| Vacancies |

Vacancies: Chapter 10

To Naomi’s horror, Chani was walking toward them, apparently under the delusion that she was helping her little sister make a sale to these difficult customers


"So this is the famous Sunflower Café!” Chani gave an exaggerated whistle.

Naomi grinned. Her sister had called last week announcing a surprise visit. “Moish is going on a business trip next week, and Mommy offered to take the kids so that I could join him. I’d like to stop by on the way — haven’t been by my lil sis’s house in waaay too long.”

Chani was right; it really had been a long time since she’d been here. Watching Chani looking around in amazement now, she chuckled. “Last time you came to Bayton, I was still selling muffins from my kitchen. Things have changed since then, hmm?”

She looked around the cozy café with pride. This restaurant that she’d built entirely with her own initiative and creativity was exactly what she’d envisioned. She smiled, remembering the days when she’d insisted that she’d retain her simple values despite Chani’s ribbing that she’d moved to a New Yorky town.

“This may be geographically closer to New York than Memphis, but believe me, it’s nothing like New York,” she’d told her sister, bristling at what she was sure was the implication that she’d sold herself out. “This is exactly the sort of town where you can open a homey café, where people come for comfort food and comfortable conversation.”

This had been her dream — to recreate the warm, informal, neighborly environment that she’d grown up with.

Chani was giving herself a walking tour. “Nice,” she said, lifting a window curtain. “So pretty and flowery!”

Naomi stiffened. Just the other week, one of the gym ladies had commented that her curtains gave the café a mom-and-pop feel. Sleek, clean, modern décor, she’d suggested, would elevate the ambience. Annoyed, Naomi had shrugged off the woman’s advice. But later that night, she’d found herself online, checking out updated restaurant décor.

“And will you look at that adorable tea set?” Chani was standing next to the display shelves. She lifted up the painted china tea pitcher, and Naomi winced.

“Psshh, such a classy touch,” Chani said, waving the pitcher in the air just as the door opened to let in three of Chaykie’s gym ladies.

“Put that down, will you,” Naomi hissed. That was all she needed, for these chic women to hear her sister loudly proclaiming how classy Naomi’s decidedly unclassy café was. “Hiya, ladies! What’ll it be this morning? Just took muffins out of the oven.”

The three women sat down at a table, stretching their upper arms and rubbing their calves.

“Oh, Naomi,” one of them clucked. “There you go again, tempting us, as if you want us to put back every calorie we just burned off in spinning.”

“I’ll bet you and Chaykie have a conspiracy going,” another one laughed. “Chaykie’s classes leave us ravenous, and your food sends us right back to the gym!”

Naomi smiled politely. Then she heard a chirpy voice behind her.

“What’re y’all worried about? If I was as skinny as you, I’d eat three of Naomi’s muffins right now.”

To Naomi’s horror, Chani was walking toward them, apparently under the delusion that she was helping her little sister make a sale to these difficult customers. She gave Naomi a wink.

“Now, my personal favorite is the chocolate cheese, but the ginger pecan is also delicious, and the lemon blueberry reminds me of home, back in Memphis. But every single one is worth every calorie, I promise.” She waved her arm toward the glass muffin display case like a showman. “So, girls, what’ll it be?”


Naomi tried to ignore her gaping sister as she triumphantly plated the muffins. They were such a hit that two of the women ordered another one to go, not even blinking at the $6 price.

The morning was busy, and Naomi barely had time to talk to her sister, who was sitting on a stool by the counter, taking everything in. But at one point she saw Chani taking a bite of a spelt muffin (Hey, that thing costs me, she thought resentfully) and then putting it back down with a shake of her head.

Chani caught her staring. “I like the chocolate cheese better,” she said, then added, “I can’t believe those women. Skinny as a stick, and all they spoke about the entire time was their weight. How do you survive here?”

It was a question Naomi had asked herself many times, but suddenly she felt irritated.

“Just because they care about how they look doesn’t make them shallow,” she retorted. “Why, take the women who share this strip mall. Chaykie, the gym owner, goes out of her way to welcome newcomers — I still remember how she invited us for a Shabbos meal when we first moved in. And Laya, who owns that shoe store, she’s a really hard worker. I wish I had a fifth of her drive.”

Naomi stopped. Had she really just defended Laya, the designer shoe purveyor? The gym ladies and their obsession with appearance? All those women who were intolerably raising the bar in her once simple town?

She bit her lip. And what about herself? She’d just created a $6 muffin. Her sleek new window shades would be arriving any day. Was she, too, falling for the lure of the new and the trendy? Or was she just opening herself up to new ways of doing things?

Chani peered out the window. “Hey, I see the store next door is for sale. Any buyers?”

Naomi’s face darkened. “Not yet,” she said. Which reminded her — she, Laya, and Chaykie had a meeting scheduled for tonight.

The painted sign on the café door clearly stated that it was closed, but to be safe, Naomi drew the curtains so that no one from outside should see the three women and assume he could pick up a coffee.

She turned to Chaykie and Laya, “Okay, ladies, what’ll it be? On the house,” she added magnanimously.

Laya looked uncomfortable. “Nothing for me, thanks.”

Chaykie perked up. “Oooh, do you have any more of your new spelt muffins? All the women were talking about them.”

“Sorry, they sold out,” Naomi said. “But I have a carrot cream-cheese muffin left, if you’d like.”

Chaykie wrinkled her nose. “Nah, I never eat saturated fats this late at night.”

Laya cleared her throat. “Shall we start? We’re all here because we care about our businesses, and this vacancy represents an opportunity too important to leave in the hands of someone who isn’t personally invested in The Shoppes. Especially someone whose idea of an upscale tenant is a podiatrist.”

“Hey, Talia’s really sweet,” Chaykie objected. “It’s not her fault if we didn’t tell her what we want.”

“And who said we want upscale anyway?” Naomi muttered.

Laya reddened. “Eliana’s boutique would’ve been perfect if someone hadn’t—”

“Okay, okay,” Chaykie said hurriedly. “We’re here to brainstorm, not argue. We all agree that we want to have a say in who the new tenant should be. We also all agree that we don’t want to hurt Talia’s feelings — or anyone else’s. Right?”

Naomi nodded immediately. She’d had enough of this underhanded sabotage stuff. After a moment, Laya nodded, too.

“Great,” Chaykie said brightly. “So, let’s make a list of what we’re looking for and then we can brainstorm possibilities. Sound good?”

Naomi was pulling out a notepad when they all heard it: Music. Loud music. From very close by.

They exchanging mystified looks.

“It’s coming from next door,” Chaykie whispered. “Sounds like there’s a crowd of people in there.”

Laya’s face tightened as she turned to face the other two. “Well, ladies. Anyone want to guess why there’s a party going on in our vacant store?”

Coming next week: chapter 11 by Esty Heller

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 662)

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Tagged: Vacancies