Zoe Stavros pulled her battered 2008 Honda Civic into the employees lot of the Starshine Diner. It was a lovely autumn day with a hint of a breeze, but she was too preoccupied to notice. She observed, with frustration, that the customers’ section was nearly empty. She sighed, climbed out, grabbing her purse, and dashed toward the front entrance. In the foyer, she took a deep breath and opened the door.
Inside, as expected, she found the Starshine’s large dining room nearly empty. Ornate crystal chandeliers, red vinyl booths, and art deco jukeboxes at each table created a welcoming atmosphere. Zoe’s father, Nicos Stavros, had lovingly preserved the quaint fifties décor down to the last detail. So why are our customers abandoning us in droves?
Marlene, the spectacled cashier, leaned on her podium, swiping at her cell screen. Two young waitresses, Kiara, and Francine, sat at the long, empty counter, listlessly wrapping silverware into red napkins. Zoe checked out the clientele—only one of the ten booths and two of the counter stools were occupied.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” Zoe called out. She planted her hands on her hips. “This place is a morgue.”
Marlene slipped her phone into her pocket and glanced up. Kiara shrugged. “It’s been dead all day. Even the breakfast rush wasn’t much of a rush.”
“Lunch wasn’t bad,” Francine put in. “A few more customers than yesterday.”
Three middle-aged men in business suits rose from the back booth and ambled toward the plump cashier. The first one smiled at Zoe as they passed her. “Good afternoon, Miss Stavros. Where is everybody this afternoon?”
Marlene spoke up. “You just missed the mayor and some of his pals.” The man extended his check and a credit card. Marlene rang up the bill and they wandered out.
“Let’s hope the dinner crowd is better.” Zoe checked her appearance in the mirror above the counter. Her thick auburn hair was pulled into a low pony tail. With only a touch of red on full lips, her natural coloring was vivid—large dark eyes, well-shaped eyebrows, and olive complexion. Her appearance had inspired Nathan Siderman, one of her oldest regulars, to give her the nickname Gilda for her resemblance to his favorite actress, Rita Hayworth. She tied on her apron, and sighed. “Six months ago, this place would have been crowded all afternoon. Teenagers, workmen, mothers with toddler filling the booths.”
“You mean six months ago before the Modern Majestic’s grand opening?” Marlene scowled. “Before they lured our customers across town with their specials, free balloons, and group discounts?”
“Also no dead bodies by the dumpsters.” Kiera, leaned her elbows on the counter. “That incident sure didn’t help Starshine’s reputation.” She was a pretty young woman with hazel eyes and an elaborate hairstyle, who enjoyed making outrageous statements.
“Wait a minute!” Francine looked startled. She was a newcomer to Caulfield who had been hired eight months ago. “Are you serious? A body by the dumpsters? How come I never heard about that?”
“That incident occurred over three years ago.” Zoe blew out a long breath. “As it turned out, there was no connection to the Starshine.”
“And it didn’t cause us to lose any customers,” Marlene said. “I think it was actually good for business.”
Zoe shook her head. “I wouldn’t say that. But lately even customers who’ve been coming here since my grandfather’s time are deserting us. If something doesn’t change, Papa says we may have to declare bankruptcy.”
Kiera and Francine both turned toward Zoe in alarm. Kiera raised her eyebrows. “Really? Bankruptcy? Is it that bad?”
“That’s what he said last night.” Zoe shrugged. “I’ve looked over the books and I think he’s over-reacting. Ever since his heart attack he gets stressed too easily.”
“He came out of his office a few moments ago, looking pretty upset,” Marlene glanced around and continued in a loud whisper. “He spoke with Darieos for nearly ten minutes.”
“Probably just consulting on the menu.” Zoe said. “I’m hoping I can turn things around. Convince him I can handle things. We need to bring our numbers back up.”
“Well, you’re the manager,” Francine said. “What do you suggest?”
Kiera nodded. “You’re the one who comes up with great ideas.”
“As a matter of fact,“ Zoe leaned forward on the counter, “I do have an idea I’ve been mulling over for a week or so.”
“What did you come up with?” Marlene moved closer to listen.
