The telephone rang.
Jason Wilkins roused himself out of his dough-and-flour-addled stupor, and gazed at the ringing noise emanating from the receiver. He was tall, even for an American, this despite his father’s very average height and his mother’s petite build. Some had suggested – in hushed tones and never to his face, of course – that it was because his mother had long ago taken an … interest in the very tall mailman who’d graced their neighborhood mail delivery route for so many years. Mail delivery was one of those necessary evils of modern American life; a citizen could send his friends and colleagues e-mail faxes that arrived in the blink of an eye, but there was always the reactionary old contingent who’d never wanted to bother with these “modern contraptions” who insisted on writing letters on paper and sending them through the antiquated network of delivery trucks and post offices, and so long as this contingent existed the mail would also have to exist.
The telephone rang again. Jason wanted to groan and roll his eyes, but he suppressed this urge and put on the mask of outward neutrality expected of a Pizza Maker Second Class. He’d graduated from the Pizza Making Academy with high honors, learning all the nuances of flavor balance, oven management, and paddle flipping – not to mention the highly prized art of crust spinning – that went into any Pizza Maker in the service. But he’d also learned the importance of Customer relations, and of the need to project a combined air of confidence and deportment whenever he answered the phone.
He slapped the flour dust from his hands, grasped the receiver, and placed it next to his ear. The light codes on the telephone’s front panel danced from flashing red to solid green, letting him know that a live connection had been established.
“Pizza Barn,” he intoned. “Is this for dine in, pick up, or delivery?”
“Before we begin,” the deep, resonant voice on the other end of the line said, “Let me thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to me.” Of course, Jason knew, this appearance of graciousness was just a formality. Any Pizza Maker who’d ever received a call from a Customer knew that you made time for them, rain or shine, day or night, when the call came in. “I know many of you must be concerned about the latest announcements from the U.S. Department of Labor,” the voice continued, “Which underscore the slower-than-expected growth our domestic economy has experienced over the last Fiscal quarter. Let me assure you that I in no way intend to withhold and funds from the unwritten custom of tipping that has become so prevalent in your industry.”
Inwardly, Jason breathed a sigh of relief. Tipping was the custom of paying extra – usually a percentage of the price paid for goods and services rendered – as a reward for outstanding service on the part of the service provider. At least, this was how the custom had gotten started. In practice, the custom had spread to the point where now a tip was expected even if merely average-quality service was provided. A man who transported a freshly-made pizza from the production facility to the Customer’s residence could usually count on receiving 15 percent of the pizza’s price as free money he could keep for himself, in addition to the salary paid him by his employer. As a result, employers typically took advantage of this situation and set their deliverers’ salaries artificially low. Since, technically, there was no legal requirement for the Customer to pay the tip, Customers who had fallen on hard economic times had been known to simply not pay it, leaving the delivery man barely able to subsist on the paltry wages his employer provided. Jason knew the co-worker who was assigned to delivery duty tonight, Pizza Delivery Person Third Class Alonzo Gomez, and had seen the despondent look on his face more than once when Alonzo had returned after a delivery without a tip in his pocket. But this customer had just given his assurance that he would be tipping, thereby relieving Jason of the worries he harbored for his co-worker and comrade.
“As to your original question,” the voice on the phone resumed their conversation, “Of the three options you’ve offered to me, I think Delivery would be the most prudent at this juncture.”
“All right,” Jason replied, maintaining his professional calm, “What’s your address?”
“One two seven one five Harboraz Street,” the voice answered. “That’s Harboraz spelled like Harbor with an A-Z on the end.”
“Is there an apartment number?” Jason asked. Although most Americans preferred to live in single-family units, there were many who, either through economic difficulty or a desire to live close by other specific individuals or simply not caring for the investment a single-family unit entailed, ended up living in large complexes of dewllings called apartments. Some apartment complexes towered dozens of stories high, a feat that would have been impossible in a pre-Bessemer civilization that lacked the ability to mass-manufacture steel. Others sprawled along the ground only a story or two high. But whatever size the complex was, it was always important to indentify which of the many individual units within that apartment complex one lived in. This was usually accomplished by a number, molded in metal and affixed to the center of the unit’s front door. Even the antiquated mail delivery system still relied on apartment numbers to route letters to the appropriate box when delivering mail to an apartment complex.
“No,” the voice replied immediately, “No apartment number.”
