Jay unlocked the door to Dantello’s a couple minutes before 10 a.m. The pizza cook and main kitchen employee Eduardo was waiting out front sitting on the curb head down and typing frantically into his phone. He was a small Mexican man of maybe only 5 foot 2 and hardly spoke English but he was a charmer with the ladies and had a constant string of señoritas coming through in the hours between the lunch and dinner rush. And as Jay Branch found out at the bar at the end of the strip one night after work he was a ridiculously good boxer, taking down a redneck twice his size and then going back to his beer like nothing had happened all in under 10 seconds.
“Heeeey Tomato Face!!!” He said realizing Jay was there.
“Hola mi poquito amigo.” Not exactly perfect Espanol but it was the language they spoke to each other. The name Tomato Face had come from the bright red hue that Jay’s face would often take on after a few too many beers, which was probably a sign that the few dozen extra pounds and horrible diet were driving Jay’s blood pressure up and which Edwardo had seen more than a few times lately.
Jay walked in and left Eduardo on the curb to finish whatever text message or Facebook update he was hammering out with his little thumbs and wandered into the pizza smell soaked strip mall pizzeria.
Dantello’s Pizza and subs had been decorated in the early eighties by Sam Dantello’s father Larry, and it looked exactly how you would expect a pizza place in the eighties decorated by a man named Larry to look. The walls were a dark wood paneling adorned with football pennants and random objects like hubcaps and license plates. The tables were your typical square with checked tablecloth design you would see in a thousand other pizza restaurants across the country but were a navy blue pattern instead of the usual red. There were four booths that lined one wall that lead to a hand built front counter that held two early eighties cash registers. Behind this was a giant stainless steel pizza oven that cooked at a blistering 650 degrees for 12 hours a day seven days a week. On alternating sides of the massive oven there was a sandwich and salad line on the left and dish area on the right. The office door and walk in refrigerator doors were almost side by side on the back wall, the entire space of the kitchen including these two additional rooms was approximately eighteen feet by twenty four feet making it slightly larger than the average home kitchen and only slightly better equipped.
The lunch rush was a usual Wednesday lunch; it got really busy for about an hour and a half from noon to 1:30 and then was completely empty by 2:00. Jay barking tickets back to Eduardo and Rojas, the equally diminutive salad cook, who only seemed to say the word cabrone over and over pertaining to all things but never messing up an order and never falling behind and Rob the dishwasher /delivery guy / busboy who always seemed to be singing a song in his head. By 2:15 the restaurant was empty and they were all sitting at the bar in front of the cook line enjoying todays odd pizza creation by Edwardo, today it was the “El taco cabrone” a pizza that had chorizo, onions, jalapenos, avocados and what Jay surmised was a habanero chopped into an almost invisible layer of too damn hot that was hiding under the cheese. Laura the hostess and cashier wandered over to do her check out and informed Jay that Grace was on the deck with another girl. He did the hostess’ check out and then went out to the deck. It wasn’t odd for Grace and Suze to come by for a little free lunch so Jay thought nothing of it, but today they had that little too happy look on their faces that meant they were up to something.
“Hey Daddy.” Grace beamed, and Jay knew he was in trouble. Every time he went from Dad to Daddy it usually cost him whatever amount of money he had finally managed to save up in the bank.
“Hello sweetheart, what kind of pizza would you ladies like?”
“The veggie with goat cheese.” Suze blurted out
“No stinky feet cheese on my side Daddy” Grace came back.
“Okay one veggie half stinky feet coming up, any drinks ladies?”
“Just water.” they both replied “The bubbly one.” Suze interjected.
He went to the kitchen and threw together their pizza and put it into the oven and set the timer then grabbed 2 Pellegrino’s from the walk in cooler and took them to the table.
“Here you go, the pizza will be out in 10.”
“Daddy” Grace said with a smile and he knew the pitch was coming.
“Suze’s aunt invited us out to her place for the week before work starts next week is it okay if I go?”
“Remind me where this woman lives.” he knew it was far and near a lake but had never really paid attention before.
“Lake Havasu City, Arizona” Suze said
“And how would the two of you get there?” he asked picturing the stern Hell No! He would use if they even thought about saying a road trip in Suze’s Prius.
“Aunt Betty will buy us 2 round trip airline tickets. She has enough miles to send us to the moon and back.”
He thought about this long and hard, it felt like his brain was going to get a cramp. If he said yes Grace would be on the other side of the country for a week, too far for him to jump in his old car and get to her in case she needed something. But she was a responsible kid and she had never actually needed any rescuing even though he had been ready just in case for longer than he could pinpoint. He had first aid kits in the house and in his car and every time she had even made a noise that sounded like the start of a cry as a child he would come running in; first aid kit in hand ready to save the day. But she had never needed it, the one time she ever scratched her knee she came in from outside went straight to the bathroom and cleaned and bandaged it before Jay even realized she was back in the house.
“So you’ll be staying at her house and does anyone else live there Suze? Like say a teenage boy or maybe an ex-con uncle with a drug habit or anything?” Suze giggled she knew that Mr. Branch meant no insult by this and he was just being overprotective of Grace as she often wished her father would be.
“No Mr. Branch, Just Aunt Betty and her weird little dog.”
“So why would a couple of teenage girls want to hang out with an old lady and her weird little dog?”
“Because she has a humongous house with a pool, a home theater, a boat and lives by a giant super awesome lake.” Suze said in a matter of fact “well duh dummy” tone.
“And how many minutes do I have to make this decision?”
“We have to let her know as soon as we can so she can set up the tickets for tomorrow if possible.” Grace was looking at him with puppy dog eyes.
“Fine but if you can’t Face Time me at any point in the trip I’ll know you’re up to no good and you’ll be on restriction for a month.” he hated it but he knew she was a good kid and didn’t deserve a no and even though Suze was annoying she was a good friend and she wouldn’t try to get into any trouble either.
“Oh Daddy!” She jumped up and gave him a hug that felt like she was a wrestler trying to squeeze the life out of her opponent.
He stood up, smiled at his baby girl and her spastic best friend and said “Okay well I’ll get you ladies your pizza.” He walked to the kitchen and saw that Eduardo was cutting the pizza into slices.
“I’ll be right back to grab that Amigo.” and he walked back to the little office in the old pizzeria and closed the door. He just stood there for a full minute looking at the little picture of Grace he kept on a shelf in the office, feeling the crippling uncertainty of the inevitable future when one day she would not need him anymore and then felt the tears stream down his face. She was his whole world, she was growing up fast and soon she wouldn’t need her old man any more.