“It’s just wrong, Mr. Nguyen,” I said.
I was looking at the top of a stack of pizza boxes, out of each of which jutted a grease-stained yellow receipt, like so many feathers in the bands of a stack of hats. Above the jovial image of the supposed same, the box proclaimed “Fat Sal’s Pizza,” and underneath were two slogans, “Fresh Pizza,” and “We Delivery.”
“Call me Walter,” he said.
I looked from the pizza boxes to the counter. The paper menus and the business cards said, “We Delivery.” I mentally retreated outside; it was on the awning, just to the lower right of “Fat Sal’s Pizza” which slanted across the pepperoni-red plastic in a tightly looped white cursive, which spoke of authenticity to Walter, I guess.
“It’s wrong, Walter,” I said. It hadn’t ever bothered me before. In fact, we all laughed about it, at school. But ever since the moment I had pulled the red “Fat Sal’s Pizza” polo over my black and white “Death to the Pixies” shirt, fifteen minutes earlier, I had developed a pride of place that rebelled against the painfully ungrammatical tag-line.
“Walter” Nguyen looked at me for a beat. He was about my height, though something in his gaze made me feel the height of a small-child. Perhaps it was the horrific scarring that curled up one side of his face like a flame. Then he said, “Kid, let me tell you a secret.” I waited, inwardly trembling. “I know.”
He smiled, almost violently.
“There are three other pizza places in this shit town,” he said. “And we all serve the same shit pizza. The only thing I have is ‘We Delivery.’ Everyone would make fun of me anyway,” he said, “the fucked-up ‘Chinese’ with the pizza shop. I might as well get some branding out of it.”
I was struck through with equal parts admiration, at his toughness, and shock at his honesty, and sick at heart with the shabbiness of the world.
“Fat Sal’s pizzas are the best,” I said, with conviction. Walter shook his head.
“Now take this,” he handed me the plastic marquee to adhere to the top of my car, “and these pizzas, and don’t make me regret hiring you.”
“Yes, sir!” I said.
“Remember,” he called after me, “thirty minutes or less, or it’s free!”
“Really?” I asked. This was new information to me.
“Don’t be an ass,” he said. “Nothing is ever free.”
I feel like his hand jumped up to trace the serpentine track of one of his scars. He got it back in ‘Nam, kids said, when the Americans put fire to his village, but Walter Nguyen came from Detroit, and his family had moved from California there.
I licked my thumb, outside, by the car, and ran it over the suction cups, before I slapped the marquee to the top of my cobalt blue Toyota. The pizzas were already sitting in the passenger seat, cardboard mouths smiling. I was conscious, despite Walter’s assertion, that I was operating under the tick of a clock, an invisible, indefinite deadline. Really, we all are. But no one realizes how soon it’s coming.
“Who are you?” the wiry figure of a young man, with narrowed eyes, thin black hair, stubble, swimming in a grey t-shirt and running shorts, poked out of the few inches of open door as I stood with the pizza outstretched like a peace offering. It was a campus house, a hodgepodge of Colonial and Greek revival, and I was on the porch flanked by two rocking chairs. I had rung the bell, and waited.
There was some movement behind the door, then I heard the latch turn. Then the question for which the answer seemed pretty obvious to me. My first delivery wasn’t going so well.
“Pizza,” I said, as if this explained everything. Which it did.
I pulled out the receipt, which, in my nervousness of a first delivery, I had already triple-checked. I asked if this wasn’t that address.
The guy nodded, then said, “You’re not Cliff.”
“I just started, today,” I said. “I don’t know Cliff.”
“I don’t know, man,” he said.
I was getting hot wearing the two shirts. Why do I do the things I do, I wondered. The pizzas in the car were waiting, patiently, but cognizant of the time.
The pizza box was burning my hands; I had been holding it wrong, supporting the burning center. The edges were cooler. My hands retreated to them.
I heard a voice from inside, a girl’s voice, but I couldn’t make out the words.
