Sandor Weintraub, known to everyone as Sandy, stood at his usual station behind the counter. He was hunched over the cutting board, a large knife in one hand and a long two-pronged fork in the other, expertly carving smoked meat off a large brisket. He piled the thick pieces of meat on a slice of rye bread, slathered another slice with mustard, placed it on top of the meat and cut the sandwich in half. After sliding the sandwich on a plate he quartered a fat dill pickle length-wise and garnished the plate. Then he set it on the counter for Georgette to bring to her customer.
Two mechanics in greasy coveralls from the Mister Muffler next door sat in a booth. Georgette served one his sandwich and topped the other's cup with coffee. Two middle-aged women carrying shopping bags came in and sat in a corner booth. The other two booths and the stools at the counter were empty. It was still too early for the supper rush.
Georgette went to the cash register and rang up a bill for the mechanics. Beside the register a glass case displayed briskets of smoked meat, coiled links of fat knackwurst and hulking slabs of tongue. On top of the case was a row of large jars crammed with hot red peppers, sweet banana peppers and green dill pickles swimming in murky brine. On the back wall were metal hooks from which hung portly salamis, speckled with glistening fat, and long links of brown karnatzel in various stages of dryness: from pinkish and plump to a wrinkled reddish-brown. It seemed to Sandy as if the familiar pungency of dark spices and deep-fried grease were permanently ingrained in his pores. He brightened noticeably when Martin entered through the glass front door.
Martin had finished for the day at Miracle Mart, the flagship store of a small outdoor strip mall in this newly developing suburb north of Montreal. At nineteen years of age, he'd been working as a salesman in the boys' wear department for a full year since graduating from Chomedey High. As he did on most days, Martin crossed to the other side of Labelle Boulevard toward a row of businesses that included Mister Muffler, Laval Shoe Repair and a Dunkin Donuts. Sticking out like a sore thumb was a white sign with a blue stripe around the edge, looking vaguely like the Israeli flag, except for the gaudy red lettering that announced: Sandy's Delicatessen.
Sandy waved to his son as the boy made his way past the stools to the other side of the counter. "Hungry?"
"Nah, too hot," said Martin. "I'll just have something to drink."
"Wait, let me have a look at my son."
Martin stood still, presenting himself with arms at his side. He wore a navy blazer and grey flannels. Sandy gave him an approving once over.
"Okay?" There was a hint of impatience in Martin's voice.
"Don't be so smart. There's nothing wrong with me taking pride in my son."
Martin lifted the cooler's lid with its red-and-white Coca-Cola logo and helped himself to an icy bottle of Nesbitt's orange. Fitting the top of the bottle into the cooler's built-in opener, he popped off the cap with a flick of his wrist. Back around the counter he parked himself on the stool nearest to Sandy.
"So how was your day?"
Martin shrugged, loosened his tie and undid the top button of his starched white dress shirt.
"One fat, one lean," called Georgette as she stepped up to the counter.
The freckled cleavage of her rocket-shaped breasts threatened to explode out of the top of her uniform. Garish jungle-red lips parted to grin at Martin, revealing a lipstick smudge on one tooth. Her eye shadow was starting to cake in this heat but, miraculously, wasn't running. She wore wide hoop earrings and from her blonde beehive a loose strand of hair curled at her left temple.
"Bonjour, Marty. You look very handsome today."
"Merci, Georgette, you're looking cool as a cucumber yourself."
"It will be better if the boss man ever gets the air conditioning fixed."
"I called the service guy twice today," Sandy protested. He noticed how Martin tried not to stare at Georgette's ample backside and the crooked seams of her fishnets as she wiped down the length of the counter.
"One fat, one lean!" Sandy called out and slid the sandwiches on the counter to the waitress. "So how's things with your girl?"
"Roz? I'm seeing her tonight. We're going into the city to see a movie."
"Need some scratch?"
"I have money, Dad."
"You saving some too?"
"Sure," said Martin. "I have almost a thousand in the bank."
"Some big time operator you are. Keep it there."
"I'm saving up for a car."
