Imagine, if you will, four friends traveling across the countryside on an adventure. These four friends – all adults of legal age – have known each other since childhood. Like any group of friends, they have disagreements from time to time, but these disagreements usually resolve themselves of their own accord and never cause any real friction within the group.
This group consists of two men and two women. There has never been any romantic involvement between any two members of this group at any point during the group’s existence. The friendship among this mixed group of four is and always been strictly platonic, and despite what the reader or anyone else may imagine to the contrary, there has never been the slightest inkling toward anything romantic or sexual directed at any member of the group from any other member of the group.
They are, all four of them, just friends.
There is only one issue which causes this group of four genuine and lifelong friends any friction whatsoever, and while this issue may seem silly to anyone outside the group, rest assured that there are legitimate reasons this issue is so important to the members of this group. However, these reasons are so convoluted and arcane that it would require many thousands of words to accurately describe them, and even if these reasons were to be fleshed out on the page (or on the screen, or what have you) they would likely not make any sense whatsoever to anyone outside of this group of four friends.
These reasons are important to the four friends, and silly though it may seem to anyone else, the beliefs these friends have regarding this one seemingly trivial issue are so strong that any time this issue is brought up, heated arguments ensue.
As a matter of fact, this one adventure these four friends are on now is the first such adventure the four of them have undertaken together in several years. This long estrangement was due, mainly, to an unresolved argument regarding the aforementioned issue, and to repeat yet again, this issue may very well seem silly and frivolous and trivial to anyone outside the group, nonetheless within the group itself, this issue is anything but.
The issue is pizza.
Yes, it seems insane – and it very well may be – that four lifelong friends could come to blows and not talk to each other for literally years at a time over something as seemingly insignificant as pizza (what toppings to put on it, what type of crust is best, etc.), nonetheless the dispute over pizza among these four genuine, lifelong friends is an ongoing one, and one that they – all four of them – purposefully estranged themselves from each other over for several years preceding the adventure we find them on now:
Jill, Hillary, Gary, and Donald, after a long day of traveling and sightseeing and joking around and generally having a great time together, have found themselves in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The four of them, having been physically active all day and only eating a light breakfast and lunch, are all very hungry. It’s after 10 pm, and the only lights on anywhere in this small town in the middle of nowhere are in a small pizzeria on the edge of the town square.
Before the four of them go in, they have a short discussion regarding the issue that is weighing heavily on their hearts, that the good times they have been sharing on this adventure shouldn’t be ruined by their having to face the one issue they can’t agree upon – pizza – that they will simply order four personal-sized pizzas, eat them quietly without criticizing each other, then leave the pizzeria and find somewhere to sleep for the night.
The four of them – after circling the town square a few times to make sure there isn’t anywhere else open (even a convenience store) where they could grab a bite before bed – reluctantly start toward the pizzeria.
On the sidewalk outside the pizzeria, there’s a man lying on his side, moaning in what sounds like agony.
“What a bum,” Donald says.
“Really,” Gary replies. “There is nothing worse than a grown man who has no respect for himself.”
“I…I’m not a bum,” the man replies. “I…own…successful business…couple towns ov–” then the man begins violently retching upon the concrete.
Donald and Gary, disgusted, enter the pizzeria, discussing things like “personal responsibility” and “self-respect” and how “bums” like this fellow are “leeches on society” and that sort of thing.
Hillary and Jill take slightly more pity on the moaning, retching fellow. They ask him if there is anything they can do to help him, and after retching and moaning for another ten seconds or so, the man says “ambulance” and then retches some more. There is a phone on the sidewalk beside him, and the sound of an ambulance siren is just barely audible off in the distance, and Hillary and Jill assume that he has already called for help.
The man seems to be trying to tell them something, trying to warn them about something, even – he is grasping at pant legs and has a pleading tone in his voice, etc. – but before he can say anything other than “don’t” and “pep” (because of all the retching), Donald opens the door.
“Hurry up and come in here, ladies,” Donald says. “The pizza chef is about to close up for the night, and if you don’t get in here now, you don’t get to eat!”
Hillary and Jill note that the ambulance siren off in the distance seems to have gotten a little closer, and though they feel pity and concern for the moaning, retching man on the sidewalk, and though he now appears to have trouble breathing, they reason that as they are not medical professionals, there’s nothing they can do for him, and there’s apparently an ambulance on the way, and so on, and long story short Hillary and Jill go into the pizzeria and sit down at the table Donald and Gary have chosen.
