(Below is by David Rice's Milks and Meats. More fiction, from Toad (a.k.a. Nim Wunnan), Cindy Rose, and others, as well as poetry from our fourth issue still available, only $2.00 ppd!)
Milks and Meats
by David Rice
Joel Gould palmed the Swiss cheese from beneath the counter with his left hand, spun in a semicircle on his right foot, reached for the wooden knife-block labeled "dairy", and delicately removed a ten-inch cleaver with his other hand. His movements were swift and fluid, with the grace of a figure skater.
"Why such a big knife?" Old Man Holtz said from his chair in the corner with a fat cigar smoldering between his lips, his wizened hands supported by a stained pine cane.
"Do you want thick slices? You said you wanted thick slices."
"Yes, I want thick slices."
"I can't believe this. What am I supposed to do?" Joel Gould settled the block of Swiss on the wood cutting boar at a distance of fourteen inches from the glass board. It was a necessary distance, he believed, to avoid any possible contamination. "I said to the kid, Do you understand the difference? The wood cutting board is for the fish and cheese. The glass is for the meats. The blue plates are fish and cheese. The green are meats. And he told me, Right, anything you say Mr. Gould, which for most people means they understand you and are willing to follow your instructions. But I wanted to be sure, so I said again, See here? Only two options. Wood is milk. Glass is meats. Milks and meats. And he said it again. He said, Anything you say Mr. Gould."
"Find new help," Old Man Holtz said.
"New help? New help? What's that supposed to mean? The boy was Jewish. Who can I trust if I can't trust a nice Jewish boy who's not so nice?"
"You don't know he was Jewish. Give me coleslaw with that. Lots of coleslaw." Old Man Holtz wet his lips.
"I do know he was Jewish. He said he was Jewish. Why would he lie about being Jewish?"
"Well." Old Man Holtz's voice trailed off. He squinted at the traffic outside. he listened to the laughter of children returning from school.
"And how difficult can it be to read a sign? That's a very obvious sign." Joel Gould pointed to the large sheet of poster board suspended above the deli counter. Scrawled in black marker: "Please don't ask us to mix dairy with meats."
Old Man Holtz agreed. "That is a blatant sign."
"Shlechte, I tell you. He was shlechte."
"You've told me. Are you giving me coleslaw?"
"You didn't say you wanted coleslaw."
"Well, I want coleslaw."
"On the sandwich or on the side?"
"On the sandwich."
But Joel Gould had not yet carved the block of Swiss or even reached for the loaf of rye bread, baked just that morning.
"Do you know what he told me?"
"What did he tell you?"
"He told me that they didn't have any kosher style delis where he came from, in Detroit."
"Not one kosher style deli in Detroit?" Old Man Holtz puffed billows of smoke through his nostrils, a car with twin exhaust pipes. "There are a lot of Jews in Detroit."
"I know that, that's exactly what I said. I said, With all those Jews in Detroit, how can there not be a kosher style deli? He said there were kosher delis, serving meats only, but I asked what if someone wants to go out for a cheese sandwich?"
"Like me." Old Man Holtz snorted.
"Right. Like you. I said, How can there not be one? but all he could do was apologize."
Then Joel Gould noticed something in the corner of his eye, forcing his pupils to dilate uncontrollably. The arteries along his neck expanded and throbbed wildly, and Joel felt his throat constrict so that he could no longer take in air. His hand shook.
"Are you all right?" Old Man Holtz asked.
Fit in a groove along the grain of the cutting board, protruding from under the Swiss's belly, remained evidence from the day's earlier crime: a slender, minuscule strand of blood red corned beef. It called out for assistance, helplessly trapped under the cheese's oppressive weight, but neither dared touch it. Joel Gould lost his grip on the blade. It fell to the floor, nearly slicing his foot.
"That pig!" he finally screamed.
Blood flushed through his face, turning his cheeks red, his nose pink. He began to wheeze. He stumbled down the length of the counter fumbling for his pills, his hands brushing and knocking over a stack of recently unwrapped challahs.
Old Man Holtz pushed himself up on his cane. "Do you want I should call a doctor?"
Joel Gould popped two pills in his mouth. He started to chew. "No, no. I'll be fine. I should have cleaned up better. No, I should have thrown out the damn board."
Joel wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He took the block of Swiss and threw it in the trash. He poured himself a glass of water to eliminate the bitter aftertaste.
"You're sure you're all right?"
"How difficult is it, tell me do you think. Never mind the laws, but the health risks alone. Meat grinds into the wood, particles actually worn into the grain, and you can't scrub it clean like you do with glass. You have to leave it there, then bacteria grows, and lo: food poisoning!"
Rabbi Morris had been ordering corned beef sandwiches at the deli for the last twenty-two years. Joel Gould was all set to prepare the plate himself, proud of his work and concerned for the rabbi's diet, but he had to run to the bathroom. I think you're ready, he said to the Detroit kid. Go for it. You've got the idea. Then came the passing of the knife, a kitchen rite of passage, a sign of his trust in today's youth.
Rabbi Morris had headed indignantly to the door, leading Joel to suffer from terrifying delusions. He imagined the corners of the rabbi's lips foaming, and then projecting a stream of spittle into the minion on Saturday morning. He expected the rabbi to stand on a chair and make a speech about responsibilities and assimilation. "I don't want to mention any names, but his initials are Joel Gould, and I have no choice but to eat at home now because of this man. His restaurant is kaput." He watched as the rabbi released a memorandum to the press. "At 4:30 PM," it read, "Rabbi Morris announced that the last kosher deli in Buffalo, New York, was now traife."
"I am ruined," Joel Gould said to his only customer.
Old Man Holtz scratched his neck. He wanted to be polite. "Your restaurant never had a rabbi's blessing to begin with."
Joel looked through the window as a school bus approached and then rumbled past with faces and pigtails pressed against its many windows, a flash of clean little faces.
"It's the principle," he said, thinking of the kids. "You understand? Kosher or not, it's the principle."
"Right," Old Man Holtz said. "The principle." He smothered his cigar in an ashtray. But the truth was, he wanted to ask if Joel could make an exception for him, his old friend, just this one afternoon. Just this one time, Joel, a single, but very thick slab of roast beef wedged between the coleslaw and the slices of Swiss. A tender and moist slice from one of your roasts, Joel, cooked so that it's mildly pink as you always cook it, pink but not red, and always delicious. But Joel was talking about principle, so Old Man Holtz would have to wait until he arrived home. There he would turn on 'Jeopardy' and open a package of cold cuts.
Published 1995. Crowright 2000 Osric Publishing. Last updated 08-22-2005