From its posh Main Line to its blue-collar enclaves, Philadelphia is a city of contrasts. History has shown that brotherly love and murderous intentions can exist, if not side-by-side, then at least on the same block. Its this dichotomy that gives local writers their inspiration in this gritty collection of stories from Meredith Anthony, Diane Ayres, Cordelia Frances Biddle, Keith Gilman, Cary Holladay, Solomon Jones, Gerald Kolpan, Aimee LaBrie, Halimah Marcus, Carlin Romano, Asali Solomon, Laura Spagnoli, Duane Swierczynski, Dennis Tafoya, and Jim Zervanos.
“It took long enough for Akashic’s noir series to get to Philly. Now that it has, compiled under the shadowy auspices of Inquirer literary critic/West Philly native Carlin Romano, the fun begins.” —Philadelphia City Paper
“One of the US’s oldest, and darkest cities has a collection of its own . . . Overall, this collection was excellent, but left me wanting more.” —MostlyFiction Book Reviews
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PRINCESS By Aimee Labrie South Philadelphia
It's Saturday at three a.m. and I'm coming off a hellish shift at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar. It's pouring rain, no taxis in this part of town, and the 23 bus runs about every two hours now. My feet hurt from standing and my mood is black after spending most of the night serving a crowd of out-of-towners — a group of prickish frat boys slumming it and cracking racist jokes. I let them get good and drunk, even send a few shots of Jack their way, and then, when one of the jerk-offs slaps his Am Ex on the bar, I add $100 to the tab.
I know they are too drunk and too cocky to eyeball the final tally. Good thing, too, because they leave behind a five-dollar tip and some change. When one of them asks for directions to Washington Avenue to hail a cab to Center City, I send him south instead of north, deeper into darker territory not so friendly to their kind. But hey, they said they were looking for an authentic Philly experience. I am just making sure they get what they asked for.
So, I'm standing at the curb, weighing my options, when a car pulls up, splashing filthy rain water over my sneakers.
Now, I know better than to jump into a car with a near stranger, but it's raining hard, in the way only a summer night in Philadelphia can deliver — appearing out of nowhere, flooding the sidewalks, sending Styrofoam cups and discarded cheesesteak wrappers from Pat's careening in a river of water down the curb. Lightning cracks the sky like the end of the world is right around the corner. And I see from his crag-nosed profile that I do sort of know this guy — he's the uncle of a kid I used to sleep with. Uncle Tony (one of many Uncle Tonys in this part of town). And a former regular at Ray's before Lou, Ray's son and the owner, banned him from setting foot in the place ever again.
He sits in his big maroon Chevy Cadillac, a fat man with a salt-andpepper crew cut wearing a too-big, shiny Eagles T-shirt. The passenger window rolls down. "Hey, doll," he says. "Get it the car. You're soaked." I hesitate. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, don't be stupid. It's not like I'm some douche bag from Trenton you never met before."
I check the street again. The back of my T-shirt smells like a cigarette butt after eight hours of serving cheap beer and shots. It sticks wetly to my back. What the hell. I get in the car. He has the heater running full blast, which I appreciate. The interior is a deep plush maroon and stinks of stale cigars and cheap cologne. "You South?" he asks.
"Yeah, just drop me at 8th and Morris, and I'll hop out." A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror with a sad-looking Jesus dangling forlornly on the end.
"Hey, let me ask you something." The car idles. "You hear what happened to my nephew Johnny?"
I shake my head. I haven't seen or thought of Johnny in a couple of weeks, not since I kicked him out of my bed.
"Smashed by the 147. No helmet, not that it woulda mattered. Run him over while he was on his bike. F-ing SEPTA buses." He drums his pudgy fingers on the steering wheel. "No chance even for any last words."
"Jesus, sorry, Tony." Too vain to wear a bike helmet. I am starting to remember more about Johnny now. His long curly hair was one of his best features. Though I could be remembering one of the others. They blur together after a while.
"Yeah, well, what can you do?" Uncle Tony doesn't seem that busted up about it. "He left his journals behind though. You ever read them?"
"No." I am starting to think it's time for me to take a pass on the ride and be on my way.
"He ever talk to you about a key? He leave one at your place? I'm wondering, because in his journals he hints a lot about where this key might be. It's the one that opens that garage across the street. Where he stores his bikes, right?" The car begins to feel a little too warm. I see that I've made a mistake accepting this ride. Maybe a big one.
I grab the door handle. The automatic lock clicks shut. "I don't know what you're talking about, you lunatic. Let me out of here." I remember now why Lou banned him for life from the bar. He'd started a brawl one night about the lack of paper towels in the men's room. After getting no response from Lou, he hurled a bar stool at the big-screen TV behind the bar. He missed the television, but busted the neon Bud Light sign. That was his last night at Ray's. He was crying and wailing, "But I'm a Mummer!" when they tossed him out onto Passyunk Avenue.
"Listen, just tell me where the key is and I'll take you home like I said," he pleads.
I reach in my purse to take out my pepper spray. He lunges forward, and, for a second, I think maybe he's going to kiss me. He takes my face in both of his hands and whacks my head hard on the dashboard. Then it's lights out.
I wake up to the tickle of something licking my ankle. I'm sitting on a cushioned chair with my hands tied behind my back, feet bound together by what looks like a dog leash, and duct tape covering my mouth. The something washing my foot is a fat brown dog, one of those pugs with the curly tails and popped-out eyes. It wears a fancy pink collar. I jerk my leg. The dog looks up at me, eyes rolling stupidly and blackish tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth.
At least my clothes are still on; all except for my shoes.
I struggle against the ties and look around. I've descended into the middle of South Philly grandmother-land. My best guess is that it's Tony's mom's house. It's an old-school Italian living room with thick, pink shag carpet, a blue leather sofa and matching armchair covered in plastic. The surfaces are decorated with doilies and throw pillows with fluffy white kittens stitched in needlepoint, along with afghans, Virgin Marys, and multiple Jesuses — Jesus and a lamb, Jesus on the cross, Jesus flashing the peace sign and looking like a hipster. The best is a picture featuring the holiest of holy — Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and Pope John Paul II. How they got the three of them together for that photo op is anybody's guess. Underneath it all is the trapped-in smell of old lady. Part Jean Naté body wash, part pancake makeup, and part getting closer to death. No wonder Johnny never brought me here. He had mentioned he was crashing at his gran's for a while, but didn't say he was living with an old-fashioned stereo as big as a spaceship, giant fake flowers in an even bigger shiny vase, and a crappy oil painting of the family hanging in a gold frame above the couch: Grandma, Tony, and Johnny. Another unholy trinity.
I've got to make sense of this somehow before the lunatic returns. I am starting to recall a little bit more about Johnny.
I don't usually chat up customers, but Wednesdays are slow at Ray's. He wore low-slung jeans and a white T-shirt that stretched tight across the muscles of his chest and back. I was new to the joint — the first female bartender, but I didn't need to prove myself. Lou, Ray's son, was a friend of my dad's. I just wanted a job where I could get paid in cash and stay off the radar of the IRS for a while.
He looked just like all the white, angst-filled hipster dudes you see there or at the Dive or Pope's — in their grungy T-shirts from Circle Thrift and skinny girl jeans with one leg rolled up so that they can get around the city on their beat-up, expensive vintage bikes. Chain wallets, ironic tattoos, and multiple piercings. I can't say that he was any different, except he said "please" and "thank you" when I set the PBRs in front of him and he was writing in a red spiral notebook — like the kind you'd use in high school. His wrote feverishly and I imagined it was a screenplay about a misunderstood twenty-something, or a proposal to City Council for a more sustainable Philly, or song lyrics for his Flaming Lips sound-alike band so that they could get another gig at Johnny Brenda's.
We started talking about what he was writing. He had a rough voice, the voice of a smoker who'd picked up the habit with a vengeance in junior high, though he couldn't have been too far into his twenties.
He told me he'd always kept a journal. "I know, I'm a pretentious prick. No poetry though," he added. I asked him what he wrote about. "Deep, dark secrets," he said. He didn't look like he'd lived long enough to have anything worth hiding, so I figured he was making shit up. "I write descriptions about places. Like this dirty little bar and that old man over in the Elvis shirt with his head on the table. I wrote a paragraph about you." He read it to me. He was generous.
I took him home to my latest cheap house on one of those narrow one-way streets without trees — this shitty apartment next to the JC Chinese restaurant. I go to sleep and wake up smelling chop suey. It's the kind of street where you hear Mexican music playing and jacked-up cars revving at all hours. I don't mind. I usually sleep through anything, like a dead person. Junk lines my street — crushed Red Bull cans and empty Corona bottles, dirty diapers, and abandoned condoms. Like the rest of the city, South Philly changes from block to block and I happen to live on one where the shades are always drawn shut with yellow miniblinds and the windows sport signs reading, Se cuarta a renta. But the apartment is dirt-cheap and I have lived in worse places.
Johnny had a bike of course, and insisted on taking it inside with us. He didn't stay the night, which I appreciated. He came back to the bar the next night. I took him home again. He had a tongue ring, which I also appreciated. This went on for a while, not long, maybe three weeks, and always with that stupid Raleigh bike, and then one night when he wasn't at the bar, I brought someone else home and Johnny showed up at my door, ringing the bell again and again until I answered, and bleated, "But you don't understand. I love you!"
I told him to get real, get lost, and get a new dive bar to hang out in — try the Royal or Pope's — not Ray's anymore. He called me a fucking bitch. I pushed over his bike and he squealed like an adolescent girl, picked up the bike, and pedaled furiously away in his high-top Converse sneakers, never to be heard from again.
Except he had come back.
I consider my next move. I imagine the Inquirer headline: Stupid Bartender Murdered by Moron. As if on cue, the moron walks in.
Tony has changed into yet another Eagles jersey. He seems glad to see me awake. "Look, I don't like this any more than you, but I figured we'd get lots more done if you wasn't running loose." His eyes are bloodshot, but instead of smelling like booze, he smells like Old Spice.
He turns on the big-screen TV plastered next to the family portrait and turns it to the classics sports channel, the one that replays old football games where you already know how it all ends and who wins. "Now, I'm going to pull off this tape and it's going to hurt, so I'm sorry about that. Don't scream." He rips the tape off in one quick motion, taking half my lip with it. I scream. "You'll scare the dog!" he says. The dog is stretched out across the floor on its back, snoring. He pushes the volume up on the TV so that Howard Cosell's nasally voice booms out into the room. I am going to die listening to Cosell announcing a bygone two-point conversion. "My ma is down the shore, but she'll be back before too long, so we got to figure this out quick."
Maybe if I stall long enough, Granny'll rescue me. That's assuming she isn't an accomplice in whatever this mess is. I've seen plenty of these South Philly old ladies, sweeping up the sidewalk in front of the house early in the morning with their teeth still sitting in a jar by the bed. Cross them, and they'll cold cock you in a second with the broom or whatever else is handy.
Tony picks up a red spiral journal from the doily-covered coffee table. "Johnny wrote a lot about you. I just need to know where the key is. He writes that he's left it with someone he trusts. Well, I can't find it here, and believe me, I've looked under every doily and cookie jar in the place."
"I barely knew the kid. We maybe hung around once."
He frowns. "Oh yeah? Does this sound like you?" He flips to the middle of the book and reads a description of my apartment with the rusty kitchen sink and the rats scrabbling in the walls. He describes what I look like in bed and the color of the mole under my right arm. Tony snaps the books shut and pushes up the sleeve of my shirt. "What a coincidence! This shit about you goes on for pages and pages. I know Johnny told you something more about where the key is, didn't he? If I can find the key, I can get to the money, and if I get to the money, you got nothing to worry about."
In fact, Johnny may have mentioned a key of some kind. He was a Chatty Cathy. Problem is, I'm not much of a listener. Still, I would've remembered money talk.
"He wrote about you like you was his girlfriend," Tony says, waving the notebook under my nose.
"We were fuck buddies, that's it." His eyes flick to the Jesus on the wall. "We weren't going steady or anything. He didn't hand over his old high school letter jacket from St. Nick's. I don't know about any of this."
"You know the A&M garage across the street from Ray's? He keeps his bikes in that place. You know that?" I nod. "You ever wonder what else he might have tucked away in there? You ever wonder why he was delivering office paper at two in the morning?"
Working as a bartender teaches you pretty quick that people will eventually spill whatever it is that's gnawing at them. All you have to do is wait. And so I wait. And keep telling him that I don't know anything about a key. And wait some more. Repeat my innocence. Then shut my mouth, praying he doesn't beat the shit out of me or worse.
He paces the room. I notice he's not any wearing shoes, just long white athletic socks pulled up to the knees. I suppose we're both shoeless so the carpets don't get messed up. He explains the "sitch." Johnny was a drug courier — some of his friends were too, but he was the head honcho, the numero uno courier. The drugs were shipped from New Jersey to Johnny's storage place at A&M in bicycle frames. Johnny would then distribute the bikes to his other courier pals to take apart so they could peddle their wares to various eager customers far and wide across the City of Brotherly Love.
I am starting to have a little more respect for the dead kid.
Tony doesn't elaborate on his role. "I was just the connector, mostly, with these guys in Jersey. I never touched the bikes. I never even seen the bikes. I just arranged for the shipments. To tell you the truth, I had no idea what was really going on until the thugs in Jersey contacted me and told me." His voice is stiff, like one reserved for false testimony in court.
And then, it seems, Johnny got greedy — maybe he needed some new guitar amps or fancier pens — and he started keeping a portion of the proceeds locked away in the storage center along with the bikes. And then the Jersey guys, these "bicycle distributors," wanted to know where their money had gone. They didn't want to hear about how Tony couldn't get to it or how Johnny had taken the secret to his grave. They just wanted to get paid, and fast.
"They been here twice already," Tony says.
"What does your ma say about this?"
His thick, caterpillar-looking eyebrows fly up in surprise. "She don't say nothing. She just grinds up beans for coffee and gives them cake."
I don't believe him, but I don't say that either. I bet Granny's grown used to the perks the money brought in; the status she earned for the extra church tithes; maybe she even bought a few wigs made out of real hair or new plastic covers for the furniture.
"How about if I make you a deal? You let me out of here and we forget about this whole thing. I'll talk to Lou about you being allowed back in the bar. You know, we'll start with Tuesday-night karaoke. You can sing Johnny Cash or Britney or whoever the hell you want. But you gotta let me out of here first."
"They'll be coming back soon," Tony says. He actually wrings his hands, like an old lady. "And now I got you to deal with and no key and no money either."
"I'm telling you, I'll put in a good word with Lou. No problem. I bet he'd even help you out with the money if I ask him nice. And talk to these Jersey thugs. He's a popular guy. People love him."
Tony gives a big, long sigh. "Give me a second." He paces some more and then says, "You need anything? Like a glass of water?" I nod and he disappears into the kitchen.
The dog looks up at me as though we are old friends, then jumps on my lap, landing on my full bladder. Her collar jingles. It's an ornate thing with a name tag and other assorted doggie bling. She starts licking my face. "Get off!" I try to shake her from my legs.
From the other room Tony yells, "Get down, Princess!"
A church bell rings from some distant street, signaling the approach of dawn. I recall something else about Johnny.
Like every other hipster kid, his skinny, undernourished body was plastered with tattoos. Nothing too strange, no Tweety Bird or names of ex-girlfriends drawn in Gothic lettering. He did have an awful tattoo on his ankle though. I spotted it the first night because of his rolled-up pant leg. A dog. A pug, to be exact.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Philadelphia Noir"
Copyright © 2010 Akashic Books.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I: CITY OF BURSTS,
Aimee Labrie South Philadelphia Princess,
Solomon Jones Strawberry Mansion Scarred,
Asali Solomon West Philadelphia Secret Pool,
Keith Gilman Grays FerryDevil's Pocket,
PART II: CITY OF OTHERLY LOVE,
Dennis Tafoya East Falls Above the Imperial,
Laura Spagnoli Rittenhouse Square A Cut Above,
Halimah Marcus Narberth Swimming,
PART III: THE FAKER CITY,
Meredith Anthony Fishtown Fishtown Odyssey,
Jim Zervanos Fairmount Your Brother, Who Loves You,
Carlin Romano University City "Cannot Easy Normal Die",
Diane Ayres Bella Vista Seeing Nothing,
PART IV: THOSE WHO FORGET THE PAST ...,
Duane Swierczynski Frankford Lonergan's Girl,
Cordelia Frances Biddle Old City Reality,
Gerald Kolpan South Street The Ratcatcher,
Cary Holladay Chestnut Hill Ghost Walk,
About the Contributors,