“It’s the pizza-guy, but it’s not Cliff,” he said into the void.
“If you don’t want the pizza, I’m leaving,” I said. The clock was ticking.
The door swung outward without warning.
“I know you,” the girl said. “Cal,” she said, “it’s alright.” She was pale as milk, with freckles all over, faded ginger hair, a green jersey tucked into her shorts accentuated her breasts, the flatness of her stomach, her tiny waist. But I fell, in my mind, through a vastness of space, which resided in the blackness of her pupils, which shrank to pinpricks in the sudden light, by the contractions of her iris, which shined like emerald under the jelly-glass of her eyes. “You’re that kid-prodigy that always sits in the front of my Calculus class.”
“I’m no prodigy,” I stuttered. “I’m seventeen.”
“You’re just a boy,” she said. “Go ahead, take the pizza, Cal,” she said.
Cal had more money than he needed clenched in his other fist. He pushed it back into his pocket, and came out with a single crumpled $20.
“Keep the change,” he said, as I took it.
Of course she and Cal were just kids too.
I didn’t know her from class, but I did come to the college, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the high-school in town, because I was advanced in math, and I always sat in the front with only the professor in view. She took the pizza box from me and with her right hand, made the smallest wave, merely curling her fingers into the air between us. I felt lightened and stumbled to my car without looking back.
Calculus is the mathematical study of change. Take a function of points in a plane. Let x vary with y. In vector calculus, you start with positions on the plane, and add an intensity and a direction it’s tending, then let that vary, perhaps with t, that is time. You can ask and answer many more questions this way. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around. While the professor drew two vectors in a simulated 3-D space, head to tail, as he said, for adding, and then began to scratch the long line of the resultant sum, something hit the back of my head.
It was a compressed wad of notebook paper. Stunned, I watched it skitter over the top of the desk, then careen into the open space between the students and the blackboard, where it stopped, unnoticed, just shy of the professor’s foot. When he stepped backward to review his drawing, he kicked it backward, out of my sight. I finally looked behind, the entire class was busy copying the diagram, except for one person. The girl from my first pizza delivery. She was looking straight at me. I felt the flush of blood in my cheeks, and turned back to my notes. I wasn’t drawing vectors, just image after image of her eyes.
I left too fast for her to catch up to me, when class was over, and the same the next time. But at last I let my guard down, and she cornered me between the math building and the parking lot.
“Hi,” she said. “You’re a hard man to get to, mister. I thought I was going to have to resort to ordering a pizza.”
I was unbearably uncomfortable, but I never wanted the moment to end.
We stood in the middle of the path, frozen into statues, while people flocking to and fro on either side gradually nudged us closer together until we nearly touched.
I put out my right hand, stupidly, half tilted, like I was propositioning a waltz-partner, and introduced myself, formally.
“Well, glad to meet you,” she said, taking my hand. “I’m Emily.” She squeezed it and then let go. “Cal didn’t mean anything, the other day, he was just nervous.” She cupped her hand to her mouth, and I felt her breath as she whispered in my ear. “Cliff was his dealer.”
We started walking toward the cars.
“What’s Cal short for?” I asked.
“Calvin,” she said. “He hates it. It was his father’s name.”
“My boyfriend? Yeah, we’re together. You know, he’s not always like that. He cleans up really well. He’s an artist. He’s very smart. He’s passionate. He has big ideas.” She got quiet.
We were at my car. The Fat Sal’s Pizza marquee was thrown in the backseat. It had been from Domino’s, but Domino’s was scratched out, and “Fat Sal” written in permanent marker.
She looked at it, and then at me.
“Let’s walk together again, sometime,” she said.
A common problem to deal with in calculus is to integrate over a discontinuity. Many functions are smooth, but sometimes a function will jump, discontinuously at one point instantaneously from one value to another. In order to deal with this, we break the integral in two parts, summing over the period to the left of the break and taking the limit as the variable approaches but never reaches the jump. Then we sum over the second period, taking the limit as the variable approaches from the right, but never touches. Life evolves smoothly, but sometimes, it will jump, and either converge to something normal, or spiral into an uncountable infinity.