The four of them are the only customers in the pizzeria, other than a young couple in the back corner who seem to have fallen asleep at their table.
The inside of the pizzeria is dimly lit, and there is an odd smell, and the atmosphere seems like less of a dimly-lit romantic Italian ristorante sort of atmosphere and like more of a dimly-lit B-movie “this is where everybody in the picture gets brutally murdered” sort of atmosphere. Everyone in the group notices this, but they all attribute it to their being tired and hungry, and none of them mentions it to anyone, and they revive the jocularity they enjoyed during the day and order something to drink.
When the waitress brings their drinks – four ice cold root beers in frosty mugs, a perfect beverage to top off a perfect day, everyone agrees – she informs them that there is only enough pizza dough left in the kitchen for the chef to make one large pizza. The waitress adds, somewhat cryptically, that “personal sized pizzas” are not allowed in this pizzeria, and to please not mention them again.
The four friends’ jocularity is suspended, and they all silently gaze down at the menus in front of them, realizing that the one issue that has bitterly divided their tightly-knit group many times over the years – the pizza issue – will have to be settled to some degree this evening.
They also – all four of them – notice something exceedingly odd printed at the bottom of each page of the menu:
“Do not order more than you can eat. Wasting food is a crime against Nature and the Supreme Being. Customers who do not finish their meals will be shot.”
The waitress says she will be back in a couple minutes to take their order, and she walks away.
“Ha. Did you guys see this disclaimer at the bottom of the menu? About customers who don’t finish their meals?” Donald asks the table. “I like a man who is confident about his product. It shows spunk, it shows panache, it shows that the owner of this place is a winner and not some loser like that bum out on the sidewalk. I’m going to remember that, that is creative marketing right there, ladies and gentleman.”
Before anyone can respond, the sound of a pump-action shotgun being shucked comes from over near the door. The four friends turn and see that a burly fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs is now standing in front of the door, facing the table, holding what appears to be a sawed-off 12-gauge across his chest.
Donald, Jill, and Hillary are all somewhat taken aback at this new development, and at first so is Gary, but after noticing that no one else noticed him flinching, and after noticing that the burly fellow is only standing there by the door and not actually pointing his sawed-off 12-gauge at anyone, Gary laughs and tells his three friends that they are all “pussies,” and that this one time when he was riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest with a pack of wild cheetahs chasing him, a Sherpa guide brandished a shotgun more or less exactly like that one at him, and he stopped his ten-speed, confronted the shotgun-wielding Sherpa, and even though the Sherpa – who was envious of the ten-speed which Gary had earned through hard work and a dedication to self-improvement and individuality and that sort of thing and wanted to steal it (the ten-speed) from him – actually managed to “wing” Gary, Gary tells the table, Gary was able to wrestle the shotgun away from the Sherpa and suplex this Sherpa over the side of a cliff, which by this time the pack of wild cheetahs had caught up to him, and he had to fight them all off bare-handed – he was only able to kill one with the shotgun (it was a double-barreled shotgun, and one shot had already been expended upon him) – and after a long, arduous battle there on the side of Mt. Everest with approximately seventeen wild cheetahs in which Gary eventually came out the victor, and “other than a scratch or two” (Gary proudly flopped his right leg up onto the table to show everyone a rather nasty-looking scar that he claimed still had most of a cheetah tooth broken off somewhere inside of it) he came out of the fracas unscathed. After he related the end of his tale, in which he tamed a ferocious grizzly bear merely by speaking kindly to it and then rode on the bear’s back up to the summit of Mt. Everest and then back down to the base, beating his bare chest with his fists the entire time, Gary reiterated that just because an intimidating-looking fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs was standing in front of the door with a shotgun here at this dimly-lit pizzeria that smelled sort of like the back room of a mortuary with menus that threatened death for anyone who didn’t finish their pizza, that was no reason for anyone to be upset, and that he wasn’t really surprised that the female half of the group was concerned about the situation (men being, to his view, the stronger, more resilient half of the species) but that the other male in the group should have the “balls” to not be afraid of a mere sawed-off 12-gauge, when he (Gary) had bravely endured not only shotguns but packs of cheetahs and grizzly bears, all while riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest.
“I’m not a pussy,” Donald began, the register of his voice a good bit lower than it had been just a few minutes ago. Before he could continue in his artificially-deepened voice, the waitress returned to the table.
“Are you guys ready to order?” the waitress asked. She seemed sort of nervous, but as everybody at the table was again preoccupied with the pizza issue, nobody paid any attention to it.
