When Alex first started working at Third & Rose, Mo immediately imagined him being blown out the door by the might of the wind machine Cooper kept leaning against the far wall from the counter. She imagined his white smock billowing like a parachute as the heavy duty fan launched him off his feet and spun him in the air like a stray takeout bag. She could picture him snagged on the top corner of the door, banging against the frame every time a customer came in, until finally a faint cross current plucked him free and sent him swirling down the block.
He was thin, but she soon realized he was one of those skinny people who cheated by being muscular in a wiry sense. His pale face never reddened whenever he hauled the morning’s meat delivery into the cooler, and he would work at the make line for hours, sweating in stale heat the wind machine only seemed to whisper to.
“Aren’t you hot?” Coop would ask him. “You want I should cover for ya a bit?”
Sometimes Alex would take him up on this, saying only “Yeah, I could stand to take a leak.”
“Take a leak, smoke a cigarette,” Coop would wave him away. “Christ kid, just sit down for a second.”
Coop liked him. “He works hard,” he said one day. “Believe me, we know how to appreciate hard work.” At that, Coop would tap the Star of David he kept on a chain. Mo wasn’t Jewish, but she didn’t think it was too kosher to tap the Star with a knife that had just halved a dozen pork butt sandwiches. Still, she kept that concern to herself. Outside, his sweaty hair pushed from his face, Alex smoked a cigarette he’d bummed from Mo, turning his head to check out a dog walker in a floral print skort. When he caught Mo catching him, he pretended to be intensely interested in the gravel by the gutter.
Alex figured out Third & Rose’s expansive menu pretty quick, especially the kosher section. “You could be a regular Jew!” Coop would say, impressed.
Coop knew Alex was also a Jew. Or, more accurately, Coop had been made aware on two separate occasions that Alex was Jewish. “Get outta here! Really?” he’d said both times, right before lunch rushes. Two hours of shouted orders and muttered Yiddish later, however, Coop had completely forgotten.
Alex didn’t mind. He was Jewish in the absolute most technical understanding of the identity. His people were Russian Jews, and it was definitely more Russian than Jew that showed in his makeup. But when you looked at him, it wasn’t even so much “Russian” that you thought as it was “Icelandic,” or really even just “bleached.” He was the kind of fair-haired, fair-skinned person that never tanned or burned. Most of his genome hailed from a region that considered refrigeration to be a weather forecast.
Most of his friends assumed he was lying when he told them he was Jewish. “But we see your dad at Mass all the time!”
“Well yeah, he’s Catholic.”
The idea of a Catholic/Jewish coupling always seemed like such an outlandish idea to gentiles and Protestants, but from his own experience Alex was pretty sure more Jews married Catholics than other Jews, and vice versa. It was like a safe form of abandonment for both parties. They could escape a small portion of the oppression that comes from a heavily religious household, but still have someone they could feel comfortably guilty around. Judeo-Roman guilt beat Protestant shame any day.
Mo had a tattoo of a coiled snake between her shoulder blades. The snake wasn’t coiled naturally, but made to look like the spikes one would see on the screen of an EKG. A rattle pointed to her left shoulder, a forked tongue pointed to her right. The deli didn’t have a dress code beyond “don’t show up naked,” and Mo favored tank tops while she worked in the yearlong southeastern heat. When her back was to Alex, he would stare at the tattoo. As the muscles in her back flexed the snake would seem to slither from shoulder to shoulder. Or maybe slither wasn’t the right word. Maybe what Alex was actually meant was dancing. The snake was dancing across her tanned skin, wriggling around freckles and coiling against the straps of her bra. It would nip at the tips of her dreadlocks, hanging from the bun she tied each morning, but it could never reach beyond the nape of her neck. It was trapped in a wonderful prison, stuck inside the exposed square of her upper back. When he fantasized about her, the fantasies always began with him thinking about the smooth, tan expanse of her back.
He felt like, even if she and he were ever to get together, this was something he should keep to himself. Would she find it creepy that he fantasized about her back?
As it turned out, she would. She would find the general idea of him fantasizing about her to be sweet and endearing, but going past generalities and into specifics, she would definitely begin to feel some reservations. So it was good that he never told her, just as she never told him that she could see him looking at her, his reflection caught in the sneeze guard, clouded by Windex residue.
Third & Rose handled flies pretty well. Above the door, a monstrous blower would dissuade most of the little bastards from following customers inside, but in Georgia, in the summer, flies were an inevitability.
Cooper was pretty good at killing ’em quick, and without garnering too much attention doing it. He keep an eye out while he slapped sandwiches together, careful with his work but always glancing up to track some whizzing black dot overhead. When it would land he coordinated his movements perfectly, as though he were a teenage ballerina and not a potbellied fifty-five year old with, as he called it, “a bad toe.” His movements in handing out orders and taking cash were so fluid that even if he reached above the bug, it would sit where it lighted, undisturbed. Then when the moment was right he would slip his hand overhead and with a little pat he’d execute the thing, killing it but not squashing it, then brushing it into his hand to deposit into the trash. He was a master at this, a veritable White Death, except with flies instead of invading Soviets, and with an old Jew instead of a disgruntled Finnish farmer.
