À la Carte Blanche

Zach Powers

There’s a rap on my door. I go and open it and find the pizza delivery person there. Deja vu. She was here like half an hour ago. I just finished the pizza she delivered. I recognize her by a mole on her forehead, visible beneath the bill of her pizza company-branded visor. I stare at the mole and hope she’ll think I’m making eye contact.

Her hands are empty. This is the pizza chain with the bulky heated bag. I pat my stomach. Yep, I’ve recently eaten pizza. Not deja vu, then, but some similar phenomenon.

“Yes?” I ask. I try to sound as polite as possible.

“I owe you an apology,” says the pizza delivery person. She sports a gold colored nametag on her red, black, and blue polo shirt. Her name is Natalie.

“The pizza was alright,” I say.

Her eyes exhibit deep remorse. “But you ordered green peppers.”

I think back. I did, in fact, order green peppers. I think a little bit less back. I can’t remember if they were on the pizza or not. I was watching TV while I ate and paid more attention to the show than to the toppings. I can’t remember which show. I need to work on my attention.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I didn’t even notice.”

“But there were essential nutrients that you missed out on.”

“I have some multivitamins, I’m sure.”

I’m not sure.

She reaches across the threshold and takes my hand in both of hers. I’m a head taller. She looks up. I avoid her eyes and find the mole instead.

Oh shit, she’s crying.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she says.

It’s like a funeral for pizza. Except I ate the pizza. I’m the person who killed it.

“Really,” I say. “It’s okay.”

“You should never take your health for granted,” she says.

She hugs me awkwardly, the kind of hug you might give a distant cousin at a family reunion. Tear marks dapple my shirt where she pressed her face to my chest. She takes off her visor and wrings it in her hands. She turns and walks back to her car. Oh my god, is that a Datsun? There’s a sign for the pizza company on the car’s dented roof. How does it stay put? I think they do it with magnets.

I start to close the door. The woman unleashes a bestial yowl. Neighborhood dogs respond in kind. I watch through the front window as her Datsun trundles away. The tailpipe burps puffs of ghastly smog.

I go back to my couch. Aha, it’s a baseball game I was watching, neither team one I care about. The pizza box is still on my coffee table. I lift the lid. Inside there are bits of cheese and sauce and sausage crumbles, a circle of grease, but no remnants of green pepper.

I should have asked for a refund or something. At least a coupon.

I flip the TV to the second sports channel. Another baseball game between teams in which I have no investment. I watch the bottom half of the inning. Three groundouts. 

My doorbell rings. I get up and go to the door and answer it. A vaguely familiar kid stands there. He’s got chin pimples, but nothing out of hand. He wears a green bib apron. At first, I think he’s selling cookies, but no, that’s not right. That’s the little girls: sashes and berets.

“Look, Dave,” he says. “I gotta be honest with you.”

“How do you know my name?” I ask.

He looks at me like I’m the dumbest person in this conversation.

He says, “I wrote your name on the cup, didn’t I?”

Then I get it. This kid works at the coffee shop around the corner. I go there sometimes if I get up early enough before work. It’s been a while, though, like, months.

“Last time you were in,” continues the kid, “there was a screw-up behind the counter. My screw-up. The geezer in front of you ordered decaf. Like, what’s the point, right? And we don’t even brew it, so we do decaf Americano. I made that, and then I went and poured it straight into your cup. The geezer got your regular coffee, and you were out the door before I could make it right.”

“No big deal, man,” I say. “You should be apologizing to the old guy. Maybe he had a heart condition or something.”

“He didn’t have a heart condition.” The kid looks legit agitated. “You just don’t get it, man.”

He lifts the bottom of his apron up and clutches it in front of his mouth. Coffee stains mar the fabric all over. Some look fresh and some ancient. I look for patterns.

