Food for Thought

Fiction
Michael Retzer


Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

More time awake is spent at work than outside it. A person gets to know their coworkers real well during the week, throughout the years. I’d worked at Don’s Pizza for six. Years. Yeah, it’s not a glamorous job—I’ve received enough patronizing looks from acquaintances when they learn a thirty-one-year-old is tossing dough—but time is money, and my rent is a nightmare, but whose isn’t?

So about three-and-a-half years ago, my boss, Don Fonzarelli, he hired a new girl onto the crew. Shannon Austen was a junior at Millington High School, my alma mater, which I’ll always remember had great views of the Pike River from its north side.

Don gave Shannon the interview at Table One: Don on one side of the table, Shannon on the other.

I was busy shaping a piece of dough to send through the mechanical roller and saw the whole thing.

Sexual desires work in the way of a computer that is programmed to recognize square shapes. Codes tell the computer that this surface meeting this surface at that angle in a particular array of intersections makes a square: the computer recognizes the square in a millisecond at most. Humans are a bit slower—requiring maybe an entire second—but the genetic codes of sexuality are programmed to do one thing: perceive their programming. It was midsummer—July—and Shannon Austen had shorts on during her interview. I think that’s all I need to say. But don’t worry. The acknowledgment never went any further than it did. For, unlike computers, humans have something called a Good Conscience.

By the time I had the pizza made, Shannon had the job.

It was up to me to show her the ropes of the business. Don sure as hell trusted me, and why shouldn’t he? I’d put in enough of my time, made enough money, and Don knew I was probably going to be around for a while longer yet—

Sorry—perhaps I’m bitter—forgive me, please—this isn’t about me.

Don, during that entire first week, he scheduled Shannon both when he knew I’d be on the clock and when business would likely be slow. This way Shannon could learn the ins and outs of the restaurant without wanting to close her head in the brick oven.

*

The bell above the door chimed as Don left the restaurant; I was alone with Shannon Austen for the first time.

“Don said you’re a junior?”

“Technically I’ll be a senior this year,” she said. “But the new school year hasn’t started yet—so yeah, I suppose I’m still a junior.”

I nodded. “I guess you are.”

“So you gonna show me the ropes, Elijah—or what?”

“Quite the talker,” I replied.

We’d been standing in the middle of the kitchen. I turned and moved towards the back then.

“My dad has always taught me to stand my ground,” Shannon said, following.

I turned and faced her at the sinks.

“As much as I respect that, you have no reason for that here. We’re sort of a family here at Don’s. You’ll meet Manuel and Berta, the other two long-timers, later in the week—just Don and I run the shop on Mondays—and you’ll meet the others, a lot of them closer to your age, when you’re scheduled for your first weekend shift. Weekends are busy, is all—why Don waits to schedule you on them, once he knows you’re up to par on how things work. Tips sure as hell are nice though.”

She nodded. Having put in six years at the place, I knew enough to know when one of the newbies from the high school was paying attention versus simply looking for a desired sum of money to later cop a quarter-ounce of weed with.

Shannon wanted to keep her job. She’d be around for a while.

“So here’s the sink,” I said. “We wash in this bin, sanitize in the middle one, and rinse in this one.” I moved right to left. “Dishes obviously go in the drying rack on the end.”

“Is someone assigned to do dishes?”

“Not officially,” I said. “Usually we just lend a helping hand when possible. On weekends when it gets busy we might unofficially assign someone as dishwasher for the night, usually the newbies… hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game,” I said.

She stopped rolling her eyes and grinned then.

“And over here is the prep table, where we prep non-pizza items on the menu: things like your cheesy bread and bread sticks and subs.

“Over here is the fridge and freezer, freezer on the right, fridge on the left. I’m not even going to try showing you where everything is in there because chances are you’ll still forget like I do, and I’ve been here for—well, I’ve put in my time.”

