This weekend, Thomas Thulman brings us the story of a man who loses his job in the recession, starts working at a pizza parlor, and keeps finding himself more and more lost. Is this the way we live now? Read on. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
In March the bank failed and I wondered what I could do with myself. I’d only been at the bank a year and the six years getting there seemed a waste if I didn’t find another job in finance. I asked Amy and she eyed me over a pile of bills. For a month I woke up, shaved, kissed a sleeping Jeremy goodbye and hit the streets in our dying downtown. And another month after that. Then I asked Amy again and we decided something was better than nothing. So I started making pizza.
I’d gone to Gubbo’s a few times when I was still a student. It was in a strip mall a block from campus and was owned by Peter, a shortish man with yellow hair that he parted down the middle. He had thick sunburned forearms that stuck out of his rolled-up shirtsleeves and which he held either crossed over his chest or behind his back like an inspecting officer. His nose was shiny and dappled with acne scars.
“And you’re how old?” he asked.
“I’m moving you right to cook. You can start today,” he said, looking at my resume. Besides Peter, who only came in a few days a week, there were drivers and there were cooks. Most of the employees were college kids or college dropouts. Typically they started as drivers and worked their way up to cooks, but most burned out as their cars broke down or their licenses were revoked. A few of them were older like me, although they weren’t brought there by financial crises. They were just old guys whose lives never took root.
Peter showed me around the store, which was the size of a small apartment. There were no tables or chairs. The only space for customers was about twenty square feet right in front of the cash register, so lines, which were rare, snaked out the door and down the block. He showed me the ovens and the mixers and the fridge. He told me how to slice the vegetables and how long each pizza goes in the oven. He showed me the utility closet that smelled like piss and told me where to find extra soap for the employee-only bathroom. There was another cook there, Robert, a rail-thin kid with his greasy hair up in a hairnet. He mumbled hello when Peter brightly introduced him.
We walked out to Peter’s car.
“Well, that about does her. I’ve gotta head to another property now, Robert can answer any more questions you’ve got. He’s been working here since he was sixteen. Good kid.” He smacked my shoulder and I almost thought he would tell me how proud he was of me. Back in the kitchen I found Robert licking one side of each pepperoni before he put it on the pizza.
“Why are you doing that?”
“If you lick just the bottoms they wont know that you did anything,” he said.
When I got home that evening I unlaced my boots and left them in the driveway where the morning sun might dry them some before my next shift. I could hear Amy moving around in the kitchen and I stopped behind the refrigerator and spied on her. She had opened all the windows and was wearing bicycle shorts and an undershirt. A miniature fan in the window blew her hair back slightly in a scene I found so mundanely perfect I had to catch my breath. She was humming, something slow. She probably didn’t even notice it.
We met in college, the first adult relationship for both of us, and she was pregnant with Jeremy not long after. A “happy accident” we told everyone, though really the entire thing had been planned. She was an elementary education student who wanted children, and I was a business student who wanted Amy. We figured with help from our parents and a good job for me out of college we could skate by, and besides the first few years of poverty might be fun, something to tell Jeremy about when he was older. My parents had pulled me aside, asked if I was ready for this, but when they held him the first time in the hospital there wasn’t anything more to say.
Amy finished her undergraduate degree slowly, getting permission from god-sent professors to allow Jeremy to sleep in his cradle next to her desks and eventually toddle around the classroom. He became something of a project, and she watched his development with an eager student’s eye, noting the slightest acquisitions in consciousness and language. With her degree she decided it only made sense that she home school him, and after I got my job at the bank so easily and the path for advancement was laid so plain, it only made sense to have another.
“How was your first day?” she asked when I cupped her breasts.
I moaned into her hair. It smelled like chlorine.
“I’m the oldest cook by eight years. Everyone’s so young.”
“You’re not so old.”
“I’m ancient. How was Germ today?”
“Good. He seems to have a natural feel for sentence structure, though I want you to look at his math worksheet later.”
“You’ll see.” I dipped my finger in the lasagna sauce. She rapped my knuckles with a wooden spoon.
“Gubbo’s sauce is better, anyway,” I said, parrying her swipes with a nearby skillet. I followed the sounds of explosions to the living room and found Jeremy in a pile of toys on the rug.
