Clara's Last Supper

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"The reason I didn't want to break it [the restaurant] up was that it was the best thing that ever happened to black folks," she says. "A husband and wife get mad, divorce, and tear up something, and I didn't want to divorce and tear it up. I didn't. That's the reason why...I just left him."

Miles wouldn't comment on whether he had an affair. He did say that having his children run the second restaurant caused a "disturbance of the peace" between him and Clara.

Her loss at Clara's Kitchen was noticed. Wilma Johnson, who was now working in the office, says the food wasn't as good as when Miss Clara cooked. Miles began cooking himself, and didn't take the care or the time that his wife did, she adds. The customers noticed, and many stopped coming.

"It didn't look good," Johnson says of the food. "The freshness of it had left. It was just the 'oomph' had gone out of it."

Johnson, who had access to the books, says Miles also became more extravagant with spending. He made sure the restaurant wanted for nothing, but in doing so, he drove it further into debt, she says. "It took a great toll. The more he bought, the more we kept going under. We weren't making any profit. The only thing we were doing was breaking even, and some days not even breaking even."

But the restaurant persevered. Miss Clara visited at least once a week to peek in and see how things were going. She still drew a paycheck from the business.

Word filtered back to Miss Clara about the drop in business, her daughter Robyn says. People begged her to come back, and she eventually did.

By then it was too late.
Signs of the end appeared rather innocently during one of Miss Clara's nightly visits to the restaurant. A woman approached her. "Are you Clara Miles?" she asked. "IRS," she said, flashing a badge. "Is there some place we can go and talk?"

She and Miss Clara went to a booth and sat. It seemed no one had paid payroll taxes for the restaurant since the late 1980s, the woman said. With fines, Miss Clara owed more than $200,000 in back taxes. Did she have $50,000 with her right now to begin payment? the woman asked. If not, she had the power to padlock the doors and shut the place down right then and there.

Miss Clara cried. Years ago, she'd ceded financial control of the company to her husband, who said that he could handle the books better than her. She remembered her accountant telling her a few times that he was not getting payroll-tax information, but when she asked her husband about that, he said he'd taken care of it.

"I was crying," Miss Clara recalls. "I didn't handle the money. I really did not pay the bills, and it's hard for you to tell Uncle Sam that."

Miles won't say how the duties were divided between himself and Clara. He does say that he was the boss of the restaurant. He blames the closing and the tax troubles on "lack of knowledge on business matters." He says there was confusion with the bookkeeper about the coupons used to keep track of the taxes, but he will not elaborate.

"We were hustling to make it, paying bills," Miles says. "We could have made it out. But they blamed it all on me."

The tax problems turned the slow downward spiral into a whirlpool. Miss Clara did her best to slow things down.

She took back control. Her husband "retired" from active service in the restaurant. But there was a long way to get back on top. The back taxes on the restaurant had been negotiated down to $166,000. But Miss Clara had no savings left: All her money had been sunk into her husband's ill-advised expansion to a second site. And her loyal customer base had dropped to near nothing during her absence.

Robyn remembers watching her mother struggle. Her days were spent trying to cook good-tasting food with scanty, less-than-choice supplies. There were "all hog days--neck bones, pigs feet, and pork chops," Miss Clara recalls. "People would come in and turn right back around."

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Kaylois Henry