95 DegreesDecember 5, 2016
The zit-faced copy center clerk looked over the counter at Rummy and said, “What’s the name supposed to mean, this Crystal Crust?”
“Means we got the best pizza in town. What’s it come to?”
“I’ve never heard of you. And I eat a lot of pizza.”
Rummy looked down at the clerk’s gut and held his tongue. He said, “We’re new. What’s it come to?”
“No joke. I really love pizza.”
“I said what’s it come to.”
Rummy fished two 10s out of his pocket and handed them to the clerk.
“Maybe I’ll give you guys a try sometime.”
Rummy shrugged. He picked up the box of flyers and headed out the door into the suffocating post-storm heat of the late afternoon. His cousin Lauren was parked around the corner. The short walk to her Corolla was enough to make Rummy’s Orlando Magic tee stick to his chest with sweat. He tossed the flyers in the backseat and slid in alongside them. He tugged on his shirt collar, fanning himself. “This goddamn heat, man.”
His other cousin Markie was in the passenger seat, rolling a joint. “They say 95 degrees is the temperature when most second-degree murders happen. The ones people don’t plan ahead of time. Something about that temperature makes people come unhinged. Lose they goddamned minds.”
“You shitting me?” Lauren said pulling out into traffic.
Markie was too focused on the joint to reply. He sealed it up between his lips and examined the precisely crafted work. Nodded in satisfaction. “Who’s smoking? Rummy, you smoking?”
“Naw. Last time I got high in this kinda heat, I puked.” Rummy shifted his ass sideways, tried to make himself comfortable – an impossible task when cousin Markie was around. He always put a knot in Rummy’s stomach. 10 years Rummy’s senior, Markie always seemed to be on the edge of violence, like he was perpetually playing “punch for punch” with the world, but the world didn’t know it.
Rummy flinched a lot when Markie was around, but he was desperate for money since his mom’s disability checks stopped coming in the mail. The state had caught wise to her “brittle ankles” and severed her lifeline. So now it was up to Rummy to provide and cousin Markie’s pizza flier scam was a moneymaker. Tourists were always easy prey and what better way to get them to open their hotel doors wide than pizza.
“Getting blazed in the blaze,” Markie said slowly, like a prayer, letting the weed smoke float out of his mouth. “Getting blazed in the blaze.”
Lauren merged onto the highway, towards the tourist hotels that pockmarked south Orlando.
Cliff Baxter stared into the mirror of his hotel bathroom. Stared through his own bloodshot eyes, through the mirror and into the storm banging inside his head. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.” Even with the door closed and both taps on the faucet running, he could hear his youngest son Aaron wailing over the lost E.T. doll.
He clamped his fingers on the sink, gritted his teeth, and then threw a punch at the mirror. He held back at the last second, stopping inches from his reflection. He squeezed his fist tight enough to make it hurt. “Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up!”
He splashed cold water on his face and didn’t bother to towel off.
“Why would you throw your brother’s doll in the lake?” Cliff said coming back into the room. Aaron was curled up on one of the beds, his face shoved into a pillow. It did nothing to muffle his cries, which had reached a sonic pitch that blurred the edges of Cliff’s vision.
On the other bed, Owen, the eldest son by three years, was lying on his stomach, legs kicking in the air. He was flipping through the channels on the television perched in the cabinet in front of his bed. He stopped on a cartoon.
Cliff took the remote out of his hands and switched off the television. “Answer me, Owen. Why did you throw his E.T. into the lake?”
Owen shrugged. Cliff looked at his eldest, dumbfounded. His chest puffed in and out. “I said answer me, Owen!”
Owen rolled onto his side and looked up at his father with those flinty eyes he inherited from his mother. “I’m hungry.”
Cliff sighed. “Aaron, your brother’s hungry. Are you hungry?”
Aaron removed the pillow from his face. His freckled face was void of tears, his eyes clear. Like he hadn’t been really crying at all. “Yes, I’m hungry.”
Cliff’s wife was delivering a speech at one of the nearby convention centers. It was her idea to take the kids to Universal Studios for the two days of the expo – leaving Cliff alone with them. Alone in the madness of the theme park and the crippling Central Florida humidity. Screaming, sweating, pissing, fighting, and one nose bleed. This was what Cliff had used up his vacation days for.
“Dad!” Owen said. “We’re hungry!”
Cliff nodded slowly, staring at the carpet pattern as he remembered something.
Before Owen had inexplicably hurled Aaron’s E.T. souvenir doll into the lake that bordered the hotel’s parking lot, Cliff had pulled a flyer off his windshield. It was for a local pizza place. Yes, that’s it. Fill their little garbage mouths with pizza. Seal them with cheese. Bind their lips with tomato sauce forever. Then, the peace.
