Mistletoe, Mobsters, & Mozzarella by Peggy Jaeger




One

Advice for surviving in a big Italian family: Never let them see you sweat.

The moment I arrived at the deli I knew something was wrong.

The back door stood opened and unlocked, two things my obsessive/compulsive father made sure never happened. Since I was the first one to arrive every morning at the crack-ass of creation, and had to plug in the security code on the wall box in order to gain entry to the store, the door should have been locked and alarmed.

My daily bread delivery, courtesy of my cousin Regina and her bakery, sat outside the door in a large wooden crate. After grabbing it I hip checked the door wide open.

The second sign something was amiss were the lit lights in the entrance hallway. I arrived at work when it was still dark no matter if it were Daylight Savings time, or Standard, and I routinely had to fumble to find the wall switch and illuminate the back end of the deli.

Not today.

And then there was…the smell.

I’ve been around raw meat my entire life. I grew up in my mother’s kitchen and I’ve worked in the delicatessen my father owns and operates since I was ten years old. The aroma of animal blood is as recognizable to me as my mother’s knock-off L’air du temps. Although, admittedly, mama’s perfume smells way better.

The scent filling the air this morning was…wrong.

“Hello? Is someone here?”

An eerie sense of quiet surrounded me. I put the bread crate down on the linoleum floor and crept along the corridor leading to the front of the store. I slid my hand across the wall, my huge purse positioned in front of me like Wonder Woman’s golden shield of protection.

Being the oldest of six kids and the only girl in the mix, it takes a lot to scare me.

My brothers are, each and every one of them, a pain in the ass to their cores and I’d grown up the victim of their arguably stupid shenanigans too many times to count. Cooked linguini placed in my bed to look like worms; a farting cushion placed on my chair at the dinner table; toothpaste spread on my school lunch sandwich instead of peanut butter. More times than I could remember one of them would hide in my closet then jump out at me when I least expected it. Anything and everything dumb and dumber they could think up to annoy me, they’d done. And still did to this day if they thought they could get away with it. Chronological maturity hadn’t made its way to their brains yet and they all still acted like little boys when it came to infuriating me.

This spine tingling sense of unease rippling through me didn’t feel like one of their usual pranks.

But with my brothers, you never know.

“I swear on all that’s holy, Giacomo,” I called out, naming the brother voted most likely to do something moronic, “if this is some dumbass attempt to scare me, I’m gonna make you suffer.”

I continued along the hallway, bypassed my father’s office, then made my way to my own. Both doors were open, the rooms empty.

The odor became more profound and ripe the closer I came to the front of the store.

If you’ve ever left a piece of meat out on a counter all day to defrost it, and forgotten about it until too late, you’ll recognize the odor.

“Vinny? Vito? Are you guys here?” I called out. Silence came back to me.

The overhead lights in the front of the store weren’t on so I couldn’t see much inside the store-proper. A tiny bit of illumination filtered in through the front window, enough to make out the shapes of the little tables and metal chairs lining the seating area. A few years ago my mother had the idea to add them so people could come in on a lunch hour, order, then sit down for a few minutes to eat instead of taking the food away with them. It turned out to be a good idea, too, because lunch hour business doubled by the end of the first month. It had been the one and only time my father had ever listened to one of my mother’s business ideas.

She never let him forget it, either.

When I’d left yesterday afternoon, the tables and chairs were all straight and set into their little spaces surrounding the window. Before he locked up at night, my father would upend the chairs onto the tables so he could sweep and then mop the floor.

I sidled up to the back of the glass food display cases and looked right, then left. Nothing was wrong, but that itchy feeling hadn’t left me yet. My fingers dragged along the wall until they came to the switch, then I threw the place into total light, something I never did at this hour of the morning. If anyone passing on the street saw the lights, they’d think we were open for business, which we weren’t. Not for another two hours.