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By Matt Wallace, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2017 Matt Wallace
All rights reserved.
By her sixth egg of the morning the water in Lena's poaching pan is a cloudy mess, but the breakfast rush affords her no time to change it out with new water and bring that to heat.
Her concentration is that of a Japanese zen archer's as she cracks a fresh, cold egg into a small ramekin with one hand. At the same time her other hand is using the handle of a slotted spoon to stir the hot water in the pan until a gentle whirlpool forms. Dropping the contents of the ramekin into the swirling water, Lena focuses through the milky remnants of her previous poaching to make sure she doesn't lose track of the fresh egg. The whirlpool prevents the white from feathering and wraps it around the yoke.
The most difficult part for Lena of poaching an egg is leaving it the hell alone.
Christian, the Puerto Rican kid a few years younger than Lena who nonetheless is already a master of the line's grill, slides a warm plate next to Lena's station. On the plate two small, slightly charred tortillas have been hastily pressed around house-made chorizo, fresh diced jalapeño peppers, and melted cotija cheese. It looks as though one half of the tortillas have been jammed against a hard surface. The poorly executed quesadilla has been laid over a square of traditional corn cake.
Exactly four minutes and forty-eight seconds after dropping it into the water, Lena dips her slotted spoon into the pan and retrieves a perfectly poached egg. The white has hardened into a delicate sphere around what Lena knows will be an oozing, rich, golden yoke. She gently lays the tiny cloud atop the misshapen quesadilla on the plate and ladles chipotle hollandaise sauce over it. She finishes the dish by garnishing the top of the egg with a halved cherry pepper.
"Order up!" Lena calls out mechanically, setting the plate on the shelf of the window between the kitchen and the front of the house.
She's been working the egg station in the kitchen of the Ugly Quesadilla for a little over a week. It's a stopover diner in Vermont, about thirty miles outside Montpelier, so named for the intentionally malformed quesadillas that became the restaurant's signature dish decades back when it was just an uneven roadside stand on a soft shoulder of the highway. Lena stopped for lunch one day and on an utter and uncustomary whim asked if they were hiring. She mastered the "Ugly Benedict" on her first attempt, and has only become more efficient at replicating the dish dozens of times a day.
After the breakfast rush has died down, Lena takes her break out behind the diner. Sitting on an empty produce crate and drinking a cup of coffee (which has also improved in the Ugly Quesadilla since she started working the line), she thinks for approximately the millionth time about calling to check on Darren. She hasn't spoken to anyone from Sin du Jour in over a month, not Bronko, not Ritter or Dorsky. She has over a hundred unheard voice mails in her phone, most of them from Darren and only slightly fewer of them from Nikki.
The day they all flew back from Los Angeles, a part of Lena already knew she couldn't return to Sin du Jour. That evening she had a silent, more than slightly awkward dinner with Darren and turned in early. The next morning, on her way to work, Lena saw a battered 1970 Triumph Bonneville with a "for sale" sign taped to the headlight, sitting outside a garage in Long Island City. Following the first in her recent series of uncustomary impulses, she inquired inside.
The engine caused the entire bike to shake as if whoever designed it thought it might move through solid matter if it vibrated fast enough. Lena went to the nearest branch of her bank, emptied her savings account, and bought the vintage British motorcycle. She was staring at the Manhattan skyline in its dingy rearview mirror before dusk.
The Ugly Quesadilla's service door opens and Christian emerges with a grin on his young face, a plate of food balanced on his fingertips.
"Morcilla?" Lena asks him, genuinely excited.
Christian shakes his head. "Lechón. My cousin Yahir did the pig yesterday. I brought in what was left for family meal."
He lowers the plate of slow-cooked pork under her nose and waves it back and forth enticingly. Lena only briefly inhales before reaching up and snatching it from him eagerly. She grabs the fork and loads its prongs with the succulent meat and some of the arroz con gandules accompanying it.
"Gracia, pai," she says, taking her first bite.
Christian laughs. "Your white girl Spanish is coming along quick."
"Hungarian," Lena corrects him around a mouthful of pork.
"It's awesome," she assures him, forking her way through the dish.
"Thanks. Hey, you want to come out with us later? We're going to this new place up the freeway. It'd get you out of that shit-hole motel room for a night."
"I like my shithole motel room. It's quiet. Peaceful. And the vending machine has Andy Capp's chips. Do you know how hard it is to find those?"
Christian stares down at her blankly.
Lena shakes her head. "Thanks, though."
He spreads his arms and drops his head in a pose of mock dejection.
"All right," he says. "But I'm gonna keep asking."
Lena shrugs. "You gotta do you."
With a wink, Christian turns and walks back inside.
