When I walk in, Bill is at the slicer, huffing madly away. I clock in quickly and, grabbing an apron, run through the dining room to the grill. “Let me get that,” I tell him, but he won’t be moved.
I’ve got the grill covered, and three fryer baskets working, by the time Bill puts the top slice of rye bread on his sandwich. He cuts it carefully in two and, cupping his cigarette in his hand, takes a deep drag.
“A CB extraordinaire,” he says. “All the trimmings.” The smoke of his cigarette is acrid and my eyes water. I nod and try to move around him for the corned beef.
“Saturday night, Danny. It’s like the old days.” I nod and fork the corned beef back into the steamtable. I slide by him, get the roast beef, and edge him away from the slicer. Two passes and I’ve got my sandwich. I reach around him to check on the fries.
“I was like you, Danny,” he says. “Young and on the go. I started with a lunch cart downtown when I was 16. That was before the war. When I got back, I wanted to open it again, but Gloria talked me into catering. Smartest move I ever made.”
I nod, flipping burgers and setting up plates, each one garnished with the patented red and green. Call for a pick-up and Christine starts piling plates on her forearms. Her eyes wander from Bill to me.
“We stayed up all night making cornucopias and meat platters for our first affair. Then we served all afternoon and stayed up all night for our Sunday affair. I don’t think I got four hours sleep in three days.
“I tell you Danny, those were the days. We had to go all over town. The smokehouse was on the West Side. We got rolls and bread from Izzy Itzkowitz, meat from Sam Normandy. We used to make all our own cole slaw and potato salad, pickle the herring and chop the liver. Boy,” he says, “we worked.”
“Why don’t you make them now?” I ask. “People love homemade.”
“It’s much cheaper to buy wholesale, now.”
“Homemade chopped liver? You could even raise your prices. We could start with a few things, specials, and work out from there. What do you say?”
“Oh Danny, people don’t want that nowadays. They want fast and they want cheap.”
“Danny,” he says, lighting a fresh cigarette, “When we opened this place, it was a cafeteria with a grocery section. We had all sorts of specialty items, frozen game, goat’s milk, kosher stuff from Montreal and New York.
“You know what? Nobody bought it. They came, maybe they took a jar home, but the stuff just sat there. Marty, my wife’s brother, he wouldn’t listen. I finally had to get rid of him, bought his half right out from under him. Opened the restaurant. But for a while, we had it all. Cloudberries, lingonberries, gooseberries. You know what? In the end, they’re all blueberries.”
“You’re doing fine, Danny. Try to come in on time, will you?” He throws his butt into the garbage and walks away.
I can see it all now. A blizzard, seventeen foot drifts. The dog team stops in front of Bill’s Imported Delicacies. The Eskimo gives his wife the reins while he dashes in for some reindeer steaks. ‘Don’t forget a quart of moose milk, dear,’ she shouts.
Remembering the other basket of fries, I wheel to check it. I pick a hot French Fry out of the oil, see that it’s not done yet, and drop it back. I wince as the pain hits my fingers.
“Are you OK?” Christine asks.
“Oddly, yes.” My fingertips are a little red, but jeeze, hot oil?
“Well, back to work. It’s Saturday night.”
“And I don’t have a date. Christine, will you have dinner with me?”
“I never take last minute offers.”
“How about lunch then? Something simple. You won’t even have to hold my hand.”
“What did you have in mind?”
I didn’t actually. The University across the street gives me an idea. “How about a picnic? I know a place. I’ll pick you up as soon as it gets quiet.”
“Ok. Stay out of trouble in the meantime.” She picks up her orders and goes.
It’s close to nine-thirty by the time it slows down enough. I come out to the register with two turkey clubs, fries, two cokes and a piece of cheesecake in a paper bag. “Bill,” I say, “Christine and I are taking lunch across the street. We’re back in twenty minutes. If it gets busy, just wave.”
I could swear a wicked gleam comes into his eye and he breaks into a smile.
“Sure thing, Uncle Danny. Have a nice lunch.”
I lead a startled Christine out of the Deli and across the street. There’s a large rolling lawn up to the Old Campus. We walk up to a grassy spot between two bushes under a maple tree. I set down the bag and lay my apron, clean side up, on the grass. We sit side by side, watching the street, half expecting Bill to wave us in.
“I hope you like turkey. I didn’t have time to check.”
“It’s fine.” She bites in. “Cole slaw!”
“Which has been properly drained, you will notice. Christine, I’m sorry about the other night.”
“You were really stoned,” she says. “And I had a lot on my mind.” She does the girl thing—push the food around a little, take a small bite, play with it to not eat too much. You can tell when they’re on a date, they all do that. The couples all just eat.
“You’re like two people. At work, you’re so funny and confident, but when you’re alone, you get so insecure. I think you smoke too much pot.”
“I talk too much.”
“You don’t,” she says quickly. “Some people don’t ever talk about themselves. Even when they have to.”
I lean over and kiss her. She kisses back. When I open my eyes, she is looking at me. She pushes me again. Caught unawares, I tumble backwards, down the slope.
“Get up. Eat your cheesecake.”
“I can’t. It’s downhill. The blood is rushing to my head. Give me a hand, will you?”
She grabs my hand and I pull her on top of me.
“Creep,” she says. “Let me go.”
I let go and kiss her. She settles her body onto mine. Through my jeans, I can feel John’s money pressing into my hip. Oh no, forgot to call.
“We’d better go.”
But there’s no answer at John’s. Bill and Ellen smile at me when I come back from the phone. Christine is in the dining room, working with a fury.
Bill asks how lunch was.
“If it was just OK,” asks Ellen, “then why is there grass in your hair?”
I reach up. My face is burning.
“All that white you’re wearing,” she says. “You stand out. Relax, he thought it was cute.”