Ann’s old friend Theresa seems to have gone a bit crazy. She shows up on Ann’s doorstep after six — she promised when they made these plans that she’d arrive in time for lunch — and is bedecked in garb that Ann, in their fifteen years’ acquaintance, has never seen the likes of: a loose poet’s blouse cut low enough in the front that her large breasts are thrust obscenely forward; skin-tight, trendy-looking bluejeans that flare at the bottom over an expensive pair of fawn-colored cowboy boots. Her hair, once a rich, wavy chestnut brown that Ann coveted, is frosted and straightened, and it crackles with electricity when the women hug. Theresa has an iPhone in one hand and a colorful alligator-print satchel in the other, and Ann is trying to ask her about the drive south from Kentucky, if the construction on 24 was what had slowed her down, when the phone buzzes and Theresa starts tapping out a reply with a manicured thumb.
“Hold on, sweetie,” she says. “This is the fifteenth text I’ve gotten from him today.”
Ann nods and waits and pushes Critter back into the house with her foot when the cat tries to slip past her leg. She doesn’t know who “he” could be. When Ann last saw Theresa at Phil’s funeral, she looked and acted much as she always had: like Ann’s older, wiser, and eminently dependable friend, made vague and fragile by grief, perhaps, but still more or less the person Ann came to know during their waitressing days at Rosco’s. That had been fifteen years ago, when Ann was still finishing her Hospitality Management degree at UK , and Theresa, in her late thirties and quietly glamorous, commanded the respect of even the crass male line cooks, who never dared to yell at her or make passes at her and who sullenly complied when, on slow nights, Theresa insisted they give Ann the quick cooking lessons she had taken the job hoping to get. So it was at Rosco’s, and not at college, that Ann learned how to tell the doneness of a piece of meat by pressing it with her index finger, how to sharpen and wield her knives, the way to gauge the temperature of a cooking oil by its sheen, and a thousand other methods and recipes. And it was Theresa and her husband who did not so much as blink when Ann told them she was looking for investors to help her cover the 30 percent capital injection required to finance the Misty Mountain Café, her restaurant. Ann owes her career, such as it is, to Theresa, and she tries to remember this as her friend reads another text and thumbs another response, both of them still standing in Ann’s doorway and Ann now an hour late to work. She tries to remember that Theresa, so recently a widow, is entitled to a dye job and its accompanying kookiness, and the time has come for Ann to be the supportive and patient one.
“Just—one—more—” Theresa jabs the screen with finality, smiles, and shoves her phone down into the bottom of her large purse. “Hug me again, pumpkin. Are you ever a sight for sore eyes.”
“And you,” says Ann, pulling back from their embrace. “You look great,” she adds, though great is not the most honest word for what Ann is seeing. Theresa does look thinner. Her lovely violet eyes, framed by more prominent cheekbones, have a haunted look. The hair, the outfit — Ann can’t process them. She wonders what Theresa’s son, now almost a preteen, must think of her. “You’ve lost weight.”
Theresa puts her arms up and twirls. “It’s the grief diet. I lost a husband and thirty pounds in nine months. If I’d have known I could fit in my size 10s again I’d have killed Phil myself.”
Ann gasps and laughs, and at least this feeling of shocked delight is familiar, is evidence of a trace of the old Theresa. “Jesus, Tee, you know there’s no right way to react to that.” She stands with her back against the screen door so Theresa can come inside, and Theresa drops her alligator bag on the credenza with casual familiarity.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Theresa says. “I’m still angry at the son of a bitch for abandoning me.” But she doesn’t sound angry, or sad — she speaks with the high-pitched breathlessness of a teenager, and it occurs to Ann that she is probably on some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.
“Of course you’d be—” Ann begins, but Theresa steamrolls affably over her, whipping her head left and right and saying, “Where is the, where is the—” Spotting the refrigerator, she bustles over to it and helps herself to a Diet Coke. “Whew! What a day. I stopped in Nashville on my way over here to meet a friend, and I thought he’d never let me leave.”
“I didn’t know you had plans to stop in Nashville,” Ann says. She glances at the clock above the stove: 6:15. For the first weekend day since opening the restaurant two years ago, Ann stayed home and left Roger alone to oversee prep — a decision that made neither one of them very happy. She promised to be in by no later than five.
Theresa fans herself. “It was last-minute. He thought he was going to be out of town on business, but his plans got rearranged.” Her lips, waxy with dark red lipstick, pull into a grin. “The emails this one sends me — you wouldn’t believe them.”
“Hold up just a minute,” Ann says. She feels disoriented, as if she has managed to miss half a conversation. “Who is this guy? I don’t remember you telling me about him. Do I know him?”
“I should hope not!” Theresa says laughingly. “I met him online.”
“Oh,” Ann says. Understanding lands on her heavily.
“You’re disappointed in me.” She mugs a sad face.
