[This story was originally published, in a slightly different form, in the Winter 2011 issue of Our Stories Literary Journal.]
You probably think it’s pathetic for a thirty-year-old guy to live in his mother’s garage, but honestly I don’t know how I got to be thirty. And I wouldn’t be living here if I hadn’t gotten kicked out of Rockingham College for plagiarism. That’s what Professor Daniels called it, but I think he’s just bitter because he’s not working at a real university.
“You’re a celestial talent,” he said, punning on the fact that he taught astronomy.
This was a few months back. We were in the classroom after everyone had left. He was sitting on the chalk-covered desk and swinging his legs. Behind him were diagrams of stellar pathways, calculations of orbital velocity. To me they looked beautiful even from a distance, and that was without considering their link to burning balls of hydrogen millions of times as big as the Earth.
“I don’t want to do this, you know?” he said. “But I think I’d be doing you a disservice if I let it slide.”
I wanted to point out that he really wouldn’t be doing me a disservice at all. I was just a few months from my bachelor’s and then I could get a better job and move out of my mother’s. Couldn’t he just dock my grade?
“I’d dock your grade,” he said. “But you wouldn’t care about that, would you? You’ve already made a mockery of my attendance policy.”
“I work late.”
“So do many of the students and yet they manage to come to class.”
He extended his hand and I shook it.
That’s one of my weaknesses, letting people walk all over me. That’s what my mom says when I complain about my boss, the owner of The College Slice. Eddie Machete, they call him, because he once chased a burglar from his house with a machete while dressed in his underwear.
It’s true about working late. I don’t want to, but Eddie keeps the place open later every year, trying to undercut the competition, Dino’s, across the street. They both gear to the college, drunk frat boys stumbling in five minutes before close and getting angry that we don’t have supreme slices. They never recognize me from the classes we had together.
It’s funny because Dino and Eddie are so alike yet they’re sworn enemies. They stand at their respective windows all day, staring at each other from under neon signs advertising cold beer and cheap slices. They once got in a price-gouging war until Dino went down to fifty cents a slice and Eddie practically broke down sobbing that he couldn’t go any cheaper. That’s when he changed the name from Eddie’s Pizza to The College Slice, to remind people who had been kissing the students’ asses longer.
So I deliver until four or five in the morning, because the Italians and the Spanish hate each other—something about a soccer match in the ’70s—or maybe it’s that Eddie hates anyone who so much as looks at his money.
Today, for example, when I get to work he calls me into his office. He is counting the drawer from the day shift. I watch his busy fingers.
“You looking at my money?” he says, laughing. “I am rich and you are not.”
Instead, I look at the pictures of the race cars on his wall, Eddie holding up his winning trophies with his big hairy arms.
“But because I am rich,” he says. “I am going to give you a raise.”
“Thanks, Eddie. Maybe I’ll be rich one day.” You’ve got to know how to butter him up.
“If you work as hard as me,” he says. “This is America.”
I do work as hard as Eddie, harder in fact since Eddie spends most of his day in his car on his cell phone, only running in and out of the kitchen to yell at people like me. I try to be stoned enough where Eddie doesn’t bother me. I stand in the steam of the dish pit, scrubbing dishes and staring at the yellowing brick of the wall. It’s the drivers’ job to do the dishes and most of them hate it. Not me. I like to be away from the noise and heat of the kitchen, no one talking to me until an order’s ready.
But today I’ve no sooner clocked in and changed into my flour-covered work shirt than I see one of the warmer bags sitting there. I ask Bill—the stuttering alcoholic night manager, also known as Billiam and, less affectionately, Princess Willie—if it’s ready.
“Aston,” he says. That’s my name. “Thank the ever-loving lord. That shit’s got to go ASAP.”
I check the ticket. “Sweet.”
It’s for Cold Mountain Creamery.
“I don’t see what’s sweet about that,” Bill says, missing the obvious opportunity for an ice-cream-related pun. “They don’t tip for shit.”
“I need to get gas,” I say. I don’t want him to know the real reason since it’s pretty embarrassing.
It’s colder than shit outside. I run the heat on high and eventually my window unfogs. I pop in a Brian Eno mix and hum along as I drive—my favorite part of this suck-ass job. My nose starts to run and I look around for a napkin, anything, but I cleaned out my car for the first time in about five months in a fit of pot-and-coffee-induced productivity (the mixture makes me OCD), so I have to wipe the snot on my sleeve. The hoodie I’m wearing is black but the smear, like a slug trail, is still visible on my sleeve. Gross.
I don’t know what the Civil War has to do with ice cream but there are images of that movie all over Cold Mountain Creamery. A big moon over dark woods. Nicole Kidman, the worried lover, looking out from her North Carolina porch. Jude Law hiking through the woods in his ripped-up bloody uniform. It’s morbid for an ice cream place.