“Would it be possible to split the pizza four ways?” Jill asked. “I mean, like a quarter ham, a quarter Canadian bacon, a quarter ground beef, and a quarter pepperoni?”
It would be prudent at this point to discuss the individual pizza topping preferences of the four friends:
Donald’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni. Hillary’s favorite pizza topping is ground beef. Gary’s favorite pizza topping is Canadian bacon, and Jill’s favorite pizza topping is ham.
The issue as to whether Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing is but one of many issues that has bitterly divided this group over the years, and the arguments presented for and against this issue would require several thousand words to transcribe. Jill and Gary – obviously – strongly disagree that Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing, and after verbally fighting tooth and nail against each other for hours over the matter, they are known to combine their vitriol and direct it against Hillary when she inevitably tries to get them both to concede that at the very least Canadian bacon and ham are quite similar. Donald finds the whole argument amusing, and tends to drop well-timed comments which alternately support both sides in order to egg on the conflict and amuse himself.
At any rate, the waitress informs them that no, this four-way splitting of the pizza will not be possible.
“The pizza chef is,” the waitress begins, “a deeply religious man.” She seems to be reciting something from memory: “His religion, is, um…his religion is single–”
The waitress’s recitation is cut short by a loud clanging sound from back in the kitchen, one which prompts the waitress to visibly flinch.
“His religion is singular, I meant to say,” she continues, “In that he is the only adherent of it. I am unworthy of such a faith, but…” she pauses, “but I espy– ”
More clanging, as if someone were hitting a stack of pizza pans with a sledgehammer, emerges from the kitchen, again causing the waitress to visibly flinch.
“…but I aspire to one day be worthy of aspiring to such a noble faith,” the waitress said.
The four friends at the table – all of whom respect the right of every individual to worship or not worship whoever or whatever they wish in whichever fashion they wish (Donald having, nonetheless, something of an aversion to anything and everything Islamic) – are nonetheless taken somewhat aback at the things the waitress is telling them about the pizza chef and his “singular” religion. The pizza chef, it seems, worships a Supreme Being who expresses Himself – the repeated use of “Him,” “His,” and “He” (the capitalization of these pronouns being easily inferred) indicating to everyone at the table that this Supreme Being envisioned by the pizza chef is, in fact, male – through the medium of pizza. And that he – the pizza chef (note that the most recent “he” is not capitalized) – is the vessel through which this Supreme Being expresses Himself.
One odd aspect of this “singular” religion, one which strikes everyone at the table as somewhat ironic, is that the “Supreme Being” worshiped by the pizza chef has given the pizza chef one unalterable commandment regarding the medium – pizza – through which the will of this “Supreme Being” is expressed: at no time, and under no circumstances, would the “Supreme Being” tolerate more than one topping on any one pizza the pizza chef makes. Therefore, according to will of the “Supreme Being,” the concept of a “supreme pizza” is an abomination.
It occurs to everyone at the table – being that all four of them have something of a talent for marketing – that the pizza chef could potentially be making quite a lot of money by using his religion as a gimmick and selling “Supreme Being Pizzas” and that sort of thing. Donald mentions this to the waitress, who responds with silence and a horrified look on her face.
There are, however, certain aspects of the pizza chef’s religion that appeal to the group: part of the reason that the pizza chef (or the Supreme Being, or whatever) allows only one topping on a pizza – and also one pizza to a table – is to promote unity among friends and family. One topping must be agreed upon, one and only one topping – it doesn’t matter which topping, but there has to be one, and “cheese” doesn’t count – before the Supreme Being would deign to commune with the group of family or friends at the table through the divine medium of freshly-baked hand-tossed Italian-style pizza created by the sole arbiter and vessel of the Supreme Being’s will, the pizza chef.
There was one other stipulation: if the group of friends or family dining at any given table at this pizzeria could not decide which of the many flavorful and delicious toppings to have on their pizza, the will of the Supreme Being dictates that the topping will default to pepperoni.
The four friends look at the long list of toppings – Jill and Gary feeling somewhat vindicated because of the fact that both “ham” and “Canadian bacon” appear on the list – and ask the waitress to please give them a minute. The waitress says that will be fine, and while she is saying “I will be back in a few minutes” she turns her back to the kitchen, scribbles something rather frantically on her notepad, tears off the top page, and nonchalantly places it on the table in front of Hillary before she walks back to the kitchen.
