Pearce’s restaurant sat empty. Jim Pearce slumped over the counter. He had given up on worrying. He knew he was doomed. The US economy was in a recession. The war was over. The depression was over. Massive government spending was over. This was the business cycle. He only lasted a semester at Ohio State before flunking out because he spent too much time at the bars on High Street, but from his limited time in business class, he learned enough to know he was doomed. Still, he didn’t worry. He wasn’t sad or depressed. He was just mad. He was mad all the damned time.
Jim didn’t care about his failed restaurant anymore. He was already thinking about his first beer. He was debating going to the bar or drinking at home, when an actual customer walked in.
Jim was filled with regrets, but most of all he regretted not dying. He wasn’t particularly having a great time of living, but his slow death was tough. Some guys came back from the war fine. Jim was not one of them. He wished he would have died.
Pearce waited for Jim to go to bed before he started drinking. It’s disrespectful to drink around alcoholics. It’s not kind to throw it in their face. Also, there’s the risk of temptation. Neither discretion was really an issue. Jim was 90 and days from death. Following off the wagon was fine at this point. He would probably get a kick out of hanging out with his grandson getting drunk. Jim got to spend so few times in his last half century of his life with partiers. That’s the only company he kept during the first half century of his life. Pearce waited for himself, but he regretted that decision when he realized old people do not sleep. Pearce’s hopes of drinking faded when the final out of the Cincinnati Reds game was recorded and Jim proceeded to eagerly flip through the television channels for something else.
At least he would be getting a nice sober rest, or so he thought. Jim spent the entire night dying, as he did every night. There was a reason old people don’t sleep much. It’s not a pleasant experience for them. While the youths’ bodies rejuvenate each evening, the old just die. People that wish to die in their sleep, have never watched someone die in their sleep. Those that have, wish to die PEACEFULLY in their sleep.
“Pearcey,” a soft voice whispered.
What now Pearce thought. It was two in the morning and he hadn’t dozed off for more than five minutes in between the moans coming from the dining room that had been converted into a first floor bedroom. At least Jim hasn’t died on his watch, yet. He imagined the shit he would have taken if Jim died and he was drunk. He dodged that bullet.
Pearce got off the couch and walked over to the dining room. On his way, he quizzed himself. If Jim died and he had drank, would he have hid the beers before calling his mother? Probably, but he might call Dr. Reese before properly disposing of the alcohol. He lived across the street, but the doc wouldn’t go snooping through the trash or the fridge.
Jim was sitting on the side of the bed. He had to use the restroom. There was a bedside toilet next to the bed, as the name would suggest. Pearce tucked his arms under Jim’s arm pits and gently swung Jim from the bed to the toilet. This would have been impossible 10 years prior when Jim weighed in at around 250 pounds. When Alcoholics give up the sugar of alcohol it is often replaced with an even worse sweetness. Now, on his deathbed, Jim looked like the skinny drunk that had returned from World War II, alive and in one piece. Pearce respectfully pulled down Jim’s boxers and sat across from Jim on the side of the bed.
“I’m scared Mona.” Jim whimpered.
Great, Pearce thought to himself. Jim thought Pearce was his dead wife. No bullets were dodged. Pearce was strongly considering drinking after this was over.
“I was so afraid.” Jim whispered. “That goddamn war.”
This grabbed Pearce’s attention. Jim never talked about the war. Not to Pearce. Not to anyone. No matter how many times Pearce asked. It was always no. Pearce once intentionally chose a school project that required a WWII primary source. Jim refused. He said what he always said, “Everyone has a war story,”
But here it was, at 2am in the dark on Jim’s death bed but technically on the toilet, Jim was going to finally share his war story with Pearce, who he thought was his dead wife.
“I’m so sorry. I knew I’d never let it go. I knew I’d always carry it with me.”
Jesus, what did he see, Pearce thought. Jim was in the Air Force in Europe, so he never stormed a beach or fought the Japanese in Guadalcanal. Was it the never ending bombing missions? Were his nerves shot? Or was it the death of innocent civilians? It made sense why Jim was an alcoholic. Some say it’s a genetic disease, but Jim was clearly trying to repress something, but what?
“I ate chocolate bars.”
“What?” Pearce slipped, but he couldn’t help it. He considered saying what again in a femine voice to carry on the charade but decided against it.
