The brightly sunlit restaurant, Zoe’s Soul Food Kitchen, was buzzing with patrons eating, talking, and laughing. The restaurant offered home-cooked soul food – ribs, chicken, greens, black-eyed peas, potato salad, catfish, and much more. Her specialty: sweet potato pie.
The restaurant was located in an eclectic area of the city. It sat on the corner, next to an art gallery and bookstore. The building had been empty for about a year before Zoe was finally able to lease it. The I was more home-style than trendy. The tables were covered in lacy white tablecloths. She said they reminded her of her grandmother’s table. The chairs were brown with black leather. She’d decided on 20 tabletops. She would have added more, but the dining room was already a little crowded.
“Damn girl, how we supposed to walk to our table?” Chloe said, standing in the dining room. “It’s too crowded, you gotta scale back a little. You know Black girls got those wide asses, and no one wants ass rubbing up against them when one of the big ass girls is trying to get to their table.”
Zoe had an image of a woman trying to get through the dining room, her ass knocking over plates and cups. So, she scaled back to 15 tabletops.
On the walls were several soul food canvas prints. Zoe didn’t know who the artists were; she only knew she wanted the restaurant to have a certain vibe. There was a picture of a woman wearing an Aunt Jemima-style do-rag, holding a bushel of collard greens. She had of pictures of jazz singers – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. She’d installed a surround sound system and played jazz music in the dining room. The large windows allowed the sun to shine in and showered natural light into the building.
Zoe loved her dining room, but the kitchen was her place of worship. It was her temple. Three large ovens, 10 top burners, 4 large sinks, and 2 large walk-in refrigerators, a large dishwasher and rinsing sink. The entire kitchen was stainless steel. She would spend all her time in the kitchen if she could. She would wipe down the stainless steel until it shined. The day she signed the lease, she blessed the kitchen and dining room with sage. She knew Chloe would make fun of her, so she did it alone.
Opening the restaurant had been more difficult than she imagined. She’d managed to save enough money to lease the restaurant space for a year, but she didn’t anticipate the high cost of food, supplies, and employees. She didn’t want to take a loan from a bank, and honestly, she didn’t think they would approve her. One thing about Zoe, she is resourceful. Because she’d already leased the space, she had to make it work. She started out just selling plates of food to go, blocking off half the dining room and selling plates from the front of the restaurant. She left 3 tables open so people could sit while waiting for their food. You could order your food and wait, but there was no dining in service.
Actually, Tallulah had come up with an idea. They were sitting in the empty dining room when she came up with it. “Why don’t you just block off the dining room and do a to-go style thing? You don’t need any wait staff, maybe just a person to take orders and ring up the sale.
You’re the chef, so that’s covered, then hire a helper to prep. Maybe do disposable dishes so you don’t have to worry about washing and stuff. I read an article somewhere where a restaurant did this and it worked.”
Zoe thought Tallulah was a fucking genius. She hugged her and ran with the idea. She’d never met someone who spent so much time reading and writing, but she was smart. Not street smart like Chloe, but a more polished, analytical smart.
The first day she tried the to-go service, they were overwhelmed with business. She hired a cook and cashier, and the business grew. After about 6 months, she was able to open the dining room. She hired Tallulah as a part-time waitress; she knew she was struggling financially working for Michael’s paper, and she needed the help.
Tallulah usually worked the lunch shift. The aroma of homecooked soul food filled the air. “Do you have my order yet?” she asked as she quickly made 3 house salads.
“Yep, coming up, T. Hey, I thought you said you were taking the day off?” Zoe said as she passed her the 3 plates of ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese.
“I know. But who can afford the luxury of taking days off? I need the money. I also have a deadline.”
“Don’t all artists starve before they make it?” Zoe asked jokingly.
“Who’s starving? I have all the sweet potato pie I can eat!” Tallulah smiled and grabbed her order.
