“A rosemary and parmesan crust, with a sprinkle of saffron,” she said. “Brush some garlic sparkle butter around the edge, and use Marinara Number Nine. Typical toppings for this order. There should be a whiff of rotting rose petals when it first comes out of the oven, but that will dissipate in two seconds, so you’ll have to pay attention, and then it’ll taste just like you’d expect it to.”
“What…what will this one do?” Ronnie asked as he folded fresh rosemary leaves and parmesan flakes into the dough.
“It’ll make the customer swoon with pleasure upon first bite is what it will do.” Madeleine Miriam cocked an eyebrow. “And it’ll treat those infected gums on the left side of his jaw.”
Ronnie smiled and shook his head. “I’m sure his dentist will be thrilled.”
“Ronnie, darling, if that man regularly visited his dentist, he wouldn’t be coming to us in the first place.”
Ronnie twirled the dough. “Have you ever been threatened with a lawsuit?”
“For what? Serving delicious pizza?” Madeleine waved a hand at the menu on the wall. “That’s the only promise I make our customers.”
“Are you sure about the saffron?”
“The recipe won’t work without it.”
“Use your judgment. You’re the pizza chef. You know best.”
Ronnie gave her a single solid nod. He’d been making pizzas for a long, long while. The first time he put his hands to pizza dough, he was only eighteen months old. But he’d only been working at his new job at Madeleine Miriam’s Pizzapothecarium for three days. He was still learning the ropes from the owner, operator, apothecary, and pizza cook, Madeleine Miriam.
Ronnie was always open to learning new pizza-cooking skills, but his true aim in working for Madeleine was to learn about some of her less typical ingredients and recipes, like all her mysterious marinaras.
“Uh, Miss Miriam, this water looks kind of murky. What am I putting in this crust, kombucha?” Ronnie asked during the lunch rush.
“It’s fine. It’s healthy. Healthy cultures.”
“This isn’t going to give someone diarrhea, is it?”
“No! No, of course not. I mean to say…humans will be fine.”
“So…I should warn the customer not the feed any slices to their dog?”
“Pets! Of course, I hadn’t thought of that. But, no, pets should be fine too, except that dogs aren’t supposed to have onions, are they?”
“I’ll just tell them not to feed the pizza to their pets.”
They handled their typical orders that day—at least typical for Madeleine’s pizzeria. There was a man looking to cure a toothache, a repeat customer who came in for a small double pepperoni to treat her acne, and a couple who came to pick up a barbecue chicken pizza and mozzarella cheese sticks. The couple’s pizza didn’t contain any special ingredients. They just said it was the best barbecue chicken pizza they’d ever had.
That evening as Ronnie was leaving for the day, he was accosted in the parking lot by a wiry young man.
“I just need a slice,” the man said. “Can you get me a slice?”
Ronnie smiled. “Sure, man.” He tipped head toward the pizzeria. “Come on in. We’re closing up, but I can get you something to go.”
The young man’s eyes grew wide. He shook his head, disturbing the stringy mop of pale hair on his head, and just dashed away.
Ronnie frowned in confusion and turned around to see Madeleine flipping the “Open” sign to the “Closed” position. She spotted him and waved. He waved back, turned around, sighed deeply as the exhaustion of a hard day’s work settled on him, and headed home.
The next evening, after another busy day, this time learning the chemistry behind some of Madeleine’s marinara recipes, Ronnie packed up a small delivery box with a couple of different slices left over from orders that weren’t picked up. He went out and waited in the parking lot for a while, to see if that wiry young man was around somewhere.
Ronnie smiled when he saw the man approach. “I saved a few good slices for you.”
The young man opened the box while Ronnie still held it and peeked inside. He shook his head. “Thanks anyway,” he said and walked off.
Puzzled, Ronnie took the box back in. He was allowed to take any pizza home that he’d made himself, as long as he could be sure it would be eaten. But he wasn’t allowed to discard any pizza any place other than the pizzeria. “For safety reasons,” according to Madeleine. And Ronnie wasn’t craving pizza for dinner.
“What happened?” Madeleine asked when he went back in. He told her about the young man he’d encountered the previous evening, and how Ronnie thought he’d bring the pizza out to the man, since the man seemed to have some issue with going inside the pizzeria.
Madeleine shook her head. “You have a good heart, Ronnie. But that man is looking for something specific. And he can get it too, if he can pay.”
