10. The Night They Closed Tartufo
“Pretty little hairdo, don’t do what it used to,
You can’t disguise the livin’, all the miles you’ve been through…”
It was a Wednesday, a clear night. I had gone on a long run in the morning that had left me jonesing for a huge plate of pasta; I was hoping we wouldn’t have any tables until 7 so I could quickly wolf some down. As I pulled up to the back door of the restaurant, in the non-space I always park in between the stairwell and Carla’s car (Smart Car: Park Anywhere!), I had an odd feeling. Normally I sit there for an additional 10 minutes to finish my vocal warm-ups, but today I shut off the car and headed inside. The windows of the restaurant seemed darker than usual in the 6 o’clock sun. Up the old, perforated metal grating of the stairwell and through the back door. I hear the loud chime and a calm woman pronounce: “Back Door”. Indeed, the kitchen was dark, with the gloomy sunlight still giving off a bluish glow. On the salad prep table sat our head chef, Luke, with a knit beanie on his otherwise shaven head, his white chef’s coat off, and replaced with the vintage mustard-colored wool jacked I only see when he’s leaving for the night. Bill, my favorite cook at Tartufo, and Charles, the custodian, where both standing in close proximity.
At the sight, I took a small step back. There was a palpable discomfort in the room. Bill, with years of disappointment and weathered storms mapped across his Cherokee features, gave me a slight, sad grin.
“Carla needs to talk to you” he said in a stony, even tone.
“Is it bad?” I replied hurriedly.
“You just need to talk to her.”
My head spun around to each person in the kitchen, who all shifted their gaze down. I took an extra helping of pasta last night. But I offered to pay for it; Bill wouldn’t let me…I guess this could be the end for me. Thoughts wildly galloped through my mind, before I let out one last futile, “Is it bad?” before heading out to the main room.
“Lookin’ like a train wreck, wearing too much makeup,
The burden that you carry is more than one soul could ever bear…”
I had been at Tartufo for one year this upcoming May. It began slowly, just Friday and Saturday nights, and then they added Tuesday nights to drum up some more interest (which worked brilliantly, for a time), and then finally, early last October, I went to Carla and requested all nights of the week, even without a pay raise. She accepted, and I had played every Tuesday through Saturday since. The gig was absolutely unheard of in Nashville: I got paid a modest guarantee, I got fed every night, I could make tips, I controlled my own sound level and song choices, and I could play originals. When I told people about it, especially musicians, their eyes would get wide. Two and a half hours a night. I got pretty darn good, too. Could’ve gotten even better, though.
All this shot through my mind like a silver bullet as I made the long walk from the kitchen to the bar. The restaurant was almost empty; just a four-person family sitting in the front of the restaurant finishing up their 5pm dinner. As I rounded the corner, it occurred to me that everyone at the restaurant had been waiting for me to arrive, as I was always the last member of the team to get to work each night, at my usual 6:30pm. Along with Carla, the remaining members of the Tartufo family were in the bar. Tim, the bartender and cocktail mad-scientist, was behind the high counter, backlit by the mirrored shelves and LED lights that changed colors every minute or so. Mandy, the sassy, gorgeous hostess who helped with administrative matters as well as reservations and table assignments, sat at the bar in an oversized sweatshirt looking depressed, her chin resting on her closed fist. Lastly, there was Danny, the only actual Italian (Sicilian) to be working at Tartufo, who was in a checkered shirt, his black work pants, and had his backpack wrapped over his shoulders. It was unlike any scene I’d come across in the year I’d worked at the restaurant.
Carla sat, with a resigned look on her face, like a mob boss positioned before the remnants of a perfectly cooked filet. Behind her eyes she was a broken woman; she looked almost cartoonish in front of such a large, empty plate.
“That’s it, it’s over.” She said.
I didn’t move a muscle. “What do you mean?”
“Tartufo is closing to-night.” Extra emphasis on the abruptness of the decision, which had apparently been made that day. The owners had decided to cut and run, leaving our small collective in its wake.
“I-I dont understand—“
“I’m so sorry Allie. They’re coming for the piano tomorrow.”