I’m confident reason can explain what happened when things jumped, suddenly in our world, and get a handle, a sum, from life’s variable function. But sometimes the math is too complicated to do, and you have to get out a ruler, mark out points as best you can, and measure the space under the line. I suppose that’s what this story is, in my mind.
Emily and I started walking to my car after class. She talked about Cal, and his father, who hated her for being poor. She was on a soccer scholarship, but her knees were bad. It was only a matter of time before she’d have to leave school. Although there were some people who were trying to help her out. The coach, though, was coming on to her. We’d take long meanders on paths that stopped at the cemetery, from when the campus had been part of an estate, or crossed into a hidden glen under cool pines with benches. She walked with her hands behind her back. She talked and talked. She didn’t ask me much. Which I was happy about. I was good at listening.
The air was violet, and the horizon a jagged, violent yellow. A few planes were always scattered with their trailing lines, like so many visions of the cross, and moving, but frozen in time. I had never flown before, but with Emily walking ahead in shadow, talking about this or that future plan, feet keeping an imaginary ball in line, ready to kick it to the goal, I was soaring.
Every mention of Cal would send my stomach lurching like a free fall
Six or seven times it happened.
I didn’t drive on Tuesdays, ordering was too slow.
At the car, Emily said, “Don’t go.”
“What?” I said.
“Don’t go,” she said.
Ordinarily, even though I didn’t drive for Fat Sal’s, I’d get in the car, and drive for a few hours. I would take a long swing from campus out by the faculty housing, and then beyond, to where the pine forest loomed over the pale road, exhaling an earthy breath, that I let pour through my open windows. It would be twilight, and now and then, a standing deer would be washed into a ghost by my headlights. I wanted to be away from home as long as I could, than return there to only my mother, who wasn’t much more than a ghost, since my step-father had slipped off the scaffolding and overnight became one.
Emily’s face was like the pools of water that formed at the bottoms of the quarry pit sometimes, clouded with silt, and reflecting the scraped-out walls like a world submerged.
“Okay,” I said.
We walked back to her dorm room.
“I’m hardly ever here,” she said.
It was small. The only place to sit was the bed.
It was queen-sized. The last remnant from her former life, she had said.
My legs trailed off it.
“You are going to be really handsome someday,” she said. “You know a lot of things, but I am going to teach you everything else,” she said.
She jumped up onto the bed, and grabbed a pillow, and hit me.
I took a pillow, and hit her back.
She grabbed my arm; then the other one; hard.
The door knocked.
It was Cal.
“Hey, Pizza-boy,” he said. “We delivery.”
“Cal, he has a name. He’s going to be our friend.”
I didn’t mind being “Pizza-boy.” Cal liked me. We talked about this or that. He wanted me to be part of his band.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Emily and I didn’t talk alone as much.
“It’s just wrong,” said Cal one day, as we sat together with a few of his other friends. “People don’t appreciate real life anymore, just think of themselves, and of money. What a joke my father is. He left my mother right after she found out she was dying of cancer. We’re doing the same thing to the earth. We’ll leave it because it’s too expensive.”
He wasn’t making all that much sense.
Emily took a small baggie from her pocket and dumped white powder onto the top of a magazine.
Looking up at me, she said, “I’m sorry.”
Then using the hard edge of the baggie, she formed four even lines.
“You don’t want any of this?” said Cal.
I shook my head.
Cal snorted two lines first, through a rolled up $20, then handed the bill to her.
They both sucked air in, and rubbed their noses with the back of their hands.
I said, “It’s hard not to love money, when it’s the only thing that keeps you free.” I thought of the money from Walter at Fat Sal’s, what it bought me.
“You don’t get it,” said Cal.
