Nico’s voice floats over the bar as softly as the falling snow onto Manhattan. I close my eyes an dream of another time. The place would have to do.
I take a sip of the Lagavulin. The bottle is a finger from the bottom, probably the same bottle that Fat Ronnie had poured my first out of nineteen years ago.
Fat’s isn’t the kind of bar that serves too much 18-year-old scotch. It’s the kind of bar that managed to survive during the dirtiest of the dirty days of the old Hell’s Kitchen era by serving a shitload of cheap Irish whiskey and lukewarm Guinness to the lunatic locals who used to run the streets like wild dogs.
New York isn’t what it used to be anymore, and that applies double to Hell’s Kitchen. The people sitting near me, the people who had barely been alive when the wolves roamed the streets, they call the neighborhood Clinton now. The only thing familiar to me was Fat Kenny, who runs the bar now once his dad, Fat Ronnie, lost both his legs, then his life to diabetes. Now Fat Kenny serves the same shit whiskey and room-temperature beer to the gentrified locals who liked to feel hip by patronizing their local dive. And I do mean patronize. Like his father, Fat Kenny is an asshole, but the locals consider him “colorful”, rather than just the tubby cocksucker we all used to think of his dad as.
They still sell Hell’s Kitchen T-shirts to tourists from Ohio, though.
Clinton, like the place has some kind of presidential history.
Clinton, the neighborhood that sits just north of Chelsea.
I hope I’m not the only one that sees the irony in that.
New York Dolls.
Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.
I’m grateful to whoever dropped their cash into the jukebox. Somebody was feeling the same sad nostalgia that I feel every year on my birthday.
From the corner of my eye, I see Fat Kenny pick up the bottle of Lagavulin again. Just as I was readying myself to tell him no thanks, he pours the scotch over some ice, not how I take it. Fat Kenny looks over to me, surprised as I am that he’s serving more than one glass of the liquor for that calendar year.
He places the glass on the bar, slips a twenty up and rings in the round, handing the change to a pink-fingernailed hand with the first markings of liver spots along the crook of the thumb. Softly, under the bar’s din, I hear a smoke-husky voice say, “Thank you.”
A tiny pinprick of ice forms in my chest as I follow the voice across the bar. I pick up my drink and walk, chest clenched, in a daze — in another day — and walk down the bar.
Her hair is still impossibly thick and red.
She still drinks good scotch.
A pack of Virginia Slims sit on the bar next to her drink. She still smokes Virginia Slims.
She must have felt the weight of my gaze as she turns, looking me straight in the eyes. No way she can recognize me. Not after eighteen years and the mile after mile of bad road that my life has traveled.
For four seconds.
When she does, a wetness immediately rims her thickly mascaraed green eyes. She looks like she might cry.
I feel tears of my own fighting their way up.
“Hello, Peaches,” is all I can say.
I’m sure I had babysitters other than Peaches, but I’ll be damned if I can remember another one of them. She started watching me when I was five or six, not long after my mother left. There was always something different about Peaches. Something special. The way she read to me, acting out all of the characters in my Curious George books. The way she appreciated the late-night monster movies on the same level that I did. The fact that she let me stay up late enough to watch those movies. Peaches was different, special.
I don’t know… It felt like she loved me at a time when that little boy had a huge mother-sized hole in his heart.
Before my father ever utilized her for child care, I knew her from my once-a-year birthday visits to Fat’s. She always seemed to be there when we arrived, a glass of Lagavulin in her dainty fingers.
I don’t know if Fat Kenny still runs the side venture that his Dad did, probably not much use for it in Chelsea. But in Hell’s Kitchen all those years ago, there was a local need for a gun range by those who might need to test out their hardware, practice their marksmanship. Those who might also not have licenses for said guns.
Every year on my birthday, my father would take me to Fat’s, down into the long soundproofed basement, and let me fire his guns, a new one every year. I was maybe six the first time, when I barely had the strength to hold up the Smith & Wesson revolver.