After he's gone, the notion to call Darren and check in returns to her. Lena can feel the phone in her front pocket, like a sudden and oppressive weight. She's felt that many times since she took off. Every time she feels it, including this time, the image of Darren staring down at her, his expression helpless and petrified, as a soldier from an ancient demon clan was trying to slit her throat flashes in her mind. Eventually the phone feels lighter in Lena's pocket.
She's not angry with Darren. She was never angry with him. But she's also done taking care of him.
Lena finishes the plate, and her coffee. She carries both back into the diner.
She hears his voice booming throughout the kitchen before she even rounds the corner from the stocking area in the back, and it stops her cold.
"Now, the thing to remember is masa lives and dies in the kneading, all right? Water alone won't ever do it. Too little and ya got masa harina crumbles, too much and it's a damn sticky mess, and you'll never get the ratio right all by itself. You gotta work it and aerate that business to achieve the perfect texture. And y'all, corn tortillas are all about the texture...."
At first Lena thinks they must have a television on, tuned to some cooking channel playing a rerun of one of his shows. Then she remembers there are no TVs in the kitchen, or the front of the house.
She walks back into the kitchen.
Bronko is standing at one of their prep stations, wrist-deep in a wad of dough. It's the first time she's seen him out of his chef's whites. He's wearing ripped jeans, an absurdly large belt buckle with a ceramic chile pepper on it, and a faded T-shirt bearing a half-worn-away logo of his bankrupt Deadman's Hand restaurant chain from the '90s. He's borrowed an apron from one of the cooks.
The rest of the kitchen crew has gathered around to watch him, as if they're the captive audiences for one of his old cooking shows.
"Now, once the masa stops clingin' to your hands, you're ready to —"
"Chef?" Lena blurts out in shock.
They all turn toward her, including Dave, their middle-aged day manager who currently looks starstruck.
"Jesus, Tarr, why didn't you tell me you studied under Bronko, er, Chef Luck here? You'd be runnin' the damn kitchen."
"I didn't 'study' under him, I just worked the line in ..."
The rest of the words die on her lips. Lena feels like her brain is locking, unable to accept that Bronko is standing there in front of the Ugly Quesadilla's grill.
"What are you doing here?" she finally asks him.
Bronko smoothes his hands over the stained apron he's borrowed, then reaches for a kitchen towel.
"Someone had to keep her company on the drive up," is all he says, motioning with his heavy chin through the kitchen window.
Lena stares out at the front of the house.
Nikki is sitting at the counter, waving back at her through the kitchen window.
Now Lena is actually speechless.
"Y'all mind if I borrow her for a few minutes?" Bronko asks, removing the apron strap from around his neck.
"Sure, of course!" Dave says immediately. "Can I grab a quick selfie with you first, Chef?"
Bronko hides his distaste for the word "selfie" with the easy practice of celebrity.
"Sure thing, boss."
There are picnic tables out front. The trio finds the one most removed from the others and settles around it.
"You followed me here?" Lena practically hisses at them both when they're alone. "Do you have any idea how creepy that is?" Nikki frowns at Bronko. "I told you we should've called ahead."
"And I told you when folks are running away you don't give them warnin' in advance," Bronko fires back.
"Don't fucking talk about me like I'm not here!" Lena explodes. "Jesus!"
"Hey, we're sorry," Nikki says in her soothing way. "Okay?
We're not, like, stalking you. But we had to find you. It's about you, not us."
"What does that mean?"
"You have to come back, Tarr."
Nikki frowns even deeper at him and his bluntness.
"We don't have time for this!" Bronko snaps at her without waiting for her reprimand.
"I've heard enough," Lena insists, rising from the picnic table bench. "You two should go."
Nikki reaches out and gently cups one of Lena's hands. "Lena, please, wait. This is serious."
She stiffens at the touch, and her eyes seem to refuse to look at Nikki, but the tone of Nikki's voice somehow manages to soften Lena. She sits back down, albeit with obvious reluctance.
"You're not safe out on your own right now," Bronko tells her. "None of us are. Not after what happened in LA. If we learned anything it's that Hell don't forget. Not ever. Now, we came through that party by the skin of our teeth, but ain't none of us going to survive without protection. Allensworth and his people are bargaining with the other side to keep us safe, but that only applies to Sin du Jour. If you're not on the line then you fall outside that protection."
"You're saying they'll come after me?"
"You can bet your knives on it, girl."
"So I don't have any choice? I have to work for you. I'm a fucking slave."
"No, a slave's a slave, and I imagine anyone who actually was that wouldn't take kindly to your exaggerations."
"Don't give me semantics, Chef!"
"Hey!" Nikki breaks in before either of them can escalate the argument further. "Chef, can you give us a second? Please?"
Bronko nods silently, pushing himself up and away from the picnic table.
