In Elk Creek, opinions and rumors are roused and doused in unremarkable places like Claudette’s Kitchen. The conversations that ensue there are considered public domain, belonging to no one and belonging to all. As Elk Creek’s uncontested mayor for who-knows-how-long, Harley Phipps knew that Claudette’s was the hub-of-the-wheel. It was the standard spot for townsfolk to conjoin their communal sufferings and celebrations. Unless, that is, your personal standards allowed for a beer along with your burger, in which case Johnny’s Tavern was the local draw.
But Claudette’s was a no-alcohol-serving establishment, and she made this plain to thirsty customers by placing a placard on the glass entry door: No Booze Sold Here. Her stance had been brought on by all the havoc her deceased husband Milton had caused her by his routine drinking. No disrespect to the deceased is intended in the telling, but it would help you to know the unhappy history of how Claudette’s Kitchen got started.
Milton was a stringy, backslapping country boy who had never managed to grow up. In Elk Creek, you have to work hard at not being liked, but he managed to do it. Sad to say, it was just the reverse of what he was really after. Milton craved inclusion. But in the balance, he was more annoying than likeable. He had a droning nasal voice and a stock of tired potty jokes that made him giggle and snort every time he told them. Besides being a regular imbiber, Milton was also a notoriously lazy worker at the mill, always among the first to be laid off during low production periods and one of the last to be rehired after things had picked up again. All of his backslapping was barely epidermis-deep. Most days he wore the skittish look of a junior high school boy who had gotten picked last in gym class.
But Milton had a surefire equalizer. His wife’s fabulous Southern-style cooking was his meal ticket for toadying himself among the big boys in town. Whenever Milton got cheerily drunk down at the tavern he also got highly hospitable. He’d haul a couple buddies home, unannounced, for a meal. Stumbling into his castle in the wee morning hours, he’d go into his macho mode to show off to the boys. Rising tall on his toes, with a shaky swagger he’d bark after Claudette who was sleeping in the bedroom. She would gradually trudge out in her bathrobe and hair curlers, yawning and droopy-eyed. Thick-tongued and flappy-lipped, Milton would jaw at her, “Woomun, whup up sumpin fer ma boysss!” He’d cock his pint-sized fists so she’d know he was ready to do grave business with her if she didn’t hop to it.
The two were childless and Claudette was not disappointed by this point of fact. As a matter of fact, she herself was still a child when she had married Milton, who was fifteen years her senior. She was only fifteen and had half-mistakenly figured him to be her meal ticket out of poverty. Claudette was half-right because Milton did take her out to Oregon where his cousin Buster had assured him he could get a job in the mill at Elk Creek. She was also half-wrong because, as it turned out, she was his meal ticket.
Claudette mined riches from her own childhood poverty. Back in the Ozarks, her mother had taught her and her eleven siblings how to raise a prolific garden and how to make mouthwatering meals from bare necessities. With no mouths to feed other than hers and Milton’s and his inebriated mates’, Claudette found time to perfect some delectable dishes from her native cuisine. Her unwanted guests were treated to the glories of chicken gumbo, pulled pork, corn pudding, sausage jambalaya, fried okra and the like.
Even the benumbed taste buds of plastered fools savored her artistry. “Milton,” a boozed-up pal would point out, “you should charge money for a meal like this.”
It was a common refrain, and eventually the light went on in Milton’s mind. The right idea had luckily landed in the right place. He announced to Claudette that they were going into the restaurant business. She would do the cooking and he would handle the business side of the stick.
Milton found an old rundown diner-on-wheels in Portland and had it hauled to Elk Creek. It was the first time Claudette had seen such lift in her husband’s step. Together they slaved away, cleaning and fixing it all up. Milton even stopped drinking during the daytime. After the business had opened its door, the bar stools and the booths were nearly always full. Claudette’s Kitchen had literally gotten started in her own kitchen – out of the mouths of drunken fools.
A few years into the enterprise, Milton got a notion to expand the premises. He simply built around the old diner, keeping the bar and swivel stools intact with all their classic charm. The restaurant kept operating while it was being expanded. And Milton had actually wielded the business side of the stick very well.
But after a time Milton’s old ways crept back over him. He got lazy again. He hired a bookkeeper and a few waitresses. Claudette managed the cooking and the inventory. Milton’s business stick kept getting shorter until all he had to do was man the cash register. He rewarded himself for his work with generous helpings from the till. His old urge for inclusion also got a hold on him. When a customer ordered a beer with a meal, Milton happily joined in. Even if he or she hadn’t ordered alcohol, Milton’s social tendencies kicked in and he sidled up beside him or her, especially if it was a pretty her, and he served up his beer-breathed potty jokes. Business gradually got almost as bad as his breath.