“But I don’t think he can pay, Miss Miriam. I’m happy to pay for him. You can take it out of my—“
“I’ll do not such thing.” Madeleine frowned. “You’re earning your pay. And don’t worry about that character. He’ll come in here when he’s hungry enough. He’ll find a way to pay.”
Ronnie furrowed his brow, but drew the corner of mouth up in a smile. “That sounds ominous, Miss Miriam. You have some history with the guy?”
“History. Future. Who knows what time will bring?”
Ronnie narrowed his eyes and thought for a moment. But then he shrugged it off. He was already accustomed to occasional moments of confusion at something his boss said. And after almost a week on the job, he’d learned that his boss would, eventually, illuminate him.
He dropped the pizza box in the appropriate bin, next to the recycling and the regular trash. He was about to leave when he heard a knock at the front door, which Madeleine had just locked.
She gasped and told Ronnie to open the door.
Ronnie turned, wondering if the young man had returned. His heart skipped a beat as the fleeting fear of robbery passed through his head. But then he saw who was at the door.
“Will you please seat them before you leave for the night, dear?” Madeleine asked. Ronnie nodded, and she swept past him and disappeared into the kitchen.
Ronnie opened the door, and a trio of people walked in—or a quartet, he realized, as he saw the baby cradled in one of their arms.
The youngest one, whose features were delicate but also sharp, winked at him as they passed by. The one with the baby was a woman with skin so clear and soft that Ronnie suspected she was there for some of the famous acne-fighting double pepperoni. And the last one smiled at Ronnie, through piles of sun-baked wrinkles, and tipped her head to him. The gesture made the long black plume on her satin mini-tophat wave as if it too were greeting him.
Ronnie seated the trio in a booth of their choosing, and he glanced at the kitchen. He decided to stick around until his boss came back out, just in case she needed his help.
“My apologies,” he said, as he handed them menus, “but if you’d like to order any of today’s specials it will be a wait of about an hour. We just closed the kitchen.”
The woman with the baby glanced at him and tipped her head toward the fussing infant. “Well, she’s not going to be able to wait that long,” she said. She proceeded to start feeding the baby.
Ronnie nodded. “Perhaps you too would like to start off of a drink?” He glanced from the woman to the youth to the oldest of them.
“We won’t need drinks,” the oldest said, just as the kitchen door swung open and Madeleine emerged.
She glanced at Ronnie, and he thought he caught a twinkle of surprise and gratitude in her eyes.
“I was just explaining to your associate that we don’t require menus, Miriam. We know what we want,” the oldest said.
Ronnie was about to correct her notion that he was an associate of Madeleine’s, but he didn’t think it would be wise to speak at that particular moment.
“What will it be, madam?” Madeleine asked.
“We’ll have the Supreme,” the youngest one said, glancing from Madeleine to Ronnie, and smirking at Ronnie. A friendly smirk, Ronnie thought, not an arrogant one.
Ronnie was still learning, especially about special orders and rare orders, but he did know one thing. At Madeleine’s pizzeria, a Supreme was the rarest pizza that was made, and no pizza cook except for Madeleine herself, had ever made it. It was the one recipe that she would not entrust anyone else to make. So Ronnie had figured it was a super-secret family recipe, a “stay out of the kitchen and turn off all recording devices” kind of secret recipe.
So once again, seeing that these seemed to be repeat customers, that Madeleine seemed safe, and assuming that Madeleine would not want any witnesses to her rarest of creations, Ronnie once again prepared to leave.
He waited for Madeleine to turn away from the customers, after she collected their menus, so he could catch her eye and signal that he was leaving. But when he caught her eye, he saw something there that he did not expect to see.
She nodded to him in a daze and she waved goodbye, then headed toward the kitchen. Ronnie inhaled, paused, then followed her.
When he entered the kitchen, Madeleine was already gathering ingredients, in a calm and orderly fashion. As opposed to her usual flair and flourish when she pulled spices from racks and cans from cabinets.
“I could stay, Miss Miriam,” he said. “I’ll stay out of the kitchen and just serve drinks—or, I guess they don’t want drinks. I’ll just make sure they have cutlery and enough napkins. Just so it creates a kind of livelier, kind of like there’s people here, atmosphere, you know?”
And though he didn’t explicitly state that he was staying for moral support, Miriam implicitly understood.
She turned to him, a soft smile on her lips and in her eyes.
“You’re a good-hearted kid, Ronnie,” she said. “And if you can really stay, I would appreciate your help—in the kitchen.”
