Norm is seventy-one years old, retired. Four nights a week he drives for Ronny's Pizza, delivering pies all over the sleepy suburb where he lives. He doesn't particularly like delivering pizzas. It makes his car smell like a grease trap, like the salami his mother used to put out on Christmas Eve, but it keeps him busy. Norm has money in the bank, doesn't play golf. He doesn't nurture any other expensive habits like classic cars or Indian casinos. Even if he was interested in those things his wife Lois would never hear of it. Lois is the reason Norm drives for Ronny's Pizza. Lois is a nag.
Rebecca works in advertising sales at Local Pulse Weekly. It's one of those free papers you can pick up in tattoo parlors and natural foods stores. It usually has a provocative cover story, and the back page is filled with ads that say massage but everyone understands they're really ads for handies. Rebecca doesn't care for this particular feature of Local Pulse Weekly.
Rebecca has a family—two little boys named Rowan and Trevor and a husband named Brad. Brad is a lot like Rowan and Trevor. Rebecca jokes around with the people she meets, telling them she has three kids. Punchline: One of them is six-foot-two! Rebecca orders Ronny's Pizza every other Friday night, and she specifically asks for a man named Norman to deliver it. It breaks her heart that an old man would have to deliver pizzas, and she tries to make conversation and learn more about him even though it makes her sad. She thinks one night he started to tell her why. I'm retired, I just do this in my spare time. My wife—
Rebecca stopped him right there, the bulb of a wineglass floating in her palm. She lifted her finger—oddly, awkwardly into his space so he wouldn't go on. She couldn't bear it, whatever he was about to say. My wife died... I get so lonely, or my wife's medication is very expensive. That night Rebecca reached into her wallet and pressed a fifty-dollar tip into Norman's hand. She didn't tell Brad.
The thing Norm finds most interesting about delivering pizzas is the Polaroid snaps he gets of people's lives when they open the door. The tidy people, the messy ones. The laughter of family gatherings seeping from a kitchen, the icy, orderly interactions of a couple caught mid-argument. He sees homes strained with blended families, children acting bratty for the sake of disruption. Homes with new owners—their faces streaked with fresh paint, shiny with happy, satisfied sweat. Homes marking milestones, coping with loss, managing the trials of a new puppy.
Dogs. Common as mailboxes in the suburbs. Thankfully, unlike the mailman, Norm isn't an enemy according to dogs. Big dogs, small dogs. The ones who offer full-body wags from his ankles and the ones fit for a saddle—most every dog is happy to see him. He loves to hear their names, and he admits he likes being part of the chaos at the door. Get back, Chipper! Be nice, Roxy. Dogs get worked up when anyone comes to the door, Norm thinks, because neighbors just don't visit one another anymore. The doorbell rings and folks think something's wrong. The dogs soak that up. One night an overweight Labrador ran from a house and hopped right into Norm's passenger seat. His name was Harley. It only takes once for a dog to learn. That's the guy who comes around with the good stuff.
This sort of reception is a welcome change of pace for Norm, who worked for forty-seven years as a plumber. Delivering dinner is different than breaking the sort of news a plumber is forced to—a clogged line, a pernicious leak—an unexpected bill even if Norm made every effort to keep his rates reasonable. Now that Norm is bringing people pizza, they're mostly glad to see him. Not that his life as a plumber wasn't a good life. It was solid, honest work—pretty boring when it came down to it. Not once in forty-seven years did Norm ever encounter one of those horny housewives you hear so much about. Then again, he used to walk around with traces of shit on his trousers most of the time.
Rebecca doesn't feel like cooking dinner. She calls Brad from the grocery store and says the sure thing that always works.
"What's the Grill King doing tonight?"
It's an acceptable form of manipulation, she thinks, appealing to his ego for the sole purpose of getting him to make dinner. You've really outdone yourself tonight, she'll say later so he won't catch on. It's a small price to pay for a solid working relationship—harmless as a fake orgasm, requiring no more effort than feigning an interest in basketball for short periods of time in March. The meat would be as it always was—somewhat dry, inexplicably charred in places—but for the night Rebecca won't have to resent the sight of Brad on the couch, mindlessly flipping through channels while she boils and chops. She won't have to fight off fantasies about serving cereal or be harassed by her own thoughts, taking an inventory of the various and sundry reasons she should feel guilty. At dinner time she often grows certain her children's averageness is due to a nutritional imbalance, a direct result of her shitty cooking. When Brad is at the grill, all she has to do is select which vegetable she'll beg her sons to eat with the pathetic, half-hearted haggling of a used car salesman.
