Soon it would be too dark for pizzas. Lorenzo’s goosebump arm hairs shriveled into powdery squirms as he nestled closer to the stainless steel oven. Soaked through and squelchy from all the shoveling, his brown corduroy pants let off a twirl of steam as he pressed them harder into the metal face of the lower oven door. You couldn’t see the steam. The pizza parlor was lit like a sleepover party: a dying LED lantern heaved a sad glow upon the counter next to the cardboard thing of straws, reflecting vaguely on the oven’s metal face and on the cheap plastic tables of the front dining room, where the chairs sat upside down on the tabletops and made a gloomy landscape of bridges and tree missiles silhouetted by the window of backlit snow. The blizzard brushed against the parlor’s front glass, each flurry outlined by the strip mall’s battery-powered lamppost. Below the lamppost: Lorenzo’s ’04 Corolla, quietly iglooed.
Here’s what happened. The electricity had gone out a few hours after Lorenzo’d already committed to the genius plan. Stick it out for the night in the pizza parlor, where there’s plenty of food and the heater is reliable. Made sense. But — figures! — not without electricity it didn’t, and by the time the lights crapped out it was already too late to leave. He’d made a go at digging his way to the car but had to stop halfway due to impending frostbite of the cheeks. Oh, well. The shop would suffice for the night. The heavy-duty double-decker oven used gas, and the gas worked fine. With the upper oven cranked up to 525, the counter area warmed up pretty decent.
And if you’re gonna blast the oven, you might as well keep the pizzas coming.
He was a big man, mid-thirties, pudgy and round-shouldered with generous plumes of grey at his temples spoiling the thick, youthful black hair. Having already stripped down to his dank, offwhite tank top — his jacket and sweater had soaked through from the shoveling and were only now starting to hiss dry in the lower oven-deck — he continually rubbed his meaty arms to help keep warm, occasionally reminding himself that all things considered, he didn’t have it so bad tonight. His little apartment down the street had crappy windows and, though his landlord swore otherwise, the heat wasn’t fixed. Here at the shop Lorenzo obviously had plenty of food, and if he got bored he could always fold more pizza boxes, make bets with himself about how high he could stack them before the tower crumbled. He’d gotten pretty good at this, actually. On one of his particularly slow days he managed to stack them all the way to the ceiling tiles, and in the end it was the ceiling tile that fell, not the boxes.
A thrill of panic soured his gut as he remembered that the tile still hasn’t been replaced; a big square hole gaped with fuzzy pipes up there above the wall-painting of Italy with the goats and the fields. Nobody wanted to eat under it. If they showed up in the first place.
Antsy for a distraction, for something to do with his flour-blanched hands, Lorenzo opened the oven door to confirm that the extra-large pie was almost done, and he smiled as a blast of heat skinned the oils from his face and flash-dried his small gummy teeth. He smelled the basil, heard the blip of the liquefied mozzarella. His face continued to throb with heat even after he slammed the door shut.
Just a few more minutes to get it crispy on the bottom, but pull her out before she goes cheese-brown on top. Flavor at maximum. Perfect, just like fat Giordano Sr. taught him.
Lorenzo pivoted and looked at the woods of chair legs bunched together in the front-parlor shadows. Starved for company, he pretended there was a transparent family sitting at one of the tables by the wall enjoying a see-through version of one of his pies. At first Lorenzo’d meant the family to be friendly and non-ghostlike, but as he visualized their outlines in the sharp shadows of the quiet shop he grew uneasy and decided to unthink them. I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, he thought, narrowing his close-set brown eyes for effect. Then his heart sank when he thought about how this creepy ghost family were the first visitors, real or imagined, to grace the small dining room all week. He sort of wanted them back.
“You know what it is?” he blurted aloud to the big dull chalkboard menu above the half-fridge for the Cokes. “I’m missing that one thing.” He squinted in the dim light and sighed as he scanned, item by item, the smudgy white-chalk list of pizzas and pastas and subs. “Need that one whatever” — he clapped his hands — “to make them go ‘oh yeah, ain’t that the place where they got the whatever?’” His breath came out in big white puffs as his gaze landed on a dead fly on the back corner of the fridge, and after swiping it into his cupped hands and dropping it in the trash bin at his feet, he walked deeper into the kitchen and made sure to close and seal the lid of his big plastic trough of tangy homemade tomato sauce.
