FATHER STAN HAD ME CONVINCED about pizza delivery. He said it was the best job he ever had. He’d made a ton of cash and didn’t mind the driving and had discovered all the shortcuts—neighborhoods, wooded avenues, gravel roads he wouldn’t have traveled otherwise. He wasn’t the kind of priest you couldn’t trust. He was young and masculine, with charcoal hair that he neatly combed over, so I drove to the nearest Papa John’s and filled out an application with one of the pens they had set out near the register for signing receipts. The place smelled great.
Beneath the glass countertops, pizza boxes from eras past had been pressed flat. The walls alternated green and red, and in the back, teenaged employees folded cardboard, swept floors, chopped green peppers, and leaned on the walls and chattered while the old manager called Hal slid pizzas in and out of the ovens with a large wooden spatula. This was the summer of 2005. A senior named Izzy pointed me to a booth behind which loomed a soda fridge, humming. I scooted into the booth. Izzy scooted in across from me. She appraised my application, then held her index finger over her mouth and appraised me.
At school I had seen Izzy in the halls between classes. Usually she wore low-rise jeans and moccasins. Once I’d seen her in a shirt that said, “Pro-choice, pro-cats.” Now she wore a red polo like all the other employees. She had dark, tightly curled hair and never wore makeup, I figured for political reasons. We had never spoken. Sitting across from her, I could barely breathe.
“No work experience?” she said.
“This would be my first,” I confessed.
“You’ve never worked before?”
“I once watered my neighbor’s saplings.”
Izzy raised her eyebrows. “That’s a job,” she said. “Write that down.” She spun the application back to me and tapped her fingers—no nail polish—as I scribbled the details of two dogwoods and a fern.
Izzy’s main concern was the type of car I had and whether it was a piece of shit. We looked at it through the shop windows, my Honda Civic, blue, which I had named Faith.
On a scale of one to shit, I told Izzy, Faith was somewhere in the middle.
“Any major breakdowns?” she asked.
“Not since I’ve had her.”
Once, I admitted, I had driven ten miles on a flat, but that was my own fault, and my father had been disappointed and had hardly looked at me for two days, I told her, trying to be as forthcoming as possible. Izzy said all this sounded normal. “Par for the course,” was what she said. Faith was, at least, better than her own car, a pickup with a fickle starter. Its old engine would run sometimes, and other times decided not to. You had to let it sit for a while, she explained, then blammo, it was back in action. Papa John’s needed another driver, in other words. She looked at me dead-on. She had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen.
My parents had purchased Faith for nine hundred dollars the week I got my license. She was fifteen years old and needed new windshield wipers, tires, seatbelts, and a radio if I wanted one, but “God willing,” my parents said, “she’ll get you from point A to B.” She was lovely; I loved her. I washed and vacuumed her every month, never left trash in her side doors or cupholders. When I left her in a parking lot, I would pat the roof and wish her goodbye.
Calling her Faith had been something of a joke. My parents were liberal atheists. They had both grown up Catholic, but you could only have so many prayers go unanswered before you got suspicious. They were particularly suspicious of Father Stan, who lived in the rectory nearby. He walked with duck feet and a spotted rescue named Lou, and never talked to us about God, never invited us to church. My parents became doubtful that he even worked at one. “Maybe he’s been defrocked,” my dad ventured, but he wouldn’t visit Sacred Heart to verify. The church was a half-mile down the street, old, with peeling white paint, its black shutters falling off. You could imagine someone calling it quaint, but in all honesty it looked more like the scene of a crime. Only occasionally did Stan wear a collar. Most of the time it was sweats or paint-spattered jeans, never robes. “I’m fixing the place up!” he would explain, with a huge, hopeful smile that made me sad for him. At night, you would see his flashlight moving down the sidewalk. My parents would peer through the blinds and say, “He’s out there again!” Or, “It’s Stan o’clock!” They felt that they were being monitored. They would say, “He’s always walking that dog. Doesn’t he have some charity to do?”
