By Joe Coyle
The Hat had been unseen for over a week now. For a guy who walked the Ave almost every day, Philadelphia Daily News rolled up and periscoping from the back pants pocket of his well-worn Dickies, maroon Holy Sepulchre varsity jacket with gold leather sleeves either on his back or over his shoulder, this was news. The Hat’s routine took him from 7:00 Mass to the 65th Street Deli, across the street from the church, for a cup of coffee and the morning paper. From there he strutted, pigeon-toed and butt out (newspaper exaggerating the protrusion), to the park bench on the corner facing the Ave. He waved to bus drivers and cops, chatted with widows and nuns, petted dogs and laughed at boys as they grab-assed their way to Holy Sepulchre Elementary.
When all else failed he pulled the Daily News, more prop than anything, from his pocket, cracked the thirty-five-cent tabloid open and searched for a place to rest his eyes. The headline and accompanying sub-head City Seat Deal Probed: Feds Eye Faulty Chairs at Civic Center competed with a photo of Koko the Gorilla for the Hat’s attention. The street held much more promise.
That last day anyone saw him, he was in a fine mood.
“Good morning, Sisters,” he called out.
“Good morning, William.”
“It’s a great day to be Catholic, isn’t it?”
“It is a great day to be Catholic,” the younger nun responded.
“Every day is, sister,” the older clarified.
“That it is, sister,” The Hat agreed. “It certainly is.”
The two nuns happily waited for the traffic light to turn green.
“And Irish too, huh?” The Hat added.
The older of the two nuns changed her tune. “Don’t push your luck William. Not today.” The younger nun cracked a little smile and blushed to what seemed like a running joke, as the older nun stepped in to the street before the light changed, reached for the younger nun’s hand and pulled her off the curb.
The Hat removed his Jeff cap and laughed out loud before he returned his gaze to his prop.
“Well, at least the world didn’t end. That’s good.” The Hat spoke aloud to no one as he flipped the tab to the back page. The headline that mid-April day, 1985: Hearns vs. Hagler stood tall and stout. Caesar’s Palace Preps for The Fight. “Not yet, anyway.”
As the Hat settled into the article promoting the upcoming bout, a Black Buick Le Sabre pulled up to the curb and stopped with the engine running. A man with a face of a goalie on a dart team rolled down the window.
“Anything interesting in there?”
“Nah, Just a bunch of stories about some corrupt cops.”
“Hmm. Name any names?”
“Ever hear of a guy named Brady?”
“Pretty funny. Hey I want you to meet the future of the Philadelphia Police Department.” A young black man leaned forward and gave a little wave.
“This is Empson,” Brady said. “He’s from Germantown. A couple years ago he was playing cops and robbers, and now look. He’s riding with me. Empson, this is Billy McDonough.”
“Good morning, Mr. McDonough.’
“Listen to that. Nice to hear, right? Youthful exuberance, enthusiasm, positive attitude, hope even. Stuck with me, full of cynicism so thick. I’m like an old plumber. No matter how much I scrub my nails they still taste like shit when I chew ‘em.”
“You’re in quite the mood today.”
“Had to put my dog down yesterday.”
“That sucks, man.”
“Eh, had to be done. For twelve years that little prick’d scratch at the front door. I get up, let it out. He’d piss on the first thing in his path. Hedge, tree, fire hydrant, my neighbor’s car. Then he’d trot down the street knocking garbage cans over, shitting on lawns, screwing the bitches, humping legs, biting the mailman, paper boys. Be gone for a week, sometimes longer, come home and sleep on the couch for a coupla’ days, eat and go out and do it all over again.”
“Do I see a tear in your eye, Brady?”
“It’s a twinkle. I gotta go. See ya around”
“Nice meeting you Mr. McDonough,” Empson said.
“He’s the Hat, and don’t you forget it.”
Brady hesitated then.
“Hey, in all seriousness, I saw your old man in the Democratic Club last night. Looked like he was spending someone else’s money. You might want to check in on your mom.”
He rolled up his window and drove away as a drizzle began to fall on the Hat.
