Title: Food For The Soul
Warnings: None, really
Summary: Vin takes Ezra's advice.
Notes: Written for Cowboy Dreams Birch Challenge 05: The "setting" challenge. Make the setting central to your story. Inside or out of doors, seasonal, local or foreign climes - just spend a bit of time helping us to really see and feel where we and the boys are - and bonus points for making the place pivotal to the plot!
Vin checked the sign over the door as he approached. The Pink Tea Cup. Yup, this was the place. He stepped up to the door and made to push it open.
Then he caught a glimpse of the inside, and the view stopped him in his tracks.
He stepped back onto the sidewalk again and studied the entryway. The restaurant was small, just as he’d been told. A tiny nook in the rambling brownstones of the West Village street. The pale pink paint of the exterior, just a shade off of white really, was only somewhat visible behind the trees that occupied the sidewalk, but stepping up to the window again he got a very clear view of the interior and its pink walls, pink chairs, pink radiator – that sweet bright baby pink that reminded him of an infant’s nursery as decorated by an overzealous first-time mother.
It was hard to believe this was the right place.
Steeling himself he pushed the door open and stepped inside, at which point he realized there was more than just the pink. The left wall to the backside of the door was a dark red brick that gave the place a feeling of warmth. This wall was decorated with several tastefully positioned portraits or artworks depicting Martin Luther King Jr. Particularly striking was the Warhol-esque piece that was given a prominent central display.
The opposite wall was a dynamic contrast. This wall WAS pink, and covered with framed autographed photos of famous folks who had patronized the place: Isaac Hayes, Keith Crawford, Leslie Uggums, Diana Ross, the Destiny’s Child girls and Take 6 boys, Brook Shields, Tom Wopat, Denice Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopee Goldberg, NAS and Eric Benet. From PeeWee Herman to LL Cool J, the range was eclectic and certainly made for interesting viewing.
The far wall boasted the usual restaurant posters on how to save a choking victim and where to find the first aid kit. A large red-and-white sign announced that the restrooms could be found down the narrow spiral staircase located beside a large sliding-door cooler. A rack of selected teas sat next to an ancient coffee brewer and a chalkboard bearing some sort of strange doodle. A small polished wood counter held the register and a large plastic display showing off a humongous chocolate cake and a number of other delectable-looking desserts.
“Sit anywhere you like,” a voice greeted, and Vin turned to see a lanky young black man with a friendly expression watching from the far corner. “Just you?”
“Yup.” Vin selected the table in the far back left, sliding onto the long polished wood bench that stretched the full length of the wall along all the tables on that side. He glanced around the completely empty room, which crowded in no more than twenty tiny tables in all. “Ya always this quiet?”
The young man barked out a cheery laugh that immediately set Vin at ease. “No way! Tuesdays are always a little slower than other nights, but tonight it’s probably the rain. And it’s early, too.”
Vin glanced at the black-and-white wall clock. Seven was early? Well, in New York City it probably was, he conceded.
The waiter handed him a plasticized menu – also completely pink – and stepped away to give his customer some time while he poured a glass of water. Vin paused to look around a little more, still baffled by the place. Beside him sat a large and currently silent jukebox with artists like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, Anita Baker, Sam Cooke and Usher. From the kitchen drifted the strains of a radio station currently playing a Marvin Gaye tune, and a healthy dose of jovial conversation from at least three different voices, one possessing a cackling laugh.
“You look lost,” the waiter said as he set a small glass of water on the table.
“Just trying to wrap my head around this,” Vin grinned. “Friend of mine suggested this place, but seeing it was him I figured for something a little more… uppity.”
The waiter nodded, probably not really understanding but not asking more questions either. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“You got coffee?”
“I think the pot’s low, but I can brew more.”
“Nice and strong, if you got it.”
The waiter headed back to the kitchen, and Vin took a moment to glance at the menu, this time a little more prepared to be surprised. The most expensive meal on the menu was fifteen dollars, and most everything was fairly plain. Of course, now that he’d seen the place, he hadn’t really been expecting tuna tartar or sautéed foie gras, but somehow he was still impressed by the menu’s diverse offerings of traditional southern home cooking.
When Ezra had told him he simply HAD to make it down here to eat at least once during his two-week conference, he’d simply taken the subway instructions and nodded his thanks. He hadn’t asked what kind of place it was, figuring Ezra knew he’d been wearing his conference suit clothes and would be appropriately dressed. As for what kind of food, any place Ez recommended was bound to serve good grub, and Vin had eaten at enough of his fellow agent’s fancy haunts to know he enjoyed pretty much any food that was well prepared, so long as he could get a good beer to go with it. Now, as he watched the waiter returning with a coffee cup and pot, he realized that Ezra had really been recommending the place because it fit Vin’s tastes rather than his own. The waiter was neatly dressed, but his uniform consisted of black jeans and tennies and a black t-shirt. The food offerings were simple and solid; breakfast was served all day, the menu said, and the rest of the menu was your basic meat-and-potato style options.
