THREE: MR. PEMBLETON'S RING
OLIVER MASHED THE BRAKE to the floor and the car slid to a screeching halt. Just inches beyond the bumper lay the crumpled remains of the top six or so feet of a cell phone tower. It rocked in place for a moment before coming to rest, the steel bars melted and burnt at one end where it had separated from from the rest of the tower. Before Oliver could so much as breathe; a woman in a purple bodysuit leaped atop the fallen tower and hurled lightning bolts at a man in red and yellow.
Great, Oliver thought. Just what I need, a pair of Mighties in my way.
The woman, Lady Lightning, had the power to create bolts of lightning out of thin air, and then throw them at whatever she felt needed to be hit by one: Bank vaults, armored cars, and—of course—her arch nemesis, Spitfire.
Spitfire was the man in red with yellow boots, gloves, and cape. He had the ability to breathe fire. Great searing gouts of it. It was fairly obvious that it was Spitfire and his lava breath that had toppled the tower.
Oliver rolled down his window, leaned his head out, and gave the horn a couple of really good honks.
“Come on!” Oliver shouted at the two colorful combatants. “Take this somewhere else! Some of us are going to be late for work!”
The two Mighties, as was typical from those of their ilk, ignored Oliver completely and continued with their fight. This never would have happened when Captain Might was still around.
Oliver had no choice, he put the car in reverse and backed away, forced to find another route around the battle zone and try his best to arrive at work on time.
The Pizza Dude was, at one time, a local favorite. Called simply the Dude by Garrison residents, it was a favorite no longer. The Dude made its home in an area of Garrison called Waynestown, a once-modern shopping district catering to the upper middle class living in the nearby posh suburb of Flatsburg. Unfortunately, the area in which the Dude resides had been devastated during the epic battle between Captain Might and General Ruin in 1994.
The Pizza Dude sat alone among the graves of bygone burger joints, clothing stores, and other various retail outlets. For some of the Dude’s former neighbors, all that remained were burned out shells—husks with gaping holes where the walls used to be. Others were just piles of rubble or empty lots. The Dude remained standing.
No one dined at the Dude anymore. They didn’t like to be reminded how quickly a thriving district like Waynestown could just disappear off the map. If it wasn’t for its free delivery service, the Dude would have died that day as well.
Oliver pulled into the lot—empty but for the cars of the other employees—as the clock on his dash hit three minutes after six. He was out of the car, through the lot, and into the restaurant before four minutes after.
“You’re late, Jordan!”
Albert Crackenmeyer—owner of the Pizza Dude and Oliver’s boss—was a short man with thinning hair. Most people meeting Albert for the first time took him for a man in his sixties, but truth be told, he was ten years Oliver’s junior.
The Dude had been in the Crackenmeyer family for three generations, starting with Greg Crackenmeyer, Albert’s grandfather, who first opened its doors in 1967. The honor then passed to Philip Crackenmeyer when Greg and his wife Janine died in the Praxian invasion of ’82.
Albert took over ownership at the age of eighteen when the lives of his parents, Phillip and May, ended in a freak meteor shower. This state of affairs—which fell on the day he had graduated high school—put an end to what had promised to be an epic four years of partying and debauchery at State college.
“Sorry, Albert,” Oliver said, bustling past Crackenmeyer and rushing into the back room to change into his Pizza Dude hat and apron. “I got hung up by Lady Lightning and Spitfire.”
Crackenmeyer sighed loudly. “Hey, it’s okay, it happens.”
Most people expected Albert Crackenmeyer to be a cantankerous boss, and on some days he really could be, what with missing college and the drinking and the debauchery. The truth of the matter was that Albert Crackenmeyer was really right where he wanted to be.
“Thanks, boss,” Oliver said, facing a sink full of black, crusty pizza pans. Now it was Oliver’s turn to sigh.
“You know,” Oliver said. “This is the part about pizza delivery no one ever talks about.”
“What do you want me to say, Ollie,” Crackenmeyer said. “You get paid by the hour. I can’t be having you standing around doing nothing in between deliveries. You gotta be doing something, and someone has to wash the pizza pans. So that honor falls to you.”