But around mid-June, Cooper found himself outmatched at every turn by one fly that persistently buzzed overhead in long, lazy oval. He watch the bug with sniper’s eyes, muttering to himself.
“I’ll get the bastard when he finally lights,” he’d swear to Mo and Alex, his gaze circling the ceiling while his hands mechanically prepared a perfect pastrami on rye. You could tell he was mad from the way he sawed through the sandwich, hacking through it in three deliberate strokes. Coop kept the knives so sharp he could cleave even the thickest hoagie in a single swipe. By cut number three he was sawing into the cutting board.
After about a week, the fly was still alive. Mo thought she could hear Coop cursing it under his breath. By week two, she was certain she’d caught him, at least once, accusing the bug of being an anti-Semite.
“Who’s that girl who walks with you after work?” Alex’s mom asked him one lazy Sunday. She was sitting inside on a folding chair, enjoying a faint breeze from the screen door and sipping a beer she’d stolen from his dad’s stash in the garden shed mini-fridge. She did this every time he went to Mass. Alex’s dad was pretty devout, so she’d developed quite a fondness for Miller High Life.
“Woman I work with.” He was careful these days to say woman and not girl. He wasn’t doing this so much out of sensitivity as propriety. He was twenty-four years old. People his age weren’t boys and girls, they were men and women. He forbid himself, however, from ever thinking of himself as anything coming close to what he thought a man should be.
“You like her?” She sucked on her beer, always smiling a little when she did that, her eyes closed as though in quick prayer. A cicada squawked and thumped into the screen beside the mezuzah. Alex’s mom splashed beer on her fingers and flicked them at the insect, sending it screeching into the heavy afternoon heat.
“She’s alright.” Third & Rose’s closed early on Sundays, staying open only to serve the lunch crowds from church. Since getting back home at two he’d locked himself in his bathroom three separate times, in deep consideration of just how alright he found her to be.
“One day when she’s walking with you, you should keep walking. Just walk past here and go get her some coffee or somethin’.”
“I got grad school comin’ up, Ma. I don’t know that I’ll have time for anythin’ serious.”
She smirked and shook her head. “Oh, so serious. Life just won’t give you three seconds to get your dick wet.”
“You’re very matronly, Ma.”
She cocked her head in a quiet, huffing laugh and swigged her beer. Her hair bobbed when she did this. The color and curls made Alex think of chestnuts. He didn’t look like either of his parents, really. His mother was the kind of Jew you’d find on vacation posters for Israel in the sixties. She was quick to beam and loved the sun. His dad was tall, dark, Black Irish. Both were given to browning in the sun. When they were together, it was like his parents had leached anything resembling skin and hair tone from their offspring.
It was the picture hanging above the TV that reassured him he belonged. In it, his grandfather, fresh from the old country, stood beaming with his wife and kids. All wore their Stars of David on glittering chains. All had dark eyes and dark hair, and smiled with deep, dark lips.
Except his grandpa. In the old black and white, taken in direct light in the middle of the day, his grandfather’s pale skin and light hair seemed to glow. Sometimes, if he stared long enough, Alex felt like his grandfather would begin to fade away.
At home Mo was in constant motion. It often occurred to her that she shouldn’t have to move this much just to live alone with a single cat, but there was always something that needed cleaning or feeding or scooping.
She spoke to her parents while she cleaned that Sunday, her mother and father quickly swapping the phone between themselves so that Mo had to guess when to end one topic of conversation and begin another.
“No, mama, no one serious.” In English she had a pointed, intelligent inflection that made you think there was a secret meaning behind even the most mundane phrase. In Farsi, her mother’s language, her entire manner changed. Her voice softened, and words flowed together like a spoken song, unless, of course, she was talking to her parents. Then there was just a lot of interrupting and occasional swearing.
“Mama, I’m not even looking for a boyfriend now. I told you that internship might even call me back…”
“You have a boyfriend?” her father snapped into the phone in Urdu. Then in Farsi, to her mom, he asked: “Why the hell don’t you people tell me anything?”
“No, papa, I don’t have a boyfriend…”
“You just said you had one. I’m not deaf! I’m old but I’m not deaf! I hear better than your mama’s dog hears!”
“Papa, I didn’t say you were deaf…”
“Don’t bother her so much,” her mother said, taking back the phone, “her boyfriend might be over there.”
“Mom, there is no boyfriend!”
“What’s his name?” her dad asked beside her mother. Again, in Urdu. The language her folks used when they wanted to be sneaky.
“Give me time, I’ll get her to slip up and tell us.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Mo interrupted, in fluent Urdu. Then, because Farsi came easier to her: “Mom, just let it go.”
“Why don’t you bring him over one night?” Her father had grabbed the phone again. “For dinner? Does he like homemade pizza?”
