Read the winning story from this year’s writing contest.
Read the winning story from this year’s writing contest.
CCT’s writing contest has become a biennial affair, and following our 2021 personal essay contest, we’ve brought back short fiction as the focus. Forty-four students submitted work this past winter, spanning an impressive range of genres. (We couldn’t help but note the uptick in fantasy.) And while the prospect of weighing such disparate stories initially seemed difficult, we realized the most important criteria was universal: to deliver a complete reading experience — a distinctive and confident voice; characters that were vividly rendered; a plot that engaged us from start to finish.
Our winning entry, “Bone to Pick” by Abby Sim ’24, did all that and more. The judges praised Sim’s skill, along with her humor and attention to detail. They also selected an honorable mention, “Future Proofed” by Charles Bonkowsky ’24, which can be found here.
Speaking of our judges, we appreciate their efforts, as always. Even before the deliberations begin, their participation sends a message: that they believe in the College’s writers and are interested in the stories they have to tell. This year’s trio comprised Danielle Evans ’04, the 2021 winner of The New Literary Project Joyce Carol Oates Prize and the author of The Office of Historical Corrections and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self; Adam Mansbach ’98, SOA’00, a novelist, screenwriter and humorist whose newest novel, The Golem of Brooklyn, is forthcoming in September; and Yvonne Woon ’06, SOA’10, a recipient of a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Prose Fellowship and the author of If You, Then Me and, most recently, My Flawless Life.
Congratulations to our winners, and thank you to all who entered their work. We’re grateful for what you shared with us.
— The Editors
By Abby Sim ’24
Connie felt her smile slipping toward the frozen grimace of a taxidermied animal. Hold it, hold it. Hmm. Were these the kind of white people who taxidermied their pets after they died? Maybe that was Milo’s destiny: eight more years of pampering and sweaters, followed by decades as, like, a furry little skinsuit with empty glass eyes gathering dust.
She repressed a shudder. Stay focused. Keep smiling ... one more apologetic head bob, and ... victory. Mr. Taxidermy made a show of dramatically standing up and yanking poor Milo out into the afternoon sun. Maybe luck was on her side today.
The lunch rush was slowing, but a few customers were still waiting to be seated. Three of Connie’s empty tables were stacked with dirty plates. Where were the bussers when you needed them?
She swept up two armfuls of dishes to bring to the back of the house and eyed the vegan black bean spare ribs left unfinished on one of the plates. Greasy. Grayish. Seriously? That was the best they could do? She thought about her own lunch — leftover pai gwat, tender and a little spicy, the meat falling off the bone. Her dad’s version, adapted from her ngen ngen’s recipe. Waiting to be resteamed in the microwave during her lunch break. Her stomach growled.
The bussers? she asked, handing the dishes to Carlos the dishwasher.
Smoking out back, he said dismissively, then leaned forward with a conspiratorial glint in his eye. But you know what? I heard Arielle’s dropping by tonight.
Arielle’s always dropping by, she said.
He snorted. I mean for downsizing. You know her. All about profit. She’s gonna see who’s not pulling their weight. Hmm, she thought. The Big Lady on the lookout. A funny nickname because Arielle was one of those pretty, thin white women who went viral on Instagram for wearing yoga pants, drinking smoothies and having legs that looked like chopsticks.
You’re welcome, huh? Keep it on the down-low, eh? Carlos called after her as she forced her way out of the chaotic hustle of the kitchen.
Downsizing didn’t worry Connie. The Big Lady liked having her around. During the interview six months ago, she had told Connie, I can see you fitting in perfectly here. Her eyes had slid from Connie’s face to the tasteful Oriental wallpaper behind her to the less tasteful prancing dragon statue in the corner and back again. The Big Lady had smiled somewhere to the left of Connie’s eyes, and Connie had known exactly why she was hired. A little authenticity. You know, to bring the charade to life. Even though Connie had never been great at acting. Even though her little sister had stopped by last month to check out the restaurant and laughed herself hoarse at Connie’s customer service face. Get your eyes checked, Allison had said. They’re shooting laser beams. But none of the customers ever seemed to notice. Money was money, and tips were better here with prices triple whatever they were charging downtown.
She spotted a family of five sitting down at one of her tables.
Hi, welcome to Good Fortune. My name’s Connie, and I’ll be your server today. What can I get you started with? Anything to drink?
We’re all on a gluten- and dairy-free diet, and I’m keto, the woman said. Your menu can accommodate us?
Nice to meet you, too.
Oh, yes, Connie said. Our entire menu is gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, corn-free and peanut-, cashew- and pistachio-free. And we have plenty of options for vegans and vegetarians, too. We’re very accommodating. That’s Good Fortune. Clean Chinese.
