Matthew Bukowski

The Usual

The cassette player had already been silent for a long while when the bell above the door jingled to announce a customer. Sylvia did not turn around and said over her shoulder that the shop was closed. She was pressing play then stop then play then stop and hoping that the sound would start again. But nothing escaped from underneath the metal grate over the speaker even though the gears spun and the tape unwound.


“It’s already 11:30. When do you open?”

 

The static was already growing louder in Sylvia’s ears. If the cassette didn’t start to sing again, the static would shape itself. It would twist and contort from a bar of noise to something worse. It would turn Sylvia to stone. So Sylvia would tell anyone else that the shop was closed until 2. Jo didn’t care if she locked up and left at 2. Her case manager would take her to buy a new cassette player.

 

Sylvia clicked play and watched the wheels turn. If she concentrated, she could pretend to hear, over the static, her own memory of the song:

 

Why are there so many
Songs about rainbows

“I might be able to fix that.”

Sylvia turned to face the customer over the long counter where the meat and vegetables were arranged behind a glass case. On the other side stood a woman, tall and broad, with short blonde hair in curls landing across the strap of a duffel bag slung over her shoulder.

“I’m an engineer at WKDD.” The customer pointed in a vague gesture towards any one of the tall buildings full of workers who ignored the sandwich shop Sylvia spent her days in. “The radio station.”
Sylvia shuddered: radio stations. Static factories. Static coming through walls and into bodies—into ears and heads without asking. She shook her head to shake it away. The shop was closed.

 

“That thing is old school.” The customer pointed at the cassette player that Sylvia clutched to her chest. She was already tall enough to see over the glass case but stood on tiptoes to get a better look. “It’s turning—but no sound?” She fell back on the balls of her feet and turned to drop the bag onto the one table in the shop. Sylvia had never seen a single customer eat at it.

 

“Can’t fix it, but—” The customer unzipped the bag and pulled out a tendril of black cable. Then she pulled out a lump the size of her wide palm: a smooth plastic egg. It was pink.
The customer slid one end of the tendril into the egg’s base and presented the other end, a gleaming bronze pin. “Plug into the AUX input—the hole on the side.”


Sylvia felt the static begin to scrape more loudly at the inside of her ears. The customer held the pin over the top of the case. Sylvia reached out and accepted the tendril with her free hand. In the moment between Sylvia taking the pin and the customer letting it go, their fingernails clicked together.
Sylvia held the pin against the thin plastic ring in the bottom of the player and gently guided it in.

 

So we’ve been told
And some choose to believe it

The egg began to sing, the gears in the cassette player churning to pump sound up the tendril and out the egg. Sylvia breathed in deep. Soon the static would subside. The song had already begun to squeeze it from fat bar to thinning strand.


“The Muppets!” The customer laughed. “Classic! Tell you what: you keep that speaker. It’s a freebie from a trade show. But in exchange…”

 

Sylvia placed the cassette player on the cutting board so she could follow the tendril with her fingertips. She imagined she could feel the words and music climb through.

 

“Hello?” The customer leaned forward, grinning. “How about a sandwich?”

 

The static was fading and Sylvia felt the world begin to come back together around her. Cars going past the shop’s windows had sunbursts bouncing off their windshields. Jo had switched the lettuce and the onions. The customer’s eyes were blue. Sylvia nodded, of course, of course, and put the cassette player down on the end of the cutting board.

 

Someday we’ll find it
The Rainbow Connection


The customer wanted turkey, seeded bread if you have it. Mustard, yes, mayonnaise, no. Lettuce, sure (Sylvia plucked three wide leaves of romaine and then laid curls of dark blue and purple spring mix on top of it).

 

The song had ended. Usually Sylvia would let the next song play, Movin’ right along in search of good times and good news, instead of rewinding in front of a customer. But when the last few plucks of the banjo, sounds like coins hitting water, began to fade, Sylvia decided the customer was safe, the customer would understand, the way her case manager said some people do and some people don’t. Sylvia pressed stop and then rewind. She counted: fifteen sixteen seventeen—stop. When she pressed play, the banjo began again—more pennies into the fountain.

 

“You like that song, huh?” Then, when Sylvia asked again: “No, no tomatoes.”

 

Why are there so many

“The tomatoes are very good,” Sylvia said. She held one in her hand, one the size of the egg. It was entirely red with no green on it but with a single blush of orange and yellow on its cheek. She looked right at the customer when she asked.

