There was one thing that pissed me off even more – just a little bit more – than knowing that I’d probably be dead any time now. And that was: Knowing that I should have known better. What the hell was I thinking? For God knows what reason, I had allowed myself to become entangled in a situation that was way below my mental pay grade.
When this guy Hal, who I just met last week, had asked me to cover his pizza delivery job today, did I have it in the back of my mind that I’d end up a cliché in a porn video? Not to push the pizza pun, but – how cheesy is that? And now I’m ending up a cliché in some kind of crime-deal-gone-bad, except it’s not a movie.
An hour ago, I parked my Prius under a crusty old weeping willow. I got out of the car and thought, “Yeah, I’d weep, too, if I lived in this neighborhood.” The second I stepped onto the curb I knew I didn’t belong there. It looked more like an alley than a street, decorated with random tires and broken glass and the odd rusty stove on its side. Dead grass poked through the buckles and cracks of the dead sidewalk. It looked like a lot of things had died around here. Good thing I wouldn’t be staying long.
I opened the passenger door and felt better as soon as I had the square blue pouch containing the warm pizza in my hands. The dim light of dusk didn’t help as I stared at the faded address on the curb. I guess it would be too much to ask that the number be somewhere visible on the house. Maybe this wasn’t even the right place. The peeling paint on the single-story stucco had probably been pink at some point in time. Window shades blocked any view of the interior. I didn’t want to know anyway. I don’t know what the five-foot high chain-link fence was supposed to be protecting. All I saw was a yard populated by weeds, stones and dirt. No one else was on the street and I didn’t blame them.
Then the first sign of life made its appearance, bounding through a narrow walkway on the left side of the house: A mangy, black Rottweiler. It wore a thick chain necklace, not anchored to anything. Looking into the dog’s vacant eyes, I’d expect him to bark his head off at me, probably having nothing else to do. Instead, a different sound came from its mouth. The jaws of this beast clenched a dented old transistor radio. From the radio came the sound of a lone acoustic guitar. When the singing started, I recognized the high-pitched, nasal and mournful-as-hell voice of Neil Young. In this context, the Seventies nugget “The Needle and the Damage Done” struck me as disturbingly perfect.
The joyless canine lobbed a guttural growl at me without dropping the radio. I wondered what that song could possibly mean to this dog. I contemplated the condition of the teeth that were clamped onto the hunk of metal making the strange noise. In the battle between steel and tooth, which was stronger? Or had they fused into one? The next question was easier: In the battle between those teeth and my flesh….
My spell was broken by a human bark when the front door burst open. “Diesel! Get in the back!” The Rottweiler turned its head toward the voice. “Diesel!” A tattooed arm extended from the darkness of the house and banged a short iron pipe on one of the two metal rails at the doorway. Still clenching the radio, the dog retreated back through the side walkway where it had come from.
“Homey!” The voice was aimed at me this time. Homey? Couldn’t he at least say “Dude”? I mean, I always thought “dude” was a pretty silly word but I had a sudden sense of preferring it. “Homey” had sort of a…. connotation…. “Homey!” the voice shot at me again.
What was my problem? Come on, cut the racist bullshit. Everyone loves pizza and everyone loves dogs, so just get on with it. A padlock had been removed from the gate latch and hung conveniently moot. With the canine coast now clear, I pushed the creaking metal open and ventured into the yard. I held the pizza as level I could as I hustled my way up the worn wooden planks that led to the house.
At the door I was greeted by – no one. The tattooed arm had withdrawn and disappeared behind a closed metal grate. I could tell that a wooden door was open behind it but the grate was too dirty and dense to see much else. A distant voice called, “It’s open. Come on in, I’m looking for my wallet.” I don’t want to go in there, I thought. “Just sit down. I’ll be right there.” The obvious question was, “Why would I go – in there – when I could stay – out here?” The answer quickly presented itself: Although I’ve generally enjoyed Neil Young in the past, at this particular moment, as I heard his voice do a fast fade-in, accompanied by a rattling chain and a low growl, I just wasn’t in the mood. Comforting pizza in hand, I entered the residence.
