“You shoulda volunteered,” Curly didn’t know how to tell Angie what he heard in the cafe today, but it was obvious that she hadn’t heard what he had heard. Angie just shrugged him off as she balanced the cash register. “I’m busy enough just tryin’ to keep us afloat.”
Curly continued slicing the cheese on the huge slicer. He hated that thing. When he first started working for Angie’s aunt, he saw the head cook cut a huge gouge right out of his finger. It would have cut off the guy’s finger if he hadn’t jerked back so quickly. So much blood.
The cheese sliced neatly into Curly’s hand. He put slices of parchment paper in between each slice and stacked them neatly. Once a month or so, he sliced cheese. It was rhythmic and terrifying: slice, stack, paper, slice, stack, paper.
“We’ve actually had a good winter so far,” Angie offered, “I was able to put aside a little for your gym. If we have a few more months like this, we might be able to open one next year.” Curly shook his head. No, no they were never going to be able to open his gym. If only Angie had been listening, she would know, too. Curly didn’t want to be the one to tell her. Why did he always have to be the one to tell her?
“You see Tank and that secretary of his at the cafe today?” Curly asked, hoping it would miraculously jog her memory. She waited on them today, how could he have heard everything from the kitchen and she be oblivious to their conversation? “Isabelle. Her name is Isabelle. It was good to see him again, actually.”
Curly tried to play dumb. “You hear what they were talkin’ about?” Angie put the quarters into a little plastic bag, counting them out and Curly knew that she wouldn’t answer until she finished. He waited and carefully minded the electric slicer: slice, stack, paper, slice, stack, paper. The final quarter dropped into the tiny bag and Angie replied, “They’re going to start taxing Junco.”
She DID hear! Curly blew out all the air he had been cramming into his lungs. He hadn’t even realized he had been holding his breath until she stopped counting quarters. What? What was she going to do? She seemed too calm. “They talk about taxin’ any other businesses in Merriton?” Angie had started counting the dimes and he knew he’d have to wait for her answer, but he knew it. They had talked about taxing every business in Merriton to finance the town. A.S. had complained about the lack of funding for years and now she had convinced Tank that the way to solve that problem was to hit every business in town with a tax.
Curly could see the problem. Merriton had survived for over fifteen years on the grace of Tortimer, who donated his time as mayor and finagled whatever funds he could with donations and fund-raisers. Taxing Junco was the obvious solution to the problem because they were the biggest industry on the mountain. It’s hard not to see all those ski jackets descend on the town, knowing that none of that cash they’ve been plopping down at the ski resort was going to help the town at all. Still, he didn’t want to have to pay the tax.
Slice, stack, paper, slice, stack, paper: he was almost through the block of cheese. Soon it would be time to clean the damn thing, which was even more terrifying than using it. How long had he been working this cafe? Over twenty years and he still was scared of the slicer.
“Yeah, they’re going to tax alluv us,” Angie slid her fingers across the tiny, transparent bag’s ziploc closure, securing the dimes. “I was about to blow a gasket until that Isabelle suggested a sliding scale, so little businesses like us and the Thunder Brothers wouldn’t have to pay quite as much as Junco.” She started counting the nickels and Curly said nothing as he carefully wrapped the cheese slices. For the briefest of moments, he considered just buying sliced cheese instead of slicing his own, but then he remembered the difference in cost. He could get a brick of fine cheddar for a quarter of the price of the cheapest pre-sliced American cheese crap. He didn’t even believe it was cheese, just orange-colored fat, molded into squares.
“Don’t worry, about it, Curly,” Angie said as she dropped the last nickel into its bag and wrote the total down. “A.S.’s been threatening to do this to us for years. I been puttin’ aside money for a LONG time, just waitin’ for this tax. If it’s really as low as that Isabelle made it sound, I might have another bonus to add to your gym fund.” Curly placed most of the cheese slices in the freezer and this week’s slices in the fridge. He felt a weight of worry release from his chest. Finished with the cheese slicing for a month. Angie’s not freakin’ out about anything. We might even be able to open up the gym.
“You know, he was right.” Angie clinked the last penny into its bag. “I did just run for Mayor to piss off A.S.” She finished the tally on her sheet and stuck all the little bags and bills into the black, zippered bag. It read Zion’s First National Bank on the outside, but they had never used Zion’s. Where did that bag come from? It had been part of the cafe since before Curly had ever worked there. It was a wonder the zipper worked.
“Kinda ashamed of it.” She folded her paper and placed it into the bag before zipping the bag closed. “Wasted a shit load of money.” Curly didn’t think of it as a waste. He replied, “Woulda been more of a waste if you’d won.” He pulled the big, fluffy brush out of the boiling, soapy water and started washing off the slicer, carefully keeping his hands away from the blade. He liked the smell of the bleachy soap. It made him feel like he was getting that slicer extra clean.
Angie came into the kitchen. “Sometimes I feel like a failure. Sure, I run my own business. Sure, we’ve stayed open when so many places here have disappeared. Sure, ski jackets all over the country go home and tell their friends about your Egg Thing, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like enough.” She walked past him to the back room and opened the rear door. He watched her throw all her old campaign signs into the dumpster, armful by armful. He couldn’t decide whether to stop her or not, so he just concentrated on cleaning the slicer without sacrificing any of his fingers.