A Good Pizza Dinner is Hard to Find
Casey was nineteen years old and Sandy still wasn’t sure if he had ever learned to hold a conversation. Perhaps, Casey never learned to talk! I mean, he certainly never overheard Sandy and Bill talking. Bill was the kind of husband who when you asked him how his day went said, “Uh.” She learned over the course of their almost two-and-a-half decades together to discern the varied intonations in this grunt. The only time Bill really made other noises was when they were in bed together. Besides that, Sandy felt that maybe Bill never learned how to talk properly from his parents. She would never know, though. Bill’s parents died together in an intensive care ward before Sandy got a chance to meet them. His dad’s last word was, “Huh.”
All this to say, Sandy had it up to here with the men she lived with. What was a nice dinner for but a nice conversation? Below is a classic example of how dinner had been going for years and years, just so you know what I’m talking about.
“Casey, dinner’s ready!” Sandy yelled. She set the forks and knives next to the dinner plates. “Bill how was your day at work?”
Bill untied the knot he put his long black hair into. The hair fell over his face and he wiped it out of the way. He took a seat at the head of the table and rubbed his cheeks like smudged stainless steel. Each cheek was a patch of dry skin. Bill was the kind of husband who always had some speck or crumb stuck in the small folds of his sweaty palms.
Some bad deal at the university laboratories, she divined.
And there came Casey coming out of the hallway of bedrooms, lanky and pale, brushing his stringy hair to the side. He sat in the chair at the right hand of his father abruptly like a trust fall between two deaf friends.
“Casey, how was school today?” He shrugged his narrow shoulders and put his elbows on the table to rest his head in the corner of one like he was the one who spent all day dusting the floorboards. A pot of boiled chicken thighs bubbled on the stove. Sandy said they could start on the macaroni casserole that appeared in front of them. She came back out of the kitchen holding the big pot and tongs, wearing the worn Tyrannosaurus rex oven mitts that Casey bought her for a Mother’s Day long ago. Back when he was affectionate. She liked wearing them around her boy by way of reminder. See! What love you showed me when you were seven.
She took a seat at the left hand of Bill. Bill glared forward with slow-moving eyelids at nothing in particular like a sedated gorilla. His hair covered his neck, his back, his shoulders. Neither Bill nor Casey had started on the macaroni casserole as she had commanded. They waited for her to dig the weak plastic serving spoon into the noodles and flop a glutinous plop on their plates. That is when they started poking at the food with their forks to test its viscosity.
“Did you sell anything today, sweetie?” Sandy asked as she daintily brought a fork to her mouth with one hand and with the other held the neatly folded paper towel on her lap. She looked at his hair as she always did, with wonder and envy. Bill’s hair was the mystery that drew her in all those years ago. She required that he never cut it.
Bill nodded and used the tongs to lift a wobbling chicken thigh out of the bubbling water like another irradiated failure.
“So?” She covered her mouth as she chewed. “What you sell? Stuff and junk?”
Bill nodded and looked down at his plate. He slammed a deathblow into the center of the chicken thigh with his knife. Bill was the kind of man whose wife said that he was really muscular in high school.
Do you see what I mean, America? This is what Sandy had to deal with for years! It’s no wonder that after so many years of this, she decided one morning to change something. She would take the family out to dinner—a feat never before seen in the Lambert household. Where would a family like the Lamberts make their first appearance out together? Sandy spent all day thinking about this. She thought about this question during the hollow-house hours when Casey was at school and Bill commuted back and forth between work and clients hours away on the other side of the city. On her computer, Sandy browsed local restaurants. All of them were fast food. She had been there/done that. What about a fancy place? There were only two nearby they could afford: a steakhouse and a family-owned Italian restaurant. The family place had good reviews. One customer rated it three-and-a-half stars and said: “Fairly priced food! Definitely homemade pizza!” Sounded like it fit the Lambert’s style. It was called Pizza Plaza and the one picture Sandy saw made it look like a minimalist, white-wall atmosphere. Modern-chic, perhaps.
In the morning, Sandy had one of her special hair appointments at the salon. She did not tell Bill about these special hair appointments, even though she went to them once a month. Her hair was sensitive and she had to be careful not to brush it too hard. Her hair advisor told her not to wash her hair under strong water pressure. This was just some of the special treatment she had to give her hair. She had managed to keep these rituals to herself for the entire course of her marriage, so that the nature of her hair remained a secret to Bill. Bill’s strong, thick hair was the first thing she liked about him. Instead of talking before bed, Bill would let Sandy pet his hair. Bill’s hair was the thing Sandy loved most about Bill. Bill’s hair was hot.
