I rolled over in bed and looked at the clock: ten minutes till six. It was still early, but there were a million things left to do before tonight. Many would say the future of my business rested on tonight’s outcome, and I would have to agree. I stepped into the shower and hastily turned the dial far to the left. Water pummeled my skin with relentless force as I tried and failed to push Constantine Leon from my mind. As a food critic, his reviews were revered by small restaurant owners, and though he rarely minced words but preferred to go straight for the jugular, his reviews, if in your favor, had been known to turn more than one “Mom & Pop Shop” into the next “Up & Coming Spot.” I shook my head as I rinsed off. I have been ready—ready and waiting.
I threw on some work clothes and headed for the stairs. As I descended, the familiar scents of the kitchen drifted towards me, and I smiled. It was an Italian smell of spices, tomatoes, and herbs. It was the smell of passion and work. Normally, I had a few extra hands helping me out in the morning, but today I didn’t mind the solidarity. I began making the dough, mixing in the flour and the yeast, rolling the massive ball over and over in my hands. I reached mechanically for the scale I kept under the prep counter. Setting it to zero, I began cutting off pieces of what would become the pizza’s crust from the large dough ball, weighing each piece out on the scale in front of me. Pizza is precise—or at least it should be. I prided myself on knowing that if you came in and ordered a pizza from my restaurant today, in two days, three weeks, or even a month from now, if you ordered that pizza again, it would look and taste exactly the same. The same amount of dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings on every single pizza. Life should be as predictable.
I picked up the first weighed pizza dough ball and rolled it in my hands. I folded it twice, smashed it down once, and then maneuvered it into a round dough ball. I placed it in a plastic bin and repeated the process. Once all the dough had been shaped and lined up in the bin like ducks in a row, I took my paint brush, lightly dipped in oil, and ran it once, from right to left, over each dough ball. Satisfied, I moved the plastic bins into the walk-in freezer where they would stay until the yeast in the dough began to rise.
Inside the freezer, my breath came out in small puffs as I looked over my inventory. As my breath vaporized and disappeared with each exhalation of my lungs, my mind drifted back to an article I had read the previous month. Constantine had dined at a rather elegant French restaurant on the Westside. He hadn’t been particularly impressed, and it showed in his review. He had a way of noticing the details even some of the larger establishments seemed to overlook. He zeroed in on the employees, their friendliness, as well as their knowledge and ability to answer questions when asked. He believed eating-out should be a dining experience. No detail was too small for his cunning eye. Fortunately, I too am a stickler for details. I took another cursory glance around the walk-in. Fresh vegetables just in from a new supplier had arrived the night before. I had mushrooms to slice, onions to dice, olives to drain, not to mention cheese to grate and sauce to make. Time was of the essence, but everything would be perfect by six o’clock tonight. It had to be; my future depended on it.
Owning my own restaurant had been a childhood dream. Growing up, I was often ridiculed for my culinary craftiness, a skill left unappreciated until early adulthood. In college I learned that many women were wooed by a man’s ability to wield a spatula, and I embraced my new-found dating weapon. I whipped grilled, sautéed, stirred, strained, chopped, and marinated my love—and women simply ate it up. The hours passed in a flurry of preparation, and the pungent aroma of eclectic ingredients wafted through the air. Pesto, marinara, and garlic sauce chilled on ice. Toppings, precisely labeled, each filled their usual space in the prep area. Satisfied that everything was in order, I strolled from the kitchen into the dining area.
The floors gleamed from their polishing of the night before. Sunlight gleamed through the window throwing reflective rays of light off the black and white checkered floors. The lacquered tables artfully arranged throughout the large room each displayed the restaurant’s menu, napkins, parmesan cheese, and red peppers. As I looked out the windows, cars drifted by. The street outside contained a hodgepodge of commercial stores. Across the street was an Asian bakery; next to that, a small bookstore and an independent record shop. My own space had once been a diner, and a waffle house of some sort, next door, still remained empty—a ghost of another’s dream, lost for quite some time now. I had caught word that it had recently been looked at and that the space might be leased again, but there was no time for speculation on future culinary competition now. Constantine would be here soon.
“I’ll take a pesto pizza. Spinach. Black olives. Chicken.” His words were clipped. “That will be all. Thank you.”
I smiled a reserved sort of grin, pleasant yet showing no teeth. “It’ll be out shortly, Sir.” And with that I turned and returned to the kitchen to make Constantine’s pizza myself.
In the prep area, I took a piece of dough between my hands, flattening it twice before tossing it spinning in the air. I stretched the dough ‘till all sides reached the fullness of the pan. On the prep counter, I set the digital scale to zero and placed four ounces of creamy pesto on the dough, spreading it around evenly till the green sauce covered the surface before I hit the button setting the scale to zero again. I grabbed handfuls of mozzarella and pilled it on the pizza, watching the scale until it read fifteen. Sliding the pizza down the prep counter, I moved on to the spinach. One cup of the green vegetable sprinkled over the cheese followed by a cup of black olives. Finally, a cup and a half of chicken and four more ounces of mozzarella. A dash of parmesan cheese, and the pizza was sent into the oven. Perfection.
Constantine sat erect in his chair. I watched his eyes move around the dining room, taking in all the details. My employees were all dressed in black slacks, neatly creased down the front. Crisp, white, long-sleeved shirts were complimented by black ties, and white aprons around the waste. I watched him, watching them. His face gave nothing away. I turned my attention back to the kitchen as Constantine’s pizza was removed from the oven. After it was sliced, I took it our to Constantine myself.
I watched as he took the first bite, of the first slice, of his first pizza at my restaurant. As he chewed, it was his eyes I noticed first. Wonder? Disbelief? Shock? I smiled at the first sign of life in his eyes.
Wait — Something wasn’t right.
He wasn’t chewing.
He stood up.
I looked at his eyes, followed them to the door where he stared. I ran. I ran out of the kitchen, through the dining room, out of the front door. The crunch. The crunching under my feet now that I was outside. No. I stomped, keeping them from going under my door. The sound. I saw the truck, the white truck that foiled my fate. Of all the days, of all the times, the ghost of another’s dream having sat forgotten for months and months was being fumigated, and roaches ran from the waffle house seeking refuge from that smoke into my restaurant next door.