“The T-shirt’s selling like Facebook shares.” My brother’s standing there, a goofy grin splitting his face.
I look up from my book. “T-shirt?”
“You know. The one advertising my restaurant.”
Oh, right. The eatery that, so far, exists only in Jeff’s mind. I lay the book aside, crossing my arms. “What are folks going to do when they realize there’s no restaurant?”
“But there is.” He flops into the chair opposite me. He’s got that farm boy look — the freckled, blue-eyed, open face under a thatch of strawberry-blond hair — that draws people to him, especially the ones who think, Now here’s a guy I can fool. I love Jeff, but he never thinks things through in a logical way.
“Well, I got a couple of places in mind. One’s right across the street from Mom and Dad.” (What we call the old folks’ home.)
“Most of them can’t eat barbecue ribs,” I remind him. “Or corn on the cob. They don’t have the choppers.”
“I changed the menu.” He runs a large hand through his hair and then narrows his eyes at me. “Proves you’ve never read the T-shirt.”
I shrug. “So enlighten me.”
He jumps up, disappears into his bedroom, and comes out holding a beige garment with green writing on it. “KELLY’S DELI,” it says in big block letters. Beneath that in equally large letters framed in an arc are the words, “NEW YORK ATTITUDE. OLD SOUTH SOUL.” And then, in smaller type: “Food for folks on the run. We got your bagels and lox, your biscuits and gravy, your pastrami and Swiss on rye, your pulled pork barbecue, and a WHOLE LOT MORE. We don’t do chit-chat. We do chow.” Near the bottom of the shirt, in very small letters that normally would disappear inside somebody’s waistband, are the words “Chef Avery Savory.”
Handing Jeff the T-shirt, I ask him, “Who’s Avery Savory?”
“I can see that. But who is he? I mean, a friend of yours? Somebody you’ve hired to — to . . . ?” Unable to finish the question, I wave the words away.
Jeff shrugs. “I don’t know yet. I’m still looking.”
“It’s a made-up name, right? Like a way to hint that the food’s good?”
“Well, sure. It will be good. I just have to find the right guy. He’s gotta have a Brooklyn accent, too. And, you know, attitude up the wazzoo.”
“Not to mention cooking skills.”
“Well, that should be a snap.” I pick my book up, convinced that, yet again, Jeff’s dreams will crash headlong into the hard reality of actually finding somebody like that — a prospect about as likely as discovering cold fusion.
“He doesn’t have to come outta one of them cordon blue schools, you know. This kind of food’s pretty basic.”
I close the book, leaving my index finger to mark my place. “You don’t have the money for a trip to New York.”
“I don’t need to. I put a want ad in the Citizen-Times last week.”
“And now you’re screening applicants?”
“You don’t have to be so sarcastic,” he says. “Matter of fact, there haven’t been any nibbles so far. But that’s just on the website. Somebody might’ve applied the old-fashioned way.”
“The mail’s on the kitchen table,” I cut in. “Although it’s mostly bills.”
Thing is, I’m the chef. I make all our meals, now that Mom and Pop are living in the retirement home.
“I could fix pastrami and Swiss on rye,” I tell my best friend, Viola.
“Okay. But why?” She’s putting a coat of clear polish on her nails. “If it ain’t ham on a biscuit, no way I’m touchin’ it.”
“Well, Jeff’s place is supposed to cater to the — you know. Flatland furriners?”
I nod, even though Viola’s not watching me. “Jeff figures we have enough eateries here that serve Southern food. He wants his place to be different, something that’ll make visitors feel right at home.”
“I’m agin’ it,” she says, mimicking the drawl that all Southerners are supposed to have. “Damn Yankees. Why don’t they just stay up there in the frozen north?”
She snorts. “Well, then, hon’, let ’em learn to eat Suthrun.”
It takes me quite a while to find the pastrami — at a supermarket deli on the outskirts of Charlotte. It’s 30 miles away, and gas ain’t cheap, but still.
Rye isn’t too plentiful in our town, either, but I forgot to look for it when I was at the deli up in the city. I figure whole wheat will do, but the sandwich winds up tasting like salted beef brisket. I form a mental picture of walking the streets, pastrami sandwich on a plate, asking strangers, “Are you from New York? Would you do a taste test for me?” But, of course, I’m not that bold.
