KEEP THE CHANGE
by Jenny Wales Steele
Pizza boy. Howdy. Smug leer, velvet bathrobe. Wobble of warped vinyl, glint of mellow light on it, a diva panting towards a climax.
Twelve fifty, sir. Thank you.
Grazie. Keep the change, beautiful pizza boy. Ciao.
The vinyl hiccoughs, the woeful aria snags in a groove. The door shuts, the locks lock. This ostracized soul. This man’s furious paterfamilias gesturing across the ocean. Go, I damn you. After that incident with that cherubic urchin. Palazzo, baroque moon. This scenario, this flash fiction, in Nathan’s stewpot brain. Cheap amusement, house to house.
One final delivery tonight, thin crust deluxe to yet another beigestucco house. Parked on the concrete apron in front of the garage, a customized Mustang, black, sleekaberc. Doorbell. A teengirl. Nice wheels. The teengirl sneers, Now they think I’ll behave. The house all metallic throb, the parents obviously absent. The teengirl in camouflage pants, combat boots, a t-shirt with a bomb shelter symbol on it. Eyes of ganja and the coy despair of the spoiled. Obedience in her veins, ultimately. Wiping daddydrool on the daddychin in the nursing home, 2040. She slaps a daddytwenty into Nathan’s palm and takes the pizza. Peace.
Not a bad night, not unprofitable, pockets packed with tips, tipwarmed groin. Nathan vowing (again) not to spend it all on Sheila, that trinketkook, that sad nonfriend. Subtract rent, food, gas, put any extra money in a dull account, trytrytry not to buy baubles and bangles, though he loves the tinny jingle as Sheila shifts and sways around him. Maybe Sheila’s asleep now on their thriftshop futon, in their roachratty duplex, a book about butterflies spread across her breasts. How badly she needs sleep, how she is so often insomniac.
I slept so easily as a child. Sheila pacing one night, smashing her knuckles against her eyelids. I was sleepy-la-la all the time. And I dreamed in pastel. Now this agony.
Drink warm milk. Count sheep.
That won’t help. She lay alongside him and sobbed against his collarbone, murmured, My sweet boy. Boy. Yes, he seems a boy when he’s with her, though he’s only twelve days younger. Nathan hushed her that night, other nights, until her body was suddenly slack against his.
Splendid, bonny Sheila! Golden limbs, golden hair. Speckled hazel eyes, the twinkle or slash of those eyes, how they convey her moods. Calculation of flattery or irritation if observed, if a masculine gawk traces her knee to hip to jaw. Flirtatious, gullible Sheila. But suspicious too. And no dimwit, no dumbbunny, plenty of smarts, this gal. Nathan’s gal, though neither have risked heart. You’re my neutral territory, Nathan. Nathan mulls this as he marches across campus. Manly mulling, fitting the idea of neutral into an unsullied niche in his brain.
Sheila talks of getting her own place, but only maybe, Nathan, only if that lawsuit is won. That history professor and his unlawful grope. Scandal! News crews chasing the professor, wee wee wee, all the way home. But no shimmyshimmy gewgaw clip of Sheila, only a highschool yearbook snap of her. Pustules on her chin, her cheeks, her brow. As if I had the pox. Medieval!
It’s a hisword/herword situation. Rumors swirling and instant verdicts on all tongues. Silly twat. Lecherous creep. Hottie wanted it. Pig! That ancient war.
Sheila counseled to relinquish miniskirts and tanktops and now she wears Nathan’s jeans and poloshirts. She stands alongside him in a mirror and they seem twinned. Nathan too has golden hair, golden limbs. Nathan too is beautiful. Pizza boy. Why not a model instead? Abercrombe & Fitch. A sailboat scene in Vanity Fair.
Sure. Or a catwalk fruit. Strut and pout.
This idiotic chitchat. Thisway/thatway. His deft fancy. Thisway: Nathan in a beigestucco house with a flabby bride, and on the cusp of sleep, the tiny idea of a sailboat scene, himself as captain shouting ahoy! to Sheila all jinglejangle and mock on the shore. Thatway: himself and Sheila, senile drool in the nursing home, thrusting scrapbooks at nurses, look, here were are sailing the bay of sleepy-la-la.
