A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars
Since the beginning of time, man has asked three simple questions: “why am I here,” “what do I want,” and “can I get a large pizza?” That last one came late in the 20th century, but it's an important question nonetheless.
I was a budding college freshman. University was on the horizon, but still a year and a half away. I hadn't grown out of using SparkNotes. I fueled up on Powerade instead of coffee, and carried a lot of crumpled dollar bills and change in my pockets. This slow ascent from adolescence was going 30 miles under the speed limit.
Classes had no effect. The residue from high school of social belonging was a much stronger force. So, when my pal Davis and his friend Amanda called me to have pizza with them, I dropped my Speech 100 class without a thought and went to join them. The place? A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars.
“We wanna go just because of the name,” Amanda told me.
The place had a musty odor, like someone had boarded it up decades ago and reopened it just recently. That wasn’t the case, of course. It just smelled. The carpet had a flat, blue pattern with random patterns of confetti geometry. Faded posters of classic space films adorned the walls. E.T in one corner, The Last Starfighter adjacent to that, A Space Odyssey 2001 above the pinball machine. Novelty toy and gumball machines were everywhere. As cheap as they seem, those things are actually pretty expensive. The owner later told us that the one with the bouncy balls cost $400 with supplies. The fortune telling machine, “Swami,” cost $5,200.
“There are worse ones out there,” the owner explained in Swami's defense. “One's called 'Medicine Man' and it's a native American dude with braids.”
The ode to sci-fi and nostalgia seemed endless. Mixed in with the cheese-drenched stench of pizza, it felt like an overwhelming blast from the past.
“It's like 1992 came and set up shop here,” I noted.
Amanda pointed to the owner, bobbing his mullet up and down in the back to Nirvana’s Nevermind album. “1992 did come and set up shop here.”
The place soon became a fixture for us. But the natural “mmm” sounds that one expects to come from that first bite of cheesy ecstasy never happened at Pizzas From Mars. The slices were saucy and cheesy for sure, but had no impact. Rather I could say it felt familiar, like a revisit to the frozen crusts of pizzas past. At the same time, it was melty, gooey and cheesy. Nothing wrong with gooey and cheesy. Hey, that could be a bumper sticker.
“Nothing wrong with gooey and cheesy,” I suggested to the owner. “How's that for a slogan?”
He pointed to the menu. “Nah, son. We already got a slogan. ‘A Zillion Billion Lightyear Trip to Pizza Heaven.’”
Cool, for a slogan, I thought, but way too long.
I soon found myself working there as a part-timer. This was only my second-ever part-time job. I manned the cash register and waited tables for the first three weeks, and then, at the owner’s suggestion, I eased into prepping pizzas. My favorite part by far was the dough. Of the many underrated joys in life, slapping dough is up there at the top. Pressing my hands into that firm but soft texture was one of the cornerstones to making my day feel right.
The job wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t without its faults. One of my co-workers, Harry, was a backseat driver when it came to pizza prep. He kept one eye on his work and another, more astute eye on mine. Whenever I poured a bit too much sauce, he would jump in like MacGyver saving a baby, taking a bit off with his gloved hands. If I didn’t put in enough cheese, he would shake a gracious double-helping of cheese in order to “save” it. The number of pizzas that have been ‘rescued’ by his hands is countless, but he is also the sole reason that A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars has the world’s cheesiest pizzas.
“How’s that for a slogan,” I offered to the owner again. “World’s Cheesiest Pizzas.”
“Nah,” he shook his head firmly. “People hate ‘world's best’ anything, steers them from even going near the entrance.”
Truth. I have steered past Ricky’s Donuts, subtitled “World’s Best Donuts,” enough times to know that “world's best” does nothing but raise skepticism.
Amanda and Davis were regular customers. With me being a part of the staff now, it was basically like we all lived there.
“Barry!” Davis called. “Swami isn’t working.”
Barry, the owner, came over and gave it a swift kick. "Swami!" he ordered. “I command you to work!” He kicked it again, but Swami only stared blankly ahead with his knowing, glossy eyes exuding with cheeky silence.
Barry shrugged. “I'll get him fixed tomorrow.”
Swami was never fixed, but he became a great decoration and cheater of quarters, which we think is what he’d always wanted.
One day, Barry put up a TV. Like everything else in this nostalgic dream of his, the TV was outdated: a 20" Sony Trinitron from 1994, which he had partnered up with a VCR.
