Vol. XIII Nonfiction Contest: Pizza Money by Angie Sebastian

As a child there was always an excitement opening the door for the pizza deliveryman. It was a chance to be the grown up, handle the money, impress the adult with the right amount of tip. Pizza Money, the third place winner of this year’s  nonfiction contest, judged by Cheryl Strayed, is about just that—a search for money to pay for a delivered pizza. But it is about, as you will discover, much more than simply that. I am excited to share it with you today in a LUMINA blog exclusive.

– Geoff Bendeck, Nonfiction Editor


My pizza will be here in forty-five minutes to an hour and the total comes to…

I make the sign of the cross. Twice. Three times.

$11.50, the pizza man says.

That’s two dollars more than last time, but all I say is, Okay, thanks, in my best grown up voice, and all he says is, Plus tip.

He hangs up, I hang up. I check the microwave clock. 12:23 p.m.

It’s not that we don’t have food in the house, we do—I’ve been snacking on Peanut Butter Twix all morning—but I want something hot; only a small cheese; only $11.50, plus tip. By the time it gets here, and I eat the whole thing, and maybe read some Baby-Sitters Club, Nonna, my grandmother, will be back from work, and Nonno, my grandfather, will be sitting in his chair by the front door, smoking cigarettes in his sleep. Mom’s nurse has Saturdays off, but Mom doesn’t, and neither do I. Now I just have to find the money.

We live in a red brick ranch that Nonno paid cash for when Mom and Dad got divorced. Cash, he’d said. He acted like he wanted me to congratulate him, but when I did he shook his finger at me and said it was none of my business. He’s used to telling people off; he owns a couple of apartment buildings where no one pays rent on time. He and Nonna don’t live with Mom and me, but they’re here in the mornings before school and after Nonna gets off work—she’s a seamstress at a suit store, and sometimes I go with Nonno to pick her up at the mall. Her boss calls her “Maggie,” because, as Nonna says, he’s a “Cazuna Americano,” and can’t pronounce Marguerite. Neither can I, but luckily, she’s my grandmother.  $11.50, plus tip, hiding in two bedrooms, the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. If things get bad, I’ll have to look in the garage too. But I’ll go hungry before I go anywhere near the basement. I keep the door locked, and I tell myself we don’t even have a basement when I hear funny sounds down there.

I like to do a thorough once-over of the whole house before I start pulling drawers open and lifting couch cushions. First thing, I scan the living room. The phone table next to the front door has a bunch of junk on it, plus a candy dish that Nonno dumps his change in; Mom’s green shoulder purse with the wide, limp strap is on the floor wedged behind it; there’s a dining room table that doesn’t belong in the living room. Your father doesn’t have a dining room now either, Mom said when she could still talk. My eyes slide past the china hutch, TV, sofa—don’t forget to look underneath where Nonno drops everything. The coffee table has a storage drawer underneath, but there’s nothing in there besides some old magazines and my empty yogurt cups with furry layers of mold growing in them. For some reason I refuse to throw them away and Nonna only dusts surfaces. Two more reclining chairs under the picture window that looks out to the street—I made a small hole in one corner of the curtains so I can see what’s out there without being seen.

The hallway connects the bedrooms and bathroom and it also showcases Mom’s favorite piece of furniture. It has a lot of fancy glass stuff on it, plus the big blue vase in the middle with the lid and gold etchings on the rim where she used to hide dollar bills. I poke my head in the bathroom, consider the medicine cabinet, and the linen closet, but even with the vanity light on there are too many shadows. I’m suddenly aware of two things: One, it’s very quiet in the house except for the buzzing coming in through the bathroom window that Nonno keeps promising to fix, and two, Freddie Kruger might be hiding behind the shower curtain. I back out of the bathroom on tip-toes and carefully pull the door shut.

Littering the floor of my bedroom is the headless Barbie brigade, clothing in toddler to teenager sizes, books without ends, holey blankets, and other junk from Nonno’s apartment building, lovingly bestowed on me after an eviction. Nothing is where it’s supposed to be, either. The bookshelf is bare; the bed is a naked mattress with a Jesus-shaped brown stain; the dresser drawers hang open and empty. The closet is jammed with more crap, but I’ve learned how dangerous it can be to open the doors, so I pretend it’s the doorway to Narnia and I’ve trapped the White Witch in there. Noooooo, I screamed at the chubby woman from church who brought Christmas presents last year and reached for the closet door to hang up a purple dress. I didn’t explain about the White Witch, just stood in front of the door and took the dress with a quick, Thank you very much, before leading her out of my bedroom.  The whole thing is, as Nonna calls it, Porca miseria. Pig misery.

