Round Robin — excerpt

Prologue
On the night of November 9, 1989, Manfred Welk lay in his East Berlin Stasi prison cell singing The Police State Blues, a personal composition.

 Lord, here I am in jail,
Yet another day,
These walls ‘n’ bars that hold me,
Ain’t never goin’ away.

Manfred sang in English, doing his best to twist his pretzel-thick German accent into a Mississippi Delta growl.

They put me here five years ago…
Sent me away for life,
All ‘cause of an evil woman,
That witch I called my wife.
Gave that woman ev’rything,
Ev’rything that money could buy,
And how the hell does she thank me?
She turns me in for bein’ a spy!

Manfred was accompanied on harmonica by his cellmate, Billy Tuxton, late of Manchester, England. Billy stood on his cot and looked out the cell window as he played. On the other side of the Wall, he could see the bright lights of West Berlin. Freedom, fraüleins, fornication and foaming beer, all but close enough to reach out and touch. And tonight it looked like the whole damn town was having a party. The sight made Billy’s heart break.

He wailed on his mouth harp as Manfred moved on to the next verse.

You know you can’t trust women,
They’ll always turn you out,
And, damn sure, stay away from mine,
‘Cause she’s one real sour Kraut!

Manfred smiled as Billy’s playing faltered momentarily. That last line always made the little Engländer laugh. Then both men revved it up for their big finale.

But one thing I got to tell you,
One thing I gotta say,
Won’t always sing
These police state blues,
I’ll get outta here some way…
If they lock me up forever,
I’ll live forever and a day,
Yeah, they can lock me up forever,
I’ll live forever and a day!

Manfred and Billy belted out a reprise, giving it their all.

This was invariably the point at which the guards banged on their door and shouted at them to shut the hell up — just to let them know how long forever really could be — but tonight there was no interruption. Confronted by the unexpected quiet, Manfred and Billy fell silent of their own accord. They looked at each other and then at the cell door … waiting … wondering.

Had the guards developed a taste for the blues? Would Manfred and Billy hear polite applause for their performance? Had the guards deserted their posts?

Not knowing what to expect, Billy glanced back out the window, and he started to tremble.

“Bloody hell, bloody hell!” he shouted. “Would you look at this?”

“What?” Manfred asked, bounding to his feet.

Billy turned a stunned face to his cellmate.

“The Wall … it’s bleedin’ open!”

Manfred leaped up onto the cot next to Billy. He braced himself on the cell walls, his arms around Billy, so his great weight wouldn’t collapse the cot. The two of them watched as a huge throng of people flooded out of the East and into the West.

Where were the border police? Where were the dogs? Where was the gunfire?

Even more amazingly, people flocked the other way, too, heading to the East. As the groups merged, people embraced, danced, drank. By the hundreds, by the thousands. Right out in the street. In East Berlin. What would Marx and Lenin think?

Billy looked at Manfred, anxiously.

“Tell me you see it, too. That it isn’t some bloody hallucination.”

Manfred smiled and nodded. He draped one massive arm around the little Brit.

“It’s real, Billy … the Wall’s open. We’ve outlasted the bastards. We’ve won. ”

Billy smiled back, hugged Manfred and then turned his gaze back to the window, tears running down his cheeks. Manfred took another look at the glorious spectacle, too. He was sure that he and Billy would be free soon.

He returned to his cot, lay down again and resumed singing.

Not the blues in English this time, but a lullaby in German.

As if there were a small child nearby.

Chapter 1
Chicago, October, 1990

Round Robin Phinney presided over the main counter at Screaming Mimi’s Deli with a carving knife in one hand and a serving fork in the other. At five-eight and pushing two hundred and thirty pounds, Robin didn’t look like someone you messed with at the best of times, and especially not when she was holding sharp-edged steel. But at Screaming Mimi’s, everybody went after everybody. It was expected. It was how the place got its name.

In the thick of the lunch crowd, Tone Morello was going after Robin right now.

“You ever gonna get it through your fat head, what my name is?” Tone asked.

Robin gave him a brief look while continuing to carve paper-thin slices of rare roast beef with a precision a brain surgeon would envy.

“Now, Ant–knee, don’t be that way. Be nice. I might give you a little something extra.”

Robin batted her eyelashes and made a kissy face at Tone.

Tone stuck an index finger down his throat.

