Twenty pounds of Italian cheese turned Varda Dorfman’s messenger bag into a public health hazard. She’d read somewhere that the smell of frying cabbage approached the level of hazardous air pollution, but cruciferous vegetables had nothing on casu marzu. It stood proudly as the kingpin of evil dairy products.
“Thank you for flying British Airways.” The perky flight attendant almost gagged on the final word. She wilted under the assault of the stink emanating from Varda’s luggage. Trying to get past Customs might present a problem if even this chick—trained in the ways of crisis management—couldn’t keep it together.
The cheese had smelled a little on the short plane ride from Sardinia. The odor picked up on the trip from Rome. Her seatmate appeared to hold her breath the whole way, turning cotton candy pink and then later, the violent hue of rotten cherries. Varda swore the woman passed out once, but the gurgling moan that had drifted from beneath her airline blanket said otherwise.
At least if Varda could get to a toilet she could rewrap the package and dampen the reek. Her feet swooshed across the carpet lining the jet bridge. Her eyes roved for a restroom.
Not that she wanted to be face to face with naked casu marzu and its cargo of larvae. Bile rose just imagining the wrigglers looping and tunneling through the Pecorino.
She’d come close to vomiting when the cheese maker had presented it to her with a flourish and offered a wee taste, the gaping hole of his toothless smile almost as terrifying as the cheese itself.
Varda had been a procurer of things, odd and illegal foods that people wanted, for seven years. Six years too many, perhaps. She’d enjoyed the novelty of it at first, but the constant worry of being taken down by snarling security dogs and spending time away from Gino wore on her nerves. This had been the worst job by far—the stupid larva required oxygen to survive, and Anthony Carluccio, one of her best customers, had been adamant:
“No maggots, no final payment . . . ya unnerstand me?” he’d asked, waving his hands, laying on a thick South Philly accent, and leering. His expression came off more as a severe seizure with that one-eyed winking tic of his. He seemed to believe being the head of an underground supper club in the city required him to be a douchebag. His competition didn’t act like that.
The oxygen required by the squirming larvae meant light wrapping. And light wrapping equated to a gag-worthy perfume reminiscent of decomposing pigeon in the middle of a Philadelphia summer.
Varda’s eyes shifted, searching for a TSA agent or a cheese-sniffing pooch on the prowl. She beelined toward the sign for the ladies’ room—her salvation lay just around the corner. Varda ducked into a stall at the far end of the space but not before catching a glimpse of her rumpled clothes and limp blonde hair in the mirror over the bank of sinks. A couple days of tramping around the countryside and several harrowing flight legs had left her resembling like a vagrant with a well-maintained root job.
She situated her rolling carry-on—black and unpatterned to deflect attention—and perched at the edge of the toilet seat.
What came next would be awful. There was no question. People were nosy, but terrible smells were presumed in the restroom. Even still, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition . . . or, in this case, maggot-filled cheese.
Please let the maggots be alive, please let the maggots be alive, Varda’s inner voice chanted, the words automatically becoming the world’s strangest mantra.
Living critters equated to an extra ten thousand dollars, and that meant she was one step closer to her goal: having enough money to get out of the smuggling business and buy a cheese-making facility she’d had her eye on for months.
She’d insisted on a higher than average fee, given the humiliation and potential for Customs danger. Travelling with illegal foods usually led to fines and jail time under the best of circumstances.
Her breath reverberated off the pocked door and walls before she dipped into the messenger bag, fingers closing around the bottom of the paper sack to transfer it to her lap.
“Oh my gawd!” That was the first outburst of horror from outside the contaminated stall, and it wouldn’t be the last—voiced or not. Varda imagined the women on the other side of the door, disgust becoming more pronounced while making a stab at which stall contained the chick with the bad gastrointestinal problem. Picturing them brought a welcome distraction from the package under her nose, now exposed to the yellow overhead lights.
She took shallow breaths, gulping small puffs of air through her mouth. The paper and cloth under her fingers moved, she was sure of it. Oh, God, what if the maggots were escaping? Hell, they'd had a lot of time to plot their desertion. They could be mobilizing, ready to out her to the authorities by timing a prison break right in the middle of Customs.
It’s nothing, it’s nothing.
