Open 27 Hours

by LP Kindred
Issue 10: Afrofuturism | 4,433 words

constellation, © vector punch/Adobe Stock

“It had pops of habanero-like spice immediately calmed by the subdued dulce of roast sweet potato. You got lemony shots of citric acid alongside amandine crunches. The dish was studded with cubes of meat I was too young to name then and I’m now too old to recall. Nobavgo casserole is the single most amazing thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.”

D’Sheadra laughs a laugh that starts in her pinky toe. Her hands flail around the leather-clad booth before slapping the dark-grained table. “What the fuck is a nagabovgoat?” she wheezes. The wall behind the booth is lined with panels between dark wood frames; each panel boasts a photo from the Rat Pack, who croon quietly beneath D’s continued raucous laughter.

“Nobavgo,” I correct, wilting. “I just wanted to know if it sounded familiar to you,” I say, swallowing the lump in my throat. “It was the last meal I ate with my mom.” I breathe deeply to calm the water rising in my eyes.

I look at Citrine, hoping for comfort. Her face shows neither amusement nor sympathy. Her almond eyes flatten like she’s looking at something far away, like she’s looking through me into the horizon. I turn around. Just a few squares in suits behind us. And when I turn back, she’s wiping her mouth, eyes closed.

“You mean to tell me between starring in and then dropping out of culinary school, creating a career as a food tourist blogger, and becoming a legit food writer you couldn’t find any of this fictional casserole anywhere in the world? D’s sudden calm tone undergirds the query.

She pauses to consider further. “Have you traveled to Fillory? Narnia? Oz? I hear the food is good in Wonderland, but you get bigger real quick!” D’Sheadra bursts into harder laughter.

I squeeze my face real hard, trying to suppress the snicker, ‘cause that shit was funny.

“Where’d you have it?” Citrine asks. Her pipey soprano squeaks, concerned.

“If I knew where I had it, I wouldn’t have to ask y’all, would I?” I snap at Citrine, who visibly reels back. “I’m sorry. I try so hard to remember but… I don’t know girl. I was eight? Maybe nine? I remember the flavors like I remember my Mama’s face. But I don’t remember other details, like my Mama’s voice.”

Citrine’s yellow undertones bloom red, and she fidgets with the butter knife while avoiding eye contact. I sigh to myself, annoyed by my misplaced agitation. I’d describe Citrine as skittish at the best of times, but right now she’s like a bird pecking at the ground before a start causes her to fly away.

Finally catching her breath, D’ bursts in, “Okay, okay, I’m done dragging your foolery, girl.” She searches under her coat to find her pocketbook. “Ooof,” she says, “that was good. Now I don’t have to do abs with my trainer today.” Looking up from her lap, she says, “All right y’all. Post-grace? I’m thankful for good love and good shoes and upward mobility.” D’ is the general manager at a busy, Italian steakhouse off the Magnificent Mile.

“I’m thankful for good friends who will help with research,” I say, glaring at D’ who swallows a laugh. A grin escapes me. “I’m also thankful for expense accounts because I’d be pissed if I didn’t get paid to eat this.” The plate of broken béarnaise and overcooked lobster glares at me.

“Chil’, somebody should call the police because this was a crime against all crustacean kind,” D’ says, before and after sucking something out of her teeth.

Citrine says, “I’m thankful for good times and good friends, medium-rare filets, and nobavgo casserole.” But that word wasn’t “casserole.” It had five syllables, like “kah-EE-sah-AH-ro” with a throat-clearing R. She looks at me finally, no longer peering through me. It feels like she’s been searching my mind.

I wonder what my face says.

D’ Brings me back to the moment with a cackle. “Ooh, Citrine! You ain’t shit!”

The server interrupts D’s outburst with the check. D’ and Citrine pay the tip and I expense the meal, signing the check Yanese Danielle Pritchard. We’re under Chicago’s windchill in 2.5 minutes.

“All right, ladies,” D’ says. “I’m looking forward to next week and a reservation confirmation email before Wednesday. No more ‘Oops, I forgot’ from you, Yanese.”