They watch him walk back into the Ugly Quesadilla, then Nikki looks at Lena while Lena continues to avoid meeting her gaze.
Nikki leans back and folds her arms tightly.
"Why can't you look at me?" she finally asks.
Lena just shakes her head, squeezing her eyes closed.
"I watched you die!" she unloads, tears breaking the dam of her closed eyelids. "You were gone! I know what that looks like. I've seen it. I watched you die covered in your own blood and come back."
Nikki stares at her, wide-eyed. "Well ... isn't that a good thing?"
"Of course it is! But how can you be so calm about it?"
"I ..." Nikki looks around as if she'll find the answer to the question on the grass at their feet. "I mean ... what other choice do I have? I'm happy. Obviously. I got a reprieve I don't figure a lot of people get. I'm not going to waste it being freaked out about what happened, I guess."
"But I let you die," Lena says quietly, hands curling into fists against the tabletop as more tears come.
Nikki reaches over and strokes her fingers through Lena's hair, then leans across the table until their foreheads touch just so.
"You didn't let anything happen," she whispers. "We're not soldiers, Lena. We're chefs. You can't live the way you cook, okay? You can't control life that way, especially where we work. You just have to roll with it. Don't beat yourself up. I'm here. You're here."
Lena inhales deeply, bringing herself under control. She leans away from their brief contact.
"I'm not mad at you for what happened in LA," Nikki continues, "and I'm not mad at you for running after, okay? I get it. I know you've always felt dragged into working at Sin du Jour. I feel bad about that, and I feel worse because I'm not sorry you were. Dragged into working there, I mean. I love the place, despite everything. I always have. But for a long time I was also ... alone. In my little kitchen with all my ovens, and now I'm not. Or at least I wasn't. And it was so good to have you back there with me all the time to drink and talk and joke and just generally be awesome together."
Lena doesn't respond to any of that, but she is finally meeting Nikki's eyes with her own.
"You don't have to say anything," Nikki assures her. "I know you like me too. You wouldn't be torturing yourself like this if you didn't."
"I'm sorry, all right? I'm sorry I took off without saying anything. I just couldn't ... if I had to walk back into that place that day I was going to break apart. And then when that feeling went away I just ... I couldn't stop going."
"You have every right to go wherever you want and do whatever you want, but what Chef is saying is true. I'm sorry, but it is. This is a dangerous time and a dangerous situation, and you have to come back, Lena. You just have to, at least for now. I can't ... I don't even want to think about what might happen to you out here on your own until Allensworth is sure it's safe for all of us."
"How can he possibly protect us from something like this? And why would he? Why would we stand up against ... all of that?" "They need us. There's an election coming up."
Lena frowns. "What the hell do the elections have to do with anything?"
Nikki's lips tighten. "Not ... those elections."
With a taped-up left fist Darren shoots a jab into the heavy bag, then throws a right cross at the exact same spot. He no longer has to remind himself to follow through by rotating his hip with the punch. Darren repeats the combination again and again and again, pummeling the surface of the bag, breathing in ragged bull snarls through his nose.
"Time!" Ritter calls, staring at the stopwatch app on the screen of his phone.
Darren halts immediately, taking a step back from the heavy bag. He inhales and exhales deeply, using his taped hands to smooth the sweat from the dark beard he's been growing for the past month. It's thicker than he ever knew he could manage. He's never tried to grow his facial hair out before. The furthest Darren ever got was experimenting with a permanent five-o'clock shadow when they first moved to the city, but he shaved when another chef on the line told him it looked "gay."
It was three days after Lena blew town when Darren's mind, wholly against his will, began entertaining the possibility she might not come back. It was two days of unreturned calls later that he began to accept the possibility as a reality.
The day after that Darren went to see Ritter.
"Teach me," he'd said.
Ritter could watch creatures from Hell rise bleeding fire and brimstone with his signature passive expression, but even he'd been unable to mask his confusion.
"Teach you what?"
"How to be like you. How not to be afraid. Lena almost died because of me. One of those things ... back in LA ... was trying to kill her. I couldn't help her. I couldn't move."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of. Not everybody is built for combat. Fight or flight is an option for a reason."
"It's more than that! I've been afraid as long as I can remember. My whole life. I'm sick of it."
"Afraid of what?"
"Everything. Everyone. My folks, kids at school, other chefs. Everyone. Except Lena. And I didn't help her. I couldn't. I couldn't ... do anything."
"You're not a soldier, Vargas. No one expects you —"
"It doesn't matter! That's not the point. I can't even stand up for her to Dorsky and the line."
"She doesn't need that."
"I know. But I do. I always do. And she always stands up for me. I should be able to do likewise for her, whether she needs it or not. And, y'know, for myself."
"What are you asking me to do, exactly?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2017 Matt Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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