Tales From the Crust: Pizza My Skull
Is it just me or is turbulence getting worse? It was inevitable that Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies shrunk from hubcap to half-dollar size and taste more like sugary ashtrays every day, and any boomboxes still around sound like cell phone speakers in mayonnaise jars. But if they’re cramming so many seats on airplanes that your knees are in your throat (three extra seats in the goddamn Emergency Exit row!) and everyone just keeps pretending they've always been there, then maybe, just maybe, the fucking wind is gonna start knocking down planes. All I know for sure is my last flight had to be one rumble away from drunk Denzel finally flipping the thing over to smooth out our ride. So next time you fly the friendly skies, get ready to reenact that hallway fight in Inception. And you know what that means? Pizza everywhere!
Because here’s the thing, along with all the deregulation, they’ve also eliminated food on planes, as well. Sure they might give you a button to suck on, but no more meals, even when you’re catching a connecting flight in Boston, which is apparently directly between Pittsburgh and San Jose. And because everyone’s starving up in the sky now, the planes are full of stinky subs, tacos, casseroles, and pizza. I actually started counting pizzas on planes about two years ago, and I’m up to thirty. That’s thirty full-size pizzas, smuggled past security with no one batting an eye. Meanwhile they force you to drink David Lee Roth's proverbial "Bottle of Anything" right there at the Total Recall scanners, where your funniest X-ray’d dick pic is no doubt traded for cigarettes between some FAA security-theater shitbags… but somehow you can still rock up spinning two larges with extra pepperoni on your fingers like Erich Brenn on The Ed Sullivan Show? I’m still waiting to see that crime-scene ceiling when the turbulence sends all those airplane pizzas flying. And it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. In fact, I’m predicting it right now, a soon-to-be-famous snapshot of a pizza comet smeared across a dozen “fasten seatbelts” will take the internet by storm. I mean, if that poor Pizza Rat can go viral, a pizza bomb at 40,000 feet flinging pepperoni everywhere like Sharon Stone throwing her casino chips over her shoulder can’t be too much of a stretch. I’ll bet you ten bucks (coincidentally the price of the worst pizza in California), because Snipes had it all wrong in Passenger 57. Always bet on red.
Speaking of shitty pizza! Recently, I was inspired to put together a new anthology of “pizza horror” because I’d just moved to California, where pizza is garbage (hopefully this monstrous generalization inspires people to send me hate mail detailing amazing pizza places on the West Coast. This is known as a win/win). Maybe I just miss the Pizza House back in Pittsburgh (a.k.a. “Police Station Pizza” because it’s in an old police station, get it?), which was the best pizza in Pittsburgh hands down, or maybe anywhere, even though just like real police stations, it has to be a front for something shady. Maybe there’s just a card game in the back where they’re betting with dick pics, but it’s always so weird when you go in there: got a dozen mooks behind the counter milling around doing nothing, a lockbox instead of a register, pizza kinda looks like high-school cafeteria pizza and only comes in these 4x4 squares... but like Dignan (sorta) said in Bottle Rocket, just because it's a front, someone's gotta make the actual pizza! Police Station Pizza. Accept no substitutes. P.S. it’s not really in Pittsburgh. It's in Ambridge past Sewickley, not to be confused with Actual Hell on Earth “Ampipe” in All the Right Moves though it looks just like it, because that movie was filmed in Pittsburgh! What? Never mind just try some.
