That big industrial oven like his fortress. Like his blockhouse. Like him: Roc, who wore a crisp v-neck and an apron and jeans; who owned that store, and talked the talk and walked around the place like a man who’d lost his father somewhere along the way.
That night the snow had stopped and he stood there behind the counter with his wooden fork and a pizza pan in his hand. The oven open and empty; its smell in his nose as it cooked nothing but blackened lumps of dough and cheese and sauce. He reached over, grasped the bar to the door and then swung the thing shut.
Roc put down his tools and leaned against the cooler. He put his hands down on the cutting board and then spread his fingers like he was setting himself for a pushup. He felt how strong his shoulders were in that moment and then he thought about how much stronger they once had been before he’d agreed to give up his weight lifting for a chance at making a living in there. He looked over his ingredients, everything fresh and chopped, nothing to clean or pick out or peel. The sauce still. The dough covered and ready to be rolled on out.
Normally, the ringing of orders would be unbearable, incessant, unreasonable, but there was nothing that night. The girl he’d hired to work the phones was seated on her stool and her legs were crossed and she looked dazed as she stared out the window into the slushed and dimmed streets of downtown.
They both watched as the guys at the repair shop across the street were playing in it. No customers. No reason to hold back. They were packing the snow down and smoking and throwing the stuff back and forth across the lot. Their heads up and down, up and down, plumes of smoke and their breath; their boots sliding on the oily ice; their bodies running and falling among the blackened snowdrifts.
The girl turned to Roc and said, “I should have told you sooner but I've decided to leave this place.”
Roc crossed his considerable arms. He said, “I know we don't pay you that much, but I can talk to my mother. I think that maybe we could give you as much as another dollar an hour.”
She said, “Oh, that’s really nice, but it’s not the money.”
He lifted a hand and massaged at his chin. There was this part of him that wanted her to know that he was more than that place. That he’d had a different life out there. A history. That he was like her, that he’d sat where she was sitting, on that very stool, that he’d been there and stated what he was compelled to do for himself, despite the difficulty of saying it, doing it, living it. He wanted to tell her that he’d went off and bent a bar across his back up there in Cleveland. Had brought a crowd to their feet with what he’d done. That he’d had a moment like nothing they said was possible. But instead, he said, “I'm sorry to hear that. You know we’re like a family here.”
“I do,” she said. “I’m going to miss this place.”
The phone rang. She sighed. She adjusted her bangs; looped a finger in her overalls and then lifted the receiver to her ear. She said, “Gigi’s.”
Roc walked over to get things going. He knew that once the calls started, they rarely stopped until the place was a mess with spilled sauce and broken boxes and nothing but prep work for the day after.
The dough sat on a tray on top of the trashcan. He lifted up a corner of the damp rags that kept the dough fresh and sticky. He took a pre-cut ball in his hands and worked it over. His fingers digging and manipulating and turning it until it was ready for the machine.
He threw flour on the roller and pulled back on the old rusted lever. He thought: When this thing breaks again, I’ll keep it quiet from my ma, until I can replace it without any kind of argument.
The girl walked over to the order board and clipped the paper so that Roc could see what needed to be done. She held the phone to her ear. The order read: Two large pizzas. Mushroom and black olive. Extra Sauce. One Rigatoni. He watched her go right along with the customer as she walked back to her stool.
“Uh huh. No I got it. Thank you. About twenty five minutes.”
Roc rolled the dough through the machine, again and again, until he set it down on a clean pan and stretched it from end to end. Then he started to paint the thing with the sauce. As he swung his hand around the surface, massaging with his fingertips, being attentive so the edges wouldn’t burn, he thought about the last employee who’d worked the phones. There was a part of him that felt like pleading for her not to leave, but instead he covered the thing with cheese.
He went to wipe his hands but before he could, she said from the stool, “They really wanted that extra sauce.”
Roc looked up at the ticket. It was there. Extra sauce. He looked at her. He nodded. He went and scooped out the sauce. He felt himself throw it down. He felt himself scoop it again and then throw it harder. He felt a flash of not stopping, never stopping. He threw it again and again until he missed the pizza. He watched the sauce splatter across the board, the peppers, the clean white cheese.
He heard her stand from the stool. And that was when he stopped himself. The sound of that stool reminded him. Reminded him of what had happened, could happen when you left that place, and so, he wiped his hands clean with a rag and he smiled a wide strong smile for her.
He took the ticket to where you stuck it when it was finished. She thanked him for that.
Roc went and stood where he liked to stand. He watched the girl watching the front door, opening the boxes, and waiting as the customers approached. He watched her take the stool and put it away. And then, as he felt the door open and the night rush in, he took his wooden fork and his pan and he opened his oven.
About the author:
Calder Lorenz lives and writes in both the US and Canada. His fiction has appeared in sPARKLE & bLINK 2.4, Switchback, FictionDaily, Curly Red Stories, Two Dollar Radio's Noise, and Literary Orphans.
Also, his shorter story, "New Year's Day in the Northwest," will appear in the next issue of Crack the Spine.