But there was a time when this was not true. There was a time when all that The Boy knew of sandwiches was what his mother made for him, and what he learned to make for himself:
Peanut butter and jelly, of course; tuna (with mayonnaise, lettuce optional); American cheese (in casual or formal versions, with jelly or mayonnaise respectively); ham and cheese (margarine and mustard); liverwurst (sometimes with cheese, always with mustard). Regardless of specific ingredients, these sandwiches all had one feature in common:
The Boy did not object to white bread. It was simply pretty much the only bread he knew. He did know you could prepare it in different ways, depending on your mood and your willingness to experience the exotic. You could toast it, for example. Grilled-cheese sandwiches were particularly exciting, prepared as they were at the stove, in a frying pan or on a griddle, rather than simply put together at the table. If you were eating chicken soup, you could spread margarine on white bread and dunk it in the soup, rushing the handful of savory carbohydrates to your mouth before they dissolved.
Thus it was that The Boy wondered about one of his father’s occasional indulgences — what he brought home from a trip to Gibe’s Sub Shop.
It wasn’t just the name of the place, the first word of which was pronounced in two syllables (ridiculous: guy-bees!) rather than the one syllable which all The Boy’s teachers’ lessons would surely have required, per the rules of proper English pronunciation. Jives. Jibes. Vibes. Guy-bees. What was that?
And his wonder didn’t spring just from the two people always behind the counter at Gibe’s, although they were unlike anyone else in The Boy’s small life.
They both seemed old to The Boy, certainly older than his father. They had strange names, neither of them, oddly, Guy-bee. The man’s name was Al Girda; the woman’s, Herta Jonys (the “J” pronounced — weird! — like a “Y”). They spoke in an oddly lilting form of English. Al said almost nothing but merely grunted, his lips pursed, as he took The Boy’s father’s order; but even the grunts and the vague humming sounds which Al made as he worked at an order came out in a melange of foreign diacriticals and consonants: Ûmm-hmm, hüüüüüh, huugh, a-hõõõõõh…!
What really made his father’s visits to Gibe’s so odd, to The Boy’s practiced lunchtime eyes, was that the contents of his father’s sandwiches were not prepared in white bread but in some sort of roll, like a hot dog roll but longer and fatter, the surface strangely hard yet fragile at the same time. And these sandwiches were called subs or hoagies, the latter obviously a word from Al and Herta’s own native land, ’cause it sure didn’t sound like English to The Boy.
Until today, The Boy had never actually seen his father eat a hoagie. Until today, his father would simply come into the house on Saturday afternoon with a smallish brown paper bag, darkly spotted here and there with oil. He’d sit at the table, maybe open a can of Budweiser, but by then The Boy would have lost interest, wandered off somewhere in search of wartime or automotive adventures or, well, a book.
But again, today was different. For starters, his father had invited The Boy to accompany him to Gibe’s. After a five-minute drive, they sat now at the counter, which appeared to be covered in the same pale linoleum as the floor.
“Yessss?” he said, one gray eyebrow raised, his lips magically somehow remaining pursed even as he uttered what was for him this torrent of conversation.
“Sub,” The Boy’s father said. “Everything. No mayonnaise, just oil and vinegar.”
“Yessss,” confirmed Al. His gaze flicked to The Boy.
The Boy froze. The gaze of Al Girda was not a gaze which boyhood had prepared The Boy for. His eyes were gray, like almost everything else about Al except for the grease-spattered white apron, and their depths seemed to pulse with the throbbing of distant lands and long-ago history.
His father had turned slightly on the swiveling counter stool and was watching The Boy. “Well?” his father said. “You want a sub?”
Still lost in Al’s eyes, The Boy nodded, dumbly.
His father waited a couple more beats and then turned back to Al. “Yeah. He’ll have a half a sub. No onions though, okay? And no peppers.”
“Hø-kay,” said Al, and he turned away.
