No soul minds him as he enters Charlie’s Deli, Main St, sets his puffy winter vest down in a booth and gets to ordering. His eyes don’t meet the gaze of the waiter while he asks for the bagel, everything, cream cheese and salmon. No capers. He’s very particular about this. He sits in the booth and taps his foot in staccato waiting for the bagel to arrive, grabs hold of the plate, no thanks and no warning, sets in. The bagel’s nice, he thinks. He’s sure there’s malt syrup in the water they boiled it in. Watched a video about how to make them just right on his cellphone while he waited for his car to sputter to life and cast off last night’s sheet of ice.
When the waiter would recall him later he remembered little of his appearance. The man was in and out, unremarkable. Blonde hair, bad teeth. Dressed for the weather. Otherwise he was amorphous. His form had smeared and distorted onto the electric lights and the crowd of regulars and irregulars and the TV above the bar that echoed out last night’s basketball game. The Bucks won, for what it was worth. He didn’t tip. There was no one to witness him.
He chews thorough and fast at the side of the bagel, really masticates it, yellowed teeth gummed up with smears of dough and bits of gristle. The cheese and salmon spurts through and out the sides of it, or bunches up in the hole in the center. What he leaves in front of him, the wake of the filling’s flight, is soggy bread, exsanguinated. An empty remnant of what once was, no vividness, a pustule of fish at its center. There’s chunks of fat on his teeth and a smear of cream cheese on his fingers, on his jeans then after. It’ll smell, or stain. He’ll have to use detergent when he gets home.
Cleanup must come first, however. He gets up, leaves the carcass on the white plate, and heads to the restroom. Just stands there for a while, at first. Then starts grinning, airing out his teeth. Runs his tongue into the pockets below the molars of his lower jaw and feels the slightly bulging areas where his gums have been stopped up with fish. Keeps grinning. He thinks about how what had grown to great size in the ocean and had scales of quicksilver was now dead and rotting in his mouth and would fester there or in his gullet forever. A billion scavengers were now ripping and tearing bits of it apart. It had been a great predator and now it was a salty taste on the tongue and fodder for tartar and soon it would be gone entirely. He catches a stray sesame seed just below his lower lip and slips it back into his mouth with the speed of a bullfrog seizing a fly. He grins wider, reaching for floss in his pocket, works fast, cleaning out every spot, pressing his tongue to his gums again now and then. The trick is to get the floss under the gum and over the tooth, once in one corner, then in the other. Then again on the next tooth, in repetition. The bathroom is silent except for the buzzing of a heater. He closes his eyes now and then and imagines he can hear the slow crunch of asphalt as a car works up the driveway, but there is nothing. The door to the bathroom is locked. There is no one to interrupt the flossing man, to call out.
Once cleanup is complete he washes his face, once, twice, three times. In repetition. There’s a film of oil upon it, he’s sure, but he’ll scrub it out. He splashes water and runs his hands over his cheeks and across his forehead until his face feels smooth and the collar of the plaid buttonup he’s wearing over a stained wifebeater is damp. He dries his face with paper towels. When he leaves, the early January winds will crack his skin. He leaves the faucet in the bathroom running and the water leaks in torrents through the tap.
He pays at the counter and leaves the remnants of the act at the booth, grabs his vest. He is heading towards the door. Outside he will feel a buzzing as the burner phone he used to call before his last visit gets an alert. It will be from the app that tracks police reports, and it will tell him that there has been a gas explosion at 258 Williams Street. No body will be found. The man will leave in a car no one thought to catalog in their minds and he will set down again at another diner in another town and he will order and he will feast. Everything repeats.
— Noam Hessler is a poet from New England. They are currently a student at Vassar college, and can be found on Twitter at @poetryaccnt1518.