By Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Tom Perrotta
All rights reserved.
The first time Lt. Finnegan pulled me over, I actually thought he was a pretty decent guy. I mean, there's no question I was going over the limit, maybe thirty-five in a residential zone, so I can't say I was surprised to see the lights flashing in my rearview mirror. I was mostly just frustrated — disappointed in myself and worried about what Eddie would say when he found out I'd gotten a speeding ticket in the company Prius after just a few weeks on the job.
The cop who tapped on my window was older than I expected, a big, white-haired guy with a white mustache, probably not too far from retirement. He looked a little bored, like he'd asked a few too many people for their license and registration over the years.
"What's the hurry, son?"
"Just running a little late." I glanced at the insulated pouches stacked on the passenger seat, in case he'd missed the magnetic decal on my door:SUSTAINABLE PIZZA ... FOR THE PLANET WE LOVE. "I got stuck at the railroad crossing. I was trying to make up for lost time."
That was the wrong answer.
"You need to be more careful, son. There's a lotta kids in this neighborhood."
"I know." I could feel my face getting warm. "It's just ... I'm supposed to make the deliveries in thirty minutes or less."
"Try telling that to a dead kid's parents," he suggested. "Let me know how it goes over."
He was just messing with me, but for some reason I found it all too easy to picture the scene in my head — the child's fresh grave, the weeping mother and the broken father, the pathetic delivery driver explaining that the tips are better when the pizza's still hot. It seemed like a plausible version of my future.
"I'm really sorry, Officer. It won't happen again."
"Not officer," he corrected me. "Lieutenant."
He squinted at me for a few seconds, as if coming to a decision, then brought his hand down hard on the roof of the Prius. The thump made me flinch.
"All right," he said. "Get the hell outta here."
"Really?" I was embarrassed by the relief and gratitude in my voice, as if I'd just dodged a murder charge rather than a speeding ticket. "I can go?"
"It's your lucky day," he told me.
* * *
I WAS eighteen that fall and all my friends were in college — Evan at Harvard, Lauren at Stanford (we were still scratching our heads about that one), Josh at Bowdoin, Lily at Northwestern, Carlos at Cornell. My best friend, Jake, was having the time of his life at Wesleyan — he kept inviting me down to hang with his new roommates, but my heart wasn't in it — and my ex-girlfriend, Heather, was chilling at Pomona, raving about sunny California in her status updates. That was my high school posse in a nutshell. We were the AP kids, the National Merit Scholars, the summer interns, the future leaders, the good examples. We enrolled in SAT prep classes even when we didn't need to, shared study tips and mnemonic devices, taunted one another with Shakespearean epithets, and made witty comments about the periodic table. We stayed up late going over our notes one last time, threw parties where we studied together for history finals. On Saturday nights, instead of getting drunk and hooking up, we popped popcorn and watched Pixar movies. It wasn't that we were anti-fun; we'd just made a group decision to save ourselves for college.
The only problem was, I didn't get into college.
I'd applied to twelve institutions of higher learning and got rejected outright by ten of them, including my safeties. I got wait-listed by two of my likelies, but neither one came through in the end. I got shut out, just like the kid in Accepted, except it was nothing like that because he was a slacker and didn't deserve to get in.
I totally deserved it. I mean, I got a combined 2230 on the SATs (superscored, but still), and had a GPA of 3.8, all Honors and APs, top ten percent of my graduating class in one of the premier public high schools in the state. Student Council rep, stagehand for the musicals, helped start a recycling program in the cafeteria. I ran cross-country all four years, even though I hated every tedious mile. But I did it, just so I could list a varsity sport on my transcript. Every goddam miserable thing I ever did, every shortcut I avoided, every scrap of fun I missed out on, I did it just so I could get into a decent college.
And none of it mattered.
My guidance counselor insisted that it was just a freak occurrence, a perfect storm of bad luck and rotten demographics. A record year for applications, too many international students, preferences for minorities and athletes, a need for geographic diversity, blah blah blah. But come on, not to get in anywhere? Even when kids from my own high school with lower grades and test scores got into colleges where I was rejected? Where's the fairness in that?
There was no logical way to explain it, but that didn't stop people from trying. Maybe I was too well-rounded for my own good, or my recs were underwhelming; maybe my essay was pompous, or maybe it was pedestrian. Maybe I hadn't done enough to set myself apart from the crowd, should have written about my lifelong passion for shoemaking, or my desire to someday design prosthetic limbs for transsexuals who'd stepped on landmines. Or maybe I'd just aimed a little too high, which was possibly true for Dartmouth and Brown, but those were my reaches, so that's the whole point. But what about Connecticut College or George Washington? Was that really too much to ask?
April of senior year was such a nightmare. Everybody else was all excited, hugging one another and squealing with delight, the future unfolding before their eyes — Colgate! Hampshire! UVM! And then they'd notice me, and everything would get all awkward and quiet, almost like somebody in my family had died. People just kept moaning and shaking their heads, telling me how sorry they were, how unfair it was, a complete injustice that shook their faith in the entire system, and I kept telling them not to worry.
