Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JUNE 15, 2011 12:08PM

Flash Fiction: A Sour Dill in Valhalla

Rate: 21 Flag

This week's Fiction Wednesday prompts were: a. do your own thing, or b. write a story in 500 words or less.  I chose the latter, knowing it would be a challenge, since I'm...shall we say a bit long-winded?

I'm happy to say my story comes in at 499 words - I even had one word to spare! 

[UPDATE: After several rounds of editing, it's now at 500.] 

You might notice that I also used the prompt from last week (write a story where someone says "Put it back together.").  I originally had the idea for this story then, but due to my boyfriend's being attacked on the Metro, celebrating our 5-year anniversary, and just a lot of stuff going on in general, I couldn't write it.  So, this here's a hybrid.

Everyone's welcome to participate in Fiction Wednesday.  If you write a piece, please be sure to announce it in the comments section of this post



(image source


A Sour Dill in Valhalla 

As the car turned towards the dull beige façade of Harold’s New York Deli, Christopher experienced the same kind of nervous excitement you’d feel if you were unexpectedly invited to dine at the White House.  

“All right,” his dad turned off the parked car. 

They opened their doors in accidental yet beautiful synchronicity and walked the same short-legged stride to the restaurant.

Inside, Harold’s was exactly as he’d remembered it from the one other time he’d been there, the night before his bar mitzvah. (For what better evokes burgeoning manhood than a foot-tall sandwich full of greasy pastrami?) 

The decor was that of an eighties hospital cafeteria.  Not unusual in northern New Jersey, where that decade has lingered like a makeup stain.  But, for his father, the only thing subject to aesthetic judgment at Harold’s was the sandwiches. When they’d gotten their order, his father had made them stop and admire it, gazing at the tower of cold cuts and bread that teetered heavenward, yet held steady.  He’d asked the waitress to take a photo of them and their sandwich; Christopher had suspected the latter was the real reason.

Everything was large --  too large for a single mortal man to stomach.  For his father, Christopher had come to think, Harold’s was like a kosher Valhalla. 

Back in the present, at a table to the left, his dad’s fellow fallen warriors greeted them.  Christopher’d known his father’s friends, all now-retired businessmen, forever. Every Saturday they got together at Harold’s, and he was never invited.

He understood.  His father had never been happy that, after an expensive education, he’d become a librarian, devoting his free hours to his true passion: toothpick sculpture.   

Then, a few days ago, his scale model of the Piazza San Marco had won First Prize at the local arts fair.  He was interviewed in the Star-Ledger, and, as word spread, in papers around the world.  Everyone loved a quirky story.  Christopher knew the reporters didn’t take him completely seriously, but he answered their questions– after all, his words might inspire some lost soul of a kid whose destiny was to build, say, a toothpick Angkor Wat.

Now they sat down, and the waitress brought a meat monolith to the table.  Christopher looked at the newly respectful eyes of his father and friends, and suddenly felt moved to thank them.  He cleared his throat and brought up his right hand in an expansive gesture – which accidentally grazed the sandwich.

It toppled directly, falling onto everyone’s helpless cutlery.

After a long silence, his father said tightly: “”

But the waitress arrived with dishes and slid salvageable slices onto each.  This is normally what happened to a Harold’s sandwich anyway, since it was meant to be shared - just not before his father could properly admire it. 

Christopher got up and went to the pickle bar – the world’s largest – to clear his head.  Biting into a sour dill, he knew he wouldn’t be asked back.

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Harold's is an actual place - there are several locations in New Jersey. The one in this story is supposed to be in Parsippany.
the 'fellow fallen warriors' & the 'librarian- toothpick artist'

brushing up against one another is a real treat

I could see it all and glad you ut it all back together this week and hope the BF is okay.
So much angst in 499 words. I've been to Parsippany but not to Harold's. As much as I love a hot pastrami sandwich, that tower is nauseous. Poor Christopher.

I want me a pastrami sandwich now! Great use of the prompt.
A rite of passage never felt so not right. Talk about serendipity. For the last few days, I can't get the "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppilen out of my head. Especially the line that says, "Valhalla, I am coming," and you write this funny yet bittersweet story. R
A wonderful story!
I would have blundered like Christopher. I am always waving my arms around. You could feel the tension...
a gem.
hilarious and poignant.
What a line:

"They opened their doors in accidental yet beautiful synchronicity and walked the same short-legged stride to the restaurant."

