By R.L. Maizes
Mama Jane’s Pizza sign gripping the roof of his silver BMW, Neal pulled up to a small ranch house with a shattered concrete drive. “Could be she’ll have the money, could be she won’t,” Mama Jane had said, handing him the pie. He rang the bell twice and was about to turn around when a boy of perhaps eight opened the door.
“Mom can’t find her purse.” The kid stood with one bare foot on the other, knobby knees pressed together. He had curly black hair Neal imagined girls would one day run their fingers through.
Neal could pay for the pizza. Probably should pay for it, but where did that end. He had never been especially charitable. It would be odd to start now, when he was neglecting his own family. Nevertheless he had the urge to hand over the pizza. He pictured the kid thanking him.
The boy touched the red delivery bag with two fingers.
“What’s your name?” Neal asked.
“I can’t give this to you, Charlie, you know that, right? That’s not how it works. Mama Jane has to get paid. Otherwise there are no more pizzas.” It was a crock. Charlie looked like he knew it, too, narrowing his eyes and shaking his head. What was one pizza?
Air conditioning rippled Neal’s frayed Sex Pistols T-shirt as he drove back to the pizza shop. A lifetime supply of mint gum filled a Seven-Eleven bag on the floor of the car. His girls, Allie and Avery, sophomores at Long Island Prep, inhaled the stuff. Used pieces wrapped in foil sparkled beneath the seats, tumbled across floor mats when he took a sharp turn, flattened beneath his sneakers.
He had stashed five thousand dollars in the glove box that morning and now he opened the box to gaze at the loose stack of hundreds. He had no immediate need for the money, but it reassured him they weren’t poor, not yet, which meant he could put off getting a real job. His wife, Maddy, would be furious if she knew he had cashed in a CD. The thought made him smile.
At Mama Jane’s, he slipped the pizza under warming lights to be sold by the slice.
He got home at 10:00. Maddy was in bed, reading a British novel, the kind that would make an unbearably slow movie. They used to watch movies like that together. She set the book on the nightstand and turned off the light. A halo burned around her white silk pajamas before his eyes adjusted. She punched up her pillow. “Landtech is hiring a manager.”
“So we’re spending the kids’ college funds.”
The room smelled of the Tom Ford lavender perfume he had put in her stocking last Christmas. In the past, she had worn it as an invitation. He wasn’t accepting invitations from her now, though he sometimes imagined entering her roughly, hearing her cry out. He had always been tender. Maybe that was the problem.
He walked down the hall to his daughters’ room, his footsteps muffled by dense wool carpet. Standing outside, he re-read the stickers on the door: “Enter at your own Peril,” “Quarantine Zone,” and “If We Liked You, You’d Already Be Inside.” Light from the room leaked out beneath the closed door. He knocked.
“Who is it?” Of the two girls, Allie was kinder.
“It’s Dad. Can I come in?” He grasped the brass doorknob. When they remodeled, Maddy had made him look at hundreds of knobs he couldn’t tell apart.
“What do you want?” Sharpness came naturally to Avery, especially when she was talking to him.
He let go of the knob. “Just wanted to say good night to my girls.”
“We’re not dressed,” Avery said and laughed in a way that made him think it wasn’t true.
Since Maddy had gone back to work as a paralegal a month ago, he drove the girls to school in the morning. He had looked forward to spending the time with them. When they weren’t in school, they were off with their friends, kids whose names he no longer knew, and he rarely saw them. But as it turned out they had no problem disappearing in plain sight, riding with ear buds in or furiously texting, as if he wasn’t there.
“Take that thing off,” Avery said, pointing to the pizza sign.
He had forgotten it the night before. “I’ll just have to put it back on later.”
“I’m not riding in the car with that thing on.”
“We’ll help you, Dad,” Allie offered.
It was his fault they were pushy. His and Maddy’s. Always giving them whatever they wanted. He had once taken pride in earning enough to spoil them, and it had been easier than saying no. Now it was too late. He knew from experience to give in or Avery would throw a fit.
Wrestling with the sign, he scratched the roof of the car, cutting a jagged line through the luminous paint. “Fuck!”
“Dad!” Allie said.
“I guess it’s alright to say that now,” Avery said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He drove to school, both girls riding in the back, making him feel like a goddamn chauffeur. They used to fight to sit in front with him.
In the rear view mirror, he stared at them. They were beautiful, even Avery when she didn’t know she was being watched and wasn’t scowling, skin perfect and pale like their mother’s, straight black hair touched only by the world’s most expensive salon products. Allie had recently cut hers in a bob, he guessed so people would stop calling her Avery. Avery’s was past her shoulders. How two such attractive girls could have come from him was a mystery.