“Bye girl,” I say to her, flipping the glove-clad bird in her direction. When I turn back to Citrine, she’s gone. I look up and down the sidewalk, around the corner, across the intersection. She’s GONE-gone.

Which isn’t uncommon for her. But I wanted to ask her how she didn’t know the dish but knew its pronunciation.

I start to text, but who wants to invite a girlfriend to make fun of her?

Besides, I have no time to interrogate her behavior. I had a deadline at Chicago Eats and a listicle for ‘Go due in days. So, my mind’s occupied.

Should be occupied.

I’m at my WorkSpace hot desk when I hear Citrine’s voice in my head. “Nobavgo ‘casserole’” sounded so familiar and so right when she said it.

My gPhone buzzes.

“Who took you to Miss Birdie’s?” I read the message and I am assailed by forgotten memories.

I can see Miss Birdie, elderly but not frail. Silver hair pulled up underneath a chef’s hat, with smooth skin infringing on the wrinkles of her paper-bag brown skin. Her dress is a snow-blinding chef’s coat with a long, pleated skirt underneath. She glides through the room with a plate in each hand and another tucked into the crook of her left elbow. When the memories of the smell begin to cohere, my phone buzzes again.

The text says, “46th and Prairie. 8 tonight.”

I’m only able to type, “Citrine, what kind of foolishness is” before I get another text.

“I can get you Nobavgo Kaissaaro tonight. Don’t be late.”

I click my phone screen to black. I push through writing, or try to, but my mind meanders. I keep thinking of the words nobavgo kaissaaro. When I look at them on my phone screen, I remember hearing them as a bookish brown girl, wondering how they were spelled.

More than that, I’m bothered by not remembering more than Miss Birdie’s stature, her grace. Her image came to me so easily after reading her name once. How could I have forgotten for so long something that feels so tangible, visceral now?

I type and send one word. “Bet.”

••••

It’s 7:57 p.m. and this neighborhood isn’t the kind you want to bring a Louis bag to. Citrine, who is always punctual, stands on the corner in her lavender trench, looking like a target. I walk closer to her and say, “Girl.” She looks at me. Her dark face looks like it’s staring into the past and the future at the same time.

A chill runs down my spine while she turns to walk away. She’s five paces ahead when I think to follow. I struggle to trail her little-legged ass. She’s covering a lot of ground.

We walk up on a restaurant. I don’t know the establishment, but I don’t not know it. I definitely know this neighborhood. It’s the Low End. 46th and Prairie.

New construction wouldn’t be a surprise with the way they’re “revitalizing Bronzeville.” “Revitalizing” is code for pricing out businesses and families situated here for generations. Stealing the lakefront wasn’t enough; now they want lakefront-adjacent property too. Bronzeville is that historic neighborhood farther north, but new residents don’t care about the borders of the historic area.

The marquee flashes in neon and decay. “Miss Birdie’s Café. Est. –. Open 27 Hours.”

Ain’t shit about this restaurant new. It has that gravitas of an old-ass, Black-ass institution, like an old church or some shit.

“What is this?” I ask as she pulls the door open and walks in. Her expression challenges me to walk through.

I step in. Percussion bangs beneath an alto’s melisma, filling the space between beats in a language I don’t recognize. But I feel the melody. My heart races in time. I hum along under my breath.

I lay my hands on the laminate counter and close my eyes. In between my breaths, I can feel Mama’s hand on top of mine. The scent of mustard greens drifts over fatback, and I can almost smell the Egyptian musk she wore.

“Yanese,” Citrine calls, her voice urging. She follows a pink-and-brown-clad waitress.

As I catch up, my eyes land on a cute couple. He wears what looks like a necklace on a lion’s mane afro. The gold, diamond-shaped pendant centers on his forehead. He smiles at the woman opposite him like he’s never seen a sunrise before.

