Dimitri Ariston had owned the pizza place for years. It was crowded, as always, on a Friday night. It was in a small New England town, but not so small that everybody really knew everybody else. All the stools along a counter that doubled as a bar were occupied with guys from town. The counter was where people put in carry-out orders and waited for them to be ready. Some customers sipped a quick beer, even though they mostly all of them were going to drive their orders home.
A little farther away there were some eat-in tables. Alexis, the owner’s niece, took care of them. The oldest-looking guy at the counter hadn’t ordered a pizza. He came to watch the Red Sox game playing on the TV above and behind the counter. The old guy didn’t have TV at home. There were only two beer taps. Bud and Bud light, none of that craft or foreign beer for this crowd. There were two women sitting at a high table just a little away. They had ordered pizzas, but they kept their distance from the men.
The phone rang, and the owner picked it up. “Ari’s Pizza,” he said into the phone. Then he listened for a moment to the person on the other end, his face frowning deeper the longer he listened. He lowered the phone and announced to the crowded room, “Shit, it’s happened again.”
“Happened again?” one of the guys at the bar asked. He was the guy they all called, “The Professor.” He had once taught a course over at the Community College. His insight was always sought and respected.
“Yeah,” Ari said; “These people are still waiting for their pizza. My delivery guy never showed up.” He looked at the clock on the wall; “He should have been there and back by now. It’s not very far.” Then he spoke into the phone again. “Okay, no problem, I’ll send another one. For your trouble, I’ll make it free.” He fumbled with the pile of order forms at the end of the counter where he assembled them; “Okay, that was a large pepperoni, olives, and extra cheese? I got it. I’ll send another guy. I’ll get it to you soon as I can.”
He hung up the phone and let out a deep sigh. Then he hollered through the window into the kitchen. “Pizza! Pizza! Freddy, large pepperoni, olives, and extra cheese.”
“I just made one of them.” Freddy yelled back.
“Make another fast as you can,” the boss ordered; “I’ll send Manny with this one when he gets back here.” Then he turned back to the guys at the counter. “Good thing I got two boys workin’ tonight,” he said to the group. “Manny’s a little… slow,” Ari pointed to his own head; “But he always comes back. He’s the one’s been working here the longest. Most of the others end up disappearing like this. That’s the third one this month.”
“You mean that’s happened before?” the professor asked; “Happened many times?”
“Once a week. Maybe not that often, three times a month, maybe less than that,” Ari said. “These kids I hire. They drive their grandma’s car, their sister’s truck, even some have wheels of their own. I really don’t know where they come from, but I never have trouble getting new kids. I put a sign out. Another one always shows up.”
“And they just disappear?” a well-dressed guy no one knew very well asked.
“They do fine for a while. Then they leave with their pizza orders. About a half hour later someone calls. They haven’t got their order. They don’t get them. Then I never see the boys again… . I call their cell phones. They never answer. I never hear a thing. I never see ‘em again. First time I even filed one of those missing person things with Officer Fred. He never found out a thing.”
Alexis came to the taps behind the counter. While she filled a glass with beer she hollered out, “Table three, spaghetti and sausage, Greek salad, dressing on the side and meatball grinder for here.”
“Got it,” Freddy answered back from the kitchen.
“Where I come from,” a guy that claimed he’d been in Louisiana said; “They got alligator farms. People down there can completely disappear.”
“We don’t got alligators here,” a long haired guy down the end said.
“Maybe it’s bears, but then, they most always leave bones…”
“They’d probably leave bones and the empty pizza boxes,” the professor laughed.
The well dressed guy remained serious, “Have you told Officer Fred about any of the others?”
“Naw,” Ari made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “He’s too busy. I figure, why bother him? I don’t even try to call their cell phones any more. Guy disappears, I throw away his name and number. None of ‘em ever come back.”
The phone rang again, and Ari answered. He listened for a moment. Then he said, “Yes mam,” in an impatient tone. “I got good pepperoni, and good meatballs. I make the best meatballs in town… .”
The guys at the counter realized it was a normal call, and they started talking amongst themselves, “Maybe it’s a conspiracy,” the long-haired guy suggested; “Maybe it’s the Russians.”
The professor laughed, “What would the Russians want with some pizza boy in this town?”
“That’s just it,” the well dressed guy frowned. “This is a small town. People shouldn’t just disappear.”
“Kids today,” the older guy spoke up. He used the same dismissive gesture that Ari had; “You can’t trust them to do anything.”
“Now hold on there.” The long-haired guy was offended; “Freddy, the kid in the back makin’ our pizzas, is my cousin. He’s a good boy, dependable as the day is long.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean him.”
As if he had heard, Freddy came around from the kitchen and put a pizza box down on the counter, “Large, sausage, eggplant, and onions,” he called out.
“That’s mine,” one of the women at the tall table said, and she slid off her stool.
Ari was off the phone. “Pizza! Pizza! He called out, even though Freddy wasn’t back in the kitchen yet; “One medium pepperoni. One medium meatball.” Then he picked up the box Freddy had put down and leaned across the counter to hand it to the woman, “Thanks, sorry about the wait tonight. We’re pretty busy.”
“No problem,” the woman smiled. She took her pizza and left, leaving the other woman to wait on her own.
Alexis went in behind the counter and filled two more glasses with beer. This time she had no food order.
“Gumbo, Ari,” the guy who’d claimed he’d been in Louisiana suddenly said; “You make a pizza with shrimp, andouille sausage, and a good Creole sauce. You’d have people lined up down the street.”