When it rained, the Hat went dark, walked to the pavilion with the Daily News resting on his Jeff for protection. There he perched himself on a wooden picnic table and stared at the rain. Recollection got the best of him at those times and what he recalled was not pleasant. Evil perhaps. The Old Head, which were his pinochle buddies, blamed it on Vietnam. The Young Head, the high school and college-age guys he hooped with on the courts, said he did way too much acid. Yo-Yo, his friend since before kindergarten blamed the Hat’s dad, who came over from Ireland with no money, no job, no family, two fists and the thirst of a poisoned rat.
Huey McDonough worked when he had to, stole when he could, drank until his pockets ran dry and fought anyone between him and his next taste. Unfortunately, the ones most often in that unenviable position were his saint of a wife and two of the best athletes the neighborhood ever produced, his sons Billy the Hat and Stevie, aka Shoe.
Fistfights morphed into Donnybrooks when Billy defended his mom from Huey’s wrath while Stevie grabbed his dad and Mary McDonough pulled at Billy. Furniture survived longer than hodgepodge glassware and hand-me-down china, but nothing lasted as long as the sting from the venom spewed from Huey’s lips: “Bunch of witless souls, spawned from the mossy bogs of bloody Connaught.”
No one remembers how Billy originally became the Hat, although he had a melon of a head and he almost always wore a Jeff. Stevie became Shoe because he wasn’t the Hat and just as Billy grew into his nickname, so did Stevie, as he became a soccer phenom and eventually starred at Pitt (To this day, the best soccer player in the neighborhood is nicknamed Little Shoe and there probably isn’t a higher honor bestowed on anyone in the neighborhood than to be compared to Shoe).
Billy played basketball and although he was small, he could not be stopped. Due to his lack of stature and inability to be coached, he didn’t play varsity until his senior year. But once he made the team, he owned it, scoring almost 25 points per game on a team that only scored 51 per game. At the Palestra, he made his mark in a playoff game, dropping 47 on an undefeated and eventual Catholic League champ, La Salle High School, who squeaked by on a buzzer beater that didn’t actually beat the buzzer. Not by a long shot. So, the Hat’s dad charged the refs and threatened to bury them in the landfill. It took four Philly cops to carry him out to a paddy wagon where he received a courtesy ride to the 35th District via Delaware Avenue, Grays Ferry Avenue, Lincoln Drive and East River Drive. Not a bump nor bounce was missed on that handcuffed night, as evidenced by the condition of Huey’s face when he was released the following morning with no charges filed.
Absolution has a price and it would be paid that morning. The Hat had slept in on a twin mattress in the room he shared with his younger brother, resting his arm on an asphalt scuffed red, white, and blue ABA basketball. The belt quietly slipped from the loops around the beer-gutted waist as Huey stood over his first son and whispered, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, if you’d just learn to listen…” And the whipping began. The screaming followed, then the punches, soon the lamp, the blood, the crying and then thankfully, the slamming of the front door. Once again, Huey left the house in search of enough money to pay for a couple drinks or more.
It really wasn’t a landfill. Long before the high school existed, local handymen, construction companies and even neighbors dumped demo debris, yard waste, bottles, boxes, crates, furniture and carpets at the end of the road where it was cut short by an old railroad spur that ran to a paint factory whose glory days had long passed. When the Catholic Archdiocese realized their faithful were taking the procreation directive seriously, they decided to look for cheap land to build the new high school. Around the same time, a Mrs. Feeney became terminally ill and bequeathed to her sole heir, a young St Joseph’s nun, a parcel of land that somehow fell into the spinster’s hands decades before. The neighborhood grapevine was filled with accounts of Mrs. Feeney, a stunner when she was in her twenties, who had a daughter out of wedlock. Like her mother, the daughter never married. Unlike her mother, she had the beauty of an Irish featherweight, nose and all, with an uncanny resemblance to John B. Kelly, princess Grace’s father. The rumors were further verified by the bricks at the bottom of the piles of trash. They bore the name of Kelly and therefore he must have owned the property prior to giving it to Mrs. Feeney, likely as hush money. When the locals gathered at the neighborhood watering holes, the drinks would take them down a redundant path of arguments over who was the best 8th grade basketball player they ever saw, the most dangerous hill to sled, and the best concert they had ever attended, before it turned to mutterings on the economy, politics and the scourge of graffiti in the neighborhood. Eventually someone, usually Yo-Yo, would dig deep into the vault of dirt from days gone by. That was the cue for all but the hardcores to call it a night.