The woman caresses his face with the guile of a serpent, her half-up hair weaves and coils into a crown of locs while cascading across her bare shoulders. Her back is a mosaic of tresses, umber skin, and the bright pink-orange of a strapless dress. I’m getting cold just looking at her.

The color-clashed waitress leads us past the old school countertop, walking us to a booth on the back wall. Citrine allows me to sit with my back to the wall, per usual. This is how I watch the flow of restaurants.

The scuffed, brown table features pink paint in the locations and shapes of a dinner plate, cutlery, and a water glass. The waitress seats us at the two-top. I snatch up my menu, hungrily. DMV crab cakes, salmon croquettes, hoppin’ john, hoecakes, sweet potato soufflé, and, of course, mustard greens with fatback. My stomach leaps at the words I read. Glyphs from an alphabet I don’t recognize underline the descriptions, like translation beneath English at a Thai spot.

“We will order from the later menu.” The tenor in Citrine’s voice startles me. It’s more present, more forceful.

I’m more startled when the waitress looks at me with a side-eye that accuses me of making her man buy me a condo in my name. She looks back at Citrine and says, “No.”

“The later menu, please,” Citrine says firmly.

The waitress shades me with her eyes once more before turning back to Citrine. “I said, no.”

Citrine launches into a flurry of tongue clucks and utterances I don’t recognize. No language I’ve heard and definitely not one I’ve heard from her. The waitress, not a punk, clucks and leans in.

Chil’, the death glare Citrine gives numbs my left pinky toe. The waitress snatches my discarded menu and storms off, hips swaying into the distance.

I duck slightly in my seat, but once-mousy Citrine finds an extra two inches in her spine. The other patrons’ eyes follow the exiting waitress until they’re not staring at the booth any longer.

Citrine divests herself of her lavenders, folding her trench into a compact square. Silent as if there’s nothing to explain.

“So we’re not going to discuss that you, fluently, speak in tongues?” I ask. “And why was she mad about me having the late-night menu?”

“Later,” Citrine says.

“No, we’re sitting in the restaurant now with no water and no menus. She needs to come back with menus, ASAP.”

Citrine smiles like she’s condescending to a toddler. “No, it’s not the ‘late-night menu,’ it’s the ‘later menu.’”

“We don’t have the now menu, the later menu, the late-night menu, morning after menu, or any water, so I don’t know what difference the distinction makes.”

“Yanese,” she laughs bigger than I’ve ever seen her. “Calm down. You’re not reviewing this diner.”

“The hell I’m not!” I say. “I couldn’t find this place for the better part of twenty years, and it’s a hidden gem. Like, literally hidden.”

Her elbows find the table, and her fingers steeple before her mouth. “You can’t review Miss Birdie’s Diner.”

“The. Hell. I’m. Not. And I wish a bitch would try to stop me,” I say while surveying the room, taking in its weight. “Have you brought D’Sheadra here?”

“No, I haven’t.” Citrine sets her jaw and says, “I don’ have to try.” At my look of confusion, she continues, “To stop you. You will not review this restaurant if you want to return to it.” She grasps her glass of water, triumphant in my silence. A glass that was absent a moment ago. I look from her to the water in the glass at my two o’clock, on the space painted for it. Before I can fix my lips to ask what the hell is going on, she asks, “Don’t you love this song?”

I want to dismiss the question. I have questions. But the song is so pretty. I shut my eyes. I do that when trying to internalize an experience sensually. Textures, memories, flavors, instruments, and voices.

And the alto I heard in the music when we entered is the same alto, but I understand her now. I mean, her English is a little accented, but I understand her.

“That’s the same singer, but is this the same song?” I ask as I open my eyes. The distance to the walls and ceilings, the heights of countertops, and the depth of booths are the same. But the lines of dirt worn into the tiles of the flooring form a mosaic that shifts as people step. When shapes collide, their colors and lines blend.

I take in the room again. The puckered walls are now flush, and they glow unobtrusively. The overhead lighting has disappeared entirely. And the electrical tape that held our brown booth to the pink piping gives way to what might as well be a fur, it’s so soft.

