“Pleasure Pizza” * Fiction * Waleed Ahmad

It was a blistering day. The day would be hotter if it weren’t for the smog in the air softening the harsh desert sun. A cloud of ashes and smoke had seeped in and settled like a blanket over Las Cruces since the border clashes began. And with the smoke came the smell. People called it El Olor. A vaguely fetid odor that permeated everything. People had learned to live with it, shoved it to the back of their minds. Hector, though, actively sought it. He loved noticing the different tones in it. Sometimes he could smell sweetness in it, sometimes it was a more burnt sensation. Whatever he smelled it meant his heroes were out there at the border and beyond keeping us safe, fighting for our lives. And honestly what would you rather have, your life or a non-odorous atmosphere?

Walking to work at Pleasure Pizza wasn’t so bad. He usually did it from school. But now he had graduated and was on his way to joining basic training this summer. His brother Felix would offer him a ride now and then but any conversations with him these days made Hector nauseous. He was so anti him joining the army. But that wasn’t surprising given he was overall a completely useless and ungrateful human being. They were sons of immigrants who ought to be more patriotic. Hector would stand up every time the national anthem played on TV. Any gesture that would affirm how grateful he was to be born north of the border, on the good side, on the free and prosperous side.

And walking to work gave him a chance to catch up on some of the videos that were frowned upon at home, or were even too “real” for his friends. Videos fed directly from the clashes down from Texas and Mexico. He pulled one up as he walked. It was called “US TROOPS DESTROY ARMED TERRORIST MOB.” In the grainy footage, an angry mob approached the towering border wall, and the American troops, perched on top with their M-16s, opened fire. Most of the video was just smoke and the pop pop pop of the shots. And of course the shrill screams. Served them right.

Pleasure Pizza was a proud little place. It sat in an otherwise abandoned strip mall, flanked by boarded up or glassless windows, and surrounded by a giant empty parking lot. At night, it’s bright pink sign was a lone beacon of hope in a sea of black. There were two Army trucks parked carelessly outside. A stray dog, obviously malnourished, its fur matted and dirty, sat under one of them, enjoying the coolness in the shade. Too stupid to know what was good for him. Hector picked up a rock and flung it at the dog, who ran away with a yelp. You might say this was bullying a defenseless animal, and Hector did feel a pang of guilt. But did people really expect him to sit down and converse with a possibly rabid animal? To leave to be a probable danger to society? Hector scoffed at these arguments in his head.

Inside it was the typical sight of customers either waiting for their food and having conversations, or sitting back in their chairs, with their VR headsets on, chewing in bliss. Shannon, the owner, noticed Hector walk in and ran up to him with glee. “The flag!” she shrieked. “It’s coming today! Fucking finally!”

“That’s great, Shannon,” Hector said. He was happy. Not just for her either, just happy. She had ordered a really large American flag, and finally it was going to be here, standing tall and proud in front of Pleasure Pizza, endlessly waving at the world.

“It’ll really put our restaurant on the map, won’t it? It’ll go on the roof. And it’s my restaurant. Anyway, isn’t it exciting!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hector said. “I’ll go punch in right now.”

As he scanned his badge at the counter he couldn’t help but overhear a conversation at a nearby table. It was full of familiar faces, regulars from the Army base. The man speaking had been to several missions in Iraq and Mexico. He spoke slowly and deliberately in his hoarse voice. “It was Christmas Eve, I was missing time with my family to be out in the middle of savage country, Mexico.” Everyone at the table listened attentively. People from other tables had also turned around. Hector was mesmerized.

“It was a surgical strike on a home of a suspected insurgent. There were three or four savages patrolling the streets. I’m tactically hiding behind this tree, surveying them.” He paused. “Honestly, I was ready to shoot them right there but then they called in the strike. I ran for cover. And then BAM, a huge explosion, dust everywhere. The house was reduced to rubble. The insurgents vaporized. No sign of them at all. Except for the tree. Hanging from the branches were pieces of human flesh. Like decorations. It was beautiful. It was a Christmas tree. A miracle.” Everyone at the table laughed.

It was an acquired taste, the Army black humor. But once you get it, as Hector had started to, there really is nothing like it. Felix wouldn’t appreciate it, but being a terrorist sympathizer why would he ever think blowing up savages was funny?

As the laughter died down, Xochitl, another server, brought out pieces of bread for everyone, and they all put on their VR headsets. This is what made Pleasure Pizza really special – the VR headsets. Now of course Pleasure Pizza didn’t actually serve pizza, that would be too expensive, if you could even get your hands on actual cheese or meat in the first place. They just baked plain bread. Nourishing on its own, but not as delicious as pizza. The trick was the VR headset, a helmet that covered your ears and eyes and gave you the feeling of eating pizza. A customer would order something on the menu, and Hector would bring out that sized bread to the table. Good, warm, hot bread. But not pizza. The pizza was in the VR headset. While the customer ate the bread, they tasted whatever pizza they ordered. And not just the taste, the smell, the texture, everything. They smelled the toasted crust and the cheese and the pepperoni. They felt how the crust breaks when they bite into it, and the hot melted cheese and the juices from the meat. Even the grease dripping into their hands. Hector had only tried it a couple of times. “Only for the customers” Shannon said.