As Donald, Jill, and Gary discuss the pizza chef’s singular faith, Hillary picks up the slip of paper, the top left corner of which is apparently still on the notepad the slip came off of. In shaky, all-caps, Hillary is able to read this message:
DONT EAT ANY
THNG ELSE OK”
Hillary attempts to show the note to her companions – they were talking among themselves about how interesting the pizza chef’s marketing strategy was – remembering the retching man on the sidewalk who had managed to choke out “don’t” and “pep” before she and Jill left him on the sidewalk for the ambulance to pick up…
And she realizes for the first time since she came in that the ambulance she and Jill had heard in the distance had never come, that the man on the sidewalk hadn’t called it after all, like she and Jill had assumed.
Hillary looks around the dining room of the pizzeria. The young couple in the back corner who appear to have fallen asleep at their table don’t seem to have moved at all since she and her three friends came in.
Neither of the two young people – neither of them could have been over 20 years old – appear to be breathing.
As Hillary turns back around to her friends, a muffled sort of scream emanates from the kitchen area. The screaming stops after a slight clanging sound – like pizza pans falling off of a counter – and a series of dull thumps – thumps that sound like someone hitting a side of beef with a sledgehammer – travel through the strange-smelling air between the kitchen and the dining room.
The four friends sit in silence for a few seconds. “You guys,” Gary says, his voice trembling, “what was that sound? It sounded like–”
“I vas tenderizing ze beef for tomorrow’s pizzas,” says a small man in a black apron who appears more or less out of nowhere. “Ze vaitress, she has gone home for ze evening. I am ze chef here. Vy name ist Heinrich. I vas named for mein great grandfazza.”
The man is fairly short – just over five feet tall – and he has neatly combed white hair, bright blue eyes, and a pleasant smile. “Have ze fine ladies und gentlemen decided vhich topping zey vill have?”
The man’s appearance sets Jill, Gary, and Donald somewhat at ease.
“No, I’m afraid not, Heinrich,” Jill begins. “Hillary wants ground beef, I want ham, Gary wants Canadian bacon, and Donald wants pepperoni.”
“I regret to inform ze lady zat zere ist no ham available tonight,” Heinrich says. “Ve are, as zey say, fresh out.”
“What about Canadian bacon?” Gary asked, his voice again evoking what he imagines to be rugged masculinity.
Heinrich smiles, with what Hillary and Donald both interpret as knowing condescension: “Yes,” Heinrich says, “I am afraid zat ve are out of zat topping as vell. Everyzing else ist, as zey say, still in fresh supply.”
“Well, if I understand the policy here, Heinie,” Donald begins, “If we can’t decide what topping we want, you just give us pepperoni, right?”
“Zat ist correct,” Heinrich replies. “Und let me assure ze fine ladies und gentlemen zat it ist pepperoni of ze highest quality.”
“I’m sure it is, Heinie,” Donald says. “I’m sure it’s some really luxurious pepperoni, my friend. And I just want to compliment you on your business here, I really like the whole marketing approach, the whole ‘Supreme Being’ shtick, I just think it’s fantastic.”
Heinrich’s smile does not wane in the slightest, but his eyes seem to betray a slight inner hardening of his demeanor as he says, “Let me assure ze gentleman zat mein Gott ist no, as you say, shtick.”
“That’s great, Heinie, just great,” Donald replies, then turns back to his friends: “Well, guys, it sounds like pepperoni, huh?” Donald positively radiates triumph over the fact that the inability of his friends to agree on a pizza topping essentially guarantees that his choice of topping will be the one they are all forced – quite literally at gunpoint – to eat.
“Could you just give us a minute to discuss this, Heinrich?” Hillary asks.
“Of course, madame,” Heinrich replies. “I vill be back in, as zey say, two shakes of ze lamb’s tail.”
“I just think he’s fantastic,” Jill says.
“His accent is scary,” Gary offers, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“I bet that’s some real luxurious pepperoni,” Donald says.
“Guys, I think that pepperoni is poisoned,” Hillary says. “I think this whole restaurant is a death trap, and I think that guy Heinrich is a psychopath.”
The three of them laugh.
“Look at this note!” Hillary says, and shows them the note the waitress had given her.
“I can’t even read that,” Donald says.
“Look at that sloppy handwriting,” Jill says.
“That waitress writes like a pussy,” Gary says.
“Jill,” Hillary says, “don’t you remember the sick man on the sidewalk?”
“You mean that bum?” Donald interrupts.