I glance into the kitchen, which I’m supposed to clean. I’m not sure what Nonna means by “clean,” though, because if I try to throw anything away or even move something from the counter to the table, she digs her nails into the skin over her heart and has to sit down for at least one episode of Golden Girls. Anyway, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’ve never seen the countertops and the drawers are crammed with mismatched stuff like silverware and cat food; plants hang in front of the window over the sink and at night and look just like giant spiders. The walls have wood paneling with deer prints that I’m sure Nonno tore out of the apartment building even though he swears he got it on sale. The kitchen table is sticky, with more plates and cups, my box of Twix bars, some coloring books, a two-week old pink frosting cake for my tenth birthday. The oven, though, is cool. It has a pull-out stove top that sometimes doesn’t pull out all the way, but if you bang on it just right, it pops open. I feel excited looking around. All of the drawers and nooks in here are great for hunting up pizza money. I check the clock: 12:41. I have to speed things up. My nightgown swings around my knees as I run out of the kitchen and move all of the papers and pens off the phone table for my pile of money.

Mom’s room is usually the goldmine of this operation. So I start there. She lies on the bed wearing her baby blue sweatsuit with the pink flowers embroidered on the front, and stares at the ceiling. Her hair went gray recently and looks like a greasy helmet. She would scream oh my Christ, if she knew how bad it looks. I check the Foley bag and whisper, thank God, when I see it’s only a quarter full; Nonna can change it when she gets off work. I pull the heavy curtains shut when I see the glare on the TV, then I turn the volume up on a PBS special about Amway because I know she and Dad used to sell the stuff. I lift her by the neck to put her pillow back in place. Now she’s looking at the TV. Currently, we’re in a blink once for yes, twice for no arrangement. I lean over her.

I say very softly, I ordered pizza. Okay?

She blinks once and a tear slides over her bottom eyelid. I scoop a handful of my nightgown up to her face and wipe. Her eyes are more watery today than usual. Nonna will say it’s hay fever, but I wonder sometimes if she isn’t crying. I don’t know if MS hurts, but last week, when the nurse was turning Mom over to change her Depends, I saw a deep sore on her hip. It looked like someone had dug a hole into her with a spoon. When I asked Nonna about it she told me to Zita!—shut up, and then she cried. The doctors want Mom to go to a home, but this is out of the question. There is no word in Italian for nursing home.

I’m going to look in your closet for money, okay?

One blink. I hug her as best I can since I can’t get my arms underneath her body. She’s got two beds in her room. One is the queen we share; the other is the hospital bed that we both refuse to sleep in. Metal bars hang overhead, and it’s got a remote control that drives it up and down. It used to be fun, but I’ve outgrown it. I smack the edge of the railing, which makes the metal bars clang and then I open her closet. It’s almost as bad as mine, except a lot of her stuff is at least hanging up. She used to wear suits every day and her purses always had to match the color of her jacket and shoes. Nonna told me that when Mom was a teenager, she spent her Saturdays with her two best friends shopping for the clothes they would wear out dancing that night. This is why Nonna won’t go to the eye doctor for new glasses; she only sees what she wants to see—pretty hair and clothes and dancing. Just this morning, before she and Nonno left, she looked at Mom and asked her what she wanted to wear today. Mom stared at the ceiling. Nonna cried. I picked out the blue sweatsuit and helped Nonna tug the shirt over Mom’s head. Che bellissima, Maria, mmhm, mmhm, mmhm, Nonna sang even as the tears soaked into her sweater.

I start on one end of the closet, in the pockets of a tan-colored suit jacket, with little flowers sewn into the lapels, and work my way down. The routine is jackets, then pants, then on to the floor for the purses. I’m very careful when I dip my hands inside those; sometimes there’s sticky candy or gum inside and maybe a sharp needle from a broach. I don’t look inside. I just feel around and pretend I’m Indiana Jones inside a cave. The closet yields two actual dollar bills, but more dimes than anything else. I pull up my nightgown to make a bowl, and then walk carefully to the phone table where I deposit all the money.

Now the drawers. Whenever I begin sorting through her desk drawers I’m convinced I’ll find my adoption papers. They say I wasn’t adopted and if you look at the pictures of Mom and Nonna when they were my age you’d probably agree that I wasn’t, but that doesn’t stop my heart pounding whenever I open the top drawer in her desk. Instead of money I find the copy of ET that Dad brought over on his last visit. He’s got a motorcycle now and he’s lost about a zillion pounds. When he knocked on the door, Nonna spit at him through the screen, and Nonno came outside to ask why he wasn’t paying his child support. I had to sneak out my bedroom window and around to the front yard just to see him. That’s when he gave me ET. He said it was the funniest movie ever and the little girl was just like me. I didn’t tell him that we don’t have a VCR. He looked too happy. I put the movie on the bed next to Mom, and keep sorting, but give up after a few minutes. I’ve been through here too much. There’s nothing left except papers about insurance and pay stubs from when Mom went to work every day. I kiss Mom’s forehead, ask if she needs anything. There’s a delay between blink one and two, but I’m patient. When it comes, I kiss her again and sprint to the kitchen.