“No,” Ann says hesitantly, but she is — she is more than disappointed. She has long held Theresa and Phil up as models for a happy marriage, for Great (if Straight) Love. She remembers how Phil would arrive at Rosco’s fifteen minutes before Theresa’s shift ended, even if it was very late; she remembers so many nights when Theresa would untie her black apron in the break room, check her hair in the small mirror by the lockers, and say, “Time to see my beau,” her excitement palpable and genuine, and out front the two of them would kiss as if it had been weeks rather than hours since their parting. The thought that Theresa has been able to move on from Phil this quickly — even if the moving on is grief-induced and drug-induced and symptomatic of an impending nervous breakdown — rattles her.
“You are disappointed, I can tell,” says Theresa. “Sweetie, Phil told me that he didn’t want me pining away if something ever happened to him. Of course I told him I’d haunt him from the grave if he so much as set eyes on another women after I was gone, but Phil, he wasn’t like me. He had the most generous heart.”
“I know he did,” Ann says, though it irritates her, these platitudes.
“He was a prince, is what he was, and the world is full of frogs. But when you’re starving, frog legs ain’t bad.”
“Speaking of which,” Ann says, “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I’m late to the restaurant. If I’d known you’d be getting here at six I could maybe have done prep instead of dinner service, but with staffing as tight as it is—”
“Oh, just take me along!” Theresa says, missing entirely the nuance of Ann’s apology, her quiet martyrdom, the fact that it is Theresa’s thoughtless, delayed arrival — her impromptu date with some Internet stranger — that has ruined the entire day: the picnic lunch (lobster rolls and fresh fruit) Ann planned, the afternoon spent perusing antique shops (did this new Theresa, with her thumb plugged into a cellular phone, even like antiquing any more?) before Ann goes to oversee the dinner service at Misty Mountain Café. Right now, Roger will be fuming and Darcy will be panicking. The specials probably won’t be up on the board.
Ann hesitates. “If you really want to I don’t mind, but I’m going to have to stay until at least eleven. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather hang out here and settle in? I have some movies, and there’s a nice bottle of Malbec in the kitchen.”
“I didn’t come all this way to watch a movie and drink wine all by my lonesome,” Theresa said. “I’ve been dying to see your place! You don’t know how proud Phil and I were of you. I’ve thought a dozen times that we should have made the trip down here together while there was still a chance.”
“Well, OK,” Ann says. If she has to, she can let a busboy borrow her car long enough to take Theresa home.
“Better than OK,” Theresa says, gripping Ann’s shoulders. “You know what I’ve learned since September? Live in the now. Live fully in the now. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend the evening than—” The bottom of her purse vibrates, and in two seconds flat she has dipped her hand into the bag and fished out the flashing phone. “Oh, honey. Hold up just a sec.”
Ann is proud and nervous as she pulls into the Misty Mountain Café’s gravel parking lot, and she finds herself checking Theresa’s face for signs of approval. Theresa, though no longer on the phone, seems distracted. She has the visor down so that she can use the mirror to reapply her lipstick, and Ann has to say, “Well, this is it” to get her to look away from her reflection.
“It’s charming!” Theresa says. “What’s that little building over there?”
“A smokehouse. We have barbecue on Saturdays.”
“I’ll have to come back by tomorrow, then.”
Ann was living in Chattanooga and working as a sous chef at City Kitchen when she heard from a customer that the restaurant up near New Union University, Loretta’s, was mysteriously shutting down. By all accounts it had been a profitable business of long standing — the only fine dining establishment within a forty-mile radius of one of the most hoity-toity private universities south of the Mason-Dixie — and the Sunport community, this person insisted, was dismayed.
Ann’s dream was to own her own restaurant, and she had saved about $35,000 in the last ten years — enough, she had naively believed, to get a loan. At City Kitchen she faced the typical industry sexism, and it seemed to her that the only way to guarantee her protection from that culinary boys’ club was to run her own kitchen. She fantasized about hiring an all-female staff, establishing family-friendly scheduling policies — she would offer a program to get single mothers and recovering addicts back in the work force! She imagined training a pretty young woman with good skin and bad teeth and yellowing bruises on her arms to make the French loaves. She imagined an article in the Times Free Press: “Young Entrepreneur Empowers Local Women.” No: “Young Chef Serves Up Second Chances.” That was better.
Two years later and the restaurant is barely hanging on. When Ann had gotten home from Phil’s funeral, she sat for a full hour with her checkbook out, knowing that the right thing to do — the only thing to do — was to send Theresa the money she owed her, though the restaurant had yet to generate even a cent toward a return on the investment. Theresa had a young son. She would be doing without Phil’s income, which constituted well over half of what the family was living on. The life insurance, Theresa had confessed, was only worth $25,000, and it would be months, maybe even a year, before it paid out.
But the math — no matter how Ann worked it, she bottomed out. She would not be able to make the loan payment, or she would not be able to make her apartment rental payment, or she wouldn’t have enough money in her account to cover payroll. But she finally wrote the check, tears streaming down her face, and then (as a dark, secret part of her had hoped), a week later, an envelope arrived with a Lexington postmark. When Ann opened it, a fine confetti of torn check spilled out, along with a slim note: When you truly have it to give and not a second sooner. –T
So now Theresa, looking back and forth at the entrance to the Misty Mountain Café with what seems to Ann like an almost comic parody of enthusiasm, says, “It’s an old house! How neat! And sweetie, the location just couldn’t be any prettier.”
