WHEN FLOYD TOLD me he couldn’t hire me as a Domino’s Pizza deliveryman unless I cut my hair, I did what I had to do. I bought a wig. No way was I going back to being a chronic masturbator with a collection of four, twelve, and twenty-sided fantasy roleplaying dice. I had to keep the long hair. And delivering pizzas was the only job I could picture myself doing. You didn’t have to hang out in the store, you got to drive around and smoke pot, only occasionally stopping in to make pickups and eat reject pizzas with Hannah and Floyd and Ben Howler, the guy with the whistling lisp like Jimmy Stewart who was obsessed with The Plurples- little people who lived in the drains of sinks and spoke in voices like running water.
I’d been invisible in high school. I wasn’t good at sports, didn’t excel in academics, wasn’t a member of any clubs or organizations. Girls paused to laugh at me, when they noticed me at all, and jocks would daily grind my face into random objects in a crude parody of scientific inquiry. But the summer after I graduated I grew my hair out and started playing guitar, and everything changed. Girls noticed me, and they didn’t laugh. Guys stopped grinding my face into things. I was almost cool. And I was convinced that cutting my hair would put an end to it. I’d be instantly transformed back into a schlub.
These days you can deliver pizzas with a split tongue, the Eiffel Tower tattooed down the center of your nose and razorblades implanted in your face. Nobody bats an eye. But in the last century, in the conservative South, most of the chain restaurant jobs still required a clean-cut image, and Domino’s Pizza was no exception. They had a strict no-long-hair policy.
But I needed money to buy pot.
My friend Hannah worked at Domino’s taking phone orders and she introduced me to Floyd, the manager, who was a cool dude and a pothead, but even he couldn’t change company policy. The hair had to go.
Then a purple thunderbolt, outlined in black velvet: the wig revelation struck.
I found myself a standing in front of a glass counter stacked with cardboard boxes, my hair stuffed into a flesh-toned nylon stocking, yanking on wig after wig as Kim said unconvincing yet encouraging-sounding things like “Yes. Yes. That looks very nice.”
Kim’s Wigs was an Asheville institution that had faithfully coiffured drag queens and women with an excess of testosterone in their scalps for over three decades. They didn’t sell men’s wigs or toupees at the time, so I had to go for one of the shorter lady’s wigs. I tried blond ones, black ones, brown ones. Five wigs. Ten wigs. Mostly I looked like Florence Henderson or Audrey Hepburn after gender reassignment. Fifteen wigs. Twenty wigs. I finally found one that was passable, a cowlicked ashy brown wig that looked manly enough, and when I pulled the red and blue Domino’s baseball cap down over it, I looked . . . suspicious. I mean it wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but to the casual observer I’d appear clean cut. Anyway, I told myself, I’d be working the night shift.
I got the job.
People who didn’t spot the wig tended to treat me with suspicion. There was something flawed about me, you could tell, but it was tough to pin down. They handed me money at arm’s length and quickly closed the door. Others, more attentive to detail, spotted it at once. These tended to treat me with unmerited compassion, as if they assumed I was undergoing chemotherapy, yet still courageously delivering pizzas. They’d slip me a five or a ten and wish me luck.
But the wig was hot. The air-conditioning was broken in the battered lime green Volkswagen Dasher I drove around in, and on sultry nights the sweat would pool up inside the flesh-toned nylon stocking and trickle down into my eyes. I’d appear at the door with a pizza— face red, eyes bloodshot— looking like I’d been crying. It was also itchy. I’d jam pencils up under the edge and scratch my scalp, often drawing blood. At the end of the night I’d yank the damned thing off and throw it in the corner— where it lay like a gutted hedgehog until my next shift— and scratch myself into an ecstasy. Then I’d hang out, being a longhaired dude who was almost cool.
One night the cat peed on the wig as it lay in the corner, and although I tried washing it in the sink, the pee smell never quite went away, and when it got hot, the smell got worse.
But I loved the job, and I was good at it. I got to know the back streets and shortcuts of West Asheville really well. I made good tips, too, and not just cash. Some people gave me beer, or asked me inside and smoked me out. Sitting there wearing a wig that smelled like pee, in some stranger’s living room, watching The X-Files and doing bong hits out of a ceramic skull- it appealed to my sense of universal randomness.