“That sounds really good,” the woman who had remained at the tall table said. The guys at the counter ignored her.
“Gumbo,” Ari frowned. Maybe they make pizza with gumbo in New Orleans, but I make pizzas the way they’re supposed to be made here.’
Except for the guy who’d been to Louisiana, the guys at the counter nodded their agreement with Ari.
Then the owner addressed the room, “Your pizzas’ll all be up soon. Nights like this, I need a bigger oven. Freddy’s workin’ fast as he can.”
“A bigger oven and pizza boys who don’t disappear on you,” the Professor agreed.
“You’re right,” the well-dressed guy agreed; “Someone should investigate. I used to be a detective, you know.” No one reacted to the news.
“Order up, Freddy yelled from the kitchen, “Spaghetti, Greek salad, meatball sub for here.” Alexis went to get it from the kitchen.
“Thought sure that would have been mine,” the long haired guy complained; “I know I got a big order, but I can’t wait forever.”
“You got four pizzas in, all comin’ up at the same time,” Ari said. “That’s what’s slowin’ things down.”
“You got a party or somethin’?” the old guy asked; “Maybe we should all come over to your place?”
“I wish,” the long-haired guy said; “Actually, I’m in tight spot. Tonight’s the once-a-month night my wife cooks for the homeless shelter down by the river.”
“They call us sometimes for pizzas when the person signed up for dinner doesn’t show,” Ari said.
“My wife asks me to take over this big pan of spaghetti and meatballs,” the long-haired guy continued.
“I make good spaghetti and meatballs right here,” Ari said.
The long-haired guy ignored him. “So I do. I get there and take it in the place. An’ this guy goes, ‘Shit pasta again tonight.’ An’ couple of the others agree. So I get mad.”
“I would, too.” The old guy nodded.
“I did a big U turn, and I took that whole pan of spaghetti and meatballs right back out the door and dumped it right in their dumpster. Dumped every bit of it out of the pan so they couldn’t just fish the pan back out and eat it anyway.”
“That’s awful,” the woman over at the table spoke up.
All the men turned to look at her. Then the long-haired guy spoke again, and they turned their attention back to him; “Then by the time I get home some Reverend Do Good, or something, who coordinates the dinners, has already been on the phone to my wife. An’ she’s mad as hell at me. Tells me to go buy them all pizzas, or don’t bother comin’ home.”
“That’s awful,” the old guy agreed.
“Good for her,” the woman said. All the men looked at the woman again,
“All started in 1919 with the 18th Amendment when we gave ‘em the right to vote,” the old guy complained.
“19th Amendment gave them the right to vote,” the Professor corrected him. “The 18th was Prohibition.”
The old guy held up his beer. “Thank God we repealed that one.”
Before the woman spoke again Freddy came out with a stack of four pizzas. “Order of four large,” Freddy called out.
“Okay, there they are,” the long-haired guy smiled. He took the stack of pizzas from Freddy, nodded to the guys, ignored the woman, and went out the door.
No one spoke for a moment. Then the door opened and Manny, the delivery guy still accounted for, came in. He handed Ari some money.”
The owner counted the money quickly and referred to his stack of orders by the cash register.’“Good,” he said. “Now, soon as Freddy gets it done, I got a replacement pizza for you to deliver right away.”
“You lose a guy again?” Manny asked. Ari threw up his hands in a big hopeless gesture.
“Seriously,” the well-dressed guy said; “Kids shouldn’t just disappear. Somebody should do something. I really was a detective. I know how to do an investigation.”
“Yes, you should,” the woman spoke up again; “you guys have no feelings for the homeless or for poor delivery boys who are disappearing?”
There was a moment of silence. Then the Professor spoke up, “The detective here has a point. Someone really should investigate these disappearances.”
The old guy disagreed, “There’s weird folks an’ weird stuff happening in the backwoods all the time.”
Ari disagreed, too; “My delivery guys aren’t cream puffs. Even Manny here. They can take care of themselves. Can’t be nothin’ weird’s happening to them.”
“Okay,” the former detective said; “The first thing we need to do is to see if there’s a pattern to any of this. You said you didn’t keep their names, but do you remember where all of them were supposed to deliver their pizzas when they disappeared?”
The owner threw up his hands again, “All the pizzas go out of here. Of course I don’t remember.”
“But you have it written down,” the detective, suddenly into his old role, pressed him; “What do you do with your old order slips? Do you keep them?”
“IRS gave me a hard time one year,” Ari said; “Sure I keep ‘em. Tomato sauce for the spaghetti an’ stuff comes in big cans. I keep the cans. I put the old order slips in the cans. They’re all in stacks out back. IRS ever gives me a problem again, I just give ‘em the cans.”
“Good!” the detective smiled; “We can start by going through all the cans”
The owner cut him off, “Do you know how many of those cans I got out back? Room’s almost full of ‘em. I ain’t got time to do that. Naw, I can always get new kids. It’s no problem.”
“No problem?” The woman asked; “You mean you’re just going to keep getting new delivery kids and let it go?”
The owner threw up his hands again. No one else spoke up to agree or disagree with him. The former detective shrugged, and he took a long drink from his beer. Freddy came out, “Medium, eggplant, onions and mushrooms,” he said and set a box down on the counter.
The woman slid off the stool and stepped forward. She rolled her eyes, took her pizza, and left.
Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker who has been involved in community theater and writing all his life. He has been a freelance writer in local papers. He has had four Historical Fiction novels published by The Wild Rose Press. And “The Kids Won’t Leave” in “Two Hawks Quarterly”