The Olivia Cafe

Fiction by Timothy Willis Sanders
heat, by Varya Yakovleva. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

The last restaurant we went to was called Buster’s Sizzler in Oklahoma City. The place was in the center of a Hobby Lobby parking lot. Rust-eaten license plates, a colored pencil drawing of a 1957 Corvette, and the Sallman Head Jesus all hung crooked on the wall in the dining room. The vinyl booth cushions were glitter-flecked red and the ketchup holder had a jukebox facade. There were Black and latino families eating with us.

On the way to Buster’s Sizzler, my mother’s third husband, a jolly and huggable white man named Bill, turned down the song “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry, leaned back and said to me, “Don get a zteak. Thiz plaze is worl famouz for iz burgerz. Rih?”

Bill looked at my mother.

“Rih?” he said again.

“Yep, good burgers,” she said.

Bill gave me a thumbs up and turned up the song.

Compared to Buster’s Sizzler, I was worried The Olivia Cafe would be too snobby for my mother. She was visiting me in Austin over the weekend and I wanted to treat her to something nice. So instead of the heavy brown ceiling fans of Buster’s Sizzler, Japanese lanterns spun slowly above our heads at The Olivia Cafe. We sat in mid-century birch chairs. The tables were topped with a single votive candle between two neat napkin squares. I could tell she was scanning the room for Black people. There were none. We were alone. We sat down and the waitress appeared. She was beaming and bubbly, maybe amused at this young Black man, out bonding with his mother, treating her to such a fine meal. I don’t know.

The waitress told us the specials. I zoned out, something about halibut. I was distracted by a vision of my mother drowning in a vat of cardamon and truffle oil. She seemed entranced by the waitress’ endless knowledge of every dish. Once the waitress was done I said, “We’ll need a minute,” before picking up my menu and pretending to read. 

“For sure, take your time. I’ll be back in a bit with some bread.” She clapped her hands together, bowed then bounced away.

“I didn’t really get any of that,” I told my mother, and began searching the menu for a burger.

“She said they have halibut. I love halibut.”

“Ew no. It’s a white fish. Zero flavor. Feels like the waitress sped through the specials. I might just get a burger.”

“She’s really nice, I like her,” she said, her eyes fixed on the point in space where the waitress disappeared into the kitchen.

“Well, this is Austin. What do you think?”

“It’s nice. Hot.”

“Yeah, it is hot. I like it here, though. People are more open. It’s still Texas, some ignorant people. I got accused of stealing at a convenience store. Town out in the sticks called Brenham. But Austin itself is good.”

I paused to get her reaction, seized by the expectation she would share her own experiences with racism, or maybe praise the courage required to upend your life and move to a new city, or maybe sympathize with the work needed to make new friends and learn new streets, but she just stared out the window and said nothing. I glanced around the restaurant and caught eyes with an older blonde man sitting with his family. He looked away first. I imagined picking him up and throwing him over a table.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

“For sure,” I replied, hoping for something, anything, from her inner life.

“Do you know how to do copy and paste on your iPhone?”

The waitress interrupted us with a plate of bread and a small ramekin of orange butter. My mother looked confused and delighted. I thought about how, when we were at Buster’s Sizzler, Bill ordered a triple bacon cheeseburger. I remembered how the burger dripped and oozed grease when he bit into it, and how similar fats once coagulated in a vein in his head, blocking blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for motor function and speech, causing Bill to have a stroke and collapse at the DMV.

I opened the Notes app on her phone. I pressed on the screen until a word was highlighted and a menu appeared. I tapped Copy, then I tapped to place the cursor in a different area. When the menu appeared, I tapped Paste, then I looked at my mother and saw her mouth was open.

“Incredible,” she said.

I thought to myself, “You know you can Google this stuff, right?” I plucked a piece of bread, spread butter on it, then placed the buttered bread on her plate.“Orange butter,” she said, inspecting her plate like a bug had landed on it, “Is this good?”

“It’s butter on bread. Try it,” I said, annoyed she would think it was bad. She took a bite and her eyebrows jumped.

“Wow, that’s delicious. What is this?”

“It’s bread and butter, mom.”

“I know that! I mean what kind of bread and butter.”

“The kind they make with flour and cream.”

She rolled her eyes and we both laughed. We’ve always been capable of laughing together. The waitress stopped by to fill up our waters.

My mother said, “Excuse me, what kind of bread and butter is this?”

“This is our local sourdough from Oak Valley bakery down the street,” she said, waving her hand over the bread, “and this is our sun-dried tomato butter we make in-house.”

“Well, it’s delicious.”

“Thank you,” the waitress said. She smiled at me. I imagined her talking to her boyfriend later that night, “We had this Black guy in tonight with his mom and she didn’t know it was sun-dried tomato butter.”

“See? You were making fun of me. It’s not normal butter.” She slapped me on the arm.

We chewed our bread in silence. I needed to know though.

“How’s Bill?”

“He’s fine. Fine as he can be, I guess. He gets slower every day.”


“He’s gets pretty down on himself. He asks God why he’s keeping him alive.”

“Jesus. Must be hard. Can’t move around, can barely talk.”

“Yes, his friends have stopped calling him. I pray for him. Best I can do.”

The waitress appeared.

“Have we had some time to look at the menu?”

I was about to say, “No, we need more time, we’re in the middle of something,” but before I could, my mother said, “I’ll have the halibut, please.”

The waitress said, “Great choice,” and turned to me. 

She smiled like a person who was screaming on the inside. I felt an absurd yet sincere wish for Bill to save me by recommending a burger that didn’t exist.

Timothy Willis Sanders

Timothy Willis Sanders is the author of Modern Massacres (Publishing Genius, 2022), Matt Meets Vik (CCM, 2014), and Orange Juice and Other Stories (Publishing Genius, 2010). He lives in San Francisco.

Varya Yakovleva

An artist, illustrator, director of animation from Russia, now in exile, based in France. Participant and an award-winner at International festivals of animated and feature films and illustration. Filmography: « Anna, cat and mouse » 2019, « Life’s a bitch » 2021, « Oneluv » 2022. Animation films have been selected for more than 200 festivals in total, and have more than 25 international awards. Varya Yakovleva has made 9 solo exhibitions in France, Norway, Finland, Cyprus and Russia and is a participant of more than 50 group exhibitions in different countries.