Ham and Swiss on Rye

— Dorothy Elizabeth Cooney

The day I ran into palpable
it sat on my tongue all day
long, sliding around,
turning itself over
and over in
remembering ways
behind the molar and unfilled space
where the bridge will never go.

The word sought refuge in the old place where
a simple joy had belonged once and then
stayed undone under 50 years of
Readers’ Digest vocabulary that it pays
to increase your word power.

Words I no longer use or wait
with breathless enthusiasm to test my dad in words
he already knew. He anointed them and
the Special for Today, he said that Thursday on
a hot late Summer’s day
is “Palpable”.

I couldn’t get it right away so dad made me
feel about it that way your mouth
begins to salivate
just thinking about one of
Gus’ ham and cheeses and a dill pickle
right from the briny tank. I can tell you
our mouths were watering on that
warm summer afternoon. Palpable seemed a fair
word to test Gus’ sandwich today.

It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power, my dad said.
Years from now you’ll know
that but for now we’re having fun! And we’ll
celebrate, as we always did, at Gus’ Delicatessen,
with a sandwich of ham and Swiss on rye
and a pickle on the side..
We left the word with Gus when his wife died
and those ham and cheese sandwiches
on Jewish rye and dill pickles in the brine tanks and
Thuringer ropes hanging from the ceiling. My dad
and I sitting way in the back at Gus and Mavis’ little counter
near the freeze boxes.

From the heavy brown plates before us, dad would say “Well Gus, no Mavis today?” and Gus would look at us, wiping his big hands
on the sides of his apron, his dark eyes
welling up, the ham and cheese sandwiches on the plates before us
and a funny dryness sticking in my mouth
until dad shook his head and said “I’m sorry Gus”
and Gus shrugged his shoulders slowly
upwards to the hanging cheeses and bolognas and Thuringer
and did we know, I was already 13 and how could we know
that Gus knew before we knew about this kind of thing
and where it was going.

Out of the dictionary, hidden so long, the word on the memory,
when it comes to you unbidden like a smell, like a scent of lilac
or apricot blossom or sweet olive or the ham and cheese
sandwich with the rich brined dill from Gus’ delicatessen
the last ham and cheese sandwich but you don’t know it
at the time and never until
this time you welcome it
with such sweet sorrow
the word fills your mouth
with saliva of tears upon tears as though
you could not separate it:
palpable palpable is
in your head, on your tongue, in your eyes,
in your brain.

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