The 500˚ F heat from my double-decker oven bends the air around my topping station. To test the oven hoods’ sporadic suction, I throw a pinch of flour above the oven. Instead of lofting up the vents, the white particles drift down to dust the oven doors’ handles.
At 11 PM, I can’t hear the whir of the vents because the open kitchen throbs with the pulse of the start of Lazy Moon Pizzeria’s “drunk shift.” Until 3 AM closing time, the sound system will continue to pump hits by MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Beach House, and other hipster bands while the college crowd streams inside the store before or after hitting the next door club Knight Library, named for Knightro the Knight, the mascot of the University of Central Florida across the street.
“I hope we get slammed,” Andy says. He shoves a drawer into a register for a new girl named Lauren.
Since Andy got promoted to shift manager he itches for a rush so he can have a reason to get into the store’s corner and toss pies again. To the right of my station my buddy José ties on his white apron in the tossing station by the store’s entrance. He grabs trays of doughballs from the humming fridge in the corner and squeezes the balls in-between the clicking hotplate of the dough press. Only when I take pies from behind him off his eight-shelf rack can I hear the appliances. José spins the store’s large—30-inch pies as round as hula-hoops—above his head.
Most kitchen guys’ dream is to become tossers, but they all start as pullers and then become toppers and maybe, finally stand in the corner to toss. Even though I was hired as a puller, I began topping my first night on a Thursday at Lazy Moon when I worked a special “drunk” shift because of Cinco de Mayo. Behind the counter with me was Mark this wakeboarding “brah” with bleached-blond hair peaking under a flat-billed hat with Monster energy drink’s three crawl scratches embroidered in neon green. He pulled a paper ticket for an order from a clip dangling on a wire connected to a post on the end of his counter. He slung the clip attached to a carabiner down the wire. The carabiner passed my counter making the utensils in a holder rattle. The carabiner continued all the way down the line and slammed into the other post by the salad station next to the registers.
“You wanna swap?” Mark asked.
“I’m not trained to top,” I said.
“I’m just not feeling this,” Mark said as he showed me the printed out ticket. The customer’s name was written next to the time of the order’s purchase. Beneath the name was the word Slice. There were no ingredients printed in red under Slice. It was plain.
“It’s easy,” Mark said. He moved to my puller station position. Then, he pushed me to his topping station.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to do this,” I said.
Mark walked back to his station’s area. He grabbed a single par-baked slice from the end of the counter. Lazy Moon was known for its huge slices, and this one’s crust was wider than a sheet of notebook paper.
Mark slapped the slice down. Some of the marinara splattered up on the stainless steel lids that covered the topping station’s mini-fridges.
“Cheese it,” he said.
“How much should I put on?” I asked.
“Just grab that polar bear pussy,” Mark said.
There were weird names for stuff in the restaurant. Eventually, I got to know that a peel was a giant-sized spatula, a Griswald was a cast-iron pot, a mandolin was a sliding slicer, and a Hobart was an industrial cheese grater. But that night—my first night—I had no idea where to find something resembling an arctic ursine’s nether regions.
Mark lifted the middle fridge’s lid to reveal a tub of shredded mozzarella and said, “Just plunge your hand in.”
I still didn’t get it.
So, Mark shoved his fingers into the cheese. He squeezed a palmful. He ducked below the counter because the owners set up live cameras with lenses pointed to the line so they could check in on the kitchen guys. Crouching down out of view, Mark popped the ball of cheese into his mouth and gulped.
I set my latex-gloved hand above the cool, soft cheese. I pinched some strings.
“Dump it,” Mark said.
I sprinkled the white strands over the marinara. White crosshatched the red slice. Mark nodded.
I swiped my finger along the slice’s two sides, brushing the excess cheese off so that the spilled strands wouldn’t melt and burn in the oven and cause the dough to tear when pulled from the oven’s stone or need to be trimmed off after. I lifted the slice up, turned around to the oven’s upper door, and laid the slice onto the stone with its triangle tip pointing inward and its crust facing out. I shut the door.
Eer-eer the store’s electronic entrance bell buzzes. Even with all the noise of the sound system, I can still hear the buzzer. Jordan walks over to the registers and clocks-on. Even though he’s managed another pizza shop, he’s working as a puller. The owners of Lazy Moon make every new guy, no matter what experience he’s got, go through the puller gauntlet of pulling slices, running plates, bussing tables, and dishing everything.