Between that appointment and watching competitive cooking shows, Sandy picked out what her boys would wear. She was in Bill’s closet. In the early morning the day, this was the closet that Sandy from bed saw Bill’s figure standing half-naked in the doorway. She squinted and lifted a hand for shade as if an angel was appearing to her, an ill-morphed angel, in an oracular vision. Shoes on the top shelf surrounded his head in a holy halo of past clearance sales. She asked him if he needed the light on. He grunted, closed the door, and stood in the closet unmoving with the light on. He stood in there for a long while. Probably admiring his hair without her, Sandy thought glumly.
She stood in Casey’s fuggy closet now. One pair of Sandy’s fingers nibbled at his pile of graphic tees. The other set of fingers she placed delicately between her incisors. She realized that the only bit of fancy Casey had was the black suit she bought him for Grandpa’s funeral two years ago. Casey and Sandy were with Aunt-Grandpa’s-Sister at the thrift shop when Sandy brought the suit up to the counter. Sandy distinctly remembered saying to Casey, “This thing will last you five years if you’re good to it.”
“And it’s so cheap, too!” Aunt-Grandpa’s-Sister said with a pinch of the thin fabric in the jacket elbow. It didn’t last him three months. Casey grew like a thin tree on a paper farm.
Sandy grabbed for the suit that hung in Casey’s closet. As she took the suit out of his room, she foresaw how unfortunate it would be with his hat. I forgot to mention that Casey wore a hat. Casey and this hat were inseparable. The hat might as well have been sewn into Casey’s scalp. It was a hat with a brim. A black, pinstriped hat. Casey wore the hat low, so you could barely see his eyes. The hat had a greasy smell. Sandy didn’t know where the hat came from or how long he had it. It was like one day, Casey came out of his bedroom with the hat on and a stupid look on his face. Sandy felt that if Casey just took the hat off for once, he would start talking and acting normal. But Casey was one of those boys that was just weird and Sandy didn’t know where he got it from. It was like Casey lost his virginity to the internet and had taken a vow of isolation as penance. Sandy just didn’t know what was up. Casey was the kind of boy who grew strands of long hair on his upper shoulder and was secretly proud of them. He had his dad’s long, flowing hair. It did not seem to be as thick as Bill’s mane, but Sandy saw his long hair as the symbol of his father’s inherited silence. Casey got all of Bill’s genetics, Sandy thought, and not one bit of the genetics was coded for the acquisition of language.
But the point is that Casey would definitely be wearing the hat to Pizza Plaza. It might just tip the circumstances over the edge and ruin the mood. The entire purpose of the outing was to get the family into the setting where they would act polite and talk to her. And what if! What if they brought those airs of courtesy to the dinner table every night afterwards! Her heart leapt in her chest and she knew that change, real change, might be around the corner of the Pizza Plaza.
When Bill got back from work and Casey got back from school, Sandy stood them in the kitchen.
“Casey, this is what you will wear.” She handed the suit to him. Casey put up no resistance and disappeared down the hall. Bill untied his hair and shook it out so Sandy could comb her fingers through it for him. “And Bill, you can wear what you’re wearing,” she said, her hand lost somewhere in the cascade. Bill was wearing a wide, shiny tie and creased khakis.
Sandy herself was wearing her fancy with her hair up in a loose knot. Casey came back wearing the suit. It had a dark stain on the torso. The pants were so short, you could see his white socks hiked up.
“Perfect,” Sandy said. She grabbed her purse off the counter. The two men said nothing. It’s what they did best, that. They followed her into the minivan. Sandy turned the key into the ignition and Bill stuffed himself into the passenger seat like a monkey inside a shipping crate. Casey sat in the far back with his legs sprawled forward down the aisle.
“Where are we going, Sand?” Bill asked.
Ah, it’s working!
“We’re going to a nice place for once,” she said. “We’re going somewhere that can give us something I can’t give you.”
“Edible pizza?” Casey said.