“Which one next?” he said, half to me. He picked up an action figure – some sort of mechanic or gas station attendant, I’ve never been sure – and carefully walked it to the edge of the coffee table, extending the man’s legs deliberately with each step.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Oh yes!” The man lost his footing, and fell in slow motion, a small ahhh escaping Jeremy’s lips, somersaulting downward to the rug where he landed with an enormous explosion, my son’s spittle arcing in the dusty sunshine that cut through the blinds.
That night in bed I couldn’t sleep but I lay still a long time watching Amy, her belly bigger every day, the tiny noises she made the night through, almost whimpers, a soft furrow at the top of her nose. Some animal rustled in the hedge outside our window. After dinner she’d shown me Jeremy’s worksheet. She’d asked him to count groups of black lines and write the total below. Instead he’d made little scenes out of the sticks: a boxy cat with wiggly whiskers, a long flat house, a fence encircling a snake, a smiling face. While he napped Amy had referenced one of her textbooks that said his failure (she used this word) to complete the task represented an alarming lack of initiative and suggested a possible learning disability. I looked again and saw a cat, a house, a fence around a snake, and happiness. But I didn’t say this, and I told her to keep me updated.
On the first Wednesday night I worked, the bar that shared a parking lot with us had an all-you-can-drink special. When the sun set droves of silly-faced freshman walked the strip. They looked small in their clothes, too eager, smoking cigarettes and shifting out of the way on the sidewalks to let groups of older students by. A few shaggy boys hung off the bike rack in front of the store and gawked at the passing girls in heels and skintight skirts. Peter had gone home early, mentioning something about a sick kid, and the only people working were me and Robert, who, when he wasn’t making pizza, sat in the freezer smoking weed and texting.
Around eight a girl came in, leading a boy by the hand. She sat him down on the floor.
“So what’s the deal I just pull ’em out?” she asked me.
“My tits out.”
“Why would you do that?”
“For food. For free.” I walked back to the kitchen and asked Robert.
“It’s tradition, man. It’s what we’re known for. They flash, they get a small pie. It’s not a big deal. On busier nights we keep a few cheeses going and stack them on top of the oven. If one sits around long enough we just sell it to the next wasted person who comes in. Take the one from the bottom, been there forever.” I took the box and went back to the front.
“So, here’s your pizza,” I said, pushing the box into her chest.
“I didn’t even. You didn’t see them.”
“It’s okay,” I said. She scrunched her face, looked from me to the boy. He had tilted to the side and his face left a wet smear on the glass door.
“I don’t know,” she said, clenching the stomach of her shirt as if in hunger.
“Really, you don’t need to do that. It’s on me.”
“Well I thought that was the thing.”
“Not tonight.” She kicked the boy in his shin. He shook his head and groaned.
“Isn’t that the thing? You said that’s what I do and we get food. Man, it’s what you said. I don’t care.”
“I don’t care. They’re just boobs, you weirdo.”
“Okay,” I said. “All right. You’ve got your pizza, please leave.”
“All right? Whatever, weirdo,” and as she pulled up her shirt I turned, catching Dylan’s red eyes peeking from the kitchen. I heard the chime of the door and turned to see the girl leading the boy along, her pizza held out front as they staggered away through a growing crowd of adults.
“Hey! Dad stopped by for the night,” Amy said when I came home one evening. She took the pizza from my hands. I saw him in the yard through the sliding glass door, pointing at something on the ground while Jeremy knelt beside him. Joe had come for the birth of his grandson, then two Christmases and one Easter since.
“He said he’s on the way to a funeral down south, some old friend from back in the day.”
“Great,” I said. The amount of time I’d spent with Joe wasn’t much more than my son. He lived on some inherited plot of land in the foothills of northwest Georgia. Amy’s parents had never married and she had grown up largely without him. She had visited him for a few weeks every summer starting at age seven, the two of them at his cabin, fishing and hiking and learning about one another. She told me there was always a new woman around his place.
I’d been intrigued by Joe since Amy first mentioned him. I had visions of a hermit willfully detached from the world. I imagined him clearing forests, tilling earth, hunting prey, being a man.
