That archetypal pie came from Pasquale’s Pizza Restaurant in the Lenlock Shopping Center in Anniston, Alabama. You’ve never been there, but you know the place. A dining room with wide, black booths around the perimeter and wrought-iron tables and chairs in the middle. Red and white vinyl tablecloths. Bulbous glass shakers of pepper flakes and powered cheese.
My first pizza featured a film of melted mozzarella, a stingy smear of red sauce, and a pale, thin crust with the texture and flavor of under-toasted Wonderbread. Pulling the cheese away revealed a crustal landscape of steaming hills and craters pooled with orange grease. Listed on the menu as “Small/Plain,” it was as wide as a dollar bill and cost forty cents.
We lived in one town and went to church in another. (Long story.) Our route to the Weaver Church of Christ took us right past the Lenlock Shopping Center, the home of Pasquale’s.
Especially on Sunday nights, when my parents were worn down by Sunday School, many prayers, the morning sermon, an early afternoon singing, a late afternoon youth class, and the evening sermon, I would campaign to stop for pizza.
I rarely won. We lived simply. Jack’s Hamburgers or Goal Post barbecue sandwiches were rare and exotic treats. Mom cooked almost every meal at home.
One night, though, when I was seven, Mom gave in and sent me inside with one dollar to get two six-inch small, plain pies: one for me and one for my brother. I felt so big, ordering and paying for my own meal.
While I waited, I came across a coffee can on the counter. Taped to the outside was the photo of a sickly-looking boy with large, sad eyes. The accompanying note, scrawled with a blue Bic pen, explained Billy suffered from an exotic disease. Medical bills exceeded what Billy’s family could pay. Any help would be appreciated.
When the elderly woman behind the counter delivered my pizza — on a warm paper plate, cocooned in a white paper sack — I paid for it and received a small fortune in change. Without hesitation, I dropped the coins in the coffee can.
“You’re a good boy,” the woman behind the counter said. “You think of others.” Beaming, I ran back out to climb in the passenger seat of my mother’s metallic gold Ford Gran Torino.
“Where’s your brother’s pizza?” my mother demanded.
I blinked. I had ordered just one pie. “I forgot.”
Mother frowned. “Where’s my change?”
“There’s this boy and he’s sick and he has a can on the counter—“
Mother would have none of it. “You wasted sixty cents.”
“I was thinking of others.”
“You forgot your own brother!”
The rest of the way home, no one spoke. When we arrived, the paper sack and the plate inside were spotted with grease. My brother and I shared the single six-inch pie: three inches each.