He talks from behind the apron. “You were on your way to a job interview. You needed that extra jolt. This was the job, man. This was the job. This is what people mean when they say life-changing. This is what they mean by dream job. I mean, if you’re into that capitalistic bullshit. But you went in there and bombed. Your brain just wasn’t fired up. You stumbled all over your words. You called the manager by the wrong name. Complete fucking disaster, my friend.”

I remember the morning. I wouldn’t exactly call the interview a disaster. I wouldn’t call the job a dream. The kid’s right, though, that I didn’t get it. Never heard a squeak from the company, not even an email: thanks but nope.

The kid lowers the apron. His mouth retains a strange shape, like his brain’s signals are getting confused on the way there. All is befucked, his expression says. I bet that’s how my face looked leaving the interview. The more I’m remembering, the more I really wish I wasn’t.

“If only I could make it right, man,” the kid says.

I ask, “Is there like a coupon or something?”

“You don’t get it. You don’t get it at all.”

“Hey, I appreciate it,” I say.

I feel bad for the kid. I do. He came all the way here and did his heartfelt best. If this were a job interview, I’d hire him. Maybe I’ll open my own coffee shop and make him manager. But he’s already sulking away. The sidewalk strings out ahead of him. His apron flaps like a backward cape.

Now I want coffee. I check the clock, but it’s too late. I never drink it after the morning. Gives me jitters. I go back to the couch and flip to the first baseball game. I watch another half inning. Three more groundouts. During the commercial break, an ad comes on for the pizza company.

“What are the odds?” I say out loud.

A spastic knock on my door. I get up and check it. This time I have no idea who the guy is standing there. Neat haircut, pencil mustache. Crisp white shirt, bistro apron as black as deep space. I’m pretty sure he’s starched and ironed the apron. His face, too, is flat and expressionless.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Sir…” he says but doesn’t continue.

I’m not used to being called sir.

“Look,” I say, “I’m watching the game and having a beer, so if you don’t need me…”

“Sir, I’ve come to offer my deepest regrets.” He half-fakes an accent that’s maybe Greek.

I don’t say anything. The guy squirms in place.

“Four years ago,” he says, “you dined with us. As your server, it’s my duty to tell you that the wrong meal was delivered to your date.”

I think back. Four years ago, I was dating Martha. My only actually serious relationship. We’d gone to a fancy dinner. An anniversary or something. I remember dainty plates with small portions, artfully arranged. Glasses of wine. Too many forks. I remember wearing a coat and tie.

“It’s okay, man,” I say. “We broke up, so no big deal, right?”

“That’s what I’m attempting to explain.” He throws his hands in the air, pantomiming exasperation.

“Look,” I say, “I’ve been thinking a lot about wrong orders today, as a matter of fact, and who cares? Not a thing to complain about. As long as nobody spits in my food.”

His stony expression cracks. He’s befuddled by the very notion that food and spittle can coexist. As if that’s not what happens to all food eventually.

“I assure you, sir,” he says, “that a correct order is of paramount importance.”

“Well, I appreciate the apology.”

I start to close the door.

“Wait!” he bellows.

I lean my face out the door to make sure the neighbors aren’t looking. It’s a nice, quiet street.

I point my thumb behind me. “Game. Beer.”

I try to remember which teams are playing.

“Just a moment longer,” he says. “I’m not sure you understand, and if you don’t understand, then my apology will carry less weight than it must.”

I put a hand on my hip. I’m trying to look impatient, but the pose feels more like jaunty sailor.

The server reaches up and smooths his shellacked hair. He takes a breath and begins, “There are moments when any relationship can turn, and you were at the cusp of something, and then the wrong food came, and you didn’t notice, and the seeds of doubt vis a vis your attention to important details were sowed, and then three months later her doubts overwhelmed the vague comforts your presence provided, and you came home to find her alongside suitcases, and finally here was a detail even you couldn’t fail to notice, but by then it was too late, a culmination, set in motion under my watchful eye, my shameful, pathetic eye, unseeing this once of all times, and here you sit, in gray sweatpants, for the love of god, but if that single evening had gone differently, if I’d not failed you in my most fundamental of all duties, then this house behind you would resound with the laughter of children, the walls hung with actual art, the furniture less appalling, and you would be, frankly, so much less of a sad sack than how you, in fact, turned out.”

