June had thought it was a slam-dunk: pizza and a full wet bar. People loved pizza, people loved booze, and tipsy tips were legendarily good.

Six months later, June was having second thoughts. Or, rather, her fourth set of second thoughts, which would make them eighth thoughts or somesuch. To wit, she had not considered the following points when founding Hops ‘n’ Toppings:

1. Pizza takes time to cook and most drunks are hungry NOW.
2. Liquor licences in Tecumseh County involved bribery on a biblical scale.
3. Pizza makes the worst vomit imaginable.
4. A bar can be comfortably run with 1-2 people. A pizza parlor, even one that doesn’t deliver, will run 1-2 people ragged.
5. Cheap beer has low profit margins.

Sitting at the bar around 3pm, wiping off the last flecks of what had once been a pepperoni and anchovy medium before its liquefaction and distribution the night before, June heard the last thing she’d wanted to hear.

“Yo! We’re out of sauce and cheese!”

“We’ve got plenty of sauce,” said June, pouring herself a shot of Loch Lomond. “Just not that kind that goes good with pizza.”

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The pizzas were bubbling and browning in the brick oven Shokunin had spent the previous day building. Fired by his own special mix of wood and kuso, they would soon be ready to feed the starving villagers. But as Shokunin took up his ancestral pizza peel to paddle the pies onto plates, he was stopped by the flat of a hostile ken slapped onto its handle.

“Halt!” said the ken‘s bearer, an unkempt bandit wearing the mon of Clan Sutoronbori. “These pies belong to us, in place of the tribute these miserable peasants have failed to provide!”

Shokunin bowed. “You have shown me the error of my ways,” he said. “I shall take up my pizza peel and use it to deliver your rightful reward.”

Leering, the bandit allowed Shokunin to take up his peel. A moment later, he gasped in pain from a blow that had come too swiftly to see; he then slid apart at the waist, his innards like toppings upon the grass.

“I am Pizza Chef Shokunin!” cried the pie chef, hefting his sharpened paddle. “My peel was forged by Anchobi the swordsmith from the same pig iron furnace that birthed the Fudo Masamune with a handle carved from the same trunk that furnished the mount for The Forceful Cutter. Who will stand before me and receive the just reward for their insults and lack of honor toward pizzas?”

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Mahjong Pizza has a long tradition of allowing a certain amount of employee innovation. It was hard to forget how the business had been founded on the back of Chad Martinez’s innovations while working at a Hopewell, Michigan Pizza House even among the esoteric college kids who usually donned the red-white-green uniforms. If Martinez could transform the pizza delivery business through his amateur time and motion studies, anybody could.

As such, Anna Grimaldi had to sit through a monthly “innovation meeting.” It meant an extra half-hour on the clock for most people, but the innovations therein tended to be on the prosaic side (multiple magnetic “shark fins” for foggy days, offering a five-pack of breadstick dipping sauces for a reduced fee). Anna’s ideas tended to run afoul of the legal department, which 86’d her idea of the cook writing a personal message on the box of each Mahjong pie, as well as her co-workers, who hadn’t been enthusiastic about writing personalized messages in the first place.

At the February “innovation meeting,” she had another idea: “The florist next door is always throwing out flowers. Why not grab a bunch of them for a few pennies and keep them on the counter for Valentine’s Day? Then everyone who comes in for carry-out can get a flower. Make them feel loved or something.”

“I think we should let people our customers are seeing give them the flowers,” her manager said.

“Come on now,” Anna replied. “Do you think anyone who’s getting carryout pizza on Valentine’s Day is seeing anybody?”

The flowers were out in a crystal vase by 8:02 AM February 14.

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Doug had his best ‘manager face’ on. “There aren’t enough orders in the middle of the day to keep everyone busy.”

“I know that.”

“You can’t work nights because of your class schedule this semester. So I need you to do something to pick up the slack.” Doug held out the Pizzazz the Parakeet costume and a sign advertising 6 pizzas for under $6! Pick-up only!

“Look, I appreciate the thought, Doug,” I said gingerly, “but I’d rather be fired than wear that thing in 100-degree heat waving at cars.” It was like being the ultimate pariah–cars virtually swerved into the other lane to avoid having to look at someone in a costume, and people on the sidewalk were about as polite with Pizzazz the Parakeet as they’d be with Hermann Goering.

Worst of all, the bird’s mouth was open, clearly revealing my face to all who cared to look.

“Fine, then, you’re fired,” Doug said. “Clean out your cubby.”

I tried calling his bluff by walking away, hoping to hear his voice from behind me like in the movies.

I made it about five steps.

“All right,” I said, snatching the costume. “I’ll do it.” The specter of unpaid loans, evictions, and–worse–moving back in with my parents were too horrific to ignore.

There was only one catch and that was the Pizza Catch, which specified that no matter how much concern for one’s fellow eaters’ culinary requests, the person who ordered the pizzas would always order several with their favorite toppings. They were always toppings which no one in their right mind would ever like: anchovies and olives, onions and egg whites, marshmallows and bell peppers. Yet every gathering would have 2-3 such monstrosities, and the person who ordered them, unable to comprehend that their deviant choices weren’t widely shared, would eat a single slice and refuse to take any home.

No matter how fervently I argued time and again that cheese or pepperoni pizzas had the best statistical chance of pleasing the most people, the Pizza Catch would come into effect. People would duel over the single pepperoni pie while the three boxes of olive, onion, Canadian bacon, and pop tart pizza would lie untouched save a single slice. If you ordered the pizza, you enjoyed mutant toppings but refused to eat them–a paradox worthy of Yossarian. I was usually hampered in my quest to be the orderer by the fact that I was flat broke and relying on other peoples’ generosity, but the Pizza Catch was such that even if I did manage it, I wound up with a crowd of vegan and fruitarian eaters, who weren’t crazy about the thousands of innocent wheat stalks killed for their meal and certainly wouldn’t countenance anything as barbaric as cheese.

McPherson, the head of deliveries, was an on-again, off-again literature PhD candidate who’d been at the university for almost a decade. He called the skill of delivering Tarot Pizza “The Knowledge” after the mental street map London cabbies had to memorize. The difference, of course, is that a London “Knowledge Boy” has three years to demonstrate mastery before being fired.

McPherson’s “Knowledge Boys” got two weeks.

The worst part was the developments on the outskirts of town. They were mostly filled up with SMU students but were, to a one, designed in an artsy style designed to cover their essential cookie-cutter nature. The builders had favored impractical means of tarting things up, not the least of which were unreadable house numbers. Many were copper-on-copper, which were all but impossible to make out once tarnish had set in, while others were on only one side of mailbox posts (invariably on the side facing away from prevailing traffic).