As Al went about making his miracle, The Boy watched through the glass panels which protected the sandwich ingredients. One-and-a-half subs called for one-and-a-half of the big sub rolls, sliced but not sliced through, and slapped down open-faced like doughy books on the counter. As for the meats — ham, okay, The Boy knew ham all right but what was that pink meat with the little brown things that looked like sliced black peppercorns embedded in it?
He nudged his father. “What’s that meat?”
“Ham. Just ham. And salami.”
Salami? The Boy didn’t knew anybody who ate salami. All The Boy knew about salami was that comedians and clowns used it in their stage acts, always extracting these big dark-red cylinders from jacket pockets and bags to wallop one another over the head with. He looked questioningly up at his father. But his father had already gone back to smoking a cigarette and tipping it out in the ashtray on the counter, thinking, savoring his own secret appetizer of memories and considerations: of growing up, of war, of pinochle, of internal-combustion engines and crossword puzzles, of the Masons, of The Boy’s mother, The Boy’s sisters and brother, of The Boy himself.
Ham, salami, whatever it was, what fascinated The Boy the most about the meats and cheese was that they’d been pre-assembled. Al didn’t have a foil or wax-paper package of ham, a separate one for salami, another for American cheese. He had big gleaming stainless-steel bins, stacked inside of which were perfect sub-sized (or half-sub-sized) packets, with a layer of ham, a layer of salami, and a layer of cheese, each packet separated from those above and below with a sheet of some kind of white paper.
Al would take one squeeze bottle of oil, another of vinegar, and spray them along the inside of each roll. Then he’d reach into his metal bin of pre-fab meats, extracting a single packet, strip off the paper, and flop it precisely edge-to-edge on the roll.
Atop that he sprinkled chopped lettuce. (CHOPPED lettuce. You could do that? You didn’t just have to tear it off the head, one leaf at a time?) On the bed of lettuce he laid down a row of tomato slices. On the full-sized sub he then applied a layer of sliced onions, and sprinkled some crushed pepper. And then in one miraculously smooth motion, he folded up each sandwich, trapping the contents inside; rolled it up inside a sheet of butcher paper that The Boy hadn’t seen him place beneath it to begin with; and sliced — schwick — through paper and sandwich together.
Then he turned to stout Herta, who had materialized at his side. He touched the two halves of the whole sub, and glanced and nodded at The Boy’s father; Herta nodded. Al then touched the two halves of the half-sub, and glanced and nodded at The Boy himself; Herta nodded again. She slid the separate portions closer to The Boy and his father.
“Yours,” she said to The Boy’s father, touching the whole sub.
“…and yours,” she said to The Boy, touching the half-one. She reached to the side and without looking, extracted something which The Boy couldn’t see from a dispenser under the counter. Still looking at The Boy, she said, “I mock it vis a toospick, nô?” She stabbed each of the little halves of his half-sandwich with a toothpick.
Fifteen minutes later, The Boy and his father were seated at the kitchen table. His father opened the bag, extracted the contents. It was easy to tell, even without comparing their sizes, which were The Boy’s: his had been mocked vis toospicks. His father slid the two small paper-wrapped, toospicked bundles across the table.
They unrolled the paper from their sandwiches together, raised the sandwiches to their mouths, opened wiiiiiiide.
They bit down together.
Flavor flooded The Boy’s mouth, the savor of oil and vinegar mingling pleasurably with the slight sting of lips and gums mini-lacerated by the hard sub roll’s crust, with the soothing satisfaction of cool lettuce and tomatoes layered atop it all. The Boy could feel slight tears springing to his eyes.
He looked across the table at his father.
As his father chewed, he kept his lips politely together for the most part, even as he chewed mightily at the mouthful. But every now and then the lips would open just a bit as his father expelled a little sigh of satisfaction. And The Boy could not help noticing the glimmer of wet at the corners of his father’s eyes, too.
The Boy never forgot that first bite of that sandwich, the sound of teeth crunching through hard crust, the gout of flavor, the delicious transition from mouthful to swallow. And he would savor forever the sight of the little dabs of moisture in his father’s and his own eyes, the mere memory of which could recreate that part of that afternoon. Sometimes, in later life, that would happen even as he ate another sandwich.