The target was a row of empty beer bottles lined up on planks, soiled mattresses stacked three-deep behind the bottles.
“Third from the left,” my father whispered into my ear.
I remember that it took me a second, knowing my right from my left still a struggling point.
“Line up the sight,” my dad said, “close one eye if you have to.” I could hear the smile in his voice, even through the plugs he’d stuffed into my ears that were a little too big. “Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it.”
I squeezed the trigger. The third bottle from the left exploded. The recoil jerked my hands up forcefully. “Atta-boy!” my dad cheered.
Then, “Aw, fuck” when he saw my face.
The recoil had slammed the pistol back into my face, the thin sight gashing my left brow open. Blood immediately flowed into my eyes, blinding me.
I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be able to act like the mythological Big Boy, but instead I bled like a sieve and cried like crazy.
Peaches was the one who held the bar rag to my bleeding eyebrow, who kissed the top of my head to comfort me, and who eventually would stitch my brow closed since the hospital would have asked questions my father and Fat Ronnie didn’t want to answer.
“I’m surprised you recognized me.”
Peaches smiles tightly, looking like tears might break free any second. “You look so much like your dad,” she says. “And this.” She runs her finger gently over the thin scar that seams my eyebrow.
Her gentle touch, almost two decades later, opens up a blossom of warmth in my chest that catches me completely by surprise.
She mistakes my reaction, pulls her hand back quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just so happy to see you.”
“Me too, Peaches. Me too.” I mean it.
She looks over at Fat Kenny. “He looks just like his father too, poor little fat baby.”
“I don’t know if that was genetics so much as the sausage and peppers.”
“He doesn’t recognize me at all,” she says, a sadness tingeing her words.
“That necessarily a bad thing?”
She doesn’t reply, just looks around the room, looks at all the moneyed youth around the bar. “So… so much is different.”
“That’s New York in the new millennium.”
“No… That’s not necessarily it. I feel like this bar is a time capsule and I’ve just been let out into a strange new world. The jukebox is the same. The posters are all still here. But…” she struggles to find the right words.
“Where did everyone go?”
I shrugged. “Lots are dead now, Peaches. Lots are still in jail. Some went legit, moved out to Staten Island. Jersey.”
“God, I can’t imagine any of those animals going straight. Mikey Guns?”
“It’s Mikey Fish now. Runs a seafood wholesale up in the Bronx.”
She shakes her head, unable to process the changes that time has wrought. “Leo?”
“Cameraman for Fox News.”
“Eventually got renamed Johnny Scumbag. Got stabbed to death on Riker’s Island.” I left out the details about my father’s probable assistance towards Perry and Walter with the shedding of their mortal coils. Or where I had assisted in Johnny Scumbag’s departure from the planet. More than anything else though, I was surprised to find that I was feeling…
Fat Kenny keeps looking over at us, trying to be subtle about it. Luckily, Fat Kenny is as subtle as a mouthful of Tabasco. Needles of concern prick at the back of my neck. Far as I could tell, Fat Kenny hadn’t placed Peaches yet, his Fat Brain probably ulcered from sampling the Ecstasy that he thinks nobody knows he peddles from behind the bar.
“Don’t think we should stick around here, Peaches.”
Peaches smiles softly at her reflection in the bar mirror, daintily lifts the glass to her nose and breathes in the scent of her scotch. “Mmmm…I’ve missed you,” she said softly. I didn’t know if she was talking to me, her scotch, the bar, Hell’s Kitchen or New York City. Maybe she was talking to herself.
Fat Kenny’s glance turns to a short stare.
“I’m serious. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Meaning I shouldn’t be here.”
“I mean… you know what I mean, Peaches. Why are you–?
“Why shouldn’t I be here, T.C.? This is as close to home as I’ve ever had. It’s been eighteen years.” Her voice gets huskier with emotion. Again, I’m not sure to what she’s referring to as home — Fat’s? The Kitchen?
