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From Herring To Eternity
By Delia Rosen
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Jeff Rovin
All rights reserved.
A.J. strode into the deli kitchen, stopped, shuddered from her shoulders to her fingertips, then folded her arms and looked me square in my baby browns.
"I am not going back out there!"
I had been standing behind the long stainless steel table, scrambling eggs for Luke, who was filling in for my cook, Newt, when she entered. A.J. was the star of my waitstaff, the Pavlova of the serving tray. With just Raylene and Thom on the front lines during the breakfast rush, I couldn't afford to lose her.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
Her thin, lightly freckled face was taut with horror as she said, "That witch is here."
The ponytailed blonde was the poster child for southern gentility. When she used the term "witch" or anything that rhymed with it, I knew she meant it literally.
"Mad's here for breakfast?" I asked.
That's odd, I thought. "Don't worry—I'll take care of it, A.J."
"Sorry, but her face—"
"It even scares Thomasina."
"I understand. See to the other customers," I said as I finished scrambling the half-dozen eggs and handed the bowl to Luke.
Managing a restaurant is 10 percent stirring, 10 percent cutting, and 80 percent psychoanalysis and handholding.
"Breakfast, huh?" Luke said as he flipped extra-crispy slices of turkey bacon. "Should I stir-fry frog's eyes in hen's blood for the Chicken Wiccan Omelet?"
"Only if you plan to eat it," I told him.
"You're disgusting," A.J. said to him as she turned and went back into the dining room.
"Hey, Ozzy used to gnaw off bat heads!" the aspiring rocker shouted after her.
"I'm not sure the folks at the counter are interested," I said as I removed my apron and laid it on the table.
"Well, they should be," he said. "It's history, man. History."
"Right. Cook, Luke, unless you want to be history."
"Haw!" he laughed.
He was right. God help my loyalty to Uncle Murray's staff. They had seen me through some tough days and a supersteep learning curve when I'd inherited Murray's Deli from my late uncle. I owed them all. And however challenging they could be, I liked them.
It was difficult to believe it had been three hundred sixty four days since I first came down here to run the place—I, Gwen Katz, an NYU-educated accountant, a New Yorker whose idea of making lunch was a snap-shut plastic container, tongs, and a salad bar. I had only been to Nashville a couple of times during the previous twenty years to visit my I-left-your-mother-to-figure-my-life-out father and his brother, and friends had urged me to sell the place. But I had just gotten out of a bum marriage, was tired of working at a brokerage firm that was under fire from Obama and from frightened investors—talk about DP, "Double Peril"—and at thirtysomething I decided to do something different.
I'd succeeded. Folks around here now referred to me as "Nash," short for "Nashville Katz," as though I was southern-born and raised on the pastrami game. In addition to learning the deli business—with the help and endless good will of my God-fearing hostess, Thomasina Jackson, who knew more about the place than I did—I'd also managed to be onhand for a couple of homicides. I hadn't reached the point of wondering whether I was some kind of human GPS signal for the Grim Reaper, but it was a little freaky.
Speaking of freaky, that was the word which best described the lady who was sitting alone by the side window at the end of the counter. Her name was Mad Ozenne, the "Mad" being short for Madge. According to Thom, she was Creole on her father's side, Missourian Ozark on her mother's side, and living in Nashville because she had planned to marry a Cherokee jeweler named Jim Pinegoose. But the artisan had died just days before the wedding, suffering heart failure during a tribal competition dance at the Twentieth Annual Tennessee State Pow Wow in 2003.
"And just last week she tried to contact him through the tribal atskili," Thom had told me. "A witch. It was the talk of the church. Parishioners said they saw her and Sally Biglake in the woods behind Barbara Mandrell's home, incantationing."
"Why there?" I had asked.
"No one knows," Thom had said, inadvertently spookily.
"Maybe she likes the song 'Stand by Your Man,'" I'd suggested helpfully.
Now, here's what I meant about the attentive patience of my staff. Thom had looked at me sadly, took my hand in both of hers, and said, "Girl, that was Tammy Wynette. You want to take care not to make mistakes like that among the customers, 'less you want them laughing behind your Yankee back."
"Good advice," I had said. "And how should I take the—what did you call it? Incantationing?"
"Seriously," Thom had replied without a trace of sarcasm. "That stuff has some potent qualities."
The woodsy witchery was forgotten for more important business. The next day, Thom had given me a big stack of CDs. Within weeks, I was so immersed in country that I not only knew the lyrics to "Jambalaya," I knew what "Me gotta go pole the piroque" meant.
No longer a mistrusted Northerner, I beelined smiling through the "good mornings" of the diners to station number seven.
Mad Ozenne was in her early fifties, a tiny, bony woman whose long graying hair hung loose over her ears. She wore cotton crinkle skirts and caftans, typically with astrological patterns or crescent moons. The pagan attire wasn't the strangest thing about her, however. What had set A.J. off, and what drew stares from diners who did not know Mad, were the tattoos on her cheeks. She had all thirty-two teeth inked on the outside.
