In no particular order.
“Do you know how to do shaved meat?” she asks in English that still bears a heavy Teutonic imprint.
“Sure,” and I’m somewhat eager. This is a plum assignment – filling a series of four trays with shaved ham, roast beef, maybe pastrami and turkey, depending on Helga’s mood. Usually, I’m on floor mopping duty this early in the morning. Maybe this won’t be such a bad day.
One of the better aspects of shaving, which is to slice the meat exceedingly fine, is that I can do it pretty slowly, was actually told to slow down because they’re worried about accidents and compensation claims. I take a big piece of Black Forest ham and start the process. The white plastic container is full in a few minutes; then I start with a hunk of roast beef. Helga’s making it easy; she puts the pieces she wants done beside the machine. I start to think she’s being nice this morning, but then it occurs to me no, she probably thinks I’m too stupid to pick the right ones myself. It’s a good way to use up the ends, see. Shaving works best if the meat’s a little on the dry side.
My first customer is an old Polish guy with a worn, round face. I keep forgetting his name but he remembers mine.
“Anna,” he says with a short A just like my parents do, “300 grams krakowska.” At least I think that’s what he says in his slow gravelly voice, but I point to the pile of spiced ham and he nods.
I take a tissue paper and use it to grasp about an inch and a bit of sliced krakowska, and then slap it on the scales. Nearly perfect. The old guy watches intently as I reach down to grab a few more slices. He waves his hand.
“No more,” he says. “Enough.” He pauses a second. “I am an old man. I am happy with just a little.” And he chuckles slightly.
“Right.” I wrap it in brown butcher’s paper and fold it in exactly the opposite way to everyone else. I’ve noticed that recently.
“Anything else for you today?”
“No. Thank you Anna,” he says and I hand him the package.
Three customers, four of us. I’m the lucky one, idle for a minute or two, although I stare at all the display cases as if looking for something to straighten out or maybe one of the piles of sliced meat to replenish. My hand is on my hip; I do my best to look like I want to busy myself.
“Get your hand out of your pocket!” Helga hisses it into my ear, so sharp it makes me jump.
My goddamn hand wasn’t in my goddamn pocket, but it wouldn’t matter if I said it, so I don’t bother.
“Come here and look,” she demands, so I do. “Natalia can bag the buns,” and she nods briskly at Natalia, who nods back as she picks up a plastic bag to take up the task.
I cross through the shivering fluorescent light of the store after her. The shelves here at the front are weighted down with foreign specialties in bright packaging. I actually like most of the stuff in here – soups, sweets, jams and sauces. She leads me behind the meat counter again, pointing triumphantly.
It’s grotesque. She has it on the counter where the slicing machines are kept. It’s huge and pink and it quivers, still steaming.
“It’s a cow’s tongue.”
“It sure is, Helga,” I say, and I can swear I hear Yuleen’s muffled giggle behind me. “The not-so-contented cow,” I turn and quip, and she guffaws.
“They just cooked it out front. I want all you girls to sell it today. I want all of it gone,” her voice rises slightly towards the end of her speech.
“Sure Helga, I’ll do my best.”
I poke it once, just to see, and it quivers some more.
I look up and see through the far end of the coolers, to the back door as it opens and Yuleen breezes in. Late. But it won’t matter. She’s related to somebody; that’s what I hear. Helga smiles as she sees her. Yuleen’s already in uniform; she’s behind the counter in a few minutes.
“Hello Yuleen,” Helga sings with a big smile, and the other girls echo, even me. You can’t blame Yuleen, I don’t think. Not her fault they all like her around here. Maybe it’s because she’s tall and blonde, the perfect Aryan for the good customers. And maybe it’s because she’s related to somebody. At any rate, me, I’ve got the European background but not the look, I guess that’s what it is.
Helga’s voice comes from over my shoulder. “Karl-Heinz made up a lot of hamburger yesterday. He says you can start the grinder early.”
“Sure.” And maybe I can even leave early..? The thought adds a positive note to the proceedings.
I lift the lethal slicer blade from the bleach-y water of the sink cautiously with my latex covered hands. It has soaked to perfection. The meat residue has taken on a gelatinous texture which I’ll poke out of the grinder with the wooden skewers they use for shashlik. I’ll need to get the slicer done quickly if he wants me to start with the grinder early too,
“Early? What time?” But she’s already gone to summon Yuleen.
Yuleen’s munching on a slice of the tongue. I rip off a piece of butcher’s paper, slap the ham on it and begin to fold it up.
“Can I get you anything else?” I ask over my shoulder. “We have some tongue on special today.”
There’s a frozen stubble of yellowed grass on the school yard as I hurry across. The day is grey, the clouds heavy with a snow that begins to drop quietly on my head and gather in my eyelashes.
The little stacks of cut meats are arranged in rows with a certain logic to their order. First row is bologna – plain, beef, garlic, pimento. The second comprises salami – German, Danish, Italian mild, Italian spicy. After that come the hams, the mixed meats, then the counter changes from flat shelving to a framework of bins where the fresh meats glisten, red and pink under the lights.
They sit, the stacks of meats, flavorful and spicy as I know them to be, mocking me. They mock me from underneath a kind of rich layer of fragrant fat, a greasy sheen made up of both substance and odour that remains on the hands and lips once they’ve touched the meat. At one time the flavor and spice would have enticed me to consume – and they’re very clever here, I’ll give them that. They let us eat whatever we want as long as we’re not stuffing our faces in front of customers. During downtime though, roast beef, pastrami, the best salami and ham – whatever you want.
When I first started, I never ate dinner after a shift. I would stuff my face with gobs of everything between customers and then eat a meal at the cafeteria too. My blood coursed with animal proteins and cholesterol.
But they’re not stupid; they know.
Within the first two or three months, there was a moment that I reached for a little garlic bologna snack while it was slow and the texture seemed to bounce off my teeth and an hour later when I went the wipe my hand across my face the faint scent of it passed by my nose. I rubbed my fingers together under my nostrils, feeling the ooze of grease as the scent filled my head and a frisson of horror reverberated in my gut.
They know that it doesn’t take that long before the constant proximity of the meat, the greasy layer that is attached to the smell of flesh and above all fat, it’s not long before it begins to permeate your clothes, your hair, your skin. Nowadays I go home and strip on the way up the stairs to the bathroom, stuffing my stinking clothes compulsively to the bottom of the laundry basket, standing under scalding water for half an hour until Mother screams at me to get out.
I hate the plastic too but I’m glad of the layer of latex between my fingertips and the smoked Jagdwurst as my fingers follow my trained eye and reach for just about exactly a half inch.
The lady nods and smiles. I smile back faintly from under the glass.
Helga pulls me slightly to the side.
“You need to smile more,” she says grimly into my ear. “You’re young. Smile!” she orders. “You’ll sell more if you smile.”
The girls by the grill smile at me but no one else does as I hurry to the back to shrug out of my coat and into the lovely brown gingham apron that constitutes our uniform. The apron snugly tied, I turn to the mirror in this dingy staff room, its rim painted pastel green to match the walls. I stare briefly at my sallow face under the fluorescent light and adjust the bobby pins that hold the matching kerchief to my hair. I fix a smile on my face and step out of the confines of the staff room.
“…the tongue madam? It’s freshly cooked.” My lips are stretched in a wide grin.
Grey roots show underneath the pale blonde hair, permed and curled up in one of those short dos my grandmother used to sport. “Sure,” she says, pulling her own lips into something like a faint grin, “that looks good. Like home cooked. I’ll take two pounds.”
I turn to the counter and use a large fork to skewer the tongue to slice from it. It begins to quiver again as the fork pierces it and I stiffen my wrist to get it to stop.
It’s not that much farther, no far at all from home, really, it just seems an interminable walk. I cut through the concrete expanse of apartment parking lots with a growing sense of urgency, time ticking away. Because we can’t be late, not by a single minute. I bite my lip.
“Karl-Heinz says you did a good job on the meat grinder last week.”
“Thanks,” and I smile, just to add to the effect.
Helga nods. “That’s better,” she says. “Remember to smile. You’re young, you should be happy.” And she leaves me with a brisk nod.
Anya Wassenberg is a long time freelance writer whose short stories have been published in print and online publications and anthologies across North America and in the U.K. She’s also an avid arts writer and blogger with her own blog at www.artandculturemaven.com.