April 18, 2016 | ,

West Philly

Part of me still couldn’t fathom that our life together was done, still believed we lived in that cramped third-floor apartment, two floors above the James Spader lookalike who held open mic poetry readings every Friday evening in his living room and once asked if you’d ever read Madame Bovary. Across the street sat the Ethiopian place where slender, elegant waiters had placed steaming platters of spicy lamb and vegetables before us, departing without a word. We’d eat with our hands, scooping up the meat with flat bread, a sweaty glass of pilsner by my side. You drank only water. We lived well in those rooms lined up like shot glasses—living room, kitchen, bedroom—and I wanted nothing more than that life, again and again, the way Nietzsche, the Stoics, and your mother had promised.

This was the beginning of the second summer without Rita, and I suspected nothing could be as ridiculous as the first. In the fourteen months since the end, I’d already moved to Japan and back, moved in with a different girl, and then moved out. Just two months ago, a Korean deli clerk had shot a black kid, a teenager, over five dollars of quarters in the till, nearly sparking a Do-The-Right-Thing riot in this city of my birth. Now, standing in front of that same deli, the newspaper screamed more death: Jerome Brown Gone. Jerome, our Jerome, the defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, the team we watched together.  Vivacious and lively— “like a big kid,” one of his teammates said. “He would have made a great old man,” said his coach. I’d obsessed over these same Eagles, videotaping the important games to watch again and again, even the losses, especially the losses. You had indulged me.

Instead of this, the whole sad mess, I decided to pretend. I was walking back to you waiting in our bed. Let’s say the Berlin Wall had just come down and you were wearing the same I Goldberg T-shirt you always slept in and I had slipped out early while you still snoozed. I had not read Thoreau’s warning about desperate men living quietly. I had not bought into the Bloomsbury Group. I had not slept with a girl simply because I liked her haircut. I had not apologized for such, thinking somehow this would make my transgression OK. I had not come home one night to find you simply gone, no note, nothing. I had not pissed away a chance to live in Tokyo. I had not taken a room in a house near the University of Penn with four strangers who left weird, back-biting notes for one another taped to the fridge in the kitchen. (Please don’t leave my steak knifes in the sink! Show respect and wipe the counter. Don’t shave in the shower! Leave your share of the rent on table by 8 a.m. That’s when I go to the bank. Recycling every Thursday. It’s your responsibility. Put items on the curb, not the porch!) No, this was not my life. There was another story, a better one, the one in my head.

“Dollar ninety-eight,” the clerk said as I placed my coffee and bagel on the counter.

I smiled, and told him I needed more—another banana nut muffin for my girlfriend waiting at home, and I paid him in dimes, nickels and pennies, the last of my money, everything that I had.

“What do you think about the wall coming down?” I asked.

He looked at me surprised that I’d extended our little exchange, a faux pas in a city where 489 of its citizens had been murdered in the last eleven months, including the black teenager who had bled to death on the sidewalk outside this very shop, after being shot, perhaps, by this very clerk.

“Have a good day,” he said.

Sunday morning in West Philly, June 25. The humidity already there, but not the bad heat, not yet, it’s only 80 degrees, maybe, so there’s a sense of relief, refuge, and I’m feeling lighter inside this coolness, inside this game in my head as the starlings sing, their peaks yellow for the summer, the purple energy of a Saturday night lingering in the air, the disease of it too, splattered there on the sidewalk and in puddles along the curb, the blood and the vomit and the cum, Philly’s sick soup. I felt like some kind of bobble-headed mystic, a dime-store cross between Tiny Tim and Jim Morrison. My people had sprung from this stretch of blocks, my dad’s people, his parents—a Catholic and a Jew. When they married, each of their families had shunned the other, and I was left leaning on the Catholic side. I knew none of this that day, of course, such knowledge wouldn’t come for years, in the week before I left for Montana as if I’d finally earned the story, when my cousin, who managed a liquor store and liked pot as much as she liked wine, asked, “Didn’t you know grandfather was Jewish?”

When I shook my head no, stoned from her weed, she laughed and said, “It’s true. He married for love and had to say goodbye to his family. I don’t know if I could do that. Would you?”