Sandy raised an eyebrow and filled a glass with seltzer from the soft drink fountain. In its metallic sheen he glimpsed the grease stains on his apron and yellow streaks of mustard on the front of his white shirt. He still used Vaseline to keep his combed-back hair in place. The ginger hairline was starting to recede and the wavy sides were streaked with grey. He trundled around the counter and sank his weary bulk onto the stool next to Martin.
"What the hell you need a car for?" He gulped down some seltzer and belched under his breath. "To go a few blocks from the house to Miracle Mart?"
"I'm thinking of applying for a job in the city."
"Oh yeah? Where?"
"Fine Brothers. They make men's suits."
Sandy nodded his approval. He was about to say something when Gilles, his fry man, came rushing out of the kitchen. He had a harelip and spoke in a deep nasal voice.
"Sandy, we outta French fries."
Seeing Martin, he bowed his head shyly. "Hey there, Marty, sorry to interrupt."
Martin nodded. "Pas de problème."
Sandy snapped his fingers in his employee's face. "Gilles, talk to me."
"We outta French fries. The McCains guy don't come till tomorrow, but there none in the freezer. We run out."
Sandy peeled a couple of bills from his wallet and handed them to Gilles. "Go across the street to Dominion and get three or four bags. That should hold us till tomorrow."
"You bet," said Gilles. "Sorry, Sandy."
Sandy waved him away and Gilles rushed out the front door. Sandy tossed back the rest of his seltzer and rubbed his eyes. "Oy, a groiser gornisht, that one."
"Aw, Gilles's alright," said Martin, draining the last of his soft drink. "Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but at least he's honest."
Sandy gave his son a weary look. He knew Martin was referring to Georgette. She doubled as a cashier and was probably dipping into the till, since the cash had come up short twice in the last couple of months. He knew he should confront her about it, maybe even fire her (like he needed that kind of tsuris). He knew he should probably hire a full-time cashier, as if he could afford that.
"Don't ever get in this business, Marty. Be smart."
Martin's only response was to dig his thumb into the top of the Nesbitt's bottle and flick it out, producing a hollow pop. Then he spun his stool around and hopped off. "I better get going."
"So what kind of opening they got at Fine Brothers? Same as Miracle Mart, selling in a store?"
The question took Martin by surprise. "I guess I'd like to get into their mailroom." He gave the stool another spin. "But I think the only opening they have is in the cutting room in their factory."
Sandy made a face. "You want to do that?"
"I dunno. At least it's an in. Maybe I could work my way to the mailroom and then hopefully become a salesman. But that would mean a car."
Sandy studied the Hygrade Smoked Meat sign on the wall and frowned. He'd once worked for them as a salesman hauling around briskets, salamis, hotdogs and other meats in a company station wagon to various restaurants and supermarkets. But he found being on the road tough. In truth he wasn't much of a salesman and could barely make ends meet on the commission alone.
"You know those cutters pull down a nice dollar," said Sandy, almost as an aside, wondering if it wasn't too late to learn a new trade.
"I don't want a career as a cutter," Martin snapped and was immediately sorry.
Sandy looked hurt. "Save your money for now. There'll be time enough to buy a car."
"You want me to hang around till Gilles gets back?"
Sandy put both of his meaty hands on his son's shoulders and squeezed lovingly. "Listen to me, Marty, get out while you still can. Don't get stuck in like your old man."
An influx of teenagers pushed open the front door. Four of them piled into one of the booths, while three others sat at the counter spinning on the stools as if they were rides at a carnival. Martin took off his blazer and tie and hung them on a hook in back of the kitchen. He found a clean apron, tied it around his waist and rolled up his shirtsleeves. In the kitchen he splattered some soft butter onto the grill. It hissed, turning brown, while he spread it around with a spatula, then threw on frozen hamburger patties and hotdogs as Georgette called out the orders. Gilles had put the last of the frozen French fries in the deep fryer's metal basket. Martin lowered it into the hot oil, which immediately began to bubble and spatter, sending up a wave of heat in his face. The ear-splitting sizzle caught the attention of the kids on the stools. They applauded and gave thumbs up signs.
