One hell of a way to begin a restaurant:
When Stan took off with the bimbo from the grocery store, he left Evie with nothing but Lee Anne, their nine year old, and the old house bequeathed Evie by her grandma. This was in Brown Country, Indiana, a few miles from Bloomington and the university. So Evie had a big, funky log cabin of a house on a hill overlooking a pond. The main room had a couple of sagging sofas and a bunch of chairs. She had a house with a pretty view, some chickens, and a collie mix, but that’s about all. Nothing in the bank, nada. Stan worked construction and made a decent living, but he drank it away, and then came the bimbo. They went off in the station wagon, leaving Evie the small panel truck. He left her a note:
“I Appalegize. I am not made for marriage, and besides, I fell in love as well. When I can, I’ll send money. Kiss Lee Anne for me.”
Evie’s alcoholic dad was dead, her mom was a diabetic in an old-age home—no help from that quarter. Evie cooked part-time in a diner at the edge of Monroe County, just outside Bloomington, but the job wasn’t so great. Not much money, and the owner kept hitting on her. That was no big deal—Evie was stronger and certainly tougher than her boss. She was a lean, muscular woman in her early thirties with a long, no-nonsense face. The only special thing about Evie was her glossy black hair that, when she let it loose, trailed to her waist. Usually she kept it in a modest braid around her head, like a crown, covered by a baseball hat when she cooked.
But how could she cook for limestone cutters and farmers and university workers and still rightly take care of Lee Anne? On a couple of nights she brought her child to the diner and set her down with a drawing pad. Oh, boy, that didn’t work. For example: filthy, raunchy language. Not in front of my little girl! She kept nudging the guys to talk decent. Those dumb ass bastards.
All she knew how to do for a living was grow things and cook. This was half a century ago, when cooking in the Midwest was meat, potatoes and over-boiled vegetables. But Evie had lived with her aunt in Bridgeport, Connecticut after high school, and her aunt, a cook and a baker, knew that Evie loved to make food, and so she sent her to the Culinary Institute of America when it was still in New Haven. By the late 1950’s Evie could cook from various cuisines—basic Indian dishes, Northern Italian, French stews and Chinese stir-fry. All she made at the diner was fishcakes or hamburgers or spaghetti.
So on a whim the first Friday after Stan left, while waiting for Lee Anne to come home, she went out to the barn and—why not?—painted a sign in big blue and red letters:
And in smaller letters:
Best Restaurant in Brown County!
It would, in fact, have been, if it really existed, the only restaurant in Brown County worthy of the name. Of course, it didn’t exist. It was just a desperate try, a hail Mary. Evie painted the sign and fed the chickens while it dried, then carried the sign, and a fence post, and a post hole digger down the hill to the main road. Max, the collie mix, trotted alongside her. She planted the post and screwed the sign onto the post just before the school bus brought Lee Anne, waving, home.
“Look at the sign, girl.”
Lee Anne stands back and admires. “Is this sign for us?”
“I know it’s dumb. It’s a crazy, crazy long shot, baby.” Evie took her hand and they climbed the hill together. “But maybe something will happen. I’ll need a license.”
She thinks maybe on the weekend some tourists might come. After all, this is Brown County, which looks more like the hills of New England than it does Indiana. September in Brown County—lots of tourists come admiring the colors. She’ll put up notices in Ray’s Esso station and in Marion’s general store.
What food should she buy? Her stomach’s fluttering. She knows how to cook but not how to run a restaurant. Can she really do this? What a nutty idea! She’ll have to get in touch with the town—the Board of Health—that’s Jim Daugherty. But she grew up with Jim. And her friend Joan down the road kind of knows everyone in town. “What do you think, Lee Anne, honey?”
“It’s great! It’s great, Mama! And I can cook, too.”
“Sure. You bet. Let’s clear the big room. We’ll need to store the junk in the barn. We’ll need chairs and a couple of tables. Wow, wow, wow!”