After he dropped them off, emptiness took hold of his day. Alone in the house, he started at sounds of appliances breathing on and off, and birds smacking into windowpanes. Maddy had left a printout of the Landtech job description on his desk. When he saw it, his chest tightened. Struggling to breathe, he ran out the back door, sat on the concrete stoop, and put his head between his knees.
The first time it happened, he was in front of a room full of clients, giving a presentation, like hundreds he had given before. As he clicked through his PowerPoint slides. Sweat soaked his forehead and splattered the remote control. He mopped his face with a linen handkerchief. Never had he been so afraid without knowing what he was afraid of. The oak conference table wavered. His clients were a blur of blue suits. Somehow he managed to get through the slides and never-ending questions.
That was five years ago, and hardly a week had passed since then without an episode. They happened at work and occasionally at home if he was thinking about work. When his consulting firm went bankrupt two months ago, he secretly celebrated, filled with relief. He didn’t know how much longer he could have gone on generating reports, attending meetings, currying favor with his CEO., all the while convinced he was having a heart attack and would die if he didn’t get out the building. Ashamed, he hadn’t told anyone about his condition, not even Maddy, who was never happier than when she was straightening his Burberry tie or brushing a piece of stray lint from his Dolce & Gabbana suit.
He had an MBA. How could work terrify him? Early on, he had diagnosed himself on the Internet, ordering Klonopin from a Mexican website, popping two when the panic attacks were at their worst.
When his breathing returned to normal, he went inside. On their monogrammed stationery, Maddy had left him lists of things to do. They had let go of the housekeeper, but if Maddy thought he would scrub toilets or mop floors she was mistaken. She had never done those things, taking golf lessons while the kids were in school. He crumpled the list of household chores and tossed it in the trash, folded a grocery list and put in his pocket.
At 3:00 he picked up Avery. Allie had stayed after school for band practice. They had gone only half a block when she opened the glove box. “Holy shit!”
“Close that!” How had he forgotten to put the cash back in the bank envelope? His heart pounded in his temples.
“I was looking for gum. Are you a drug dealer? Is that what you do all day?”
Glancing over, he saw her counting the money and he grabbed the bills, swerving and nearly hitting a parked car.
“It’s cool. You can hook me up.”
He shoved the money back in the glove box and banged it shut. With the back of his hand he wiped his forehead. “The gum is in the bag on the floor. I’m not a drug dealer. What do you need to be hooked up for, you don’t do drugs!”
“Did we win the lottery?” She had found the Seven-Eleven bag and was stuffing gum in her backpack.
“Leave some for Allie. We didn’t win anything. Don’t tell your mother about the money.”
“Why are you keeping secrets from Mom?” She opened the glove box again and fingered the money. “Can I have a hundred?”
What did she want it for? Did she do drugs? If she did, he didn’t want to know about it. “No.”
“You don’t want me to say anything, right?”
He had raised an extortionist. “Don’t tell anyone. Not even Allie.”
“We hardly talk to each other. She’s a geek.” She peeled a hundred off the stack.
When they got home he offered to make her a snack.
“Yeah, Dad, some milk and cookies because I’m three,” she said over her shoulder. She couldn’t seem to get away from him fast enough, and then he heard the door to her room slam shut.
Neal watched market reports on TV until it was time to go to Mama Jane’s.
He attached the sign to the roof of the car.
“It’s a gag, right?” Maddy had said when she first saw it. “It’s not enough for us to be poor, you want to humiliate me, too?”
Maybe he did. After he was laid off he was using Maddy’s laptop—his had belonged to the firm—and he discovered hundreds of e-mails to Jackson Lohr, the golf pro at their club, about their family, the girls’ social lives and her mother’s deteriorating health. Things she hadn’t even told Neal. But the worst of it was how she mocked him, writing in one: “He’s practically useless in the bedroom.” In another: “He reeks when he comes home from work. It’s like he’s run ten miles, yellow stains under his arms. I have to buy his shirts by the dozen. What’s so strenuous about sitting in an office all day?”
He had positioned the laptop behind his rear wheel and backed over it, thinking about the man in the plaid cap whose red nose Maddy had so often mocked. Then he had laid the machine on her pillow.
When she found it, she brought it to him in the kitchen.
“How are your golf lessons going?” he asked.
Red splotches darkened her cheeks. “I needed someone to talk to.”
He pretended to look at the issue of Sports Car Market he had been reading.
Maddy cradled the computer, trying to keep its shattered parts together. “To talk to. Like a shrink.”
“A shrink you fuck.” He turned the page.
“He never touched me that way.”
“What way did he touch you?”
“In a lesson.”
“Those must have been some lessons.”