12:48. Yikes. I race through each of the four junk drawers, stop at the phone table, and dig into the candy dish just to get it out of the way. I feel pretty good about the growing pile on the table, more silver than copper, and I’ve got two whole dollar bills to add, too.

Living room. I check all of the cushions first; load it all onto the table, and then stop. Even though I need to hurry, I have to look at my painting hanging on the wall above the dining room table. Sometimes I forget about it and I feel guilty. It’s not mine, like I painted it, but the scene inside it’s a kind of promise. I don’t know why, but “promise” always seems like the right word. It’s a mountain range at the top and a snowy valley at the bottom. The sun is almost yellow and peeks out from behind the purple clouds. In the valley, stuck in among the Christmas trees on the bank of a thin river, sits a little house with a smoking chimney.  I’ve drawn this picture so many times in my coloring books or on little scraps of paper that I can do it from memory whenever I want. If you see me at my desk at school with my head resting on my forearms, I’m not sleeping like the rest of the kids during Catholic Studies, I’m drawing this painting. Unless you get right up to it you don’t see the outline of the person in the window of the little house, but I’ve been nose to canvas with this thing more times than I’ve hunted for adoption papers. I know it. That outline is me, waiting for the sun to come out, for the snow to stop falling, and when it does, I’ll climb those mountains and even if I cut myself to shreds, I’ll get to the top. When I explained it this way to Sister Jo Ann, my guidance counselor at school, she nodded and said she knew I would too.

I’ve still got my room, the bathroom, and the marble table in the hall, but I stop and do a preliminary count. I count each little stack into one dollar exactly; quarters on bottom, then nickels, and dimes on top. After counting each stack twice, I panic. There are only seven. Even with the two bills that’s only nine dollars and forty-five cents. It’s now 12:58. I race through my room, emptying the pitiful amount from my piggy bank, which is actually just an old coffee cup, skip the bathroom for now, and go to the hallway table. It’s a decent amount, but once I get it all counted, I’m still short by a dollar twenty-seven, and no tip. I’m now hyperventilating; at least I think that’s what it means when I can feel the blood going into my heart.

Nonna and Nonno live exactly one mile away. I pick up the phone, dial their number, and sit on the floor with my legs crossed Indian-style. I let the phone ring at least a hundred times, praying that Nonno came home for lunch. Sometimes when I call in the mornings and they take forever to answer, I worry that they died in their sleep or that they left the house and forgot to come over before work. But then, usually, one of them hears the phone ringing. Nonno’s accent makes him sound annoyed no matter what mood he’s in. Why am I calling? I just wanted to know if Nonna baked anything or if I could have their TV Guide is all. To which he responds, …eh? What? Talk louder! If Nonna answers, she wants to know if something is wrong with Mom. When I tell her no, she breathes heavy into the phone and says her heart almost attacked.

But now, when I really need Nonno to answer, he doesn’t; he’s probably sitting in his lawn chair at the apartment buildings waiting for his tenants to come out so he can harass them about rent. I could call Dad, but his house is on the other side of town. I can just imagine how that conversation would go. Hello? a woman’s voice, loud, distracted, TV going in the background, and then she’d cover the receiver with her hand, saying, it’s your daughter? Why the hell didn’t you tell me you had a daughter, John? And then I’d hear him tell the woman to shut up, and he’d get on, and try to sound pleasant until I told him what was up. You did what? He’d yell. Why would you order pizza if you don’t have enough money? Jesus Christ. Where are your grandparents? Doesn’t your mom have some money in her purse?

And then I remember the purse, wedged between the phone table and the wall next to the front door. I kneel down and pick it up. It’s big enough a cat could fit inside, and it used to be bright green like a cucumber, but now it’s grimy, and the leather looks more like an avocado. I try to remember the last time she wore it, but can’t. From the color and size, I’d say it was a summer purse. That would mean it’s been at least a year. Inside, a lipstick the color of a candy heart, a case for glasses, empty, and some balled up receipts. Her checkbook. For an instant, I consider ripping one of those babies out and just keeping my change for the next pizza. But then I remember how we had to have a meeting at school last year when the bank sent back Mom’s checks for tuition because the signature looked funny. Principal Cordaro, Sister Jo Ann, and for some reason, the PE teacher, Mr. Schlack—who pokes his entire head into the girl’s locker room to tell us to hurry up—all sat in a row in front of me in the principal’s office. Sister Jo Ann asked if I was writing out my mother’s checks, and I said no because Nonna and Nonno wouldn’t want me telling them our business. But then they called Nonna and Nonno in and Nonna started crying, (of course) and saying that she and Nonno can’t write in English and it has to be me. Sister Jo Ann told them to find someone else. Now my Godmother, Mary, writes out the checks and does the shopping. Her signature is authorized. There’s two quarters in the bottom of the purse and a handful of pennies.

