The temperature dipped ten degrees within the space in front of the supermarket’s deli counter. A mixed aroma of meat blocks and mild cheeses, mixed in with the trays of pasta salads, only seemed welcoming to those who made the mistake of shopping hungry. Joe had indeed made this mistake, so he stopped to order a sandwich.
“What’ll it be?” The late middle-aged man behind the counter blinked a few times as he asked. One hand rooted around under his apron, hopefully just scratching his outer thigh.
“I’ll get a number three. On the roll.” Joe liked that they had a little menu. He hated having to explain what an Italian was to the sub naifs he had to deal with since moving to south Florida.
The man nodded, giving two more blinks. “Number three, comin’ up.” He pulled two clear plastic hand-wraps on and hunched over the counter, facing the line of pre-cut meats, cheeses, and toppings. He tapped the inside of this left wrist on the edge of the counter twice, then reached out with his right hand and tapped two fingers on the stack of Italian rolls. After this touch, he pulled it onto the counter, dropping it on the dinged white cutting board surface. As it thumped, he continued moving his right arm so that wrist tapped against the edge, freeing his left hand to knock three times against his hip before grabbing the knife to cut open the bread.
The series of ritualistic touches and taps continued through the whole lunch creation process. At one point, when he prepared to reach for the Genoa salami, a few rogue hairs dislodged from his slicked back temples, swinging towards his eye. He reached up to brush it back, and then took a deep breath. He had to begin that round of taps and touches all over again, left wrist on counter, then right, while the left fingers thwacked his hip.
Joe watched the ballet of tics, fascinated. He wondered if, to this guy, the routine felt rote at this point, no more a nuisance than checking the mirrors and fuel gauge before pulling out of the driveway. But he didn’t really believe that — the process had too many breaks and re-starts, mixed with frustrated blinks and tongue clicks. By the man’s third attempt to pick up the olive oil, Joe felt a twist of pity in his stomach. He felt bad, as if he were judging someone for their idiosyncrasies — but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching someone trapped in their own habitual shackles.
Then, Joe realized, that wasn’t pity — it was just hunger. He had been waiting for his sub for almost ten minutes.