Sunday. I am standing inside Mineo’s Pizza, which is odd because Napoli’s is only a block away and sells a better pie. But, I let my wife order, and she is unaware of the rankings. It’s OK. She grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, so of course, she likes Mineo’s because that’s where the kids from Allderdice High used to hang out after school, and if you come from the suburbs into the city as a kid, that sort of thing could sway you into thinking they sold the best pie. And it is a fine pie, but they go in this order, best first: Napoli’s, Aiello’s, then Mineo’s. Aiello’s is just a few doors down, in between Napoli’s and Mineo’s on the taste scale and geographically. In the face of this density of pizzerias on a single side of a hundred-yard stretch of road, a deep understanding of the rankings can only come through years of dedicated testing and retesting. You can’t get that from a few casual visits. Some things take time.
Of course, various people have their different ranking of these pizza places. They might even try to throw in a blurb for Fiori’s from the South Hills. But those people are wrong—all of them.
So here I am, in this third-rate pizza joint where a customer is walking from person to person, looking at their foreheads, reading their auras, and telling them they are “Oh! So amazing.” She stops in front of me and looks up, then frowns and moves on, not saying anything. But the plumber from New York City standing next to me? Oh, so amazing! Stupid Mineo’s.
Later, my wife asks how it is, and I shrug as I fold a fourth slice into my open face.
I get to work popping the balloons we hung four weeks earlier for my daughter’s birthday. The dog raises an eyebrow as if to ask whether I am going to pop them all. I plan to. She sighs and leaves the room. Does anyone else have the central area of their house decorated with dozens of slowly deflating balloons? If not, try it. Adds a particular “I’m more depressed than you can ever imagine” ambiance while also screaming, Happy Covid birthday, princess!
I am not depressed, but depression would be OK because it’s the second fall season of this pandemic and, aren’t we all allowed to be honest about how we feel at this point in our collective period of intense introspection? Did we not just spend a year and a half calling into each other’s homes on video, knowing none of us were wearing pants, listening to the casual background sounds of children beating each other? Yes. And now that we are all used to not wearing pants, and all the children have returned to school, of course, no one wants to go back to the office. No one wants to race through the pressing waves of human commuters heaving up against one another, hurrying to jam into rows of cubicles and conference rooms littered with free bagels before rushing back out for the break room so we can all share the microwave.
Why? We wonder why? Why do we have to go back into the numbing workplace when everything we did there we could do from inside our comfortable cat socks and personal bathroom space? Admit it, hosting a meeting on the toilet had a certain je ne sais quoi.
Monday. I sit at the dining room table with my older brother. I wait while reheating four pieces of the pizza in the oven, two slices of meatball and ricotta, two slices of sausage and banana pepper. It is nine-thirty AM. We just submitted some of the paperwork to form his new business. While we wait, he tells me a story about the name of his about-to-be LLC. When we were young, I was just a baby, our dad was out at his job flying cargo. My brother asked about dinner, and all our mom could find to eat was one potato. She cooked it. They split it up. Funny how businesses get their names. One Potato, LLC. The oven dings and I pull out the slices. Eating, my brother hollers, indignant. “They burned the crust and tried to cover it up with too much cheese!”
In the late afternoon, I go out with the dog to meet the kids as they walk home from school. We hustled through the yard faster than usual because my neighbor saw a rat run under our deck earlier in the week. I make it into the alley, a safe zone where I can see if the rat is coming from any direction. I know that the colorful fall leaves, my now potty-trained dog, and two smiling kids heading towards me from the far end of the alley, hunched underneath overstuffed backpacks and covered in smiles, are about as good to perfect as I ever expected to get in life. Fall in the Appalachian Midwest. My daughter never zips up her backpack, and it hangs open like a limp, broken jaw. By the time she gets to me, papers and markers have spilled out behind her in a trail of elementary school detritus down the alley. My son’s cheeks are about to burst from smiling so hard at his joy of coming home, and he skips towards me, but quickly, tears stream down over the same cheeks as he remembers he has math homework, and all at once, he collapses into my arms with gasping and heaving sobs. The sudden switch in emotions both confuses and delights me. How can someone cry so much so fast? A nine-year-old mind churns in a complex world of monumental challenges. I cannot judge. Just because I cannot remember the pain of those days does not mean it is not traumatic for him to figure out how many fireflies Ben put in the mason jar.
Come on, son, we got this.
Maybe. Math is the impenetrable darkness of my childhood. I want to help him, but a fear instilled in me during a high school geometry course abuses my confidence. I think I can manage - he is just learning, and I already learned it, and I learned most of my math the hard way - rote memorization. It was startling to me that the children no longer memorize the multiplication tables. Their ignorance means my ability to multiply without counting with my fingers is like a magic power. Once we get back inside, I push aside the two plastic pumpkins overflowing with empty candy wrappers, and we flip open his take-home folder.
There are a few tricks to the trade, but half of being a dad is just showing up for the mundane things, like doing the dishes, game night, and math homework. And no, you don’t get one of those charts with a row of gold stars and your name on the top, though I would appreciate it. It is nothing like college, where you can zone out during lectures for weeks and then cram and still pass the exam. I mean, these are human beings who depend on you for fully cooked food and tied-up shoelaces every day. So I show up with my son at the dining room table, and we sit next to each other to tackle the tear-inducing word problems. Just as we start, “Daddy, can I have a snack?” Covered, son. Leftover pizza. Everyone gets a slice.
And if you were wondering, it’s 20. Ben put twenty fireflies in the mason jar. That sadistic freak.
Tuesday. Another school afternoon, another meeting with the children in the alley, the dog nosing smashed and wet trash stuck to the asphalt. I scan for any of my daughter’s discarded belongings along the span behind her. On the way inside, I check the rat trap - it’s sprung. There is no bait left. And no rat in the trap. “Run, kids! The rat is loose!” The kids scream and scramble up the patio stairs and into the back door.
My daughter asks for a snack. There is one piece of Mineo’s left. I offer to heat it for her. She responds with a distracted, almost condescending, “yay.” She’s already tired of the pizza. “What is that? Are you being smart with me?” I say. “This pie cost good money.” Then my son asks for a slice, which turns into a problem: two kids, one slice. My daughter will not give up her piece out of spite, but my son can’t stand the inequity of his situation. Then the accusations begin. It is “not fair,” and I am a “meanie,” and the weight of arbitration on an otherwise calm afternoon crumples my senses. “I’m not cutting the slice in half!” I raise my voice amidst the ensuing chaos as the two clamor for the last piece. They are loud, but I am taller and heavier than both, so the girl gets the pizza. The boy gets a tube of string cheese and warmed bread, which is my best approximation of Mineo’s. Deep down, though, I know. If the pizza was a top-tier pie to begin with, it would be gone by now, and we wouldn’t be in this situation. No one would have a slice, and we’d all be eating boxes of Trader Joe’s macaroni and cheese with hot sauce. I throw my fist at the sky and curse Mineo’s.
Wednesday. Finally. Garbage night. The greasy cardboard Mineo’s boxes sit next to my trash can in the kitchen. I can’t put them outside any earlier because they would be a treasure for the rats. Anyway, even though the space freed up by chucking the boxes would free up valuable space in the garbage territory of my kitchen, I wait until the cover of darkness to take them to the curb. I don’t want my neighbors to see that I bought not one but two pies from Mineo’s, especially when everyone knows that Napoli’s is right up the street.
No harm came to the rat under my deck during the writing of this essay.
Thank you for reading. Ask your friends to subscribe!