Many of us ran back and forth, from one station to the next, making sure our responsibilities were covered. The place looked pretty chaotic, but everything about it was entirely intentional. We knew what we were doing. The kitchen was functioning like it should. We were getting things done. An invisible crowd pushed us. A dining room full of hungry people awaited the results of our best efforts. For some reason, we were all happy to be feeding them. Servers ran in and out, barking orders then retreating with dishes. They too seemed to enjoy the busyness of it all.

At one point, I looked up from my sauce pan just in time to see one of the cooks stagger away from her station. She coughed a few times, then threw up right in the middle of the kitchen. She swiveled around, trying to figure out whether or not she had been seen. I froze, unable to comprehend what would happen next. The woman scampered out the back door without saying a word to anyone.

I watched in horror as another cook ran right through the mess. I couldn’t tell if he noticed or not. It seemed as if he didn’t. He looked as though he was feeling rushed at the moment. I completed my order, asked the coworker next to me to tell me if I got anything else, promising to return as soon as possible, then took off. I made my way to the back of the kitchen, filled a bucket with hot, soapy water, then grabbed a mop. I’d clean the mess up.

One of the head chefs grabbed my arm as I pushed the bucket through the crowd of busy people. “What do yo think you’re doing?”

“Dude. Did you see that mess up there? One of the cooks vomited and nobody’s cleaning it up.”

“Nobody threw up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah I do, I’ll show you. Come here!” I moved forward just a little before his hand clamped down harder on my arm, stopping me again.

“No. Nothing happened. You have work to do. Get back to work. Give me the mop.”

I handed it over to him, wondering what on earth could be going through his head. I walked away and began looking for the other chef, knowing that she’d want someone to clean the mess up. I looked everywhere as I made my way back to my stove, but didn’t manage to see the lady, until I looked back at the mess. She was standing right in it!

“No! You can’t be there, don’t you see what you’re standing in?”

“No. Don’t you see that while you were away from your station, you got four orders? Get to it.”

“There’s a mess here! It’s getting worse every time somebody walks through it! We’re a kitchen, trying to feed people, this isn’t sanitary, we’re going to make somebody sick! Let me clean it up!”

“Well. You’re a little critical, aren’t you?” She glared at me, looking as if I had committed a heinous crime.

I could smell the puke by this point, it made me gag, but I had orders to complete, so I resumed cooking again. I watched as other employees noticed the mess. One poor guy slipped in it and came crashing down on his side with a loud, painful splat. He threw his coat off then ran out the back door. The smell started to overwhelm the kitchen. Other cooks started gagging. One made teary eye-contact with me. His look seemed to say, “I see it too. And now I smell it. Something’s wrong and they won’t admit it.” He disappeared within the next five minutes.

By the end of the night, there were only a few cooks left. The chefs had managed to ignore the mess for hours and somehow refused to acknowledge that they’d lost half of their staff in the process.