That’s what made it real. I gaped at everyone around me, stammering incoherently. By now Bill had entered the room. Like an answer to an unasked question, Tim poured a heavy pour of Wellers bourbon into a tumbler, straight with no ice, and slid it towards me. I went over and picked it up, sipping as I continuously paced around the room. After about a minute, I announced that I needed to call C and get a bit of fresh air. This was partly true, but also because I didn’t want them to see me cry into my bourbon. That is for me alone.
It was chilly outside and I had run out without my jacket in a panic, so I stood shivering and drinking, which somehow made my head clearer. C picked up, and I told him the news. After a few minutes, I started to cry.
“Stop crying. Stop crying.” He had taken a firm tone, which I knew he hated to do. “You knew this would end. You knew it was going to happen eventually. What you need to do now is pick yourself up and keep going.”
We hung up, and I walked over to Tim who was smoking a cigarette outside. Normally a very closed-off, in-his-head kind of guy, this was the most open and conversational I’d ever seen him.
“I-I..thought they’d at least wait through the weekend...It’s the slow season. Everybody in the restaurant industry knows that…” He trailed off; I felt bad for him. He had been planning a grand spring cocktail menu and workshopping it over the past few months. All of it down the drain, now.
We went back inside, and I asked Bill if the burners were still on. He and I trudged back to the kitchen, where he flipped on one overhead stove light and proceeded to make me a mountain of spaghetti and meatballs, as we talked. He said he’d been wanting to go to Florida, and he just might now. Luke came in and started cracking jokes with the sarcastic, breathy timbre of one of his favorite fictional characters, Han Solo. “That’s the way it goes”, he said.
Sprinkling micro greens and finely chopped parsley from a height onto the plate, Bill and I stood back to marvel at the masterpiece of pasta, red sauce, meatballs and burrata that he had created. “That’s the last dish I ever made at Tartufo” he announced, over the hum of the vents. I felt the tears welling up again.
“You never make your mind up, like driving with your eyes shut,
Rough around the edges, won’t someone come and take you home…”
I had almost made it through my pasta mountain forty minutes later when it seemed like everyone had begun to pack up. I couldn’t let it end like this.
“Let me play you all one more song, please. Just one.”
They all answered with a resounding yes, and like one of the best nights at the restaurant since I first started, everyone gathered around to watch, even Tim, who I had never seen off his feet, took a seat midway through the song.
I plugged in my mic and booted up my nice speaker one final time--I never did get around to making a sleeve for it like I’d been planning to do. Tim poured a few ounces of Macallan 18 and placed it on the edge of the piano, the kindest gesture I think he could muster.
“This is a song I’ve listened to at every major life event. Every move, every breakup, and anytime I hear it when I’m out somewhere, I know it that I’m in the right place at the right time. It’s my favorite song.”
They nodded, knowing that such a loaded statement coming from the human jukebox must mean something.
“This is called ‘Save It For A Rainy Day’, by the Jayhawks.”
As I played, time slowed. Maybe it was the expensive whisky, or the ocean of sadness that inhabited the closed restaurant, but I was underwater and out of my body as the song went on. I could see every face looking inward, taking stock of where they were in life at that very moment.
That was the last song I played at Tartufo.
“Waiting for a breakthrough, what will you set your mind to?
We stood outside [Tartufo] restaurant, in the rain…”
Carla benevolently wrote us our final checks, and the guys helped me tear down my music gear and carry the heavy equipment down the back stairs. It was a clear, crisp night. We were all leaving together, in a bittersweet parade of solidarity. The bright streetlight cast shadows across all of the moving pieces, and most notably on Mandy, who I had only this evening learned was an die-hard hula-hooper, whose favorite thing in the world was to go to outdoor concerts and show off her skills. “I always keep my hoop in my car” she said, as she spun through the narrow hallways towards the back door. Now she was in the middle of the parking lot, twirling madly in the night, arms outstretched, a beacon of freedom.
We hugged, and looked around one last time. “You’re my favorite”, I whispered to Bill. It had all happened so quickly, with no warning. The fridges were still running. The tables still set. But as I watched a year of my life slowly fade before my eyes, I felt my body involuntarily being pulled in to my tiny Smart Car, and my keys turned in the ignition by an unknown force. I numbly pulled forward, and away from the restaurant, the ghosts of the many nights I had spent singing and playing trailing like smoke behind my car.
“So sad, don’t look so sad, Maria
There’s another part to play,
So sad, don’t look so sad, Maria
Save it for a rainy day
Save it for a rainy day.”