My parents were always doing charity. They wanted to prove that you could be a good person but not religious. I think that was their motivation when out of the blue they offered Father Stan a giant bag of tomatoes one summer afternoon. The tomatoes had been harvested from their raised garden bed and were fresh and red, bite-sized, and nearly perfect shining circles, but something about the act of putting them in a brown paper bag and presenting them with pride didn’t sit well with me. Giving someone a bag of tomatoes was only a little better than giving someone a bunch of bananas. The best thing to give was, in my opinion, nothing. I had the innate suspicion that no one wanted anything, except not to be bothered, but Stan was thrilled with the tomatoes. He reached into the bag and popped one into his mouth. “Mm,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Delish.”
I always liked Father Stan. He didn’t speak to me the way other adults did, interrogating me about my plans and asking me to remind them what grade I was in. Stan was easy to talk to. Whenever I shot hoops in my parents’ driveway, he stopped to chat. He let me scratch behind Lou’s ears while he narrated her thoughts. “Lou says, ‘Ooh boy, does that feel good!’” Stan said tomatoes were his favorite food. He tried to have them with every meal, plus a hefty portion of bread. He was Italian, he said, and that’s how we got to talking about pizza.
My first day on the job, I wore loafers. In an attempt to look professional, I accidentally over-aged myself. Izzy wore Vans, no socks. She had great ankles, bones in all the right places. Together we worked night shifts, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays were so slow we had plenty of time to kill between deliveries, so she told me about her plans for community college, which I found audacious. Most of my classmates were obsessed with universities and wore sweatshirts from the big-name institutions they aspired to.
She asked if I had plans. “About college.”
I didn’t, but I was a junior. “I have plenty of time,” I said.
She tsked. “You don’t have much time.”
She told the truth like that. Didn’t seem to care whether it made you uncomfortable. She would also confess the intimate details of her life, revealing that when she had trimmed her bangs, they’d fallen into her coffee. “Do you know what Irish coffee is?”
My feelings toward Izzy changed by the hour. She was the most dominant person I’d ever known, shorter than me but somehow looking down on me constantly. On her left wrist was a tattoo of a cross. I asked if she was religious. She said no, she’d been blackout drunk when she got that. Apparently her friend Marcus had put her up to it. She laughed, then squinted, and picked some wax from her ear.
Once, I had a dream that Izzy and I were trapped in a washing machine together, our limbs entangled and hot like burning lint, and when we finally stopped circling the agitator, we tumbled out like a pair of dead cats. I had known a classmate who killed his cat this way, by stuffing it into a washing machine. So that’s where that came from.
Izzy preferred to do the deliveries whenever her truck was running, which was less and less. She kept saying it was due at the shop but never took it in, so I would pick up the pies, slide them into a hot bag, and push out through the side door. She would call after me, “Drive like your children live here!” I learned to eat before showing up at my shift, because the smell always made me hungry.
Generally tips were good. Occasional stiffs happened, but our city had been listed by Good Housekeeping as the Nicest City in the Nation, which everyone found surprising and a little overblown, but you got the feeling it was right on when the tips came through, like at the home of Sarah Louzenbeck from AP chem. I hadn’t known the place was hers—a three-story mansion with perfectly trimmed hedges and a warning to burglars staked in front. When she opened the door, I nearly fell over. She had a face like a doll’s, darkened against the warm glow of her home. She tipped me thirty percent. I tried not to think she had miscounted, but you could never know for sure. I never delivered there again, just the way the dice rolled, but every time I passed the place, I felt the urge to venerate her in some way. Once I made the sign of the cross, the way I’d seen on TV.
The hard part was staying awake late at night. I made mixtapes with songs ripped from YouTube. I sang at the top of my lungs, would drive until midnight, often later. I got sick of the same eighteen songs. My eyes would droop, and I would swerve sometimes. I would return home smelling of pizza. I would slouch up the stairs to my bedroom and crash.
My room was fairly plain. The walls were kelly green—my parents had allowed me to choose the paint color—with no posters on them. My mom didn’t like the idea of tacking things up. Tacks made too many little holes. More work for me, she said, once you go to college, to fill in all those little holes.
College was all anyone seemed to talk about. It was weird not knowing where I’d be in two years, but I guess you never do. I had a desk piled high with SAT workbooks, and beyond them, a window that looked out to the cul-de-sac where there was a gingko tree growing in the middle and a little bench underneath it. Sometimes I would look out and find Father Stan sitting amongst the falling yellow leaves, Lou in the shade beneath him.
