“Mom,” said Jonah abruptly, breaking a long-standing silence. The twelve-year-old boy sat in the passenger seat with his arms crossed defiantly.
“Yes, honey?” asked Sarah, her vigilant eyes flickering from rearview mirror to side windows.
“Why do you back into parking spaces,” said the twelve-year-old boy. It was more of a statement than a question. His thin blue eyes gleamed with confrontation.
Sarah shifted into reverse and grabbed the steering wheel with her left hand, twisting her torso to peer over her right shoulder as she maneuvered her Jeep Grand Cherokee into the front-row parking space, easing up on the gas pedal and lightly tapping the brake, putting the rig in Park as soon as she felt her back tires colliding against the curb. She straightened her back, let out a sigh, and looked at her sandy-haired child; her blue-eyed baby; her all-American boy. Jonah looked back expectantly, still gleaming with confrontation.
Sarah recoiled slightly, her eyebrows shooting up in surprise.
“Well what, sweetie?”
“I just asked you,” said Jonah impatiently. “Why do you back into parking spaces? Dad doesn’t. Basically nobody does but you.”
“Well, honey,” said Sarah, pausing to grab her purse from the center console, hesitating in spite of herself at the glimmer of her son’s blue eyes. They were her eyes staring back at her. They were eyes that imbued one’s childhood with special significance, if only by sheer force of a million compliments. Sara looked at her son and saw herself, like losing grip on reality in front of a mirror.
“Mommmmm,” droned Jonah. He was exasperated, though he no longer remembered his initial question.
Sara pressed a button to turn off her Grand Cherokee’s engine. The inaudible roar of air conditioning gave way to a deafening, ringing silence, which was quickly interrupted by their iPhones beeping simultaneously. Jonah sighed and read the text message aloud with a jeering tone:
Wife and son. Just saw we are out of wine. Please pick up a bottle of red. Preferably the brand with the striped label. Thanks.
“Yes, yes, we’ll get his wine,” muttered Sarah, opening her door and stepping onto the asphalt. Jonah’s gangly frame followed dutifully, skulking in the timeless spirit of adolescence.
“Can we get Cokes, too?” asked Jonah.
“Of course, sweetie, of course,” said Sarah, double-clicking the key fob’s lock button. Her Grand Cherokee wailed plaintively, startling a nearby septuagenarian who was sitting on a green bench and eating a slice of pizza.
“Why do you press the lock button twice? You only need to press it once to lock all the doors.” said Jonah.
“Honey, I just do, okay?”
“If you want to unlock all the doors, then you press the unlock button twice. You don’t need to press the lock button twice.”
“Alright, honey, good to know.”
Jonah scoffed and rolled his eyes because his mother annoyed him. Sarah saw his impudence and felt a momentary desire to slap her all-American boy across his smug face, but instead she grabbed a shopping cart and stepped into the tall vestibule of their local Whole Foods. After being greeted by a blast of cool air pumping down from the rafters, they walked through a second set of sliding glass doors and into the produce department, toward the open refrigerator where a feast of colors crammed into little plastic containers caught the eye: blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes and every combination thereof, followed by delicately cured meats, gourmet cheeses, and fat pouches of just-add-dressing salad mixtures, and then, finally, their first destination: guacamole and salsa. Sarah grabbed two containers and brought them to her face for closer inspection, seeing if their minutiae met her standards before placing them in the shopping cart.
“Alright sweetie, now chips,” said Sarah.
They scooted past dawdling shoppers and around the trail mix station, turning onto the big thoroughfare that cut through the skinny aisles like a great river. Then, their second destination:
Soda & Tea
“Alright honey, pick out a bag of chips.”
“How about theeezeeee?” said Jonah with a cartoonish voice, grabbing a bag of tortilla chips flavored with lime salt and cayenne pepper. Sarah cocked her head and giggled happily. Jonah could still be playful! He was still her blue-eyed baby!
“Yes sweetie, toss them in the cart.”
Jonah then paused to survey the craft soda options. Sarah opened Facebook on her iPhone and saw her friend Heather’s new profile picture: herself, Doug, and the two girls, standing in front of the Coliseum. Sarah noticed Heather’s floral dress and Doug’s sleeveless t-shirt.