At dinner he talked about his friend. A buddy from college, he said, and Amy and I exchanged looks, knowing he had never gone. The man had been scalloping in the bay not far from his house, had kissed his wife goodbye that morning, sent her to the grocery for parsley and butter. Though the weather man had assured him of sunshine and still waters, as happens with the unpredictability of the ocean – and here Joe winked at Jeremy – a storm rolled in and out in less than an hour. Amy sat up, looking from her father to her son.
“How have things been otherwise, Dad?”
“Same old same old. Got some work demoing a barn, figure I can chop the old pieces into something pretty for the shops in town. Last year I made that chest from my neighbor’s old commode, some folks from Atlanta came by and gave me a grand for it,” he said, another wink at Jeremy. He didn’t appear to be listening, instead squishing nibbled bits of pizza crust between his cheeks, the fine beige slurry seeping through his teeth.
After we ate Amy and Jeremy grabbed mason jars and went outside, leaving the dishes to Joe and I. The plates clattered slightly as he lowered them into the sink and turned on the water.
“I’m obliged for letting me stay the night.”
“They found Bobby a day later. Tangled up in cypress knees. Said his body was all bruises, like the water’d kicked his ass.”
“That’s awful.” We’d only been alone a handful of times, and I could tell he felt the pressure as much as I did. I met him the first summer I was with Amy. He’d taken me to a trout pond in a ferny back lot of his property. We spent the morning fishing from the end of a dock, catching nothing, saying little more. I found quickly that I knew more about Amy than he did, and he got quiet when I’d tell him about things we did and places we’d been.
He turned off the water.
“You got anything to taste in here?”
“How’s a gin and tonic?”
Outside, the night was draped over everything like a damp sheet. I pulled some moldy folding chairs from behind the washing machine and set them up in the yard, just past the deep end of the pool. We set our sweating glasses in the grass and watched as Amy and Jeremy, ghostlike in the muggy darkness, ran and laughed after pinpricks of lightning bugs.
“We wish we’d see more of you, Joe. I know Germ likes it whenever you come by,” I said.
“Well, there’s the garden, and the fish, and I’ve got to make a few more pieces before it gets too cold. I’ve been thinking of putting another room off the back, if you could bring him up,” he said. Jeremy shrieked when a glowing bug landed on his shirt.
That morning at the dock, emboldened by his reluctance to swap stories about Amy, I asked him why he hadn’t been a larger part of her life. He told me he had wondered that his entire life, that sometimes things just don’t work out, that he wished it had been different, that he and Amy’s mom were just kids, that he respected my asking, and after I asked him about marrying Amy, he said he didn’t feel qualified to grant any blessing but if he had been then he would. We sat for a while and watched the sun skim off the surface of the pond.
Jeremy had caught several bugs in his mason jar and with Amy’s help he screwed the lid closed. She told him it was time for bed so I took his hand and we walked back inside. She stayed outside with Joe, her hands on his shoulders. He mumbled something and I heard her laugh.
“Can I keep them?” Jeremy asked while I punctured holes in the lid with a metal kebab skewer.
“For the night. I have no idea what they eat and they’ll probably be hungry,” I said.
“I wanna keep them.”
He put the jar on the sink while he brushed his teeth. Then he carried it to his bedroom and put it on the windowsill above his bed.
“What if we keep them? In the jar.”
“They’ll starve, buddy.”
“So they’ll die,” he said, in that bluntness of children. We watched the bugs tap against the glass for a bit, then I turned off his light and closed the door.
I made another round, just a drop or two of gin in each, and found Joe in the living room sitting on the couch, his head tilted back in sudden sleep. Our CD wallet lay open on his lap. He must have dozed off thumbing dumbly through them. I placed the glasses down and eased him onto his side and threw a blanket over him.
The wallet was open to a page of CDs from an obscure punk band Amy and I had liked in school. I put one of the discs into the stereo and turned the volume low, though I knew Joe wouldn’t awake. The jouncing distorted guitar began and a swimming sense went through my body and I thought I might cry. We’d gone to one of the band’s first shows on a whim. The members all had mohawks and pimples, they were younger than us even, and there were maybe fifteen other people at the bar. And Amy danced. She used to wear short shirts and no bra, her breasts pointed, her legs and her hair and her hands and she pulled me to the front of the stage, and neither of us knowing how really but just jumping and kicking and and I switched the song and again and always the first riff bathed me in shivers and I couldn’t wait to feel it so I switched and switched again.
