May 7, 2018

Eric Van Hoose

Gene likes the sequence—placing the order, undressing, waiting. He likes the suspense almost as much as the moment when the deliveryman arrives (it is, usually, a man). His phone is angled against a piece of his mother’s pottery on an end table in the living room, its camera pointed at the front door. He’s touched the record button and is recording himself waiting. He touches himself, to make sure he’s not shriveled, to make sure he’s tumescent. Then (finally!) a car door slams, in the distance, and the doorbell rings. He pauses, savors his heartbeat.

Door open, he says Hi, and the deliveryman (mid-fifties, silver hair, acne-pocked cheeks, poorly-trimmed goatee) says Hi right back like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Gene makes sure to stand to one side so the camera can see them both. The deliveryman holds the box out and places the receipt on top, reaches into his pocket for a pen and says Your copy’s on the bottom. Gene knows the deliveryman knows. But the deliveryman is acting casual, like he doesn’t know. Finally, he looks. He glances, takes it in. His eyes go there, then they look around, taking in the living room. It happens fast, but Gene has watched it happen, and he experiences the deliveryman’s glance as if it were a physical touch. He writes in a four-dollar tip, then the total, then signs his name. He is close to trembling with excitement. The pizza box—containing a large thin crust, pepperoni and sausage—is warm. Its warmth sinks through the box, into his palm, and feels reassuring. The deliveryman hesitates, then he says it—he says Looks like this pizza ain’t the only thing with sausage on it. It’s so unexpected and embarrassing that Gene has to squint. He stays strong. He forces himself to say You have a good night, and the deliveryman says Uhuh, you too and turns to leave. Gene shuts the door, but no faster than he has to. He places the pizza on his kitchen countertop, then goes to his phone to review the recording, which he will erase because, he decides right then, that stupid joke has ruined everything. He’ll have to call someplace else. He’ll have to try again. He’s not giving up.

Russell Meyers was executed on May 6, 1987. For his last meal he had a pizza delivered to the Terra Haute Penitentiary. Just plain cheese.

The tomato sauce comes in bucket-sized aluminum cans.

The smell lingers in clothes.

Delivery cars are transformed permanently and in ways that have to do with senses beyond smell.

Corporate sent instructions for a buy-one-get-one deal. The phones went crazy.

When she drives, Trisha talks to the pizzas. She says they listen.

The university students had been drinking before the pizza arrived, and they kept drinking while they ate it, standing around the kitchen counter. They finished three pizzas and all but two slices of a fourth, and the remaining two slices, in the box on top of the stove, cooled to room temperature and stiffened. But Allison isn’t afraid of stiff, room temperature pizza, and she knows it will go perfectly with her Bud Light. She places her hair behind her shoulder and leans in, reaches for the stiff slice (and she sees but doesn’t want to see the dark shapes left by the grease that has been absorbed into the cardboard, there in the bottom of the box, which look like the far off, terrifying galaxies on the PowerPoint slides from her astronomy class). Before she can get it to her mouth, she drops the slice. It lands topping-side down. Pepperoni-side down. The floor in this house where four college roommates are hosting the party is not clean. Nobody knows when it was last cleaned. There’s thick black animal hair because of José the dog (named José because Trevor thought the name was funny and because one of the guys who lives in the house but who none of the other guys like is named José). Black dog hair and dog dander have accumulated underneath the small lip where the cabinets meet the floor (and where it’s hard to see, and so out-of-sight, out-of-mind). It would take attention to clean, would take getting on hands and knees. The pizza skids underneath the lip, partially under the cabinetry, into the dirtiest area of floor in the kitchen and possibly the house (excluding the area running behind and alongside the basement toilet, which is beyond unclean). It makes a greasy trail. Allison doesn’t want to leave it there, doesn’t want anyone to know she’s dropped the slice. Allison has never seen herself as a pizza-dropper, a pizza-dropping kind of girl. So she picks it up. José the dog’s hair clings, wound tightly around the crisp, partially burnt edges of the pepperonis. Dirt and flecks of white paint are visible on the slice, affixed to the stiffening cheese and burnt pepperonis. A minuscule, almost-missable sac spider is close to flattened, up near the crust. None of its legs are moving. She’s not a pizza-dropping kind of girl. That isn’t her. So she places the slice back in the box, on top of the darkened grease stains that she doesn’t want to look at, where she found it, and she hopes no one has noticed.