 

The customer’s eyes were blue, Sylvia saw again.

 

“All right.” The customer shrugged. “I trust you.”

 

From underneath the cutting board, Sylvia pulled out her knife, the one she had pulled from the backroom and hid. It had a row of curvy teeth like waves on the ocean. It was the best for cutting tomatoes, gripping the skin and sliding through it in long smooth strokes. Sylvia could cut the tomatoes so thin she could almost see through the slices. She just overlapped them, like dominoes that had already fallen over.

 

The woman was the first customer ever to use the table. “Man, this is good. You were right about the tomatoes.” She stood up and wadded the waxed paper up into a crinkling ball. “I just switched from overnights at the station. I’ve always had to pack a lunch.” She smiled at Sylvia. “Maybe I’ll be a regular.” She extended her hand over the glass case. “My name is Leslie.”

 

Sylvia stared at the hand, fleshy and pale with a few soft pink pillows along the palm. Sylvia said her name. She did not extend her hand.

 

“Gotcha.” Leslie pulled her hand back. “See you tomorrow, Sylvia.”

When Jo came at three-thirty he was surprised Sylvia was still there. “Get out,” he said. “I only pay you ‘til three.” Sylvia left with the cassette player already stashed in her purse. The long tendril curled around the purse’s strap and into her pocket where the egg was tucked safely.

 

Back at the group home in her private room, Sylvia laid the egg on her bedside table. From the drawer, she pulled out the sketchbook her case manager had helped her find, the one that reminded Sylvia of the tall tables she had sat at in art class. She also pulled out her colored pencils. These were a gift from the house staff, given on the same day Sylvia had brought home the sketchbook. It had been a surprise. Everyone was proud of Sylvia for having gotten a job at the sandwich shop. Everyone but Jo.
Sylvia drew the egg’s shape first and then used the black pencil to scratch the egg’s shadow. She pulled out the pink colored pencil and began to color the oval in.

 

After a while, the egg stopped being just pink. It had a few orange spots, a green stripe, and a purple shadow. Most importantly, it had a blue oval in its center. Sylvia darkened it by adding layer after layer to make sure no white paper could be seen through it.


The next day, Leslie ordered the same. “It’s so good I might bring coworkers.”

 

Others from the radio station. It made Sylvia shudder to think, but she did not tell Leslie. She wanted Leslie to want to come back, which she did each day. She always ordered “the usual.” Sylvia always moved the sandwich carefully down the line, from tomatoes to cheese and mustard to lettuce and meat.

 

On Monday, Leslie brought a tape. “Go ahead, play it.”

 

Sylvia was terrified of losing her own cassette. She pinched it tight as the new tape began to play. There was a long silence and then a horn playing. There was a harmonica. Then, finally,

Why are there so many
Songs about rainbows

It was a different voice, but the words were still there.


“Willie Nelson. Best cover of it I could find, I think.” Leslie smiled. “I know it’s different, but listen to the whole tape, okay?”

 

As Sylvia made the sandwich and as Leslie ate it, Willie Nelson sang, And what’s on the other side. When he was done, there was quiet for a second before the familiar banjo plucks came out again. Leslie grinned.
“Every other track is the original. So there’s a cover, then Kermit.” Leslie leaned back in her chair and held two hands on her stomach. “Best one yet, Sylvia.” She pointed and cocked her head. “Tomorrow, I’m going to bring coworkers. They wonder where I go every day.”

 

Sylvia straightened. There were never more than two or three people in the shop at one time—never more than Sylvia and one customer or maybe Sylvia and Jo. Jo preferred it that way. He said slower was better as he refilled the cash register with crisp fresh twenties. Sylvia liked it better too. She didn’t like too many voices. She liked being alone with Leslie.

 

“Is that cool?” Leslie asked.

 

Monday instead. Sylvia would take the weekend to prepare. Leslie understood.

 

That night, Sylvia drew Willie Nelson. She didn’t know what he looked like, but she imagined a face from his voice.