I'm on the wait list at Duke and Grinnell, I'd say. I'm sure something will pan out.
* * *
THE SECOND time Lt. Finnegan pulled me over — just a week after the first incident — he was all business. He took my license and registration, went back to his car, and wrote me a ticket for failure to obey a traffic sign, a moving violation punishable by a hundred-dollar fine.
"Oh, come on," I said. "A hundred bucks? That's crazy."
"You have the right to contest this citation in the district court," he informed me in a robotic voice. The lights on the police cruiser were flashing lazily, the whole neighborhood pulsing with red. "Should you choose to do so, you must notify the court of your intention within twenty days."
I didn't reply, because there was no point in going to court. I'd definitely rolled through the stop sign — I wasn't about to deny it — but I thought he could cut me a little slack. It was ten-thirty at night, and I was driving on a quiet side street out by the conservation land. I'd just made my final delivery — a lousy one-dollar tip, thank you very much — and there was no one else around, no one except for Lt. Finnegan, hiding on the dark street with his lights turned off.
"Shit," I muttered. "I can't believe this."
"Excuse me?" Lt. Finnegan shined his humongous flashlight in my face. "What did you say?"
I raised my hand to block the glare. "Nothing. I was just talking to myself."
He clicked off the light and leaned in. His broad face filled my window frame, just a few inches from my own. He wasn't smiling, but I had the feeling he was enjoying himself.
"Do we have some kind of problem, Donald?"
"No, sir. There's no problem."
"Good. 'Cause I don't see any reason why we can't be friends." He straightened up, tugged on his gun belt, and turned in the direction of his car. But then he swiveled right back.
"Tell me something." His voice was casual now, almost friendly. "What's that mean? Sustainable Pizza?"
"It's just a name. They use lots of organic ingredients and recyclable boxes. Some of the produce comes from local farms."
"People like that, huh?"
"Some of 'em."
"Is it better than regular pizza?"
"It's okay. Kind of expensive. But the customers keep coming back."
"Huh." He nodded, as if that was good enough for him. "I'll have to give it a try."
* * *
I HAD two bosses at Sustainable — Entrepreneurial Eddie and Stoner Eddie. Entrepreneurial Eddie was an impressive guy, a twenty-four-year-old Middlebury grad who'd returned to his hometown to start an eco-friendly pizza restaurant that he hoped someday to grow into a regional, and possibly even national, chain. He was organized, ambitious, and charismatic, a crunchy-granola preppy with shaggy blond hair and the strapping physique of the rugby player he'd been in college. He happened to be Jake's cousin, which was the reason I'd gotten the delivery job, despite my complete lack of work experience, and the fact that I'd only had my license for a couple of months.
I'm taking a chance on you, Donald. Don't let me down.
Entrepreneurial Eddie was always in charge when I started my shift, but he got replaced by Stoner Eddie at the end of the night, after the restaurant section had closed, and Malina and Jadwiga, the two Polish waitresses, had gone home. At that point, it was just me and Eddie and Ignacio, the Salvadoran pizza maker, who stuck around to fill any late-night delivery orders and help out with the cleanup.
Entrepreneurial Eddie could be tense and short-tempered, but Stoner Eddie absorbed the news of my moving violation with a philosophical shrug.
"That's the way it goes, bro. The cops in this town are ballbusters. There's no crime, so they have to make shit up to keep themselves from dying of boredom."
"But a hundred bucks?" I whined. "I work for tips."
"That's how the government rolls, my friend." The two Eddies were different in many ways, but they were both big Ron Paul supporters. "It's all just taxes in disguise. Right, Ignacio?"
Ignacio looked up from the floor he was mopping and said something in Spanish. Eddie nodded and said something back. His accent was atrocious, but his meaning must have been clear enough, because Ignacio grinned and added another rapid-fire burst of commentary, to which Eddie replied, "Verdad, bro, verdad." I wished I'd taken Spanish in high school instead of four years of Latin, which was utterly useless in the real world. It was my guidance counselor's fault: he'd insisted that colleges liked students with "a classical background," and who was I to doubt him? At that point in my life, I would've cut my arm off if U.S. News & World Report had mentioned that selective colleges were looking for amputees.
After we settled up, Eddie walked me to the front door. We were almost there when he put his hand on my shoulder.
"Yo, Donald," he said. "You're friends with Adam Willis, right?"
"Could you do me a favor?" He reached into his pocket, pulled out a serious wad of bills, and counted off five twenties. For a second, I thought he was reimbursing me for the ticket. "See if you can hook me up with some of that superior weed of his."
I didn't take the money. "Can't you ask him yourself?"
"He never answers my texts."
"He's probably just busy. I'm sure he'll get back to you."
