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Armando and Johnny

One star.

Worst restaurant in town! Totally disappointed by my whole experience. The waitress was obviously bored and barely paid attention to our table all night. Lasagne had tough edges but was cold on the inside, risotto was tasteless and rubbery, garlic bread was stone cold. We were charged for drinks we didn’t order, and the waitress argued with us instead of correcting her mistake. Would never have dinner at Johnny’s again!!

 

Jennifer posted the review, heart racing, and logged out of the account she’d created only minutes ago. Refreshing the page rapidly, she was disappointed to see the average review of Raymond’s Italian hadn’t immediately dipped. She contemplated creating another account, but it was almost five o’clock, and she could hear her staff milling in the kitchen. She would need to start issuing directions for the night soon, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave the tiny cramped office she spent her days.

 

Jennifer had inherited Armano’s Family Restaurant from her father when he’d passed away two years ago. She had fond memories from high school, twenty years earlier, of lazily waiting tables, earning decent tips and flirting with the busboys. Back then Armano’s had been bustling with life, everything was new, everyone was young and the nights were bright and full. When Armano Sr died, Jennifer’s brothers had wanted nothing to do with the restaurant, that was left to them in a three way split, one completely washing his hands without care for what he was owed, the other had sold his third. Jennifer and her husband Mark had taken out a second mortgage on their home to buy him out. Two years ago everything had seemed possible. Now she was leaving fake reviews on her rivals’ business pages with the hope it might draw a single customer to her own failing business.

 

“Hey, Jennifer?” Cassie, a tiny seventeen-year-old waitress who worked two shifts a week was peeking through the gap in the manager’s office doorway. Behind her, her fellow waitresses stood nervously, “Um, we didn’t get paid yesterday?”

Jennifer spun around in the rickety decades old chair she couldn’t afford to replace.

“What do you mean?”

“Um,” Cassie’s wide eyes darted around, searching for words, “Our pay isn’t in our accounts?”

Jennifer’s eyes flickered, and she lost vision for a moment. This was something that had started recently, and she had been meaning to go to her doctor about it but couldn’t quite explain it. Stress blindness?

“I’m so sorry, I must have forgotten to post the payments,” She lied, because she’d absolutely scheduled them on Monday, “Listen, I’ll pay you all cash tonight, and I’ll make sure they’re scheduled as usual from next week. I’m sorry girls.”

Cassie smiled sweetly, and thanked her, and Jennifer felt a resentment to the other girls who had forced the confrontation duties onto their youngest co-worker.

“This is so sketchy.” Someone whispered, and Jennifer’s eyes flickered again.

 

Of course, she knew it was sketchy, and the thought that she couldn’t pay wages was terrifying. What was equally terrifying was the thought of her entire staff coming to her over the next few days asking where their pay was, and having to scrounge the cash to pay everyone, because she knew exactly how little cash there safe between the register out front and the safe by her feet. A large part of her wanted to throw in the towel, both for the night, and for the restaurant in general. She rubbed her eyes deeply, until fireworks burst through the blackness, and before she could decide what she was going to do, she heard a slap at the door.

Her eldest daughter Isabel had a habit of slapping doors instead of knocking, and it was something that bothered Jennifer more than she wished.

“Can we have a lasagne?” Isabel asked.

Jennifer turned and saw Isabel with Chiara and Sandro, the twin middle children of the family.

“Two?” Sandro added. He was wearing his soccer uniform and Jennifer knew he was probably ravenous from two hours of after school practise.

“Isn’t there food at home?” Jennifer replied, exasperated. Bringing home food from the restaurant had been something her father had done her entire life, and her own kids were used to having the pick of the crop for desserts and meals, and Jennifer was convinced this was at least part of the reason for Armando’s haemorrhagic accounts.

“Dad said we could pick up dinner here.” Isabel said simply.

Jennifer sighed. She had always handled the money and was doing her best to make sure Rick didn’t know just how bad the situation was. She knew it wasn’t fair to blame him for something he didn’t know, but a resentful part of her heart still did.

“Okay, but only one, if you’re still hungry after that make sandwiches.”

Sandro kicked the ground petulantly.

“Oh, and my gas light’s on.” Isabel continued.

Jennifer stared at her for a moment.

“So put gas in your car.”

“Can I have money?”

Jennifer’s eyes flickered again. It had been happening on an off for at least a few months, from memory, but it was definitely happening more often, too often, now. Her father had spoiled his grandchildren from the day they were all born. He had never visited without a treat, and often brought around over-the-top gifts like new bikes and consoles. But Jennifer had always thought she and Rick had raised them well. But she was noticing now that they were entitled. Where had that come from?

“I have ten dollars.” Jennifer said reaching for her purse and her tone clipped.

“That’s not going to fill my tank.” Isabel whined, and Jennifer fought to keep her vision steady. Where had this attitude come from, she could have sworn her children were never this bad.

“You can fill it tomorrow, that’s more than enough.”

Without thanks Isabel snatched the bill from Jennifer’s hand.

“Oh and Caitlin’s doing mani-pedis for her birthday, so I need ninety dollars for that as well.”

By the time Jennifer had recovered from her most prolonged bout of stress blindness yet, her children had left without saying goodbye. She put her head in her hands, and couldn’t help noticing the ends of her hair, split and damaged. She’d abandoned her bi-monthly hair appointments over a year ago, and as a result her hair crunched like straw if she gripped the ends. She had never imagined her life being like this. Barely making house payments, barely able to pay her staff, barely keeping herself together.

 

Cassie reappeared at her door, and Jennifer didn’t know how long she’d been fruitlessly scrolling through the accounts looking for spots to tighten the home budget, wondering if she could let some staff go and have the kids fill in the night shifts.

“Um, Jennifer? Johnny from Johnny’s Bistro is here and wants to talk to you? And Isabel took forty dollars from the register and said it was ok?”

Jennifer heart skipped several beats. How had he known? She hoisted herself up from the ancient chair, and walked into the restaurant; there were only two tables occupied, and Johnny standing by the door.

 

Jennifer and Johnny had graduated in the same class in high school. Johnny had gone to Harvard Business and opened his own successful bistro. Jennifer had married Rick and had Isabel less than two years later. Johnny’s Bistro was two blocks down the street, had been consistently successful, was always packed. It was like Johnny hadn’t made a wrong move in twenty years, while Jennifer had plateaued until making the worst decision of her life, keeping Armando’s open.

 

“Johnny.” She greeted frostily.

“Hey Jennifer,” he replied, at least not sounding irate, “Let’s go outside.”

She looked at him warily, but took a step toward the door.

They stopped on the footpath together, Jennifer pulling her old cardigan closer around her.

“Look,” Johnny started, “I know you left that review, I’m not mad, I just want you to delete it.”

Jennifer flushed bright red, her heart skipping.

“How bad are things?”

She was taken aback.

“We’re doing fine.” She snapped quickly, embarrassed.

Johnny rested his hands on his hips, his white shirt sleeves rolled to his elbow.

“Jenn…” Nobody called her Jenn, not even Rick, “Listen, I know your dad was struggling. I offered to buy him out a few years ago, but he was too proud. And I know you’re exactly like your dad. I’m here to give you an offer-”

“I don’t want your offer, Johnny.” Jennifer interrupted.

“I knew you’d say that.” Johnny smiled, “But I want you to know that an offer’s waiting for when you’re ready. And also, your head cook’s going to hand in his resignation today. He’s coming to work for me.”

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