“You know how proud Papa is of his fifties style.” Zoe gestured toward a wall of framed photos of period icons—James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne. “I suggested we might celebrate that. Play up the differences between us and the Modern Majestic.”
“How would we do that?” Marlene asked.
“By staging—drum roll please—a fifties style extravaganza!”
“A fifties style extravaganza? Kiera wrinkled her nose. “Like what? A costume party?”
“Something like that,” Zoe said. “I haven’t thought it through yet.”
“I still have a poodle skirt I wore last Halloween.” Francine grinned. “It was my mother’s. I put my hair in a ponytail and tied a kerchief around my neck.”
“There’s a box of old waitress uniforms in one of the closets.” Zoe pointed toward the hallway. “We could haul those out and wear them. But I was thinking more like a week-long celebration, ending with a fifties-style theatrical show.”
“Here in the diner?” Kiara grinned. “Wow! Cool! How do we get performers?”
“We could hold auditions—for musicians, singers, dancers. Some specialty acts—like that Elvis impersonator who does local parties. Maybe even charge fifties prices for the week.”
“Your dad would be cool with that?” Kiara pushed the tray of silverware aside. “How could he afford it? I mean, didn’t they charge like ten cents for a hamburger back in the day?”
“That could tempt lots of our regulars to come back,” Marlene removed her glasses, wiped them with a napkin, and replaced them. “Even bring in some new ones.”
“Well, maybe not for the whole week. We could have a sort of lottery to decide who wins a free dinner or something.” Zoe shrugged. “I’m just throwing out ideas at this point. I’m open for suggestions. If you come up with anything else I’d love to hear it.”
The front door bell jingled and a local work crew straggled in. Six men, in stained overalls, settled in a front booth. Zoe smiled. “Well, everybody hasn’t deserted us. You two take care of them while I talk to Papa.”
Kiara picked up a stack of large, laminated menus and hurried over. Francine slid off the stool and lifted the tray of wrapped utensils. “Maybe we’ll actually have a dinner rush. I hope Darieos can handle it alone. He sent both of his line cooks home.”
“Darieos should be pleased.” Marlene returned to her position at the podium. “He’s been growling at us all morning. You know he’s not happy unless he’s juggling ten or twelve orders.”
Darieos, head chef, had ruled the kitchen since the days when Zoe’s grandfather had owned the diner. Zoe considered him something of a throwback, and loved him much like a cantankerous uncle. When the diner was busy, he waved his spatula like a weapon, barking at line cooks and servers alike. When it was not, he retreated into a sulky gloom.
Like Nicos, Darieos took pride in upholding Starshine’s traditional style. He even demanded his staff use classic diner lingo, the jargon he’d taught Zoe when she was a girl. He appeared, bone thin and bald, at the window, white paper hat tipped at a jaunty angle, to observe the influx of customers.
That evening when Zoe’s best friend, Laura Bisset, sauntered in, Zoe greeted her with a hug. Laura perched on a seat at the counter and Zoe placed a cup of her favorite cappuccino before her. Laura was not exactly a beauty, but her grace and style attracted attention. Tonight she wore a pale blue blouse, a turquoise necklace, slim jeans, and her signature stilettos.
Zoe poured herself a cup of coffee and sat beside her friend. Laura, an interior decorator and the owner of a local antique shop, had a flair for creativity. “I want to consult with you about my latest brainstorm.”
“Do tell.” Laura sipped delicately at her cappuccino while Zoe explained her idea.
Laura clapped her hands. “You know I love a challenge. Let’s put our heads together to develop a plan.
Two weeks later, Zoe and Laura held court at the rear table of the Starshine dining room, interviewing actors, musicians, dancers, and several Elvis impersonator who had responded to their flyers, seeking talent for a variety show. They assessed applicants, nodding approval as one by one, artists presented resumes and head shots.
Zoe didn’t find it too surprising that the local talent was plentiful and varied. After all, she, a hometown girl, had made her own foray into the theater world. At twenty, she’d been an aspiring actress, pursuing her dream in Manhattan. At twenty-six, she was already disillusioned by endless auditions and rejections when her brief marriage ended with the tragic death of her husband in Afghanistan. With her five-year-old daughter, Selene, Zoe had retreated to her parents’ home in blue collar suburban Caulfield, New Jersey. At loose ends, she’d discovered that she enjoyed working at the family-owned diner helping her father, while her mother Cosima, cared for her little daughter.
