Charlie and his Super Mario mustache were gone for the day, which meant I was in charge. Charlie owned the joint, a small, dingy sub shop one block from the beach, open year-round but profitable only in the summer.
Erin and Tommy were also working with me. Erin was a shy girl with straight black bangs and braces, still in high school, easy to boss around. Tommy was a chubby kid who played JV football with acne dotting his chin to prove it. He always cut the sleeves off his shirts to show off his muscles. Lately he’d brought in pictures of athletes and rappers, asking me what tattoo he should get on his arm as soon as he was old enough to get one. I was two years out of high school, with a handful of community college credits to prove it, already further along than my teachers would have predicted.
“Hey, Erin, check the bathroom, will you?” I asked. “Charlie’s Subs and More,” what the “More” referred to I had no idea, had only one bathroom, which meant beaucoup complaints from the female patrons who didn’t appreciate finding the seat up or pissed on. They also didn’t like my suggestion that they were free to use the shrubs.
Erin headed towards the bathroom, grabbing the Lysol and paper towels along the way. I had Tommy straighten the plastic forks and knives, making sure they all faced the same way. When he took out the trash, I’d mess them up again and make him fix it.
The thermometer outside read 95 degrees, and that was in the shade. When it got that hot, it meant the customers came in with as little clothing as possible, which, in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, meant a parade for the overweight.
“I’ll take a number five,” a voice on the other side of the counter said. He had a skinny face and arms but a fat man’s stomach, like he was pregnant. It pressed against the glass display case as he stared at the menu. There was a moist imprint on the glass when he moved, another job for Erin. The girl next to him stared at the menu, mouthing the words as she read. I almost offered her a picture menu as I cut the guy’s sandwich.
“Extra mayo,” he said, just as I finished the sandwich. I didn’t look up, instead pointing to the sign hanging on the wall behind me: “Extra condomints – $50 cents.” I raised my eyebrows for added effect, waiting for a response. Most people just shrugged.
“C’mon, dude. Really?”
I pointed at the sign again, trying to raise my eyebrows higher than before.
“Fine,” the guy said. Turning to his girl, “Can you believe these fucks? Fifty cents? This guy’s a dickhead.”
I removed the top slice and spread more mayonnaise, humming as I went. I could feel his eyes on me, making sure I didn’t shortchange him. For dramatic effect, I raised the bread before my eyes, examining its smoothness, using the large butter knife to work out any places where the mayo may have pooled. I saw Tommy watching with amusement.
“We’ve got the Van Gogh of sandwich makers here,” the guy told his girlfriend. She smirked, still staring at the menu.
“Tommy, will you ring this gentleman up, my boy?” I asked in an official tone. I took the sandwich bag out and straightened it on the counter, took some napkins from the dispenser and placed them in the bag. As the guy was paying, I took the knife and smeared more mayo over his sandwich, so it dripped out the sides and saturated the bottom. Tommy saw what I was doing and giggled with his mouth closed. The guy didn’t even notice, was too busy stuffing his change into his velcro wallet. I handed the sub across the counter and gave him my best Fuck You smile. As he took the bag from my outstretched hand, I stopped smiling and glared at him, silent. He took the bag and left as his girl protested, “But I wanted a sandwich too.” “Not here, you don’t,” he said, walking out ahead of her. The rusty bell on top of the door rang as the girl threw her hands out to stop the door from hitting her in the face. I watched as he sat in the passenger seat of his Jeep, unwrapped the sandwich, and took a huge bite without looking. I couldn’t see where all the mayonnaise went, but I could see in his face he was less than satisfied with the taste, leaning out the side of the Jeep and spitting the contents into the dusty gravel parking lot.
He then studied the sandwich and noticed my handiwork. This must be how artists felt when they witnessed others staring in rapture at their creations. It was pretty damn satisfying. As he noticed the gobs of mayo his sandwich was bathed in, his face contorted in a mixture of disgust and wonder.
As he showed his girlfriend, she leaned over and chuckled, probably saying something stupid like, “That sure is a lot of mayonnaise.” He sat for a moment, holding his sandwich, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Finally he got out of the car and did a kind of walk-jog combination towards the door. Holding the bread out like someone carrying a puppy about to piss on him, he stumbled, his flip-flop catching on the curb. I watched in amusement from behind the counter. I could see drops of mayo splattering the sidewalk as he walked, dripping down his bare legs. As he neared the door, he paused for a split second. We both knew he’d gone too far to not do anything, but it was clear he wasn’t sure what to do next. Instead of opening the door, he went to the window and smeared the bread against it, leaving white streaks across the pane.
