Read an Excerpt
LIP SMACKIN’ DELICIOUS flickers in red neon above the diner’s door.
Salivating addicts are crammed in the entryway and spilling onto the sidewalk, all vying for their Blue Plate Special fix. The chalkboard menu posted behind the register says today’s offering is the James Beard—a dish dripping with enough cholesterol to clog even the healthiest arteries. Served all day and only seven dollars.
I elbow my way through the horde, careful not to maim someone’s toe with my stiletto. The air inside feels as heavy as sausage gravy, and smells of it, too. The sounds of my childhood surround me: forks clanking against plates, snippets of conversations, and a Bob Seger tune blasting from the Wurlitzer jukebox.
Scanning the crowd, I search for the familiar mop of black hair that belongs to my father. All I can see are shiny bald heads, gray hair, and baseball caps as they line the stainless steel counter, obstructing my view of the kitchen. But I know my father is there. I can hear his boisterous laugh booming over the noise.
Turner’s Greasy Spoons is my father’s pride and joy, his existence. He’s been running the joint for the past twenty-five years. The regulars have dubbed him Old Man Jack. Right now, he’s on my to-die-painfully-by-butter-knife list.
Weaving around tables, past servers carrying pitchers and balancing dishes, I spot my father standing over the flat-top grill, flushed and grimy from oil splatters. He wipes his forehead with his sleeve. I march toward him, and when he notices me, a grin spreads across his face.
“Folks, Lillie Claire Turner, the best damn cook in Dallas and my only child, has arrived,” he says, gesturing at me with a metal spatula.
Swiveling around on stools, patrons nod and tip their hats.
“Your only child wants to know why you’re not in emergency surgery,” I shout as my father disappears from view. A beat later he steps out from the kitchen and meets me behind the counter, wrapping me in a hug. I inhale the scent of hash browns and coffee. I pull away. In my five-year absence, he’s aged tenfold—deep creases around his mouth, salt-and-pepper hair, tired hazel eyes, lanky build.
“I went to the hospital and the house, and this is where I find you?” I try to quell the frustration and anger sweeping through me.
He furrows his brow. “Course it is. The surgery isn’t happening for another three weeks.”
I shake my head. “You’re unbelievable.” Fishing my cell phone out of my suit pocket, I put his voice message on speaker.
“Hey, baby girl, I don’t want to worry you, but I’m here at the doctor’s office. I’ve been feeling run down lately and my bum knee’s been giving me trouble again. Anyway, he’s saying I need surgery . . . Ah, Doc’s back with the paperwork for the hospital. I gotta go.”
“See,” he says. “I never said it was scheduled for today.”
I huff in exasperation. “I called you seven times, Dad. Seven times without an answer.”
“I got busy with the breakfast rush,” he says, then shrugs at me, as if this whole thing is a simple misunderstanding. I have a brief, out-of-body moment where I see this crazy-haired, wild-eyed woman about to kill her father.
“You scared me,” I say, recalling my dash through O’Hare, the restless flight to Dallas, my panicked drive around town to locate him. “You made it sound like this was an emergency.”
A bell rings and plates appear in the kitchen window. My father trays the order. “Well, listen, I’m sorry about that, but I told you not to worry.”
I throw my hands up as a fresh wave of anger swells inside me. “You mentioned hospital paperwork, and then you didn’t pick up your phone. How could I not envision the worst?”
“Easy there, baby girl. Calm down. It’s just a simple operation to fix me up,” he says, tapping his kneecap with his knuckles.
“So it’s not even serious?” I ask.
“Doc says after some intensive therapy, I’ll be shining brighter than a freshly minted penny. Now let me look at you.” My father clutches my arms. “You’re skinny as a green bean. Don’t people eat where you live? And why are you dressed like one of those stuffy lawyers on Law & Order?”
“Because I was at work prepping for an important meeting,” I say, my voice rising. At this very moment, I should be on the thirty-eighth floor of the United Building, overlooking the Chicago River, presenting to the executive board of Kingsbury Enterprises about their product launch. I’m the senior consultant on the account, the success of which determines if I make partner. “I dropped everything to be here, and you’re acting as if I’m the irrational one.”