On TV, a driver stands on a stoop, hands a box over with energy to spare. A clean, ironed uniform, a ball cap. A red car is on the street, in the background, as a subtle touch. The scene exudes a casual ease. It’s fun and easy. The homes are nice. The lighting is good. The smiles are big. On the table, the pizza steams.

Girl, I’m gonna take some pizza home tonight. Take one of your friends home with me. That’s right. You hear me? In Trisha’s passenger seat, the pizza listens. Do. You. Hear. Me? One of them pickup orders. That’s right. It don’t get picked up? It’s coming home with me.

In one week, pizza will never be the same. —Your friends at V.I.Pizza.

Curtis plays Enya’s Shepherd Moons in his Civic when he’s delivering pizzas, and only when he’s delivering pizzas. It’s soothing, calming. He also smokes bowl after bowl of the good pot his uncle Denny grows. He can hold the pipe between his legs and pack the bowl and roll the baggie up and return it to the glove box with one hand, keeping the other on the wheel. It helps him stay focused. When he’s not delivering pizzas, he puts the CD inside the jewel case for a different CD—Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, which he doesn’t remember buying, but which reminds him of his dad—and listens to the radio. He hopes his friends won’t open the glove box and find it there, the Enya CD. But there’s a night when Burt does—opens the glove box to hunt for rolling papers and finds it and pulls it out. He looks at it, reads it, Shepherd Moons, then looks over at Curtis and says You fucking homosexual.

The Gable brothers—Matt and Mike—take turns jerking off into the big aluminum cans of tomato sauce.

You dumb pizza. You don’t know shit. Trisha says this to the pizza that rests in her passenger seat. Trisha stops for a red light.

V.I.Pizza strives to craft the highest quality pizza made from the highest quality ingredients. We also strive to create safe, welcoming workplaces. Safety is at the heart of our mission. As a Delivery Specialist, we recommend you maintain an awareness of your surroundings at all times and follow the…

In Season 6, episode 19 of The Sopranos, Tony arrives home and goes to the kitchen for a mid-afternoon sandwich. Viewers know that minutes before Tony’s arrival, his only son, A.J., has tied one end of a rope around a cinder block and tied the other end of the rope around his ankle. The camera shoots A.J. from the front as he sits on the diving board of the family swimming pool. He pulls a plastic bag over his head, throws the cinder block into the pool, then pushes himself off the edge of the diving board. Tony doesn’t know this. He’s at the kitchen counter enjoying a good sandwich. But mid-bite, Tony hears a noise from the backyard, where the pool is. He hears a voice yelling Somebody help! He puts his sandwich down and walks out back and finds A.J. flailing in the water, plastic bag over his head. (A.J., who fails at almost everything, has used a rope that is too long to keep him submerged, to drown him.) At first, Tony isn’t aware of the gravity of the situation. He isn’t sure what A.J. is doing in the pool and is thinking, probably, that this is just another one of A.J.’s mistakes. He’s in no hurry to help. But A.J.’s desperation is real. His flailing and his screams are real, and they go on long enough to allow viewers to understand and to imagine that, without help, A.J. will tire and drown—a painful, slow drowning, after a fight, after he’s decided he doesn’t want to die. It’s an agonizing moment of dramatic tension. But as Tony gets closer, he sees what is happening. He sees the plastic bag. He realizes that his son’s cries for help are real, and he gets a small running start and jumps into the pool. Tony works at rescuing his son, helping him toward the pool’s edge. He yells. What the fuck did you do? He finds the cinderblock at the end of the too-long rope at the bottom of the pool and pulls it up. Poolside, in safety, they collapse, wet in their clothes on a cold, gray day in fall. What’s wrong with you? Tony yells, catching his breath. He rips the plastic bag from A.J.’s head. Then, softer: You all right? Come on, turn around. Come on baby. You’re all right baby. You’re all right. You’re all right.

