Paulie’s Pizza is a story that I need to finish. If you missed some of it, catch it from the beginning here.
Chapter 10 – Here I Go Again
It was now week two… or week three of summer. Fuck. Was it week four? The days melted together like the unseasonably hot early June we were having.
But the hours never seemed to drag on as we “worked” at Paulie’s all day. It would start at 10 when three or four of us would help T open the store and straighten things up. Then various members of the Paulie’s Pizza crew would come in and leave throughout the day. All the while catching us up on the summer shenanigans they were doing away from the pizza joint.
Fletcher was a musician and had been “jamming” late nights at a jazz bar downtown. He did it partly because he wanted to get better at the clarinet, and the other reason is that they let him drink while he was on stage and underage.
Larry and Derek, we assumed, were gay lovers when they were not at the store. No, I’m of course just kidding. They would never find love being so ugly.
Lumpy didn’t have another job, but his parents always had chores for him to do and commonly would spend a Friday night vacuuming his house or cleaning out an oven.
Jocelyn babysat for extra money. Occasionally, a few of us would go “help” on Friday and Saturday nights when she was watching toddlers – mostly at the houses that kept their refrigerator stocked with beer and Bartles and James wine coolers.
Bailey was helping coach some young cheerleaders and, I can only assume, spent a massive amount of time just walking around being beautiful.
Wheezy is a car guy and was always fidgeting with his wheels or Armor All’ing things. After he came back from a delivery, he’d take nearly a roll of paper towels out to clean in the little crannies in his wheels to make sure they stayed spotless.
But we were our best selves at the pizza place. And we did put in a little effort when we weren’t bullshitting. If we picked up one scrap of paper or put one pepperoni on one pizza, we were paid for the entire time we were there.
T was either incredibly generous, or incredibly stupid. But we were smart enough to understand what a gravy train was and that movie tickets and gasoline doesn’t pay for itself.
But there was downtime – oh was there downtime.
T spent the majority of the day in his office, which left us to mind the store – and clean the countertop – and rearrange the tomato sauce cans – and check the CO2 levels of the soda machine and… well that’s about it.
We learned spades and pinochle and variations of solitare. T promised that he’d teach us how to play liar’s poker one night “when it slowed down.” We asked if we could roll a television set and a VCR in the place, but T told us no. I think he liked seeing us bored out of our minds without our games of pong and our idiot box.
Having conversations with people is so tiring. But if nothing else, this was clearly the summer where I learned to say fuck. A lot.
“Go get me a soda.”
“No, fuck you. Get me a fucking soda.”
“Boys, there’s no need to argue.”
“He fucking started it.”
“Fuck you both, fuckers. One of you get ME a Coke.” Bailey, it turned out, had the meanest sailor mouth of us all. Just filth blasting out of this tiny frame. Like someone had reprogrammed a Teddy Ruxpin to shout George Carlin. It was about as sexy as you can get. And that’s from an undersexed teenage boy.
Inevitably, one of us finally brought her a Coke and absolutely did not supply one for the requester.
“What the fuq you guys. A customer could walk in here any minute and want ten pizzas. Yous all need to clean it up a little bit.” We weren’t sure if he meant the store or the language. Probably the store.
“I’ve got half a mind to knock ya all…” and then he trailed off mumbling under his breath to the back office.
T was funny. Not funny like having a good sense of humor but funny like he didn’t realize we were just kids. He didn’t understand how to talk to a bunch of teenagers. Historically teenagers are dumbasses.
At the top of the dumbass food chain is the teenage boy – King of the dumbass jungle. This was particularly true with our gang. I was always the one that tried too hard to be funny. Seemed like I was always saying “Get it, guys?” My humor was just over their heads. My jokes were for the guy who had enough brains to think it through, not these chuckleheads.
Wheezy thought he was funny but usually ended up having to explain his jokes, poor bastard. He’d put so much detail into a story, like he was painting you a picture with the fine brush of his words only you stopped listening when you realized how fucking excruciating it would get by the end.
Lumpy was always the one who was laughing AT everyone else, not with them. When he made a joke it was usually gross. He liked to fart in the car with the windows up because he knew the passenger window crank was busted. It always already smelled like hot ass in his car. Sick son of a bitch.