Varda redressed the cheese in fresh wrapping, avoiding the removal of the last layer of cheesecloth so she would have to actually see the cheese again. It took only a few panic-filled minutes, and the new barriers and layers over the rind cut down on the aroma. Not enough, though, and she'd never get the odor out of her hands.
The suspicious glances after attempting a nonchalant exit from the stall were nothing compared to those in the Customs queue. The graying man in front of her in line crab-stepped away, side-eyeing her. The woman standing behind her wrinkled her pug-like nose and glared as though Varda had suddenly declared her love of eating kittens for breakfast.
"Damn foreigners," the stranger muttered. "Take a bath."
An insult tickled at the tip of Varda’s tongue. Under normal circumstances she would have invited the woman to kiss her pale ass. No need to draw any more attention, though. She smiled and concentrated on looking innocent.
The line moved fast. Arriving in Philadelphia from Italy (or any other country, for that matter) on the Thursday morning before Labor Day wasn’t the most popular of options for no reason she could guess.
It might have been a better choice when crowds pushed and jostled; she could get lost among all those impatient people, hurrying to declare their foreign-bought soap and wine, rather than standing out as the hygienically challenged girl.
On a busy day the Customs agents would be harried and harassed instead of requesting Customs Declaration forms and passports without any sort of urgency at all and exchanging pleasantries before welcoming travelers to the States.
She was screwed. She’d had close calls before, like that time a bottle of mouse fetus wine had shattered in the middle of the airport and left a trail of glass shards and rice-based moonshine across an entire terminal (not to mention a pile of dead rodents polluting her bag like a vermin genocide mass grave). It was a minor miracle these guys didn’t have her name on a watch list by now.
Gino—they’d been dating for five years, so he’d know to start calling state and local penitentiaries if she didn’t come home—would have to visit her in smugglers’ prison, if there was such a thing.
Varda imagined shuffling into a drab visitor’s room, her bright orange jumpsuit blinding and unflattering. He would shield his eyes from the glare and inch closer to sneak a kiss and ask how she’d survived the latest jail house rumble—she was a small girl, after all. Television shows always showed that giant inmates with thick, tattooed necks and names like “Large Marge” routinely picked tiny, pretty girls with no muscle tone as their girlfriends. She didn’t want to be anyone’s bitch. But maybe she was too old for that—at the age of thirty, Varda wasn’t exactly over the hill, but perhaps the lifers would scoop up the super young new criminals first.
Gino would smile, his brown eyes soft with pity, and she would shuffle forward, attempting to be as sexy as an ugly prison outfit would allow. He’d laugh (because he always said her sexy face reminded him of bad porn) and slip her a wheel of aged Gouda with a file wedged into it.
The customs agent, a gentleman with a severe, red crew cut and droopy eyelids, accepted her passport and Customs form. “Welcome to Philadelphia, miss. How’re you doing today?”
She forced a smile. “Good, good. And you?”
“I’m just fine. You’re coming into some great weather.”
Screw the chit chat. Her feet itched with wanting to sprint.
“How long have you been gone?”
Two uniformed officers emerged from a doorway across the terminal, visible just over the agent’s shoulder.
The agent sniffed twice as though sucking up all the clues to Varda’s obvious guilt and let his eyes wander over her; she concentrated on relaxing, trying to gain control over jangling nerves. Maybe he’d chalk up her appearance and malodorous clothes to jet lag. Her Mom would have called her a schlump.
Varda’s lips pulled down. “Four days.”
Whether intent on busting her or simply finding the nearest coffee vending machine, the officers now strode across the terminal, heading in her direction. Crap, crap, crap.
“And did you visit a farm or come in contact with any animals in Italy?”
“Did you bring back any food items?”
Her lungs gave up, refusing to function with any semblance of grace.
“Well, I did buy candy at the Rome airport.” She reached into the pocket of her pants and produced a half-eaten chocolate bar, presenting it as though it were gold bullion. “Does that count?”
The approaching officers paused to say a few words to a female agent, one of them gesturing wildly.
“Thank you, miss.” He returned her passport with nary another glance, his fingers already motioning to the next person in the queue.
The thin-lipped but polite smile froze on her face when a third officer rounded the far corner, a black and beige German shepherd padding along beside him. Varda lunged toward the sign for baggage claim—not that she had any luggage except what hung over her shoulder—as fast as her legs would carry her, surprisingly speedy for a woman of her stature: five feet, two.
