The Sandwich Shack
Chicago doesn’t have much time for magic anymore. Packed with practical Midwesterners having little use for the offbeat and mysterious, it has become a stolid, solidified place, every street mapped out on Google and every shop reviewed on Yelp.
But before the north side was hit by the gentrification tsunami, before its streets were rebuilt, over-policed, and white-washed, the Windy City was a different world, far more dangerous and far stranger, riddled with hidden nooks and crannies.
Most of the secret places are gone now. The bodegas, stew houses, and record shops have been replaced by brunch cafes, fashion boutiques, and upscale pubs serving the latest Belgian craft beer.
There are some secrets left, though. For example, every once in a great while at summer twilight, when soft lamps have filled the tree-lined streets with a faint silver glow, someone with the right combination of kindness and curiosity might decide to stroll down an alley they’ve never been through before.
As they walk, they will begin to smell the delicious aroma of baked bread. They’ll hear an old transistor radio playing the blues. If they’re smart enough to follow their nose and ears, they’ll find themselves walking up to a singular diner with glowing neon sign that reads Brady’s Sandwich Shack.
If you happen to find yourself in the Shack, you’ll notice that your smartphone has lost its signal. Attempting to document the retro interior on Instagram causes the app to crash. Twitter and Foursquare will be unable to triangulate your location, and reviews on Yelp mysteriously refuse to upload.
Don’t panic. Relax. Enjoy the blues. Savor the smell and order some food. If you’re with someone, enjoy each other’s company.
There is a simple menu tacked onto the wall listing five sandwiches. Only five. Do not question this. Don’t ask whether the bread is gluten-free, there are no gmos, or if the vegetables are local. Such questions will be met with puzzlement by the man behind the counter.
In every profession there is a maestro whose skill is so complete that others can only admire their greatness, and so it is with Brady Jones and sandwiches. He uses only the most savory and succulent meats, the best corned beef, just lightly spiced with mustard. His cheeses are the stuff of legend: the sharpest cheddar, a subtle provolone, a Pepper Jack so delicious it makes men weep.
In the 1970s, Brady’s Sandwich Shack was a regular place where anyone could go. It opened at 11:30 in the morning and closed at 10 at night. If he was busy, Brady sometimes hired a local kid to run the register, but mostly he ran the shop himself. He worked hard, only taking a half-hour lunch at 3 and a 15-minute break after the dinner rush, when he allowed himself one cigar and one shot of rye whiskey while sitting on a folding chair in the alley behind the Shack and listening to BB King on the radio.
The Shack served everyone, provided they could pay. Brady didn’t do hand-outs, but he was willing to barter goods for services. A nearby plumber and an electrician received one sandwich on the house every day, and the Shack never had any maintenance problems. Brady Jones had only two rules: everyone waits in line and no special orders.
But there were few long waits because Brady put together sandwiches like a man possessed. Half the fun was watching him hunched over in the kitchen, his hands blurring as meat, peppers, onions, and tomatoes flew as though being tossed by a juggler.
One hot day at the end of August, a long, black limousine pulled up. Two gentlemen in dark suits and mirror sunglasses got out and looked around. Once they were satisfied the area was secure, they opened the limo door and accompanied an elegant, pale old man into the Shack. The man waited in line like everyone else, and smiled when given his sandwich: a #4 Reuben, with corned beef, sweet pickle relish, wheat bread, and the best damn sauce the old man had ever eaten. When he finished, he wiped his lips and gave a satisfied smile.
Later that evening, as Brady sat out back on his folding chair, staring up as his cigar smoke disappeared into the wooden El tracks above, he was surprised to hear a voice.
“Good evening, Mr. Jones. If you’ve a few minutes, my employer would like to speak with you.”
Brady shrugged, then followed the driver to the limo. He sat across from the elderly gentleman, who shook his hand.
“Don’t mean to be rude,” Brady said in quiet voice, “but I need to get back in ‘bout 15 minutes.”