Vin reached for his cell.
It only took three rings for a smooth voice to answer.
“Mister Tanner! How goes day three in New York City?”
“Well, ain’t shot no one yet, so I guess I’m doing good. Subways are a bitch.”
“And your lectures?”
“Okay. Hate putting on a show for all them rookies, but at least they ain’t throwing tomatoes.”
Ezra’s chuckle warmed Vin’s ear as surely as if he could feel the breath on his skin. “Ah, but that’s too bad – you could be eating healthy on their expense.”
Vin grinned, able to picture in his mind the twinkle in his friend’s eye.
“Speaking of eating.”
“Are you there?”
Vin suppressed a laugh at the way Ezra’s voice had taken on a slightly breathy quality, ripe with anticipation. “Yeah, got the whole place to myself actually.”
“I’m surprised. Whenever I have been there it has been nearly standing room only.”
“Gotta come on a Tuesday then, I guess. Waiter says it’s their quiet night.”
“So…” Ezra’s grew deeper and took on a wistful tone. “What are you having?”
“Ain’t decided yet. Thought you might have a suggestion or two.”
“Well…” He heard Ezra’s fingers ticking on a keyboard. “Hm, I see their menu has not changed.”
“Indeed. They have only been in business for fifty years in that vicious city of capitalism. They are most aware of the benefits of modern technology.”
“So, what are you recommending then.”
“Hm. How hungry are you?” Vin chuckled into the phone, and he could practically hear the shaking of Ezra’s head. “Never mind, you haven’t eaten since the conference-provided rubber chicken lunch, correct? Which means you are positively ravenous. Have you asked what today’s soup is?”
Vin caught the waiter’s attention. “What’s today’s soup?”
“Tell him you will have a bowl to start,” Ezra instructed. Vin complied and the waiter returned to the kitchen as Ezra continued humming into the phone as he considered. “You will then have the chicken and dumplings, with the collard greens and black-eyed peas.”
“Collard greens and black-eyed peas?”
“Do you trust me?”
Vin’s smile softened at the question, knowing that it was no longer backed with the uncertainty that once had been there. Now it was simply a rhetorical question, a reminder that Ezra Standish would never knowingly steer him wrong.
“Alright, greens and peas.”
“And you will also want a side of the corn and tomatoes, and the rice and gravy.”
“Corn and tomatoes? Who mixes corn and tomatoes?”
“My great-aunt Esther does, and you will like it, I promise.”
“You will probably prefer the creamy Italian dressing for your salad. I recommend having it on the side, as they are quite generous with the spoon and you prefer your greens less… what was the term you used?”
“Gooey,” Vin replied, knowing Ezra was making fun of him. They’d had dinner once at a restaurant that had practically coated every last leaf of the salad with a heavy dressing, and Vin had made quite a fuss about receiving one with ‘less goo’ on it. Ezra had found it one of the most amusing moments of their evening together, and occasionally returned to the topic when his playfulness emerged.
“Ah yes, *gooey*,” Ezra repeated, his voice light and taunting. “Who would ever imagine that *you* would be a person who had problem with… goo.”
Vin felt himself blushing slightly. “Ez, I’m in public, ya know.”
“And I am in the office with Mister Wilmington sitting only ten feet away.
“What are you still doing there anyway? Figured you’d have bolted for the door at the stroke of five, having to be in at nine sharp and all.”
“Indeed.” Ezra’s voice betrayed the sour look that surely graced his face. “In fact, we are awaiting Mister Larabee’s return from his afternoon budget meeting.”
“Cross-teams seminar this morning, and budgets this afternoon?” Vin whistled low. “Shit, ya’ll are taking him to Inez’s to chill, ain’t ya?”
“Mister Wilmington begged us not to leave him alone with the man in his anticipated mood. And after all, one can never have Buck owing them too many favors.”
Vin grinned as the waiter sat a steaming bowl of soup in front of him. He paused his conversation with Ezra to give his order, then took a long sniff of the savory aroma assaulting his nose. A stir with his spoon also brought a small surprise.
“Damn, there’s a chicken leg in my soup!”