I rest my fingers on her forearm. “Because a lot has changed around here, but a lot hasn’t. You’re playing a goddamned dangerous hand right now, and the longer you play it, the more you’re forcing me to play it with you. And I don’t want to play that game right now, Peaches. Not right now. Not tonight.”
A wave of sadness passes through Peaches that I feel under my skin. “Will you get a hot dog with me?”
Dad was working. Peaches was babysitting me at the brownstone we lived in off Cherry St. in Brooklyn Heights. I was in bed when the sudden sound of an impact woke me up, heart pounding. Then nothing. I waited for it again, unsure whether or not the sound was part of a dream.
Another thump so hard, it resonated up the stairs, my heart jumping against my tiny ribcage. I heard a couple of strained curses, then nothing. I jumped out of bed, terrified, feeling a sudden urge to pee. In my footie pajamas, I shuffled across the polished hardwood without making a sound.
A smaller thump…
Slowly, silently, I made it halfway down the stairs where I could see two men in the foyer. One man, the much smaller of the two, had the other pressed against the wall. The one doing the pressing had short cropped red hair and a long, thin blade pressed against the throat of the bigger man. He whispered loudly, “You picked the wrong house, the wrong man and the wrong faggot to fuck with, Luca. All at the same time.”
The man called Luca was sweating, unmoving, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. A thin trickle of blood ran down his jawline from his ear. I could see the hand halfway out of his brown leather jacket, the grip of the gun hadn’t even cleared the pocket.
“You wanna try it?” the other man said. “You think you’re faster than me? You know who I am?”
“I’ve heard of you, finocchio.”
“Then you know better than to try. So why don’t you slowly open your fingers and keep that greasy hand away from your pocket?”
The man called Luca did as he was told. As he did, his ice-blue eyes saw me huddling against the banister.
The second man saw Luca’s eyes move and followed his gaze. I gasped. The other man had Peaches’ face. Then I noticed the long red hair sitting on the floor between their feet. Peaches’ wig had fallen off during their tussle. “Hey baby,” Peaches said. “Don’t be scared.” Peaches leaned in close to Luca’s ear. “Smile at him.”
Luca forced a trembling grimace that some sadists might have called a smile.
“I’m sorry we woke you, baby. Me and my friend were just playing gangster, weren’t we?”
Luca said nothing.
Peaches pushed the knife harder into his throat. “Weren’t we?”
“Yeah. We wuz just playing.”
Peaches’ face opened up in that warm smile. “Go back to bed, baby. Your daddy will be home soon.” Peaches slid behind Luca, but the knife stayed. “Walk.” The two of them headed towards the door that led down to the basement. Peaches smiled up at me again. “Everything’s okay. I’ll be up to read you a story again, if you can’t sleep.”
I couldn’t. True to her word, Peaches was in my room in less than a half-hour, but only after I heard water running in the bathroom for a really long time. Her wig and makeup were pristinely restored.
The next morning, two large men I’d never seen before or since walked down our basement stairs carrying a large bolt of plastic sheeting.
My father and I moved into a different house that afternoon.
“Oh, God, this is good,” says Peaches, slowly chewing a mouthful at Dirty Nick’s Coney Dogs. “They have reasonable Coney dogs in Michigan, but it’s not the same.” The thick snow in her hair is melting, but her hairdo remains intact.
“That where you’ve been? Michigan?”
“Funny, though. To talk to Michegonians, they claim the Coney dog as their own,” she ignores my question, sipping from her papaya smoothie.
I let the question hang.
She finishes her smoothie with a loud slurp. “I’ve been lots of places, honey. None of them home. I grew up here in a coldwater flat on 49th. You know, I didn’t take a hot shower until I was seventeen?”
I shrug. “Different times”
“I just can’t believe how much has changed, how many people are gone.” She stares out the window. “See that Starbucks across the street?”
