The ancient Greeks called it the
"Deus ex Machina." The plot device that flies down from a darkened sky like
Mighty Mouse, knocks out the bad guys, and saves the day. The beautiful part of this is
that no matter how deeply you're buried in despair or confusion, the Deus ex Machina
heralds resolution-after all, even the greatest plays ever written have to eventually end.
I've been here for a few days now. It's really nothing special. I just put on the green shirt, make sure to change my plastic gloves after every sub, and smile. Smiling isn't required or observed by anyone else who works here, but it says we should do it on all the signs in the back and who am I to test fate. When Paula (our manager) tells me to stop what I'm doing and take out the trash, I stop what I'm doing and take out the trash. No questions asked.
The dumpsters out back are pretty big. You'd think they would hold all the trash in the whole world. It's been six weeks since the sanitation department decided that sanitation wasn't their top priority, so I have toget up as high as I can and push the boxes and plastic wrap down as far as I can. My extra effort has given me at least one more day of garbage disposal.
I peel the plastic gloves from my tired fingers and discard them in the trashcan that sits on the corner out front. The sky is an off white. From here I can see the cars going up and down the highway, doing who knows what.
I see a bumper sticker, "JESUS SAVES." I'd be more interested if Jesus could make the sanitation people get up off their asses and empty these dumpsters. Taking a moment to rest my head against the cement wall, my eyes follow the series of light bulbs lining the windows of the restaurant. One of the bulbs has been unscrewed and sits there cold and dark, like something out of a melodramatic Sylvia Plath poem. Sometimes kids sitting in window booths will play with the bulbs, turning them and turning them until the light goes out. I remember eating here and seeing almost half of the lights unscrewed. I've been trying to keep the lights on since I've been working here, but sometimes those kids won't stop until you've completely thrown them out of the store.
I hear a screech behind me and turn my head. The first thing visible is the license plate: "DXM." A flash of red catches a spot in the window and shines into my eyes.
"Another customer," I mutter to myself, and push open the door. The inside of a Subway always smells like bread. It's a great smell when you visit but eventually you get used to it and it just goes away. Isn't there a parable somewhere that makes note of how people never appreciate anything they're used to? I turn my body and open the "Employees Only" door with my butt. In the back room, Paula nods and tells me that a customer is coming in. For a moment I feel important. The feeling quickly fades. Nothing makes me feel important anymore. Should I find succor in the cold cuts? Peace in the turkey and ham?
Maybe I'm just a cynic but I already hate it when customers enter and leave. When the door opens, a pleasant "ding dong" rings throughout the entire store, like synthesized horns trumpeting the entrance of some lower-middle class king. This is the kind of noise you hear in the middle of the night, when you're all alone and you've stopped crying long enough to feel the house compress. I turn the corner and dunk my hands down into soapy water. The sign above the sink says "always greet your customer." The sign features a culturally diverse group of young people enjoying a meal. I do my part to preserve our delicate social ecosystem.
"Welcome to Subway, what can I get for you to," I say, until I'm relieved of my senses. You see, I was trying to say "today" but the word never seemed to finish. The flash of red caught my eye again, long enough to let me focus on the saffron frame standing across the counter, staring at me with understandably condescending eyes.
"Day. The word you're looking for is 'today.'" She brushes a loose curl of blonde hair out of her face, and pouts her lips. "Are you new here?"
Are you new here, the most outstanding of the outstanding insults customers can throw at you. I'd rather the customer jump over the counter and choke me to death with my own plastic gloves than ask me something like that. I let out a small sigh and place both hands on the cutting board.
"I've been here a few days. So yeah, I guess I'm new."
I stare at her for a couple of seconds. She opens her eyes wide and leans up over the counter, her finger arched downward. I imagine she's standing on her tiptoes. I see a cross on a golden chain dangling from her neck. Her hair is blonde, but right in the front a long piece is a bright red. So that's what I've been seeing. She looks down and then looks up at me, half-smiling.
"You forgot to put on your gloves."
"Oh, sorry." My apology sends her back down to her heels as she rests her elbows on the counter top. I slide my fingers into the plastic gloves, even though they are two sizes too small for me. That's always the case.