“The location was what sold me,” Ann admits. The white clapboard building, once a farmhouse, sprawls in an L across the back stretch of a little rise; behind it, the land slopes down steeply into a wooded ravine, where patio diners can spot the distant twinkle of Little Red River and occasionally, late in the evening, hear the rich intonations of the local barred owls. Ann learned on the Internet that their hooting sounds like, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? She had been so delighted by this information, at a time when delight was in short supply, that she asked Roger, who was handy with a paintbrush, to stencil “Who cooks for you?” over the door leading to the kitchen. She hoped, if her money ever started to free up, to get some new signage for the restaurant, and a professionally designed logo incorporating the barred owl.
“There’s a short game and a long game,” Theresa says. “You knew that when you set this into motion. The place has good vibes. I can feel them from out here.”
“Good vibes won’t pay the bills,” Ann says, trying to sound more lighthearted than she really feels.
“Well,” Theresa says, “bad vibes sure won’t.”
There are a few customers seated on the porch in rockers, waiting for tables to open up, and Ann shakes hands dutifully with each of them. “Evening, folks. You feeling all right out here? Want some sweet tea or lemonade?”
“Put some vodka in it?” an old man says.
Ann laughs, though her stomach clenches. “I can’t go and give the good stuff away.”
He shrugs and rocks more deeply. This is the part of restaurant ownership that she didn’t anticipate and still hasn’t gotten a handle on: when to offer a little something for free, make the gesture of goodwill. The idea of serving tea on the porch seemed so lovely and civilized to her when she was opening the place — just the touch necessary to calm a restless crowd, let them know that, with some patience, they’d be treated to the finest southern hospitality $28 an entrée could get you — but when she reviewed her receipts for 2011 she discovered that the porch comps were costing her over $3,000 a year. How could she stop, though, now that she has started?
Inside, she instructs her bartender, Amanda, to put a jigger of Smirnoff into one of the glasses of lemonade. Back on the porch, she hands it to the old man with a wink. “Took care of you there,” she says lowly.
He touches the side of his nose with an index finger and winks back.
Theresa is seated at the bar when Ann returns. She is sipping what appears to be a whiskey and cola.
“Comp that,” Ann says to Amanda. Then, to Theresa: “You want a table? I can put you by one of the back windows, or maybe out on the patio if you don’t think it’s too hot.”
Theresa smiles, and her fresh lipstick moves stiffly, like latex. “I’m just dandy right here. I can watch who’s coming and going.”
Theresa nods vigorously.
“Take care of her,” Ann tells Amanda. “Anything she wants. And Tee, you should order dinner. The house signature plate” — she gestures to a line on the menu, which is printed on heavy linen stock — “is the shrimp and white cheddar grits. But we’ve also got rainbow trout tonight. And save some room for dessert. There’s bourbon bread pudding. Or I could make you up a nice cheese plate.”
“You’re spoiling me,” says Theresa.
“You deserve spoiling,” Ann says.
She can see Roger glaring at her from the kitchen.
“OK, I’m going to be all over the place, so let Amanda know if you need anything. If you get really tired and don’t think you can hold out, we’ll find someone to give you a ride back to my place.”
“I’m not an old lady yet,” Theresa says. “I’ll be fine here. Go run your restaurant.”
In the kitchen, Ann pulls her hair quickly into a knot, backhands away sweat, and slips on her white chef’s coat. “Roger, I’m sorry,” she says, hustling over to the sink to scrub her hands. “My friend showed up late.”
Roger, her Cook 1 Lead and occasional expediter, is talented enough, but he’s also surly and superior, and Ann senses that his contempt of her is barely held in check. It is a sign of her desperation, of the total loss of her original vision, that she has kept him in her employ for almost a year now. All of her good intentions for a woman-friendly utopia were dashed within weeks of opening. Two of the local women she hired, both mothers of young children, kept irregular hours, phoned in at the last moment to say that they couldn’t come in, answered every ring of their cellular phones. One of the women suddenly quit to focus her energies on a nasty custody battle. The other, a recovering 24-year-old meth addict named Darcy, she is still stuck with. Ann keeps hoping that a higher power will again intercede, taking the decision out of her hands. But nothing unpleasant, she tells herself. Let her win the lottery, or marry a rich guy, or find her dream job, whatever that may be. Ann doesn’t want to be unkind. She wants to be a different kind of boss, a boss who understands the unique challenges a woman faces and finds innovative ways to work around them. But the fact is that Darcy is going to run out of the restaurant every time her little boy calls with a stubbed toe or her big redneck of a husband refuses to babysit, and Roger, divorced with two grown children that he probably never spent much time with in the first place, is going to put in his full shift, and he’s going to do the work right. And if Ann has to suffer his unpleasantness, she’ll suffer it. At least he’s reliable.
Roger is peering through the pass-through. “That her at the bar? She looks to be on the prowl.”
“Her husband died nine months ago. She is not on the prowl.” Ann mouths a spoonful of the asparagus bisque. “Jesus, did you spill a box of salt in this?”
“That was Darcy’s doing,” he says, hunching over to get a look at Theresa. “Widow women in my day didn’t go around with their tits hanging out.”