“Mom, free samples,” cried Jonah, tugging savagely on the shopping cart, his desire for soda vanishing in lieu of immediate gratification. Sarah mindlessly pushed the cart along with her forearms, still inspecting Heather’s new profile picture.
“Hello there,” creaked an elderly woman, who stood behind a plastic table with little plastic cups at the ready.
“Watcha got?” asked Jonah.
“We have mango coconut water on the left, guava-pineapple juice in the middle, and organic peach green tea on the right,” said the employee.
“Your right or mine?” said Jonah, his thin blue eyes sparkling with conquest.
“Oh! Well I’m sorry about that. Let’s see now…that’ll be on your left, the mango coconut water that is. And, then… the peach green tea’ll still be on your right, with the guava-pineapple in the middle.”
“Can I try each of them?” asked Jonah, his puberty stricken voice squeaking on “each.”
“You sure can,” said the happy old lady, who beamed selflessly from behind the plastic table and watched her patron. The peach skin of Jonah’s all-American face tightened and his thin blue eyes narrowed even further as he gulped down the fluids and slammed down the little plastic cups like shot glasses, all the while licking his thick lips as his line of sight flickered epileptically around the tall supermarket as he attempted – with a sustained concentration never before seen by the boy’s teachers – to decide which of the three drinks he preferred.
Sarah, too, watched her son with a close-lipped smile, but her thoughts stayed with Heather and Doug. Yes, without a doubt, Heather was an idiot. But Doug was attractive. There was no getting around it. If Gerald had beautifully toned calves and a full head of hair, would she place her hand on his chest for photographs? Maybe. But there was something repulsive about it. Something… denigrating? Was that the word? Probably. And besides, even if Gerald didn’t catch the eye with his receding hairline and expanding stomach, at least he wasn’t one of those David Beckham wannabes who expect to be worshipped into their late 40s and 50s.
“Mom, the mango coconut water, can we get it?”
“Yes, sweetie, of course, throw it in the basket,” said Sarah, reopening Facebook to continue her examination of Heather and Doug.
“It’s a glass bottle, I’m not going to throw it anywhere,” retorted Jonah, sparkling with renewed conquest.
“Alright sweetie,” said Sarah, still looking at her iPhone, trying to gauge whether or not Doug was over six feet tall.
“You two have a nice day,” said the happy old employee, who stood beaming with clasped hands resting on her belly.
Temporary insanity. Yes, that explained it. Never, under ANY circumstances, could Gerald’s jiggly mounds of flesh be preferable to Doug’s washboard abs, thought Sarah as she stared at the pixels constituting Doug’s biceps and followed Jonah – now also on his iPhone – to the pizza bar. A high-pitched, melodic voice greeted them from behind the counter.
“Hello, shoppers! What can I do for you?” cried the employee. He was a stocky man with a lumberjack beard, big tattooed arms, and beady eyes that darted between Sarah and Jonah with an air of good-willed, servile attention.
“Hi,” said Sarah with her compressed, thin-lipped smile. Jonah did not look up from his iPhone.
“You folks let me know if I can help you with anything. Anything at all,” said the bearded employee with a saccharine grin. His nametag read Peter.
“Yes, actually, can you go through the pizza flavors? We’ll be getting a medley of slices,” said Sarah, satisfied with herself for using the word medley.
“Yes, absolutely,” said the bearded man, rubbing his palms together and smiling widely. Sarah noticed a shiny silver nugget where his upper right lateral tooth should’ve been.
“So,” said Peter, “first we have our standard cheese pizza, followed by cheese and pepperoni. Then over here is our Southwest Special with grilled chicken, diced bell peppers, sliced red onion, jalapeno flakes, and a real nice barbecue sauce.”
Sarah nodded her head attentively, thinking about how Gerald had ogled at Heather’s cleavage when they’d all visited the art fair.
“And next is our Meaty Match with cubed chicken, glazed ham slices, crumbled sausage, and spicy pepperoni – real tasty our Meaty Match. And last, but certainly not least, is our Mediterranean Heaven with crumbled feta cheese, sliced red onion, chopped cherry tomatoes, minced artichoke hearts, and a real nice olive tapenade drizzled on top.”