“And I take it this is where we make the pizzas,” Shannon said. She walked to the mechanical dough roller and ran a finger across the board, collecting flour, and wiped the flour on her leg. It was August on her first day—but all in Good Conscience, remember.

“That’s where we start making pizzas,” I said. “This,” I said, patting the long rectangular cutting board nearby, “is what we call The Line around here, and pizzas are made on The Line. See all your ingredients inside the plastic containers in the topping refrigerator up there above The Line?”

“Yeah. Reminds me of Subway when they make your sub. Green olives, green peppers, pepperonis, sausage—”

“You got the idea,” I said. “And so you move down The Line with your dough, that’s what that first machine you touched is for, and after the dough is perforated and cut to the proper size with those pre-sized stencils, you start with your sauce and then move down The Line and put on whatever the customer asked for. We keep a copy of the menu on the wall there—” I pointed to the wall space above the topping refrigerator. “—for when a customer orders a patented pizza, say like the Honcho: sausage, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon.”

She leaned forward, scrutinizing the menu.

“Problem?”

She shook her head. “I’m just still sort of confused—is there a certain order we put the toppings on?”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “And good question. That sheet of paper on the wall there next to the menu, with the pizza diagrams, they tell you the procedure. The alternating green and black dot patterns signify where to put your solid meats. I’m talking sausages and hamburgers, the meats that can be formed into solid balls. Sheet meats, such as your pepperoni and Canadian bacon, are placed on top of the solid meats, and if there aren’t any solid meats then just give the pizza a single layer of sheet meats. Things like your pineapple tidbits and green olives—loose toppings—you just want to sprinkle those evenly across the pizza. And the toppings go on in that order: solid meats, sheet meats, loose toppings. Cheese last, and then a sprinkle of Don’s special seasonings.”

“Can we make one?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Most people are a little intimidated by all the information right off the bat—you sure?”

She cocked an eyebrow back. “I’m working here now, aren’t I?”

“That you are.”

“Let’s do it then,” she said.

“We have to wait for an order to come—”

The phone rang. We made a pizza.

*

Shannon Austen’s first day went pretty well. Her first week went great, and after a month she was making pizzas a hell of a lot better than Manuel. Between you and me, there was a pragmatic reason we always had Manuel running the oven: he couldn’t make a pizza worth a damn but he sure could time them: not too crispy, but crispy enough. Although, I had Shannon run the oven one day, and she did it just as good as Manuel, and in only a month’s time—

You get where I’m going with this.

Shannon was a wonderful employee. Don sure as hell knew it, scheduling her more than the high schoolers that were technically higher on the restaurant totem pole. However, as much as Shannon Austen was a stupendous employee, she was perhaps an even better coworker.

Can you believe me?

Thirty-one and a seventeen-year-old was becoming my best acquaintance. After about seven months—Shannon well into her senior year of high school at that point—we started talking at work, see. Because by then Shannon knew the ropes well beyond enough as to be asking questions all the time, so when we worked the slow shifts together we talked, we got real.

I remember asking her once if she liked her classes. It was maybe ten after six on a Tuesday, and business was crawling. We were sharing an unpaid pizza at Table One, but Don was out of town at a convention for restaurant supplies so there was no chance we’d get caught.

*

I asked her which class she liked best.

“Probably psychology,” she said.

“Psychology, huh? What about it?”

“The possibility.”

“I don’t think I follow.” I took a bite of pizza, watching the cheese stretch as I pulled the slice away.

Shannon broke the strand with a finger.

“Thanks,” I said, my mouth full.

“Welcome. But it’s such a new science, psych is. And beyond popular belief—I’m talking pop psychology, the stuff everyone thinks they know when they ask ‘Why would you study psychology, what is it you don’t already know?’—but so beyond popular belief, psychologists have just cracked the surface. And once neuroscience gets more on board and directs some of its funding towards the psych field—” Shannon stopped, setting down her slice of pizza as to then pantomime for emphasis. “Once neuroscience gets on board, it’ll be like exploring. The Marianas Trench. For the first time.”

