Mr. Tompkins Makes The Best Of Sandwiches.
Mr. Tompkins noticed that it was past eleven and the lunch rush hadn’t started yet – in fact, he’d had no customers at all that day – so he walked from behind the counter to the front door, checked that the sign was properly flipped to OPEN, and swung the door outward, to gauge the action of the hinges. He’d oiled them the day before; they worked just fine.
“I’ll have a sandwich, Mr. Tompkins,” said a man dressed in black. The man sat at one of the shop’s half-dozen tables and spoke from behind a newspaper. As soon as he finished his sentence, the man in black snapped down the newspaper, and stared at Mr. Tompkins, arching a large dark rakish eyebrow. The man’s face was a shard of bone china, pale and sharp, and his eyes were a light, almost golden brown, like perfect toast.
“I didn’t see you come in,” Mr. Tompkins said.
The man in black smiled. “No, you didn’t,” he said.
There is a kind of smile only contented elderly men can master, untightened by self-consciousness or significant regret, grown from a life lived as well as circumstances would allow. Pleasant, drowsy, almost beatific, the smile slid onto Mr. Tompkins’ face right after the birth of his first grandchild and had never left, even while sleeping, except for the occasional stubbed toe. The smile didn’t waver as Mr. Tompkins said to the man in black, “You’re the devil, aren’t you?”
The man in black sighed as he folded up the newspaper and slapped it on the table. “Spoilsport,” he said.
“Lucky guess,” Mr. Tompkins said, or started to say, but the man in black talked over him.
“Yes, yes, you’re very quick. Care to tell me why I’m here too, smarty-pants?”
Mr. Tompkins walked back behind the counter. “I imagine you’re going to try to take my soul.”
“Why, Mr. Tompkins, did you get your doctorate in folklore or theology or both?”
“Actually I never really graduated from high school. Not technically anyway. Got my diploma through the mail. GED, they call it now, but I don’t think that was the name for it back then –”
“Enough!” The man in black jumped up and leaned across the counter. “Yes, I’m here to ensnare you in a demonic wager, to challenge you, a gifted young mortal, to a duel and best you through irony and hubris.”
“I’m 72. You’re a little late.”
“Yeah, late. Because my schedule revolves around you. I’m fourteen billion years old, old man, maybe more if your scientists can pin the number down better. The only reason I noticed you at all is one, I have literally superhuman powers of concentration and two, it’s my job. Also, I exist outside the confines of time and space as you ‘understand’ them. It’s impossible for me to be late.”
“Why did you use those finger quotes around ‘understand’?”
“Really? You want to get into some kind of epistemological debate?”
The man in black cleared his throat. “Moving on. They say your sandwiches are exquisite, Mr. Tompkins.”
“I have lots of loyal customers.”
“They say you have no menu board, that you hand-craft each sandwich for the individual, that you read a person and construct their perfect sandwich through insight into the person’s very soul.”
“You make it sound so mystical. Yes, every sandwich is custom-made, because I believe that every man, woman and child has an ideal sandwich inside them. I just happen to have a knack for figuring out what that sandwich is.” Mr. Tompkins paused. “I guess it is a little mystical.”
“Make my perfect sandwich, Mr. Tompkins.”
“You can’t have my soul. And I don’t care about golden fiddles.”
“I don’t want your soul. I want a sandwich. And why would I give you a golden fiddle? You’re not a fiddle player. If you make my perfect sandwich, I will leave you in peace. If your sandwich fails to sate me, you must take me on as your business partner. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like a trap. How do I know you won’t cheat? You’re the father of all lies.”
“You’re thinking of Loki.”
“I think I’ll just politely decline, thanks.”
“Do you think that I’d even be here if you had any choice in the matter? Now make with the sandwich, Tompkins, before I get angry.”
Mr. Tompkins exhaled and looked into the man in black’s eyes for the better part of a minute. He did this with all his customers; his wife had once called it “establishing a sandwich rapport.” Some people found it discomforting and would start fidgeting or laughing nervously. The man in black returned Mr. Tompkins’ gaze, no unease leaching into his face or toasty eyes.
“I have to get something from the back,” Mr. Tompkins said and returned from storage with a loaf of Wonder bread.
“I don’t use this very often,” he said.
“I feel very special,” said the man in black.
Mr. Tompkins removed several slices from the bag and began slathering them with mayonnaise. The man in black watched, implacable. Tompkins laid limp squares of white American cheese across the mayo-laden bread.
“It’s a bit monochromatic,” the man said. Tompkins smiled and reached for the olive loaf. He rippled pink slices of the olive-riddled bologna across the cheese, then piled on sardines in mustard sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, a sprinkling of raisins and finally a single pale leaf of iceberg lettuce, before laying down another slice of bread. He repeated the sequence twice to make a triple decker, dowsed the creation with vinegar, looked at it for a moment as it towered over the countertop, and then, using a spare cutting board to evenly distribute the force, he pressed down on the sandwich, compressing it to half its original size. The sandwich oozed pale yellow sauce. Tompkins forced a toothpick through the heart of the thing and a stream of vinegar flowed from the wound. Nodding once, Tompkins plated the sandwich, then pushed the plate toward the man in black.
“Oh, wait,” Mr. Tompkins said, and garnished the sandwich with Funyuns.
The man in black lifted the sandwich and nodded. “The heft is impressive,” he said. Mr. Tompkins smiled. The man in black took a bite. He chewed with great intensity. “Quite viscous,” he said around the lump of sandwich. “It really clings to the roof of my mouth.”
Mr. Tompkins kept smiling.
“Ooh! There’s a raisin!” the man in black said, after mulling over his third bite for a while. Swallowing with visible effort, he set the sandwich back on the plate.
“This sandwich is awful,” he said.
Mr. Tompkins kept smiling. “You’re awful,” the old man said, his voice free of judgment and disdain.
“Not as awful as that sandwich.”
“Not from what I’ve heard.”
Now the man in black smiled. “Oh,” he said, “those are just stories.”
“Very persuasive stories.”
The man in black made a noncommittal noise and dabbed at his mouth with a paper napkin. Mr. Tompkins waited for the man in black to say something. He waited a long time before asking ” So did I win?”
The man in black folded his napkin as he answered, smoothing the brown layers, sharpening the creases with his shiny well-manicured thumbnail. “I’ll grant you the awfulness, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. But you failed to capture any of my seductive appeal. Your sandwich lacks the ability to tempt anyone. It isn’t enough that the sandwich is the epitome of awfulness. Someone must still want to eat it.”
Mr. Tompkins thought for a while and said, “If you finish it, you get a free cookie.”
The man in black disappeared.