It wasn’t nerve he was missing, he knew that much. Nobody would argue it had taken big shiny meatballs to buy this place, on the outskirts of a New England town he never knew, leaving behind his life in Long Island and jumping headfirst into running his own pizza shop. Ballsy, but stupid. In the end it seemed he didn’t have the business brains to draw a decent customer base, and now here he was huddling next to a double-decker pizza oven to keep warm during the biggest storm of the New England winter.
Six months in and business still hadn’t picked up, despite weekends and weekends of flyers and business cards and ads in the local paper. To keep afloat at this point he’d basically need a steady stream of regulars starting yesterday, people who called him by name and brought their friends and knew exactly what to order — extra-large cheese pie, slightly well-done, and give me some of that Whatever too.
Seemed like his parlor was a little too out of the way. There were certainly places much closer in town, easier to find, but, then again, they were the type of places that offered bulky pineapple pizzas and used too much oregano in the sauce. Sacrilege! But it didn’t matter. Soon he’d have to let go Roy and June, and soon after that he’d have to let himself go too, lose the shop. Lose everything. And, FYI, the split with Giordano’s in Long Island had been ugly — there was no going back there.
Yet Lorenzo truly believed that the pizza eaters would break from tradition and defect if he gave them a good enough excuse to check the place out. What he needed was some kind of gimmick, something to distinguish Lorenzo’s Slice of Cheese from those other “New York” pizza shops with the familiar alternatives spread out behind the glass counter: ziti and vegetarian lasagna and eggplant parm and stromboli. Because those weren’t enough. The pineapple places had those. He needed something else. A hook. But — marone! — he was a freakin’ approaching-middle-aged Italian pizza maker from Long Island with a damn faded mom tattoo on one forearm and a muddy green Virgin Mary on the other. Not some hotshot marketing genius.
As the storm outside swooshed against the front window, softened it with rising drift, Lorenzo thwomped down on the chilly counter surface, his doughy jowls cradled in his hands so that he could feel the outline of his teeth with his fingers. The little plastic Dancing Paisano, motorized to belly-dance when you played him the classics, bobbled dumbly on the countertop from the quake of Lorenzo’s elbows, casting a long shadow all the way down toward the bathrooms. Lorenzo’s breath came out in slow, dejected moanheaves as he leaned forward and pushed his soggy corduroy butt closer the oven until it started to honeycomb with heat. His right hand and cheek glowed white with the adjacent LED lamp, but the six little bulbs glowed with only a fraction of their potential.
Finally the pizza was done, and Lorenzo scooped it up with the blackened wood peel he’d stolen from Giordano’s and slid it onto a cool aluminum pizza pan. Thing was big even for an extra-large; might have been the largest pie Lorenzo’d ever made. And the smell! On any other night he’d have immediately run the cutter four ways — up, down, diagonal, diagonal — and snatched up that first slice even while the cheese still hissed and popped. He’d have happily let it sear the roof of his mouth and leave the skin there tattered and hanging like the cloth ceiling of an old station wagon. But on this night he gave the pizza some time to think, let it sit and steam through its best moments and share its column of heat with the empty shop. Hoping to get a better look at the steady rise of heat, Lorenzo took the AA batteries out of the LED lamp and switched them around and put them back. No change. Worth a try. In minutes the light would crap out entirely, he knew, and then he’d be bopping his knees into every available corner.
The pie had just about cooled to eating-temperature when Lorenzo heard a crazy hammering on the front glass. He whipped around and squinted at the door, where he could barely make out a white-and-blue head with snowy brows perched above a set of desperate blue eyeballs, which seemed iced into the man’s lean, skinny face.
For some reason Lorenzo had locked the front door — in case of yeti? — and now, as if to underscore this fact, the visitor jiggled the door and pounded the glass again, avalanching himself with some of the caked glass-snow.
“What kind of a nut . . . ?”
Lorenzo’s damp pants zwicked together as he bounded across the wet muddy footprints he’d trailed from his earlier shoveling efforts. Click. Unlocked. Snow drizzled on his exposed shoulders as he opened the door, and when the man slushed inside Lorenzo saw that he’d been doing all his door-pounding with just one arm, because there was a bundle cradled in his other one that was probably a baby. You could tell by how careful the guy was with it. A covered-up baby, wrapped twice over in the man’s thick black peacoat. The man himself wore nothing more than a light sweater coated cleanly in snow, an icy-crinkled pair of jeans, and regular white sneakers that would definitely have to be thrown out. When the man opened the bundle to check on the baby, incidental snowflakes drizzled onto the baby’s alarmingly pink face, which glowed in the lamplight. The baby’s lips were blue like the dad’s.