“That used to be a burned out bodega that Ricardo Yuzel ran smack out of. Right in the back room. You’d have to walk over stacks of charred newspapers and boxes of candy. Always smelled like burnt marshmallows in there. Ricardo used to be back there all hours, high as heaven, sitting on a lawn chair in his underwear.”
“Didn’t know you ever used.”
“I didn’t when you knew me. Your dad sure as hell wouldn’t have hired me as a babysitter if I was using. This was the early, early seventies. I was a mess then, figuring out who I was. I tried on every hat I could before I found the one that suited me. I wanted to be anyone other than who I was, even if that person was strung-out on heroin for a while.”
“Never heard of a Ricardo Yuzel.”
“Oh, honey, he was long gone before you were knee high to a cockroach. The Westie boys tossed a hand grenade in the back one day when they decided that his business was no longer appreciated in the neighborhood. Blew up poor Ricardo, probably still only in his drawers when he went kablooey.”
“Helluva way to go.”
Peaches squirts a dollop of hot mustard on the last bite of hot dog before popping it into her mouth. She’d eaten three messy dogs, and her lipstick hadn’t so much as smudged. “It’s strange.”
“It’s strange to be my age, to be here, now. It’s strange to think of those days with all that chaos, all that violence, people throwing hand grenades around in the middle of a sunny afternoon as the ‘good old days.’But they were. They were my good old days, and they’re not coming back. I look around now, and I can barely remember them being here. It’s all changed.”
I think, but don’t say, that it was for the best that those days, those people, were gone. A lot of them had long memories and they all knew what they were supposed to do if they ever saw Peaches on those streets again.
Peaches turns away from the window, from me, her shoulders trembling. Then she’s sobbing, deep gasping cries. Tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at her hands as though they’d gotten so much older without warning, without her permission. “This isn’t my home anymore, T.C. I wanted to see it one more time. I just wanted to come home, but my home is gone.”
My twenty-first birthday. Hell’s Kitchen was well on its way to becoming Clinton. The old flats were being torn down and replaced with high-end apartment buildings at a remarkable pace. The bars started serving martinis and the restaurants were passing health inspections without thick envelopes of cash being handed over. But Fat’s still remained, resisting change stubbornly, and if anything, becoming even more popular with the young, affluent nouveaux New Yorkers who liked the “local flavor” of the place and the notoriety of living in the once rough and tumble neighborhood.
My dad and I were in a cab, on the way to Fat’s for my annual target practice, and the first of what would be many years of annual scotches.
Our cab driver muttered: “Uh-oh,” before we’d even reached the block. There were three squad cars in front of Fat’s, a young uniform pulling yellow crime scene tape across the corner of the bar.
My dad said softly, “This isn’t good.”
We got out of the car and crossed the street to the bar. Before we got to the corner, I could hear Fat Ronnie’s angry hollering. I was surprised at how my father simply walked under the police tape, like it was no more than a yellow cobweb in his way. Two of the cops even nodded at him as he passed. None tried to stop him or even said a word. The cleaning-up process that had swept up The Kitchen hadn’t hit the precincts yet, apparently.
Walking quickly through the door, by father’s foot skidded. When I reached instinctively towards his back to keep him from falling, I tripped over the body and fell face-first onto my palms. My hands made a wet splat sound as they slapped onto the wide swath of blood congealing on the dirty linoleum. The body, a guy not much older than me, was laid out on the floor, looking like all the pieces weren’t there anymore. He was dressed nicely in a very expensive Armani, ruined not only by the blood all over it, but the long slashes across it. Under his chin, I could see a small puncture mark, the killing strike. By the bridge of his nose, I could see where the blade had emerged. He’d been stabbed with a long, thin blade, just like the one Peaches carried in her boot.
“For Christ’s sake, kid. This is a fucking crime scene. Watch where you’re walking.” A heavy man with a bushy moustache lifted me up roughly under the armpit. “The fuck’re you doing here in the first place?” A detective’s badge hung around his neck, on a cheap chain.