When he tastes the sandwich, Jeff swears something’s missing. “S’why we need to find Avery.”
“Avery doesn’t exist, Jeff. Except in your head.”
“There are prolly hundreds and thousands of Brooklyners, or whatever, who’re dyin’ to move south and get away from all that hullabaloo up there. I just haven’t found him yet.”
And you won’t. Of course, I never say those words because I want Jeff to succeed. We could use the money, for one. For another, I’d dearly love to have more than 10 minutes to find out how Lady Emma is going to get herself out of the pickle she’s in before being interrupted by my brother.
But I am curious. So I Google pastrami on rye, my eyes bugging out at the photo of a New York-style sandwich so loaded with meat that one sandwich could easily feed a family of eight. Then I find a recipe that uses three slices of pastrami and two slices of Swiss cheese on rye with either mayo or mustard.
That one tastes okay, but it’s not nearly as scrumptious as a po’ boy.
“Give it up, willya?” says Jeff when I ask him to taste it again. “All these kinds a sam’iches — they got some secret ingredient. Avery will know what it is.”
Actually, I know what it is: spicy brown mustard. Which I don’t have and don’t intend to drive 30 miles and back to buy. If the deli in the supermarket even sells it. After all, I’m only experimenting.
The T-shirts are still flying off the shelf, and now Jeff’s getting phone calls from folks wanting to know when’s the grand opening and how to find the deli.
“Man, I really need to find Avery,” he tells me one day at lunch.
“How about first locating a place where he can work?”
“Got that one covered.” Hands clasped behind his head, he tilts onto the back legs of his chair.
“Don’t tell me it’s across the street from Mom and — ”
“Too expensive. And, anyway, those old folks aren’t in any hurry, are they. They don’t need to grab a quick bite.”
Jeff has a point. “So … ?” I wave my hand.
“The Caswell Building. Over on Pinehurst Street?”
I know where it is. At the very heart of the two and half blocks we call downtown. “And that’s cheaper?”
“Welllll. Not really. But it was a sandwich shop before, so all the equipment’s pretty much already there.”
“You know, Jeff, I don’t want to bring up the subject of money, but — ”
“Then don’t. I got it covered.”
“From T-shirt sales?”
“You don’t have to yell. I’m not goin’ deaf here.”
I drum my fingers on the tabletop, waiting for an explanation.
“Avery’s the key,” he says, rocking forward with a thump. “Once I find him, we’ll be set.”
Or bankrupt. I’m so flooded with thoughts of the two of us panhandling on the streets, sleeping in a shelter, cleaning up in gas station restrooms, my heart feels like a trapped butterfly. “We could get a second mortgage on this place,” I offer.
His eyebrows shoot up. “You kidding? That sure would be a stupid thing to do.” He sits there, drumming his fingers in accompaniment to mine. “Anyway, we don’t need to. I got it covered.”
I’m sweeping leaves off the front porch one morning when the phone rings, and I wonder if it’s the retirement home.
“Kelly residence,” I say, just barely catching the phone before it goes to voicemail.
“Residence?” the caller echoes. He’s got a rich, deep voice and an accent I’ve heard only in gangster movies. “This ain’t Kelly’s Deli?”
“Uh, well, sort of. Jeff’s not here right now. Can I leave a message?”
“Tell ’im it’s Reuben. I’m tired of waiting.”
For what? Repayment of a gambling debt? “You want to leave a number?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from quavering. But the line is dead.
Has Jeff been going to the dogs again? I thought he’d learned his lesson after the Michael Vick thing. Could he be dealing drugs? Oh, Lord. Say it ain’t so.
“Reuben called,” I say to Jeff the minute he walks in the door.
“Reuben who?” He heads for the kitchen where I hear the sound of the fridge opening. “Got anything cold in here?”
“Reuben’s tired of waiting,” I call out.
Jeff’s standing there, beer in hand. “Who’s Reuben?”
“You’re asking me? I only answer the phone around here. He wanted to know if this was Kelly’s Deli.”
“And you said no?”
I shake my head. “Of course, not. I sort of fudged. The guy sounded real tough, though. Like one of those movie gangst — Oh, boy. He had a Brooklyn accent. Maybe he’s calling about the chef’s job. What did you put in your ad, anyway?”
