The night shift at the sub shop had a certain peace to it. During the day the signs the night clerk saw out the front windows were tacky, reminders of how ugly the strip mall was. You could see how dirty it was in the day time too. At night he couldn’t see the grime, just the glow of the signs and night sky.
He wiped everything down again. He looked at his phone again, as if he had people to communicate with on the damn thing. He just refreshed the same four apps. He knew it was chasing a drug high but did not care.
A middle aged man came in the store. He wore a t-shirt with a bar’s name, the cartoon design peeling off the shirt. His jeans were too loose and he wore white sneakers like all the men his age had.
“Hi, how are you sir?” the clerk said. Night customers, unless they were overnight workers like him, made sure to make unnecessary demands.
“I’d like an Italian with mayo, tomatoes, lettuce—but only a little bit of it, hot peppers, sweet peppers, onions, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper.”
“Sure thing,” the clerk said, getting to work. It was eleven thirty. He had another seven hours left. The twenty-four hour schedule was a waste of the company’s money, the clerk thought. At least it gave him a wage.
“You’re not exactly winning over customers with that look on your face.”
The clerk paused. “Sir?” he said with surprise.
“Don’t smile?” the man said, not smiling himself.
“I’m just, ah, working.”
“Oh right, right,” the old man said, raising his eyebrows. The look did not flatter his mottled face, made worse by stringy, greying hair.
The clerk finished preparing the bread got out the lunch meat and cheese. He started to put the sandwich together. The cheese was some kind of faux cheese product. The meat he wasn’t sure about. That was probably fake too, he thought. A yawn escaped him. He covered his mouth.
“You look too young to be tired.”
“Didn’t sleep well, sir,”
“Still, you look a little too young, bud.”
“I’m twenty three.”
“Shouldn’t you be out at the bar on a Saturday night like this? Picking up chicks,”
The comment made the clerk a little nauseous. He finished up the sandwich, putting everything on it the guy asked for.
“What, don’t like girls or something?” he chuckled. “I mean, it’s none of my business, buddy.”
The clerk bit his lip. “Anything else, sir?” he said, wrapping up the sandwich. “For here, or to go?”
“Oh, for here. Might as well get away from my wife for a little while.” The man asked for a drink and chips. He looked at the glass case with the salads. “You make that pasta salad here?”
“To be honest with you sir, no.”
He gave the food a look of utter disgust. “Never mind then.”
The clerk rang him up and gave the man a tray. “There you are,” he said.
“Still not going to smile?”
The clerk blinked. “Enjoy, sir.”
The man sat at the table closest to the counter. The clerk looked out at the glow of the signs. He used to think there were fun, exciting people at the local bars on the weekend. He took the night shift after he tried that. People weren’t interested in talking to each other. People didn’t even talk to their own friends in bars half the time. Staring at cars go by and the signs was a kind of meditation, he thought.
The man ate and looked up at the clerk. “I worked a job like this. That was a long time ago. Three marriages,” he laughed.
The clerk nodded.
“Course, then I got a job selling insurance. No college,” he chuckled. “Worked there for thirty five years.” He took another bite. “You in college?”
The old man grunted. “You should follow what it is you want to do.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”
“Think of it as your tip.”
“You really should get that look off your face.”
“It’s not intentional, sir.”
“Of course not, buddy, of course not.”
The clerk had a day off tomorrow. He had one every Sunday. His check would be in and out of his bank account tomorrow as well. This was his penance for five years’ comfortable living.
The man finished his meal. He approached the counter while the clerk restocked the trays of deli cuts and condiments.
“Something else for you, sir?”
“Nope—well, yeah actually—I was just wondering if you were going to smile. You know, it’s good customer service.” He said it with a bizarre grin on his face.
The clerk gave him a confused look. “I can’t help you with that sir.”
“Well, I think I know why you’re still working here, buddy. With an attitude like that.” The man started to walk out. “You kids are all like this.”