Caesar and His People
The phone rings like it always does and Kate answers it like she always does. She turns her freckled face in my direction and glances over at me with those big blue eyes of hers to tell me I’d better get my car started. While I get up from my brown wooden stool behind the cash register of our small Little Caesar, I look around to see if Jeremy is in sight. Jeremy’s in charge of making the pizzas and he does a pretty good job when he isn’t drunk. Last time he worked drunk he nearly burned the place down and Kate threatened to fire him the next time he showed up hammered but we both know she’s just a bluffer and would never do that. She isn’t that type of girl—you know, the type of girl that shakes her head at swimsuit models for degrading women, the type of girl that’ll dump you for making a rape joke. I make rape jokes all the time to Kate and she laughs at them harder than some of my bros do. I look at her there on the phone writing down the customer’s order on the store’s brown clipboard, which is chained to the counter so that nobody steals it, and I realize how much I’m going to miss her. She isn’t mine officially but everybody in town knows that we’re somewhat together. It’s not that I don’t want to be with her, I just know that things won’t work out in the end, with me going away and all. That’s why a while ago, after we’d spent a night out by the lake looking at the stars and talking about the stars and she asked me what the two of us were, I thought for a moment and then responded, You’re Kate, and I’m Calvin.
It was a poor thing to do.
Kate hangs up the phone and bites her bottom lip like she always does when I have to make a delivery in Grubersville. Our whole town is divided into two parts: Grubersville and the part that isn’t Grubersville where Kate and Jeremy and people like us live. Grubersville is the wealthy part of town and delivering there is the worst because of the Grubers. Gruber is the name we use to refer to the stereotypical Grubervillian asshole. Four times I’ve gotten egged while driving through and once, when I was at a friend’s party in Grubersville, I came back to my car to find that someone had keyed in the phrase ARMS FOR THE BROKE on the driver-side door.
Our town is split based on money. Most of the work here is industrial and it tends to be that the people who live in Grubersville run the factories while the rest of us work them. There are three main factories in our town: a toothpaste factory (not Colgate or Crest but one of those cheap brands with a bitter peppermint flavor), a Saturn factory, and a water purification plant (though I don’t know if that counts as a factory). My dad work at the Saturn factory (my mom used to but injured herself and now she gets disability checks), Kate’s parents work at the water plant, and Jeremy’s mom (since he doesn’t have a dad) is always working overtime at the toothpaste factory.
Two cheese, Kate tells me and slides me the sheet of paper which has the address on it. I take the address and try to grasp her hand as well but she pulls it away from me and tells me I better hurry if I’m going to make it in time. She smiles at me though and I know she won’t pull her hand away from me later on after we’ve finished our shifts. In fact, I know she won’t be holding back anything from me tonight.
I look for Jeremy again and finally find him out back smoking a cigarette while watching the sun go down. He looks like he’s enjoying the view and I don’t want to ruin it for him but I have to.
Two cheese, I say and he turns around and looks at me like he has no idea what I’m talking about.
Two goddamn cheese, he mutters, trudging back inside. He gets the pizzas out of the oven and they look like shit. I know Jeremy’s probably baked but I don’t tell Kate. The pizzas are going to taste like shit anyway, no matter how good they look.
On my way out I blow a kiss to Kate, and she’s just about to give me a killer smile when a loud clang comes from the back and she rushes over to find out what the hell Jeremy’s up to this time.
I walk out to my car, a rusty green Saturn my parents got for free when it didn’t pass all its safety tests, and I feel the dent in the back where I got rear-ended the year before by my old math teacher. I had been making my way to the video store to pick up a movie to watch with my old girl, Samantha, who I was already starting to lose feelings for since I had just gotten the Little Caesar job with Kate. On the way a lone goose wandered out in front of my car and I slammed on my brakes. It was all for nothing though because my math teacher’s truck ended up crashing into my backside and pushing my car into the goose. When he got out of his car he talked to me with a genuine tone of remorse and started explaining how he had been on the phone with his ex-wife and how he’d really appreciate it if we could just handle this personally and leave our insurances out of it. I felt terrible for the guy so I told him it didn’t matter and he didn’t have to worry about it and he thanked me like a prisoner would thank the man who broke him out. When I got home I told my dad I had backed into a tree and he called me a jackass and that was that.
I drive by my old high school—the only high school in town—and look to see if I can spot anyone’s car. I know what kind of car pretty much everyone around here has, not that any are nice or anything special. I see that the parking lot is empty and realize it must already be closed for the summer. I don’t remember getting out this early but I assume things have changed. It’s been a few years since I graduated.
The worst part about driving to Grubersville, aside from the abuse, is the bridge that runs right down the middle of the town. It doesn’t transport you across a river, but over the gigantic landfill that was once the edge of the town until Grubersville was built many years later. I hate driving over the bridge because of the smell. Usually while I’m driving across it, I force myself to think of happy things, like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, but this time all I can think of is Kate. Kate and Jeremy. About a month ago I walked in for my shift and the phone was ringing. I looked for Kate because she’s usually the one who answers it but she was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later she and Jeremy came out of the employee restroom together and Kate stopped dead in her tracks when she saw me, realizing that she had forgotten it was Saturday, the day I come in an hour earlier. Jeremy acted as though nothing happened and Kate tried to, but after we closed up shop and we were walking to our cars, she started to bring it up so I stopped her and told her it didn’t matter.
