Peppercorn Café is written in the first person with me, Robert Charest, that narrator. Therefore I have decided to write the synopsis in the first person rather than the self referential third. The novel is very much semi autobiographical. Over the years I have experienced some incredible coincidences and otherwise strange encounters, and when I recounted the stories to friends and strangers time and again the response was: “I hope you’re writing all this down.” I was, and I also had a collection of restaurant tales from my many years in the industry, so Peppercorn Café was conceived as a vehicle to incorporate both collections of writings into a romantic literary fantasy. I have listed the distinctions of truth and fiction on a chapter by chapter basis on the previous page, so I am just going to tell the story here as it unfolds in the book. Also, this is a summary of the plot and excludes entire chapters and sections as relate to my autobiographical writings—bar stories and jokes and other restaurant vignettes, my summer in Spain concluded by a colorful and comical hashish arrest at Kennedy airport etcetera.
Peppercorn Café Synopsis
In May of 2000, frustrated with years of trying to find an agent or publisher for my novels, I decide to move to New York City and get a job in the restaurant world and try to meet editors and agents and pitch myself in person. Over the years of submitting my work I had received many genuine complimentary rejection letters, a couple agents who sincerely loved and made half hearted attempts at selling my books, and one meeting in Manhattan with a film agent who gushed over my novel, saying that if he had ten million of his own money it would go into production the next day, but no one willing to take a chance.
I am from Connecticut and lived many years in New Haven, which I used as a home base to wander the country, and so one day just a couple weeks after moving out of New Orleans and back to New Haven to get my bearings, I place my manuscripts and clothes in a backpack and take the five hundred dollars I had saved working in New Orleans and walk to the New Haven train station and board Metro North to Grand Central Station. Once in Manhattan I stow my pack in a locker at Grand Central then venture into the teeming city and started looking for a place to live.
I have no luck finding a weekly rental, but a random encounter on Broadway with my old friend Duke that first night affirms that I am where I should be. Nevertheless I find nowhere to stay that first night and spend it on a park bench with a copy of the past Sunday’s New York Times. The next morning I find a room in a transient hotel in the west village and immediately start looking for work in the bars and restaurants. Restaurant work is not rocket science, and I was well qualified, having been raised in the business and having worked in places all over the country. But after two weeks I have no luck finding a job, I am almost out of money and I have reached my last day of job hunting before the only thing I can do is tuck my tail between my legs and spend my last few dollars on a return ticket to New Haven.
I have another frustrating and fruitless day, and am standing on 23rd street in the late afternoon when I find a five dollar bill on the sidewalk. I decide to blow it on a much needed drink, and go into the restaurant right there called JJ’s Place. I take a seat at the bar and introduce myself to the bartender Walt. A little while later, unbeknownst to me, the owner JJ sits down next to me and we start chatting. I briefly tell him my story, and he remarks that there are a few literary types who frequent the place. A few minutes later the dinner rush begins, and I notice two very attractive women sitting at cocktail tables in the bar being ignored by the busy servers. They are looking around restlessly so I instinctively approach and ask them what they’d like to drink. I then tell Walt their orders and explain why I went over. He tells me to finish waiting on them, which I am glad to do. They introduce themselves, Sarne and Jennifer, and Sarne is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. They leave me a huge tip which I give to Walt then sit down at the bar and enjoy the drink he pours me. The man I’d been sitting next to was JJ the owner; he’d watched my every move closely and offers me a job which I immediately accept.
I float back to my filthy hovel of a room only to realize I have to pay the next week’s rent by noon the next day or get out, and I’m very short on cash, so early in the morning I go visit my friend Greg. He and I went to college together, and he was a professional guitarist living in Manhattan. We had been friends for years so I went to borrow sixty bucks from him. We have a pleasant visit and he gladly hands it over, then I leave his place, turn the corner and find three twenty dollar bills blowing toward me, which I promptly pick up and return Greg his money. I tell him where I’ll be working and to come visit anytime.