The smell of waffle cones hits me as I walk in the door. She’s standing at the waffle cone machine, waiting for the timer to ding. When it does she scrapes the hot thin waffle from the griddle, rolls it around a conical cone mold and slides it into its paper hat. She smiles at me, showing that gap in her teeth.
“Pizza man,” she says.
“Hey,” I say. I should probably tell her my name one of these days.
“Pizza man,” she shouts into the back room.
Her voice is high an scratchy in an unfeminine, but not unpleasant, way. With the purple streaks in her hair and her perfect little oval of a face, I can see her as a singer in one of those badass all-girl bands.
A fat girl who I’m pretty sure is the manager waddles out. She’s got money in both fists.
“All right,” she says. “Here’s the first order. And this is the second. And the last one.”
I count each. No surprise, exact change down to the penny. I tell myself they are young and do not know any better. But the fat girl’s close to my age and besides there’s a tip jar right at the counter. One of the other night shift drivers, Donny, dropped a note in there one day.
Here’s a tip, it read. Give and you shall receive.
It’s funny because Donny drives a shiny new Corvette, which I am pretty sure he didn’t buy. Still, I wish I had the balls to do something like that. I can’t even work up the nerve to ask Abby out. I know her name’s Abby because she’s got a name tag.
I am about to leave when Abby calls me over and slips me a fiver.
“They’re some greedy bitches,” she says. “And anyway, I gotta tip the man with the sweet-ass Misfits patch.”
I turn my sleeve to look at it—I put it on in high school and I pretty much forgot it was there—and that’s when I see the snot-smear. No way she doesn’t notice it too. But she doesn’t react. I put my arm back against my side like I’m fishing for something in my pocket.
“You like the Misfits?” I say.
And I am a little surprised. She can’t be more than seventeen. Of course I was listening to them in high school too. Which brings back days of skipping class with Raven Underwood, driving down to Eno River in her little brown Volkswagen Beetle with only a tape deck, singing along with “One Last Caress,” somehow happy even with all the bullshit around us.
“They changed my fuckin’ world.”
Changed her world. I wish something could still get to me like that.
“Cool,” I say. “Well, see ya.”
She says see ya back and I take that pathetically brief interaction with me out to the car, like a little kitten or something, humming “One Last Caress.”
When I get back in the car I pop out that sad sack Brian Eno and dig around for a Misfits CD. Eventually I find one. I listen to it on repeat all night. I remember Raven taking my hand and putting it between her legs. I just kind of left it there, touching her pink underwear.
“You’re kinda dense, aren’t you?” she said, pulling the underwear back and guiding my fingers in.
But now Raven’s face has been replace with Abby’s. The night passes in a blur of tips, no tips, money counting, dishwashing, a few visits from Eddie, closing up shop with Bill and driving him home (after a few after-hours drinks together in the curtain-drawn bar).
Back at home I watch blowjob porn in the garage apartment I live in now, imagining Abby doing the impossible things in the video, that my dick is as big as the guy’s. The apartment wouldn’t be a bad setup if not for the fake-wood paneling and shag carpet that makes it look like some ’60s hunting lodge. And the fact that it’s attached to my mother’s house. It’s six am and I can hear her moving around, which makes it hard to jerk off. The washer and dryer are in here and she doesn’t like me to lock the door. She could come in at any moment; she never knocks. She gets up early because she passes out at nine p.m. every night, wine-drunk, not in her bedroom but on the couch with the TV blaring. A few hours earlier I walked through the living room en route to the fridge and there she was, fallen off the couch onto the floor, her legs spread and her shapeless gray panties showing.
Eventually, I do come into an old sock. This nightly ritual, followed by a tall boy of Pabst and the Twin Peaks DVD I just got, does the trick and my eyes get heavy. I feel guilty that I’ve masturbated to throat-fucking a seventeen-year-old and then I think, Fuck it anyway, who’ll ever know?
About a week goes by before I get one of the Cold Mountain deliveries again. This time Donny is working too.
“Let me take that one,” I say.
“Be my guest,” he says. “Hate those little high school bitches.”
Before I get out the door Eddie stops me.
“No, no,” he says. “You don’t take that one. I take that one. You take the ones that make you the money.”
How can I say no? Eddie’d probably cut my throat or at least send me home if I didn’t let him feel like the generous one. And as much as I’d love to go home, I can’t afford it. Now that I am not getting my degree, my mom says I’ve got to start paying for the hot water and electricity I use. $150 a month, which is still cheaper than rent.
I watch as my delivery vanishes out the door, no doubt to sit in Eddie’s car for twenty minutes while he talks on the phone.