With a wad of big-dollar bills in his pocket, Milton started taking frequent overnight “business trips” to Portland, but he always came back home with nothing to show for his efforts. Claudette was not fooled. That’s when she took up smoking – to calm her nerves.
On his final overnight escapade, Milton did not make it back to Elk Creek. He was driving drunk when he crossed the center line on the winding road home, smashing head-on into an oncoming log truck, which killed him on the spot. One of Milton’s old drinking buddies, Gilbert Hawkins, was behind the wheel of the truck.
That happened in September of 1964, about two years before Patty passed away. It was her father’s first funeral – a baptism by fire because of all that he and Jeannette were going through with Patty’s illness and because he wasn’t sure of Milton’s eternal whereabouts. As usual, the service was attended by nearly everyone in town, followed by a procession of log trucks clattering up the road to the cemetery, blasting their air horns. Milton had finally gotten the inclusion he’d been craving.
Claudette felt more angry than sad after Milton’s death, and she felt guilty for feeling that way. She closed the restaurant for a few days to consider her options. Realizing she had none except for staying put, she figured if she had to run the business alone, she would run it her way. The first thing she did was put up that sign on the door: No Booze Sold Here. If it cost her business, she reckoned, it was a price worth paying.
The next move Claudette made was showing up at church the following Sunday morning. She hadn’t been to church since her wedding day back in Arkansas. But she’d been brought up that way, so it wasn’t hard to find her way back. On Sunday mornings she stuck another sign on her glass door that read: See You In Church.
Gilbert Hawkins felt bad knowing his friend had died at the grill of his own truck. It wasn’t his fault, but he felt guilty about it anyway. At the funeral, he saw Claudette sitting up front dressed in black and wearing the same blank, weary look she wore when she had to get up in the middle of the night and cook a meal for him and Milton. His conscience gnawed at him over that, but he wasn’t a man of words and he didn’t know how to work up an apology. Figuring he would show her some respect by dropping in for breakfast, Gilbert stopped at Claudette’s Kitchen one Sunday morning and he saw her sign. He wasn’t a church-going man, but he decided to give it a try himself.
The sad news of Patty’s illness was a distress jointly shared among the church’s members. Her struggle was everyone’s struggle and fervent prayers for her went up every Sunday morning. Claudette did not know about Patty, but she felt the heavy shroud of grief as soon as she walked into the building. Moments later Gilbert took a seat in the back row directly behind her. He didn’t sense the sorrow in the air. He only felt conspicuous.
A woman with a round, kindly face noticed Claudette and went to her. Clasping her hands, she soothed, “It is so good to see you, honey.” It was Viola Chalmers.
When the songs started everybody stood. A pale little girl in front of Claudette kept turning around and smiling. She was holding her mother’s hand and she kept twisting her frail body around to sneak looks at Claudette. Her bright blue eyes laughed and sparkled. Perhaps it was the magnifying power of Claudette’s thick glasses that enabled Patty to see the vast emptiness in her puffy eyes, or maybe it was just a certain kind of knowing that people said Patty possessed. But with her own eyes resting on Patty, Claudette sensed her heart filling with a laughter that she hadn’t felt since she herself was a little girl. Who knows whose arms reached out first, but Claudette and Patty started squeezing each other while people all around them were singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.”
It was a joyous reunion that recurred first thing every Sunday morning when the two of them laid eyes on each other, and it continued until Patty was too ill to come to church anymore. Claudette claimed she knew that God gave her the gift of hugging the first time she hugged Patty. It was a gift she kept on giving long after Patty died.
Like the town itself, Claudette’s Kitchen lost its luster through the years. With the local economy declining, business was too poor for refurbishing it. The old, original checker-square floor tiles had warped with countless washings and a footpath had been worn around the center table. But it wasn’t dumpy, just high-mileage. It matched its simple surroundings and the townsfolk who remained in Elk Creek.
The long table running right down the middle of the restaurant’s floor was a change Claudette had made shortly after Milton died. Recalling his public rendezvous with ladies in private booths, she pulled out the tables and arranged them in a straight line. No more cozy chats at small tables. She wanted all of her customers to be seated at the same table and included in the same conversation. Like almost everyone else in Elk Creek, it was the kind of inclusion she craved.