by Marian Exall, 1754 words

Chapter 30

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, had no mother. She was born by parthogenesis from Zeus’ forehead. Her symbol is the owl. By association, owls have gained a reputation for wisdom, even by those with no knowledge of Greek mythology. The barred owl whose territory included the charred remains of the Excelsior Diner, as well as the nearby retired firehouse, the scene of this night’s dramatic fundraiser, was wise enough to recognize that the humans had the situation more-or-less under control, and his aggressive disposition and sharp talons would not be needed. His classic four-note call “who cooks for you?” faded away as he flew into the woods.

            Under control, that is, except for the previously motherless and currently transfigured Alice. She smiled adoringly up into the eyes of a lover only she could see. Meghan was at once happy that her sister had emerged from her colorless cocoon to become a beautiful butterfly, and concerned that Alice was exhibiting similar psychotic tendencies as their father Willoughby. When Meghan had first read the Ancestry.com file hidden in her grandmother’s basement, she had not known that the Willoughby Smyth whose genealogy it contained was Jeff Smith, named by her mother as her dad. Now she approached Phyllis, who had commissioned the research.

            “Alice and I need to get tested,” she hissed into Phyllis’ ear.

            Taken aback, Phyllis struggled to make sense of her granddaughter’s demand. Then she remembered the genetic information in the file. “It’s alright, honey! It was your DNA I sent to Ancestry to initiate the search. Your DNA doesn’t share the marker. You’re fine!”

            “But…” Meghan and Phyllis turned their eyes to where Alice was conducting an animated three-way conversation with her mother and Langdon, Amy gamely pretending she understood what was going on.

            “The delusions are episodic. And they’re treatable. King George III of England had the same condition,” Phyllis explained. “It’s a hereditary physical disorder called porphyria. It interferes with the body’s production of hemoglobin and injections of synthetic hemoglobin can cure it. Poor Alice, she must have been in such pain—there are physical symptoms too.”

            Meghan was furious. “You knew all this and said nothing?”

            “I wanted…I mean…” Phyllis stumbled around looking for an excuse but found none. Her desire to present their little family’s life as smooth and successful had led to secrets that caused serious damage. How would she ever get her daughter and granddaughters to forgive her?

            Amy joined the couple, her brow creased in a frown. “Alice says Jerome has met Langdon and his pals too. And that gold coin. I just don’t know what to think.”

            The three looked over to where Jerome was entertaining Bilan’s twins, their mother looking on with approval.

            “I don’t think this is the moment to confront Jerome, do you?” asked Meghan. Since meeting (re-meeting?) Alex, Meghan’s interest in Jerome had waned, although she’d still like to know something about his background.

            Amy sighed. “Jerome’s a recovering alcoholic. He had an abusive childhood and a spotty job history, but he’s a fabulous cook so I hired him anyway. But he had a lapse. He may have seen some customers in flannel shirts. He says they left the gold coin, but then he couldn’t remember what he did with it. He was drunk. He promises it won’t happen again.”

            “Gran, you have to tell Mom what you told me. We can get help for Alice.”

            Phyllis sighed. It was indeed time to let go. To let go of secrets and let go of control. Let the younger generations take charge.

The New Excelsior Diner staged its Grand Reopening on a bright late spring day six months after the fire that destroyed its former premises. The proceeds from the sale to a coin collector of the Peter the Great medal had kickstarted the rebuilding, but once Willoughby was indicted for the arson attack on the diner as well as other crimes, the insurance money had arrived to complete the process.

            Willoughby’s lawyer attempted an insanity defense, but once the porphyria problems were resolved with medication, his client was revealed as what he had always been, regardless of illness: a scumbag. He would remain a guest of the prison service for many years to come.

            Dwayne had finally passed the entrance exam for the police academy and was pursuing his dream, with the support and encouragement of his father. Tawfiiq had finished his residency with flying colors and Dr. Schwartz had taken him into his practice as a junior partner. Sven had revived the bar after the smoke had cleared, and was doing a great trade in a new cocktail he’d invented: the Flaming Excelsior, a brandy and vermouth concoction on which three coffee beans were set alight before serving. Imbibers had to blow out the fire before all the alcohol was consumed, which often resulted in singed eyebrows and nose hairs and much hilarity. Flora had found a new lover from the hard bodies who attended her hot yoga class, but she missed her daily Californian omelet and couldn’t wait for the diner to reopen.