“That guy’s mad,” Tommy said, leaning back on the counter.
Once the bread no longer left a trail, the guy stopped. He looked visibly winded, his chest heaving, face pink.
“I think he’s giving us the finger,” Tommy said. I couldn’t see from where I stood, his entire body obscured by the white coating on the window.
“Tell Erin you jizzed all over the window and that she needs to clean it up,” I said. “That should score you some points.”
“Can I just tell her you said to clean the window?”
“I don’t care.”
I opened the store the next morning with Tommy. He had the same cutoff shirt from yesterday, a faded Point Pleasant Beach football shirt, with grass stains and signatures of his teammates on the back. I told him he shouldn’t wash it because one day one of those kids would play in the NFL and that shirt would be worth a fortune. Tommy assured me it was unwashed.
Tommy was a good kid, which is why I didn’t mind teaching him responsibility. I left him a list of chores to finish in the next hour: mopping the floor, refilling the condiments, cutting the sandwich bread, while I went out for some coffee to alleviate my hangover. He didn’t look happy when I handed him the Post-it note with the list of chores, but he didn’t complain, probably because he thought I was a manager. “What’ll I tell Charlie if he comes and you’re not here?” “Tell him I’m taking a shit at the Subway,” I said, putting my sunglasses on as I walked out.
“Fuck their footlongs,” I heard Tommy shout from the kitchen.
By the time I got back, there was a line out the door, which was unusual for opening hours. Charlie’s van was parked at the side of the building, which meant he was probably in there bossing Tommy around. I imagined him furiously slicing deli meats as fast as he could without breaking the slicer.
“Where’ve you been?” Charlie said, not looking up from his meat as I washed my hands at the giant sink.
“Didn’t Tommy tell you?” I asked. Tommy was at the register, too far away to hear. I took the half-finished sub Charlie was working on and added the lettuce, tomatoes, and anything else the customer demanded before passing it to Tommy to bag and ring up. I was in the zone now that my hangover had subsided, sprinkling lettuce, spreading mayo, finishing with oil and vinegar. I could have been in a commercial.
“Extra mayo,” a voice said. I looked up, expecting the guy from yesterday, but it was a new guy, big belly but with a face to match. He had a thick beard, the kind serial killers and loggers have.
“Make sure you charge for extra mayo,” Charlie yelled.
“Of course,” I yelled back. Turning to the customer, “Do you have a doctor’s note?”
He stared back at me, his eyes hidden behind his dark sunglasses.
“Get the mayo,” Charlie yelled, his face damp with sweat.
“I’m just looking out for my new friend,” I said before looking the customer in his sunglasses. “Isn’t that right? We don’t want your heart working any harder than it already is.”
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said, leaving the slicer running. He stepped in front of me and grabbed the sandwich from my hand. A piece of the bread tore off in his hand. “I’m not sure why my employee is being so rude, but he’s going to be dealt with. I can promise that.”
The man grunted the rest of his condiments at Charlie as I finished slicing turkey for the next customer. “Take it,” I heard Charlie say. “On the house. Grab a soda too.” I waved at the man as he walked out, his legs moving like a duck’s because of his extra girth.
Charlie turned his back to the customers and placed his mouth next to my ear. “Ooh, Charlie, shouldn’t we disclose our relationship to HR?” I asked. “Damn it, just stop talking,” he whispered. “Go the rest of the day without talking to anyone. Not me, not Tommy, not a customer. If they ask a question, just shake your head ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If we didn’t have a line out the door you’d be done.” Charlie walked away, asking the customer what they’d like on their turkey sandwich.
“I’ll have a roast beef, please,” the next customer said. He was a string bean of a man. His button-down shirt fell over him like a poncho, the sleeves rolled up, his arms, like spindles on a staircase, on display.
I removed the roast beef from the display case. The slicer worked efficiently, hunks of meat falling to the bread. I looked at Charlie, hunched over a sandwich, lining pickles in a perfect row, the roundness of his heavy shoulders visible through his stained brown polo bearing “Charlie’s Subs and More” across the right breast. “Gonna give you a little extra roast beef today, buddy,” I said. “You look like you could use some protein.”
He mumbled a polite “thanks” before looking away.
“We gotta get you to the gym, bulk you up,” I said. “How much you bench?” Before waiting for a response, I slid his sub to Charlie.
“Next,” I hollered.
Brian Kayser lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he teaches middle school. He has been editor-in-chief at HipHopGame since 2003, where he has interviewed and written about a variety of hip-hop artists. His writings in music have also appeared in The Source, Rap Fanatic, and The Connex List. Brian has fiction work appearing in 34thParallel.