Jean Kyoung Frazier
Her name was Jenny Hauser and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.
The first time she called in it’d been mid-June, the summer of 2011. I’d been at Eddie’s a little over a month. My uniform polo was green and orange and scratchy at the pits, people would loudly thank me and then tip me a dollar, at the end of shifts my hair reeked of garlic. Every hour I thought about quitting, but I was eighteen, didn’t know how to do much of anything, eleven weeks pregnant.
At least it got me out of the house.
The morning she’d called, Mom hugged me four times, Billy five, all before I’d pulled on my socks and poured milk over my cereal. They hurled “I love yous” against my back as I fast-walked out the front door. Some days, I wanted to turn around and hug them back. On others, I wanted to punch them straight in the face, run away to Thailand, Hawaii, Myrtle Beach, somewhere with sun and ocean.
I thank god that Darryl’s boyfriend fucked a Walgreens checkout girl.
If Darryl’s boyfriend had been kind, loyal, kept his dick in his pants, I wouldn’t have answered the phone that day. Darryl could make small talk with a tree, had a laugh that made shoulders relax—he manned the counter and answered the phones, I just waited for addresses and drove the warm boxes to their homes.
But Darryl’s boyfriend was having a quarter-life crisis. Ketchup no longer tasted right, law school was starting to give him headaches, at night he lay awake next to the man he loved and counted sheep, 202, 203, 204, tried not to ask the question that had ruined his favorite condiment, spoiled his dreams, replaced sleep with sheep—is this it? One day, he walked into a Walgreens to buy a pack of gum and was greeted by a smile and a pair of D cups. The next day, Darryl spent most of his shift curbside, yelling into his phone. The front door was wide open, and I tried not to listen, but failed.
“On our first date you told me that even the word ‘pussy’ made you feel like you needed a shower.”
It was the slowest part of the day. A quarter past three. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner, pizza was heavy for a mid-afternoon snack. The place was empty except for me and the three cooks. They waved hello and goodbye and not much else. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t speak English or if they just didn’t want to speak to me.
“You know you’ve ruined Walgreens for me, right? I’m going to have to drive ten extra minutes now and go to the CVS to get my Twizzlers. God damn it, you know that I can’t get through a day without my fucking Twizzlers.”
I was sitting on an empty table, turning paper napkins into birds and stars and listening to my iPod at a volume that allowed me to think, but not too deeply. I couldn’t remember the name of the boy I used to share Cheetos with in first grade. I wondered if I had ever used every drop of a pen’s ink. All shades of blue made my chest warm. Our boss, Peter, napped around this time. Every day, at 3:00 p.m. without fail, he’d close his office door and ask us to please, please not fuck anything up. We never fucked anything up. We also didn’t get much done. I stared at a large puddle of orange soda on the floor and made a paper-napkin man to sit among the birds and the stars. “Oh God, tell me you wore a condom.”
The phone rang then. I was about to call for Darryl. He started shouting about abortion.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t look back on this moment and feel its weight. I could’ve just let it ring—no one would’ve known. I didn’t. I hopped oﬀ the table, walked to the counter, picked up the phone, and heard her voice for the first time.
“So—have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” Her voice was heavy, quivering, the sound of genuine desperation. Before I could reply, the woman kept talking. “Like, you’ll water your plants, fold your laundry, make your kid a snack, vacuum the rug, read a couple articles, watch some TV, call your mom, wash your face, maybe do some ab exercises to get the blood pumping, and then you’ll check the clock and thirteen minutes have passed. You know?”
I opened my mouth, but she kept on going.
“And it’s only Wednesday! I’m insane, I know. I’m insane.
But do you know what I mean?”
I waited a few beats to make sure she was done. Her breathing was loud and labored.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “I guess.”
“Yes! So—you’ll help me?”
I frowned, started ripping up an old receipt. “I think you may have the wrong number.”
“Is this Eddie’s?”
“Oh, yeah. It is.”
“Then this is exactly the right number. You’re the only person who can help me.”
I remember shivering, wanting to wrap this woman in a blanket and make her a hot chocolate, fuck up anyone that even looked at her funny. “Okay, what can I do?”
