“Excuse me, Miss, can I trouble you for a menu?”
Janie nodded absentmindedly, rushing by a new customer who had just planted his butt in the only empty seat left in the corner by the window. She paused by the kitchen grabbing a few plates and drinks for a couple that was intimately cuddling in the corner, pretending like they were the only ones in the place. They were nauseatingly happy and Janie felt a wave of jealousy rising in her whenever she passed by them. Her own forever love affair ended as quickly as it started just a week earlier so she was still hung up on that disappointment.
The place was buzzing like a bee hive as it always happened on Saturday mid-morning. Janie made a few more runs back and forth before she zoomed by the new patron’s table sliding a plastic one-page menu over to him on the way to the bathroom. She came out a few minutes later determined to keep it together and stay pleasant. The boss recently commented that she would have made way more tips with her pretty baby face if she wasn’t so short with the customers. Tips… tips would be good. She sighed. Student loans were growing, bills were skyrocketing and there was no hope for improvement any time soon. She was especially irritated when people were so busy on their phones, that it took them forever to order anything so Janie had to go back and forth asking them again and again if they decided what they were going to eat. It always amazed her when people were looking up at her from their screens with a look that clearly said “how dare you bother me here!”
The restaurant was located off the beaten path in Manhattan. It was one of those NY delis that managed to combine in its menu a nice mix of American favorites and the old-school traditional Jewish dishes like kasha and lox with schmear. They typically closed in the late afternoon except on the weekend when they shut the doors after eight.
Janie ran behind the counter grabbing the pad she used to take orders. She saw how her new customer put aside the menu she left for him and was about to head over to him when the owner called her over quietly but firmly. Janie obeyed with curiosity. The owner was a much older woman who rarely spoke to any of the wait staff. Her son was a big deal somewhere in Hollywood so initially, when the restaurant was first opened, no one really cared if it would be profitable. This was the old lady’s long-time coming dream so her son obliged. She taught her cooks how to make dishes from her pre-USA life, as she called it, and spent her days sitting between the dining room and the kitchen in a large comfortable chair watching how life boiled all around her. In time, however, the cafe became a big success so since Janie started here three months earlier, she couldn’t remember a single quiet day when their dining room didn’t fill up to the max.
She approached the owner, bending her head closer to the old woman so she could hear better.
“Honey, tell the kitchen to prepare the portion of syrniki, a large one. And serve it with sour cream, honey, jam, you know? The works…” she still had a slight European accent when she got excited.
Janie was a bit surprised – she never thought of their owner as someone with a sweet tooth. Maybe that’s what she was in the mood for today.
“Would you like me to put it on the tray for you?”
The owner chuckled quietly.
“Silly girl, it’s not for me. What could I possibly do with so much food? It would have been wasteful. It’s for that darling boy over there.” She nodded towards the man that came in last and was now looking out the window.
Janie was confused. How did she know what the guy wanted? She hesitated before replying carefully, trying to be as respectful as possible. Who knows, maybe the owner finally lost her marbles…
“He asked for a menu but I haven’t taken his order yet.”
“No need. His name is Jake, he comes here every year on this day, always asks for a menu, and always orders the same thing. I’ve known Jake for years, ever since he was a little boy. He used to come for breakfast with his Bubbee all the time. let me tell you - the woman could eat!” The owner smiled, reminiscing. Janie looked closer at the man, or actually Jake, again. Now that she heard this, she noticed he didn’t look joyful on this sunny Saturday morning. One of the busboys placed a cup of coffee in front of him a few minutes earlier but Jake hardly noticed it. He continued to gaze out the window deep into his thoughts.
“Do you know why he comes on this day?” she asked the owner quietly.
“It’s the day his Bubbee left him and went to reunite with the Lord.”
Janie didn’t have a relationship with her grandparents. They lived far away and never seemed to bother so it was hard for her to understand Jake’s grief. She watched him as Jake turned from the window scanning the room around him with his big brown eyes. He sighed unbuttoning the top of his shirt and brushing back the curly wave that fell on his forehead.
“They were close, ha?”
“Very. She raised him. Dad ran off when he was a baby and he lost his mother a few years later to cancer. So that’s all the family he had. Now, go, yenta, don’t make him wait. I have a feeling Chef David already has his plate ready on the warmer.”
Of course, the owner was right. When Janie asked David if he had an order ready for Jake, no one asked any questions. Instead, she was presented with a large oval platter where in the pool of a heavenly-smelling melting butter were sitting five large golden cottage cheese pancakes that Easter Europeans called syrniki. Janie tried it once before and her mouth immediately watered with the memories of the crunchy top which covered the soft goodness of the fried cakes. They were sweet and slightly salty at the same time. Many ate them in a similar to the potato latkes manner with an apple sauce. But the owner said the right way to have them was with lots of cold thick sour cream and homemade raspberry-strawberry jams or honey.
Janie picked up a heavy plate with both hands carrying it carefully towards Jake’s table. As she came closer to him, Jake looked up and gave her a hint of a smile. He nodded in appreciation.
“Can I get you anything else?” Janie asked softly, setting it up in front of him pushing the utensils and the napkin to the side.
“Maybe just some water…” He smiled almost apologetically.
A minute later, Jake was alone again at his table with his thoughts. The smell, so familiar and homey, coming from the plate was bringing back lots of memories. He could hear his Bubbee’s voice cooing over him as she tied the napkin around his little neck, mixing English, Ukrainian and Yiddish words. He could almost see her hands covered in spots and wrinkles, carefully cutting his cakes in front of him piece by piece, dipping them in the fluffy clouds of sour cream before pausing for a moment above the saucers with the jams.