What can she feed folks?
For the next couple of nights, at least, they won’t starve. She has a steak in the freezer and a huge chicken stew cooked last night in a big canning pot—her own chickens and her own tomatoes, her own peppers and carrots and her own chili peppers. Her own onions and her own garlic. Her friend Joan’s mushrooms. One stew doth not a restaurant make. Well, she doesn’t expect any customers right away. But if they came, how would she feed them?
A Cadillac Eldorado climbs the hill:
This very night that she puts up the sign, a couple of hours later, near sunset, Max barks like mad and runs in circles as a fancy, black Caddy, clean and shining, drives up, scattering the chickens. Lee Anne runs inside to tell her mother, but her mother, nervous, is already looking out the window.
“What do they want?” Evie whispers. “Did they see the sign? Oh, Lord!” She goes to the door. Two couples, men in their forties, women in their thirties, nicely dressed, come out of the car, smiling, waving. Does she know them?
A big man with a booming voice says, “What a pretty, old fashioned place you’ve got here. This really a restaurant? Are you Evie?”
“That’s the thing, see,” Evie says, narrowing her eyes to express shrewdness she was sharing. “I don’t want it to look like a restaurant. It’s homey. Know what I mean? I’m Evie. So tell me—what would you folks like to eat tonight?”
“Well, Evie, what have you got?”
“I’ve got just about everything.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. “But what I strongly suggest, folks, is the coq au vin. It’s almost ready, but it’s going to take a little while. Meantime,” she says, “I’ve got drinks for you. No charge.”
She has drinks all right. Half-bottles of rye and gin, rum and bourbon that Stan left when the lush slipped off with la bimbo. That’ll keep them busy. “Meantime,” she says, “if you can show your good faith and give me $50, I’ll be right back.” Asking, she gulps, but the other young man doesn’t blink. He takes out his wallet and hands her a fifty dollar bill. In 1957 dollars? It’s like three hundred now. Evie looks at the bill and grows dizzy. A big breath. She calls to Lee Anne, “Can you bring ice and glasses, sweetie? And the drinks?”
And Evie’s out to the truck and down the hill, a half mile up the road to the liquor store, where she gets a couple of bottles of white and a bottle of red. Then back down the road to the general store for cheese and crackers, and a quick stop at her friend Joan’s house for home-baked bread and as many of Joan’s mushrooms as she could spare. Joan gives her a big kiss for good luck. Now she races home. The visitors are laughing, laughing, drinking, nibbling. She gets the stew bubbling. Coq au vin me royal behind—ha-ha—it’s just a hearty old stew built on a good red wine, but the stew is rich and tasty, especially with the bottle of red simmering away. Oh, if she only had more mushrooms!
“Fabulous, fabulous,” says the heavy set man with the bass voice. He pumps her hand. We’ll tell everybody. What a discovery, Miss Evie! Who’d’ve thought—in Brown County, Indiana.”
Who were these people? She was dying to ask but didn’t want to snoop. Catching stray sentences, she thinks they have something to do with the music school at Indiana University. She never does find out. They’re a miracle. Like the angels visiting Abraham.
And Evie’s Place had been inaugurated.
Just about every Sunday at five, a bunch of us, ten, fifteen, even more, graduate students at Indiana University in history, in psychology, in economics, in literature, gathered in Evie’s big room with guitars and banjos, sometimes a fiddle, and we played and sang folk songs. We called it a hootenanny. We sang Woody Guthrie songs and Pete Seeger songs—songs of peace and social justice. We sang truelove ballads and blues. We sat on the sagging sofas and rickety chairs, we sat on pillows, brought wine or beer and put a few dollars in the “kitty”—a ceramic cat. And Evie fed us wonderful leftovers from Thursday through Saturday dinners, and in case that wasn’t enough, there was usually a pot of spaghetti. Old Max sat up and listened to the music, his big head often in my lap.
