A love story set during the Great Depression in Chicago, Nashville, Texas and Denver.
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Jack was confounded. How could he be attracted to a homely woman like Eva, who had a personality like a barracuda. His women had always beem exquisitely beautiful, unresisting and worshipful. After all, he was a hunk. But Eva blew him off, dumped him.
Eva Conner's notion regarding Jack was that he was an immature jerk who was convinced he was God's gift to women, and willing to work for gangsters in the fertile underworld of 1920s Chicago. She'd been married, and didn't want to have another relationship, especially with someone like Jack.
In 1929 they got married and set about to prove that oil and water might be emulsified with care and constant agitation.
Eva Conner polished the nesbit on a napkin and stuck it in her mouth. She hated the thing, but it plugged the gap made by a missing incisor from a hideous car accident a year after her rat husband walked out. Fearful she’d swallow the damned thing, she wore it only at work, fearful always it would pop out into a customer’s scrambled eggs and compromise her tip.
It was six in the morning, and she was at Gus’s Taverna where she worked. Glancing at the window, she saw ice had formed on the glass from kitchen vapor, catching car lights in a kaleidoscope. The ice didn’t surprise her. From experience, she knew twelve below zero in Chicago was colder than twelve below zero anywhere else she’d lived, especially in February. With her thumbnail, she scraped away enough frost to see out. Bloated clouds hovered; cars chugged along Halsted Street, and steam rising from grates in the sidewalk changed into wavy wraiths.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone,” she muttered.
She came to work at five to help George Chu prep for breakfast and listen to his complaints and tales of woe in Chinese and accented English. Short and chubby, in a crisp chef’s coat and toque, he ruled the kitchen. Eva thought he looked like an Asian Chef Boyardee and respected his domain; even Gus entered cautiously. Nevertheless, George liked to laugh a lot, and Eva delighted in that.
She returned to filling salt and pepper shakers, her last chore of the morning. Her first task as soon as she arrived was to start two 50-cup coffee urns, followed by filling endless tiny glass jugs with cream, one plop at a time from a dispenser. Then came butter chips, little saucers a tad larger than silver dollars, on which a pat of butter was placed, and endless like the creamers.
She plated dozens of sweet rolls and placed them in the pie case where they remained until pie replaced them before lunch. From blocks of ice, she chipped hunks to fill the ice chest, and then rolled over a hundred service sets in paper napkins, storing them on trays under the counter. By the time she got the restaurant ready for business, she wanted a nap.
Gus’s Taverna restaurant was near the Illinois Central Railroad yard, but it was not the typical greasy spoon found in industrial neighborhoods. Considered an institution on Halsted Street, it was a haven for lovers of Greek cuisine as one sniff upon opening the door revealed. Bouquets of herbs and spices used in Greek cooking drifted over patrons along with the odor of anise from ouzo. If anyone doubted they were entering a Greek place, a picture of a line of male dancers in full Thracian Foustanella greeted patrons.
For Eva it was a blast working there. The people were great, and the patrons fascinating. In Chicago’s Greektown, it was hard to get a job if you weren’t Greek, so she was grateful. She got the job because of Gus’s niece, Foula, whom she met in a cafeteria on Clark Street one Friday night. They hit it off right away, and when Eva mentioned she was looking for a waitress job, Foula told her to show up at Gus’s Monday morning. She’d been there almost a year. It was mindless work, but it numbed her so she didn’t have to think.
Foula also worked breakfast and was hostess for the dinner turn. They had fun together, and Eva never felt like an outsider because Foula was part of Gus’s family; Gus yelled at them both to get busy, keep busy, and stop talking so much.
Eva was topping up the salt when she saw him. “Soko’s here.”
She filled a cup with coffee, placed a creamer on the saucer, grabbed a service, and took them to the counter, placing them in front of the last stool from the door.
“Kalimera, Soko,” Foula called as he entered.
Smiling, he nodded his head slightly. “Kalimera sas,” he answered in a soft high-pitched voice, and went to his seat. Soko dumped the cream into the coffee, stirred, and sipped, and then winked at Eva.
“You’re right on time,” Eva said as she placed a glass of orange juice beside his coffee.
“Nai,” the old man said. “Efcharisto.” Yes, thank you.
Eva smiled. “Parakalo,” she answered. You’re welcome.
“Hey, you’re getting pretty good with the language, Eva,” Foula said. “You’ll be speaking like a Greek in no time.”
“You mean in a lot of time.”
Soko was short for Sokrotes, just like the hemlock-sipping philosopher, and he looked like he might have known the ancient sage: his furrowed face looked like a raisin. Under a Greek sailor’s cap, he crammed a mass of snowy hair, complementing a huge mustache dyed deep yellow by cigarette smoke from his ample nose. On cold days, he bundled in a parka that looked like it belonged on the Iditarod trail. Soko spoke very little English. Local yayas said Soko had sponsored Gus when he came over from Greece in 1919, and his reward for the sponsorship, evidently, was free meals because Soko never paid.
