Tito checked on his fathers in the office, where his fathers were putting on their uniforms for the day. Ray was bent down as Otto tied on his red headband. His own headband was secured to his forehead. Otto glanced up at Tito.
“Time to get dressed, little me.”
“I ain’t that little,” Tito said with a cock of his head as he tied his headband.
“Well, when I was your age, people said I was just like my dad. And the way you’re turning out, I think the same applies.” As Otto pointed, his eye twitched a bit, making Tito smile.
“Yeah, and when I’m your age, I’m telling my son that he’s gonna be a bigshot noodle cook, just like his daddy!”
Ray chuckled at Tito.
“If he wants to,” he added.
“Or she!” Otto said as he checked his headband again. “We could use another girl in the family.” Tito smiled as he leaned in the doorway.
“Someone like Kate?” he said.
“Kid, if there were two Kates running around, then they’d find a way to make more. And then we’d be in real trouble.”
Ray adjusted his apron tie and checked himself in the mirror next to the threshold. Otto stepped around him and checked out his crooked smile in the mirror before reaching up and smoothing the fur on Ray’s head. He tickled the fur on Ray’s cheeks.
“Stop it,” Ray said, pulling Otto towards him. Otto grinned and started to tickle Ray’s stomach. Ray started to giggle. Ray kissed Otto before he headed out of the office to attend to the front of the building, where the waitstaff would arrive. As Ray left Otto’s arms, he seemed to lose a little color. Otto went over to Tito and patted him on the shoulder. He kept his hand on Tito’s shoulder for a second as he stared at the floor.
As they returned to the kitchen, the side door nearby jingled and slammed shut, signaling the entrance of the kitchen staff. Koa was the first to arrive, his big orange figure looking like a sun rising in the kitchen.
“Could it get any hotter out there? Holy Motra…”
He made a hand sign to himself before washing his hands. Once the three-second timer on the sink faucet shut it off, he sat down on a stool to begin preparing his hand and foot wrappings. Unlike Kate, who wrapped her whole figure to protect herself from the sand and the heat, Mallowmargs wrapped their hands and feet for some holy purpose. Tito asked him about it once, but all he got for an explanation was a scoff and the admission that it was a habit. Otto glanced over at Koa and made his own version of the hand-sign.
“Morning,” he said. Koa winced at Otto’s version of the hand sign, but continued with his preparations. Tito wasn’t sure if Otto was mocking Koa or making a real attempt to connect with him. Though Otto and Koa didn’t always vibe, there must have been some connection between them, for Koa was always one of the first people not in Tito’s immediate family to show up in the morning.
“Today’s gonna be a record breaker, I know it,” Otto said, smiling with crooked teeth.
“Not with the water rations,” Koa said. “We can’t maintain our usual pace if we can’t get enough water.”
“We’ve got a tank for the kitchen, a tank for the restrooms, and a tank for emergencies.”
“And the timers,” Tito chimed in.
“Right,” Otto said. His face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s all water under the canyon, now.”
“Until they find more ways to make us cut back,” Tito added. “Maybe they’ll mandate one noodle bowl per week, tops?”
“Tito!” Koa bellowed. “You’re gonna scare your old man to death.” Indeed, Otto looked like he was holding his breath. Then, he burst out laughing.
“If that’s gonna happen, then I’ll give ‘em the best lunch they’ll have all week.”
“There’y’go,” Tito said, smiling at Otto. His melancholy mood seemed to have evaporated, maybe because of the heat, maybe because of Koa’s spirit, maybe because of both. Koa slipped his wrapped feet into a pair of heavy slip-on sandals and pulled Tito and Otto into a big hug.
“Let’s all do our best today.”
He released Tito and Otto, the two catching their breath. They looked at each other and laughed again.
Otto left the room and Tito and Koa prepared the kitchen for the day. They set up pots, strainers, set water to boil, and made sure that everything was accessible to each person in the cooking process. By doing this now, they’d save time later on in the morning, that way when the lunch hour began, they could get right to work. Despite his big figure, Koa moved with great speed. He would unwrap a package of rotonga hearts and have a canister of blue boona beans open within short order. His speed earned him the nickname the “Orange Bolt”, though if you asked Otto, it was more meant for when he had to run away from the police. But that was nothing to brag about, given the neighborhood. All that mattered was that Koa could cook.