The customer enthusiastically introduced himself as he sat down and reached out to shake Jim’s hand. One of those guys, Jim thought. Jim took the towel he was using to wipe the counter and tossed it over his shoulder and shook Hank’s hand. This brought a large grin to Hank’s face. Jim wondered why he was wiping the counter, no one had been in all day. He needed a beer.
“What's the special?”
“Soup? Didn’t you hear? We won the war.” Hank belted out an enormous chuckle.
Jim acknowledged the joke with a smile.
“Where is everybody?”
“Plant laid everyone off.”
“You don’t say. Son of a bitch. I knew I should have skipped Hamilton. Well, I’m here now.”
Hank picked up the menu and began to look it over.
“What would you like to drink?” Jim asked.
“Coke, please.” Hank knew exactly what he wanted. He always knew what he wanted. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in his body. He made a decision and stuck to it. He always knew what he was going to do. He didn’t have to think about anything. It was all autonomic for him. It was as if someone handed him the script to his life and he was just following along. Before he opened the menu, he knew he was going to get a BLT and chips. He wasn’t reading the menu. He was studying it. A good salesman isn’t always selling. They’re not always talking. They’re listening and learning. This town was going to be a hard lock to pick. He needed to know the people of Hamilton. Talking about Ted Kluszewski would only get him so far. One needs to know more than the local sports stars. He needed to know what they ate. He needed to know Jim Pearce. He wondered what Big Klu ate? Probably big, fat rib eyes. Maybe Jim served him a big fat rib eye once.
Jim returned with a glass of Coke.
“How can I help you?
“BLT and chips”
Jim wrote down the order and walked it back to the kitchen. Hank watched Jim the entire way. Jim could feel Hank’s eyes with every step. Jim handed the order to his wife Mona, who was working in the kitchen.
“Another salesman wants to talk my ear off.”
“So talk to him.”
“I don’t want to talk to him”
“Fine you make the sandwich and I’ll talk to him”
“Why can’t I talk to him? Is he handsome?” Mona tries to step around Jim to peer out the kitchen door. Jim blocks her.
“Just make the sandwich”
“Well you go talk to him,” she said in her assertive southern accent.
Jim walked through the kitchen door into the dining area. Hank smiled.
“I got to know, what does Big Klu eat?”
Jim turned around and walked back into the kitchen. Mona put her hands on her tiny hips and the 70 pound woman shot laser beams from her eyes.
“Jesus Christ woman.”
Mona got married too young. She had kids way too young. She wasn’t completely filled with regret. It’s what every woman did, but some became teachers and nurses. She never left the house and when she did, it was from one kitchen to another. She accepted her role and that’s why she hated Jim so much. Why couldn’t he accept his role? It wasn’t that bad. Run a restaurant and don’t drink every night. She would be satisfied if he could do just one.
Jim slowly backed into the dining area so as to not set off Mona. His wife hated him. He hated him. He hated this customer. Jim just wanted a beer, then two, then three. Jim liked Big Klu, but he didn’t particularly like talking baseball when he was sober. He used to love it, but he loved it more after three beers. That sounded good. Everything was better after three beers, and everything without three beers was terrible. He didn’t give a damn about Ted Kluzewski. He actually loved Big Klu. Everyone in the Cincinnati area worshiped him. The monster had to cut the sleeves off his jersey because his biceps were too big, but not right now, Jim hated the slugger.
Hank could tell the Big Klu question was a rookie mistake and now he was in a hole. Playing it safe wasn’t going to get Jim talking. He changed gears, and decided to go big.
“You know what you oughta do?”
Jim didn’t know Hank, but he sure hated him. It wasn’t that Hank was a salesman. Jim hated everyone and everything. He woke up mad and if he wasn’t hungover, he woke up madder and an hour earlier. It wasn’t always this way. Was it the war? Was it business? Maybe family life wasn’t for him.
Jim was almost thirty now. It felt like he had just got back from the war yesterday. He flunked out of Ohio State, but returned to Ohio University. He got a degree, started a business, and a family. It sure seemed like he grew up. He was on the path like everyone else, but he didn’t feel like he was ever going to grow up.
“No. What is that?” Jim said disinterestedly.
Hank leaned in as if to tell Jim a secret.
“Sell pizza.” Hank’s eyes were as big as saucers and his smile stretched from ear to ear.
Jim’s blood began to boil.
Hank repeated himself, but slower this time, “Sell pizza.”