In the grocery store parking lot, Rebecca encounters a man holding a dingy paper cup, begging for change. Her heart breaks again and she feels guilty for being the asshole who thinks ill of her life, a pretty nice life by all standards. She fishes the extras from her reusable grocery tote—a spare box of fruit snacks, the surplus Goldfish crackers she bought because they were on sale. The man thanks her profusely for these silly ideas of food, bought with disposable income to please children who know nothing of unmet needs. Rebecca nods, accepting his thanks, then leaves before he can touch her.
Norm is greeted by an extraordinarily happy young man. When he opens the door, a cold, skunky cloud of air conditioning and reefer is released onto the porch.
"Hey, man," is all the kid says. He can't keep a straight face.
Norm encounters a good many pot smokers in the pizza business—the Ronny's cooks in the walk-in coolers, the people he meets on laid back weekend nights. It comes with the territory, he supposes. Most of the potheads he catches on deliveries are middle-aged dads trying to hide it, all black button pupils and painted-on seriousness. Norm was a working stiff by the mid-Sixties, never went in for much of that hippie business, but each time he sees someone under the influence—those loose, contented smiles pliable as raw dough, he wonders if he might have missed out. Not that Lois would ever stand for it.
"That'll be forty-three sixty-seven," Norm says. He's got three other pies in the car, growing soggy in an insulated bag.
The kid looks surprised for a second, like he forgot this side of the transaction. He pats at his pockets and rescues a pair of twenties, pants-shaped and crumpled like used tissues.
"Hey guys, I need a couple more bucks," the kid calls over his shoulder.
Norm feels it coming. He's been stiffed before. Ronny's pays him a decent hourly wage and he doesn't depend on the money, but it irks him just the same. He eyeballs the kid, shrinking out of the doorway, laughing off his irresponsibility with his pack of shaggy friends, all of them out of their minds on grass.
They end up in a loose huddle counting out loud, making odd whooping sounds each time they reach another dollar. They share high fives when they hit their goal. The leader approaches Norm, his hands made into a bowl filled with change.
"Man, we fucked up. We don't have enough for your tip—"
Norm is unsurprised. He shakes his head to make a point and turns to leave, waving them off like flies.
"Naw, man," the leader continues, "listen. I'm an Uber driver, I get it. It's a dick move to stiff you."
Norm has never heard of a car called Uber. It sounds like one of those overpriced European numbers, probably electric.
The kid slides a hand through his hair, which immediately falls back across his forehead. He's wearing boat shoes and a collared shirt in fruity colors, nothing like the stoners in Norm's day. The kid pauses, like he's really mulling something over.
"Do you... do you smoke, man?"
The kid's friends erupt. A couple of them laugh incredulously, the others look around, saucer-eyed, like Norm might walk over and cuff them.
Norm considers this. He considers the pizza waiting in his car. He asks the kid how long it will take.
At work, Rebecca can't stop thinking about a story in this week's Local Pulse Weekly, a feature on another unarmed black kid killed by a cop. She thinks of the homeless man at the grocery store, the old guy named Norman who delivers pizzas to her house. She can no longer listen to the news, because it makes her feel hopeless. She is stirring her third coffee, stirring and stirring though it is sufficiently stirred, when she sees the sign.
Join us at JAC: Justice * Advocacy * Community
The sign is an announcement for an organizational meeting of community activists. Rebecca is moved by all of the words on the page. So much so that she does not notice her co-worker Eddie behind her.
"You should come," he says. He bites into an apple, tearing away a wedge of flesh so large it inflates his cheek in weird angles. He begins to chew and softens the angles, expertly silent in the task. When Brad eats an apple, Rebecca could leave the house entirely and still hear him next door.
"Oh, I don't—is this your sign?" Rebecca feels silly, like a teenager. Is this your sign? Jesus.
Eddie swallows and tosses her a slight, boyish smile. "I put it there, if that's what you're asking." He holds his hands up, robber style. "Bleeding heart, guilty as charged. I'm a feminist too. I should probably put that out there right now."
