portion of the artwork for John Minichillo's story

In Thirty Minutes or It’s Free
John Minichillo

Cliff called in their pizza order while Wendy watched previews on the couch. She paused the DVD when it got to the title menu because the looped snippets of Steve Buscemi dialogue with the upbeat soundtrack grew tiresome. Cliff wanted to wait to start the movie but the pizza guy took too long. Cliff was on his second beer and Wendy was anxious. She had to work tomorrow. This movie was one hundred and nineteen minutes long. Could they go ahead and start the movie already?

“Maybe he’s lost,” Wendy said. “Is the porch light on?”

They were on Parker Drive and there was also a Parker Avenue on the other side of the delivery area, but the driver could have gone from Parker Avenue to Parker Drive four times by now. Maybe he’d taken their two medium pizzas�a sausage pepperoni and onion for him, and the Garden of Paradise Pie for her�to the wrong address, and whoever answered the door simply paid for them. Cliff picked up the phone and called The Pizza Terminal, a high-volume national chain, always busy, even on Tuesday night.

The manager was apologetic but didn’t know the whereabouts of his driver.

“I’m really sorry,” the man said. “He should be there soon. I don’t know what happened.”

“Our pizzas will be cold,” Cliff said. And because he felt justified, he added, “What kind of business are you running?”

So they started the movie and when the plot of the film was established and the pizzas still hadn’t arrived, Cliff called again.

“What’s going on?” Cliff said to the manager. “We’ve been waiting.”

“Snuffy’s a good kid,” the manager said. “I just hope nothing’s happened.”

“But what about our pizzas?”

“I’m short-handed,” the manager said. “I’ll get them out as soon as I can.”

Instead of really watching the movie, Cliff was preoccupied with the minutes counting up on the LCD display of the DVD player. They were two-thirds of the way through the movie.

He called again and a girl answered and said the manager was taking care of customers. Cliff wondered if this was a standard line. He was put on hold and he had to listen to Pizza Terminal theme music with voice-over pitches of the specials. Pizzas with sausage in the crust. Pizzas that tried to be like Philly cheese steak.

“They put me on hold,” Cliff said. “What if we worked nights and this was our first meal of the day? What if we needed to leave?” Kevin James was paused on the TV mid-sentence, his face frozen with his mouth open. He stood in for Cliff as the manager because Cliff was upset and Kevin James looked like he deserved it. Wendy nodded along to everything Cliff said. She was a much more patient and kind person, but even Wendy was irritated.

“We’ve waited a long time,” she said.

When the manager finally picked up, he said the driver had been in a serious accident and was taken to the hospital. Someone from the hospital had called to ask about insurance and the manager also gave them the contact information of the driver’s parents. The kid was unconscious. But not to worry: another driver had been sent and their pizzas were en route. Should be there any minute. No charge.

Cliff hung up the phone and said, “Something happened to Snuffy. He was in a wreck.”


“The driver. He’s in the hospital.”

“Because of us?” Wendy said.

“Not because of us,” Cliff said.

“He was bringing our pizza.”

Before long, a second driver rang the bell and hot pizzas arrived with a free order of Crazy Cheezy Garlic Stix and a free two-liter of Pepsi. The second driver was sorry for the mix-up.

“Was he speeding?” Wendy said.

But the driver didn’t know. He wore the Pizza Terminal cap low on his brow and he refused to take their money, not even a tip, and then he was gone. The movie was ruined for Cliff and Wendy and there was a real damper on any possible enjoyment of the pizza.

But then they did eat, and they did sit back down to finish the movie. Wendy wanted to know if Adam Sandler and Jessica Biel would wind up together, though it was obvious. All in all, it wasn’t a bad movie. Entertaining. And then, before they went to bed, they had to face reality and talk about Snuffy.

“Will you call tomorrow?” Wendy said. “To see if he’s OK?”

“It’s kind of awkward,” Cliff said.

“You were too pushy on the phone,” Wendy said.