“Great. Jonah, what would you like?” asked Sarah.
“Umm,” said Jonah, staring at his iPhone.
“Jonah,” repeated Sarah, this time with higher volume and a tinge of rage. The boy looked up.
“Give me two of the meat and one of just cheese,” said Jonah, his carnivorous gaze lingering for a second on the Meaty Match before dutifully returning to his iPhone.
“Two of the meat and one of just cheese,” echoed Peter in a singsong voice while grabbing a cardboard pizza box.
“Sweetie, what did your father say he wanted?”
“Ummm,” said Jonah.
“What’s up, mom,” he said without looking up.
“Do you remember which pizza your dad wanted?”
“Umm…” he repeated, still looking down at his iPhone.
“Jonah,” barked Sarah with more than a tinge of rage.
“Probably the veggie one,” said the boy heatedly, only deigning to look at his mother’s feet, which enabled an expeditious return to iPhoneland.
“And two of the veggie slices,” said Sarah, swiveling her neck to address the employee.
“The veggie slices? Perhaps you mean our one and only Mediterranean Heaven?” asked Peter, his saccharine grin holding fast.
“Sure,” said Sarah.
Attired in plastic gloves, the bearded man cut two slices of Mediterranean Heaven with his tattooed arms and delicately placed them in the cardboard box.
“And what would you like, ma’am?”
Sarah eyed her options. She noticed a solitary slice, tucked behind the Mediterranean Heaven.
“What type is that?” asked Sarah, pointing.
“Oh, silly me!” said Peter, cupping his hands over his heart. “How could I forget our very very special Italian Dream pizza with fresh sliced prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, and shredded fontina cheese.”
Then, putting his hand to his mouth coyly, Peter whispered to Sarah: “It’s my personal favorite.”
Sarah eyed the bearded man, puzzled, annoyed, and exhausted. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll try it.”
“Alrighty! You will try it indeed!” exclaimed the tattooed employee, bouncing on his tip-toes with delight. “Here you are then: two slices of the Meaty Match, two slices of Mediterranean Heaven, one slice of just cheese, and one slice of our very very special Italian Dream. Will that be all for you?”
“Yes,” said Sarah, eager to leave.
Jonah mumbled something without budging from his iPhone.
“Have a lovely day you two,” said Peter happily, handing over the pizza box. Sarah put the box in her shopping cart. Jonah lagged behind on his iPhone as his mother rolled to the alcohol aisle and grabbed the first bottle of red wine she saw before hurrying to an available checkout counter.
“Did y’all find everything okay?” asked the woman at the register. Her nametag read Janeice.
“Yes, just fine.”
Janeice scanned the items and arranged them in a large paper shopping bag, but paused with a worried expression when it was the pizza box’s turn.
“Yes?” asked Sarah, frustrated by the millisecond delay.
“Well ma’am, we sell pizza by weight. Whoever served you this pizza, did they weigh the box and print out a sticker receipt?”
“No,” said Sarah, letting out a sigh.
“Oh boy. Would you mind if I run over real quick and have them weigh it?”
“No no, go.”
Sarah let out another sigh as Janeice scurried off. Sarah craned her neck and squinted her eyes, watching Janeice go. Over the salad bar’s glass partitioning, she could see Peter’s bearded face and tattooed arms, still manning the pizza station. With his saccharine grin he received the pizza box and walked it back into the kitchen, disappearing for thirty seconds before returning it to Janeice, who scurried back to her register.
“So sorry about that, everything’s taken care of now,” said Janeice hurriedly while scanning the newly minted receipt. “Alright then, Your total is gonna be sixty-six dollars and twenty-four cents.”
Sarah smiled her thin-lipped smile and paid with her credit card.
“Sweetie, grab the pizza, will you?”
Jonah took the pizza box with one hand while staring at the iPhone in his other hand and followed his mother through the well-ventilated vestibule. Sarah grabbed the paper bag with her grocery items, returned the shopping cart to its stall, and was rummaging through her purse for her key fob when, in her peripheral vision, she noticed the blurred outline of a man facing her. Instinctively, she glanced over. It was Peter. He sat cross-legged on the green bench, smiling serenely, munching on a piece of pizza. He waved gleefully at Sarah.
