The Power of Fish and Grits: A Short Story

by LaJenine T. Wilson

“Get your behind out the car!” That was Nicole, just as loud and wrong as ever, standing right outside the entrance to the restaurant. She had one hand on her hip, the other rapidly fanning her neck and face, as if it were making a difference in the stifling Georgia heat.

“Come make me,” I dared her. Then I started to gather my belongings from the passenger seat. “Got my purse, my shades, my cell and about to lose my freakin nerves.”

I wanted to run. Then I remembered my sister Nicole, a.k.a. Nick, possessed all of the speed in the family. Not to mention how Rainy always frowned on cowardly behavior. As kids, he’d grab us by the arms, look us dead in the eyes and say, “Listen here, the only chickens allowed up in my house are baked or fried.” Then he’d strut around the room clucking and cackling like an intoxicated bird until we saw things his way.

Growing up, people said I was my father’s twin, smart mouth and all, but times like these made me wonder if that were true. Rainy James would never run from a fight, never.

My name is Monica James-Morgan, Mona for short, and this time Sunday I was trapped in the grip of southern heat with beads of sweat racing down my face, trying to remember the drama-free lines I’d rehearsed during my flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

My mother, Eva James, underwent heart surgery six months ago, but I just found out last week. Let Nicole tell it, she forgot to mention it during our last phone conversation. But I suspect that even in pain and discomfort, our mother was not real eager to see me.

The last time I'd gone home was for Rainy’s funeral. Seven years and a few strained conversations later, the relationship between my mother and I had not improved. I was still the one who had chosen a career in television over working in the family’s restaurant.

Eva’s Fish and Grits has long been a fixture on Atlanta’s east side. Started by my grandfather and named after my mother, Eva’s has been a part of our family for more than 60 years. With only two card tables, some folding chairs and a lamp, my grandfather had begun serving his first customers in the basement of his modest two bedroom home.

His menu, like the accommodations, had been simple; catfish, pork chops or fried chicken, your choice of five sides, buttermilk biscuits or corn bread, lemonade or sweet tea. His first customers had included civil rights leaders, ministers and politicians from all over the state. And his staff had included everyone from Grandma Day to Aunt Natalie, Aunt Pauline and Uncle John to Cousin Rob. Just about every member of my family had worked there, except me, Ms. I-Got-Other-Dreams. I’d been too busy planning how to make it big in Hollywood to be caught frying fish or refilling glasses of sweet tea.

My decision to pursue other endeavors hadn’t upset my father. Rainy had been supportive of just about everything Nicole and I attempted. My mother, on the other hand, had taken my moving to L.A. as an insult, reducing her conversations with me to: How you doing? How’s your husband? Are you still writing? Her emphasis on the word writing that made it sound dirty.

Now, after years of being on the receiving end of my mother’s snide remarks and one-word responses, my sister had gotten the crazy idea that together, she and I could talk our mother out of selling her beloved restaurant. It was crazy, especially since me and mama hadn’t seen eye to eye on anything since my father’s funeral, when we both agreed his charcoal gray suit with the speckled tie looked the best. Yet there I was ready to go to battle with Nicole just like when we were kids.

Rainy use to say when we put our heads together, Nicole and I made an unstoppable team, often comparing us to Salt-N-Pepa, Jordan and Pippin, and even his favorite menu item, which had been fish and grits. But this time was different. We weren’t teenagers anymore. We both had well exceeded the boundaries of a size six. And we weren’t fighting the Johnson twins when we got off the bus. This was mama, the queen of inflexibility herself. The more I thought about how badly things had ended the last time I saw her, the more I welcomed the flight home. My insides had turned upside-down.

It wasn't until I reached for the door that I realized how much pleasure Nicole was taking in watching me sweat.

“You can’t be working,” I told her, dabbing my forehead with a piece of tissue I’d plucked from my purse.

“Nope,” she fired back. “And you can’t be showing me some love from inside that hot car.”

Nicole was right. Evidently, the city of Atlanta had decided to give hell some competition because there I was roasting in my rented two-seater convertible trying to pull myself together.

“You coming out?” Nicole asked, head bobbing from side to side. “Or do I have to come and get you?”

For a moment, I was tempted to make her do just that, come and get me. But the sight of two grown women wrestling outside a family-oriented restaurant wouldn’t have made for good advertising. So I pushed the driver’s door open, stepped out into the oppressive southern heat, peeled my halter dress from my skin and stretched as far up to the sky as I could.

“Look who still got them hips,” Nicole exclaimed, with her arms wide opened. “My long lost voluptuous sista!”