But the pizza and I were no match for the three of them, coming from nowhere and taking me by surprise. Twenty seconds and many bruises later I found myself blindfolded and tied to a chair. In the flurry of reflexive flailing on my part and pre-planned pounding on their part, I barely saw the, no doubt, lovely abode in which I was now captive.
“Alright, let’s get a look,” said one of thugs, inches from my face. Baffled and scared shitless, I made no attempt to respond. There I was, an insect pinned to their board. What did they want to see? And why?
Blind, battered and stunned, I could still make out the terrifying sound of metal, buzzing in short bursts. NO! Then I realized it was only the pizza pouch being unzipped. My bleeding nose was incapable of perceiving the aroma but for just a moment my skin sensed the steam as the pouch was opened and the hot pizza was exposed to the room.
The next sound I heard was something whizzing by my head and hitting the wall behind me followed by a scream. “I said no olives!”
“Shut up about olives. Who cares about olives?”
“Why they gotta put olives in it when I told the guy no olives? I HATE olives!”
“Man? What you talking about? What’s a pizza without olives? Whoever heard of no olives on a pizza?”
Wham! I felt something splattering on my pant leg as another slice slammed into the hard floor.
“You’re gonna clean that up, homey. You’re gonna clean all that shit up. And quit throwing pizza around. If you don’t wanna eat that shit, I will.”
“I don’t see it.” This was a third voice. I could tell that this one wasn’t concerned with pizza or olives.
Through the sounds of chewing, one of the others said, “Are you sure? It’s gotta be in there somewhere.” In there? Whatever they were looking for, it wasn’t a part of me. Whew!
“I don’t see it.”
“Look in that blue thing it came in.”
“It’s supposed to be in the pizza box.”
“So, look in the blue thing! The thing they put the pizza box in. The what do you call it? The blue thing. Maybe it’s in there.”
Mr. I Hate Olives was suddenly interested. “I’m looking right in it and it’s not there,” he growled.
“Where is it?” He was talking to me! “Is it in here? Do I gotta cut this thing open to find it? Or do I gotta cut you open?”
Paralyzed by terror, confusion and pain, I was now supposed to come up with – what? Words? Something that made any sense at all? Something comprehensible that applied to this incomprehensible situation?
My pathetic whimpering earned me a boot to the chest, knocking me backwards and hitting the floor hard. I gasped for air, winded by the unexpected double blow. Once I confirmed that I could still, in fact, breathe, I made no attempt to move or speak, completely at the mercy of God-knows-who these people were. My brain was a broken fire hydrant which was gushing variations on the theme: “How much worse is this going to get?”
To my right, I heard the sound of a knife tearing through the blue pizza pouch. To my left, one of them said, “Hey, you know what?”
I felt shreds of the pouch being tossed onto me as I lay prone on my back, ankles curled around the legs of the chair.
“I don’t think that’s the guy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t think this guy is the guy.” Were they talking about me? Of course, they were. Who else here could be “not the guy”? I’m not the guy! I’m not the guy! In my state of shock, I couldn’t be sure if I was talking out loud or in my head. I didn’t know who the guy was but I was pretty sure he wasn’t me.
“He don’t look like him.”
“So what if he’s the guy or if he’s not the guy. We still gotta do what we gotta do.”
“I’m saying it’s not gonna work if he’s not the guy. It could screw things up. I mean big time.”
The third ruffian joined in. “I don’t think he’s the guy, either. The guy looks more…. the guy looks less…. faggy.”
“Hey, that’s not cool.”
“I’m just sayin’.”
“I’m just sayin’…. I got a cousin.”
“Will you guys shut the fuck up!” Tense silence. Then they turned their attention back on me.
“Hey!” I felt hard metal on my chin. “Are you the guy?”
The gun barrel traced a line up my cheek and settled under my right eye. Without warning he ripped the blindfold from my face. “Are you the guy?”