“How about the luck of that Feeney girl.”
If no one took a bite on the bait, he’d continue on.
“A 50-50 shot at looking like the mom and she ends up looking like Popeye.”
Still no takers?
“I mean not even Olive Oyl. Just goddamn Popeye the Sailor Man.”
By then, Yo-Yo sat alone on a barstool that all but had his name etched on it in a dark corner of the Green Parrot.
Holy Sepulchre High School was built and Sister St. Popeye ended up being the principal until they sent her to “the Home.” Dementia, they said, and who would blame her? But the lot was big and oddly shaped, almost like a question mark. The hook, if you will, was considered the back of the property since it was farthest from the street with only an unofficial access road from the park and the railroad next to the paint factory. That was what was referred to as “the landfill” to the new folks but to the Old Head, it was always “the dump.” That’s where they would find the body, face down, powdered with light snow like an early morning donut. Hat on. Shoes on. A Holy Sepulchre varsity jacket.
The black Buick Le Sabre with its engine running silhouetted Brady. His pursed lips pulled on a filterless Lucky Strike. Before he exhaled what had not seeped into his lungs, he spat a piece of tobacco out, pinched his forefinger and thumb on the tip of his tongue and oversized top lip, checked it for evidence before flicking it in the direction of the stiff corpse. His new partner, Empson, asked, “what do you think?”
“From here it looks like a DBD and I’m not getting any closer to check.”
Empson scribbled notes before making a rookie mistake, “What’s a DBD?”
Brady’s nicotine-stained fingers flicked the Lucky Strike into the dark and headed toward the car with the running engine. Sarcasm and smoked shared the same breath as he exhaled, “Death by Drunk or Dog Bite Death. Doesn’t matter which. I’ll be in the car. Almost quittin’ time.”
Empson followed. “That’s funny man. Real funny. Hope your friend there thinks so, too.”
“He’s not my friend.” Brady got in the car.
“That jacket, that’s the guy…”
Brady placed it in gear, started inching forward, rolled down the window. “Last call.”
Frustrated, Empson got in the car and they bounce down the rutted road.
It was bitter cold for April. A handful of stragglers leaned on the bar at The Green Parrot like Communicants at the altar rail anticipating the Most Blessed Sacrament. They counted their bills and coins while calculating various combinations of shots and beers they could consume while still being able to leave Tommy a dollar tip. Some tough decisions would soon have to be made. One guy, either flush with cash from a lucky visit with his bookie, or just a sentimental old fool, walked to the jukebox and dropped some quarters in before returning to his stool. As Waylon Jennings strummed that railroad-beat opening of “Waymore’s Blues,” nicotine-stained fingernails tapped lightly on pilsner glasses, ashes flicked into trays, butts stubbed, shots downed and beers gulped in time with the music, as tails of tonight’s cigarette smoke melded into that of previous nights from years gone by. So, no one other than Tommy noticed the door open and a hatless apparition enter The Green Parrot as Waylon pronounced, “… Long time gone.”
Silently, the Hat walked to the bar, sat on a backless stool and crumpled a ball of bills onto the beer-worn surface. Without an order, and with a bar rag resting on his left shoulder, Tommy placed a glass of beer in front of him, organized the cash and extracted what was owed.
The Hat tapped an interruption with his knuckles on the bar and spread his forefinger from his thumb about an inch and a half. Tommy placed a shot glass in front of him, grabbed a bottle of Windsor Canadian and filled the glass.
“That oughta’ cure what ails ya.”
“Amen to that.”
He banged the shot down and tapped the top of the glass signaling to Tommy to do it again. Tommy obliged. The Hat emptied his pockets of cash and coins and Waylon finished his song, “Ain’t no ordinary dude. I don’t have to work.”
Like the others, the Hat fiddled with his cash but he was not calculating. That had already been done. Eventually he gave up on the cash and stared that under-the-pavilion-in-the-rain stare at the mirror behind the bar and a distorted reflection of himself on the old NCR cash register’s nickel finish.