The phantom sensation of biscuit breath and slobber licked at her calves. She was sure the dog had caught wind of her or the cheese and now raced toward her in a slow-motion, dairy-induced frenzy. She pictured her limbs, mired in quicksand, the dog gaining speed until the canine pounced, tearing the contraband from her bag.
Her rasping breath turned to a squeak of quasi-relief the second she vaulted off the last set of stairs, thigh muscles burning with the effort to reach the finish line.
Each step brought a deeper breath, and when the sliding glass door to freedom sliced shut behind her, she gulped down air scented with jet fuel.
Nothing had ever smelled so amazing.
No more than five minutes aftershe’d retrieved her car, Varda spotted Anthony Carluccio's monstrosity of a vehicle—a hint of mint green paint among the rusted body of a Buick Centurion—in her rearview mirror. The high-pitched humming of I-95 under tires grew louder as she passed over the double-decker bridge. She maneuvered toward the meeting place: a quiet enclave amid the gray, industrial buildings off the Broad Street exit perfect for clandestine business meetings and body drops.
Anthony took the whole “Philly mob” thing to extremes, especially since she knew damn well none of his family was, well, connected.
And really, what possible reason could a union plumber have to carry a gun on the job anyway? Unruly clogs dead set on assassinating him mid-plunge? Or, for that matter, why would the organizer of the Whisk and Spatula Dinner Club need a weapon?
Sure, they served all manner of illegal food, but did he really think he would have a shoot out with the local cops over ill-gotten ackee fruit? The competing club was run by one of the sweetest guys she’d ever met—this was not Gangs of New York, by any means. It wasn’t even My Cousin Vinny.
She veered off toward the exit. Even though his tail from the airport pissed her off, getting rid of the package would be a relief. She pulled over and levered down the window, humidity too high and the stench of exhaust almost as overwhelming as the cheese in her backseat.
The Centurion’s broad door swung open, and the car lifted, shocks screaming in protest. Anthony wedged himself out of the driver's seat. His slicked, black hair made his face wider, his jowls . . . jowl-ier. He grunted with his first step forward, hitching his high-waisted pants with both hands, one eye twitching out of control.
“You got the package?” He addressed her breasts, his accent doing unpleasant things to the vowels rolling out of his squashed mouth.
“Do you have the cabbage?” She coaxed her facial muscles to stand guard lest some semblance of actual irritation poke through.
Anthony insisted on stupid cloak and dagger language in case of furtive cops lurking under manhole covers. In the grand scheme of Philadelphia crime, this was not exactly on the level of murder or roving bands of thugs. Smuggling, sure. Feeding the city’s hoity toity gross foods, not so much.
He passed her a paper sack with the words “Angie’s Angels” emblazoned across the front in glittery purple cursive, flanked by buxom silhouettes.
“You’re giving me a bag from a strip club? What the hell do you buy at a stripper bar—souvenir nipple pasties?” With his eyes on her chest like that, her brain had gone in the same direction.
“Hey,” he said, no heat behind his words. “Mind ya business. It was all I had in the house. You got your cabbage, so hand it over.”
“Gladly.” Varda clicked open the car door and rooted through the canyon of her messenger bag to retrieve the bundle. She placed it in his waiting hands, doing her best to contemplate more pleasant things: a buttery cheddar, Gino’s firm and delectable ass, a good and chewy dark beer . . . anything but the wriggling maggots.
“Cargo still live?”
“Check it yourself.”
He narrowed his winking eye, the other following suite. “If it ain’t, you better give the bag back.”
“Oh, just inspect the cheese already. I have places to be, and I need to take a shower.”
“Yeah, you look like shit. Don’t smell so good neither. Not your normal, hot self.”
“You should talk about looking like crap,” she muttered, watching him peel back the fragrant wrapping on the casu marzu.
“Watcha mouth, missy. You serve a purpose, but don’ forget I —”
“Uh huh, yeah, I know. Cement shoes and all that. So, are you satisfied with the product?”
A weak dry heave threatened when he sliced into the rind using a small (and probably dirty) knife from his key ring and dipped a finger into the maggoty Pecorino before lifting it to his mouth. “This is fucking perfect. They’re gonna love it.” He grinned. “We have a, uh, board meeting planned for tonight.” His smile—mossy teeth, gingivitis, and all—was his not-so-subtle code to let her know the Whisk and Spatulas would be chowing down later.
