“I'm confused,” Dani Spicer said through the ring in her upper lip. “What's this about not usin' pig? You're afraid I won't
We were at the counter, preparing to open Murray's Pastrami Swami Kosher Delicatessen for the day. I looked at the new girl, who was reviewing the menu for the last time before her big day. Sweet Dani, innocent Dani, twentysomething Dani, who had never been out of Davidson County. Blue-eyed, nose-also-pierced, my-middle-name-really-is-Petunia Dani.
“What I said,” I said, “is it's not
That's a kind of healthy eating.”
“Ko-shaw,” she repeated carefully.
“Sounds like an Indian name, right?” asked Luke, who was washing dishes in the kitchen, behind the heat lamps. I didn't bother looking at him. That would only encourage him.
“It's a very old tradition,” I said. “It comes from a time when the Jewish people were concerned about trichinosis, a parasitic disease that comes from pork. All they knew was that when they ate food from pigs, they got sick. So they made dietary rules to protect themselves.”
“Whoa,” Dani said, as though she'd enjoyed a revelation. “Is that why so many Jewish men have beards?”
“I don't follow,” I said, expecting the worst.
“Because they're so healthy, they live longer,” she said.
. It's hard to find help these days, never mind good help. I'd gotten used to running the deli with my trusty skeleton crew, but word of mouth in the Music City travels fast, and I can't complain about a boomin' business, can I?
. Did I really just say “boomin'” without a
in my head? Was I at risk of becoming a real Southerner, like Dani?
New York City seemed so far away, like a life I only once dreamed of having. Lately I'd felt like I was a divorced thirtysomething-year-old woman, which I was, who ran a Jewish deli I'd inherited, which I did. I had two cats, who suddenly wanted very little to do with me when I was home, a boyfriend who was busier locking up bad guys than hooking up with me, and a new girl whoâ
“Ohhh,” Dani went on as the epiphanies continued. “
Like those jars with the pickles in 'em?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Those are the best tastin' ones, and you're sayin' they're healthy eatin', too?”
“They're pretty healthy, yeah,” I told her.
Dani's large blue eyes sparkled with more excitement than I had ever seen anyone muster when speaking of dill pickles. I wondered if she had glowed with the same enthusiasm when she'd worked at an all-girl car wash or as a dog walker, because, according to the application she'd filled out, “I seen J Lo do it in a movie, and it seemed real glam.”
She'd seen J Lo do it. And it seemed glam.
I couldn't help but wonder why slender, five-foot-high, blond-haired Dani was the one to walk through my deli door this morning, at the exact moment when my dishwasher brokeâwith the repair guy on vacationâNewt dropped eight pounds of brisket on the floor, my inventory and order guy suddenly resigned, and business had, happily, reached a point where my tidy little staff couldn't handle it. Not without a full-scale revolt. Again. I had never thought I was a fatalist, but I hired her then and there. Which was not a ringing endorsement of fatalism. Though it was partly Luke's fault. He encouraged me. She wasn't brilliant, but she was bright, a radiant little looker. In this business, that mattered.
Thomasina Jackson is the mother hen of my late uncle Murray's deli, a hostess and no-nonsense, genuine Southern lady and God fearer who probably knows ten times as much about the deli as I do.
“I thought that with the nickname Nashville Katz, it had to be, like, a music place. You know . . . Katz? Cats . . . meow?” Dani said.
“Yes, that's sort of the joke of the name,” I told her.
“Okay, well, that's what I want to doâmusic. Like Lady Gaga. And like Luke. I want to be on
Luke beamed at the mention of his name juxtaposed with one of his heroes.
“How did you know my nickname if you've never been here?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I dunno. I heard it somewhere.”
I didn't press.
Thom said, “So tell me, honey, why did you stay when you found out we serve âjust deli' and not âjust dance'?”
Dani smiled. “That was funny, Thom.”
“Thom rules!” Luke offered.
“Thank you both.”
“I have to say, I'm kinda glad to hear we all don't serve pigs,” Dani said. “My middle name is the same as a pig's.”
“Dig it,” Luke said. “She was named after Porky Pig's gal pal.”
“My mom really likes cartoons,” she said.
I felt like I was trapped in an SNL version of
Lord of the Flies
“But gettin' back to the big Dani openin' day here,” the girl said, “I want to make sure I got it, y'all.” While she spoke, she had brought up Wikipedia on her cell phone. “
means that all flyin' 'n' creepin' things are considered ritually unclean. That's accordin' to both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.”
At least she could pronounce her Bible names. I had to give her that. She probably learned them before she could countâwhich I was hoping she could do.
“Leviticus lists four creepin' exceptions,” she went on.
“CreepLeeches!” Luke interjected with a cheer.
“What?” Dani said.
“Let's hear it for my cousin Zach and his band!
He looked up from the sink, to which he was giving a morning disinfecting; then, cowed by glares from the rest of us, he looked back down. Luke was referring to the band name on the side of the van we'd borrowed for a recent off-site catering debacle, the CreepLeeches.
Throughout what I hoped would not become a morning ritual with my new hire, Newt, our college-dropout cook, went about his business, as did my waitressesâ sorry,
as Raylene and A.J. both insisted I call themâwho were setting tables.