“You don’t belong in that job anyway. It’s about time you came home. Five years in that frozen tundra is long enough. Now, how about some real food? No more of that bird crap you’ve been eating.” He winks, and his lips curve up into a bright smile.
The fire burning inside me dies, replaced with exhaustion, and I slump against the counter. “I’m not hungry.”
“Sure you are.” My father pops his head into the kitchen window and speaks to Ernie, his right-hand man and short-order cook. “Can you plate up a James Beard for Lillie?”
“Coming right up, boss.”
“Make sure you add extra syrup and bacon.”
I cross my arms. “Dad, no. I—”
“You love this stuff.” He pats my wrist.
“I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“I know that. But you’re never too old for tradition,” he says, pointing at the wall on the far side of the diner.
Intermixed among rusted diner signs—with phrases like If you’re smoking in here, you better be on fire; Unattended children will be towed at owner’s expense; and Jack Turner’s diet plate: half the food, half the calories, full price—are candid photographs from years past and framed high school newspaper columns written by yours truly.
Most normal parents tape their children’s accomplishments to the refrigerator. Not my father. No, he creates menu items about them. Like today’s Blue Plate Special, for instance. Inspired by my first column for The Bagpipe about legendary food pioneer James Beard’s famous quote, “I’ve long said that if I were about to be executed and were given a choice of my last meal, it would be bacon and eggs,” the special consists of three strips of bacon piled atop eggs scrambled with cheddar cheese and fresh vegetables, all drizzled with Vermont maple syrup.
The column was part of a monthly feature called “The Yummy,” which focused on simple, delicious foods. Of course, I wrote those columns back when I cared about things like developing the perfect hush puppy recipe or discovering the key ingredient that made a pasta dish unforgettable. Back before I outgrew the diner and cooking altogether.
Ernie rings the bell and places a steaming dish in the window. The scent of hickory smoked bacon tickles my nose, and my stomach rumbles. Traitor.
Before I can protest, the plate is on the counter in front of me and a fork is in my hand. “Dig in,” my father says.
I stare at him, refusing to cave.
My stomach rumbles louder. Bacon has always been my kryptonite. I’ve never been able to resist the mesmerizing sound of it sizzling in the skillet, the way its intoxicating down-home aroma wafts through the air, how the succulent flavors of juicy fat and crispy meat explode on the tongue.
“Go on,” my father says. “I know it’s your favorite.”
My mouth waters until I can’t handle it anymore. I take a bite. My eyes flutter shut and a moan slips from my lips. Double traitor. Somewhere around my fourth strip of pork heaven, I faintly recall my promise to eat no more than one.
“Slow down. Nobody’s going to snatch it from you,” my father says. “Heck, when you’re in charge, you can sneak as much bacon as you want.”
Freezing midbite, I look at him. “What?”
“You’re taking over the Spoons.”
His words hit me like a sucker-punch pie in the face. Usually I can sense when my father’s about to hurl one my way—trickery and unwelcome surprises have been his standard operating procedure for getting his way since I learned to crack an egg on the edge of a mixing bowl—but I guess I’m out of practice because I never saw this one coming.
Once upon a time, the diner was as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. I said my first word, “cookie,” crawling across the stainless steel counters. Lost my first tooth when I tripped and collided face-first with the walk-in pantry door. Solved my first fraction while measuring ingredients for a boysenberry crumble.
As a little girl, I gravitated toward the diner’s kitchen, basking in the sweet and savory smells swirling around me. For hours I’d sit on the prep counter watching my father chop, dice, and slice, mesmerized by the careful cadence of the knife. As I got older, my life became food—experimenting with it, creating it, indulging in it—and a deep-seated passion for forming something with the palms of my own hands took root.
But that’s my past, a past I duct-taped in a memento box hidden underneath my childhood bed five years and a lifetime ago.
The fork slips from my hand and clatters on the counter. I push the plate aside. “Are you delusional? I’m not managing the diner.”