JJ has me start work at five AM on the Sunday morning of Memorial weekend. It is an unusual in time for my first shift and I approach the restaurant warily. It turns out they close the restaurant that day every year. They spend the early morning cleaning it then drive to JJ’s mother Madge’s home in Milford, Connecticut for a picnic. I meet the rest of fellow staff, and when I find out there’s no wood for a bonfire, I borrow a pickup truck and go buy boxes and boxes of books from yard sales which I sort through before using the many crappy ones to fuel a bonfire. I set aside two boxes of books that I want to keep which Madge agrees to temporarily hold in her garage for me, and give away particular favorite titles to my new co workers. Madge’s neighbor Jackson is watching from next door, and as the fire is dying he contributes his deceased wife’s massive collection of romance novels to the literary pyre. He and I become friends over a midnight drink by the fire. I also notice the shadowy figure of Madge’s neighbor on the other side watching us furtively from behind his shrubbery.
We return to Manhattan and I start working at JJ’s both as a server and as a bartender alongside Walt. I know the business, I work hard and am loaded with bartender stories and they quickly take a liking to me. JJ owns the building that houses his restaurant, and upstairs are four apartments. Three units contain great tenants, but the fourth is inhabited by a drug dealing, gang banging thug named DJ Ray G. JJ wants him out in the worst way, but Ray is protected by rent control and renters’ rights. JJ says that if we could get rid of Ray I could have the apartment. JJ’s close friend Marty, who’s NYPD, is there as we make a plan to chase Ray away. One of the servers is an aspiring actor named Bix, and he goes to a wardrobe friend on Broadway and secures two sets of fatigues. Bix and I dress in them, and backed by Marty and his leveled gun, we break down the door and storm the place. I bring three darts from the boards downstairs. I am an excellent shot and I drill the first into his right knee cap, and the second into his bicep then aim the third at his heart. He freaks out and runs screaming from the apartment. Ray confronts Marty on the street much later in the night and Marty kills him, though taking a couple bullets.
I move into Ray’s apartment and Marty spends his days convalescing from the gunshots at the bar, where he and I become great friends. I start writing a novel about what is then going on in my life and Marty starts reading the manuscripts I brought with me. In cleaning out Ray’s disgusting apartment, which I do by tossing the contents out the window into the dumpster in the alley, I discover a trap door in the floor. I look within to find three guns, a very diabolical looking hatchet, a bag of drugs and thirty thousand in cash. JJ arrives for the day and I show him everything. We disassemble the guns and throw them in the dumpster with the hatchet, he flushes the drugs and tells me to leave the money in the floor for the time being.
Once settled into the apartment and the job, I prepare a huge pile of query letters and submissions using my shiny new NYC address which I send off to agents and editors around the city. Around this time the antagonist, Simon Pactor, enters the novel. He is a senior editor at the very large New York house Pyramid Publishing; he likes JJ’s Place and has been frequenting it for some time. We meet when he sits down at the bar near Marty and me. I learn his occupation and tell him about my writing and my reason for moving to New York City. Marty advocates for me, and touts my work he’s been reading. Simon reluctantly agrees to read something, promising it sounds like something he would reject. I run upstairs and fetch him a copy of the manuscript of my novel Lorenzo’s Fat Head. Before leaving Simon recommends we read a novel called The Double Cross Clone by Melvin Tugbury, which he edited for one of his authors.
Sarne and Jennifer come in for lunch one afternoon, and after a game with cell phones, played out for humor while pointing out how rude they are in restaurants, I ask Sarne for her number, then later call and make a date. We make plans to get together one afternoon. She meets me at JJ’s Place and we walk a couple blocks up to Quiggle’s Bookstore where she goes to the counter, pulls a copy of The Double Cross Clone by Melvin Tugbury from her bag and demands a refund. She speaks to the manager, and I stand back and watch in awe as she describes the terrible, horrible godawful novel that should never have been published. She is overly dramatic and employs histrionics in her point by point dissection of the stupid plot. As I stand there watching her I can’t help but start falling in love. The manager is very polite and offers her a refund as well as free coffee and scones in the café for us. I take the book before the refund is issued because now I’m highly curious about it.