“What do we do now, boychik? Is it time for a golden rain or a mud bath?”
Depending on his answer she would continue to the plate of honey or jam before gently bringing the fork to his lips with a bite that was about to drip all that goodness over entire table. It was his job to open wide and try to catch all those tasty drops before the disaster would happen. No one could make these cakes as well as his Bubbee did. No one but this place…
Jake sighed again before he cut into his first cake with determination. Golden rain or mud bath? He smiled. Maybe a little bit of both. He took a bite and closed his eyes, savoring it for the first time in a year immediately transporting to the far-away past when he was still little and felt so loved.
“Jacob, did you wash your hands?”
“I did! Five times already!”
“I did it too! And I prayed, and I made my bed, and…”
“Oh, you are such a good boichka! Come have breakfast, your syrniki are getting cold.”
Bubbee always called him that in the morning. She believed that the day should be started on a positive note no matter how hard the circumstances around you were. It never failed and Jake smiled. He also liked how she stopped calling him Jake or Jaikee since he turned eight. Jacob sounded like a mature manly name. She even started to introduce him that way to others at the synagogue.
“This is my Jacob. Did you know that he skipped second grade and went straight to third?”
She was always so proud of him. No matter how small or large his accomplishments were, he could do no wrong. That unconditional love made him want to do better, be good for her. Jake couldn’t bear the thought of upsetting her in any way. How would he be able to look into her greenish, slightly fading eyes if he did something she wouldn’t approve of?
Someone dropped the tray which was followed by the sounds of broken glass in the kitchen. Jake swallowed his bite coming out of his memories just long enough to look around to make sure the noise had nothing to do with him. He shook his head before he reached out for the next bite, this time deciding to make it all pure and golden as his next memory.
He was running through the street clinching the envelope in his hand. He slipped and almost fell on his last turn to their old five-story building. There was no elevator but Jake flew up the stairs to the fourth floor as he did his entire life not even counting the steps – in the last twelve years he got so familiar with every single one of them, that he could do it with his eyes closed and not trip even once.
“Bubbee!” he screamed, opening the old door that still had the signs of the faded green color it once was. “Are you home? You need to be home!”
“What’s the matter, boychik?” She came out of the living room with her usual glasses on and a bright handkerchief tied around her head.
“We did it! I got in! The new Yeshiva on West End avenue. They said they will take me free of charge!”
“Oy! That’s so great!”
She hugged him, rocking slightly from side to side as she did when he was little. All their hard work, all the books she got for him, all the trips to the library and museums – it all paid off! The best school, in his opinion. No, the best PRIVATE school in New York was willing to accept him on a grant! Jake knew – that would open all the doors for him in the future. New York was the best place on Earth for someone like him – everything was just a few minutes train ride away. For someone who wanted to be in academia, God couldn’t have made a better arrangement.
“Boychik, we celebrate this weekend. I will take you to our favorite restaurant on Saturday morning!”
“Can I get a big plate of syrniki, not that kiddie one?”
“Of course! You are almost a man now! Your mama would be so proud!”
That was such a happy day. The school was wonderful and Jake got everything he ever wanted. He looked down smiling, looking at his expensive cashmere suit. He wished Bubbee was here to see him like that. Sophisticated, well dressed, his curls neatly cut and styled. Jake glanced at his plate. He had three more left. Maybe this time he will dip his next bite into jam instead of honey for some of his darker thoughts.
“How could you do this, Jakie?” Bubbee hadn’t called him that in years. Jake immediately felt his insights tuning with guilt. But like any fourteen-year-old, he tried to put up a brave face.
“Big deal, some vase! I will buy you hundreds of these when I grow up!”
She shook her head disapprovingly.
“Boyka, you can’t replace this, don’t you know? It was the first thing your grandfather gave to me as a present. He brought it from the war. It was one of the very few things we had with us when we came here. This is all I had left that was his…” the tears were rolling down her wrinkled face.
Jake’s heart couldn’t stand to see her like that – suddenly she seemed so fragile and hurt. He sobbed himself before he could catch it.
“It was an accident! I didn’t mean to!”
“I know it was. I’m not upset that you broke it but why did you lie to me about it?”
He didn’t know why he tried to make a cover-up story. He never lied to her before and knew he wasn’t good at it, to begin with. Unable to contain his feelings, he ran off.
When Jake came back that evening. Bubbee still had red eyes but seemed more like herself. She gave him a hug letting him know all was forgotten and she forgave him. Things happened. The next day, Jake felt a strong urge to do something nice for her so he grabbed all the change he had in his possession. He was saving for a trip to Boston but decided it could be postponed. Boston is not going anywhere. So, he marched over to his Bubbee and invited her for breakfast at their restaurant – his treat. She proudly accepted it. She said he was growing to become a “good man”.
Jake swallowed his last bite. If she was here right now, his Bubbee would have made him wipe the butter off the plate with the last piece. Don’t waste food, she always said. Everyone who lived through the war, and knew what hunger felt like, said that. He left some money on the table before he got up to stretch. He looked towards the owner’s chair. She smiled and waved at him.
“See you in a year, I hope, '' mumbled Jake, not certain if he was talking to the restaurant or his Bubbee. With that, he buttoned his collar back up and walked out into the sunlit New York street taking a deep breath of the fall’s crispy air. Until the next time…