People cursed at Eli in English and Yiddish as he navigated the broad, April-puddled intersection of Union and Grand, dodging streetcars and pedestrians and automobile drivers honking their horns. He’d been running late to meet his cousin at the movies, and it seemed all of Williamsburg had conspired, from the hazards of black umbrellas to inconveniently placed food vendors, to keep Eli from his destination.
But finally he was closing in.
Cousin Artie stood beneath the Orpheum marquee, nonchalantly perusing the latest issue of True Detective Mysteries, the strap of his book bag across his skinny chest.
Eli had spied that book bag somewhere between nearly getting the point of someone’s umbrella in his eye and the sweet potato man calling him a klutz.
The book bag could only mean—
As Eli’s feet found purchase on the sidewalk, he gasped out the words, “Did he write back?”
Artie’s movements were slow, maddeningly slow. Eli had a strong suspicion his cousin—also seventeen, but younger by two months—was doing that on purpose. He carefully closed his magazine, eased it into the leather bag, and peered up at him through his thick, round spectacles.
“I’m sorry, Eli. There’s been no mail for you this week.”
Eli eyeballed the worn, well-oiled satchel as if it actually did contain a letter from Mr. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers and Artie was only teasing him.
Artie gave the bag a loving pat. It had been his father’s. “I just didn’t want to crease the magazine. I’m saving all the issues that have installments of ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!’ in them. I read that they’ll be making it into a movie at the end of the year.”
Eli supposed he shouldn’t feel so disappointed. Undoubtedly Mr. Warner was a busy man. But he’d been waiting for such a long—
“He’ll write back.” Artie smiled. “I’m sure he will. It’s a wonderful script.” He cocked his head, scrutinizing Eli again. “But there’s something else troubling you.”
Artie could always tell when something else was troubling him. Eli dug into his right trouser pocket and pulled out two quarters for their movie tickets. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
After Mr. Finkenthal tore their tickets, they found their usual seats, center, fourth row from the back. Eli unwrapped the pastrami on rye he’d made for them at the deli, thankful that it had survived his helter-skelter trip across Williamsburg in his jacket, and handed Artie half.
Their silence, except for chewing, lasted through the coming attractions. One with Barbara Stanwyck. One with Joan Blondell. Their feminine appeal was obvious to Eli. Their motivation? Often as clear as the smoke rising from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“Women, Artie. Women are a mystery to me.”
“But you like mysteries,” Artie said. “Remember the last one we saw? You thought the chauffeur did it, but I was certain it was the man with the monocle…”
Eli laughed, a little sadly, addressing the remains of his sandwich. “This is a different kind of mystery. A wholly different mystery that I don’t know how to begin to solve. In a million years, I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out.”
“Is this about the furrier’s daughter?”
Laura. The knot of tension in Eli’s chest began to loosen. “I thought we were getting along, getting to be friendly. When I deliver their lunch order, she signs for it, and then we talk a little. I thought she liked me. She has such a nice laugh.” He couldn’t stop a wistful smile. “She even touched my arm once, when she thanked me for bringing extra mustard. Then yesterday, I asked if maybe she’d like to go for a walk or get a soda one of these days.”
“Something tells me this story doesn’t have a happy ending.”
“It had an ending all right.” He lost his appetite, scrunched the paper around the last few bites and shoved it into his pocket. “You know, I used to like that laugh. But not when she laughed in my face and said, and I quote, ‘I don’t see any future for myself that involves a deli-man’s boy who smells like the inside of a pickle barrel.’”
The lights faded to black. The two cousins slumped in their seats and the newsreel—something about President Hoover promising a swift end to America’s economic woes—spooled up.
“Well, that was a rude thing to say,” Artie said. “A person can communicate something unfortunate like that without being rude. It’s simple human decency.”
“No kidding. And it gets worse. Last night Pop and I were down in the basement putting up the corned beef, and I tell him, and he says maybe I’m shooting too high. That I should stick to my own.”
“She’s not Jewish?”
“Yes, she’s Jewish. But too rich for our blood. Those were Pop’s exact words. And I quote.”
“Then she’s not the girl for you.” Artie dabbed at his mouth with a threadbare handkerchief, folded it neatly, and stuck it back in his pocket. “She is right about one thing, and I’m not intentionally trying to be rude, but you do smell like the inside of a pickle barrel.”
Eli groaned. He’d tried everything. His mother’s brown laundry soap, the industrial cleanser they kept in the kitchen, even the cut lemons his father swore by. Nothing worked for him. It didn’t help that their family’s apartment was right above the deli. The onions, the dill, the vinegar, everything… It permeated his clothing, his sheets and pillows and mattress, his books and typing paper. Mr. Warner had even noticed. In his last letter, he waxed nostalgic that Eli’s scripts smelled like the delis of his childhood.
“It might not be all that bad,” Artie said. “Maybe you’ll find a girl who likes that.”
When pigs fly. “Yeah, and maybe I’ll be as big as Dashiell Hammett.”
“You’ll be bigger.”
Artie’s optimism, usually helpful, did little to boost Eli’s spirits. “Get outta here. Bigger than Dashiell Hammett. Bigger than Sam Spade.”
The flashlight of doom cut in their direction, followed closely by Mr. Finkenthal’s voice: “Can the chatter, you little pishers.”
They sank lower.
“Bigger,” Artie said under his breath. As the titles for Scarface began, he continued. “And I’ll be right there in Hollywood with you. Just don’t tell my mother.”
“Just don’t tell my mother. Because she’ll tell Pop, and I’ll be making pickles for the rest of my—”
“Hey. Don’t make me toss you two outta here again.”
“Sorry, Mr. Finkenthal,” Artie stage-whispered. “We’ll be quiet now.” He leaned closer to Eli. “Next week bring an extra sandwich for him.”