“Nothing better than a slice of Italian Dream,” he cried lyrically, his face glowing. “Very very special! Hehehe!”
Sarah watched Peter shove the pizza in his mouth savagely. His silver nugget tooth glistened under the mid-afternoon sun, shining brightly through the masticated mush of prosciutto, sun-dried tomato, and shredded fontina cheese. Sarah stood still, transfixed by the voyeuristic flash in the bearded man’s beady eyes. He cackled wildly as soggy crumbs fell from his mouth, catching in his beard and tumbling down his plain black t-shirt. Sarah’s confused horror quickly transformed into a bewildered wrath. She turned to Jonah who was lagging behind, still on his iPhone.
“Open that fucking pizza box,” screamed Sarah.
The boy, unprepared for his mother’s decibel-shattering howl, yelped in surprise and instinctively swiveled away, crouching and shielding his iPhone against his chest like a momma bear protecting her cubs. In the boy’s rapid movement, the pizza box flew into the sky; the individual slices soared and scattered like shrapnel, each landing face-down atop the light gray pavement of the sidewalk, save a slice of Mediterranean Heaven, which settled nicely atop the unfastened portion of the upside-down pizza box.
“What the fuck, mom!” squealed Jonah, his puberty stricken voice screeching horridly.
Sarah dropped to her knees and started flipping over the slices with determined frenzy, dirtying her jeans and smearing her hands with warm marinara sauce.
“Mom, what the literal fuck.”
“Jesus Christ,” moaned Sarah, who burst into tears.
“Ma’am, is everything alright?” asked Janeice. She had heard Sarah’s scream from her register and scurried outside to see what all the commotion was about.
Sarah, ignoring Janeice, quelled her sobs to take stock of the pizza diaspora. One by one, the fingers on her right hand shot upwards, but as she searched frenziedly for an illusive sixth piece, she shrieked and tore at her blonde hair with despair, reddening it with marinara sauce.
“Mom, what the literal fuck.”
“Ma’am, please, what’s happened?”
“Your employee! He…he… he ate my fucking pizza!” yelled Sarah. From the ground she swiveled her hips to point prosecutorially at the bearded man with tattooed arms, but found herself accusing an empty green bench.
“Ma’am?” asked the employee. Sarah burst into a second round of sobs, clutching her stained hair.
“Jesus, Mom. What the literal fuck.”
“Ma’am, if you can just explain what happened,” suggested the helpful employee, crouching down to sympathize with her customer.
“The man, the bearded man,” managed a sniffling Sarah, “He served us pizza. Didn’t print the receipt. Came outside and… and there he was, eating… eating pizza, my Italian Dream.”
“He…he ate your Italian Dream?”
“Yes,” said Sarah, who was regaining control of herself. “The man. His nametag said Peter. His name was Peter.”
“Mom, what the fuck are you talking about?”
“What’s going on here?” boomed an authoritative voice.
“Ma’am,” said Janeice, “this is Robbie, our store manager. Maybe he can help you.”
Sarah looked up at the balding, middle-aged man. He wore khakis, a blue collared shirt, and a bright yellow tie.
“Sir,” said Sarah, rising to her feet, “your employee, Peter, he…”
“Peter? He what?” said Robbie, frowning.
“Yes, his name-tag read Peter. The shorter man with the beard and tattooed arms. He served us pizza, me and my son, but then he… when I walked outside, he was sitting right there,” she said, gesticulating at the green bench, “he was right there, eating my piece of pizza with this terrible smile on his face, and then… and then he was gone.”
“And then he was gone, huh? I see,” said Robbie, who was barely concealing his smirk. “And was it before or after he disappeared that this little… accident happened?” he asked, gesturing to the strewn slices.
“Before. My son was behind carrying the pizza and I… well, I scared him a little bit.”
“More like she went fucking crazy on me,” mumbled Jonah, who was sitting on a nearby grassplot, his furious thumbs typing away on his iPhone.
“And how do you know this Peter fellow was eating your pizza?” asked the smirking manager, straightening his tie and puffing out his chest.
“He…” said Sarah pausing, reflecting on the moment. “Peter said to me, ‘nothing better than a slice of Italian Dream.’ There had only been one slice left of Italian Dream, and I had ordered it. He must have taken it when your employee,” nodding to Janeice, “took over the pizza box to be weighed.”