I was also inspired to do such a project because of my own adventures as a pizza delivery guy. It was probably one of the strangest jobs I’ve ever had, and I’ve had about forty of ’em. I never really made any friends doing it, and the only co-worker who left an impression was some jerk-off on my shift who drove a convertible Mercedes for his deliveries, was like 20 years older than everybody else there, and had a keychain he was always flashing that read, “My other car is a Corvette.” “But isn't a Corvette worse than a Mercedes?” I would ask him. “You’re just jealous,” he would say. So dumb. Here’s to ya, dummy! Even though you’ll never read this. Seriously, his Mercedes was a cool-looking car from a distance, a ’70-something model something? Up close a real mess, though, kinda like the opposite of deep dish pizza! And the Marco’s windsock probably didn’t help. But this guy promised me that eventually I would be propositioned by a woman at the door all seductive-like, just like in the movies where the porn actor cuts a surprise hole in the pizza box, which makes a whole lot less sense than Mickey Rourke and his famous hole-in-the-popcorn-box move in Diner (how does that play today, I wonder!). But, shockingly, this moron’s fantasy sort of happened to me for real! Except it was a guy in his back yard who propositioned me, not a hot woman in a nightie, and when he waved me around behind his house, he handed me a warm beer and whispered, “Hey, let me show you where I’m digging a new pool,” then he gave me a hearty clap on the back. And that’s the day Dave almost got murdered!
Anyhow, I started pitching ideas for this book to Max Booth when I figured he would be the most hungry after working his twelve-hour shifts at the Overlook Hotel. And I was thinking of calling the book PIZZA MY SKULL at first because there's a pizza place around San Jose called Pizza My Heart, meaning "piece of my heart" and I thought a "piece of my skull" joke would be hilarious. Understandably, Max balked at this. Turns out that's a lot of assumptions to make about a gag. Also we’re in California, and their pizza is garbage, remember! Why name a book after it? Then George Cotronis brainstormed a much better title and came up with a cover for our book that’s so good I sincerely want to live in that world. Go look! And poor long-suffering Max finally said “Yes,” and he’s been sorry ever since. From dealing with social media pile-ons in the comments of our submission announcement to excruciating pizza puns in the query letters, including nutty questions from hopeful authors (like the one who submitted a story without a pizza in it and said if we liked it we could “sprinkle one in there.” That’s some balls!), and, oh yeah, that notorious, endless thread on Facebook where the authors we rejected (not kidding) tried to announce their own pizza anthology of “Leftover” stories. We almost had to get the Legal Team on the horn for that shit! Still, I thought Max was having fun with all this, until the note below showed up in my mail, pinned to a nasty-ass pizza he’d ordered for me from, you guessed it, Pizza My Heart…
Speaking of alarming correspondences! Remind me to tell you about another disturbing letter I got. But before I turn the microphone over to that psycho, I just wanted to thank you in advance for considering taking a chance on this book, and those pizzas, because it’s scary out there, and it’s scary up in the sky, and whether you’re headed to Ricky’s or Sousa’s or Vinnie’s or Alexandria’s or maybe you want to mix it up at Poppa Pedro’s Pizza ‘n’ Tacos or, heck, roll the dice at ol’ Dicey Slice, or, if you want to head off the beaten path altogether and take your chances at The People Place’s Secret Pizza Co-Op. Or, worst case scenario, if the power is out at Papalocka’s, just stay home and throw a Buvoskor’s Frozen Pizza in the oven. But whatever pizza you choose, Tales from the Crust has got you covered… with a shovel full of dirt! You totally thought I was going to say “cheese,” didn’t you?
Okay, here’s that creepy letter I was talking about. I hesitate to share this because I don’t know if someone is fucking with me here or just trying to scare me or maybe get back at me for whatever prank pizza order I stuck them with back in the day, but I used to go to school with this guy named Steve, and he’s not really the jokey type. And when we were putting the anthology together, the following letter showed up out of the blue. I wish I would have saved the stamp or the envelope for greasy fingerprints or other clues. But in the meantime, I may as well slap this whole thing into the book because it somehow feels safer to create some kind of semi-permanent record (books never go out of print these days, remember?) and the only time I don’t dwell on this letter lately is when I’m eating a delicious slice of California pizza, which is never.