I probably didn’t. In the end, nobody did.
Our chemistry teacher at the high school used to be an oil-company scientist. Now he was semi-retired and teaching. He got really excited talking about hydrocarbons and combustion. Generally, in the right circumstances, the hydrocarbon will join with oxygen molecules, and release carbon dioxide, water, heat and pressure. Combustion would be, he said, for a long time yet, the cheapest, most efficient source of energy. He’d recite the stages of an engine, intake, compression, combustion, exhaust. Demonstrate by setting off a combustive flare, that flashed orange then lingered a while as black smoke. Intake, compression, combustion, exhaust.
I had wondered at his statement, whether he was wrong. Then again, I often wondered if everyone was wrong.
One day, as I was supposed to drive delivery, the phone rang at home.
“It’s for you, hon,” Mom said, as if surprised.
Walter had called a few times for various things. But it wasn’t him.
“I’m scared,” said Emily’s voice. It was hollow.
I didn’t know how to reply.
“It’s Cal. He has things. He’s gone to the mall.”
It was November. We all remember that day. It was cold. The sky was ragged with stretches of broken clouds.
You could tell from the tone of her voice what she meant by those innocuous words. He. Has. Things.
“You have to do something,” she said.
“Call the cops,” I said.
“You have to,” she said. She started to cry.
“Just hang on,” I said. I hung up.
Sometime after eleven, Cal took two red gasoline containers and put them in the back seat of his Saab. He was in full camo. His bandmate Jeremiah came. He had a camera. Cal had a mesh bag, full of smoke bombs. He put them in the back. Jeremiah gave Cal a cigarette and took one for himself. Cal took a silver Zippo out of his pocket. It had a yellow smiley face that opening the lighter tore in half. Cal opened and closed it a few times before he put the flame to the end of his cigarette.
He retreated into the house, and came back with a duffel that looked like it was filled with a handful of iron rods all poking at different angles. They shifted as he walked it to the car. He and Jeremiah didn’t say anything, other than grunt, and nod, and gesture. Jeremiah was big and had a scruffy red beard. Cal was nervous looking, and dark. Emily stared down from an upstairs window.
Then they drove off to the mall.
They came into the food court, it was about lunch time. It was packed. Nobody looked at the camo, or the bags, or even the matching red gasoline containers, in their hands. The mall’s own surveillance tapes captured most of it, from various angles, their entry, and the moment Cal stopped and began to scream at the top of his lungs. The footage is eerily silent, but your mind fills in the noise, helpfully. Cal opens the duffel and drops weapons onto the ground in front of him. I have no idea where they came from, I had never seen them before. People up until then had been staring, then they began to run in every direction.
Then Cal kicks them away, one after the other.
You can hear the sound from Jeremiah’s shaky video; he left the gas container at Cal’s feet and has retreated to a safe distance and is filming it now. Some people are yelling, others are saying things like “what the hell,” but Cal is still screaming at the top of his lungs. Cal strides forward, stopping to breathe, and starts to unbutton his clothes. He tears off his shirt. Kicks off his shoes. He is out of his pants, completely naked. In the black and white footage from the security cameras, he looks pale, weak, and sick.
At eye-level, he is pink.
He pours one gas can on himself; it seems to take a long time. The gas comes out in spurts from the spout, the streams catch the light and flash. The droplets are like crystal, like glass. Thoroughly soaked, he pours the second part on himself, part on the ground, and part at anybody who was standing too close. He crouches, then stands, then crouches again, howling. Then he goes back to his pants. In the midst of all the circumstance it is not artful, but brutally mundane. He leans to the pocket, his parts sway, arcing droplets of gas to the tile, his spider hand emerges wrapped around the happy face of his lighter.
I’m driving. I am going faster than I imagine I’ve gone before. But I’m not sure where I’m heading. I guess I have the pizza marquee already stuck on my car. That’s right. I am heading to the mall.