“Yes, you are.” My father says it so matter-of-fact I almost believe him.
“No, I’m not,” I say, anger building inside me again.
He steals my last strip of bacon and eats it. “Doc says with my surgery I’ll be out of commission for a long while, so you can’t expect me to run things while I recover.”
“You can’t expect me to do that either,” I say through gritted teeth, thinking I really will kill him with a butter knife.
My father pretends he doesn’t hear me, rambling on as if this was always the plan. “You can spruce up the joint a bit if you want. Do some small renovations. But keep the red booths and the checkerboard tile. The jukebox is a classic, so don’t even think about getting rid of it. Though I suppose you could paint the walls a different color and replace the counters. Maybe order some new neon signs. The kitchen could use a new icebox—”
Pressing my eyes shut, I breathe in deep and count backward from ten. “I’m not moving back to Dallas. My career, my life, is in Chicago,” I say, thinking about how far I’ve come.
When I first arrived in the city, heartbroken, scared, and alone, I took a thankless position as a receptionist in a dentist’s office to pay the rent and studied for the business school entrance exam at night. After two years of grueling coursework and a massive amount of debt, I graduated with an MBA at the top of my class from Northwestern, landed a job at White, Ogden, and Morris—the best consulting firm in the area—and worked my way up from a lowly analyst. Now I’m the youngest senior consultant being considered for partner, assuming I haven’t ruined my chances.
But I won’t let that happen. I love my job: the satisfaction of winning a new client, the excitement of finding the missing puzzle piece to a complex problem, the thrill of closing a deal—it gives me a rush.
“My daughter shouldn’t be living in a place with a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series in over a century. Those Cubs look more like a bunch of high schoolers, if you ask me.”
“I’m happy there, Dad.”
My father twists his mouth so that the whiskers of his mustache touch his nose like he does when he disapproves of something. He grabs the coffeepot and walks down the line, refilling people’s cups.
Trailing behind him, I continue, “I love that it has four true seasons and deep-dish pizza and Oprah. I love the fog that rolls off Lake Michigan, its crystal-blue waters, and the fact that I’m minutes away from Oak Street Beach. I love how the river turns green on St. Patrick’s Day and that the city’s residents are unpretentious people who never sugarcoat their words with fake southern politeness and ‘bless your hearts.’ ”
True, with my career taking off the way it has, I don’t experience these things as much as I’d like, but I still love them on principle.
“Nonsense. Nothing’s better than Texas. We even got the best state fair and Tex-Mex in America to prove it. Ain’t that right, folks?” my father says to the patrons at the counter. They nod and murmur their agreement between bites of greasy burgers and slow-cooked pot roast.
I step in front of him. “Drew is in Chicago.”
Frowning, my father returns the coffeepot to the burner and tosses a dishtowel over his shoulder. “You’re still with that boy? I told you he ain’t right for you.” He always says this. My father thinks I belong with someone who’s not a blue-tie-wearing, Wall Street Journal–reading, Cubs-cheering accountant. Someone more like Nick—my first love, the man who shattered my heart, and one of the driving forces behind why I left Dallas. But my father only remembers Nick as the vibrant, passionate boy I fell in love with as a little girl, and not the bitter, angry man he’s become.
Besides, my father hasn’t even met Drew. He doesn’t see the way he complements me. He doesn’t understand that we prefer to spend fifteen minutes shuffling through stacks of delivery menus, contemplating our dinner options, promising to one day stock our fridge with something other than bottled water and yogurt, rather than prepare a home-cooked meal. Or how our idea of a fun Saturday afternoon is sitting on the couch working on our laptops with work documents scattered around us and the History Channel on in the background.
“Yes. You know we’re still together,” I say. What my father isn’t aware of is “that boy” recently proposed and I accepted. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I haven’t been in the mood to listen to my father’s grumblings. I will tell him, just not right now when I want to strangle him.
My father crosses his arms. “Well, I get what you’re saying about . . . all that, but since you’re already here, you should reacquaint yourself with how we do things at the Spoons. Three weeks will be here sooner than you realize.”