“You know what your problem is, Robin?” he said. “You’re terminally hard up. You couldn’t get a date if the dog–catchers’ convention came to town. ”

Tone had spent the better part of a week thinking that one up.

It got a chorus of oooohs and aaaahs and uh–ohs from the lunch crowd. They knew this was going to be a good one. Robin replied without bothering to look at Tone.

“Yeah, that’s my problem, all right. Yours is you’re thirty–seven years old and you still wear a training condom on little Peter. That’s your problem, Ant–Knee.”

Several of the male customers groaned in sympathy for Tone. The women hooted and howled. Which wasn’t music to Tone’s ears. He considered himself quite the ladies’ man.

Robin served Tone his sandwich with a smile.

He didn’t have time to think of a new line, so he fell back on a reliable old one.

“How would you know how big I am? You ain’t seen it, and you never will.”

“Don’t have to,” Robin said. “It’s those dainty little hands and feet of yours. They give you away.”

Tone was not a small guy at six–one and one eighty–five. He was darkly handsome, too, even if it did look like he had his hair done at Jiffy Lube. And he actually was a big hit with a lot of the ladies. But he did have unusually delicate hands and feet, and he was sensitive about them.

Robin knew it like she could read his mind.

She said with glee, “Small here, small there … gotta be small everywhere.”

“It’s the nose that tells the size,” Tone said, hoping to salvage some pride.

Tone had an emphatic Roman nose.

“Well,” Robin conceded, “I have heard that you give good nose, Ant-knee.”

This time even the men joined in the laughter. It was too much for Tone to bear. It also brought him back to his original point.

Red faced and tight lipped, he said, “My name’s not Ant’ny, it’s not Anth-o-ny, it’s not even Tony. I’m Tone. Tone Morello. I had my name changed legal. You could look it up in the TV Guide, or wherever they keep the list of official names. Or you could just let it finally sink into that fat head a yours, you know.”

Tone wanted to deck her.

Except Robin still had an eight-inch knife in her mitt.

He knew she’d use it, too.

As it was, she slapped her forehead with her free hand and said, “Yeah, what a fathead I am. How could I forget a name like Tone Deaf? No, wait, that’s not it.” Robin made a show of thinking hard. “Tone Arm? Dial Tone? No, I know, it’s Tone Mo-ron-o … Aw, heck, it’s just Ant-knee.”

Tone wasn’t as dumb as Robin made out. He knew when he’d had enough. He took his sandwich over to Mimi at the cash register and asked for a bag so he could have it to go.

Robin turned to the crowd of people still waiting to order lunch.

“All right,” she said, “who’s next?”

***

Screaming Mimi’s Deli, just west of North Michigan Avenue, just north of the Chicago River, occupying a long, narrow, street-level space at the corner of a building with landmark status, in the 38th year of a 99-year lease, served a purpose above and beyond offering highly spiced, fairly priced food to hordes of office workers, bicycle couriers, meter maids, retail clerks and cops. It gave everybody a chance to blow off steam. You could come into Mimi’s and say anything you wanted to anybody else who was there. At the top of your voice if you liked.

Patrons at Mimi’s were served by three counter people. Manny Tavares, an unrepentant ‘60s leftist, handled political arguments. Judy Kuykendahl held forth on women’s liberation and sexual polemics. Round Robin Phinney, at center stage, took on all comers. On any subject.

Each counter person could hand the customer his order over the top of the counter, or could step forward into nooks between the display cases, and plunk down the plate of food on a chest high shelf no more than a foot from the idiot he or she was shouting at. It was, however, considered bad form for any employee to spray saliva on the order. Unless the customer had done so first. These nooks were known as the in–your–face spaces.

In the interest of preventing actual mayhem and total anarchy, there were some house rules. Mimi posted them on the back of the cash register just inside the entrance. They were:

— Money talks, all else walks.
  (Mimi didn’t believe in sharing her income with American Express, Visa or Mastercard. And don’t even think about personal checks. Hers was strictly a cash business.)
— No fighting: fists, food or otherwise.
  (Altercations were limited to battles of wits; words were the weapon of choice.)
— No four-letter words, foreign or domestic.
(Mimi was a great fan of the late Bill Veeck, who had believed that common vulgarisms are a sure sign of a limited intellect and an even more stunted vocabulary.)
— No obscene gestures, especially Italian.
  (Mimi called these “four-finger” words, even if you needed only one finger.)
— No Travis Bickle evil eyes.
  (Mimi had seen “Taxi Driver” and had decided that anybody with a lunatic stare or who even said “You talking to me?” funny would get the heave-ho.)
— No producing offensive body odors.
   (Only because a couple of clowns had made this rule necessary, going after one another with a series of noxious emissions and exhalations. Mimi had never imagined people could pass gas and belch at will. At a place where people ate, for God’s sake.)
— No …
(The last rule was deliberately left incomplete to indicate Mimi’s freedom to impose further rules as she saw fit.)