I had a walkie-talkie, and Floyd would call when there was a run to make. If it was slow, I’d park somewhere and get high, or Ben Howler would call in a 5150- police code for lunatic- and we’d meet up under the railroad bridge and smoke weed. We’d hotbox the Dasher and Ben would tell me about The Plurples. “The Plurplesh live in an ideal shoshiety, where all war and disheashe and poverty have been eradicated. Their only natural enemiesh are clogsh, which they dishpenshe with great exshpedienshe whenever they occur . . .”
The walkie would crackle and Floyd’s voice would cut through the static, “Pickup for two-seventy Haywood. Who wants it?”
“I’ll take it.”
There were weird people on my route who seemed to eat nothing but pizza. The store at 270 Haywood Street, Schultz’s Shoe Repair, was owned and operated by chubby fraternal twins with long blonde hair, metal-heads who looked like fat golden palominos and played in a hair-metal band called Wedge (I’m guessing they were geometry buffs.) They’d transformed the back room of Schultz’s into an adolescent stoner’s paradise, a dark party room with buzzing black lights and velvet Ozzy Osbourne posters all over the walls. They were always playing the Bark at the Moon album by Ozzy and doing bong hits and eating pizza, or practicing diddly-diddly-diddly finger-tapping heavy metal solos for their stupid band, and even though I hated heavy metal music, I’d still follow them back into the party room and do a couple bong hits and pretend I liked Bark at the Moon, because they only tipped in bong hits.
Then I’d drive back to Domino’s to make a pick-up, and while I was there Ben Howler would be hassling Floyd to make a floor pie, which was a reject pizza. It was expected that you would have a certain number of floor pies, pies that were literally dropped on the floor, or just damaged, or the dough had bubbled up like a tumor, or pies that were rejected by the customers because of some human error like incorrect toppings, or unclaimed pizzas ordered by pranksters calling in false addresses, and even if you didn’t have any floor pies, you could always claim that one was defective and write it off. Floyd was pretty cool about it, but hesitant, so Ben, who had a tapeworm or something, and who was, like me, perpetually stoned, he would always be hassling Floyd to free up a floor pie.
“Come on Floyd, free up a floor pie,” he’d whistle, his eyes watering, and Floyd would usually sigh heavily, because he was a little worried the branch manager would find out somehow, but he’d inevitably relent and say, “All right, sure, what do you want on it?”
Ben would caper around the linoleum like it was Christmas morning and gleefully list toppings, “Um ham, and um shaushage, and um pepperoni, and um peppersh, and um onionsh and . . .” We would stand around eating the floor pie with glassy eyes in the too-bright fluorescent Domino’s kitchen as the cars whizzed by out on Smoky Park Highway, listening to Ben mutter about The Plurples between ravenous bites.
“The Plurplesh are very intelligent, but mishunderstood . . .”
Hannah managed the phones, and she was always doodling dark doodles in the margins of the yellow legal pad she took orders on, scenes from the Normandy invasion it looked like to me: barbed wire and explosions, bodies ripped to shreds, jackbooted stormtroopers marching in with flamethrowers. She was a quiet person with wide moony eyes. She seemed to have a lot on her mind. I gave her a ride home one night during a thunderstorm, and she stared out the window at the wet, reflective streets. You could see the world above mirrored in them, and she said “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go down there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would be great.”
When we finished the floor pie, I would gather up two or three pizzas, load them into a foil-lined warmer satchel, and take them out on the road.
As the summer progressed, things started to go wrong. Little things, not obviously related, but viewed collectively, from a distance, they could be seen as part of a pattern, like how an intertwining mesh of individual bristly hairs, when viewed from a distance, combine to form the impression of a luxurious head of hair.
It wouldn’t stop raining, for one thing. The gutters overflowed with rushing brown water. Dangerous whirlpools swirled over sewer grates. There was no relief from the heat. Days of hot muggy showers and desolate dark nights of reflective streets.
Hannah’s mother died in June, leaving a small inheritance. Hannah quit Domino’s and started shooting up.
Something happened to Ben Howler in mid-July. It was personal and he didn’t want to talk about it, but the tranquil society of the Plurples became fractured by internal strife. Plurples from south of the equatorial meridian began terrorizing Plurples from the north, reinvigorating an ancient quarrel over what direction water should swirl down drains.
The people on my route turned weirder. The Schultz twins started acting paranoid, like they were running a meth lab. They’d peer through the cracked door of the shoe store with blue lips and dark circles under their eyes, bewildered by my presence, as if they’d forgotten they’d placed the order. I’d have to slide the pizza through the crack sideways.
