The Rice Bowl

Submitted into Contest #141 in response to: Set your story in the lowest rated restaurant in town.... view prompt

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Asian American Christian Fiction

Carla put her elbows on the counter and rested her head in her hands. She blew out a breath and hoped no one was around to see her frustration. Or her desperation. She knew no one would see, because only she and the children were still in the restaurant. Yang Li, her chef, and Sun Yin, her waitress, had gone home for the evening. She’d had to let the other staff go, so it was just the three of them running the place now. With The Rice Bowl gaining a reputation as the worst restaurant in town, there wasn’t enough business to support the fifteen staff she’d had only a month ago. She wiped sweat from her brow and glanced over at her two children playing dominoes on the table.

“Come on kids, it’s time to go. Get your coats on.” Her children did as they were told and she shut the lights off and locked the door of her restaurant behind her. Snow had been falling steadily since noon and now, at 8 in the evening, the streets were covered in a thick blanket of icy glitter. It was a short walk to their apartment-about five minutes, and it was well lit, so Carla wasn’t worried. Once at her apartment, she unlocked the door and ushered her children inside. She’d taken a break an hour earlier to come home and turn the heat up so the place would be warm when they arrived. During the day, she turned the heat down to make the bills easier to manage. Since Stephen had died this past summer from the car accident, everything had fallen on her. And the weight of it was crushing her.

She had the children, six year old Joshua and four year old Hannah change into their pajamas and brush their teeth. She checked Stephen’s homework one last time and said a quick prayer before she ushered them off to bed. Once they were safely tucked in their beds, she went back downstairs and fought the urge to pour herself a glass of wine. Once in a while, a drink was fine, but the way she’d taken to it lately wasn’t healthy. She figured she’d better slow down now before her taste for strong drink overtook her and left her children neglected. So instead of collapsing on the couch with a glass of her usual red wine, she sank into the sofa with a cup of mint tea and opened her Bible. She rarely had time to read it lately, but she felt the strong urge to open it up tonight. She’d become even more desperate lately and it showed. She needed someone to talk to, and she couldn’t talk to her children about her troubles. She barely had any friends and those who were her friends didn’t have the energy to take on her problems. So, she might as well talk to God and see if He had anything to say to her.

She read Psalm 23, an old favorite of hers that she didn’t even have to read anymore-she’d memorized it long ago. At the end of the Psalm, she put her hands in her face and wept. Her Chinese restaurant had gone from one of the best in Boston to one of the worst. She’d barely had any customers this week and the few that were there didn’t order much. Not many left promising reviews online. Her husband Stephen had been the chef, but after the accident, she’d struggled to find a replacement who could actually cook the food her customers had always loved. Many of her customers had gone to other Chinese restaurants with better food and cheaper prices. The ones that stayed didn’t come by as often as they used to, and she knew they were stopping by mostly out of pity for her and fondness for her family. If the pattern of losing customers continued, she didn’t know what she’d do. She’d have to sell the restaurant and find a job somewhere else.

“No,” she whispered into her hands. “I will not let Stephen’s dreams be ruined.” It had always been his dream to open an authentic Chinese restaurant where people would love to gather with their families. He wanted to cook traditional Chinese food they’d both grown up eating. He dreamed of being able to support himself and his family without a lucrative boss looming over him. His parents had immigrated when he was six and sacrificed a lot to get him the skills he needed to own and operate a restaurant. He’d even gone to culinary school, which had taken his parents lots of sleepless nights working and even some missed meals. Of course, Stephen helped them out by working two jobs to pay for his culinary education, but they’d still gone without many things. Then, finally, at 27, he’d opened his restaurant and become the chef. Six months later, after much success, he proposed to Carla. They married eight months later and a year after that, they’d been blessed with Joshua. Since running the restaurant, Stephen was the happiest Carla had ever seen him. Sure, the first few months were tense because he was worried about not making it, but once he learned he was successful, he’d become the happiest man alive. He had a wife, a career, beautiful children. He’d become the success of the family. His parent’s and his hard work had finally paid off. And he’d died too young to even make it to the ten year anniversary of opening the restaurant.

Carla wiped her eyes and shook her head. “I will not let go of the restaurant. I just need to find a new chef and get the place running again.” She blew out a breath, finished her tea and climbed the stairs. She showered, changed into her pajamas, and brushed through her hair. Stephen used to love to brush her long black hair. To run his fingers through the length of it. He’d always said he didn’t know how her hair was so soft and silky. She’d felt so loved and cared for as he brushed her hair and gently massaged the back of her neck. Tears sprung in her eyes again and as soon as the tangles were out of her hair, she all but threw the brush onto her nightstand. She turned out the light, climbed underneath the covers and cried herself to sleep, feeling more alone than she had since her beloved husband died.