To get to the pizza shop, Neal drove through a neighborhood of castle-like homes. Swimming pools liquefied sprawling backyards. Changing rooms the size of small homes pushed up out of the ground. Anorexic teens lay on lounge chairs, sipping lemonade served by Central American maids. Once, he’d delivered to one of those homes, and a man his age had tipped him fifty dollars, a kind of karma payment, Neal figured, so the man wouldn’t end up in Neal’s shoes.
At the shop, Mama Jane wore the same thing every day, jeans dusted with flour that matched the color of her hair, and a chef’s coat. “I got one for you,” she’d say when he came in the door, and he’d pick up the box and the receipt. She never asked personal questions, though she must have wondered about the BMW and the thick gold wedding ring. Or maybe she’d seen it all in her years behind the counter.
He’d applied for the job the day after he found the e-mails. “Long as you don’t mind your car smelling like pizza we can use you,” Mama Jane had said. Neal remembered delivering pizza the summer of his senior year in high school, sleeping until two in the afternoon, getting stoned before heading to work, and flirting with a girl named Melissa who came in for slices. When she learned he was starting Cornell in the fall, Melissa waited for his shift to be over and then blew him in his Camaro among empty soda cups and burger wrappers. “When can I start?” he asked Mama Jane.
No spouse or kids of Mama Jane’s ever stopped by the shop or called. Even without a family, she seemed happy. Perhaps that was the secret, Neal thought.
“Do you mind sharing with me how much longer you’re going to be on your vacation?” Maddy asked, when he returned that night. She muted Jimmy Fallon.
“I go to work every day.” He peeled off his T-shirt and cargo shorts, and dropped them on top of a full bathroom hamper. Delivering pizzas out of his car the past few weeks, open space all around him, he had felt calm.
“What you earn doesn’t pay for our groceries.” She sat up, arranging two pillows behind her.
“We should simplify our lives. People all over the world live on less than a hundred dollars a month.” He half-believed it was possible that the life they had constructed around wealth could somehow be reconstructed around—what? He wasn’t sure.
“You want to pretend you’re in Bangladesh? Do it alone. Explain to our girls why they can’t get mani-pedis with their friends.”
The girls were a problem. Their expectations were too high. “You earn good money. We should sell the house and move to an apartment. I could get rid of the car, buy a beater for the pizza route.”
She turned toward the TV. Gave Jimmy back his voice. The studio audience was laughing at a bit, but Neal imagined even they thought his idea was ridiculous.
“That’s what you want to do? Deliver pizza?” She was shouting.
“Maddy, the girls.” He closed their bedroom door.
She hugged her legs and dropped her forehead to her knees. Her voice, softer now, sounded like it might crack. “Why aren’t you looking for a real job? Just because I sent e-mails to a golf pro?”
Here was his opportunity to confess his malady. She’d have to understand. She was a compassionate person, wasn’t she? When he first met her she was living in an upper west side studio with a one-eyed cat she’d rescued. She was volunteering at a soup kitchen. But it had been years since their lives revolved around anything other than the girls and the remodel and getting into the right golf club, which turned out to be the disastrously wrong golf club. “The corporate life isn’t for me anymore.”
“Not for you anymore. Just like that.”
“Just like that.”
When he picked Avery up after school the next day, she snapped open the glove box. “Where is it?” she demanded.
He was starting to hate her. He still loved her but he also hated her. “None of your business.” As he pulled into a busy intersection, he saw her rummage through the glove box and find the bank envelope. “Leave that alone.”
“I need another hundred.” She slipped it out of the envelope.
“You can’t have it.” He snatched it and stuffed it in his pocket. “What do you need it for?”
“It’s for a friend. You don’t know her.” She pulled another bill out.
“You can’t have it. I’m not kidding.” When he tried to seize it, she lifted her hand against the window, out of his reach. The car swerved but he righted it. “What does your mystery friend need it for?”
“She’s on the golf team and can’t afford the green fees.”
Golf. It was at the root of all of his problems. Or she was making the girl up. “I’m not giving your friend money. She should ask her parents.”
“They don’t have money. She’s on scholarship.”
“We don’t have money, either. Maybe you haven’t noticed but I deliver pizza.”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I don’t give a fuck.”
Furious, Neal leaned over and grabbed her arm. All he was to her—to all of them—was a paycheck. Once he stopped bankrolling their private school and designer clothes, he wouldn’t exist. Maddy had already replaced him with an alcoholic golf pro.
The sound of the impact wiped everything else out. The interior of the car flashed white. Neal was shoved back in his seat, his eyes closed. When he opened them, the BMW was facing oncoming traffic and Avery’s head was covered in blood.