“Metaphor for the mind,” I said.

She picked up her Honcho slice. “Glad to know you followed.”

“Hey now, just because I work, well—” I looked around the restaurant. “—doesn’t mean I’m not at least halfway there in my head.”

I waited for Shannon to finish chewing.

“I was fucking with you,” she said.

“Well, before you do,” I replied. “Have you yourself ever considered college? Otherwise who is to say you won’t be here next year right along with Manuel and I?”

The strangest thing happened then.

Shannon seemed to crawl into herself. She’d been in the process of pulling another slice of pizza from the pie and stopped, flicking a precariously placed sausage off the damned thing instead. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Hey, Shannon, I was just horsing around. Don’t worry about it.”

She looked up from the pizza. “I’ve thought of Gustavus.”

“Private school, huh?”

She nodded.

“That’s great!”

She shook her head. “My dad could never afford it. And there’s no way what I’ll have made here by next fall will cover near anything enough. Plus, my dad sort of needs me… I could never leave him—you know?”

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table. “Hmm. Well I don’t know about your dad but my sister went to school,” I said. “Augsburg. My family didn’t have money either, we were actually pretty dirt-poor, but turned out that worked in our favor cause the government gave Danielle—that’s my sister—more money because of it.”

“Really?”

I nodded, taking another slice of Honcho pizza.

“Maybe I’ll look into it.”

“I think you should. You’re a smart girl.”

She smiled. It was a normal smile. But her eyes frightened me. Her eyes widened, see, as if that’d been the first time she’d ever heard anything like it—it being my compliment, I mean.

But what did I know? I only made pizzas.

*

It was January when we’d had that conversation over a Honcho pizza; Shannon still had plenty of time to apply to school. I never mentioned it again, figuring it wasn’t in my place to do so, and in the meantime all of us down at Don’s spent more time making money. Shannon became quite close with a few other employees during that time, Berta and Manuel especially: Manuel, because Shannon never gave him a hard time when busy circumstances required Manuel to make a shit-poor pizza, and Berta, because Berta, who’d never had kids herself, sort of saw herself as a mother figure to Shannon, I think, once we learned Shannon didn’t have a mother. Had not a clue where her mother was; she’d apparently run off with a guy from Hard Times Saloon last year. Shannon lived alone with her dad. Probably why she’d said her dad needed her.

She could never leave him—her dad—you know.

Her words, not mine.

And her dad had always taught her to stand her ground. Shannon never let us forget that one. It seemed to be the only time she ever mentioned her father—and time is funny, see, because there is a thing called hindsight and in hindsight, after the money has been made, a sense of clarity is purchased. You see things that weren’t clear the first time.

I guess time sort of changes in this regard.

But this is all speculative. I’m telling you all this looking back. I’ve paid my dues.

*

I think it was March.

“I applied to some schools,” Shannon said. It was just the two of us in the restaurant again. It was Thursday, and Manuel wouldn’t be punching onto the clock for another hour, when the pace of business would presumably start picking up.

“Yeah? That’s great, Shannon.”

We were in the back by the sinks. I was busy running a few daily prep-work dishes I’d dirtied earlier in the day through the wash-sanitize-rinse cycle. I’d washed a whisk and the large dual-handled cheese knife before I realized she’d gone silent. Grabbing a reasonably dry dishtowel, I turned away from the sink, patting my hands.

“All right, what’s got you down?”

“You know how you ordered a pizza on your day off last weekend?”

“That was a good taco pizza—you make it?”

“I used your address. I just want you to know.”

“My address for what?”

“My return address,” Shannon replied. “For the college applications.”

The nearby freezer hummed. One of the three faucets behind me dripped.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine, I guess.” I tossed the dishtowel back onto the sink. “Can I ask why?”

Shannon in a way resembled a provoked and frightened turtle after I asked the question, her body slinking into the protective shell the fabric of her sweatshirt provided.