No host greeted them as Sandy expected of a fancy place. What met them was a sign about adult height that read: You are free to seat yourself. They sat at one of the many vacant, plastic tables. The only other person in the restaurant was a placid man with green skin and cave-like cheeks who sat alone in the corner. He wore a bicycle helmet at a jaunty angle. The restaurant was set up such that the only thing separating the kitchen and the dining area was a soda fountain. The family who owned the restaurant buzzed around the kitchen. Small kids, teenagers, fat middle-aged men, a slow old woman—all of them wore the same white aprons. Casey found a stash of sticky menus and brought them to the table. He and Bill stared blankly at them. Sandy was trying to hold herself together. If someone didn’t come to the table and ask them for their orders soon, she was going to explode. She observed the family behind the soda fountain with disdain. The little kids jumped around to each station and asked over and over again, “What can I help with?” “Do you need anything?” Adults ignoring the customers, little kids pretending to be helpful—it made her sick. There was a fat kid in a white apron that was sweating and wasn’t wearing a hair net and he was preparing salad with bare hands. He wiped his forehead with his wrist. He looked like he was going to faint. Tossing salad is intense manual labor for some people. Then Sandy saw the old woman make eye contact with her. The old woman bent low to tell a small kid something. She rested a hand on his back and pointed at Sandy. The kid listened intently, nodded, and jumped out to the Lamberts.
“Hi there, folks! Welcome to Pi...Pizza Plaza! Today, the special is pep-pepperoni!” Sandy glowered at the child as he made his feckless presentation. He swayed from side to side and looked at everything but Sandy’s face. His face was covered with freckles like a plague. “Can I get you started with any drinks?”
“I want a waitress,” Sandy said.
“Sorry, my sister is the only other waitress and she has the vomits today.” Then he sauntered off quite full of himself. Sandy saw a sign, an arrow, hanging above the soda fountain, that said: Order here.
“Here,” she said, clipping open her purse, “Take my plastic.” Bill grabbed the card and lumbered up to the counter. The old woman came to meet him. Sandy couldn’t read lips, but the old woman said a few things. Sandy saw Bill sway a bit and use hand motions. The old woman smiled. Bill tilted his head to the side so his hair hung down, barely touching the concrete floor. The old woman dragged her hands through his hair with relish. Bill laughed! He put his hand on his stomach. He brought his head up and slapped his thigh. The old woman nodded her head. She pointed to Sandy. Sandy’s face flushed. Bill turned back to his wife. He seemed to agree with something the old woman said. He threw his beautiful hair over his shoulder. Bill strode back to the table with a radiant light filling his face. By the time he got back to the table, all the light was gone.
“What was that all about?”
“What were you two talking about?”
“It seemed significant.”
Bill slouched in the chair and closed his eyes like he was about to fall asleep. His hair covered his face.
“Casey,” she said, “Casey, how was your day at school?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Fine, I guess.” He stuck out his lips under the shade of his hat’s brim like this was a satisfying answer he had struck upon after much consideration. His eyelids narrowed.
Sandy saw the green-skinned man in the corner. The bicycle helmet could have tumbled off his head at any moment and skidded across the concrete floor like a turtle’s shell. He had the face of someone sliding unconsciously on a muddy slope. Was every man in the world trying to take a nap? The fancy dinner was supposed to be enough to wake up their finer faculties. Fancy my toosh.
“Guys,” she pleaded, “We have to talk about something. Can we please talk about something? Please?”
Casey rubbed his eyes. Bill turned his head to the left, but his eyes were hidden under the hair. Sandy slammed her hands on the table. She stood up stiffly and walked over to the green-skinned man. She looked behind her shoulder to see if she had an audience with Bill and Casey. She put a hand on the side of his table, bent her knees, and crouched. She stared up into the green-skinned man’s face. The straps of the helmet hung down next to his ears. His skin was moist and smelled like sour toes.
“Momma,” he blurted, “momma, I want to go home.” He blinked like a toad warming itself on a lily pad.
“Hi,” she said, “I was wondering if you’d join us at our table. I see you sitting here alone.” She had the air of a pediatrician talking to a shy child.
“Momma, I want to go home.” His head bobbed and he fell closer to the plastic table. He had a plate in front of him with two pizza slices that had a few bite marks in them. “Oh, Momma...” He bobbed. His eyes closed.
