Time for the next chapter of my serial novel, THE LINE. But first, a reminder that I'll be posting a chapter or two or three here on my blog each week until all 330 pages are up here and available to read for free. Or you can spend 99 cents and download the whole thing on your favorite e-reader right now by going:
If you're new to this and want to get caught up on the first two chapters I've already posted:
Okay. Back to the deli we go ....
3 HOURS, 10 MINUTES
“This Reuben better be fucking worth it,” Reed said. “This is the longest sandwich line in the history of sandwiches or lines.”
“Yeah,” Miller agreed, rubbing a rough hand back and forth across his monstrous shaved head.
“Look at these fuckers in their business casual, man,” Reed said. “Type of downtown office drones I will never, never, ever let myself become.”
“Can you imagine me in a suit playing accounting alchemist with the formula bar in my excel spreadsheet?”
“Accounting alchemist,” Reed said. “I like that. I’m writing it down.”
Reed’s hand dipped into the messenger bag on his hip and pulled out a black and white composition notebook, the edges coffee-stained just artfully enough to make you wonder if the person who owned that notebook actually drank coffee or just wanted to make people think he did.
Reed peeled the pages apart and hunted for a clean canvas of college rule. Finally, he found some writing space. It wasn’t much, not with that half-completed list of the Best Boobs Scenes In Movies taking up the top third, but it was enough.
Accounting alchemist, he scribbled on the scrap of paper.
Ahead of them in line, Alaina Boyd whipped her head around and glared. Alaina – who’d insisted on being called ‘Al’ since grade school – glanced down at the notebook in Reed’s hand and rolled her eyes.
“Busted,” Reed said. “You caught me at work.”
“What?” Al said.
“I’m writing,” Reed said. “I’m basically always writing.”
“Like I give a shit,” Al said. “But you ram that thing into my back one more time and we gonna have a discussion.”
“Don’t you wanna know my topic, Al?” Reed asked.
“I’m gonna guess it’s some sort of Phillip K. Dick knock-off,” Al said. “Some weak-sauce sci-fi opus with a goofy-looking skinny dude as the protagonist.”
“Somebody got up on the bitchy side of the bed,” Reed said, grinning but unable to resist puffing out his chest to make himself appear less skinny. Not much he could do about the goofy-looking, though. He could thank his piece-of-shit dad for that.
“I like your hair, Al,” Miller said, his fingers rubbing the tips of one of her braids.
“Man, get off me!” Al said, shoving Miller’s hand away and whipping back around. Al pulled the hood of her sweatshirt tight, tucked her blonde braids inside and settled her headphones back on her head, cranking her music. Reed could just make out the bass-heavy hints of something complex and indie pouring through the giant foam pads.
“Ain’t she ever heard of ear buds?” Miller asked. “Those things look heavy enough to snap her little neck.”
“No ear buds for Al,” Reed said, his eyes roaming over her like a hungry man at a buffet. “Nah, she goes retro. Those are the giant foam neck-breakers DJ's support with one hand while they pretend to do shit to records with the other. You ask her, she’d say it’s ‘cause they sound better. You ask me, it’s ‘cause they’re a key part of the ‘Al’ costume. Like that caked oval of liner rimming her blue eyes.”
“Nevermind, dude,” Reed said.
Reed scribbled caked oval of liner rimming her blue eyes into his notebook.
“What are you writing?” Miller asked, peering at the pages before Reed yanked them away.
“Details, Miller. Details. I don’t miss a single one. And you know why?”
“Cause you’re a writer.”
“Cause I’m a writer.”
And it was true. Sort of. Whether or not Reed was a writer depended on the definition of the word. If someone with a snarky Twitter feed was a writer, then Reed was a writer. Though, by that metric, so was his little sister. And she had more followers.
Reed’s motto was; You don’t have to write to be a writer. Convenient, sure, but to Reed it seemed true enough. To him, as long as one was engaged in writer-like pursuits, one was a writer. It was why Reed owned two sweaters with elbow patches and a fucking pipe. And it was why he watched people. At least it was the reason he gave. He claimed he liked to observe quirks, record details. Claimed it made all the difference in his writing – in those dark, bloody short stories that nobody would ever publish. But really, he just liked watching.