“You should worry less about my friend’s tits and more about the food we’re serving. This needs mellowing. Is there any of the leek soup left?”
He jerks his head at the cooler. “Maybe a few quarts.”
Ann retrieves the jug of leftover soup and pours it into the simmering pot, then adds some whole milk. She tastes again. Some of the full, round flavor of the asparagus has been tempered, which is too bad, but the level of salt no longer makes her pucker. “Where is Darcy, anyway?”
“Jesus,” she mutters again. “She does realize it’s dinner peak, right?”
“As well as you understand it, I reckon,” says Roger pointedly, shoving two plates onto the counter of the pass-through and slamming his palm against the service bell.
Ann sizes up the situation on her way out back to corral Darcy. A tray of the rainbow trout fillets, breaded with sourdough crumbs, is sitting out on the counter, emitting the first oily tang of warming fish, and she slides it with a huff into the refrigerator. Jeremiah, her garde manger, is mixing a big metal bowl full of salad greens with his fingers, and Leigh, who appears at the moment to be covering both grill and sauté, is setting four large scallops down into a pan of shimmering oil. Wiley, clanking plates at the corner sink, is barely visible through a cloud of hot steam. If Ann had the budget, she’d hire another line cook, so she could take the occasional afternoon off without portending doom. If she won the lottery, she would hire a full-time pastry chef and commission someone local to start her a kitchen garden on the sunny plot of land behind the smoke house. She is aware that even her lottery dreams are grim and uninspired — that a sane person would take the winnings and flee this mountain money pit.
Ann finds Darcy on the back stoop with her phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “I can’t,” she is saying. “I don’t have it to give. Shit, Ron, you know I don’t get paid ‘til next Friday.” She takes a deep drag and exhales raggedly, then notices that Ann is standing in the open door, watching her. “Gotta go,” she mutters. There’s a pause, and her eyes widen with nervousness. “Seriously. Gotta go.” She folds the phone in half and shoves it in her jacket pocket.
“Darcy,” Ann says.
“I know, I know. It’s always something with him.” Her pretty blue eyes are damp. She makes a move to go inside and Ann blocks her with an extended arm.
“Hold up,” she says. “Listen to me a minute. I am trying to be sympathetic. I am. But I’m not paying you to stand out here and talk on the phone. If this job doesn’t fit into your schedule” — she swallows around her beating heart — “then maybe you should look for one that does.”
The tears spill over, sending streaks of mascara down Darla’s powdered cheeks. “Oh don’t say that. You know how much I depend on this job.”
“You depend on it,” Ann says, “and yet you don’t consistently do it. Your head isn’t in it.”
“That’s because I’ve got problems.”
“We’ve all got problems,” says Ann. The annoyance she feels at Theresa, annoyance she cannot articulate because her friend’s husband is dead and Ann is still several thousand dollars in debt to her, girds her. “Your actions seem to imply that your problems are more significant than everyone else’s.”
Darcy gets a defiant gleam in her eye, and Ann knows she is thinking of her children. She is one of those women who believe that being a mother trumps all else, who say things like, I was a completely selfish person until I had my babies and You don’t really finish growing up until you’re a parent. “I don’t believe that,” she says without conviction.
Ann starts counting out offenses on her fingers. “When you walk out of the kitchen to take a call — when you leave several times a week for some crisis at home — you suggest that you’re entitled to be paid by me for your personal time. You suggest it’s OK to leave Roger and everyone else here to pick up your slack. You suggest it’s unimportant if a customer paying a hundred bucks for a nice meal out has to wait an hour for soup that tastes of nothing but salt.” Ann is no longer anxious. It feels wonderful to say these things to Darcy, to watch Darcy’s laugh lines draw up around her pursed, trembling lips — a petulant expression of almost childlike entitlement.
“And what about you?” says Darcy hotly. “You weren’t here for prep. We weren’t sure what you wanted to do with all that trout. Why is it OK for you to leave us high and dry and not even call to say you’re going to be late?”
“Because I’m the boss!” Ann finds herself shouting. “Because it’s my ass on the line, not yours, if this place goes belly-up. If you had the faintest idea what a thread this thing is hanging on by…” But she has said too much. She can feel that the activity in the kitchen behind her has stopped — the staff isn’t even pretending now not to listen. She lowers her voice. “When you decide not to do what I’m paying you to do, I lose money. That’s your problem as well as mine, because if I lose too much money, this place shuts down. Then no one has a job. No one gets a paycheck. The time I’ve spent out here lecturing you has a price, and I swear to god, Darcy, I won’t pay it again.”
Darcy is crimson now, quaking with fury. “So am I fired?”
Ann sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Or maybe I should just quit,” Darcy says, not even realizing she’s playing a worthless card. If Darcy quits, she probably won’t be able to draw unemployment benefits off the restaurant. If Ann fires her, she almost certainly will.
Ann says a bit more loudly, so that the others can hear: “My intention wasn’t to fire you, but whether or not you quit is up to you. Do what you think you need to do.”