Sweet young Dani, who usually worked the afternoon shift—and was no stranger to piercings and body art—once asked, "Ma'am, forgive my askin', but didn't that hurt?"
"Very much," the woman had replied.
Mad had looked up at her and said, "The better to eat you with, my dear."
When she came for lunch, Mad always ordered chicken broth soup with a side of gefilte fish, heavy on the horseradish. I was frankly curious why she was here for breakfast and what she'd have. The woman was studying the menu, mouthing the words as though they were a runic conjuration.
"Good morning," I said pleasantly. "We don't usually see you here so early."
"I'm not an early riser," Mad agreed. "The dawn moon and Venus required it. The earth is not happy. I will have three raw eggs in a bowl with Hebrew salt on the side, and four slices of dry rye toast."
"You mean kosher salt," I clarified.
"The large crystals."
"Yes, that's kosher salt," I said. "You got it."
"It's very tasty," Mad said, opening and closing her mouth in anticipation and causing her ink teeth to move in an unnatural, sinuous fashion.
"I'll be right back," I smiled.
I was accustomed to patrons making innocent comments about "Hebrew" this and "Jew" that. I liked to believe it was uneducated shorthand, not malice. For nearly a year, though, I wished that some of these people were thrust suddenly and without preparation into Manhattan and faced the quick education I had had to endure down here. They wouldn't survive a week.
Mad watched me as I hurried off. As I passed the end of the counter on the way to the kitchen, Lippy Montgomery stopped humming—it was more like one of those soft, sibilant whistles where your tongue is pressed to the inside of your upper teeth. He swiveled and tugged at my sleeve. His round face, looking older than its late-twenty-something years, with its chronic hangdog expression, seemed more distressed than usual. He held the check in one hand; the other hand rested protectively on the battered trumpet case which sat on his lap, plump and frayed like a pet Pomeranian.
"Excuse me, Nash, but I don't think this check is right," the young man said.
"What's wrong?" I stepped around to glance at the bill.
"The herring platter, while uncommonly tasty, as was the grapefruit juice, is usually six ninety-five, not seven-fifty."
"The Russians are charging us more," I explained. "We're not making an extra red cent profit—if you'll pardon the pun."
Lippy looked at me blankly. He was not a political scientist; he was a horn-playing high school dropout who left Hawaii, he once told me, to seek fame in Music City. After all the years here, he was still performing at local bars, at funerals, and on street corners.
"We changed it on the menu," I added, reaching for one from the metal holder.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't look at the menu. I always order the same thing." He looked pained. "I'm really tapped out," he said quietly, apologetically. "I've got enough for the old price and a small tip."
"I see," I said. "Not a problem." I took the pen from behind my ear, plucked the check from his bony fingers, leaned on the counter, and scratched the number out. "Old price for today. I also adjusted the tax down. When you pay, if Thom gives you a hard time, let me know."
"Whoa! You did that in your head?"
"Simple economics," I said. The Wall Streeter in me had skills that sometimes frightened the staff and clientele alike.
Lippy sighed. "Money isn't simple."
"No, but it makes the world go 'round, world go 'round," I Joel Greyed him—instantly regretting it, because now the song would be in my head for the next dozen hours or so.
"Money is necessary, but there are more important things," he said. "Like music. Like health."
"You can make yourself sick without money, and then you couldn't play," I said.
"I can always play," he said, caressing his trumpet case with a little smile.
It was time to move on. I sidestepped Raylene, who was coming around with coffee refills, then turned like a swinging door to make way for A.J., who was moving extra fast to make up for not waiting on the tattooed Wiccan, before finally making my way behind the counter to place Mad's order.
Luke snickered as he set a breakfast melt—egg, cheese, and corned beef on a roll—under the heat lamps and dinged the service bell twice for Raylene.
"That's kinda cool," he said, looking at the check. "Remember when Rocky had raw eggs for breakfast? Maybe that's where she got the idea."
"She doesn't strike me as the movie-going type," I said.
"Unless it's a brain-eating zombie movie," Raylene said as she picked up her order.
"She didn't order brains," I pointed out.
Raylene made a face. We didn't serve brains, but sweetbreads and tongue were both on the menu. They were two things she refused to serve. I didn't know this for certain, but I suspected I had the only waitstaff in the state that had the temperament of artistes. No one but my uncle Murray—and now me—would have tolerated it.
A man at the counter called my name. I turned. It was Robert Barron—"Robber" Barron, as the waitstaff called him. The six-foot-three former Marine was a treasure hunter who trawled through World War II naval graveyards, hunting for relics to sell online. These included dog tags of sailors who had gone down with their ships. His actions were protected under maritime rules of salvage and "prize laws," the recovery of booty resulting from conflict. He was ver y unpopular among veterans and with families who were forced to buy back the belongings of loved ones.
"Morning, Robert," I said politely, but no more.
