Haska severed the head of the tuna before her silent audience with a single, determined blow onto the snapping spinal column. She felt the weight of her career in the towering gaze of the man at the head of the table. His natural stoicism betrayed no applaud or critique of her skills.
‘It’s only what you have to offer that matters. Every movement is for him,’ she reminded herself.
She used two knifes to cut the tuna. A heavy chef’s knife for the bones and a long, slender knife to cut along the length of the body. Each blade had been sharpened the night before in her stuffy apartment kitchen with the countertop corner pricking her shoulder. She’d used both sides of all three whetstone blocks. Sharpen then smooth, sharpen then smooth, another cup of coffee, sharpen and smooth.
She’d sipped down four cups of coffee through the day. Two more than usual for the caffeine to concentrate. Her dessert chef recommended she just step out for a cigarette and the whole kitchen chuckled. They’d all heard her preach about how keen a chef’s sense of taste needed to be and how much cigarettes confused the taste buds.
She let them laugh and used it as the push to critique every preparation for the party. Sagging shelves, unwashed pots, the temperature of the chocolate’s double boiler. Everyone in the kitchen knew she’d flipped back onto absolute perfectionism. Their hope was in helping her along to another kitchen so they could keep their own jobs and then return to the level of effort they were comfortable with.
‘You can whip any mule to dance with the right encouragement,’ thought Haska as she cut the first thin piece of the palest, fattiest meat around the collar.
In the traditional manner of the dividing ceremony, the best meat was served to the most senior member of the group to taste and decide for everyone else if the fish was worthy. This ran aground on the island of Wax City were such a custom only washed up from the main island as were those at the horseshoe table. The only similarity was the familial practice of the father (at times) sacrificially taking the first bite of each dish.
Such a surrender of native tradition (though it wasn’t her own, a fact she didn’t expect any of them knew) to those of foreigners made Haska feel weak. Cutting the fish and serving it in their fashion admitted her food needed their approval to be correct. Despite whatever preparations undertaken, whether she was skillful or not was only a byproduct of the last guest’s opinion.
The other break from tradition was the use of such a small tuna and not using one but two fish. ‘Fucking cheapskate.’ She thought of how the host, the forty year old bureaucrat looking for a promotion, described the choice of two keel tuna and not one biscar tuna of equivalent weight as an exotic display of the local cuisine. The only issues, besides it not bearing any semblance of the local cuisine, were the clear attempt at obfuscation and the disrespect for the host to cut costs around the dinner rather than sacrificing his own comfort.
‘This is why you’re stuck in a florescent hole. This is why you need to buy a promotion.’
The guest of honor picked up his sliver of collar meat and chewed as if he’d bitten into rice porridge. After an unblinking minute, he nodded for the meal to continue.
Haska noted the nod’s brevity and continued without pause as suggested.
The dividing ceremony carried on to the hosting man and then the other male guests and then the wives in the same order of importance. Each piece sampled in turn down to the meat around the spine scrapped off with colorful seashells Haska had collected.
Without a compass for the other tuna, she’d brought a number of ingredients to alter the second half of the meal. She justified the total dispense with tradition when staring at the ceiling over her bed. ‘I can’t serve the same meal twice in a row and if they’ve set me up to do something wrong, might as well do it my way.’
She started with the collar meat, sprinkling sea salt onto the flesh and lightly pressing it in with her fingers. Out the side of her eye she saw the host goggle. ‘I’ll serve you the teeth if you claim this was your idea.’
The guest of honor picked up his sliver of collar meat with sea salt and chewed. Then he nodded for the meal to continue just as placidly as before.
For the first time in the dinner, Haska relaxed her arms. ‘Finally…’ She fought her smile back and continued with the meal.
She divided the second tuna the same as the first, however as the cuts lessened in quality, the more complex her dishes became. Rice vinegar and lemon, rice and bamboo shoots. The spine meat was topped with a sauce she took from an unmarked mason jar that popped from fermented gases.
After serving the last of the main course in a two-hour show, she let her desert chef take over and bowed out to a small corner booth on the dining room floor. The table often went unused because the poor layout of the walls funneled in sounds from the fourth floor’s dice tables. She’d demanded the manager keep the special party’s table open because it lay around a bend and was best shielded from the ecstasy below.
