From "5 Under 35" honoree and Rona Jaffe Award-winner comes an urgent, intensely visceral debut novel about a young waitress whose downward spiral is narrated in electric prose
Marie, a young single mother, lands a job at an upscale Dallas steakhouse. She is preternaturally attuned to the appetites of her patrons, but quickly learns to hide her private struggle behind an easy smile and a crisp white apron. In a world of long hours and late nights, where everything runs on a currency of favors, cash and cachet, Marie gives in to brutally self-destructive impulses. She loses herself in a tangle of bodies and the kind of coke that 'napalms your emotional synapses.' But obliteration—not pleasure—is her goal. Pulsing with fierce, almost feral energy, Love Me Back is an unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood. In the words of Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, "Tierce roams like an avenging angel across the landscape of twenty-first century American decadence, and the truths she writes achieve a state of near-sacred subversion."
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MERRITT TIERCE, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, was born and raised in Texas, and graduated from college at the age of 19. She received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was named a Meta Rosenberg Fellow. In 2011, she was a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Merritt lives near Dallas with her husband and children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Olive Garden
I'm a hard worker, I tell the manager. We are sitting in a booth. His name is Rajiv George and he is short and portly and has kind eyes. He laughs often. Great, he says. In a restaurant that's really all you need. We'll teach you everything else.
Does that mean I'm hired? I ask. The Olive Garden is the fourth restaurant to interview me. I filled out applications at thirteen.
I think so, he laughs. Congratulations. Are you sure you don't want a breadstick? He gestures at the basket of fluffy wands between us on the table. They glisten with garlic butter.
No thank you, I say. I ate earlier.
Well, you could use some meat on your bones. He twinkles so I try to twinkle back. Employees can have as much bread and soda as they want, he says.
Okay, I say. When do I start?
Now? he asks. It's only three thirty. You can learn how to make salads and help out tonight. The salad girl called in sick. Word to the wise, if you're gonna call in, do it as early as possible. Actually--the wise don't call in. Find someone to cover the shift. Right, Kendall? He says this to a tall, stunning man who walks past the booth, then pauses to tie on a black apron with three pockets across the front. His white shirt is unbuttoned and I see a leather necklace with a pewter cross that hangs so it just touches the beginning of his chest fur, visible over the top edge of a wife-beater. His sleeves are rolled up and he has snakes tattooed around both forearms.
Right, boss, he says. Who's this?
He is facing Mr. George, but means me. He pops up his collar and buttons the top button, then takes a blue tie out of one of his apron pockets and ties it with quick aggressive movements. There is a grease spot he is careful to hide within the knot.
This is Marie, says Mr. George. She's new.
No shit, says Kendall. How old is she? Twelve?
Excuse him, says Mr. George. He was in Desert Storm.
I was in fourth grade during Desert Storm but I don't say this. I won a lot of mental math competitions that year including the regional title and I didn't pay attention to the news. But we had to write letters to the soldiers, and the math team coach made us tie yellow ribbons on our competition pencils. Kendall extends his right hand to me while rolling down the sleeve with his left.
Christopher Kendall, he says. Marie, I say, shaking his hand. It is warm and dry and strong. He has a silver Celtic knot ring on his thumb.
You ain't got a last name, Cabbage Patch?
Cut it out, Mr. George says to Christopher. I just hired her, don't run her off yet. At least not before she fills in for the salad girl tonight.
Young, I say to Christopher. Yes you are, he says. Did you give her the tour? he asks Mr. George.
No, says Mr. George. Are you volunteering? Don't think it gets you out of opening sidework.
Why do you think I want a little helper? says Christopher, and to me, Come on, doll, I'll show you around.
Don't forget what we talked about last night, says Mr. George as we walk away from the booth toward the swing door that leads into the kitchen.
Fuck your mother, Apu, Christopher says under his breath. Raj is harmless, he says to me. But don't eat the bread or you'll wind up like him and that would be tragic. He gives me a blatant up-and-down as he says tragic.
This is the back station, he says. We are standing in front of a soda machine and a computer screen. He continues, By the bar is the front station. Over in the twenties is the side station. Back station is safest. Ring at the bar and somebody's gonna ask you for change, or when the dingbat hostess leaves the door you'll end up seating. Side station is right between two big-tops so somebody is bound to need something, and there's always a fucking kid throwing crayons on the floor. Parents think you're a prick if you don't stop everything and pick em up for Johnny. Nobody can see you here.