Finally, my car started giving out. The radiator overheated and I had to top it off with antifreeze all the time. My tires went bald and I worried about having a blowout and dying in a fireball. It was as if I’d fallen out of favor with whatever it was that governed the universe.
August tenth was drizzly and hot. I picked up a Large Pan Pizza with Everything, No Olives for 1037 Leicester Highway #27, and a Large Pan Pizza, Hawaiian for 354 Overlook Lane, slid them into a warmer satchel, and sped off into the night.
I drove out Leicester Highway to 1037, turned down the gravel drive, followed it to a huddle of mobile homes, located number 27, and parked. I pulled the top pizza from the satchel and stepped out of the car. I left the motor running and climbed the rickety wooden steps to the porch. I rang the bell and heard somebody inside yell “Pizza’s here!” and footsteps. The porch light blazed, temporarily blinding me. When my eyes adjusted, I saw a young woman standing in the doorway, a pudgy country girl in a floral muumuu.
She stared at me through the screen, eyes wide, sweat beading on her forehead.
“Domino’s!” I cried, cheery.
“Is this supposed to be funny?” Her chin trembled.
“I’ve got a Large Pan Pizza. Everything, No Olives.”
“Take that wig off.”
“Did you order a pizza?” I asked.
She turned her head and, without once taking her eyes off me, yelled “Earl!”
Inside, a man’s voice- “What?”
“Did you order a pizza?” I asked again.
“He’s wearing a wig, Earl!”
A big blubbery shirtless guy in sweatpants and two descending rows of teats like a nursing bitch came to the door. “What the hell’s going on?” he hollered. Then he saw me, saw the wig.
“I’ve got a Large Pan Pizza, Everything, No Olives?”
“You don’t show up at my door wearing a goddamned wig!”
He shoved the screen door open, slamming it into the pizza box. The pizza fell out, landing upside down on the porch with a moist smack. “Who put you up to this? Was it Danny?” He pushed his way outside, grabbing at my wig. It came off in his hand, along with my Domino’s cap and the flesh-toned nylon stocking. My hair tumbled out as I turned and ran for the car.
Earl came running after me but slipped on the fallen pizza, hitting the porch with a sickening slap, dog teats jiggling. “I’ll kill you, motherfucker!”
The muumuu girl was at the living room window, and as I ran past she shouted “And you can tell that fucker Danny that maliaphobia is a putative disorder!”
I made it back to the Dasher, jumped in, and floored it, spraying gravel in all directions. I sped back out onto the main road and didn’t slow down until I made the Smoky Park Highway.
Five minutes later I parked under the railroad bridge, got on the walkie-talkie and called in a 5150. The walkie crackled back, Ben’s voice: “That’sh a ten-four,” and then another voice came on right after that, Floyd. “You assholes know I can hear you right? I just got off the phone with the Large Pan Everything, No Olives for ten-thirty-seven Leicester Highway, Larry. Did you throw a fucking pizza at them?” I didn’t answer. “Is this it, Larry? Are you fucking up? I don’t need any fuck-ups on my payroll, Larry.” I still didn’t answer. “Have you at least delivered the large Hawaiian to three-fifty-four Overlook Lane?”
I turned off my walkie and got out of the car. I removed the Overlook Lane pizza from the foil-lined warming satchel and sat down on the hood of the Dasher. I opened the box and started picking the pineapple chunks off, flicking them into the bushes at the edge of the lot. I felt relieved. Now the wig was gone it seemed like the spell had been broken. The feeling of impending doom that had been steadily growing in me since Memorial Day had dissipated. I ate a slice as the rain began to fall.
Ben Howler’s yellow Pinto pulled in under the bridge, and he got out and slumped across the lot and sat on the hood next to me, staring hungrily into the pizza box by my side.
“Ish that the Large Pan Hawaiian for three-fifty-four Overlook Lane?”
“Yeah, it is.”
He took a slice and started picking the pineapple chunks off and flicking them into the bushes. Cars and trucks hissed across the bridge over our heads, and the rain fell, and higher up, behind clouds tinted orange by halogen streetlights, the stars twinkled, indifferent, long-dead.
Ben stuffed a now pineapple-free slice of pizza into his mouth.
“Floyd’sh pisshed,” he said. “I think he’sh gonna fire you.”
“Where’sh your wig at?”