‘Everything I do, every detail, every risk, every point of detail…’ Her brain still buzzed. She asked a passing waiter for some hot tea and a lemon wedge. When the tea arrived, she was rubbing her temples and drawing out each breath and she failed to notice it until the steam hit her nose.
The tea was amongst the best fare for Wax City. The waiter had been kind and brought leaves from the island of Tukaro west of the main island. Such an import brought the price of the cup up to twenty cents. She sipped the tea listing the flavors in her mind and how prevalent each was with an arbitrary percentage. Then she grabbed the lemon wedge resting on the rim and squeezed a single drop into the tea. After a quick swirl she sipped it again and noted the imperative changes to her arbitrary rankings.
“Pardon me.” She looked up at the guest of honor with his thinning hair apparent from below. “I wish to speak with you. May I sit down?”
“Yes, please,” Haska answered immediately taken aback by such formal and civilized consideration.
As he sat the man asked a passing waiter for a glass of whiskey, a glass of still water, and a straw.
“Munchi Patgue,” he offered.
“Haska Yurgee. Did you enjoy your meal tonight Mr. Patgue?”
Patgue’s brown eyes brightened. “The keel tuna was the worst fish I’ve ever eaten. It was a pale imitation of a true dividing ceremony. Slim. Not enough fat to light a room at night. On its own it’s an insult.”
Haska held her tears. A chance hope resting on the last insinuation of a difference between the two halves of the meal.
Patgue continued in a dry recitation, “The second half of the dinner was okay. I enjoyed the uniqueness. I wouldn’t ask for it a second time.”
She dug her foot into the carpet like she’d wanted to push off it and pounce on him. “I wouldn’t serve the same dish twice.”
Her gritted tone pulled him back from his chiding. “You demonstrated that already. What I want to see from you is more.”
The waiter came back and Patgue gave him a good tip. He sipped the whiskey.
“Do you think this is good whiskey I’m drinking?”
She looked at the color and clarity of the Brushger’s. “It’s not the best.”
“It’s the best your casino has to offer and it’s in my hand.” He then took his straw from his still water and held it over his whiskey letting two small drops fall into his drink. He sipped again. “Do you think the makers of this whiskey ever thought their creation would be enjoyed in this manner?”
“Do you think the creators of whiskey, the Gods, thought whiskey could be enjoyed like this?” He smiled and the brown tips of teeth that belonged more to a blind sea creature jutted through. “When we drop water into our whiskey, we’re greater than Gods for a fleeting moment.”
“That’s a, very interesting view Mr.” she swallowed, forgetting his last name.
“You don’t have to be polite.” She didn’t say anymore. “The first half of the meal was a disgrace. The boat shrimp wants me to promote him to middle management and I have to after tonight.”
Her resentment at the host burned through her mind. ‘After he skimped on the main course; put his pinky finger into a new office then slam it shut.’
“Unfortunate but if I don’t give him the promotion after spending as much money as he did then no one else would try to bribe me. All the cartons of cigarettes and wine dry up and I’m not worth the seat under me. I’d have to start over accepting packs of Tipy’s Black. There’s a game to be played, and I can’t let some boat shrimp drag me down. He’ll get his promotion. Then he’ll find more and more of my staff’s responsibilities shifted onto him till he’s working a two hundred fifty percent schedule. He’ll either quit or be my token underperforming fire for the quarter. Need to trim the fat. Need to keep up appearances.
“Mis. Yurgee. I came over here because one of the men at the table tonight is a friend of the head chef at The Waxing Moon. I can suggest he make mention of you to him.”
Haska’s cheeks flushed. “I’d be honored Mr. Patgue.”
“And I choose to do so under the expectation that whenever I host a special dinner at my home, you’ll be there to serve my guests.”
She started at him, her bottom lip tensed in quarrel.
“I shouldn’t have said that so suggestively.” The flesh tearing teeth reappeared. “My apologies Mis. Yurgee. Let me ask, will you be my chef? I promise to supply the best fish I can procure.”
“Yes!” she said, a tear escaping.
He patted her hand. “I’m looking forward to our engagement.”