“Is there a reason you got a VCR?” Amanda asked. “Why not just get a DVD player?”
Barry pet the VCR fondly. “Where else is this poor thing supposed to go? It’s got a home now.” His eyes brimmed innocently. “Come on Amanda. Show it some love.”
Amanda grimaced. “Ugh. I love you, Barry's pointless VCR.”
So we now had a pet VCR and TV in our group. We used them to watch terrible movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and The Next Karate Kid. In between viewings, we raised philosophical questions like “What if Michelangelo really was the leader all along?” and “What happened between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi? Are they on speaking terms?” Mind you, these were terrible movies, but terrible movies strike up some of the most interesting conversations you could possibly imagine.
I later learned to make pizzas with ease and then, with mastery. The trick to charring a crust for instance is to use a lot of oil and to set the oven to the highest temperature. Every second matters so the sooner the door is shut and the heat is on, the better. I thought I was improving the taste of the pizza until one day Barry told me to “take it down a notch.”
“Why?” I asked. My creations were light years ahead of Dominoes.
“Because,” he explained, “our pizza has a certain sludgy taste to it that our customers like.” Yes, he literally used the word ‘sludgy’ to describe his own pizza. “Just stick to the recipe. I know you're on a Chef Emeril kick right now, and I agree, I agree—that Neapolitan pizza is pretty good, but this is A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars. We’re not a fancy Italian joint. We’re an experience!”
I couldn't disagree. A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars was an experience. The customers were a parody of themselves.
For instance, one customer who ordered pizzas from us for pick-up: his name was Charlie, but he never pronounced it like that over the phone.
“Who’s this pizza for?”
“Chylie? Like C-H-Y-L-I-E?”
“No, CHYLIE. Like C-H-A-R-L-I-E.”
Until Charlie Gray, I'd never inferred to another person how to pronounce their own name, but he wasn't phased. He basically became a regular pick-up customer and looked... kind of like how his name sounded: slick, black hair all pressed back with gel, rough eyes, a sharp pointer of a nose and always a five o’clock shadow underneath.
“Did Chylie come in today?” Amanda asked.
"The guy that looks like Steve Buscemi playing a plumber? Yeah, he came."
Barry tried to water down the atmosphere so that it would be comfortably kid-friendly enough for families to hold pizza parties. One family, the Huangs, came regularly on Thursday nights. They were a family of five including the grandmother. The two boys, Eddie and Nick, were 6 and 8, respectively.
Of all the kids in the universe that don't care about rules, Eddie and Nick would take the Victoria Cross, the Purple Heart and the Legion of Honor for their disregard of rules. Here's a list of items they broke: Sega Water Ski (foot pads broke by jumping too much), Men In Black figurines ("those aren't toys" completely disregarded), Chewbacca bobble head (no longer bobbles) and an Aliens figurine... Barry's favorite one, in fact. Ripley. They tore her arm off. He was able to superglue it back on, but she was never the same after that. From then on, we decided we’d have to be on high alert when these two came in.
The Huangs decided to hold a joint birthday pizza party for the boys. The morning of that fateful day, Barry gathered us all together to make an announcement.
"Everyone, you're all going to take an hour out of your shifts today to remove all the merch from the store."
Cynthia, the newest employee, looked rattled. "...Are we closing?"
"No," Barry shook his head grimly. "They're coming."
She looked confused so I clarified, "He means Eddie and Nick."
The pizza party went off without a hitch. It was fun, in fact. We played Space Jam on the TV and Barry even moved some tables and chairs around so that we could play Red Light Green Light. The boys were surprisingly well-behaved and I got to know some interesting facts about them.
Nick can hold his breath under water for a full three minutes. Eddie does a spot-on impersonation of a dog being shot by a tranquilizer gun. We played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and I taught them my trick for winning. Scissors is everyone’s first choice but it’s never anyone's second. Always play scissors twice in a row. It fakes the other player out. Try to avoid rock for the first couple of turns since it takes more effort to make paper than it does to make a fist. Also look for patterns in your opponent. People tend to repeat rock and scissors repeatedly because it's safe. Look for clues in their eyes. We played RPS repeatedly until Eddie won a round over me and Nick finally won against him.