Evie did well in the restaurant, pretty near right from the start. Bankers and lawyers, professors and doctors, called a week in advance for reservations and were lucky to get them. She charged, pris fixe, more than any restaurant in Bloomington, and she didn’t have a big menu. But her meals were never boring; they were spicy, brewed with herbs. And this was the Midwest. Over the phone she let customers suggest a couple of main courses or “ideas” as she put it, and then went shopping. She gave the food European names—French, Italian, Spanish—and made them fabulous. She also put forth a lot of side dishes—ceviche, stuffed mushrooms, roasted garlic in olive oil, pâte, eggplant topped with ground lamb.
So that was Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Sunday she had two fridges full of leftovers, amazing leftovers, and we, in our hungry twenties, wolfed them down for a very few bucks. Evie sat with us sipping wine till she got real mellow. Lee Anne sat next to her mother and sang along. Evie never sang. One of our crowd, Liam, became a world-famous folk singer, but most of us—just graduate students—played and sang as best we could, most on guitar, me on piano.
Evie picks me out:
I was in the doctoral program in English, and roomed with another grad student in a tiny apartment in town. Growing up in Manhattan, I didn’t take to Bloomington. A snob, I believed that New York was the center of the world, that energy diminished the further you got from it. My girlfriend since college had broken up with me a year ago. That’s when I decided to do graduate work away from the center of the world. I was hiding.
I don’t know why Evie picked me out. Maybe because I never brought a girl and she could see I was lonely. Or because I smiled her way a lot. I was hunting for a woman but not comfortable at it. Maybe she saw that—or saw I was an easy mark. Or was it that I liked her dog. Anyway, it was me she turned to for help in clearing and cleaning up when the rest were leaving. I liked doing it; I liked Evie and Lee Anne, and I saw how hard Evie worked to make a living for the two of them. So when she asked, “Suppose I pay you ten bucks, a good dinner and a glass of wine—would you help me out on Saturday night? I’m too damn busy to do it alone.” Sure. I was happy to help, to be on the inside, and happy to get a decent meal.
I’d do a bunch of things—it was an all-afternoon and evening job. I helped Evie install an exhaust fan. I picked lettuce from her garden. I was sous chef for her, cutting up vegetables, marinating meats, stirring stock, but I’d also drive Lee Anne to Brownies or give the girl a piano lesson and show her how to set the tables and fold napkins. I’d give Max a shampoo and brushing. Then I became a waiter, in black pants and white shirt. And when I wasn’t doing anything else, I played a patron’s favorite song on the tinny piano where you had to avoid a couple of real clinkers.
So that was Saturday, and then Friday, too, became too much for Evie, and soon I was caught between writing essays on Emily Dickinson or William Blake and basting a leg of lamb. Thursday there’d be just one setting of three tables; that—with Lee Anne’s help after school—that, she could handle. But weekends she needed me.
Of course, there was no way Evie could be officially allowed to use in a restaurant her own tired oven, with char baked in no matter how I scrubbed at it, and an old domestic dishwasher, but folks in town liked Evie and felt sorry for her—dumped by that bastard of a husband. So everybody—fire chief, building inspector, and the health inspector—Jim Daugherty, whom she’d grown up with—pretended she was just inviting folks to her house, serving food and wine and asking for a “donation”: see, it wasn’t a restaurant exactly. Oh, but it was, and years later when I opened my first restaurant in L.A., my model, the image in my head, was Evie’s Place.
When everyone was gone on a weekend night and Lee Anne was asleep, Evie and I would sit on the old sofa and sip wine from open bottles and talk about the food we served that night. How was it? Good. How good? Really good, Evie. What was special? She’d bring out a tray of herbs and spices and, tired as she was, she’d teach me. In 1959, 1960, who knew from herbs and spices? In the Midwest, if you pushed the limits, you might use cracked pepper. So I sniffed and learned about herbs and combinations of herbs, and she pulled a book out of the bookcase to show me pictures of plants that were their source.