“Great,” she said, a headache forming behind her eyeballs. “See you around.”
He cleared his throat. “So, uh, whaddya know about escamoles?”
Oh God, more larvae. Mexican ant larvae, at that. At least they’d be dead this time. Probably. Maybe she could convince Gino to come with her if he could get time off from the construction company; they could have a little vacation. He may not have approved of her career, but sometimes it wasn’t so bad. “Well, yeah, I know a guy. How soon?”
“Next month. I’ll give you a date this weekend after I talk to my people.”
“Yeah, all right. Let me check my schedule . . . do you care if they’re fresh or frozen?”
Oh God, please say frozen.
He shook his head and stepped backward. “Nah, not really. Later.”
She watched him drive off, her shoulders sagging. Another job over, another wad of cash ready for her savings account. She could almost smell the fresh air of the suburbs underlying the humid soup eddying around her.
Before she could start her car, a blue Corolla zipped into Anthony’s abandoned space. Seamus O’Hannahan popped out of the driver’s side door and loped to her window—as much as a short man could anyway. She swore under her breath and attempted to arrest the scowl that threatened her face.
“Heya, Varda.” His gray hair wisped around in the breeze, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with his smile.
He took his position as the organizer of the Two Street Munchers seriously but with far less idiocy and theatrics than Anthony. As Anthony’s competition in the underground eating club arena, they were Varda’s best customers.
Seamus’ slight stature emphasized his thin body and quiet nature. The paleness of his skin showed a blue vein at his temple, next to the lines at the corner of his left eye.
He usually called when he wanted to place an order—like a normal person—which made the intrusion all the more surprising. “So, how’s everything going?”
“Well, fine, thanks. But I’m in desperate need of some freshening up.”
His lips lurched, but he refrained from allowing them to break into his normal hearty chuckle. “Yeah, so it would seem. Fresh off a plane from Sardinia, from what I hear.”
Varda tossed up her hands. “Is my itinerary printed up somewhere—posted online maybe? Is Anthony trying to get me arrested?”
This time he did laugh. “Nothing quite so crazy, I’m afraid. My son got it from your boyfriend’s brother—and I know this is Anthony’s hand-off spot. That guy really has to start changing up his routine. The authorities are going to catch wind, and then he’ll be up shit’s crick.”
She said nothing. It would seem another talk with Tommy about the legalities of her work was in order. South Philadelphia was too small to share news of her exploits with anyone, and he had a big mouth.
“Sorry about all this, by the way.” He gestured toward the car. “I’m in a bit of a time crunch, and there’s this thing.” He paused. “Something my club would like for the Labor Day weekend dinner—it’s Sunday night. Know anyone who can get their hands on a few pounds of the Death’s Head Amerino mushroom on the fly?”
“You know they’re poisonous, right?” Not that she’d never delivered potentially fatal foods before, but it was always worth a warning, especially with the way her adopted parents had passed. The last thing she wanted to do was add homicide to her pretend rap sheet on top of the ever-present guilt over the way she made her money.
The Large Marges of the world loved a girl in the pokey for manslaughter.
Seamus’ fingers stroked his bare chin as though petting an imaginary beard. “Not if you cook them correctly.”
“Well, I do know a guy. I’ll look into it. Can I go now?”
“So testy! Yeah, go. Give me a holler about pricing and quantity when you have an estimate.”
She nodded and backed the car onto the main street. Just let someone else come between her and the siren call of soap and water.
Gino waited until she was in the shower to chat. He’d taken one look at her when she stomped into their apartment and offered a tentative hello. She’d stopped long enough to run her fingertips across her parents’ wedding mezuzah hung just inside the door, drop her bags, and allow a brief kiss to Gino’s mouth. Then she sprinted across the living room and up the spiral stairs to the bathroom, shedding clothes as she went.
With Gino’s lips fresh in her mind, she rethought her original plan to shower immediately, but she didn’t want to gross him out. The stink lines likely radiating from her skin could repel anyone. Now that Varda stood under the steaming water, her skin scrubbed raw—her own personal Silkwood shower—she felt far less disgusting.