The gentleman smiled. “Of course. This won’t take but a moment. I’ve a proposal for you.”
“Oh?” Brady asked.
“No doubt you think I’m going to ask you to become a chain?” the old man said, a shrewd look on his face.
“Happened a few times,” Brady said cautiously. “Ain’t got the time. And this one suits me fine.”
“And I would never want you to cheapen your art for the sake of money. No, my offer is somewhat different. My name, Mr. Jones, is Carapachi. You probably have never heard of me.”
Brady admitted that he hadn’t.
“That’s as I like it. I’m a behind the scenes man. Without boring details, let me say that I am one of the richest men in the world.”
Brady raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“I’ve kept careful track of any would-be challengers, and I’m on top because I’m the best at what I do. And that is where we come to you, Mr. Jones. I would like to offer you a job.”
Brady put down his cigar. “Like I said, man, all I want is to run my shop, not be someone’s personal cook.”
“No, no, no. I would never dream of making a man as skilled as yourself a mere servant. This would be a special, one-time contract. I would like you to make me the greatest sandwich in the world. All the time in the world to devote to finding the perfect mixture of ingredients: the best breads, cheeses, and meats all at your disposal. None of this repetitive clap-trap of giving the ragamuffins their five sandwiches, but new, innovative, extraordinary pieces. You would have unlimited access to any exotic ingredient in the world. No financial worries, no constraints on your time.”
Brady’s mouth fell open. Finally, he answered, “I’m not sure what to say.”
“My driver shall come by tomorrow to hear your answer.”
Brady watched the limo drive off into the twilight, then returned to the Shack and began taking orders and making sandwiches. The next day, Mr. Carapachi’s driver was waiting for him in the alley as the train rattled by.
“Stayed up late last night thinking about your boss’s offer.”
“Tell him I said no.”
The driver nodded. “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, why not?”
“Why fix something that ain’t broke? I like making food for them as enjoys it. I sleep well at night. Your man says I’m the best. If so, it’s only ‘cause I love what I do. If I changed things, stopped serving ‘the ragamuffins’, I’d lose that. Tell him he’s welcome in the Shack, and that’s the best sandwich he’s like to get.”
Brady went back to work and nothing changed, except his sandwiches seemed to get a little better, if that was possible.
A week later, Brady’s Sandwich Shack received another visitor. Though most didn’t notice him, nearly everyone in the Shack felt a chill down their spines the moment he entered. The man didn’t order, but stood quietly in a corner, waiting until everyone had left and Brady had begun to close up. Just then, in the middle of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” Brady’s faithful radio fizzled out.
“Good evening, Mr. Jones,” the stranger said, his voice as smooth as an oiled knife. Brady looked up, startled.
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” the stranger said, licking his lips and offering his hand, “as one man of taste to another.”
The man wore a long gray coat, dark trousers, and a brown derby cap. A ruby ring gleamed on his right index finger. Brady shook his hand, then gasped as he looked into the stranger’s eyes.
The stranger grinned. “For the purposes of this visit, you may call me Mr. Reel.”
“Reel? Don’t mean to be rude, but I got no business with you, sir.”
“Ah, but I have business with you, Brady Jones.”
“And what’s that?” Brady asked, calculating how quickly he could get to the snub-nosed revolver he kept hidden beneath the register.
Mr. Reel raised his hands. “To talk about your fine sandwiches, that’s all. Those who I do business with say they’re nothing short of miraculous.”
“How do you know if they’re really any good? Don’t recall you orderin’ one.” Brady said, trying not to meet Mr. Reel’s eyes.
“A trifling detail. Let’s talk about what I have to offer!” Mr. Reel pulled out a briefcase from nowhere and set it on Brady’s counter. Elegant hands with long tapered fingers deftly released the case’s clasps.
“Now then, Mr. Jones, though money, power, and fame don’t seem to interest you, I have with me several items that might.”