“Up!” George shouted and lobbed a plate on the order counter. Eva took it to Soko, who smiled again, winked and began eating: two scrambled eggs folded over a generous slab of feta cheese, three strips of bacon and two pieces of wheat toast, no butter, a little jelly. When he reached for a piece of toast, Eva watched his hands: small, delicate and perfectly manicured. It fascinated her that a man his age would care for his hands.
The door opened and Gus, along with a rush of cold air, dashed in and flung his coat at the rack, missing it by several feet. “Did you hear?” he shouted and ran over to Soko.
“Hear what?” Foula asked.
“’Bout last night. Big, big murder, on Clark. Bunch of gangsters shot. I think seven guys, maybe eight, shot with machine guns.”
He translated for Soko who looked puzzled. His brown eyes wide open and sparkling like he’d won a prize, an immense, yellow-toothed grin smeared Gus’s face. He fired a few more words to Soko, and then continued in English.
“They say dead guys Bugs Moran boys. They say Capone did it.”
Tall, broad-shouldered and bald, at sixty-five Except for laugh lines at his mouth, his face was almost boyish.
“They’ll find it hard to prove Capone did it,” Eva said, putting Gus’s grey tweed overcoat on a hook. “He owns this town and every crooked official in it. And they’re all crooked. How’d you find out?”
“I run into Frank, the cop. You know, he come for lunch sometime. He say they find these guys this morning in garage on Clark St. Some cartridge company.”
“Cartridge company?” Eva said.
“Ne. Cartridge. What wrong?”
“You might mean cartage. Cartridges are bullets. Did they make bullets there?”
“No, they shoot bullets, not make,” Gus laughed and looked around to see if anyone else got the joke. “How the hell I know. Cartridge or, what you say?”
“Cartage. I don’t know word. Frank say one guy live, a Jew, Gusenberg. But he die at hospital, Frank say.” Gus paused and looked at everyone, including George peeking through the kitchen doors. “So, let’s get ready breakfast. I think we have lots a customers today, maybe.”
He turned to Soko and spoke rapidly, performing his words with hand gestures, facial expressions, and dancing. Soko bobbed his head like he understood, but he continued to eat.
A man and a woman came in, followed by a tall, husky fellow carrying a large leather duffle bag. Eva looked at the two men, both wearing black Kromer hats, earflaps down, heavy denim jumper coats, bib overalls with grey sweatshirts, and red bandanas snuggled around their necks, and she knew they were railroaders. Notwithstanding the attire, their faces, stained black with coal soot, pinpointed their occupation.
The woman wore a stocking cap pulled down and a scarf wrapped around her mouth. All Eva could see were her eyes as she watched the couple sit at a table by the window and shiver enough to sweat. Tall-and-husky mounted a stool at the counter and placed his duffle on the floor next to him. Eva carried coffee and cups to the table.
“Looks like you need this,” she said as she filled their cups and placed a service by each.
With a trembling laugh, the woman held the cup close to her chest as if it would keep her from freezing to death. The man grunted and slurped.
Laying menus in front of them, Eva said, “I’ll give you a few minutes.”
She noticed Foula had already served coffee to the big fellow, who was smoking and preparing his coffee. Watching, she saw him stir in two teaspoons of sugar, test it by sipping a spoonful, add more sugar, test once more, and then drink. Fussy, aren’t we, Eva thought.
Glancing at the couple, she saw the woman had removed her stocking cap and had come out from behind her scarf. Her brown hair was bobbed and Eva guessed her to be about twenty-five, and very pretty. Eva touched the scar on her forehead with the back of her hand and clinched her crooked jaws. Sighing, she wondered if the car hadn’t smashed into that abutment, she might look pretty, too.
“Can I have some more coffee?” It was Mr. Fussy.
She filled his cup and sat a creamer next to it.
“Really cold out there,” he said.
“Yeah, twelve below I heard.”
Up close, Eva noticed that under the coal soot was a strong face with a square dimpled chin. His light blue eyes made him look kind and gentle, and when he smiled, his eyes smiled, too, and she felt warm.
“My name’s Jack,” he said.
“Oh, shit.” She blushed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. It just came out. I apologize.”
“It’s okay.” Jack knitted his brows.
“It’s just that my ex-husband’s name is Jack, and he was, let’s say, a bad person. I just sort of get sick and wanna puke when I hear it.” She frowned and shook her head. “Why am I telling you this?”
“That’s all right. I won’t tell. But is Oh Shit your first name or last?”
Eva looked at him and laughed. “You and I are not going to get along, are we?”
Sounding seriousness, he said, “Now, you can’t ever tell. Would you prefer John? That’s my real name.”
“Yeah, well, his real name was John, too. No help. I still get queasy.”
He sipped coffee and peeked at her over the rim.
“My name’s Eva.”
“Two up.” George yelled. Eva turned and went to get the orders.