I was at the bottom of my game. Slinging pizzas ten hours a day, I’d come home and sit down to a twelve-pack and pint of whiskey or a couple bottles of wine. I lived in a room in an airplane bungalow and my roommate was about as much of a drunk as I was. But we kept the place clean. I didn’t own much beyond a bed and some clothes, enough to get by. I’d watch TV all evening, getting drunker as the shows moved from nightly news to reruns. Mornings, I’d walk the two blocks to Troost Avenue, a broad street that demarcated black from white and well-of and poor. I’d ride the bus downtown and try to put the hangover behind me, doing my best to breathe into my coat and avoid gassing anyone unlucky enough to sit next to me. At the time, I was in a constant state of sickness. I’d work, sneak beers throughout the day, and bus it home to start all over again.
Time disappeared. Sundays, my day off, marked the passing of the weeks. The gray sameness projected in my life like a kind of futility. I’d look about the bus windows at the empty storefronts, abandoned apartment buildings, and corner liquor stores and smoke shops. Where was I going? What did I expect from such a life? Was it always going to be like this? I might ask these and other questions pertinent to a 26 year old stuck in life. But I dare not linger on the questions too long because I had no answers, or I might not like exactly what I’d find.
I wanted more than anything to be redeemed.
The pizza joint wasn’t much more than a counter behind which stood glass cases with bright heat lamps where pizza would sweat until it sometimes turned as brown and chewy as the days I was living. Two cash registers maintained watch over the counter. The clerks would take the pizzas I made in a convection oven in the back from a rack behind them, either side of which poked beer taps. I stood in the back, pressing dough, spreading sauce, and strewing pies with various ingredients from a stainless-steel table. I might start out the day with a fresh shirt, apron, and attitude. But all of them grew increasingly mucky with flour and sauce and grease as the shift progressed.
I worked for two old friends, both of whom were skin-flintish and particular. They took turns doing the books, ordering supplies, and arranging employee schedules. They were a couple of good old boys from the same neighborhood. All three of us had worked at one time or another at a pizza joint boundlessly popular in Midtown Kansas City. They would breach no waste unless it flowed from the beer taps. They seemed to care about every penny, every scrap of onion or cheese. But when it came to beer, they were more than generous. They understood on some level that I and the people who worked for them could work anywhere. Beer, however, was a fringe benefit that we could get nowhere else. More than once, I pour them a couple of cold ones so I could surreptitiously ditch smelly mushrooms or slimy green peppers into the trash outside the back door. As drunk as I was, I retained a sense of propriety and served no one what I wouldn’t eat myself.
The pizza counter stood in a food court of several restaurants that shared a common eating area of plastic tables and chairs. Workers in the high-rise above the food court would come down from their offices for lunch—Greek, Chinese, burgers and fries. There was a cookie counter—all they served was cookies—that people often frequented after stuffing themselves with fast food. I never went to the cookie place, the alcohol in my blood an apt substitute for sugar.
That is until one of the prettiest women I’d ever seen started working at the cookie joint. She was small with a boyish body, large brown eyes, and masterful hands. Jane was her name. All the male workers at the food places in the court started lining up to buy cookies. At first, I was one of them. In off hours or during break, I’d saunter over to where Jane worked and made time with her between her other suitors. Then, after a couple of weeks, I laid off. I hated being one of the scrabblers who vied for the woman’s attentions and so kept my distance, eyeing her from time to time when she wasn’t looking and trying to maintain a kid of aloof air she might find intriguing.
The thing about Jane was that she was just 17, too young for me, even in my dissolute state. Still, she was intelligent and seemed to have a lot on the ball. My fellow pizza employees, Bill the Lecher and a kid named Nick spent their breaktimes hanging around the cookie counter with a lot of other flatterers in various states of grime from their jobs. But I’d sometimes see Jane in the back hallways that connected the food places. We’d chat amiably, discerning common ground and exploring topics of conversation that she couldn’t have with the other men.
I really came to like her a lot. My interest in other women diminished. I began to feel a sense of shyness and fear when I ran into her in the hallways. My palms sweat and I’d get a little weak in the knees when she looked across from the cookie counter toward the pizza place and smile at me. I found she was more often in the back hallways when I was. We began to get to know each other a little.
I was waiting patiently for my moment. I knew Jane’s 18th birthday was approaching and had as my solemn vow not to do anything until she was of age. I had usually dated women older than me. Whether it was worldly experience or world weariness I was looking for, I can’t tell you now. I only knew that older women had things to talk about and night even be readers. I was, of course, always on the hunt for the love of my life but spending time with women who had lived lives and made interesting conversation gave me the illusion of being something of a man of the world. For me to be attracted to a girl was a new experience for me and one I found not unpleasant.
The day Jane turned 18, the men of the food court and many of the office types that hoped Jane would notice them formed a crowd around the cookie counter after lunch the lunch rush. She knew she was a hot commodity and played the crowd like a bunch of marionettes. She smiled at some, rebuffed others, and generally loved the attentions focused on her. But like all of us, she had a job and had to go through the motions of keeping it. After about an hour, the crowd cleared, and she started her duties cleaning and setting up for the next day’s business.
I wasn’t thinking too hard about Jane or anyone else as I mopped the kitchen and washed and put up utensils and pizza pans. As I was taking out the last bit of trash to the bins in the back hallway, she came out of the door of the cookie shop. She had on her yellow ball cap and tunic. She smiled at me when I told her happy birthday. Then, on a whim and setting all my fear aside, I said, “What do you say we go out for a movie and something to eat tonight? I felt a little like I was taking advantage but my principles at that time were malleable.
“Sure,” she said. “Why don’t you pick me up at my place at 7?”
“You know what movie you’d like to see?”
“I really don’t care if we go to a movie at all. I just want to get out of the house.”
She slid her order pad out of her pocket and wrote down her address and phone number.
I rode the bus home feeling great. Instead of diving into wine that night, I down a shot of my roommate’s bourbon and showered the pizza off me. It was with great anticipation that I counted the hours before I would meet her at her house.
I looked at the address on the slip of paper and found an interesting connection. Jane lived in an old three-story next door to my father’s childhood church. My grandmother had been a parishioner there since 1933. I’d lived in the neighborhood and spent a good deal of time in the haunts of my father and uncle. In a way, I thought it was the most fortuitous thing in the world. She lived in town, relatively close to where I lived at the time. If a relationship developed, I wouldn’t have to spend my time driving all over the city. I hated suburbs and detested having to be in the car underway for more than ten or 15 minutes. This would be an easy relationship, I thought, if it worked out.