It’s always easy to tell when the new school year is about to start. The area is bustling during the summer – tons tourists coming through the nearby colonial town. There are the overweight Midwesterners, in their pastel shorts and their awkward straw hats. The men aren’t afraid to wear fanny packs, and the women still have scrunchies in their hair. There are the too-rich ones from up North – she can always spot them, because their kids will be dressed in period costumes, and the women will be wearing heels, despite their impracticality on the cobblestone streets. Every other week or so there will be a bus of elderly tourists who all come in together, who will ooh and ahh over all of the little kitschy items in the store, and will inevitably get in the wrong line to order their food. The tourists are almost like old friends in their familiarity, in the way that she can spot them from afar, and knows just what to say to make them all happy.
Students are different. The law students are always the first ones to stop in. When she’d first started working at the Ham Shoppe, she hadn’t realized that they were law students. It was clear that they were older than the undergraduates – none of them had surfer-long hair, or frosted tips, and the women tended toward skirts that reached their knees and shorts that covered up everything. Her second year, though, she’d been able to pull them apart. They were more likely to wear glasses than the other students, they only came in during lunch break, and they had bags and wrinkles around their eyes.
They were friendly, though – friendlier than the undergrads, who would ignore her and the other servers in favor of boisterous talks with their friends. The law students would stop their conversations to talk to her. They put down their cell phones when they were ordering. They were little things, but she appreciated them, when so many of the customers didn’t.
She loved the beginning of the year, when tourist season was winding down and the college was starting up. There were less tourists, for one thing. As much as she liked the diversity in people coming through the Shoppe in the summer, it was a lot like Christmas dinner with her extended family – far too many people and far too much bustle. It was a relief to go back to the sleepy town that she’d grown up in. And she liked the students, especially the brand new law students, showing up a week before anyone else, still anxious and excited and nervous.
As a group of five walked in, she immediately guessed that they were from the law school. They kept an awkward distance between one another – the type of distance that said that they didn’t know one another well enough to be friends. There were five of them, and their conversation was halting and awkward – someone would say a sentence, and another would interrupt before awkwardly apologizing, and then the first would continue to talk. It was like watching seventh graders at a dance. One step up, a half step back, and nobody quite knowing what to say or how to be appropriately cool.
One of them was in the front, and was talking the most animatedly. He was bigger than the others – a little soft in the fact, but with a bright smile. He was talking at the moment to a tall, blond with the kind of strong legs that Kayleigh would kill for. Oh, honey, Kayleigh thinks, she is so out of your league. The girl seems comfortable eough chatting, but Kayleigh still can’t help the feeling of “never gonna happen” that’s running through the back of her head. A little behind is another boy, with tousled brown hair and a slightly too big nose, who is smiling slightly but doesn’t seem to be saying anything. And finally, there’s a short little girl with mousey brown hair, who is giggling at little at what the boy next to her is saying.
“Hi,” Kayleigh says, as they walk up to her. Her suspicions that they are law students is confirmed when they all stop talking and turn to look at her, smiles still plastered on their faces. “Welcome to the Ham Shoppe. Have you been here before?”
“Nope,” says the guy in front. “We’re all brand new here. We’re from the law school.”
The boy from the back – the one with the classically good features, a Captain America jaw and blond hair with a hint of curl, laughs. Kayleigh melts a little. He’s cute and he has the kind of laugh that pulls at her insides. “Gus, I think she wants us to order a sandwich, not tell her our life stories.”
The front boy – Gus – shrugs. “Well, I don’t cook,” he says. “So I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing each other a lot.” He turns to Kayleigh and – oh, he is just too adorable for his own good, because he winks – says, “I’m Gus, by the way.”
“Kayleigh,” she says in response, a little surprised. “Now, what can I get you?”
They order their sandwiches, and fall back into their earlier conversations while she starts slicing up the meat and pulling out ingredients for their sandwiches. It’s mostly typical law conversation – they’re talking about books, and internships, and whether to try out for a competitive team or a journal. She lets their voices fade in with the inoffensive strains of the radio. She starts to hum a little under her breath.
She likes cooking, and she likes putting together sandwiches. There’s something powerful in using the so-sharp knife to cut into the meat and the veggies, something calming in the precision of placing everything onto the bread. She likes the crunch sound of the crusty loaves that she puts the meat on, and she likes the smell of the spicy mustard drizzled on top. It’s not the dream job that she wanted when she was younger – it’s not working for Anthony Bourdain, or Emeril Lagasse, or any of the other famous chefs who are always on her tv – but it’s still working with food, and making people happy.
“Here you go,” she says, handing the sandwiches out, perfectly wrapped in the store’s thin tissue paper. She hopes that they eat the sandwiches, soon – all of the juices from the veggies, and the hint of olive oil will soak through the packing, making a total mess.
“Thanks, Kayleigh,” Gus says, waving his sandwich at her in an overly cheesy manner. “I will think of you as I eat this delectable sandwich.”
“I am so sorry about him,” the blond says, but she’s smiling, too. “We can’t be held responsible for anything that he says. We only met today.”
The rest of them take their sandwiches without any other words, although the super-cute guy does give her a cheery, “Have a good day!” as they walked back outside.
There’s a bit of a lull after they leave, which means that it’s time to do inventory and clean up the area. Most of the workers hate when it’s clean-up time. They aren’t fans of sweeping, but Kayleigh doesn’t mind. It troubles her, sometimes, how much she enjoys these overly-domestic tasks. Growing up, she’d always argued with her mother about doing chores – it seemed to her that her mother did far more work than her father, and it just wasn’t fair. Yet here she was, doing that same kind of work every day for the pure joy of it, and being paid far less than she should.
Maybe one day she’ll head out, go back to school, move to the big city and become a famous chef. Maybe. But for now she’s here, and it’s enough to smell the roasting red peppers, be surrounded by the adorably set up bottles of wine, and flirt with cute law students.