I’m at the deli counter, hemmed in by aisles and product and customers and attitude. I watch him, a sharp featured amazing and aggressive guy who I’ve only ever seen standing on this one section of floor. Slicing cheese, slicing meat, putting together a sandwich. He’s got dark black hair, a mustache at least, a minefield of stubble, a Mohawk, tattoos, sleeveless. I’m not sure if that’s dedication or hostility he’s putting into his work. He has never noticed me.
I’ve failed, all my life, to make contact with people in this place. His eyes never turn my way. Nobody’s eyes do. He is focused on not noticing, but he has to see me to not see me. I wonder what he would say if I forced him with a greeting. It is not safe here.
I wonder if he has friends, or love, what he does when he goes home. If he goes home. If he smiles. I wonder too much because there is too much to wonder. I wonder, too, why I wonder. I wonder what anyone would say if I breached the wall. I have my words picked out for the deli clerk taking my order, always the same words, always the same sandwich, same sides, same intonation.
It’s library-quiet with a humbling humidity in this place, perhaps it keeps the police out, or the loiterers; you can’t be too sure here in the drinking capital of the world so dependent on sales and security. I keep looking at a fridge full of non-alcoholic beverages: sugar, sugar, more sugar, aspartame, blue, yellow, pink, protein, expensive, water, expensive, OMG CHOCOLATE, someone else must drink this stuff but I keep talking myself out of it.
A couple guys meander into the aisle looking for just that right combo of sugar and aspartame, a beefy scary black guy and a creepy hairy ’stache-heavy white guy, both of them carrying around their adjectives just for show. If that ’stache were gold his head would hit the floor. No one has sleeves tonight, the smell of the guys and the smell of the deli meet at the front of the counter. The two men barely fit in the aisle and I need to move so they can open the fridge. In the next aisle someone waits annoyed for a roast beef. You being annoyed will not make him slice faster, he doesn’t know you are here. I don’t know why he’s annoyed, but I can’t absorb the heavy breathing and I’m trapped in a corner watching Slicer.
I lose who I am in his acrobatics; it’s a dance that tunes out everything, a choreography that keeps everyone at bay—the regulars, the drunks, the tourists that don’t get that this is off their approved path. They’re all in my way, so we’re stuck here like sweaty wrestlers in an elevator until someone finally addresses me by the name of my order.
This is so hard, my voice sounds like I just got pushed off a train. “Hey…see ya.” I break the code, but I’m glad he doesn’t acknowledge.
At the checkout counter there’s a woman with dark and springy hair. I think. And glasses. Still, I think. I haven’t paid enough attention, even after all these years, to remember. I’ve learned not to ask her how she is, because she doesn’t want me to know. I make up her life story: she comes to work, takes the cash, goes home and watches reality TV. Probably has a sandwich. Maybe a beer, but I’m not seeing it. More like whiskey and Diet Coke. Somewhere in her life are a husband and kids, that could be yesterday or years ago. She’s got a pink top and I’m not going to look any lower.
I’m going to walk a few blocks away, closer to the tourists and closer to the bedlam. I’m going to sit down on the ground against a building, move some trash out of the way, unwrap, and eat. I try not to touch anything on the way. I’m not sure what I need to do here to be seen, other than trip someone. Not willing to risk that. In a world created on good times there are always those lonely souls that parasite their good times off the others.
I’m trying to learn that of the guy at the deli, the woman at the counter, are they rowing in this same canoe with me or do they live across the lake, on the other side of forgotte?. I catch my reflection in something metallic. I haven’t shaved in five days. I forgot. I see a few extra pounds I probably met here at the deli counter. And then I think that Slicer—he wouldn’t look like that if he didn’t have somewhere else to be. Somewhere amazing and exciting that I will never see with my eyes or my heart. Maybe it’s anticipation. Maybe it’s a room, a TV and a beer.
I step out onto the street wondering if I’d actually ever been there.
Jerry Rabushka, from St. Louis, MO, is a playwright, fiction writer, musician and composer. Many of his plays are published by Brooklyn & Heuer Publishing and are performed nationwide. His novel Star Bryan is published by Rebel Satori Press, and another novel, The Prophecy, is due out in October from Bold Strokes Books. Musically, his CD What Kind of Love by his group The Ragged Blade Band is available at CD Baby and other sites.