An expression of anguish passes over Darcy’s face. Here is a woman, Ann will think later, who is not supposed to feel pride — a woman who quit high school when she was sixteen and was arrested four years ago for meth possession. She has never, to Ann’s frustration, seemed as if she takes pleasure in the work of the restaurant, has never treated her job as anything but a means to a paycheck, as if the opportunity Ann gave her were no different than cashiering at Wal-Mart, or punching a timecard at a factory. Yet Darcy must have it, pride, because the anguish on her face is her struggle to hold on to what little of it she’s got, even if the cost is too high. If Ann were to make light of the situation now — “Oh, you’re not quitting, just get back in the kitchen” — she could perhaps salvage things in a way that would grant them both their dignity, make it alright for Darcy to return to her station with her head up.
Instead Ann says, “It’s your call.”
There’s a plea in Darcy’s wide eyes, but Ann waits her out. How easy it is, sometimes, to be unkind.
“Well, I quit, then,” Darcy says. She seems to have stunned herself.
“That’s too bad.” Only now that the standoff is over do her cheeks grow hot, her knees start to quiver. “I’m sorry it came to this.” She steps back so that she’s no longer blocking the door.
Darcy’s eyes are round, her mouth slightly open, and she freezes for a moment in front of the prep station — Ann has a split second to consider the magnetic strip at less than an arm’s length from Darcy, the one that holds Ann’s best set of chef’s knives. She remembers, in the next second, that her spurned employee has an arrest record. But Darcy simply looks around as if the kitchen has changed since she went outside for her smoke, and maybe the door to the bathroom has moved to the other side of the room, and the only way to get there is to walk on the ceiling. Then she rushes out of the kitchen all at once, not bothering to get her purse, and Ann, feeling the first jabbing fingers of guilt, says tiredly to Wiley, “Get her bag out there to her. She’s going to need her car keys.”
He shoots her an accusing look as he jogs out to the parking lot.
Roger claps a few times, then swings a dishrag over his shoulder. “Nice job, there. You could have at least waited until after dinner service.”
“I didn’t fire her,” Ann says. “She quit.”
“Sure she did.” He snorts and tosses the string beans he’s sautéing with an expert snap of the wrist. “You heard the boss,” he says loudly with a backwards glance at Jeremiah and Leigh. “Time is money, heads are rolling. Back to work.”
Amanda enters the kitchen, looking like an intruder with her black apron and slacks against the whiteness and stainless steel. She hands Ann a slip of paper. “It’s your friend’s order. I didn’t put it in MICROS because it was kind of complicated,” she says, all the while looking around, trying to size up the vibe among the cook staff so that she can be the first to report to the wait staff. “Darcy slammed the front door pretty hard going out,” she adds when no one else makes a move to speak. “Startled some of the customers, I think.”
“Darcy quit,” Ann says flatly. “She decided that the job was intruding too much on her personal life.” She waits for a sarcastic comment from Roger, but for once he stays silent.
She looks at Theresa’s order, which is neatly written in Amanda’s middle school bubble print. There are two starters — the arugula salad with fingerling garnish and an order of the cheese curd hushpuppies — and a Frankenstein main course that grabs a la carte from the entrée section of the menu: trout, side of cheese grits, braised broccoli rabe, said she’d also like just a taste (like half-dollar size) of the sweet potato soufflé.
This, finally, is what she knows, and it’s what she probably should have stuck to: tender, exacting preparations, a striving for flavor and pleasure and perfection. She is not of the warm-and-fuzzy “food is love” school. Her own grandmother was a fine country cook, known widely for her sweets (strawberry cake and coconut cake, blackberry fried pies, cinnamon rolls the size of the tires on Ann’s Big Wheel) but no less confident making scratch breads and jams, ham-stewed greens, pulled rabbit in a homemade barbecue sauce, a corn pudding recipe that Ann has altered only slightly and serves here at Misty Mountain — and yet she was also a dour, joyless woman, scrawny because she herself hardly ate, yellow-gray hair shoulder-length and held in place behind her ears with intersecting bobby pins. Her delicious meals were served with scorn, correction, and guilt: she would mutter about Ann or her sister Carrie’s weight while spooning a second helping onto their plates, explain to Ann’s father the ways in which he had been a selfish, ungrateful son. If Ann’s mother complimented Meemaw on the flavor of a dish, Meemaw explained why Ann’s mother never got her own attempts at cooking right. The family insisted, while Meemaw was still alive, that Ann drop not a hint to her about what her father called “the women,” which was his stumbling, reluctant way of acknowledging Ann’s preference for them, and so instead Meemaw bullied her about spinsterhood and an unfeminine interest in work, the thickness of her waist (“No man’ll ever have you until you lose ten pounds”). Then, to everyone’s relief, she finally died.
Ann assembles Theresa’s entree. The breaded rainbow trout she bypasses — it is OK, fine for the dinner service, but too heavy to be plated with the cheese grits, and so she zests a lemon into a pile of fresh herbs and garlic, runs her knife through the pile, and whisks the gremolata together with some good extra virgin olive oil and a little white wine before setting the fish under the broiler, her nostrils prickling pleasantly in the mist of citrus and sharp parsley. She hears, as if at a distance, Roger giving her kitchen staff orders. He is better at this, she knows. Not at the cooking — he can follow a set of instructions but not plan a menu, and he’d have no idea how to source the ingredients — but at the management of the kitchen, yes.
