Whispers and Glances

Open Road Review India 2012

                         

 

Paulie was afraid to go home so he stayed late his first day working at Johnson Corner Market.. Against his mother’s wishes he had sold his fifteen dollar a week paper route that took maybe two hours a day and went to work for Bert and Betty in the corner grocery store for more hours and three dollars less a week.

“You can go home, Paulie,” Bert had said to him several times but Paulie kept finding something to do — sweeping, straightening cans on shelves until Betty finally said. “Paulie. Go in the store room and get a box of gum balls. We’ll fill the machine and then you’ll go right home.”

Paulie ran to the store room and back in all his twelve year old eagerness. He plopped the box of gum balls on the counter and Burt tossed him the key to open the top of the gum ball machine. This is the big time, he thought to himself. “Open the box and fill the machine,” Bert said. There were always several multicolored gum balls in a newly loaded penny machine that could be exchanged for a candy bar and soda and now Paulie was going to load these winners and become a part of the mystery known only to the inner circle. Paulie had the box on its side and pulled open the flap just as Betty yelled. “No!” The gum balls rolled out of the box across the counter and all over the wooden floor. “How could you be so dumb? Why didn’t you open it from the top?” Betty was furious. Burt walked over and said, “Think before you do something, Paulie.” Betty was already picking up the gum balls and throwing them into the gum ball machine and she motioned for Paulie to join her. “Those gum balls are dirty,” he said. “You can’t sell them that way.” He saw Bert and Betty exchange glances and Bert said, “Paulie’s right. Let’s put them back in the box and we’ll get a new box tomorrow. Paulie, go home. You’ve had a long first day.” Paulie watched from behind a telephone pole across the street and saw Bert and Betty filling the machine with the dirty gum balls and thought that maybe he should have kept his paper route.

On the day after the first payday of the month, Betty Thomas put on her ankle-length black dress with the two large front pockets, puff sleeves and black velvet buttons and her dark stockings with garter belts and strong, black walking shoes. She twisted her waist-length silver-streaked black hair, coiling it into a tight knot that stretched her face menacingly. The mole on the side of her nose seemed hypnotically large, her bushy eyebrows, otherwise horizontal, angled off at a forty-five as she walked down the back staircase from the second floor apartment to the grocery store below.  

Bert, her husband of twenty-five years, was beginning the preparations for making the kielbasa for the Easter season. She took the red ledger book that leaned against the register, stuck a pencil behind her ear, and walked out into the crisp morning air to begin her rounds of monthly collections from their customers who ran tabs for their groceries. She always started with the Coloreds and the Puerto Ricans in the projects south of Johnson Street, going from one brick building to another and sometimes retracing her steps to look for a customer missed earlier on. Usually she was crossing north of Johnson Street sometime between noon and one into the more kindred neighborhood of three-family homes where the Hungarians and Poles lived. She never stopped for lunch and never feared for her safety. She knew if she waited another day or two her customers would have either paid the insurance man, their bar tab, or their bookie, and she and Bert would be out. Out double. First, out the money for the previous month's groceries, and second, out a customer.  Knowing full well that Bert and Betty had a no exception, one-month rule on charging, they would go elsewhere if they didn't have all the money to pay their bill. They would go to the Crown or Neighborhood Markets with their leftover cash.

Betty collected well—she always did. She came back at the end of the day flushed with fatigue but full of satisfaction for clearing the ledger as much as possible and filling her pockets with bills and coins. She knew that Bert would take a huge porterhouse or sirloin steak that had been left hanging, aging and waiting, in the back of the walk-in cooler for the past month, scrape off the mold, and give it to her to cook in the kitchen of the apartment in the back of the store.  Bert would give Paulie mushrooms and onions to bring back to Betty. There was a hole in the wall next to their kitchen table where a window once was where they could watch the front door and also use to call to Paulie for spices or other vegetables for their meal. When Betty called out, Bert would nod and Paulie would run to fill the request. Paulie, who lived in the projects, ran the store while Bert and Betty were eating, and even though it was during the slower hours, he kept busy.  The smell of the pan-fried steak permeated the small grocery store and Paulie, hours from going home to a lamb stew or casserole, salivated at the thought of the tender meat that Bert bragged could be cut without a knife. Sometimes if the steaks were unusually large and none of the Thomas' friends dropped by, they would cut off a piece for Paulie and have him sit and eat it in front of them so they could watch his reaction. The steak was always tender and juicy, unlike the meat he got at home, and worth the lip-smacking show he had to put on for Bert and Betty. Afterwards though, after the lingering taste was long gone, and his stomach began rumbling again, he would tell himself that it wasn't worth being toyed with and degraded just for a magnificent, juicy, tender, moldy old steak.