Nathan gets back into his dithersputter Jetta and away from that teengirl in camouflage pants, that bribeMustang. People’s lives! This subdivision is Nathan’s five nights a week and he has learned these identical houses, these streets. Sagebrush Circle, Tumbleweed Lane, Wagon Wheel Way. This world of industrious people and their spawn. A tricycle tipped sideways on a lawn. Welcome mats of rubber, astroturf, bristle. A woman in a nightgown vacuuming a minivan. Aluminum poles with American flags (fabriqué en Chine). Beigestucco democracies, family consultations about onions, mushrooms, pepperoni. Pineapple! Let’s get pineapple! Yes, a toss of pineapple chunks out of a plastic bucket, yum. Their god is a bountiful god. Massacres and famine flash on their TV screens between Crest and Chevy ads. Pity, but what nicewhiteteeth!, what horsepower!
Oh wise, skillful pizza boy, he knows all the shortcuts and addresses, never has to creep number to number. He scurries to doors with hot! fresh! delicious! pizza in an insulated velcroflap pouch. Thirty minutes or less, but no guarantees. Speed limits, traffic laws. Red means stop, okay? And please remember that other pizza boy, Tyler, losing control on a rainslicked road and crashing into a lamppost as he was rushing six pizzas to the Kiwanis. Tyler a cripple now, what a cheesy drama, ha ha.
So cozy, this subdivision, but a lonely coziness. There, on Manzanita Terrace, the house with the pine blinds always twisted shut. A woman there, a lithe knife in severe skirtsuits and alligator pumps. Put it there. Sorry, ma’am, I’m not allowed to enter. I won’t hurt you. Okay. A glossy 9×12 photo. This woman with George W. Identical smirks. Her hand on W’s sleeve. A madrepublican, but maybe she yearns to lure a liberalfuck. Not on the menu, ma’am! Though it would be so keenly Tennessee Williams. No pizza tonight here, no triplemeat sicilianstyle. This house already dark. The woman tucked in, political claptrap dancing in her head.
Glimpses, zipzapzoom fictions in Nathan’s stewpotbrewpot brain. Funny or pathetic, this humanity. There, that house, its gross crucifix in the foyer, anorexic Jesus in dirty diapers. This domicile’s plump matriarch, her deaddream of bathing lepers on a squalid island, but muskylove intervened. That flabby man slouching towards TV, how he (it amazes her) had been a virile lothario. The matriarch always verifies the pizza boy’s identify. The peephole blinks and Nathan salutes it. Children swarm the table, meaty aroma in their snotnostrils during joypuncturing grace. Midnight, the matriarch tallies obscure sins, books them into her prayers, the manslob asleep, fartsnorefart. Soon, tabloid status. A greasy stain of the Virgin Mary in the lid of a pizza box. Not a miracle, Nathan will tell Sheila. I hit a speedbump too hard that night.
Silver Spur Circle, another family, a girl always clutching a kitten, a brightly beaming child, prompt with a friendly hello. Ah, but there’s the father lurking. The world so hazardous. Strangerdanger/strangerdanger/strangerdanger drilled into innocent souls. Hello! And hello to you. The father stepping close, licking the pad of his thumb to shuck money out of his wallet. Keep the change. Pizza here night after night recently, the motherwife not home, unburdened of husbandandkids. This alarmclock mutualfund antibacterial family. Joylessness here, the noose of normality.
Judge not! But how hard not to judge these gentlefolk. Sleeping, dreaming, or maybe I’m ovulating, honey, so let’s and then mechanical, unromantic copulation with never a worry about the result, Adolph, Osama, pizza boy. Parental influence a nifty idea, but any kink in the DNA corrupted it. That newsblip yesterday, that meek and mild boy in Idaho murdering his family, then heating a bowl of splitpea soup. Think rubbers and pills, gentlefolk! Think spermicidal jellies!
Back to headquarters, Blackbird Pizza, a neon cube in a stripmall. Nathan takes the yellow beacon clipped to the roof of his Jetta and carries it inside with the insulated pizza pouch. The bosslady, polyester centurion, greets him. No fictions about her come to Nathan. Her oniony gloom, her soda, slurpburp, although he is sure she was loved once. Farewell, milady, he says and he kisses her doughy wrist. She giggles. You’re a weird boy, Nathan Harrow. And so his shift ends.
* * * * *
A love child you were, are, yes, it was love. His mother’s fusty hiss in his earhole. But his father is a nonmemory, his father only an article snipped out of the Tribune. Tom Harrow, local hero. He had caught a girl thrown out of an 8th floor window of a burning hotel. Clickclickclick of cameras (so Nathan conjures), the girl a blur of ponytail and frock, then cradled and safe against the chest of a beautiful man. Fantasy father. Nathan unfolds the article, brittle now, and seeks himself, but there is only similarity of eye, of jaw, of dimple, nothing of manner, of caliber.