“Her name is Alua Kincade,” Citrine says from her chest, more mezzo than I ever heard, compared to her normally crystalline voice. I look to her, puzzled. Her dark brown hair hangs in an asymmetrical bob, not the signature bun she wore into the diner. Her makeup is gone. She’s fresh-faced.

The moment falls over me like an avalanche. My eyes dart from the décor to her to the countertop to the table to the water glasses. “Girl, was that wig in your clutch this whole time?” I ask.

“Have you been here before, Yanese?”  she asks, searching me again.

Frustrated by her dodging, I say, “Citrine, what the hell just happened, CiCi?”

Citrine’s eyebrows furrow. “What are you talking about?”

“So now you speak in tongues and change hair in public when my eyes are closed, but we’re gonna pretend it’s all good?” I pick up my glass. “What’s in the water, Citrine?” I ain’t tryna do that Medina!”

“You mean MDMA?”

“I mean, stop playing… with… me…” I lose my train of thought because of the cute couple sitting at the counter. Citrine turns to follow my awestruck gape.

At the same time, the man of the couple at the countertop turns to us. The man sees Citrine’s face first. His furry, upper lip rises, revealing teeth for gnashing and ripping, more lion than leonine, and… He’s smiling.

Pointing a lion’s hand in our direction, he both says and howls, “Eury, look!”  

The strapless-dressed woman with the updo turns, and every tendril of her locs undulates and writhes. The tips of each end in little mouths, opening, closing, hissing, and flicking forked tongues. From my seat, I can see her almond but yellow eyes, bisected by black vertical irises.

The most disturbing part is when her smile lands. She says, “Hey Citrine, how are you, girl?” Her cadence is Southern Belle, but the words aren’t anything I’ve heard. I understand, nonetheless.

“Eury! Nemeo!” Citrine calls back, smiling and waving. I know they’re talking, but I couldn’t tell you what was said. Not from not understanding, but because this must be my psychotic break.

Citrine turns to face me again, smiling, and I wonder what my face looks like.

“He’s a lion,” I say, listening to my voice shake. “And…” Her hair is all snakes. My eyes bounce from Citrine back to the couple. They catch my wild-eyed stare and pointing. Like a light switching on, I become vividly aware of not wanting them to come over, and my walls go up. My pointing hand falls.

But I stage whisper at Citrine. “What the fuck did you bring me to?”

As calm as she’s composed, Citrine picks up her steaming tea cup and takes a cautious sip before saying, “Miss Birdie’s Café.”

“Where the hell did that tea come from?” I mutter between gritted teeth.

“Miss Birdie’s the longest open soul food spot,” Citrine says, smiling like a serial killer, but a Black woman who kills serially. If such a thing were a thing.

I’m not sure if I’m more stunned by Negro the Lion and Medusa Jenkins waving to my friend or my friend pretending nothing is amiss. I search her words for something true, something I know, something real I can hang onto.

“No, I’ve been to Florida Ave Grill,” I say. “It’s in D.C., and it’s the first.”

“Florida Ave is the first,” she says, “but Miss Birdie’s is the longest open.” Did she just say 2+2 isn’t 4 because it’s 4?

“Have you ever heard of a tesseract?” Citrine asks.

“Tessa Racks?!? I don’t want any more trash-ass femcee recommendations right now. Where the hell did you bring me?”

Citrine smiles, and her voice could charm a snake when she says, “No, a tesseract. Hypercube? Four-dimensional representation of a square?” I stare at her like I did when she tried to introduce me to Lady Sovereign. “Think of it like D’s walk-in closet. You think there’s no way she’ll fit another stiletto or winter coat in there. But somehow, she still manages to close the door after another Amazon binge.”

“Okay…?”

“Instead of stuffing panty hose and cocktail dresses into a closet, Miss Birdie stuffed time in here,” Citrine says.

“So, it’s not the first soul food spot, but” I ask more than I say.

