Fishtown, Down

FISHTOWN, DOWN
Michael Deagler
Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 7 – March 2015

Fishtown Down

Mangan had stayed for the funeral and two nights of drinking after, but then had flown to Texas and a new sort of life. He left straight from the bar for the airport, or so Monk seemed to remember it: Mangan standing in the double doors of the tavern’s entrance, shrugging his shoulders into his suit jacket, saying that the old times had ended and that they all might as well get started on the new ones. “There are slow transitions and abrupt transitions,” he said. “This was an abrupt transition. Terribly fucking abrupt.” Like that.

Monk spent one last night alone in the empty rowhouse. Mangan’s things were gone, and Denhelder’s had been picked up by his brothers or left out on the curb to be rifled through by the unwashed. Monk had looked on numbly as a fiend shuffled off in a pair of his friend’s sneakers. He thought about going out to stop the man but could think of no real reason to do so. Monk had few objects of his own in the house. He had never officially been on the lease and, as a result, had never officially moved in. Not that he ever had much to move, anywhere he lived. Each passing year out of college seemed to winnow away at his possessions, and by now he no longer needed boxes to contain them. When he left early the next evening, after locking the door and dropping the keys in the mail slot, Monk walked off with only a canvas grocery bag and a chipped coffee mug, appearing to all the world like he had spent the day in the dumpster of the local NPR affiliate.

It was June in Philadelphia. Kensington sat muggy and still along the Delaware. Monk had the last pulses of a hangover rolling like a swell from the front of his skull to the back, the sort shaped by troubled sleep and a strong injection of caffeine. Normally he would have had a few drinks by now, but the refrigerator had been empty and he had superstitiously avoided Denhelder’s remaining bourbon. He left the bottle alone on the kitchen counter when he locked the place up. A mistake, perhaps. But the late hangover was tolerable, the way rare sensations, even unpleasant ones, can be tolerable. In a way, he enjoyed it. The heat, fatigue and chemicals had engendered in him a complacent, end-of-the-world buoyancy. The sky was clear and he felt inclined to find it beautiful.

Monk turned off small, crumbly Amber Street onto broader, crumbly Frankford Avenue for what would be, he noted mawkishly, the last time. After all, no gentrifier can ever inhabit the same street twice, for it is not the same street and it is not the same gentrifier. Monk had few concrete plans for the future. Rather, he knew only that it lay before him in the same manner as the Philadelphia skyline: startling and brilliant, but obscured from view by many blocks of rowhouses. His docket for the evening contained only a drink at the Hall in Fishtown with the owners of a local film production company to discuss a possible writing gig. The meeting was a final gift of sorts from Mangan, who seemed to feel slightly guilty about leaving Monk jobless and homeless at the same time.

“I told them you write,” Mangan had said. “They’re good guys. They get stuff made. And they’ll pay for drinks.”

Mangan had also said, when Monk promised to visit him in Austin, “Not too soon. Don’t take this the wrong way, Monk, but I’d really love to see you again a year or so from now.” The comment had colored their farewell a bit.

The Hall was about twelve blocks down Frankford Avenue. Monk had made the walk, drunk and sober, often enough that it felt like an easy distance. To take the El would be a waste of two bucks, the way a cup of coffee was a waste, or a Bic lighter. Impecunious times called for the sacrifice of conveniences in favor of necessities: booze, cigarettes, rent. And it had been a while since he had made the full rent. Anyway, Monk understood austerity. He was a man of simple tastes, when it came right down to it. He was a writer, and though he was not starving, he thought it wise to remain broke and generally malnourished. For the art.