Paulie learned the art of the hustle and con while working at Johnson Corner Market and he learned it from the King and Queen, Bert and Betty, who never dreamed it would be used against them by this outsider, this Jewish kid who was growing up in a world of Coloreds and Puerto Ricans on the south side of Johnson Corner. “First of all, never put your thumb on the scale,” Bert told him one night after closing. “People look for a butcher's thumb on the scale. What you do is tear off an extra-long sheet of deli paper so that it reaches the counter and put it on the scale before you start slicing. Then throw the sliced meat on the scale; and you do throw it and not place it, because throwing it causes the scale to bounce back and forth, giving you time to pull down a little on the corner of the paper while holding your suspicious thumb up where the customer can see it. 

It's a little over, you say, keeping the paper steady, and either figure out the price and take the meat off the scale or take some slices off until it reaches the requested weight. Quickly slide the paper off the scale, lay it on the counter in one of the not very visible areas such as here by the side of the scale and wrap up the package—after slipping several slices of meat out. In twenty-eight years,” Bert would tell me, “not one complaint.  Those slices are the difference between me and Betty eating chuck or filet. Understand?” 

Of course Paulie understood. Bert had been cheating Paulie's mother for years.  He tried to get Paulie to believe that it was only the “niggers” and the “spiks” but Paulie knew better—he saw Bert in action.    Not even the Poles escaped. Only the Hunkys didn't get cheated. They never got as much of the fat that was kept in the high tray of the meat-grinding machine and got mixed in with their fresh-cut meat, ground into hamburger. The meat started out red and after two runnings through the grinder came out speckled red and white. Each time through, Bert would say, “add a handful of fat. Except for the Coloreds—they get two handfuls. They like it like that,” he would laugh. “Give 'em what they're used to.” “This is how red meat looks when ground into chopped meat,” Bert told his customers, and they went along with him, because who else would give them two pounds of hamburger on the cuff?

If Paulie's chop meat came out of the grinder too pink, Bert punished him by making him stay in the walk-in cooler for a half hour moving the meat around. Worse yet, if he got caught giving an honest weight Paulie ended up in the walk-in freezer which was reached by a door at the far end of the walk-in cooler. After being in there for ten or fifteen minutes for an invented chore Paulie felt less inclined to act contrary to policy. Bert and Betty never explained the rules to Paulie. If he hadn't been street wise, he wouldn't have lasted working for them past the first few days. Quickly he grasped their behavioral theory of employment. 

Their Hunky friends and relatives were treated differently, and Paulie got to know them when they walked in the door. The women had moles they called beauty marks. The men had yellow-stained fingers and teeth, and the older Hunky men had mustaches stained yellow from smoking non filter cigarettes, usually Chesterfields, that they smoked down to a roach. Afterwards, they stuck a toothpick into the end and puffed until only ash and toothpick remained.   

The time was the late fifties, and Russia had squashed the Hungarian uprising and taken over the country with troops and tanks. Bert and Betty and most of their friends were first generation Americans, having come here as kids. During these years there were many new Hunkys coming and going from the store. Hunkys, they called themselves; never Hungarians—  Hunkys. And from the back room—lots of whispers and glances. The Hunkys, a suspicious people anyway, became even more so as their meetings increased. And Bert and Betty’s store seemed to be the hub of the activity.

For the most part Paulie was invisible to the Hunkys—especially the older ones—the Bochies—the Uncles. Every once in a while Mikey Bochie, who hung around the front of the store, sentinel like, talking to customers coming and going, grabbed Paulie in a headlock and gave him a Hungarian Peach which was nothing more than a real hard noogie. Paulie avoided him but Mikey Bochie loved to torment Paulie. Mikey Bochie never went into the back room but Milly, his daughter did. Milly had recently graduated from college and was friendly and beautiful. Instead of Hungarian Peaches she rumpled Paulie’s hair or winked at him—whatever it took to make him blush. Her smile alone could do that. She dressed very grown-up, always wearing a hat and bright red lipstick. Sometimes Paulie would take phone messages from her to give to Bert or Betty. He never understood them. The more Hunkys that came into the store to talk with Bert and Betty, the more Paulie had to work alone once he had proven himself proficient at running the store Bert's way. Nothing was ever too spoiled or too dirty for someone's purchase, Bert would remind him. 

