At the Deli
By John C. Nichols
I sit by the window at the generic white-topped stand-alone table that seats two. I share a sandwich with the woman I adore. I look outside through the clear dual-paned window across the parking lot filled with cars. The lot is like an ocean, the cars like ships. The glass cuts off all sound from the outside where these small four-wheeled ships lie in their berths, the slips marked by painted white lines upon the hard surface of the blacktop sea.
The shops line the edge of the lot, the ocean’s shore: a shoe store, a discount clothing and wares store, and a Christian bookstore. The little people, who are like sailors, move between the shops, some with bags sauntering lazily, some without rushing madly.
Everything is in constant motion.
The sky is beginning to blacken. It is a warm day in my city, although a brief storm passes through.
A mosquito flits past, distracting me. I lose sight of the people, the sailors, the captains, each guiding their own destiny, each navigating blindly through the storms of their own lives. I turn my face away from the window, and glance across the table at the woman sitting with me.
“You can throw that away,” I tell her. She stands up with a quiet “okay” and a gentle smile. She walks to the trashcan and back. How I love her! She smiles gently at me as she sits back down. I look back out the window, and I am lost once again in my imagination.
The darkness deepens, and the people again become sailors, the blacktop an ocean, the cars, ships. They finish their business, and buy everything they think they might want. How I wish I could have what they have! I am drawn to them because of this desire. To purchase anything my heart desires! Oh, the bliss!
I see them dressed in all sorts of clothes, all of them much more extravagantly clothed than me. There are so many of them out there. If I could take the place of one of them for a moment, a day, how happy I would be! To control my own destiny….
There are too many people to notice the one person I would replace. But would anyone notice me disappearing?
A stray conversation reaches my ears. Some of the employees at the deli are having a relaxed conversation during a lull in their work. How carefree they seem to be! They have to work to live, while these sailors plunder the stores across the ocean, across the parking lot, never wondering when the next meal will come.
I cannot see anymore many of the sailors anymore. They slowly vanish, and are lost to me. But the idea of the sailors remains constant in my mind. That perception of never needing, only wanting, never being filled: this sticks to the walls of my mind.
I shift my gaze from the window, the illusion is lost. I look down at the white table, which I realize isn’t really white. It’s more of a milky off-white, yellowed slightly with age. I realize then that everything ages, even the people in the shops across the parking lot, the blacktop ocean. Even these people who need for nothing will one day die.
I glance up quickly at the deli’s counter.
No one’s there.
I look back at my date. She looks tired to me, but she looks happy. Even she can be happy when she is not like the people who buy anything just to have something.
I cast my gaze back out the window. The sailors have all left. The blacktop ocean stands empty and still. They have money, money that they spend on wealth. I long to be like them. I long to be not me.
There’s an older couple sitting to my right a few tables away, across the oak colored floors. They look content, happy even. They are together. They are like me. They need and cannot afford to want.
We finish the small $4.39 sandwich I bought for us. I feel every penny of what it cost me. It hurts every time. She holds the Styrofoam cup of water since she wanted a drink, since it saves me the little money I have.
She gives me a look that makes me think she’s sad, and my heart about breaks, but only just. And she isn’t sad.
“Are you happy,” she asks with a smile.
Can’t she see I want to be like the sailors with their ships that have four wheels cruising along the waveless blacktop, the calm ocean at fifty-five miles per hour? I don’t think she can. I’ve hid for so long that I am too good now at hiding my deepest desires from even those I love.
It’s dark now, but the deli’s light keeps the aged table alive, and the twenty-foot tall lampposts keep the blacktop sea lit, like stars shining from the heavens.
My ghost stares back at me with nearly eyeless sockets and a blurring outline. Then I realize that I am staring through the window again. There is no ghost, only my reflection. That’s who I really am, however: a ghost, a reflection, nothing more. I am hollow, I am worthless. I am unhappy.
I want to be like the sailors with money to spend in the shops. Money for goodness’ sake! It’s a marvelous thing! Do you understand? I feel that I am trying to describe a dream!
“Are you happy with a pen and paper,” she says again with a smile. No more than a heartbeat has passed since her first question. I think about what she said, and I offer her a faint almost-smile.
A pen? Some paper?
Then I remember the bookstore. Then I remember the pen in my hand, and the paper on the table in front of me. I see the words I wrote on the page. I then begin to understand that I don’t need to be like the sailors, the people who need for nothing and want everything, the people who are empty inside.
I realize that with a simple pen and a sheaf of paper I am happy, content, even filled.
For some reason, I don’t tell. Perhaps she already knows.
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