The faucet dripped behind me.

“Just never mind all right—” I began.

“It’s my dad is all.”

“What about him?”

“I told you I could never leave him and I just wouldn’t want him to get worried before I even know.”

I thought of Shannon’s mother not being in the picture, imagined a lonely man weeping over his wife that’d run out on him, clinging to the spitting image of her that was his daughter, that was Shannon, holding on to what was already gone the best he could. “Right,” I said. “That’s fine then. Have your acceptance letters sent my way.”

“How do you know I’ll get accepted?”

I winked, and went to answer the phone that had started to ring.

*

I’d never been to college, remember: a few odd jobs after high school, and Don’s Pizza had been my place of my employment since I was twenty-five. Don’t know why I never went. Just didn’t feel it, I suppose. Also don’t know why I stayed at Don’s. Guess the money that’d got me by thus far brought with it a purchased sense of comforting stability. Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of the length of time it took universities to respond to applications. Shannon told me she’d applied in March, and it was mid-April when the first acceptance letter showed up in my mailbox. It was maroon, and in bold-printed gold font said ‘Congratulations!’. It was from the University of Minnesota, not yet her first mention of Gustavus, but I was ecstatic nonetheless.

Of course I was. I’d worked with the girl for almost a year at that point. We knew each other as much as any coworker knows another coworker. Perhaps more. Probably a lot more. I can’t explain it. Because it wasn’t like we’d shared any heart-to-hearts: we just talked, chewed the fat, shot the shit. Perhaps I’m referencing the subterranean nuances of emotion that conversation conveys.

Yeah.

I think so.

So anyway I set the maroon-and-gold envelope on the felt passenger seat of my out-of-date Nissan Maxima and drove over there. In all this time we’d failed to exchange cell phone numbers, and I’d never had any reason to look it up from the sheet Don kept attached to the back of each month’s schedule. I didn’t want to wait to tell her the news, and neither should Shannon have to wait to hear it. Luckily, I knew she lived in the puke-green rambler on Ninth Street in the west side of town, from one of the many times we’d talked. The street had trees on either side. They were just barely—and only on some—beginning to bloom, it being mid-April, yet the slow cruise on the spring-moistened asphalt was serene indeed. Most of the houses were beige or an off-shade of white—some even various shades of maroon—but only one was puke-green. And why had I never seen it before? I’d driven through the area thousands of times during the thousands of dollars worth of time I’d spent working for Don’s Pizza, making deliveries.

Conscious perception sees what it wants to see, I guess—

—and wait until you see what I was about to see.

*

The car lurched into park. I was excited.

I rang the doorbell, twice.

The front door had rectangular windows flanking either side that were the same length as the door itself. Translucent curtains covered the interior side of the windows. After some time a silhouette peeked through, and stared. I waved. The door unlocked, opening slow. The silhouette had been Shannon. I had my hands clasped behind my back, concealing the envelope.

“Oh—hi,” she said. She looked behind her. The house was dark, the way a house gets dark during the middle of the day when all the curtains are drawn and the lights are off. She looked back to me. “Why are you here?”

I stood there smiling.

She looked behind her. Looked back at me. “Just cut to the point, Elijah?”

“Fair enough,” I said. And I couldn’t blame her. At thirty-one I still didn’t enjoy unexpected visitors on my days off—who does?

She looked behind her. I brought the envelope into view, holding it chest level. She looked back at me. Her eyes widened. At seventeen years old she carried herself as much older, had since the day I first saw her with Don during her interview, but in that moment she looked just her age, a girl on the brink of womanhood. Taking the envelope, she ripped it open as a child does on his or her birthday—as if she didn’t already know what was inside the thing marked ‘Congratulations!’

I bent down and picked up the scraps of paper while she skimmed the letter.

“I got in,” she said in a single short breath.

“Congratulations, Shannon. You deserve it more than anyone.”