“No you didn’t go there,” I snapped. “With those loaves of bread hiding underneath your dress.”

“There she is,” Nicole hollered. “Same mouth and all.”

Two years apart, Nicole and I were as different as night and day. Where she was as warm and welcoming as Aunt Natalie’s peach cobbler, I was usually sarcastic, moody and distant. Where she was spontaneous and uninhibited, I usually laid back and thought things through. Other than the extreme fineness of one Denzel Washington, we hardly ever agreed on anything, but we loved each other just the same.

After spending a few more minutes outside, we moved our reunion into the AC cooled interior, where I was immediately confronted by evidence of our mother. The waiting area for Eva’s looked more like something out of a magazine with an assortment of African paintings, tribal masks and hand carved statues.

Then there was the food. Before we had entered the main dining room, you could smell some of mama’s best dishes. Her spicy greens. Her mixed peas. Her herb-crusted chicken. And don’t forget her kicked up macaroni and cheese. The smells alone were enough to carry me back to Sunday dinners and backyard barbecues full of laughter. Sometimes we’d laugh so loud our neighbor, Eddie Ray, would come running his nosy butt across the street only to end up fixing a plate, finding a seat and staying for hours. That's what I missed the most: family, friends, and no drama.

As we settled into one of the few empty tables by the window, Nicole warned me not to get too comfortable since the after church crowd was just minutes away. But even that wasn’t enough to keep her from diving head first into my business.

“So what’s up, Ms. Writer-Producer-Director? Any kids on the horizon?” Nicole asked, reaching for my hand across the table. “Brother-in-law is too fine not to be fathering some kids.”

"Fine he is, but the network just signed on for another season of Desperation,” I announced. “So I’m about to be way too busy for that fat feet, swollen belly thing. Besides, you and Darnell have that be fruitful and multiply thing on lock.”

We both laughed.

“Oh, I been checking you out, sis,” Nicole admitted. “Your show is hot, but mama needs a grandchild on the West Coast.”

I saw where Nicole was headed and quickly put the spotlight back on the real reason for my visit.

“Spill it, Nick,” I demanded. “What am I really doing here?”

“OK, listen,” Nicole started. “There’s something I didn’t tell you the other day.”

The smile I’d been wearing quickly collapsed, causing Nicole to throw up her hands in protest.

“I didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure,” she snapped. “Now let me finish.”

With that I leaned back in my chair and waited for Nicole to continue.

“Darnell and I have been talking,” Nicole sighed. “And I’d like to buy the restaurant.”

“Wait,” I sat up. “I knew you were in deep, but…”

“Mona, I’m ready to take this place to the next level,” Nicole exclaimed, almost falling out of her chair. “I’m talking catering service, home delivery, and a new location by the end of the year.”

The excitement in Nicole’s voice told me two things: (1) she was more invested in Eva’s than our mother knew; and (2) I couldn’t lose this fight.

Just then, Nicole’s attention turned to the entrance and the impeccably dressed woman in the wide-brimmed mocha hat, fur-trimmed mocha suit, and matching heels. It was our mother, and like everyone in the room, I was stunned.

After receiving my sister’s call dropping the bomb about our mother’s health scare, the image of a wrinkled, frail, scrawny Eva had gotten wedged in my mind. Instead, walked in this devastatingly beautiful 72-year-old woman, looking every bit of 49, waving and smiling like a contestant in the Miss America pageant.

I watched in silence as she made her way around the room, greeting customers and inquiring about their service until she finally reached the table next to ours. It was show time. Or as we joked on the set of Desperation, it was time to get this party started… but nothing in me was pumped about this encounter.

"My, my,” mama said, reaching for my hands. “Look who found her way home.”

“Hey, Mama,” I stuttered. “You look amazing.”

“Why, thank you,” she smiled, as she leaned in to kiss me. “But you seem surprised.”

It was more like blown away, I thought, as I stumbled to my seat.

“So what’s up?” Mama asked, joining us at the table. “What are you hens up to?”

Nicole and I exchanged glances and I knew immediately how this thing was going to go.

“You always did stick together,” Mama said cutting her eyes at me. “C’mon, this ain’t no social visit.”

I couldn’t believe it. For once, my loud mouth sister was holding back, opting to let her smart-mouth sister pass the first lick. So I did.

“I heard you’re selling the restaurant,” I paused long enough to peep Nicole’s expression. “That’s messed up, Mama.”

“Listen here,” she snapped. “This is my place and I’ll do whatever the hell I want.”

