform all too unconsciously, all too comfortably, as she traversed from table to table, wiping away the innumerable crumbs and insufferable grime with a dampened, gristle-greased rag as she had done day after day so many times before.
But, in a moment of unbearable regret for all the years leading up to now, she looked toward the door and fought the urge to run. Instead, pushing through all the strangers that seemed to bear the same gluttonous face, to lock herself against the door in the horrid safety of the wet and fetor-filled ladies room where she wondered, looking into the besmirched, aluminum mirror, where the light of her lost years now shone, realizing, perhaps from some still untarnished part of herself, that everyday that light grew dimmer and dimmer. But what, for all of this, could she do about it now…?
In a breath, she crossed to the trash receptacle to deposit the crinkled napkins, the empty containers and the paper wrapping left behind by the author, lingering at the trash receptacle to stare out the glass doors. And as she stood there, looking quietly onto the sidewalk and onto the street beyond it, a growing urge rose within her, some distant voice telling her to run.
After a moment, she stole away from the nameless patrons who sat about oblivious to her, pushing through the door in the squalor and the safety of the ladies room to hold against the door, the floor under her feet moist with toilet water and strewn with toilet paper.
And there, in that space of solitude and familiarity behind the door which the faceless patrons now began to gather and knock and wrestle with the doorknob, she raised her heavy-lidded eyes and looked to the skewed reflection in the mirror to wonder where the hue of her years now shone, only to realize, perhaps due to some tarnished part of her innermost self, that everyday the hue grew dimmer and dimmer. But what, for all of this, can I do now? she thought as the tears softened her cheeks, What?