“And I suppose, then, that your slice of Italian Dream is missing from these?” said the manager, gesturing again to the cement.
“Yes, there are only five slices but there should be six.
“I see. Well ma’am, here are some facts for you,” said Robbie, lowering his head to look into Sarah’s eyes. “I’ve managed this Whole Foods for a year now. I know this establishment like the back of my hand. And I can tell you with certainty that there is no ‘Peter’ who works here. And furthermore,” he said, raising his voice, “I can assure you that we do not serve any of this “Italian Dream” pizza that you speak of. So, ma’am, I’m just not sure what to tell you,” concluded Robbie with a shrug. He watched Sarah with bemusement as he puffed out his chest and tugged on his tie.
“But… but he was there. He served us pizza. His name was Peter,” said Sarah desperately.
“Like I said, ma’am, there is no ‘Peter’ that works here. And there’s definitely nobody working here with tattooed arms and a beard. Do I look like the type of manager who would hire such a man?” asked Robbie earnestly as he fiddled with his tie. Sarah stared at the manager, flabbergasted. She turned to Janeice, who was looking on worriedly.
“But you,” said Sarah, turning to Janeice with a ray of hope, “you can vouch for me. You handed over the pizza box for it to be weighed. I saw you hand it to Peter, to the bearded man. Tell the manager.”
“Oh gee,” said the blushing employee, who was unprepared for the spotlight. “Well, gosh, I was so focused on gettin’ that receipt for you, I really wasn’t paying much attention to who was taking the box from me. I suppose I gotta think for a moment and try to remember.”
“Ha!” shrieked Sarah, her hands flailing with agony. “It was five fucking minutes ago. Are you a fucking moron?” asked Sarah with vengeful glee.
The store manager stepped in-between Sarah and Janeice.
“Now listen here lady,” said Robbie, “and you listen good. I’m not gonna stand by and let my employees be insulted. Especially by someone who concocts ridiculous stories as an excuse for dropping pizza.”
Sarah scoffed. “An excuse?” she asked incredulously.
“You heard me,” said the manager. “I’ve seen your type before.”
Sarah sneered at the man, her thin blue eyes burning with hatred.
“A fucking excuse, is that so? Go look at your security camera you pathetic piece of shit, you wannabe businessman. Then we’ll see who’s making fucking excuses.”
The manager smirked and tugged on his tie. “You can insult me and my employees all you want, but I’m the manager here,” he said, pointing to his name-tag, “so it’s my decision whether or not I want to look at the security camera. My employees can tell you that I never refuse a customer’s request, but in your case, ma’am, I’m gonna suggest that you take your remaining groceries and drive away before I call the police.”
The manager stood erect, petting his tie, glowing with victory.
“Sweetie,” cried Sarah, turning to her son, “you remember the bearded man, don’t you?”
“Keep me the fuck out of this,” said Jonah without looking up from his iPhone.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry,” pleaded Janeice, who herself was beginning to cry. “I wish I remembered for you but I’m new here. I just don’t know mosta my colleagues and honestly, I just wasn’t lookin’ at the man’s face when I got your receipt.”
“Janeice, don’t apologize to this woman,” said Robbie, who was looking at Sarah as one looks at a cockroach. “It’s time she and her son leave. Now.”
Jonah let out an exasperated sigh. “C’mon mom,” he said, standing up from his grassplot. “I’ll order Dominos on my phone, we can pick it up on the way home.”
Sarah, too stunned and weary to argue any further, meekly followed Jonah to her Grand Cherokee. Robbie put his hand on Janeice’s shoulder and lowered his head to look her in the eyes.
“Good work, Janeice, but try and show more composure next time, alright?”
Standing side by side, they watched Sarah put her car in Drive and exit the parking lot in a hurry.
“Alrighty then,” said Robbie, yawning and yanking on his tie vigorously. “Clean up this mess, Janeice. And keep up the good work.”
The manager stooped over and picked up the unspoiled slice of Mediterranean Heaven, shoving it in his mouth and patting Janeice on the shoulder as he walked back inside through the sliding glass doors.