“Proper penmanship is one key aspect of personal responsibility,” Gary says.
“When he wasn’t vomiting, he said ‘don’t’ and ‘pep’!” Hillary says. “Didn’t you hear that, Jill?”
“Well, I…” Jill replies.
“Probably hopped up on pep pills,” Donald says.
“People like that are pathetic,” Gary begins. “It’s like Ayn Rand always said…”
“LOOK AT THE COUPLE IN THE BACK CORNER, YOU IDIOTS! THEY’RE FLIPPING DEAD! THEY ATE THE POISON PEPPERONI AND NOW THEY’RE DEAD!” Hillary shouts.
“No need to act like a fanatic,” Gary says, his voice slightly quivering again.
“Must be that time of the month,” Donald says.
“You’re letting your emotions control you, Hillary,” Jill says.
“Are ve veady to order?” Heinrich says, again seeming to appear out of nowhere.
Out of frustration, Hillary presses the heels of her hands against her temples and puts her elbows on the table. “Anything but pepperoni,” she says.
“Ham,” Jill says.
“Canadian bacon,” Gary says.
“They’re the same FLIPPING THING!” Hillary says.
“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.
“Let me remind ze lady and ze gentleman zat ve are out of ze ham.”
Jill and Gary glare at Heinrich.
“…und ve are also out of ze Canadian bacon.”
“Yes,” Jill says, straightening up in her seat. “I know that you are out of ham, and I know that it is completely and utterly pointless and absurd for me to order ham, and that there is no eventuality whatsoever in which my ordering ham here in this pizzeria tonight will result in ham being put on the pizza that is brought to my table, because as I have been told there is no ham and therefore no possibility of ham being on my pizza, nonetheless, my conscience tells me that I should order ham anyway. I know full well that when I order ham – even if there were ham here in the pizzeria tonight, which it is a well-established fact that there isn’t any – that what I am essentially doing is ordering pepperoni – because of the rules you have here in your pizzeria, Heinrich – but these irrefutable and indisputable facts do not deter me in the slightest from doing what I feel I must do: order ham. I feel it is my duty to order ham, because I like ham, and I think ham is the best pizza topping, and even though there is no chance in hell – or for that matter heaven or Earth – that ordering ham tonight will lead to my being served ham on my pizza, and that ordering ham when I know this to be a fact is essentially an egotistical and foolish exercise in futility, I must follow my conscience and order ham anyway. I will have ham on my pizza, Heinrich, ham, I say!”
Gary stands up, clapping with vigorous aplomb. Tears are streaming down his face. “That was beautiful, Jill. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I mean, I probably could have said it better because I’m a rugged, manly man – these are rugged, manly tears streaming down my rugged, manly cheeks, by the way – and you’re just a dumb, frightened girl, but still, I agree with you a hundred percent on this. Except for me it’s Canadian bacon.”
“They’re the exact same thing,” Hillary says under her breath.
“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.
“Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. You’re being very immature, Hillary,” Donald says, then hands his menu to Heinrich. “You know what I’m having, Heinie.”
“Ze pepperoni it vill be, zen,” Heinrich says. “I hope ze ladies and gentlemen vill enjoy.”
“We’re all going to die here,” Hillary says.
“Stop being so emotional,” Jill says.
“Don’t be a pussy,” Gary says.
Hillary glares at Gary, who seems to shrink in his seat a little.
After a few minutes – fewer than one would think it would take to bake a pizza; Heinrich had apparently anticipated the outcome of the squabble over toppings ahead of time, and had done so correctly – the pizza is brought out, and Donald, Jill, and Gary eat heartily.
Hillary does not.
“Real good pepperoni, Hill, real luxurious,” Donald says several times.
After about ten minutes, Donald, Jill, and Gary begin to feel ill. They look at each other, noticing a greenish bluish sort of tinge in their faces. They look at Hillary, and notice that she does not have this sickly color in her face, although she does appear rather pale.
After about twenty minutes, the three of them fall over, moaning, clutching their stomachs in pain, retching violently all over the floor.
Hillary remains still, her elbows on the table, the heels of her hands pressed against her temples.
She hears footsteps behind her.
“Ze lady ist not eating her pizza,” Heinrich says, a playful sort of malevolence in his voice.
“You killed my friends,” Hillary says.
“Ja,” Heinrich replies. “Und now I vill kill you as vell. Come, Werner. Ze lady needs, as zey say, motivation.”
Werner shucks his shotgun.