Hank waited for Jim’s response, but Jim didn’t give the faintest reaction.
“You weren’t in Italy. Were you?”
This touched a nerve with Jim.
“Hey. That’s not what I am saying brother. We all fought. But I know you didn’t fight in the south”
Jim was fuming. There was a slow boil beneath his skin, “Oh yeah, how?”
“The GIs in Italy were very fond of the place. At least the ones that made it back. If you mention Pizza to them, they’re eyes sparkle. They drift back to the wine and THE WOMEN.”
Hank winked. Jim began to cool down. Hank smiled and allowed Jim to regain his composure.
“Let me guess.”
Hank quickly looked Jim over.
“No navy tattoo” Hank said as he pointed to Jim’s bare forearm. “France. Besides if you fought in the Pacific, you probably wouldn’t be standing here right now. I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting right here if I had to fight on those islands.”
Jim stared at Hank.
“Am I right?”
“I don’t talk about the war.”
“I hear ya brother. I hear ya.”
There was a brief silence, but Hank couldn’t help but flip back into salesman mode. It was in his DNA. When he wasn’t dodging bullets in Europe he was always running some sort of racket. Usually it was an arbitrage. Hank was a clerk, so he had access to supplies and suppliers. Unfortunately for Hank, the fighting got pretty hairy and his safe job at base went out the window when the army needed more men to dodge bullets each day. While he lost his safe position, he still had connections. Hank maintained his sanity by constantly thinking about business plans in the face of death.
“you’d make a killing.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Jim shouted.
Hank leaned back in his chair.
“I mean business brother.”
“You keep calling me brother”
“Because we are. We are brothers. And I am trying to help you out”
Mona emerged from the kitchen, but this time she was shooting laser beams at both Jim and Hank. Like a commando in the jungle firing indiscriminate bullets, Mona didn’t care who she upset. She was trying to make a damn BLT and her slouch of a husband was yelling at the customers again, and the customer looked like he deserved it, the no-good salesman.
Jim couldn’t hold it together anymore. He was wound tight. His life had become a giant knot that he held together everyday in his head. The only relief from the pressure was booze. There was of course the idea of addressing what was causing the pressure, but now was not the time. Someday, the day would come. For now, he had to try to hold it together and drinking seriously, very seriously.
Mona did not think Jim was holding together anything. He was drunk every night. He was hung over every morning. In the afternoon, he was an ass. Jim should make the food, and she should deal with customers, but Jim couldn’t cook. Opening a restaurant was a terrible idea. She didn’t think the plant shutting down in Hamilton mattered. They could open a restaurant in Columbus or New York and it would not matter. Jim was not a good businessman or a cook. She told him that once and she learned to never tell him that again. But she never forgot. How could she? She stood in a kitchen all day staring at clean cooking equipment. This was not a busy kitchen. Making money makes a mess. If only there was a way, she thought. Something easy for Jim to cook, so he could work in the kitchen and she could manage the diner. She wondered what Jim and the customer were fighting about. Probably the War or the Cincinnati Reds. She didn’t care for either, so she went back into the kitchen. She had a BLT to finish. It was already finished. The assembly was done. All she need to do was pour some chips on the plate and throw on a pickle spear. Mona thought about a BLT restaurant and then dismissed it as the stupidest idea she had ever had. Opening a restaurant and marrying Jim were close seconds.
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”
“How many diners are there in this town? Serving the same thing as you? Pizza is the future.”
“If pizza is so great then why aren’t you selling it?”
Hank reached down and plopped his suitcase onto the counter. He opened the suitcase to showcase the goods inside. Jim immediately regretted his challenge. Maybe Pizza wasn't so bad.
“This is what I do. You, you’re a pizza guy, you just don’t know it yet.
Jim had heard everything he was willing to take. He leaned towards Hank. His arms pressed into the counter and they extended firmly like he was doing a standing pushup. In a gentle voice, he said, “get out.”
“That’s poor people food. Get out”
“Are you crazy. It’s the future. Besides, everyone around here is poor.” Hank said while laughing.
“Get the hell out of here!”
“It’s easy. You don’t even have to know how to cook. Just bread sauce and cheese.”
Jim pulled back his towel and began to whip it at Hank. This sent Hank and his suitcase tumbling to the floor. Jim climbed over the counter and continued to swing the towel. Hank crab walked backwards along the floor. He quickly picked up his suitcase and scrambled toward the door.