Clean? the woman said, perking up.
Oh, yes, Connie said. Super clean and healthy. No MSG or refined sugar either. Our owner’s a health and lifestyle expert. Authentic, too? the woman said. Sounds too good to be true.
Haha, Connie said. Let me get you some water.
Allison was wrong. The laser beams did not come from Connie’s eyes. They came from somewhere deep inside her chest, where she could feel all her unspoken words hissing and sizzling like garlic frying in a wok. Which was, funny enough, a sound she never actually heard in the kitchens at Good Fortune. Authentic? What was she supposed to say? Yes: The owner spent three months in the Far East learning from, like, a wise Shaolin monk how to make the very best gluten-free lo mein and baked orange cauliflower?
But really, it was fine. She knew better than to get worked up. So maybe it was a little messed up that the Big Lady was making money off calling her bland, effed-up food cleaner, healthier, better than the real thing. But at least Connie was making money off it, too. Right? Didn’t everything balance out in the end? If the Big Lady was taking advantage, Connie was taking advantage right back.
And besides, wasn’t this what her grandparents wanted when they immigrated in the first place? Wasn’t this enough? Connie, able to make rent and afford decent groceries, able to write in her free time, able to support herself while still following her dreams? Survival by any means necessary. Didn’t po po work 12-hour shifts at the factory when she first came to the U.S.? Didn’t gung gung wait tables, too? What difference did it make if Connie was working on Madison instead of Mott? She was doing what she needed to do.
The table of three sitting by the tacky dragon statue signaled for refills.
Yeah, I just discovered this new dish, and look, it’s here on the menu, one guy was saying to his buddy. You neeeed to try it. Ma-poo tofu.
She squinted hard. Focused on topping off their glasses without giving Christopher Columbus the side eye, sitting over there in his khakis and boat shoes surveying a whole new continent of undiscovered cuisine.
In any case, the mapo tofu here was nothing to write home about. Watery and colorless. Smelled more like soy sauce and red chili flakes than the savory, fermented toban djan it was supposed to smell like. Mapo tofu was one of the first dishes she and Allison had managed to make for their parents back when they were 13 and 10, trying to find their way around the kitchen by themselves. Poor Columbus. He had no idea he was late to the party.
Katya the hostess was directing two women to an empty table in Connie’s section.
From across the restaurant, she caught a glimpse of one of the women. A sharp little nose, pointy eyebrows and a thin, flat mouth — wait. Was that? That was — shit. The floor seemed to tilt sideways. Her heartbeat in her throat, the rest of the restaurant buzzing black and tunneling inward. All she could see was that face. Unmistakable, even after all these years.
She was standing frozen, she realized suddenly. Another server was trying to get around her. She needed to keep moving. One foot in front of the other. She jolted to a stop in front of their table. Cleared her throat. No way she would actually remember, right? Christ. Get over yourself.
Hi, she said, welcome to Good Fortune —
The woman blinked up at her. Faint recognition sparked in her eyes.
Annie? she said, brightly. Long, expectant pause. Taylor Cunningham, remember? You’re from Benton. Jersey, right? We went to Our Lady of Peace together for middle school?
Uh, Connie said. Actually, it’s Connie. But yeah, Our Lady of Peace.
Right, right! Sorry. Connnieeee, Taylor said. I knew I recognized you! That’s so funny!
Was that all Taylor Cunningham remembered? Connie wondered what her 9-year-old face looked like in Taylor’s memory. Tired? Mad? Expressionless? How exactly had she reacted in fourth grade every time Taylor compared her father’s homemade yuk beng to dog food — or was it dog meat? Connie had forgotten the actual insults, but not the burning feeling in her chest. No, that had stayed with her, a searing, red-hot, decade-long shame. Taylor’s face had stayed with her, too. The scrunched nose, the exaggerated gagging, the tongue limply dangling from her mouth like a piece of meat from a pair of chopsticks.
Connie would push the food around on her plate until the period was over and she could put everything back into her lunchbox. Appetite gone, but too proud to dump the food her father had cooked, not with her classmates watching. Too proud to bring PB&Js instead. She had snuck her lunches back home, where she could bury her food in the kitchen garbage in peace.
But even at home, she wasn’t hungry. Not for all of fourth grade. Her family ate dinner together every night. Sat around a table filled with huge platters of rice, fish, pork, bok choy. She would fidget, picking at her food. Watching her parents eat with their faces down to the table, heads bowed. Listening to the sounds they made. Like a pack of starving beasts. Their loud slurps of relish, the meaty sounds of their chewing. Wondered what Taylor would say if she saw how they ate.