December brought with it that year’s first major snowstorm. Hoping my shift would be canceled, I called Izzy about the protocol. “I can’t remember,” she said. “I have no memory of snowstorms past. I have no memory, period.” A moment went by. “I am like God in that way. As far as east is from the west, so far is my memory from the snow.”
So I called the shop and asked Hal, the old, docile manager, who said the roads were fine, this was nothing compared to the blizzard of ’77. Plus, there was money to be made. Faith had no traction, so she went slipping to the shop, where knives were chopping in a blur and pies were spinning. That night I learned that the moment snow hits the ground, it’s as if kitchens everywhere short-circuit. People seem to think that since it’s snowing, they shouldn’t have to cook. They should just eat pizza and watch movies. All evening Izzy and I tracked mud in and out, stamped the snow off our boots onto the fibrous black doormat. I had a wad of cash in my back pocket by nine p.m. at which time snow was still falling. Izzy and I went out in it with a tape measure and measured eight inches. Pretty good, we agreed.
The last order came around eleven. It was for a single pizza.
“I’ve got it,” Izzy offered, but when she climbed into her truck and turned the key, nothing happened. She tramped back inside and said, “I’m fucked!”
It was late, and I was tired, but I hated the pale panic on her face. She didn’t look like herself.
I said, “I’ll do it.”
The delivery was to the far edge of the city, a neighborhood my parents sighed deeply about. The only thing connecting here to there was a web of winding, wooded roads, where, in the eighties, one of my dad’s acquaintances flipped his car.
Distraught, I remarked, “Faith wasn’t built for this. Look at her.”
We did. She was so inanimate.
“She’s small but mighty,” Izzy acknowledged. “At least her engine works.”
As I was backing out of the lot, Izzy appeared in my headlights, waving. I rolled down the window.
She said, “You need to take this, too.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Don’t open it.”
Through the window, she passed me a box, about six-by-three inches, wrapped in newspaper, hugged on all sides by rubber bands.
“This seems like a drug run?”
Izzy looked offended. “What kind of person do you think I am?” she asked, then smiled.
I realized I would do anything for her.
I drove slowly. Under my tires, the snow croaked. Windshield wipers pumped and knocked the snow around. I set the heat on full blast, but it came out lukewarm, straight into my eyeballs, and dried them out. I blinked rapidly. Driving in a blizzard was easier than I expected, I had myself convinced, until that long narrow stretch where Faith slipped, skipped right. I pumped the brakes, then spun left, swung out, and slammed into the drift, and Faith sank a foot into the ditch.
For a moment I sat, stunned. Then I hit the gas. The engine revved, but Faith didn’t budge. Snow continued to fall, slowly covering my windshield, a luminous gray.
I toggled the heating vents, considered my next move. With the dull gong of realization, I ran my hands over the dash, like I was seeing Faith for the first time, the failure that she was, or that I was. I felt angry because I felt guilty, as if I had wronged her. I pushed open the door, sank to my shins in the snow. My jeans stayed dry for a moment before the wet had seeped through them and into my loafers, around my heels. I trudged to the road. There was no moon, only a gray screen of clouds, but my headlights reflected off all the white, and I could see that Faith had fallen with her back end dramatically lower than the hood, which had pitched upward like the bow of the sinking Titanic. Around us were only pines, high, skeletal, and pale, and a horse fence that snow had gathered up on in tall, thin mounts. I stood for a moment, warming my hands with my breath. The only sound was the subtle smattering of snowfall, which the void of other noise seemed to amplify. I slopped back through the snow and tried to push Faith by the trunk, but of course nothing happened except that my feet slid deeper into the drift. My fingertips ached from the cold.
I expected a car to drive past at any moment but found only darkness at either end of the road. I don’t know how much time passed, was too disoriented, wet, and furious to have a real look around, but if I had, I might have found animal tracks, deer prints, mouse feet, in the snow. I didn’t see anything except the dim haze of night. I began to berate my parents, who were not present but who had cast aspersions on cell phones, had said I wouldn’t have any use for one unless I wanted a brain tumor.