Hector went about his day, hoping to strike a real conversation with one of the soldiers. He would donate his tips to the Flag Fund, as Shannon had so nicely requested. It went toward paying for the flag that was soon to be outside, and flags for other, less fortunate, businesses. Could Hector use the money? Yes, for food, among other things. But this was a good cause, and how could he say no to Shannon who was so nice to him?

Finally, toward the end of the day, one of the sergeants Hector enlisted with recognized him. His name was John. “Come over after I’m done,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said Hector, trying to hide his excitement. He obviously hoped for good news. As Hector went about his work, he watched John eat his dry bread and lick his fingers.

Xochitl was the one handling his bill. Xochitl suffered from the same disease Felix did, the bleeding heart liberal disease Hector called it. He had picked it up from one of the videos.. Said she wanted to go to college abroad. Maybe China or Vietnam. She certainly wasn’t going to find a college in Las Cruces. Anyway, John wasn’t going to waste his time on her.

Hector went back to Shannon’s office, where she normally hung out during restaurant hours. He knocked and stuck his head in. She was watching something. “Do you want to meet my mentor?” Hector said.

“Nah,” She said, and went back to her show.

“Well, I’m going to punch out.”

She looked back up from her screen. “Sure thing. After you do, please stick around to help me with the flag if needed. Especially with pictures and such.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Walking up to John’s table, Hector could barely contain his excitement. He passed by Xochitl who, predictably, rolled her eyes at him. He didn’t care. If he were a dog his tail would be wagging. John introduced him to the other soldiers with him. Shane and Jennifer. “Beautiful names,” Hector said. You might say that’s a weird thing to say, and maybe Hector cringed a little bit when he said it. But he was nervous, and eager to impress.

“Now I don’t want to have to do this, but you are Hispanic, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Hector said. “And I have my documents. Always keep them with me.” Hector handed him a couple of cards, his passport, which had a brown circle on it, marking him as a son of an immigrant, and a permit, which allowed him to work within these borders. Fair enough. We were at war with Mexico after all.

John waved them away. “I don’t need to see them, I just wanted to see if you had them. Good job. The reason we require these is for your own good. The Hispanics don’t know what’s good for them. I’m sorry but your people had their chance. We had Operation Wetback, we built fences and walls, and yet the crime and the violence continued. So I hope you don’t see this as an insult, but rather something that proves you are American first. Do you understand?” Hector nodded. Shane and Jennifer smiled. They were amused. He wanted to run away and lie under the Army trucks now. Let them run over him. He wanted to feel the rubbery weight of the tires as they flattened his face.

“So anyway,” John said, “I wanted to show you something. These things we eat pizzas with? We also use them to learn how to kill enemies.”
Jennifer rustled around in her rucksack and pulled out a headset with a bunch of wires and stuff attached.

She began setting it up on the table. “This is an older model, but I can’t run our program on the ones you have.” She handed him the VR helmet. “We are going to put you in the shoes of a soldier in insurgent territory. You are going to hear all of the sounds, the gun shots, the war cries, the screams, all of that. You’re going to see yourself shooting enemy combatants, some of them might be unarmed civilians and children. You are going to smell ammunition and smoke. You are going to feel the shockwaves and the heat from the bombs. Are you ready?”

Yes, he wanted all of this. A chance to actually be a soldier. He put on the helmet, covering his eyes and ears. And he sat back in his chair. The VR movie in his head began. Soon his face betrayed the unpleasantness of what he was experiencing. His fists were closed tight. Sweat dripped down his chin. His mouth contorted in a horrified expression. Soon, he began to scream.

The few remaining customers started watching with concern. Xochitl, noticing what was going on, ran up and pulled off his helmet. “Oh my God are you okay?” she said.

Hector vomited all over the table and the equipment and all over himself. John, Shane, and Jennifer all laughed. Hector managed a smile, even with his hands trembling. Xochitl looked on, shocked.

Hector was glad Shannon wasn’t there to see that. When Hector finally walked out, she was out there with her flag, hugging it and posing for the small crowd of five people gathered in the parking lot. Shannon waved him over. “Come take a picture for the website.”

“Sure thing, Shannon,” He said.

As he held his phone up he noticed something. A whiff of the ever present smell. El Olor. And he realized what it was. He had just smelled it when he had the VR headset on. It was the dead bodies. Lying there in towering piles. Ballooned up. Decaying. Putrefying. Flies buzzing around them.

“Hector! Take a picture!” Shannon yelled.

Hector, though, couldn’t stop retching.

–About Waleed Ahmad

Waleed Ahmad is a Pakistani American and a member of the Communist Party. He works as a rocket engineer as his day job, and likes to write political fiction. He currently lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Amena, and two cats—Harley and Freddy.

—About the Illustrator—

Drake Scott loves creating and performing in multiple disciplines, including (But not limited to) visual art, music, comedy, writing, puppetry, and ventriloquism. He is currently in a mid-pandemic crisis, deciding once again what he wants to be when he grows up. Learn more at DrakeWScott.com.