Up ahead, like Ahab, I spied a yellow Volkswagen Bug—Rita’s model and color—parked in the street. I believed then, as I do now, that you are given some things only once in this life—to ask for it again is greedy and useless—but as I sauntered up next to the car that morning and peered down through the side window to see a shoebox full of tapes on the passenger’s seat, breathless with excitement, I smiled, kept moving, the sight of the tapes some secret red thrill, an affirmation of sorts, a promise that it might just be OK, that batshit crazy or drunk every night by nine were not my only options, that some other avenue might present itself.

It was only when I didn’t make the light on Chestnut Street that I stopped, turned around and sensed the darkness trailing—the stupid, selfish shit we do.  We are. It washed over me with the clarity of a truth: This was fucked up. A pair of Converse sneakers hung by their laces from the telephone wires above my head, relics, like the car, from an earlier age. Rita had sold her Bug a couple of years ago, replacing it with a sky-blue Accord, so as I stood there watching a few early-morning cars cruise past, I decided the only thing I could do was circle back and double-down, try again. Do this pretending business better.

Now there was a song in my head—the Cure’s “Pictures of You.” A pie wedge of morning sky peeked through the roofs of the houses and trees, and the sun on the back of my neck felt like something between a slap and a kiss. I walked along, passing pigeons croaking and strutting, proud and crazy, a frayed poster for a band, Go to Blazes, stapled to a telephone pole: “Friday Night at the Khyber,” and an ancient woman in a babushka pulling along a white poodle she called Charles. “Charles, this way Charles. Charles don’t touch that. Oh, Charles.”  I came up on the Volkswagen again, and this time pulled the car door opened, and in a gesture full of foolishness and hope, I reached in, grabbed the shoebox of tapes, shut the door, and stepped away. Kept moving.

Box in hand, expecting someone to yell after me, for Charles to nip and yap at the heel of Doc Martens, for some cop to pull up next to me, “Hey, buddy, what do you got there,” I just kept walking. No one noticed me, of course, and two blocks later, I barely glanced up at the house where we shared that life, passing too the Red Sea restaurant, where we ate among those Africans, our whiteness exotic to them, the men at the bar taking quick glances at your blonde hair, the three empty beer glasses in front of me, another one coming.

I felt giddy and dead, hustling my way home to the house where I had the room overlooking an alley, an ancient junkyard door propped on cinder blocks as a desk, piles of paperbacks and clothes. A white cat. When I made the top of the stairs, Gloria, steak-knife owner and recycler extraordinaire, popped out of the bathroom we shared, glanced down at the box I was holding and then back up into my eyes. Caught. Thief and liar. Fool and loser. Gloria wore an orange velour robe, her hair up in a towel. Without her glasses and the line of her mouth free from her worry over cutlery and the environment, she was almost pretty.  Could she be my destiny?

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

What I wanted to tell her, but didn’t, was yet another story, an even better one, the one about the thief who broke into Rita’s Beetle Christmas Eve, our first Christmas together, and how I found it kind of funny, this Grinch-crook getting what he deserved: one imitation leather wallet holding two dollars, my license, an expired video rental care for Joe’s Video, the ticket stubs from our first date together (My Beautiful Launderette), as well as those lame gifts I’d purchased for my family in a one-stop shopping spree at the Gallery Mall—a polyester ski hat, fruity scarf, paisley tie, and a Hickory Farm box of assorted cheeses for the old man. This, to me, was hilarious. Cosmic justice. But Rita?  Rita was furious, righteously so, and demanded blood, Old Testament justice, so despite the Christmas day, we’d called the cops and reported the theft and waited almost an hour in our cold vestibule, sipping bad coffee, waiting for the officers to pull up in their patrol car, all of which saved me about a year later when I received a notice in the mail to appear in traffic court for not paying a moving violation for the Yellow Cab I was driving one night on Vine Street.

Here’s the twist: I showed up in traffic court with my father, but the presiding judge had no interest in my excuses, immediately dressing me down as immature, selfish, a child. She had glanced at my father, his white hair and false teeth, the six foot of him in blue work shirt and tie, and said he deserved better than me for a son. Done with her lecture, she finally asked, “What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Simmons.”

In one sense she was spot on, this Judge Judy, and I could have nodded and taken the punishment, maybe should have, but instead I told her the truth. I explained how my bag had been stolen from my girlfriend’s car, and the bag held my wallet, and in the wallet, my license, and the man driving the Yellow Cab was not me, but just some other guy posing as me. With my license.

The judge stared at me for a hard five seconds, waiting for a smile or a chuckle, some crack in the veneer of my story, but I lowered my head and kept my smirk to myself.