All of these edicts were upheld by Mimi’s enforcer of the week, one of the cop regulars at the deli. The job rotated every Monday, with the cop getting free lunches for his trouble.

If you broke one of Mimi’s rules, you were gone for good. There were no appeals. She’d even put your name on her no-carryout list, so you couldn’t have your lunch delivered, either.

Within those limits, everyone and everything was fair game. Customers would jump on the deli staff. Employees would slash right back. Each group could and would do battle within its own ranks. Alliances between cliques of customers and staff formed in one instant and were betrayed the next. Demonstrations of quick, scalding wit were rewarded with laughter and applause. The slow, the dull, the meek and the weak were eaten alive. Which always made everyone else feel good as they headed back to work.

Mimi Greenblatt was the ringmaster.

Round Robin Phinney was the undisputed heavyweight champ.

***

This, of course, made Robin the target for every wise guy, young and old, who walked through the door. Her current opponent was David Solomonovich. At age 14, he was some kind of a genius. He spent his mornings at the University of Chicago and his afternoons at his father’s nearby lab doing some kind of consulting. He stopped into Mimi’s every day well after the lunch hour rush for a carryout sandwich. He said he timed his arrivals so he could go mano a mano with Robin and not face any distractions. The truth was, David was small for his age and tended to get stepped on in a crowd.

David kept bragging to Robin about what it was he studied and what kind of work he did, and she kept forgetting. Intentionally. Which drove David crazy. Robin knew this of course; it was her way of keeping an edge on him. David might be smarter than Einstein, but Robin was as wily as Machiavelli. It would be a while yet before he’d be a real challenge.

There was one problem David presented for Robin, however. In the time honored tradition of eccentric geniuses, he could behave erratically. As proof, he seemed to be developing a crush on Robin.

Today, he greeted her with, “Hey, Robin, how’s my main bad mama?”

“Your nanny letting you wander off campus again, David?” Robin asked. The neighborhood around the U. of C. was predominantly African-American. “Or are you watching Mod Squad reruns after school?”

“I work after school, as you very well know,” he said stiffly, his pride wounded, “and I’ve been self-sufficient since I was two.”

“Great, I’ll get you a plaque for your office. What’ll it be, kiddo?”

David looked at Robin slyly.

“I’d like some tongue.”

Robin shrugged and nonchalantly stuck hers out at him.

“You know that’s not what I meant,” David said, turning red.

Manny grinned at David’s discomfort; Judy gave a frown of feminist disapproval; Mimi laughed out loud. The deli owner thought David was precious. She often put a free cookie into his carryout bag. That drove David crazy, too. He glared at Mimi. She put a hand over her face, but kept laughing.

Robin decided to indulge in a rare display of mercy. After all, David was young, and he was brilliant. She didn’t want him to grow up and become a mad scientist or something.

“You want calf tongue, David?” she asked. “On rye? With the usual stuff on it? I have to think that’s what you were talking about. Not that a handsome young guy like you, someone with a lot of class, would use some slimy lounge lizard line on an old battle-axe like me.”

Robin was thirty-nine.

The boy looked at her and said, “You’re not so bad … or so old.”

He meant it, too, Robin knew. He was paying her as sincere a compliment as his shaky young ego dared. That was what troubled her. She could handle all the hostility in the world without batting an eye. Simple affection, even when it came totally misplaced from a young boy, scared her.

“You want that sandwich, David?”

“Yeah,” he said. As she bent to work on it, he started to tell her about what he was doing these days at school and on the job.

Robin cut him off without bothering to look up. “Boring.”

“It is not. Superconductivity is utterly fascinating. Our new composite materials are getting closer to working at room temperature.”

“So’s the fish I’m thawing for dinner.”

“The work I’m doing is going to affect every facet of your life someday.”

“David, my life is boring, and so is your work.”

He continued to argue with Robin until Mimi reminded him of the time and sent him packing with a free cookie. Which he may have resented, but was smart enough to take.