More and more people began to arrive at the restaurant as the lunch hour approached. On the prep station was Meema, Jannik and Gepp, whose hands made quick work out of any sort of fruit or vegetable in their way. The line cooks included Uncle Brudon’s son, Paomo, a furnesean who could flip a dozen pieces of meat within six seconds, Pross — Jannik’s brother — , who tended to be territorial on the grill, much to his co-workers’ chagrin, and Gosha, a hauke who tended to tap his foot to the music playing in the main dining hall as he grilled. They also did double-duty on the fryers, the fatty smell of which was caked onto them, no matter how much Tito cleaned them
Tito wasn’t yet familiar with the rest of the staff. Turnover was a bit higher than expected this summer, so they needed to hire new workers. A couple of years ago, you could have asked Tito and he’d know the names, birthdays, and the favorite noodle bowls of every member of his then-kitchen-crew. Now, the camaraderie was boiling away, making the noodle broth taste that much more salty.
But through all of the change, Tito himself had been toward the end of the process for a while now. As the inspector, he would ensure that each noodle bowl matched the initial order, that the noodles were of the right texture and consistency, that the broth wasn’t too soupy, and that it was all ready for the waitperson to bring to the customer. If something was wrong, Tito would come out, take a look at the bowl, and tell you exactly what was wrong with it. There was no noodling around at Nicor Noodles, no sir, no way, no how.
And now, they were down to the noodle– er, wire. Tito smacked himself in the head as the kitchen buzzed with work, like he was trying to get his brain to function again. A few of his coworkers began to stare. As he got back to work, his head started to throb. Would he really be able to work like this? Years ago, when times were a little better, he would let himself meld into the whole process. It all felt natural, but on the other hand, there was a risk that it was all going to drain out of his head, like straining the water out of a bowl of noodles. As he walked forward, a mop collided with his knee. He gritted his teeth as he looked up at Dugat, the new dishwasher. The gomben looked like he had just hit the Imperial prime minister.
“Can you look out where you’re going?” Tito said, swiping away from himself. Dugat shrunk down.
“Sorry.” His forehead shined with sweat, from the humidity and otherwise. The kid didn’t look much older than 16. More than likely, it was his first job. The kid did his best, but “best” for Dugat was more of a controlled accident than anything resembling success. It reminded Tito of someone, but he wasn’t sure whom.
“Where’s Rocky?” Tito asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him today.”
Tito clenched his fists.
“I last saw him like two hours ago. Where the hell could he be?”
Dugat looked speechless. He tried to avoid Tito’s pointed stare. Tito looked up at the clock. Damn, it’s too late to go back to the apartment, Tito thought. He bet that Rocky faked being sick to keep working on his app. Nice of him, but not helpful in the short-term. Dugat stood there, frozen.
“Dugat, could you keep an eye out for Rocky?”
Dugat scurried to his post. Everybody stood at their stations, already at work. The prep people continued to whip their knives into a blur, their products piling up in front of them like edible mountains ready to be dismantled just seconds later. Meat was already crisping on the grill. The smell of cooking noodles hung in the air. It was all falling into place.
The first order would arrive any moment now. It would be the first drop in what would be a torrent of orders for hot broth, tender noodles and plenty of grilled meats. It was tantalizing and a little heady, like something out of a far-off paradise. Tito’s lips became moist, and he regretted not having breakfast earlier. He pushed his hunger out of his mind and stared at the tiled wall next to the kitchen window. It would be a vantage point he would enjoy for almost a dozen hours. Yet the sight looked different today. It looked as if the edges of the tiles were vibrating. There seemed to be something behind them, like a bunch of pink footed tonga pests had made a burrow there. He reached out for the tiles. If he touched one of them, would they all break apart?
“Okay, one ficchaka bowl, hold the fleeka leaves!”
And just like that, the lunch hour had begun. The first bowl began to move down the line. It would soon be full of red-tipped fish fillets, so soft and tender that even someone without teeth wouldn’t mind burning their gums on them. Grandpa Bento could attest to that.
