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by Miracle Jones
When I tell people I used to work at Pippi’s Cafe in the city, everybody always asks me if I ever met Quentin Tarantino, because everybody knows he used to live right above Pippi’s when he was filming in New York. But I only worked there long enough to meet him once.
The day I met Tarantino, it smelled like shit behind the bar when I started my shift. It was a stench of such powerful foulness that it coated your sinuses like bubbling fat and then dripped down into your lungs and started choking you like a wet sock stuffed in your mouth. You kept taking deeper and deeper breaths, hoping that you could swallow the smell somehow and then it would disappear, but instead the stench just got stronger in your face until your guts rebelled and you began to gag.
“There’s something wrong behind the bar,” I told Pedro the line-cook, stepping into the kitchen with my hand over my mouth. “It smells like the devil’s ass back there. What happened? Do you know?”
Pedro just cackled and tossed a handful of arugula onto a plate. The arugula salad at Pippi’s Café was famous, but we got our greens in a wet cardboard box every morning from the same vegetable dealer as everybody else in the city -- Sid Wainer -- and we stored our produce locked up underground, same as everybody else, buried in cockroaches and sewer miasma. I personally couldn’t tell the difference between a normal salad and a famous salad, though of course our plates were very nice.
“It smells awful,” I told Pedro. “Like wet paint combined with a whole crate of molding strawberries. It smells chemical, but also like wet death.”
“Chef say he coming in later to deal with it,” said Pedro, shrugging. “He say he know where it coming from.”
“We should shut this place down,” I said. “It’s probably an act of terrorism.”
“He coming in later to deal,” repeated Pedro.
I left Pedro to make his salad, returning to the bar to set up my station. I rummaged through the teas until I found a jar of loose “lapsang souchong,” also known as “burnt rubber tea.” The brittle leaves of this tea are infused with smoke, so it smells like an oil fire when you steep it. It was the strongest smell I could think of, so I made a whole pot and set it under the counter, though it only counteracted the reek behind the bar a little bit.
It was still early, and the dinner crowd wouldn’t be here for a few hours. I stared into space, trying to visualize myself dealing with this smell during a dinner rush, trying to visualize myself smiling at customers and being peppy while this smell scrambled my brain. I couldn’t do it.
I swung back into the kitchen. Pedro was tossing butter into a bowl of chopped potatoes with both hands and listening to Mexican death metal on his headphones. There was a paper cup full of house vodka at his elbow that he must have poured when I wasn’t looking. I pretended not to notice.
“I’ve got to do something,” I said.
“Eh?” said Pedro.
“Maybe it’s spoiled milk,” I said. “Maybe somebody dropped a carton of milk behind the ice machine and then it curdled over the weekend.”
Working in restaurants, I had quickly discovered that there was only one way to get food in this city that wasn’t rotten, tainted, or expired, and that was to work in a restaurant yourself. You had to be on the inside if you didn’t want to get served poison on a regular basis.
“It smell like spoiled milk?” asked Pedro.
“It smells like a corpse,” I said. “It smells like a corpse that has died from eating rancid fruit. It smells like sweet gas from bad fruit that is inflating the stomach of a cadaver.”
“Where is it coming from?” asked Pedro.
“I don’t know,” I said, swinging out of the kitchen and back into the bar. There was a customer waiting there for me, looming over the bar and looking at my liquor and coffees with his forehead tilted forward as if he were trying to levitate bottles with his mind.
“I will have a skinny latte,” said the man, looking at me over the tops of his glasses and then pursing his lips.
“But of course,” I said.
I tried never to look anybody in the eyes when I was working. Our restaurant was so expensive that the prices were almost like a little private joke, and so we unfortunately attracted the bottom of society: the born-rich and the too-rich. I considered my eyeballs the one piece of real estate that they couldn’t afford.
The retardedly-jacked-up prices were a red velvet rope. Only people who simply did not care about money were going to pay six dollars for a cup of tea.
We got famous people all the time. They would come in with friends and linger for hours and then they would forget to pay. We had to remind them that despite their wealth, capitalism still existed, and yes we needed their money to continue being a fun hangout for them tomorrow.
The strangest thing about serving these people was how timid they were. The whole tradition of fine dining is built on the principle that people need to be told what to order or else they will fuck it up and accidentally have an inferior meal. Famous people don’t care what they eat, as long as somebody in a clean suit tells them that what they are eating is The Best.
The tips were pretty good. The restaurant paid me something like $2 an hour, though, so I didn’t even really feel employed there. I felt like a corsair with a Letter of Marque – a pirate who was being given unique access to the plumpest treasure ships of the Spanish Main.