Kensington became Fishtown south of York Street, and the shift was demarcated by the first appearances of the fish-adorned address signs. Just as Christians had marked their tombs in the catacombs of ancient Rome, Fishtowners marked their houses with the fish signs as a way to assert their continuing residency in the face of the young, upwardly-mobile horde that swarmed into their borders from trendier, southerly neighborhoods. It was the profile of a blue-backed shad. The founding fish, John McPhee had called it, and it had lent its name to the neighborhood because, historically, the local economy was based on catching the fish. Or canning it. Or selling it, or something. Monk wasn’t a hundred percent on that. Monk was only vaguely aware of the shad, in the way that he was only vaguely aware of most things. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he needed to find somewhere to sleep that night, and that, sooner or later, he would also need to find employment, a fixed residence, a topic for his first book, love, enlightenment, etc. He had been hashing most of this out with Denhelder over the past few months, but they had never come to any hard conclusions. Life is a tough shad to lure, as the local saying probably went. But what Monk needed most was a very large beer.

***

From the outside, the Hall resembled the street-facing wall of any shuttered industrial building, though one into which someone had cut large modern windows and a cavernous glass entranceway. The interior had the effect of a monastic cloister, with a ring of galleries surrounding an open beer garden, anchored by rows of picnic tables and lit by saplings spangled in strands of soft electric bulbs. Monk was impressed. The Hall was new, an expensive first experiment by Philadelphia’s primary restaurant baron to expand his fiefdom into the river wards. Monk was a progressive cynic in that he was cynical of progress. He wanted to the hate the place, and yet it was so inviting and cheerful he decided to withhold judgment until he was drunk, in another bar and in more radical company.

The Hall was not crowded, and the filmmakers made themselves known to Monk as soon as he wandered into the garden. “Mangan said you’d be wearing a truly ugly teal guayabera,” said one of them, offering Monk his hand. Monk silently cursed Mangan, who by now was probably safe on Texas terra firma. Monk was going through a one-shirt period of his life. Mangan knew that.

The filmmakers each had ten years on Monk, and yet they came across boyishly in their topsiders and plaid shorts. The man who had made the shirt comment was called Giallo. He was the director and did most of the talking. The other was called Cronin and he seemed to be the money man. He also seemed rather humorless and ordered only a water when the waitress appeared. Giallo order a lambic in a small Belgian goblet. Monk ordered a liter of dunkel, which arrived in a cartoonishly large stein that he managed to mostly empty before having to say anything.

“Mangan told us about your friend,” Giallo was saying. “Dennis, was it? That’s terrible.”

“Denhelder,” said Monk, trying to catch the eye of the waitress again. Denhelder would have ridiculed these bastards back to Center City, with their shorts and their sunglasses. “It’s just something that happens sometimes, I suppose.”

“That’s the sad truth,” said Giallo. “My aunt—”

Cronin interjected, his eyes like a tired jurist’s. “So you’ve worked on some films before?”

“No,” said Monk. “I was almost in a porno once, but I left before they started shooting.”

Cronin frowned. Giallo, electing to take Monk’s answer as a joke, continued. “Mangan told us you had written a few shorts.”

“They were more sketches than short films. Comedy sketches, you know, for the Internet. That was back at school, when we all had a sense of humor.” Monk smiled the waitress over and ordered another liter.

“So what is it that you do, mostly?” asked Cronin.

“I write. I write and I jaunt.”

“Jaunt?” asked Giallo.

Monk nodded. “I go on jaunts, you know, to meet life and take it in. Mostly I jaunt around Kensington. Tonight I’m jaunting in Fishtown. Who knows? Someday I may even leave these streets and jaunt in faraway places where they serve exotically-spiced chicken platters and cocktails with lychee nuts as garnish.”

“You can get those in Chinatown,” said Cronin.

“Can you?” said Monk.

“You writers, you’re eccentric,” said Giallo, grinning as though he believed his teeth were lighting the whole garden. “But that’s how you do it, right? We need a good writer, Monk. There are so few of them in this city. Don’t ask me why. Maybe they think they have to leave.”

“Not me,” said Monk. “Philadelphia is muse enough for me. I don’t need anywhere else.”

“Have you been anywhere else?” asked Cronin.

“I don’t need to go anywhere else,” said Monk.

