My new year’s resolution in 2016 was to write a story. Maybe it would be a book. Maybe it would just be a long piece of fiction. Maybe it would be 200 words. Didn’t know, but I needed to get it out of my head. During a baseball camp trip with my son that summer, I wrote about a third of the story. And then it sat. Until today.
What I’d like to do is post a chapter of this story every week. The first few weeks will be easy – because they are already written. But I need the accountability to finish this story. So I’m going to post it here. With very little editing or really much idea of the story that will come out. I just know that I’ve been noodling on this thing now every day on my drive into work, or while watching a game, or in those final moments before you fall asleep. “Finish the story” the voice would tell me.
So that’s what I’m going to do. This is a story about coming of age. And pizza. And other stuff you’ll like.
I proudly present to you the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Paulie’s Pizza.
PROLOGUE – Third Stage
Our scene opens high atop a checkered tablecloth with three empty silver trays that once were the serving trays for three pizzas. The trays were consumed by hands wearing wedding rings and beginning to show their first elderly wrinkles. Mine, obviously, were silky smooth, but the others looked old. I’m ageing gracefully, obviously.
These hands hadn’t broke bread in thirty years. There were various reason which we’ll get into. But as the toothpicks came out and the fourth or fifth pitcher of Miller Light was ordered, the stories about family, and spouses, morphed into stories about where long lost friends were now. Oh, that kid died? Wait. That’s the same kid I see at the end of the bar all the time? Holy crap, that guy owns a Fortune 500 company? She’s on her third marriage?
We got caught up on everyone’s health status. The broken collar bone of one of my friend’s kids. The pending knee surgery for me. The cancer running through one of my buddies.
But then finally, the stories devolve into tales of high school. After 30 years, these well-crafted stories are now over 50% lies and exaggerations. But that doesn’t make them any less wonderful.
That time we played the “choke-out” game in the bathroom with that kid who hit his head on the urinal and had to go get nine stitches.
The time my truck and my buddy’s old stationwagon decided to face each other, bumpers touching, and then we both slammed on the gas pedals. To the surprise of no one, neither car really ran the same after that.
Then there were the parties. The snuck in alcohol. That one stoner kid who brought the weed. The choreographed light switch flipping during the drum solo of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while 15 kids were all stacked up on cordwood on my bed in my room.
Then silence at the table. A deep sigh as we caught our breath. An order for one more pitcher of beer.
“So, the pizza place. Is it still there?”
We now crossfade thirty years to the past:
CHAPTER 1 – Take Me Home
Crossing the Paseo Bridge across the wide Missouri River, was a two-tone 1975 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. The kind with the wood paneling on the side. The base color was red, which was good because it hid the rust. Dad loved to buy cars used, which was easy on the wallet, but was always a bit of a dice roll for trips over 25 miles.
In the back seat was my friend Wheezy, and I and was in the front seat, chain smoking with the windows rolled up, was my dad, Ed.
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” I rattled off to Wheezy.
“What’s there to say. It’s hilarious,” Wheezy rattled back just as furiously. I was starting to get under his skin. You could tell.
“You’re just wrong. I don’t care really about why. You’re just wrong. Police Academy isn’t very funny.”
“I don’t understand how you could be so stupid. Police Academy is exactly the kind of comedy that you need to look at as funny. This is at the core of all of it. You’ve got the guy who makes the voices. You’ve got zany hilarity. What’s not funny about it?”
“All of it. All of it is not funny. How can you put that movie over Beetlejuice or The Naked Gun?”
“Now see, The Naked Gun had some funny moments.”
“SOME FUNNY MOMENTS? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“OJ was kind of funny in it. But I’d put that up against Police Academy any day of the week.”
“Are you talking about Police Academy 1? Or 56. Because they got progressively worse each and every time they came out.”
“I respectfully disagree. That guy who makes noises, man. He’s hilarious.”
The car continued on past the bridge. Dad had just taken me to get a new chest protector for my catcher’s gear. I had tryouts later that afternoon.