When Tallulah finished her journalism degree, she thought the job offers would pour in, but they didn’t. She loved working for Michael and his small paper, but the pay wasn’t that great, and it was getting tough to make ends meet. She reluctantly took the waitressing job to help pay some bills. It was easy for the most part, and it was something she could do part-time. Besides, she got free meals when she worked.
Tallulah grabbed her order and delivered the food to her 3 customers. She then asked them if they needed anything else.
“Could we get some hot sauce?” the pudgy woman replied.
Tallulah smiled, quickly returned to the kitchen, grabbed the hot sauce, and promptly returned it to the table. She then smiled and walked back to the kitchen. Zoe was directing her staff on various tasks. She was a champion in the kitchen; it was her true calling.
She walked over to Tallulah. “You got a deadline?”
Tallulah nodded her head while munching on a piece of Zoe’s famous sweet potato pie. “Yes. Michael will kill me if I’m late again.”
“Oh, he loves you. Take him some pie. He loves my pie. Besides, you’re his best writer, T,” Zoe said.
“I’ve been applying for other positions. I haven’t told Michael yet.” Tallulah felt guilty as if she was cheating on him.
Zoe smiled at her. “I’m sure if you found something, he would understand.”
“I’ve sent out so many job inquiries, Zoe. I’m tired. I’m getting desperate. I’ve applied everywhere. Why is this so hard for me? What’s wrong with me?” she asked.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You’ll find something,” Zoe replied.
Tallulah put down the pie. “I have a degree in journalism, and I’m a part-time waitress…no offense.”
Zoe smiled. “None taken.”
A sudden crash in the kitchen took away Zoe’s attention, and she was off again, giving direction and managing her staff.
“This is my life?” Tallulah said out loud as she turned and walked out of the kitchen. A few hours later, she was sitting at her small desk at the Big World office.
Big World was the small independent newspaper Michael owned. It was his dream. She was proud of him. He always said would have his own paper, and now he did. He’d taken a small inheritance he got from his grandfather and started Big World 5 years ago. He immediately gave her a job, and she’d been with him from the beginning.
Michael liked the idea of being independent. The office was small. The main room had enough space for 5 desks and chairs. He’d found them at an office liquidation sale. They were old, but they did the trick. He didn’t worry about I and didn’t have pictures on the bare white walls. On each desk was an old 1980s office style phone. He didn’t want to pay for cell phones and thought they gave the small office a vintage style look.
“Vintage? Tallulah said. “It’s called cheap.”
She loved working for Michael. He’d given her free rein on her topics and story choices most of the time. She would write about things she found interesting. It was the perfect job, but it didn’t pay well.
About a year ago, Michael had cut her pay. The whole ordeal seemed to hurt him more than her. He’d taken her to dinner and broke the news. She knew he’d tried not to, but with the rising cost of print and advertisers using more social media, he had no other choice. Some of the staff left, but she stayed. The staff had dwindled from 10 to 5. Besides Tallulah, Michael had 2 other writers and an office person to help with other tasks. Sometimes he would contribute an article, but he spent most of his time finding advertisers and designing the layout. He wanted to be a weekly paper, but due to the cost of printing, he settled on monthly.
The latest issue was released two days ago. Michael had given Tallulah the cover story, Women and Power. It had been his idea. He thought it would be good for the paper to write about more topics in the headlines daily.
He knew she didn’t want to write the article. She’d pitched a story on the increasing homeless population.
“Michael, haven’t you noticed the increase of homeless people lately? There was talk of building a new shelter, but it’s gotten very quiet lately. Don’t you think that’s worth investigating?” she said one afternoon while playing a competitive game of chess.
Michael shook his head. “Sure, but not this edition. I think we should focus on what’s hot, and women, power, sexual harassment or assault are hot topics. We have so many angles on this topic, Tallulah. Work with me, please,” he said while moving his queen into checkmate position.
She reluctantly agreed. “Okay, fine. I’ll write the article. But next time, I want to write about what I want to write about...agreed?” She extended her hand. Michael gave her a little smirk and shook her hand. She then moved her king and said, “Checkmate.”