“Of course, Mister Tanner,” Ezra’s voice replied with a touch of envy. “That is true homemade chicken soup, from scratch. Absolutely nothing from a can or prefabricated mixture. Simply a chicken boiled down to the wit, lovingly seasoned and then joined with hand-made noodles. Only your sainted grandmother could do any better.”
Vin took a tentative sip of the steaming broth from his spoon and sighed in spite of himself. “Damn.”
“Indeed.” Ezra sounded almost depressed at the idea of Vin enjoying that which he himself could not.
“So how’s you come by this place, Ez? Don’t seem like the sort of thing you’d wander into on your own.”
“As a matter of fact, I did. During my training in Quantico, Mother was enjoying her fourth marriage to a Wall Street aficionado and so I spent many a weekend taking the shuttle to New York. Often Mother’s plans would change on a whim, as you are aware yourself that they often do, leaving me ample time to wander the city on my own. One late summer evening I had lost numerous hours haunting the West Village’s many eclectic little shops, and was desperately in need of nourishment, yet none of the various foreign cuisines touted by the restaurants in the area appealed. I simply made a random turn down a random street, and found myself in front of this quaint little pink store front.
“The door was open, and I could not mistake the smell of homemade chicken and dumplings; it reminded me of a Sunday dinner at my great-aunt’s at her little farm house outside of Atlanta. I spent a summer there as a child, and every Sunday she had a houseful of relatives and neighbors and the whole day was dedicated to the cooking and eating of innumerable traditional Southern delicacies. Naturally, I was intrigued and found myself a table in the very crowded place. The music was playing, the diners were boisterous and cheerful, and the food was divine. Ever since, I have made it back to that lovely eatery as often as possible, which alas, is not as often as one would like. I even considered purchasing a brownstone in the area once, if only for the excuse to visit more often.”
Vin heard a soft sigh, barely audible through the telephone connection. “Well gee Ez, I’m here for the next two weeks. Any chance you could ask Chris for a long weekend?”
Ezra paused before responding. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm in asking, is there? At worst he says no.”
Vin grinned and made a mental note to leave Chris a message requesting he approve Ezra’s request. Chris was the only one of the team who officially knew of his budding relationship with their undercover man, although he suspected Buck and Josiah were both more aware than they let on. So far Chris had been supportive and encouraging, and Vin suspected that if he asked as well that Chris would do his best to make the trip possible.
“Be nice not to have to wait two weeks to see you again,” he said softly.
He could hear the gentle smile on his lover’s face. “That it would.”
There was a soft scuffling on Ezra’s side of the conversation, and a distant voice. “Vin, I’m afraid I must go. Mister Larabee has just stalked through the office, and Buck has decided it is time to drag the man kicking and screaming out of here.”
“Go to it, then,” Vin laughed. Larabee could be a bear when he’d had to spend the day jousting with the suits, and he didn’t envy his coworkers one bit. “Watch his teeth – man tends to bite when he’s ornery.”
“I shall pass along that advise to our friends, as I have no intention of getting close enough to be worried.”
“Alrighty. Talk to you later?”
“I shall call you from home this evening.”
Vin smiled. The two had spoken every night so far – all three of them – and he didn’t like to think of that routine changing. He said his goodbye just as the waiter was setting down a small salad in front of him and a plate of fragrant biscuits. He dug into his soup with more attention, alternating with bites of his salad which he’d carefully drizzled with the dressing from the side cup. He’d gotten about half-way through his appetizers when his phone rang again.
“I forgot to mention. Make sure you leave room for dessert – as if room with your stomach is an issue. They have bread pudding, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler which is all too delectable for words.”
“Will do. Thanks, Ez.”
“Anytime, Mister Tanner.”
They hung up again, and Vin glanced up as the waiter approached with his food. Two large plates piled with his order and sides, and his stomach rumbled appreciatively. He considered his food against the idea of dessert, and grinned.
Yeah, he should have room for one of each.
Note: There is indeed a restaurant called The Pink Tea Cup in the West Village, and it is one of my all-time favorite places to eat. Now in its third generation of operation by the same family, it is very pink, inside and out. The chairs are no longer pink, replaced by wood last year spring, but the outside is now much less pink than the bright color it used to be. The music in the jukebox is strictly rhythm and blues, and the staff are all friendly, fun people. Best of all, you get way too much food for sinfully little money (at least, for NYC!) and I could easily picture both Ezra and Vin perfectly at home in the place. It is in fact standing room only on weekend mornings, and very crowded on the average weekday evening and at lunch. Tuesday nights before my jazz class, though, were usually quiet – perfect for writing fanfic.
The Pink Teacup.