Be a Winner, Read
IT IS BEFORE sunrise and I am elbow-deep in tepid sausage water. I need to do last night’s dishes before any pizzas get made. Scattered bits of cured meats and green peppers float on top of the dishwater along with pools of gray, congealed grease. The water is viscous. I can feel my pores clog. When I reach up to put dishes on the shelf, a thin rivulet of water runs down my arm and soaks the coarse uniform shirt under my armpit. It is 5:37 in the morning on November 17. I’m at my job at the pizza place. I won’t tell you which one. What’s it matter? It is my fourth year as an English major.
Darrell punched people in the face. He punched them hard, fast, and often. He wasn’t a bully, I don’t think. Nobody was dumb enough to fight him, even in the Natty-fueled social desperation of that working-class high school. He was a pro even at that age. His father was a hobby boxer, and he had been encouraged to punch people in the face ever since he was a boy. By his senior year in high school, he was good enough to have a shelf full of trophies and a Junior Golden Gloves title.
I have to be at work early for school lunches. A little before 5:30 A.M. We deliver dozens of pizzas to every elementary, junior high, and high school in the Washington Local district. Hundreds of pizzas, all together. I hadn’t gone to Washington Local. I went to Toledo Public. Our pizzas are square and come sealed in plastic bags. They taste like rubber and shrugs.
My senior year of high school, I signed up for Contemporary Lit because it sounded like something. The other option was English 4, which promised the same generic Prentice Hall-guided generality of every other English class I had ever taken. The word “Contemporary” sounded like a word that people who read books would use. I didn’t realize it was taught by the football coach. The class, of course, was full of football players. Darrell was a football player too.
Pepperoni and cheese. Keep it simple. Someone stretches the dough balls onto filthy circular screens. If we drop a screen, we send it through the oven to sanitize it. Someone sauces. Saucing is my favorite. Spreading the sauce reminds me of raking pebbles in one of those miniature zen gardens at the Nature Company in the mall. Cheese. At this pizza chain, the cheese comes in tight gravel-y pellets, not thin shreds. Pepperoni. Pepperoni is my least favorite. You grab handfuls of the filmy discs and place them onto the pizza as quickly as possible. 24 pepperonis per pizza. The pepperoni station requires more manual dexterity than should ever be required before sunrise. The meat film is difficult to wash off, and my hands will smell like pepperoni well into my afternoon classes.
I don’t know. Darrell wasn’t dumb. He must have worked hard. He was better at punching people in the face than I will ever be at anything. But, the football players didn’t read. They didn’t have to. Maybe some really were dumb, but maybe some were smart enough to realize it didn’t really make a difference.
I stack the pizzas into greasy white buckets with steel pans dividing them. 12 pizzas to a bucket. They are heavy with dead, dumb, slippery weight. When dawn comes, I will wrestle them into my Ford Escort and take them to the suburban schools. I’ll cover the seats of my car with plastic sheeting or, in a pinch, garbage bags. The filthy buckets will stain my already spotty upholstery if I place them directly on the seats. My steering wheel has a permanent smooth sheen from the grease of cured meats being massaged into the foam. I strap a bucket into the passenger seat with a seatbelt.
“What happened?” Darrell would ask on test days. He meant in whatever book we were reading. The football players would gather around. It was the only time I was typically noticed.
I would summarize Lord of the Flies or Brave New World or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Basic stuff. They weren’t rude. They didn’t wear fingerless leather gloves and pound their fist into their hands menacingly. They weren’t going to shove me into a locker or steal my lunch money. They were driven. They were hard workers. Some of them probably ended up going to nicer colleges than the University of Toledo. They’re probably getting business degrees. They’ll probably end up getting in trades and buy houses in the Washington Local district.
I take the pizzas into the schools. The schools of Washington Local are sprawling, single-story structures built in the 50s or 60s. They are surrounded by neat ranch houses full of mostly intact families with comfortable factory incomes. Tarped fishing boats and portable basketball hoops in the driveway. The district feels frozen in perpetual early fall, when the air is always crisp at the borders of the day, and Friday nights rumble with the martial tattoo of marching band drums. There are Swedish meatballs with grape jam in the brown crock pot, and enough Budweisers in the garage-fridge that a few could be swiped without dad missing them.
I will wrestle the buckets into beige-tiled cafeterias. The lunch ladies will give me money, five dollars per pizza. They will not tip. They have ovens back there, and big vat-sized mixers. They have silver prep tables and giant cutting boards. They have everything to indicate that they occasionally prepare actual food.
There was talk of the Olympics for Darrell even in high school. It was the kind of thing people always talked about, so I didn’t take it very seriously. He won awards, and they announced it at school over the PA.
I saw him on the news a year or two after graduation. Sure enough, Olympics. He was training. Tryouts. He made it. He did alright. Didn’t win, but he did alright.
I heard that he was offered over a million dollars to go pro.
Cold and greasy is a terrible combination. Everything is covered in the slickness of meat. The dawn sky is made of cold, dirty, grey grease. My hands are numb from hauling the buckets of pizza out of the Escort into Wernert Elementary. Wernert. The word “wernert” is the most hideous word I can think of, and it perfectly describes the tactile horror of the whole situation. I feel wernert.
The lunch ladies leave one of the steel doors propped open for me unless they forget. They forget today, and I’m forced to try to knock on the cold steel door with frigid knuckles until someone opens up. It’s hard to knock with my arm wrapped around a bucket, but I don’t want to set the bucket on the ground. It’s full of kids’ food. Some of them will be excited about it.
The smell of elementary school. What is it? Construction paper? Pencil shavings? Something humid and vaguely foodlike? It’s the same in every building.
They all have bulletin boards with loud, glossy posters trying to get the kids to drink milk or do their homework or whatever. Skateboards! This school has one right as I come through the entrance.
Today, I recognize a face on one of the motivational posters. It is Darrell. He is posed confidently in a boxing ring. He has his headgear on, and a mouth guard. His arms are folded across his chest in jocular mock-menace. His gloves are laced together and draped over his right shoulder. He is looking directly into the camera. He is looking directly at me. The inscription underneath says: “Be a Winner, Read.”
Justin Longacre lives in Toledo, Ohio where he teaches English and Creative Writing at Toledo School
for the Arts. His work has been published in the NOÖ Journal and as a part of the
Poetry Sidewalks program, sponsored by the Toledo Arts Commission.