How have you been? I’ve seen you online talking about this pizza book. It’s funny. I don’t know if you know this, but after I bugged out of Writing Camp I ended up back in the town I grew up in, delivering pizzas for one of the big chains. I know I tried to come off as a sophisticated big city guy back in school, but I actually grew up in Alabama. Why’d I end up back there? Who cares? There’s nothing like grad school to open your eyes to the cold indifference of the world. And if nothing really matters, why not drive around the town where you grew up, delivering awful pizza to terrible people?
Bespectacled disillusioned writer type. Gross pizza chain. Deep South. Seems like the perfect setup for some kind of creepy southern gothic pizza horror, right? The thing is, sorry, my dog ate my homework. Nothing to write about here. Swap SEC hats and sweatshirts for NFL gear, and it could be anywhere. Our malls all have the same stores as everywhere else. We get our accents from the same TV shows as people in the Midwest. Shit, man. We don’t even have our own pizza places.
So every day I go to this place that smells like grease and sweat and stale dough. I’ll say hi to our cook, Red Beard (dude doesn’t even have a beard), then I’ll grab some pizza and drive around town past perfectly manicured lawns, cookie cutter houses, and miles and miles of strip malls. One thing I’ll say, even though I’ve got the map on my phone plugged into my car, everything looks so similar that this is still a place where you can get lost.
Do you ever have that thing where you’re so lost you don’t even know if you’re lost, Dave? I get it all the time. I’ll just zone out while I’m driving, then look up at a building or a gas station sign I’ve seen a million times and it just doesn’t look right. It’s definitely the place that’s always there, but the details are off, the shading is wrong, the contours contain a little more menace (or is it promise) than usual. Maybe it’s not that Hardee’s I always drive by. Maybe I’m in a place I haven’t been a million times before. And I’ll panic. Then I’ll check the map, maybe look at a street sign and realize I’m nowhere I haven’t been before and that I better hustle to deliver those two pepperonis with breadsticks or whatever. I dread those moments where everything seems wrong, but I kind of live for them too.
I had something kind of like that tonight, Dave. I had a delivery to 11226 Suncrest Drive. I rang the doorbell. And the man who opened the door had squinty eyes, a cheerful expression. His SEC sweatshirt was charcoal grey, his shorts were khaki, and his head was mostly bald. He looked like one of those chubby, comfortable overgrown-baby types you run into in the South from time to time. “Well, now, I didn’t order any pizza but if you’re giving them away, I sure could eat one,” he said. He seemed really amused by his own laugh.
I checked the door number. I looked at the pizza box. It was right. Then I just stood there, unsure what I should do.
“Well, come in. You can call the office or what have you if you need to work it out,” the man said, friendly as you like.
“That’s OK. We have a rule about going into houses. I’ll just call from my car. Sorry to bother you, sir.”
“Mind if I see that box right there,” the man said. “I got an idea about the problem here.”
I should have left then, but something in that house caught my eye. On the outside it looked like any other suburban split-level house you’d see in the backdrop of all your favorite ‘80s movies. Inside, it looked, well it looked bigger on the inside somehow. And filthy. I could make out hundreds of newspapers, candy wrappers, Coke bottles, beer bottles, jars filled with liquids I don’t want to speculate about. All that covering what looked like a dirt floor. But that couldn’t be right. That stuff must be covering dirt that’s covering some kind of carpet, right Dave? The other strange thing about the house is that it didn’t seem to have any overhead lights. It just seemed to be glowing like there was a fireplace somewhere in the recesses of that cavern. In that light, I caught a glint of something about three feet tall, a figure, maybe bronze. And a man is bent forward, pushing with all his body into this giant rock. I was pretty into mythology as a kid. They were basically superhero comics that teachers would let you talk about, and the endings were less stupid and happy. There was this one about the guy who got punished by the gods for something, I don’t remember what, but gods are always punishing people in these things, that’s kind of the point. And in this one, the guy had to keep rolling this boulder up a hill, and as soon as it got back up it would just roll back down. Then he’d go down and have to start over again.
