Judy shifted in the booth across from me, relaxing into her usual slumped-forward state— arms crossed, chin up, cigarette in mouth. “I know you like to write about places,” she said. “But why here? What’s so special about this Pizza Rhea?”
My response—“Why not?”—contained several, hidden reasons: Because I work for the same establishment fifty-seven miles north. Because I’m also a waitress who runs about in a tacky red apron and matching baseball cap.
Because the entire “Pizza Rhea” franchise has to do with our reunion.
“Well, it’s messy in here today,” Mom said, pointing toward a miniscule pile of crumbs on the floor. “I’m gonna say something to Christie.” Then she took a long drag from her cigarette.
My Aunt Christie is the evening manager at the Rushville, Indiana Pizza Rhea. Their slogan—Bringing Families Together, One Slice at a Time—has a different meaning for my family.
As if on cue, Aunt Christie came running into the dining room carrying another tray full of breadsticks and beer, barely missing the wooden doorframe on her way. She managed to stumble safely into the booth beside my mother. Being accident-prone is a family trait. My mother broke her arm once falling from a stool. I broke my foot scampering from cops in platform pumps. My aunt, she just runs into things—doorframes, walls, gumball machines, invisible children. And she’s broken all of her toes. Twice.
“Whoa,” my aunt said, sitting down, “I just about ran into the damn wall.”
“I noticed,” I replied.
Aunt Christie tucked her long blonde hair behind her ears and smiled a big cheesy smile. “Ok,” she said, “I’m ready to be interviewed.”
“I’m not here to write about you,” I said.
Aunt Christie frowned. I think. She, my mother, and I all have the same frown. No matter how grave a situation might be, our frowns actually look like smiles—like we’re trying our best not to crack up. “Ok, Christie,” I said, humoring her. “Compare your life to a pizza.”
Before my aunt had a chance to elaborate on her instantaneous response—“Messy!”—my mother interrupted: “Why are you asking her questions?” Mom lit a new cigarette. The filter from her last was still smoldering in the ashtray.
“I’m just here to write,” I said, my hands defensively splayed at my shoulders. My Aunt Christie looked as if she might sucker punch my mom for disrupting. “Anyhow, where were we?” I asked. “Oh right, messy. Why messy?”
I caught the first part of my Aunt Christie’s response. It was something like, “Well, when you paste a pizza, you automatically get crap everywhere. It’s like ‘pasting life’. You can try to make it as neat as possible but, no matter what, you’re gonna get crap everywhere and….”
I stopped listening. Though I kept my pen moving, I nonchalantly looked around the dining room, making mental notes: So this is the Pizza Rhea where my biological mother works. So this is the town in which I was born twenty-three years ago.
So this is what it feels like to have my mother stare darts at me while I try my damnedest not to return her gaze.
The dining room was halved into two sections—smoking and second-hand smoking. A giant double-door frame separated the rooms. In the non-smoking area a middle-aged couple occupied a table, whispering and leaning toward each other as if engulfed in a game of “Win, Lose, or Draw” and one of them knew an answer. They’re talking about us, I thought. Somehow, they know our story. Mom and Aunt Christie and I are stick figures on poster board to them, with yellow marker streaks for hair. Because of the glances this couple kept shooting us, I half-expected one of them to shout, “Oh, I know! They’re a classic depiction of an estranged Midwestern family. Just look at the scowl on the mother’s face and the confused expression on the daughter’s. And that other one, the chatty one, well, she’s handicapped. There’s one in every family in Indiana!” I giggled to myself because, sure enough, Aunt Christie, God bless her, was still talking about her life in comparison to making a pizza.
I looked around and made mental notes of the dining room décor. Everything was glazed wood. Glazed wood paneling, glazed wood tables, glazed wood booths with red cushions, glazed wood chairs. It was like a hell for naughty maids doomed to dust their afterlives away.
The windows were stained-glass squares in the wall making yellow, green, and red streaks shimmer on the tile floor and tabletops. So this dining room is like a hell with stained-glass windows, I thought. Then it must be Purgatory or Limbo—a place of indecision, where people get stuck for awhile until they figure something out. And it’s either up or down from there.
