Peeling potatoes is a hateful task. Jenna had always despised it, even as a child. Grit got under her nails and moisture chapped the back of her hands till they cracked and bled, and she had to smear them each night with horrid artificial-lavender-scented lotion from the bargain bin that left streaks on her bedsheets and a lingering sickly-sweet odor in her flat. The flat must be paid for, though—so must the heat bills and phone bills and groceries and lavender-scented cream—and jobs were hard to get, and if peeling potatoes for hours a night in the back room of a disreputable restaurant paid her bills, she should be nothing but grateful. Still, she thought, as her fingers slowly cramped in place and her knuckles began leaving red streaks on her already filthy apron, Sisyphus had nothing on her. Pushing a boulder up a hill for all eternity was unpleasant enough, surely, but at least it left one's knuckles intact. Her back was sore from bending over her pail, and she felt she would give anything to be allowed to stretch and move around, even to dig ditches or haul rocks.
Unfortunately, four years of undergraduate work and two of postgrad ill fitted one for such work. The two letters after her name seemed an inadequate payoff. And there was the debt. She wondered, now, at the self-indulgence that had led her to spend thousands of dollars not her own to spend six years reading, writing, analyzing, researching, memorizing, and spewing up well-ordered and neatly concluded reams of information on demand, like some sort of super-intellectual parrot: in short, doing all her favorite things in the world fifty or sixty hours a week, not to mention the self-flattering satisfaction of the A's and B's that had seemed so important then but were of little use in this smelly, costly, potatoey universe. Sometimes even in the midst of it all she had felt a fleeting unease, quickly smothered: a sense of injustice, perhaps, that she should be allowed to live this way when others, down the street or in the next county—or back home in Banff, a little voice way in the back of her mind murmured almost inaudibly—had to buckle down and work for their living or go hungry. But then, she had counted on being accepted as a teaching assistant in the classics program in Dallas, and the prospect of heat bills and loan payments had seemed so remote as to be practically nonexistent. If presumption and self-centeredness were sins, she mused (Jenna made no attempt to judge), potato-peeling would surely be a fitting way to spend her afterlife. She glanced down at her pails. The small one on the left was halfway filled with pale, slimy, denuded roots, but the other seemed at least as full as it had been when she had started.
Her knife was getting dull. She wiped it on her apron. In the moment it took to do so, one of the line cooks stumped in from the kitchen to take away her bucket of peeled vegetables and leave another, empty one in its place. He looked at her sourly, as if he suspected wiping her knife was a poor excuse for shirking.
“You're slow,” he grunted in his Chinese accent, and stumped back out.
Jenna willed herself not to shrug. She needed this job. But she could not bear to keep looking down at the pail whose provision of potatoes, like the water in a watched pot, never seemed to change. She looked out the window instead. A glaring orange floodlight, a safeguard against potential thieves and loiterers, lit up the alley, which slanted steeply, like all the streets in the city: flattened, it would have been as long as it was wide, a pathetic, oil-spotted asphalt square. Idly, she watched a workman in dirty overalls struggling to haul a tremendous stone slab up the alley. The floodlight showed sweat-damp shoulders rounded with effort, arms taut with muscle and sinew. The rock was too big for him, though: even as she watched, it skidded from his grasp, crunched painfully against a concrete retaining wall on the far side of the alley, and slid, as if on runners, to the bottom of the hill.