Smothering a yawn in the crook of his arm, Ned hauled the garbage bin through the back door.
“Careful,” said May.
Ned squished against the door enabling her to scurry past, two plates held at shoulder level. After stowing the bin, he headed over to the sink and scrubbed his hands. While toweling them dry, he spied Tina among the stainless steel counters, wall of spurting stove tops, and a sizzling fryer. She tossed a handful of something green she’d finished chopping into a bowl and began mixing furiously.
Weaving by Harry who flipped their trademark burgers on the grill and manned the fillets bubbling in grease and Raynie who whisked up egg whites while squatting down by the oven’s window, Ned stopped at Tina’s side.
“What can I do next?”
“Huh?” Tina looked up and wiped her rolled sleeve across her brow.
“Shrimp bisque and two burgers,” said Paula through the kitchen window overlooking the ordering counter.
Tina scowled. “Harry?”
“That’ll be the last of mine.”
“Great,” muttered Tina. She began cursing under her breath.
Ned caught every other word, but felt certain Brian would hear it all loud and clear once he showed up for work.
If he showed up, Ned reflected.
He didn’t think he’d risk working for an ex-wife either, especially one with Tina’s knife skills. Ditching her on the busiest night of the week, however, still didn’t seem fair.
Not that exes are my immediate problem, he reasoned.
He inched closer to Tina when her grumbling subsided. “What do you need?”
Tina sighed, her grip whitening around the handle of her reclaimed chef’s knife. “Get the last steaks out of the fridge.”
Striding across the room, Ned opened up the main refrigerator. Cold air blasted his face and he shivered before darting inside. Crates and baskets half filled with vegetables and fruit flanked his right while a separate shelf with the meats and ice packed seafood towered on his left.
“You got them?” Tina’s shout over the kitchen’s bustle spurred Ned from his gawking perusal.
“Almost,” he said.
“We need them now.”
“I know, I know.”
Ned snatched the cardboard box labeled steaks and grunted under the weight. Clutching the load against his chest, he heeled the door closed and shuffled across the kitchen.
Gritting his teeth, he increased his pace and skidding to a stop at Tina’s station.
Before he could deposit the box onto her counter, Tina thrust her blade at the grinding station set up in the kitchen’s far corner.
“Get it ground, into the prepped bowls, and make Harry some more patties.”
Ned balked. “You want me—”
“You know how don’t you?”
“Well, yeah…Brian showed—”
Tina’s shotgun glare silenced him. Ned licked his lips to regain his tongue’s function.
“I know how,” he whispered.
“Then go…please,” said Tina. Weariness edged her voice and she stared down at her cutting board, her shoulders suddenly rigid.
Ned drifted back while Tina recommenced her vigorous chop. The crunch of the knife through celery barely obscured her resumed muttering.
“Two more burgers,” said Paula through the window.
“I need those patties,” said Harry.
Ned spun and hurried to the grinder. Dumping the box of meat, he faced the dials and gulped. With a deep breath, he sought the bombarded instructions Brian had provided the week before.
Gloves first, he thought and fetched a pair from the cardboard box on a nearby shelf.
Ripping off a square of parchment, he covered the neighboring counter. He fetched one of the silver bowls already filled with diced ingredients and set it below the extruder. Touching each of the dials in turn, he then ran through the sequence enabling the feed and grind.
“I’m starting right now,” he shouted back to Tina.
He plucked the top steak from the crate and flipped on the grinder’s power switch. The unit bounced and then began a steady grumble. Holding his breath, Ned inserted the tip of the steak into the funneled top. An initial spurt of white and pink flesh spat out the other end, then a stream of pummeled meat began extruding from the perforated holes and dropping into the prepared bowl. He exhaled when the majority of the first steak ran through without clogging, catching, or flinging from the machine and spattering on the ceiling. A pat with a wooden mallet finished sending the meat into the blades and out the other side. Elbowing the power switch, Ned sunk his fingers into the bowl, squishing the ingredients together. Once mixed the requisite twenty-two times, he scooped an initial handful into his palm.
“Half a pound right?”
“Yeah,” said Tina chopping into a harvest of carrots destined for a slaw.
Ned dumped the lump in his hand onto the scale and squinted at the display. Plucking off a hunk, he flung the excess back into the bowl and smacked the blend of meat, cooked onion, garlic and other secret vegetables Tina had diced into a rounded patty. He shaped up another and hurried them to Harry’s station.
“Better make up the rest,” said the rotund cook.
“Sure thing,” said Ned.
While Harry grilled and then plated for May to deliver, Ned rushed back to the extruder and formed up the rest of the bowl’s contents.
Halfway through the mound, Paula pushed through the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her voice breathless. “Tina?”
“A….a customer wants to talk with you.”
“I’m a little busy, Pea.”
“Yeah, but I think you want to meet this one.”
Tina huffed and slammed her knife down on her board. “Who the hell is it? The Pope?”
Paula winced. “Come…come and see.”
“This better be good,” said Tina.
Smacking the half pound in his palm, Ned watched her strip the gloves from her hands, and tuck invisible tendrils of ruddy hair she seemed to believe had escaped her snug bandana. After adjusting her apron, Tina stormed through the doorway.
“And we need three more burgers and a chicken filet.” said Paula before spinning back outside.
“Ned,” said Harry.
Resuming his scoop and pat, Ned added patties to the parchment paper until they lined the sheet like an angular case of the chicken pox. He hustled them to Harry, and then ground and shaped another two steaks, filling the last prepared bowl.
By then, Tina backpedaled through the door.
“Enjoy,” she said with a wave to whoever waited on the other side.
The swinging panel shut and she leaned onto the nearest counter, a hand clutched to her chest.
“Well,” said Harry, “who was it?”
“The…President,” said Tina.
Raynie barked a laugh and hauled a chocolate cake from the oven. “President of what?”
Everyone froze. The sputter of cooking food and the grind of the extruder suddenly became earsplitting.
“You’re joking,” said Ned.
Tina looked up and laughed. “I’m not, really. Take a look.”
“Well,” said Raynie with a shrug, “that’ll be great for publicity.”
“If he likes the burgers.” Tina shook her head and returned to her chopping station. “He’s eating those last two right now.”
Ned frowned and a clawed hand stabbed his gut. “The first ones I made?”
“Um….” The white and pink initially exuding from the grinder flopped into his mind like it had fallen into the silver bowl. “He’s…allergic to shellfish right?”
“I think so,” said Tina. “That would be why he ordered the burger.”
“But,” said Ned, fighting an urge to vomit, “you used the grinder for the bisque today didn’t you?”
“So.” Tina set her hands on her hips and Ned withered under her ratcheted stare. “You cleaned it before you ground up the steaks, right?”
“Oh God, Ned.”
A shriek followed the shattering of dishes out in the dining area. Ned stared at the door, where on the other side feet hustled, cameras snapped, and someone called for a doctor.
Tina’s voice seemed to echo from another planet. When she shook his shoulders, Ned swiveled his head and stiffened under her fiery stare.
“I didn’t mean to, Tina. I just wanted to get them done. I…What are we going to do?”
Tina squeezed his shoulders in a vice-grip. “I’m going to check if he’s okay. You’re going to call 911.”
She shoved him toward the phone and took off for the door. Stumbling across the kitchen Ned hoped he’d remember the numbers when he reached the keypad and the secret service might give him the chance to dial.