"Come on, bro. Help me out here. I got a big date this weekend." His voice got soft and confidential. "I'm telling you, that stuff's some kind of aphrodisiac. I smoked half a joint with Malina last week, and that was all it took."
"I know, bro." He grinned at the miracle. "I've been working on her for weeks, and she wouldn't give me the time of day. Couple hits of that magic bud, and the panties just slid right off."
It was hard to imagine Malina's panties sliding off for Eddie, or any guy around here. She was pale and chillingly beautiful, with sad eyes and a husky, disdainful voice. She always seemed vaguely offended in the restaurant, as if waitressing was beneath her dignity, and life a bitter disappointment.
"I know." Eddie tucked the money into my jacket pocket and patted me on the shoulder. "I'm counting on you, bro."
* * *
THE NEXT afternoon, I joined Adam Willis and his chocolate Lab for their daily hike through the woods behind the abandoned state mental hospital. It was creepy back there — lots of rusty appliances and old tires lying around, not to mention a tiny cemetery with maybe twenty unmarked headstones and a sign explaining that the graves belonged to former mental patients who'd died in the hospital: THOUGH YOUR NAMES ARE UNKNOWN, WE HOLD YOU CLOSE IN OUR HEARTS. I waited until we'd been walking awhile before I told Adam that my boss wanted to buy some of his weed.
"No way," he said. "I don't sell to strangers."
"I could introduce you. Eddie's a pretty good guy."
Adam stopped and scanned the woods, shielding his eyes from the golden light streaming down through the red and gold treetops. It was mid-October, and the leaves had just begun to drop.
"Yo, Hapster?" he called out. "Where are you, dude?"
The question was barely out of his mouth when Happy burst out of the woods and onto the trail, his ears flapping as he galloped toward us, the usual look of crazed anticipation on his face.
"Dassagoodboy." Adam crouched down, scratching Happy's ears and slipping him one of the little bone-shaped treats he carried in his pocket. "Dassaverygoodboy."
He gave the dog a booming thump on the ribs, and we started walking again.
"I don't get it," Adam said. "Why are you even involved with this? If your boss wants some weed, why doesn't he just ask me himself?"
"He did. He said he texted you a bunch of times and you never got back to him."
"Damn right. I'm not gonna text some guy I don't know. What if he's a cop?"
"Eddie's not a cop. He's Jake Hauser's cousin."
"Jake Hauser," Adam scoffed. "Dude never said shit to me."
Adam and I had been high school classmates, but our social circles didn't really overlap. We'd been close as kids — pretty much best friends — until his mom died of cancer when we were in seventh grade. He turned angry and distant after that, started listening to this dark metal, Slipknot and stuff like that, and hanging out with a druggy crowd. His dad wasn't around a lot of the time — I heard he had a girlfriend in another town — and Adam did pretty much whatever he wanted, which was mainly just playing video games and getting high and skipping school. Whenever his name came up, my mother called him poor Adam and referred to him as a lost soul. I'm pretty sure he didn't graduate.
I ran into him outside of CVS one day in September, after everybody else had left for college, and we got to reminiscing about the old days and the fun we used to have. He had his dog with him, and I had nothing else to do, so I tagged along on their afternoon walk. He texted me the next day, asking if I wanted to do it again.
Any time, he said. Happy enjoyed the company.
If you'd told me six months ago that I'd be spending my fall living at home and hanging out with Adam Willis, it would've sounded like a nightmare to me. But it was weird how normal it was starting to feel, like this was my life now, and Adam was way more a part of it than Jake or Josh or even Heather, who'd broken up with me a couple of weeks after she got to Pomona, sparing me the nightly Skype updates about her awesome roommates and amazing professors.
At the top of the hill, we sat down on a fallen log in the shade of the water tower. Adam took out his little one-hit pipe and packed it with weed. He offered it to me, and I shook my head, the way I always did, though I wasn't sure what was stopping me. In high school, I'd stayed away from weed because I thought it might interfere with my studies and sap my motivation, but what did that matter now?
"The thing I don't get," he said, in that squeaky, holding-it-in voice, "is how your boss even knows my number."
"Don't look at me. I didn't give it to him."
"And how'd he know I was selling?" Adam released a cloud of smoke so big I couldn't believe it had all been stored inside his lungs. "It's not like I'm advertising."
I shrugged, not wanting to tell him that it was common knowledge that he sold some kind of killer weed, the source of which no one could pinpoint. We lived in a small town, and you couldn't keep something like that a secret for long.
"You know what?" I said. "Don't even worry about it. I'll just give Eddie his money back. It's no big deal."
Happy was sitting at our feet, panting cheerfully, thick body heaving, tongue lolling sideways from his mouth. Adam leaned forward and kissed him on top of his big square head. When Adam looked up, I could see that the weed had kicked in. His eyes were cloudy, his face dreamy and trouble-free.
"Chill out," he told me. "I'll take care of you. I don't want to jam you up with your boss." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta. Copyright © 2013 Tom Perrotta. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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