Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2009 by Joe Pernice.
In this novel by the acclaimed singer-songwriter behind the Pernice Brothers, Joe Pernice tells the tale of a 25-year-old slacker who flees New York City and his one-day-old marriage and heads for Cape Cod to ponder his arrested adolescence. In this excerpt, the protagonist recalls his post-college years, in which he worked a crappy job at a restaurant owned by a racist.
In the winter of 1994, I graduated from UMass after four and a half years with a BA in English. I did pretty average; a lot worse than I might have done if I had given the tiniest of fucks about school. I decided to dick around until the summer and not think about my limited prospects, my withering University Health Insurance, and the looming crush of student-loan repayment. I picked up three shifts waiting tables at a mediocre Italian restaurant in Amherst called Esposito’s. I ended up working there for almost two years.
Richie could be charming as all hell, whether he was sober or not. Being decent-looking didn’t hurt. He was decidedly closer to a Dennis than a Randy Quaid. He’d been a waiter at Esposito’s for a couple of years when I got there. I shadowed him my first week. I liked him right off the bat. We both played guitar and were into a lot of the same music. Neither of us gave a fuck if it was Doris Day or the Frogs. If it was good music, it was good music. On my first night we made tentative plans to do some four-track recording together. He said he had written a ton of songs and already had the best band name: the Young Accuser. He said he’d gotten it from a newspaper article he read about Michael Jackson. All he needed was a band.
“No shit,” Richie said as he showed me how to fold a napkin into a swan. “I’ve read more books than any professor I ever had.” I never would have made a statement remotely as bold. I knew my education was held together by large fugues and obvious holes. “I’d go toe-to-toe with any of them and win.” Such braggadocio made Richie rub as many people (men) the wrong way as it did (women) the right. I sensed almost immediately that his whole “I couldn’t conform to the bullshit academic mold” claptrap was mostly a smoke screen because he couldn’t hack it. It was one of his flaws that made him approachable to me.
The owner-chef at Esposito’s was a prick named Lello, whose entire personality can be extrapolated from the following: 1) he loved cocaine even more than he appeared to love himself; 2) literally minutes into my first shift, a black waitress named Suzanne called him on his racist, sexist shit and stormed out. The restaurant was going to be packed because it was Valentine’s Day weekend. Lello was so furious he nearly blew a testicle. He ordered the entire staff into the kitchen, grabbed the biggest, blackest iron skillet off the rack, and screamed, “From now on, whoever calls this pan something other than Suzanne can get right the fuck out.”
I felt like a real shit for not having the backbone to tell him to fuck himself on the spot. I dusted off the “I really need the money” excuse and fell for it. In the end, when I finally did quit Esposito’s, I merely stopped showing up. In the men’s room there’s a urinal named Kenneth. The one next to that is named after me.
At the end of the night, after Richie and I performed our setup duties for the next day, we sat at the enormous black-marble bar, each drinking an allotted half-priced domestic draft beer. I was still blowing smoke here and there about how much I’d like to tell this Lello character to jam his job up his fat ass.
Richie made it easy for me to stay weak and still come off like I had principles. “You can’t quit. If you do, the wop wins.” He ordered two neat shots of Jack Daniel’s from the bartender, Rita. Her arms were as hairy as any man’s.
I pretended to be watching the pour. “Wow,” I said, “those are really something.”
“Rita knows how to fix a healthy drink.” He slid a ten across the bar.
Rita winked. “If these won’t get the taste of come out of your mouth, I don’t know what will.” She slid Richie two fives change. He stuffed one of the fives into her tip snifter. We toasted my survival of the first night, then slammed our Jacks. I could feel my esophagus beginning to molt.
“Yeah,” Richie said, “you can’t quit after one night. Give it a week.”
With quiet contempt, I searched the dining room for Lello. He was showing a veteran waiter the “real” right way to do something.