I was interrupted when from down the road came the blinding headlights of an SUV, then—and I could hardly believe my eyes—Father Stan was leaning out of the window, waving and calling, “Don’t you worry! I’ve got you covered!”
He pulled over and hopped out of his car with a ratchet strap, which he proudly brandished, then hooked onto my bumper. The tip of his nose was flushed red, and he sniffled while he tightened the straps. I observed in amazement: the generosity, the proficiency of his efforts.
As he roped the straps to the hitch of his truck, I realized that he had been looking for people to save. I almost assured him I would be in church on Sunday.
He wiped his nose with the back of a puffy black glove. “It’s no problem,” he said. “I wish everything were so easy in life. Now,” he went on, “get in your car and drive while I pull.”
But when he pulled, my bumper groaned, then popped off. In the sudden slack, his SUV swerved, then slammed to a halt. Faith hadn’t budged.
Stan leaned out of his window and said, “Darn it. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
He put his fist on the windowsill and his chin on his fist.
After a moment, he asked, “What are you doing out here anyway?”
He glowed. “You took my advice!”
I told him that I basically hated the job.
Stan nodded and smiled. “Oh, yes; the crap you see.”
“I thought you loved delivering pizzas.”
“You see the world,” he reflected, “and the state it’s in. What an amazing shitshow it is.”
I gestured at my bumper in despair, every inch of me shivering and wet.
“Well,” Stan said. “Hop in. I’ll make sure you get where you need to go.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Just like the old days!” he said.
I transferred the pizza, along with Izzy’s package, to the back seat of the SUV and climbed in. Stan was listening to AM talk radio. Embarrassed, he said, “You can put on whatever you want.”
“Oh no,” I said. “This is fine.”
“So where to?”
He pulled away. I looked back at Faith. It felt strange leaving her in the ditch like that, askew, cold, alone. She disappeared when we rounded a turn.
I pulled out my MapQuest printouts, flattened them, and pointed where and when to turn.
Stan’s SUV smelled yeasty, a little sour. A white rosary swung from the rearview and church bulletins had been stuffed in the space between the driver’s and passenger seats. Dog fur covered every surface, and a coffee mug rolled at my feet, a thin brown line haunting its rim. I warmed my fingers over the vents.
“So,” Stan said eventually, “what’s in the box?”
It was strange how a simple question could make you feel guilty when you had nothing to feel guilty about. The truth was that I didn’t know what was in Izzy’s box, yet somehow I sensed that, to my rescuer, ignorance would seem like a lie. Something about his voice said he knew. Also that he disapproved. My whole being tightened, as if a confession were straining to come out. Then I heard my parents saying that Stan should mind his own business.
“It’s a gift,” I said edgily.
“No judgment!” he said.
Maybe I had imagined the disapproval. I had rarely spent more than a minute or two with Stan, petting his dog’s belly, exchanging words about the weather. Being enclosed with him felt perverse, a little frightening. Out of the corner of my eye I found myself studying his skin, the ugly parts, where the backs of his ears met his neck, where pimples had risen across his shaven chin. The closer I looked, the more certain I became that I was missing something. It was as if he were partially obscured, but by what I couldn’t say.
Ponderously he said again, “No. Judgment,” and to mime surrender, he lifted his hands off the wheel. The SUV swerved, and Stan straightened it out. He laughed, his teeth squeezing his tongue. He apologized.
He rolled through a red light. “No one’s out,” he said and waved his hand. “It’s fine.” After a minute, he swerved again, this time intentionally. “See,” he said, with a smile so wide and crazy I had never seen anything like it. “It’s all-wheel drive. We can do anything.” That was when I realized he was drunk.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said eventually. “But I’m not drunk.”
I had never been drunk myself and entertained the possibility that he was telling the truth. But in my stomach I felt ill. I rode stiffly, silently. Probably sensing that I had become tense, he begged me to confide in him, said I could trust him with anything. He was a priest, and I knew that, didn’t I? I offered to drive the rest of the way, and he said not to be silly, the only alcohol he ever consumed was the blood of the Lamb. This, I imagined, was supposed to be a joke. I put my head against the glass and prayed.
