I can tell with one sniff what kind of day it’s going to be. The apartment always smells of onions and corned beef and dill pickles, that’s a given when you grow up over the family delicatessen. Every article of clothing, every piece of typing paper smells like Brooklyn and always will, I’d imagine. But under that, the scent-fingers of wintergreen feather through. I know, lying in my bed and before I register that it’s raining that Mom has boiled up the homemade liniment that helps my zayda with his rheumatism. Always worse when it’s raining.
I get up quickly and dress. A rainy Friday means I’ll be called on to do more. More lifting, more bending, more hours on my feet. I don’t mind. One thing my father always says about being born into a family business is true—it gets into your kishkas. It’s family, and you want to do for your family.
A rainy day also means I’ll be doing more lunch deliveries, and seeing a certain young lady on my route, and I smile.
“Hey, save me some of that, zeeskeit,” I hear my father say as I enter the kitchen. Another bellwether of the weather. My father’s own aches and pains worse at the end of the day, although he’ll never admit to it. Every line etched into his face tells a story. Today I read the one about a deli owner worried that he’ll run out of all his specialties before the Sabbath.
“Don’t I always?” she says, turning back to the tiny stove in our tiny kitchen. Here, we don’t keep to the strict kosher law of not mixing meat and dairy that we do downstairs. Here, we can have milk for my father’s coffee. Here, we can cook with butter. The reasons are practical, my mother says. There’s no room for two sets of dishes, no outside eyes to tell our secrets. Only my cousin Artie knows, and he wouldn’t tell a soul.
Downstairs, the morning is busy—women wanting to do their marketing and get home, the alter cockers lingering over their tea and breakfasts, grumbling to each other that they should have gone to Katz’s, at least there they could have had a schmear. Yet, each morning they return.
My heart beats harder, it seems, with each tick of the clock leading up to lunchtime. The furrier is last on the route, owing to the geography of the Williamsburg streets and their preference for a later lunch hour for the employees. Pop won’t expect me back so soon.
I pack up the truck, the side stenciled with “Abramowitz and Son,” and start my deliveries. Everything is going my way. Traffic, parking, virtually no mix-ups, and some nice tips for coming out in the rain. I barely have time to be nervous until I check my list and see one stop left. When I park near the delivery entrance of the storied retailer that had draped Vanderbilts and Morgans and Astors with furs, I take a few deep breaths and slick a hand through my hair and dab my sweating face with a handkerchief. Then put on a smile.
Laura Zimmerman answers the door. It could be my imagination, but she’s surrounded by a halo of light. Her soft curls shine as bright as her mink-brown eyes. “Eli!” My name on her tantalizing lips is a memory that follows me into my dreams. “Are we ever so pleased to see you! We’re absolutely ravenous.”
She speaks and dresses like a cultured girl, a Fifth Avenue girl, even though she’s as Jewish as I am and her zayda came over on a boat just like mine. Well, probably not just like mine. Mine was in steerage, with his secondhand steamer trunk and ten dollars to his name—or so he says. I wipe my feet on the mat and enter, hoping no one notices my knees quaking, and set the box on the employee lunchroom table. I take a moment before turning to her. I know I should be going. Sometimes we chat, just for a little, until she touches my arm and says she doesn’t want to keep me. Artie says that’s a cultured girl’s way of telling you to scram.
But today I have something to ask her. Something I’ve been rehearsing in my head for days and haven’t yet gotten up the nerve to say.
I turn. I smile. She’s not there. Then she is. With a checkbook. I nearly forget she pays their tab on Fridays. “What is it this week?” she asks, pen poised. I see the check is already made out, signed by her father, leaving it to her to fill in the numbers. I mumble the amount.
Her hands are grace. Her curls, swept forward as she bends her head, an untouchable enchanted forest. Then the perfume hits me, something expensive. My throat is dry and the words are gone.
She tears the paper from the book, thrusts it toward me with a smile of accomplishment. “Sorry,” she says, a bit sheepish. “We have a big sale on.”
Artie would say that means leave and leave now. I clear my throat. “Okay. Thanks.” I fumble the check into my pocket with the others. Her soft mink eyes say “Is there something else I can help you with?” I ignore what Artie might say that meant.
“Do you… I mean… Maybe you’d…like to get a soda with me sometime? Go for a walk in Prospect Park? When it’s not raining, of course…”
The shift in her eyes lands in my stomach like bad corned beef. “Oh… Well, I don’t believe my father would like that. And, well, frankly, Eli, you’re a very nice boy, and it’s flattering to be thought of that way, but I don’t see that kind of future with someone who smells like pickles and pastrami.” She brightened. “But thank you for lunch. See you Monday?”
Fortunately the afternoon is busy. I lift and bend and carry.
“Boychik,” my mother says, nodding me into a corner. Her eyes tell stories too. Of a mother who knows something’s wrong. She straightens my shirt collar. She smells like chicken soup. “Go up and check on your zayda, would you? He might like a little company.”
I go, glad for the reprieve, glad even to rub wintergreen into my grandfather’s aching joints. But zayda is sleeping. I watch him in slumber. Remembering his stories. Of coming to America. Of opening the delicatessen. That’s the perfume I love best. Artie might say it was fate, me and the furrier’s daughter. “You do smell like pickles and pastrami,” he’ll say. “But maybe one day you’ll find a girl who likes that.”