And then—enough about food—we’d sip more wine and get around to her ex. She’d curl against me for comfort. Max sat in front of us looking up, big head in my lap.
“I’m glad the mean sonofabitch took off,” she said. “I do pity the poor woman.”
And finally one rainy night she told me how, in front of Lee Anne, “he used to whip my legs with a belt if I gave him trouble. Slowly, he’d pull his belt from its loops, and Lee Anne would know what was coming and she’d start crying right away. She’d hug my legs to protect them. That usually made Stan stop.”
I felt wetness against my neck. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her wet cheek, and then her lips.
“I do appreciate,” she said, “it’s kindly meant, but don’t you think I’m a little old for you? Like ten years?”
I was a very young man, early twenties and in experience even younger, but I knew this was a question looking for a no. “I don’t if you don’t, Evie.”
She pulled back to hold me at arm’s length. “Well . . .” she said, pondering. “Well, Danny, hell, maybe for a little while . . . .” Then, as if there were some bargain in the works, she said, “I can teach you things.” Those five words sat with the book and the tray of herbs and spices on the coffee table. She let down her long black hair and shook it free. She took my hand and led me solemnly to her bedroom. It was also where she stored dried oregano and thyme, strings of chili peppers and braids of garlic. And since that night, since those nights, I’ve associated such scents with sexual love and tenderness.
On that Sunday morning I was already straightening and cleaning the main room when Lee Anne came down the stairs and rubbed her eyes. “You here, Mr. Danny-Dan?”
“Looks like it, my girl.”
“Still sleeping. Can I make you something?”
“Can you make me pancakes?”
“Sure. And we have some bananas.”
“Did you stay here all night?”
“It got real late.”
“Mommy and you like each other.”
“We do. You bet.”
So Lee Anne was the first to know we were together. Or no, maybe not. That evening, when the gang gathered to eat and sing, was it my imagination that everyone already knew we were a pair, Evie and me? And we were a pair: I was her student. It was Evie who taught me to cook and Evie who taught me to make love, to brew love. And Evie who taught me to be me.
I got to know Evie’s friend Joan.
Joan took care of her kids and wrote a column for the local free weekly paper on “Goings On in Brown County.” She baked and sold bread—like Evie, using a home oven—and grew mushrooms in the cellar. Sometimes, when I was helping Evie cook or setting tables, Joan would come by with baguettes or a bag of shitake or portabella, a little dried compost soil still clinging to the mushrooms. I remember her as a plain looking woman, sweet-faced, strong, with forceful eyes, five or ten years older than Evie, twenty years older than me. An older sister to Evie, an aunt to me. A good woman. She had a sweet voice, and when my grad student friends were at Evie’s, sometimes she’d stop by to listen and to sing. One time, when we were sitting around late afternoon she said, “Evie, you got no idea how proud I am of you. You get dumped by that rat of a husband, you don’t become a drunk or run to your parents. You start something good on your own. You have no idea how you’re talked about, Evie. We’re all proud of you.”
Joan’s husband Pete was in charge of the physical plant at the university—no insignificant job. Powerful in the community partly because he was a smart, capable man willing to volunteer on committees in Nashville, the county seat, he was powerful also because he had sway at the university in filling positions for masonry, road work, electrical work, plumbing, on and on. And if he had power in town, Joan had power in their marriage. Joan supported Evie and made sure Pete supported her, too.
One Sunday night Jim Daugherty stopped by for leftovers and the sing. It was the first time we’d met. I wanted to like him because he’d been good to Evie, looking the other way. Funny—he grew up in Indiana, and fit in Brown County like a hand in a glove, so within our group he didn’t fit. He was the outsider, paradoxically, because we—we the rest of us—were all outsiders. We were New Yorkers, Pakistani, Californians, Kenyans, exchange students from Brazil, Koreans. And Jim belonged. Evie seemed more like us. She was proud of being one-quarter Shawnee, but that wasn’t it. She wasn’t part of a group; she was Evie, more herself than anyone I’d ever met. To be herself—that was her teaching.