That was a bit after the time we had gone to the lake together.
I think of them now as I drive over the landfill and the pungent stench brings water to my eyes. I imagine them making use of the time I’m gone. Kate tends to scold Jeremy in front of me but now I start to question if it’s all for show, if she just does it to throw me off. I wonder, maybe, if she loves us both. Then I wonder if I still love her. I decide I do and turn up the Led to clear my thoughts.
After the landfill bridge there’s a mile or two of nothing but trees as you head downhill. The trees on either side are so thick that you wonder what kind of monsters could be hiding within. To me, the forests around Grubersville remind me of Hansel and Gretel and I imagine taking Kate on a camping trip into the woods one day and looking for the house made of candy. I don’t know if Kate likes candy though. Some girls don’t. I just assume she does because Samantha did. I remember how whenever it was Samantha’s birthday or Christmas or Valentine’s or our anniversary, there was nothing she wanted but candy. Candy canes were her favorite and if I managed to find one of those green candy canes that she loved, I was bound to get laid. I miss how simple our relationship was. I think about why I left her. There wasn’t anything wrong with her, aside from her teeth which were a little crooked. She was just a happy girl who made me a happy guy. Hell, even my dad liked her, and he usually only likes hot girls. Kate’s hot, but my dad doesn’t think so, which is strange because we usually have similar tastes when it comes to girls. I don’t really talk to my mom about girls but sometimes, when she overhears my pops and I talking like that, her face gets red and she leaves the room and when I ask my dad what’s wrong with her he just says she’s sour because he used to talk about her like that.
You shouldn’t get married, my dad once told me. It’s not how men are meant to live. After he told me this I asked him why he and my mom were still married and he gave me a snarling look like he was about to hit me but he just stayed in his chair like he always does. So I guess they’re still married because he doesn’t feel like getting up from his chair. I don’t think anyone in my town wants to get up. It’s inconvenient.
After you pass the forest you hit the mansions. They’re not as big as the mansions I’ve seen in movies but compared to my house they might as well be castles. They’re all basically the same with only subtle differences—a chimney on the opposite side, a different color door, and so on. They are all two stories and have bushes in front with a shade of green so bright that you’d think they’re straight out of Alice of Wonderland.
Luckily for me, I don’t see any of the preteen Grubers riding around on their bikes. Preteens are the worst. What I do see is, Dr. Shaw sitting in the shade of his porch reading a book. I wave at him and he waves back with a squinting smile.
Dr. Shaw likes me. He’s the senior pastor of the local church and there are a lot of rumors about him and how he secretly brings hookers to his room on mission trips. I used to think they were false until one time, when I was delivering a pizza to his house and he answered the door, I heard a voice calling his name from somewhere in a different room, and that voice definitely didn’t belong to his wife. That stuff is none of my business though and he’s a decent man to me so I show him respect. The church itself isn’t in Grubersville but he lives there anyways. Some say it’s to be closer to the actual tithers but I just think he likes it better out there on the other side of the landfill. It sure is cleaner, I’ll give it that.
My parents used to take me to church when I was a kid, but they stopped when they realized it was useless and I was going to end up like them regardless. They used to take pride in me and brag about my every achievement and tell their friends how I was going to go to college one day with a huge scholarship, but those were just dreams. And dreams tend to die fast in my town.
I pull up to the house. It’s a big dreary-looking white house and I notice the gutter is hanging loose. The house would probably look fine if it wasn’t so sunny. I check my dashboard clock and see that it only took me twenty minutes to get here. My record for a Grubersville delivery is twelve minutes but I haven’t tried beating it since I nearly busted my engine in the process of setting it.
The pizzas are still hot and I carry them up to the house past the silver Dodge parked on the driveway. I knock on the splintery brown door since I don’t see a doorbell. The door opens and I see a tall, skinny blonde boy in front of me. He’s pretty good-looking but he’d look better if his eyes were blue and not brown.
Two cheese? I ask with a doubtful frown. You sure about that?
What do you mean?
You’re gonna eat two cheese pizzas all by yourself?
Um, he starts to say but then another figure steps into the doorframe. It’s Samantha.
He’s got help, she says with a smirk.
What are you doing here? I ask. From what I remember, she was one of the biggest Gruber-haters in school. She avoided Grubers like they all had AIDS.
Stick to the pizza, she says. That’s the only thing here that’s any of your business.
I’ll get the money, the blonde boy says before leaving the two of us alone at the door.
Samantha leans on the door frame and crosses her arms. Her hair is longer than it was when she was with me and her face looks older now. She’s grown up since I last saw her.
I look up again to take in the sheer immensity of the house.
You know, I say, bigger doesn’t always mean better.
It does in some aspects, she says, shooting a look at my belt region.
You sly bitch, I think to myself, and smile at her like I did whenever she used to sass me.
I hear you’re leaving, she tells me.