“Dad,” I say, softening my tone. I move closer to him so that maybe he’ll see me—really see me—and finally grasp that I can’t do what he wants. “Please don’t ask me to do this. This place isn’t me anymore. You have Ernie, and I’m sure there are plenty of people around town who would love to help out while you recover. All you—”
He quiets me with a look—the one I received countless times as a child—that indicates if I don’t shut my mouth, I’ll be on permanent potato-peeling duty. I remember one time in high school when he put me on potato-peeling duty for a week because I came home six minutes after curfew. At thirty, I’m still scared of that look.
“The Spoons has been in our family since before you were born. I’m not trusting it to anyone else but flesh and blood. You’re still a Turner, even if you live in a different zip code.”
The firmness in his voice, his insistence, sets off an alarm in my head, and an uneasy feeling settles in my stomach. “There’s more happening here than what you’re telling me,” I say, now certain that whatever is really going on is the real reason he called me this morning and why he wants me to manage the diner. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure what you’re referrin’ to, baby girl. I’m having surgery in three weeks and need you here to run things. Simple as that,” he says, but I don’t believe him. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that my father is a vault of secrets. Whatever his true motivations, he won’t share them until he’s good and ready.
“I’ll work from Dallas until your surgery”—or at least until I find out what you’re hiding—“but that’s it.”
“We’ll see,” he says, then picks up another James Beard special from the window. I notice the slight limp in his stride as he delivers the dish to a little girl in pigtails spinning around and around on a stool taller than her. Maybe it is just his knee, and this whole thing is some convoluted way of bringing me home permanently.
Around me, the life of the diner goes on as usual. People crowd the doorway. Servers hurry by, carrying pitchers of sweet tea and delivering orders. Several patrons lounge in booths, rubbing their stomachs as clean plates sit discarded in front of them.
My gaze drifts to the dent in the counter where I banged a rolling pin after messing up a piecrust. I spot the doodles I scribbled on the wall in the prep area. The tile grout under my feet is stained from when I spilled beet juice.
When I refocus my attention, my father’s prattling on about how folks have been begging for my recipes. “Just the other day Gertrude Firestone commented how she misses your four-napkin Sloppy Joes,” he says, straightening a pair of salt and pepper shakers. “And none of the regulars like my version of your mother’s peach cobbler as much as yours.”
My heart drops to my stomach as anger rises up. It happens anytime my mother is mentioned. Someday I’ll stop being surprised by it.
I have few memories of my mother, each one fragmented and fuzzy, as if I’m seeing them through a glass Coke bottle. I recall skin that smelled like honeysuckle, the soft swish of her apron, and long, graceful legs gliding about the kitchen.
I used to miss her in a bone-deep aching kind of way. When I was younger, I’d imagine what her voice sounded like. Soft and gentle as a whisper? Or maybe bright and lyrical with hints of mischief. Either way, I’d pretend I could hear it in my head, keeping me company, guiding me. “That one looks delicious,” her voice would say, as I flipped through the pages of a cookbook. “Or maybe try the recipe with the clementines instead.” No matter the task, her voice followed.
At night, in the silence, I’d curl up in my twin bed and wish she were there next to me, combing her fingers through my hair and humming pretty sounds until I drifted off into dreams. It was easier than wondering what I’d done wrong to make her disappear all those years ago and never return.
But as I got older I realized I couldn’t miss someone I didn’t remember.
“Time to prep for the dinner rush,” my father says, ripping me from my thoughts. “Go get washed up. There’s an apron for you in the back room. The carrots need chopping.”
My chest tightens. Only my father can make me feel like everything I’ve worked so hard for is slipping away. I squeeze my eyes shut and force deep, steadying breaths into my lungs.
“You coming, baby girl?” my father calls over his shoulder on his way to the kitchen.
He expects me to follow. I don’t. I can’t. I may have been raised in this place, but that doesn’t mean I belong here now. Instead I make a beeline for the exit, careful not to knock into anyone or anything on my way outside. I don’t want to add another mark. I’ve already left too many.