Mama always hummed during the rush hours.
At lunch time, everything was busy, but we were happy for it. I even heard some people say she was the best cook in all of New Orleans.
I sat on the floor in the corner of the kitchen, cross-legged and coloring.
"Yolanda! Yolanda, where you at, child?!"
I dropped my colors and jumped to my feet, my dress swishing around my knees. "Over here, Mama! What do ya need me for?!"
Mama turned the corner and found me. Her apron was dusted with flour.
She grinned. "It's the biggest crowd I ever seen yet! You think you can help me?"
I returned her grin and nodded eagerly. "Yes, ma’am!" I drawled. "Is it bigger than the best restaurant in the world?"
"Well, Honey, not quite, but you help out a little and maybe it will be." Frowning, she grabbed the ends of the ribbon around my bun with her large hands. "Oh, you look a sight, child. I can't send you out looking like a ragamuffin."
I stood still and let her fix my hair, and then hurriedly ran to Amanda, one of our waitresses, and said mama wanted me to help.
She nodded. "Alright, if she says so." She handed me a glass of sweet tea from her tray and pointed towards the first table. "Deliver that and come right back." I nodded and started to leave, both hands firmly clasped around the glass, when she added, "And mind your manners, girl!"
I nodded, eyes focused on the tea. It felt as if my very life hung in the balances of fate here. I wanted to be a waitress so bad, but mama always said I was too young. If I could pass this moment, she would see how big I was now!
I placed one foot in front of the other, the warm lighting from the windows illuminating a pathway in the floor tiles for me.
I made it! I made it to the table! I was so excited and my heart raced in my chest.
I raised my ebony arms to the big man sitting in the chair. "Here's your--" I paused. What did Amanda say again? Oh! "Your sweet tea, Sir!" Just as I stepped forward to hand it to him, I tripped over my own foot.
The tea flew through the air, and I cried out as I watched the sunlight shine through the tea, and then it tumbled all over him and completely ruined his nice, white suit.
Mama never let me wear white to eat in. Who let him wear white?!
He jumped up angrily and threw the empty glass of tea on the floor. His dark face twisted in anger. "Why, you little--I oughtta--Oh, you know what I'm gonna do?! I bet they did this on purpose--sending a little brat to--" His words turned to angry mumblings as I stumbled backwards in fear.
"I'm awful sorry, Mister. Really I am!"
Mama's voice sounded from behind me. "Oh, Landa! What'd you do, Child?!"
I jumped and turned to face her.
She was holding a plate of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes in one hand, and her other was in a fist against her hip.
"Mr. James, I am sincerely apologetic," she said firmly. "It was my fault. I shouldn't have sent her as your waitress."
I sniffed as a tear began to burn in my eye.
All I wanted to do was show mama I could work just as well as she could, and now look a the mess I’d made.
Mr. James threw the tea-soaked napkin at me and I grabbed it just before it hit my face.
"You're right. It is your fault." He squared his shoulders back. "My newspaper will hear about every detail. You understand me?!"
Mama stood taller at that and raised her black eyebrows. "Alright then, let them! My customers are loyal, Mr. James. Always have been, always will be! I said I's sorry, and I meant it. But she's a child, and it was just an accident."
He tugged on his suit jacket and turned to leave. "You better pray they are."
The next day, the whole restaurant was still buzzing with life, but this time, there was something uneasy in the air.
Amanda said I was as clueless as a kitten in a pastry shop, but even I felt the unease as I sat there on the floor, coloring.
Mama stormed into the kitchen and slapped a newspaper on the table.
“Look at this!” she exclaimed angrily. “Oh, that man! He’s tryin’ to ruin my business!” She raked a hand through her brown bun and stopped when her fingers reached the bun. “What are we going to do?! This’ll ruin us!”
I dropped my crayon and stood up.
What did the paper say that was so bad?
Amanda picked up the paper and read through it for a moment. Her eyes bugged. “Listen to this, everyone! It says, ‘3rd of April, 1953. Mama’s Fixin’s is the kind of place I wouldn’t bring my dog to. The prices are high, the tables are greasy, and the whole place is understaffed. I am horrified to report that I even saw them using small children to work in the kitchens, and I doubt they’re paid.’ Why, the nerve of him! Writin’ about us that way! Oh, Mrs. Rose, whatever are we gonna do?! He wrote even more—and it’s worse.”
Mama sighed heavily. “It’ll be alright. Enough people eat here that they’ll know he’s lying.”
I swallowed, shame burning my cheeks. This was all my fault.
The kitchen staff returned to work, but I couldn’t force myself to return to my coloring book. Not after hearing all the awful things he’d said about us.
How could he be so mean?
I glanced out the window and sighed, watching the birds flit from tree-to-tree.
Mama’s familiar hand rested on my shoulder. “I want you to know this wasn’t your fault, okay, Landa? Amanda should have known better than to let you take a glass of tea. I should have known better, too.”