Michael hurriedly walked over to her desk and held up the latest issue of BW. “Your story looks great. I told you it would create some buzz. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing.” As he sat on her desk so she’d have to speak to him, the desk made a series of creaking noises.
“Well, isn’t that what you were going for?” she answered, not looking up.
“It is a good thing,” he said. “The advertisers like the idea of more people reading the paper, and you know how I love advertisers.” He smiled. She didn’t look up at him. “Did you bring me something?” he asked, sounding impatient.
“I already pitched you my next story,” she replied.
He looked at her and frowned. “That’s not what I mean.”
She thought for a moment, then reached into her backpack and pulled out a Styrofoam container, “How could I forget? Your pie.”
Michael offered her a large grin and happily took the container. “I love the days you work for Zoe. Her pie is sooo good.”
Tallulah pulled out a notebook and laptop and placed them on the desk. “How is Zoe?” Michael asked.
She looked up at him. “She’s good,” she replied in a nonchalant tone.
“That’s good,” he said, hoping for more information.
“Ah, you wanna give me a little room?”
She motioned for him to move off her desk. He stood up but didn’t move. He watched as she opened her laptop and started to type.
He continued to make conversation. “The restaurant must be doing good business,” he said, waiting for a reply. After a few moments of silence, he spoke again. “Well, I mean, she hired you, so that’s a good sign, right? I mean…”
She stopped typing and looked up at him. “Zoe’s fine, Michael. No, she isn’t seeing anyone. Any other questions?” she asked impatiently. She immediately saw the hurt look on his face and felt guilty. “Michael, why don’t you just ask her out?” she said. “It’s not like she’s a stranger. I don’t get it. She’s right around the corner. Go in there for lunch or dinner.”
Michael didn’t answer. He’d wanted to ask her out, but he just didn’t have the courage. He’d thrown himself into his paper and rarely came up for air.
He met Zoe 5 years ago when she was roommates with Tallulah. Zoe was easygoing, funny, smart and beautiful. Michael would often make excuses to call Tallulah, hoping Zoe would be nearby. He’d then insert her into the conversation and always ask about her. He finally decided to accept an invite from Tallulah to a party. They didn’t attend the same school, but he was willing to make the two-hour drive.
He was nervous. He was still socially awkward and spent most of his time either in his dorm room, the library, or the office of his college newspaper. He’d spend most of his time in his room, until his roommate, David, set up a lucrative business short-selling tests, term papers, theses, and other assignments as needed out of their dorm room. The room always had traffic. Michael complained, but David offered him 40% of the take, so he eventually agreed.
He parked his VW bug in front of a large white house. He could hear the bass vibrating against the windows as he turned off the ignition. He could see people on the porch. He checked his reflection in the mirror and rubbed his tongue along his straight white teeth; his braces had been gone for 6 months. He pushed his fingers through his hair, smiled at himself in the rearview mirror, and opened the car door.
When Michael arrived inside the house, he was in a sea of people. He waded his way through the crowd, hoping to find an open area. He made his way to the kitchen and leaned up against the sink. He looked around but didn’t see Tallulah.
A girl staggered up to him and handed him a cup. “Hold this,” she slurred and vomited into the sink.
Michael, looking disgusted, put down the cup and moved to two large glass doors. He could see Tallulah standing near a table with two girls and decided they must be Zoe and Chloe; he knew who they were from Tallulah’s colorful descriptions on the phone.
“My two roommates are cool,” she would say, “Chloe and Zoe.”
He laughed. “Are they twins?”
“No. Chloe is crazy. She’s got no filter. What comes into that head, comes out of her mouth. Zoe is relaxed. She meditates, chants does yoga. They’re total opposites.”
Chloe was the first to spot Michael. “Who’s the fine ass Asian walkin’ this way?”
Tallulah turned around. “Michael!” She ran over to him and hugged him. Zoe and Chloe watched.
“Did she say she was datin’ a fine ass Asian dude? This bitch got secrets,” Chloe said.