“Great. Thanks,” Oliver said.
“Hey, think of it this way. You get all them pans washed, you can fold boxes.”
“Who would have thought that someone had to assemble pizza boxes,” Oliver said. “I always thought those things came ready-made.”
“Nothing’s ready-made anymore, Ollie. Someone has to make them.”
Crackenmeyer left him to his dirty pans and his thoughts. There were a lot of things about the Pizza Dude that Oliver didn’t like: Being away from home for so long, interacting with customers face to face and—of course—washing pans.
There were, in fact, three delivery drivers each night. But two of them helped make the pizzas between deliveries, and they were both off by Nine when everything died down.
The only thing Oliver liked about the Pizza Dude was the time he spent in the car while out on deliveries. It was one of the few times in his life that he felt like his own man. He didn’t have a customer chattering in his ear, he was free to make his own decisions, and he could be his own boss.
In the car he could be alone with his thoughts and for a time, forget the stresses in his life. First and foremost among those stresses that weighed heavily upon his soul were the bills that piled higher and higher each day. He’d first put the unpaid bills in a folder he kept on his desk in the spare room. He’d soon replaced the folder with a shoe box. Even then the shoe box couldn’t keep up and now a single drawer in the desk held all of their debts.
It’s why he worked the two jobs. He had a wife and two little girls at home who depended on him, so the money had to come from somewhere.
This was his life… and he saw nothing changing in the foreseeable future.
Oliver sighed and turned the tap on the faucet. He dreamed of better things, happier days, as the sink filled with hot, soapy water.
Four hours, fifteen deliveries, and a few dozen pizza pans later, Oliver was behind the wheel of the trusty Pizza Dude delivery car. The rusted out white 2001 Toyota Corolla boasted power steering, an AM/FM stereo, an inoperable air conditioner, and over three hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Oliver felt at peace as he cruised down Route 20 toward his last delivery of the night: Mr. Pembleton.
Soon his day would be done.
Now that was something to smile about.
It had started to become a regular thing—ending his night with a delivery to Mr. Pembleton. At least it had been for the last few months. Oliver had never met Mr. Pembleton before that night seven months ago when he had stopped a teenager from mugging the old man at an ATM outside the First National Bank of Garrison. The old man had been so grateful that he’d wanted to give Oliver a reward there on the spot. Oliver had politely refused, telling the old man that he was running late for work. Besides, he’d really done nothing more than give a shout which had scared the young thief away. But Mr. Pembleton would hear nothing of it.
“Late for work, eh?” Mr. Pembleton had said. “And where might that be, maybe I can make a call, speak to your boss for you?”
“I deliver pizzas for the Pizza Dude,” Oliver said. “And really, you don’t need to do that. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Oliver saw Mr. Pembleton safely into a taxi and went off to work—late again. Later that night he found himself delivering the old man a medium supreme with no olives, and Pembleton had tipped him fifty dollars for “Exceptional delivery services”.
That’s when it had begun—his final delivery of the night. Oliver worked every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday; and he could always count on the fact that he’d see Mr. Pembleton at the end of each night. He didn’t mind, he rather liked the old man, and he did tip well. Not the fifty bucks he got that first night, but he did okay.
Mr. Pembleton lived at the end of a long and winding gravel driveway—which was at the end of a long and winding gravel country road—out in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t an easy place to find. Oliver had gone past the drive four times that first night before he’d even realized it was there. Then there was the house itself. It was a two story ranch-style with a small enclosed porch that hadn’t known the touch of a paintbrush in at least two decades. Oliver had never been out to the house in the daytime, but at night the place practically lurked out there at the end of the drive. Oliver often felt more than a little trepidation each time he pulled in.
And tonight was no exception.
Soon Oliver stood on the old man’s porch holding the medium supreme (no olives) in an insulated pizza bag. He rang the doorbell. It took a few minutes but after listening to the old man shuffle about inside the big house, the sound of Mr. Pembleton’s voice greeted him from the other side of the door.
“Who is it?” the old man said.
“Pizza Dude, Mr. Pembleton,” Oliver said in a loud voice so that he could be heard through the thick oak door.
