Jan/Feb 2007  •   Spotlight

The Home Front

by Paul Silverman

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

Out of the corner of his eye, Harold watches his son build a sandwich, thrusting the tongs into the pastrami cauldron and fishing up a fat wad of brine-soaked, heat-curled slices and dumping the slippery mass onto the base of a roll. He possesses an eyeball that could have been engineered by the Toledo Scale Company, and this calibrated mechanism sends alarm signals to all parts of his brain. "Jack, you're killin' me," he says, his eyeball telling him Jack has dropped four ounces easy onto the roll, four ounces when the house rules, the margin requirements cast in stone for all time—no exceptions, even on the night the Korean War has ended—specifically call for three and a half ounces, three if you can get away with it with the Irish cab drivers.

"Concentrate, Jack," he says, "concentrate," watching out of his eye corner mournfully as Reggie Bondurant (stage name, Bond), jet hair ironed like Cab Calloway's and top-to-bottom zooted and spiffed in his weekend piano-playing tux, snatches the fiscally unsound mound (Jack gave up extra pickles too) and scuttles away from the counter to a far corner table, holding the sandwich close to his chest the way a running back hugs the football. Saving the fissured formica table for him is Dixon James, the lanky old middleweight who once killed a Kid Something in a Scranton ring but now gives no physical sign of this whatsoever, as his wilting wino arms quake and spill coffee and his lips quiver around a wet, unfiltered Chesterfield snipe.

At least Reggie's a regular customer, thinks Harold, but he also thinks now Reggie will want four-ounce sandwiches all the time, and so will every other pastrami fiend standing in the scowling mob who saw what a prize Jack handed Reggie.

But Jack will never be able to concentrate in this place, not with hookers offering hand jobs for meal plans, not with every tenth diner threatening to punch his white face black should he underweight the sandwich, not with razor-toting drunks lurching into the phone booth for an easy piss then hanging in the alley for a little slash n' stash, not when he knows the sickening truth: he'd be happier shooting spitballs at the rabbi's blackboard back in Hebrew school than slinging salami alongside his nocturnal old man, always surrounded, always outnumbered, always counting on food alone to calm the horde and ward off the slaughter. He's sick and woozy with the colonialist dread, worse than malaria: Some day, when will it be, they'll stampede, they'll come over the glass, and the few of us, we'll be trampled.

By 3:00 AM, it's grown from 10 deep to 13-14 deep, the yells of hunger and anger have an edge sharp as the countermen's knives, sharp as jailhouse shanks; the drunkest and the baddest join the food fray in droves as the afterhours clubs shut down and dump the diehards into the streets, where the smells from the Blue Hill Deli stir them and pull them off the sidewalks the way the odor of passing antelopes stirs lions dozing in the African grass. Harold has never gripped a tennis racket but develops tennis elbow raking it in; he's nearing the Guinness record for cash register ka-chings. Jack is nursing two fingers he gashed from nerves, and sweet gospel Ollie, the choirboy dishwasher who never says a swear word, churns so hard at his tray-stacked machine he seems ready to melt and seep into the kitchen grease bucket they save for the hog farmer who in daylight will arrive in a stinking truck to carry off the swill.

Now that the Rupelman's bread man has come and taken Harold's signature on the post-midnight delivery bill for rolls, not another white face is expected until the first slices of light, pink as lox, begin to fall across the night sidewalk and mute the neon window script sizzling orange like the wires in a toaster. They will be shopkeepers and synagogue-goers, dour-faced, the prune juice customers who wear their felt hats indoors.

But the expected doesn't happen. And the white man who bursts in doesn't establish himself first off by race but rage. What turns everyone around to face the doorway he fills is the roar, the red-eyed, hopped-up, caveman war cry: Fock you niggas. I'm here to kill nigga. Kill fockin nigga. Fifty-two blacks, all but six of them men and some of these are men with Sonny Liston hands and cellblock scars. They all turn as one, this pastrami-hunting pack, and the four white Jews whipping them up grub for money, they turn and cease all sound and motion and sniff the wind, at that first instant not a mob or a solid human wall at all, just solo humans each in his own skin, stunned by the invasive brazenness, the raw demonic force of the threat, taking its measure, scoping where to duck when the barrel of the gun comes out.