On Friday afternoon, Sylvia and her case manager made a plan for Sylvia to go to the farmer’s market on her day off. The bus came here; it let her off here. Be awake by 7 to beat the crowd. The booth she wanted was the one at the end. Some people argue about price but Sylvia could just pay the price on the sign. The man won’t ask for more than that. One basket was all Sylvia wanted? Yes, just the one basket, the basket of tomatoes that were red and yellow and orange and green, the basket of tomatoes that had every color scooped into it, even purple tomatoes whose insides hid secret blues. Go back to the bus and put the tomatoes on the windowsill in her room. She could spend the rest of her Sunday filling up her sketchbook. Then she could take them to work as a special treat for her customers.

 

“I’m impressed!” The case manager was small with big teeth behind stained red lips. “This is good self-care, and you’re showing good planning.” But she made sure Sylvia had the number for the weekend on-call services anyways, just in case.

Sylvia got to the shop early on Monday morning and let herself in using the key hidden under the dumpster. She pulled out the knife and sliced the tomatoes. Each formed a layer of color wrapped around a snowflake of seeds. She sliced for hours but only got through half the basket when the bell jingled above the door and Leslie stepped through.

She was with two men. One was tall with a goatee wrapped around his mouth. The other was thin like a bundle of silverware in clothes.

 

“The usual for all of us.” Leslie’s smile was wide and thin. Sylvia liked the way no teeth peeked out from behind Leslie’s smile.

 

They all ate at the table and laughed and talked, but Leslie occasionally shushed them whenever they spoke louder than Sylvia could hear her cassette sing,

 

I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it

The next day, Leslie brought four more.

 

And the next day, three came on their own.

 

 

Jo said, “What the fuck is this?”

 

He had opened the register to see fives and tens.

 

Sylvia never stole a penny from the register.

 

“I know that,” Jo said. “Why is there so much?”

 

Sylvia had had customers. Seven or eight. All from the radio station.

 

Jo paused. He had stacks of twenties wrapped in rubber bands pulled from a paper bag. He came every day and stuffed a handful into the register when he sent Sylvia home.

 

“They come for sandwiches? From you?”

 

Leslie came every day and so did Greg. Others came in groups. One time nine people total.
Jo pulled out the fives and tens and counted them. The bag of twenties sat forgotten on the counter.

 

The next day Jo was already at the shop when Sylvia got there.

 

“Show me how you make it,” he said.

 

Sylvia had the player in her purse and the egg in her pocket. A branch of static was crawling into her ear. Jo never cared about the sandwiches.

 

“Listen, lady,” Jo said. “I pay you to make sandwiches. So make me one.” He snapped his wrist so his fingers pointed at him and then the counter. “Now.”

 

Sylvia almost never spent more than a minute with Jo. Her case manager had come to the job interview to sit next to Sylvia and explain Sylvia’s good history. A man from the group home cashed the paychecks that Jo hid under the register every other Thursday morning. Jo hated when Sylvia stayed too long after he arrived.

 

Now Jo stood behind her breathing loudly and coughing into his fist the way he always did. Each cough made loud shocks of static like the fingers already wiggling in Sylvia’s ears.

 

“That’s all?” He looked at the sandwich. “That’s the whole damn thing?”

 

Sylvia had not used her own tomatoes. Other than that it was the sandwich Leslie ordered every day.

 

“Hot damn, lady,” said Jo. “That whole thing cost me maybe forty fucking cents, and I paid you even less to make it.” He weighed the wrapped sandwich in his hand. “But those clowns at the radio station come in here and toss you ten bucks. You know how insane that is? Nine hundred percent. All cuz they like the way my pet weirdo slices goddam toe-mah-toes?” He laughed loud like a plate crashing to the floor. “If they want nice slices, whatever, lady. We’ll give ‘em perfect paper thin slices of whatever the fuck they want.”

 

When he finally left Sylvia pulled the egg out and jabbed rewind twice by mistake before finally hitting play.

 


Leslie and her coworker were there the next time Jo came.

 

“Hello, hello, hello, lady and gentleman!” Jo’s voice was so loud that Sylvia pressed stop to save the music from his shouting. Leslie blinked as she looked from Jo to Sylvia. Sylvia pressed her body against the wall to get as much space as possible.

 

“You both work at WKDD?” Jo pointed at Leslie and her friend before pulling his palms together to rub them like he was trying to start a fire.