Fletcher was that annoying fucker that just needed to be punched once in a while. One day, in our boredom, he unwrapped the silverware from one of the tables and was tapping the tip of the knife blade on the table like a tuning fork. He did it over and over and fucking over. He’d tap the knife blade and then he’d sing a note like he was matching the pitch.
“Goddammit Fletch. What the fuck are you doing?”
“Ten bucks it’s a G sharp”
And then he went back to it. Tapping, then humming. Tapping then humming. Joselyn got up and took the coffee mug away. Then he just sat and plinked the fork against the table, then the chair, then the metal window pane.
Finally Lumpy grabbed the fork out of his hand and threw it on the floor. “Do you know how fucking annoying you are? Nobody gives a shit if it’s a G sharp, an F sharp or an LMNOP sharp! Shut the fuck up before somebody punches you”
T pipes up. “Don’t fight in the dining room. It’s bad for business”. I couldn’t imagine how this could be bad for business. Everyone feels like they need to punch someone once in a while. Maybe this could be our gig and we could finally get some people in here. The Paulie’s Pizza spin on the dunk tank – buy a slice, punch an annoying fucking teenager. You know you want to! Plus, he never really did much. He was there because he liked to have a place to go and smoke. We had plenty of downtime so we played a lot of solitaire. He sat across from anyone who was playing and called out the cards to play before they could see the moves.
What a dick.
On this afternoon, after the lunch “rush” was over, T came back into the pizza place from an unscheduled trip “out.” About twice a day he seemed to get a phone call that he’d take in his office. We only had one phone in the place and it had a 25 foot cord on it. I guess it was supposed to be handy for taking an order over the phone while you were in the back making pizzas.
Instead, T liked to stretch the cord out all the way to his office and shut the door. Each one of us got clotheslined at least once per day. It’s not like we were on the move, hustling across the kitchen because of our work ethic or high level of integrity. It was more like we were trying to run back from the bathroom to see what we missed in the non-stop banter (read: Idiot English). They weren’t all gems. Scratch that – they were never gems.
T would take these calls and then head for the door. Every time, he’d say “I gotta run some errands. Brent, you’re in charge”. This particular time he came back carrying something under his arm. And he was in a hurry. He was holding this thing under his arm like a football and it was obviously wrapped up in a paper grocery bag. He stiff armed the door like he was blocking a tackle and headed straight for the office. “Uh, I gotta take care of some business. Brent, you’re still in charge” Brent shot me a devil-grin and gave me the finger.
By this time, we still exchanged looks, and we were still certainly curious – but it was clearly an unspoken rule that we would never ask T what was in the bag. We started to suspect we didn’t want to know the answer.
Chapter 11 – Eye Of The Tiger
There were stretches of the day where T would come into the “dining room” and shoot the shit with us. He’d council us on whatever teenage drama stood in for actual drama. He’d throw out life advice when it was appropriate. He’d bust balls. But we never really knew much about him. We knew his wife was pretty and they had a small baby. We knew they had been married about 10 years and we knew he probably did something before deciding to own a pizza place.
One afternoon, the question was finally asked, by Brent. “T, what did you do before you opened the pizza place?”
The question hung in the air for a moment. T didn’t seem prepared for it at first, but then quickly leaned back in his chair so the front two legs came off the ground as the back two legs seemed to be clinging to whatever structural support it could find to stay upright.
“Tell you what, let’s get things ready for the dinner rush and I’ll tell you.”
He kept talking about these “rushes” like there was a line out the door and down the block – but it didn’t matter this afternoon. All five or six or seven – you really do lose count – of us scrubbed that restaurant until you could eat off of the floor.
T was busy preparing his new grill to be lit for the first time. It was just outside the front window of the store. “That way the smell will go up to the highway and get people to stop in,” T schemed.
After a half-bag of charcoal and nearly a full bottle of lighter fluid, the grill sparked to life in a brief, yet towering fireball. From there, T pulled a package from the refrigerator. A “family recipe” cluster of sausages that he began to grill up.
As proud as T was of his meatball grinder, you pop one of those Italian Sausages in the middle of that roll and it’s quite simply heaven.
With the sausages done, we all sat down and started eating our dinner – you know – just until someone actually walked into the store – which wasn’t going to happen tonight.
“Ok T, spill it,” I said with new found confidence, or maybe just a belly full of bratwurst.
T grinned and then started going around the room. “What do you guys think I used to do?”
