The Deli Hat
The heavy orange streetlight dipped into the shop through the window behind the front desk. Soft and stiff, it crumbled in like amber—here it was in the corner, hovering with the dust; and there, on the door chime; and there, in the aisle, settling into the lonely folds of abandoned tablecloths. The light softened the firm rim of the boy’s cap – and as the click of the old register cut through the silence, the light spilled across the thin pile of cash and a few dirty coins.
Running through the numbers once more, he added up the day’s earnings in his head. He stopped at a hundred and thirty-seven, figured that would do, and palmed the last few bills, slipping them into his pocket just as a sweet chime trickled from the bell above the door. He jumped and reddened, pulling his hand from his pocket and taking a sudden interest in a spot of ink on his thumb.
“How much today?” The owner, his father, closed the door behind him and turned the key in the lock before sinking into a chair and pulling off his shoes.
“Not much.” He licked his finger and scrubbed.
“A hundred and thirty-seven.”
“Not much, then.”
The boy swallowed, and his hand dipped to his pocket. “I counted it right.”
His father glanced up, surprised. “I know you did.”
He could feel the bills pressing into his leg – he was almost sure he could hear them rustling as he turned to the window. Night seemed to have stumbled across the street by chance; it had settled early and carried with it long shadows that drifted down the sides of the shops and curled like petals on the pavement.
“How was work?” he asked. Since their mother’s death three summers ago, he and his sister had run the deli while his father worked shifts at the convenience store three blocks over to pay off the medical bills.
“Work was work. How was it here?”
He shrugged. There had been no customers since half past two, the bottom end of lunch hour. “The same.”
His father had asked him weeks ago to find an additional part-time job for the summer. His sister worked already, at the snack booth at the local AMC – on Tuesday and Thursday, and she came back late at night smelling of popcorn butter and peanut M&Ms. He’d tried to find a job. He really had. He’d gone door to door, but he’d found no one willing to hire a sixteen-year-old for pay. No one but the ice cream store, and he hadn’t told his father about that. He knew Cassie went there often, and he didn’t like the idea of her recognizing him behind the counter.
The boy untied his checkered apron and pulled it off over his head. “I’m going out, alright?”
His father glanced at the clock – it read half past ten. Before he could look back around to protest, the boy was halfway down the street and from his seat near the window, his father saw that he had forgotten to take off his cap. The green cloth bobbed up and down with his footsteps, and yellow letters glowed golden under the streetlight: Oscar’s Deli.
Upstairs, the older sister, Mia, was lying in bed and rifling through brochures. She selected one of the pamphlets at random and flipped to the third page. From the largest picture, two students in stark white lab coats smiled broadly at the camera. One held a petri dish with nutrient agar, and the other had her left eye pressed into a microscope. Her father’s footsteps creaked on the stairs and faded down the hall and into the farthest room, and she heard the soft creak which meant that he’d collapsed onto his bed. She hadn’t heard her brother come up behind him on the stairs – after a few moments of silence, she decided that he must have gone out.
She set the brochure down on the nightstand and let her head sink into the flat pillow. She had to rest. She had work tomorrow. She forced her eyes to close.
She’d picked them up on an impulse, really, the whole pile of brochures at once from the wooden stand outside the guidance office. She shouldn’t have. It was too late for her; she’d graduated in June. She hadn’t even bothered to apply. If one of them could go to college, better it be Ben – he was smarter than her – the things he read, she didn’t think most boys his age had ever heard of. She wondered if he’d taken her advice. She’d given him the little she’d saved up when she thought there was still a chance for her, and if he slipped fives from the register for the next three months, he could save up enough to take the SAT in the fall and apply to at least a few good schools next year. She hoped he was doing it – she thought he was; he’d started to look a little bit guilty when their father asked him how much they’d earned – though she couldn’t help but notice that he’d been going to the movies a lot more often lately. And new books kept appearing on his bookshelf, too…but she was sure he knew better than that. He was bright. He knew better.
And as for her – well, her father needed someone around to help him. She opened her eyes, turned over, and stared at the silhouette of the green cap that hung on the doorknob, fluttering with the rushes of air from the vent to its left. It had begun to rain outside, and she let the sound of water on pavement carry her far away.
A few streets over, tires kicked up puddles, and windshield wipers rattled like a vast sea of clock-hands. The asphalt glowed purple through the thin film of mist, and a flat blaze of horns and swears flowed downtown through the dry night air. A boy wearing a dark green cap wove through the columns of stalled cars and slipped through the door of the corner store. At the sound of the bell, the owner glanced up. The boy’s shirt was heavy with rain, and he left damp prints on the carpet as he walked. His hair, at least, was dry.
He reached into his pocket and drew out the crumpled wad of bills. He counted them slowly. Twenty – thirty-one – no, fifty-one dollars! Fifty-one dollars, in four bills – two twenties, a ten, and a one. Mia had warned him never to take too much – but he didn’t care – fifty-one! Ten times what she’d told him to take. Ten times, and he’d gotten away with it – he had enough now to buy three books, maybe even four, or two particularly nice ones – though Mia would ask about those for sure and he’d have to come up with an excuse –
He’d meant to save for school, he really had. But he hadn’t been able to look at the growing pile of bills in his sock drawer without thinking of the new movie that his friends were going to see on Friday, or that one last book that he wanted to read – and, he figured, if he took tens instead of fives for the rest of the summer, he could have enough to spend and save, and then it would all work out.