Nathan escaped his mother’s flakysoggy moods and skippedtoaloo to a tiny U. Corebore curriculum, but okay, this one class about the history of war. Battles, blunders, triumphs, the consequences of victory or loss. The professor had artifacts too: a doughboy’s identity disk, daguerreotypes of Union soldiers, a tin flask with a bullet dent. And in this class, this sexy, sleepless girl, this Sheila. She lingered after class once, was alone with the professor, and he touched her hip, whispered a naughty hint. She swung the replica of a 14th-century halberd at him, sliced his eyebrow with its blade. Blood gushing! The professor stanched the cut with a batch of essays. Sheila ran into the hallway. He’s hurt (quietly), he’s hurt. Clamor kindled, law students rallied to Sheila’s cause. The professor denied harassment, I am not a lecherous creep, but nobody listened. He was furloughed, his classes canceled. So irritating to Nathan. He veers around Humanities, avoids the females chanting shame, shame, shame. Their mood so hot. Sheila not involved in this, Sheila only an emblem of that prehistoric hesaid/shesaid.
One day, Nathan hunted a vacant cubby in the library and there she was, sad, hard girl, studying in a wedge of white sunlight, the flick and flash of sun on the cheap silver at her wrists, earlobes, throat. She looked at him, candid scan. Hi.
Sorry about class. All those notes you took. Antietam, Iwo Jima, Verdun. Obviously important to you.
Yes. Not clockwatching, not blackberrying, but taking all of the professor’s words. That lecture about Verdun, France, 1916, the mud, the blood, the rats gnawing severed limbs, the lice nibbling soldiers’ crotches. Slaughter. And this was to maintain civilization! The professor had a battered steel helmet. Put it on, put yourself there. Nathan tried the helmet and suddenly he actually was there, a French poilu, filthy and shivering in a trench, and now he found himself here, in this library, with this girl, though hearing the whistle and crash of artillery, and he was saying, It’s okay, and a blush shunted and tacked into his cheeks and mouth. Sheila smiling. He took her in, her hazel eyes letting him. Golden hair, golden limbs, pink plastic sandals, denim miniskirt, white tanktop with spaghetti straps. Now with his clumsy tongue, What are you studying?
Swallowtail butterflies. Maybe I’ll become a lepidopterist.
Are you hungry? She tucked the butterfly text into a knitted satchel. I’m hungry. Nachos in the student union. Not dirtyflirty, but serene kinship. They scheduled themselves, their bodies, and within a month, Sheila said, Let’s try it, be roomies, sort of, with benefits.
* * * * *
Clunk, clank, and the Jetta sighs against the curb. Nathan walks the cracked path to the duplex, fits the key into the lock. Sheila not asleep, Sheila slumped on the futon. The TV, its volume low, its rabbit ears tabbed with foil, Laverne and Shirley coming through, schlemiel, schlemazl, hasenpfeffer incorporated. Nathan empties his pockets of coins, of wadded bills, dumps it all on their milkcrate table, announces, The loot!
Good pizza boy. Sheila pats her thigh and Nathan folds himself against her. She is in his clothing, jeans, a black poloshirt. He lifts her wrist, plinkplinkplink of wire bracelets, and he licks her wrist’s knob of bone, her knuckles, her fingertips, and he murmurs, Salty. Sheila kicks the bowl of dead kernels set on the shag. I popped popcorn.
Shirley rips away the cursive L of Laverne’s sweater. Laverne glowers and huffs. Stale laughter, fakey. The picture warps now, another channel coming through, a burly chef cleavering rumproast.
Maybe he didn’t touch me.
That professor. Maybe he didn’t suggest anything.
Buzz and slant, blizzardy meld. The cleaver flashes through Shirley’s waist, Laverne swings a pillow into the chef. Not this, not that. Keep the change, beautiful pizza boy. Ciao. Sheila plunges and Nathan catches her safely in his arms. He imagines himself as his father catching that girl flung out of a burning hotel.
Jenny Wales Steele has published fiction in The Ampersand Review, Juked, The First Line, Harpur Palate, Salt Hill, Verdad, Jerseyworks, DarkSkyMagazine, and many other literary journals, and she’s been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Arizona, she now lives in Tucson.
Image credit: Neerav Bhatt on Flickr