I am thinking about Emily, and I am thinking about Cal, and I am thinking about combustion. And I am imagining what would happen if combustion just stopped. It would make sense, that it would happen first 30,000 feet up, before the effect propagated to the ground. Though it would seem like it took minutes, while traveling slowly by galactic standards it would take, at the longest, a few seconds to pass from the outer atmosphere and penetrate the earth.
My eyes lift from the road, four airplanes, and I see each one stall. In one moment, they are floating, each one pointed toward the completion of a long, gradual arc. The next moment, they are silently tilted. Then they fall.
I was watching them, in my mind, with a little bit of cloud clinging to each, like a marionette string, when the engine in my car went off. I was on a long, empty road. I swung into neutral, and nearly lost control as I guided myself to the shoulder, stopped. In the sky, the airplanes glided on, untouched.
I had forgotten to fill the tank, the fuel gauge rested on E. Some pizza menus cascaded across the dash and one slid into my lap. I read, “We Delivery.”
Cal snapped at his lighter with his thumb. It didn’t go a few times, then sparked, then lit. Would the spark do it, drift infinitesimally, strike the gassy vapor, kick through it to the liquid on Cal’s skin? Nothing.
Cal, screaming, put the flame to his chest. The gas did not light. The fire from the lighter drifted out, and the long scream too.
Jeremiah ran up with Cal’s jacket, and covered his shoulders with it like a trainer comforting a losing boxer. The mall cops who had come, lowered their guns.
Cal said later that he had emptied and filled the gas tanks with water, but I have watched the tapes and no-one acts so well. Jeremiah said the smell of gas people reported was already on Cal’s clothes, and enhanced by the suggestive effect of the gas cans and the stress of the situation.
Emily left school for good, that summer.
Cal, protesting he had made art, was expelled.
I stayed at the side of the road for forty minutes until a farmer passed and picked me up. I rode with him for hours, as he headed north, and let him leave me by a train station. It was getting dark.
I had left my wallet and hadn’t any money, so I hitched back home.
Now it was May. I’d skipped a few of the Calculus classes near the end. They were all review, which I didn’t need, and somehow I was terrified of the chance of seeing Emily again. May is the most glorious month, my favorite month. In the northeast it is like you have been shrouded in a veil and nature has whipped it away in one swift move. You are confronted by a bright, crystal flourishing. That was before I got older and allergies set in.
I went to the last class, though. It seemed the height of irresponsibility to miss. Halfway through, I stopped taking notes. The weight of the pencil seemed to drag all my lines down. The integral signs sunk into daggers, I found I was just drawing line after line. I turned, at last, to look.
She wasn’t there.
I had been walking to the car, head down, watching the variations of pebbles stuck in the concrete.
Her finger touched my shoulder as I turned. I had never before been aware of being taller, bigger than her.
“I ordered a pizza the other day,” she said, when I hadn’t spoken. “But the driver wasn’t you.”
I had only been one of several who delivered for Mr. Nguyen, but I got what she meant. “I stopped driving,” I said, “car trouble, and the end of the semester and all.”
She leaned in, and kissed my cheek, and as she pulled away, I felt the softness of her skin and the scent of someone washing clean.
“So what’s next for my prodigy?” she asked.
I named a pretty good university in another state. I had been carrying the acceptance letter in a stunned haze in my bag. Emily whistled.
“Hey,” she said, “remember when I said I would teach you things? I don’t have to. You already know. Look, Cal is a lot better now. He’s waiting for me, I have to go.”
“We delivery,” my college roommate said with a laugh, looking at the top menu in a stack. “Let’s get some pizza from them.”
Benjamin Harnett was born in Cooperstown, NY in 1981. He co-founded, with his wife Toni Hacker, the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. He has a Master’s Degree in Classics from Columbia University. His poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in the Columbia Review, Wag’s Revue, Brooklyn Quarterly, and at Queen Mob’s Tea House. He is a senior digital engineer at The New York Times.