Most days between three and four, the air inside the store remains still. For one brief hour, business slows and there’s not much to do other than stand at the register, my mind wandering, wondering why the nicest days are the ones I’m scheduled. Wait, is that a customer? Ahh, no. It’s a trick of the phantom door, which emits sounds of opening and closing in the most silent seconds.
And then, finally, it happens: the door swings wide and a lone man stumbles into the fluorescent light of the lobby, his head swiveling as he tries to remember how he’s gotten to where he is. His blue yacht cap sits as though engaged in a symbiotic relationship with his scalp, and his fingers fumble with keys and change in his pockets. He takes a few steps toward the opposite end of the counter before steadying himself against a rack of newspapers, trying once more to situate himself. The metal objects in his pockets jingle with each movement.
I brace myself because I can feel it in my bones, can feel myself being dragged into the following ten minutes. My insides, turned insatiably hungry by the constant presence of food, are ready to cave in on themselves, to tie themselves into the tiniest, firmest knot. Somewhere in my chest is a welling enmity spurred by dread. The worst part is knowing that, during these next ten minutes, I’ll be overcome by the urge to quit on the spot, to make a statement for all my coworkers, to extend a sole finger in the face of this man I’ve not yet greeted. It is the face of a man who feeds on a steady diet of oblivion.
At that same time, the rational part of my brain will know that I need the job and the money, and, of course, if I want to have another job later on in life, it’ll be in my best interests to give two weeks notice before leaving indefinitely. Why couldn’t I have foreseen this two weeks ago?
In a daze, he wanders past the menu board, past myriad images of sandwiches, into a dimension far removed from his physical environment. It is there that he finds me, and it is there that he finally breathes life into the question we’ve both been waiting for:
“Do you make sandwiches here?”
“Do I make…”
I pause and glance around. I want to know if any of my coworkers have heard what I’ve heard, if I’m not hallucinating. But they don’t yet appear to be aware, so I gather myself and respond:
“Yes. Yes, we do make sandwiches. What kind of sandwich would you like?”
“Roast beef,” he says.
“All the veggies?”
“What? No! Just lettuce and mayonnaise. And two turkey. And one ham.”
I finish scribbling on the order pad and ask him whether he would like them to be small or large.
“Large,” he says.
The battle is half over.
When you don’t love what you do, when punching in and out is a means to an end and not the end itself, the string of stress winds tighter and tighter inside. Where it used to give way, it’s lost its elasticity. Simple questions, answers to which are requisite of even mediocre performance, become simple to a fault, to the extent that it becomes so obvious to the employee that he cannot understand why the customer did not come prepared with the same basic knowledge. That’s where I am.
I pass the slip and ring the man in for his order, and, unlike many customers, he does not question the steep total. For that, I tacitly thank him. He receives his change from me and assumes a position of stoic impatience directly opposite me, and I busy myself with my hands, preparing a bag, filling depleted condiment containers, anything so that this man does not accuse me of laziness when there’s work to be done.
In a matter of moments my coworker places the sandwiches on the wrap station, all of which are just lettuce, mayonnaise, and meat. The rolls, 11 inches long, are cut along the top where everything sits. Methodically, he slices the first sandwich in half and folds the paper once over the middle, then up on each end, effectively ensconcing the meal. These sandwiches are the sort of things people travel the world to taste again; they are the sole reason some people return home; they provide a source of identity for some, while they are a staple in the diets of others’. They are—
“What are those?” the customer asks, snapping out of what had momentarily evolved into something like narcolepsy.
“These—these are the sandwiches you ordered,” I say.
“No they’re not.”
I’ve done everything correctly, and still I’m wrong. So I opt for logic and recount his order to him, reminding him that he ordered two turkey sandwiches, a roast beef sandwich, and a ham sandwich, all with mayonnaise and lettuce.
“This is your order right here.”
“No, those aren’t my sandwiches,” he says. “I ordered sandwiches.”
“Sir, these are sandwiches.”
He has become visibly agitated and is prepared to drive his argument home, to elucidate the intricacies of his argument.
“Those are not sandwiches,” he says. “I can’t take those on my sailboat. They’ll just blow away!”
And with a flourish of the hand, he demonstrates to me the fluttering of the lettuce, the flight of the ham, the aerial dynamism of the bread. I suddenly understand that a sandwich is something that cannot be lifted into the air by the untamed gusts of the sea.
“He wanted sandwiches that won’t blow away on his sailboat,” I say to my coworker, and he takes the sandwiches back to the counter, dismantles them, and reconstructs what he can on sliced white bread. He begins to wrap them, and, as he does, the customer nods in approval.
“Those are sandwiches.”
“Yes, they certainly are,” I say, taking them as they are wrapped and placing them in a bag. “Here you are. Have a nice day.”
“Ugh,” he grunts, snapping the bag from me and heading toward and then out the door.
I breathe for what feels like the first time in ten minutes and look over to see that my coworker has taken the remnants of the failed sandwiches and is making himself something to eat. It’s the silver lining. And as I gather myself and try to remember that not every encounter is as taxing as the one I’ve just survived, I hear the door swing open. Please let it be the phantom door, I think. But it’s not yet four, and I hear the preface of footsteps behind me as I turn to discover the next customer towering over me, his bloodshot eyes bulging from their sockets.
“Who here makes the best panini?” he booms.