Jeff shrugs, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows the last of the beer. “Just wanted somebody with a” — he makes finger quotes — “New York accent and the attitude to go with it.”
Jeff goes to the phone where he’ll soon recall that, since it’s big, black, older than Jimmy Carter, and doesn’t have caller ID, he can’t find Reuben’s number. “Shit. Wonder if he’ll call again.”
“Probably the minute you leave the house.”
“My luck, that’d be the case.” He stands there, staring at the phone. “Tell him he can hook up with me at the Caswell Building. He should look for the empty space in the lobby where all the windows are papered over.”
It’s then that I realize Jeff is not just fooling around. If he’s at the brown-paper-on-the-windows point, he’s damn serious. Oh, man. What are we going to do? I rake my fingers through my hair, which isn’t nearly as thatchy as my brother’s. “What if Reuben never calls? What if he isn’t responding to the ad? What if he’s some thug who has a score to settle with you?”
“Oh, for Chrissake. You’re always such a damn party pooper.”
I’d call myself a realist, but then I always was better than Jeff at school.
When Reuben calls, I’m ready. But instead of asking him to meet Jeff on Pinehurst Street, I tell him to meet me at Sissy’s Crepes and Croissants.
Reuben’s only comment? “Ya gotta be kiddin’, lady.”
Just testing, actually. Does he want the job, or not? No way am I going to have Jeff thinking all his problems are solved when maybe they really aren’t.
Reuben doesn’t look like a New York guy. He’s blond, for one thing. A bit on the pudgy side, too, although maybe he’s channeling Marlon Brando. Still, I was expecting skinny and swarthy, dressed in black, a Robert deNiro- or Al Pacino-type person wearing a scruffy leather jacket — though it’s pushing 80 in the shade, so scratch the jacket.
“Don’ tell me you actually eat this stuff,” he says to me when Sissy hands us our menus.
“You got a problem?” she retorts, hand on hip, mimicking his accent.
“Yeah,” he says, pointing to his stomach. “It’s called overeating.”
She leans over, pointing to the no-fat crepes with yogurt topping. “I’ll just have a regular coffee,” he says and then remembers he’s in the South. “With cream and sugar.”
“And you?” Sissy winks at me.
“How about some sweet tea? I just ate one of Geraldine’s sausage biscuits, and I’m about to bust wide open.”
Reuben scoots his chair back, out of reach. “So. That ad in the paper.” He spreads his arms. “Here I am.”
“Really?” I squint at him, sizing up his considerable heft. “You’ve got the right accent, I’ll grant you. And maybe you can do the attitude thing, but can you cook?”
“Cook.” He scratches his chin. “As in … ?” He waves his hand in a circle.
“Southern-style and New York.”
“You’re kiddin’ me.”
“Didn’t you read the ad? We” — now where did that come from? — “need a chef who can do both types of cooking, plus talk like a New York guy and act like one.”
He examines his short pudgy fingers and then looks at me. “Two outta three ain’t bad, is it?”
Actually, it’s awful. That would put us — make that Jeff — back to square one. “The operative word, I believe, was chef.”
He seems mesmerized by the steam rising off of his coffee. “I can do counter work. You know, food prep. Bus tables and stuff.”
“No table service. Strictly carryout.” Although … had Jeff actually been that specific three months ago when he’d first sketched out his dream?
Reuben’s double chin starts to quiver, and I figure totally un-tough-guy tears might even fall. He sips his coffee, staring at me over the rim of his mug. “I need a job.”
Call me a softie. No, call me brilliant. Because Jeff won’t, and Reuben doesn’t know from nice.
When Kelly’s Deli opens on November 3, Chef Avery is manning the grill, while Jeff and Reuben handle everything else.
Jeff asks, “You want slaw with that, ma’am?”
Reuben says, “C’mon, lady. Make up your mind. We ain’t got all day.”
Avery calls out, “Two pulled chicken and one Coney Island comin’ up.”
A reporter from the Citizen-Times arrives. I know him from high school and can still recall the time he got suspended after a true, but unflattering limerick he’d composed about the principal had appeared in the school paper. He’s standing there, taking notes, and then he looks at me. “I’m trying to find Chef Avery Savory.”
I give him my best high-wattage smile — the one that always wins them over — and point at my toque. “C’mon. Have we met?”