The Delicatessen

17-Across was wrong. It had to be. 12-down was nine letters for “head of a tribe” - obviously “CHIEFTAIN” - and Max had correctly scribbled it in, albeit with shaky hands. If 12-down was correct, that meant 17-across had an “I” at the fifth letter. 

“Goddammit,” Max muttered to himself as he tapped his pen on the coffee mug in front of him. Jean, a waitress as much a deli staple as the worn, checkered linoleum floor she worked across, approached pot in hand.

“More coffee Max?”

“Looking for a 10-letter word for sudden changes in mood. It’s got an ‘I’ in there, but it isn’t erratic if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Hmm. Too bad there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Max’.”

“Well, that’s no way to treat a paying customer.”

“Always a wiseass. I guess you must’ve made a mistake somewhere along the way.”

Max scoffed. “Honey, you don’t know the half of it.”

Jean topped him off while glancing at the empty booth seat across from him. “No Benny today?”

Max barely looked up. “What am I? The man’s babysitter?” 

Jean sighed. “I’ll check on your tuna melt.”

“You’re a doll, Jean.” 

Max turned back to his crossword. Perhaps another letter would help solve the mystery of 17-across. 15-down seemed easy enough - Five letters, to think on or ponder. Max began writing “MULLS”  when the tremor in his hand made the “S” jut into the adjacent box.

“Goddammit,” Max grunted as he slammed the pen down on the table. The bell tied to the front entrance dinged as a young woman wearing scrubs held the door open. An elderly man with wispy white hair and a dark black suit stood hunched over his metal walker, carefully sliding the legs with two tennis balls attached to the ends across the floor as he inched forward. The nurse placed a hand on the man’s back and helped guide him towards the empty booth seat across from Max.

“Well, look who decided to show up,” Max smirked. Benny held on to his caretaker’s forearm, wincing as he lowered himself into his seat. The nurse folded up the walker and leaned it up against the booth. She placed a hand on his back and spoke loudly with a thick Jamaican accent.

“Okay Mr. Rosen, I’ll be just over there if you need anything.”

Max waved at her playfully. “Hello again Ms. Cholé, you’re looking as lovely as ever. New perfume?”

Ms. Chloé rolled her eyes and headed for a barstool at the deli counter. Max ogled her as she walked away.

“You’re a lucky man Ben. Maybe a hip upgrade isn’t so bad after all.” 

Benny stared out the window, unamused. The ever-present dark circles beneath his eyes bore more weight than usual.

“What’s with the get-up?” Max pointed to Benny’s tie. “Double-Windsor is a little fancy for a deli date don’t you think?”

Benny closed his eyes and sighed. 

“You missed it, Max.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Danielle’s funeral. You missed it.”

“Look, Benny-”

“Save it. I don’t know what I expected. I’ve known you for a lifetime. I know who you are and I know who you aren’t. I just thought 80+ years of friendship accounted for a little more that’s all.” 

Max sat back and took a sip from his mug. 

“I mean did you forget to take your meds? Did you have an episode or something? Chloe must have sent the details to your chip six times. What else did you need? An E-mail? A carrier pigeon? Kind of hard to claim forgetfulness these days.”

“I didn’t forget. I chose not to go alright?”

“Oh great, so you’re just an asshole.”

A brief respite from their sparring is offered as Jean slides a steaming plate in front of Max.

“Careful the plate is hot––Benny! I didn’t think you were coming in. We were all so sorry to hear about Danielle.”

“Thanks, Jean I appreciate it.” 

“What’s with the suit? Looking quite handsome if I may say so.” 

“Came from a funeral.” 

Jean puts two and two together.

“Oh. OH. I’m so sorry,” she whispered with a hand over her heart. Max held out his empty coffee mug for a refill but Jean wasn’t having it. 

“What the hell is the matter with you Max?” She scolds.

“What are you? My mother? Because she’s been dead for almost 70 years!”

Jean struts away in a huff. Max pushes his coffee mug aside and slides his crossword puzzle across the table to Benny. 

“I don’t want to do your fucking puzzle.” 

“Do you want to know why I didn’t go?”

“Because you were too busy scribbling lines on a puzzle.”

Max chuckled. “Got me there. The tremors have been getting worse. It’s a side effect of the meds.”

Max picked up the pen and tried to grip it tightly, his hand shaking wildly. 

“Christ, you look like Harry Potter casting a spell,” Benny commented.

Max smiled.

“You know why I do puzzles? When we were growing up, my father used to do the Times crossword every morning. He said it kept his mind sharp and that research had shown that it helped to slow cognitive decay. Something about little routines, I don’t know. Seems kind of foolish now but how was he to know that half a century later science would solve that little conundrum.” 

Max rubbed his face and sighed.

“They always thought we were the lucky ones. That if they did their job then they could be the last generation of sufferers. But goddammit they were wrong. Because sure, you can take away cancer and Alzheimer's and busted hips – you can make 80 the new 40. But suffering doesn’t end, it just changes.”

Max wiped away tears from his eyes. 

“We weren’t supposed to be here Ben. I’m not supposed to have Great-great-grandchildren let alone know their names. We’re supposed to learn from the generations before us, but they didn’t have to deal with this shit.”

Max rubbed his eyes and composed himself.

“How old was your father when he died, Ben?”


“Probably didn’t know where he was.”

Benny smirked. “Actually, he thought he was still fighting in the war and kept hitting on the nurse.”

They both laughed.

“See?” Max added. “That was a blessing. Nature gave us a blessing and we pissed it away for what? More years? My father could do all the puzzles in the world but when he died, he was a shell of his former self. He didn’t have to bury his friends with full consciousness and a sound mind.”

Max placed a hand over Benny’s. 

“I loved your wife, Ben. Danielle was one of my best friends too and I know that because I remember everything - even when it would be easier to forget. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you today.”

Benny nodded slowly, wiping away a tear of his own. “Capricious”, he said with a smirk. 


“17 Across. Sudden Changes in Mood. ‘Capricious’.” 

Max laughed deep and loud. He held the pen in his hand as he shakily wrote in the answer. Benny watched as he struggled to stay within the lines.

“You know, you might want to try a pencil instead.”

Max just smiled and waved the pen around like a wand.

“Abracadabra asshole.”

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