The door swung open and there stood Mr. Pembleton. He was thin and bent with gray hair, liver spots, and walked with a cane. He had often reminded Oliver of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, only more haggard and spindly. Yet, despite the frailness of the old man’s appearance, Oliver could see an unyielding strength sparkle somewhere deep with Mr. Pembleton’s eyes.
“Ah, yes. Oliver Jordan. How nice to see you again,” Mr. Pembleton said, then, gesturing with his cane, invited Oliver in. “Come in, come in.”
“Thank you sir,” Oliver said, crossing the threshold.
The front room was tidy, but lived in. At the far end of the room sat a large television. Before it was a well-worn recliner with a TV tray on a stand sitting at its side. On the tray were always five things: A glass of water, the remote control for the television, the most recent copy of TV Guide, a book of crossword puzzles, and a pen. Oliver had once asked Mr. Pembleton if he used the pen to fill in the crossword, wondering what he would do if he got a word wrong.
“I don’t get the word wrong, my boy,” the old man had replied. “That’s the key to crosswords.”
Oliver looked now at the book, remembering the conversation, and smiled.
“Sit, Oliver, sit,” Mr. Pembleton was saying. “I’ll just find my wallet and then you can be on your way.”
Along the wall to the left of the television sat an old couch covered in plastic. Oliver took a seat, perched on the edge of the cushion and waited, the bag with the pizza resting on his lap.
“How are the kids?” Mr. Pembleton called from the bedroom.
“Oh, you know,” Oliver said. “As well as could be expected, I suppose.”
“Such beautiful children you have, my boy, such a beautiful pair of little girls. Be proud, my boy,” the old man called again from the bedroom.
“Thank you, sir,” Oliver called back. “I am.” Oliver smiled and shook his head. Like he’s ever met them.
And yet, now that Oliver thought about it, how did Mr. Pembleton know he had two girls?
Well, he thought, I must have talked about them. I may have even shown the old man pictures from my phone.
Still, he figured, it was rather odd. He wasn’t allowed to think on it too long however, as Mr. Pembleton returned with wallet in hand.
“And your wife?” Mr. Pembleton asked. “How’s Elyse these days?”
“She’s good, Mr. Pembleton. She’s good.”
“That is certainly good to hear, my boy, certainly good to hear. Now, down to business. How much do I owe you?”
“It’s ten dollars even, sir,” Oliver said, rising. It was always ten dollars even.
“Dagnabit,” Mr. Pembleton said, rifling around in his wallet. “I’ve only got but a ten dollar bill.” He held the bill out to Oliver. “That leaves you without a tip, my boy.”
“That’s okay, Mr. Pembleton,” Oliver said, taking the ten and holding out the pizza.
“No, no it isn’t,” Mr. Pembleton ignored the pizza, scratched at his head, and looked angry. “I don’t like the idea of you leaving empty handed.”
“It’s really okay, Mr. Pembleton.”
“Nope, I have just the thing,” Mr. Pembleton was obviously having none of it. “You just wait right here,” and he was off again to the bedroom.
Oliver stood in the tidy living room and waited. He glanced at his watch, it was a little past Ten, the Pizza Dude would be closed by now and he could imagine the rest of the crew finishing up for the night and waiting for his return so that they could all leave.
“Here you go, son,” Mr. Pembleton shuffled into the room holding a thick golden ring before him. He handed the ring to Oliver.
“A ring?” Oliver said, holding it in the palm of his hand.
The weight of the ring almost caused him to drop it. It was just a plain band of gold, thicker than most, certainly thicker than his wedding band, and wider, but much heavier than the size would garner. “I don’t understand.”
“Well now,” Mr. Pembleton said, a twinkle in his eye and a laugh in his voice. “That isn’t just any ring, my boy. That there is the Ring of Might.”
“The Ring of Might?”
“Tell me, Oliver Jordan,” Mr. Pembleton’s voice dropped a decibel or two and all trace of laughter fled, replaced by the solemnity of a heart surgeon delivering important news to a family member.
“Have you ever wanted to fly?”