a short story by Herbert Wright
A bunch of masked men stood waiting in a pool of light, staring at Samantha through the plate glass. The street was dark all around it. She stood facing them. She looked so good, you could stare at her for hours, even though it was cold outside. She too wore a mask, but her tight white tailored shirt and slim-fit black trousers made her look a little like a power exec. No-nonsense, focused, in charge. Behind her, Amir was pulling pizzas out of the tiled showcase oven, and Carlo was packing them in boxes when he wasn’t on the phone. Business was good at midnight. It was a time when many customers had the munchies.
If you weren’t sleeping, what else was there to do on a deep winter lockdown night but roll a smoke and wait for the pizza delivery? The city was dead but for the artisan pizza joint. Its door was shut, but when a packed pizza matched an order, Sam would open it just enough to hand the box out, and the delivery guy would stow it away, turn and wheel off into the darkness.
I passed by but Sam was too busy to see me. I was out of the light anyway. A guy in a crash helmet was showing her a mobile screen through the glass. He stood like an Apollo astronaut facing a stars and stripes planted on the Moon, but instead of a NASA life support system on his back, it was a zip-up thermal food delivery box. A different sort of life support.
Was that the best support on offer in the isolation of lockdown? Everyone you knew had became an image on a screen, or a voice on a line stretching across the emptiness. When the lockdown marched in and took charge of your life, loneliness was hanging right behind it. It had slipped in quietly and leant morosely on the wall. The silent presence in the room, the ghost that knew it only had to wait a while to infect you. Not unlike the virus. At least a pizza was material and warm, something physical, like friends used to be. Book one with a few clicks and all you had to do was wait. Just a little wait, for the only little slice of action in town that was available on a cold, dark night.
I could keep an eye on things from my upstairs window just up the street from the pizza joint. I came in, did the things you always do when you come in. Looked at my computer screen. The western Pacific Rim was waking up. This was the time to send what I had to send there, but I’d already sent it. Everything was done. Now, all time had to offer was stillness. So I waited. Sometimes it seemed I was always waiting. Waiting for the world to begin again. Just like the whole world was waiting.
It was after one o'clock that I saw the last delivery man cycle away. The lights went out in the pizzeria. It was too dark to see the crew step out of it. Amir knew how to disappear into the shadows anyway, he’d probably done it enough when Tripoli had gone bad. I caught a tiny glint of light on the pizzeria door, like a firefly momentarily glowing. That was Carlo setting the electronic security. I heard the muffled clunk of his car door.
But it wasn’t the only sound in the otherwise silent city. There were footsteps. A black figure crossed the road.
And then Sam was at my door. Long braids tied back, no mask. Beautiful, confident, alive.
‘Step into my bubble’.
She stepped in. I took her coat. ‘Been waiting?’ she asked.
‘Not like those delivery guys. Don’t they ever freak you, the way they stand around staring?’
‘Nah. Essential workers. They’re just doing their job’.
Sam was holding something. ‘I’ve got what you like’ she said. She put the flat box on the table.
She must be tired. She sat on the sofa, leaned back, untied her braids and spread them with playful fingers and a backward nod, so they hung down behind it. She undid a couple of buttons on her shirt. Easing the pressure.
‘Fancy a drink?’ I asked.
She looked at me, kinda dreamy.
‘If you want it hot, you can stick it in the oven’, she said.
I fingered the box on the table and looked inside. That 30cm-diameter disk of tomato, cheeses, herbs and spices had been waiting, too. Now it grasped its moment and gently billowed its magic into the air, like pheromones.
‘Still warm’ I said.
She raised her gaze from the box to my eyes and stretched a leg out, real slow.
‘It can go in anytime’ she said.
I let the box lid fall back and moved towards the sofa.
© Herbert Wright 2021