Okay, I say. He takes a clear plastic cup from a stack by the soda machine and plunges it into the ice. Plastic for us, glass for them, he says. Always use the ice scoop. Georgie sees you doing this you'll get yelled at. It's unsanitary. Plus if you break a glass in the ice we have to burn it. Where is the ice scoop? I ask. Fuck if I know, he says. He fills his cup with Mountain Dew and takes a straw wrapped in paper from a cardboard box on the stainless-steel shelf above the soda machine. He tears the paper about an inch from the top of the straw, throwing away the long part and leaving the short part on like a cap. He stabs the straw into the cup. This is how you serve a soda, he says. Make sure it's full. Fuckers drink it like it's fucking crack. Put a straw in it. Leave the top on the straw so they know you didn't put your nasty paws all over where their mouth goes. Always have extra straws in your apron because some lazy asshole in the section next to you won't give his people straws, and when you walk by they'll ask you for one, and if you don't have one you gotta find dipshit or get it yourself. He takes the paper cap off the straw and flicks it into the trash. The fizzing head on the soda has settled so he tops it off and then takes a big suck. I recommend a straw for your personal consumption as well, he says. Never put your mouth on anything in a restaurant if you can help it. Shit doesn't get clean. Ever.
Okay, I say. Yo, is that all you say? he asks.
No, I say, but I'm here to work. He raises his eyebrows at this and says, Oh! He looks around. She's here to work, he says to another server who walks by with a gray plastic tub of silverware. Great, says the other server, I need help with these rollups.
Sorry, Dave, I called her first, says Christopher. This way, honey.
He takes my elbow and guides me toward the kitchen. Dave's a faggot, but he's a good guy, he says. I heard that, says Dave.
Outside the kitchen door hangs a broom and dustpan. There's the broom, says Christopher. Somebody breaks a glass use it. Don't pick it up with your hands. Tell one of the busboys you're busy and make them do it.
He kicks open the kitchen door and points up at a circular mirror hanging from the ceiling. Coming out, check that or you'll knock somebody down and then people will think you're stupid. Going in, look through the window. First time you bump a tray out of somebody's hands is not gonna be pleasant for you, or them, and if it's me you're doing all my sidework for a week. Trays, tray jacks, he says, gesturing toward a stack of big brown ovals and wooden stands with black nylon straps. You can carry a tray, right?
I don't know, I say. He gives me his full attention for the first time. Wait, he says. You ever worked in a restaurant before?
No, I say. I fucking knew it, he says, I could tell the second I saw you. He shakes his head slowly, looking around the kitchen. A skinny boy in a white coat is chopping onions. He looks up at us. A tear slides down his nose and he raises his shoulder to rub it off. Don't cry, Jose, don't cry, says Christopher. Jose says I'm sorry, Chris, it's just so sad how ugly your mom is, but Christopher doesn't answer because another server comes into the kitchen through the door at the opposite end. Sup Chris, says the new server, then Sup Kelly, Tare-Bear to two women who are standing in a corner talking while they do their makeup. Hey Josh, says Christopher, guess what we got here. Josh is punching in on the time clock by the office. Mr. George sticks his head out and says Don't punch in unless you're working. I'm working, I'm working, says Josh. What do we got, Chris?
A fucking virgin, everybody. Chris grabs my hand and yanks it up into the air like I won a boxing match. This is Marie, and today's her first day in a restaurant. Welcome to hell, baby. He laughs a sadistic laugh. He has beautiful beautiful teeth. I pull my hand down and look toward the office but Mr. George is on the phone, his back to us.
Don't look at him, says Christopher. You gotta make it with us. He don't know shit about how to wait tables.
I nod. I know, I say, I was just looking at the clock.
Uh-huh, says Christopher. There's only two times in a restaurant: before and after. You walk in, you white-knuckle it, try not to fuck up till it's over and then it's over. You made money or you didn't.
God, leave her alone, Chris, says one of the women. Ignore him, she says to me. He's so full of himself it's disgusting.
