In Panini Shop—a sorta-kinda Italian-style sandwich shop in Upper Manhattan—the TV monitor is showing a soccer match. There is a red team and a white team. One of the announcers says, no option is still an option—depends on how you look at it.
The ball does not stay in play for more than eighteen seconds. The ball goes out of bounds within three to four passes on either side. The announcers are talking the game up with excitement that does not exist on the field. The players are unobtrusive, noninvasive and naive. They do not handle the ball with any sense of urgency. They are not hungry. The ball becomes the goal—batted around for the novelty of rotation. Nothing at all happening on the field, just the cleats kicking and the occasional breach of shin-guard—one of the players collapses and his teammate lends him a hand. They are woefully non-combative—are they next going to sing kumbaya and propel lantern boats down a slow going river? No manly crotches are grabbed, no testicles scrape the field, just the smell of new artificial turf and the long plastic banners of corporate sponsorship. A few quarter-hearted fans blowing their brains out over the red team when they keep possession for nearly one minute.
Julio is not paying attention to the game. There is a sound like the wrestling of a great sperm whale from the kitchen. Please, call me Dishmai’l. In a neighborhood which not long ago was considered part of Harlem proper, the building houses the panini shop, a barber shop, and an Indian restaurant. Behind the counter is the waitress, Shanice, sporting a black bandana to hold up her hair, who is running water over champagne glasses. One of the glasses slips from her hands, and shatters.
How peachy it would be to crawl to the lighted opening, or else squeeze tight from the wall through the baseboard, and right onto that delectable floor—Mahogany most likely, with a clean phenolic resin and unusual gloss, considering it is undoubtedly a spar varnish. Regarding those bits of finely crusted baguette along the tiles: keen to take one, simply magnificent—in fact, legend has it, that variety of supremely golden complex carbohydrates are to bring a flood of brilliant, even substantial joy to the average Dictyoptera. Why should this lowly specimen prove other?
One would be well advised to stay clear of the hose and heels—more importantly, to keep on the lookout for the long white abrasion-resistant rubber tennis shoes—no refined taste awaits there. Perhaps, one might think it best to scatter beneath the safety and comfort of that rather pliable container—low-density fluorinated polyethylene though it may be. Oh dear, yes, the steady supply of a delicious hand-pressed Tuscan pasta in long slimy curls they never clean off the bottom of the garbage. How kind of them to leave these morsels, equally accessible in both dark and light. Akin to snacking in a Kingdom is this—were invitations to the nobility arranged by hand-delivered scroll? Let there be a ball for the Prince and the Princess—delayed though they are, with the interactive taxonomy of a new septic tank.
Julio arrives to work twelve minutes late. As the manager of Panini Shop (that is its proper name, as registered with the Better Business Bureau, A+!), Julio is not beholden to the time clock. Not bad, considering he was just sunbathing with umbrella on the exotic eastern shores of the Bronx, a lovely beach not far from Riker’s Island. His attitude is one of good-natured detachment. He turns on the radio and the quick-witted accordions of Norteño speed up the waves on WFMU.
Julio washes his hands, dries them on a clean white dishtowel he takes from the metal rack. Because of the countless industrial wash and dry cycles, the towels are no longer air-fluffed, bouncy, cotton light. The towels now suffer from a common ailment, a flattening, in which a material which was formerly more voluminous and soft to touch is a thing of el pasado—it was a pleasant consistency which, when one ran a digit or other portion of flesh across its luscious fibers, used to (past tense) return a sensation that might have been compared to the fur of a small white hare, either wild or domestic—perhaps a Lepus americanus virginianus, a native of the upper Housatonic River valley in north-west Massachussetts—and if not a hare, then certainly an analogy could be drawn with the luxurious chin pelt of the spotted Persian mountain lion, or perhaps, although with less certitude and with some fanciful platonic hyperbole, the Pesca Saprolegnia, also known as the mythical fur-bearing trout, an aura of which Julio propagates daily in his conversations with Shanice. The furry trout is the scapegoat, the victim, the source of all mysterious disappearances in Panini Shop. If a six-months aged Manchego goes missing, if a prosciutto is misplaced, if a bottle of organic cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil discomfits, Julio tells Shanice it must have been the furry trout. It has magical powers, Shanice. Its fur can hypnotize you, Shanice. Stay away from the furry trout—cuidado señorita, el furry trout viene para comer te. And why do you think a girl wants to hear about a hairy fish? Lovely Shanice.