Valhalla=a perfect metaphor for the paternal pack of defanged old wolves. I know it oh so well.

ha=toothpick sculpture!

brings to mind dylan line:
"statues made of matchsticks
crumble into one another
my love winks
she does not bother
she knows too much
to argue or to judge..."
This is great, Alysa! Harold's sounds like the Schwartz of Montreal, which I'm sure some people wouldn't mind experiencing but only once in their lifetime.
Full of great imagery, not the least being 'meat monolith,' but isn't Christopher’d cheating? No matter!

I was always told, although I can't remember by who, that 'blog format length' should be 300 to 500 words. I believe that this length suits you, well, better. Well done...
What a sandwich! What a story! Put it back together, What a job!
I know the sandwich had more than 500 calories, that's for sure.
This was so cute it made me smile :)
devoting his free hours to his true passion: toothpick sculpture.

Wow, didn't see that one coming! =o) Jeez, you don't mess with those sandwiches, do you? Lots of great lines in this, Alysa; Kosher Valhalla and where that decade has lingered like a makeup stain being two of my favorites.

Off to build my toothpick version of Angkor Wat!
What fun! This was as easy to see at it was to read. Rated.
ume – Thanks! I had fun with the contrasts here. They echo my own life, a bit.

Linda – You are so sweet. The boyfriend is much better, thank you so much.

Lezlie – You’ve been to Parsippany! Our paths cross again! My family and friends are scattered all over north Jersey – maybe you ran into one of us! It’s just as well you didn’t go to Harold’s, though; I’ve been there a few times, and there is such a thing as too many cold-cuts. Also, the cakes, while equally enormous, are sadly not delicious. I’m glad you could see the angst here.

Miguela – I love making people hungry! I hope you’ll have a delicious sandwich – not completely crazy like a Harold’s one, though..I think you’d probably have indigestion for a long time…

Trudge – How weird how minds sometimes come together unknowingly! I’m glad you liked this, and thanks so much again for inspiring this week’s Fiction Wednesday prompt!

babylovesme – Thanks! I loved yours, too!

Susie – You and me both – I’m a big “talk with my hands” girl – and a clumsy one at that!

James – I’m so glad you liked this. And I didn’t know those Dylan lines, I’m ashamed to say…..

Fusun – Thanks! Yep, I think Harold’s is probably a good place to visit once. And only once. Then again, there are some who love it.

Dom – Thanks for your too kind words. I am honored and flattered and flabbergasted that you, master of excellent one-liners and crazy descriptions, liked some of my lines here.

tr ig – I don’t know know if it’s cheating…let’s say it’s less cheating than if I’d just flat out lied about the word count, as I was tempted to do : - ) As for the length thing, I have never believed that. There are amazing writers out there, be they authors of books, short stories, blogs, news articles, etc, etc, who surpass those word counts every day. Heck, Vanity Fair would be a flimsy pamphlet without them. The thing is, if a writer is able to capture his/her audience, it shouldn’t matter how long what they’ve written is. Word counting is trying to find a system for success – and there is no system: all there is, is “the madness of art”, as Henry James once said. I appreciate very much that you liked this story; however I think it would have been better a little longer. There could have been more character shading. I think flash fiction works for some writers and for some purposes, sometimes. But not all the time. We must never choose the NUMBER of words, over what’s being said. Sorry to go on like that – it’s just a very important issue for me, and I’ll actually be blogging about it later this week.

Out on a limb – Thanks, and oh yes, you are absolutely right that sandwich has more than 500 calories! I shudder to think of the final count!

Lunchlady – I’m so glad! That’s the best thing I could do with one of my stories. Thank you.

Shiral – I’m so glad you liked this and those lines – and I know that if you really did do a toothpick Angkor Wat, it would be, like, the coolest one ever made, maybe even surpassing the stone original!

Lizz – Thanks so much for reading – I’m glad you liked this, and very glad the descriptions came through. It was hard working with a word limit.
" ... too large for a single mortal man to stomach." Anyone can eat when their hungry. A real man can eat when he's full.