My father grabbed the man under his shoulder, fingers corded tightly onto the man’s triceps. “That’s my son, Benny.”
Benny’s moustache bristled nervously as he looked from my father to me. “Oh, sorry Joe. Didn’t know who the kid was. Sorry.”
My dad kept his eyes dangerously locked on Benny’s for an extra second before he released his arm. “Now you do.”
I might have been surprised that the detective knew my father’s name, but in a day full of surprises, that somehow wasn’t one of them.
“I want that faggot dead, Joe!” bellowed Fat Ronnie, barreling his way through the two cops who were questioning him in the kitchen, his belly swatting both sides of the double door.
“Ronnie, keep your voice down,” my father said.
“You kidding me? Keep my fuckin’ voice down? Look what happened to my fucking bar!” Fat Ronnie waved his arm angrily over the room, the thick roll of fat under his bicep bobbling.
The bar was a slaughterhouse. Half the tables were turned over, a few of Fat Ronnie’s chars lay in splintered fragments. Streaks of blood arced up the wall in several spots. One particularly thick splatter trail passed over the big neon Corona sign, filtering the light in a copperish hue.
“Put the word out, Joe. That cocksucker makes his way anywhere in Hell’s Kitchen… no, this fucking state, I want his fucking head.”
“Ronnie, you have to calm down.”
“I ain’t calming down on this, Joe. Look at this shit. It ain’t even the money that I gotta pay to clean this shit up. It ain’t even the money I’m gonna lose while the neighborhood freaks out over this. Hell, it ain’t even about the amount of money that I have to pay Howdie Doodie over there to fuck up his paperwork…”
“Excuse me?” said a freckled detective who was only moments ago questioning Ronnie. I guess he wasn’t on Ronnie’s payroll yet, but would have to be after this whether he wanted to be or not.
“I know what it is,” my father said sadly, understanding just how bad the situation was. For everyone, but especially for Peaches.
I didn’t. Not immediately. There was a lot that, over time, I would understand about both what had happened that evening, about the true crime that Peaches had committed and about Peaches herself.
She’d been in the bar drinking her favorite scotch like normal when three newer residents of Hell’s Kitchen… Clinton… whatever the fuck it was, decided to patronize their local dive. Young Wall Streeters who didn’t have any idea that certain small regions of the city remained out of touch with their idea of money, of arrogance, of safety. One of the dumb drunk pricks liked the thought of the foxy redhead at the end of the bar sipping on her whiskey. He liked the idea of sneaking her off to the bathroom with him for a quick blowjob. What he didn’t like, and realized a little too late, was the extra dick that he’d inadvertently invited to the party.
He reacted badly. He reacted violently.
So did Peaches.
Peaches was better at the violence. Peaches was better prepared for it.
The unpardonable sin that Peaches had committed was not, in fact, the killing of the twenty-five-year-old from Connecticut, or the slashing of his two friends who were being sped out to St. Vincent’s, one of whom would lose an eye.
Peaches’ true crime was bringing attention down on Fat’s and everything that still went on behind the pretense. The news vans and the reporters bathing in light things that guys like Fat Ronnie didn’t want illuminated. Fat Ronnie’s illicit enterprises would eventually resume, of course, but not without it all being hidden from those lights for a long time. That meant a lot of money was going to be lost.
Another thing that I came to realize was that Peaches didn’t advertise her toughness; she didn’t have to if you had half a brain. Just take one look at her. Look at who she was. Look at what she was. Look at where she was.
She’d survived it all, just being Peaches. She lived through the good old days, which to anybody else would have been the worst of days. The days when gangs roamed the streets looking for mayhem to commit simply because they could. She’d survived the days of Mickey Featherstone and the Westies throwing hand grenades in the middle of the afternoon. She was a transvestite who survived in The Kitchen long through the rivers of blood and death that made those streets so feared.