I started the answering, “You were probably in some boring 9-5 job. Like an accountant.”
T about fell off his chair laughing, “Fugging math and me don’t work, kid. I gotta rely on you guys to count down the register most nights. If you’re using me as your accountant, then the IRS is going to be beating down your door.”
Fletcher popped in next, “You were probably a fireman.”
“Oh, I always wanted to be a fireman – even took the exam.” He grabbed and shook his belly. “Too fugging fat. Best I can do if I see a fire now is piss on it.”
Bailey, who knew T’s wife threw her family threw a sly grin and said, “I’ll bet you owned a business.”
“You’re getting warmer, kid. But what kind of business?” He was eating this up.
Brent was the last to pipe up. “It had to be another restaurant. The homemade pizza sauce can’t just be new.”
The smile was from ear to ear now. “I wish it was a restaurant. I wished we served anything other than frozen pizza rolls.”
“So you guys see the old bar stools from WHEEL HOUSE right? Well that used to be my bar.”
Hell, we honestly thought he just stole them. “That’s why I’ve been trying to go back to some of my old customers and sending them pizzas so they’d help their old bar owner out.”
“That’s why I’ve been out and about so much, because I have been trying to find some new investors to help with a second location.”
A second location? Did he forget to actually sell pizzas at the first location? No matter. These were some of the answers we were looking for.
“HEY. WHAT THE FUCK.” T’s head whipped around to the front window. A shadow crossed in front of the window quickly.
T bolted behind the counter and out came a baseball bat. Now, I’d personally cleaned that countertop probably 2,000 times in the past six weeks and I’ve never seen that baseball bat. But there it was, probably about five feet long and looked to be taped at the barrel with electrical tape.
T bolted out the front door and tackled the shadowy figure about two steps from the front door to the laundromat. He laid a whack on the man’s backside with the bat like he was preparing for the home run derby.
“YOU FUGGING THING THOSE ARE JUST FREE YOU MUDDA” <whack> “FUCKA” <bang to the kneecap> “I’LL” <shoulder> “FUGGING…” The man somehow got up and scurried away dropping an Italian sausage on the ground as he did.
A heavily breathing T turned around, dusted himself off, and walked calmly back into the store where all seven of us had our faces pressed against the window like there were Christmas presents on the other side. We were one part shocked, and one part entertained, and maybe one part feeling sorry for the guy.
In about 30 seconds, T had regulated his slow breathing and wiped the last bead of sweat from his face. He took a sip from his glass of iced tea and with a completely stoic face he asked, “So what were we talking about? Oh yeah, I used to own a bar.”
Off in the distance we could hear sirens.
CHAPTER 12 – I Wanna Dance With Somebody
The sirens, it turned out, started to get louder – much louder. And soon there were two cop cars outside Paulie’s.
Now, we would occasionally have a cop or two come into the store to get a sausage grinder or a slice of pepperoni. But it was clear that a late lunch was not the intention of the three police officers that walked in the store.
The first officer was tall, but lanky. He wore aviator sunglasses that were obviously too large for his face, but spoke with a booming voice. “Well now T, you couldn’t stay out of trouble, could you?”
T stood up and faced the officers. He said nothing.
“Listen, T, you can’t go around beating the shit out of guys. I’ve got a guy in my squad car with a pretty ugly knot on his head. Says you gave it to him.”
You could tell T wanted to say that he only attacked that guy because he stole off the grill. Whether that was a good reason, it was still a reason. But he just stood there with a sly grin on his face.
“Ok, man. Listen, if you’re not going to talk, I’m going to need to take you in until we can get this sorted out.”
T was holding a kitchen dish towel. The same towel he was wiping off his hands with when he came out from the back to tell us about the old bar he owned. And that was the extent of what he told us.
He flipped the towel to me as he turned around and put his hands behind his back. “You kids lock up the store. It’s a slow night. Go have fun. We’ll open at 10 am tomorrow.”
You could hear the cuffs click-click-click into place as T was walked outside to be wedged into the much too small back of a Kansas City Police squad car.
The remaining people in the store, the entire teenage cast of Paulie’s Pizza, looked at each other with jaw dropped.
What the fug just happened? First thing we were going to learn some deep dark secret about T and then he’s beating the shit out of a guy and seconds later he’s hauled off?