“I did it for us,” Cliff said. “We didn’t know.”

“So you’ll call?”

* * *

Snuffy’s funeral was held at a rented open-air pavilion in one of the county parks, with rows of folding chairs and Cliff and Wendy sat in the back. The manager was there, and the other drivers, but Cliff didn’t feel the need to introduce himself. It was too hot for all the church clothes, especially the black that some people wore. Wendy thought about olden times, when wearing black truly meant something.

Cliff and Wendy listened and learned a lot about Snuffy: he loved baseball, he loved video games, he was going to go to the state school on an ROTC scholarship, he was a Pisces, he collected die-cast cars. Some of the people who knew him got up and talked while most everyone else cried. Wendy cried. Cliff listened but his mind wandered. There were songbirds in the hedges and the repetition of their call was hypnotic. He would be glad when this was all over.

“There will never be another Snuffy,” someone had said, and the framed photo that rested on the closed casket stared dumbly back. “Never another Snuffy.”

And then his cousin got up. She held her infant daughter in her arms and talked to the baby about the cousin she’d never know. Snuffy was the baby’s godparent and the woman said the choice had been obvious. She knew she would find another godparent, but it would always be Snuffy in her mind.

Wendy slumped in her seat when she heard this. She wished she and Cliff had had a baby and she tried to remember why they hadn’t. When they talked about a baby the conversation morphed into getting a dog and they could never agree on a breed, or what to do with a dog if they went away.

The cousin sat back down, a line formed, and all the guests went up to spend time with the body, to place a hand on the coffin, or to direct silent gestures toward the face in the framed photo. Cliff and Wendy held hands and Cliff got up to go join them but Wendy remained seated and Wendy wouldn’t let go.

“What’s the point?” she whispered. “Let’s go home.”

“I want to get a better look,” Cliff said. He meant at the photo on the coffin.

So they went up together and Cliff was sweating from the heat. He wiped his shirtsleeve across his forehead and the gesture approached a pose of despair. They recognized the kid in the photo. He had brought them pizza many times. Cliff couldn’t remember any small talk they’d had, but he felt a sinking in his gut from the death of someone near.

They sat back down. Snuffy’s coffin was loaded into the hearse, and people got up and headed to their cars. Wendy and the cousin walked next to each other, the woman with the baby in her arms.

“Can I hold her?” Wendy asked.

The woman hesitated but handed over her baby. To break the air, she said, “How did you know him?”

“From the pizza place,” Cliff jumped in. Wendy had a way of being too honest and he was afraid she was going to say too much. Cliff saw how she was in awe of the baby who was so small and innocent, and Wendy was happy.

“We could be her godparents,” Wendy said to Cliff. It was a kind of hopeful searching question and she watched his expression for an answer.

“But I don’t know you,” the woman said, and she took back her daughter.

“We have money,” Wendy said, but the woman walked away to join the funeral procession.

Cliff and Wendy got in their car. Instead of following the others to the cemetery, they drove home. Cliff wondered what it meant to have money. Compared to Snuffy, yes, they had money, but did they really?

When they got home, Wendy went into the kitchen to make her famous BLT salad. They’d each taken the day off work and here they were at home during the week.

Cliff sat on the couch with the TV off. He had some time to think.

When I was in high school a loose acquaintance was killed in an accident when he was on the job delivering pizzas. When I was in college I worked summers in the cemetery where he was buried. When I was in graduate school and taking a serious go at being a writer for the first time, I had a job delivering pizzas. So the event at the center of this story is one I’ve carried around in my consciousness a long time. As writers we plumb our memories for material, and sometimes an experience like this will surface after twenty years. The title came first, which is unusual for me. My titles tend to be mediocre at best, but it was the title that made me want to finally get this out. I’ve been told the ubiquitous pizza chain that gave me the title quit this advertising campaign because too many drivers were getting in accidents. This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, the way the little guy pays the difference for deals made at the top.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 30 | Fall 2010