He pulled out a small glass jar filled with an orange paste. “A special sandwich spread. Spread this on any one of your sandwiches, and the sandwich will taste so good those who eat it will be forced to come back for more. And more. Eventually they will be able to think of nothing but your sandwiches. They will do anything to get their hands on more. And then I — that is you — will have them in the palm of your hand. What do you think?” Reel’s eyes gleamed in the soft light of the diner.
Brady snorted. “My customers come back anyway. Not that you’d know. You still haven’t ordered a sandwich.”
Mr. Reel laughed and shook his finger at him. “Very good, Mr. Jones, very good. To be honest, I would have been disappointed if you’d taken the sauce. Perhaps the next offer will prove more to your liking — a partnership.”
Mr. Reel pulled out a deck of cards, shuffled, and began laying them out. The king of hearts changed to the picture of a chest x-ray. “I know about the pains in your chest that have you worried.”
A jack of spades became a taxation notice. “I know about the city raising its property taxes.”
The king of clubs became a Chicago City Council bill. “I know about the alderman’s plan to rezone your shack into a parking lot. Partner with me and I can make all that go away.”
Mr. Reel waved his hand and the papers turned back into playing cards.
“You don’t even have to change the signage. I’m perfectly content being a silent partner. All you have to do is take my money and say ‘yes.’”
“Doesn’t sound quite right,” Brady said.
Mr. Reel appeared irritated. “Do you have any idea of what’s coming, Brady? Let me show you which way the winds of change are blowing.” And Mr. Reel put a hand on Brady’s shoulder and showed him the Chicago of the future, a little private picture show in the sandwich man’s mind.
When the vision passed, Brady stared at Mr. Reel, wide-eyed, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d seen.
“You have no place in that Chicago, Brady,” said Mr. Reel, pity in his voice.
That may have been his mistake, for when Brady heard Mr. Reel’s pity, his own face hardened.
“Maybe so,” Brady said. “But if that’s what’s in the cards, I’ll play the hand I’m dealt.” Brady stared at the ground, then into Mr. Reel’s face. “You’ve taken enough of my time. If you’re not gonna order anything, I’d appreciate it if you left.”
Mr. Reel’s mouth worked in surprise and fury. His eyes began to spark. Then suddenly, he shrugged and packed up his suitcase. As he was leaving he turned and said, “I do have one final offer.“
He reached into his sleeve and pulled out another playing card, the ace of diamonds. With a wave of his elegant hands, it changed into something else.
Brady’s eyes widened. In a voice barely above a whisper, he asked, “Where’d you get that?”
“What, this? Merely a photograph. You can get them developed at the drugstore around the corner. Why is your mouth trembling, Mr. Jones? Surely, you recognize your ex-wife. The woman who wanted the finer things, things a small sandwich shop owner couldn’t afford. She can be yours again. Just say the word.”
“Get out,” Brady said, pleading.
Reel placed a clawed hand on Brady’s shoulder. “Why should I leave now that things have gotten so interesting? You do want her back, don’t you? I can make that happen.”
Mr. Reel’s face darkened. “Or, I could show you other pictures. Photographs where your woman is, how shall we say, in flagrante delicto? Perhaps that would be more to your taste?”
Brady pulled his revolver from beneath the register. Mr. Reel’s smile grew impossibly wide, showing sharpened teeth. “Perhaps I’ll even pay her a visit myself.”
Brady pulled the trigger. There was a dry snap. He stared at the gun, then pulled the trigger again and again. Misfires each time.
The Shack darkened as Mr. Reel plucked the gun from his hand and pulled Brady across the counter. “All I want is just a tiny piece of the pie. Is that so much to ask?”
“Just leave me alone,” Brady pleaded, his face inches from Mr. Reel’s glowing eyes.
The Sandwich Shack rumbled. Beyond the windows, the city had vanished, leaving only darkness and a howling wind. “Just give me what I want, Brady, and I’ll go away.”
Almost without thinking, Brady said, “What if I give you a sandwich instead?”
For the first time Mr. Reel appeared uncertain. “What?”
That touch of uncertainty gave Brady a little of himself back. “Don’t you want to know what you’re buying into? Try one, then maybe we can talk.”
