Rachel Cantor reads an excerpt from her debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, published in January by Melville House.
Leonard’s usual complaint volume was twelve calls per hour, his average dispatch time two-point-five minutes, but for three nights running, Leonard had received no complaints whatsoever. No cranks, no callers saying they’d ordered super not supernal, not even a wrong number.
Leonard wasn’t worried, not at first—satellites blew up all the time, Neetsa Pizza always worked it out.
But by night two, Leonard would have welcomed even a crank. He was not always optimally compassionate with cranks, though on this matter, Neetsa Pizza was clear: all callers deserve the best, which is to say, a pizza shaped according to Pythagorean principles.
The situation is dire, he told his sister, Carol, after the third night with no calls. He’d changed out of his white caftan and trousers into rainbow lounging shorts; she was getting ready for her day shift at Jack-o-Bites, where she served Scottish tapas in reprehensible tartan steep pants.
Carol was unsympathetic: You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledygook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few—the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.
The Leader has assumed control of the menus, Carol said, pinning the tam to her afro. Did you even know? FELIX, YOU BETTER BE PUTTING ON YOUR TOREADOR PANTS! YOUR CARAVAN LEAVES IN SEVEN MINUTES! Pretty soon everyone will be selling Heraclitan Grillburgers, or whatever food he favors. You and I will both be out of a job.
(The food preferences of the Leader were, in the interests of National Unity, a well-kept secret.)
I didn’t know, Leonard said, but he wasn’t worried: Neetsa Pizza’s concerns were eternal, not political: how to live the moral life, the unity underlying all manifestation. The Leader was undoubtedly aware of this.
You didn’t know about the menus, did you? Carol said. I thought not. When was the last time you left the house?
I leave the house every day, as you well know, Leonard said—for at 3:23 p.m. each day Leonard walked to the corner of Boise and Degas to pick up Felix, whom he cared for after school in exchange for living rent-free in Carol’s garage apartment, without which he would have been Out in the World Alone.
I don’t mean the corner, Carol said.
I don’t need to leave the house, Leonard said, and he didn’t. He was perfectly fulfilled in his White Room, and joyous in his Life Plan, which was to heal clients-in-pain. It was a good life, its pieces fitting together like the double crust on Carol’s Chicken-in-Every-Pot Pie.
You need to leave the house, Carol said, fastening her tartan apron around her pleated steep pants. End of discussion. FELIX!
A breathless boy arrived, bedecked in black-trimmed red toreador pants and holding a junior clutchbag. His red afro was disheveled and he looked vaguely worried. This was Felix.
Go, Carol said. Don’t believe a word your teachers tell you.
Three twenty-three, Leonard said.
Felix nodded all-purposefully, then ran to catch his caravan.
Like most young men, Leonard had wanted to be a pizza thrower. He admired the gold braid, he wanted to toss pizzas in Neetsa Pizza’s zero-gravity rotating window. But eye-hand coordination was not Leonard’s Special Gift, and he vomited when upside down. He begged then to be a pizza greeter, but he lacked the necessary ebullience. Pizza neatener? Alas, his examiners found, his love of order was not sufficiently strong—and they made no judgment about that, for we are all of us, each in our own special way, unique and individualistic!
We’ll find something, Neetsa Pizza promised, and they did. It happened that his soul’s evolution, chartable through the generations, had prepared Leonard exactly for this: to be a Listener. His fascination facility was undeveloped, naturally, but its potential was limitless. His receptivity, moreover, was near perfect, allowing him to encourage the transfer of pain, a faculty present in less than one percent of one percent of the population. Leonard could handle Neetsa Pizza complaints, in other words, so he did.
Leonard fell asleep on his swirly chair and dreamed of his grandfather. The old man smelled of herring and was holding an improbably tall stack of leather-bound books.
Boychik, the old man said. You’re a good egg. I need you to listen good.
No problem, Leonard said. I’m a Listener. What’s it like being dead?
You’re not listening, his grandfather said. I need you to listen good.
Oh, Leonard said. I miss you. There was something I needed to tell you, I forget what.
It is time for you to save the world, his grandfather said. I need you to do this one thing for me. Boychik, are you listening?
Gosh, I’m glad to see you! Leonard said.
The world, boychik! You need to save the world!
Are you holding my calls, Grandfather? Somebody’s holding my calls. I’m worried I’ll lose my job—then what will I do?
But that wasn’t what he’d wanted to say. It was important, whatever it was.
Calls, shmalls! his grandfather said. I need you to listen!
Leonard remembered what it was.
I’m sorry, he said, extending his hand, but his grandfather was gone.
Excerpted from A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World with permission by Melville House. Copyright © 2014 by Rachel Cantor.