“It’s certainly no Police Academy,” Wheezy frumped.
“You’re a moron.”
The front window rolled down pushing a rush of non-tobacco tainted summer air towards my face. Dad flicked the cigarette out the window and spun around backwards in one fell swoop while still driving 60 over a wide river.
“Do you idiots ever listen to yourselves talk? I’m serious. You guys just talk about nothing all day. Is this how real humans talk? When the hell are you getting your license? I can’t take this anymore!!”
“Sorry Dad. Just trying to prove a point.”
“Yeah, sorry Mr. K. But you’d understand if you heard this guy do the voices in the Police Academy movies.”
“See? There you go again. There’s nothing funny about it. It’s just a guy doing voices and they put some stupid plot around it. Why not just rent his standup on VHS?”
“Now Caddyshack. See? That’s where we can agree.”
Dad lit another cigarette in silent disgust.
The mammoth station wagon pulled up to the white house at the end of the cul-de-sac where Wheezy’s truck sat under the tree at the end of the street.
“It’s time to get you your driver’s license, boy.” Wheezy patted me on the back. It had been two weeks and three days since I took the test the first time.
I have a knack for trying to make things harder than they are. And I’m also pretty disorganized. So on my 16th birthday, I realized I needed a copy of my birth certificate. Not having it on hand, we drove downtown to get a copy at City Hall.
Four dollars and a fresh copy later, I decided to go ahead and take my driver’s test one block away at the Police headquarters instead of the sleepy suburb of Kansas City where I had planned.
A test is a test, right?
I buzzed through the written exam and it came time to do the drivers portion. My family had two cars. We were an Oldsmobile family and in addition to the Custom Cruiser, we also had a smaller four door coupe. Well, Dad was driving me around today, so I had to take the test in the Wagon. If you look up the Custom Cruiser, the first fact you’ll read about it is that it was the longest station wagon ever built and handled like the Titanic.
The driving examiner hopped in the luscious faux-suede passenger seat of the cruiser. She was a heavyset black woman and didn’t appear to be in the best of moods.
“Pull out, please,” she grumbled, directing me on to the labyrinth of one-way streets in downtown Kansas City.
Now I had been test-driving the Cruiser for nearly a year. I could navigate it around the side streets and even up onto the highway. The Cruiser had an absolute rocket for an engine so the damn thing could get up to speed on the highway easily. What it didn’t do was manage much grace doing it. Imagine trying to ride a horse through a jewelry store.
“Park along the street, please.” The woman curtly snorted.
“Like parallel park?”
“Yes, between those two cars.”
Oh. So this was some big-time stuff here. There were two cars parked over across the street from City Hall. They seemed… close.
Two bumps and a broken headlight later, I failed my exam. “And don’t come back for at least two weeks,” the woman stormed out of the car.
Well, here we are two weeks and three days later and we’re going to try again. This time on my home turf where cars park a comfortable distance apart and there are fewer folks with salty attitudes.
In fact, there’s not even any actual live parallel parking up in my neighborhoods. The guy had to set out cones for me to even test that portion of the test.
“Good luck. Don’t fuck it up,” my “best friend” told me right before I got in the car.
After astutely remembering not to go down the wrong way of a one way street, and also parallel parking like it was the Olympic trials, I passed with flying colors. Dad would be thrilled that he didn’t have to listen to me and Wheezy in the backseat any longer.
I was a licensed driver!
“Atta boy, Kool-Aid.” Wheezy shouted and attempted to give me a high five.
He had been warned that “Kool-Aid” was on the banned list of nicknames. Yet he continued to use it in defiance. Kool-Aid started a couple of years previous. I guess it’s because I’m loud and fat. But the Kool-Aid pitcher also smiles a lot so it’s not a total loss. Still, I’d have preferred “stud muffin” or “sexy pants.” Yet here we are.
Wheezy and I drove back home in the Custom Cruiser with me at the wheel, and I had such a sense of accomplishment. I could do anything. At 16. Who knew?