Fifty-one dollars, and all that was left was to decide what to do with them. He examined the spot of ink on his thumb. The books, of course, had been his first instinct – but was it really worth it? He thought of Cassie, of her silver smile and her laugh like rainwater and her clear lemon-gray eyes. She’d probably be at the ice cream shop now. She and her friends always went there on summer nights.
A few blocks away, his sister rose from her bed and pushed her sheets to the side. The clock on her wall hung bright against the darkness. Half past eleven – Ben had stayed out this late before, but only rarely.
He was alright, she told herself, probably at the movies. She pulled back her hair and scooted out of bed. The floorboards were stiff underneath her bare feet. She moved into the carpeted hallway, down the cramped flight of stairs, and out onto the cold tiles of the deli floor. The lights flickered on automatically, and she found herself blinking against the sudden surge of white. Her father had forgotten to draw the blinds. She hurried over and pulled them closed. Then she pulled out a chair, rested her head on the table, and closed her eyes.
When she woke up, her mind was grainy and dry. She couldn’t remember any dreams. She glanced over at the clock. It was half past twelve – Ben had never stayed out this late before. She sighed and rested her head in her hands. Cassie would be getting ready for college now, she found herself thinking – she’d be halfway packed, her room in disarray with a suitcase on the floor. She’d bring her favorite black boots and her new blue backpack and the stuffed white bunny rabbit she’d slept with until she was eight, and she’d be ready to move in.
The two of them had been inseparable since the first grade. She had asked Cassie if she was nervous once, weeks ago. She smiled that half-smile of hers, and the corner of her eye crinkled in the way it always does. “I mean, sure,” she said. “But it’s MIT! Can you believe I got into MIT?” Her eyes danced, and her voice echoed with longing. She’d already let go of her by then.
The boy stopped in front of the ice cream shop and bit down on his lower lip. The fifty-one dollars in his pocket had been whittled down to twelve. $30 for a cobalt blue infinity scarf – wrapped and neatly packaged in a paper bag – and another $9 for a bunch of pink-nosed flowers which he hoped were chrysanthemums. The woman who he’d bought the flowers from had taken him out to the back of her shop and let him pick them out himself. He’d always felt a little bit guilty picking flowers, the way that they shook and knocked against his fingers like they were flinching away. He did it anyway, though, because he knew that Cassie liked chrysanthemums – and the woman had sworn to him that these were, indeed, chrysanthemums, though the petals did look just a little bit too round.
Through the window, he watched her get up, smooth down her shirt, and come towards the door – towards him. Two boys walked with her, one with dark hair and a river-stream of freckles and another with the beginnings of a thin red beard. The door swung open, and the chime rang through the air – Cassie stopped, mid-laugh, and stared at him.
“Ben? What are you doing here?” Her voice sifted like sand, and he felt as though he was dissolving into it.
“I, um--.” yes, he was sure he was dissolving, losing all his words to the thick summer wind. He would come across them years from now, stranded in the road with the candy wrappers and the dry newspapers and the cold skulls of pigeons.
The boy with the beard looked like he was stifling a laugh. “You’re from the deli, aren’t you?”
His hand went up to his head. He felt the cap there, wet, dark green and emblazoned with golden words – he pulled it off, folded it, and stuffed it into his back pocket. He felt his face grow hot, suddenly aware of his too-big shirt and his too-small shoes, of the water dripping down the side of his face and the puddle he was making on the ground.
Cassie looked back at him. “What’re you doing up so late? Do you want me to take you home?”
“I’m sixteen.” He heard his voice squeak and winced. “I know you’re going to college tomorrow, so I – got something for you.” He shoved the paper bag her way and studied the stretch of sidewalk between his sneakers. It glistened, wet, under the streetlight. “They’re chrysanthemums. I think.”
He heard the sound of her opening the package, her gasp as she drew out the scarf. He looked up. It rippled in the midnight air, soft and blue, and he let out a breath. “Oh, Ben, wow! This is so sweet. Was this Mia’s idea?”
“Mia?” He felt his throat go dry and swallowed. “I…yeah.”
She was laughing a little – the sound of it made him flinch. “Very sweet,” she repeated. “I’d give you a hug, but you kind of smell like deli meat.”
The green cap burned into his back pocket and he turned redder.
He stood there, quiet, and watched her go.
Her brother came in at a quarter past one and fell into the chair beside her. The deli was bright and clean, and he left a trail of water behind him as he walked. His footprints glimmered under the soft blush of the fluorescents, and he reached into his pocket and pressed twelve dollars into the palm of his sister’s hand.
“You take it. I don’t want it.”
She got up and made him tea in a cup with yellow flowers. He downed it in three swallows.
“You should get dry.”
He nodded, but he made no move to get up. He was staring directly into the light – he stared at it until the beams broke apart before him, sputtered white like a thousand pointed stars. When he looked away, a dark spot hung in his vision. He got up, slapped his green cap down on the table, and started up the stairs.
I'm a 19 year old college student in New Haven, Connecticut.