Mona entered the dining room smiling. She was holding a pristine white plate with the perfect BLT, along with meticulously positioned chips and a pickle spear. Her face sunk as she watched her husband whip their only customer all day toward the door.
Jim wasn’t trying very hard to use the restroom. The elderly don’t. Potty training toddlers don’t. Maybe they know something the rest of us don’t, or that we forgot and one day will remember.
“I never went to war. I looked at maps and planned missions, and ate chocolate bars my mother mailed me. I never left England.”
Jim had PTSD from not having PTSD. He wasn’t an alcoholic because of the horrors of war, he was an alcoholic because he didn’t see the horrors of war. He was wrought with guilt. He was ashamed.
Jim didn’t have a choice. He scored too highly on his entrance exam. He was assigned to Army intelligence. Also, he was 5’8”, 120 pounds, and 10 of those pounds were the bulky glasses that allowed him to see a blurred world. Another 10 were from the giant ears that seemed to have evolved to support the coke bottles on his face. Uncle Sam thought he was doing Jim a favor.
Uncle Sam was also trying to win a war. A lot of the young men sent into action were not soldier material, but Jim was exceptionally unfit for action. No one wanted to depend on Jim in a foxhole. He was a theater kid that dreamed of being an actor, but then the war broke and he signed up like everyone else. It broke Jim’s heart that the USO immediately passed, but he understood. It was the ears. He got over it quickly because soldiers think about their country not themselves, and he was a soldier now.
At first, Jim was almost giddy. He got to go to war without really going to war. He had a uniform and a smart job. He didn’t even mind that it rained every day in England, but the paranoia set in. What if people found out? What if people accuse his father of pulling strings?
Pearce was devastated. He always imagined Jim heroically blowing up civilian targets. The movies would play in his head. Anti-aircraft fire was exploding around the B-17. The pilot grimaced and held the controls tight. To his right, the co pilot was screaming something, but it could not be heard amidst the chaos. In the back, Jim nervously stared down his Norden bombsight. He was trying to steep his nerves by grabbing the contraption as hard as he could.
Now the copilots commands could be heard, “Drop the bombs! We’re here! Drop the bombs.”
A Phillip Glass orchestral arrangement intensified the scene. It was repetitive and unnerving.
Jim stared through the sight again. Not yet he thought, almost. He knew the copilot wanted to drop the bombs, so they could turn around and get the hell out of there, but it was wasn’t time. Not yet.
The copilot ordered the navigator to make Jim drop the bombs. As the navigator approached Jim he was greeted with a right hook.
“Not yet” Jim said.
This was the heroic version of the movie. Pearce toyed around with a more realistic scene, but that’s not what the audience wants. They want action
Jim settled back in, and dropped the bombs. He probably didn’t need to punch the navigator. The timing would have been the same. Not to mention the Norden Bombsight didn’t work anyway. It didn’t factor in jetstream because no one knew about it in the 1940s. There was one guy, but he chose to write his research paper in Esperanto, so no one knew about jet stream, but everyone knew that most of the bombs missed. That’s why they had to fly so many planes and drop so many bombs. In the less heroic version, Jim drops the bombs and then high fives the navigator. Pearce knows this is historically inaccurate because the high five would not be invented until the 1970s by the Dodgers’ Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke, but this was his movie in his head.
Now everything had changed. This movie was being replaced by a film. Jim’s story was now a neurotic indy film being played in a quiet Cinema in the trendy part of the city. Jim sat behind a desk sharpening pencils quietly making sure his all of his folders and maps were arranged in order. Three chocolate bars were perfectly stacked on top of each other. It would probably be an artsy Jeff Spicolli film that blended elements of horror. Pearce preferred the Spielberg version with explosions and hospitals and schools being burned to the ground. That’s a reason to have shell shock. Fearing for your life, only to kill innocent civilians. Instead, Jim was traumatized because he wasn’t traumatized.
“Biggest mistake of my life.” Jim said in passing while a Donatos Pizza commercial aired.
Pearce sat in disbelief. Jim was right. This was a colossal error. Jim had the opportunity to open a pizza restaurant in the 1950s. This was years ahead of the small town shops in the midwest that would become Dominos, Little Caesars, and Papa Johns.
