At dinner, I learned why she had been reticent earlier to affirm we’d be ok. She didn’t need to speak a word. The reason was readily apparent when I saw her dressed in her own Santa suit.
“I didn’t know if it would happen. That’s why I couldn’t promise, but I suppose I don’t need to explain what I did. The point is, everything worked out. I’m like you now. I’ve been properly punished for my own version of the same crime,” and she looked at me with eyes of coal through her blanched white beard.
"But are you actually guilty? Do you know?" I flicked the parmesan shaker on our table without aim. Why'd I do that? I thought this after I flicked it.
“Yes, very much the same as what you say happened to you. I was given the same choice you were, by the police. Officer Robertson was the police officer’s name. He told me he’d recently had to come to terms with reality in certain respects and was again ready to do his duty in upholding the law. That is, as he understood that duty to be and that law to be, which he said both were changing all the time. Apparently it’s quite a rush to keep up with everything. He does so out of moral obligation and because he gets paid to at least try,” She said, and there was such an even quality to every word she spoke, like lines fed to her from a script. Of course if we were to be together we’d both need to suffer the same punishment for essentially the same crime. It did make sense, when you stretched it around in your mind for a while.
We didn’t have much time to reflect on that because our pizza had arrived, looking fresh and hot from the oven. We paused to contemplate our own mortality before digging in, as was typical at Pizza-Face Diner. A lot of people cried while they ate, or prayed, or revealed to the owner, Jeremiah, the terrible acts they’d committed in their lifetime. He was very good at nodding solemnly, and not unlike a priest in confessional, managing to absolve them somehow.
“I would ask if you had anything you needed to confess, about the taste of the pizza or otherwise, but I can already see that you do. Hit separate children at separate times in your respective vehicles and were both given a single choice for punishment? How is the pizza, though?” Jeremiah had said, stopping by our table in his typical bouncy fashion.
It was then that he recognized me through my beard, “Jason, Jason is that you? Pardon me, but I did not realize. Though you do make a fine St. Nick. It’s been awhile since your last eating, son. How are you?” Then, as though noticing for the first time I was not alone, as usual, he added, “And who is this you’re with?” Jeremiah was a gregarious ball-of-dough of a man, with a large scalp and a weak jaw that was usually hidden beneath a beard, a real beard, black but dimming in brilliance with each passing year. Almost as though he were anticipating my changed appearance, he’d recently shaved it off entirely. I introduced Elizabeth to him. He nodded, and gave me a wink.
We told Jeremiah the pizza was good. We told him the dough he used was particularly warm and generously dense this evening. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” he said, “But I was brought to selling pizzas with faces in them, emerging from them. I had the idea to start a restaurant many years ago now and what I’m telling you is, even after I’d purchased it, the lease to this storefront, I did not know what to do. I did not know what food I should make and sell. I spent many nights in my office in the back considering options. I’d previously worked as a mason, so I imagined a food that was in essence a brick in shape and texture, if not consistency, but also tasty. I tried many different versions of the food brick, only to find they were delicious to me and me alone. The faces of my wife and other voluntary tasters are fastened in my mind’s eye, dripping with complete aversion to whichever unsavory brick I had made for them and bid them to eat.
“Then one especially late night, after many cups of coffee, I retreated to the lavatory for relief. I needed to start selling something soon or risk foreclosure, my loans were drying up, my savings were drying up, everyone I knew—most assuredly my wife, though she’d never have admitted it—was beginning to lose faith in me. And that is when, touched by something I cannot believe to be anything less than divinity, I realized that a tile in the bathroom was not what it seemed. It was not simply a tile, it was the perfect visage of a modern day Kilroy, pressing itself from the wall. If you look closely into the strange rosy coloring of the ceramic tile, you will see in its celestial midst the figure of which I speak. And then I thought about pizza for reasons I’m not sure of, and I imagined what it would be like not to be forever trapped in a wall—like the face, a face which continues to push further and further in my mind’s eye and perhaps in literal fact from the bathroom tile every day—but trapped in a pizza, and then eaten. You could say in that respect all of the pizzas we serve are the metaphorical embodiment of this fear I’d realized so many years ago and decided to make my living from.”
Jeremiah was probably not lying to us, though I had been in the bathroom of the Pizza-Face Diner many times and come away with no such impression of a protruding face in the tile wall above the urinals. It is possible I wasn’t looking hard enough, or the right way. But in all likelihood, it was much more a vision he didn’t share with anyone else.
If I’d had a vision it was not unique to me, as clearly so too had Elizabeth. The boy each of us saw flung in front of our respective vehicles could have been the very same boy, too, for all we knew. It could have been a plot against us both, as well as anyone else who’d found themselves in similar circumstances.
It being a night of revelations, a forlorn Jeremiah launched into another little speech, “And here is my boy in this picture I wanted to share with you both, the boy who was going to inherit all of this, all of my restaurant, when I finally decided to retire. Anthony, the boy’s name was Anthony. He’s dead now, hit with my very own car, like he was just tossed in front of it. I murdered my own boy. The police said it was an accident, though, and they took my boy away quickly, leaving me with my guilt and nothing more. The people at the morgue told me we’d need a closed casket for the funeral service, the undertaker agreed. I never got to say goodbye to my boy, and I never got to give him this that I’d made for him.” Jeremiah raised and spread his arms, gesturing at the whole of the restaurant.
