By JORDAN SWARD
One o'clock cannot come fast enough.
It's 8:30 on an autumn Wednesday morning and Heather Smith has a decaf pot in one hand and regular in the other. The five-stool bar at Merry Ann's Diner on Neil Street is occupied by men in Carhartts and camo hats, all of whom Heather addresses by name as she tops off their ceramic coffee mugs.
"Gonna be quiet around here," the cook jokes as he pours liquid eggs on the sizzling skillet. After 1 p.m., there won't be any more dings from Heather's pink cell phone. No more "Hey, Heather" shouts from around the room or the sound of her subtle Indiana twang joking with the regulars.
In her usual uniform of jeans, tennis shoes and a Merry Ann's T-shirt, 25-year-old Heather delivers plates of hash browns and eggs, as she has done seven years, for the last time. Today, she attaches to every handwritten tab a business card: Smith Design & Consign, Heather's new shop at 41 E. University Ave., Suite 1E, which is marked by her fancy new $4,000 black awnings, in downtown Champaign across from the bus station.
Before this morning, she has kept her plans to open the store quiet. After all, she still needs all the income she can get.
"This is the last morning I'll be waiting on you," she tells a booth of four men she has served numerous times. "I'm opening my own store on Thursday."
"What kind of a business you got?"
"What's parking like over there?"
"Hope it goes well."
For the few customers who voice their opinions, some fearfully cite the bad economy, some suggest staying open later than her 5 p.m. plan, some tell her she's absolutely nuts. She just smiles and says, "OK."
When the clock strikes 1, Heather counts the tips neatly packed in a plastic cup, which is particularly full today thanks to unusually generous customers, says goodbye to her coworkers and walks out the door to a new and uncertain future.
"You have to take risks if you want to make it anywhere in life," she says.
Heather grew up in and out of foster homes. She remembers moving from home to home — sometimes with her sister, sometimes not — before returning again to her mother's. The day before her 15th birthday, after yet another altercation with her mom, she left to join the already established family of her father, his wife and their daughter.
That lasted until just before her last year of high school, when she moved to a house in Rantoul by herself. Every day she woke up, drove to school, then worked until 10 p.m. as a telemarketer.
"That part made me grow up," she says.
Heather planned to attend college to become an interior designer, but she got some unexpected news: She was pregnant. She had a daughter, married and had another daughter.
Her dreams of going to college faded, but her passion for interior design never did. All her energy went toward trying to be a better parent than she believed her own parents had been. Yet her free time was spent reading about opening a business and decorating friends' houses and apartments.
She would lie awake thinking about a project, planning in her head exactly where to locate the furniture, what to put on the tables — down to every last lamp and picture frame. If she had to pick any job in the world, she would be an interior designer. Heather's dream was to open her own store. She begged her then-husband to tour vacant retail spaces. He said no; it was too much of a financial risk.
"I felt like I would never be able to be happy. It was almost like I was trapped. I'd be a waitress forever, make decent money, work three days a week — I have time with my kids, but that's not all that I wanted to be."
When she and her husband separated, Heather was "at a really low place."
What was she going to do with her life?
"It was all or nothing," she says. "I have to do it now or I know I'm not gonna do it."
She fell in love with the first rental space she saw, filled out an application and rushed it back to the Realtor. In August, she took the $15,000 from her divorce settlement and signed a 26-month lease for $1,500 a month.
"Oh, my gosh, what did I do?" she thought.
It's the morning of the Big Day — wintry outside, not quite sunny, not quite cloudy. It's like a new Heather who arrives at the store before its 8 a.m. opening.
Her shoulder-length blonde hair is straight and a little hip, and subtle makeup highlights her hazel eyes. Her diner uniform is gone, replaced with black dress pants, sweater, high heels and a tasteful necklace. Furniture and decor fill the 1,500-square-foot store, most of which Heather bought at estate sales and other shops or online. For four months, she searched for items to refinish, vowing to always sell them in better condition than she bought them in.
A red vase and framed picture sit atop a redone dark cherry entertainment center, matched nicely by the burgundy wall behind it. The store is organized by rooms. A real bamboo chair and couch, accented by seashell candles and a standing light fixture, make up the sun room area.
The boy's room features a plain wood dresser, which she painted navy and white with red knobs to match fire-truck decor. A hand-painted antique buffet with a red and black design sits next to a framed Marilyn Monroe picture in the retro corner.
Heather has accomplished one of her goals: Smith Design & Consign is not a used junk store. It is the perfectionist image from her dreams. She worries that the paint on the walls turned out a bit streaky. She worries that the spider she discovered last week, the one she's deathly afraid of, is spinning webs somewhere.
She worries that the music — from Taylor Swift to Jay-Z — is too loud. She worries that, despite the flashy new awnings, people won't be able to find her place tucked on the second floor behind Kane & Co. Salon and Spa.
Just before her shop opens officially at 9, her first customer arrives: a woman she has served at Merry Ann's. Then two women from the Chamber of Commerce come in to shoot first-day promotional photos, followed by a man with giant ribbon-cutting scissors. Before long, the store is filled with people browsing and chatting. One woman uses her foot to destroy a web the dreaded spider has spun overnight.
"I'll give them 10 more minutes, then we'll take it without them," Heather says of friends who promised to join in the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The chamber crowd congregates for the photo — and one of her friends arrives just in time. Heather holds the theatrical scissors up to the long, shiny red ribbon, giggling in excitement. She's surprised when the oversized scissors actually cut.
At that moment, she has finally made it. She's $200 short on rent that's due on the day of the opening, hoping an expected check will reach her account by the weekend, hoping she will make enough money in the first few days to make it to next week.
She doesn't know how she'll restock the store if everything sells quickly. Or how she will afford the rent on her own apartment. Or food, school costs, utilities or car payments. What if she doesn't meet the $150-a-day profit goal she has set for herself to barely get by?
She doesn't know. But today, she has her eyes on the prize.
If she fails, she'll cut it all for a loss — a loss of all the money she has — and get a job. But no matter what, she's "gonna be one strong fricken person by the time this is all done."
She dreams of the store's success and telling people: "I just got through a divorce. I just opened a store. I'm raising two kids. I don't need your help."
As the store quiets down, her friend and an old diner customer remain, chatting near the counter. The door swings open, and Heather gasps in giddy surprise. It's Tom Hess, a high school teacher and Heather's new love interest, carrying a box of chocolate-covered strawberries.
"Why aren't you teaching?" she asks.
"I had some really important errands to run," he says with a smile.
Heather is charmed.
It is, she hopes, all her dream's beginning.
Jordan Sward is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.