Naturally, Paulie also became adept at stealing from Bert and Betty. At first it was just sandwiches and Pepsi's, but later on it was cash. He covered his cash thievery by making up phony charges for purchases. He always did it to the Hunkys though, never the Coloreds or Puerto Ricans and only sometimes to the Polaks who went into the back room with Bert. He wondered in later years what those innocent Hunkys thought about Bert’s padding of their tabs — but he never gave it a second thought while he was doing it. All Hunkys were Berts or Bettys to him. All except Milly, that is.

Easter was only weeks away—Betty left to go on her collections, and Bert and Paulie began preparations to make the kielbasa after closing. The barrel of fat trimmings that was kept just inside the walk-in and sold to the fat renderer when filled was tonight run through the mixer with no meat at all.  After closing, Paulie spent many arm-weary hours grinding large bowls of that fat until the huge can was empty, while Bert boned the barrel of pork and beef scraps he had been saving for the past two months.  Later, after mashing hundreds of cloves of garlic, mincing dozens of onions, and breaking batches of parsley into pieces, they were ready for production.

Bert sat next to the kielbasa machine, smoking and calling out orders to Paulie, who filled each galvanized tub with the secret kielbasa recipe mixture—twelve pounds fat, eight pounds meat, one half pound garlic, one pound onion,  six ounces salt, twelve ounces paprika, and five handfuls of parsley.  Bert treated Paulie different on this night and as the evening progressed and their pattern became smoother Bert lightened up and told Paulie adult jokes and they took turns making fun of some of the least likable customers. Paulie felt a closeness to Bert that he hadn’t felt before. Late into the night, with only Paulie, Bert, and the radio, the kielbasa factory rolled. Paulie handed Bert the strange-feeling gut from a box, and Bert slid it onto the lard-greased twelve-inch tube on the bottom of the kielbasa machine, taking care not to rip it. Then Paulie loaded the mixture as Bert ordered. Bert turned the crank that forced the mixture through the tube and into the gut. When the gut was filled to Bert's satisfaction he would knot the ends and then twist the filled gut into foot long sections and pass them to Paulie, who would cut them into links of six and hang them to dry around the store on hooks and wires and in the windows facing both corners so the passersby would start to think of Easter and the taste of kielbasa every time they walked by the store. 

By five a.m. they were done and Bert sent Paulie home with a two-link of kielbasa, a gift for a job well done, and Paulie broke off chunks and fed them to stray dogs on his way. He got home in time to see his mother having her cup of coffee at the kitchen table before going off to work in the factory. “Take a shower,” she told him. “You reek from that store. I hope he’s paying you extra for this shift. If he’s not, you can just go and get your paper route back.” His mother didn’t understand—a paper route was for kids. He couldn’t tell her that he’d been paid in kielbasa.

One evening, after going out for dinner, Bert and Betty walked into the store while Paulie was sweeping up. They were laughing and Bert was carrying a wine bottle. Suddenly Betty let out with a yell and ran at Paulie as he dropped the broom. Bert circled around the counter and came at him from the other side. They each grabbed an arm and told him how much they liked their little Paulie and began tickling him. Soon, Paulie was on the ground, the laughter gone from the tickling, Bert and Betty still poking and prying all over his body. Tiring of the game they picked him up, dusted him, and sent him home early with a Pepsi and a Devil Dog for the walk. Paulie felt great. This was the first time they showed any affection for him and what could be better than playing “chase and tickle.” He had a warm feeling and ate his Devil Dog slowly instead of chomping it down.

They pulled surprise tickle raids about once a month and always after Paulie had been left alone in the store. Paulie sadly realized after the second or third time that they were not playing with him — they were frisking him. He knew they suspected him of stealing. Often, when Bert and Betty were out of the store, one or more of their friends would show up and ask for extra this or some free that or try to slip Paulie some change to not write in the ledger. Paulie was too smart for that game. He trusted fewer people than the Hunkys did and for a long time never got caught. He walked around with a lamb chop in each shoe so often that his walk didn't give him away; but his mother, tired of flat chops, almost did by complaining, not knowing that they were hot chops. “Make the chops a little thicker this time,” she told Burt on the phone. “The last ones you could read the paper through.” Bert laughed and that night handed Paulie a package of nice fat lamb chops which he put on the tab. “Your mother called for these,” Bert told him smiling.