As Tallulah led Michael over to them, she was smiling. “Michael, this is Chloe and Zoe. Ladies, this is Michael.”
Michael smiled. “Hey, ladies,” he said in his sexiest voice. He’d been practicing on the drive down.
“Heyyyy,” Chloe and Zoe said in unison. “T didn’t tell us she was dating yo fine ass,” Chloe said.
Tallulah felt herself blush a little. “We’re not dating. We’ve known one another since high school. I thought it would be nice for him to come out,” she replied.
Michael nodded his head. Zoe hadn’t taken her eyes off Michael. She could feel herself staring and finally said, “You look thirsty.” Everyone looked at her. “Not thirsty thirsty; you know, drink thirsty…parched, dry mouth…”
Chloe laughed. “Bitch, you thirsty, too.”
Michael smiled. “A beer would be nice.”
A moment of silence passed until Chloe nudged Zoe. “Oh, well, come on. I’ll show you where the beer is,” Zoe said as she motioned for Michael to follow her.
Tallulah watched them walked away. “I think someone likes Zoe,” she said, giggling. Chloe watched for a moment. “Hmmmm. Like I said, that bitch thirsty.”
* * *
Michael continued to stand at Tallulah’s desk as she continued to type. She could feel his eyes on her, and she looked up and saw him grinning at her.
“What is it, Michael? I didn’t bring more pie.”
Michael slowly closed the laptop. “I really need to speak with you.” She gave him a disappointed look, and he immediately understood her thoughts. “No, it’s not about Zoe. It’s about you and your future here with me.”
Tallulah was caught off guard. “My future?” she said. “What do you mean, my future?”
He looked around the office and saw his assistant, Clara, sitting two desks over from them on the phone. “Come into my office.”
Tallulah followed Michael into his office. It was small and cramped. He had stacks and stacks of past editions of Big World against all four walls. His desk was small, another secondhand find, and there was just enough room for two other chairs, 3 bookshelves stacked high with past editions of Big World, a personal computer, printer, phone, and lamp.
“You really need to clean this place,” she remarked.
Michael sat down in his chair. His face was serious. “Have a seat,” he said, motioning for her to sit.
Tallulah looked at him and sat. She was getting an uneasy feeling. “What is it, Michael?”
The last time he said “Come into my office”, it was to tell her she couldn’t have the cover story.
The time before that was to ask her to dinner to let her know he was cutting her pay.
“Are you cutting my pay again, Michael? You know I work for peanuts as it is. The only reason I stay is for you. Working two jobs is hard enough,” she said with a huff and waited for him to respond.
Michael paused a moment and said, “No, I’m not cutting your pay.” He stopped for a moment. His face turned serious. “I’ve been dealing with rising costs with the printer. I may have to cut back a little.”
“Cut back? What do you mean?” She looked at him.
“I’m not sure what that means, to be honest,” he said. “The paper isn’t doing well. People aren’t reading the paper anymore. Everyone is on some kind of device.”
Tallulah studied his face. “Well, then go digital,” she said.
“Well, that’s what I was thinking. We go online, maybe develop an app or something. I dunno. I’m still working it out in my head. I just wanted you to know. Please don’t say anything, okay?”
She nodded her head. “I’m sorry, Michael. I know you really wanted this. I know you like the feel of paper. I do, too.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m always playing a game of chess with my life. This move or that move.
I’m exhausted.” As he leaned back into the chair, the wheels made a squeaking sound.
They sat in silence for several moments, then Tallulah slowly stood up. “I’ve got some research to do for the homeless story. You okay?”
He nodded his head. “Yeah, I’m good.”
She walked back to her desk, looked at her laptop, and noticed she had a few new emails. She clicked on the email subject, “Thank you for submitting” then read:
Dear Ms. Brock,
Thank you for your interest in Wow! Magazine. We have reviewed your writing samples, and although you have talent, we are looking for someone with more magazine experience. Good luck in your job search.
Tallulah sighed heavily and deleted the message.