Rebecca decides that Eddie is sexy, and not just because he's a feminist. He is not handsome like Brad, a head-to-toe quarterback ideal. No, Eddie is the other kind of sexy. She's pondered this before, when she's seen him in the office holding court on politics and current events and the versatility of avocados. Eddie is smart and funny. He has imperfect hair and wears clothes with personality. It is no surprise to her why Eddie is a Top Five Account Executive.
"Anything else I should know?" she asks.
Eddie bites his lower lip and looks to the ceiling. "Let's see. Vegetarian. Hybrid car. Don't own a television but secretly watch a lot of it at Lucky's Pub. You?"
Rebecca flushes. She drives the equivalent of a Viking ship. She and Brad have four televisions and twice as many rooms. Brad is the Grill King, and they've eaten a zoo's worth of charred animals.
"Same," she says. Her face is exceedingly hot. She is suppressing a giggle she's sure will sound moronic if granted its freedom.
Eddie slides his butt onto the counter of the break room. "I'm not sure if you know this or not, but I'm kind of a big deal around here." He's joking with her, mocking his own top performing account executiveness. He palms at his apple, half bare in two bites, and grins at Rebecca. "I'm kind of known for my persuasiveness."
Rebecca feels the moronic giggle clawing its way up her throat. "So I'm told," she says. She presses her mouth to the edge of her coffee cup and drowns the giggle in Hawaiian Dark Roast.
Eddie tosses his half-eaten apple into the trash bin across the room.
"That was compostable," Rebecca says. She is delighted she's managed to think of something reasonably clever to say.
Eddie's brow pitches upward. "We start at six thirty," he says. "Have you ever had vegan donuts?"
It happens quite seldom, but every now and then Norm questions whether or not Lois is worse than delivering pizzas. On days like today, Game Seven of the World Series, for instance, he is questioning. The boys had just loaded two more hot packs into his car, sent him on his way. Norm is tired but plows forward. As soon as he sits, he finds his phone ringing on the passenger seat. It's Lois. Norm hates cell phones. He misses the days when it wasn't so easy for humans to find one another. He thinks humans benefit from the occasional delay.
"When you looking to be home?" Lois squawks. Lois doesn't say anything; she screeches and squawks, sometimes she barks. It is a constant crowing, audible from every room in their home.
"When I finish my work," Norm says in a sigh. This is the way Lois is accustomed to getting all her answers, his voice on the exhale—exasperated, resigned.
"All the drunks are out," she bleats. "You'll get yourself killed staying out so late."
Norm knows it would be Lois's dream for him to get himself killed. Lois would be made into a widow, and could pass her demands and complaints on to folks who had to care and respond, on account of her being a widow.
"I'll be careful," Norm says.
Lois snorts. "Well I doubt that," she says. "I'll be seein' ya, if and when you make it home."
Norm pictures Lois on the phone in her nightgown, peering out from their second floor bedroom window. Lois adores her cell phone, appreciates the convenience. She walks up and down the stairs while she squawks at whoever will listen, stops to stir a pot on the stove. Norm imagines her at the window, throwing her hands up in frustration with him, losing her grip on that blessed phone. Lois reaches and reaches too far. She falls from the window, down, down until she is no more.
"Love you too," Norm says. He peers at the tiny screen for a second or two, aiming his index finger on the red "End" button. Norm wishes the end was as easy as tapping on such a button.
The house he pulls up to is alone on the street, a display model that seems too dark for a World Series gathering, too empty for a pizza order. He checks his information to be sure he's in the right place and unbuckles his belt. He's scheduled to drop off four pizzas, nearly half his cargo. Norm thinks he'll tell the boys at the shop he's done for the night after this run. He might go grab a beer at Smokey's Tavern, nurse it until he's sure Lois is asleep.
The hair on the back of Norm's neck rises up before he feels the blow— astonishing and disorienting, like running face first into a pole. He hears his own animal cries as he hits the pavement—the rustling of boots, the buzzing voices of his attackers. People generally cannot hear pain, Norm thinks, but if they did he thinks he has an idea of what it would sound like. It's the whine of a bad power steering pump, the clunk of the snakes he used to send down a shit-clogged toilet. The sounds come louder and harder each time he decides to move his head, and the voices keep buzzing too, protesting one another. Stop, it's an old dude and Man, let up—guy's, like, eighty or something. Norm is a pill bug on the ground—tight, impenetrable, but he wants to talk back to the voices. He's not, like, eighty. He's barely a minute past seventy and if there weren't so many of them he'd get up and kick their asses.