The pizzas are changing. The crusts are stuffed. The crusts are pretzels. The pies are cut into different geometric shapes. There are new sauces, new dips, new toppings, new names, specials, promotions, limited time offers. The pizzas come with frosted brownies speckled with powdered sugar. There are Spicy Sprinkles.

V.I.Pizza is ready. Are you?

As part of our ongoing effort to support the health and safety of all V.I.Pizza Delivery Specialists, V.I.Pizza is placing strict limits on the amount of cash Delivery Specialists carry.

Curtis might actually be a fucking homosexual. He’s paranoid, terrified his friends might also be thinking this. But even if he were sure he was one-hundred percent straight, he’d probably still listen to Shepherd Moons. That’s how good it is, good and calming. He isn’t sure, though, about being straight, or about being homosexual. And even late at night when he can’t fall asleep, when he is pretty sure (like when he stops and thinks about how nice it felt to let his forearm rub up against Jonah’s forearm when they’d been sitting in the back of Willy’s car the other weekend, how if he tries, he can still feel that heat on his skin, or if he tries to tally the ratio of guy-on-girl porn videos he’s watched versus the number of guy-on-guy porn videos he’s watched—the guy-on-guy being, if he’s honest with his count, a much larger number), he isn’t sure if he wants to be sure. Sometimes being sure is worse than being undecided. There’s a comfort in the idea of everything being up in the air, a beauty in the pending. Then there are moments when things feel so certain (when he senses, in a way he can’t explain, that his body and mind have decided something and that whatever other parts of him there are have to catch up, go where the other parts of him have already gone) that it scares him so much he can’t move. It feels like his body is splitting up, separating from itself. That’s the feeling he got when he went to deliver a supreme to 39 Drake St. He remembers the address. He remembers the last name on the order, Granger, and he likes that name, he thinks it’s a good name and fits the beautiful, soft features of the guy who answered the door. The name sounds the way the guy looked—soft, comforting, open. Granger was a little older. But so nice. So nice and so beautiful. About Curtis’s height. Stubbly. In sweatpants. Curtis has never seen a man so beautiful. Brown eyes and black lashes that were so thick and long they became something other than lashes. Eyebrows that tapered, gently, in a way that let you know he was gentle, too. His cheeks were flushed. But some people’s cheeks are like that. There was so much life in those cheeks. He was wearing a thin undershirt that was like skin. And that smile and that nice voice and the delicate way he took the pen and signed the credit card slip, using his thumb and forefinger to hold the paper flat on the box top because the paper always curled a little—the way he did it showed that he was so patient, so nice. He was more than beautiful. Curtis wanted to say something, to begin a conversation, but he could barely move. His body was separating into pieces that did not fit together. It took all the power he had just to watch, to look the guy in the eye after he’d finished signing and was handing back the pen and the receipt. Curtis might be wrong, but he thinks they had something, really shared something, because they’d made good, honest eye contact, and when the guy said Thanks a lot, man and then followed it up with Have a good night, it seemed to Curtis that he meant it in a genuine way and wasn’t just saying it to say it the way most people do. When the door shut, he spent five or ten seconds absolutely lost, somewhere else, his eyes following the contours of the brass door-knocker in an endless circuit. After that, Curtis drives by the house more than once, hoping for something, anything, he’s not sure what. And for a long time, during his shifts at V.I.Pizza, he pays extra attention to the boxes on the racks, the ones waiting to go out. He looks at the receipts tucked into the lips of the boxes to see if Granger is printed there, hoping maybe he’ll get another chance. It hasn’t happened yet, but it might.

1-2 PM, room 231: FREE PIZZA!

I’ll kill them all, Trisha says. The pizza box listens, unmoved. Just line them up and just pop pop pop pop. Trisha is almost screaming. She turns onto Forest Dr.

Hold please.

Tony Soprano emerges from an elevator. He’s alone. The camera tracks him walking, slowly, to the nurse’s station. He carries a giant pizza box with one hand. He’s come to visit his son after his son’s failed or half-genuine suicide attempt, and he’s brought pizza. At the nurse’s station, the nurse says No food in the unit, sir. Tony does not speak. In silence, he places the box on the desk and signs himself in. He leaves the pizza there and turns to walk toward the unit, toward his son. The camera shows him from behind. The episode ends.

