He is the first to clock in, his keys into the door behind the restaurant in the alley, the one that’s later propped open with a brick for the rest. He drops a sack of cloth-wrapped tools on the metal station beside a half-empty big gulp of Dr. Pepper. With one pull his kit unravels like a lover’s dress, dull knives now wake under the flicker of overhead lights. He examines each station, the reservation book—full from seven to eight-thirty—and makes a list: lemons, kalamata olives, oyster mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, granny smith, the herbs. It is quiet in his kitchen, the oven hood is years-cooked in grease, the door siding unhinged from the wall, blots of orange and rust on the stainless countertops, lived in, he thinks as he grabs apronfuls of produce from the walk-in. When he moves, his mind is fast, the slice of each vegetable into a metal tin, his knuckles a steady beat, the letters H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K tattooed from pinky to pinky as the mounds of diced plants grow into tins secured by clear cover, labeled by date. The mushrooms are his favorite. First peel from trunk, then chop the stem. He pulls earth from their hats, dusting them into temporary metal homes. His son might call them tiny trees if he could speak, but Chef knows the difference between simple roots and the ingredients he uses for dinner. When the child was born, the doctors called it Schizencephaly, split brain. Scans from the internet looked like milky lemons from the bottom of the box, the kind with pink rot in the pores. Your son, they said, maybe five minutes. Challenged, they said, but Chef didn’t crack and five minutes became five years and charity cook-offs and alternative treatments, his son in wheeled chairs with holes for wrists, a feeding tube down his throat, oxygen up his nose, all of it doing H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K saving. He pulls at more mushrooms. Snip snip at the core. They are named oyster because when cooked they seem membrane, slimy, delicate things with folds like flowers. He uses them in the risotto with charred corn for the Key West Grill. He cooks in West Texas, more earth, more dirt. It’s quiet in the kitchen, and Chef thinks about how his son doesn’t cry, how he and his wife didn’t quit using when she was pregnant, how they cut lines and corners, saying they were too young to be parents, how they split time between the restaurant and the bassinet, not knowing what to do with something so alive so whole, they were much better at breaking. His son communicates in moans, and Chef screams that the servers are asshats and fucktards when they make mistakes, he throws plates in the dishpit, tongs on the floor, slapping the plastic cutboards with a damp towel, slapping like he’s done it before. Now Chef cradles a fistful of olives, a vertical slice down the hollow middle. He is careful with the blade, with his thumb because their heads are slimy too. When his Dr. Pepper is drained in a few hours, when the others arrive around pre-shift, the parsley-tall bartender fills the Styrofoam with more and four-counts of Barton’s well rum. It gets him through the line tests, gets him through the six tables sent back at once, the receipt printer coughing and spitting up tickets, his wife coughing and spitting up when his son was coming, faster than the drugs blown in his nasal cavities the little death in his veins, his hands are working, he is on the granny smiths, minced into spears, he uses them for the Boston Bibb salad, tart and pungent with crumbs of bleu cheese. First he cuts the apple in half, then cores. There are holes in everything.
Katrina Prow lives and writes from California’s Central Coast. She is an Associate Fiction Editor for Iron Horse Literary Review and the Fiction Book Reviews Editor for Arcadia. Her writing is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Redivider, Passages North, Nano Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, Juked, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She received her PhD from Texas Tech University. You can find her discussing pop culture (frequently) and literature (sometimes) on Twitter @katprow.