Down by the registers, Sara pinches a bunch of tickets on a clip. Sara is a tough cutie with chopped blonde hair, freckles on her cheeks, and a bullring between her nostrils. She sends the carabiner down the line.
I snatch the tickets’ corner and snap my wrist forward, sending the carabiner back down the line with the clip releasing the paper. I count out four tickets. Each ticket has the same number Sharpied on their corners, so all the slices are part of one group’s order. A circle goes around the fourth and last ticket’s number. I shove each ticket into a slot along the ten feet of my topping counter.
When I check the kind of slices I realize it’s not as easy as four red slices. From a half-pie, I cut off one fourth for a Jason’s Mom’s slice. On top of the marinara, I drizzle Jason’s Mom’s sweet and tangy sauce and then crosshatch that with ranch. I lay out sliced tomatoes, caramelized onions, and grilled chicken pieces. I cheese the Jason’s Mom’s slice and put it in the oven first because it will take longer to cook. I rub my gloved hands in the hotel pan of motz cheese to clean off the onions’ oil and the tomato-pulp’s watery slickness. Then I read Pesto and know to save that one for last because there’s something about the pine nuts that bakes quicker. I double-check that the pesto slice isn’t just a regular slice with pesto on it. It isn’t. I pull out one par-baked pesto slice from the mini-fridge. I feel the hum of the motor I would hear during an open shift’s quiet. Scotty is written on the third ticket. I cut another slice from the half-pie. From the soup warmer, I ladle two heaps of chili on the slice and then cheese it with cheddar as well as motz before sticking it in the oven. The last ticket reads Six Guns, a slice with two toppings and the customer also gets a fountain drink that they fill for themselves. This order has pepperoni and jalapeños: spicy going in and stingy going out.
I stay planted on the rubber matt a quarter inch thick above the store’s concrete floor sloping to drain. Snail shells leftover from the night’s spray-downs on the rail in the back crunch under my triathlete no-lace sneakers. Gunk—a mix of the crushed shells and mashed-in toppings as well as ashes—clog up the matrix of holes in the mat. As I top, I walk two steps sideways along my station either left toward Jordan pulling or right toward José tossing. I shuffle a step forward to my counter with its removable plastic cutting board running above the entire length of connected mini-fridges. I cheese the final slices. Then I reach behind my back for the oven handle. I grip and pull the door, slide in the slices, and close the door. The puller/topper double-oven is full.
My black apron’s strings wrap once around my back and then tie in a bow at my hips. The strings sway to the left when I shove the stack of tickets into Jordan’s puller slot. The strings sway right when I step back to my station and flop up when I duck below my counter. I open the mini-fridge and grab my red cup with Coca-Cola scripted on the side. The 16-oz cup’s wax-covered paper feels soggy. Between the oven’s blasts and the fridge’s chill the cup won’t last much longer than the ice it holds. I gulp the water, because I only have breaks when I’m done topping.
One, two, three clips slide down the line. The bunches of tickets crackle on the wire until they collide in a flutter at my topping station’s post. I leap up and flick the clips back down. I stuff the tickets into my topping slot keeping their purchase times in order. Nobody wants to see somebody who ordered after them in line eating before them.
I count at least eight slices. I squeeze between José and the edge of the tossers’ double-deck ovens next to mine. I pull a peel off José’s rack because he hasn’t had time to cut up new slices.
“You taking a pie?” José asks.
He catches a circle of dough on the back of his wrist spinning in place. His biceps squeeze out of his T-shirt, and a gold crucifix rests on his chest. Flour dusts his skin and lightens his black hair poking under his Yankees cap making him look like an old strongman.
“I’m gonna have to stuff your oven, too,” I say.
“Be gentle,” José says. He slaps the dough between his palms flattening out thick spots. The dough zigzags into a twisting figure eight. I glance at the red digital block numbers of our clock behind the counter. It’s only midnight—two hours into the shift and another three hours before we close and then hopefully, quickly clean up after so we can get our tips before 5 AM and drive home in the hazy morning.
Throughout the blur of the rush, I grab toppings with my left fingers and measure their weight in my palm. I evenly place toppings on each slice so there will be a taste in every bite. My right hand grasps cheese and spreads it evenly over everything.
Sara runs orders. Jordan puts trays of utensils in the dish machine. Lauren works both registers. Andy oils any station needing help. He sends tickets down the line, he plates slices and then loads up three on each arm: one on his forearm and two in his hand, his fingers flared out in Spock’s live long and prosper gesture. He places pick-up slices on paper plates, wraps them in a triangle of foil, and slides the foiled-slices on top of the oven to keep warm. He presses doughballs out for José to toss. He refills my toppings and cheese.