"How are you, beautiful?" he asked, pulling little iPod buds from his ear.
"'How art thou, Romeo?'" I replied.
"What did you call me?"
"I wasn't calling you anything," I said. "It's a play on what you said ... never mind."
"Yeah, my schooling in the classics isn't so great," he said. "But here's something for you. Did you know that witchcraft is a religion? Officially, I mean."
I shrugged. I thought of quoting Macbeth but decided not to.
"They're tax exempt and even protected against hate crimes," he said. "I learned that when I was diving off Hawk Channel, south of Key Biscayne, in waters claimed as sacred to local Santería practitioners. I sent 'em an offer of money and when that was turned down, I blasted out a few angry e-mails. I got quick reprimands from the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service and the Civil Rights Division."
"The law protects all kinds of folks," I said pointedly.
He nodded in agreement, my harpoon having missed its target—a man who plundered the final resting places of pirates and American servicemen without distinction. He gathered up the bags of supplies he'd bought in town and got up to pay, rolling his tongue behind his upper and then lower lips for unchewed treasure.
"It sure do. That applies to voodoo, too," he said. "Practitioners can cut the throats of baby calves and let them bleed out without PETA being able to do a thing about it."
"That smoked brisket apple sausage you just ate was glatt kosher," I told him. "The animal was restrained and bled before carving."
"Nashy, that wasn't a value judgment," he laughed. "I'm the last one to criticize you people. I've hauled tuna on deck and gutted 'em alive, ate fresh sushi while they were still wriggling. I was just sayin' is all, seein' as how you was talking to the witch."
"Make sure you come back when there's a ten percent discount for sharing," I said, moving away.
"You people and discounts," he replied, shaking his head. "Come and see me sometime. I'm at Oak Slope. I'll show you the river."
I didn't answer; it wouldn't have been Shakespeare that came from my mouth.
You people. That was another expression that rolled hard knuckles up and down my spinal column. I had to stop myself from turning back and hitting him with his own plate.
I reached the kitchen as he reached the cash register. I thanked my Hebrew God that Thomasina was working out front so I could walk away. Another few seconds and I would have reached over to the grill and hit him with a hot metal spatula.
Any hash browns you lick off your face are free, I thought as I played the scene out in my head.
Mad's toast popped and I took her order out to her.
"That man has a dark aura, bad juju," she said gravely.
I knew she meant j-u-j-u. "He's a charmer," I agreed.
"I'm a charmer," she said.
"I meant he's not very appealing."
I set her meal before her. She had not looked at me the entire time she was talking.
"That man is a reason the planet is cross," Mad said. She leaned forward to pick pinches of salt from the dish I'd brought. "Something must be done."
Mad's soft voice matched the strange, ethereal quality in her expression. If she weren't so fragile-looking, I might have considered her dangerous instead of eccentric.
"Is there anything else?" I asked.
"This is all very well, thank you."
I left the check. Mad was Thom's responsibility now.
The breakfast rush was waning. Returning to the kitchen, I made sure that Luke had things under control—as much as the young man ever did—then went to my office.
My cubby, my sanctuary, was in the back of the deli. I shut the door and plopped into the swivel chair. So much of it was just the way my uncle had left it. His yellowing handwritten notes for firing up the fryer and dismantling and cleaning the slicer were still on the bulletin board. The old plastic photo cube with pictures of him and my father and me—as a little girl—still sat on the desk, next to the Coney Island pencil holder. In it were pens that celebrated the fifth anniversary of the deli.
The chair cushion still bore the impression of where my dad sat. The vinyl had split in front and I could see where he had picked at pieces of foam. I'm sure if I looked, I'd find them somewhere under the desk or behind the filing cabinet.
The only thing that was really mine here was the laptop. And the memories.
Most recently, there had been the discovery that my father had a mistress down here, Lydia Knight. The crazy lady was in prison now, but she had put a pair of scissors into my arm right here, in this little room. What Mad said Robert Barron had done to the earth? That's what Lydia had done to this office. She'd made it an unhappy place. If not for the quick action of her daughter Stacie, the stab would have done more than five stitches' worth of damage.
I looked around. "Oh, Uncle Murray—you're here less and less every day," I said wistfully.
No sooner had I sat down to go over the inventory than I got a call from Stacie, Lydia's daughter. She had come to work here briefly after her mother was arrested, but the memories of the confrontation got to her worse than they did me. Plus, there were other people Stacie didn't want to see again. She'd decided to relocate to Southern California with her fiancé, Scott, who was recovering from injuries suffered at the hands of bikers. I had leaned on one of my old Wall Street connections to get her a job as a teller.
"How's San Diego?" I asked.
"It's got a lot of ocean," she said. "I'm driving to work, looking at it now."
"Nice. I'm looking at a stapler."
"Then come out here! I'd love to show you around. Thomasina can run things for a few days."
Excerpted from From Herring To Eternity by Delia Rosen. Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Rovin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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