Not hungry. Never hungry. She had known, even then, that the act of refilling her dish was one of the few ways her father could show her his love. His tongs hovered over her plate, offering, offering. More meat, more vegetables? But her plate was always full. Her stomach, too. The weight of other people’s disgust, like a boulder in her belly. Stinky — nasty — rat shit. No room for anything else.
Staring into Taylor’s guileless blue eyes, Connie knew she remembered none of it. Was she smiling in Taylor’s memory? Was Connie sitting in the cafeteria with the same blank, resigned smile that got her hired by the Big Lady — was that where she learned it first?
Wow, what a coincidence, Connie said. So crazy bumping into you. Can I get you anything to drink?
Oh, water would be great, Taylor said. How long have you worked here?
Six months, Connie said.
I can’t believe I’ve never seen you, Taylor said. She turned to her friend. I just loooove this place. Everything’s so good, but you don’t feel all bloated and icky afterward, like how you feel after takeout. You like working here, Connie?
Love it, she said.
Yeah, Good Fortune’s one of my favorite lunch spots, Taylor said. I’m on a health kick — vegan for the last three months. And this place has so many options.
Get through the shift, Connie thought. Just get through it, then ask to switch all your weekday lunch shifts for the dinner rush.
Are you guys ready to order, or do you need more time? Connie said.
I’ll have the spare ribs, Taylor said. Marcie, you should definitely get the kung pao jackfruit. I swear, best stir fry you’ll ever have. Oh, and Connie, the spare ribs are vegan, right? I haven’t eaten animal byproducts in months now, my stomach probably can’t even handle meat or dairy anymore! Haha.
They’re literally called the vegan black bean spare ribs on the menu, Connie thought.
You’re good, she said. I’ll get your orders in.
A decade, she reminded herself, was a long time. Plenty of time to grow up, mature. Learn the value of different cultures and the importance of respecting —
And so much nicer than those dirty hole-in-the-wall spots downtown, Taylor was saying to her friend. Like, who cares if the food’s cheaper down there? You could not PAY me to eat something that’s been, like, infested with roaches and rats.
Infested? Connie ran the word over her tongue as she made her way back to the kitchen. Spotted the Big Lady chatting up Mr. and Mrs. Taxidermy with a gleaming smile, the famed restaurateur making her rounds. Infested. She picked up and handed out entrees to the Everything-Free Family. Anything else to drink? Cleared more tables while the bussers were apparently still outside smoking. Infested.
She looked at her watch. Nearly two o’clock and she hadn’t taken her lunch break. She fumbled through the staff fridge. Found her Tupperware and microwaved her spare ribs, the ones her father taught her how to cook. A shame she wasn’t hungry. A shame her stomach was one tightly clenched fist, a scorching mass right below her heart.
Table four, the line cook called. Order up.
Table four. Taylor and Co. Just get through the shift. Connie picked up the dishes. Stared at the saddest excuse for pai gwat she had ever seen. Swimming in gray sauce. Forced her feet to move, her face to smile. Delivered the food to the table. Enjoy.
What did I tell you? Taylor was saying. It’s good, right? And it tastes even better because you know it’s clean. Can’t even tell it’s meatless, right?
A five-minute silence. Chewing like cows.
Connie stood, watching. Invisible, 10 feet from their table. Holding her bag and her empty Tupperware. Her stomach, like cement, like 400 lunches and dinners packed into one kitchen trash can, weighing her down. Three ... two ... one ...
What is this? Taylor was saying, startled. Her voice, climbing rapidly in pitch, wavering like a police siren, morphing into a wail. Oh my god, what the hell am I eeeaating?!
Flecks of spittle and half-masticated, stringy clumps flew from her lips. She was spitting food everywhere. Didn’t even bother to cover her mouth with a napkin.
The Big Lady materialized at Connie’s elbow, summoned by the chaos.
Katie, she said urgently, is everything OK?
Oh, yes, Connie said. Everything’s great, Arielle. I think I’m quitting.
She turned and pushed her way toward the door. Past the Everything-Free Family, past Columbus, past Mr. and Mrs. Taxidermy, who were whispering furiously among themselves. The Big Lady was sputtering.
Is this? Is this?! Is this a bone??!! Taylor was shrieking from somewhere behind her.
Connie stepped out onto the sidewalk. The terrier from the restaurant looked up at her and yipped. Cocked its head, curious. She knelt to scratch behind its ears.
What do you think, boy? she said. Anything’s better than being stuffed and mounted, right?
The sun shone overhead like a hungry, open mouth. Fit to devour the world.
Abby Sim ’24, a double major in English and political science-statistics, is from New Jersey. She wrote this story for one of her favorite English courses, “Introduction to Asian American Literature and Culture,” taught by Professor Denise Cruz. In her free time, Sim likes baking, playing volleyball and exploring the city.
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