Everyone, she says. No one thinks you’re going to make it. They say in a year, you’re going to be right back here with less than when you left.
And what do you think? I ask.
You’re stronger than they think you are. I say two years. Then you’ll be back.
When Blondie comes back, he’s holding a twenty dollar bill. The look on his face tells me he’s worried about what we might have been talking about while he was gone. He knows we used to be together and he probably knows my name. He was only a grade above me back in high school and I used to see him around but he was always with the Grubers so I never paid him much attention.
I take the money and hand him the two pizzas.
Just one actually, he says.
If you say so, I say and keep the second pizza. Thank you for your business. See you later, Samantha.
I walk back to my car without glancing back, waiting for him to call after me, wondering where the rest of his money is. I learned a long time ago that in Grubersville you never give them change unless they ask for it. Half the time they don’t even realize. I think it’s the hunger that makes them so careless. Or maybe it’s the pizza.
I eat the second pizza on the drive back to Little Caesar and it tastes better than I expected even though it’s starting to get cold. The only other pizza place in town is a family-run business called Herkommen. It’s expensive though and doesn’t deliver so it can’t really compete with us, even though its pizzas are a hell of a lot better.
I get full after a few slices so I pull over on the landfill bridge and get out of my car with the pizza box in hand. I know I’d get in trouble with Kate anyway if I brought back a pizza I was supposed to sell because then she would ask me why I didn’t give them a refund and I’d have to explain to her that I don’t refund to dicks. She’d laugh at the end and do nothing to punish me but I could do without the hassle.
I throw the pizza box off and watch it spin in the air like a cartwheeling starfish before landing neatly on top of the rest of the compressed garbage. I think about how incredible this sight would be to anyone from anywhere else. I bet if we lived in any other city, the government would’ve done something about this river of stink years ago but this is just a little town that barely survives through the sweat and pain of its weary inhabitants, so this landfill is just going to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. It will be around forever and if I ever do come back, I know it will be here waiting for me.
I’m planning on going away to work. Little Caesar doesn’t pay well and I know if I go to work in the factory I’m going to regret it later. My only way out is through my cousin. He’s a trucker doing transcontinental runs. He says it’s tough work but if I’m willing to give it a shot he can set me up. When I told everyone I was planning on leaving for this, they laughed at me, saying that I was too ambitious. I hope the people I meet won’t be the same as they are here. I hope I’ll be able to meet strangers that are interesting and entertaining and don’t live their lives as if they’re already over. I hope I’ll one day meet somebody who will ask the name of the town I come from and I’ll be able to tell them it’s not worth mentioning.
I need to leave this place but a part of me doesn’t want to. A part of me likes living in a town I spent my whole life in and a part of me doesn’t want to put all the knowledge I have of my town to waste. I know everything about this town. I know about the geography and how to get anywhere in town as fast as possible and I know what the names of places mean. I know about our pastor who doesn’t really love God but gets paid to pretend he does. I know about my old math teacher whose name still escapes me and how his wife he still loves left him and has sent him into debt and depression. I know about Samantha and how she probably doesn’t feel as good as she thought our little confrontation would make her feel. I know about her boyfriend who doesn’t really love her, and I know that deep down she knows this too but tries to ignore it. I know my dad doesn’t love my mom anymore, and she tries not to care but she does. I know that Kate doesn’t really love Jeremy and he doesn’t really love her, but I’m sure they’ll end up together after I’m gone. That’s just how things work here. In small towns like mine people tend to stick to whoever hurts them the most. Where I’m from, a lack of love is the strongest of bonds.
And I also come to realize that I should stop seeing Kate, that if we aren’t going to become anything, we shouldn’t pretend we are.
Finally, I know about a place called Little Caesar, where the pizza is awful and the employees are lazy. But what I do know is that none of that matters. Because you’ll still buy our pizzas anyway. You have to. The perk of small towns is that you don’t have to be a good person, you just have to be better than everyone else. And in my town, that isn’t hard to do.
By the time I get back Kate’s closing up shop. I ask where Jeremy is and she says he’s already left. She finishes closing up and comes over to me. She puts her hands on my chest with a smooth tenderness and starts to pull me closer to her. I tell myself not to kiss her, but she ends up kissing me. I lead her outside, and tell myself to bid her goodnight, but she tugs me towards her car (also a Saturn but a light shade of brown) and I can’t stop her. She opens the backseat door and I tell myself not to get in, but she’s already pushing me in, getting on top of me. Finally, I tell myself not to do what I’m about to do, that I shouldn’t, that it’s wrong, that I know what will happen if I do, but by the time I convince myself to stop, it’s already done and she’s getting off of me. I’m angry with myself and I try to calm down, telling myself not to worry, that it doesn’t matter, that it’s her goddamn fault, not mine. But for some reason I find no comfort in my own words and within me something rattles like an engine that won’t start.
Thanks for that, she says. See you tomorrow, Calvin.
I get out and look back at her dark, sweaty face and for the very first time, I begin to see how my dad sees, and I realize he’s right. She isn’t hot at all. Not anymore.
Photograph: Little Caesars in Marquette, Michigan by User:Mrmiscellanious on Wikipedia.CC BY 2.5