“Leland, this is Maxine. Maxine—Leland—he’ll be training you today.”
Leland had been busy getting the deli ready for the day—filling the hot-water baths, turning on the exhaust fans and heating up the fryers, bringing out the bowls from the back and dumping yesterday’s remains of potato salad, pasta salad, and ham salad into them—so his back was turned when Brett, the manager, approached with the new hire; this Maxine. Leland turned to give her at least the courtesy of a nod, if not an actual “hello”, but momentarily froze upon looking into her eyes. She had an almond-shaped face and dark eyebrows and green eyes. Her hair was brown, he could tell even with the hairnet covering it, and he was certain it would’ve fallen to nearly her waist if there was no ‘net. He recognized her, and the look that crossed her face said that she recognized him too. But from where?
Also, he was sure that her name hadn’t been Maxine when they’d first met. It’d been…‘O’-something. Not Ophelia or Odelia or Olympia, but definitely ‘O’.
Brett’s eyebrows raised. “Do you two know each other already?”
Maxine vigorously shook her head. “No,” she said.
“No,” Leland agreed, though he was growing surer by the second that this was a lie.
He kept picturing her hair falling down to her ass. He couldn’t help it. He’d seen this girl naked, he was sure of it, but the image was foggy in his head.
“Well,” Brett clapped once, “I’ll leave you two to it. Train her well, Leland.” He turned to her. “He’s the best worker we’ve got, Maxine You’re in good hands!” Then he walked away.
“Um,” Leland said after Brett was gone, “so I guess the first thing I’ll teach you is how to set the slicers up in the morning. I’ve put them together already, but I’ll disassemble one and show you how it’s done.” He removed the feeder arm from one of the slicers. “See that slot there on the side? Just drop the arm directly onto it, swing it over, and turn this knob to screw it into place. Easy, right? And then when you slice stuff, you just turn this dial here to whatever thickness you need and pull the plunger doohickey to start the blade spinning. Later on, I’ll show you how we clean them.”
He noticed that a nervous energy radiated off her the entire time while he’d explained this to her.
Fuck it, he was just going to ask. “Have we met each other before?”
Maxine looked around the deli. It was still early in the morning, so there were no customers, and the only other associate was the sandwich-maker in the back, who shouldn’t be able to hear them out here.
“Not unless you know me,” she told him.
“I…think…I know you. But it’s sort of awkward, you know? I don’t want to say anything if it turns out to be wrong.”
“Well, how do you think you know me?”
Leland was put on the spot. She’d been naked, and he’d been naked, and the carpet his feet had been moving across was so, so soft. And he’d been breathing a lot. The air had been amazing and he’d just wanted to suck in the entire roomful and hold it in forever. But that wasn’t anything he could say to her, not to a new hire. Not to someone he’d already been briefed was the owner’s niece. Leland needed this job, in spite of how much he hated it.
“You know what?” he said. “Forget about it. I’m probably wrong anyway.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “you probably are.”
Just then, Tallulah, the sandwich person, came waddling out of the back and announced to him, “Leland, I need five pounds of ham and turkey, and two pounds of co-jack cheese. Could you slice that up for me?” She turned to Maxine. “Hello there, I’m Tallulah! I make the sandwiches around here.”
“Maxine,” Maxine said politely.
Leland went to the meat case and lifted out a loaf of ham and a loaf of turkey. Then to the cheese case for a log of colby-jack. While Tallulah began to grill Maxine.
“Now, is Leland training you well? Is he teaching you what you need to know?” the much older woman asked.
Maxine nodded, but said, “I guess.”
“He’s quiet, so you’ll have to ask if there’s something you don’t understand yet. And,” she held a finger up in front of Maxine’s nose, “if you’re thinking of trying to make him your boyfriend, just so you know, I already have dibs on him!”
Leland pretended not to hear this last part.
“Got it, girlie?”
Tallulah then did an about-face and began waddling toward the back again. “You bring that meat and cheese back to me when you’re done with it, alright?”
“Okay,” Leland said, then he turned to Maxine. “Okay, I’ll teach you how to slice the meat now. Remember the dial with the numbers? We’re going to cut all of this on a one.”
He showed her how to open up the packaging on the meat with a knife from the sanitizing bath sitting beside the slicer. Then how to mount it on the feeder arm.
“Alright, turn the dial to number one and pull the plunger.” The blade began to spin. “And always discard the first piece you slice. So as to prevent cross-contamination.”