I get my chance later that night, after Eddie leaves. Donny’s not even there so there’s no one to take it up with one way or the other. This time I make sure there’s no snot on my sleeve.
“Mr. Pizza Man,” Abby says. “I didn’t think you were gonna make it.”
It’s right around ten o’ clock and she’s smoothing over the ice creams so that they don’t get frost on them. Tabitha, that’s the fat girl—Tabby and Abby, weird huh? –comes out of the back with just one handful of money this time.
“I can’t drive you home tonight,” she says to Abby. “I got problems with the drawer. Unless you want to wait two hours.”
“Maybe pizza man can drive you? I’ll let you go now, if it helps.”
She looks at me. “Could you? My bike’s broken.”
How young is this girl? Too young to drive?
“I guess so,” I say.
“Just let me clock out,” she says.
I wait in the car with the engine running. In a minute she comes out and hops in (it’s not hard to spot my car with the lit-up topper reading The College Slice). I turn up the music a little so she’ll notice it. The Misfits.
“You really like them, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I say. “They’re rad.”
I haven’t wanted someone to think I’m cool in who knows how long.
As we drive I am aware of her leg beside mine, the way I almost have to touch her knee when I shift gears. My dad, who’s long gone, the feckless bastard, told me that men drive manual. It sucks for delivery though: dialing a customer or holding a drink to keep it from spilling is hard when one hand is in use. I’ve learned how to drive with my knees.
She smells good, natural. Earthy. “Where do you need to go?”
“It’s a little far,” she says.
“It’s cool. That was my last delivery on that run.”
That’s true, but I wonder how I am going to explain the holdup to Bill. I’ll make some shit up about engine trouble. Bill would never fire me. He needs good workers, especially ones willing to be his friend.
She leads me down a series of side streets into a suburban neighborhood. She must live with her parents, confirming my guess about her age. But just how young? What am I getting into?
“So you go to college?” she asks.
“Yeah.” What’s one more lie?
“I always wanted to go to college,” she says, like it’s an impossible dream now. “What do you study?”
I want to tell her about how I’ve been watching stars since I was a little kid with the telescope my dad bought me. The lens is a little cracked and sometimes it makes me think I see things that aren’t there, phantom stars behind the stars, what I think of as pale imposters. If you look close enough, what you think is blackness turns out to be just a dimmer light, and behind that an even dimmer light, and so on. Once I thought I’d discovered a new star, but when I went to show Professor Daniels I couldn’t find it anymore.
“That’s okay,” he told me. “Scientific curiosity is the sign of a lively and inquisitive mind.”
After that I could do no wrong, or that’s what I thought until he busted me.
“It’s good to have a passion,” Abby says.
She doesn’t ask me how many years I have left or what I plan to do with such a useless degree or anything stupid like that. I wonder what her passion is. And then I start to get a little sad thinking about how everyone’s got a passion and none of them really mean shit.
We pass out of the suburban neighborhood into a rundown area with apartments full of Hispanics drinking in the parking lot and blasting their car stereos. Rockingham is like that—pockets of poverty right next to wealth.
“Here,” she says, pointing to a duplex with a motorcycle flipped on its back. “That’s my bike.”
Motorcycle. Maybe she’s not as young as I thought. “You live here?”
“Yessir,” she says. “It pretty much bites. But my parents kicked me out when I was seventeen.”
“How long ago was that?”
“You mean how old am I?” she says. “I’m still seventeen.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Does it really matter?”
I am not used to girls being this direct with me.
“There’s a great field out back,” she says. “I’d invite you to watch the stars with me—there’s supposed to be a meteor shower, I heard, which is funny considering that I read about it just the other day and now I’m learning you study astronomy—but anyway, I guess it’s back to work for you?”
“Maybe some other time.”
She hops out of the car and runs sprite-like across the lawn. She turns with one hand on the screen door and waves before disappearing into the black inside.
At work, it’s Eddie, not Bill, who asks me where I’ve been. Eddie doesn’t usually come into work this late. My heart sinks as he calls me back into dry storage to get into me.
“This is a business,” he says. “It’s not your playground. I am not your friend. I am your boss.”
“I ran out of gas,” I say. “I had to walk to the gas station.”
“Then why did you not call?” His English gets worse when he’s mad.
“It was just down the street,” I say. “I didn’t want to bother you.”
“You must think more,” he says. “You are lucky I do not send you home.”
I picture the cold night air on my hot skin, driving back to Abby’s and knocking on the door. But I know he doesn’t just mean for the night. I cringe at the thought of looking for another job. All that groveling for something that’s going to make you miserable.
“Now go,” he says. “Make me money.”
