It was their last chore for the evening. They’d grated cheese and crushed garlic; they’d created mounds of cut vegetables and tubs of salad dressing; they had separated the eyeballs from a host of squid and baked cheesecakes. It was all in a night’s work. And there was one thing left: ten pounds of mushrooms.
Behind them, the restaurant kitchen’s busy time had tapered off. The line cooks were collecting food from the cooler, filling up the containers, wiping down the cupboards, and still putting out a few plates. Ray and Todd paid them no notice.
“You cut yourself, you lose,” said Todd.
“Agreed,” answered Ray. “Your mushrooms have to be off the cupboard and wrapped –”
“— but not in the cooler,” finished Todd.
Ray gave it a moment. “Go!” he shouted.
They both reached for the boxes, tearing the cardboard open with the bare hands and spilling a heap of mushrooms out onto the table. They snapped up their knives together, and together they snapped their first mushroom into the right position and started slicing.
The knives made a machine gun chatter on the table and the mushrooms were vivisected. Like lightning, reaching for the closest ones, they attacked the next mushroom and the next, in a series, and in a few seconds they’d each cut their way through the first five or six. They didn’t look at their knives. They didn’t look at the mushrooms. Their eyes were on the next mushroom in order, which quickly disappeared under the knife. Twin mounds of sliced mushrooms appeared in back of their left hands.
“Come on,” said one, “Pick it up, pick it up.”
“I got it I got it,” said the other rapidly, rattling through two mushrooms in succession. They sliced without words for a half a minute, and the first of the got through the initial tumble they’d made from the box. He slashed out with the knife, cut the box open, and more than half the remaining mushrooms rumbled out. One threatened to tumble off the table, but he snatched it and a moment later it was slices.
“Go, come on, you’re slow,” he said.
“You’re slow,” the other snapped, cutting his box open, snapping up a few strays on the edges and chopping them up.
“You’re gonna cut yourself,” said one.
“You are, you can’t hold that knife, you’re a fucking girl.”
“Choker,” said the first. “You were born a choker. You’re parents were chokers.”
The piles of sliced mushrooms were building up fast. The knives didn’t slow a wit. They moved like machines, slipping over the knuckles of the two chefs, who knew where the deadly blades were by feel and nothing else.
“You’re the choker,” said the other. “You’re going to choke any second now.”
They were going through the mushrooms faster than one a second now, nearing two a second, diminishing the hordes of whole mushrooms. The first laughed, and the second did too. It was dangerous and crazy. “We’re gonna lose a finger or something.”
“You’re going to lose a finger.”
“Careful, you’ll take yours off at the knuckle. Have to call you Stumpy.”
“You’re going to be Fingerless Todd. Everyone will point and say there goes Fingerless, he’s worthless at cutting mushrooms.”
“Don’t get clever Stumpy.”
“Don’t choke, Fingerless.”
They were getting way past halfway now, and it was getting harder. They both knew it was going to come down to who had more mushrooms in their box, or how far they had to reach for those last few mushrooms ... they tried to bunch their mushrooms together as they reached for them, tried to keep from knocking them further out of reach.
“Choke,” said one.
“Ow!” shouted one, still cutting, still making slices.
“Did you cut yourself?”
“Why don’t you look?”
“You fucker, you’re faking.”
“Yes. Wanna look?”
“Cut yourself you bastard. Cut yourself and lose.”
“You cut yourself!”
The one laughed, high and crazy, knife blade banging and banging. The other couldn’t help himself either. For a minute they cut in silence and the mushrooms dwindled. They each in their turn reached for their boxes and dribbled out the last of the mushrooms on their sides of the table. Both Todd and Ray took two seconds to reign in the stragglers and collect the targets close together. They nimbly snatched each mushroom between index finger and thumb, set it in front of the knife with stem pointing at their bellies. Seven or eight cuts and the mushrooms were swept to the side, now making weaving ridges on the table, as the chefs pushed them off to make room for the next shrooms.
“Ten left,” said one.
“Nine,” said the other.
“Choke!” demanded one.
Ray made a grab for his plastic bucket and groped, tipping it as he brought it next to his cut mushrooms. Then they were both sweeping the slices together with both hands, loading them up and over the lips of the buckets. Ray was a little behind. He gathered together the last of his, picked up the few big bits on the counter and flicked them in, then spun for the plastic wrap dispenser. They each had one.
Todd had Ray cold. He pulled a skein of plastic out, spread it over the top of the bucket, and ran his hand down the serrated edge that cut the plastic just as Ray was still pulling on his own dispenser.
And Todd cut himself.
“OH SHIT,” shouted Todd, reaching for a paper towel and at once swaddling his index finger in it.
Ray heard him, saw the towel going around Todd’s finger and knew he’d won. He took his time finishing his mushrooms. And then he finished Todd’s.
“I told you you’d cut yourself,” said Ray.
“Yeah, yeah, shut up. How long did that take?”
Ray looked at the clock. “About six and a half minutes.”
They both thought for a moment. Then one said, “Let’s put this shit away and get a beer.”