Smoke from my mom’s cigarette twinkled and waved in the light as if bidding adieu before evaporating forever.
“The baking process is kind of like going through middle age,” Aunt Christie said, nudging my mother.
“I wish I was baked right now,” my mom said. I giggled. “Don’t write that down, Abby.”
“Are you going to write about the Pizza Rhea you work for?” Aunt Christie leaned across the table in an attempt to read what I had written. I backed up, pulling my folder to my chest. “I only want a sip of your beer,” she whispered. I pushed my mug toward her.
“Well, the Pizza Rhea I work for is bigger, but not quite as sanctuary-like,” I said, making a small orbit with my index finger in the air. “It’s not quite as dim lit and archaic. This place is medieval. I love the décor of glazed wood. You know it must suck to dust in here. Like hell for naughty maids doomed to dust their afterlives away.”
Mom and Aunt Christie had stopped listening to me. Both of their eyes were on the television behind my head. I’d forgotten to previously note the only not wood-glazed item in the dining room: the TV.
“Reunions are on Montel,” my mom said, poking her cigarette into the air. “I called them once looking for you.” She smiled at me. Or wait, maybe she frowned. I couldn’t tell.
“Well, here I am now! And who woulda guessed I’d be a waitress just like you!” I knew eventually the topic of our reunion would come up. Always does.
Staring at the TV, I noticed that my mother’s eyes were glazed—not pie-eyed like a woman in love, but earnestly transfixed on remembering something. “In my head you were a nurse. In Metamora, Indiana. That’s where I thought Welfare took you. Metamora.”
“How would you compare your life to a pizza?” Aunt Christie asked me.
I was born kind of like a pizza—fresh and hot from my mother’s oven. Only I wasn’t served right away. I was rushed to an isolated nursery where I was put in an incubator, kept warm like a little carryout. Eventually Welfare services picked me up. Then they delivered me to a family a few cities safely away. “Here’s your baby, ma’am. That’ll be two thousand dollars and fifty cents.”
“Only I get to ask the questions,” I said to my aunt, smiling. “The next one’s for Mom.” My mother furled her brow; her eyes narrowed, and her lips parted slightly. I asked, “What do you think about me working at Pizza Rhea too?”
Mom exhaled emphatically. “Oh, I think it’s weird,” she said, rolling her neck.
Jeez, did she think I was going to badger her about my biological father again? I knew better.
“But it was cool. Like we turned out the same after so long. Except you’re doing this kind of stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?” I asked, defensively.
“Writing. I wish I could do that.”
“Well, Mom,” I said, “You can. It’s never too late to be a writer.”
Mom shrugged and turned to my aunt. “Okay, Christie,” she said. “Your turn.”
I followed suit, asking Aunt Christie if there was anything she cared to elaborate on: About working for the Pizza Rhea franchise; about making metaphorical pizzas.
“Mushrooms are like kids. They’re optional!” Aunt Christie laughed at her analogy. My mom shot Aunt Christie an angry glare. “Do you like mushrooms?” Christie continued, oblivious.
“No,” I said. “I don’t like kids much.”
Aunt Christie, my mother, and I all struggle with verbal impulse control. My mom slips expletives into her speech, unaware of her surroundings. On rare occasions, a person with young children nearby asks Mom to watch her language. To which she promptly responds, “Watch your bastards.”
Aunt Christie and I are bad about making inappropriate jokes—“Hey, who scraped the kitchen floor and dumped the trash bin onto this large pizza?” and “Here’s your medium crap pizza with a side of crap sauce, sir.” These jokes, harmless as my Aunt Christie and I figure them to be, got us both reprimanded at our own, separate Pizza Rhea’s. Twice.
The couple in the non-smoking area had gotten up; they were approaching our table.
“Judy?” A woman with thick glasses in faded jeans and a leather jacket stood a foot or so away, eyeing my mother. She’s eyeing Mom, I thought. I knew it, she knows more about my relinquishment than I do. Maybe she knew my father. Maybe she gave birth to my father’s ninth or tenth kid. Maybe she’s a Pizza Rhea regular, or Mom’s stockbroker, or my half-sister.
My mother smiled at the woman. Or frowned. One of the two.