Ronnie nodded and reached for an apron. “I take it these are very important customers.”
She raised her brows, handing him bottles and jars. “You have no idea.”
“What’s the fallout if they’re not pleased with their meal?”
“For you, nothing. If it was anything more than nothing, I would have pushed you out of the door already.”
Ronnie bit his lower lip. “And for you?”
She opened the fridge and sighed. “I…could…lose it all.”
“Are they…investors? Creditors?”
Ronnie felt a moment of panic about his own job, and then he felt terrible at his selfishness. In any case, he didn’t know why he should panic. He’d been at the job for less than a week. Madeleine was paying him far above what he expected, but he could always find another job at a regular pizzeria if he needed to.
He gathered himself as Miriam shook her head. “They have no particular stake in the success or failure of this place,” she said. “They’re just…powerful.”
“And they’ve been here before?”
“Just once. And it was…well it was stressful. They don’t eat out much.”
Ronnie nudged her arm with his elbow. “But they’re back, so they must have loved whatever you served.”
“True, but they ordered something different last time. Something a lot easier to make—and it still knocked me out.” She handed him a ball of fresh mozzarella.
“Are they related? They seem as if they are, but they don’t look alike. I mean to say…no, it’s none of my business.”
“It is your business, Ronnie. It’s our business. So let’s take care of business—are you absolutely sure you can stay?”
“Yes, boss, and I’m sure I’ll still come in on time tomorrow morning.” He placed two fingers to his temple and gave her a small salute.
Madeleine threw out her hand. “If we make it through this order, hon, you and I are taking a paid day off tomorrow.”
“Well, okay. I won’t object to that.” Ronnie unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. “So, we’re making a Supreme.”
“We’re making a Supreme.”
“What kind of dough?”
“You’d better brace yourself, kid. You are going to see some things.”
The first thing that Ronnie saw was Madeleine pulling out a meat cleaver and slicing off a piece of her forearm.
Or that’s what he thought he saw.
When the piece of what he thought was flesh dropped to the table, it looked like a wheat flour dough. And when he looked at Madeleine’s arm, there was no blood. There was no wound. He thought he saw a thin line of scarring where she had cut, but it began to fade as he gazed at it.
Then he noticed that she wasn’t actually holding a meat cleaver. There was a handle, but no blade.
“It needed time to charge. That’s why I ran in here when they first came in,” she said, as if that would explain what he’d just witnessed. She hung the handle on a hook attached to the side of the fridge.
Ronnie pointed to the mound of dough on the board.
“What is that?”
“My spirit made manifest. It’s a little boozy, so try not to breathe in too deeply when you’re working with it.”
“You want me to…you want me to knead that?” Ronnie put a hand to his mouth.
“Don’t worry. I won’t take any of your body parts. Before you start, can you pull out Marinara Number One, and some garlic cloves—the blue ones?”
The process of making the Supreme pizza was in part strange and in part familiar to Ronnie. The dough that Madeleine seemed to cut from her own flesh was just dough when Ronnie reluctantly pressed his fingertips into it. He tried to forget where it came from, to pretend that it was just another ball of dough, sprinkled with dried spices. He kneaded, twirled, and worked it into a thin flat crust.
He’d never used Marinara One before. It smelled pungent and salty, like seaweed, in the bottle. But once he spread it on the dough, it smelled like a regular good robust marinara.
The toppings were in familiar categories. There was a bell pepper, but while Madeleine was cutting it, Ronnie swore he could hear an actual bell chiming with a deep and distant resonance. There were mushrooms that were a rich gray-brown color and smelled kind of smoky. They were tinged with a purple sheen when brought up to the light. He wondered aloud if they had any intoxicating effects. Madeleine dared him to try one, but he declined. She only told him that they were called “madeleine,” and she was named after them. When his boss first pronounced her own name for him, it had reminded him of the little sponge cakes with the same name. He had not known of the existence of madeleine mushrooms.
Ronnie guessed about the origins of the mozzarella. That it was made from the milk of an albino cow or something. But Madeleine gave him a strange look and said it was just mozzarella, same as they ever used.
She brought out a log of pepperoni and a log of sausage, proclaiming that they were made from lab-grown meat, and that she’d gotten them from a scientist friend. She cut thin slices of pepperoni and small nuggets of sausage. They seemed normal until she started laying them down on the pizza, and they vanished, and then she put more slices and nuggets. She kept putting more and more on, and they kept vanishing. She did this for about five minutes until finally, she set down a slice of pepperoni, and it didn’t vanish. After that, every piece of meat she laid down remained visible, and she covered the pie generously. She dropped bits of roasted blue garlic around the toppings.