I do just that, and I make some for myself in the process. Maybe people pick up on my mood because I get big tips the rest of the night. But it doesn’t help.
The next day is Sunday and I am off. I log into Facebook to find a friend request. Abby Newsome. The hair is over the face in her profile pic, but it must be her. I accept the request and two minutes later, a message pops up on my wall. It’s a link to a Misfits cover band playing at a club that just opened downtown.
Hey, Starboy, the message reads. (Better than Pizza Man, I guess.) Was wondering if you wanted to go. Maybe we could grab a bite first?
It’s on Wednesday. I work Wednesdays. I call up Donny and leave a message.
“Be a sport,” I say, because that’s the way he talks, and then guiltily I add, “I’m trying to get laid here.”
That’s the kind of thing he’d understand.
He never calls me back and Tuesday I see him at work and ask if he got the message.
“Sorry, man,” he says. “Got a date of my own.”
Eddie comes into the kitchen.
“Hey, Eddie,” I say. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“What’s up?” He comes over to where I am standing beside the wall calendar.
“I am trying to get this day off,” I say, pointing at the calendar.
He’s not fooled. “That’s tomorrow.”
“I know. It’s really important.”
“Ask someone to work for you.”
“I already asked Donny and he couldn’t.”
“Well, what do you want me to do? We’re short drivers since Lenny quit. “ He spits into the sink. “You’re a big boy. Sometimes you have to do things you do not want and sometimes you do not get to do things you want.”
Sometimes you have to do things you do not want and sometimes you do not get to do things you want. Is that all adulthood is?
Wednesday afternoon comes too fast as usual. I wake up at about four pm and check my Facebook. Sucks you’re not coming, Abby has written. Call me if you have a change of heart.
I shower and pick out my least filthy work shirt. At The College Slice I clock in to pandemonium. Romano, our distributor, has arrived with their shipment. They are parked on the curb, blocking half the street. The hallways are filled with blocks of mozzarella cheese, dented cans of mushrooms, olives and tomatoes, stacks of pizza boxes. A sack of flour has been punctured and its white guts are spilling everywhere, beautiful in its way if not for the fact that Eddie sees it only as lost money. He hands me a broom.
“Let me clock in first,” I say.
“You need to get this up. Clock in later.”
So there I am, sweeping flour for free. As soon as I clock in, Eddie hands me one of the big delivery bags full of pizzas. “Take this to your car,” he says. “Big order. Twenty pizzas.”
I walk to the car and maybe it’s the cold and the fact that I can’t feel my fucking hands, or maybe it’s the bowl I smoked on the way over here, but the bag slips and one of the pizzas falls out. Onto the sidewalk. I put the others in the car and open the box. It’s unservable, all the hot cheese slid having off into a corner of the box.
Back inside I show the pizza to Eddie. “Someone must not have put it in the bag right.”
“This is garbage,” he says. He slams the box in the trash. “Bill, make me another pepperoni.”
“It was pepperoni and olive,” I correct him.
“Pepperoni and olive. And take it out of Aston’s check.”
Finally I get all the pizzas out to my car. There are a ton of fountain drinks—why didn’t the idiots order some two liters?—and of course they slosh around as I drive. The steam from all the pizzas fogs up my windshield. On the way I pass Cold Mountain, and I picture Abby at the waffle cone machine, staring straight ahead at the ticking clock on the wall, her face deep in thought like a mirror of that picture of Nicole Kidman right behind her. Then I remember Abby isn’t working today and how come I know that.
I sit outside the address for a while—a huge house set back under oak trees, all its windows lit up like a fish tank. People swimming back and forth inside, laughing and dancing and drinking wine. One man holds a baby. He lifts it above his head and spins it around: helicopter. I used to love it when my dad did that.
I put the car in gear and at the same time, I dial a number, the one Abby sent me with her Facebook message. She answers with a cautious hello. Music blares in the background.
“It’s Aston,” I say. “Do you still want to go?”
She turns down the music. “Just let me put on some pants.”
I drive over to her house, imagining her in her underwear, yes, but also imagining the evening before me. The Misfits cover band. How she’ll twist her arms in the air and sing along in that way young girls seem to do. Dinner. Where will we eat? Well, there are still twenty pizzas in my car. Undelivered. What I’m doing is wrong, foolish, the kind of thing only a kid would do. I don’t care. I don’t even care if Eddie tracks me down and beats those twenty pizzas out of me. There are good mistakes and bad ones. I am not sure which this will turn out to be.
But first, I need to stop by my house—okay, my mother’s house—and grab something. The telescope. That field behind her house, a blanket. A winter sky full of stars. I already know I’ll tell her I discovered a star and that while strictly a lie, it won’t feel like a lie because it might still happen, you know?