Christopher walks toward her so I follow him. What's disgusting, Tara, he says softly, is how full of me you'd like to be. Fuck off, says Kelly. Tara yells toward the office, Raj, Chris is harassing me again! but then both women start giggling. Don't worry, sweetie, Kelly says. He's all talk. That's not what she said last night, says Christopher. Kelly rolls her eyes. Fine, you win, she says. I would rather fuck myself with an OG bread stick but you can pretend if you want.
Don't believe anything he says, she tells me as she pushes open the kitchen door with her back, pulling her hair up into a ponytail.
How old are you, anyway, asks Christopher, leading us into a humid room off the kitchen where a man in a plastic apron says Hola. He is using a big nozzle on a spring to spray some large metal pans in a deep sink. This is the dish pit, yells Christopher over the noise of the water and the clanking of the pans. And watch out, they haven't put down the mats yet. You got good shoes? He leans over and pinches my pant leg away from my knee, lifting the hem so he can see my black canvas sneakers. He has three fingers behind my knee, and when he closes his hand his thumb is so high up on my inseam I look at him to see what it means. He looks at me back and squeezes as he says Those won't work. You need some nonslip soles or you'll wind up on your ass wearing cannelloni. Payless in the mall has some cheap ones.
I'll be eighteen in two weeks, I say, adding a year. He whistles. He puts an arm around my shoulder and yells at the dishwasher, pointing at me with his other hand, Hey Jose, es una bambina!
Stop, I say. What? he says. I just said you're a babe. I know what you said, I say. Ella hablas espanol tambien, he yells at Jose. No me llamo Jose, says the dishwasher. He sticks out a wet red hand. Mario, he says. Marie, I say, shaking his hand. Ah, Maria! he says. Somos gemelos! I smile. Mucho gusto, I say. Come on, says Christopher, enough fucking around. Let's get to work.
The third man I'd ever had sex with was an ex-corrections officer who is six-four and the most gorgeous man I've ever seen or ever will. It may seem rash to hand out that superlative to someone I met as a teenager, but perfection cannot be perfected. His teeth were perfectly square, even, and white, his smile dazzling beneath thick blue-black hair, his eyes a brilliant unseen color of bottle green backlit with navy, his olive skin so smooth and taut it made you feel that if you closed your eyes you might be his, you might be somewhere else. In the restaurant where we worked, he would take four crates of clean glasses from the dish machine, stack them, and balance them above his shoulder with one arm to bring them into the kitchen. I could barely lift two to chest level using my whole body. But there was no bulk, he was just on the solid side of lean. The strength in him was panther-dark and menacing and in spite of the ordinary green lines across the toes of his dress socks I was too scared of him to get wet. He fucked me anyway, with a giant penis I couldn't bring myself to look at. I was like a child, I was quiet and tense and bit my tongue and lip to keep silent when he pulled out and ground himself to a sterile stop on me. Pushing through every layer of sensitive tissue and fat to pin me to the bed, he succeeded in giving himself an orgasm, avoiding ejaculation, controlling his breathing, and keeping his face composed. He made no sound and took no notice of me--I knew of his completion only through the ripples against my mons. Later when I put my hand on his on the gearshift on the way back to the restaurant he said from behind his aviators Do you know what the words No one mean. Three weeks later he was fired in the middle of a shift for harassing the underage salad girl and I had to take over his tables.
I think he could tell I was pregnant the day we did it. I don't think he cared. I begged him to fuck me. I followed him around the restaurant, touching him. I stood next to him when we sang Buona Festa. I didn't even know how to fuck. It was four months then but I still didn't show through my clothes at five, or six and a half. At seven I had to move the apron down to my hips. I worked there until she was born.
We went back to the restaurant together that day because we were both between doubles. I know that's what we did but I forget that. It seems like I stayed on the bed and he left. I see myself naked. I hadn't touched my belly yet. I never looked at it. Christopher didn't answer my phone calls. I started calling him that night after work but he never answered. I called him all the time. I knew he wouldn't answer but then I would be calling him without even knowing why or what I would say. In the restaurant he'd say Hey if I said Hey Christopher but he never said my name and he ignored me. I see myself on the bed naked calling him. Christopher. Christopher. If he would just answer I would touch my belly.
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