After several moments of head scratching, Jocelyn was the first to speak up. “Let’s get out of here. Batman is playing in the city.”
Fletcher, Larry and Derek immediately popped up and began to gather their things. “Hell yes, was boring in here tonight anyway,” Fletch grumbled – still angry that he wasn’t able to name all the musical tones of the coffee mugs in the store.
“I should head home. Mom’s got me stripping a floor tomorrow, and I need to get my stuff together,” Lumpy groaned. He walked out of the store like Charlie Brown when he was given bad news.
The Wheezy decided to head to the movies with the others and they all slowly exited the store. I guess they just assumed I’d lock it up? Thanks for the invite, bastards.
I turned off the OPEN sign in the window and locked the front door and then turned around. Sitting on the counter, was Bailey.
“So, you need help cleaning up?”
My mind began to race, blood was rushing to various parts of my body that weren’t my brain or the places that made words so I just stood there.
“Uh… yeah… uh… kitchen… uh… yeah.”
She just giggled. It was a higher pitched giggle – I mean, after all, she wasn’t even five foot tall. She was basically a Barbie doll. But it wasn’t an annoying giggle. You could genuinely listen to it laying on a picnic table on a fall afternoon. Oh God, how long was I standing here thinking to myself about a giggly picnic, I should really start to do something like move my legs or my hands or… this was awful.
Bailey plopped down from the countertop with a sturdy thump. It was a fairly long drop for her, but you could tell she had strong cheerleader legs and that helped her make a two point landing. She jumped towards me with a bound and grabbed my hand with a yank.
“Come on. Let’s get things cleaned up. I’ve got a couple things I need to do tonight.”
Oh please let it be a picnic, oh please let it be a picnic, oh please let it be a picnic.
Over the next hour, I finally loosened up to make words in somewhat coherent sentences. We traded stories about where we grew up and what classes we liked in high school and our life stories – or as much as you can have as a teenager.
She was scrubbing down a couple of the pizza pans – the ones that go through the oven – so they had a decent amount of crud stuck to them. She was humming to herself. It was beautiful. You could tell she was happy and content.
Me? I was putting away ingredients into tupperware bins. My hands were clammy. I was flop sweating, so I had my back turned to her. “Yeah, I had a good biology teacher this year, but I really liked English Lit,” I managed to squeak out while scooping out small mushrooms and putting them away.
“Oh, I am all about science. I’m going to be a zoo keeper when I grow up,” she giggled again. What must it be like to have your shit together at our age? She already knows what she’s going to do with her entire life!
At my age, I’d done a little kissing – with girls even – but the affection I felt welling up inside me for Bailey seemed to be much different. I adored everything about her. How she stood, how she hummed, her hair that smelled like blueberries and pepperoni, her eyes – these deep green eyes. I’m not sure what love is, but I sure knew it couldn’t possibly top what I was feeling for Bailey in that moment. That moment she was scrubbing the grime off of a pizza pan.
Wait. This had to be some sort of cosmic sign. The store is closed at 6 pm on a Friday. I’m alone with the most beautiful girl in the history of humans. We’ve got the whole night ahead of us. I should ask her out.
The internal conflict and angst immediately engaged the paralysis nerves in my body. What if she rejects me? What if she doesn’t reject me? What if she has a boyfriend? What if we run off and get married? Who will run the pizza place?
No. This is too good of an opportunity. We could go to dinner. Or a movie. Or… well, that’s a complete list of everything for teenagers to do in Kansas City. But that would be enough to spark our historic romance. I turned to her and set down my tupperware container of anchovies.
She set down her scrubber and pizza pan. “Yes?”
<BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG>
The was a tremendous thumping in my head. Suddenly, the blood that rushed through my body all decided to play bongo drums in my temple.
“Hey.. um, later…”
<BANG BANG BANG BANG>
<BANG BANG BANG> “Hey fucker – open the door.”
I turned to the window and was Larry and Fletcher banging on the front window. Jocelyn had her mouth pressed up against the window and she looked like a puffer fish.
I shook my head and pushed my hands against my eyes to double-check what I was seeing. Which was dumb. Because I had anchovy juice on my hand.
Yep. There they were. I looked back at Bailey, then I looked at the window. Then back at Bailey. Then… “COME ON. OPEN UP.”
Fug. I grabbed my key and walked to the front of the store.