“With regard to animals,” Dani continued, as though everyone were listening, “Deuteronomy and Leviticus say that anything which chews the cud and has a cloven hoof is ritually clean.” She looked up. “That makes sense. Like the devil, right? He has cloven hooves? But animals that only chew the cud or only have cloven hooves are not. Wait. What?”
“You don't have to worry about that,” Thom assured her. “That all gets sorted out somewhere else.”
“Good, because I don't even know what cud is,” Dani admitted.
“Okay! That's enough, kiddies,” I said. “Just so you know, phones are not permitted at the counter.”
“Why? What if I get a call?”
“You won't, if you want to work here. And, Luke, I'll promote you tomorrow if you manage to keep up with the dishes all day.”
Thom gave me one of her “Lighten up” looks, which was fair enough. The new girl was making me nuts, and she didn't want me taking it out on customers. I was still adjusting to the Southern way of doing thingsâalways polite and attentive, not to mention slooooowâand I had to fight the urge to get them in and out like it was the number two train at rush hour.
“Patience,” Thom's gentle eyes and smile said. “Remember how long it would take you to make a sandwich when you first started? Learning to pile pastrami and cole slaw on rye bread without having it fall apart?”
I'd still be serving three customers an hour if Thom hadn't shown me the ropes. At least the girl was into it. Her head was in the game.
I went over to A.J.
“When is A.J. Two coming back?” I asked her platinum-blond beanpole of a mother.
“She's back. Got home from West Virginia University last night.”
A.J. Two was A.J.'s daughter. We numbered her to tell them both apart. The numeric designation made Luke laugh. He didn't understand why we just didn't call her Poop. He was a child.
“She going to be able to fill in?” I leaned closer. “Maybe help Dani out if she needs it?”
“Her dad 'n' me won't have her sittin' around textin' boys all day,” A.J. said. “I'll work up her schedule. We can use her as a swing.”
I got my keys from the office.
“Hey, kid.” Luke chin motioned for Dani to join him at the sink. “You want to learn how to wash dishes?”
“Not really,” Dani said. “I've got to keep my head in this kosher game. And, like, that wasn't in the job description.”
“There are a lot of
that aren't in the job description, either.” Luke's green eyes looked down at Dani, the right one squinted ever so slightly.
“Did you just wink at me?” Dani asked.
“Totally,” he replied.
She giggled, then got serious again. That was a great quality for a waitstafferâbeing able to take a surprise of some kind, roll with it, and get back in the race. And for the record, now that I thought of it fresh,
is a word that sounds like something you'd wear in the Swiss Alps. I would never get used to it.
I went to unlock the front door. There were already three women outside. Plus, the coffee-and-bagel crowd would be here shortly.
“Hey, y'all!” Luke called. “Before the rush, I just want to announce that I have a show tonight and Sunday night at the Five Spot. I'll put you on the list, if you like. I mean, you did say you liked music.”
“You still need a list with an empty room?” Thomasina muttered before greeting the three women at the door. Thom was Old South and not the biggest fan of Luke's own band, the Gutter Crickets. None of us knew if Thomasina had ever gotten past the band's name and had actually given them a listen.
“Glad you heard that, too, Thomasina,” Luke said. “I'm puttin' you on that list!”
“I'll be there Sunday night if you come to church with me Sunday.”
“I will,” Dani said.
“Dani, just focus on today,” I warned.
“And beware the all-knowing Mama Thoma,” Luke said, adding his own warning.
“To work, people,” I ordered.
Thomasina showed the three women to their table, and Dani, proud in her new white outfit and clean apron, went over when they were seated. This was her first flight. It was also the first
flight I got to witness. All the other staffers had been here when I arrived.
A.J. sidled over. “You sure the new girl's gonna cut it?”
“I'm never sure of anything but prices rising,” I said. “But I hope for the best.”
“Cool beans,” she said.
The three ladies were regulars. They came in once a week or so and always sat close to the counter. Inevitably, they inspected everything, from the food and drinks to the decor and cleanliness of the front windows; showed their obvious distaste; then sucked down whatever was in front of them. Most establishments in the nearby Arcade, an alley of restaurants and specialty shops, knew these women as the “Repeat Returner Club.” They'd shop for hours at a time, moving painstakingly slow while asking questions and finally flashing frequent shopper or diner discounts before purchasing. Then they'd return the merchandise later that week. At least my goods were not returnable.
“What can I get you ladies today?” Dani asked cheerily.
“Well, what are y'all's specials today?” asked the leader, Big Red.
“They would be the special items listed on the board behind me, ma'am.”
“I didn't ask you to point 'em out to me. I asked you what they were.”
My brain said,
It was beginning. I was standing behind the counter, at the cash register. I decided not to step in. Yet.
“Are you new here?” Big Red asked.
“Why, yes, ma'am,” Dani replied.
“Do you have the Preferred Diners Club set up yet?” barked Brownie, the second in command. “I spoke to your manager about that last week.”
“I will be just
so happy to check on that for you, ma'am.”
“Well, don't do that yet,” purred the catlike Blondie. “First take our drink order. Didn't they tell you that?”
“Yes, ma'am. Drinks followed by pickles.”
“Did they tell you not to put your thumb in the pickle dish?” Big Red inquired.
“No they did not, and it's a good thing you pointed that out.”