"They'll really give you hell if you don't wear those gloves. One time I was eating here and one of the customers got so mad that he beat up the guy behind the counter with a bottle of mayonnaise." The girl raises her hands up and slowly closes her hands, as if to pantomime squeezing a bottle. "Squirted him right in the face. The guy got fired the next day."
"The worker or the guy with the mayonnaise?"
"The worker. I think the guy with the mayonnaise got on the news, though. It's not every day when Jerry Falwell excommunicates you with a condiment." Evidently pleased by her own wit, she smiles. "So are you gonna make my food or are we gonna sit here all day making clergy molestation jokes?"
Before I can answer, Paula interrupts me. "You're going to shut up and get to work, you're already five minutes late."
The girl nods at Paula and sticks out her tongue. "Okay okay, I hearyou. I guess you're going to leave me by myself to train the new guy, too, right?" She skips over to the "Employees Only" door like she's dancing through a meadow, and pops open the door with her butt. Suddenly, she stops.
Those eyes roll upward and she trots back across the dining room floor. She stops near the window and brings her feet together. A slight bend and she has the darkened light bulb between her fingers. She gives it a turn until the light, dim as it may be, comes back on. Her full lips form a smile, followed by a commendatory nod.
As she makes her way back to the back I smile. Description definitely doesn't do this justice.
I bite at the end of the index finger of my plastic glove and pull it off with my teeth. She's standing about ten feet from me now, tugging at the bottom of her pullover. I pretend to wash my hands, but I can't seem to take my eyes off of her. It's not the inappropriate kind of rubbernecking, like when you drive past a wreck on the highway and slow down to see if you can spot any dead bodies. You just don't see many people like her. The pullover raises up and over her face. She's wearing a spaghetti strap white T-shirt underneath, that stops a few inches above the tiny gold ring in her navel. The shirt is white, so white that the color of her flesh shows through. Her skin is delicate and light, the color that peaches touch just before they fall out of the tree. Paula taps her on the shoulder and startles her, causing her to spin enough that I catch a glimpse of the Mighty Mouse iron-on on the front of her shirt.
"Keri, you keep coming in late and getting on everyone's nerves you aren't gonna be around her much longer."
"You're never getting rid of me," the girl said, slipping the green Subway shirt over her shoulders and down around her fragile torso. Keri pauses for a moment, as if preparing to say something particularly profound.
"I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions."
Paula ignores her and returns to the darkness of the back room to finish paper work. I run my finger along the wall, trying to think of something to say. The right words don't come. "You're weird, you know that?"
Keri looks at me with eyes that could rise up and create the world. "That's part of my charm."
Eventually, Paula leaves and I'm there next to her, joined in the holy union of our plastic gloves, making sandwiches for people and only being asked if we were new three or four times. During the breaks we sit outside on the curb, far away from the dumpsters, talking. She sits with her back to the trashcan, smoking cigarettes while I stare out at the highway. Moments like these seem so unimportant while you're on the curb. I start to feel like my only purposes on this Earth are to watch the cars zip by and to smell her cigarette smoke.
Storm clouds begin to form. We won't get much more business tonight.
Out of nowhere Keri scrunches next to me and lays her head on my shoulder.
"It's cold out here tonight," she says. "If I'm bothering you, feel free to smack me."
The lump in my throat manifests itself as words. "You aren't bothering me."
Her hair feels like feathers. A long streak of red runs itself down my shoulder. I lower my head a bit to look her in the eyes. There is so much more to her than I can ever express. Sometimes when you look into a person's eyes you see all the mushy stuff you hear about on soap operas and teenage dramas. But sometimes you see something entirely different. Features begin to become symbols, words become meaning, and the only thing that you would want in the whole world is to hear what sits in the deepest corners of her mind. I want to ask her something important, something that might change both of our lives.
"Why did you dye one strand of hair red?" It's the best I could do.
She closes her eyes and smiles. "Symbolism."
She blows my mind. I promise her that I won't think in her mouth.
We sit on the curb until the sky catches on fire and rain starts barreling down onto the parking lot. And empty Subway sits behind us.