“But it’s a soul food spot that exists everywhen except before Florida Ave opened,” she says, looking relieved that I understand. (I don’t understand at all.) “That’s how you can see the black gorgon here.” Her head feints toward Eury. My face must say, “Huh?” She continues, “Black gorgons don’t come out of hiding for another forty years.”

“But why me?” I ask. “Why am I here?”

“Because it’s the best extant soul food, and you love soul food.”

“Extant?” I ask.

“In all existence. That’s how I knew you were at Miss Birdie’s. Explorers don’t discover Nobavgo from planets orbiting black holes until we find planets orbiting black holes. Another, what? Two hundred years? Don’t get me started on how long it takes for Black Folks to learn to purpose it.” She pauses.

“What?” I ask. Then I see her. Same smoothness in conflict with wrinkles. Hair swept up into her chef’s hat. Same sparkling white chef coat falling onto a long and pleated skirt above white stockings on brown skin above white orthopedic shoes.

Miss Birdie looks as angelic as she did when I saw her as a child. More so now because now I see the white, feathered wings that flow up from her back, bending down to brush her triceps and calves. They just follow her like a shadow as she carries three dishes to our table.

“Here you go, Citrine, baby,” she says, landing an empty plate and bowl at 11 o’clock across the table from me. I don’t breathe. My heart stops. I am a sitting statue. “And for you, dear,” she says to me. Once my empty, shallow bowl is on the table, she looks at me again, then toward the door and back to me. “Is that Yanese Young-Pritchard?” she says to Citrine while examining my features.

I feel seen, overseen, exposed, confused. “I am Yanese Young,” I say, resting on the full stop before I feel Citrine kick me under the table. “Ma’am.”

“My, my,” Miss Birdie says, “you will blossom into a beautiful young woman, don’t you?”

Citrine kicks me under the table again, reminding me to breathe and speak. “Thank you, ma’am,” I say, confused about the shift in tense. “You look beautiful too, ma’am.”

“Child, I’m a woman out of time. I better.” She laughs or caws or maybe a mixture of both before saying, “Y’all enjoy now, y’hear?” Then she turns to me and says, “Don’t be a stranger, Yanese.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you make sure to show her how to get back, Citrine,” Miss Birdie says.

When Miss Birdie is out of earshot, I take a moment to swallow my saliva. I watch as she flexes her wings, a small stretch, I think. “Oh my God.” I might have also swallowed my vocabulary. “Miss Birdie is…”

“Feather winged, yes. And she’s the sole proprietor of this establishment.”

“She’s exactly how she was when I saw her, like, what? Twenty years ago?” I say in awe. “How much longer can she be the sole proprietor? Someone else will have to take over, right? She must be at least ninety years old, but she looks like she did when I—”

Citrine interrupts, “Not S-O-L-E, as in only. S-O-U-L, as in the tesseract is powered by her life force to maintain her age throughout trading hours.”

Snarkily, I parrot, “Through trading hours?”

“It’s open 27 hours.”

I look out the window, not expecting to see the sign. But knowing it’s there makes me feel better, like something makes sense. “There are only 24 hours in a day.” I regret saying it before I finish the sentence.

“Produce and proteins get delivered on a 27-hour cycle, but since it’s time-displaced, it might be the same delivery every 27 hours. I was never entirely certain on how that part worked. Speaking of which, look what we have here,” she says, motioning to the shallow bowl sitting in front of me filled to the brim with Nobavgo Kaissaaro.

The sight and the aroma are perfect and beautiful. More sumptuous than I remember, and my eyes water at the reality. Saliva inundates my mouth, and my tummy tingles in anticipation. “Go on, girl. You’ve waited too long for this.”

I respond with my fork sliding into the silkiness, and I lift the brown and orange fusion with its nuggets of black. I contemplate the bite before my mouth surrounds it. Flavor explodes in my mouth. I’m transported to childhood, but my adult faculties are more able to process the experience than when I was younger.

Juvenile nostalgia doesn’t usually stand up to adult scrutiny, but this is a bowl of heaven. I don’t remember the second bite or the last, but it’s gone. And I’m satisfied. Rapturous even.