On the plate she mounds a generous spoonful of grits, the cheese giving them heft and shape, and alongside the grits a half-dozen stems of the lovely broccoli rabe, gnarled little heads flecked with trapezoids of guanciale. She lays the trout filet across the grits and dusts the rim of the plate with some leftover flecks of the parsley and zest. Nice — the harmony of the dish, the varying colors and textures and smells, calms her. Now a smaller plate. She sets a paper doily in its center, sprinkles a pinch of cumin on it, and sets down a soufflé ramekin, careful not to disturb the puff of reddish crust. The pleasure of eating a soufflé is mostly in that first moment of sliding your spoon into the crust, hearing the crackle of parting air bubbles and tugging the first bite from the moist, clinging center. To serve Theresa a spoonful would be like offering her a crème brulee sans brulee, or a chicken pot pie with filling but no biscuit topping. What would be the point?
She takes the food out to Theresa herself. Theresa, cheeks bright red and forehead dewy, is laughingly sharing her hushpuppies with the person seated next to her, a lanky, bronzed man, hair gloriously white, whom Ann recognizes immediately as the poetry professor at the nearby college. He comes here a half-dozen times a year with university guests; they spend generously on the English department’s corporate card, ordering several appetizers and bottles of wine, taking most of their entrees home in boxes. He is often at the bar alone on Friday evenings. He drinks two or three gin martinis, scribbling all the time into a little notebook, rises, and drives off in his Volvo. On this evening, though, he and Theresa are sipping from what appear to be matching drinks, both brown liquor, levels nearly the same, and Ann wonders if the poet’s drinks are going on the house, too.
“Dinner’s served,” Ann says, mustering cheerfulness. Theresa sits up straight in her chair and lifts her hands a little as Ann centers the plates in front of her, grinning like a child about to blow out birthday candles.
“Beautiful!” she says, clapping theatrically. “Bravo! My compliments to the chef!”
“You better taste it first,” Ann says.
She rakes her fork through the fish and the grits and pops the bite into her mouth. “Mm-hmm,” she says, chewing, already breaking the brown seal on the soufflé. She quickly swallows that bite, too. “What’s the flavoring in this? Five-spice?”
“Cumin,” Ann says.
“It’s good, whatever it is.” She suddenly flaps the hand with the fork in it, gesturing toward the poet. “Oh, goodness. My manners. Ann, this is Edward. Edward, my dear friend Ann.”
Edward offers her his hand with a quality that is both drunken and winningly rakish. “We’ve seen one another many times,” he says, “but never truly met. How do you do?”
“Well,” says Ann. His skin is cool and very dry.
“I love what you’ve done with the place. I love those little sorbets that come out sometimes before the entrée. Oh! And those little white spoons with the bits of beet and cheese. It’s entirely charming.”
“I’m so glad you like it,” Ann says, bristling a bit at that word again, charming. “I’ve certainly appreciated your business.”
“We’ve needed a civilized watering hole around here. My only complaint” — his lip curls sardonically — “is your wine list. It’s not terribly imaginative.”
Theresa jabs him with her elbow, as if they’re old buddies. “Edward!”
“Now, hear me out! I only say this because it’s clear Ann cares about refinement. She’s appealing to a certain clientele. But then she offers that clientele a bunch of chardonnay and cab, and there’s Robert Mondavi on the list, for God’s sake.”
“I appreciate that feedback. I do,” Ann says. She is furious. “I understand what you’re saying. But it’s complicated. I have to be able to sell at a certain price point, and that means selling at a certain volume. And I’m just not seeing the demand around here.”
“Oh, there’s demand,” Edward says. “Trust me. I’ll make you a list sometime. Beautiful vintages, stuff that would sell itself. I could help you do the pairings.”
“You could have a tasting menu night!” Theresa says excitedly.
Ann smiles, stiff. “I’ll give it some thought. I study our sales pretty closely, and I think I have a sense by now of what works for this place and what doesn’t, but I’ll give it some thought.”
“You must never be afraid of excellence,” Edward says.
“You should put that in a poem,” says Theresa.
* * *
It’s a bad night. A few meals come back with complaints. In one case Ann pulls a flaccid piece of fried fish off its bed of Hoppin’ John — the breading is sodden with cold oil — and flings it angrily onto the stainless steel worktop, biting back a string of expletives. If she hadn’t already fired Darcy tonight (well, allowed Darcy quit) she would let loose on Roger, but she knows that the kitchen can only handle so many dressings-down before there is a crisis. Everyone is on edge. Everyone is making mistakes. Just a bad night, she keeps telling herself, and it is true that this one is worse than usual, but by how much?
At one point she thinks of going to Theresa and asking her to help out. Ann could put Theresa on the grill, or she could pull in one of the waiters, someone sharp and capable like Lance, and get Theresa, who could serve in her sleep, to cover his tables. But Theresa has not stopped drinking, has not stopped putting her and the poet’s whiskeys on the house tab, and Ann wonders if her problem will soon be not the wait times or the inconsistent food but the middle-aged couple at the bar who keeps dissolving into fits of uproarious laughter. Or — worse — if she’ll look up soon and see that her friend has left, that she has gone off in the poet’s Volvo. And so Ann puts her head down, stops stealing glances out the pass-through. She works for two and a half hours solid without pause for breath, without a drink of water, and finally the orders popping up on MICROS start to dwindle, and she has time between tasks to register her utter exhaustion. To top it all off, she has almost certainly lost money tonight, between the comps and the sent-back meals.
