HALF SOUR by Mike Ball

The tomatoes were nasty — bitter,

hard, dark green, floating in brine.

The deli owner too was nasty.

gruff, graceless and German.


Between the cases of meat and cheese,

and shelves of wines and specialties,

and counter with two dangerous

slicers (one for dairy and one for meat,

although the owner was Catholic)

stood a hip-high bowed oak barrel

brimming with half-sour tomatoes.


He was Teutonic coarse to customers

but he was not stingy with his worker.

We bonded over the acetic tomatoes.

He delighted as we each plucked one

from the salty swamp every few hours

to savor bites when we were not busy.


Most customers were also Germans,

Frauen of moderate wealth and status

via officer husbands at Fort Jackson,

comforted in exile by furs and jewelry.


Even on summer days, they arrived

in Benzes, wore minks, and sought

German food and drink, and sounds

of home, even if spoken brusquely.


A matron with several gold bracelets

would jingle holding up baby corn

in a tiny jar, asking “Was kostet das?”

He then gave her the price…plus scorn.

He glared, spitting out the cost as though

she was stupid to ask or silly to quibble.


His manner was not Southern gracious.

Yet to the women, his tone was home too.

As I sidled by the barrel, I knew tomatoes

weren’t the only half sours in the deli.

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