We follow Andy’s example of helping each other because all of us veterans know that to survive the rushes we need to help the workers below us. I pull slices out of the oven while Jordan buses. José flings clips down the line and sets up my tickets in slots. Sara rings up orders on the other register when Lauren runs orders out to the floor.
At 2 AM, I stuff a stack of tickets in Jordan’s puller slot. I grasp air when I reach for the wire without any clips slung down for me. When I look at the registers, Lauren shrugs and opens her hand to the restaurant with everyone eating. José counts seven pies on his rack and then shuffles over to the walk-in freezer. He yanks open the latch-handle, pulls aside the clear plastic slips that keep the cool contained, stands inside, and bows his head.
“You got this?” I ask Jordan.
“Definitely,” Jordan says.
I take my first step off of my mat. I get to the end of the line by the salad station and reach through the freezer’s plastic slips. I pat José’s shoulder and smile.
“I tossed the entire fridge,” José says. His muscles twitch under his T-shirt.
Each morning the owners make one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds of dough. What will be the store’s 30-inch large pies are rolled from three and half pound chunks. The plastic bagged doughballs fit eleven to a tray. The fridge in the tossers’ corner fit eight trays on its shelves. José tossed two days of dough—over three hundred pounds. He lifted the weight of the empty fridge.
I topped those ninety pies in addition to the seven pies from the mid-shift as well as a full pesto and white pie. I do the math: Eight slices a pie. Eight hundred slices. Four hours. A slice almost every three minutes. No mistakes.
The cold pouring over my face from the walk-in makes me want to cry. I exhale. Andy lets me and José sit down at the bar and do nothing for fifteen minutes. We just stare at the clipboards with the laminated closing checklist hanging on a screw in the blank wall above the prep station’s counter.
A half-an-hour before close I begin to wipe down my entire station; taking breaks from cleaning when clips slide down the line with tickets. I shut down the soup warmer. I twist-tie the soups in plastic bags and set them in ice-filled pans. José returns to his tossing corner and sweeps all the flour. I push Jordan off the line and tell him to knock out the dish pit while I wrap up the salad station and put all the produce in the walk-in.
At five minutes to closing, a couple comes into the store. They’ve got their arms around each other, not in the sloppy-drunk club-kid hook-up way, but the late-night-snack look of the afterglow. Andy glances at me and mouths the word, “Here.” José has a pie left that we will throw away at 3 AM. The couple can just sit at the end of the bar on the last stools that Sara will flip up before mopping the entire floor. I nod. Andy takes the guy and gal’s order. Andy slings the last clip of the night down the wire. Two pepperoni slices. I cut a quarter out of the whole pie and tell José that’s it.
I top the slices and slide them into the oven. I set out two plates and silverware. I pull the slices and set them on the plates.
“Runner,” I call.
Lauren comes over to pick up the order. Even though she’s new, I feel an affinity for her. Not only because she shares the same name as my girlfriend, but also she’s a quiet, nerdy, pale gal with glasses and red hair. She reads superhero comics and studies in the nursing school at UCF. She doesn’t fit in at Lazy Moon, but I hope she stays so she will balance out some of the wild counter girls.
Lauren grabs the plates. I focus back on my counter cleaning as she walks around the end of the counter. I hear the ping of the silverware, the clatter of plates, and slop of slices landing cheese-side down.
Then over my shoulder, I hear José say, “Shit.”
José’s hands grasp air above the trash. I glance around my station for any other slices. Then I spot a ticket shoved in the oven’s corner. I tiptoe to glimpse the edge of foil almost camouflaged on top of the steel oven. I take the foil-wrapped triangle down and open it up to reveal two several-hour old plain cheese slices.
I jog over to the registers. Andy is helping up Lauren who repeats apologies. Andy mentions refunds to the couple.
“Wait,” I say and wave him over to my counter.
Andy lets go and follows me to the two shriveled triangles on their wrapped paper plates in the crinkled foil. I raise my eyebrows. Andy nods.
I grab a stack of pepperoni coins. Andy will tell the guy and gal a few more minutes and we’ll get them new slices. I’ll cover the shriveled leftover slices with so much cheese they won’t notice the old gummy cheese underneath. I’ll put a burn plate under the slices in the oven. The couple will get their late night snack and I’ll save our near-perfect shift. First, I thumb the pepperoni on top in subtracting rows from the crust to the tip: four, three, two, one.
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