And another bowl. The aromatic bowl, an alternative to the spicy options, was the filler of the line. For every one spicy bowl there were three or four aromatic bowls. As an easy visual indicator, the red bowls were for the spicy items, and the yellow ones were for the mild items. Anything else was put on green, rectangular plates or orange, circular plates. Red, yellow, green and orange were the colors that dominated Nicor Noodles, and reflected the colors of the canyon where they lived, too. Tito wondered what color they’d make if you mixed them all together.
Tito’s little reverie was interrupted by a red bowl, all assembled. It had happened before he even realized it. Upon closer inspection, it was a standard house special bowl; an island of yellow noodles surrounded by an ocean of broth, and atop the island were its inhabitants, breaded and flash-fried pooka strips. Good choice. He looked up from the island and saw three bowls just behind it. He shook his head and looked at the slip of the first bowl, seeing that it matched the order. Tito nodded and put the bowl up on the counter. His hands smarted from the heat of the bowl.
“Fichakka bowl!” he shouted, shaking out his hands. A server came up and took the bowl. By Tito’s estimate, that took less than three minutes, well under their average of five. That kind of speed made this place famous. And it would only get faster.
He looked back down at the counter. Five bowls in the queue. Damn, he was slipping. He glanced down the line. Red, yellow, red, red, yellow. Another fichakka bowl, an aromatic with no meat, a red bowl with double meat, a red bowl with no meat, and a yellow bowl with triple meat. Tito tried to guess the body weight of the customers who ordered all of that meat. It was a good thing that Uncle Brudon gave them a discount on bulk meat orders, otherwise they’d have to start a fishery and a slaughterhouse soon. Though the noodles in the third bowl were a little undercooked, and the fifth bowl had too much broth, it seemed fine. He hoisted them up, where they were taken by the servers who crowded the window.
“Four Sandstorms, no meat!”
Tito smiled. Whoever ordered those had good taste.
The queue began to fill up again, and he resumed his routine. This was a yellow bowl, but it smelled like a red bowl. Who let this happen? Were they already running out of bowls? Whatever, it didn’t matter. It just needed to get to the customer. He snapped his fingers as he made split-second inspections. They just had to fit the picture of the ideal noodle bowl in his head. It was like his eyes were the camera lens and his fingers were the sound of the shutter. Click, click, click.
He heard a clatter. A fry cook had dropped their tongs. They grunted and rinsed it off quick, before resuming their work. It was a minor slip of the health code, amounting to just the tiniest more risk of food poisoning, but Tito figured it was fine.
He had his head down for so long that he almost forgot the world outside of the kitchen. He looked up through the window at the hungry throng. He saw people dipping their serving sticks into the both to dredge up meat, or to extract the noodles. Otto had his big nose in the air, sniffing the symphony of smells as he balanced bowl after bowl on his scrawny shoulders.
“Coming right up!” he screeched so that everybody could hear. Ray was at the front, bowing to another set of customers, whose hands were on their hips. Their brows were furrowed as they stared at the full house. They were lucky to be at the front of the line, ahead of the hungry crowd that filled the entranceway. Between the crowd, Kate squeezed through, grabbing another set of brown bags, ready to be delivered. She caught Tito’s glance, and her determined look made him energized again.
He looked down again. Red, yellow, red, green, yellow, orange, red, yellow, yellow, green. Maybe the sequence of the colors was a message, encoded in food from the universe, and Tito was the only one who could decode it. What was it trying to say? He contemplated the thought as his hands flew across the counter, adjusting the position of the bowls and the utensils to make the best plating possible. As his actions became faster, the faces became faceless and the lines of bowls began to blur together. Shouts of orders became noise, bouncing around in his blown-out ears, before being decoded and turned into action by instinct. A minute of work became fifteen, and fifteen minutes became two hours. Bowls were delivered, returned, washed, and then entered the cycle of food again. People ate, left, and were replaced by more people, who left with full bellies and good tidings. Tito closed his eyes. For a moment, it was all beginning to flow again.
And then, a window shattered.