“I need a large pepperoni-and-pickles pizza or my son will not eat.”
“I can put in an order for a large pepperoni pizza. We don’t have pickles as a topping, though.”
“I know you don’t. Nowhere out here does,” she said. “You’re the sixth place I’ve called.”
“So what are you asking?” I rubbed my lower back. It had been aching inexplicably the past couple of weeks. I figured it was the baby’s fault.
“We just moved here a month ago from North Dakota. My husband got an amazing job oﬀer and we love it here, all the palm trees, but our son, Adam, hates Los Angeles. He misses home, his friends, he doesn’t get along with his new baseball coach.” She sighed.
She continued: “He’s on a hunger strike. A couple days ago he came up to me and said, ‘Mommy, I’m not eating a damn thing until we go back to Bismarck.’ Can you believe that? Who has ever said that? Who likes Bismarck? And that potty mouth! Seven years old and already talking like a fucking sailor. How does that happen?”
I wasn’t even sure if she was talking to me anymore. I looked at the clock and saw that I’d been on the phone for over five minutes. It was the longest conversation I’d had with someone other than Mom or Billy in weeks. Darryl too, I guess, but that felt like it didn’t count.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just still don’t understand how I can help with this.”
“There was this pizza place back home that used to make the best pepperoni-and-pickles pizza. I swear, I’ve tried doing it myself, just ordering a regular old pepperoni pizza and putting the pickles on after. He said it wasn’t right, and when I asked him what wasn’t right about it, he just kept saying, ‘It’s not right,’ over and over, louder and louder, and wouldn’t stop until I yelled over him, ‘Okay, you’re right! It’s not right!’ ” She paused. “I just thought maybe if I could get him that pizza, something that reminded him of home, this silly hunger strike could end and he could start to love Los Angeles.”
There was a long pause. I would’ve thought she’d hung up if not for that loud, labored breathing.
When she spoke again, her voice was softer. I thought of birds with broken wings, glass vases so beautiful and fragile I was afraid to look at them for too long. “It just feels like I’ve been failing a lot lately,” she said. “I can’t even get dinner right.”
I thought of a night two years ago. Dad was still alive and living with us. The Bears game had just started. He wasn’t drunk yet, but by halftime he’d have finished at least a six-pack. Some nights, I was the best thing that ever happened to him, his pride, his joy; he talked often of buying us plane tickets to New York City and taking me to the top of the Empire State Building. On other nights, I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space; sometimes he’d throw his empties at me. I didn’t want to find out what type of night it was. My window opened out onto the roof. I climbed out of it to sit and smoke, try to find stars in the sky. I was about to light up when I looked down and saw Mom’s car pull into the driveway.
I watched as she took the key from the ignition, killed the lights. I waited for her to come inside. She didn’t. She sat in the driver’s seat, just sat. Five minutes went by and she was still sitting, staring out the windshield. I wondered what she was staring at, if she actually was staring at anything, or if she was just thinking, or maybe trying not to think, just having a moment when nothing moved or mattered—I wished that she was at least listening to music. She sat and stared another ten minutes before going inside.
There was a supermarket not far from Eddie’s. Pickles were cheap. “What’s your address?” I asked.
The cooks eyed me funny when I came into the kitchen with a brown paper bag. They looked only slightly less nervous when I pulled a pickle jar out of it.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just helping this lady out.” They stared blankly at me.
“Her kid isn’t eating.” Silence.
“Can you guys get me a large pepperoni?”
They looked at each other, shrugged, and started pulling the dough. I chopped a couple pickles into uneven slices and wedged myself between the cooks, sprinkled the pickles over the sauce, cheese, and meat. I told myself that it only looked oﬀ because it was raw, but the cooks didn’t seem to know what to make of it either. One sniffed it, another laughed, the third just stared and scratched his head. They eventually shrugged again and put the pizza in the oven.
While I waited, I walked out of the kitchen and to the front of the shop. Darryl was oﬀ the phone and back inside, pouring rum into a soda cup. We stared at each other for a moment. His eyes were red and puffy; his face looked strange without a smile.
I coughed, just for something to do. “Any calls?”