We tried to make Daugherty feel at home—but he was stiff with us; we were stiff with him. The strain showed. He’d gone to school with Evie. He was her age but balding and pot-bellied. He sat with a plate of food on his lap, and he listened to the singing for awhile but didn’t sing and looked dour and uncomfortable and left.
It was May, 1960, and President Eisenhower had been lying about the U-2 spy plane that was shot down. Surveillance? Oh, no. Of course not. It was just a NASA weather plane off course. But Gary Powers, the CIA pilot, had parachuted safely to the ground, so the President’s lies were exposed. That week I’d sat in Ballantine Hall with a petition to be sent to the President—against atomic testing in the atmosphere and CIA over-flights. And against lying. That our President would lie! I was that naïve and self righteous. Now, half a century later, I’d assume surveillance and assume that’s what governments do: lie.
A few students signed; a few gave me dirty looks. Most ignored me. I went off to the bathroom, leaving the petition. When I returned just a couple of minutes later, I found, scrawled over the petition,
Dirty kike Commie go back to New York
No one was nearby. Students crossed the lobby in all directions. No one looked my way. Later that day I taught freshman comp—as a teaching associate—and I wondered if one of these kids, whom I thought of as nice kids, mostly first-generation college kids, had scrawled the words. I was no communist, but I was a Jew from New York. Was the guy who wrote the slur just using a stereotype, or was he someone who knew me a little, a student of mine? I never found out.
Evie, my teacher:
It was about the same time—early May—that Evie’s troubles began. And she knew exactly whom to blame.
One afternoon, middle of the week, she called me—“Come over, will you, Danny?” I drove out to find Evie packing, Lee Anne helping. Evie’s long black hair was gathered up on her head, covered by a kerchief. The big room was cleared, the seedy couches and rickety chairs pushed to one side as if for dancing, but in the middle of the room were boxes upon boxes, open, half packed. Hanging tools, pots and pans, knives and spatulas and colanders, herbs and spices, all packed. Wine glasses, wine bottles, boxed in torn strips of newspaper. “Closing up shop,” she said. “Whole kit and caboodle. I’m driving to Santa Fe. I’ll maybe open a place there. My sister says she’ll come in with me.”
“What’s happened? And Jesus, Evie—why’d you keep me out of it?”
“Come outside, let’s talk.” She washed her hands and sat me down on the front porch. “I didn’t want you to try to talk me out of it. I’ll be damned I stay here and let them walk all over my life with their dirty paws. They want us to hide, that’s what they want. You and me, we’re not hiding. I know these self-righteous bastards.”
“Who wants us to hide?”
“The things you don’t know! See, they want me to play the whore who’s ruining my child but ashamed, repentant. Then they’ll forgive me. Well, screw them. Look there, down the hill. Folks can see us from the road. You’re a big guy. They can’t miss you.”
As a car passed, she leaned forward and kissed me. Every time a car passed, she kissed me. “Remember the other night, Jim Daugherty came by? He’s always had the hots for me. So there’s that. He probably put two and two together. But it’s those songs just as much. Commie songs.”
“They’re not ‘Commie’ songs, Evie. Most aren’t even protest songs.”
“Doesn’t matter. If I didn’t invite all these strange people by on Sundays and they didn’t sing all those weirdo Commie songs, it might be different.”
“So what happened?”
“Here comes another car.” She kissed me. “What happened is all of a sudden Jeannie over at City Hall in Nashville called to tell me—get this—‘it was noticed’ that I’ve been operating without a restaurant license. Also, it seems that the Board of Health needs to inspect. Suddenly, after more than two years, they’re shocked.”
“Oh! I’m sorry. It’s kind of my fault.”