“Even though we just opened these up?”
“Yes, because no one wants the end-piece,” he informed her.
He was getting a better idea of where he knew her from. He was able to remember music playing and, just like the carpet and the air, it had been impossibly good, even though it was coming through a radio tuned just a smidge off from the station. They’d been dancing together. Then, later, they’d sat together on a chair and watched another pair have sex on a motel room bed. They’d giggled to themselves like children. That narrowed it down fairly accurately.
On the internet, there was a group that Leland belonged to which organized local sex parties, usually at a roadside motel in some out of the way location. He’d been going to these parties for the past few months. You know, to blow off steam from work and from the stress of pursuing a philosophy degree that was costing him a lot of money, but which he wasn’t sure would be worth anything in the long run. So far, he hadn’t met anyone at these parties that he actually knew. The ages of the attendees varied widely and he sometimes considered how hilarious and embarrassing it would be if he ran into the parent of someone he’d gone to school with. But this was where he’d met Maxine, he was sure of it.
Or ‘O’, as he was now secretly calling her.
They finished slicing the meat and cheese and Maxine helped him to stack the slices into a spare hot case pan.
As he put the stack of colby-jack in, he whispered to her, “I know where I’ve seen you now.”
A look of absolute terror came over her face. Reluctantly, she met his gaze. He saw that she could see he wasn’t lying.
“No, no,” she said, “you cannot tell anyone. My family would disown me!”
“Yeah, well,” he told her, “I don’t need the owner’s niece going to management and getting me fired for sexual harassment or whatever you might decide to make up.”
Just then, Tallulah came waddling out of the back once more. “Hey,” she squawked, “are ya done with my meat and cheese yet? What are you two whispering to each other about? Girlie, I told you he’s my man, didn’t I?”
“Here’s your meat and cheese, Tallulah,” Leland said with a disarming smile, handing her the pan.
Tallulah eyed Maxine suspiciously. “I’m watching you! You better not be infringing on my territory, you hear?” Then she returned to the back.
Soon, Demetri, the fry person, came into work and started throwing popcorn chicken, jalapeno poppers, and hot wings into the fryers. “What’s up?” he asked Leland. “This the new hire? Hey, I’m Demetri.”
With Demetri there, Leland could no longer say anything to Maxine about sex parties, false accusations, or losing his job. Instead, he quietly sliced meat for the shave case and listened as Demetri, more sociable than Leland ever chose to be, grilled Maxine about her life and interests.
“You going to school?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’m studying to be a grade-school teacher, and I’ve been getting some practice in by teaching Sunday School at my church.” She glanced over at Leland with a look that said she regretted revealing such damning information. “And I help out by watching the kids whenever we have our church gatherings. Do you go to church?”
“Nah, I gave that up years ago.”
“What church did you go to?”
He told her.
“Well,” she said, “if that one wasn’t working for you, maybe you could try a new one?”
Demetri gave it some thought. “Nah, I’m good.”
Leland finished with the shave case and started in on the remainders. Slicing up the odds and ends left behind from whole loaves and marking them down to half-price. Meanwhile, since customers had started to come in now, he showed Maxine how to work the scales. “You just throw the meat on top and it tells you how much it weighs. See, that’s point-six-seven pounds. Slice some more. Now it’s a pound. So what you do, is punch in the meat’s ID number on the keypad, one-four-four-seven. Enter and print. Now you have your label. Put the meat into one of these baggies, close it up, and stick the label on. There you go!” he told the customer.
It was killing him that he wasn’t able to talk to Maxine any more about whatever may have/have not happened between them. He actually still wasn’t entirely sure. Had they had sex? He remembered that someone had given him something at the start of the party, a little pill that could’ve been any color in the sub-par lighting of the motel’s rooms. He’d swallowed it without question and it’d fucked with his brain frequencies enough so that all of his memories of that night were now jumbled up and stuck together like a load of laundry out of the washer. He remembered his face being very close to ‘O’s face. She’d slapped him. He’d slapped her. She’d slapped him. And they’d both fell over laughing uproariously. He needed to get her away somewhere so he could speak to her privately
Luckily, they’d just run out of a particular brand of honey ham in the meat case, and it was this exact brand that the current customer wanted, so it was away to the meat cooler. Where they could be alone.