In time, the others made their financial decisions and left, leaving the Hat alone with Tommy, who proceeded with the closing ritual. He wiped down bottles and bar, lifted the stools and placed them upside down on the moist surface. All except the Hat’s. Tommy popped open a beer for himself poured the two of them shots, and sat on his stool behind the bar.
“Last one’s on me.”
They sat in silence side by side, like penitent and confessor, with twenty-four inches of bar between them, both staring out the picture window facing the Ave. Headlights pierced through the steam rising from manhole covers and sewers as buses and cars jostled along the streets, still cobblestoned where the trolleys used to run. Eventually, the TV mounted above the bar played the 11:00 news and caught the Hat’s attention with the upbeat music intro that indicated this wasn’t just any news. This was Action News! He broke the silence between them, “Hey, the Sixers on tomorrow?”
Sports talk being safe talk, they continued.
“Yeah, I think so.” Tommy looked up to the TV as well. “Playing Houston, right?”
“The Rockets? They got that big African kid, right?”
“Yeah, The Dream, they call him.” Tommy sipped his beer before completing his thought. “Akeem the Dream.”
A voice came from a dark corner. “Not if you’re coverin’ him, he ain’t no dream. More like The Nightmare.”
“What would you know about covering anybody?” the Hat said returning the volley. Satisfied after he chewed on that thought for a moment, the Hat banged down his Windsor and chased it with his beer, got up and headed for the door.
“Night Tommy. Later, Yo-Yo.”
“Night, Billy”, Tommy returned.
The Hat stopped and stared out the window.
“That’s funny. Haven’t heard anyone call me that in a while.” Billy tried it on.
“I’ve known you since when you were still just Billy,” Tommy said somewhat proudly. “Way before the Hat. When your dad used to take you and your brother to the park to sled with your buddies, and this hooligan.” He pointed to the dark corner.
Billy stared out the front window to the park. The refection of the Green Parrot sign blinked on and off the picture window. His face turned from green to red then yellow and back to green.
Billy whispered to himself, “Yeah, well that’s over.”
The door of the red-brick rowhouse, indistinguishable from the thirty or so others on that side of the street, had been unlocked as Billy knew it would be. He stepped in to see his mother sitting on the couch, smoking a cigarette. The ashtray on the end table was full, and an empty pack of Kents was crumpled next to a half full one. Without looking at Billy, she said, “He’s in the kitchen. He said he was hungry so I told him to help himself to whatever was in the fridge.”
The stench of excreted cheap whiskey, cheap beer and cheap cigarettes met him in the almost miniature-sized dining room as he passed through to the even smaller kitchen. Huey was face down on the floor, mouth open, teeth halfway out, in a puddle of urine the way the Hat remembered seeing him sleep off hundreds of drunks. This time there were the added elements of kitchen knife protruding from the back of his neck, and blood.
His mother remained on the couch and calmly yet loudly called, “He said we were trash. The Lot of us. Just trash.”
“Well, then. I guess it’s over,” is all the Hat could barely whisper.
“What’s that, Billy”? she called. “What did you say?”
The parrot cycled again. Green, red, yellow, green, red.
Billy raised his voice, “It’s over.”
Surprised to hear Yo-Yo’s voice, he turned to him, then Tommy.
“Yeah, It’s over.”
Billy walked out of the bar.
Yo-Yo got up from his perch, walked to the window to see Billy step off the sidewalk, jaywalk across the street to the bench outside the park on the Ave where he pulled the Daily News from his back pocket, sat down and considered the front-page headline. The black Buick LeSabre passed slowly and the driver honked his horn. Wearing no hat, no jacket and no shoes, Billy waved before he cracked open the tabloid, licked his index finger and turned the page.
Sewickley, PA, USA
Joe Coyle, from Sewickley, PA has been a paper boy, journalism student, university newspaper writer/photographer, magazine junior executive, TV/Film actor/writer/producer, bartender, landman, salesman and private investigator in NYC where he became one of the few people who has told a New York cab driver in all seriousness to “Follow that cab.”
“Just Trash” is the second short story he has published in 2022. Just Outside Lisbon recently appeared in Beyond Where the Buses Run: Stories, published by Oregon Greystone Press.