Considering that Jeremiah had experienced a phenomenon eerily similar to the one that Elizabeth and I had experienced, and looking at the figure of the boy in the photograph he shared with us, I knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. I was certain I was staring at a photograph of the boy who had collided with my automobile.
“Could I borrow this photo in order to reproduce and disseminate it widely?” I inquired with an odd sort of eagerness that I realized could be off-putting. I knew it was unlikely that Jeremiah would submit to my request, no matter how artfully I entreated him to do so. He was unlikely to be willing to part with what might be the only photograph he had of his deceased child.
“Sure, why not? I’d like it back at some point, but here, take it,” he said, handing over the photograph and not asking a single question regarding why I wanted it.
My thought was I would post copies of the boy’s photograph around town, hoping to draw attention to him, possibly smoking the child out and, in its turn, teaching everyone a thing or two about the way our judicial system really worked.
I announced my intentions after Jeremiah had left, while both Elizabeth and I were digging into the cheesy face at the center of our pizza slices. “It’s a good thing the dough is so fresh. This would be a lot harder to eat if it weren’t,” Elizabeth said as she tore through her slice with a knife and a fork. She continued, “Sometimes when I’m eating something exotic or just plain weird I like to imagine, just for a second, that whatever it looks like on the plate is how it looked in life, even if it never lived. For instance, I like to imagine right now that this pizza face was attached to a pizza body and that this being once met me in a ballroom where I wore a comfortably fitted dress, red like a rose, and it wore clothing that was, in the case of the pizza-bodied being, wet with hot oils from its cheesy pores. I like to think that we waltzed there to a song by Chopin, “The Waltz of the Pizza-Face Diner” perhaps, until I was warm with oils, too, or whatever the case may be, my dress weighed down with the liquid discharge of the meal. You see how I’m thinking particularly of pizza oils in this case, for obvious reasons?”
“That sounds unpleasant, but I had an idea I would like to discuss with you,” I attempted to say, though Elizabeth was not finished explaining her own thought and ignored me, because really I had been interrupting.
“I look at my food differently, and I realize this, in its way, must be the sensation those who abstain from eating meat or animal byproduct experience. I lose my appetite readily after that. It’s really hard to take in nutrients when you can imagine dancing with your meal,” she said and seemed to be lost in a daydream about the waltz.
“Yes, but I had an idea. You might have been wondering why I insisted on taking this photograph from Jeremiah,” I tapped a finger on the photograph of his boy, laid flat on the table.
Which photo?” she said. “And who is it of, again?”
“The boy, Jeremiah’s boy, ‘Anthony’ he said was his name. The very boy I hit with my car. Did you hit this boy with your car or did you hit another boy?” I pushed the picture to her side of the table with my index finger.
“I want to say ‘yes’, but the image I have in my mind is of a boy much younger than this one, whose features were hidden by the hood of a parka and who seemed to be tossed in front of my car with what felt like some purpose, probably a nefarious purpose. But I'd really like to talk about us. What do we mean to each other, particularly now that we share the same struggle?"
I saw that she saw things as I did, yet there was a disconnect regarding their import. "Yes, the boy was tossed and this was that boy. I am sure it is the same one I hit, and you must have heard Jeremiah explain to us how his boy, Anthony, had been killed by his automobile, while he was behind the wheel. Surely you'd agree that's what must have precipitated everything else, all this business with boys being tossed in front of cars."
She frowned. "I was not really listening to Jeremiah. Weightier things like our possible coupling and what that might mean to me in the long term, along with the upcoming mayoral election, were running through my mind while he spoke. I was also thinking about the bubbling cheese of pizzas, how the burnt splotches that blemish them sometimes look to me like a horrible rash or some other, more pernicious disease of the skin. I feel a sense of fleeting horror at this thought. It gets me down a new road of thinking, a road of the vestigial, you see? I think about how visceral fear of sickness is inherited by us from our progenitors, the long line of them. Evolution in that way can be clearly seen. We learn from our relatives’ mistakes. An internal form of communication. In that way, people really do live forever—through their fears, at the very least.”
“You really weren’t listening? After we eat, shall we have posters made of this boy and place them around the city, inviting everyone who has shared our fate to discuss the situation at my apartment, or if there’s not enough room, we could rent out a small auditorium and discuss the situation there?” I took a sip of water and then cleared my throat.
There was silence for a good three-to-five seconds before Elizabeth replied. Glancing outside, she said, “It’s snowing really hard out there. How do you feel about snow?” Before I could think to answer she turned her head looked down at the table and said, “I’m willing to give your plan a shot. I’m truly willing to try. I hope you are, too,” she said, staring out into the blizzard that must have swept into the city sometime after we arrived at the Pizza-Face Diner. I hadn’t noticed the snowfall until then, but I got the impression she’d probably been aware of it the whole time.
I envied her awareness of the snow.
(To read the next part, click here.)