Sarne and I spend every moment of the next three days together, then I resume my routine at JJ’s with her now in my life. By that time the responses to my queries have started coming in, all rejections. Then Simon returns to the bar having read my novel. He actually really liked it (as many editors and agents who’ve read it have genuinely liked it) and passed it along to a more appropriate colleague. But he warned me that he had done so more because he thought his colleague would enjoy it personally, but as per his wants as an acquisitions editor working for Pyramid, Simon was almost certain my novel faced rejection. He then asks if I’d had a chance to look at The Double Cross Clone; I reply that I had, and give him a very honest and very detailed assessment of how implausible and ridiculous I found it to be. He is chagrined.
A few days later I do indeed receive the manuscript in the mail from Simon’s friend at Pyramid who really liked it, pointing out several specifics within the novel that he’d particularly enjoyed, but was sorry that due to Pyramid’s specific needs he unfortunately had to reject it. This leads to Marty casually suggesting I publish it myself and sell it at JJ’s. JJ is in on the conversation and offers to let me use some of the money in the floor upstairs and the plan is hatched. Sarne works as a publicist at a major PR firm, and also has a cousin in Brooklyn who works for Booklyn Printers. That afternoon we take the train to Brooklyn and her cousin explains the details and what exactly I would need to do to print copies of one of my books. While we are there I notice a pallet stacked with cases of a book. I casually glance at the title and see The Double Cross Clone. I ask her cousin about it, and he explains that Pyramid over ordered that title and that was the extra stock. Sarne and I mock the book and have a laugh.
One night I am awakened by fire trucks and emergency vehicles. I look out the window and see smoke and fire: Riley’s Jewelers, the store adjacent to JJ’s Place, is in flames. The fire is contained leaving JJ’s Place virtually unscarred while gutting the jewelry store. JJ is friends with the Riley family. They choose to close their business rather than rebuild, and so settle with the insurance company, liquidate their stock and are released from their lease by JJ, who’s lately been thinking of expanding. He closes for a couple weeks at the end of August to renovate. Meanwhile Sarne and I have prepared the Lorenzo’s Fat Head manuscript with cover art and delivered it to her cousin at Booklyn Printers, who will have it printed in two weeks or so.
One night my friend Greg from chapter two stops by JJ’s Place, accompanied by his friend Grier. Grier is an artist who has a loft nearby and they are on their way there to play some music. Grier works in a variety of mediums but his forte is his oil painting. Grier worked in Hollywood for a couple years doing pyrotechnics and special effects but is now back in New York, preferring the life of a starving artist. He also plays drums, and he and Greg are on their way to his loft to jam. I played bass for many years, and Greg and I had jammed together a couple times during college, and he invites me to meet them at the loft when I get off work, insisting that I have to see Grier’s amazing work. I meet up with them after my shift, and discover that Grier is a phenomenally talented painter. I can’t believe the galleries won’t display his work, and he explains the politics and such that have excluded him from the Manhattan art world.
JJ is still deciding exactly how he wants to utilize the extra space. He wants to double the size of the bar by making it a full horseshoe and to install a cappuccino machine, but beyond that is still pondering options. I tell him about Grier’s incredible paintings, and convince him to display them in exchange for commission on the sale. JJ goes to view them and agrees with my assessment.
One night JJ’s mother Madge, her neighbor Jackson Wilbert and a couple other friends come in for dinner. Madge recalls a place she used to go in Connecticut called Peppercorn Café, hence the name of the new space (and the title of the novel). When Jackson and I met at Madge’s Memorial weekend party I told him if he ever stopped by the restaurant I would give him one of my manuscripts to read, but now with Lorenzo’s Fat Head just days away from publication I ask him to wait a bit longer and I’ll give him a copy. He tells me he plans to be at the restaurant’s re opening and will get his copy then and meanwhile hands me the manuscript of a novel he wrote called The Darkness Knife, which I take upstairs.