***

“I think you’ve got a new young beau,” Mimi said to Robin.

“Great. As soon as I develop a taste for child molestation, I’ll whisk him off to my boudoir,” she replied.

The two women sat in Mimi’s office at the back of the kitchen. It was 2:30, the time at which the deli closed; it opened at 7:30. The staff started at 7:00, and cleanup lasted until 3:00. Mimi had decided long ago that eight hours a day were long enough for anyone to work. But she and Robin worked only seven and a half. They left the cleanup to the rest of the staff. After all, Mimi was the owner and Robin was buying her out.

The plan was that Robin would complete the purchase over the next two years, making the final payment when Mimi turned sixty-five and retired. Mimi finished tallying the day’s take. She banded and stacked the bills by denominations and put them in a bank deposit bag. She sealed the bag and put it on the floor next to her desk.

“Another good day,” she said. “Thank God people always get hungry.”

“Yeah,” Robin answered without enthusiasm.

“What?” Mimi asked. “You’re letting a little boy’s puppy love bother you?”

Robin rolled her eyes. “It’s not David. I can handle him like anyone else. It’s my house.”

“What about it?”

“Just about everything about it. I’ve got to go home and wait for a plumber because the garbage disposal’s all gummed up. It happened this morning just before I left for work, and I can just imagine what my kitchen’s going to smell like. Last week it was the plumber again when a pipe burst, and while the guy was down in the basement he said he wasn’t an expert but thought it looked like I should have my wiring checked.”

“I thought you had all that stuff done when you bought the place,” Mimi said.

“I had most of it done when I bought the place,” Robin corrected, “ and that was seventeen years ago. Two years after I started here.”

“It’s been that long that we’ve been together?”

“Yeah.”

“My, how time flies. I’ll be gone before you know it.”

It wasn’t clear to Robin whether Mimi meant retired or dead. She didn’t seem too happy about either prospect.

“The problem is,” Robin said, “if I keep having a lot of expenses with my building, I’m going to have to dip into the money I’m putting aside for the buyout.”

That returned Mimi’s focus to the present.

“Oh … that’s not good.”

“Tell me about it. I might have to take a second job.”

That was definitely not good. Not for Mimi. She couldn’t have Robin, her star, working in somebody else’s deli. That would be like a gourmet place having its chef moonlight. No, that wouldn’t do at all. And it wasn’t like Robin could pick up some other kind of part-time job, not with her personality. Mimi didn’t see her selling shoes or doing telemarketing.

At the same time, Mimi was counting on having Robin buy her out, counting on the money. It would be a pain to find another buyer now, and she couldn’t see Robin working for a new owner. She really couldn’t see selling her deli to anyone but Robin, for that matter. There was a tradition to carry on.

“Don’t worry,” Mimi told Robin, “we’ll work something out.”

“Of course, we will,” came a male voice.

“You bet,” said another.

The second voice belonged to Sergeant Stanley Prozanski, the cop who escorted Mimi to the bank everyday to deposit her receipts. He was under strict shoot-to-kill orders in the event anyone ever tried to grab’s Mimi loot.
Though she’d never admit it, Mimi considered Stan her fella. He was due to retire soon, too, and everyone was sure that when the time came he and Mimi would go off somewhere warm together. Mimi patted her hair and smiled at Stan when she saw him.

Mimi’s hair was pink, an unusual shade to be sure, but it was even in tone and her roots never showed thanks to a weekly trip to the beauty parlor. She, herself, liked the color of her hair, saying it set off her emerald green, contact-lens-enhanced, eyes. Mimi believed in doing everything she could to look young. Everything that didn’t involve exercise, dieting or surgery. She believed greatly in the powers of cosmetics and clothing with a high elastic content. Her approach to youth pleased her. She said that in the right light she could pass for forty.

To which a wise-guy in the deli had once replied, “Yeah, the right light. A firefly at five hundred yards.”

The wise-guy had been banned within a week after Robin, having seen that Mimi actually had been hurt by the crack, had provoked the joker into calling her a woman’s least favorite four-letter name … the one that rhymes with punt.
Stan had said that if he’d heard the guy make either slur he would have shot him. Robin privately doubted that, but Mimi didn’t. Stan’s lunch was always on the house.

The other man who’d entered the office was the only man in Robin’s life. The only man she truly loved, her father, Dan Phinney.

“Hi, Daddy,” she said.

And for the first time all day Robin smiled.