Jim had come to terms with his mistake years ago, along with many others. He wasn’t worried and he wasn’t mad anymore. He was looking forward to the Reds game even if they were below .500 with almost no chance of winning the pennant. He had also come to terms with the fact that the Reds would not win another World Series before he died. Even if the Reds somehow made it, he’d be dead by then, and he was glad. He didn’t want to still be here in October.
“Poor people have to eat, too.” Jim lamented. “and it’s easy and cheap.”
“Mona would have been a lot more pleasant if she weren’t so busy cooking.”
She would have been more pleasant if he weren’t an alcohol. Unfortunately, she wasn’t around to defend herself. The alcoholic outlived her. So the living get to tell the story.
Jim made a miscalculation. He expected the poor to behave as he did when he was poor. He didn’t think they could afford to eat out and he was right, they couldn’t afford to, but they still did. When they did, they chose the cheapest option – Pizza. They could barely afford a box fan, but they could eat a pizza while they sweat. It provided the most bang for their buck. Pizza was poor people's food in Italy and it was poor people's food in America. The people serving the pizza were not poor. They got rich serving the cheap and easy minimalist meal of dough, sauce, and cheese.
Pearce flashed back to 20 years earlier. It was Friday night. His parents were on a rare date night, and he and his brother and sister were spending the night with his grandparents. It wasn’t really a date night. They were going to get drunk and play Euchre all night, but it was something to do. Nonetheless, Pearce was spending Friday with Jim and Mona, and as everyone knows, for children, Friday night is universally pizza night. Nevermind that it was also pizza day at school and Pearce and his brother had already had a rectangular shaped Pizza food. Not his sister, she packed. She was different from the brothers. Pearce was adamant that pizza was ordered. Jim reluctantly went along but refused to make the phone call to order the delivery. He played his greatest generation card. Jim didn’t do delivery. He barely believed in going out to eat and he owned a restaurant like his father before him. Jim was unaware of how savvy his grandchildren were. Pearce picked up the phone, dialed the number of which he had memorized, and called in the Pizza order, only pausing to make sure he had his grandparents address correctly.
Jim spent the next 30 minutes waiting for the pizza to arrive. He leaned back in his wooden kitchen table chair. His arm extended to the table, and he sequentially tapped his fingers on the edge of the red and white checkered table cloth as he watched Wheel of Fortune. Pearce had no idea what Jim was up to.
The doorbell rang and Jim got the pizza. He walked into the kitchen and tossed the box onto the kitchen table, as if to say, that’s all?
Pearce knew something was up. He slowly opened the pizza box. Was it a trap, he thought? The pizza box opened and spring snakes did not shoot outward. It was the same delicious pepperoni pizza as always. Pearce grabbed a slice and began to eat. He could feel the heat of laser beams radiating from Jim’s eyes.
“I paid $7 for that!” Jim didn’t wait long at all. Pearce turned toward Mona, hoping that she would intervene, but she had long since given up. Besides, she was meaner than Jim. That can happen. Putting up with an alcoholic for 30 years, then a dry drink for another decade would make anyone bitter. This was not the Friday Pearce was hoping for, and he immediately wished that his parents would come pick him up.
Pearce stopped eating. This made Jim even more furious. He stared at Pearce.
“Now you're not going to eat?” The volume of his voice increased with every word. “I wasted seven dollars on this pizza, and now you're not going to eat?”
Pearce responded the way most kids do when an adult raises their voice. First his lips began to quiver. He tried to bite them shut but to no avail. Next his cheeks began to twitch. He could feel his eyes filling with pools of water. His face was flushed red, and he could no longer hide his emotions. The tears came hard.
Jim shook his head. “Fine. I’ll eat it”
Jim grabbed a slice and took a giant bite of pizza. Pearce lost all control and began to sob.
The pizza was delicious but there was no fucking way Jim was going to let anyone else know he enjoyed it. His chewing was exaggerated like he was eating an old leathery boot. Jim looked like a kid being forced to eat broccoli. This wasn’t a challenging act, as a dry drunk, Jim’s life was a kid being forced to eat broccoli. He always wanted to be an actor, but instead he had to go to that damn war, and his ears were too big, but mainly it was the war. Jim was doing a great job. He had everyone fooled. He was enjoying the pizza and everyone thought he was mad. Right then a thought crossed his mind, if it was so easy to act mean and upset his family, how easy would it be to act nice and make his family happy.