Maybe their behavior finally took a turn for the better and their parents started rewarding them with the more expensive Luigi Bella's Pizza down the street, but, whatever the reason, the Huangs gradually stopped coming. By that point we actually missed the two rugrats.
Barry held his beloved Ripley figure close to him, casually stroking the arm. "Wherever they are, they'll be missed."
"They're not dead, Barry," I reminded.
"Of course not," he remarked. "We're sure about that, right?"
A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars' most exciting moment by far was when a film crew called to rent out the place. It was for an indie film called Burkheiser's Merry List. The titular character, James Burkheiser, is a 43-year-old bank manager who plays acoustic guitar on the side. There are a number of scenes of Burkheiser randomly belting out nonsensical songs about his melancholy life. Meanwhile, his wife is having an affair and his two kids are already burned out by technology. Determined to fix his broken life, he gathers his kids and wife into a van, with their only comforts being each other, the radio, and a list of things he wants to do and see with them. If that doesn't sound like the most indie film of all time, I don't know what does.
"It's so indie that all the crew grew beards after they read the script," joked Amanda.
"So indie, they used an analog sound mixer," Davis said.
"So indie, Salvation Army supplied the wardrobe."
Our "so indie" jokes became so indie that we had to question our authenticity for a second.
The scene A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars would be starring in would be the one where Burkheiser and the family stop for lunch at a pizza joint. This takes place while they're on the road, so it's supposed to be a “tacky roadside attraction” kind of joint.
The film crew wanted to use us, the real employees, as actors, but only one of us could have the speaking role. Originally they wanted Barry, since he already looks like a character, but he declined.
“I don't want my face out there,” he insisted. "It's enough for me to know this place gets some spotlight."
That left me and Cynthia. We RPS’d for who would get it. I won, of course. That double scissors never fails. My line was "Welcome to Saturn's Rings Pizza. What'll you folks be having?" and, to enhance the scene, they would be applying fake acne to my face. "Stirs up the ambiguity," according to the make-up supervisor.
There was no particular delivery method they wanted. They just asked that I be myself and pretend Burkheiser and his family were like any other customers. I asked them where they came up with the name ‘Saturn's Rings Pizza.’
The script supervisor answered, "We just thought of the round shape of a pizza and it came to us. It was between that and Crescent Moon Pizza, but that one seemed a little too fruity, and what pizza is in the shape of a crescent moon anyway? Honestly speaking, I like A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars more. How did you guys come up with that one?"
I pointed to Barry. "He came up with it. He said it came to him in a dream."
"He's a genius."
So, we filmed. It took quite a number of takes to get it right. I didn't realize how involved filming is. They had to check the sound, replay the take, film from different angles, occasionally direct the actors on delivery, and reapply make-up, including my fake acne make-up. It was work. It took a total of three hours to wrap up.
We were paid decently for that day, and we shared the fruits of our labor with each other. The film crew got some free pizzas to eat and take home with them. We would be receiving screeners, the final cut on DVD, special mention in the credits, plus (for my one line) I would get my full, edited scene on a separate CD in case I ever want to use it for a reel or something in the future.
"It's gonna say 'Saturn's Rings Pizza waiter played by Scott Gibbs,'" the director told me. "Pretty rad right?"
I wasn't going to lie. Having my name featured in the credits of a film was pretty rad, even if it was the most indie film of all time.
Summer hit soon after that, and Cynthia, on her last day of work, pulled me aside.
"Scott..." she began.
I knew what was coming. I'm not a bad-looking guy, after all. I have decent hair and, from what I've been told, "mesmerizingly deep brown eyes." This was told to me by a much older woman, at work, around 8 or 9 p.m. at night, while I was just nodding my head awkwardly at the counter and she, in contrast, was rubbing a hand up and down her clavicle.
I turned to Cynthia, and, before she began, I whispered, “Shhh” and “Don't say another word.”
She did not, but I knew what she was going to say. Or so I thought. She later texted me to ask if she could put me down as a reference. Not what I was expecting, but I said "sure" anyway.
Summer does something to people. It changes them. Maybe it's the humidity or the general annoyance of the sun beating down, but I can say A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars started mutating into its final form that summer. It began after Cynthia left.
Amanda and Davis had progressed into a series of arguments, ranging from Davis’ petty "That didn't happen in the film" and "You don't know what you're talking about" rants to Amanda's more serious "You need to get a job" and "I can't always be responsible for you" complaints. They always arrived together at first, but then they started leaving separately and then they started coming and going separately altogether.