I look up at Citrine who beams at me. I see a pile of short, thin bones and an aromatic, dark yellow sauce on her ovular plate. “Frog legs vadouvan?” I ask, coming out of my Nobavgo-induced trance.

“Yeah,” she says, “and cheese grits.”

“Is that all?”

“It’s not that common where I’m from.”

I stare at her, maybe seeing her for the first time. Miss Birdie swoops in again to remove plates and drop the bill. I watch as a solitary white feather wafts toward the tabletop, landing on the check presenter. I reach for my purse, and Citrine says, “No, Yanese, not like that.”

Citrine places her hand into the cradle of the silver tray. “You can’t quantify in dollars or rupees or yen the replenishing of soulstuff. It’s priceless.” Her hand beeps. When she removes it, a card sits underneath. “Check it out,” she says.

The card is metal but lightweight. The markings on it are nothing I recognize. My face must be puzzled. “You have to listen to the music,” Citrine says. “Once the words sound like English, it all makes sense.”

I turn the card in my hand again before I close my eyes and listen with my whole heart. The symbols on the card are still alien to me, but I understand their intent. Yanese Young-Pritchard. Again?

“And with this card, you can come back without me.” Citrine smiles like a Cheshire cat.

“I couldn’t find this place for years, and it’s across the street from my old grade school?”

“Someone with a card had to bring you,” she says, patient as the tide. “Now you can bring yourself everywhen you want to.”

I smile and say, “Post-grace?”

Citrine returns my smile. “I’m so glad I could share this with you.”

“Y’know what? Me too,” I say.

I slide the card into my purse, and Citrine shakes her lavender trench out of its square. I bundle myself up. Citrine’s about to step over the threshold but first waves bye to Miss Birdie and Eury and Nemeo. They salute her fondly. Miss Birdie smiles at me, and her eyes dart to a booth by the door.

Citrine walks through the door and looks back, makeup returned, bun snatched.

I look to the booth adjacent to the door, and I see a darker-skinned woman with a Jheri curl. She has eyes and cheeks like mine. Across from her is an elementary-aged girl with red barrettes swinging from the ends of her fat twists.

I can’t see the girl’s face; it faces deeper into the restaurant. That and her face is in a dish. I’d know a person enjoying Nobavgo anywhere. Now, anyway. The woman looks up at me, startled at first.

“Mama,” the girl says, demanding her mother’s attention. Her voice isn’t as familiar as the cadence, the inflection. “What kind of meat in here?”

“It’s Nobavgo,” the woman says, absent-minded. Is she wondering how she knows me? Because I wonder the same.

“What’s Napako?”

“Nobavgo,” the woman says, elongating the “v” sound. “Black hole-compressed space whale,” the woman says, as if by rote.

“Mama, ain’t no whales in space!” the little girl lisps.

Attention gained, the woman angles her face toward her daughter. “YaYa, hush!” the woman says, drawling. My heart swells in my chest. “If you ate as much as you asked questions, we might be on our way home.”

“Yanese,” Citrine says from the other side of the door. Calm and cool. The woman looks to the door and back at me. She beams at me, prideful, and nods imperceptibly.

I inhale to still my heart. “Here I come, girl,” I say. I smile back at the woman before pulling my hood onto my head. I hold her eyes for a moment, and a solitary tear falls down my cheek.

“Here I come.”

 

LP Kindred

LP Kindred

LP Kindred is a Chicagoan-Angeleno who writes speculative fiction that features Black and/or Queer lives. When not writing, LP can be found singing, lifting heavy objects, eating good food, watching bad TV, and pretending to be fancy. Kindred is a cocoa-founder for Voodoonauts, a grassroots Afrofuturist literature organization that empowers through instruction and creating opportunities. LP is or will be an alum of Hurston-Wright, VONA, and Clarion workshops; his fiction is featured or forthcoming in FIYAH Literary Magazine, LeVar Burton Reads podcast, Prismatica Magazine, and now Speculative City.