Evie ignored this. “See, it’s not just one thing, Danny. If you and I were sleeping together but you were from the town—say, it was Jim Daugherty or Nate Walsh in my bed—well, that’d be an opportunity for gossip, but acceptable. If you were even the right age and an ordinary working guy or say I didn’t have a child who could be morally corrupted, well, it wouldn’t be so bad. You see? Those self-righteous bastards!” Then: “Here comes a car. That’s Fred Hall’s Ford heading home.” A kiss.
“So why are you giving in? Why are you running away?”
“I called a lawyer in Bloomington—I got a letter from the town, he looked it over. He figures I’ll need to get a license and new equipment and a sprinkler system and even then they can bully me and refuse to approve me till I’m drained of money. Lawyer says if they want me out, they can stall me forever.”
“Would it help if I disappeared, Evie?”
“Hey! Danny! You notice me hiding you away or something when those cars passed? Look down there. That Buick—that’s Joan’s car.”
“She’ll be on your side.”
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
Joan Benson drove up, stepped out of her car and waved.
That late afternoon, a beautiful May afternoon, the air soft and warm, Joan looked serious. She looked as if she knew what she was there for. Evie served tea on the porch. I stayed in the kitchen out of their way, watching Howdy Doody with Lee Anne. I felt like a child myself.
“Danny, will you come out and sit with us, please?“ Evie called out. I came outside, pulled over a chair. “Tell Danny what you’re suggesting, Joan.”
“I told Evie—if she’s smart, if she plays along, she can keep the restaurant. My Pete will call Jim, we’ll smooth things over. Evie’s been real important for this county. For the women of the county. But she’s still in trouble, Dan. This isn’t New York. It isn’t even Indianapolis. For a while, Dan, you’ll have to keep away. And the Sunday night parties will have to stop. Evie has to give way a little.”
“Joan, see, thinks I’m too proud and too stubborn,” Evie said.
“If she gets all puffed up, she’ll have nothing,” Joan said.
“If she goes along with those demands,” I said, “she’ll really have nothing.”
Evie kissed my cheek.
The semester was over. I handed in my grades, said goodbye, knew I wouldn’t go back to graduate work in the fall. The last hootenanny—just drinks and songs, no food, no money—happened on a Sunday in late May. We sang to Evie, drank to Evie’s Place. A couple days later I helped Evie pack the boxes into her old panel truck, and the four of us—Evie, me, Lee Anne, and Max—Max, lying at my feet, breathing heavily in the heat, took off for New Mexico. On the dashboard we kept a wet towel rolled over a bag of ice cubes for the air to blow through—primitive air conditioning.
Evie’s place in my life, my place in hers. As we drove from Bloomington up to Terra Haute to pick up Interstate 70 West, we both knew that romance would fade. It had never been the important thing between us. We knew we’d stay friends. We didn’t foresee that, together, we’d succeed at building Evie’s Place in Santa Fe—or that a decade later I’d open Dan’s Place in L.A., and Evie would fly to L.A. for the opening.
About The Author
JOHN J. CLAYTON has published nine volumes of fiction, both novels and short stories. His collection of interwoven short stories, Minyan, was published in September 2016, his collection Many Seconds into the Future in 2014. Mitzvah Man, his fourth novel, appeared in 2011. A memoir, Parkinson’s Blues, will be published September, 2020.
Clayton’s stories have appeared in AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, Sewanee Review, over twenty times in Commentary; in Kerem, Conjunctions, Notre Dame Review, Missouri Review and The Journal. Stories have been published recently in MQR and Missouri Review. His stories have won prizes in O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His collection Radiance was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.
Clayton grew up in New York; received his B.A. at Columbia, his M.A. at NYU, his PhD at Indiana. He taught modern literature and fiction writing as professor and then Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has also written two books of literary criticism: Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man and Gestures of Healing, a psychological study of the modern novel.
My website: JohnJClayton.com