The next day, right at 11 when the restaurant opened, she prepared to tell Yang Li he had to be let go. He was the sweetest man and he tried his best, but his food just wasn’t up to par with what the customers wanted. And it wasn’t anything Stephen would have served from his kitchen. But before she had the chance to bring it up, he gave his notice.

“I’m not making enough money, Carla. I don’t want to leave you, but I have to. I can barely pay the bills right now, and my children need me.” She sighed and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I understand, Yang Li. You’ve been very good to us and always put in a hard day’s work. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you find a new job soon.” She gave him a $50 check as a parting gift, and he thanked her sincerely. He asked her to gently explain things to her children for him, and then he left. Once he drove out of the parking lot, she posted flyers for a new chef all around the little shopping center that the restaurant was located in. She even put up a flyer on her door before she left that morning. She would do the cooking until she could find a chef, but she didn’t know how long she could keep that up.

Her children were sad to learn that Yang Li had gotten another job, which is what she had told them to avoid admitting that he had quit. However, they were optimistic that she would find another chef soon. “And until you do, we can help you mom. I can carry the drink pitcher and fill customer’s glasses.” Joshua offered.

“Yes, mommy, and I can make sure every person has a napkin and a spoon.” Hannah added in. She pulled her children close and kissed their cheeks.

“You’re so sweet. I know you’ll help me and you’ll do a wonderful job. God will send us a new chef soon, I’m sure.” After spending another two hours without any customers, she decided to close up early. The parking lot of the shopping center was mostly empty, anyway. Her children looked confused at the early closing time, but they didn’t question it. They walked to the grocery store that was within the same shopping center and grabbed the familiar items. She ended up spending less than her allotted $75 dollars. She shot up a prayer of thanks to God for the small amount of money she had left over.

Later, after dinner, baths, and a bedtime story, she and the children prayed together. She and Stephen had made a habit of family prayers every night, but since his passing, it hadn’t happened every night. She knew he wouldn’t like that, and she figured God didn’t either, so she’d attempt to start it up again.

“Dear God, I want to thank you for today. Thank you that you woke us up, and that the kids had a good day at school. Thank you for the customers you sent over to the restaurant. I want to ask that you give us a new chef soon, so we can get more people to come. Please continue to take care of us and keep us safe.”

“Dear God, thank you for keeping us safe today. Thank you for letting me find that frog at recess. Mrs. Spencer didn’t like it, and the girls didn’t either, but I thought it was nice of you to let me find that frog. And thank you for helping me with math. I don’t like math, but you help it seem easier. Please keep the frog safe, and don’t let Mrs. Spencer throw it in the dumpster when we’re not looking.” Carla had to stifle a laugh mixed with shock at her son’s concern for his frog friend. Hannah’s prayer nearly stopped her heart from beating.

“Dear God, thank you for the rainbow today. It was really pretty. Thank you for our food. Thank you for the pretty flower that Michael gave me. He’s my boyfriend. I like flowers, and I really, really like the pink flower I gots today. Help mommy find a new cook. Help mommy not be sad. And please, please give me and Joshie a new daddy.” Carla couldn’t speak for a minute. Her pause was so long that Joshua opened one eye and looked at her, confused by her silence. All she could manage was an “Amen” to let them know the prayer was over. She tucked her children into bed and turned out their light. She practically ran into her bedroom and muffled her sobbed into her pillow so her children couldn’t hear. No one could replace her Stephen, no one. But her children needed a father figure. She felt she needed a husband, but she knew it was too soon. She couldn’t even think of looking at another man. Not yet. As much as she longed to be held by someone, to feel safe in the grasp of strong arms, the mere thought of her married to another made her nauseous. “Dear, dear God, please comfort my children. Please help me be the best mother I can for them. I need your strength. I can’t do this alone. Please, help me. I need a chef. I need a friend. I need…a husband. Please God, please.” Even though it was early, those were the last words she mumbled before exhaustion overtook her sleep claimed her.

Over the next month, she cooked at the restaurant, made some deliveries, and managed to visit her parents a few times, all while keeping up with her children. At the end of February, she noticed a new neighbor moving into the apartment beside her. After he had officially moved in, he knocked on her door one morning and introduced himself. She’d been walking to the door to get her children to the bus stop when he knocked.

“Good morning, Ma’am.”