It was less than five minutes into the conversation and I’d already struck a nerve, but I didn’t care. I was just glad mama had something more to say than what she’d been saying for the past seven years.

“Granddaddy would be pissed...” I started but didn’t make it very far before Mama jumped up like the kitchen was on fire.

“I know you ain’t talking about my father,” she snapped, pointing a well-manicured finger at me like I was five instead of 35. “What the hell would you know about family?”

I was just about to scold Sis James for using such vibrant language so soon after leaving church, when she turned and strode off through tables of unsuspecting patrons and down the hall to her office.

Nicole must have sensed our father’s determination had bubbled to the surface because she grabbed my arm before I could take off after Mama.

“Hold up,” she said. “I’m glad we have some real dialogue going on, but give her a minute.”

“Sorry,” I said, pulling from my sister’s grip. “But I didn’t come all this way to give her a minute.”

Then I took off in the direction after Mama.

Her office was at the end of the hall just pass the restrooms and except for a few minor changes, it looked exactly as I remembered. With its deep red walls, high-back ivory chairs, and sumptuous rugs, it had my mother’s name written all over it.

As a girl, I’d spent a lot of time in there, hiding under that massive mahogany desk, shirking my daily responsibilities in exchange for a few minutes alone to daydream about becoming famous.

Back then, I wanted to sing, and dance and act; anything other than contribute to the success of the business, but that hadn’t bothered Rainy. He hadn’t tried to change us one bit.

My mother, on the other hand, had done everything in her power to convert us to the virtuous ways of Eva James. And when that had failed, she took us to church and prayed over us, as if not being like her was a disease we’d surely die from.

All of her praying finally worked on Nicole, who around her sophomore year in college finally traded her love of politics and public speaking for managing the ins-and-outs of a highly successful soul food restaurant. I didn’t call her out, though. The way I saw it: Nicole had slipped and fallen into a career she truly loved and Mama had raised at least one daughter gracious enough to follow in her footsteps.

As for me, Mama just about lost it one Sunday after dinner, when I boldly announced I was moving to L.A. to pursue a career in acting.

You would’ve thought I said I was shaving my head and joining a cult the way she stomped out of the room. Her stomping went on for over a month, right up to the day I left, when she didn’t bother acknowledging me or my leaving.

“Your father used to say, it took a strong man to live in a house full of crazy women,” Mama’s voice drifted in from the doorway, causing me to look up from the wedding photo of them I held in my hands.

“He had his hands full,” I shook my head. “I’m surprised he didn’t have that heart attack before he did.”

“Just to get away from us,” Mama laughed. “We were rough.”

In the silence that followed, I could feel the tension between me and Mama began to shift.

“I thought you wanted me to fail,” I said, looking up from the desk. “So I’d have to come back.”

“I wasn’t happy about you leaving,” she said, appearing surprised and hurt. “But I didn’t want you to fail… I was just scared.”

Mama’s admission went straight through me, causing me to question every ugly thought I’d had about her over the years.

“And Nick,” I started. “Are you scared for her too?

“I have three very good offers,” Mama said, deliberately evading my question.

“Four,” I corrected her.

“Four?” mama looked puzzled.

“Nick wants to buy the restaurant,” I informed her. “And I think you should seriously consider her offer.”

Concern immediately washed over my mother’s face.

“Now listen, Mama,” I exclaimed. “Nick knows this place better than anyone else. The customers love her and…” I paused for a moment. “This is still a family business.”

“I didn’t think that mattered to you,” Mama spoke softly.

“Pursuing my dreams doesn’t mean I didn’t care,” I told her. “I cared, even when I was hiding under this desk.”

We both smiled and I could feel those infamous tears of joy welling up in my eyes.

“Give Nick a chance,” I paused, as I walked over to her. “She won’t disappoint you.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” Mama conceded. “But you know how crazy that one is.”

“Oh, please,” I exclaimed, heading towards the kitchen to pinpoint the source of the mind numbing aroma coming down the hall. “And once she proves she’s ten times better than you, then what?”

“Well, Mouthy,” Mama paused, hands on her hips. “Then I’ll be able to come see your smutty show in person.”

“Smutty,” I laughed, as I looked over my shoulder. “I can’t wait, Mama… I can’t wait.”

Photo: Shutterstock

LaJenine T. Wilson is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. She has written for the Atlanta Voice, the Atlanta Tribune, and the Gainesville Times. She is a member of the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, and M-Pact Writers. She released her first book of poetry, Tip of My Tongue, in 2009, and is currently working on her first collection of short stories, When Love Isn’t So Lovely.