“Well, we’ve been everywhere else,” said Giallo. “And you’re right, Monk. Philly is muse enough. All art is localized now: film, television, music, theater. It’s the new regionalism. Go local. It’s the same as produce from the local farmer’s market. Or beer from the local brewery. Artists must be ambassadors for their corners of the empire. We’ve heard enough New York and Hollywood stories. We need to tell our own stories. Let me tell you about our plan for our first feature, okay? We’ve worked on other people’s projects as they’ve come to town, Gray and Russell and Shyamalan, but we’re finally ready to do our own original thing, our first big thing—”

“This won’t be our first big thing,” said Cronin. “This is too ambitious for our first big thing. Too expensive. Too many boat scenes. All set at night.”

“We’re going to go big with it,” said Giallo. “Film is about going big. Bigger than appears possible, really—”

“Period specific costumes, sets,” said Cronin. “It could be our second big thing, maybe, depending—”

“Will you relax, Kevin?” said Giallo. “We’re not at work. Dream with me for a minute. Listen to this, Monk. It’s the height of Prohibition, right? 1933. We’re also four years into the Great Depression. Talk about soul-trying times, you know what I mean? So we open on the Delaware Bay….”

Giallo proceeded to describe what was, as best Monk could tell, the story of a group of Delaware fisherman conscripted by a local mafia don to work as rum runners. There was no real order to it, and it veered from moments of extreme plot specificity to lists of abstract thematic nouns. Monk’s mind drifted away from the conversation more than once, fixing instead on his new beer, then his empty glass, then another new beer, then the firefly-like lights on the little trees someone had planted in the pebble-covered earth of the garden, and then to speculation of what those trees would look like fully grown, in some future decade when Monk was dead and the Hall was long established and Fishtown was irrevocably changed and Philadelphia was only slightly older and no less indifferent to the schemes of her children.

Monk refocused on Giallo. “And there’s probably some religious symbolism there,” the man was saying. “Since Jesus was a fisherman.”

“Well, no, he was carpenter, traditionally,” said Monk. “Peter and Andrew were the fisherman. ‘I will make you fishers of men.’”

“That works even better,” said Giallo. “Yeah, you can write that into it. This is going have layers to it, Monk. It’s about friendship. It’s about integrity. About a man forced to chose between honor and survival. It’s a period piece, right, but it’s also a timeless piece. The way the ocean they sail on is timeless.”

“The bay,” said Cronin.

“The way the bay they sail on is timeless as the ocean,” said Giallo.

“Right,” said Monk, shifting the pebbles beneath his shoes. “Not to interrupt you, but how much does this pay, writing a script? I mean, I’ve got some other things in the works, so I need to know it’s worth setting aside the time.”

“Well,” said Giallo, his face falling a bit. “That depends, really—”

“We can’t pay you anything now,” said Cronin. “You write it, we take it, we form the corporation, we shop it around, get names attached, find the funding. We get to that stage, we can give you something.”

Giallo’s smile returned. “And of course you’d get some gross points—”

“Net points,” said Cronin.

“Net points on the film,” said Giallo. “Since you’d be with us from the beginning.”

Monk knew nothing about points. “Hey, no offense,” he said, “but this sounds like maybe money a year from now. I need some definitely money, you know? As soon as I can get it.”

“Well, maybe we can do something sooner,” said Giallo. “Do you think you could work on this? Do you have ideas?”

“Loads of ideas,” said Monk, wanting to believe himself. “I’m made of ideas.”

“Well, send us what you’ve got. Whatever you think of.” Giallo took a business card from his wallet and slid it across the table. “Here’s the email address.”

“You’ve never sued anyone, have you?” asked Cronin.

Monk stuffed the card in his pocket. “No. Have you?”

“Great,” said Cronin, standing. “This was productive. Have another beer. We’ll take care of the tab. Leave a tip if you want.” He glanced at the canvas bag by Monk’s feet, then added, “You know, I’ll just leave the tip.” He threw down a wad of bills and walked toward the entrance.

“This will be great, Monk,” said Giallo, shaking his hand again before following Cronin. “It’s the movies, man. What’s better than the movies?”

Monk ordered a final liter and drank it alone at his picnic table. The sky above the garden had darkened in the hour or so that he had sat there. The beer was doing its work, both on his blood and on his bladder. He wanted to piss and also to step back out onto Frankford for a cigarette, but, if the liters were as expensive as he guessed they were, he knew he would not return to the Hall anytime soon. He wanted to sit and enjoy it for a moment longer. The place had begun to fill up with people: attractive, fit people dressed for a night out in Fishtown or a drink before heading down to Center City. The air was warm and the scent of wursts and schnitzel filled the garden, and he wished it was his friends that had been there with him: Denhelder with his booming laugh and Mangan with his sly derisions. He wished it were a month earlier, or a year, or five years for that matter. He finished his beer and picked a ten out of Cronin’s tip money. He left his chipped coffee mug in its place and went to look for a urinal.

Coming out of the bathroom he ran into Hector Villona on his way to the kitchen. Hector was dressed in an all-black server’s uniform, with a black cast covering his right hand and forearm. “Hector,” said Monk. “You work here?”

“For now,” said Hector, slapping the cast against Monk’s shoulder blades. “Sorry about Denhelder, pally. I was working Saturday or I would have been there.”

“Yeah, well,” said Monk. “How’s the gig here? Think you can get me a job as a barback or something?”

“I can’t help you,” said Hector, shrugging. “I vouched for Ivan O’Reilly last month and that turned into a shit-and-vomit festival. Figurative shit. Literal vomit. I’m not vouching for anybody else. A server’s word is bond, Monko. They were already pissed at me about this.” He held up his cast. “There’s a certain aesthetic they’re striving for here, and it ain’t brawler chic. And that’s another thing. You’re probably twenty pounds too heavy for this place.”

“I’m too fat?” asked Monk. “This is a beer hall in Fishtown.”

“This is a beer garden, and Fishtown is hip, man. No beer bellies here, only beer flowers. Have you seen the pretzel girls?” Hector started back for the kitchen. “I’m off in an hour, man, going over to the Brenda’s. Quizzo. Do yourself a favor, pally, check out those pretzel girls.”

***

Monk stepped out into the warm night of Frankford Avenue, a cigarette in his lips, patting his pockets in search of some complementary matches. He gave up and bummed a flame from a bouncer, then followed the old industrial wall south to the intersection with Girard and watched the people as they jogged to and fro across the trolley tracks. The crowd was not dissimilar to the one he had just left: youngish and handsome in their trendy hats and boots, with only the occasional representative of the homeless and damaged classes that were inescapable almost anywhere in Philadelphia. He spotted an old woman across the street, seated at a card table set up beneath the edifice of a long-dead bank. She seemed to be selling buttons: I Heart America and that sort of thing. For a moment he pictured the young peasant Christ in the streets of Sepphoris, hawking fish to Hellenized urbanites in his rough pidgin Greek. Then he heard the trolley coming and tried to time it so that he flicked his cigarette onto the track just as the car’s concealed wheels rolled over it.

He crossed Frankford and entered the Brenda, perched tall and loud on the corner, its large TAVERN sign illuminated over the intersection. The interior was a series of rooms of various sizes, decorated in a style that seemed to be half fifty-years-ago and half fifty-years-before-that. Quizzo was coming undone in the largest of the them, where a tall, bearish man with a curly, black beard was speaking into a microphone attached to a small, portable amplifier. His face was flush and there were already a few empty pint glasses at his two-top, and he seemed to be naming all the countries that shared a border with Austria. Monk spied Boodle and Kinsella huddled at a small table in the corner.

Kinsella seemed content with a handshake, but Boodle made a big show of standing up and embracing Monk, laying his small red head against Monk’s chest. “Friends hug,” he said into Monk’s guayabera. “We all need to be more open and honest about expressing how we feel toward one another, while we still have time.”

Kinsella had not come on Saturday, but Boodle had purchased a suit, shaved his ridiculous orange moustache and stoically stood and kneeled throughout the funeral Mass. He had also caused a minor stir by phrasing his condolences to Denhelder’s mother as, “Jesus, ma’am, what a game changer.”

Kinsella was already making excuses before Monk could sit down, shaking his head, saying, “Yeah, man. I can’t do stuff like that. I can’t do friends in boxes. That’s too much for me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Monk. “It doesn’t matter. How’s the game going?”

“I don’t like this quiz master,” said Boodle loudly. “He editorializes.”

Monk picked up an answer sheet. Its heading read, Monday Night Quizzo with Sam and Colleen. “I take it that’s Sam. Where’s Colleen?”

“He says she left him like an hour ago,” said Kinsella. “He won’t stop whining about it.”

“Hungary,” the quiz master intoned over his crackly sound system. “Now there’s a country where love goes to die.”

“Get to the next round!” someone shouted, and there were rumbles of agreement.

The quiz master looked like he might start to argue, but then plowed ahead, working from his laptop screen. “This round is sports. That should appease you guys, huh? Bread and circuses, that’s what you like, don’t you, Fishtown? Well maybe you can tell me who was the only Phillie to play in both the 1980 and 1993 World Series?”

“Darren Daulton,” whispered Boodle. “Write that down.”

“I’m gonna get a drink,” said Monk.

He walked into the front room with the main bar and sat on a stool. It was cooler in there, with fewer lights and fewer people. The Brenda was the sort of bar that served locally made craft beer at locally made craft prices. Monk ordered a lager brewed two blocks from his recent Amber Street address and paid twice what it should have taken to ship it to the bar by mail. “You know,” he said to the bartender, “this town used to pride itself on having a city-wide special of a beer and a shot for three bucks.”

“What would you like me to do with that information?” the bartender asked and walked away.

Monk sipped his beer. He felt the manic urge to chug it down, but he was running short on cash. He was glad to have run into Boodle: he could spend the night at Boodle’s place up on Jasper Street, where there would probably be a horrible handle of something or another in the freezer. He regretted, momentarily, his superstition regarding Denhelder’s bourbon.

“How’s it going in there?” asked a woman sitting a few stools down. At first Monk thought that by in there she meant his head, but then he realized she was nodding in the direction of the Quizzo room.

“Not great, apparently,” he said. “Word is, Colleen left Sam, and he’s pretty broken up about it.”

“I didn’t leave him,” she said. “Not yet, anyway. Not for good.”

“Are you Colleen?” asked Monk. He held up the answer sheet. “Colleen of Monday Night Quizzo fame?” He moved down to the stool next to hers. She looked to be in her late thirties, attractive but with an aura of fatigue. Like a lot of the women he met. Most of them, really. “Will you sign this for me?” he asked her, wagging the sheet.

“Funny,” she snorted. She sounded like she might have consumed as much as Monk. “But you have an ugly shirt. Why are you in here? Don’t you like Quizzo?”

“It’s alright,” said Monk. “It’s just that it feels kinda….”

“Trivial?” she asked.

“I was trying not to use that word,” said Monk.

“Hmm,” she made her face serious. “Doesn’t everything get that way?”

“I hope not,” said Monk.

“What’s with the sack?” she asked, nodding at the canvas bag.

“These are all my worldly possessions,” he said, patting it with his palm. “I’m a man, you know, so I’ve put aside childish things. But it turns out that, after childish things, there’s not a whole hell of a lot left.” He tipped his glass to her.

The woman peered at him as he drank. He felt as though she were trying to look into his mind, as if she could figure out its make and the type of fuel it took. “What are you?” she asked. “Thirty-three?”

“Twenty-three,” he corrected.

“Whoa,” she said. “You need to slow down there, hon. You’re living too hard.”

“Thanks, Colleen,” Monk said, and he downed the rest of his beer, cash be damned. “I think you look young as a sorority pledge. I hope they carded you when you came in here.”

“No, I didn’t mean you look all raggedy,” she said, patting his arm. “You just have sad eyes. Or not even sad, but…bleary. Like you’ve already given up all hope. But you should have a few more years left of stupid hope, at least.”

Colleen’s turned mouth seemed to contain several complementary emotions that Monk could not fully identify. Amusement, maybe. The mildest kind.

“To tell you the truth,” said Monk, “one of my buddies died last week. I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. But it’s making things weird.”

“That is sad,” she said. “Was he a good man?” It was not the question Monk was expecting.

“Of course,” he said. “Well. I don’t know. As good as I am. And I think I’m mostly good.”

“Not that it’s only sad if he was a good man,” said Colleen. “It’s sad either way. But it always seems like the good people leave your life faster than the regular people. Don’t it? Almost like they all have inside information on some better place to be, like they all know something you don’t know about.”

“Well, you and me can’t be very good, then,” said Monk. “If we’re still here.”

“But that’s just how it seems,” said Colleen. “That’s the inherent problem with subjectivity. It’s always separating you from everything else. You’re on your side of the wall, and they’re all on the other side. So there is no we. We’re not still here. You’re still here, from your perspective. And I’m still here, from mine. And all the good people, from their perspectives, who knows? Maybe they’re not so good. It is a lonely way to experience the world, though. I do take issue with that.”

Monk didn’t know how to respond. He could hear the Quizzo answers being read in the next room. He heard the voice of the quiz master say, “Larry Andersen,” and then, clearly, the voice of Boodle shout, “Mother fuck!”

“So why did you leave the quiz master?” asked Monk. “Is he not one of the good people?”

Colleen exhaled deeply, flaring her lips out like a duck. “Good as is left, I guess. I didn’t leave him yet, though. Not for good.” She finished her drink and stood up, wobbling. “We’ll see if I meet anyone on the walk home, though. I’d take you with me, but you’ve got those eyes. That’s not something I’m up for right now.”

“Fair enough,” said Monk.

“What’s your name?” asked Colleen.

“Monk,” said Monk.

“Well, Monk,” she said. “You’re still here. And if you’re here, then your life is always worth salvaging.” She started for the door.

“I’ve been trying,” Monk called after her.

“And how is it going?” she asked, and moved through the tavern’s entrance and out of his life.

Monk looked at his empty glass. “Terribly,” he said. “Terribly, terribly.”

***

In this way, the quiz master came to be assaulted:

Monk went outside to smoke a cigarette. Next to the door was a trash can and, without taking another look at its contents, he dropped his canvas bag into it. He breathed in deeply to get a sense of possessionlessness, then ducked into the alley off the street to be alone. He was sick of looking at all the pretty, happy people.

They had been alcoholics together: Denhelder in the cheery, garrulous way, which never looked like alcoholism, and Monk in the maudlin way that looked like alcoholism even back when it wasn’t. Even though it always was.

More than that, they had been true Philadelphia jaunters together. They would go down Fishtown, down Northern Liberties, down Center City where the whole goddamn country was born, down Pennsport where the mummers kept their club houses, down Whitman where they would eat roast pork sandwiches with broccoli rabe and the sharpest provolone alongside the unfriendliest people. They would be unfriendly right back and it was all quite neighborly. It was all so goddamn friendly out in America: Heartland friendly, Walmart friendly, Mormon friendly, and all of it completely disingenuous. Philadelphians would be unfriendly as a sign of mutual respect. They didn’t want anything from you and so had no reason to smile at you all the goddamn time. Go Birds, go fuck yourself, get home safe. Philos in its purist form: the love that the rest of America forgot.

Denhelder had understood all that, as much as Monk did. Whether or not Denhelder was a good person, Monk couldn’t say. Goodness seemed an illogical metric for describing a man. But Denhelder had been a real person. And an ingenuous person, despite his best efforts to the contrary. And he had been Monk’s friend.

Monk heard a familiar string of curses and saw Boodle and Kinsella shuffling down the alley toward him. Boodle fumed quietly, while Kinsella’s mouth jabbered without cessation. “Rigged, bro. He doesn’t want people to win. I’ve never seen a quiz master with so much malice for the players. And zero respect for the game, when you get right down to it. This guy, he gets his cash payment, he gets his free drinks, he’s got pre-researched answers to questions that he came up with, and so he thinks he’s a big mahoff. Thinks he can shit all over the sport. I don’t care if your wife leaves you, takes the kids, and sets the house on fire, you gotta have some professionalism, am I right?”

Monk heard a door open on his other side and turned to see the quiz master leaving through the back exit. He was carrying his little amp in one hand and his laptop bag in the other. Kinsella spotted the man just as Monk did.

“Well speak of the devil, it’s the inquisitor himself. Hey, Sam, got any more box office gross figures you’d like us to guess? Cause that’s not trivia knowledge, buddy, that’s just estimation.”

The quiz master’s shoulders tightened, even as he swayed from the pints he had drunk. “Alright, fellas, I’m sick of this shit. I get to pick the questions. And I had shitty day today, so I’m sorry if they didn’t live up to your expectations.”

The quiz master and Kinsella squared off in front of Monk. Boodle loomed over Kinsella’s shoulder, an unsettled look in his eyes.

“Oh, did you have a bad day?” asked Kinsella. “Well welcome to the world, pal. Maybe I had a bad day. Maybe I’m trying to unwind, drink some beers, answer some trivia questions, maybe try to win a gift certificate.”

The quizmaster put down his amp and took a pen out of his pocket. “Fine!” he shouted. “Where’s your answer sheet? You want me to put a star on it for you, you whiny sonsabitches?”

Boodle suddenly had a steak knife in his fist. It was as if he had summoned it out of the darkness. He grabbed the quiz master’s collar, held the blade to his bearded throat, and shouted, “Darren Daulton, motherfucker! You wanna die tonight?”

The quiz master bellowed in response, but ceased abruptly as a black-casted fist darted out of the air and struck him in his sweaty temple. The whole huge mulch bag of a man fell splayed out on the asphalt, unconscious. Monk stood looking on, his expression unchanged, feeling that he had been denied the necessary time to appropriately react to any of it.

“Whoa, what the fuck, man?” said Kinsella to Hector, who now stood beside them in the alley.

“He pulled a knife,” said Hector.

“He pulled a pen,” said Kinsella. “He’s the quiz master.”

“Yeah, I pulled the knife,” said Boodle, holding up the knife. “I was just spooking him with it.”

“Shit, really?” said Hector. “Well, fuck you, Boodle, you sociopath.”

“Man, he’s out. You’re fucked, Kinsella,” said Boodle.

“Why am I fucked? I didn’t hit him,” said Kinsella.

“Yeah, but you’re the one he’s gonna remember,” said Boodle.

“Fuck,” said Kinsella. “Goddamn it.”

“If he remembers anything,” said Hector.

“Well, check his pockets, at least,” said Boodle, kneeling down. “See if he’s got that Quizzo cash.”

Hector stuck out his cast, shaking it. “Come on, don’t rob this guy, pally. He’s definitely calling the cops if we rob him.”

“No, you weren’t here. He was a dick. And he’s wasted,” said Kinsella. “Anything he remembers, they’re not gonna believe it.”

“This is stupid,” said Hector. “This is unseemly.”

Boodle was rifling through the quiz master’s pockets. “Look, all I know is, my friend died last week, and I’m trying to get some rounds with my friends that are still alive. Let’s get some fucking whiskey. You guys all so rich you’re gonna turn down free money? Cause that’s a sin in and of itself.” Boodle looked up at Monk. “You got cash, Monk?”

Monk looked back down the alley. He could see the young, well-dressed, no-problems people walking up and down the street beyond its entrance. They all seemed to be laughing with each other, holding hands or jostling each other playfully, calling out to each other, smiling, at ease. If they noticed that down in the alley there was a man lying on the ground, with four other men looming over him, they didn’t seem to care. Maybe they didn’t want to ruin their night with intervention. Or maybe they truly thought there was nothing amiss. Maybe they figured that, in any group of five men, four of them would eventually knock the fifth one down. Even if they didn’t mean it out of malice. Even if they were all the best of friends.

“I don’t,” said Monk. “Check his pockets.”

***

They went down Frankford a few blocks more, to the Berbery, which sat almost by itself on a street of former factories that had all either become lofts or were becoming lofts or aspired to become lofts some day. Inside, it was Eighties Night. The music was loud and the dancefloor was full of what seemed to Monk to be very young people. They were dancing like club kids, drinking non-specific cocktails out of clear plastic cups, just whatever alcohol was available with whatever was sweet enough to wash it down. Boodle danced wildly among them. He had taken the quiz master’s amp and microphone, and as as he danced he screamed into it, volume spun all the way up, competing with the tracks on the speakers, singing along if he knew the words and shrieking his own if he didn’t.

There had been almost three hundred dollars in the quiz master’s wallet, and Hector seemed set on spending every penny of it on bourbon. He kept bringing shots over on a tray that he had borrowed through some benefit of the service fraternity, and he would set them down in front of each of them on the table at the small booth they had commandeered. “Cheers, boys,” he would say, “to Gregory Denhelder, our brother. We’ll never see the likes of him again.” Then, “Cheers, boys, to Sean Mangan, our Texan. We never needed him anyway.” Then, “Cheers, boys, to Dennis Monk, our homeless, jobless, bookless writer. You don’t need a home, Monk. All of Philadelphia is your home.”

At some point it became too much to bear, as it always did, every night, because Monk could never stop until it became just a little too much. The beat became oppressive and his guts were in rebellion, and the company of other people felt like a crowd of strangers haggling over his bones. He stood and beelined for the door, out into the air again, and walked away from the heat and sound, along the last patch of Frankford before it hit Delaware Avenue and ceased to be. Across the wide arterial was the casino that the state had erected a few years earlier, before anyone knew that Fishtown would be reborn through migration, when the thought went that the only way to save the neighborhood’s economy was to offer one more vice to lure in those last elusive shad. The complex was bright the way that no day was ever bright, brighter than any real thing, the sort of bright that can only be a trick for the lonely and the lost. Monk threw up in the street.

“Pussy,” someone said.

Monk looked over and realized that Kinsella had stumbled out after him and was now pissing on a concrete median that had been installed to block off a lot where they were either building a gas station or tearing one down. “Christ, what time is it?” Kinsella asked, his head bent back, his eyes closed to the sky.

It made Monk think of days on Amber Street when the house was still stuffed with furniture, when life felt so crowded that the very notion that it could ever be emptied out again seemed mere millenarianism.

And it made him think of nights — not the night when Denhelder dropped soundlessly to the pavement because he had a bomb in his blood that no one knew about, not the night when Monk and Mangan joked another minute before they turned around with their mouths still full of laughter — but of normal nights walking home along Amber Street with dawn only an hour or two away, with the city quiet like it got sometimes, with Monk sucking down the last cigarette in his pack, with Mangan stumbling like he did when he got that gone and Denhelder fumbling with his key in the door, asking, “So, boys, when we gonna knock this shit off?”

And Monk would say, “Tomorrow,” like he was saying it now, looking across the avenue at the casino that was lit up as if electricity was brand new and free and forever, and at the blackness beyond it that was the Delaware River, and at the deeper blackness beyond the river that was New Jersey and a whole other entity entirely. “Tomorrow,” said Monk. Like that.


Michael DeaglerMichael Deagler lives in Philadelphia. His fiction is featured or forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Eleven Eleven, the Yalobusha Review, B O D Y and elsewhere.

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR AND THEIR WORK? READ OUR “WOODSHOP TALK” WITH MICHAEL.





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