I was stuck with the lovely job of playing mediator, hearing the stories on both sides. This continued for awhile, and I was really hoping they would patch things up, but life is not the romantic comedy we think it is. By the end of summer, they had broken up.
Sophomore year started that August. I was beginning to feel adolescence peel away from me. Perhaps it was because I was no longer an adolescent, not legal to drink, of course, but not exactly a teenager. I was almost 20. So I was technically almost not a teenager at all.
Barry had to wrestle with some serious financial decisions when it came to keeping Pizzas From Mars going. Decisions like whether to keep Swami or sell him, whether to do away with the old menu and create something new, whether to re-sign with Coca-Cola or Pepsi as our soft drink vendor. And I had to decide if I was going to keep working there.
Then, a melody, shinier and louder than any Pink Floyd anthem drifted into my heart. Her name was Candace Donahue. It would be nice to say that I worked with her and that we made out near the freezers in the back. The real story is a lot less thrilling. She was a customer who started coming regularly for pick-ups.
I remember the day she first came in. She was wearing these hip-hugging jean shorts that were a couple decades off, with horse-mane hair that swished when she walked. Nothing was particularly stunning about her, just an aura that had seemed to me attractive at the time—a sweet homebody who was in my league.
I tried to strike up conversation with her several times. "Have you seen this film?" or "Back again for the pepperoni, huh?" The conversations were always cut short because, seeing as she only came to pick up, she was in and out in just under two minutes. So, whenever it was someone else doing the prepping, I made sure to tell them to "slow down."
"Why," they asked at first, but they quickly put 2 + 2 together and... "oh. Candace."
So our conversations got a little longer. I discovered that the pizza was shared between her two younger sisters and herself. She lived five minutes away by car. She was two years younger than me, still a senior in high school. She hadn't seen any of the films that were playing when she came in, except Jurassic Park 3. When I asked her what she thought of it she said, "The dinosaurs weren't as cool as in the first one." We had one thing in common.
I wanted things to move faster, so I suggested to Barry that we start delivering. I wanted to be able to hand-deliver pizza to Candace so that I could hopefully lean against her doorway and talk more comfortably, perhaps longer, perhaps leading to her shouting to her parents: "Mom! Dad! The pizza delivery boy is going to take me for a drive!"
It didn't happen. In a 5-1 vote, I lost against the other employees. We didn't start a delivery service. More to the point, Candace found herself a boyfriend. I'm not sure if he had always been her boyfriend or if he had just became one. Either way, I had lost my chance, and that's when the music died.
I loved A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars dearly. I would have kept going forever if it constituted an actual job, but the work at school was piling up and the switch to university was drawing near. That's when I had to make a decision.
"Barry," I said.
His mullet stayed firmly in place as he looked up at me. "Yeah, Scott?"
His eyes never wavered and he nodded. "Be sure to give your keys to Tom before you leave."
"I'm not quitting now," I clarified. "Like, in two weeks."
"Okay," he nodded carefully. "Do you want a goodbye party or something?"
Two weeks later, A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars threw a goodbye party for me. It was amazing. We played my favorite film, High Fidelity. Amanda and Davis showed up separately, but got along great and I think there might still be hope for them. Harry made sure the pizza was gooey and sludgy, just as the new slogan advertised.
"You got a new slogan." This was a surprise.
"Yup." Barry pointed to the sign near the menu, the first printed version of the new slogan.
"Ewwie, gooey, sludgy pizza from the Red Planet."
"I like it," I nodded approvingly.
My time at A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars had come to a knockout, extraterrestrial end. I look back at that time now and wonder where it went and why it had to go so fast.
I'm about to graduate now. Scott Gibbs, former pizza joint part-timer, now almost-graduate with a B.A in Computer Science. I couldn't have done it without friends, fun, and a little bit of pizza.
The place still stands. Barry's still there working in the back with his Nirvana albums. His mullet lives on. The slogan remains:
"A Zillion Billion Pizzas From Mars: Ewwie, gooey, sludgy pizza from the Red Planet."
Sarah Edge is a curriculum developer based in Seoul, South Korea. She has written dozens of articles for numerous magazines and online media outlets. She currently self-publishes her own magazine, OhKorea, for visitors to Korea and she hopes to publish her first book by 2017.