“What’s the nearest cross street?” Jason continued. In truth, his software would be able to tell him exactly where 12715 Harboraz Street was, and even the exact course that Alonzo could follow in his delivery vehicle to get him there in the least possible time. Modern delivery vehicles were the pinnacle of safety and comfort, but their basic design had changed little from the Model T that had seen service a century ago. An engine produced power by combusting air with gasoline vapor inside a cylinder, which drove a piston attached to a crankshaft. This spinning shaft provided torque that could be routed to the vehicle’s wheels through a series of shafts and gears. The wheels themselves mounted inflated rubber rings that pushed against the road surface and impelled the vehicle forward – or provided braking force if the driver chose to slow down. The contact between the wheels and the road, however, intimately depended on the planet’s gravity, and as such each vehicle was restricted to operating entirely on the surface of the planet. This meant that special roadways had had to be built throughout every city, roadways big enough and smooth enough to allow vehicles to pass. The route any driver took to his destination consisted of a series of turns, as these streets often intersected one another, creating a situation where vehicles following along one street had to be careful not to collide with vehicles following a street that crossed theirs. This series of successive turns could easily be figured out by modern map software – a feat that just three decades earlier would have seemed like science fiction – but there was always that tiny, tiny chance that the software would make a mistake, or that the street name in question might have been misspelled, and in that case it was vitally important that the driver have the name of another street nearby that ran perpendicular to the street he was interested in.
“The cross street,” the voice resumed as though a dissertation on the history of urban traffic had not at all intervened, “Is 4th Avenue.”
Jason dutifully wrote this latest piece of information down on a note pad he’d had sitting next to the phone for exactly this purpose. He followed the practice his manager had suggested weeks earlier and wrote in ink, using a hand-held ball-point ink pen made by the Paper Mate company that lay at the end of a tether next to the phone. Ink had had a long and proud history, dating back almost to the dawn of writing itself. He mused about the long, tortuous road leading from the first accountants’ tally marks in ancient Mesopotamia to the sophisticated symbolic system of writing modern Americans now enjoyed, but pushed that thought aside to maintain the proper professional air of aloof concentration that Customer relations required.
Then, mentally, he braced himself for the next stage of the phone conversation. He knew it was coming, knew it was as inevitable as next morning’s rise of the G2 primary his planet orbited at a comfortable 8 light-minutes, but still he viewed it with trepidation, as he did every time a call got to this stage. “And,” he began, smoothing every edge out of his voice he didn’t intend to project, “What would you like?”
“Well,” the voice answered, “I have in my hand a coupon, bearing the imprint of Pizza Barn and the telephone number I’m now calling you at.”
Inwardly, Jason winced. Coupons were another of those necessary evils that had the potential to make the job of the Pizza Maker a living hell. They enticed a Customer to order goods or services when he wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do so, by offering special pricing incentives that would expire if not used by the printed time limit. They also served as a kind of advertising for the company that printed them. However, the pricing deals they spelled out were often convoluted combinations that required the simultaneous ordering of multiple products, and more often than not the exact wording of those combinations appeared only on the coupon itself, copies of which were not made available at the production site – meaning the Pizza Maker answering the phone had no way of verifying the validity of the Customer’s interpretation of the coupon while taking his order. Jason recalled the many times a Customer had presented him with the coupon he’d discussed while making a telephone order, only to discover that the deal was different than the one the Customer had quoted or that the coupon had expired a week ago. In those circumstances, making the Customer happy could, and often did, become an exercise in futility.
“This coupon,” the voice on the phone continued, “Allows me to purchase two medium-sized one-topping pizzas, and receive the second one at half price, so long as the second pizza is of equal or lesser value to the first.”
Thank goodness, Jason thought. This coupon he recognized from a Pizza Barn flyer that had been mailed to his own residence earlier this week. The flyer had not been addressed to him by name, but had come addressed only to “Current resident” at his address. It was common for local businesses to send out copies of their advertising, such as coupon flyers, to every address known to exist in the city. The mail delivery service even provided bulk discounts to businesses who wanted to send out such “junk mail,” provided the businesses who wanted them sent took to the task of sorting the advertisements by destination address to make the job easier for the mail delivery personnel. By happenstance, Jason – an employee of Pizza Barn and in fact a Pizza Maker Second Class, no less – had received one of Pizza Barn’s own flyers. He’d scanned the coupons, filing their deals and their expiration dates away in his memory for future reference, and the second-medium-pizza-half-price deal his Customer had just quoted matched his memory exactly.
“All right,” Jason said, “What would you like on your first pizza?”
“Make the first pizza a mushroom pizza,” the voice answered.
