“What kind samwich is Tufi make for you?” asked the small man behind the counter. “Whatever is, I make it for you best in all the world!”
I held back a giggle. He wasn’t more than a few inches taller than I was. A large, ugly mole on his cheek near the edge of his eye was begging for my attention. I tried to politely ignore it. He was bald on top and his nearly circular face bore the wrinkles of years, but the closely-shorn hair about his temples showed no signs of grey.
He touched his hands to his cheeks in mock surprise. “Oh, you think Tufi am kidding with you! You see. What kind bread?” He pulled a sandwich roll to the counter and sliced it open. “Sourdough? You see? Best in world!” He pulled another, and sliced it the same. “Wheat? You see? Is best in world too!” He reached for another…
He was making me laugh. There was nothing endearing about him at all, except everything. He was so cute! “Stop! Stop!” I begged, still laughing. “I’m going to buy a sandwich, I promise! I just can’t make up my mind yet.”
He spread his hand over the sandwich options on display in the counter. “No matter. Everything. I make best in world, just for you, Annie!”
“Just for me,” I repeated with a sarcastic smirk, shocked for a moment that he knew my name before realizing it was pinned to my uniform.
“Of course! Everything best in world for you!”
I know a sales pitch, but somehow I believed him. After all, he was willing to trash a whole shelf of bread just to sell me one sandwich. When I still couldn’t make up my mind, he interrupted my decision-making.
“Tufi know perfect samwich for you,” he promised.
He talked as he worked, chattering about what a joy his two daughters were, how they were studying music. He was fascinated that I played piano. All the whole while, he watched my face carefully, picking up one ingredient or another and then adding it to the sandwich or tossing it back at the slightest change in my expression.
“Salt?” he asked when he was done.
“A little. And black pepper too, please.”
“Of course!” he grinned. “Did I tell you we have best pepper…?”
“In all the world!” I finished with him. “I think you might have mentioned it.”
He wrapped it all up, and I paid for it. When he handed it to me, he held onto it a little, as if it truly meant something to him and he didn’t want to let it go. There was a look of expectation in his eyes, coaxing me to peel it open and tell him straight away how much I loved it.
“You tell everybody where is best samwich in world. Yes?”
“I will,” I laughed, tugging my sandwich out of his hands, and I headed off to work.
The sandwich was really good. It was also just turkey, pastrami, and lettuce on rye, but as Nana, used to say, a sandwich tastes better when it’s made with love. This one most definitely was. I may only be telling the world now, but I did tell quite a few friends, and most of them who tried one went back again and again.
I couldn’t afford a “samwich” every day, but I went in as often as I could. For as long as I could. And I fell completely in love with the little man who made them.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove past the deli on my way to work to find it had burned almost to the ground. You hear the sirens in the night and you roll over and pull your pillow over your head. You see the pillar of smoke rising before you and you expect it to elude you like gold at the end of the rainbow. But I found the end of the smoke. Fire trucks were parked in guard. A peace officer barked instructions I couldn’t hear through the pillows of adrenaline over my ears as he directed me around the scene.
I’m stood at Albertson’s, picking through the groceries. I have to make my own sandwiches now. They’re just not the same. It’s only my second time shopping since the fire. I’m still struggling with the need to slice open a loaf of bread before I buy it, when I look up and see her.
She sees me.
For a long moment, we stare at each other. I expect her to hate me for staring. She must know I know about her loss. Gracefully, she pushes her cart to the side of the aisle and walks my way. The way she walks, the pure strength in her controlled glide… by the time she reaches me, I am in tears.
She takes my hand. “You were his favorite,” she says. Her English is perfect. “He would have wanted you to know.”
I can only ask my question with my shaking sobs.
She nods. “He was in the deli when it burned.”
I don’t know what else to do. I throw my arms around her. I can tell it’s awkward for her, like I’ve violated some cultural custom I don’t understand, and I reluctantly pull away again.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“We’ve lost everything,” she smiles. “I’ve lost my husband. We had… have two girls.” Quickly she ducks her eyes to the floor. “I’m so sorry.” She squeezes my hand and lets go.
“But the insurance… it can at least help…” Help what? I think. The pictures that flash through my mind are arrows through my body.
“The insurance just informed us they can’t pay for the deli.” A wry smile twists on her down-turned face. “The boy who threw the Molotov cocktail… they have determined it is ‘terrorism’ and we are not covered for acts of ter… I’m sorry. I should not burden you.”
She turns and walks away.
“Ma’am,” I call after her, “Your husband…”
She’s lost too much. I just can’t bring myself to say it.
© 2013 Anne Schilde
Author’s note: In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, which was delivered on the same day as this week’s prompt, I would like to say two things. One: I have sat on two juries and hold a high regard for those who serve on them. Two: There is a big, big, difference between being found not guilty of a charge, and bearing no guilt.