Mr. Reel stroked his sharp chin. “Very well, I shall try one of these little delicacies. It is only fitting, I suppose.”
Brady Jones smiled grimly. “You have to order.”
“You have to pick one from the list right there on the wall.”
“Very well. The #2 Turkey on Rye.” Outside, the darkness seemed to dissipate slightly.
Brady Jones returned to his kitchen. He didn’t know if he’d ever concentrated so hard on making a sandwich in his life. Coming back up to the counter, he said, “That’ll be a $1.25.”
“What?” Mr. Reel said, shocked.
“We ain’t in business yet. You gotta pay, just like everyone else.”
Mr. Reel growled, dug into his pocket and slammed five pieces of silver on Brady’s counter. The sandwich man didn’t recognize the denomination, but they looked close enough to quarters that he decided to leave well enough alone.
Mr. Reel sat at the counter and looked at the sandwich, as if uncertain what to do next.
“You gotta put it in your mouth,” Brady said helpfully. “And chew.”
Hesitantly, and almost, Brady thought, a little timidly, Mr. Reel brought the turkey sandwich to his mouth and took a bite.
Brady watched as Mr. Reel’s eyes closed. He watched as Mr. Reel chewed slowly. When the stranger opened his eyes, there were tears of blood and flame running down his face. For a moment, Brady thought Mr. Reel looked almost angelic.
“You— you-,” Mr. Reel began, but he could not finish. He closed his eyes and took another bite. Now, the fiery tears of joy were streaming down his face.
“Such beauty. Such exquisite beauty.”
Wiping his eyes, he stood, placed the card back up his sleeve, and began to leave. “Damn you, Brady Jones. I cannot do this.”
The darkness outside the shop lifted. Brady released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Mr. Reel was almost out of the shop and he called out, “Those cards?”
“Don’t think on them,” said Mr. Reel. “Lies and parlor tricks. Nothing like… that.” He pointed to the remains of the sandwich.
“You gonna finish it?” Brady asked.
“No,” said Mr. Reel smiling. “I believe if I did, I’d renounce too many things, and I’m not ready to walk those crossroads just yet. I will leave you in peace. Until your next visitor that is.”
With a blast of hot wind he was gone. The radio came to life again, still playing Robert Johnson’s song. Brady stumbled with relief as he closed up shop.
The next three days passed as usual, though there was a noticeable drop in violent crimes around Chicago. Then another visitor of note came in. Her dark skin, black hair, and deep green eyes gave her the look of a wandering Traveler queen.
“What can I get for you?” Brady asked.
“I’d like a number #3, Italian hero please,” she said. Brady was not quite sure who he was seeing, but he said, “That’ll be one dollar twenty-five cents.
Her face fell. “Unfortunately, I don’t carry money.”
Brady smiled. “Tell you what, you sweep the floor, take out the trash, you got yourself a number #3.”
She ate the hero with relish. After finishing, she began sweeping the floor. And for the next half hour customers felt a little less worried and left the shop smiling, eager to face the rest of the day.
When the woman returned from taking out the trash, Brady inspected her work and blinked. His floors sparkled as if brand new.
But everyone in the Shack had frozen. Folks were paused mid-bite, faces filled with bliss, crumbs half-tumbled out of their mouths frozen in the air. A single drop of cola from the soda-machine floated mid-fall.
“Suppose I should have expected it,” said Brady, as if time stopped in his shop every day. “Everyone wants me stop making sandwiches for people. So who’re you?”
“I think you know who I am, Brady Jones.”
Brady looked into her eyes and saw eternity: the beginning and ending of universes, planets of sentient crystals and oceans of purple and octarine. He cried out. He was only one man, and behind those eyes lay the truth of creation.
“Oh my G—- It’s an honor,” whispered Brady.
“Indeed it is, Brady Jones,” the woman said. “I have heard tell of your good work, and have come to offer you a place at my right hand.”
“What?” Brady sputtered.