None does, at least not yet. The intruder takes two lunging steps forward, and the crowd takes three steps back. He has that combat look, olive splotchy stuff and jungle boots, and he's big, thick, and dirty. In those first moments the least fearful are the four Jews, even Jack the simpering Hebrew School hipster. They have no concept of a posse, a lynch mob, even a one-man lynch mob, not in this country, never. But the deep Southerners, brawl-worthy as they may be, get stalled in the thicket of two entangling instincts: the urge to never lose a single hard-won inch in the food line, and the inbred, gone-but-not-forgotten dread of the raging negro-catcher, the plantation brute who could be packing a bullwhip and worse. Even way up in Boston, the fabled Underground Railroad town.

As for the four countermen, they all have carving knives in their hands. Any one of them except the student Jack could grab a chunk of meat and, in a blur rivaling a Hormel processing machine, hand-cut it into perfect paper-thin slices. But meat-slicing and man-slicing are worlds apart, so no one moves or even thinks of violence at such an extreme, and the only soul in the place who's not paralyzed and all frozen-eyed on the doorway monster is Ollie, oblivious and closed off by the kitchen door and the hissing, clanking, howling, deafening action of his infernal hydro-apparatus. This is the lull, the moment of surprise the intruder, whose old camouflage clothes are the genuine article—US issue, dispensed at the 38th Parallel—has been trained to take advantage of, and he cuts through the stalled mob like a bayonet, because he knows exactly where he's going. As he staggers for the kitchen, though, Harold notes from the shoulder carriage, this bull seems already at half-strength or worse, drained by whatever torrent of chemicals he's poured into himself and the marathon debilitations of his own uproar. His blood-hot eyes, his stench, say he hasn't slept for days; the dried blood on his lips and ears say he's been in battles all night or even all week.

Tha' moddafocka is mine. The mad soldier bellows this as he butts the kitchen door open, and something about his back and not his eyes being the new focal point for this crowd of threatened individuals releases the mass palsy, and every one of them, finally, each of the countermen and Jack, too, begin to stir and bond into an invaded, maligned collective (although they do this watchfully, more as a somber, violated citizenry than a screaming gang or war party) and mill and surge behind him. They see the soldier wrest the big foundry-cast handle out of the meat grinder; they see Ollie pull himself away from his tray-mopping and scouring and stacking; they see Ollie's stooped shoulders stiffen and turn, and his attention along with it, and they watch the horror pry open his eyes and bulge them like two poached eggs about to be impaled by a fork.

But a fork is nothing compared to the murderous weight of the meat-grinder handle whizzing through the steambath fog of the kitchen at Ollie's head. He bobs, and the steel hunk just misses and crashes into a freshly-scalded tray of dinner plates and saucers, shearing the restaurant china like a missile taking off the tops of buildings. Why him? Why Ollie? thinks Harold. But Harold's whole focus has always been the front of the place, the front door and who comes walking or waltzing or barging through it. He's the performer, the master of ceremonies—taste this potato salad, come on taste it, it's like ice cream—he only concerns himself with the spotlight and center stage, not the murk and backstage. So he's baffled.

Ollie, however, is anything but baffled. Even in the blood-draining instant when his head dodges the meat-grinder handle and he backs his haunches up for defense against his red-hot machine, the corner blocking any chance of escape, even in the deadly blur of all this, his mind replays the weeks he and the grandfatherly Rufus, busboy since the Turn of the Century, have suffered the soldier's assaults on the bolted back door and grime-crusted bars of the dungeon-size kitchen window, the raving in the alley, the tossing and crashing of garbage cans, the soldier roaring through the window bars for a piece of food, for a piece of the job owed him that Ollie and all the motherfuckers like Ollie came north to steal while he, the soldier, was off across the ocean busting the Red chinks in Korea—yes he shouts to the sky above the alley—busting the Red chinks and saving Ollie's brown ass from the yellow A-bombs.

Now the crowd that had been knee-deep and swarming around the succulent meat vapors of the counter has bottled itself, the way pickles are bottled into a jar, between the jambs of one of the two entrances from the dining room to the kitchen. They've turned this doorway, the one Rufus pushes his Daddy LongLegs frame through when he's clearing tables, into an airtight impasse: dozens of sweating, muttering faces and craning necks behind it, dozens of mouths and stomachs oozing the juice of pastrami anticipation just moments ago now gape and curl and snarl, empty and unfed, their insides turned bilious by the flung weapon, the whizzing iron bludgeon that could have cracked the head of a brother.

