He has intervals of irritated decisiveness – he is near the end of one now – when the just-right- sized black bag becomes the center of his organizational universe. Its four pockets are sufficient for everything from hardcover books, sandwiches and small grocery items to library cards, antacid tablets, lip salve in winter, cell phone and chequebook; there are slots for three pens. It’s perfect. For less than fifteen dollars including tax. And it has a non-slip shoulder strap and a handle. When he hangs it over his shoulder his hands are free.
Except that they’re not free, they’re full. Too full. And he is hungry. The flyer could be in one of the black bag’s pockets. He takes a glance into the pocket that is gaping open: it isn’t there. The white plastic bag contains two envelopes, books destined for the post office down the road from the restaurant, en route to California and Jamaica. Copies of his book, a novel brought out by a respectable publisher, which enjoyed respectable reviews.
Careful not to drop the wallet, he jostles the contents of the bag to see what else is in there. A small package from the pharmacy with a prescription for his wife. An apple in case he gets suddenly hungry — perhaps he should just go back to the car and have the apple while driving home, where there are leftovers and, indeed, deli meats and tuna salad to make a far better sandwich than he is going to pay for. If he ever finds the flyer.
It promised two for the price of one. Or one dollar for the second. Or free pop. Or free chips, he can’t remember; there were several options. Just as there are several choices on the menu board looming over the shop, beneath which busy young people – students no doubt – chop and toast and assemble the multiple offerings that confuse him, while he making him salivate.
He has, at least, had the good sense not to stand in line for the cash register. But the shop is wide and not very deep, so he’s only a few feet from the cashier anyway. She is Filipino, he thinks – or from that side of the world anyway. Her gaze is as flat as the counter but her lips, thinned in disapproval, betray her.
The sandwich shop – it is pure pretence for it to call itself a restaurant – had had this corner to itself for years. Two blocks north, where the slightly more ‘mixed’ part of town began, with a homeless centre and a soup kitchen on the edge of Chinatown, were two American fast food joints. Here, amidst yuppie lofts and fashion at_liers and publishers’ offices, prices were higher; quite a bit higher. Then the barbershop next door was replaced by an Indian fast food place, and a Mediterranean palace opened across the street. The sandwich shop can’t admit they’re overpriced, so they go the way of the burger joints: in the lobbies of neighbourhood office buildings – from one of which he’s just come – flyers with coupons, blandishments.
He feels affronted by the cashier’s disdain. What has he done? He is a customer, dammit. He is going to buy something. As soon as he finds his flyer.
The other bag, sturdy blue from the liquor store, carries a bottle of wine in an earth-brown paper sleeve, and a copy of the Globe and Mail he’s bought to read with lunch. Forget the flyer, just negotiate a bill out of the wallet and pay for a sandwich. He wriggles a finger out of one of the holes that create the handles for the sturdy plastic carrier, curling his other fingers tighter for security.
Not quick enough. The bag gapes open dangerously, as if its content would lunge for the floor. The flyer! There, in the fold of the newspaper where, in an attempt to be organized, he’d put it not five minutes before. In his delight he drops his wallet into the open bag, thankfully. He tries to retrieve it, along with the precious flyer, with the tips of fingers already holding the white bag, and manages only to dislodge his credit cards and various other pieces of plastic into the bottom. He decides to leave the damn thing there; he’ll sort it out in the car. He’ll just extract a twenty-dollar bill – to hell with the bulging change purse in his trouser pocket – and pay for the damn sandwich with that. He’ll stuff the change into his overcoat and sort that out in the car. No more fiddling like an old man – he was getting there, but wasn’t there yet! Who did that Filipino woman think she was?
As always when he’s annoyed his right jaw itches. He scratches it with the hand that now holds the $20 bill and the flyer; both bags are now in one hand, the fingers locked rigid into his palm. He needs a shave. In fact he is at the point where he’ll have to decide by tomorrow whether to endure the prickling for another two weeks until he has a proper beard – or shave the whole thing off. Every few weeks he lets it get to this point. He hates shaving but doesn’t grow sufficient hair to create what he thinks of as a real beard. The in-between stubbles make him look scruffy, but nobody knows him; he isn’t from here. Nobody cares who he is; he’s just another slightly unkempt man in a city full of them now that capitalism, like an endless winter, has the world in its fierce grip. Come to think of it, he also needs a bath; and he’d slept in the shirt, underclothes and long johns he is wearing. He gives thanks that he has a home – his own – to go back to.
Avoiding the cashier’s eyes he applies himself to the task of deciding what to order with his coupons. The panoramic menu board paralyses him. Probably fifteen different sandwiches, as many wraps, and several salads are on offer. The sheet of coupons covers them all in random permutations. Six inch or twelve inch sandwiches – he can look at where the youngsters are making them and know that neither length is truthfully represented – plain or whole wheat, wraps too, with or without cheese, with chips or not, combos with salad, different salads. He is hungry now: they are all–even the vegetarian –desirable.
“Next.” He looks towards the voice; the Filipino woman’s. He wasn’t aware of being in the line but there is someone behind him shuffling his or her feet. “Can I help you?” She doesn’t sound inclined to be helpful – but maybe he is really angry with himself . . . a stupid old man, fumbling with plastic bags and needing a bath.
And the coupon won’t tear loose. The coupon sheets from the burger joints are perforated; these are not. He struggles with the coupon at one edge – whatever it entitles him to; it tears unevenly, probably invalidating the one next to it. He is aware of the Filipino woman’s fingers drumming on the counter, the feet shuffling behind him.
He pushes the crumpled slip of paper across the counter at her and mumbles something.
While the woman is making change he looks up into the mirror that forms a back wall beneath the menu board. His dead father looks back at him: slightly stooped, a little jowly, white hair. He feels suddenly insubstantial. A minute later he has forgotten what he ordered.
Martin Mordecai has had many lives, the current incarnation being that of aspiring writer. He aspires in Toronto, having gone in the mid-1990s with his family from Jamaica, their birthplace, to live in Canada. He is the author, with Pamela Mordecai, his wife, of Culture and Customs of Jamaica (2000), a reference work, and will have his first novel, Blue Mountain Trouble, published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, in 2009. He is the recipient of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. He has ceased aspiring to be a professional photographer, but continues to enjoy making pictures.
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