“Your pizza’s terrible!” her mother cried. “You’ll scare him off, you cook so badly!”
Her cat mewled as she walked past, more out of polite acknowledgment than affection. She clamped her phone between her cheek and shoulder and scooped laundry into the hamper. Clothes were strewn across the living room floor. Looking at the mess, you’d think her entire wardrobe consisted of nothing but thongs in varying colors. When the hell did she buy so much underwear? Did she really only own three socks? Where were her goddamn yoga pants?
“Honey, you bring him over when you’re good and ready, okay? Don’t let your father pressure you…”
“Who’s pressuring? I’m her father! Shouldn’t I wanna meet the guy? Honey…”
“Mom, Dad, MOM. MOM? Okay, mom, I gotta do some laundry. I’ll call you guys back, okay?”
“Okay, my love. But don’t you let your dad scare you into bringing him over, you hear me? You just take your time.”
“Mom, there’s no…”
“I remember how your grandfather scared your dad so awfully when they first met. He was going to ask for permission to marry me then, but he held off for three more years because of the hell my father put him through. You know…”
She did laundry and cooked dinner while her parents talked. They spoke of Pakistan, of her mother spending summers there working for her father’s company. She could hear them both laugh, softly, as they remembered how scared Mo’s dad had been when her mother brought him back to Tehran. Their laughter was low and more intimate than a kiss. Mo’s dad had intended to stay a week, but had flown back to Kerachi the very next day after meeting his future father-in-law, convinced he’d lost all hope of ever marrying this amazing woman that God had put in Pakistan for the summer, seemingly for him.
Or maybe, he loved to add, he was put in Pakistan for her to find.
She stayed on the phone with them so long the battery eventually died, and when the charge cord brought it back to life she sent an apologetic text with a promise to call back tomorrow. She showered, then sat by her workout mat for a while, petting her cat. Around midnight he always became a whining ball of affection, and as she rubbed his stomach he twisted and coiled. After a half hour he dozed back off, and she left him to sleep. He stayed on the mat till dawn, dreaming in a spot touched a thousand times a day by the part of her back Alex secretly found sacred.
By the first of August, Coop was letting his preoccupation with the fly slow him down. Used to be any longer than a two minute make time was just wasted money. Now, if a sandwich didn’t get out till after five minutes, it wasn’t like it was the worst thing.
“Bastard’s quick. Only sets down when he knows we can’t get him in time.”
Even Coop’s mechanical hands were slowing down, his diverted concentration sapping the attention of his muscle memory. Sometimes he reach up with a magazine and smack it against the wall, but the bug was always just out of reach. It whizzed by, a mocking black dot against old, off-white tile.
“Hey Mo. You wanna maybe get coffee later?” Alex asked, wrapping a beef and Swiss in foil. “Maybe see a movie or something?”
She rang up two orders and doled out change, then slipped on a pair of plastic gloves. “Nah. I got some things I gotta do.”
He boxed the order and slid it out front. “Yeah. I got some stuff I should work on too.” He boxed another order before asking “Rain check?”
She ran a credit card, studied a guy’s license a little too long. “Nah. Is that okay?”
More orders. Grilled sandwiches wrapped in foil, the foil so hot his hands felt mildly scalded even through the gloves. “Yeah, that’s okay.”
The shift passed by even quicker than usual that day. Walking home, their usual bubbly talk flowed easier than it did before. An itch had been scratched, and not only that, but it had considered scratching itself before leaving. Consideration was everything.
Coop stayed behind an hour, hoping to catch the fly unawares. “Goddamn Jew-hatin’ fly,” he said to the anti-Semitic insect.
Mo’s internship went through. She left in September, taking her cat and mat and seven billion thongs to Atlanta. She came back for a weekend in October, and another weekend the next October, and the next October after that. She pretended not to notice how much time was passing, with Alex still behind the counter at Third & Rose’s.
Alex took so long deciding on grad school he actually had to reapply. By the fifth October, Mo didn’t see him behind the counter. She never saw him again, actually.
She saw Cooper plenty of times, though. Coop never left, never would, never wanted to. His grandpa had built that place, he said, and he told people that when he died he wanted to be buried in the basement, nestled in a make line cooler, hugging his beloved thin-slicer.
Coop didn’t have any kids. Never really wanted them. He never really let it bother him that there would be nothing to do but sell when the time for making sandwiches came to an end. The quality of his work never failed, but people eventually noticed that the speed he used to be known for had diminished significantly. No surprise. Cooper wasn’t a young buck even when he was a young buck, and age catches us all. But that wasn’t what killed Coop’s speed. Coop never could catch that damn fly.
It’s still there, now, swirling in the air, making Coop wince with each pass.
The fly, as it turns out, actually died years ago. It was never actually flying. It’d been caught in an eddy, caused by the wind machine Coop kept leaning behind the counter. It spins round and round completely beyond its own power. Coop still watches this tumbling corpse, waiting for it to land. The fly, however, has already moved on.