Sandy took him by the arm and led him over to her family’s table as if he were her loose and passive child who refused to get out of bed in the morning. Sandy positioned him in the chair. “Bill,” she said, “Casey,” and she motioned to the man, “this is Phillip.”
She waved at the man as she took her seat. “Hello, Phillip!” she said. Sandy just totally made that name up. Phillip fell closer to the table and the helmet fell into his lap.
“I want Momma...”
“Phillip says the pizza here is great,” Sandy said. She smiled at Bill and Casey. Bill stared at his wife through his hair. “Oh, and here is the pizza now!”
The boy waddled out with a living, bubbling pizza on a thin, metallic tray. He wordlessly waited until they cleared a space for it. Sandy eagerly picked up the napkin holder and pushed plates aside. The pizza descended into the center of the table. The boy made a “shoo-o-o” sound as if it were a flying saucer coming in for a landing. Casey watched unamused. He folded his arms on the table, resting his chin on a bony hand. The top of the green-skinned man’s head pointed at the entire family. His hair was gray and wet. The lining of the helmet had formed the diagonal outline of an eye in his matted hair. Sandy felt like she could see straight through it and into his hollow head.
“Can I get you folks anything else?” the boy asked. He clapped his hands together. He glanced at every person at the table, but every person had their eyes fixed on a point. Casey stared at the air and Bill at Sandy and Sandy at the eye of the man’s scalp. It was as if a transparent, infected liquid was pouring profusely out of this eye, soaking the pizza and spilling towards Sandy.
“We’re good,” Sandy said. The boy still had his hands together when he turned and walked away with a delicate step. Bill shook his head at Sandy. “What?” she said. “We are good, aren’t we? We’re just fine. I’m having a grand time.”
Sandy snapped her hand across her plate for a slice of pizza. The slice pulled off the pizza like a tethered scab. She folded it in half and jammed it into her mouth. She chewed and glared at Bill. The eye of the scalp dipped below the edge of the table. The green-skinned man’s shoulder slumped over and followed the rest of his body. Casey shot his head in that direction and sunk under the table with him. Casey came back up to the surface and smiled at both Bill and Sandy like he had just discovered some sunken treasure.
“It’s like that video I saw online of a man die on live television,” he said breathlessly. Sandy’s heart leapt in her chest. She loved the excitement she heard in his voice. It was the first thing he had seemed excited about in forever. Bill cocked his head. His eyes widened and he disappeared under the table.
Sandy quickly wiped her hands and put a hand on her son’s shoulder. She searched for something in his face. His eyes darted around like bugs over the surface of the water.
“Oh, Case,” she said. Sandy stood up and started hugging her son with the religious zeal of a prostitute recognizing the son of God. Bill popped his head back up from the table. With one hand, he flipped his hair backward.
“Phillip is dead.”
But Sandy didn’t hear him. She didn’t know a Phillip. She kept kissing her son’s cheeks. Her son endured this. Bill had gotten up and gone over to the family, but they didn’t need his warning. They had all, with dulled faces, left their various stations and glided listlessly out from the kitchen like buzzards, pulling off their aprons and wiping their hands. The older woman held a phone at her ear and watched over the entire scene as if she had seen it many times before. The family circled around the table of the Lamberts like they were performing a ritual dance. Some of the men along with Bill had propped up Phillip’s limp body and lifted it out of the chair. Bill’s hair fell across the green-skinned man’s torso as he carried him. The body had gained a weight to it. The face was no longer the face of a child, but a dead animal with its last moment carved into its features. Sandy still held her son, enraptured, and in her vague distant vision thought she saw Bill meld into a cloud of strangers behind a corner, carrying off the body. She kept her eyes fixed on Casey, though, who before her eyes seemed to mature into someone she would like to have a long conversation with. Sandy saw in Casey politeness and conversational ability. With the fervor of wanting to see Casey through new eyes, Sandy pulled off his hat.
On the top of Casey’s head, a big patch of scalp stared up at her with the eye of a sprouting tonsure. She started back in shock. He was as shocked as she was. Sandy dropped the hat on the ground and with both hands pulled out her hair extensions. Every month, Sandy had these extensions replaced. She felt the bald back of her head. Then she took her son’s hands in her own and directed them there. His palms were cold on her skull. He brought his hands away and reached for his hat. At once, he assumed a stupid look again and frowned. She imagined her son like the green-skinned man someday bowling over at the dinner table, the eye of his scalp judging her.