On some slow afternoons Peter would walk through the store, checking his watch, looking at the passing cars that never stopped. He would sharply clear his nose, the window fogged with two dewy bursts.
“Let’s quit for the day,” he’d say. We would refrigerate the toppings and the kids would get out their cell phones and howl into them, unbelieving of their good fortune, make last second plans for pools or parties. I would just go home. It would be quiet, Jeremy down for a nap, and maybe even Amy, too, which were the best days. I’d sneak around my house, feeling like an intruder, but instead of taking things I’d put them away, the balled up socks and toy trains, the pearly white dishes in the drying rack, spotless except a stray oily fingerprint or two, the crayons boxed and the jackets hung. I would get it all in order. Then I’d lay in bed until Amy woke, or Jeremy did and came to our room looking for her.
“Hi, Dad,” a voice said inches from my ear.
“Who’s that?” Amy asked, waking.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Hello,” in the other ear.
“I brought pizza.”
“We had it last night.”
“I like pizza!”
“I know you do.”
“I made this one special.”
“We can’t keep eating pizza all the time.”
“Aw! How come?”
“Well, this baby needs more than cheese and bread.”
“We’ll name her Olive,” I said. A tongue in my ear.
“We’ll name her Pepperoni!” he said.
“You’re getting spit in my ear.”
“I thought you liked it,” she said.
“Not you. Him.”
“Aren’t we all.”
“What time is it?”
“What do the numbers say?”
“My eyes are shut.”
“Close early today?”
“You need more hours. You should call the banks.”
“Pete’s got me open to close the rest of the week.”
We stopped talking. Someone plucked one of my chest hairs.
“Who’s there? I’m asleep but I know someone’s there.” I snored loudly.
“It’s just us. Me and him.”
“I’m a giant. I’m a monster. Someone’s in my cave. Who’s in my cave?”
“Don’t wake him.”
“Not me! Not me!” and as Jeremy ran from the bed I chased after him, sweeping my arms and roaring while he took the corners in the house just out of my reach.
A traveling fair came through our town every spring, and one Saturday I asked off so we could take Jeremy. Peter said I’d been working way too much anyway and he gave me Sunday, too. Amy played the mom card well, her big floppy hat and sunglasses and fanny pack. She dabbed sunblock of Jeremy’s face, then turned for me to get the back of her neck while she got her arms. We filled water bottles and told Jeremy to stay close.
Inside was a riot. Hordes of sweating, overweight families dawdled through the fortune booths, the haunted houses, the batting cages and squirt gun games. They ate hot dogs, pretzels, boiled peanuts, sugar dusted funnel cakes, cotton candy, square bricks of pizza. Jeremy got a snow cone, the chemical blues and reds staining his tongue and fingers. A loudmouth clown mocked us from his perch in a dunking booth. He pulled out his shirt indicating Amy’s stomach. For a dollar I got three softballs and knocked him down with the second. I gave Jeremy the third and he missed badly, but the clown reached over and dunked himself. The background roar, laughter and screams and the chunk-chunk of spindly metal roller coasters. We drank sodas in the sun, won tickets and exchanged them for stuffed animals and thin plastic spider rings. Jeremy found some friends from the neighborhood and I held Amy’s hand while the kids destroyed each other in the bumper cars. I felt full, almost bursting.
We got our faces painted. Jeremy was a monkey, a dark brown furry forehead and deep cheek lines. The woman painting him had to keep telling him to sit still. After she was done he came to me with his arms up and I put him on my shoulders. He beat his chest and made jungle noises. Amy chose a bird, a wash of blue feathers around her eyes and a yellow beak. The paint covered the smear of freckles across her nose and I was startled at how much this made her look like a different person. How a face is a sum of its parts and the loss of one is the loss of everything, and people are barely different from each other, and there are so many chance happenings in life, how a moment paused is a moment lost or gained, depending on who you run into, whose life you crash into. It seemed a stunning miracle I’d fallen in love with her, this strange woman, and not any other one.
At their insistence I got my face painted like a tiger.
“How do I look?” Amy turned away and laughed.
“Ooh-ooh,” Jeremy said, scratching beneath his armpits.
