“What do you want to eat?”
Will couldn’t help thinking that the question somehow sounded awful close to a threat. It had a lot to do with the man posing the question - West had a black apron tied around his waist and was wearing his usual plain white tank top, his arms bursting from both sleeves like chiselled anacondas. It also had something to do with the way it was asked, both hands placed on either side of the red and brown cutting board, his upper body slightly tilted over the kitchen island.
The two knives, resting on either side of his hairless hands, didn’t help either.
“We just got a shipment of fresh clams,” Will said as he lifted himself to a sitting position on the counter on the opposite side of the island. “Let’s see what you can do with those.”
West didn’t blink an eye, he just turned and strode through the empty kitchen and pulled open the nearest fridge. He pulled out two leeks, a small glass container of butter, and a bottle of white cooking wine before kicking the door closed and returning to his work station. Will glanced at the analog clock perched on the wall at the end of the kitchen - there were maybe twenty minutes left before the evening shift showed up to prepare for the dinner rush.
“How long will this take to prepare?” he asked as West returned from his second trip to the fridge, herbs and a small grey bucket full of clams in hand. He placed a large silver bowl on the counter to the left of the sink before replying.
“If it takes fifteen minutes then I’m doing something wrong,” West said as he opened up the cold water tap and began cleaning the shellfish. “Are these local?”
“You won’t find any closer,” Will replied, beginning to feel a bit more at ease now that the focus was on the food. “Leah’s father has a friend that collects them from a beach that borders his property, just outside town. Maybe a ten minute drive from here.”
West grunted his approval and continued with his preparations, the clams moving swiftly from bucket to water to metal bowl. Once thirty or forty of them had made the trip, West grabbed a high sided sauté pan from the overhead hanging rack and placed it on the oven, firing up the nearest element with a quick twist that appeared born of habit rather than conscious thought.
Moments later a large spoonful of butter was melting in the pan and the leeks were being chopped side-by-side with deadly precision. Will swallowed the nervous lump in his throat and shifted his eyes back to the clock. Fifteen minutes to go.
“Does this dish have a name?” he asked over the rapid fire sound of knife meeting wood.
“Yeah,” West replied, dumping the chopped leeks into the bubbling butter and giving them a quick stir. “The Best Damn Clams You’ll Ever Eat.”
“Hmm, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” Will said with a shaky laugh. “How about we shorten that to The Best Damn Clams Period?”
“Whatever,” was the only reply that suggestion earned. The top of the wine bottle came twisting off and was brought up for a testing sniff. “Not bad. Not the best, but it shouldn’t ruin it.”
“Hey, I’d love to cook with drinking wine but that would get damn expensive in a damn hurry. So I make do with what I can afford and keep my prices reasonable.”
“Our prices, William,” Leah said as she entered the kitchen through the swinging black doors that lead to the dining area. She gave West a shy smile and brushed a stray lock of brown hair out of her eyes. “Hi.”
“Afternoon,” West replied as he tested the leeks with a wooden spoon, not bothering to look up. Satisfied that they had achieved the desired tenderness he added the bowl of clams to the mixture and followed that with a generous pouring of wine. Another quick stir, the lid went on with a soft clang, and he rinsed his hands off in hot water. He looked up and matter-of-factly announced, “You have four minutes to prepare your taste buds for the coming onslaught of joy.”
“Mmm, I can’t wait!” Leah said, gracefully taking a seat beside Will on the counter, her enthusiasm undeterred by West‘s complete lack of interest. “It smells fantastic already!”
Instead of replying, West grabbed a handful each of basil and tarragon and gave them a quick rinse before they were placed on the cutting board of death. The knife cut through them mercilessly, leaving them in neat piles in mere seconds. West grabbed the nearest black pepper grinder by the throat and placed it next to the steaming pan. His eyes flicked at the clock, then to his waiting guests, and then back to the pan. His lips moved soundlessly for a few seconds before the lid came off and the herbs thrown in. A few violent twists of the grinder added a touch of pepper and then another heaping spoonful of butter was added to the mix.
“What do you have for serving dishes?” he asked as he gave the dish a final push with his spoon, the air filling with a heady mix of herbs, butter, and seafood.
Leah slipped off the counter and turned to pull three square dishes from the cupboard behind Will, each pristine white except for a small red apple in each corner. She arrayed them in front of the cutting board and watched with eager eyes as West served up three fragrant piles of his creation.
“Dig in,” he said as a fork appeared on each dish, courtesy of Will. He watched with an unreadable expression as the two owners each picked out a clam and placed them gingerly in their mouths. “So?”
Will chewed thoughtfully before turning to look at his partner. Leah simply smiled and reached for a second helping. Will turned and, with only the slightest hesitation, offered the stranger his hand.
“What do you want to eat?”