“Police report?” she asked.

Rita’s Christmas anger flashed in my mind as I handed the sheet to the bailiff who walked over to the judge, the keys on his belt jiggling, his gut hanging over his belt like another piece of evidence. The judge read the report in silence, dismissed the case without looking up.

“Next,” she said.

Afterwards, my father and I were joyous, full of pride at how we had beaten the system by following its own rules, purchasing celebratory meatball sandwiches sprinkled with parmesan cheese from a sidewalk cart and washing them down with cold cans of Cokes on a cement bench outside the 30th Street Post Office, where Dad worked as the Superintendent of Registered Mail. He had to eat and hustle inside to a room caged off from the rest of the post office because of the expensive mail it held, and I had to walk across 30th Street to the train station and take the train back to Bala Cynwood where Rita waited. Yes, we had left the city by then.

“That was good,” Dad said. “Really good. Thank Rita for that police report.”

On the train, I thought of the man who’d ended up with my license. Most likely he wasn’t the man who had stolen the bag and the wallet, but an immigrant without a green card trying to start a life here by driving a cab, someone who had purchased the license on the black market. Maybe from India, maybe we looked somewhat alike—in the vicinity of height and weight and age. I considered his eyes, their color.

In West Philly that day, Gloria, my roommate, went back to her room—the tail end of her orange robe dragging across the wooden floor as if she were Queen Elizabeth, and in my room, I called my father.  I asked if he’d heard the news about Jerome Brown, the dead football player, the Eagle. He had.

“Why drive like that with a boy in the car?” he said, not really asking me anything.

My father said it was no tragedy for Jerome Brown, but for his young nephew who was in the car at the time of the crash and who had also died. The nephew was eleven. Dad, like the judge, was right, but wrong too. It was an accident, and years later when he fell down the basement steps of my sister’s house and hit his head on the cement floor to die, I didn’t think of Jerome Brown, but one final story about my mother’s father, not the Jew, but the drunk, an Irish one, a man I’d never met—in the grave before I was born.

This other grandfather’s wife had to take the trolley each Friday to the factory where he worked to pick up his paycheck. Apparently, Dad told me, there were dozens of wives who showed up like this, each Friday to get their husband’s checks, to make sure they didn’t drink them up in one night. My grandfather worked at the Ford factory in North Philly, toiling on the assembly line, hinging doors to a car’s chassis, again and again, eight hours at a time, a job that required little skill, but endurance, strength, repetitive lifting of metal, 50 or 60 pounds of it, and he made decent money for doing it, actually keeping his seven children and wife clothed, fed, and under one roof. My grandfather was a large man at least 6-foot-5, maybe 250 pounds, hand’s like catcher’s mitts. Once, Dad told me, he fell in the tub, drunk, and my father and three others were summoned to help lift the old man up and out, and my father described my grandfather’s naked legs in great detail as if this were the point of the story, which maybe it was. Bloated like soggy wood, broken tree limbs dug from the dirt, an explosion of blue and red veins protruding from his thighs like lines on a globe, thighs like small countries. Slick with water and who knew what else.

“He was a mess, old Andy,” Dad said. “But as much as he drank, and he drank every day starting in the morning when he sent his four daughters off to the church down the block so he could get into his cups in peace, he never missed work.”

I’ve missed work. Plenty of it.

And now, years later, it occurs to me I don’t know where this grandfather is buried, this man a drunk too, nor have I visited my own father’s grave since the day of his funeral when I placed my hand flat against the bronze of his casket as they lowered his ridiculous cigar-shaped canister into the ground and I stood there watching my palm sweat linger on the metal in the hot August sun. I wanted it to mean something, that sweat, and I could say that I like to think my father felt the touch, that I imagine the handprint still there underneath all that dirt, but those are just lies, things to say in a story. The truth is I live too far away to visit the grave. It would take a special trip to see my dad now, to glimpse Philadelphia again, my home place, and some part of me doesn’t think any of it is worth it. But another part of me, maybe the part writing this, knows that some day I’ll make it home. I have to. One way or the other I’ll get home to swim once more in all these stories.

 

Francis Davis’s fiction has been published in Natural Bridge, Weber Studies, The Gihon River Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, Ducts, Atticus Review, Apeiron Review, and Notes Magazine, among other publications. He’s been awarded writing fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, The Millay Colony for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently, he’s an assistant professor …

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