“Chef, the guests at Table 5 asked if you would stop by,” the hostess said.
Free was the hottest new restaurant in Atlanta, and Chef Maymie was used to guests requesting special time with her. Her innovative approach to the chef-driven dining experience was unexpected in Atlanta, and people couldn’t get enough of it or her creations. Diners interacted directly with her and the kitchen staff instead of waiters, but there was always one table too impatient to wait for her to come by at the end of the meal. She appreciated the excitement around her largely plant-based take on Southern favorites, so she took entitled guests in stride.
“Okay, tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Chef Maymie said. She finished her check-ins with the line chefs and headed to the dining room, grabbing a massive basket of fresh cornbread muffins to distribute in place of the assigned commis chef.
The restaurant was filled to capacity, and the energy was palpable in the 125-seat dining room. The kitchen door flung open, and a group of local culinary students burst into applause as Chef Maymie approached their table with the muffins. She tried to quiet them, but the rest of the room joined in. She made a mental note to send the students an amuse-bouche assortment.
“Mr. Butler? Ms. O’Hara-Butler?” Chef Maymie asked, approaching Table 5. For the first time since she opened the restaurant, Chef Maymie felt out of place. She reminded herself that she and her therapist had prepared for this moment. She followed her therapist’s advice and spoke to her fear. “I have overcome. God is with me. It’s healthy to hold others accountable for their actions. There is strength in forgiveness,” Chef Maymie thought.
“Yes, lovely to see you! It’s been so long,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said, hugging Chef Maymie as Mr. Butler shook his head. Chef Maymie paused and then eased away.
“Scarlett, honey, calm down,” Mr. Butler said to his wife. “Chef Maymie, she’s been looking forward to seeing you all week. No one took care of our daughter like you. Cat had lots of babysitters over the years, but you were our favorite.”
“I’m not sure I remember being your favorite, but that’s okay. Things turned out pretty well for me in the end,” Chef Maymie said.
“Yes, we’re so proud of you!” Ms. O’Hara-Butler boasted. “And the restaurant is gorgeous. When I read about the grand opening in the newspaper, I knew we had to come see you and try your famous cornbread muffins. By the way, I love the way you’re spelling your name these days. You’ve really reinvented yourself.”
“I didn’t reinvent myself. I’m still the same person I always was. My name is still spelled M-a-m-i-e on legal documents. I added the y for everyday use because I got tired of being called Mammy. You know, the kind of Freudian slip that has no place in the twenty-first century,” Chef Maymie said coolly.
Ms. O’Hara-Butler recoiled. “Oh Maymie, I apologized for that. I didn’t mean anything by it. We loved you like family,” she said.
“Actually, you never apologized,” Chef Maymie said. The situation had haunted her for years, and she felt empowered speaking up for herself now.
“I am sorry. Please forgive me,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.
“Thank you,” Chef Maymie said. As she turned to signal for one of the commis chefs to finish passing out the muffins, she saw someone familiar exiting the restroom. “Is that Cat? She’s all grown up.”
Ten years had passed. Chef Maymie hadn’t seen Cat since the day Ms. O’Hara-Butler had called her Mammy. It had been the worst time to quit her babysitting job in the palatial mansion in Buckhead, one of the wealthiest communities in the country. She was just about to finish her master’s degree in food science and start culinary school. She really needed the money.
“Maymie! ” Cat squealed, running toward her.
They held each other in a long, rocking hug, their customary greeting when Chef Maymie picked up Cat each day from kindergarten.
“This is the most excited Cat has been all week,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said. “She doesn’t talk to us much anymore. You know how teens can be.” Cat rolled her eyes at her mother and slid into the booth. “We’ve been trying to get reservations forever,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler continued. “I even left several messages, but I figured you didn’t get them.”
“No, I received them, but you know how chefs can be,” Chef Maymie said, winking at Cat.
“I had the hardest time believing you were a chef because you told me during your interview that you couldn’t cook,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.
“I never said that I didn’t know how to cook. When I said ‘I can’t cook,’ I meant that I had no plans to do it as part of my babysitting job. You wouldn’t even pay me minimum wage. But I slipped Cat a few of my homemade treats every now and then,” Chef Maymie said.
“See, Mom, I told you!” Cat hissed at her mother. Cat pivoted toward Chef Maymie. “I told her I remembered eating a cornbread muffin like the one pictured in the newspaper article about you, but she didn’t believe me. She thought I was just trying to make her jealous.”
“Chef, they need you in the kitchen,” interrupted the commis chef as he relieved Chef Maymie of the basket of muffins.
“Okay. I’ll be right there,” Chef Maymie said. She turned to her guests. “I’ve gotta run. I hope y’all enjoy your meals. But, Ms. O’Hara-Butler, I have to know, did it work?”
“Huh?” Ms. O’Hara-Butler asked.
“Did it make you jealous that you’d never tasted any of my food?” Chef Maymie asked.
“It did.” Ms. O’Hara-Butler sighed, her cheeks reddening.
Chef Maymie smiled and walked away. “Bless her heart,” she said under her breath.
Rosey Lee is a New Orleans, Louisiana native who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Bending Genres, Barren Magazine, Turnpike Magazine, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction chapbook, Beautiful, Complicated Family, will be released in late 2019. Follow her at roseyleebooks.com and @roseyleebooks on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.