“Who wants pizza?”
“Crystal Crust Pizza, pickup or delivery?” Lauren said. The caper only worked if they wanted delivery. The man gave her the name of a hotel and his room number. She hung up the payphone and walked back to her car.
“We got an order,” she said, getting behind the wheel. “Triple Sands Resort. Room 305.”
“Shit, about time,” Rummy said, stifling a yawn. He thought about phoning home to let his mom know he’s okay. Instead, he shot her a quick text saying he’d be home in about an hour with some dinner. “Was starting to think today was gonna be a bust.”
Markie opened the glove box and took out the snubnosed revolver. He held the short barrel up to his lips and said, “Order up!”
Lauren and Markie laughed. Rummy slumped down in the backseat and said, “Time to get paid.” He tried his best to sound enthusiastic.
“Can we do the Transformers ride again? Dad? Dad! DAD!”
Which son was screaming now, Cliff couldn’t tell. Could be Aaron or Owen. Or a third child. An invisible one sent from Hell to push his insanity along. A triplet, like the third head of Cerberus.
After ordering the pizza, Cliff had gotten changed and the boys had been absorbed in the TV. He’d put on a nice buttoned shirt and some chinos his wife had bought him the week before. She liked him in chinos. Changing into these clean clothes, Cliff managed to feel somewhat human again. It quieted the storm a bit – pushed it back out into the ocean. But then a commercial for the new Transformers movie had come on television and their voices cracked again and the crown of high-pitched chaos returned for Cliff to bear.
There was a knock at the door, followed by both sons screaming PIZZA in unison.
Through the peephole, Cliff saw a young man holding a pizza box. He grabbed his wallet off the dresser. When he opened the door, Rummy rushed through the door, shoving the empty pizza box in Cliff’s face, pushing him off guard. Markie came in next, his arm extended, covering Cliff with the revolver.
“Your money!” Markie said, kicking the door shut. “Give it up!”
The boys ran to the corner of the room, hugging each other and screaming.
“Shut those kids up, man!” Rummy said.
“Shut em up, pops!” Markie said, stepping further into the room. He was in between Cliff and the kids now. The kids screamed louder. Rummy was blocking the door, bobbing on his toes, ready to strike. “I said shut em up!”
The screams of the strangers and his children merged inside Cliff’s head, behind his eyes. They rattled together for a moment and then he heard nothing. Like someone had hit the mute button. There was only a dull humming where the noise had been.
The silence jarred Cliff. He had to steady himself on the bed. He looked at the intruders, their mouths contorting, no sounds coming out. He looked at his sons.
Their faces like little wolves howling. He heard nothing. It was here, finally. The peace.
But it wouldn’t last long, Cliff knew. The peace gave him this clarity. He had to make it last. Make it have an impact.
Cliff took one step towards Markie and punched him as hard as he could in the side of the head. Markie went down and the gun dully bounced once on the carpet. Rummy made a dive for it but Cliff was closer. He snatched it up and aimed it at the two men.
Rummy crab-walked backwards to the wall and hunched close to cousin Markie, who was shaking his head to maintain consciousness. “Yo, we’re sorry!” Rummy said. “My mom’s got a disability! I just needed some money for her, man! For food! Keep the gun, just let us go!”
Cliff looked over his shoulder and saw his boys holding each other. They had stopped crying and were looking up at their father, their faces distorted with a mixture of fear and confusion and something else. Something he’d never seen in his sons’ eyes before. Awe?
Cliff glanced out the window. The moon was reflecting off the hotel’s round lake, giving it a ring of silver. Like a crystal crust.
He turned to Markie and Rummy and smiled. “Either of you guys know how to swim?”
Lauren held the smoke in too long and let out a painful hack that burned her throat. She knew she should slow down with the smoking, since she had to drive all the way back to south Orlando, but this shit was making her nervous. What was taking her cousins so long? Usually it was in and out. The tourists hand over the cash or the traveler’s checks and they split it up on the ride home. Tonight’s caper was taking too long.
She couldn’t worry about it for too long because she dozed off. The humidity and weed will do that to a person.
Markie and Rummy opened their car doors, jolting her awake. Markie was rubbing the side of his face as he plopped down into the passenger seat. He did not look like someone who had just scored.
“What happened to you?” she said.
She could smell Rummy before she turned sideways in her seat and got a good look at him. He was sopping wet and looked even more miserable than Markie. “Why the fuck do you smell like a dead fish?”
“Just drive,” Markie said. “For the love of God, just drive away from here.”
Lauren turned the engine over and flipped on the headlights. They lit up to reveal Cliff walking back towards the hotel entrance. He turned and waved at the Corolla.
“Who the fuck is that guy? And why is he carrying a fucking E.T. doll?!”