 

Leslie nodded shallowly. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”

 

“I’m an independent business man, my dear!” Jo was spreading his arms wide and fingers too close to Sylvia’s face. He was like a cawing bird. “Lots of irons in the fire. But let me tell you, this lady here”—his fingers whipped again at Sylvia—“is what brings me back. Now!” He dug into the black backpack he usually pulled his paper bag of money from. “Here you are, here you are!” And he handed them bright orange papers like neon leaves.

 

“Jo’s Sandwich Shop.” Leslie looked at Sylvia. “Who’s Jo?”

 

“I am.” Jo grinned and waved hot air at his own neck.

 

Leslie reexamined the flier. “You spell it like a woman.”

 

Jo’s eyes narrowed but he did not pause for long. “As you can see, we’re running a special!” He pointed and read. “Bring in a friend, and you can buy one get one free.”

 

“Great deal.” Leslie’s coworker nodded approvingly.

 

“We expect lines and lines and lines, out the door and down the street! Plan on getting here early.”

 

And in a moment that made a wave of static roar from one ear to the other, Sylvia felt Jo’s hand land on her shoulder and grip it. He shook her like he was showing off a toy.

 

“This little lady’s gonna make this the best shop in town!”

 

He left after Leslie did, giving Sylvia a moment to chase the static away before she rode the bus home, the egg singing,

 

Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailors?

 


Six customers came at once. They all ordered something different. They all were in a rush.

 

“Guys!” Leslie held both hands up and quieted them. “She’s working as quickly as she can.”

 

But the voices weren’t quiet for long and Jo—who’d been watching Sylvia and sighing loudly—pushed her out of the way to crush the tomatoes by using the wrong knife.

 

He insisted they play the radio the whole time the customers were there. “This your station, folks? We play it here all the time!” He looked from face to face. “Any of you on-air talent?”

 

Sylvia looked at Leslie who was staring at Jo.

 


Sylvia’s case manager said she would help.

 

“Mr. Ocana, Sylvia will no longer be able to work here.”

 

Jo crossed his arms and leaned on the glass case. “And you’re here to tell me for her?”

 

The case manager nodded and clutched her fingertips together. “We’ve talked at length, and decided that, while it was a good experiment, Sylvia would like to stop after the appropriate two weeks.”

 

Jo looked over the case manager’s shoulder at Sylvia. “You got anything to say about this?”

 

Sylvia did not. She was running through the song in her head the way the case manager had told her to.

“Listen.” Jo pointed at the case manager. “This lady’s doing good work. You don’t need to talk her out of working here.”

 

“This is Sylvia’s decision—”

 

“She’s got customers, regulars—”

 

“—and I’ve agreed it’s in her best interest—”

 

“—and I’m not just letting her walk out on them or me—”

 

“I’m sure you can find another employee—”

 

“Listen!” Jo slammed a hand on the counter and jabbed a hot sausage finger at the case manager. “I’m going straight. You understand? You’re some goodie-goodie, so you want this too. I need this money, I need this nine hundred percent, and this lady is my employee, and you take her away, and I’m out, you understand? No one gets what they need.” Jo looked over the case manager’s shoulder. “Lady, you’re doing a good thing. I need your help. You understand? Why be this lady’s pet when I need you more?” He looked back at the case manager and jabbed his finger again. “And, you, goodie-goodie—you want me to go clean. Cuz otherwise I’ll have some very bad people after me, and they’ll be mad at you and me both.”

 

The case manager looked right past Jo’s fingers into his face. “If you’re trying to go straight, threatening a state employee isn’t a good way to start.” She turned around. “Sylvia, unless you have something to say, I don’t think Mr. Ocana will require you for the next two weeks.” The case manager breathed and deflated back into the bundle of noodles she usually was at the office. “So let’s go home.”

 

Sylvia had counted on the two weeks. She wanted to say good-bye to Leslie and to make her one last sandwich. She had plans to draw and shake hands.

 

“Naw.” Jo curled his lips so his face was pressed like a crushed loaf of bread. “Naw. You go now, lady. And hey.” He pointed at the purse. “Gimme my cassette player.”

 

“That’s Sylvia’s cassette player!” The case manager put her hand on Sylvia’s purse to shield it from Jo’s order.

 

“No! No! I brought it here and she asked if she could play her tape on it. That same fucking tape every fucking day.”

 

The case manager’s voice was soft and sad like the last notes of a song. “Is that true, Sylvia?”

 

Sylvia could keep the tape and the egg. Both were useless without the player.