There's a lot to be said for kosher delis and mile-high sandwiches. Unfortunately, one's mouth usually is too filled to speak. Good story.
I love the toothpick artist/librarian with the fancy classic. That sandwich made me think of those grotesque eating contests where people eat like 30 hot dogs at a sitting. I've always thought such things epitomize what's wrong with this country. Champion eating...really?
Stim - Perhaps you are right.... I definitely agree that when it comes to cookies or chocolate, there's always room. Meat just is a little trickier to digest....

neilpaul - Indeed!

BB - It's funny - I wrote a story about competitive eating that I posted on OS a while back. I think it's a fascinating thing - though yes, in many ways it's sort of wrong. Championing of gluttony and all that.... You'll be happy to know that most people who go to Harold's don't expect to eat a whole sandwich themselves - instead, they get it and share it with the whole table. On the other hand, there is an episode of "Man vs. Food" that my brother shows me, where the host tries to eat an entire Harold's sandwich on his own. I can't remember if he succeeds...I was too busy suffering sympathy indigestion.
I read your story earlier but this site must have problems at times. Anyway...wonderful and I consumed two pickels for lunch.

the lines are from "love minus zero no limit".
The eighties like a makeup stain...
Everything was large --
too large for a single mortal man to stomach.
For his father,
Christopher had come to think,
Harold’s was like a
kosher Valhalla.

Just brilliant stuff, and i hope you know that.

My writer's intuition tells me this: once mz. s.
begins writing fiction or flash fiction or whatever the
fops call it now,
about her French experience,
she will become one well known writer,
in France and here too.
I want one of those sandwiches. Great piece, Alysa. I feel for Christopher...nursing his wounds at the pickle bar.
I don't find you to be long winded at all. The modern landscape of tweeting, and other brevity crap makes us verbose gals feel bad. You always have a lot to say and brevity be damned, I say. Soul of wit? Not neccessarily.
Now to the fiction: Excellent. Though, I am nursing such a pastrami craving and hunger took over. Kosher Valhallas and meat monoliths sound just right. I have a very hard time reading fiction lately but this was very enjoyable.
Great, now I have to shlep all the way out to Katz's for a proper pastrami on rye. :-)
Clearing one's head at a pickle bar. Priceless! What an amusing story with a really unique pivot point: a skyscraper sandwich. So much drama between slices of characters.
I enjoyed this thor0ughly, Alysa. It featured a light humor that pleases me.

The Protestant Christian equivalent of Harold's where I come from is one of those all-you-can-eat steakhouses. You can see a real slice of humanity on display at those joints, let me tell ya. But the convocation of the old guys that you describe takes place elsewhere. Usually, some generic little place.
Blinddream – What? OS has problems?! : -) Thanks for coming back and commenting. I really appreciate it. And I hope you enjoyed your pickles.

James – You are the kindest guy around. I wish I could send you a giant sandwich as thanks. But I will just say this, and it’s worth more than any sandwich: what you’ve said about me, I could just as easily say about you. You’re one of the most original writers around, and what you’ve been doing recently is so intriguing, so engulfing – I hope you’ll turn it into a novel. I think it has a very good chance of being the Great American one.

Ingrid – Thank you so much and thanks for reading. I think if we’re upset, the best thing to do is just to eat something. Unfortunately for Christopher, pickles may not be the most pleasant choice…

fernsy – I’m so glad you liked this, and thanks for what you said! I believe that shorter isn’t always better, either. I’ve just written a post about that, in fact. We should be free to go wherever the Muse takes us, whether on a long journey or a short one. Also, I hope you’ll feel better about reading fiction soon.

Seth – Sorry ‘bout that! : - )

ASH – Thank you so much and I’m glad you liked it!

Brassawe – All you can eat sounds much better than Harold’s – you’re not obligated to stuff yourself on pickles and lunchmeat. Does this make me a Protestant? Not sure what I should do now…. : - )
You packed so much in this, in so few words, I was amazed by it. Toothpick art, huge sandwiches and the world's largest pickle, not to mention a bar mitzvah! Great Job~