Deb at the Ham Slicer

Cynthia Gallaher

In California, she’d be a surfer girl,
but here in Chicago,
in this thick ethnic neighborhood,
she’s a landlocked mermaid with bleach-blond hair,
netted and enslaved at Neptune Discount.

I always know where to find her,
during my own work break
from 8-Days-a-Week Mini Mart next door;
Not aisle one,
where pink pearlescent nail polish
shimmers next to ghostly white lipstick;
Not aisle two,
where washcloths, cheesecloth,
and dishrags lie silently
as army issue regalia
waiting for domestic wars;
Not aisle three,
the sad fluorescent-lit alley
of misbegotten parakeets and tri-color goldfish.

But there, in aisle four, Deb at the ham slicer,
her toned arms moving steel and blade
like a women’s war poster from the 40s,
her shocking platinum hair
veiled in the propriety
of a see-through hair net,
I barely move toward her
when she spots me,
calls me by name,
that echoes through the store,
Deb laughs loudly as a cheerleader,
but solemnly resumes slicing
as her boss approaches,
her face going into a trance,
reflecting dreams
of a someday built-in swimming pool,
a Tudor mansion and four-poster bed,
but at least by August,
the deepest tan possible
from her paint-peeled sun porch.

Deb is always tan, even in winter.
And the ham?
Slightly green around the edges,
year ‘round.
Her boss tells her,
“If they buy it, sell it,”
while Deb continues to slice, slice,
the school year away.

Her shoes, Pappagallo,
the pantsuit beneath her smock,
Christian Dior,
the bracelets and rings
that jangle along the edges
of the ham slicer, 18 karat,
all ripped off from Marshall Field’s
on her day off.
Deb keeps dreaming big,
slicing and selling meat,
saving her pennies
to position herself at a wealthy resort,
poolside, after graduation,
the glistening lifeguard
with Chanel behind her ears,
that pheromone for fools.

I lost track of Deb over the years,
but I heard she saved a young doctor
from drowning,
gave mouth-to-mouth
all pearly tooth and bronze,
her toned arms working him
like a warrior,
and when he came to,

She was selling it,

And he was buying it.

Cynthia Gallaher, a Chicago-based poet, is author of four poetry collections, many with themes, including Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs and Spices, and three chapbooks, including Drenched. Her nonfiction/memoir/creativity guide Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren’t a Poet won a National Indie Excellence Award. She was recently selected to be the final judge for the 2022 Prairie State Poetry Prize.