At eleven, when the wait staff is divvying up tips and Amanda is standing in the kitchen doorway, trying to mouth a question across the room to Leigh — tapping her wrist, exaggeratingly shrugging her shoulders — Ann sighs, wipes her face with a rag, and says, “Just take off. Make sure the perishables are put away first.”
“All of us?” Wiley asks.
They rush to saran wrap trays, cap jugs of cream. Jeremiah pours the kettle of soup impatiently into a plastic container and spills at least a quart’s worth, then casts an alarmed look at Ann. “I’ll take care of it,” she says. “Go on. Get out of here.”
Roger stays behind without comment, and they clean for another hour, Ann running the sprayer until her forearms and the backs of her hands are boiled looking and tender. “What about those briskets?” Roger asks. “We’re going to have to get them in a marinade if you want to smoke them tomorrow.”
“I’ll do it before I go.”
He unwinds his apron straps from around his slim hips. “All right, then.” He goes to the sink to wash his hands, lathering to the elbow as if he’s about to perform surgery.
“You think I did the wrong thing by Darcy,” Ann blurts out, surprising herself.
“I could give a shit about right and wrong by Darcy.” He is wringing his hands dry with a dishtowel. “You hired a junkie. Then you act like your heart’s broke when she ain’t reliable. What did you expect?”
“I wanted to give her a chance to make something of herself.”
“You wanted,” Roger said, “to be sainted.”
“Oh, really. Oh, that’s rich.” She pulls an extra large steam pan out from the cabinet and goes to the pantry for spices and a bottle of red wine, then to the refrigerator for Dijon mustard and a fistful of thyme. She slams the door without meaning to.
“And then you didn’t even have the stones to fire her. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s your business. Do what you want. But if you wonder why you don’t get any respect around here, stuff like that’s the reason.” He says this as though he’s not even making an accusation, or telling her something she doesn’t already know. He says this as though it’s common knowledge.
“You think I don’t get any respect around here.” She feels as though the breath has been knocked out of her.
He shakes his head and smirks, plucking a cigarette from a softpack and sticking it in the corner of his mouth. “Can I go now? Or do you want me helping with the briskets?”
“What if I were to fire you?” Ann asks. “You act like you want me to. Do you?”
“I don’t,” Roger said. “I don’t mind telling that to you straight. I need the job. But if you don’t like my attitude, well, you just better go on and fire me, because this is what you get. You’re sure not going to trick me into quitting.”
It is like Darcy again, except Ann is the one playing the worthless card. She can’t fire him. He knows it. She left her job and mortgaged her life to follow a dream, and now she is chained to this unrecognizable bastardization of that dream, and the only difference between Roger and the jerks she was trying to flee at City Kitchen is that she has to cut him a paycheck twice a month.
“Just leave,” she manages to say.
“And come back tomorrow?”
“You know you’re coming back tomorrow,” she says. “What do you want from me? A formal invitation? You want the job, you come back. You don’t, you can go fuck yourself.” She flings a spoonful of stone-ground mustard into the bath of red wine and proceeds to decimate it with a whisk. Roger is gone by the time she stops to catch her breath.
The marinating goes quickly, in no small part (she has to admit) because Roger managed at some point in the day to trim up the three briskets. It is one-thirty when Ann washes her hands a final time and hangs her chef’s coat on the hook, and she is so certain that Theresa left with the poet that she is startled to find her still sitting at the bar. Theresa’s head is tilted into her palm, fingers raked through her streaked hair, eyes drooping to slits. She is running the middle finger of her other hand around the rim of a tall glass of water, and she smiles, closed-mouthed, when Ann emerges from the kitchen.
“Hey, there, sweetie,” she says.
“I’m sorry it’s so late.” Ann goes to the computer behind the bar to check the close-out report. “I had an employee walk out. It was a rough dinner service.” She glances up. “You could have gotten a ride when the staff left. Or some other way.”
Theresa’s eyes narrow. “What other way?”
“You know,” Ann says. She unlocks the safe and removes the vinyl BB&T envelope, which she’ll have to run by the bank in the morning. “With the poet.”
Theresa’s face, ruddy already from the evening’s drinks, gets redder. “I’m surprised you’d have thought me capable of that.”
“I don’t know what to think,” Ann says. “I’ve seen you drink more tonight than I’ve seen you have in the entire time I’ve known you. And the two of you” — she shrugs. “You seemed to be getting along.”
“I get along with plenty of people. It doesn’t mean I sleep with them.”
Her pique affects Ann, makes her sorry, though she’s still skeptical. She pats Theresa’s forearm. “Forgive me. I’m dog tired. I haven’t eaten since this morning. And I’m probably just jealous, for that matter. I don’t have any love life to speak of.”
Theresa softens. “I warned you about moving to the boonies.”
Ann shrugs again.
“You haven’t eaten since this morning? That’s my fault, isn’t it.”
