[Contains profanity and brief descriptions of violence.]
Yes, there was a great evil pushing at the world, he thought, and it only needed a little slipway, a little opening.
He says he’ll ruin me. That’s his word: ruin. This customer, whose plump face consists mainly of beard matter and ruddy cheek flesh, stands by the door on his way out, angling a large pizza box against his hip. He’s yelling that he’s going to tell all his friends not to eat here. Then he actually jabs a finger skyward and screams, “I’ll ruin you!” And stomps off and slams the door. In the uprush of silence, everyone in the dining room, including a little girl coloring on a placemat, turns to see what I’ll do.
You ask: Why is he bent on ruining me? Because I charged him too handsomely for his complicated pizza: half Veggie Supreme with extra cheese, one-quarter green pesto, and one-quarter bianca with black olives, broccoli, and artichokes. When I told him the price, things escalated before I even knew they could. The total, I was about to explain, included materials and labor. The application of the sauce, toppings, and cheese, quarantined into their fractional domains, required exceptional precision. Before I could come up with a normal way of saying that, he started in. He ran a business himself, he said, and this was no way to treat customers, and so on.
How will scaring off customers like a Scooby-Doo villain ruin me? It won’t. But he thinks I’m the owner, the Chuck of Chuck’s Pizza. Granted, I’m a paunchy, slouched twenty-six-year-old bald man working among high school students. But I’m not Chuck. In fact, there is no Chuck. Chuck was invented years ago by the real owner because he wanted, in his words, something manlier than Todd’s Pizza.
In that post-slam silence, I don’t give the dining room a second act. I just withdraw. I scuff out back to brood over the stainless steel sink filled with gray water and chopped veggie floaters.
It’d be a good image for a story. Dejected and haunted, our protagonist slouches over the cold, dingy sinkwater and imagines an ocean someplace far from his unremarkable life. The Sargasso Sea maybe. He reaches into the depths, pulls the stopper, and swishes his fist to start a vortex. Everything spirals down. Super symbolic!
I can’t remember the last thing I wrote, though. Whatever it was, it was a while ago—probably in college before I dropped out to pursue a career in pizza. And it wasn’t just the pizza. It was also the freelance vodka consumption and recreational insomnia. And of course there was driving Maggie away via sustained emotional distance. That, just by itself, took a lot of energy.
In real life, I do what fictional me would do: spin the Sargasso Sea into a sucking maelstrom and imagine how things could’ve been different. I run the scenarios.
Scenario 1: The Zinger
I stand up to him. I’m unfazed, imperturbable. I dispense some stone-cold snark in which I scoff at the very notion of ruining an already ruined thing. Like I go, “Look, let me level with you. I totally overcharged you, but I’d like to make it up to you, give you a refund. No hard feelings?”
The moment his guard drops, I administer the zinger: “Oh, I just remembered: Fuck you, fuck face! That was a complicated pizza! You think we’re just giving away complicated pizzas, nut wad? Also, I’m not Chuck. There is no Chuck.”
That’d learn him. That’d learn him good.
Scenario 2: Frenzied Ambush
Why not go for fisticuffs? Simply beat the living shit out of him. Even now, it’s not too late to storm out to the parking lot, roundhouse-kick the complicated pizza off his hip, and repeatedly punch his alien beard and fleshy cheeks as he screams and sobs and bleeds and slumps into a pulpy mound of stillness.
Drawback: Yes, it would be wrong. Possibly illegal. And he’s probably actually a human being. Also, I’d need to call Maggie for bail. If there’s bail. And would she bail?
Scenario 3: Resignation
There’s always dramatic, message-sending quitting. Rip the soiled apron from my waist, cast it into the Sargasso Sea, walk.
And do what exactly?
Scenario 4: Literary Retribution
Play the long game. Swallow my need for immediate payback, let it steep in my imagination for two to three decades, and then write revenge fiction that scathingly places blame on that bloated, loud, absurd, petty creature consisting mainly of beard and ego.
Limiting factor: Implementation requires ignoring the possibility that he’s a human being with his own pain, disappointment, longing, and so on. He’d need to be reduced to a free-floating beard. Which isn’t my thing.
Scenario 5: Epiphany
Swallow my need for payback altogether and exact revenge through living well. Meaningfully reflect on my life choices. Beard is not my problem! My problem is that I’m driven and derided by vanity, probably. Or I’m just stuck, is all. Maybe a concrete detail could symbolize an emotional truth? The walk-in freezer maybe. Inside, there’s a glow-in-the-dark escape knob and, under it, a sign with a super significant double meaning: “You are not locked in.”
Inspiring! In this scenario, I clean up my act. Wean myself off the vodka and cigarettes. Do a sit-up. Think about going back to school. In fact, make a specific, realistic plan do to so! Maybe give Maggie a call. Humble myself, of course. Admit fault. Then vow to be emotionally available. Do better. Do what’s good for me so I can do good unto others.
Considerations: It was just the emotional distance thing, right? That’s it? Like she hasn’t stopped, you know, feeling those other feelings?
Scenario 6: Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together
Put the ugliness behind me, focus on Maggie. Write a non-vengeful, plaintive story that ends in unavoidable heartbreak. Just start writing. Tonight, while it’s still fresh. In the story, they fall in love, this man and this woman who bear no resemblance to me and Maggie. They stay in love even as things fall apart. They are, both of them, aware of the new distance but are powerless to change it. Every night, it sits between them on the couch and interrupts when they try to talk. Every night, they wait, each assuming the other has invited him, each hoping he’ll go away.
In flashbacks, we see them holding hands on the bleachers at a high school football game. We see them at the beach on a summer night, talking past curfew. We see them at the movies and, much later, making tacos in their apartment. Near the end, before they admit it’s the end, they go to an amusement park like they did in high school, but this doesn’t work either. The space between them inexorably expands. And every night, the silence takes his usual spot on the couch. The man and the woman say nothing at all.
I go for scenario 6.
My shift ends. I go home, skip the TV, write the story. I stay up late and write it quickly, all in one go, like Kafka. I even use a literary title and an epigraph. Only thing is, it’s awful. It’s thin, rambling, and self-indulgent, and it lacks any kind of discernible point. Granted, it’s Raymond Carvery, but it’s more like Raymond Carver recovering from a head wound. Like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Whatever We Were Just Talking About.”
Still, I cut myself some slack. It is, after all, a draft. And it does have one redeeming scene. Near the end, there’s a quiet moment in which the protagonist almost understands something. Not an epiphany in the Joycean sense, but something new. The man, the one who isn’t me, he’s sitting in the living room as a shaft of sunlight slants in through the front window. The woman, the one who isn’t Maggie, has moved out.
As the story winds down, we see flecks of dust swimming through the sunbeam, and the man remembers something from college about sunlight. The photons, born in the heart of the sun perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, have pushed their way through the churning plasma inside the sun to finally reach the photosphere and then streak across 93 million miles in eight minutes to his living room, where particles of dust swirl in unpredictable patterns through a column of unspeakably ancient light.
Then, in the story, the phone rings.
Because the story’s set somewhere in the mists of time before caller ID, the man doesn’t know who’s calling. It could be her. He just doesn’t know. He could find out if he picked up, of course, but he waits. He lets it ring. As long as the ringing continues, the caller can be considered both her and not her. If he doesn’t answer, that is. If he just holds on, it’s both. She can be, for a while, both here and not here. The two of them can be, without contradiction, both together and not together.
He listens to it ring. He raises two fingertips to his lips, closes his eyes, and does not think of moving.