I started crying and buried my face in her dress, wrapping my arms around her. “I’m so sorry, Mama. I just wanted you to be proud of me. I wanted to work with you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I know, baby. I know.”
A crowd that was half the size of our usual crowd came to eat the next day, and the day after that, it cut in half again.
By the end of the week, no one was coming.
Mama sat at one of the tables, her face in her hand as she stared out the window.
I slowly walked up to her, fidgeting with my hands. “Mama?” I asked hesitantly.
She glanced over at me, her cheek still in her hand. “Yeah, baby?”
I swallowed. “Maybe if I went and apologized. . .”
She picked her head up. “Nuh uh. You ain’t apologizing for nothing. It’s all that nasty man’s fault, not yours. Some folks just never know how to take things proper.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but closed it. Arguing wouldn’t get me anywhere. “Yes, ma’am.”
I turned and went back to my coloring at the empty table across from her.
No, arguing wouldn’t help. If I was going to fix the lack of customers, there was just one thing I could do.
Later that night, while mama was sleeping, I dug through our refrigerator and found a whole pecan pie from that afternoon, as well as some steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. I knew it was really yummy, because I had helped make the gravy myself.
I wrapped all of this up in a wicker basket and hurried out the back door.
The sky was dark, but not dark enough for the stars to shine bright. The lights of the city rarely allowed that.
I knew Mr. James’ newspaper print was just down the street, so it wouldn’t take me long. I waited for the cars to pass and then darted across the road, the basket in my hand.
The lights of his shop was still on. I knew they would be, but I was a tiny bit afraid they weren't.
I swallowed and opened the door. The bell rang above my head, drawing the attention of the secretary.
She glanced up from a stack of papers. “Hello?” Her eyes were above my head, and when she didn’t see anyone, she looked down and noticed me. She laughed. “Oh! Who are you?”
I stepped forward nervously. “I’m. . . a friend of Mr. . . uh, you see, a friend of Mr. James. . . and I brought him some food so he wouldn’t get hungry while working.”
Alarm bells were going off in my head. I shouldn’t have come here. I should have stayed home! Why did I ever decide to do this?!
She smiled warmly. “I’m afraid he’s a little bit busy, but I’m sure he’ll have time to see a sweet thing like you! Follow me.”
She stood up and we walked down the wooden hallway, the light fixtures above us showing us the way.
I could hear printing machines whirring in the background. I knew what they were because Mama had put an advertisement in the papers years ago for our restaurant.
She opened the door to an office, and I found Mr. James reading over one of his own papers.
He glanced up and raised an eyebrow. “What is it?” he asked his secretary.
She nodded her head towards me. “I think you have a visitor, Sir.”
He stood, which made him seem so much bigger than me.
“What do you want, girl?” he asked gruffly.
“I brought you some food, Mister.” I held the basket up.
He looked down at it. “And why ain’t you in bed?!” He sounded angry, but he moved out from behind the desk and took the basket.
His eyes widened at the pie inside. “It’s probably poisoned,” he mumbled, but he took a bite, anyway. “Mmm. Hey, this is pretty good.” He took another bite. “You know, this is the best pie I ever ate?” He squinted at me. “What’s the secret?”
“Dark corn syrup, Sir,” I said quietly, scratching my heel with my other shoe. “Thank you.”
He stopped eating. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” His eyes widened. “Wait, you’re the brat who threw tea all over me.” He chuckled. “Maybe that pie was poisoned after all.”
I shook my head vigorously. “No, Sir. I would never!”
He chuckled again and finished the last bite of pie. “Alright then, if you didn’t come here to poison me, why are you here?”
I swallowed. “To apologize, Sir. I didn’t mean to pour tea on you—I tripped!”
He considered it for a moment, and then after peering inside the basket I brought, he glanced down at me. “Alright, you’re forgiven!” He laughed. “If all your ma’s cooking is this good, I’ll even write a nice review for her myself!”
I grinned. “Really?! Oh, thank you, Sir! Thank you ever so much!”
He waved a hand. “Alright, now go on and get. Little girls shouldn’t be out past their bedtime, anyway.”
I nodded anxiously, and taking my basket, left.
I was able to color again the next morning.
There still weren’t any customers yet, but by the next day, the place was overflowing with them! I’d never, ever seen so many at once in all my born days of living.
“Amanda, look at this! It’s a miracle! I don’t know what happened, but God must’ve sent an angel in the middle of the night to knock some sense into that man!” Mama declared.
“Yes, ma’am!” she replied, grinning as she read the newspaper. “Listen to this bit, y’all!” She deepened her naturally squeaky voice to sound like Mr. James, and then read, "’Mama’s Fixin’s is the best restaurant in all of New Orleans. Why, I must admit, I’d grow more than a little lumpy around the edges if I was to be around her pecan pie for too long. If you’re looking for some good, southern, home-style soul food, I recommend Mama’s Fixin’s.’"
Mama hummed again that day—in fact, I think we all did.