“Just one,” he said. “Midway through, the guy decided he wanted Chinese and hung up.”
“Cool. I picked up one while you were—when you—” I coughed again. “Cool.”
I thought about asking him if he was okay, decided to mop the floor instead. Peter would be waking up soon and didn’t need much to start yelling at us. Darryl sipped his drink and wiped down the counter.
I mopped half the shop before my mind began to wander. There was a slip of paper in the back left pocket of my jeans with an address and the name Jenny Hauser scribbled above it.
“I’m Jenny, by the way. Jenny Hauser,” she’d said after she thanked me for the third time. “My grandma also had the same name. I don’t remember much about her except that she made real good rhubarb pie and hated black people.”
I’d thought she sounded too old to be a Jenny. She should be a Jen or a ﬁrm Jennifer—Jenny had a ponytail and scrapes on her knees, liked the crusts cut oﬀ of her PB and J’s, fought with her mom but always apologized, had never really been in love but had plenty of crushes on boys in her class, teachers who showed her kindness, Jenny believed in God and Kenny Chesney—I couldn’t stop imagining what she looked like.
“Yo,” Darryl hollered. “Order up.”
My dad didn’t have any money to leave us. He did have a ’99 Ford Festiva.
The paint job was faded, the driver’s door dented; there was a questionable yellow stain on the back seat; the A/C was broken, stuck on high, freezing air pumped through the car, even in the winter. Simply put, the car was a piece of shit.
I’d told Mom we should sell it for parts, take whatever we could get. She shook her head and said she couldn’t, she remembered him bringing it home for the first time. “He looked so handsome stepping out of it. He bought me flowers too,” she said. “Sunflowers.” I didn’t remember that. I did remember him teaching me to drive in it. He’d smoke and sip from his red thermos, ﬂick ashes on me whenever I drove too slow or forgot to signal. Once, I sideswiped a car in a Popeyes parking lot and he made me iron his shirts and shine his shoes every Sunday night for a month.
When Mom got a new car last year—a used ’07 Toyota Camry that didn’t have dents or stains or broken radios, was a sleek shiny silver—she dropped the keys to the Festiva on my bedside table. I let the car sit in front of the house a week before I lost all willpower.
I spent that whole day driving, every song sounded good on full blast. It was a Los Angeles winter day, seventy and cloudless. Everything looked crisp and clean through the windshield. The full gas tank and the open road made my fingers and toes tingle. A man was selling oranges on the shoulder of a highway. I bought four bags and shouted along with a song that was about a girl and a goat and Missoula, Montana.
The radio was off when I was driving to Jenny’s house for the first time. My palms were sweaty against the steering wheel and I had that tight-chest feeling I sometimes got when I drank too much coffee. I hadn’t had any coffee for over a week. Billy said it was bad for the baby, he didn’t want to have a little girl or boy with twelve toes and poor reading skills.
The address took me to a nice part of town where all the homes were big and uniform with perfectly mowed front lawns. I saw three different golden retrievers being walked by three different women in tracksuits before I pulled up to her home. I was relieved to see that, though her home was big, it didn’t annoy me. It was one of the smaller ones on the block, and her lawn was slightly overgrown and yellowing in some places.
The coﬀee chest–feeling increased as I stepped out of my car and started walking to the front door. I appreciated then how good I felt on a daily basis, calm and centered, how little fazed me, my ability to walk tall and look straight ahead. Three weeks ago I peed on a stick, and when the little pink plus winked up at me, I walked downstairs, opened the freezer, and ate a Popsicle, thought about what I wanted to watch that night, a rom-com or an action movie—both would have broad-chested dudes, did I want to cry or see shit get blown up?
There was sweat in places I didn’t know I could sweat. I was confused why this instance of all instances was making me damp behind the knees, between my toes. As I knocked on Jenny’s door, three times hard, I reminded myself that she was just some lady with some kid. Then she opened the door and I wanted to take her hand and invite her to come with me whenever I ran away to Myrtle Beach.
(Photo: Vamsi Chunduru)
From Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. Copyright © 2020 by Jean Kyoung Frazier. All rights reserved.