PICKLED RED HERRING
By Jim Norman
“What’s good today, Max?” asked Anthony Massari, known in the neighborhood as Big Tony, despite his being five feet, two inches tall and weighing one hundred-twenty seven pounds.
“Same as yesterday; same as tomorrow,” said Max Kalb, the short, stocky Ginsberg and Gold Delicatessen counterman. “No one can touch our pastrami. You guys know that better than anybody.”
“Yeah, but we love to hear you say it,” Harry Novitch said.
The five men in the booth laughed at Harry The Hunk’s joke, the same one they heard every day at lunch. Harry was their leader and had movie star good looks. The others had accents like someone right off the boat. Harry had practiced until he lost his Russian accent. He sounded like he was from New Jersey.
No one else ever sat at this booth. Never. No one but Max Kalb waited on them. No one else dared to speak to the hoodlums. They were mobsters, and in 1925, you stayed away from guys who could and would cripple or kill you without a second thought. They were known as “The Boys.” They worked for the Italian and Jewish crime bosses when extreme violence was needed.
“Where’s The Fish today?” Max asked, referring to Johnny Carpinelli, one of The Boys.
“Maybe he’s in the sea, so let’s wait and see,” Marco Cavilleri sang in his operatic tenor voice, so different from his high-pitched speaking voice that sounded like a little girl. The voice didn’t fit the thick body with no neck and a street fighter’s face.
“The Fish gets the tab. Last one to arrive pays the tab,” Moe Levinstein said, his words flowing in oral slow motion. He repeated himself, an annoying pattern that his friends tried to ignore. “Pays the tab.” Moe wasn’t only a thug, but very good with numbers and planning. He looked like a red-haired accountant, complete with black, round-rim eyeglasses.
Max wiped his hands on his starched white apron. “You wanna wait for Johnny.”
“Screw him,” Benny Reznik said, clearing his throat twice as he always did before he spoke. “I’m hungry and the smell of that pastrami is calling me. Make sure it’s lean, Max.”
“Don’t I always?” Max looked at the five of his six regulars. “One of these days you guys’ll surprise me and order different.”
“Not me,” Harry said, “I get heartburn from pastrami and corned beef. Maybe it’s the spices, maybe the cut of meat. Who knows, not even my doctor. I stick to pickled white herring.”
“Mach nit kain tsimmes fun dem,” Benny said in Yiddish after his throat clearing. He looked angry, his thin, acne-scarred face turning red.
“Who’s making a big deal? It’s not polite to speak Yiddish in front of our Italian friends, Harry said.
“Bei mir poilst du,” Big Tony said.
“See, it’s okay with him.” Harry said to Benny, who was busy brushing dandruff off his suit jacket. Harry turned to Big Tony. “Where’d you learn Yiddish?”
“Being around you shmegegis.”
It was true. The six gangsters spent more time together than with their families. They were business partners who protected each other from the mob bosses they worked for. Each was a brutal thug, and their reputation for violence kept their services in demand. If they came to see you, you paid up, shut up or disappeared.
“Four lean pastrami on rye with seeds and one pickled herring,” Max said. “Johnny can get his hot dogs when he gets here.”
The Boys ignored him. The whole conversation and the lunch orders were the same every day.
At the G & G Deli, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the countermen not only took orders, they prepared the orders. The customers were from the neighborhood and lived within blocks of the G & G corner location on Pitkin Avenue at the intersection with Amboy Street.
Max was good to The Boys. They left huge tips and got special treatment. The sandwiches were piled high and the meat was the best. Johnny got the fattest hot dogs with the freshest relish and sauerkraut. The pickled white herring was never from yesterday and always the best selection of fish. Even the kosher pickles were special for them. The Jews wanted the most sour; the Italians new pickles, almost like the mixed vegetable Giardiniera they’d grown up with.
Max prepared the sandwiches and pickled herring behind the counter at his station. He occasionally glanced in their direction. The men whispered to themselves, paying no attention to anyone. No one could hear them, including Max, a nosy busybody. They trusted Max, but they took no chances. Gangsters that took chances wound up missing or dead.