Outside, there were duplexes, a laundromat, some delis. Lining the road were broken-down cars covered in gray and blue tarps, trash strewn in every yard. At last we pulled into the long-awaited driveway, a narrow gravel strip. At the end was a porch attached to a wooden shack on top of which a thick bank of snow had been piling, threatening to cave it all in. In the yard, a glowing blow-up Grinch rose and sank back into a blow-up chimney. The women smoking on the porch also looked like blow-ups. As I approached, one of them stood. She was flannel clad, haggard. Her hair was in the shape of an M.
She said, “Pass…word…?”
More than a little exasperated, I yelled, “Delivery!”
The haggard woman flinched. She lifted her chin threateningly, then proceeded down the porch steps in a cloud of smoke.
She asked who I was, and I felt a surge of power, the opportunity to portray myself any way I wanted to this woman I would never see again. I chickened out and just told her my name. It hung there between us, so meaningless.
I offered her the box wrapped in newspaper, which she took gingerly with both hands. She held it to her nose, sniffed it. She inquired about the pizza, and I informed her there was no pizza. By this point, I had resolved to eat it myself. I was starving.
The woman nodded, licked her lips. “Tell Izzy,” she intoned, “that next time, I expect pizza.” I assured her that I would pass along the message and returned in the dark to the SUV, where Father Stan had fallen asleep behind the wheel. I prodded him until he peered at me through half-open lids and asked, “Are you insured?” I helped him into the back seat, where he slumped and complained that the buckles were jabbing his back.
I slid into the driver’s seat. Stan kept the back of it perfectly straight. I lowered it, then adjusted the mirrors, put it in drive. Tucked between the seat and door was a flask. I considered reaching down to uncap it, sniff it, but the road was covered with gray slush, and I had to focus. I was already distracted enough by the smell of the stolen pizza that I would share with no one, a hungry chasm yawning in my belly.
Stan studied me through the rearview mirror. I felt his gaze, though I never returned it.
“So the drugs went over well?” he asked. And then, darkly: “What would Mom and Dad think?”
“Of you?” I answered. I gave a brief, evil laugh, which I felt proud of. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell them.”
His shoulders rose to swallow his neck, but he didn’t take his eyes off me. I studied the road. His steering wheel was coming apart. I could feel flakes of it on my fingers.
Suddenly I was so cold that I was warm, then blazing hot, as if I had stepped out into the sun. I felt loose. I wanted to stop the car and weep and ask Father Stan whether he had any clues about my future, as if, instead of a priest, he were a fortune teller who could perceive through the fog what lay ahead. He had, after all, showed me the way to Papa John’s. Now I wanted him to reveal where I would go next.
Instead, his eyes widened with recognition, as if he had found something lost. “You remind me so much of my brother,” he said, leaning forward in his seat and jabbing my shoulder. “That’s it,” he said. “My brother.”
I wanted to explain that that meant nothing to me. I had never met Stan’s brother and never intended to. Who I reminded him of was a perfect mystery.
But obviously he admired him.
“Davey,” he said, and smiled, and sat back.
I asked him where Davey was now.
Quietly he admitted, “I don’t know,” and we left it at that.
We pulled up to the rectory, a flat, red-brick rancher with a flagstone front path and a Jesus statuette that, covered in snow, looked oddly edible, like a frosted candy. The whole place was dark as a grave. From inside, I could hear Lou howling like a scorned lover. I wondered how long Father Stan had been out, driving aimlessly, and whether Lou had sensed the danger that he had put himself in. Dogs had that ability, I thought, or at least some of them did. I didn’t know how it worked, the intuition of pets, but I was impressed by the idea that Lou might have known what was going on when, for so long, I hadn’t had a clue.
I parked, jumped out, and steadied him as he stepped out of the car and onto the icy driveway. He patted his coat for his keys, found them in his back pocket, twirled them around a finger, and patted me on my shoulder. I watched him trudge up the front path, my pathetic neighbor who, despite everything, had rescued me. Balancing my pizza, still warm on the bottom, I walked home, kicking snow as I went.
CJ Green’s stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner and Electric Literature. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he serves as editor of The Mockingbird magazine.