Later that night, after an ER doctor examined and released him, after an officer cited him for reckless driving and he called a lawyer, Neal stood trembling next to his daughter’s hospital bed thanking a god he didn’t believe in that he hadn’t killed her. Maddy sat on a chair on the opposite side of the bed, clutching Avery’s hand. Avery had broken three ribs and had a concussion. Her hair was a patchwork, shaved in half a dozen places where the doctors had stitched her scalp. A jagged cut furrowed her right cheek. Asleep under heavy doses of painkillers, she didn’t know what she looked like. She would find out soon enough, and she would blame him for destroying her appearance and the status that went along with it and for all the glances she would get that would be curious rather than admiring.
It was his fault. When he had reached for her arm, the light turned red, but he didn’t see it and continued into the intersection. An SUV rammed the passenger side of the BMW.
Allie stood behind her mother, staring at Avery. “Is she going to be alright?”
“Yes,” Maddy said. “It’ll take some time. She’ll need your help.”
“What about her face?”
“We’ll do plastic surgery and tattoo the scar. You’ll hardly notice.”
“What is it?”
“I’m glad it wasn’t me.”
“That’s okay, baby.”
Allie fell asleep in a chair and Maddy motioned for Neal to follow her into the hall. “What happened?” she whispered. Since the morning, she’d aged. New lines appeared beneath her eyes. She’d run her fingers through her hair so often it looked slept on.
Bright hospital lights bounced off the walls and the linoleum floor. It seemed an appropriate place for an interrogation. “I leaned over to take something from her.” A firebox hung on the wall and Neal was tempted to pull it.
“What was so important you had to have it?”
“Cash she found in the glove box.”
“You should have let her keep it.”
“If I had known this would happen, I would have.” Carrying a stack of clean sheets, a nurse’s aide glided by on rubber-soled shoes. Neal longed to go back in time, uncash the CD, and save Avery.
Maddy had rushed to the hospital from work and still wore her tailored gray suit and narrow pumps. She shifted back and forth, uncomfortable in the shoes or the conversation, or both. “How much was it?”
She wrapped her arms around her belly. “You’re planning to leave us.”
“It reassured me.”
“If money makes you feel so good, go back to work.”
When he tried to take her hand, she pulled away. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack when I’m in an office,” he said. “Like I’m going to die if I don’t get out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She shook her head and looked past Neal.
“I was ashamed. And we were doing that goddamn remodel. Everything was so expensive. The fixtures, the windows, the cabinets—they might as well have been made of gold. I didn’t see how I could leave the job, so there was no sense worrying you. I was worried enough for the both of us.” Neal looked down at his bloody T-shirt and shorts. “Besides, you only like me in a suit.”
“That’s not fair. You stopped talking to me. Telling me what was going on inside you. I thought you were having an affair.”
“You were the one having the affair.”
“They were just e-mails.”
“And lessons. But I don’t take them anymore. And we don’t e-mail.”
“How’s your handicap?”
Finally, some good news. She didn’t have time for golf.
He spent the next day in the hospital with Avery, who ignored him except when she wanted something. In the hospital gift shop, he bought the copies of Elle and Vogue she had asked for.
“I’ll never look this good. Not anymore,” she said, when he handed them to her.
“Sorry.” What else was there to say? He was sorry. And anything he tried to say, about how she would get through this, she would contradict. That was how it had been lately. She wouldn’t accept comfort from him, neither of the twins would.
She turned back to the soap opera she’d been watching. “Get me a diet coke and a salad. Not from the cafeteria. From the health food store on Lakeville.”
He returned with her lunch and was about to enter the room when he heard her sobbing. If he went in, she’d stop and pretend she’d never started, so instead he sunk to his heels, leaned against the corridor wall, and waited.
“I’m starving,” she said, her voice quieter than usual, when he brought the food in. “You took forever.” Crumpled tissues were scattered across her blanket. Neal gathered them, dropped them in the trash, and washed his hands.
Maddy came over after work and Neal drove her Buick to the pizza shop.
Mama Jane was kneading dough without looking at it, pressing and folding it over itself. The dough looked pure and smelled ripe with yeast. Neal briefly wished he were a pizza chef instead of a delivery boy.
“I got one for you. It’s that woman hardly ever has money. Okay if you don’t want to take it. I could sell it by the slice and save you a trip.”
He picked the box up off the counter. “Maybe tonight they’ll get to eat it.”
But it wasn’t hope. He was betting on a sure thing. When he arrived at the house, he set the pizza down, rang the doorbell and retreated to his car. Driving away, he saw in his rear view mirror Charlie take the box inside.
R.L. Maizes lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, and her dog, Rosie, under the benevolent dictatorship of Arie, the cat. Her stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Blackbird, Slice, The MacGuffin, and other literary magazines. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spirituality & Health, and other national magazines.