They had pony rides in a big metal barn. When the fair wasn’t in town they used it for gun shows and cattle auctions, and the sweet reek of cow turds never fully dissipated. Honky-tonk music pumped out of the big double doors and the stadium lights blinded me as we stepped inside. The middle of the space was a circle of collapsible metal fencing, and inside a few girls led bored-looking ponies around the ring. Atop each pony sat a kid, each wearing the same style black chaps and red cowboy hats.
Amy went to find a bathroom and I stood in line with Jeremy. He got the gray pony. As I lifted him up onto the saddle, he let his tongue hang out over his chin in pure excitement. A white-haired girl took the reins and slowly walked them away along the perimeter of the pen. I stood off to the side with a group of men, one about my age with a face painted like a Dalmatian, and another, older, wearing a twisted balloon hat and wraparound sunglasses.
“Strange place,” the Dalmatian said, looking at me.
“Which one is yours?” I asked.
“The one being led around by the goddess,” he said, nodding at a chubby boy atop a dappled bay. The horse was being led by a girl with blonde pigtails that hung down her chest. She wore jean cutoffs short enough that I could see the white tips at the bottoms of her pockets.
“They’re all goddesses,” said Balloon Hat. “Every one of them.”
“You said it,” said the Dalmatian.
“Every one of them,” he repeated. He shifted from foot to foot. “And what are we supposed to do? Just stand here. Like dicks.”
“You said it.”
The white-haired girl must have asked Jeremy something because he nodded his head up and down in the exaggerated way of a cartoon character. She looked my way and smiled.
“How old you think they are? Eighteen? Less?” Balloon Hat said.
“Let’s say eighteen. I hope eighteen, right?” the dog said, nudging me. She wore cowboy boots, thin tan sticks of legs going up, white shorts the color of her hair, a denim shirt tied in the front the way girls do. She seemed to tiptoe along the dirt path, her hand just lighting on the horse’s withers.
“Ain’t never had one like that. Ain’t never been one like that,” one said.
“You said it, man. Wanna get in line for a ride.”
Two good inches of brown belly above her belt, the downy promise of nascent hips, the abrupt coolness of an inner thigh, the stadium lights catching the tiny white hair along her arms and legs, a hint of the shallow cleft down her chest. Then after work, putting the horses up, the perfume sweat behind her knees and under her arms, she changes in some back room of the barn, strips out of the dusty hay-smelling clothes, takes turns with the other girls showering with a hose off a spigot out back, giggling of course, undoes her long braid, measures herself in the mirror, thinks about that man today.
I felt a hand under the back of my shirt.
“You ready?” Amy said, holding Jeremy’s hand. I let her lead me toward the exit. At the door I turned to look back, and the Dalmatian mouthed something at me then nudged Balloon Hat with his elbow.
We had to carry Jeremy to the car. He had a sticky line of melted ice cream running down his shirt and several temporary tattoos inked on his forearms. I laid him down in the back seat. Amy too seemed tired, her face red, her brown hair stuck in thin strands to her forehead and down her neck. By the time we were out of the parking lot, her breathing had deepened and in the reflection of the passenger window I saw her eyes closed in sleep. Everyone seemed to be rushing away at once, and as I drove my family back home in stop-and-go traffic, I kept catching myself in the rear view mirror, the eyes of a jungle cat looking back at me.
I was scheduled to work every day during the week of final exams. Most of my co-workers were students and had to study or at least pretend to. Pete assured me that business would be slow, and when I didn’t say anything he said I could close up early if some nights were obviously dead.
I’d started delivering a few pizzas on my way home, taking any that needed taking to the neighborhoods near mine. Peter didn’t know about it, and the drivers didn’t care, either because they were too stoned or not stoned enough and needed the spare time to get high behind the Dumpster. Sometimes I’d join them.
One night that week I was alone in the restaurant, rereading the scribbled graffiti that covered the wall of the employee bathroom. It was everything you’d expect: ridiculous estimates on the size of Peter’s dick, women with breasts the size of their heads, a laundry list of swears, rhyming couplets concerning bowel movements. I thought of Amy, sitting at home, maybe peeping into Jeremy’s room to make sure he was asleep. A few days before she’d found a knife in his room. I told her it was just a butter knife, that there was Play-Doh residue on the blade, but she’d read somewhere about early-onset psychopathy, that there are certain violent signs to look out for. I’d taken Jeremy on a walk through the cool hills of our neighborhood and tried to ask him how he felt. He got distracted by the sound of frogs in the creek and we spent an hour up to our shins grabbing after them.
