Saturday Afternoon, Late November

by Steven John Horay

Patrick McAllister, that tormented young man who used to work beside me on pizzas, really did have a degree in astrophysics. I saw a photograph of his graduation certificate with my own two eyes.

But even to this day, my bakery colleagues refuse to believe this.

'Where did he study again?' they always ask. ‘The psycho asylum?'

'No,' I tell them calmly. 'He went to one of the top universities.'

'Oh, and you actually believe this Kathy?'

'Yes,' I tell them. 'Yes I do.'

They shake their heads and pull stupid expressions. They like to think I've gone as soft as the dough I'm rolling. But I know a genuine person when I see one, and I liked Patrick from the beginning. Whenever he was explaining technical things about his degree, he didn't speak to me like I was a child, the way my ex-husband used to. He was patient, and understanding. He knew I'd never been clever enough to go to university myself, but that didn't matter. He would talk about space for hours. He thought the universe was breathtaking, the way everything seemed so perfectly aligned. He could describe the orbits of a hundred moons, the names of so many constellations. 

I especially remember the light in his eyes, when he recalled, as a child, the very first time he saw a shooting star.

In those early days I felt so privileged to be working alongside him. He was so much brighter than the usual young deadbeats we got in here. And he wasn't always so serious, either. If he was in one of those rare, devious moods, he'd discuss the possibility of extra-terrestrials. Tell me stories about certain Americans who believed they had been abducted by aliens, their bodies used for sexual exploration, before being dumped back down to earth again. Sometimes we'd spend whole afternoons pointing out under-cover extra-terrestrials amongst our customers! 

'Him in the lime green jumper holding the chocolate muffins! No, it's her over there with the box of Rice Crispies!'

Even though this was a dead end job, and way beneath him, he seemed relaxed and happy. Now and again he would sort of remind me that this was only temporary, but that was fine, I wasn't offended. He had to pay rent to his parents. He couldn't live on thin air! Life at home wasn't ideal, he said, but it's all he could manage for now.

This was his honeymoon period in here, the first few months. Soon things began to change. After six months he still couldn't get a job in his field of study and was getting nowhere with his applications. He started getting bitter, cynical. He took on extra shifts at the pizza counter and became friends with the supermarket manager. He stopped applying for graduate schemes and told me he'd like to be promoted to chief pizza maker. There was worse things you could do than make pizzas in a supermarket, he told me.

Slowly, he was becoming more and more consumed by trivial matters. He spoke less and less about moons in orbit, and more about shopping trolleys going missing. Instead of discussing the formations of spectacular galaxies, he would instruct me on the most even way to sprinkle the peppers and onions. Instead of debating the possibility of life on Mars, he'd moan about the dwindling quality of our pepperoni. Sometimes I'd try to guide the conversation back to the planets, but Patrick would just grunt and ask for the mushrooms.

He started gaining weight and stopped getting his haircut. He looked pale and doughy and unhygienic. He kept getting short with customers. Sometimes I'd catch him sniggering to himself whenever an attractive woman requested a stuffed crust. He made a point of not smiling whenever young children were at our counter. One afternoon I caught him staring into an open oven, and when I asked if he was okay, he stared back at me with a completely glazed expression.

And then it happened; that horrific Saturday afternoon in November. I still have no idea where he got the gun from. I was in the back, rolling the dough. At our counter was a nice-looking young family, full of weekend cheer. Patrick was taking their order. The kids watched in awe as he spread tomato puree over the base. They even giggled as he sprinkled cheese across the puree. But then, without uttering a single word, Patrick leaned his head sideways over the pizza base, brought the gun out from under his apron, and shot himself in the temple.

Management closed us down for a couple of days, and then things returned to normal. I still think of Patrick sometimes, still defend his legacy when people talk about the ‘crazy person who blew his brains out over a pizza.' 

He wasn't crazy. He was just suffering. 

And then I have to ask myself, if somebody as bright and intelligent as Patrick couldn't make it out of this place in one piece, then what chance is their for the rest of us?