“I could have eaten in the afternoon. I just didn’t.” The finer truth is that she had waited at first, thinking Theresa might yet show, and then she was so churned up with irritation that she lost her appetite, or told herself she had. She had slung the bag of croissants into the refrigerator next to the containers of lobster salad and fruit, muttering, stomach growling. She realizes now that this is the moment she has been waiting for all day, ever since the clock ticked past two with no word from Theresa: for Theresa to notice her suffering, and accept some blame for it. How small of her. How pathetic.
“The fact is,” Ann says, “I’ve been spending a lot of today feeling sorry for myself. And that’s no one’s fault but mine.” She swallows hard and blinks against the rising ache in her sinuses. “Oh, fuck. Fuck, Tee. I think I’m going to lose my business.”
“Is that real talk,” Theresa asks gently, “or Chicken Little talk? What are we dealing with here? Defaulting on the loan?”
“Not yet,” Ann says. “Close. A couple of slow weeks, and it could happen.”
“Close is nothing,” Theresa says. “You can’t lose sleep over close in this business. You know that as well as I do.”
“I am doing everything in my power to hold on to a life I hate. I still owe you money. I owe my parents. I owe Jill, and that’s almost funny, you know, considering.” She almost never says Jill’s name aloud. She tries not to even think it. “I work twelve hours a day most days. Sometimes more. I dream all night that I’m at the restaurant. I am in this up to my eyeballs, and I don’t even know why anymore.”
“Oh, Ann,” Theresa says. “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were this unhappy.”
“You’ve had more important things to worry about.” She flushes with embarrassment. “God, I can’t believe I’m carrying on like this. Letting you comfort me.”
“It’s a relief to do the comforting for a change.”
“I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.” It’s a cliché, stiff and formal, but it’s true enough. She hasn’t been able to find the words yet to express this — her sympathy, her dazed inadequacy at acknowledging, much less understanding, the depth of her friend’s grief.
“Well, it’s been hard, of course,” Theresa says. “Of course it has. It’s been hard with Wesley. And I don’t know that I’m cut for single motherhood. I feel” — she drinks some of her water. “I feel too old to have a 12-year-old but too young to just dress all in black and give up. I loved Phil. You know that as well as anybody.” She stops.
“I do know,” Ann says.
“But when the first shock of it was over, and the funeral, and when I’d gone back to work full-time and could walk into a room without people getting that look in their eyes — you know. It was months. And one night I was in bed, not sleeping, and that was normal — I haven’t slept a night through since Phil died—but I was thinking that maybe my life was starting again. My mind raced all night. I thought, maybe I’ll go on a first date again. Maybe I’ll have sex again. I wasn’t glad Phil was gone, but I wasn’t sorry to be alive. Is that bad?”
“No,” Ann says. “Of course it’s not.”
“I’m not sorry to be alive. You shouldn’t be, either.”
Ann exhales sharply, a half-laugh. “I don’t guess I’m sorry. Maybe I’m just afraid of excellence.”
Theresa snorts. “What a line, huh?”
“I thought you fell for it,” Ann says.
“I did.” She slides off the barstool and pulls her hair back with a rubber band. “I fall for all kinds of things these days. It’s more fun than falling for nothing.” She pats the barstool she vacated. “Now. You come over here. Sit.”
“Just sit,” Theresa says sharply, and so Ann comes around the bar and does, feeling immediately the warmth of the polished wood through the seat of her slacks. She hasn’t been on this side of the bar, just sitting, since right before opening the restaurant, when she had gone excitedly from one vantage point in the dining room to another, making sure that there was something pleasing to meet the eye in every direction. How fun that had been, catering to theoretical customers rather than real ones.
“What are you having?” Theresa asks.
A little surge of annoyance rises up in Ann again — she has never liked the feeling of surrendering to another person’s ministries — but she takes a deep breath, exhales. She decides she’s going to let herself be happy. “You can pour me what’s left of that bottle of Robert Mondavi.”
Theresa does and sets the glass neatly on a napkin. Ann places her fingers on either side of the stem and makes little circles with the glass, swirling the wine. She lifts and sniffs, sips. “Excellent,” she says.
“OK,” Theresa tells her. “I’ll be right back.”
Ann nurses the wine very slowly, feeling the day’s tension trickle from her neck into her lower back, down her legs, into the numb bottoms of her feet, then away. She can hear Theresa moving around in her kitchen, opening cabinets, shifting around pans with a metallic rattle. In a few minutes there’s the sizzling roar of meat hitting a hot skillet, that grand announcement of coming pleasure, and the smell that wafts over to her at the bar is rich, slightly burnt. Red meat. Theresa is making her a hamburger.
She serves it to Ann with cheddar cheese, bacon, and pickles, and a side of home fries, the potatoes raw in some places, burnt to a crisp in others. They are salty and delicious. The burger, too, is seared black on one side but rare in the center, and Ann douses it generously with ketchup. The bun is soft with grease and steam. The bacon crackles between her molars. Ann is, for the moment, not sorry to be in this business, not sorry about her life, and she reaches across the bar to grab her friend’s hand and squeeze it.
“You’re welcome,” Theresa says.