There was something about Max they didn’t know. Growing up, he’d spent a lot of time with his uncle, Asher Rubin, his mother’s brother. Uncle Asher was deaf, but was able to run a successful haberdashery business because he read lips. Max picked up lip reading. For a nosy guy, it was handy.
In the well-worn booth, The Boys huddled like a football team. This made it impossible for Max to lip-read more than snippets of their conversation.
“Don’t stick your nose…”
“Spend dough like he…”
“…look for him…”
Max brought the drinks to the booth.
“Two Cel-ray, two cream soda and one egg cream,” Max announced, distributing the drinks. Right back with the food. Pickles?”
“Yeah, them sour tomatoes, too,” Big Tony said.
“Pastrami on rye, with seeds, spicy mustard and sour pickles and tomatoes. I bet that’s what they serve in heaven,” Harry said.
Benny cleared his throat twice and almost smiled. “You deliver pastrami to heaven, Max?” At six-four, he was called Stretch.
“Customer list is secret, Stretch. You wouldn’t want me to rat you guys if someone asked, would youse?”
“Someone askin’ about us?” Marco Cavilleri asked.
“Jeez, what’re you, effing nuts?” Big Tony said, his voice sounding like he was recovering from laryngitis. “It’s a joke, stunad. Idiot.”
Four thugs laughed.
“What?” Marco said, his voice even higher pitched than usual.
The thugs laughed again, louder.
Max was back, five plates running up his right arm. He was the shortest counterman at G & G, but carried the most plates at one time.
“You guys set?” Max asked after setting down the plates.
Max started to walk away but turned back and saw that the five guys were devouring their lunch. Big Tony looked up.
“I’m worried about Johnny. It’s not like Johnny Carpinelli to miss a meal,” Max said.
“Maybe he had some unfinished business,” Marco said, “or maybe he’s grabbing a bite somewhere else.”
“The Fish not have lunch at G & G?” Max asked.
“I bet he had car trouble,” Moe said. “Car trouble. That Packard may be pretty new, but it’s always in the shop. The shop. Good thing Regina’s father owns a garage.”
“Yeah, dat’s it,” Marco said. “Johnny loves that Packard. What’s it a ‘23 Doctor’s Coupe?”
“His father wanted him to be a croaker,” Harry said. “Couldn’t stand to see blood.”
The thugs laughed and then turned back to eating.
“I’m worried about the guy,” Max said.
“Max, you gotta learn not to worry about what you’re not supposed to worry about,” Big Tony said. “It’s no good for business and no good for your health, if you get what I’m sayin’. Johnny’s a big boy. You worried about the tab?”
“No, it’s not the money…”
“We’re good for it. You know that, right?”
“We got something to take care of later, but we’ll check on him when we get back, okay?” Big Tony said.
“You goin’ out of town?” Max asked.
“For a few hours,” Harry said.
“Car shopping,” Big Tony said.
The other four thugs laughed, each in his distinct voice.
* * *
The weather turned cold the next day. Decembers in Brooklyn meant unpredictable weather. One by one, The Boys arrived at G & G. Max smiled at each of them as they entered and hung their overcoats on a rack.
Someone might describe Big Tony as the best dressed jockey in Brooklyn, but not if they wanted to live. Today, he wore his signature brown suit, white shirt with stiff, spread collar, double cuffs and a cream-colored tie in a Windsor knot.
The fashion show continued when Harry, Marco, Moe, and Benny arrived. They wore expensive suits, shirts and ties and professionally shined black patent leather brogue shoes. Tony and Harry, being more stylish, wore black and white saddle shoes. Not a single hair was out of place on any of the men. None wore wedding rings, although each was married. Custom made fedoras completed their ensembles.
Marco wore an undertaker’s black suit with a tight club collar that made his thick neck bulge. The pinky of his right hand displayed a blue sapphire ring studded with diamonds. He obsessively picked at it, like he was cleaning shards of skin trapped by a punch from Marco’s huge fist.