Peppercorn Cafe culminates on one day when several events take place: Peppercorn Cafe has its grand opening with the expanded space of JJ’s Place; Grier’s art show opens in the cafe; we have a publication party for Lorenzo’s Fat Head; and it’s Sarne’s birthday. I mailed out invitations to all the editors and agents who rejected me, including Simon Pactor at Pyramid.
Just a few days before the big day a review of Lorenzo’s Fat Head comes out in the Village Voice. The review absolutely destroys my novel calling it rubbish. The books have yet to come in and no advance copies have been sent out. Then I remember that Simon and his colleague read the manuscript and could easily still have a copy. Sarne is outraged and explains that someone at the Village Voice owes her a favor and she heads over to their offices to sort things out. She returns a couple hours later with some very interesting information—the review was written by Simon Pactor under a pseudonym. Her friend at the Village Voice further explains that Pactor is also the actual author of The Double Cross Clone, Melvin Tugbury being another nom de plume. In my anger I recall the pallet of copies of the novel in the Booklyn Printer warehouse. I call Sarne’s cousin and he says he will deliver the whole lot the next morning for a hundred dollars provided we promise to tear off the covers. I then ask Grier what he could do with a couple thousand copies of that book.
He works overnight and creates a chair made of books that is a hybrid of a throne, a toilet and an electric chair. It is covered with the covers of The Double Cross Clone. Beside it he builds a small fireplace made of books and a motion activated holographic image of flames. If you sit on the toilet little pieces of poop shaped book covers fall out of the chair, and if you toss anything in the vicinity of the fireplace fake flames flare up. He incorporates the installation into a corner of his exhibit.
One morning I wake up and see Sarne’s already out of bed and reading a manuscript. I assume it’s one of mine but it turns out to be Jackson Wilbert’s The Darkness Knife. With everything going on I had forgotten about it, but she can’t stop reading, so I make tea and join her picking up the pages after her. We both agree the novel is superb.
We wonder if Simon is going to show up at the openings/publication party; I catch sight of him stealing a glimpse in the corner window the day before and am assured that he’ll be there.
The day of the grand re opening arrives and everything is going very well. Many people are coming both to eat and see Peppercorn Café and Grier’s artwork. Jackson Wilbert arrives and I give him a copy of my novel while Sarne and I gush over The Darkness Knife. He is humbled, and even moreso when I suggest we print up some copies and offer it for sale alongside Lorenzo’s Fat Head at JJ’s place.
Simon arrives and we watch as he starts looking at Grier’s paintings and slowly making his way toward the monstrosity made of his books. He finally sees it, and is mortified. I go to him and start tossing books at the fireplace, activating the holographic flames. It turns out he was the shadowy figure lurking in the neighbor’s hedge the night of the bonfire of the books in Milford. He doesn’t realize the flames are a hologram, suddenly recognizes me from that night months before, and runs from the cafe hysterically screaming that I am a pyromaniac. A minute later we hear sirens and the restaurant is surrounded by fire trucks and emergency vehicles again. I know Simon is going to be lurking in the crowd of onlookers. I seek his among the faces and indeed find him, and pull aside an officer and point him out as the individual to ask about the false alarm.
Amidst the clamor Sarne pulls me aside and leads me away, saying she bought herself a birthday present that she wants to show me. Earlier that day I gave her copy number one of Lorenzo’s Fat Head signed with an open profession of my love. She leads me to the subway and we get on a train to Queens. I finally insist on knowing where we are going and she says to the airport. She shows me two tickets to Argentina, and my passport that she absconded from my desk, told me the vacation was arranged with JJ; then she tells me she’s always dreamed a seeing Buenos Aires in the spring and tomorrow that dream comes true.