He gasps for air. 

“So,” I say, “I take it this has been eating at you for a while?”

“Look at your life, sir,” he pleads. “Look at what I’ve done to you.”

Sweat droplets speckle his forehead.

“Life is life, man. What’re you gonna do?”

He appears unimpressed by my philosophy.

“Please,” he says. “forgive me.

“I wasn’t pissed in the first place.”

He drops to his knees and clasps his hands. “Please.”

I muster, “Ok, I forgive you.”

He rises and brushes gravel from his apron. The features of his face recompose, snooty as ever.

“Thank you, sir,” he says. “We do hope you’ll join us again.”

He turns on his heel and strides in the direction of the bus stop. His steps are quick and precise. The heels of his shoes clop out an even rhythm.

I return to the sofa, the game, my beer.

The game is now in the first inning, so it must be a new game. What happened in the game before this one, then? Who won and who lost and who cared?

Someone knocks gently on my door, pauses, and then knocks twice, surer.

This time I bring my beer with me to answer.

It’s my mom, which is strange. She’s been dead for quite a while.

“Mom,” I say.

I check her fingernails for dirt. I want to make sure she didn’t dig herself out of the grave, that she’s not a zombie. No dirt, so some similar phenomenon. 

“Honey…” she says and lingers without adding more.

She’s never called me honey before. We share no terms of endearment.

She wears the faded floral sundress she favored when younger. When alive. It fits strangely on her older, deader body. Like seeing the sun through smog.

“You want to come in?” I ask.

“You know I can’t do that.”

She was always assuming I should know more than I did.

“Out with it, then,” I say.

I sip my beer. The can warms against my palm.

She clears her throat, a dusty hack. “Your PB&Js. I know you didn’t like the crusts. I always watched you struggle to pick them away with your fat little kid fingers. But I never once cut them off for you.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“I had the knife right there in my hand. It woulda taken five seconds.”

“It’s okay,” I say, “because I always saved the bits I tore off to feed to birds. I took the crusts outside after lunch and tossed them around the courtyard.”

“I never knew that,” she says.

“We were never the kind of family to notice things.”

“Now I get why there were so many birds at that apartment.”

“I don’t know if they came because I fed them or if I fed them because there were always so many around.”

My memory flocks with blue jays and robins and bunches of little birds I referred to all as wrens. I look past my mom and notice birds in my yard and in other yards and in the sky.

“It’s been so long since I saw the birds,” I say. “You know, really saw them.”

“You should get a feeder,” she says.

I imagine a feeder, and then I imagine never remembering to fill it. I pay somebody to mow my lawn.

“Are you happy?” she asks. Her eyes are teary, but she’s never been a crier.

“If I’m not, it’s my own fault and nobody else’s.”

She smiles, a rare memory. “Thank you for saying that.”

“Good to see you,” I say.

I shut the door. I figure the best kindness I can offer is to save her the effort of a goodbye.

Back on TV, the visiting team is still at bat in the first inning. They’ve scored ten runs already, the game over from the get-go. I close the pizza box and kick up my feet on the coffee table. I settle into the cushions of the sofa. They’re all poof, gentle hugs. Nothing wrong with my furniture.

I think about ordering Chinese for dinner, but no. If I get hungry, I can make the meal myself.

About the Author

Zach Powers is the author of the novel First Cosmic Velocity (Putnam 2019) and the story collection Gravity Changes (BOA Editions 2017). His writing has been featured by American Short Fiction, Lit Hub, Tin House Online, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He serves as Artistic Director for The Writer’s Center in metro DC and Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry magazine. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com.