My intention is to crash on the couch and watch television all night long, but Chuck opens his mouth and changes those plans.
Chuck’s my roommate, a math major who takes late afternoon classes and then works the graveyard shift as a factory security guard, where he pretty much just sits on his ass and studies. It’s perfect for him because he’s a night crawler; he sleeps until noon every day. I sleep late too, but I couldn’t handle a job like his. I have issues with jobs that require me to be someplace at a specific time or to do boring shit for long periods. Guess that’s why I don’t have one.
Anyway, back to Chuck. He comes into our living room at 10 p.m. dressed like a rent-a-cop: blue shirt, navy slacks, black lace-ups, and an official brimmed hat pulled down over dark hair gelled into submission. His unhealthy pallor has come from spending too much time under fluorescent lights, and this stint isn’t helping him any.
“Going to work?” I ask him.
“Another crack observation.” Chuck slips on his denim jacket, the key ring jangling in the pocket. “You should find yourself a job.”
“What — like yours?”
“Man’s gotta scrape a living.”
“So I’ve heard.”
He pauses to examine me in all my unemployed glory — unbrushed hair, unshaven face, unlaundered college sweatshirt in which armpit bacteria conducts several unscheduled science experiments, and unwashed jeans that could probably stand on their own by now. Guess I’m quite a sight sitting here with no shoes on, an empty bag of cheese puffs on my lap, and a drained bottle of cola by my side. “There’re a lot of ‘Help Wanted’ signs along Main Street now,” he says, the creases between his eyebrows deepening. “Tomorrow you should clean up and go check it out.”
“Now why’d I want to do a thing like that?”
“Money, for one.”
“Have I asked you for any?”
“No, but I don’t know how you manage to make rent. And girls, for two. Don’t know if you’ve noticed this, my friend, but if you’re not getting paid, you’re not getting laid.”
I snicker. “Look out — he’s rhyming now.”
“Whatever, man. Just trying to help.”
“What a pal.”
Chuck’s conventional — one of the things I like about him. Predictability makes a person safe to be around. No guesswork there.
Still, Chuck makes me think about money, so I check my wallet. I’m running low on funds — only a twenty left to get me through. That’ll ruin my weekend. I pick up the telephone.
“Tony’s Pizza,” says the man who answers.
“I’d like a large cheese pie.”
“Justin Case. I’ll need it delivered.”
I rattle it off.
“No way, man. We don’t deliver there.”
“Why the hell not?”
“My guys get robbed on that block. You gotta come pick the pie up.”
I think up an excuse quick. “I can’t. I’m babysitting my nephew and he’s sleeping. Besides, you delivered last time.”
“Last Friday.” Indeed, Tony’s did deliver — but only after I’d shouted “Doesn’t anyone in that shop have the balls to bring me a friggin’ pizza?” into the receiver. I was put on hold for a few seconds, and then was told they’d bring it only if I agreed to wait outside. When the delivery guy pulled up in his beaten-up Chevy a half-hour later, he rolled his window down four inches. “You order a pizza?” he asked, his eyes darting from me to the rearview mirror to the side windows so much I thought he might be seizing.
“Yeah,” I said. He slid the box through the gap. As soon as I took it, he took off; he never even asked me for the money. I ask you: With a precedent like that, who wouldn’t call Tony’s again?
The man on the line tonight is quiet, thinking things through. “Well, I do have this new guy, and we do have a couple of deliveries to make about half a mile over,” he says. “I suppose I can send him past your place.”
“Good man,” I say.
“Just have your money ready. He’ll be there in 30.”
“Gotcha.” I hang up, unsurprised. Tony won’t risk delivering my pizza himself, but lust for the American greenback makes him send some poor sucker out to do it for him. This is exactly the blatant unfairness that discourages me from getting such a crap job for myself.
Our neighborhood — a nice area of Queens, mostly Asian but multicultural, well-maintained, apartments stuffed with students in pursuit of university validation — isn’t unsafe, per se, but even the best cities have street crime, and this place is no different. Every few weeks a delivery guy gets mugged, and the details get chronicled in the local paper’s police blotter. The past few incidents have involved a handgun. No one’s been shot, but the delivery guys are still leery of going anywhere near where the last mugging took place. Can’t say I blame them, but hey — I still need them to do their job.
The telephone rings. “Yeah?” I answer.
“Dude, it’s me — Snap.”
Snap is the adult juvenile delinquent who lives one floor below, a Californian surfer type with a fading tan and a similar aversion to low-wage employment. He’s dumber than a Hummer — in school six years and still nowhere near getting his associate’s degree — but he’s got my back, and you can’t help but like a guy like that. So long as he lets me make the calls, that is.
“What’s up?” I ask him.
He giggles, meaning he’s stoned. “Feel like orderin’ a pizza?”
“Ooh! You need some help then?”
“Eating it? Sure. I’ll call you when I get back.”
“I’m picking it up. The delivery guy won’t come.”
Snap snorts with mirth. “I wonder why not!”
“Just hang until I call you.”
“Whatever you say, man. Peace.” And Snap hangs up.
I check the clock and see I have 25 more minutes to wait. No rush, of course, but I put my sneakers on and lean back to take in the rest of “Law and Order.”
I don’t get up until the square doorbell makes its pathetic clunking sound. When I open the door, I find a tired-looking Asian guy wearing a red windbreaker and a Tony’s Pizza ball cap on the other side. “You order food?” he asks.
“Yeah, man, but not Chinese.”
The guy holds up the pizza box. “This look like chop suey to you?”
“Easy now.” I pull out my wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
“Robbery, I tell you.” I hand him the twenty and take the pie. “But keep the change.”
He’s already reaching for his back pocket, so he jolts. “Yeah?”
“Sure. Why not?”
He smiles. “Thanks, Mister.”
“You’re welcome,” I say, shutting the door between us.
I put the pie on the kitchenette counter. Then I grab my black jacket, slip it on, take the ski mask and gun out of its pockets, and I climb out onto the dark fire escape.
Call it one giant scrape on my part.
Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen is a graduate of the Stony Brook Southampton master’s in fine arts program in creative writing and literature. Her work has been published in “Proteus,” “The Southampton Review,” and in a flash fiction anthology, as well as in The Star and several other places.