Mark didn’t like the new deli location. His boss broke him the news about a month before the big move, and told him to keep his mouth shut— he didn’t want the regulars to catch wind that they’d be closer to Red Spruce, the road that stumbled through the town as if paved by a lone traveler, holding a creaky lantern and tripping over massive tree trunks, to be eventually greeted by the harbor, shining and green.
Jay’s Deli had been a staple of the town for six years, sitting lopsided next to the Greek Grill and the Laundromat. It was a common breakfast joint for the truck drivers and construction workers, the ones that avoided Red Spruce because they hated the look of the Victorian houses sprinkled along its path and the people who lived in them. They hated the way the balconies would tremble as they sputtered along, the way those women with their flat-ironed, highlighted hair glanced up from watering their plants and shivered. They hated the blue curtains hanging like outstretched butterflies, and the way husbands would grip them as they stared, and give a nod, as if they were comrades. Not to mention, they hated the twists in that road, the way they went gliding down frozen hills in winter and thudded over the pavement in spring.
The deli was their haven as they passed through the town that seemed to have sprung out from a Candy Land board, the shutters painted a pale yellow or a cherry red, the children donning coordinating first-day-of-school outfits. Jay’s lay on the outskirts of this dreaded road, its grey door covered in irrelevant or illegible stickers, faded from February rains. The chalkboard of specials against the window was never updated, but the smell of potato salad and bacon dragged customers in anyway. When walking in, there were trays of pastas and rice simmering on the right and an assortment of sodas and iced teas on the left. The walkway was narrow, forcing gruff customers to interact, shoulders pushing up against each other to watch the tiny television in the corner while Mark made their sandwiches.
There was no seating except for a countertop with a coffee pot and two stools. These were occupied by either Jackson, who hacked up into his newspaper every Wednesday morning, or Annie, the sixteen-year-old with red glasses who waited patiently for five bacon-egg-and-cheeses on Saturdays. Every week she had a different book in her hands, and she would sprawl her legs out on the second stool, her curly bangs hanging over her eyes like strands of pearls. When she first started coming, men like Jackson and Moretti and Old Bill muttered under their breaths. One day, after she had tumbled out of the deli in her usual way — without eye contact and hollering a thank you — Nick Vella looked Mark square in the eye and said “They’re just invading all our places now, aren’t they?” Then, with his chin clenched, he took a bite of his roast beef sandwich and stormed out, a crumb of bread still latched to his beard.
At the start of their last year in this location, Mark’s boss, Jay, decided to start working on Saturdays. Jay had that gleam in his eye, the one that reminded Mark of the animated Kris Kringle in Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. He had been in the business for sixteen plus years. He remembered the names and orders of customers who came only once every few months. He knew Katie Liedman’s daughter had an egg allergy and made her sandwiches on separate cutting boards. He knew Rosenbaum’s views on climate change, and that Val had none. He remembered that Marti Blumenthal’s brother was in the marines and always offered to cater for his returns home. He knew that Nick Vella had been divorced three times but twice to the same woman, and when that woman came in, he knew never to offer her roast beef.
On Jay’s first Saturday, Annie sauntered in around 9:30, the hair above her forehead slightly damp and curling up from the rain. Her glasses fogged up for a moment as she entered the deli and its heat. She took off the frames and scrubbed the lenses clean with her Boston College sweatshirt. Moretti glanced over and rolled his eyes, nudging Old Bill and muttering something Mark couldn’t hear. Unaware of their gossiping, Annie met Mark’s eye and nodded, her signal for five bacon-egg-and-cheeses.
“Gotcha,” Mark replied, but she was already looking down at her book and clambering onto one of the stools, left foot wavering over the second stool as if trying to find its place. Mark was surprised that a girl so obviously from Red Spruce was unfazed by the way others perceived her. As he wrote out BEC on the sandwich paper, he glanced over to spot the cover of her newest book, but was unsuccessful at catching the title. At that moment, Jay walked up behind Mark and, voice booming, greeted each customer by name, his Long Island accent whipping at the edge of his words. Then he turned to Annie, and Mark could feel himself blushing for her. In all the time she’d been coming, she’d said a total of one sentence to him and, as of late, less than four words had been exchanged between them.
“Young lady, I don’t believe we’ve met!”
Annie glanced up from her book, red frames slipping off her nose a bit, hair wild in the humidity. When she registered that Jay was talking to her, redness flew onto her round face, like it was painted with the stroke of a brush.
“No, we haven’t.” She blinked at him, as if recalling a rule that her mother had told her about being polite in public. She wiped the corner of her mouth with her finger, like she was suddenly aware that she was in the world, and that being in the world required being looked at. “I’m Annie.”
“You look so familiar to me.” Jay squinted his eyes and cocked his head in a way that would seem false and mocking, if it weren’t from him. He looked up at the ceiling, scrolling through a list of people in his head, searching for the right match. “That’s it!” He You’re Bobby Petruzzo’s daughter!”
A smile crept up onto Annie’s face at the recognition of the name, but the redness had dripped from her cheeks to her neck and shoulders. “How do you know my dad?” She asked, with a tone of both incredulousness and exhaustion — this wasn’t the first time she had been reminded of her father’s features in her own face.
“We used to work the deli at Community Market together, back in the day,” Jay replied, seemingly unaware of her slight embarrassment at the conversation.
“Oh, wow. He has so many funny stories about Community.” Annie smiled with her teeth, and Mark noted how her cheeks seemed so much less round now, the indents around her chin giving definition, giving life to her skin.
The other customers were staring at her now, mouths agape. Her father was a meat cutter.
“I’m sure he does,” Jay chuckled. “It was your hair that gave it away, and that book. He was always a reader, your dad, flipping through them on the job. Once —” Jay paused to laugh with his belly for a moment, “— he sliced open his finger because he was too busy reading The Outsiders.”
Annie laughed now, a chirping kind of laugh, and then caught herself and paused. It was as if the people around her were just coming into focus, and she seemed smaller in her sweatshirt. When Jay realized she didn’t have any comment, his voice burst into the air again.
“What’s he up to nowadays?”
She brushed her bangs out of her face for a moment, revealing a small birthmark on her forehead. Mark tried to make out its shape, but the strands returned as soon as they had left.
“He’s teaching Literature over at Stony Brook.”
The voices from the television didn’t reach Mark’s ears properly for a moment. Jay said something but Mark couldn’t hear it, and before he knew it, Jay was handing Annie a paper bag filled with sandwiches.
“Tell your dad I said hi,” said Jay.
“Will do!” Annie replied, her back already to them, looking down at her high-tops as if to make sure she wasn’t stepping on any cracks in the tile floor, and then she was out the door and back into her home where she wouldn’t be looked at for the rest of the day.
Mark turned to Jay, Sharpie in his hands. Words fell out of his mouth.
“Ever catch the name of that book she was reading?”
by Danielle Fusaro