The bell attached to the shop’s door chimed. A petite woman pushed the door open, letting in snowflakes from the night’s storm. She ambled over to the counter, where Jacob stood.
“Is Alan here?” the woman asked. Two stray coils of straw-colored hair framed her eyes, which bored into his with determination.
Jacob shook his head. He had worked at Alan’s for two years, but tonight was his first at the late shift; Alan had decided to head home early. And then, with a little of the sugary warmth he reserved for customers, “No ma’am. How can I help you?”
She shook her head, the two ringlets swishing back and forth. “I’m here for Alan.”
Jacob stuck his hands in the pockets of his apron. “You here for his fresh cut lox? ‘Cause Alan has been teaching me the trade for the past couple months. I can cut it paper thin, just like he does. I’ve learned from the best.”
Jacob could slice his lox quite well. Every Sunday after swinging over the door’s aged closing sign, Alan had chosen a leftover piece of lox and carefully picked up his blade, a twelve-inch knife. He would rest it flat on his hand and run his finger along its side, his eyes dancing as light would gleam off of its carefully polished edge.
“You must have the right tools,” he would murmur. Then, he would arrange the slab of fish, straighten his back, and carefully, slowly lower the blade of the instrument until it converged with the fish nearly imperceptibly. With one fell swoop, he would bring down the blade, and hold up the slice of salmon to the light, judging its thickness on what filtered through.
Jacob would watch with awe, both because of the ease and diligence of Alan’s slice and because of the joy that would flood Alan’s features, the way the wrinkles around his drooping eyes would curl up, as if they were smile lines. It was one of the few moments when a ghost of a smile would cross his face.
The woman stared at Jacob for a second, her gaze so strong that he felt he must avert his own. Then, “I am here for Alan.”
“I can call him up if you’d like. He went home about an hour ago.”
She silently nodded.
Jacob glanced over, and shrugged. He walked over behind the register and dialed Alan’s number, sliding his finger in the pattern he knew by heart. “What’s your name again?”
The phone rung twice, and Alan picked up.
“What’s the problem, Jacob,” Alan grumbled, his voice laden with sleep.
“There’s a woman here; her name’s Julie. She says she’ll only take her lox from you.”
Alan went quiet. A few seconds passed, and he muttered, “I’ll be there.”
Julie watched Jacob expectantly as he hung up the phone and explained Alan was coming shortly. She nodded in response, and trained her gaze on the worn floorboards beneath her. It was the first time that evening that she had averted her gaze. Jacob slouched onto a stool behind the counter and stared at his hands. Alan’s mildew-coated clock softly ticked behind him.
Five minutes later, the door swung open, nearly upending a shelf directly behind it. The storm had worsened considerably since Julie had entered, and a gust of wind scattered snowflakes all over the shop. Alan
stood in the threshold, his hat lowered over his eyes, his tall stature filling the doorframe behind him. He hung his hat and coat on the hook beside the door and strided over behind the counter, where Jacob had jumped in surprise from Alan’s entrance.
Keeping his face towards the ground, his hair matted, Alan grunted as he pulled out an oily slab of salmon from the icebox beneath the counter and dumped it onto the counter. He retrieved his knife from the rack behind him and gave it one loving glimpse before hunkering down into his work, slicing the salmon meticulously and effortlessly, as he always did.
Jacob stared at him from where he stood, and ventured, “Hey, Alan.”
Alan turned around, his back hunched, his gaze distracted from being absorbed in his task. He looked at Jacob, then grunted, “Hi, son.”
Alan was not a particularly friendly man, but typically held an air of warmth; Jacob had never seen him ignore a customer as he did now. Julie had not moved from her spot in the other corner of the room,
where she seemed to scrutinize Alan’s every movement.
Alan finished, placed his knife to the side, carefully wrapped up the slices in waxed paper, and handed the sealed package to Julie, who had walked up to the counter, her gaze averted. Alan kept his eyes to the counter, and flinched when her pinky finger brushed his skin as he handed her the package. She placed a crisp bill on the counter and walked to the door.
Alan stood, frozen except for his eyes, which whizzed up, tracking her receding figure. His gaze, which had refused to land on her during their encounter, turned round and honey and stayed glued to her back.
Alan’s hand shook, and a beam of light reflected off the side of the knife, capturing Jacob’s attention. It was then that he saw the engraving, parallel to the hilt, in tiny, crisp letters. “JULIE.”
Jacob sprung from his stool, possessed by some force inside him he could not understand, and darted towards the door, leaving it ajar in his haste. Outside, in the roaring wind, he thought he had lost her for a second, but there was her hunched dark coat, trudging through the storm down the street. He ran, finally caught up to her, and tapped her on the shoulder.
She looked at him in surprise, and stopped. Her knuckles that gripped the packaged lox were white with tension.
“Alan,” Jacob panted, then paused, as he was unsure of what to say. “Alan is good.”
Her face hardened, and she began to walk again in the same direction.
“No, never mind, I don’t know your story,” he called, struggling to match her suddenly brisk pace. “But I can tell you that in the years I’ve worked with him since I came down here after my parents gave me the boot, he’s been honest and fair and he’s treated every customer he’s had with utmost respect, that much he can tell you. There’s loving inside of him. He’s your father, isn’t he? You share the same eyes.”
She stopped, and stared at him. Her lips pursed, as if she were about to speak.
“He works ‘til five,” he continued. “And lives on 500 York Street, not too far away.” Jacob felt there was more to say, but his mouth ran dry. Julie shifted her gaze to beyond Jacob, paused, and turned slowly back around, continuing on her way, her shoulders slightly shaking as she disappeared into the night. Jacob desperately wanted to follow her, to say more, but he felt empty, and could not move his legs. The snow swirled away her figure.
And then, turning back to the shop, whose open door exuded a flood of light, Jacob saw Alan, his figure filling the doorframe, his face wet, with tears welling up one by one, little goblets of light slowly rolling down his sallow cheek.