When the rain becomes too heavy I touch her shoulder and say, "I think we should go in."
"We're gonna get fired if we don't do some work. And besides, it's raining pretty bad now and I wouldn't want us to get soaked. If we keep putting off the work 'till tomorrow, we won't get anything done t..."
That's the moment when she wrapped her arms around my shoulders.
"Day. The word you're looking for is 'today.'" She seemed to find something on the curb that makes her life easier. Maybe it's the cigarettes, I'm not sure. "Just a little longer. Please." She holds onto me like I mean something to her. I never figured out what it was. But then again I never figured out what she meant to me either.
Night sneaks in behind the clouds as the rain continues to fall. Keri locks the front door while I put away the vegetables. When I return from the freezer, I find Keri standing with her eyes focused upward, staring at the rain clouds through the window, her hands closely clinched in front of her.
"Keri...are you okay?" I was genuinely concerned. Usually when I stand at a window staring up at rain clouds I'm thinking about things that go deeper than cars or dumpsters.
I slowly pace across the dining room floor until I'm only inches behind her. She looks over her shoulder at me. For some reason I want to hug her.
"I was standing here looking at the rain and I started thinking about something." Her voice was low and airy. "What if this really is all we have? What if every dream, or hope, or creative aspiration we create is just something to make us feel better...what if all we've ever done has prepared us to be a mindless drone in some restaurant somewhere?"
I put my hands on her shoulders from behind. She's as soft as she looks.
"Maybe that's not so bad."
She turns without warning and wraps her arms around me so tightly and quickly that I didn't even see her hands. She puts her head against my chest. "Maybe we're just supposed to be here for each other."
I can't talk. I can't even breathe. There in the window, bathed by the light of two dozen lightbulbs, a girl I barely even knew had explained everything I couldn't understand. She came out of nowhere. And she saved me. After a moment she takes two steps back. She never opened her eyes.
"One more thing." Her eyes fluttered and shifted. "It's something I've never experienced, but I think I really need to know it before we go any further."
I can't move. "What?"
"Have you ever...you know..."
"Have I what?" My heart raced.
"Have you ever wondered what it felt like to get hit in the face with mayonnaise?"
You can't really understand until you've been asked a question like that at a time like that. In fact, I don't think I even processed the thought until a few seconds after a steady stream of mayonnaise sprayed across my face. I couldn't help but smile. No wonder I hadn't seen her hands.
She laughs like an imp and takes off running across the dining room. I chase after her, stopping only to lean over the counter and grab the bottle of mustard. I wipe the mayonnaise from my face, trying to figure out why I'm covered in a condiment and why I'm enjoying it so much. The flash of red catches my eye and hits me, knocking me to the floor. She straddles me, holding the bottle close to my chest and squeezing as hard as she can. I retaliate with my mustard, which sends her falling back, yelping. She gets up as quickly as she can and makes a run for the back door.
The back door has a latch that only opens after two or three attempts. Thankfully I could make it to her before she escaped. She smiled and screamed, curling up against the door as my hands extended around her, pulling her in close. Reaching behind her, I pulled up the bottom of her work shirt and yanked it up over her head, so she couldn't use her arms to defend herself.
Retribution is a work of art! I sprayed mustard all over her back, until she could fight me off and squirt mayonnaise all over my legs. This wasn't going to end pretty.
The door finally gave way as she evaded me, running outside into the rain. The raindrops fell like stars that night. She raced behind the building with me close behind, past the trash can and all the way to the dumpsters. It was there when she turned, and we collided. We fell to the ground, laughing like neither of us had ever laughed before. We continued to struggle on the ground for a moment until she fought her way on top of me.
She leaned down to shout out something profound, maybe, something to insult me and send me back inside the loser.
"This is crazy!! I can't believe we're doing this, I feel like I'm in every sappy movie I've ever seen in my life! This is.. this is..."
"Amazing," I said. "The word you're looking for is 'amazing.'"
Lightning flashed above our heads. Her eyes were only inches from mine, and I could see that she was seeing something entirely different. My features were becoming symbols, my words becoming meaning. I could feel the moisture of her lips, quivering just above my own.
Silence. Thunder crashed.