They heard a bell ding, and Ronnie went out to see what the customers needed.
Madeleine halted him to give him some instruction before he went. “Don’t react to anything, unless you feel threatened. In that case, run to the kitchen as quickly as you can.”
Ronnie paused to look at her a moment longer and gauge whether she was teasing him. She didn’t seem to be. He nodded and went out.
The oldest customer was leaning over the counter. Something darted by behind her and when Ronnie’s gaze followed, he saw that the something was a little toddler. Her mother chased after her. Ronnie recognized the mother as the woman with the baby. Heeding Madeleine’s warning, he flicked his gaze away and toward the oldest customer.
“I was wondering,” the oldest said. “Is it too late to add another ingredient? Pineapple?”
Ronnie released a relieved breath and confidently told her that would be fine. He knew they had plenty of pineapple. He asked if they needed anything else and they all responded that they were fine.
When Ronnie returned to the kitchen and told Madeleine about the minor customization that the customer wanted, she gasped. She stepped away from the pizza-in-progress and put all the flour-caked fingers of right hand on her temple.
“It’s over,” she said.
“But we have plenty of pineapple,” Ronnie said. But then something occurred to him. “Wait, do they want fresh pineapple? It’s not too late, I can run down to the grocery store and—“
“No, they don’t want fresh pineapple. They want the pine apple. I don’t have any. Nobody has any. They know that nobody has any.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go out and tell them we don’t have any. I’ll apologize and offer them a discount.”
“We don’t have any. No one has any. They know that.”
They were both silent for a moment.
“Could we…substitute an ingredient that does what pine apple does?” Ronnie knew it was inadvisable, but he suggested it anyway, and braced himself for his boss’s inevitable glare of frustration.
And Madeleine did turn her gaze toward him. But she was not glaring. She was, inconceivably, grinning.
“You’re clever, Ronnie. And calm in a crisis. I’m glad you’re here.”
She snapped her fingers and started to fling open cabinets and pull out jars filled with pickled and preserved items that Ronnie did not recognize. She asked him to grill some onions in the meantime.
But Ronnie heard the bell again. He once again went out, expecting another customization. He and Madeleine hardened their expressions and nodded to each other. Whatever it was the customers wanted, Madeleine and Ronnie would concoct it. They would concoct it if they had to use up every last ingredient in the kitchen.
Ronnie found the mother at the counter this time. And there was a little girl of maybe four or five years standing next to her, tugging at her elbow.
“May I have a root beer?” the woman said. “With ice.”
Ronnie brought out the root beer and glanced at booth, where the oldest and the youth were sitting. He noticed that the youth, who tossed him what he thought was a flirty smile, had changed clothes, and now had long wavy hair of a darker color. Ronnie blinked and glanced down. He had thought he was past feeling shy around people—even people with whom he might have a spark of attraction—but he was obviously suffering a relapse of that shyness under the duress of pleasing these customers. As his gaze dropped to the floor, he saw the youth’s shoes shift color from purple to red, and they seemed to grow a blocky wooden heel. He directed his attention to the oldest, who was reading the menu. Ronnie felt a profound and paralyzing dread.
“You should keep those threads clipped and tidy,” the oldest said, not looking up from the menu, but pointing a finger toward Ronnie.
Ronnie glanced down at his rolled-up sleeves and spotted a few stray threads.
“There’s nothing wrong with a few stray threads,” the youth said, flourishing a hand. “Let the threads fly where they may.”
Ronnie turned and went back to the safety of the kitchen to grill some onions.
He went back out one more time, to refill the woman’s root beer. To bring another root beer for the twelve-year-old girl sitting next to her and complaining of hunger. And to fetch an iced tea and a ginger ale for the oldest one and the youth.
He felt that sense of dread again when he looked at the oldest, but before he could look away, the oldest looked at him, and smiled. Ronnie felt a sudden and overwhelming peace and serenity. He set down the drinks, smiling with his whole face, and he glanced over at the youth. The youth, who now sported a shaved head and neat rows of silver hoops along the outer edge of each ear, flung another flirty smile toward Ronnie.
When he returned to the kitchen, he was greeted by a cold water bottle in his boss’s hands. He suddenly realized he was parched. He guzzled the water as he wondered about the customers.
