A woman looked up from her black and white TV, looked at us with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment. She didn't speak. I spoke again.
"You're open, right?"
She stood and smoothed her apron and managed to produce what could be considered a smile. "Yes, we're open." She indicated a table, and four of us sat down. The restaurant was empty.
She turned the TV down and walked over with four menus.
"Slow night tonight?"
"This is my last night here," she said without any hint of emotion, as if she were telling me my shoe was untied.
I was slow. "Where are you moving?"
"I'm not. I'm closing my restaurant."
I was slower still. "Why?"
"The rent is high...prices are...not too many customers..." Her voice trailed off, and I understood. I felt embarrassed, and should have kept my mouth shut.
"I give you a few minutes to look at the menu, okay?" She didn't wait for an answer and walked to the kitchen to busy herself with something so she wouldn't be around us.
I stared at my companions. They stared at me. No one said anything as we skimmed the menus, all of us distracted and a little stunned by the cold fact that we were going to be her last customers.
After a few minutes she came back. "Do you know what you want?"
"Give us a few more minutes, please."
I fidgeted for a minute. "I'm sorry, I can't just sit here. Be right back."
I didn't go to the rest room, I stuck my head in the kitchen. "I know what we want. We want you to cook for us. Whatever you want to cook. Whatever you have in the refrigerator. We want that."
She stared at me. "But what do you want?" The concept was a strange one to her, but I insisted. "Whatever you want to cook, you cook. Your favorite things."
"Okay," she said. "You like seafood?"
"Ma'am, I'll eat almost anything."
She smiled. "Okay."
I sat down with my friends. "She's cooking whatever she wants to, and we're going to eat it."
We sat there for a few more minutes. Small talk failed. You can't chat about trivial things at a funeral, and we were unintentional mourners.
I got up again. "Sorry, I can't sit here." Again.
I stuck my head in the kitchen. "Ma'am?"
She turned and looked at me, not exactly surprised, but certainly curious, her eyebrows arched and eyes fixed on me. I believe she thought I was crazy.
The words came out. "Can I cook with you?"
"Can I cook with you? I'm bored." What I didn't add was that I didn't want her to be alone in the kitchen while she cooked her last meal. This was to be a wake, not a funeral.
She sized me up. "You want to cook."
"You know how to cook? Thai men they don't cook."
"I know a little, but I'd like to learn how you cook."
She stared again. Then she decided and started ordering me around like a drill sergeant.
"Okay, you wash your hands. There's an apron behind the door."
I did as I was told.
"Hi, my name is Darren."
"My name is Sally."
"Thank you, Sally."
She shrugged. She was chopping cabbage and heating up a large, non-stick skillet. No wok. The kitchen was small and clean and cozy with two cooks, especially when one is twice the size of the other. Sally was short and the counters were low.
"You like seafood, right?"
"Yes, I do."
"Good, there is a bag of scallops in the fridge. Do you know what scallops look like?
"They are in a clear container. Bring them here."
She was already putting some curry paste of some sort in the big skillet. "Watch this. When a ring shows up around the outside of the paste, you add the scallops. Don't let it get too hot." She kept her steady chopping of vegetables: cabbage, eggplant, peppers, onions.
Sally warmed up as we cooked together. I learned her husband was from Ogden, Utah, and she had five children, most of them out of the house, that her husband was a machinist who worked the graveyard shift.
"Does your husband cook?"
Sally laughed for the first time. "Men do not cook in my family. In Thailand no men cook at all. Cooking is for women."
"No men cook?"
She smiled again. "Not in my family."
Sally tossed some garlic and onion into another skillet, added some vegetables and after a few seconds, asked me to pour the scallop mixture into that pan. She stirred the scallops and poured it onto a platter. "Take it out. You should eat some."
I took it out and dropped it at the table. My companions looked at me in my apron, and there were several lame jokes about being promoted, missing my true calling, getting in touch with my inner Thai. Sally yelled at me from the kitchen "Don't forget rice! In the cooker!" I dished up a big bowl of rice. It wasn't going to waste.
I popped a rice ball in my mouth, grabbed a spoonful of scallops and trotted back to the kitchen. "What's next?"
Sally smiled and almost laughed. "You go sit down and eat! They leave you nothing."
"It's okay, I'm having fun. What now?"
"Noodles." Sally was already working on the next dish I recognized as Pad Thai. I said so.
She laughed, and it was a beautiful laugh, almost a cackle. We were having fun now.
I don't remember what else we cooked, or what we talked about, but I do remember Sally becoming comfortable enough to tease me about my height, my cooking, my stupid jokes, my curiosity. I teased her about her height, her knife that was as big as she was, her inability to see over the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room.
As I brought dish after dish, my companions craned their necks to see what was going on in the kitchen. We were laughing and chatting; they were eating, graciously saving me a little bit of each dish.
As we wound up the cooking lesson, Sally shooed me out of the kitchen. Apparently cleaning up was a one-person job. I ate my meal as Sally washed dishes. "How is the food?"
"Really good, Sally."
"If it taste bad it's your fault," she teased in a sing-song voice from behind the counter. I could see the top of her head and her eyes. They were smiling.
She finally came out and wiped her hands on her apron and sat in front of the TV again, watching some inane show, maintaining her distance as we finished our meal. Then she brought us the bill, and silently walked back to the kitchen.
The bill was for $48.00. For four people, including drinks and at least five large dishes that would have been double that had we been downtown. No one spoke as the twenties were slipped quietly out of wallets. $100 on the table, next to the bill. No one wanted change, least of all me.
As we shuffled in our seats to slide out and put on coats, she rose to take the bill and stopped at the sight of the little pile of twenties. "I get you change."
"No, that's your tip."
"No, that too much!"
"No, it's not. $50 for food, $10 for tip, and $40 for the cooking lesson."
Sally took the bill and quickly turned away toward the cash register. We fussed with our jackets and she went back to the TV, her distraction from the pain that in an hour, she would close and lock the doors forever.
I walked over to Sally, reached down and took one of her hands, and she looked up at me. Her face was beautiful.
"Thank you, Sally. I had a lot of fun tonight, and I think I learned something."
She smiled at me, patted my hand with her other and I suppressed the urge to pull her to her feet and embrace her, my new friend. Instead, I dropped her hand and walked back toward the door to join my companions. She called out to me as I stepped over the threshhold.
"You be sure to try Thai cooking at home, okay?"
The grand opening of a restaurant is a noisy affair, accompanied by fanfare, advertising, and snooty food critics noticing something bad about at least one thing so as to maintain their status as critics. The tablecloths are white and the décor is fresh, the menus crisp in their folders. It’s festive, like a baby shower.
The closing of a restaurant is nothing like that. It just…closes. No fanfare, no “going out of business” signs. Who would want to eat at a restaurant that is advertising its failure to feed people? A closing restaurant is like a geriatric patient dying alone in a nursing home. No fanfare, just an ending.
Still, I wouldn't trade my experience with Sally for a hundred grand openings.
I never saw Sally again.