“You like ol’ Sisyphus there?” the man said. “It’s a good one. I collect them all.”
“Punishments. I’ve got them all. Prometheus, Sisyphus, Ixion, Erysichthon, anyone the gods have seen fit to punish. Anywho…” The man handed the pizza box back to me. “This is 11226 Suncrest Lane. You want 11226 Suncrest Drive. That’s your problem.”
“Oh. OK, thanks.” I was anxious to get moving.
Then I noticed he was holding a container of garlic dipping sauce.
“A little something else for my collection. For the disturbance? I’m sure your employers won’t mind.”
What could I say? I don’t care much about dipping sauce. I just wanted to get away from this weirdo. So I got back in my car and drove. According to my phone, Suncrest Drive wasn’t far away. Just down Hillcrest Dr, across Woodcrest Lane and onto Chicamaugua Trail. I’d been on these streets a million times, so I just zoned out as I was driving. And I arrived at what I’m pretty sure my phone told me was Suncrest Drive. I didn’t pay too much attention to the house as I approached. Just another boring split-level. Every week I deliver to hundreds of them. I rang the bell, and the same man opened it. But now he was tall and thin. His face was hard. His eyes squinted suspiciously. Behind him I could see the mess, the candy wrappers, the dirt. The man, though I’m not so certain that’s what this was, casually sipped his garlic dipping sauce through a straw. Behind him, Sisyphus was lit by the place’s creepy, pizza oven like glow.
“You bring breadsticks?” he asked.
I backed away as quickly as I could. When I got to the car, the map said 11226 Suncrest Circle. I figured I hadn’t put the correct address in. So I just drove. I thought about Sisyphus. The guy had to spend the rest of eternity working on something that would never be finished. It kind of reminded me of being a delivery guy. There was always more pizza. I guess as far as punishments go, I was getting off light. I wasn’t getting my liver pecked out, I wasn’t bound to the sun or cursed with a hunger so great I had to devour my own flesh. I wasn’t even lifting a boulder. I was just delivering pizza. My phone’s connection is getting all janky, but I needed to tell someone so I thought I’d write it all down for you. Sorry it’s kind of a mess, but you’ll figure it out.
Anyway, I hear you just had a baby. Congratulations. Maybe you heard I have two kids. I don’t see them as much as I should. You know, pizza delivery guy hours. Still they mean everything to me. All those stories, Dave. Ixion, Erysichthon, even whatever it is I tricked myself into thinking is happening tonight. I know we think we make them up to scare ourselves. Things bigger and stranger and more powerful than us that can bend our lives into whatever shape that amuses them. The capriciousness of fate, whatever. I’m not really scared of that at all. All those punishments seem like a kind of mercy to me. Sisyphus, Prometheus, those guys get eternity. They all know where they are and why they’re there. There is some comfort to take from that. A life that’s just over without you even knowing it ended because there’s nothing left of you to know you ever lived it. That’s what scares me while I’m out here driving on autopilot, Dave. But it all goes away when I get home to the kids. Even if I’m just watching them sleep after a long night on the road. Life is the point of life. Nothing else matters. I hope to see them soon. I hope to finally get this pizza delivered.
Okay, I don’t want to freak you guys out any more than I already am (okay, I kinda do), but I haven’t been able to get in touch with Steve since I received this. The phone number I had for him back at school went nowhere. And on Google Maps, his old address appears to be a crater where the Chicago police test missiles. I even tracked down the number for Papa John’s in his neighborhood, but the exhausted dude who answered the phone told me he never heard of him. Then the even more exhausted manager I got a hold of a couple days later said yes, he looked into it, and a “Steve Gillies” did work for them, but that was in the mid-’90s.
Also, I didn’t ask, but the man told me 11226 Suncrest Drive was outside of their delivery area. They were quite vehement about it. Like they get this question a lot.
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