I was at the register, dealing with a pair of older women who spent a lot of money trying to make their hair flashy enough to mask their sagging faces. They were giggling away at office gossip.
They’d jumped to the front of the line in the crowded old deli to pick up an order I’d just made for Dr. Frank Morris’ office, and while I’d told them fifteen minutes on the phone, they’d shown up in about half that time and were hovering around the meat counter talking loudly to show they were too busy to wait.
“Oh look, we just made it in time,” the one paying said in that sarcastically impressed way you might use when your dog decides to pee on the tile rather than the carpet. She huffed when I asked her how she’d like to pay, I guess annoyed that I was interrupting the dirt she was slinging to her doting partner. The name on the American Express she lazily flipped my way was Sally Morris. I guess sleeping with the boss allows you to be bitchy.
“Okay, that will be $56.06. If you’re going to pay with credit, may I see your I.D.?” She ignored me the first two times I asked. The third time around the other woman nudged Sally, who made an exaggerated turn of the head over her shoulder at me.
“What do you need?”
“I just need to see your I.D. please.”
“Seriously? You guys never check.” She started rummaging through her purse while giving a “Does this fuck not know who I am?” shrug to her companion.
“Yeah, well, that’s really not what we’re supposed to do. They should be doing so, it’s a liability thing.”
She didn’t answer, instead preferring to flip her driver’s license my way, forcing me to reach over the counter to grab it. Sally signed the receipt, tossed it down with the pen, and cruised out without a word. Feigning anger must have helped her justify forgetting a tip.
I slid down the stainless steel deli case that I could never get the streaks off of to help the next person in line. Pulling out a pen, I looked up to see a guy taller than me and wearing a Dodgers hat in a Giants town.
“What can I do for you?”
He just stared at me. He had that attempt at a stoic look, like he was trying to be tough and a model at the same time. I got it all the time at the counter, some sort of standoffish response to me for whatever reason. It was a face in need of punching, but that option was unavailable.
It started to weird me out that he didn’t respond. “Were you going to order anything?” I said, a little louder this time.
His dark features stayed rigid, and he just stared. Feeling a little riled up, I stared back, and he eventually gave a little gesture to the girl to his right, who was standing three feet away, enough space in the crowded line for me to assume that they weren’t together. “She’ll order,” he said in a very soft voice before turning away and walking off without looking at her.
Thinking of that old adage about dope or dog food, I turned to the bird, who was looking at the guy with her mouth slightly agape. She was of average height with shoulder-length brown hair in a style that you’d probably describe to your friends as being cute. Turning to me, she looked shocked, as if she was about to start crying.
This startled me a bit. I had no idea what was going on. “Um, uh, were you going to get some sandwiches?”
She opened her mouth a bit, closed it when no words came out. She wasn’t wearing lipstick or anything, a nice change from the maroon sausages and sparkly gashes on the faces of the grandmas and high school girls that usually frequented the place. She blinked heavily and gave me a little shrug.
Indecision was at least something I was able to deal with. The deli had a poorly laid-out board of sandwich options on it that was put together thirty years prior when people still enjoyed picking out the specifics of their food. Then it just served to add confusion. “Well, let’s start at the beginning. Would you like a sandwich?” I tried to smile, but I couldn’t get past her upset face.
She nodded. It was a cute face, I decided. Gentle features and slightly round, like she’d put on a little weight in the past year but used it to her advantage. Something about her being sad added to the appeal because you knew where rock bottom was, and if she looked okay like that, I assumed she must have been great when she was happy. I really wanted to see if I could test the theory but didn’t know how.
“Well, what do you feel like?” Seeing her begin to fret again, I quickly suggested the turkey, figuring that’s what every girl ordered anyway.
She nodded. She wasn’t wearing makeup and, redness around her eyes notwithstanding, she didn’t need it. Too many girls came in with their entire faces some sort of matte peachy color like Vegas versions of geishas. But here was one that didn’t seem to care. When dealing with a constant stream of hungry assholes, that’s all you can ask for.
“Okay, what kind of bread would you like?”
She looked horrified again, turning towards Dodgers hat who was long gone. Her jaw dropped before she turned back to me. She was definitely holding back tears this time. Her shoulders slumped. Her breasts pushed against the tan jacket she wore. I looked up quickly.
“Um… hmm.” She gave me a plaintive smile. “I just don’t know.” She picked up her arms slightly and dropped them.
“How about some wheat? It’s really good today. And healthy’s always good, right?”
“Yeah, I guess that sounds good.”
“And would you like everything on it?”
Right back to the bewilderment. She looked around, trying to figure out what sign “everything” was listed on and returned to the defeated look like she just couldn’t do a damn thing right.
“Don’t even worry about it. I’ll make sure it’s good. You’re taking this to go right?”
She nodded and for one quick moment gave me a half-smile. Her teeth were big and white and glistening and I felt for once that working my ass off for no money wasn’t such a pile of shit to be in.
My eyes followed as she turned away and I think we both noticed Dodgers hat standing there, back a few feet from the register to let others pass, staring her down with a stone look of disgust.
She shivered a little bit, lowered her head and walked over.
Turning around to the prep counter, the chatter of the waiting dozens of people packed inside the dusty, dirty deli came roaring back. Chris, the lazy know-it-all who’d been working for minimum wage there for over a decade, who couldn’t seem to let go of the college years and had mastered the art of avoiding every possible task, had put on the Everclear cd again. By my count it was the eighth day in a row he’d used it to follow Dave Matthews Band. The roast beef had that sickly sweet smell again because the owner refused to get the cooler fixed.
That smell was too much. It sticks in your nose and makes you wonder how meat could smell like cheap candy. You wonder how many bacteria are multiplying in people’s guts after they paid too much for the damn sandwich in the first place. You wonder how bad their shits are going to be. And there’s still the constant commotion of people jostling to try to get their food. And the shitty band. And the new girl next to me who waves her knife near my face without realizing it and is way too pushy.
It all pressed in and pulsated and it was too fucking loud and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew I didn’t have much time left.