“Aw, look! He’s crying on your piece! I told you. The real guy isn’t so faggy.”
“You shut up!”
“If he’s not the guy…. um…. what do we do with him?”
“We gotta do what we gotta do anyway no matter what. So….”
Total darkness made me question whether or not I had regained consciousness. My aching body was crumpled on the floor but no longer tied to a chair. Cautiously, I raised my arms and felt around to get a sense of my surroundings and found walls close to me on all sides except behind me, which went back a few feet. As quietly as I could, I managed to stand up, brushing my arm against something smooth and cold at waist level. I slowly rotated the circular piece of metal an eighth of an inch to the right and confirmed that I was locked in a closet. My mind came back into sharp focus.
“So why we’re not icing this guy already? He’s not the guy. We don’t need him.” My three captors were in the room right outside my new holding chamber.
“We know he’s not the guy but they don’t know it. Not yet, anyway. We can still use him to make them think that we got the guy.”
I sat back down. With at least a door between me and my brutalizers, I was free to be tortured by my own thoughts in peace. Obviously, I had stumbled into some den of thieves who were obviously planning on doing some kind of evil deal with some other den of thieves. Obviously, I wasn’t “the guy” but it didn’t really matter because the most obvious thing of all was – I was going to die!
Why was I even here? I’m not a pizza delivery guy. I’m a medical billing guy who had nothing to do on this Saturday afternoon. I barely know that guy, Hal. Hal must be “the guy.” Why did I do this? Oh, yeah. Now I remember. I thought my job was boring because I’m in the same room with the same people every day. Oh, yeah. And the pizza delivery porn thing. Because that always happens in real life. I know. Cheesy.
“Yeah, whatever. Is there any more pizza?”
“Why don’t you lick the wall and the floor, you moron!” Then to the others, “He freaks out ‘cause it’s got olives on it.”
“Hey, what the…”
What happened next can best be summed up in one word: Bang! Or more accurately, that word repeated what seemed like a hundred times. My feet instinctively dug into the floor and shoved my body as far back in the closet as I could. Listening to the storm of gunfire, I pressed my body hard against the back wall, knowing that it probably wouldn’t make any difference. A bullet could rip through the door and straight into me at any second. Any second now… any second now… And then the gunfire stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
And now the part that makes even less sense to me than what had already happened. I can only tell you that if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t be here to tell you that it wasn’t true. I heard a voice I had not heard before. “I know you’re in there.”
Oh, my God, here it comes. I didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing that I wasn’t “the guy” so I kept my mouth shut.
“Are you hurt?” Wait! Maybe it was the police!
“No?” I said, hopefully.
“You wanna live, Homey?” the voice continued. Maybe it wasn’t the police.
“Yes?” I said, hopefully.
“Okay, if you want to live, count to a thousand before you come out.” Without further discussion a single gunshot shattered the relative peace and the lock on the door.
“Are you counting?”
“How come I don’t hear you?”
“Is that the guy?” I heard in the background.
“Who cares? Let’s get out of here.”
Ten minutes later I gave the door a nudge and peeked out through a crack. I knew that only some of the red stuff on the walls was pizza sauce. I also knew that my stomach couldn’t handle counting the pieces that my former captors were now in. I made an adrenalin-fueled charge out the first door I saw. Seconds later, I was in the back yard.
It was now dark outside. I heard music. Fast rock music. Then I saw my old friend, Diesel. Neil Young was long gone. The radio in the dog’s mouth was now playing the endless guitar solo of the Lynnyrd Skynnrd song “Free Bird.”
Darting to the left, I found the walkway on the side of the house. Diesel took up hot pursuit of the moving object that was exuding fear (i.e. me). I yanked on two overflowing plastic trash cans to create whatever barrier I could between me and the frenzied beast. When I made it to the gate, unlike before, the padlock was now effectively engaged. With Southern rock’s most frantic guitars blazing, Diesel made it over the pile of garbage just as I made it over the five-foot-high chain link fence. My car and my future were now back in sight.
David Kaufman is a writer living in California.