I worked at the deli counter at ‘The Dill’, a small gas station- slash-store in the middle of nowhere. We were a desperation spot for the folks with crashing low blood sugar; the last place to catch a bite before their traveling companions pushed them out on the side of the road. Full blown Snickers bullshit. I hated dealing with them. They usually got super picky in their panic. Like someone who is freezing to death taking off their clothes instead of putting on more. Makes no damn sense. You probably knew the place by the slight lean to the building, like the leaning tower, only with scuff marks on the linoleum floor and a bathroom that smelled like a shit-dipped Yankee candle. Pisa it ain’t, but you meet a lot of interesting people.
Take Lars, he stocked the dairy for us weekly. He came in and made chit chat. He had one of those lined faces that you can’t pin an age on. Short and thin, but broad shouldered, like his name suggested. His front tooth had gone missing and he replaced it with a gold one. It gave him a pirate vibe that I found stirred my pot a bit. Sometimes when he’d come in around my break, we shared a smoke. I don’t smoke for real, but why the hell not, right? He’d let me bum cigarettes off him since I didn’t own any of my own. We’d get close up together so he could light it. I like the smell of his sweat. A little sharp but not unpleasant, like hay.
Short, and juicy is how he described me once. I grew up in the era of thin thighs and even thinner eyebrows. Mine were plucked to a fair thee well and I have been on a ton of diets that were more like prison rations. Styles change and now I tattoo my eyebrows on. I don’t starve myself no more neither. I gained every pound back and had gums that bled every time I brushed my teeth or ate a hard apple. Calorie in calorie out type of thinking. But fuck, no one can excercise that much. Do you know how long you have to run to burn off a bag of chips? A wide ass is the thing now, thanks to that Kim Kardashian lady or whatnot. Except she had to pay money for what comes to me naturally.
I’m getting off topic, I know. What did you ask me?
“I asked how you lost your hand?”
Oh shit, sorry! I can go on.
“No worries, and I don’t mean to be rude.”
No , actually it’s quite a story. I sliced the bologna, ham and the Swiss on the blade. We had other meats but they, for the most part, stayed in their original packages. Whole sides of prosciutto and marbled roast beef sit in the case like jilted prom dates dressed a little too fancy for their heartbreak. The tastes ran simple around here. But damn bologna is good, right? Sometimes the edges slice too thin for some and they send it back. They say “thin sliced” but that ain’t what they mean. Trust me, I have eaten my share of their cast offs, not that I’m complaining.
“I used to eat the‘rind’ of the bologna before making my fried bologna sandwich with ketchup.”
So you get it! As you can see, the job has a danger built right in, you get that, but what you get in return is a shit ton of safety procedures and mechanical safeguards that keep you from really being able to do too much damage. Where I’m going with this, is that the blade didn’t cut off my hand.
Summers were our busy time being so close to the State Park. Rarely a local came in, just faces I’d never seen but look vaguely familiar. Like one of the regulars had their teeth fixed. We always needed seasonal help. A few years ago, they hired a girl fresh out of high school, Andi, with an i. She was what you might call conventionally pretty; an everyday, everyone can agree on beauty. This generation is so overtly nice, soft though. She couldn’t look me in the eye. Never occurred to me until right this minute she may not have wanted to. Andi had one thing going for her though, she was tiny, I mean diminutive-could-see-daylight-between-the-thighs little. We wound up on the same shift for about a month. Andi on the register, me on the blade.
I noticed during this time that the number of conversations I had with folks were dwindling. I’d be slicing up the meat, I’d try to inquire about a day or a destination. Then slowly their eyes would shift to the right, and they would ask Andi a question. “How’s your day, sweetheart?“ or “You from around here?”. While the whole thing felt creepy I still found this incredibly rude. As a human, and not an apparition, disappearing before your own eyes can be soul crushing. Andi would smile, and nod, her eyes a void, pretending to be their best friend. As soon as their back was turned, bam! No smile. Am I right to think this is phony?
“That’s customer service I guess.”
Either way, it all came to a head when Lars made his weekly delivery. He shouted his greeting, “Hey Joules!” And made his way to the refrigerated cases. He let the load slam down, and looked at the deli/ cashier area and directly at Andi’s phony ass smile. ‘Hey there!’ Suddenly aware of how awkwardly sweaty he was. He took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead. ‘Lars! Nice to meet you!’
“That’s too bad… I can imagine…”
This is how it went, week after week, sometimes the two of them locked into a conversation, like they were the only two people there. Lars would feign including me now and then in their ritualized shared smoke, the one we used to have, but he knew I’d have to say no. Sometimes the customers would stand, arms full of Cheetos and Smart Water, watching Andi and Lars flirt. I’d say from behind the counter, “Sorry, can I help you?” Me, apologizing for them. I felt increasingly inconvenienced and yet somehow an inconvenience myself.
The night it happened was one of those really sticky, horse-fly nights where I’d sit around my house after my shift in my underwear, my air conditioner far from adequate, dripping and buzzing in the window. My flesh, where it creased, sweats profusely. Suddenly I could feel the prickle/tickle of tiny beads of sweat with nowhere to go, itching to get out. I’d flipped on the television when I got home, watching some show where even the beautiful people have problems. Then, as if ordered by the devil himself and slipped in between romantic cliffhangers, was an ad for the magic berries some gorgeous older model was hawking. They want you to believe that berries are why, at her age, she looks like she has a painting in her attic aging for her. I shifted slightly to alleviate the discomfort and realized I was alone. I knew I was, don’t get me wrong, but this time it landed inside me with a thud. A heavy car door slam of an ah-ha moment. I hadn't had a single person address me personally, not even Andi, other than to order their meat, all day. I wondered if Andi and Lars were somewhere together, not thinking of me at this very moment. Then the stillness after the explosion. So quiet. Everything from there on out comes to me in flashes and shadows … like a dream you remember in the middle of the day.
The can of gasoline, from my shed.
The ‘aim-and flame’ from my junk drawer.
The turn of my keys in the ignition.
My thighs sticking to the plastic interior of my car.
The combination of pity and disgust on Andi’s face when I burst through the door sending the chain of bells over it exploding in different directions, I will never forget.
I can imagine how I looked in my overstretched underwear and bra with sweat stains at the arm holes, my hair, a mass of tangles, eyes wild. The fire was quickly out of my control. The heat of the fire and the burning inside my chest were indistinguishable to me. All I could see through the smoke and flames was the cash register where Andi used to stand. She had ducked down behind the register, instead of running. Like I said, this generation is soft. She never got up.
When the ceiling fell, shearing my forearm off mid way, I barely noticed. I don’t know how I got out alive. I stumbled out of the building and got in the car. There was little blood. Seems the heat of the cross bar cauterized the arm as it sliced through. The building collapsed in on itself and onto Andi. It was halfway there anyway. And here I am, talking to you. It’s kind of a miracle don’t you think? The Lord works in mysterious ways, I guess.
Anyway, enough about me. How would you like your meat sliced?