Peaches might have been the toughest motherfucker who’d ever walked those streets, but to me, she was the warmth and heart of the person who’d read those stories at bedtime to the lonely little boy. Who hugged me with a warmth that made me miss my mother a little less with every squeeze. The person who my father knew was tough enough to protect me from the bad people who might come at night to kill his son.
The one thing Peaches wasn’t tough enough to deal with was gentrification.
Nobody saw Peaches again.. Until now.
We walked west through the snow, heading toward the river. The flakes fall heavier, wind whipping them into drifts against the buildings. I didn’t dress properly for the hike. My shoes kept skidding along the sidewalk. Peaches doesn’t so much as stumble in her thigh-high boots.
I pull my coat tighter around me. “Um, Peaches? Not that I’m not enjoying the walk, but couldn’t the trip down memory lane happen on a night without blizzard conditions?”
“There’s nothing more elegant that fresh snow in Manhattan. It’s so beautiful.” She holds her head up, letting the flakes dance across her long eyelashes.
For a moment, I see what she sees. It’s been a long time since I looked. I’ve never left New York. I’ve never had a chance to miss anything about it.
Anything other than what I’d lost from it.
The streetlights sparkle illumination through the snow, a billion glittering gems falling from the sky, bathing New York in a clean purity, softening the hard edges of dirty brick and gray concrete underneath.
“Enjoy this, T.C. this won’t last for long.” I know what she means. Within hours, the snow would be black and slushy, corrupted by the filth of the city that it had tried to grace. “I was hoping to find your Dad tonight.”
I wonder what the scenario would have been if she did. Whether my father would have honored the bounty on Peaches all these years later. I wonder if he would have in the first place. Didn’t matter. My father was home, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, a nurse tending to him. For some reason I can’t tell Peaches that, as if that final detail would be the one to break her completely. “He doesn’t get out that much any more.”
“I’m sorry about this,” she says, eyes still closed, face held into the storm.
“I just wanted to be home.” Peaches slips a hand into her boot.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s spread into my lungs.” Slowly she slides that wicked blade out.
“It’s in my liver.”
I quickly put it all together.
Why the long walk west in the snow, away from the foot traffic on Ninth Ave. “Don’t do this.”
Peaches lowers her chin and opens her eyes, her expression the closest that she would ever get to begging.
She smiles, not without a hint of pride for me. “I thought so.” She flicks her wrist up, almost supernaturally quick. Reflexively, I move backwards, away from her strike. Still, two of the buttons slice off of my coat and tumble end over end onto the snow.
My bullet smacks her in the chest, driving her against the brick wall. The shot was loud, but the thick snow muffles the report. The sound won’t even carry a block.
Peaches’ wig flies off on impact, what remains of the wispy hair underneath betrays her age, her sickness. She crumples onto a snow bank and sighs, breathing in short, sharp breaths that condense only inches from her mouth.
Her lipstick is smudged across her lower lip. Her upper lip fights itself into a tiny smile.
I go to her. The hand that held the blade clutches mine. With my other hand, I pick up her wig and try to right it on her head, but it doesn’t look right.
“My… my…” she whispers. “My… name was Richard. Did… you… know that?”
I shake my head. “You’ll always be Peaches, sweetheart.”
Another smile flickers across her mouth. “I will… won’t I?”
“Good. Rich… Richard was an asshole.” She chuckles for a breath or two. Her last ones before her eyes roll up, mouth working a few more words that I can’t hear.
I lean in close, my ear close to her mouth.
“Happy birthday, baby.” she whispers.
Her final words to me.
Her final words for this world.
Every muscle tenses in her body, then with a huge shudder she goes limp all at once.
I walk away from her, not too fast, not too slow, just like Dad always preached. By the time I reach the avenue, the wind dies, the flakes thick and gentle.
Then I break one of Dad’s cardinals.
I look back.
The snow already has Peaches blanketed up to her neck, the city tucking her lovingly to sleep.