Jason wrote down a shorthand notation for “mushrooms” on the notepad, indicating that this topping belonged to the first pizza. He had already written down another shorthand, indicating that the pizza should be medium-sized. Although an Italian invention, modern pizza had flourished under the auspices of Americans like the Shakey Brothers, who had thrown caution to the wind and piled high the mozarella cheese that had so sparsely graced the earlier varieties. The earliest pizzas were little more than focaccia bread, and the notion of piling on pick-and-choose toppings would have been absurd to pizza’s pioneers. But today, topping selections had exploded, and included such wanton vagaries as pineapple, pesto, artichoke hearts, and the barbecued meat of poultry birds. Compared to such eccentric modern toppings, mushrooms almost seemed … quaint. “And the second?” he asked.
“Make the second pizza with pepperoni,” the voice said, “And put it on thin crust.”
For an instant, the color drained from Jason’s face and his blood ran cold. Had he actually said thin crust?! Thin crust was one of Pizza Barn’s top secret R&D projects. They had spent months coming up with the ideal balance of crust thickness, edge crimping, and the cornmeal base below the crust designed to reduce its traction on the paddle, all to address the desires of those customers who preferred less breadlike material below their toppings. They intended to release an announcement about Thin Crust over the television faxes, timed to be broadcast to every home during the Big Game, when the greatest number of viewers would be watching. But the Big Game wasn’t until next Sunday. How had this Customer learned of the existence of Thin Crust? Was he a spy for a rival pizza company? Had he merely heard rumors about thin crust, perhaps from unscrupulous Pizza Barn employees who’d leaked the secret, and was testing the water, trying to see how he would react?
Jason would have to tread very, very carefully.
“I’m sorry,” he began, “We don’t --” he suppressed the urge to say currently – “have thin crust available as an option.”
“Oh,” the voice replied, and Jason could detect just a hint of crestfallenness in the tone of that single syllable. Jason wondered, briefly, whether he was disappointed that his ploy to get confidential information out of him had failed, or whether he … just had a thing for thin crust. “In that case, just put it on regular crust.”
“Will that be all?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” the voice answered.
And now, the calculation began. The pricing of pizza was more art that science, primarily since each individual pizza was so eminently customizable. At base, the order consisted of two medium pizzas. Nominally, each medium pizza cost 10.95 U.S. dollars, but that was the base price and only included the crust, the sauce, and a standard-sized layer of mozarella cheese. What this customer had ordered were one-topping pizzas, pizzas which, in addition to the crust, sauce, and cheese, also each carried a custom topping that would be placed on top of the cheese just before the pizza entered the baking oven. His first pizza added mushrooms, which Jason noted – looking up the topping and pizza size on his pricing table – would increase its price by 0.75 U.S. dollars. His second pizza added pepperoni, perhaps the most popular of all pizza toppings, and looking this up in the same table showed an identical price increase for a medium pizza of the same 0.75 U.S. dollars. That raised the price of each pizza to … he punched the numbers into a tabletop calculator … 11.70 U.S. dollars. But this was before he factored the coupon into the price. The coupon ordained that whichever one of these pizzas had the lesser normal price would have its price cut in half. Since both pizzas clocked in at 11.70 dollars, either one could be used as the “lesser priced” pizza. Jason chose the pepperoni pizza, the second one the Customer had ordered, and cut its price in half. 11.70 divided by 2 was 5.85. Adding this 5.85 figure to the 11.70 normal price for the mushroom pizza resulted in a total bill of … 17.55 U.S. dollars.
Or rather, it resulted in a sub-total of 17.55 U.S. dollars. The government of the state in which this Pizza Barn was located was always looking for ways to fill its own coffers, to pay for social programs that kept the politicians-in-power popular with the voters, and one of the ways it had chosen to do so was to impose a sales tax. For every sale that a vendor made to a Customer, the vendor had to pay a flat 5.75% of the sales price to the state’s tax collectors. However, a loophole in the law – engineered by a crafty coalition of vendors when the sales tax had first been voted on in the Legislature – allowed the vendor to charge the Customer with paying the sales tax directly into the vendor’s pockets. That loophole now meant that Jason had the responsibility of calculating the sales tax on the 17.55 U.S. dollar subtotal, and adding it to the Customer’s bill. He punched “+ 5.75%” into his calculator, and…
“Your total with tax comes to eighteen fifty-six,” Jason said. “It should arrive in about …” he checked his chrono “… thirty to forty minutes.”
“I’ll be waiting,” the voice said ominously, and closed the connection.