Delivery Man

Jane Hertenstein

A couple of summers ago I delivered pizzas. I came home from college and, rather than doing my normal camp counselor job, I drove pizzas all over town for Joe’s, in order to be there for my mom who was battling end-stage breast cancer.

Overall it was a shitty job, but someone had to do it. And it seems for as long as I’ve been in this family, on this earth, it’s fallen to me. How do I know this? Let me tell you.

I think it was my first week on the job, a dumb-fuck job that Joe the manager always acted like I should be lucky to have. I mean, yeah, it was last minute, but that’s because every other driver who’s worked for him has quit. I should have too. There were some nights when all I wanted to do was make it back alive.

At least no one tried to rob me.

So this one particular night I came in around 7 p.m. and picked up two orders. None of them to the greatest part of town. Understand: no tip.

My first delivery was to a mobile home court, not the worst, one with nicely trimmed postage stamp-size lawns and neatly groomed gravel driveways. I pulled up to a trailer with whirligigs in the yard that rotated with the passing breeze and wooden wind chimes that bonked and rattled as I got out of the car. It’s always a question of do I leave the car running? An old guy pushed the curtains aside and looked out at me. I waved. Embarrassed, after a second I lowered my hand. This wasn’t old home week. Just deliver and go.

He opened before I even knocked. “Welcome!” He greeted me. “$10.98,” I answered him. Rarely did I collect on an order. Mostly it was credit only, but Joe must’ve known this customer, trusted him.

“I have it right here.” He held an envelope full of money. I almost was afraid for him. Put that dough away, I thought. Then my second thought was: This should be a good tip.

He hesitated. “Do you think you could give me a ride?”

Technically there wasn’t a rule against giving people rides during work hours. No one had ever asked me, so I stood there debating because there was no way in hell I was going to give him a ride. I just needed to figure out how to say it. Meanwhile, he shuffled out to the front deck with his walker and was beginning to cautiously lower himself down the two or three steps.

“Whoa,” I said. He didn’t whoa but kept going. I still had a hold of his delivery. I shifted it to one hand and held onto his elbow with my other. He wasn’t going to take whoa or no for an answer. “Where is it you need to go?” I asked.

“Just over yonder,” he said pointing with his head. Okay, and that is where?

The Joe’s motto kept running through my brain: “Delivered hot or your money back.” I scooted the food onto the hump in the middle and the old guy flumped into the passenger seat. I had to fold up his walker and put it in the back. “To Silver Lake Nursing Home,” he directed me.

So basically across the road. I backed out so fast I probably gave him whiplash and charged across the road and into the drop-off circle in the front. There was still a chance I could get the other order delivered while semi-hot. I jumped out and sprinted around the car to assist—the order in my hand—Mr. O’Neil—onto the sidewalk and fetch his walker. “Where can I put this?” I indicated the food. The sack was beginning to bloom an oily spot where the fries had leaked. He pointed, “Just inside the door.”

The glass door whooshed open with a pneumatic gasp and there sat a woman in a wheelchair with smudged eyeglasses. “Ralph!” she yelped. He pushed his walker with tennis ball bumpers right up to her. “Sweet thang!” he replied.

He dropped the greasy bag in her lap and planted a kiss on the top of her head. In minutes we were back in the car, ferrying him back to his mobile home. “I try to visit her every night,” he told me. “To give her a kiss and a snack.” I nodded. The sun was just sinking behind some poplar trees, a red band and purple across the open roadway.

The second half of my delivery was not delivered hot and was, therefore, free. Joe gave me hell when I got back. “Where were you?! Nevermind. Take this order and get it there HOT!”

It’s not fair is what I told Mom the day she called with the update. Her latest scan had come back and it wasn’t good. That’s what she said, It’s not good. For five years, all through my high school years she had fought, did every last medical hoodoo, submitted to knives and scalpel. I saw it. Days where she was wrung out, baldheaded, freezing cold or burning up hot. Yet she always got up to make sure we made it off to school. She dragged herself to my graduation. That summer she had a slight remission. She and Dad went up to the cottage on the lake for two weeks. When they came back they seemed more in love than ever. Happy, younger—especially Mom with her hair growing back curly.