I bent down and took a huff of lapsang souchong in order to cleanse my palate, sliding a pitcher of skim milk under the steam wand and cranking up the pressure. As the milk boiled, I tamped down some espresso, clamping it under the valve and filling a pink china cup with creamy crude. I felt the man’s glare digging into my neck and I wondered if he could smell the godawful funk. I hoped the wooden perimeter of the bar magically contained the wretchedness like a pentagram magically contained a summoned demon.
Pedro stuck his head out of the kitchen.
“Pippi is coming in tonight,” said Pedro.
“Great,” I said.
Our boss, Pippi, was a celebrity pottery dealer who had opened the café as a vanity project a few years ago. Pippi had a huge nose full of burst capillaries, fiery red hair, and a famous kinky puffball haircut. The entire café was decorated with antique china and our gimmick was that all of our plates and cups were unique. When your meal came, it was served in such an eclectic mish-mash of bowls, saucers, and plates that you forgot to look at your food.
As I steamed the milk, I noticed that the smell was getting stronger and stronger. My eyes began to water and I turned my head away, trying to nestle my nose into my shoulder.
“I want two sugars and a napkin,” said the man. “And I want that TO GO, please.”
I poured the man’s espresso, sugar, and milk into a paper cup and handed him his napkin. He put the napkin over his mouth as if he were conducting an autopsy, and then turned around on one heel and left. No tip. But I didn’t care. I had made a discovery. Whatever was making the smell was inside the espresso machine. Turning up the heat made the smell stronger.
I got a stepladder from the kitchen and cleared all the plates and cups from on top of the machine. I unscrewed the bolts and poked around inside the machine with my long espresso spoon.
“Oh Christ,” I said, lifting the steam wand away from where it connected to the heat mandible. I could see two brown mounds of fur, and then a third tinier mound in between them. It was three dead mice; a little family of dead mice. I tried to scoop them up with the espresso spoon, but they were burned to the bottom.
“Pedro,” I called into the kitchen. “It’s a bunch of dead mice in the espresso machine. They must have crawled in there and got stuck. Now they are cooking.”
“Que paso,” said Pedro, wincing and shaking his head.
Just then, a party of four came into the cafe, looking around for a waiter. I looked around for a waiter, too. Felix the Senior Server put down his crossword and joined them. I flopped down the lid on the espresso machine and screwed the bolts back in.
Felix the Senior Server had a nasty coke problem, but he rarely indulged at work. However, he was often hungover, and this made him surly and distracted, mad that Pippi’s was not the same stimulating intellectual environment as the nightclubs where he liked to inhale his paycheck.
I watched Felix take the party of four’s order as I restacked the cups and plates. Now that I knew it was the corpses of three dead mice that were boiling in the espresso machine, the smell was even more nauseating.
“They want four skinny lattes,” said Felix the Senior Server, putting his head on the bar as if he were going to take a nap.
“I can’t do it,” I said. “There are dead mice in the espresso machine.”
“What am I supposed to tell them?” asked Felix. “That we don’t have lattes? I can’t tell them that. Shut up.”
“What if they get the black plague?” I said. “What if they get leprosy?”
“Just make the fucking drinks,” said Felix. He buried his head in his hands.
I shrugged and made four lattes, banging them out while Felix stared at me from the crook of his arm with one hate-filled eye. As I set the last latte in front of him and finished it off with a milk rosé, he lurched to a standing position and screwed up his face.
“What is that fucking smell?” he asked.
“I told you already.”
“You’d better do something about it,” said Felix, lifting the lattes onto a tray. “Here comes Chef.”
Chef was in his forties and he was from some tiny town in North Dakota, a town where there were more gas stations than people. He had never really learned to interact with other human beings without being hostile or overbearing, though this didn’t stop him from making excellent seafood and savory pastas. But he didn’t make food FOR people. He made food AT people.
Chef stalked into the restaurant, followed by a tiny Italian man in an orange jumpsuit. They both came straight to the bar and bumped me to the side. The name stenciled on the Italian man’s orange jumpsuit was the same name as our espresso machine. “Perfecto!”
“Listen to me,” said Chef. “There’s some kind of goddamn smell coming out of there. You smell that?”
“I do not speak English,” said the Italian repairman, smiling. “I do not speak any English.”
“Why are you a repairman if you don’t speak English?” Chef asked. “How can you possibly do your fucking job?”
The man shrugged.
“It is dead mice,” I told Chef. “I checked.”
“Fuck,” said Chef. “Shit fuck.”
“Hmmmm?” asked the repairman.
“It’s dead mice,” I told the repairman, louder and trying to enunciate. Chef put his hand on my shoulder and spun me around. He looked at the door.
“Not so fucking loud, asshole,” said Chef.
“What you want me to do?” said the repairman. “Is broken?”
“No, the machine works fine,” said Chef.