“We have to get him warm,” pleaded the man, never daring to look away from the baby. “Please, please, something warm!”
But of course Lorenzo didn’t have anything warm. His winter things were still sopping wet in the lower oven tray, wouldn’t be halfway dry for maybe twenty minutes. He had gone through all of his dry hand towels after the shoveling fiasco; they were cold and wet, every damn one of them!
On the counter, the LED lamp remembered it was supposed to be dying and faded further. Deeper shadows swallowed the dining area, so that you could barely see the outline or the color of your own fat hands. In the darkness this will be even worse, thought Lorenzo as he glanced at the lamp’s soft plastic glow.
For a moment he considered sacrificing his own pants, which were damp, yes, but warmish due to his recent butt-basking; but as he looked at the baby he knew this wouldn’t be enough. Having never figured on getting stranded here without power, he’d brought along no space heaters or blankets or extra clothes or anything like that. The phone was dead too, and so what on Earth could he possibly offer his guests?
The father finally lifted his eyes from the baby long enough to give Lorenzo a look that seemed to say, “Are you freaking serious?” But Lorenzo could think of nothing. He was a man sorely lacking in the creativity department, which was sort of how he’d ended up in this situation in the first place. In fact he would have probably already frozen to death himself if it wasn’t for the gas oven and the —
His eyes lit up and he snapped his cold fingers so hard they were sore for the rest of the night — holy crap, the freaking pizza! He flung himself towards the pizza counter, inadvertently toppling one of the upside-down chairs on the way, and at the counter he quickly tested the extra-large with his non-sore fingers. There was just enough light left to see the oil find his knuckles. Then he pressed his whole hand there and pretended it was a baby. The handbaby didn’t burn. The handbaby didn’t even cry. The pizza couldn’t have been more perfect.
As the visitor explained in fragments about getting caught in the storm, skidding into a snowbank, blah blah blah, Lorenzo helped him strip the baby of his wet things. Then, after wrapping the baby in the driest of the hand-towels, Lorenzo gently placed him in the exact middle of the pizza. The baby’s weight reminded the pizza it still had plenty of heat to give, causing the pie to release a strong puff of steam into the baby’s skin. The baby squirmed and wrinkled his face as Lorenzo folded the sides of the pizza up and over him like he was making the world’s first baby calzone. When Lorenzo was done adjusting the pizza, only the baby’s face stuck out; all else was blanketed in the warm mess of cheesy sauce. Steam wafted from inside the crust as Lorenzo lifted the baby calzone and handed it carefully to the flummoxed father, who had finally shut up about his recent misadventure.
Already, much of the color had returned to the baby’s face, and in the last throws of lamplight the dad started rocking him back and forth to keep nudging more warmth from the pizza. When a cube of tomato caught on his bottom lip, the baby put his tongue on it and took it in his mouth and then craned his head to study Lorenzo, who had propped himself against the pizza counter to recover from the whole episode.
The father didn’t know what to say just yet, but Lorenzo knew the guy would have plenty to say later on. Maybe even to the news.
“I’ll get another one going,” said Lorenzo. On the way back to the oven he snatched up the Dancing Paisano, suddenly remembering that its batteries were — you have to be kidding me — AAs! These he swapped out with two of the bad ones from the LED lamp, and then the Italian goat fields beamed in full Technicolor, the metal oven glared like the grill of a truck. “Soon my jacket will be dry and warm-as-hell too,” he announced before getting to work on a shiny new ball of dough. The father joined him behind the counter to be by the light and the heat. From inside the rock-a-bye pizza the baby watched, completely hypnotized, as a smiling Lorenzo stirred up big plumes of flour.
It didn’t occur to the Lorenzo until he was ladling the tomato sauce that “baby calzones” had a real nice ring to it. World Famous ‘Baby’ Calzones, 50% off with the order of a large pie and a 2-liter bottle of soda, and he could tell people the whole crazy story while they waited for the food! Creative, no? Out of the corner of his eye he identified a spot behind the glass counter display where there was maybe room enough for an oval serving platter stacked with tiny spinach calzones, hearty and browned — right next to where he put the garlic knots. “Yes,” he mouthed hopefully while finishing with the ladle and starting to sprinkle the shredded mozzarella cheese, “I can see that.”
DEREK OSEDACH has been nominated for the James Kirkwood Prize in Creative Writing at UCLA Extension writers’ program. His fiction is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, eFiction, and Ascent Aspirations Magazine. He was raised in New Jersey.