Josh’s and Ricky’s life circumstances, if you were to trace them from birth to now, have never been very good. More and more it’s seeming like their best moments are behind them. Maybe the best moment in either of their lives was when they were drunk and happy in Ben Chessman’s kitchen spilling Jack and Coke onto the shredded up linoleum. Jobs are tough to hold down. Josh has had some luck. He got on at the GM plant, but it’s slated to close (even though Josh doesn’t know that yet). Ricky hasn’t had any luck. They drink. Lately, Josh (who used to dabble in cocaine) dabbles in heroin. It’s getting so that he needs it, gets sick without it. So it’s not really dabbling anymore. But Josh is smart—Josh is the smartest person Ricky knows. Josh knows about addiction, has plugged the possibilities into his beautiful machine of a brain and calculated all the variables and is fully aware of the range of possible outcomes, most of which are awful. He’s tried quitting more than once. On his bookshelf he’s got Shakespeare’s plays, every one of them, books of poetry, fiction and non. He knows a lot. He’s always been a reader. He writes, too. And sometimes he shows some of his writing to Ricky, little poems and stories Ricky doesn’t know what to do with. But Ricky reads them. Usually, he likes them. He just doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to talk about that stuff, so he says I like it. (Ricky has not told Josh that once he came across a poem in an old book he was selling at the second-hand store, one about a tree with its leaves falling out, standing there all alone. He read it while waiting in line, and it made him feel like someone was knifing him in the stomach and almost made him cry right there in Second Time Around: Used Books and More). Ricky doesn’t know a whole lot, but he knows that Josh knows a whole lot, and that’s why it makes it pretty sad, what’s happening with Josh and the heroin. Because Ricky knows Josh isn’t a stupid junkie, like how junkies are in movies. He’s got kids (they both do—Josh has two, Ricky one), and he knows the kinds of things he could be doing, knows how to use his amazing brain. But because of the heroin he isn’t thinking right (or else he would realize how stupid this plan of theirs is) and Ricky is just flat broke and desperate beyond all hell to pay rent so that when the kid’s mother comes to drop him off there will be a place, a place for her to drop the kid. So, Ricky figured maybe robbing pizza delivery guys would be an easy way to get some money fast and they’ve been drinking and now they’ve already called in an order to one of the houses over behind the YMCA and walked over there and are waiting, walking around slow and nervous, checking out every car that turns onto the street to see if it’s a pizza delivery or not. Then, finally, a Civic hatchback rounds the corner real slow, like it already knows it’s in trouble. It’s got the V.I.Pizza light on top, and it’s dawdling, probably taking in the street numbers, and Josh and Ricky are behind one of the boarded up houses across the street and now the driver is out of the car—he’s a small guy, easy to take—and he’s walking up to a house but doing it unhurried, looking like he’s not sure he’s at the right place because no lights are on inside, and then they’re close behind him, and Ricky says Shhhh. It’s real soft and Josh isn’t sure if the pizza guy hears, if he knows they’re serious, because he hasn’t turned around yet. So he says Hey, louder now, and the guy, the kid, he turns around and looks at them, scared as hell, like he’s going to drop the pizza. His face is just bed sheets blowing in the wind. Ricky almost feels sorry. Josh has the gun (it’s his dead dad’s, and it’s loaded), and he holds it out, so they all can see it, and he says We’re not fucking with you, and then moves forward, bends a little and reaches in the kid’s pockets while the kid stands there holding the pizza with both hands. The kid moves a little, adjusts himself to make it easier for Josh to reach in and get the money out of his pockets. He’s trying to help. And the whole thing doesn’t seem so bad, now that they’re doing it. For a second, life doesn’t seem bad at all. The kid’s face goes red and Josh’s hand brushes a small bulge inside the kid’s pants, while he’s rooting around in there for money. Josh pulls out a wad of bills, and it looks like a lot at first, but he flips through it and sees right away it’s mostly singles. This all you got? This all you got? Oh, god!

One day until V.I.Pizza enters the next frontier.