“Good morning, Sir. May I help you?” She asked as she helped Hannah zip her coat.

“I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Evan Moral, I just moved into the apartment beside you.” She straightened and he held out his hand. She took it and instantly noticed his firm but gentle grasp.

“Carla Chan, it’s nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine.” He released her hand, bent down to eye level with her children and asked, “and who are these cozy looking penguins?” Hannah covered her mouth and giggled.

“We’re not penguins! We’re just kids. We have puffy coats on!”

“Oh, yes, it’s the puffy coats that made you look like penguins! Silly me!” Carla smiled.

“These are my children, Joshua and Hannah. We were just walking to the bus stop at the end of the walkway.” She gestured to about 100 feet in front of them, off to the right near the road.

“Then please excuse me, I don’t want to keep you.”

“Why don’t you walk with us? It’s just a short ways.” He nodded and gestured for Carla and the children to lead the way. They walked ahead of her and she and Evan walked behind, side by side.

“I noticed you just moved in. Do you like the neighborhood so far?”

“Yes, so far it seems really nice. It’s generally quiet, which I like.”

“Where did you move from?”

“Philadelphia. A very busy city. Too many crowds for me.” He wrinkled his nose and Carla smiled, thinking he looked adorable.

“So, do you have any family here?”

“My parents live about ten minutes from me, and my sister lives half an hour away. They convinced me to move here, and I can say I like it pretty well so far.”

“I’m glad to hear it. It’s a quiet place, but we definitely have plenty to do.”

“I often see you leave in the afternoons. Do you have an afternoon shift, or…”

“I run The Rice Bowl, a Chinese restaurant about five minutes from here, in the same shopping center as the grocery store.”

“Really? I saw that restaurant yesterday when I went shopping, but I had no idea that was your restaurant. I’ll have to stop by some time.”

“Please do, we’d love to have you.” The bus pulled in front of the apartment complex and her children waved goodbye to her. She was surprised to see Evan waving back at them, like he was waving off a close friend. They walked back to their apartments after the bus pulled away. A comfortable silence fell between them before Carla allowed herself to ask,

“You wouldn’t happen to know any chefs, would you? My chef gave notice about a month ago, and I need someone who can try a hand at my late husbands’ recipes. I attempt them, but I’m not as good at it as he is.” He stopped walking, and so did she. He said,  

“I’m sorry for your loss. That must have been horrible.”

“Thank you. He passed away in a car accident about seven months ago.”

“My condolences, Carla.” He cleared his throat and added, “Actually, I’m a chef, and I’m looking for a job. I graduated from culinary school last year and I have Asian food listed on my resume as my specialty cuisine.” She raised an eyebrow. He definitely was not Asian. He had dark skin, brown wavy hair and round blue eyes. He chuckled at her shock. “Now, don’t look so shocked. I went to China for a month as a teenager and fell in love with the food and the people. I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was little, but after that trip I knew I wanted to specialize in Asian dishes.”

“That’s actually perfect. My husband wanted to give our customers some traditional food, along with some of the more well-known, American Chinese food. I’m afraid I haven’t had too many customers or good reviews since he died. My previous chef couldn’t cook as well as he could, and my customers could tell. Even I can’t do as well as Stephen.”

“Well, I’d be happy to put in an application, if you’d like.”

“No need. I’ve only had three applications and none of them worked out. They either didn’t show up for the interview or dropped out after the interview.”

“That’s a shame. I could come over to the restaurant and have you sample my dishes, if you like. Or I could try to whip up something on your menu, if you’d prefer.”

“That would be wonderful. Do you have time today? I usually open at 11, but I don’t normally have customers until 12 or after.”

“That works for me.” They went their separate ways and once Carla was securely in her house, she sent a prayer heavenward. Somehow, she knew Evan would work out. He would be the chef to get her back on her feet. To get her back to her dream. Stephen wasn’t here anymore, but he could still have his dream. “Thank you, Lord, for answering my prayers. Thank you for giving me this dream again. Thank you.” 

April 16, 2022 01:17

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1 comment

Aeris Walker
10:52 Apr 21, 2022

What a heartwarming story! From the very first paragraph, I had empathy for the main character and a clear idea of what she was feeling. You show how much depth she has and make the reader want what she wants. The backstory adds to her desperation and makes us smile wheh the solution to her problem knocks on her door. Something I might suggest is revealing the solution juuust a bit more subtly. At the first mention of her noticing a new neighbor, I was pretty confident that he would be the answer to potentially several of her problems. An ex...

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