I picked up a bar napkin and a pen. I drew a little picture of a mouse and then I drew a picture of the espresso machine. I put tiny x’s over the mouse’s eyes, and I put stink lines coming out of the machine. I drew a nose with a stink cloud around it, and then made an equation. Dead mouse plus espresso machine equals stinky restaurant.
I handed the drawing to the repairman. I pinched my nose and pointed to the machine. He pinched his nose, nodded, and then started to laugh.
“Fuck,” said Chef. “Just fix it.”
That was when Pippi came in with Quentin Tarantino. Pippi was all over the place, flailing his arms and making jokes in high falsetto. Quentin Tarantino seemed bored. He was wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with the Japanese flag on the sleeve.
“Now is not the fucking time to show off to your friends, Pippi,” Chef whispered under his breath.
“Better let me handle this,” said Felix the Senior Server.
Felix skipped over to take their order, but quickly returned to the bar.
“Two skinny lattes,” he said to me. “One for the boss, and one for the cinema prodigy.”
“Did you tell them about the dead mice?” I said.
“Of course not,” said Felix. “Make the fucking drinks.”
“Do you think Quentin Tarantino is going to care that his latte tastes like decomposing vermin?” I asked.
“I party with famous people all the time,” said Felix. “Famous people don’t care about anything. That’s how they get famous in the first place. All their cares evaporate and then they start to rise. They rise like farts underwater. Cares are what hold you back. Cares are why you are a bartender and not a famous person. If you could give up your cares, then you would get famous, too. Because that’s what fame is: being utterly careless. It is amazing to watch people who don’t care about anything anymore. We know something terrible is going to happen to them and we want to see what it will be. And we are rarely disappointed. Today, for instance, we are going to see Quentin Tarantino and Pippi drink lattes full of dead mice.”
“Fuck that shit,” said Chef. “Don’t you ever stop talking?”
“Chef, do you care if I make dead mouse-infused lattes for Pippi and for Quentin Tarantino?” I asked.
“No,” said Chef. “I don’t give a shit what you do.”
“Pedro,” I yelled into the kitchen. “I am going to make lattes for the boss and his friend that taste like dead mice. Do you care?”
I made the drinks and Felix delivered them. He strolled back over to the bar, grinning.
“He’s coming over here,” said Felix. I wiped down the bar and sighed. I did not want to talk to Quentin Tarantino, but all of a sudden there he was, grinning at me with a gleaming forehead the size of a truck fender.
“So,” said Quentin Tarantino, leaning up against the bar. “Two things. The first thing is that I want to tell you that this might be the single best latte that I have ever had. The second thing is that I was wondering if you could do something about the smell in here. It’s pretty stale, if you catch my drift.”
Quentin Tarantino waved a hand in front of his face.
The Italian repairman pinched his nose and laughed.
I sighed. I was tired of this bullshit. I didn’t want to be at work anymore. I didn’t care if Chef fired me right on the spot. I didn’t want to be a part of some bullshit vanity restaurant that was hiding dead mice in the coffee. I wanted to be part of the general public, outraged by this. I was tired of absorbing all the stress and problems behind the scenes so that famous people could have a carefree time doing whatever the hell they wanted on an island without rules or repercussions where it was impossible to do anything wrong once you were Made, once you were a celebrity, once you were one of the elite, careless 10,000 assholes that the rest of us 9 million 900 thousand were here to serve.
“There is a family of dead mice cooking in the espresso machine and we can’t get them out," I said. "But the good news is that eventually they will burn up and the smell will go away.”
I glared at Quentin Tarantino. I looked him straight in his eyes, which was something I never did. I was searching for cares. Was he going to care about this? Was he going to explode on me, or was Felix right? Did famous people really lose all human sense of perspective and live like buoyant gods? Or was this the end of Pippi’s Café and the end of my job?
“An epicure dining at Crewe found a rather large mouse in his stew,” said Quentin Tarantino. “Said the waiter don’t shout, and wave it about, or the rest will be wanting one too.”
“We’re working on it,” said Chef through gritted teeth.
“Oh don’t worry,” said Quentin Tarantino. “I won’t tell anyone. The mice aren’t actually IN the espresso, are they? I am not drinking coffee that dead rodents have been floating in, right?”
“No,” I said . “They are just burned to the bottom of the machine and we can’t scrape them off without taking the whole thing apart and then using a knife or something.”
“So they are just flavoring the coffee with their smell. I guess coffee tastes better when there is the smell of death in the air.”
He lowered his voice and got real charming.
“Do you care if I take a look?” he asked.
“I don’t care about anything in the world,” I said.
Quentin Tarantino and I switched places as Pippi strolled up to us with a puzzled expression on his mottled face and Felix the Senior Server started laughing, so cruel and so wise.
(c) Miracle Jones 2014