The woman blazed with light. “You shall be the head cook of Heaven and live amongst the angels in a mansion of ivory and gold.”
Brady looked at the floor, shoulders hunched, silent.
She glared at him, seeming to double in size. “MORTAL, I AM ALPHA AND OMEGA. INFINITE AND ENDLESS. DO YOU DARE REFUSE ME?”
Brady clutched his register in an effort not to fall over. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and managed a whisper. “Yes, ma’am.”
The woman smiled, and shrunk back into herself. “Good. I had to know if you were sincere. True sincerity is one of the rarest qualities in all the uniiverses.”
“So this was a test?” Brady said, jaw tight.
“Everything is a test, Brady Jones. But I was also here to try one of these sandwiches I keep hearing so much about. And I have to tell you: I’ve never tasted the like.”
“Thank you.” he whispered.
She laughed. “So Brady, don’t you want anything?”
Brady tried to smile. “Just want to make my sandwiches. Only… that vision, about the future. That’s gonna come true, ain’t it?”
For a moment, she looked sad. “Yes, I’m afraid it will all come to pass. In this, he did not lie to you.”
“I hate the thought of Chicago — the real Chicago, getting wiped away. Hate the thought of the Shack disappearing. Might not be fine or fancy, but it’s what I was made for.”
“Indeed. People should do what they were made for, what makes them happy.”
Brady was pleased that someone finally understood. “And what makes you happy, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
The woman looked momentarily shocked and was silent a moment. “Stories, I think.”
“World needs more stories.”
She nodded. “And, if you don’t mind, Brady, I think yours will go on for quite a while longer. Oh I’m not granting you immortality. Let’s just say that every once in a while, whenever you feel like it, you can come back to do what you love and give others a taste of old Chicago.”
Coming back every once in a while? That suited him fine.
“Brady, how do you make them taste so good?”
“Well, some folks will tell you the secret’s in good bread. Others will say it’s the meat or the spread. I think maybe a fine sandwich is like a good story: made to be enjoyed by other folks. Long as I keep that in mind, I do okay.”
The woman smiled, shook Brady’s hand, and walked out. After she left, time resumed, and Brady returned to his kitchen, a smile on his face.
Years later, as Chicago began to change, Brady took sick. While he lay dying in the hospital, the city council fiddled with its zoning requirements and the Sandwich Shack was closed.
Or at least some days it was closed, but some days it was still there. As time passed, it seemed only to be open for those who needed it, those who remembered it, those who wished for it.
It has stayed that way to this day.
If you hear the blues, follow your ears; if you smell the bread, follow your nose. Tell Brady Jones hello. Enjoy your time there. Brady will tip you a wink and ask what you’d like. The #5 is a personal favorite, but any of Brady Jones’s sandwiches is a small miracle: good enough to make a rich man feel poor, the devil weep, and God Almighty Herself smile with pleasure.
And as long as they’re around, that old Chicago will never really die.
“The Sandwich Shack” © Patrick Hurley
Patrick Hurley lived in Chicago for ten years while working as an editor for The Great Books Foundation. He is now a Seattle-based writer and has had fiction and poetry published in dozens of markets, including Galaxy’s Edge, Flame Tree Publishing’s Murder Mayhem anthology, Abyss & Apex, Penumbra, and The Drabblecast. He is a member of SFWA, Codex, and STEW. Follow him on Twitter at @hurlepat.
Illustrations by Fran Eisemann. Stock Used:
Woman in red: Veiled Stock 03 by Elizabeth Stiles
Devil: Evil Me by Marc Hermann, Germany
Sandwich: Half Sandwich by Stockproject1
Long hair: Stock 94 by Hoai Minh, Vietnam
Derby hat: Derby Hat by Émilie & Simon, Canada
lamp-liit old street:City Darkness by Emslichter
Postcards of Chicago: Vintage Chicago Skyline and The Wrigley Buildings by Night, by Yesterdays-Paper
Grey suit: Wedding 8 by Venus-stock
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