Home > Sweetbitter(3)

Sweetbitter(3)
Stephanie Danler

“It’s part of the job,” he said, unswayed. “Tell me what you know about wine.”

“Oh, the basics. I’m competent in the basics.” As in I knew the difference between white and red wine and it couldn’t get more basic than that.

“For example,” he said, looking around the room as if plucking a question from the air, “what are the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?”

I pictured cartoon grapes wearing crowns on their heads, welcoming me to their châteaux—Hello, we are the noble grapes of Bordeaux, they said. I debated lying. It was impossible to know how much honesty about my ignorance would be valued.

“Mer…lot?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s one.”

“Cabernet? I’m sorry, I don’t really drink Bordeaux.”

He seemed sympathetic. “Of course, it’s a bit above the average price point.”

“Yep.” I nodded. “That’s totally it.”

“What do you drink?”

My first instinct was to list the different beverages I drank on a daily basis. The noble grapes were back in my head, dancing, telling him all about my Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.

“What do I drink when?”

“When you purchase a bottle of wine, what do you tend toward?”

I imagined myself purchasing a bottle of wine, not based on price or proximity to the checkout line, not based on what animal was on the label, but by an internal matrix of my own taste. That image was as laughable as my noble grapes, even if I was wearing a cardigan.

“Beaujolais? Is that a wine?”

“It is. Beaujolais, c’est un vin fainéant et radin.”

“Yes. That.”

“Which cru do you prefer?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, batting my eyelashes forcibly, falsely.

“Do you have any experience as a server?”

“Yes. I’ve been working at that coffee shop for years. It’s on my résumé.”

“I mean in a restaurant. Do you know what it means to be a server?”

“Yes. When the plates are ready I bring them out and serve them to customers.”

“You mean guests.”

“Guests?”

“Your guests.”

“Yes, that’s what I meant.” He scribbled on the top of my résumé. Server? Guests? What was the difference between a guest and a customer?

“It says here you were an English major.”

“Yes. I know. It’s generic.”

“What are you reading?”

“Reading?”

“What are you reading right now?”

“Is that a job question?”

“Perhaps.” He smiled. His eyes made an unabashed, slow circle around my face.

“Um. Nothing. For the first time in my life, I’m reading nothing.” I paused and looked out the window. I don’t think anyone, even my professors, had once asked me what I was reading. He was digging, and though I had no idea what he was looking for, I decided it was better to play. “You know, Howard, if I can call you that, when I was leaving for here I packed a few boxes of books. But then I really started looking at them. These books were…I don’t know…totems of who I was….I…”

My words had a point, I had just felt the point coming, I was trying to tell him the truth. “I left them behind. That’s what I mean.”

He rested his cheek on an aristocratic hand. He listened. No, he perceived. I felt perceived. “Yes. It’s startling to look back on the passionate epiphanies of our youth. But a good sign perhaps. That our minds have changed, that we’ve evolved.”

“Or maybe it means we’ve forgotten ourselves. And we keep forgetting ourselves. And that’s the big grown-up secret to survival.”

I stared out the window. The city passed on, obliviously. If this went badly I would forget it too.

“Are you a writer?”

“No,” I said. The table came back into focus. He was looking at me. “I like books. And everything else.”

“You like everything else?”

“You know what I mean, I like it all. I like being moved.”

He made another note on my résumé.

“What do you dislike?”

“What?” I thought I’d misheard him.

“If you like being moved, what do you dislike?”

“Are these normal questions?”

“This isn’t a normal restaurant.” He smiled and crossed his hands.

“Okay.” I looked back out the window. Enough. “I don’t like that question.”

“Why?”

My palms were damp. That was the moment I realized I wanted the job. That job, at that restaurant specifically. I looked at my hands and said, “It feels a little personal.”

“All right.” He didn’t skip a beat, a quick glance at my résumé and he was on track. “Can you tell me about a problem at one of your last jobs? At that coffee shop, I suppose. Tell me about a problem there and how you solved it.”

As if I had dreamed it, the interior of the coffee shop dissolved when I tried to recall it directly. And when I tried to remember punching in there, tried to remember the sink, the register, the coffee grinds, the objects faded. And then her fat, gloating, vindictive face appeared.

“There was this awful woman, Mrs. Pound. I mean it, she was insufferable. We called her The Hammer. From the second she walked in everything was wrong, the coffee scalded her or it tasted like dirt, the music was too loud, or her blueberry muffin had poisoned her the night before. She was always threatening to shut us down, telling us to get our lawyer ready each time she bumped into a table. She wanted scrambled eggs for her dog. Never tipped us a cent. She was dreaded. But then, this was a little over a year ago, she had her foot amputated. She was diabetic. None of us ever knew, I mean, why would we know? And she would wheel by in her wheelchair and everyone was like, Finally, The Hammer is done.”

“Finally, what?” Howard asked.

“Oh, I forgot that part. We didn’t have a ramp. And there were stairs. So she was finished, more or less.”

“More or less,” he said.

“But, the real part of the story. One day she was wheeling by, and she was glaring, I mean, hateful. And I don’t know why, but I missed her. I missed her face. So I made her coffee and I ran after her. I wheeled her across the street to the park and she complained about everything from the weather to indigestion. From then on it was our thing. Every day. I even brought the scrambled eggs in a to-go container for her dog. My coworkers made so much fun of me.”

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