Johnny Carpinelli hadn’t arrived when Max brought four, steaming black coffees and one hot chocolate to the table.
Like he said every time Max brought him hot chocolate, Harry said, “Coffee gives me heartburn.”
“You hear from Johnny?” Max asked.
“Nuh,” Big Tony said.
Each of the men was holding a folded copy of The New York World newspaper. Max had never seen them reading a newspaper.
Max walked back to his station. He picked up a copy of the newspaper and walked into the kitchen where he wouldn’t be seen. On the first page, below the fold, a story caught his eye.
“Body of Man Found in Burned-Out Car.” The body of Michael “Mickey Numbers” O’Quinn was found in what was left of the automobile. Police used dental records and a laundry mark on the victim’s clothing to confirm the identity. Police believe the victim was recently murdered, but have no suspects. The vehicle was reported stolen from a parking lot.”
Max left the kitchen to fill the orders. He looked over at the booth and read lips when he could.
“No suspects…” Muffled laughter.
“…such a fine Irish fellow.”
“…good dough for the job.”
“… professional, good for business.”
“Shame about that motor car…” More laughter.
“I heard some guys use them as brothels on wheels.”
“No…” Even more laughter.
Max returned to the booth.
“Anything else, guys? You hear from Johnny? Two days in a row ain’t like him,” Max said.
“I ain’t heard nothin’,” Big Tony said. “Any uh youse?”
No one answered. Harry stared at Max with a “there you go” expression. “I got the tab for yesterday and today. Okay?”
Max nodded and walked behind the counter. The five hoods left after finishing lunch. None of the other customers allowed their eyes to linger as The Boys left G & G.
Max knew the rules. With The Boys, you didn’t butt into their business. They seemed nice, but he knew how dangerous they were. He suspected stealing cars and murder were among the services they provided, for a price.
Any sensible man would stick to the deli. Max did well on his salary, tips and his ten percent, silent partner interest in G & G. But Max wasn’t always sensible. He ran on emotion. He had to know what happened to Johnny Carpinelli.
Max’s curiosity was an obsession. Johnny’s friends wouldn’t talk about it and didn’t seem to care about finding Johnny. Max couldn’t let it go; he’d be on his own. If he caused a problem for The Boys, it could be over for him.
Max wasn’t a risk taker, but he had to know what happened to Johnny. The cops were not an option.
Johnny didn’t show up for lunch the next day. Three days in a row. Max sensed something bad had happened. He knew better than to ask about Johnny again.
“If I was to disappear,” Max asked The Boys, “would you come looking for me?”
They stopped eating and looked at Max. No one said anything, so Max raised his bushy eyebrows, his way of repeating the question.
Big Tony shook his head. “No.”
“No way,” Marco said, his high voice emotionless.
“Listen, Chaver,” Harry said, “I’m tellin’ you as a friend, you don’t ask about people who ain’t around, get it?”
“You don’t ask, you don’t know. Some asks you about it, you don’t know and that’s that. You’re out of it because you don’t know,” Big Tony explained.
The lesson in mob diplomacy was interrupted when a customer yelled at Max.
“What’s taking so long with my salami sandwich? I was here before those guys.”
Big Tony gestured to Marco to move out of the booth. Marco moved instantly. Big Tony walked over to the man’s table and whispered something in his ear. The man’s face froze in fear.
“Take your time. Finish with these gentlemen first,” the man called.
Harry turned to the others as Big Tony strolled back to the booth.
“I bet he told him the story about that time with the prizefighter who threatened him over a woman. What was his name?” Harry asked.
“Bruno Castellucci,” Benny said, double-clearing his throat. “The heavyweight. A good foot taller than Big Tony and a hundred pounds heavier.” Benny cleared his throat again. “He told Big Tony he was gonna punch his lights out.”
“Yeah,” Harry said, “until Big Tony told him he better hit him hard enough to kill him, or with one phone call Bruno would be dead before daylight.”
Moe continued explaining the facts of street life. “Maxy, if someone asks about Johnny or anything like that, you tell them, ‘Ich vais nit. I don’t know. Don’t know.’ Remember good what I’m telling you.”
“You stay smart, you stay out of it, you stay safe,” Big Tony said, taking his seat and nodding his agreement with the advice.
Max nodded back. He walked slowly back behind the counter. When he was thinking, he always walked slowly.
The subject of Johnny Carpinelli didn’t come up again. The gangsters finished lunch and left together. Max cleared their dirty dishes and made his decision on the way to the kitchen.
“Abe, cover my station,” Max said. “I’ll be gone a couple hours.”
Max quickly made and bagged a pastrami sandwich. He removed his apron and grabbed his heavy overcoat. As soon as he opened the deli’s front door, he felt the blast of cold air.
He looked back at the G & G storefront, hoping for inspiration. The huge, white Hebrew and English lettering on the dark wooden signs announced that G & G was famous for knishes, hot dogs, corned beef and pastrami. He squinted and looked through the glass windows. He made a mental note to get the windows cleaned.
Where to start looking for Johnny Carpinelli? He had a hunch, but not a clue. Some clues are red herrings that throw a detective off the trail. A hunch was more like a pickled red herring. It might lead to a clue or it might get you in a real pickle that you’d be lucky to survive.
Max’s hunch came from what he’d lip-read from The Boys. He buttoned his overcoat and walked south, toward Livonia Avenue, along Amboy Street. He had gloves on before he’d traveled two blocks. The temperature was falling fast and the wind blowing through the tunnel of buildings on Amboy Street made Max feel the cold through his overcoat and gloves.
The wind pushed back against him, slowing his pace. The streets were nearly empty of people. The noise of automobiles trying to beat the snowstorm filled his ears. As he got closer to his destination, he heard the clack-clack of the trolley cars running routes to the east. The horse-drawn, delivery wagons and peddlers’ pushcarts were gone, chased off the streets by the weather. Max looked up and felt the first flakes of snow.
* * *
By the time Max neared Lott Avenue, wind-driven snowflakes stung his face. He struggled against the cold, the wind and the snow until he found the brick building whose faded sign read, “Cars Repaired.”
When Max looked up at the sign to make sure he was in the right place, cold snowflakes burned his eyes. Blinking away the freezing cold water, Max tried the main door in the left overhead garage door and found it locked.
Beyond it, was a wooden door with a single light near the top. He was in the right place. “Cesare Donato, Expert Mechanic” in gold leaf was painted on the door.
Max summoned his courage and tried the door. Unlocked. He stepped in and smelled motor oil and new rubber tires. No one stood behind the counter and there were no customers. Behind the counter was another door, with another sign. “Shop. Customers Keep Out.”
Max considered what he’d found so far. The overhead garage doors were closed, but the front door was unlocked. No customers. He had only two choices — leave and head back to the deli; or open the door to the shop. Anyone in his right mind would leave before someone saw him.
Not Max. Max was Max, after all. He went behind the counter, grabbed the knob and opened the door. He wasn’t ready for what he saw.
Johnny Carpinelli was hanging between two block and tackle pulleys. His wrists and ankles were bound and looped onto hooks at the end of the block and tackle shells. He was suspended horizontally, with his back parallel to the ceiling. He was naked.
Two young women and an older man were in the shop. One woman, dressed in a winter-inappropriate short skirt and top with a cleavage-revealing neckline, was tied to a chair. The chair’s position forced her to see Johnny in his precarious position. The other woman wore a modest black dress. The women wore their black hair in nearly identical Clara Bow center-bobs.
“Who the hell are you?” Cesare Donato, reputed “silent boss” of the Lorenzetti crime syndicate demanded the instant he saw Max.
Max couldn’t understand the thick, Sicilian accent of the small, thin man with the salt and pepper, slicked-back hair. To Max it sounded like, “Ooh, dell yuh?”
Max ignored what he didn’t understand and stared at Johnny.
“Johnny, what’s going on?”
“Cesare, this is Max, from the deli, you know, G & G.,” Johnny said in his singsong voice.
“Ah, dot dogs,” Cesare said.
Max recognized Cesare as a sometime customer who ordered hot dogs, like his son-in-law.
It was Johnny’s turn to ask. “Why’re you here, Max? How’d you find me?”
“Three days you don’t show for lunch and no one seems to know where you are. I was worried about you, Johnny. I look out for my friends. I remember the guys talking about how much you loved your car…” Max said before being interrupted.
“You love that car more than you love me,” Fabiana Roselli shouted, still fastened to the chair with a greasy rope.
“Shut up, you mignotta whore. I thought you were my best friend. You may be his goomah, but I’m his wife,” Regina Donato Carpinelli said, spitting out her words. “And when I’m done with him, nobody will want what’s left of his pathetic pisello.” Regina pointed at her husband’s shriveled penis. “Maybe he joins a boys’ choir.”
“Hey, it’s cold in here,” Johnny said, his ego crushed by her insult.
Regina grabbed a bolt cutter from the tool rack. Johnny’s eyes went wide with fear as his wife opened and closed the cutter over and over as she slowly approached her husband.
“No, please,” Johnny begged.
Regina stopped and looked at her father.
“In my family, the men all have a big belino,” Cesare said, Pointing his Smith & Wesson Model 10 pistol at Johnny’s pride and joy. “Maybe I just shoot it off. Tough shot, small target.”
Regina and Fabiana laughed.
“Cesare, I’ll take care of those things for you. Those things. Forget I told you no,” Johnny said.
“I want him dead,” Regina said.
“So do I,” Fabiana said. She turned her attention to Johnny. “See the trouble you got me into, you useless boiata.”
Fabiana looked at Cesare.
“I give him back to your daughter, Cesare. Now please let me go. I won’t go near him again,” Fabiana said.
“How about I kill tree a ya,” Cesare said, pointing with his gun at Johnny, Fabiana and Max. “The tradimento del morito, the marito rapinatore, and the testimone. My daughter’s cheating husband, the husband thief and the witness, one, two tree. Lika dat. Then, I find ricco gentiluomo, a rich gentleman for my bella widowed daughter.”
Max couldn’t believe Cesare was talking about murder, even him. He had to talk Cesare out of it. His mind was blank.
the brown bag he brought along, Max stammered, “Anyone care for a pastrami
sandwich? Kosher. If you prefer a hot dog or pickled herring or a knish, I can
run back to the deli and have it back here in no time.”
Cesare laughed. “We share. He don’ get no pastrami. He need hotta dog, you capisce?”
“You have a knife to cut the sandwich?” Max asked, regretting mentioning another weapon.
“Sure,” Cesare said, taking a switchblade out of his pocket and opening it with a loud snap. “Cut the sandwich first, then cut the goomah loose.”
Max carefully took the knife from Cesare.
“What about Johnny?” Max asked.
“Later. We eat first,” Cesare said.
“Can I ask you a question, Mr. Donato?” Fabiana asked.
“What you said about the men in your family, is it true?”
“Yes, true,” said Cesare.
“You?” Fabiana asked.
“Fierro,” Cesare said, holding his hands apart about nine inches.
Fabiana, freed by Max, walked over to Cesare and put her arm around his shoulder. She took the napkin from the sandwich bag and wiped the corner of Cesare’s mouth, pressing close to him.
* * *
Six men sat in the booth the next day. No one said anything about Johnny Carpinelli’s return. It was like nothing had ever happened.
“Usual all around?” Max asked.
Five heads nodded.
“I’m going with pastrami on rye. Ya know, for a change. No hot dogs today,” Johnny said.
Max nodded knowingly and smiled at Johnny. The other five hoods had no reaction.
Max turned and started to walk away.
“Hey, Max,” Harry called, “got any pickled red herring?”
Max stopped. Maybe they did know.
During his summer escapes from Florida, he teaches
short story and novel writing courses at the University of North Carolina
Asheville College for Seniors. His Twitter ramblings can be found at:
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