The deli counter is regulated with slips of paper pulled from what looks like a red plastic snail. My purpose for pulling the snail’s tongue was a pound of mesquite turkey, sliced thin for sandwiches. The older of two brothers, a kindergartner, explained the waiting game to his sibling.
“My number is 37. You have 36. Mom’s is 38.”
The younger brother stared sourly at his slip of paper.
“You have a 3 and a 6. I have a 3 and a 7.” The kindergartner said.
I had a 4 and a 0.
The red digital deli counter illuminated an electronic 3 and 0.
The preschooler’s bottom lip grew larger. His brother had one whole number more than he did. The air smelled of sliced salami and inequity.
The mother looked at loaves of baked bread, seemingly unconcerned.
The brothers dangled from the cart with their left hands and held paper numbers in their right hands.
“My 37 is bigger than your 36.” The kindergartner teased. He swung under the cart.
A defenseless kid shouldn’t have a low number like 36! The mother squeezed rolls and looked longingly at the pies instead of stopping the bullying. Grocery store parenting isn’t my strong suit. But I’ll step in to correct injustice.
The counter person hollered. “31, 32?”
A man raised his hand and ordered a sandwich.
The digital deli clock read 31. I focused on the problem.
An old man wearing a blue shirt stepped in front of me.
“My number is bigger than yours.” The kindergartner sang.
The preschooler pouted with tears in his eyes.
I knew how the tyke with 36 felt.
Sometimes helping kids takes personal sacrifice. Giving always feels better than receiving. I couldn’t stand by as the mother shopped for noodle salad. No human should be bullied, regardless of age or paper number. I decided to give the preschooler my number 40. He’d have his brother by three whole numbers.
Is that fair to the kindergartner? The mother might not understand my generosity. The counter person served an old lady. Red electric numbers didn’t change. The kindergartner dangled the paper 37 over his brother’s head. I’d had enough of the deli dangling display, parental indifference and age-based numerical inequality. My 40 grew more purposeful than disposable. A cowboy bought a small container of macaroni salad. Others purchased chicken legs and pastrami.
Electronic numbers and counter calls blurred. Problem-solving tunnel vision slowed time. The deli staff worked in a silent pantomime, unaware of the customer drama on my side of the counter. A redemptive exchange was the answer. No kid should be bullied. I’d slip the kid my 40 for his 36!
Deli staff handed a package of cheese to the mother. Sibling victimization continued as the rolling cart passed the roasted chickens. Deli customers were serviced in my introspective silence. I’d let a kid with a low number, like 36, be treated unfairly while I stood by clinging to his numerical salvation.
“Number 40, anyone have 40?” The deli person called.
Lights and sounds of commerce slammed my conscious mind into the present.
“I’ve number 41.” Mr. Blue Shirt stated.
“I’m 40, but help this man, he’s been waiting here a long time.” I said.
Mr. Blue Shirt smiled.
The kids were gone. Paper numbers littered the floor where they had dangled.
I stood stymied with a paper snail’s tongue inked with a black 40.
“Can I help you, sir?” The counter person asked.
“I’ll take a pound of Mesquite Turkey.” I said.
I pocketed my 40.
Ty Pelfrey resides in Penn Valley. His works, “Public Education Uncensored” and “The Hunters of Bear Valley,” are available on Amazon.com.