Linda placed a pickup order for a large pepperoni and onion. You save a few dollars that way, on pickup versus delivery. And they needed to save. Plus, V.I.Pizza was so close—in the same strip as the China Wok and the Blockbuster. In summer they’d walk together, Linda and Gabe, holding hands. They’d browse the new releases but rent something old, and by the time they did that the pizza would be ready and they’d pick it up and carry it home. They’d gotten to like it, their Saturday night ritual now that the kids were gone. Pizza and a movie under a blanket. Gabe would hold her. But it was winter now, too cold to walk. Gabe was finishing some work so Linda bundled up and walked out to the driveway, out to the Hyundai. She was going through a green light at the intersection of Kemper Rd. and Bigger Rd. when a Jeep ran the red light and slammed into her driver’s side at a perfect ninety-degree angle, moving fast like the driver (a twenty-three year old named Darren who was on his way to his girlfriend’s and who was exchanging text messages with his girlfriend about the sex they were about to have when he got there, and so who was hard inside his jeans, transfixed by the texts and rubbing himself so that he could still be hard when he arrived and trying to make quick but still sexy replies about the things he was going to do to her with his right thumb while working the wheel with his right knee and rubbing himself with his left hand) hadn’t even tried to hit the brakes. Gabe waited for forty-five minutes, but he knew something was wrong, knew his life had maybe changed forever when, after calling Linda’s phone four times, he dialed V.I.Pizza and the young woman went to check and then came back on the line and said Yes, sir. Pizza’s still here. It’s waiting for you.

V.I.Pizza is proud to announce its newest delivery location: Outer Space.

Real José—not dog José—hears the parties from his room. The parties happen almost every weekend in the house where he lives, where he pays a quarter of the rent on time every month. His roommates say things like Dude why don’t you come hang? and What the fuck is wrong with you? but he knows he isn’t really invited, or that if he is, it’s as a joke. So he drinks in his room. He hides the bottle behind the textbooks in the low part of his nearly-failing bookshelf that his mom bought when they moved to Texas, when he was nine, when they were poor and a sagging garage-sale bookshelf had been the best she could do. She knew he liked to read, needed some place to put the books, some place where he could see them and be comforted by them, know they were there and had a place. If he doesn’t hide the bottles, his roommates—probably Dustin—will find them and take them. He knows they come in his room when he isn’t there. He doesn’t want to be stolen from, but even more, he doesn’t want them to know he drinks. The parties get loud, and there in his room he can’t sleep unless he drinks some. He’s halfway there—feeling a little sloppy, reading page thirty-eight of Heart of Darkness over and over—when a knock hits his door and he caps the bottle and hides it under his pillow and goes and opens the door and sees Allison and another girl he doesn’t know. They’re doing that thing he’s seen girls do in movies, where they put their eyes into you. And Allison’s friend says Hey, you want some pizza? There’s a slice left and Allison flips her hair behind her left shoulder. She’s holding the slice. Both Allison and her friend are pretending to be acting, like it’s all on camera. We saved it for you. And José is drunk and taken by surprise and his blood flow is readjusting because he’s gone from horizontal to vertical so quickly, and he can’t see much else to do but smile and say Thanks and take the slice and bite into it. They watch while he chews. They watch in silence. There is a moment, just before they open their mouths, in perfect synchrony, just before their laughter reaches a boil they can’t contain—laughter that becomes almost painful for them to deal with—there is a moment when José feels so happy, so unspeakably grateful and so happy that someone has thought of him in his room, has remembered him there and come to knock on his door to offer him the simple pleasure of a slice of pizza.

The astronauts have received instructions to make sure the V.I.Pizza logo is visible in the photographs. They give the thumbs up and smile. They eat the slices without using their hands. They float. The slices of pizza float along with them.

Thought you could get away? You’re mine now. Trisha buckles her seatbelt. All mine. Her shift is over, and she’s taking a pizza home.

from Issue 29.2, winner of the Wabash Prize in Fiction.

ERIC VAN HOOSE‘s fiction has appeared in STORGY, Bat City Review, Tweed’s, Fiddleblack, and Pithead Chapel. His essays have appeared in Salon, The Black Scholar, and Full Stop Quarterly. He’s pursuing a PhD in the University of Cincinnati’s creative writing program for fiction, where he’s an editorial assistant for the Cincinnati Review.


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