And right now his eyes were locked on Al: On the tablet she kept fiddling with; on the bag of tools, wires and devices she always carried with her; on the weathered gray Pixies shirt she was wearing today.
“Think that’s the real deal, Miller?” Reed asked, jerking a thumb at the shirt. “Or did she grab it from the pile at WalMart?”
“WalMart,” Miller said, chuckling.
“I don’t know,” Reed said, clicking his tongue against his teeth and cocking his head for a better view. “I think it’s legit. First grabbed off the merch table at some smoke-choked rock club a decade ago before being dumped at the thrift store once the original owner got married and had a kid or two.”
“Who are The Pixies?” Miller asked.
“The very fact that you asked that question is why you will never be cool,” Reed said, clapping Miller on the back. Miller shrugged Reed’s hand off and turned to him.
“Fuck off, man,” Miller said, and Reed took a small step back.
“I’m kidding, Miller!” Reed said. “Shit.”
Miller let it go at that, and Reed was glad. Not just because Miller towered over even the tallest teacher and tipped the scales at what must have been nearly 300 pounds – most of it muscle. But because Miller’s next question would have been if Reed knew who The Pixies were, and the answer was kinda. But not Al. No, she no doubt not only knew who they were, but she probably even had an album or two. On vinyl, natch.
Reed made a mental note to listen to The Pixies. And then The Kinks. He felt a little bit of panic at this troubling crack in his cool cred. His brain began to itch, back in that spot behind his eyes where he couldn’t scratch. He shook his skull a little to clear it. Laughed to himself.
“What?” Miller asked.
“Nothing, man,” Reed said. “Nothing.”
Reed’s brain had been itching for a while, now. Ever since he’d left them, really. Leaving nothing behind but some marks on his mom’s face, a scar on his and the smell of cheap-ass whisky everywhere. That itch had started out small. Had grown now into a constant scrape like nails on chalkboard, bone on bone. The only thing that seemed to scratch the itch lately had been putting pen to paper. So Reed flipped to a new page and went hunting for details.
His eyes traced the length of the huge, yawning entrance to Seitz’s Deli just behind him. Followed the frame up to the ceiling, where a metal garage door hung coiled like a steel snake up in the rafters.
“See that?” Reed said, elbowing Miller and pointing. “This place must’ve been an auto shop before it was a deli.”
“Huh?” Miller said.
“Details, man,” Reed said, shaking his head a little more as the itch got worse. “I mean, why build a wall when you can just throw up the door at the start of the day and pull it down at closing time? Has the additional cost-saving benefit of making air conditioning a moot point.”
“It’s hot,” Miller said, wiping sweat off his forehead.
“So this crazy October heat wave mingles with the hot, pastrami-scented air of the deli and turns the whole atmosphere into a wet soup of meat oxygen.”
Reed scribbled pastrami-scented air and wet soup of meat oxygen down in his notebook. Laughed to himself.
Above them, the Brown Line train roared past, rattling the walls. The sound was so close, so offensive. Reed shook his head hard. Harder.
“Look at that,” Reed said, gesturing to the rest of the people in line. “It’s like nobody else even heard that fucking train roar by right over our heads. Too preoccupied with their phones to notice.”
“My ma won’t let me have a phone,” Miller said.
“For the best man,” Reed said. “Means you’re not a sheep. Look at them all – A line full of castaways adrift on their own little digital islands.”
Reed scribbled that down in his notebook, too.
“Of the 29 people in line – and yes, I've counted, that's how slow this line is moving – you and me are the only ones not focused on a screen of some kind,” Reed said. “The only ones living in the moment, taking in the sights and smells around us. Noticing all the details. The details, man.”
“The details,” Miller said, nodding.
Reed watched a cockroach scurry out of the garbage can near the door. The itch kept crawling back behind Reed’s eyes. He shook his head. Harder. Harder still.
But the itch wasn’t going away.
And it was about to get much, much worse.