 

“We’ll buy you another one with your last paycheck.” The case manager did not try to reassure Sylvia with a pat. “And you can make sandwiches at home and keep practicing that way.”

 

But Sylvia couldn’t hear her over the static.


The next morning, Sylvia woke up an hour earlier and caught the same bus. She rode the same route and used the same key from under the dumpster. The player was next to the register.

 

She listened through Willie Nelson’s version, Somebody thought of that, then the original, Someone believed it, and then rewound to hear the original a second time in a row, Look what it’s done so far.

 

Then she took the last three green and purple tomatoes from the cooler. She sliced them all, their insides staining the cutting board one last time. She took her time to make sure every slice was as thin and perfect as she could. She had to rush to make the two sandwiches and wrap them. She tucked the player in her purse and wrapped the tendril around the strap and held the egg as it continued to sing. Then she took the tomato knife. Jo didn’t use it anyway. It only just fit in her purse.

The third person she asked knew where the radio station was. He had to shout to be heard over the sound of the egg. Sylvia had turned the volume all the way up to drown out the static as she got closer to the station.


The doors to the station did not jingle. They slid open and went bing bing. The guard did not know who Leslie was. The guard told Sylvia to turn around.

Who said that every wish

Sylvia knew Leslie was inside the station. Leslie was an engineer. She would be near the machines.

 

“Turn around before I call the police.” The guard pointed at the sliding doors.

 

Would be heard and answered


The metal detector was like the hole in the bottom of the player that the tendril snaked into. Sylvia was all the way through it before the guard caught her. The weight of his body and the sound of the metal detector shrieking knocked Sylvia to the ground. He pressed her into the carpet and pulled both her hands behind her back.

 

The egg came unplugged and the sandwiches fell out of her purse. Sylvia could not see them with her face pressed into the floor.

 

She struggled for a moment but then went still. The music was gone. She couldn’t see. The sandwiches were ruined.

 

“Shit.” The guard pulled the knife from her purse.

 

The egg had come unplugged and rolled away.

 


She could stay in the group home until court. The district attorney agreed charges were not necessary, the radio station was being cruel by pressing charges, and her night in the cell was more than enough. He had met the case manager before and they both knew what to do. Sylvia could explain the circumstances and the judge would be happy to let her continue with therapy that would now be court mandated—they called it “the usual.”


“It will be like it never happened,” the case manager reassured her.

 

“Like it never happened,” the district attorney repeated.

 

“It will be like it never happened,” said the staff at the group home. Said the other residents of the group home. Said everyone who knew anything about mental health court. Said anyone who wanted Sylvia to think it never happened. They all thought that’s what Sylvia wanted to hear. They thought Sylvia wanted to forget her worst day.

 

But Sylvia didn’t. She wanted to remember it. Her worst day had to exist so her best day could too.
Sylvia sat at the long table at the front of the room. There was another table where the case manager said the judge would sit. The room was small but all the tables had microphones anyways. When the attorney had to approach the bench to talk to the judge, a buzz crashed through the whole courtroom to hide their voices. The case manager had warned Sylvia. But Sylvia was already deep inside the static by then.

 

The knife would be the hardest thing to explain. They had rehearsed Sylvia’s answer: Never to hurt someone else. Never to hurt herself. All she had to say was “For tomatoes.”

 

That was all she said. Her case manager gave her a thumbs up under the table and Sylvia was allowed to go back.

 

The judge shuffled papers around and their stammering echoed through her microphone. “Miss Betton, this court is pleased to dismiss these charges against you. Your mental health counselor has assured us that this singular incident does not speak to your wellbeing on the whole.”

 

Bang bang. Go home, the judge said.

 

The case manager helped Sylvia gather her bag. Sylvia turned around to walk out the big wooden doors.

But she stopped when she saw who was there.

In a black suit with a blue shirt underneath. Leslie.

 

“I told her she didn’t need to,” the case manager whispered, “but she wanted to help. She thinks it’s her fault.”

 

Leslie had a bunch of flowers. They were yellow and purple.

 

Sylvia walked up to accept them. When she did, their fingernails clicked together.

About the Author

Matthew Bukowski is a writer who received his MFA from American University in Washington, DC. He lives in Arlington, VA, and has had his work appear in Oyster River Pages. He tweets (badly) from @CheeseBurgowski.
 

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