Paulie threw roasts, chickens, and chops into the garbage can outside. They were wrapped in newspaper and covered with sweepings. He’d sneak out of his apartment and reclaim them at two or three in the morning until he was caught by the local cop on the beat who happened to be cooping in the garbage alley one night when Paulie showed up for his Sunday dinner. The cop didn't pinch Paulie—he wanted in on the action. Paulie had to steal for two until the cop finally got transferred.

One Friday evening after Bert had paid Paulie, Bert asked him if he would like a chance at doubling his twelve-dollar salary. Of course Paulie jumped at the chance and of course Bert was twelve dollars richer after Paulie had his first lesson with the dice. Three weeks in a row Bert won Paulie's salary, and each week Paulie caught a beating when he got home. “Where’s your pay?” Paulie’s Mother asked after the second week. “Don’t have it,” Paulie said. His Mother smacked him in the side of the head. “What happened to it? Did you spend it on comics and stamps again?” Paulie stared down at his shoes knowing that his answer was going to hurt. “Yeah.” “You selfish little bastard,” his Mother said and only stopped hitting Paulie when he began crying. “You know we need the money.”  

Paulie said good night to Bert and Betty and left after the fourth Friday night loss. Half-way home he decided to go back and beg for his money rather than go home to another beating. He watched a few Hunkys go into the store, and when one neglected to close the front door tight Paulie snuck in and listened by the stairway. He heard the word “resistance” used often, and it seemed that there was an awful lot of talk about money when suddenly the scraping of chairs scared him alert. Paulie realized that the Hunkys were heading out, and not having enough time to reach the door he ran into the walk-in cooler and hid behind the cases of milk and eggs. Seconds later, the light went on in the cooler and Bert walked past him and directly to the walk-in freezer. He opened the door, lifted a floorboard and put something in. Bert turned and left, not even noticing the wisps of cold breath coming from the corner.

Paulie was on easy street and thin ice alley at the same time. He had struck the mother lode.  Jewels, gold and cash. Real cold cash under the floorboard of the freezer. For several weeks he lifted the floorboards and held the money and put on the watches and rings and dreamed that he was a pirate and this was his treasure. Paulie finally made his move. He resolved not to get greedy and just took twice what he  lost to Bert on Fridays, or maybe a little bit more. On those weeks that he didn't lose to Bert or broke even, he still took a little something. Mostly cash, but now and then a ring and once an expensive watch. The floor swelled with loot as more and more Hunkys came in and went upstairs to huddle and whisper with Bert. Milly was around the store more often now and Paulie loved it when she asked him to make her a sandwich or get her a snack and a cold soda.

Finally Paulie could do no wrong with his Mother. He gave her a twenty dollar bill every week. She asked no questions. Paulie didn’t understand “the resistance” and couldn’t ask Bert or Betty so he asked his Mother. She told him to ask his history teacher. The teacher, Miss Miln, told him more than he wanted to know, but he finally understood what was going on in the back room and why there was money kept under the floorboards of the freezer. Then one day the flurry of Hunky activity increased and they not only came, they stayed. Bert sent Paulie home early to eat supper and told him to come back at six to watch the store.

When Paulie got back all the Hunkys were hanging around the front of the store. He saw three or four men arguing with Bert and Bert kept shaking his head. Milly was standing off to the side near her father, arms folded looking unhappy. Burt was yelling in Hungarian and waving his arms and the others were yelling just as loud. Bert tossed Paulie a glare and his apron and drove off in his new Pontiac with a parade of cars behind him. Paulie checked. The loot was gone. The Hunkys didn't come back. Milly never showed up at the store again either. Bert and Betty stopped tickling Paulie.

They fired him two weeks later for no reason. No reason at all. As Bert handed Paulie his final pay he leaned across the counter and grabbed Paulie's wrist and felt under his cuff for a watch. Feeling one, he dropped Paulie’s arm in disgust and without pulling up the sleeve to look at it, he waved his hand towards the door. Paulie walked slowly out of the store shaking an imaginary pair of dice, wondering what he was going to tell his mother about being out of a job.

 

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