            Amy had decided against rebuilding on the previous site of the Excelsior. That quarter acre had been donated to the city, cleared of rubble, and planted with trees. In time, the woods housing a growing family of barred owls would extend a finger right into downtown.

            Instead, she had taken over the old firehouse, the larger space where they had held the fundraiser. Now Jerome presided over a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen staffed by a sous-chef and a new dishwasher (who preferred to be called a commis de range). The front of house was as close to the original décor as Amy could source it, except that the red vinyl banquettes were no longer patched together with duct tape, and the black and white linoleum tiles on the floor didn’t curl up at the edges. The menus had been reprinted with several new items joining the traditional diner fare, and asterisks to indicate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. The new owl logo on the menus was reprised on the elegant pearl gray tunics worn by the waitresses over slim black pants.

            Bilan waited for the first customers to arrive with a frisson of nerves. She had worked hard at her English while the diner was closed, but she still made bloopers which embarrassed her, although they made Jerome and her daughters erupt with laughter. Formally engaged to Jerome, she had declined her brother’s offer to move to Seattle where he now had his own apartment. As soon as they could find a suitable house, she and Jerome would marry, although she would challenge tradition by continuing to work. She loved the diner. And she loved Amy, Meghan and Phyllis, who had given her a job that accommodated her need to be home for her daughters after school. They had also accommodated her desire to wear the hijab and arranged for one to be made in the same pearl gray fabric as her new uniform.

            Most of all she loved the new waitress, Alice. Bilan was given the responsibility of training Alice in skills needed to serve diner customers, and it had been difficult at first. The younger woman’s physical recovery had been straightforward, but her emotional adjustment took longer. She had lived her whole life deprived of love, feeling worthless, and unable to trust. The painful symptoms of her illness for which she had no name and had received no care, had led her to grasp at fantasy and delusion as an escape. Her health restored, she was slow to trust her new family. Amy had been tireless in assuring her long-lost daughter of her love, and Phyllis and Meghan had helped, showing affection in as many ways as they could think of. But it was with Bilan that Alice had finally blossomed. Given a job to do and a way to repay her new family for rescuing her, Alice determined she would be the best waitress ever. Bilan was thrilled to help her.

            “Ready?” Amy called from her accustomed place behind the cash register.

            “Ready!” came the chorus from kitchen and dining room. Bilan opened the door and the first customers entered.

“Well done, everyone!” Amy turned the “Open” sign to “Closed” and gestured the staff up to the counter. “Let’s take a moment to celebrate before we clean up.”

            Jerome and his helpers emerged from the kitchen. Hugs were exchanged all around, including with Meghan who had arrived in time to help with the lunchtime rush. Since she’d moved in with Alex, she no longer worked at the diner, although she made a point of frequently dropping in at home on Phyllis, Amy, and Alice, who occupied Meghan’s old bedroom.

            “I have some good news too,” Meghan said when the mutual felicitations had quietened down. “My book has been accepted for publication. It will be out in time for Christmas!” Meghan had finally put her English degree to work on a children’s book about twin Somali refugee girls and their adjustment to life in the Pacific Northwest. Only Bilan, her cultural consultant on the story, knew the details of the project, but Amy and Alice had noted Meghan’s new confidence and sense of fulfilment. They’d ascribed it to Alex, but now understood Meghan had found her true vocation.

            Amy’s phone rang interrupting the renewed round of compliments. “Hush, everyone! It’s Phyllis.” True to her resolution, Phyllis had stepped back from any role in the New Excelsior. She and Ted had been spending more time together, and had told Amy they were going to stay in Seattle for the long weekend while the Grand Opening took place.

            “Hello, dear. How did it go?” Phyllis’ voice was coming in and out and the Facetime image of her face was shaky. “Ted’s here too, He sends his best.”

            “How’s Seattle?” asked Meghan.

            “Well, I have a secret to tell you.”

            Amy and Meghan groaned in unison. “No more secrets, Mom!”

            “You might like this one.” Phyllis panned the phone away from her face and over a grinning image of Ted until it focused on a familiar tower in the background. “We’re in Paris! And we changed planes in Las Vegas on the way to get married!”

            The room erupted in cheers. Amy had to hold the phone to her ear to hear what Phyllis said next.

            “We found this charming little bistro for lease on the Left Bank. How about we open a nouveau New Excelsior in Paris?”