But from where Ollie crouches, cornered by the soldier and the steel bulge of his own machine, the human sea jamming the doorway—as long as they only stand there and do nothing—is just one more blocked exit, a hole he cannot slip into, as is the other doorway as well, the one leading to the runway behind the counter. This portal is bottled up by white men, Harold, Jack and their two aproned comrades, Shivvie and Katz, the hired guns Harold won't permit even after eight years of faithful service to ring up a single, solitary sale because he wants their fingers busy with the pastrami and rolled beef and pickled tongue and nowhere near the sacred till.

To Jack, as usual, Ollie's imminent massacre is as much about himself as about the real victim. His mind is working rabbit-fast, and the sight of the soldier wading in on the slender, shuddering boy jerks his image-track back to the hour before midnight two weeks ago when he himself was in Ollie's shoes, challenged and bullied by a weightlifting behemoth on a dance floor, a hulk who snickered at Jack's pink hipster shirt, at his black shoes with the pink tassels and the dandyism of his dance moves as he boogied and swiveled with so much verve and polish, a better dancer than the girls—that was his talent, his curse. The weightlifter snorted and pawed, called Jack a fag, and the dance floor cleared, leaving just the two of them until Jack turned and ran. As he always ran.

However, when the soldier picks up a new weapon, a wooden kitchen mallet, and Ollie cringes and trembles, Jack feels something he never felt before. His heart bangs against the cage of his chest, and he has to fight against crying out, against sobbing like a child. He can't believe it, but he actually wants to jump in there—with Ollie—to stand at his side. But he can't budge, even when the mallet sails like a tomahawk, grazes Ollie's pate and clatters against a greasy girlie calendar pinned to the browning yellow wall. His feet feel glued to the spot on the floor where his shoes are planted. His arms feel weak as toothpicks, reduced from muscle to cartilage, his whole skeleton as insubstantial as a bird's. And this makes him want to sob all the more.

Out of all of them, the one who does step into the ring is the one who knows the ring, the way Harold knows the heel of a pumpernickel loaf. He's dipsy and twisty as a licorice stick, his blood is half Muscatel, and he jabs like a ghost of himself, but Dixon James is so nonchalant about trading punches, he weaves in with the Chesterfield snipe still tucked in his lips. And the geometry is written in his limbs, never to be erased: the jab is efficient and straight, and even though decrepitation and inebriation have shrunk the jab from an icepick to a toothpick, it still travels at professional speeds and stabs the crazed vet true in the right eyeball. The blow does its job, too, spinning the stung soldier towards his attacker and allowing Ollie to run into one of the two bottlenecked doorways, his instinct driving him like a paper clip to a magnet smack into the jampacked black gaggle as opposed to the four frowning whities who all have that storekeeper look.

Fock-in nigga. C'mon. C'mon you fock-a.

While the bout wrecks his kitchen, Harold curses the deductible and tries to strategize. He sorts the facts, of which three stand pre-eminent. First, all commerce has ceased, the cash register is still as death, and Harold feels this as he would feel his toenails being removed by pliers. Second, the prominence of the meat grinder handle and the wooden mallet suggests there is no gun and never was one. Meanwhile, Dixon the ancient wino middleweight-wasted-to-nothingweight has stuck the wild, wailing pig a half dozen more times, and the eyes, nose, and mouth are leaking blood like a lawn sprinkler. Harold has seen newsreels of bullfights, seen how the picadors stick and sap the monster until he bows his woozy head for the matador. But then there are the horns and the killer instinct and the chance, always the chance, for one last goring, killing swipe, and time and wine and Chesterfield smoke have taken enough away from Dixon, so when the swipe comes, he's an inch or two off his dance routine and the ganged-up faces, both white and black, wince for him and themselves as a thudding splat messes up Dixon's mouth, snuffs his stump of a cigarette and flattens his comeback, although his licorice legs manage to clamber back up and wobble on the once-natty, sole-flapping saddle shoes.

But the force of the roundhouse punch, just throwing it, has wounded the bull, too, commanding more energy than he can spare, and Dixon's last jab, which hit the Adam's Apple, has brought forth carmine-streaked vomit, and the soldier gags on this surging effluent as he tries to roar hate and suck oxygen into his smacked, suffocating windpipe, all at the same time. Harold watches him reel and falter, blood-blinded and gasping, and he makes a calculated estimation, now is matador time.