They leave him soon after, or this is how he imagines it. Norm doesn't know how long he was out, chilled and bleeding on the sidewalk. He wakes to the sound of Lois's voice in his head, growling I told you so. His money is gone and so is his car, forever stinking with undelivered pizzas. He blinks at the empty suburban street, a haunted cul-de-sac of wooden skeletons looming in the darkness. The desolation is peaceful and he stays there unmoving, counting the cavernous boxes not yet bloated with life and sound and coordinating fabrics, wondering what this one will be called. Happy Trails Acres? Carefree Court? Norm paws around in his pockets and is pleased to find his phone. Even Norm will concede that cell phones are handy on occasion.
He hears a click and then a voice, tinny and far away in his ringing ear. "Hello?"
Norm holds the screen in the air and reads the name of the grass-smoking Uber kid. The light from his phone is the only light around.
"Hello, yes. Is this... Beau?" Norm's voice is raspy; he can barely raise it above a whisper.
"Um, yeah?" the voice says.
"My car has been stolen. Can you pick me up in your Uber?"
Rebecca knows that Eddie is gone, she can feel it. At JAC meetings and at work Rebecca and Eddie have become more than just friends. An electric energy gave way to a kiss, hands traveled to places they shouldn't. Though she's been studying them hard, she cannot read Eddie's moods and dissatisfactions. Eddie's moods are elastic.
"Do you know where Eddie went?" Rebecca asks Cherise, the gloomy hanger-on that Eddie lured in from the Local Pulse distribution department. A small group of JAC'ers were at Lucky's Pub making protest signs for a pro-choice rally—scrawling defiant messages on foam board purchased from the Dollar Tree.
"How should I know?" Cherise says. Cherise is perpetually in crisis and lacks the ability to modulate her responses. Everything she says sounds needlessly hostile.
"He's been gone a long time," Rebecca says, kneading at her temples. The organic craft beer at Lucky's gives her a headache.
"You know him," Cherise says in her hostile voice. "He probably just ran into someone he knows."
Rebecca does know. Eddie's magnetism is not just reserved for her. He's not interested, as he puts it, in defining what they are or putting labels on what they've got going.
"He'll be back," Cherise says of Eddie. She is making a careful "C" on her My Cunt Is Not the Property of My Country poster—bold and curvy and round.
Rebecca isn't so sure.
Rebecca answers the door, the same bulb of garnet liquid attached to her wrist. Since she told Brad about her feelings for Eddie, she and Brad have decided to spend some time apart. Their new marriage counselor, a mousy woman with thin lips and an army of dull plaid suits, says their situation appears to be at an impasse. With the kids at her mother's Rebecca is alone and growing tipsy. She called Ronny's Pizza and asked if Norman was working.
With him holding her pizza, she pauses and clumsily drapes herself across the doorframe. "Hey? Can I ask you something?" It all comes out in one slippery word.
Norm smiles and takes in the Polaroid snap. Quiet house, overfilled glass. Toys but no children, an empty, well-worn place on the couch right next to the remote.
"What's that?" he asks, tilting his head. Norm hopes she doesn't ask about his fading black eye, the scab at his chin. Norm does not want to discuss that night again. He's already discussed it quite enough with Lois.
"I've always wondered," she says, "Why do you have to deliver pizzas? At your age, I mean?"
Norm chooses not to be offended. "I wouldn't say I have to do anything, ma'am. Especially not at my age."
Rebecca stands upright as if she's been pulled by a string, stammering and apologetic.
"If I'm being honest," Norm begins. Since he's been spending time with Beau, enjoying a little grass now and then and taking rides in the Uber, Norm has decided to be honest all the time. "I do this because of my wife."
Rebecca leans in, her brow pulled together in a deeply concerned V. "Yes?" she asks. She sips from her glass, her eyes locked on his.
"My wife's a real pain in the ass," Norm says. He touches the wound at his temple, still tender when he smiles.
The words hover in the air between them. Norm cannot read the look on her face, like she's tasted something sour.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I—"
Rebecca stops him before he can say more and hands over another considerable tip. Behind the door she's already filled in the rest: I'm sorry, ma'am. I use humor to deal with difficult subjects.
Title image "Special Delivery" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.