“Hey, Sidney,” Mom said, “Doin’ good?”
The woman, Sidney, nodded. “I am.” She glared down at me. I shifted in my seat and searched my pockets for a cigarette. I took a long sip of beer, glancing nonchalantly over my mug, pretending to make mental notes of everything but Sidney. It’s not like I’d never experienced strange glares around my mother before, I simply wasn’t used to them. Nevertheless, my eyes kept bouncing back to Sidney.
Mom noticed my uneasiness. “Well, it was nice seein’ ya’,” she said. Sidney nodded and walked off, peering curiously over her shoulder at me as she went.
The sunlight through the stained-glass windows darkened a bit. I wondered who Sidney was—to my mom, to my aunt, to me. Mom didn’t say.
The dining room was empty except for the three of us. “C’mon, guys, give me more to write about,” I pressed.
“Well,” Aunt Christie began, “What else. Oh, we take great pride in our jukebox! It’s got tons of Hank Williams on it and a rare Lynyrd Skynyrd album.”
I hoped I looked impressed when I smiled and nodded at my aunt, and that my smile didn’t accidentally look like a frown. I shuddered at the thought of both my mom and Aunt Christie strumming air guitars to “Free Bird”, picking at imaginary chords with their teeth like Allen Collins once did.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t stand Lynyrd Skynyrd!” I blurted, smacking my palm against my head. “And, you know what? I’ve been writing about you guys the whole time. Little things. Your frowny smiles, for example.”
Mom and Aunt Christie exchanged glances.
“Are you drunk?” Mom asked.
I shook my head no.
Aunt Christie asked. “Do you need more beer?”
I shrugged. I really shouldn’t drink more, I thought, but what else can I do?
“Drink more,” Aunt Christie persisted. “That way, once you get sloshed, you can fall in the kitchen and hit your head on the stove again. That’s something to write about.”
I giggled. “My damn head hurt for a week.”
“My mouth hurt from laughing for a week.”
Mom put out her cigarette. “That’s one thing you get from your father.”
Aunt Christie and I froze.
“Falling down drunk?” I asked, stammering, surprised by Mom’s confession. “Because I only did that once around you. Or are you saying that my biological father also hated Lynyrd Skynyrd?”
Mom chuckled, “Well, both actually. He was always gettin’ himself stuck and screwed up in the strangest of places.” She took a big sip from her mug and smacked her lips. “Somehow though,” she continued, “he would pull himself out with a big ol’ grin on his face.”
Now, the only photograph I’d ever seen of my biological father was an out-of-focus computer printout. He was playing the bass guitar. His thick brown hair was frazzled like a child’s depiction of a man with one finger in a light socket. The photograph was a profile shot, so I could barely see any distinct features in his face.
I misplaced the photo anyhow. So, now, I’ve no memory of an expression, only a recollection of a flaccid cigarette dangling from his shaded lips.
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked. “You’re frowning.”
“I don’t remember that printout of him.” I figured it better not say “my father” or “Dad.” Or “Michael.” Or “Mr. Sansoni.” Or “That guy with whom you had two children.”
“Good for you,” Mom said. She was frowning. Wait, no; that’s a smile. That’s satisfaction in her eyes. Mom was pleased I’d lost the picture. “Are you mad that I don’t have more pictures?” she asked.
I shook my head no and peered into my folder. I furled my brow in feigned deliberation over the scratches and loops I’d inattentively made with my pen. I thought, it’s crazy that she even initiated a discussion about my biological father. Even if he were alive, he wouldn’t be the one sitting across from me, allowing me to write about him; about us.
“No,” I said, decisively, “I’m not mad at all.”
Mom lit another cigarette. Sunlight meagerly broke through the stained glass windows; then it faded. Shadows caught the hue of the smoke — silvery blonde and pale, like Mom’s hair and face and fingernails. “Now you can remember him however you’d like,” she said.
I shut my folder and laughed. The first image of my biological father that came into my head was one of a stick figure with coiled brown marker streaks for hair, smoking a stick cigarette and smiling.
About Abby: Abigail Higgs received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2012. She wishes to thank her moms: Janet and Judy.