“So that’s it right there,” he said, pointing to a box containing the ham they needed. “Look, about what happened—”
There was ch-thunk as someone grabbed the cooler’s handle from the outside and pulled the door open. Tallulah came into cooler and began to rummage through the boxes containing the sandwich kits. She stopped when she noticed them both eying her.
“Well, don’t stop your flirting on account of me,” she said. “I’m just heart-broken, is all!”
“We weren’t flirting, Tallulah,” Maxine promised her.
“I was just showing her where to find the honey ham,” Leland added.
“Sure! Just don’t come crying to me when your lips freeze together.”
He glanced around. “This isn’t the freezer,” he pointed out.
From there, the day got busier and busier, so there wasn’t time for him to sneak her away to perform an interrogation. He thought, maybe, on his lunch break, since they would have to go at the same time, but he lost her by the time clock. She ran out the back door ahead of him and managed to disappear.
Oh well, he thought. That gave him time to try to get the night’s events straighter in his head.
They’d kept wandering from room to room, watching people in various states of sexual congress. And watching those would had chosen to watch instead of participating.
After they had run out of rooms to wander into they went down to the burbling stream that ran nearby. He remembered this especially, because they were still naked, and in order to get to the stream they’d first needed cross the gravelly parking lot. The first few steps were agony some part of his brain kept relaying back to him, but he was separate from it—it was happening elsewhere. So he kept walking back and forth and wriggling his toes against the jagged pieces of stone until ‘O’ had taken him by the hand and pulled him away from the motel’s light. She’d been afraid that their nakedness shone too bright in the night.
She’d wanted to catch a tadpole, to take it home and keep it as a pet, so she sank her cupped hands beneath the water’s surface and pulled them up again. But no tadpole.
She’d then tilted too far forward and fallen in, and he’d had to save her because she wasn’t sure if she remembered how to swim anymore. He’d forgotten how to swim as well, so they just floated back to the shore their backs like a pair of otters.
They’d bought sodas and snacks from the vending machines and pelted one another with Cheetos.
She’d donned fairy wings and jumped up and down on a motel bed, flapping.
He’d asked her name. And she’d told him it was Odette.
After lunch, he waited for her by the time clock, and said only, “Odette,” as she clocked in.
He waited for a verbal response from her, but she only raised her eyebrows in a way that said she recognized the name, which was good enough for him.
The second half of the day went by without reprieve. The lunch rush only petered out in order to be replaced by the after-school rush. For their last hour together, he brought her out from behind the counter to show her how to fill the meat and cheese cases.
“It’s not too difficult,” he explained. “You just make a list of what we’re missing out here and go back and get it.”
She helped him to make the list and then they were back in the meat cooler once again, stacking meat and cheese boxes onto a cart. Tallulah stood right outside the open door, cleaning the sandwich table before heading home for the day, so he wasn’t sure if he could get away with talking about whatever it was that had occurred between them.
But Maxine spoke first:
“Look, you can’t say anything, okay? My family, my church, they’d never look at me the same way again if they knew.”
Leland stared at her. “I’m not going to tell anyone! This job sucks, but I need it until I can find something better. I'd appreciate it if you didn’t say anything.”
“Well,” she said.
“Well,” he echoed back.
Silence fell between them.
“Are you two in there flirting again?” Tallulah called.
They quietly stacked more boxes onto the cart, running down the list.
Leland paused and thought for a moment.
“There’s just one thing I need to know,” he said.
She paused, too, and gave him a warning look. Then she sighed. “Okay, what is it?”
“Did we, you know,” he lowered his voice, “have sex?”
Maxine’s mouth fell open, dumbfounded.
“Of course we had sex! Am I so bad that you don’t even remember? Jesus!”
Leland smiled. He couldn’t help it. “Does that mean you have to go to confession now?”
They worked together to fill the cases, and then they clocked out.
Walking together to their cars:
“So, uh,” Leland mumbled, “would it be okay if we saw each other again? You know, not here. Elsewhere?”
He couldn’t help but feel a little crest-fallen.
She sighed. “Okay, maybe,” she amended. “I’ll think about it.”
He grinned. “Well then, I’ll see you later, Odette.”
“And I’ll see you later, King Richard,” she responded, giving him a little wave.
“Wait a second! No. That can’t be what I told you my name was!”
“No,” she agreed, “that’s what you told me his name was.”
He followed her gaze down to below his belt. He blushed. Somehow, his life managed to be a constant string of embarrassments.