Now Julio takes one of these rough, flat, soulless towels, and wipes a domestic tear from his eye. He loads the dishes in the machine, squeezes the soapy liquid into the appropriate slot, flips the switch. It makes a sound like a capsizing boat in an impossible storm. Julio imagines Captain Ahab releasing the anchor chain from the hawsepipe then climbing from the fore to the top of the mast, Ahab with hands clasped in prayer at the edge of the bow, diving head-first into the mouth of the whale, with a battlecry and light saber drawn. Light saber? Oh, yes—Chewbacca is never far from Julio’s meditations.
Shanice is used to Julio singing the soundtrack to Star Wars. Julio is a part-time magician, literary scholar, and manager at The Panini Shop on Amsterdam at 135th. The sound of glass breaking apart on the floor of the panini shop distracts Julio from the Millenium Falcon flooding with saltwater, Obi-Wan Kenobe slicing open his arm on the sharptooth of the whale as he descends toward inevitable mastication. Uso la fuerza, chica, he says at the end of every shift.
Julio walks to 138th street, picks out a sesame candy bar at the corner store and walks down the long hill nearly to the bridge along Riverside to his Hamilton Heights apartment and calls his mother. His mother is in the bathroom, along with his sister, plucking eyebrows and doing other motherly/sisterly things to improve their dispositions. Que dijiste? asks his sister. No dije nada porque no pregunte nada.
cleared her inbox, watched a video in which a cat performed a solo for piano in b minor featuring the Baltimore Philharmonic, broke up with so-called Bradley the so-called boyfriend. Julio loves it when she talks that way—so-called this, so-called that. You no like? So no call, he said.
The day was blah. At one point—on purpose—she broke a skinny wine glass best used for Prosecco—just to punctuate the day. Another roach poked his antennae out from behind the garbage and that helped loosen the glass, too. Shanice achieved a small but momentous satisfaction in knowing these things break, that she can move others to feel something, anything. A test of kinetic energy, of momentum, a rift in complacency. The law of gravity was still at play in the world, and for that, Shanice felt contentment for a minute.
What happened to her life of modern dance? What happened to all that building towards, all that syrupy hope? Shanice had foregone her passion for the movement arts too long, a sacrifice in error for the wrong man-boy. A man-boy who too often ignored, who pinned only himself in a game of domination, who merely maintained.
Maintain and I complain was her warning, her motto, his demise. He lived up to his nickname: Downtempo. He rarely arrived with carnations, nevermind tulips or roses or a piñata. A piñata would have been nice. But he could not stifle her need to Salsa, Cha-Cha, Tap, Merengue. Her decision was either to keep the guy or the dance. Even watching another jedi cat with lightsaber was better—Jesus H—and by dance she meant to twist, contort, to Rhumba, to transcend the utility, the transactional mimesis of body, to stretch the toe and long curvature of the sole, to overreach and expose the ribs to the fractuous earth—no more dreams deferred was the theory, etc, etc. Downtempo was most definitely not all that. Downtempo was a TV pig, a gameshow junkie, and otherwise absorbed in some multiplayer online game, the name of which already bored her to the point of dehydration.
Her new goal would be a studio share in Harlem, and to this end she applied classifieds to taste. She resolved to adopt no more kittens, now that living alone would be the option. Even no option is an option. Where did she keep hearing that? Julio, probably. It must have been a Yoda thing. Even no option is option, young Skywalker. Usa la forca, chica.
David Moscovich is the Romanian-American author of You Are Make Very Important Bathtime (JEF Books, Chicago, IL) and LIFE+70[Redacted], which retailing at US$249,999.99 was the single most expensive literary e-book to ever be hacked; the print version is forthcoming from Lit Fest Press in the Fall of 2016. He lives in New York City.