Over the phone she told me, straight up, no more heroics. She didn’t want any more treatment. Just made comfortable. And, I thought, What about me, my little sister? What about us? It didn’t seem fair.

Delivery Number Three was two large everythings and a complicated entangled order of pizza, sub, and extra fries. I had this feeling the whole time walking it to the door that this is screwed up and I’m going to be the one that gets blamed. BAM! I pounded on the door. A timid black girl answered, so skinny that I felt sorry for her, like she needed this food so bad that I was actually delivering sustenance to her. I read it back to her, the order, and she nodded, her eyes never once moving from my face. Maybe, I thought she is going to tip me. She had it there in her hand, a $20. I could hear her breathing and something else, someone else nearby breathing also. I took the money and turned. And, after the door closed I opened up the folded bill and there was a note.

Help. I quickly turned back, but all the windows and shades were closed. Then, it hit me.

I went back to my car and dialed 911 and waited until the police arrived. When I got back to Joe’s he said something like, I’m not paying you to powder your nose.

I ignored him. There was a pile of deliveries that needed my attention. All the pressure was on me. Not Joe, not the line man, or dough presser. Me. I had to fucking race to get it somewhere while still hot or I lose.

Dad took a leave of absence. He was/is career military. For years he went from base to base and Mom would always pack up and follow him. My sister and I got used to being the new kids every school year. They got married in Hawaii and had me in Germany and my sister in Texas. One year it might be surf and the next ski. The last few years because of Mom’s health we ended up marooned in a tiny town in Arkansas. Dad spent most of his time helping her.

The hardest thing for Mom was getting on and off the toilet. I could hear her. She’d say, I hate doing this to you. To us? We hated what the cancer was doing to her. But we didn’t say it. Dad’s other job was separating out her medications into a sectioned plastic tray and warming up honey buns—the only stuff she wanted to eat—the sticky ones from the Dollar General.

So I picked up the orders and tossed them into a quilted foil-lined canvas bag and hustled out to my car with the paper plate in the back window in case the cops were canvassing for people parked illegally: Delivery Man.

My last delivery was the most bizarre. It was getting close to midnight, close to knocking off. The address was actually in my neighborhood. Everything about the order screamed BIG TIP. It was for a deluxe supreme extra large. I jogged to the front door with my red canvas zipper bag. This baby was going to be so hot the cheese would burn the customer’s mouth.

A teenage kid answered the door. I might have gone to high school with him, separated by a couple of grades. He invited me in while he went to get his mom to sign the receipt. There were a number of random people in the living room, but no one seemed to be enjoying themselves. Off from the living room I could see into a room where there was a hospital bed. And what looked like a body.

I inhaled loudly through my nose. The kid returned and handed me a $50. “You already paid for the pizza, we just need a signature,” I said.

It had been a long night. I’d heard stories from other drivers about full moons and all kinds of crazy shit. About deliveries to people in the middle of having sex, drunk, fighting. Somehow this evening I had meandered into some kind of pizza delivery boy twilight zone. The kid said, “This is for you.”

“It’s too much,” I said. I’m not sure why I argued. My eyes darted to the still body in the next room. Anyway I just stood there stupidly.

“We’re,” the kid began, stuttering to get the words out, “celebrating my dad. He loved Joe’s Pizza.”

Not sure that’s an endorsement.

“We decided when he passed we’d order a couple pies and spend some time together.”

It wasn’t my business. He didn’t have to explain. But, yet, I got it. My mom was in so much pain. Her awful life made my life awful. Who could eat when upstairs she lay in a dark room trying not to vomit? Who could have fun, go to Great America, catch fireflies or watch for falling stars, or go to the movies, when at any moment life as we knew was about to change, alter, crack and break into a million pieces? I didn’t want to admit how much I totally got their situation. Instead I went out to the car and came back. Knocked.

“Here,” I said, thrusting two two-liter bottles of pop at him. “Soda comes with the order, but I’m giving you another. For free.”

I walked back to the car and took my paper plate out of the back window and threw it into the back seat. I drove home with the windows down, the wind stinging my eyes.

Author Portrait

Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 80 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative nonfiction, and blurred genre, both micro and macro. In addition, she has published the YA novel, Beyond Paradise and a nonfiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. She is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies.