Salt filled her mouth, releasing a flow of saliva. A ribbon of spittle fell from her lips and she grabbed for a napkin. Far too much salt, she thought, glaring toward the counter.
There was a line of people at the grocery store deli and Della knew they would suffer the chef’s ineptitude as well. At best, it would ruin their lunch. At worse, someone’s high blood pressure would mushroom into a stroke.
The deli manager winced when she approached. They were old adversaries.
“Too much salt today,” she called out, pushing to the front of the line. “You need to throw that batch away and redo it.”
“Hi Della,” he said, resignation in his voice.
“Did you hear me? Too much salt. In your potato salad. Someone’s going to die from it.”
Heads swiveled back and forth between the old woman and the deli manager. The apprentice clerk ringing up a transaction of sliced turkey and provolone paused. The specter of death was conjured and nothing could move forward til it was banished.
The manager spooned up a bite of the mustard stained salad from the case and, with the courage of Patton and bravado of Trump, tasted it. He chewed the creamy nugget with deliberate movements of his jaw, making a show of arranging a thoughtful, judging expression on his face.
“It’s the same as always,” he announced. “Just the right amount of seasoning.”
Aware of the many customers watching, he added, “the dill and pickles make this potato salad the best in the state.”
Della turned away. The deli manager was an idiot. She’d warned him though. Just like last week, when she told him yet again about the batter on their fried fish being too heavy and tough. No one likes heavy batter, she told him. It looked as thick as ever today so she chose a chicken thigh and potato salad for her weekly lunch. She didn’t want to report him to the store manager but things weren’t improving.
The store buzzed around her – young mothers rushing through their shopping with half-wild children gripped by one hand, 40-somethings comparing labels in the wine aisle, employees stacking oranges in precarious pyramids. Whatever happened to the ringing of cash registers, she wondered. When had that gone away in favor of these annoying electronic blip-blip-blips. It sounded as though you were at a casino slot machine, with your groceries your winnings instead of the result of years of toil and sweat.
She pictured him in suit and tie heading out the door of the house, year after year, and then pushed that image away. Della made her way through the deli’s magic doors that whispered open at her approach, and out to the parking lot. Her hand trembled and fumbled through her handbag, seeking car keys amid tissues and mints, empty lipstick tubes and grocery receipts. Finally she found them and got into her car, her legs trembling as she sat.
They’d purchased the car three years ago. Della had repressed a snort when the salesman pointed out the speedometer went up to 120 miles per hour.
“Not that you’re going that fast,” he said with a chuckle. “It means you’ll have lots of power getting on the freeway. Good acceleration.”
Della noticed the salesman addressed his comments to Jerry, looked to Jerry during the negotiations, passed the papers to her husband first for his signature on the top line. She’d pulled the papers away and signed on the top line, handing them back to the salesman with a firm look. Her husband kept a calm disinterested expression on his face.
Their first date was in 1945. She was 16 and he was five days older, too young to have been in the war, thank God. They flew down the road at the top of the national speed limit, 35 miles per hour. The land blurred beside her and her heart scampered around her chest. When Jerry stopped to show her the field of sunflowers blooming as far as the eye could see, he reached for her hand and promised to love her forever.
That had been a Ford too, though not a grandiose one like this, with heated seats and a GPS system that she had no idea how to use. Della turned up the radio, letting the music fill her mind as she meandered down the freeway at 45 miles per hour, cars flying past on either side. In younger days, she was in full command of her thoughts, directing them along the paths she desired. Lately, unprovoked thoughts pushed her around, sending her into hours-long musings. One moment she was 22 and trying on a pleated swing dress and the next she was 45 and holding her first grandchild. She flipped her turn signal a mile in advance of the off ramp and headed home.
In the end, their son made the decision to put Jerry in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.
“You can’t care for him anymore,” Peter said. “It’s wearing you down.”
“This isn’t your business,” Della had snapped. “We’re fine.”
Peter put a hand on her arm and Della clenched her teeth against the tears that threatened. They weren’t a touchy family.
“Mom,” he said. “He doesn’t know you anymore. It’s not safe for you, or him.”
The place was serviceable. Efficient. Doors were locked at night and food was served on schedule. Jerry learned how to string Cheerios and roll yarn into a ball. He wore sweat pants but insisted on wearing a tie that he simply draped around his shoulders every day like a thin cape. Della visited every morning and they held hands for a bit. Once a week she told him the story of their romance, marriage, and child – reliving their lives out loud while she watched his face for traces of recognition. Then she drove to the corner grocery store and its deli for her weekly lunch out.
The teen-ager wore black eyeliner and a plaid skirt, which wouldn’t have been a problem except for his being a boy. Della didn’t like this whole gender neutral thing going around, the blending of the sexes as though they were all one and the same. There were stories about people sprouting breasts and disposing of other parts, and the reverse. She gave the boy a deserving frown. As though it were cause and effect, he sneezed violently and then wiped his nose on a sleeve.
She grappled in her pocket and extended a tissue.
“Here,” she said, shaking it a bit. “It’s mostly clean.”
He shrank back from the crumpled offering.
“It’s ok,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“You’ll need to wash that shirt on hot now,” she said.
He didn’t respond.
“You don’t like being a boy?” she asked.
The department store music bumped and throbbed, giving Della a headache. The days of elevator music were over. She clasped a pair of men’s socks to her chest as they edged forward in line. Their 70th anniversary was approaching soon – otherwise she wouldn’t subject herself to shopping at the mall, with its gargantuan parking lots and gangs of purple-haired teens.
“You’re wearing a skirt. Boys don’t wear skirts.”
He glanced down toward his knees.
“Looks like I do.”
Della chewed her lip.
“In my day, they didn’t,” she persisted.
The boy didn’t look offended by this.
“Isn’t this your day?” he asked. “Aren’t you here today too?”
He was deliberately misunderstanding her, but she wasn’t one to back down.
“I suppose so,” she said. “But I’m old.”
Della didn’t like the eyeliner. Or the skirt. But he had a point. She was here just as much as he was – only people reacted to her age with marvel and congratulations, as though she didn’t belong at all.
“I’m 87,” she said, staring him down, daring him to contradict her on this.
“I’m 20.” His tone was matter-of-fact, unimpressed. She made a sound and realized she was laughing, the first time since Jerry moved out of the home they’d lived in together for seven decades. The boy smiled back at her and stepped up to the register, purchasing one of those unfortunate hoody sweatshirts.
The last day she was truly happy was ten years earlier. It was easy to mark the moment because so much happened afterward. They’d gone wine tasting, at a cluster of wineries a short drive away, sipping their way through Chardonnays to Pinot Noirs and starting all over again. She stumbled a bit coming out of one tasting room into the fresh air and giggled at her own lightheadedness. Jerry took her arm and they’d stood for a moment, looking out at the vineyards, freshly stripped of fruit, breathing in the aroma of late summer. She felt his hand creep down her back and settle on her rump, squeezing lightly. They stayed like that for a while, not caring that other people walked by, amused by the old man copping a feel on his geriatric wife.
He slept later than usual the next morning, making an appearance after she’d finished the laundry and swept the patio. Loose skin drooped below his eyes and he hadn’t combed his hair.
“You drank too much,” she said.
He shook his head.
“I didn’t know where I was. When I woke up this morning.”
“It’s the wine,” she said.
He shook his head, and she was surprised to see tears glistening in his eyes. His mouth turned downward.
“It took five minutes or so – for god’s sake, I had no idea where I was.”
She stood there, a flutter of fear stirring in her.
“You’re ok,” she said and then repeated. “You’re ok. It’s just too much wine. Come have your toast.”
They didn’t talk about it for another few months, though she found his wallet in the silverware drawer, dirty laundry in the garbage and reminded him of names of friends they’d known for years. They talked about it after the day they went to Wal-Mart though, that terrible day when they couldn’t ignore it any longer.
They’d split up – Jerry to electronics and Della to fill the cart with groceries. “…red plaid shirt and blue baseball cap.” Della turned her head from the frozen food case, where she’d been deciding between baby peas or regular peas, regular or low-salt. The announcement came again.
“There is an older gentleman lost. He is wearing a red plaid shirt and blue baseball cap…”
Della left her cart in the middle of the aisle and practically ran to the front of the store where Jerry was standing with a store employee.
“Jerry!” she cried.
“I want to go home,” he said quietly.
The doctor answered all their questions. How quickly would it progress? How long could he stay at home? Would he hurt her?
“Don’t let me forget us,” Jerry said to her. “You’ve made my life worthwhile.”
So she created their story, reciting it every Friday like a mantra, abbreviating the narrative as his attention span shortened. He forgot who she was anyway.
She really wanted the fried fish the way it used to be. Lightly crisp on the outside, soft and moist inside. This new chef, this fellow they’d hired three or four years back, couldn’t do it right. Della didn’t know why they had to change things.
“Hi Della.” The deli manager had stepped forward, appearing from a back room somewhere while the deli clerk cowered at the far side of the counter. Della figured there must be an emergency button he pushed when she entered the store. She threw a disdaining look toward the clerk, just to let him know she was onto him.
“I’d like the fish special, but…” she started, but the manager interrupted.
“I have a surprise for you today,” he said, lifting up a Styrofoam container. “Our old recipe. We looked it up and made a batch just for you.”
Her mouth fell open as she stared at the container.
“We can do this on Fridays only, now,” he said. “A standing order. For you. We put it on our calendar. Fridays are ‘Della’s Day.’”
Della nodded. She swallowed down a lump in her throat.
“Well,” she said. “Well.”
He waited, a smile in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. She took a breath and reached for the container, looking down at the fish, lightly battered just as it used to be. Her mouth watered in anticipation and her spirits lifted.
“I hope you fixed your potato salad,” she said, finding her voice. “The salt.”
The smile faded from his eyes. Della’s mouth opened and then shut. She hadn’t really meant to say that.
“I suppose some people might like it that way, extra salty,” she said, trying to make her voice light. “I mean… thank you.”
She turned and walked to her usual table. The deli manager watched her go, her slow gait, the way she lowered herself carefully into the chair as though her bones were glass. He remembered when he first started working there. People talked about the old couple who’d been coming in for years to have a weekly lunch in the deli. That was fifteen years ago. He told his wife about them over breakfast one morning and how he hoped that someday they’d have something like that too.
“Eating fried fish at the local deli?” his wife asked, her tone ironic.
He thought about how Della and her husband, white-haired and wrinkled, held hands under the table.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
The old couple stopped showing up for a time and then it was just the old lady. She had a reputation for being difficult but the deli manager figured it had to be hard. Losing someone. Being alone.
Della knew the deli manager was watching her. She didn’t want him to know the fish was perfect, absolutely perfect. Lightly crispy outside, tender and juicy inside. But puffing up a man’s ego too much was never a good thing. After all, he still needed to change the potato salad. For the moment though, it was just like it used to be. In her day.
# # #
Julie Howard is a former newspaper journalist and editor who has covered everything from crime to cowboy poetry. Her career was primarily spent with The Sacramento Bee, Las Vegas Review-Journal and the bygone Maturity News Service. In addition to The Dime Show Review, She’s had a number of fiction published in Across the Margin, Piker Press, and Literally Stories. She has a crime novel set to be published next year with a sequel in the works.
Photo credit: Christina Salomon