Martin tried not to worry about how he was going to get the stench of grease and oil out of his good work clothes. He flipped the burgers and made slits in the thawing hot dogs, then split open some buns and flattened them on the grill to toast. It seemed like ages since he'd been in his father's kitchen, although he worked here every weekend during high school. Circles of sweat darkened under the arms of his dress shirt. Some oil had spattered on the front of it. He shook his head and passed the back of his hand across his dripping brow.
When the burgers, hot dogs and fries were ready he slid the plates of food onto the kitchen's ledge and called out to Georgette. He caught a glimpse of his father carving slices off the brisket. There was a look of grim concentration on Sandy's face that Martin knew all too well. Each perfect slice of meat may as well have been a piece of the poor guy's own flesh. It was a part of a gradual diminishing that Martin had witnessed for the past five years.
All the old man ever wanted was to own his own business, be his own boss. Instead the deli owned Sandy, who put in sixteen-hour days and rarely showed a profit. It depressed Martin. Was that how he would end up? Not that he was afraid of hard work. What he hadn't told Sandy was that he'd already accepted the cutting room position at the Fine Brothers' factory. He would be starting in a week and had already given his notice at Miracle Mart. He felt ashamed for not having said anything earlier. He knew his father was proud of the blazer and tie Martin wore every day. The old man told him often enough how he wished he could wear those instead of a cheap white shirt and grease-stained apron. Martin also enjoyed putting on the jacket and tie every morning, basking in his father's pride and secretly savouring the old man's envy. But there would be no blazers in the cutting room, save the ones chalked out on the piled cloth on the tables.
When Gilles returned, his arms laden with five bags of frozen French fries, Martin untied his apron and took down his blazer from the hook, stuffing his tie in the inner pocket, and slung the jacket over his shoulder. After putting the bags of fries in the basement freezer, Gilles shook Martin's hand. "Thanks for covering, Marty."
"Pas de problème."
Gilles grinned. "You must be glad not to work here no more."
"It wasn't so bad."
"Merde," said the fry man, clucking his tongue. "Look your shirt."
Martin looked down at the oil stains across the front of his dress shirt and shrugged. It was a write-off. He sniffed the lapel of his blazer. Maybe the smell would air out on the way home. He said good-bye again and waved to Georgette as he headed toward the front door. Sandy walked him outside and lit a cigarette. He fished his wallet out of his back pocket and extracted a couple of bills. "Here."
"Dad, I told you I have money."
"Yeah and you're saving for a car."
"I won't need one for a while."
"So buy yourself a new shirt."
Sandy held the bills out and Martin finally took them. He told himself it was to make the old man feel better. "Listen," said Martin. "There's something I should tell you."
Two streams of blue smoke wafted from Sandy's nostrils. He looked at his son then at the sidewalk, possibly bracing himself for bad news.
"I already got the cutting room job. I start next week."
Sandy nodded. A hint of a smile creased the corners of his mouth, but he pursed his lips and took another long haul on his cigarette.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you before." Martin scratched his head. "I wasn't sure you would be happy about it."
Sandy dropped his butt on the sidewalk and crushed it with the toe of his black leather loafer. "No, it's good. You wanted something and you went after it."
"It'll be a drag taking public transit every day."
"Just keep saving your money for that car, buddy boy."
Martin switched his blazer from one hand to the other, slinging it over his left shoulder. He studied the crushed butt near his father's shoe.
"So what you up to tonight?" asked Sandy.
"Me and Roz are going to a movie. Remember I said.?"
"Right, right." Sandy opened the door of the deli and was about to go back in, then stopped for a moment. "You should bring her -- Roz -- here tonight. Before the movie. You know, like a celebration for your new job. On me."
Martin nodded and watched his father go back into the deli. He stood and stared through the storefront window at everyone inside going about their business. Then he noticed his own reflection in the glass. His shirt was partially untucked and his open collar was a bit crooked. Still, there was an air of sophistication by the way his blazer was slung nonchalantly over one shoulder. He reminded himself of an advertisement for cigarettes or aftershave, taking pleasure in this new image reflected against the deli window, even as he kept telling himself that he had to hurry home to shower and change.