Short Story Contest Winner—"Lemons", by Ian Atherton


There are, on occasion, in a small glass bowl to the left side of the iced tea, lemons in our college cafeteria. That. That, my friend, is how you can tell that there are donors, or parents, or prospective students in town.
The details, the small things—they really do count. Who knows, lemons really could be what convinces an all-state athlete, with a 4.0 GPA, to come to Hillsdale College. Of course, he won’t know that it was the lemons, or the moulding along the edge of the wall and the ceiling in the Student Union, or the slightly more purple petunias off to the side of the eagle statue. But they—the petunias, or the moulding, or the lemons (probably the lemons)—may be the final push, the sweet and tangy final push that convince Dash Johnson, the captain of his football team since sophomore year and the heartthrob of McKinney High in Pensacola, Washington, to sign his blue and white letter of intent.
The only problem with lemons, though, is that you only notice them after they’re gone. Maybe Dash won’t pay the lemons more than a passing glance when he takes one at Distinguished Scholars’ Weekend, or even when they’re not here for his first few weeks of freshman year. But he’s sure to be pleasantly surprised when the lemons come back—when the new Dash Johnson—the Dash Johnson of the class of 2017, or 2018, or whatever other year, has come to town. Yes, our Dash will certainly be pleasantly surprised, and he’ll wonder why there are lemons again. He’ll wonder more about the lemons when they’re gone the next day, and, for a while, he won’t really understand those lemons, mostly because he doesn’t play baseball (the new Dash does), and he doesn’t know that the newest class of soon-to-graduate heartthrob geniuses is eating nearby in the private dining room. But then, he will wake up one Saturday on parents’ weekend, and the lemons will be back. Only this time, Dash’s mother will be in town, and she will comment on how nice it is that the college gives its students lemons with their iced tea. And Dash will also notice that the food is a little nicer, and that the dish carousel isn’t quite as messy, and that the bananas are a little riper. But mostly he will notice the lemons. And as he stares at the thin yellow citrus wedge floating in his drink, he will finally understand what the lemons mean. They are the lemons of oppression, and of beguilement, and of lies—they are shined with the waxy polish of Orwellian academia, nourished on the forgetful liquors of the Lethe River and delivered in a crystal bowl by Salome herself.

But Dash will keep sipping his iced tea, and take the lemons when he can get them, because lemons are tangy, and make the iced tea go down a little more sweetly. 

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