Oct. 24—I should have been suspicious before walking through the door.
The sign above this particular Little Caesars, located at the end of a darkened strip mall in the farthest reaches of Stone Mountain, Georgia, wasn't lit. But the lights were on inside the chain pizza joint, and a multicolored neon sign dangling from the window flashed the word "OPEN" off and on. Mandy and I had been driving for the past five hours and wanted nothing more than to load up on cheap pizza and cheaper beer and then crash at our Airbnb. So inside I went.
The restaurant felt as if the employees had abandoned it mid-workday. There was no one at the front counter, which shouldn't have struck me as particularly unusual given that, until I walked through the door, there were no customers. The floor needed sweeping a week ago. It was littered with enough scraps of paper to suggest someone had shredded a file cabinet full of documents right there in front of the Pepsi cooler before changing names and starting a new life in some tiny European country. It was silent as a tomb: No '80s hits from crackling speakers ... no chatter ... no incessantly ringing phones being ignored by employees. Nothing. Overhead, a fluorescent bulb flickered as if it might have been considering death. I didn't blame it.
Still, the air inside small space carried a warm, saucy scent, which suggested to me someone had, at some point recently, cooked something in there. Possibly pizza.
Instinctively, I looked over my shoulder, checked those blinking multicolored lights that read "NEPO," and turned back to the counter.
The kid appeared out of nowhere, manifesting from some unseen space behind the counter where patrons were forbidden. I'd put him at 17 or so, although it was difficult to tell. He was roughly 9 feet tall and had the pale complexion of a week-old corpse. He looked me over suspiciously, then slowly lifted a single saltine cracker to his mouth.
"There's a cheese if you don't want to wait," he told me, then popped the cracker onto his tongue.
"Oh," I said, eyeballing the single box inside the pizza warmer behind him. "Well, I'll definitely want that one. But I think I also want a pepperoni and an order of bread sticks. With sauce, please."
Teen Lurch continued to chew his cracker methodically as he contemplated my order, then slowly punched it in to the POS system.
"Fourteen thirty-two," he told me.
After paying, the giant lumbered back to the hidden space whence he came, leaving me alone once more. Behind me, a row of discolored plastic chairs awaited customers whom I suspected would never arrive. I took a seat.
If someone was prepping my pizza and bread sticks, I couldn't tell it. In my previous Little Caesars experiences, the employee who took a patron's order would call it out so the cooks in the back could start popping pies in ovens or begin folding cardboard carryout boxes. That sort of thing.
But the pasty mammoth who took my order didn't yell out "NEED A PEP!" or "TAKING A CHEESE!" or any of the usual fanfare that accompanies an order. I could see the kitchen from where I was sitting, and no one appeared to be working. From what I could tell, I alone occupied that dingy Little Caesars in this unfamiliar place. I briefly wondered if I had mistakenly wandered into purgatory.
At one point, roughly five minutes after I took a seat, a second employee emerged from the back and stood at the counter. She looked around as if confused ... like she may have been searching for something. Our eyes met briefly, and I nodded to her. She looked me over, as if surprised I had noticed her, then disappeared back into the depths of the kitchen. She never said a word.
Some time later, the gargantuan employee reappeared with a box of pizza in one hand, a sack of bread sticks in the other. He set these on the counter, fetched that lone box of cheese pizza from the warmer, and stacked it atop my pepperoni. As I approached the counter, he pushed them toward me.
"Thanks, man," I told him. "Can I get my sauce?"
He stared at me for a moment, then lifted a new cracker to his mouth and popped it in. He turned, and without taking a step, reached his long arm behind him and picked a single plastic cup of marina from the wire shelf and placed it on the counter.
"Appreciate it," I said. He didn't respond.
I could feel the employee's eyes upon me as I turned and pushed my way through the glass door out onto the sidewalk. The night air felt especially cool.
When I turned to take a last look through the window of that strange little pizza joint, the employee was gone. Had it not been for the warm boxes of pizza in my hands, I might have wondered if he, or I, had ever been there at all.