“So welcome home, shorty. I missed you.”
She pulled back the blue shower curtain enough to glimpse Gino leaning against the bathroom counter and watched him for a moment, finally able to concentrate on something other than maggots.
She reached through the space to yank him by the shirt until she could reach his mouth without dripping water all over the place.
Gino’s warm hand grasped her bare hip, leaning into the kiss. That was what she’d been waiting for. His fingertips drifted up to the underside of her breast and followed the curve for a quick grope.
“Missed you, too,” she said, grinning, when they broke apart. Gino returned her smile, but his hand abandoned her skin and pulled the curtain closed.
She must have smelled worse than she thought—he wasn’t the type to pass up an opportunity. “Did anything exciting happen while I was gone?”
“Nope. I mostly just worked—that new job I told you about over in Queens Village. We’re about halfway done building the closet. How about you? Any problems?”
“Uh uh. I mean, it was the usual. Nice scenery. Creepy locals. Maggots. Just saw Anthony—he was charming as ever, but he paid me, and that’s what counts. Oh, and I ran into Seamus.”
“Nothing major. Just a few more jobs. But then I’m done. Absolutely out of the smuggling business.”
“A few more, huh? I’ve heard that before, homeslice.” He sniggered.
“Homeslice?” She stuck her head out of the shower, one eyebrow raised.
Gino rolled his shoulders up and down. She jerked the curtain closed again, enclosing her in the warmth of the white tile shower.
Why couldn’t he just stick with sweetheart? His street thug vocabulary phase was getting tired.
“This time it’s true. Anthony’s job will take me to Mexico, but the Seamus job is local. Either way, I should have the money to buy the dairy space outright by the end of next month.” She washed her hair and daydreamed about the feel of curd under her fingers, a benefit of being a full-time cheese maker. All curd, all the time.
“Yeah. You okay with that?”
“Well, it would mean moving out of the city. We really haven’t talked about that. I guess we wouldn’t have to, but it’d be cheaper.” The rich scent of her buttercream shower gel had completely replaced the stink of rot, and she sighed.
“It would mean a longer commute for me most of the time.” He sounded thoughtful but not opposed. Varda imagined him slinking around the Chester County countryside in his favorite pants, the elastic of his boxer shorts protruding above the waistband. He was sure to be a hit in the new neighborhood. She stifled a chuckle.
“Not if you quit to be my business partner.”
“Not to point out the obvious, but I don’t know anything about making cheese.”
“You’ve seen me do it.” Her words butted up against each other. “And I can teach you. You’re better with numbers and money than I am—you could manage the business end of things.”
“You really want me there all the time? Getting in your way. Wouldn’t that drive you nuts?”
“No. We’re together most of the time anyway. Haven’t killed you yet. And besides,” she teased, poking her head out of the shower to treat Gino to the most hopeful and compelling grin she could manage with a faceful of water, “if you get too annoying, I’ll take you out with a cheese press and serve you up to Anthony’s club as an Italian delicacy. A little extra cash for the rainy day fund never hurt.”
He grunted out a laugh when she ducked back under the stream of water, but it died before she could take a full breath. “I’ll think about it.”
She turned off the faucet, and wrung the moisture from her hair before taking a deep breath of home. Gino waited with a towel outside the shower, and she made quick work of drying off before snuggling against his chest.
“No more of these trips,” she said, listening to the sound of his heart, a solid and steady thump thump. “I won’t miss them.”
He kissed the side of her head. “Yeah, me neither.”
“Do we have time for a nap? I sleep like crap when you’re not next to me.”
“Nope. I promised Ma we’d come to dinner. And besides, if we go to bed, I don’t think you’ll be getting too much sleep.” His hand snaked down to squeeze her ass.
Varda groaned. “You know she’d rather you didn’t bring me. I love you and all, but can’t we skip it?” She mimicked him, grabbing his butt. “I promise to stay awake long enough to give you a nice welcome home.”
“I promised,” Gino repeated, although he at least at the grace to sound grumpy about it. His heart picked up under her ear. He held her by the shoulders to ease her away from him. “But speaking of Ma, I have something crazy to tell you.”
“She’s decided she loves me and wants to have a sleepover?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. When his lids propped open, his face had become a mask of horror. “My mother’s going out with Anthony Carluccio tomorrow night. On a date.”