They seemed to be enchanted beings. He wondered if the Supreme was something they needed to rejuvenate, recharge their powers maybe. Madeleine had said they were powerful. Ronnie had thought she meant they were powerful in a corporate way.
He helped put the finishing touches on the pizza.
“Be prepared,” Madeleine said as she slid the pizza into the oven.
“What…what will it smell like?” Ronnie dared to ask.
She shook her head. “Nothing.” She looked at him, a trickle of sweat rolling down the side of her temple. “Nothing at all.”
After delivering the pizza to the table, and asking one final time if the customers needed anything, Ronnie returned to the kitchen. Madeleine said that neither of them should watch the customers eat. He informed her there were four people eating that pizza now, instead of the three he had expected.
“There’s enough,” Madeleine said.
“How will we know when they’re done? Will they ring the bell?”
“We’ll know. And cross your fingers about the pine apple substitution.”
Madeleine paced. Ronnie washed dishes and cleaned the counter tops, then sat on a stool. They could have chatted, listened to music. But they just waited. In silence.
After a while, they heard the sound of the front door bell. They waited a few moments, and then Madeleine peeked outside and confirmed that the customers were gone.
She called Ronnie out to the table.
There was no payment. Madeleine had expected as much. But there was a tip. Two small gift boxes. One of them had Ronnie’s name on it. The other had Madeleine’s name on it.
“Should I open it?” Ronnie asked, picking up his tip.
“Sure, it’s for you. But I can go first if you want.”
“Let’s go together.”
They nodded to each other, and they opened their boxes together.
Madeleine’s box contained a single chocolate bonbon, and a note rolled into a tiny scroll. She read the note aloud. “When life turns bitter, you can choose to eat the chocolate and turn it sweet again. But once consumed, the sweetness will fade. And if you cannot make more for yourself, life will never be sweet again.”
“Sounds like you’ll be all right, so long as you stay your sweet self,” Ronnie said.
Madeleine closed the box. “I think this might be something I’d enjoy as a cap to my final meal when I’m on my death bed. What about yours?”
Ronnie shrugged. He had received a plain-looking rock with no instruction. He flipped the box around and the two searched the table. But they found no messages.
“Do you think it’s some kind of quirky invitation to an underground party or something?” he wondered.
Madeleine laughed. “I never would have thought of that.”
Ronnie picked up the rock and stared at it. “What do you think it is?”
“One of these days,” Madeleine said, her voice growing quiet, “you’ll be moving in to a new apartment. You’ll be carrying too many things, and that box will fall out of somewhere. It’ll fall open, and the rock will roll out, and it’ll stop, right at the foot of another resident of your new complex. And the next thing you know, you’re on a date, and you’ve just met the love of your life.”
Ronnie, not sure where the story was going at first, widened his eyes and started laughing. “Or,” he countered, “it’ll fall in front of my own foot, and I’ll trip on it and tumble down the stairs, and end up in a full-body cast.”
Madeleine frowned. “Don’t invite misfortune, sweetheart. It’s always listening. Best not to be cavalier with your words, especially when you’re holding that.”
Ronnie tilted his head to the left and quirked an eyebrow. “Who were they, really, Miss Miriam?”
Madeleine crossed her arms. “Would you believe me if I told you?” She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know if you would. But let’s just say, explicitly speaking, that you have received a gift from fate.”
Ronnie bowed his head to the rock. “And I’m thankful. As I am thankful to my boss for the gift of a paid day off tomorrow.”
Madeleine slapped his shoulder. “You’re welcome. You earned it. You did a wonderful job, Ronnie. Thank you for staying.”
Ronnie ducked his head to hide the blush forming on his face.
They gathered their things, shut down the lights, and headed out the door.
After all that had happened, Ronnie had forgotten one important thing. “Miss Miriam,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder as they walked across the parking lot. “How are you feeling? How are your spirits?”
She stopped. “To be honest, a little drained.” She smiled. “But they’ll replenish soon. I’ll be fine.”
“If you need anything…”
“I’ll be fine. Enjoy your day off.”
“Will the shop be okay while we’re gone?” Ronnie asked, turning back to look at the pizzeria.
“Oh, sure. When you were getting your bag, I threw some anchovies across the threshold. No one will bother the place.”
Ronnie turned back to look at his boss. “Of course,” he said, with a puzzled look. But he knew she would explain later. He shrugged, bid his boss a good night, and headed home after a long and exhausting shift at the Pizzapothecarium.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel