Fiction: Craving Pastrami by Peter Cherches

I went to a deli called Greenberg’s and ordered pastrami on rye with mustard. I hadn’t had a good pastrami sandwich in months, and I was ready. I sipped some Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray as I awaited my sandwich’s arrival. I never understood the appeal of sweet celery soda when I was a kid. I guess it’s a grownup thing.

The waiter, whose name tag said “Solly,” delivered my sandwich, along with a small plate of coleslaw and pickles.

I dove right in. Took a bite of the sandwich.

It wasn’t pastrami. It was ham.

I tried to get the waiter’s attention by waving, but he didn’t see me, so I yelled out, “Yo, Solly!”

He rushed over to my table. “What can I do you for?” he asked.

“You brought me the wrong sandwich,” I said. “This appears to be a ham sandwich.”

“Appears to be a ham sandwich? It is a ham sandwich! It’s our special pastrami-seasoned ham. The customers love it.”

“But I ordered a pastrami sandwich, not a ham sandwich. And isn’t this a kosher deli?”

“Kosher-style. For instance, we make a nice Reuben, but it’s got meat and cheese, so it ain’t kosher.”

“But even if it’s just a kosher-style—ham? Seriously?” I said.

“What do you think this is,” the waiter said, “the 1960s? Get with the times!”

“Look,” I said, “I don’t need glatt kosher, I just want a real hot pastrami sandwich, and that means beef. B-e-e-f.”

“Like I can’t spell beef?”

“I’m sure you can, so can you take this ham away and bring me a real pastrami sandwich?”

“We ain’t got none.”

“You don’t have any pastrami? What kind of Jewish deli doesn’t have pastrami?”

“Who said it’s a Jewish deli?”

“Well, the name’s Greenberg, so I just assumed.”

“Don’t assume. Mr. McNeil picked the name out a hat.”

“How about corned beef? Do you have corned beef?”

“Oh yes, we have nice corned beef!”

“Well, can you bring me a corned beef sandwich instead?”

“Why not?” Solly said. “They say the customer always comes first.” He took the ham sandwich away. I nibbled at the pickles and slaw as I awaited my corned beef.

Solly returned and put a plate in front of me. “Enjoy!”

I picked half of the sandwich up and took a look at the meat. It was definitely a ham sandwich, again.

“Oh Solly...”

He returned. “It’s nice, the corned beef, yes.”

“No! It’s ham!”

“That’s what we use for our corned beef. The customers seem to like it, so what’s your beef?”

“My beef is that you keep bringing me pork when I ask for beef. Don’t get me wrong, I love pork, but not when I want a pastrami sandwich.”

“That’s a corned beef sandwich!”

“No! It’s a ham sandwich!”

“People call things by different names. We call this a corned beef sandwich.”

“This is ridiculous. Can I talk to Mr. McNeil.”

“Sure,” Solly said. “Mr Greenboig,” he yelled out.

McNeil, or Greenberg, or whatever his name was, came over to my table.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I had a craving for a pastrami sandwich, so I took a walk to the closest kosher-style deli I knew of, which happened to be yours, and ordered one. I was salivating at the thought of it. Then what do I get but a ham sandwich. Can you explain that?”

“Yes,” he said. “There appears to have been a mixup. This is definitely not a pastrami sandwich, it’s corned beef.”

“It’s not corned beef, it’s ham!”

“Semantics, semantics,” McNeil said.

“Semantics schmantics,” Solly said.

I was getting nowhere. I could either walk out or eat the ham sandwich. I was really hungry by now, so I took a bite of the ham sandwich. I was startled. It tasted just like pastrami.

“Wow,” I said. “This is amazing. This ham tastes just like pastrami.”

“Not so loud,” McNeil said. “Everybody will want one.”

Peter Cherches has been called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly. His most recent book is Things (Bamboo Dart Press). His writing has appeared in scores of magazines, anthologies and websites, including Harper’sFlashBombSemiotext(e) and Fiction International, as well as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 website and anthology.