As the last potential act, a trio of young musicians, exited, Zoe breathed out a long sigh. Laura stood and stretched. “Are you satisfied with the contenders?”
“Satisfied and impressed.” Zoe closed her folder. “But there’s still someone else Papa wants us to see.”
“Who’s that?” Laura asked.
“You know her very well, my cousin Alexis.” Zoe said.
“Oh, yes, of course. She’s very talented. But isn’t she in that Off Broadway showcase we saw last month? In Manhattan? Why would she show up for a small gig like this?”
“Her Off-Broadway showcase closed and she’s temporarily out of work,” Zoe said. “She might be happy to show off her talents to her hometown fans. Plus, she’d do anything for Papa.”
“So why don’t you sound more enthused?” Laura resumed her seat next to Zoe. “She is pretty amazing—a fabulous actress, singer, and dancer. We’d be lucky to get her.”
“I know. I know. And you know I love Alexis. But you have to admit she’s a drama queen. Very high maintenance.”
“True. Lots of problems she creates herself.” Laura picked up the head shots and shuffled through them. “She’s a lot younger than most of our prospective talent.”
“Maybe it’s just that she is young.” Zoe rolled her eyes. “But wherever she is you can count on some flare up—a roommate battle, a lovers triangle. I don’t know if I can handle directing this production and also managing Alexis.”
“You know she looks up to you,” Laura said. “You’re the one she turns to for advice about a new romance or tragic breakup.”
“It’s easier when she’s calling from Manhattan. It will be harder with her here interacting with a whole cast and crew.” Zoe sighed. “But Papa absolutely adores her. She’s always had him wrapped around her little finger.” Zoe took out her phone and scrolled through her contacts.
Laura raised her dark eyebrows. “Are you sure you want to call her?”
“Oh, I have to. Papa wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t.”
At that moment the front bell jingled, the door burst open, and a young woman strolled into the dining room. She was accompanied by a tall, handsome man, also in his twenties. They hurried toward the back table. Alexis called out, “Hello Zoe! Hello Laura! Are we too late to sign up for the auditions?”
Zoe burst into laughter. “Speak of the devil. I was about to call you. Papa hoped you’d be interested in our plans.” She stood up and opened her arms.
“Who are you calling a devil?” Alexis hugged Zoe and kissed her on both cheeks. “Uncle Nicos called me last night.” Then she indicated the young man beside her. “This is Johnny LaMotte. Johnny, meet my favorite cousin. And my honorary godmother, Laura Bisset.”
Johnny, tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, had a casual manner, a slow smile, and as Zoe discovered, a firm handshake. His gaze traveled from Zoe to Alexis and back again. “It’s easy to see you two are related. Alexis could be your younger sister.”
People had been saying that since Alexis was a toddler. They both had the same thick auburn mane, large brown eyes, and olive complexions. Alexis, however, was perfectly groomed and expertly made up, while Zoe, at the end of a long work day, was rather disheveled.
Johnny slid an arm around his companion and pulled her close. “I’m sure you know you’re Alexi’s role model. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Alexis chuckled and kissed Johnny’s cheek. “I told you so.” She turned back to Zoe. “Johnny’s an actor, too. We met at an audition for Guys and Dolls. He’s a better dancer than me.” She grinned up at him. “And he sings too.”
Laura handed two forms to Alexis. “Fill these out, and choose your audition slot.”
Alexis looked surprised. “I have to audition?”
“Just a formality,” Zoe assured her. “I’m sure you’ll be the main act.”
“Let’s do it right now.” Johnny took Alexis’s hand and led her to an empty booth. They settled close together to fill out the audition forms.
“He looks awfully familiar,” Laura whispered. “I wonder if I’ve seen him on TV.”
“Maybe he just looks like someone famous,” Zoe said. “A young George Clooney. In any case, if he sings and dances as well as Alexis, we’ll draw quite a crowd.”