I’d been telling every third customer who called in that we weren’t delivering tonight, but no one was coming into the store either. I made a few pizzas and threw them away. I couldn’t do this much longer. A call came in, a woman’s voice over music, and I figured what the hell. I grabbed an old pizza, turned off the oven, flicked off the neon sign out front, locked the door.
I drove generally toward home. The pizza was going to an apartment complex about a mile from my house, and I took the long way that went through downtown. Rows of shuttered windows, FOR RENT signs, foreclosed businesses. I drove past my old bank, my old parking spot. Amy had been pushing for me to try to get another banking job. She said I smelled like food, that Jeremy seemed detached, that even she herself felt distant. I took the cordless phone to the backyard and made some calls. After the first three banks said they weren’t hiring I just held the phone up to my ear and looked into the deep end of the pool, knowing Amy was watching through the window. I nodded occasionally. When I came back inside I told her there might be something in a month or two.
The apartment complex was a ten-story gray building oddly placed in the middle of an upscale neighborhood. It’d been built as a baby step toward adulthood for sophomores just leaving the dorms. I parked my car on the street and walked up the steps to the front door. Tall hedges lined the path. I dialed the woman’s number on my cell phone and there was a rustle of leaves and I fell. It seemed to take some time to finally hit the concrete.
At some point someone found me and called the police. By the time they arrived I was sitting up. An EMT shined a penlight in my eyes and talked to me like a child. He asked my name, how many fingers, where I lived, what I remembered.
I remembered the sky, the way the hedges were a light green near the stems, almost glowing, the sweet tangy smell of peeled tomatoes. I told him I remembered the scuffing of shoes on the street as they fled, the crispness of them breaking the quiet street, how the sound seemed to catch in my ear, how the shoe that kicked me was tied with bunny ears and drawn on with permanent marker. I remembered the hands searching my pockets, the heavy breathing, the hushed let’s go.
I told him my name, and where I lived, and though he didn’t ask, I told him I had a wife, Amy, and two children. I didn’t tell him that in that black moment after falling I thought I didn’t. He said since I was smiling I probably didn’t have a concussion.
I woke to the sound of a door softly closing. A warm light bathed my room, reflecting off the white sheets and carpet, the white walls. I squinted and felt the crusty knot at the back of my head. I took a minute to stand up. Amy had gotten up when I came home and she cried a little when I showed her the gauze around my chest. I called Peter and he told me to stay home for a few days. She wiped her eyes and said she’d start ironing my dress shirts in the morning.
The kitchen was empty. I ate a piece of cold bacon and poured a cup of cold coffee. A breeze light as birdsong blew through the screen door and outside I could hear the voices of my family. I put on my swimsuit and found Amy on a blanket in the backyard.
“Welcome to the land of the living,” she said when I knelt to kiss her. “Want a waffle?” I kissed her again. I held her face close to mine and kissed it twice, on each cheek. “Okay, okay,” she said. Jeremy and a neighbor kid, Marcus, were splashing near the steps. They swam so often that at five they were already experts. I lurched slowly toward them, feeling every inch. They paddled up to the edge.
“Who’s this in my pool?” I grumbled.
“It’s us, Dad.”
“You’re invading my kingdom,” I said, and I leaned over and picked Jeremy up by the arms and carried him squirming to the deep end. “Let’s see how you like this.” He squealed as I tossed him into the pool. Marcus charged toward me and barely missed Jeremy as he crashed in after him.
A sensation of youth quickened my pace and I found myself grabbing them up while they were still running, hoisted by their swimsuits and tossed spinning out, their bellies and backs clapping the water. Their laughter was as full and rich as weeping and they shut their eyes as they blindly ran into my arms.
I threw them until Amy brought out my breakfast. I stretched out on the concrete patio, dizzy and lost in the sunlight. Jeremy sat on my stomach but he was far away. My arms were dead from the weight of children and the welcome release of their burden over water, but an itch remained. I felt a hesitation, a gripping somewhere deep, and I realized I’d been throwing them towards something when I should have been throwing them away.