Unlike his babied son, Harold has been bounced around the schoolyard a few times, and his own father, Shmuel, was a blacksmith in the old country, and Harold retains, at least for one generation, a truncated version of the barrel back and smithy arms, arms bred for the Russian bearhug. This scenario, though, with the bull soldier lurching and bowing low, blinded by his own blood and choking on it, too, calls for a different hold, the old headlock-and-eye-gouge straight out of Boston Arena wrestling. As Dixon soft-shoes it for the sidelines, Harold charges out from the counter doorway, wades into the kitchen, and throws an arm-vice around the blood-soaked, exploding soldier-head, a head surprising for its sheer gorilla girth. Slapping open a canister he palms a fistful of black pepper, smears it across the eyes and kneads it with all the finger-force he can muster, and as the resulting scream hits the decibels of an air-raid siren, he locks the pepper hand on his other hand and constricts, grinding hardest against the gore-slick temples.

Fucked up my kitchen, fucked up a record night. This one thought—the irony of a packed house and a cold, silent cash register, a seeming impossibility—hops up Harold like a hypodermically needled race horse and makes him squeeze so hard the short-sleeve of his white deli shirt lifts, exposing the buttocks of the blue girlie tattoo. They inflate like twin blimps, then distend into disturbing shapelessness like conjoined amoebae or adjacent bodies of water on a map. He's so intent on squashing the gorilla melon he's holding, he doesn't hear the general muzz-muzz from the throng, now a somber Coliseum crowd chanting thumbs-down, demanding death to this gladiator motherfucker who burst in and shut things down when the pastrami was but inches from their lips. He also doesn't see beyond the blood-matted nest of hair in his arms—doesn't see the soldier's arm snaking out behind his back, fishing around like a tentacle, landing on a wooden case of empties and hoisting a root beer bottle out by the neck.

Harold doesn't see it, but Jack does, and for the first and maybe only time in all his life, the pre-conditions arise for Jack to act valorously as opposed to typically. It is a trifecta even he can't resist: filial yearnings stoked by crowd sentiment emboldened by the sight of the enemy captured and weakening. All at once, his veins gush the only solvent that can unglue his feet from the floor—courage—and he sprints from his haven in the doorway to the side of his grappling father, pounces behind the headlocked soldier, clamps a hammerlock on the free, mayhem-intent arm and pushes it up and up until the rising pain uncoils the soldier's fingers and the bottle, the cudgel of glass targeting Harold's skull, falls to the grimy concrete and shatters. I saved my father. I did. And in the very epicenter of the pandemonium, Jack feels calm, so at peace with himself, the blur of the two-on-one wrestling match appears to him as frames in slow-motion, each mote of time a still picture he can analyze and act on fearlessly. He of all men is the man in charge.

Harold, the matador, senses the change in the enemy, the deeper droop of the headlocked head, the sag of the entire torso, the moan of the depleted bull presenting his nape for the killing thrust. Harold nods to Jack and walks the spurting head forward two paces, and when he feels no resistance to speak of, he drags the head two paces more and employs it as a battering ram to part the doorway crowd, 52 partisans spitting with fury but nonetheless side-stepping the blood spray, not deeming it worth soiling their shiny weekend duds, not when the Jews are taking care of business themselves for a change.

Like a beast with three faces and six legs, Harold, Jack and the bent, pepper-blinded soldier they hold captive lumber through the gauntlet of blood-sniffers. Every couple of steps or so, Harold pulls his left fist out of the headlock, cocks it eight to ten inches and clubs and grinds the mass of raw, dissolving facial parts. He hits the mouth dead-center, but instead of stunning the groggy captive, it gives the demon inside the mouth new life. Fock-in nigga, it gasps blindly at the pale-faced Harold. I kill you fock-in nigga.

The words bring Reggie out of the crowd, in support of his friend Dixon. He takes a thick-glass sugar dispenser from a table and slams it home on the bridge of the soldier's gushing nose.

Yes, they shout. Yes, yeahh.

Fock-in nigga, comes the reply, automatic as a salute. But uttered rasping, as the soldier would utter it with his dying breath. And out the door to the cool rush of the sidewalk the three of them go. Harold stops the procession at the first lamppost, pounds the head into the post three times and releases it to the waiting curbstone and gutter. He and Jack jump back, the way you would if you had just shot a grizzly bear at close quarters. They scramble back into the deli just as a Boston Globe truck pulls up at the curbstone. Noticing only what appears to be a garden variety passed-out drunk, the driver tosses out the stack of morning papers, blaring stories of Truman, MacArthur, Inchon, The Yalu River, and another returning troop ship.