I’m seventy cents short. It’s 1:04. And my stomach is now grumbling. I have two options and neither of them is good. I tip-toe to the bathroom, and gently turn the knob. I take a deep breath, pull on the bottom of my nightgown, and leap into the shower curtain with my arms spread wide. If Freddie’s hiding in there, I’m attacking first. It all started last year at a slumber party for a girl at school whose mom used to be friends with my mom. When the mom went to sleep, the girl, whose name was Stacy, pulled this video out of her closet. Stacy said no one was going to sleep after watching it and she was right. She popped it in the VCR and turned all the lights out. A girl tumbled across the ceiling while blood squirted out of her stomach. I saw Freddie’s face for exactly one second, but that was enough. Now I see it everywhere; in bed at night in the shadow where Mom’s face should be, on the basement stairs, in the wood grain on the bathroom door when I’m peeing. He’s crafty. Comes out when you least expect him, his knife fingernails flashing at me.

For a while after the party, I pretended that Freddie was my boyfriend and he was only coming to the house to ask Mom for my hand in marriage. But no matter how hard I tried to make him nice, he wouldn’t stop being a jerk; he was always standing in the doorway of Mom’s bedroom at night, tilting his fedora toward me and flexing his fingers. So I broke it off. But getting dumped doesn’t suit him. That’s why I figure it’s better to jump into the shower screaming, Die you bastard! than to wait and be the girl with the blood-squirting stomach. Our history means nothing to him. I smack my forehead against the porcelain and I know I’m going to have bruises on my legs and arms, but it’s worth it. Now I can look in the medicine cabinet and the linen closet without seeing Freddie’s face. I check my forehead in the mirror, only a small red welt over my eye, and feel satisfied as I open the door. I find a little pile of pennies between the Vaseline and the Aqua Net. Nothing in the linen closet. Twelve cents. Fifty-eight to go. Before going to the garage, my last option, I stop in Mom’s room for an update.

I fell in the shower, but I’m okay. Two blinks.

I was just playing. It’s okay. Nonno can fix the shower curtain tonight. Two blinks.

I’m sorry Mom; I’m almost out of time. I kiss her again and don’t wait for her answer. I slowly open the door in the kitchen that leads to the garage and stand on the ramp for thirty seconds before I’m able to work up the courage to walk over to her car. I consider opening the garage door, for more light, for more people to hear me scream in case Freddie comes back, but then I remember what Nonno says: leave your doors open and invite the criminals in. He put the ramp up after Mom fell on the stairs. Now we’ve got ramps with green outdoor carpet in the garage and at the front door. I run down the ramp, sidestep and weave between all of the contraptions. I could trace Mom’s disease with a quick inventory of all the crap in the garage.

Here’s a pile of canes; she used one to go up the steps at church for my First Communion. The walker was used during the divorce and custody hearings. Over here two wheelchairs, one motorized, one not. That was when she was still able to plan my birthday party in second grade. Next to them a Mobie. It’s like a scooter you sit on, with a basket in front. I used to ride it up and down the street until a kid on the corner called me a cripple. Shoved up next to her Buick is another mattress for the first hospital bed she wouldn’t use. The Buick has a blue parking sticker hanging from the rearview mirror and a motorized ramp attached to the back, where she used to put her wheelchair. I used to think it was cool that we could park right next to the buildings when she could still drive. She would say, Life is a trade-off, and then she’d say the f word a few times. And then she’d apologize. And then I’d ask if I could say the f word too, and then she’d cry like Nonna. And I’d pull some napkins from the glove compartment and ask if I could say half of the f word and she’d say alright. Fu—. And then we’d both laugh.

Stop procrastinating.

I ease the driver’s door open and sit down. The seats are soft, velvety, partly from the material and partly from the dust. My feet almost touch the pedals. Sometimes at night, I scoot Mom all the way down and lay next to her, measuring—I’m about a toe shorter than her, but I bet by fifth grade, I’ll be taller. I open the middle console. The sticky mess of M&M’s is still here. She bought them for me then got mad when I tried to eat the whole bag. She shoved them in here and I can’t even think how long that’s been. I pick up a stick on the garage floor and use it to move the chocolate over to the side. Underneath are coins, sticky with M&M’s, but still, coins. I dip my hand in, take as many as I can, note they’re all quarters, and then run back inside to wash them at the kitchen sink. I’m just finishing when the doorbell rings. It’s 1:15. He’s two minutes late.

He hands me my small cheese and I put it on the phone table. Then I tell him to hold out his hands. He pushes his cap back on his head. I count out each dollar in quarters, dimes and nickels, fifty cents in pennies, and I save the two dollar bills for his tip. I tell him to keep the change.