She gave me a hug then, although I didn’t hug her back. Something in my conscience, and so I waited for her to let go. But this was when things got weird. Bizarre. Shannon wore a tank top and a pair of shorts. This made sense, it being mid-April. But I had a solid hunch that they weren’t her day clothes she’d chosen that morning. Because as she released me from her hug and began rereading the acceptance letter, I noticed the disheveled wrinkles in the clothing, the way clothes get after they’ve sat in the dirty clothes basket for a few days.

Remember:

At the time, everything I’m telling you was marinating in my subconscious.

Hindsight. But of course you know all about that by now.

The house was dark.

“I should get going, Shannon,” I said. “Have to work in—” I checked my watch. “Twenty-five minutes. Figure I might as well make a sandwich before I clock in. Just wanted to stop by and give you this.”

She looked up from the letter. “Thank you, Elijah. For everything.”

“I only brought you a letter.”

She bit her lower lip, stared up at me, her eyes misting over. The house was dark, and an atavistic psychic twitch… Get out of there, man!

But it was too late. If only I’d had more time.

I heard the footsteps before I saw Shannon’s old man step into the entryway from a room off to the right. He had slicked back gray hair, was shirtless, and wore brown corduroy trousers. He had a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.

“And to whom do I owe the pleasure!”

Shannon tucked the envelope under the back of her shirt and took a few steps back, away from the door. “Dad, this is Elijah. I work with Elijah at Don’s.” Her voice had gone up a few octaves.

The old man watched his daughter while she talked. “Is that right?” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. He looked to me then. “Any friend of Shannon’s is a friend of mine—Bill,” he said.

At thirty-one I’d shaken my fair share of hands, and I fucking hated the way Bill’s claw felt. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Firm handshake!” Bill replied, staring at the connection between us.

He released his grip then and hoisted up the corduroy trousers. They had that same wrinkled look as Shannon’s clothes, that fresh-out-of-the-dirty-clothes-basket look. Bill and Shannon hadn’t been expecting company, remember, it being Shannon’s day off, a Sunday—

Unplanned clothes—clothes thrown on in haste—taken from the dirty clothes basket at a moment’s notice—

When Bill let go of his beltless pants the fabric dropped a bit too far. He didn’t have any underwear on. I saw the upper fringe of salt-and-pepper pubic hairs. Then, using the same hand he’d adjusted his pants with, the same hand I had just touched, he patted between Shannon’s shoulder blades. And patted. Patted. “I like that,” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. “Good to know someone with a firm handshake is around my daughter. I don’t want anything happening to her, not Shannon—she’s my girl!”

Bill shot me a grin, his teeth yellow. He bent over then, directing the smile at Shannon, and kissed her on her forehead. When he stood up, two things: one, Shannon had her eyes pinched shut, lips pursed tight, her entire face pulled into a grimace; and, two, Bill had lost the smile, his eyes glazed over as he ran his tongue from one side of his lower lip to the other. He guzzled the rest of the Pabst, crushed the can over his thigh, letting it clank to the floor, and ran both hands through his greasy gray hair.

Good Conscience? Not there, not in Bill.

Bill Austen was plastered; the alcohol had fried his computer.

He’d always taught Shannon to stand her ground—her words, not mine.

“I have to go,” I said. “See you at work tomorrow, Shannon.” I turned. “Bill,” I said, nodding.

And I left.

*

The next day.

“Don’s Pizza.” Don answered the phone. I was busy scraping bits of burnt pizza off of the brick inside the oven. “Uh huh, I see—okay then,” Don said. “Get better,” he said, and hung up. He went back to counting the money in the register, thumbing the bills with the efficiency of experience—

Swish-Swish-Swish

And then he stopped.

“Shannon’s sick,” he said. “You don’t mind working for two today, Elijah, do you?” He looked over his shoulder. “I can call Manuel if you want.”

I looked at the most recent of the burnt-pizza scraps I’d been working on. I stared at it, a charred glob of cheese with a crusted pepperoni sticking out. “I’m fine,” I told Don, and pushed the metal scraper across the brick, knocking the stuck debris free. “I’m fine,” I said.

*

Are you fine?

My Good Conscience wondered this. It especially wondered when Shannon succumbed to the elusive phantom illness again on her next shift, and was then ‘sick’ so much she stopped showing up entirely. Don, the ardent, meticulous businessman that he is, he got fed up, and was, to his dismay—he’d said—forced to fire her. There’d be none of that on his watch, not on his time. I could’ve looked up her cell number from the sheet attached to the back of the monthly schedule… but what would I have said? I have no clue… and besides, Berta called her, to give her a heads up, let her know Don was furious and that she’d better watch out, but Shannon hadn’t answered, Berta then resorting to a sorrowful and withdrawn voicemail. Shannon didn’t answer when Don fired her over voicemail either… was she ashamed to answer? Had Bill… did he know that I might know… but what was there to officially know?

For a week I asked myself this, and a week later I received an acceptance later from Gustavus in my mailbox. One from Augsburg three days later. The following week a University of Wisconsin acceptance letter. But I remembered the way Shannon had hid the letter I’d given to her behind her shirt. She’d used my address for a reason, because her father couldn’t live without her, and so the damned letters remained in my possession. They sat on my kitchen counter, in the corner, collecting dust. They said ‘Congratulations!’ whenever I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Bill Austen drank beer…

Should I have done something? No, really, I’m asking you, because I lost enough sleep over the whole ordeal during the months that followed. But what would I have done? What was there for me to prove? I was going on hunches, after all, and at the time I was baking in the oven of an angry Good Conscience, where sensible thinking burns away. And anyway, had I said something, Shannon would’ve probably held her ground and denied whatever it was I had only ostensible proof of.

*

I don’t work at Don’s Pizza anymore. Don was sad to see me go, of course, and I felt bad—terrible—leaving. I volunteered to train the two new guys Don hired to replace me. As a parting gift, call it. Thing was I had to leave. There was no question about it. That day on the Austen’s front stoop changed me, as a man. Millington haunted me after that. And the nightmares were brutal: I’d awake in a cold sweat, stuck to the sheets, and in my mind’s eye Bill Austen would be staring at me, standing in the corner of my dark bedroom, drinking a Pabst with his free hand down the front of his pants. I don’t even want to guess how many post-nightmare drives I took, cruising by the Austen home, five miles per hour at three-thirty in the morning. Some nights I’d even get out of the car and trot to the front stoop, where I’d stand staring at the door for minutes at a time, the acceptance letters clenched in my sweaty hands, before my senses—whatever was left of them—returned.

Okay, so maybe I did run. But I got a nice place in the cities now, been working sales at an appliance store for a solid year. And although I waited around five months before I burned the letters on the banks of the Pike River the night before I got the hell out of Dodge—I believe I knew I was gone the second the phone rang. When it was just Don and I down at the shop. The day after Shannon received the University of Minnesota acceptance letter in my mailbox. After I met Shannon’s old man, and scraped much more than burnt cheese and pepperoni from the brick oven…

Oh yes.

But time changes in hindsight, and memory might as well be as malleable as dough while it moves through the mechanical roller of time—am I sane in my recollections?

As I finish writing this, on a day off from the ApplianceSmart over on Doswell Avenue in St. Paul, I sit in the grass of the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Mall. I am out of place, thirty-four years old, amongst thousands of passing students—waiting—wondering if I’m not wasting my time.

And I’m hungry, could really go for some pizza.

pencilMichael Retzer is a recent University of Minnesota graduate, working as a mortgage processor when he’s not reading or writing.  He enjoys drinking craft beer, and lives with his girlfriend and cat.  Currently, he is at work on a mystery/suspense novel. Email: retze012[at]umn.edu

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